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Silliman on Olson

Silliman on Olson

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02/01/2013

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006: Ron Silliman

One of the interesting \u2013 problematic may be a better word \u2013 aspects of reading not just
Charles Olson, but any poet of the last century on subjects that move even a little away from
the realm of the close inspection of poetic texts, as such, is positioning \u2013 framing may be the
better word \u2013 their arguments within the broader landscape of contemporary intellectual
discourse. Read Ezra Pound after Marx, or even after a few issues of the Monthly Review,
and you realize that Pound\u2019s initial impulses weren\u2019t so bad, but that addressing problems of
justice through monetary policy requires a theoretical infrastructure so vast \u2013 precisely
because you are so far from root causes \u2013 that the opportunity to go astray is huge. And
Pound is sort of the test case to demonstrate just how far astray one might wander. There\u2019s a
viciousness in his radio broadcasts that registers just how maddening \u2013 I\u2019m choosing my
words carefully \u2013 it must have been to see his vision of the future coming asunder. And it\u2019s no
accident that his very best writing occurs next, at the moment when, living in a wire cage in a
prisoner of war camp, waiting to be sent back to the U.S. for trial or possibly just taken out &
shot, Pound is stripped of all his books & intellectual trappings, penning the Pisan Cantos
literally on scraps of paper.

Similarly, I wonder how Olson\u2019sProprioception, specifically the title essay, three page outline
that it is, might have proceeded had Olson ever read Althusser. Or, at the least, extracted
from Althusser the concept of ideology as it is expressed in the essay \u201cIdeology and
Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)\u201d. The question is bogus, at
least partly, simply because Olson wroteProprioception between 1960 & \u201962, while Althusser
first published his essay in La Pens\u00e9e in 1970, very much as a reformulation of theory in the
wake of the failed French revolution of 1968. Olson lived just two weeks beyond his 59th
birthday, dying on the tenth of January 1970 \u2013 he never lived to read Lenin and Philosophy,
really to absorbany of the material that would begin to flow forth in great quantity in the U.S.
after the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement peaked in 1970 with the murder of
students at Kent and Jackson State Universities. Olson may have, almost inadvertently, been
among the first to coin the phrase post-modern to characterize the epoch then coming into
existence, but if, for example, he knew of the \u201cLanguages of Criticism and the Sciences of
Man\u201d conference held at Johns Hopkins in October, 1966, the iconic tipping point between
the structuralism of the 1950s & the new world of Post-everything that this conference
announced, I haven\u2019t seen evidence.\u00b9 Although the conference, whose speakers included
Derrida, Lacan, Todorov & Roland Barthes (presenting \u201cTo Write: An Intransitive Verb?\u201d),
occurred just 16 months after the Berkeley Poetry Conference in which Olson gave his
infamous lights-out marathon talk, by 1966 his critical writing is already largely behind him.
My own impression, based I must say largely on my reading of Tom Clark\u2019s gothic bio of
Olson, is that his drinking ramped up significantly after Betty\u2019s death in an auto accident in
1964. Beyond sketching out \u201cA Plan for the Curriculum of the Soul\u201d in early 1968, Olson will
make no more major theoretical statements in his life. The productive core of his life \u2013 from
the first poems in the late 1940s until the work begins to trail off in the late \u201860s, is just twenty
years. Longer perhaps than the careers of Jack Spicer or Frank O\u2019Hara, perhaps, but not
very long.

Ironically,soul is exactly the word I wish Olson had had the opportunity to interpenetrate with Althusser\u2019s conception of ideology. It is the third term in Olson\u2019s dialectic, between physiology & the unconscious, and it\u2019s the focus of the second half ofPropr ioception \u2019s title essay. The sidebar to the next full paragraph beyond the one I ended Monday\u2019s note with is: the soul is /

proprioceptive. And is worth quoting further:
the \u2018body\u2019 itself as, by movement of its own tis-
sues, giving the data of, depth. Here, then wld be

what is left out? Or what is physiologically even
the \u2018hard\u2019 (solid, palpable), that one\u2019s life is
informed from and by one\u2019s own literal body \u2013

What obsesses Olson here, the point if you will, ofPropr ioception, is that

which is what gets \u2018buried,\u2019 like, the
flesh? bones, muscles, ligaments, etc., what one
uses, literally, to get about etc

that this is \u2018central,\u2019 that is \u2013 in
this \u00bd of the picture \u2013 what they call the SOUL,
the intermediary, the intervening thing, the inter-
ruptor, the resistor. The self.

This key passage of Olson\u2019s sounds like nothing so much to me as this:

ideology \u201cacts\u201d or \u201cfunctions\u201d in such a way that it recruits subjects
among the individuals (it recruits them all), or it \u2018transforms\u2019 the
individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very
precise operation which I have calledin terpellat ion or hailing, and
which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace
everyday police (or other) hailing: \u201cHey, you there!\u201d

Which is the key paragraph in Althusser\u2019s essay. In each instance, the
intervening/interrupting thing at home in our identity is being defined as X, whether X is
ideology or X is Soul.

This doesnot mean that I think what Olson is describing here necessarily is ideology,
whether in the broad Althusserian sense (ideology is that which defines us) or the more
narrow daily meaning (ideology as a political label). For one thing Althusser\u2019s ideas
themselves \u2013 like those of any of the major structuralist theorists of the past half century \u2013 are
themselves deeply problematic, flamboyantly so in the instance of the French philosopher
who later murdered his own wife and was at least as psychiatrically challenged as Pound, let
alone Olson. But it would be of extraordinary use, I think, if we could read these twin
conceptions \u2013 ideology/Soul \u2013 as partaking of one another, seeing what each might then tell
us further about the other.

It is clear, to my eye at least, that Olson\u2019s goal in identifying the Soul is construct a dialectic,
as he literally says in the next paragraph, that the \u201cgain\u201d is

to have a third term, so thatmovement oract ion
is \u2018home.\u2019 Neither the Unconscious nor Projection
(here used to remove the false opposition of
\u2018Conscious\u2019; \u2018consciousness\u2019 is self) have a home
unless the DEPTH implicit in physical being \u2013
built-in space-time specifics, and moving (by
movement of \u2018its own\u2019) \u2013 is asserted, or found-
out as such. Thus, the advantage of the value
\u2019proprioception.\u201d As such.

Althusser himself has gotten to his essay on ideology immediately after one on dialectics in
Lenin, quoting Lenin on Hegel as follows:

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