Allan Pastrana’s Poetics

Recasting the Residue: The Art of Writing (or, a review of the excess)

If there is anything certain about writing, it is the anxiety with which we have considered or examined this act since the crucial epistemological break introduced by Saussure and his contemporaries into the limits of language. In more ways than one, it has assumed the consequential force of the destruction of the Tower of Babel—not merely some modern-day retelling of the story but a veritable consummation of the polemics involved in the establishment of knowledge and its understanding.

The literary work (or the writing of it) occupies one of the most overly mediated positions in the production of knowledge, leading to a series of compromises in order to tie up various contradictions in form, meaning, interpretation, reading practices, etc. Because art and its theorizations since Plato appear to us now as a heap of disparate, incongruous constructions and de-constructions, we are either still caught in the convenient webwork of liberal humanist assumptions (especially the idea of the self-determining subject which found its rational sedimentation through the Enlightenment and its spiritual justification through Romanticism), or we are among those who participated in the dismantling of dominant knowledges, proposing the existence of indeterminate, multi-positioned functions within postmodernism, reproachful of anything remotely autarchic or confident in establishing unproblematized truth categories.

Although I am favorably disposed towards contemporary or even radical thought as represented by the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Althusser and all those names which helped institutionalize the linguistic turn in the academe, the writer in me will always be wary of such “borderlessness”, which can go from the death of the subject to a denial of any sort of centrality. Even if I acknowledge any of the tricontinental intellectual traditions from Marxism to Postcolonialism, and openly declare that écriture is in the end the residue not warranted or accounted for by the universal ethic of liberal humanism, the fact that I practice the art prevents me from ever becoming entirely convinced of the ontological situation everything is hurled into.

The dispersal of telos or “center” is in fact concurrent with a necessity to break away from any determination, an urgency that is provisioned by the recasting of the subject. That very provisionality gives a newfound relevance to my beliefs about creativity, who as a practitioner of the art cannot simply deny it “individuality”—unless of course I have stopped believing in what I do, in which case it is but understandable to abandon altogether the practice of it.

This contextualization of the subject enabled by its revision corresponds to its contradictory nature, which according to Catherine Belsey is “perpetually in the process of construction, thrown into crisis by alterations in language and in the social formation”—thus, capable of change. The dialectical expansion of public and private categories, as Judith Butler said, opened the possibility of shared realities still capable of being one’s own and individual acts nevertheless reproducing socio-political structures. Individual subjectivity then becomes a constant and perpetual enactment of variables and not an authoritative manifestation of a stable identity.

The topic of subjectivity is of course just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, for most writers. There is always the problem of material, form or meaning, haunting us all the way up the path to certainty, lit only by what little conviction we have mustered from the darkness of the Platonic cave—that difficult road to self-preservation through the reification of our art, our pleas to the mob (for them to take us seriously) bounded in tattered pieces of parchment, writings we hope others will make sense of “after the fact”.

If we are to believe Nietzsche that “the aesthetically sensitive man stands in the same relation to the reality of dreams as the philosopher does to the reality of existence”, then we must feel a renewed allegiance to or faith on our work. What transpires is not merely a simple case of “mimesis”, dispelling the anxiety of coming up with nothing more than schein, or “mere appearance” and recovering within us the validation of “the whole divine comedy of life, including the inferno, (that passes before us) not like mere shadows on the wall…and yet not without that fleeting sensation of illusion.”

The immediacy of problematizing the interweaving of life and artifice in literature is much more apparent than one can ever imagine. Generally, it has often bred a whole range of polemical positions, reinstating all sorts of binaries—inverting them, reinvesting each of the terms with new energies or suspending them into a state of aporia that leaves anyone with nothing but a reversion to old ways of thinking.

In my own practice, I have developed a sense of recasting the materiality of life within literature as something more than an imitation, but rather a thrust or energy that continually perplexes me in various ways, moments and “places”—both within my body (physiological or otherwise) and the immediate spatio-temporal location of my “being”. This is not to say though that there is within me a welling forth of a fixed, stable identity; on the other contrary, the perplexity and uneasiness surrounding it is a “rupture” (or “rapture”, eventually)—a point of self-reflexive inevitability that is perpetually trying to come to terms with my socio-historical constructedness.

At the most, there is within me a desire to approximate a signification through a vehicle that presents the least resistance—because equally unstable, equally irreducible. Language as material is both fraught with possibilities and contradictions. To “impose” upon it a kind of controlling mechanism is finally to expect it to yield and conform. I believe that our idea of form, more often than not, has led us towards that direction. The various “containers” associated with our understanding of form—rhetorical “instruments”, tropes, genres, etc.—in the end produced a readily available accumulation and set of “artifices” that both tries to pass for an explanation of literariness and a justification of its aesthetic value to discredit any interpretation that its “mere” content might engender.

First of all, in my opinion, “the thrust or energy of life that continually perplexes me in various ways”, by itself, contains a possibility (or more accurately the acknowledgement of that possibility) of what is jeu in Derridean parlance, that which is in every sense “the Nietzschean affirmation—the joyous affirmation of the freeplay of the world and without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation”. I have always believed that what I exercise in language whenever I write poetry is not a particular or special way of framing an experience, but an insistence on its unframeability, its irreducibility to “meaning” and “logos”—or even further, an estrangement of what could easily be deduced from as a source of the manifold presence of authority.

Rather than the substantified manifestation of literary conventions both as the mark of a special use of language and as organizing principle that seems to establish reading standards by which any creative work can be grasped and mastered, the literary practice (especially of poetry) calls for a more dynamic concept of literariness—that which embodies the perpetual deferment of the “nature” or “essence” of literariness itself and the various referentialities that literature is capable of.

Shklovsky pointed out that “the technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception”. And this is done precisely to rescue objects “from the automatism of perception in several ways”. The pluralistic orientation of this technique engenders a dynamic consideration of things—even knowledge, truth or value—because art’s purpose then becomes the transmission of “the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known”. The dynamic characteristic of “defamiliarization” is further emphasized and strengthened through its commitment to an interminable process of displacement that resists any systematization of the irregularities because technique ceases to become a matter of “complicating”—but instead, a matter of disordering and therefore unpredictable. If in the long run this activity of disordering becomes a convention, it would be ineffective, and suffice it to say, would call for new forms of “defamiliarization”.

In Howard Nemerov’s “What Was Modern Poetry?” he called attention to the almost obsessive orientation of “modernism” towards “seeing”, in which case the “eye” holds a primary position in the acquisition of knowledge and the “visual” embodies the pseudo-objectification of meaning. From the Imagists to Eliot’s objective correlative, Nemerov traced a sustained aversion towards the role of the mind, regarding it as an unreliable source of certainty and transparency. The idea of perception then is questioned, and not without enough basis because part of the crudeness of those theories is the belief that poetry as an art might achieve purity through an objectivity that protects it from the insistence of meaning—and consequently, its interpretation.

Seeing, by itself, is deplorable only if the monocular model of vision is maintained—that is the eye as an optical device, the sole objective qualifier of the activity of consciousness. The art historian, James Rubin, explained the crucial shift from that monocular model to one of binocularity, when the “body’s physiology became a central factor in producing an inherently subjective visual experience.” This point is valuable to the centrality of image in art. The image though becomes a “competent approximation” rather than a static certainty, a dynamic re-appropriation and deployment of the body’s experience of reality (including the Apollonian world of dreams) and its imagination, when “the eye becomes a temperamental organ interacting with the body’s network.”

In my own work, I have given due emphasis on the unconscious and the orality of poetry. That decision might be readily viewed as a conscious effort, on my part, to veer away from the “tyranny of meaning” or a deliberate gesture towards the perversion of signification. But as it is, Julia Kristeva notes that poetic language as a signifying process is lodged within a perpetually “unsettling process of the identity of meaning and speaking subject”. There is, within that type of practice, a production of “musical but also nonsense effects that destroy not only accepted beliefs and significations, but, in radical experiments, syntax itself, that guarantee of thetic consciousness”.

The semiotic quality of poetry in effect calls attention to its vocality—the production of which operates much like the ones detected “in the first echolalias of infants as rhythms and intonations” or “rhythms, intonations, glossalias in psychotic discourse”. This of course is not without the anxiety a writer feels whenever he affirms the role of the unconscious in literary production—the fear of reversion to obscurity. But Kristeva qualifies further the issue by saying that there exists a dialectical relationship between instinctual drives and signification in poetic language. According to her, the new formal construct formed by the relationship does not posit a new meaning but a process—an undecidable process “between sense and nonsense, between language and rhythm, between the symbolic and semiotic.”

I did not mention the ideas above in order to preserve the primacy of speech over writing but to point out that the mind’s awareness of the orality of poetry cannot completely be discharged of the body that is its source. It is of course inevitable for literature to be seen in the light of its textuality, and that is precisely why these contradictions create a thickness, a sense of wonder for writers even as the anxiety worsens by the minute. In the long run, this anxiety is just restlessness—an excited state that enriches our sense of being alive. Call it blind faith, if you wish. When Derrida said that art was the result of blindness—of our incapacity to create images similar to our experience—I take it to mean that the difficulty is anterior to all the ready-made explanations about the nature of art, its forms and its subject, a difficulty that ensures the continuous deferment of knowledge produced by a single, monolithic mind.

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