The Idea of Observation at Key West, or, Systems Theory, Poetry, and Form Beyond Formalism
New Literary History, Volume 39, Number 2, Spring 2008, pp. 259-276 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/nlh.0.0031
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Karl Marx.e. and therefore both individually liberating and conducive to affect social cohesion) the prerogative
New Literary History.1 The fundamental contours and stakes of those recent conversations are brought out magisterially.” As for the first. and more specifically the relations between literature (and more specifically poetry) and other art forms such as architecture. and with characteristic evenhandedness. consensus-generating. 39: 259–276
. Levinson notes that it is difficult to provide a one-size-fits-all characterization of the concept of form in these recent conversations—whether one is for or against it—and it is no surprise.” it wants “to restore to today’s reductive reinscription of historical reading its original focus on form” of the sort found in the materialist critiques of Theodor Adorno.The Idea of Observation at Key West. in the same stroke helping establish that empirical domain as the real. it complains that “we no longer attend to the processes and structures of mediation through which particular discourses and whole classes of discourses (literary genres. autotelic. for example) come to represent the real. discourse and literature. by Marjorie Levinson in her recent PMLA essay on the Changing Profession entitled “What Is New Formalism?” There. disinterested. Poetry. and sculpture. Fredric Jameson. as for normative formalism. Louis Althusser. and Form Beyond Formalism
he purpose of this essay is to intervene in the recent conversations driven by a resurgence of interest over the past decade in the question of form in literary and cultural studies by sketching an area for further development and research: the theory of art. or. But she does distinguish between what she calls (following Susan Wolfson’s introduction to the special Modern Language Quarterly issue in 2000 on the New Formalism) “activist formalism” and “normative formalism. Systems Theory. 2008. music. and Pierre Macherey. with form (regarded as the condition of aesthetic experience as traced to Kant—i. it attempts to “bring back a sharp demarcation between history and art.’” In place of this “simpleminded mimesis. given the range and sheer heft of material that she surveys. most of it written since 2000.” over and against the tendency in recent forms of historicism to “treat artworks as ‘bundles of historical and cultural content. playful. pleasurable.
Culture.3 Central to Luhmann’s understanding of the specificity of poetry is his well-known articulation of the autopoietic closure and difference of psychic systems and social systems. in this precise sense. style. the concept of form “as productive rather than merely reflective” (as one critic cited by her puts it) serves an essentially humanist project of edification—it “takes on a broadly pedagogical. and critical power is a view shared by all the new formalism essays. it is curious that in this body of criticism (with only a couple of notable exceptions) we find “no efforts to retheorize art. coherence. humanizing cast (reviving Schiller’s model of aesthetic education)” (563). Moreover. And second.. But he understands them specifically within a posthumanist context: that is to say. It is within the context of this difference that Luhmann understands the significance to poetry of characteristic themes and problems such as incommunicability. posthumanist. but rather as expressions of a set of differences—most importantly. and Society devoted to his work. that for many of these critics.”2 This last assertion leads us in turn to the first of two important observations by Levinson: First. and—crucially—it uncouples the question of form from the humanist project of moral edification and ethical education (associated by Levinson with the name of Friedrich Schiller). ethical education. It is precisely at the conjuncture identified by Levinson that Niklas Luhmann’s work intervenes because it does indeed put “front and center” a redefinition of form. as expressions not of a psychological or emotional interiority or intentionality that reveals itself in language (even if only to gesture toward language’s inadequacy in the face of the “ineffable”). silence. knowledge. literature.260
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of art. consciousness. and so on). ineffability. indeed a rather radical one. it moves the question of form out of the domain of the strictly literary (though it does attempt to take account of the specificity of literary discourse among the other art forms).g.” Levinson contends. rhythm. reading. Or we might say even more precisely (in light of W. culture. “But despite the proliferation in these essays of synonyms for form (e. Wimsatt’s famous thesis about the differential relations of semantics and acoustics in rhymed English poetry in his classic essay “One Relation of Rhyme
. autonomy). the aesthetic. K.” which were published in 2001 in the special issue of Theory. significant literature. genre. the difference between communication and perception. value. and so on. none of the essays puts redefinition front and center” (561). he left behind scattered notes on a project on “Poetry and Social Theory. When Luhmann died. which in poetry are “miraculously” made to coincide (as he puts it) when the material form of the signifier duplicates the semantics of communication (in familiar devices such as rhyme. That form is either ‘the’ or ‘a’ source of pleasure. It is thus. or even—and this is a surprise—form. and communication. as Levinson notes.
I am going to focus here. and. moreover. not just to themselves. superfluous to what makes poetry art in Luhmann’s sense—and is superfluous. and one having specifically to do with the perceptual. however. however briefly. they also carry and “signify” a special textual meaning. that is. Text-art organizes itself by means of self-referential references that combine elements of sound. or a Marianne Moore. and what I want to insist on here is that in Luhmann’s scattered writings on poetry. within which they execute and propel the text’s recursions.5
There are.4 But that is only part of the story. say. Take. rhyme. it seems to me. even if that relationship is (systematically. two different claims here: one having to do with the abstract. for to elide them is to obscure the most profound and original aspect of Luhmann’s work on art. and so on—I have in mind here the work of a Wallace Stevens. in Luhmann’s analysis. material aspects of words used as an artistic medium. on the Stevens/Luhmann pairing because both have been associated so insistently—and have often
. alliteration. as most poetic in the specific sense developed by Luhmann. just to name two—can in a sense be regarded. we need to separate and indeed disarticulate two main strands that tend to get confused: what we might call the perceptual or the phenomenological on the one hand (which has to do with the familiar prosodic aspects of poetry I just mentioned). At the same time. paradoxically. as Wimsatt suggested) one of difference or contrast. in a fundamental sense. for example. which is his mobilization of a very specific concept of form to make sense of art’s special relationship (special. What I want to try to bring out here is how in fact. Words carry and “signify” their ordinary meanings. for that very reason. on the other hand. The unity of self-reference and hetero-reference lies in the sensuous perceptibility of words. and this is why they refer to something other. I want to insist that these two be kept separate. poetry that is least replete with prosodic features such as stanzaic regularity. rhythm. in a way that helps us understand how. poetry’s formal aspect in a more abstract sense. I would even argue more forcefully that the former is. vis-à-vis the other social systems) to the paradoxical dynamics of self-reference and observation. the following passage from Art as a Social System:
The choice of words as a medium creates a compelling and unusually dense combination of self-reference and hetero-reference running through the entire text. and meaning. the former (the perceptual/material) is radically subordinated to the latter. typically associated with traditional prosodic devices. recursive dynamics of self-reference in relation to the form of the artwork as such.the idea of observation at key west
to Reason”): in which the material form of the signifier has a systematic relation to the semantic content of words.
round one. attempting to finesse the problem further. we find simply a series of such renamings (for Stevens “sensation is not just a passively received impression but an actively and accurately achieved response” . “considered the chief challenge to the Modernist poet—one of life-or-death urgency—to be the redefinition of the function of the imagination. in Gelpi’s essay. Symbolisme [and for Gelpi. Gelpi writes. then detours (importantly for Stevens. “in its apposition to nature the verbal construct serves to mediate the epistemological schism between subject and object” (6). Stevens] the attempt to render subjective psychological and affective states. In terms of the subjectobject split. And so. Albert Gelpi used the Stevens/William Carlos Williams pairing to tease out the contours of the “romantic” problematic inherited by Stevens. the poem rejects “plagiarism after nature” and constructs a reality not opposed to nature but “apposed to it. or as Williams put it. and concerned Stevens. to more recent inheritors such as the phenomenology of Husserl. . it constitutes on another level an extension of the epistemological issues that the decadence of Romanticism precipitated. Williams] represents the attempt to render the objects of experience. Faced with the polarity between subject and object. then. But what this ends ups meaning—their “solution.262
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associated themselves—with the topos and problematics of romanticism that makes its way from Kant and Hegel through Coleridge and British romanticism. is pretty much where we began:
While Modernism constitutes on one level an overt and programmatic rejection of Romanticism. we must try to accommodate both terms. in which “the individual became the inspired locus for an intuitive perception of the spiritual forms and energies that invested the otherwise fragmented phenomenal world with an exalted coherence.” In Gelpi’s words. (12)
.S..6 In a classic essay from about twenty years ago. and it aimed to do so without falling into the metaphysical conundrums that plagued romanticism. Really? How so? What I would like to suggest is that such solutions are simply rearticulations of the fundamental problem that concerns Gelpi. if we believe Harold Bloom). . .”7 Stevens and Williams. This consisted chiefly of what Gelpi calls the “unstable” “Romantic synthesis” of subject (or imagination) and object (or world). and under that pressure the terms tend to slip in and out of one another. via Emerson in the U. What Gelpi called the “Romantic modernism” of Stevens and Williams aimed to restore “the primacy of the imagination” in poetry (versus the historically and anthropologically oriented antiromantic modernism of Pound and Eliot).” if you like—is that “the twentieth-century poet became less the recipient than the agent of perception”. But what can “accurately” mean here. which Luhmann’s work is often thought to retool. given everything we’ve just said?) And where we end up. liberating it from its shaky epistemological premises” (5). Imagism [and for Gelpi.
(This. as few poets have. rather disappointing and insufficiently articulated alongside the rigor and precision of the poetry itself—a rigor that is not logical or conceptual. subtlety. His point is not to deny the phenomenological aspect of the artwork. and keenness (to use a favorite word of his) for which we have had no adequate critical vocabulary thus far. In fact.” Or to put this slightly otherwise: Stevens’s own description of that poetic project in texts like The Necessary Angel and in doctrines (if we can call them that) such as “the supreme fiction” has seemed. But to return to the question at hand: to understand why poetry that is least poetic in prosodic terms may be seen as most poetic in Luhmann’s terms. but is nevertheless what I would call a “systematic” confrontation with the problems I have already sketched under the rubric of “romanticism.” “world”) are both products of self-reference. that in Luhmann’s work on art. after all. “Where do we go from here?” and “Why is this not just another form of idealism?” are two questions that the rest of this essay will attempt to address. exactly. which for many readers takes on an increasingly paradoxical cast and philosophical austerity as his career tends more and more to late poems such as “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven. on the problem of observation—its paradoxical dynamics in relation to “reality” and its epistemological fallout. as I have already mentioned. this material and perceptual substrate. of the need to find a more precise way of describing it—and describing how what is apparently most paradoxical and confounding about it is actually what is most specific and productive about it.
. which is itself (and this would be another essay) traced by Luhmann to the fundamental structures of modernity as a phenomenon of social reorganization via the “functional differentiation” of the various social systems and their codes. I would suggest. Stevens puts increasingly intensive pressure. And in doing so.” In particular. upon reflection—that the meaning of the artwork cannot be referenced to. With the help of systems theory. much less reduced to. the difference between perception and communication is paramount.the idea of observation at key west
Gelpi’s diagnosis of the problem is also a symptom. if you like. but rather to point out the fact—which seems rather obvious. formalize the poetics of the mature Stevens. by the way) than with the poetry. I think. So what I will want to suggest—and I can only gesture toward it here—is that Luhmann’s work is especially valuable in helping us to tease out and. it seems to me that Stevens’s poetry navigates the problems outlined by Gelpi with a rigor.” “imagination”) and hetero-reference (“nature. is the lesson writ large of a Marcel Duchamp. I think that the core problem here can be stated quite precisely: it is the paradoxical fact that both self-reference (“mind. we have to remember. I hope also to suggest that the problem with Stevens’s “romantic modernism” has been more a problem with the criticism (his own included. for many readers.
its own meaning. the work of art copresents the difference between perception and communication and “reenters” that difference on the side of its own communication. and of conceptual art generally [Art.” communication “can hardly come into being without the participation of the mind. perception (and beyond that. perception and communication operate at different speeds—and this is something art puts to use.” and in this sense “the relationship is asymmetrical” (373–74). “we can say that the mind has the privileged position of being able to disturb. while “a system of consciousness can be active even without communication. for Luhmann.264
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a John Cage. Even contemporaneous alertness or contemporaneous transformation of thoughts into thoughts is only available in the form of an operation internal to the mind and is based on the isolation of the system. his own achievement. and its structural complexity. we need to remember that. First. “Compared to communication. but in fact. “the dimension of perception displays a considerably higher rate of information processing. consciousness) and communication operate in mutually exclusive. 374). this contention seems almost ridiculously counterintuitive.8
Importantly.) Rather.” he writes. though they are structurally coupled through media such as language. and irritate communication” (379). and the challenge for communication—which “is only possible as an event that transcends the closure of consciousness: as the synthesis of more than the content of just one consciousness”9—is how to secure the (necessary) participation of psychic systems while at the same time ensuring its own continuation through the autopoiesis of its own structures (and not those of the psychic system) (Art. As Luhmann explains—and there is ample evidence for this in contemporary neurobiology and cognitive science—
what we perceive as our own mind operates as an isolated autopoietic system. There is no operational unity of more than one mind as a system. There is no conscious link between one mind and another. and whatever appears as a “consensus” is the construct of an observer. it is rather commonsensical. however. The mind (the psychic system) constantly produces “noise” (in systems theory parlance) for the communication system (the social system). This “irreducibility” of perception to communication (and vice versa) and their asymmetrical relationship is crucial for several reasons. The impression of
. The mind is its own operationally closed (biological) system but because it is also a necessary medium for communication. 71]. an indispensable condition of its possibility. To understand how this happens. upon reflection. as Dietrich Schwanitz notes. operationally closed. its autonomy. that is. autopoietic systems. stimulate. At first.
this difference between perception and communication is “reentered” on the side of the artwork’s communication (Art. although both perception and communication operate as closed autopoietic systems on the basis of difference and distinction (even though they are structurally coupled through language). particularly lyric poetry” (Art. 22). as Luhmann shrewdly observes. As Luhmann puts it. distinguish itself—indeed distance itself—from religion. “[t]he function of art would then consist in integrating what is in principle incommunicable—namely. including lyric poetry” (Art. . however. 14). The art system concedes to the perceiving consciousness its own unique adventure in observing artworks—and yet makes available as communication the formal selection that triggered the adventure” (Art. 141). alter the fact that perception takes place immediately as compared to communication. 142]). . . . In the work of art. . risks involved in all communication. 26). it is all the more true (because more counterintuitive) that for art made of words. On the contrary. “the reader might assume that all of this holds exclusively for the so-called visual arts. “we must focus
. on “innovation” and the like [Art. in a different way. In fact. It is crucial to understand that. the selective process of which is a sequential one. this is an illusion. . and temporalizes. Naturally. perception serves the following role: “What strikes us in an art form—as. “why the art system must. defers. Luhmann observes that “perception (in contrast to thought and communication) can decide quickly. paradoxically. and perhaps even increased. the very different processing speeds of these systems makes it appear that perception confirms. That does not. 25). in principle.” a task that art achieves by its greater mobilization of. As a “reentered” element in art’s communication. 142)—a communication that “accomplishes this goal or fails to do so by facing the usual.the idea of observation at key west
immediacy in perception produces the notion that the things we perceive are directly present. perception—into the communication network of society. stabilizes. while communication (to put it in Derridean terms) differs. Luhmann writes.”10 To put it another way. whereas art aims to retard perception and render it reflexive—lingering upon the object in visual art (in striking contrast to everyday perception) and slowing down reading in literature. versus religion. and dependence on. this difference is what allows art to have something like a privileged relationship to what is commonly invoked as the “ineffable” or the “incommunicable. does the conspicuous character of acoustic and optic signals—engenders a fascination that turns into information by changing the state of the system—as a ‘difference that makes a difference’” (Art. then. With regard to poetry specifically. perception: hence its emphasis. it holds—much more dramatically because less evidently—for the verbal arts as well.” (And it is also. Art communicates by using perceptions contrary to their primary purpose” (Art. and makes immediate.
Text-art. which often escapes one’s first view (or is grasped only ‘intuitively’). individual. . . Yet. emphasis mine)
To put it succinctly. In poetry. “[t]he artwork closes itself off by reusing what is already determined in the work as the other side of further distinctions. but are not bound by the specific features of language and thus extend the realm of communication beyond what can be put into words” (Art. and then gradually builds up. and meaning” (Art. circular accumulation of meaning. and contingent. Only at the level where symbols. absolutely exemplary insofar as it achieves this highly
. it “permits a circumvention of language” (Art. but . (Art. They generate contextual dependencies. 123) that is absolutely nonparaphrasable and nongeneric. 18). its own unique. And since lyric poetry “communicates not through the propositional content of its utterances. one does not observe it as a work of art. 120). . . . sounds. The result is a unique. But here (and this is my main point). . . 19). . meanings. . As Luhmann characterizes it. The work of art. the perceptual material per se—is key. nonparaphrasable character—its internal necessity. through recursive self-reference. .” he continues. At the same time. “lyric poetry unites the work of art with its own self-description” (Art. the poem begins with a radically contingent distinction. even though it is made. rhythm. amazingly enough. all of which refer back to the text that produces these effects. by virtue of the ornamental structure of mutually limiting references that appear in the form of words” now used as a medium (Art. and rhythms conspire—a level that is difficult to “read”—do poems refer to themselves in the process of creating forms. at the very same time. then. 22). the recursive self-reference of form—and not the materiality of language as medium. 125. 26). . it is. if you like. 26). This creates an overwhelming impression of necessity—the work is what it is. . “organizes itself by means of self-referential references that combine elements of sound. Or as he puts it succinctly: “Art functions as communication although—or precisely because—it cannot be adequately rendered through words (let alone through concepts)” (Art. adornment. But poetry “is not just rhymed prose”. . rather than necessary in an ontological sense. they also carry and ‘signify’ a special textual meaning. “words carry and ‘signify’ their ordinary meanings. one might say. within which they execute and propel the text’s recursions. The poem aims for a “unity of the description and the described” (Art.266
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on types of nonverbal communication that realize the same autopoietic structure as verbal communication .
If one reads poetry as a sequence of propositions about the world and considers the poetic only as beautification. 25). ironic references. and paradoxes. or decoration. manages to overcome its own contingency” (Art.
” as Luhmann puts it. knowledge/nonknowledge in the education system. as it were. And it also helps clarify the relationship between a systems theoretical analysis of art and the discourse of the romantic sublime because. including. on the other hand.” he continues.” a nexus that is about the recursive and paradoxical self-reference of form that is not limited to the sensuous aspect of words (Art. emphasis mine). 120. combinatory buildup of resemblances and variations in a concept or trope in a “mechanic and logical” fashion (as Coleridge put it). linear processes of “communication”) are focused on the aggregative. while consciousness and imagination are preoccupied with an “intuitive” grasp of the work’s form of recursive self-reference on the most abstract level. “The distinction is postulated but not designated in the designation”.”12 First-order observations. “then one discovers that their contribution to the work consists in what they are not. form and medium generate what characterizes successful artworks. any reflexivity. to a deconstruction of the Coleridgean distinction between “fancy” and “imagination”—in which. it thus “does not act in a way that would make it apparent that it could be otherwise. “it should be clear by now that this analysis precludes comprehending an artwork in terms of the relations between a whole and its parts. “everything
. the problems that the discourse of the sublime attempts to address can be assimilated to the more formally rigorous schema of the difference between first. or credit/debit in the economic system—“as a schema but do not yet create a contingency for the observer himself. in this way. so the story would go. we might be tempted to use familiar formulas from the literature of romanticism such as “unity in multeity. in a way. “provide grounds for including contingency in meaning and perhaps reflecting upon it conceptually. 119). Here. improbable evidence” (Art. the larger “organic” or “unifying” power (to use Coleridge’s terms) that these “fanciful” combinations serve. what those distinctions leave out and occlude—their “latencies.and second-order observation in systems theory. in other words. “in working together. Second-order observations. This amounts.” Or as Luhmann puts it. they carry out their operations without. “If one wants to isolate parts. the workings of “fancy” (Luhmann’s slow. they use a two-sided distinction or “code” to reduce the overwhelming (technically infinite) complexity of the environment in which they find themselves (as all autopoietic systems must).11 First-order observations use distinctions—such as legal/illegal in the law system. “do what they do”.the idea of observation at key west
contingent uniqueness. Dividing a work and judging the relationship between parts misses its internal nexus.” because they are observations of observations. namely. As Luhmann puts it. they take into account the codes and distinctions used by first-order observers. what they make available for further elaboration” (Art. of course. 120).” but as Luhmann points out.
dependent upon a deeper unity (what in Hegelian parlance would be called “the identity of identity and non-identity”).” Luhmann writes. As Luhmann summarizes it in a key formulation. The concept of observation remains invariant for the first and second orders and requires no other language (metalanguage)” (49). for Luhmann any observation “renders the world invisible” in relation to its constitutive distinction in the sense that the very thing that makes the world cognitively or communicationally available is also the very thing that makes it unavailable: that occludes or occults it via its “latencies. are in fact. when seen by second-order observation. it “closes itself off by limiting further possibilities with each of its formal decisions. 29). .) But the same is true for any second-order observation as well. Thus.” On the other hand. Luhmann explains.” Luhmann writes.” And that invisibility must itself remain invisible to the observation that employs that distinction—which in turn can only be disclosed by another observation that will also necessarily be doubly blind in the same way (Art. Most of all. “the notion of a final unity—of an ‘ultimate reality’ that cannot assume a form because it has no other side—is displaced into the unobservable. 91). As so often elsewhere. they take account of the key fact about the distinctions used by first-order observations: that the two sides of the distinction used by them. If the concept of the world is retained to indicate reality in its entirety. . then it is that which—to a second-order observer—remains invisible in the movements of observation (his own and those of others)” (Art. the legal system cannot utilize the distinction “legal/illegal” to carry out its operations while at the same time acknowledging its paradoxical identity.268
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becomes contingent whenever what is observed depends on who is being observed” (48). which appear in first-order observation as opposites. (For example. “whatever distinction is used at any given time cannot be indicated as a unity—this condition reproduces itself with every distinction. . “Observation of the second order. “with this mediation we arrive at a world extant in the difference between the sameness and otherness of observations (of the first and second order). And this means not only that “art can no longer be understood as an
. 91). or it will lose itself in the world”. it is also true here: reducing complexity [by deploying observations] is the means to generate complexity” (Observations. So on the one hand. . “a work of art must distinguish itself externally from other objects and events. “In this twofold sense. 48. It is that paradoxical identity-of-difference of its constitutive code to which the first-order system must remain “blind” if it is to use that code to carry out its operations. . “retains throughout the operative characteristics of all observation. It merely displaces the blind spot” of observation (Art. . emphasis mine).
it now imitates the world’s invisibility. To return to the issue of poetry specifically.
we can say then that the function of art is to make the world appear within the world—with an eye toward the ambivalent situation that every time something is made available for observation something else withdraws. . say. which art creates and resolves. between form and matter or form and content. “The paradox unique to art. And this is a question of form. 149). 149). . things no longer happen randomly. as if from the corner of its eye. in other words. (Art. (Art. . and it stages the production of the unobservable (the “blind spot” of observation) that unavoidably accompanies such observations (Art. what happens on the other side of form. 148)
In this way. “resides in the observability of the unobservable” (Art. emphasis mine)
The work of art is radically contingent and. what this means for a poet like Stevens (and this example helps clarify too the difference between Luhmannn’s recursive self-reference of form and. one transgresses this boundary and steps from the unmarked into the marked space. Roman Jakobson’s notion of the “projection” of the principle of reduplication from the axis of selection to the axis of combination in poetic discourse) is that the less “poetic” Stevens is—the more we find an absence of the traditional prosodic devices (rhyme. 148). the work of art points the observer toward an observation of form. . which is to say that it stages both the inescapability of the fact that the world only emerges through observations that employ distinctions. radically necessary. a nature that can no longer be apprehended as a whole” (Art. In this way. Arbitrariness is displaced beyond the boundaries of art into the unmarked space. which at first guided modern art. at the same time. . . and so on) that foreground the difference between perception and communication—the more poetic he
. form stages the question of “whether an observer can observe at all except with reference to an order” (Art. . 149. that.the idea of observation at key west
imitation of something that presumably exists along with and outside of art. 92).” but more importantly for our purposes. But here we must quickly add that
[t]he word formal here does not refer to the distinction. Yet a work of art is capable of symbolizing the reentry of the world into the world because it appears—just like the world—incapable of emendation. alliteration.” Luhmann writes. but to the characteristics of an indicating operation that observes.” Luhmann argues. the activity of distinguishing and indicating that goes on in the world conceals the world. “to the extent that imitation is still possible. If . “From this vantage. It consists in demonstrating the compelling forces of order in the realm of the possible. .
to think that the perceptual substrate of an artwork is fundamental to its meaning (in Jakobson’s case. To think otherwise. a calculated formal decision that signifies against its literary-historical background along the lines of Miles Davis’s famous pronouncement that what is important is not the notes you play. / Ohoo / Celebrating the marriage / Of flesh and air” of “Life Is Motion” (both from Harmonium) but also their connections to Stevens’s penchant for poking fun and. the paring away of conspicuous “poetic” features in his work can be seen as functioning in two different ways: First.” At least a few interesting possibilities suggest themselves here (to stay with the Stevens’s example a while more). as one critic has noted. I would argue that the general trajectory of Stevens’s work—what is often called the increasingly abstract. in Stevens’s earlier poetry)—not just the “Mumbled zay. paradoxically. Or to put this in an even better way. it would seem. And second. in the service of a communication in which the motivated refusal to indulge traditional prosodic devices is an important element of the poetry’s meaning. celebrating by means of acoustic repetition (the “Ho-ho” versus “bubbling of bassoons” of “The Man On The Dump”). alternately. Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Or as Luhmann defines it: the crucial determinations between the question of form and the paradoxical relations of the visible and invisible. a-zay” of “Ordinary Women” or the “Ohoyaho. and of art generally. it communicates its meaning by not being present. the observable and unobservable. say. “philosophical” bent of his poetry—is actually best understood precisely in the terms made available by Luhmann: a poetics of increasingly rigorous refinement and arid abstraction that moves steadily away from a dependence on the perceptual and the prosodic and toward forcing us to fix our attention upon the fundamental—and fundamentally paradoxical—aspect of poetry. for example. as Jakobson’s theory suggests—that is. about the role and trajectory of onomatopoeia in Stevens’s work (most pronounced.13 More importantly. which have typically been handled in literature and philosophy under the rubrics of the sublime. For how else are we to locate the
. the reduplicative features that the poetic function projects from the axis of selection to the axis of combination)—is to have no choice. but to call a mediocre rhymed quatrain by Carl Sandburg more “poetic” than. but rather the notes you don’t play.270
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is in the specific sense of formally modeling the very dynamics of the observable/unobservable that Luhmann describes. as it were) to the fundamental formal function of poetry now understood in light of the formal dynamics of observation and invisibility described above. It would be worthwhile to think. imagination versus fancy. more poetic by directing our attention (with increasing rigor and without distraction. and a-zay. and so on. that evacuated perceptual substrate makes Stevens’s poetry.
but who could think Of what it sees.the idea of observation at key west
value of. each doubtful whether Was ever a thing to love the other.” here in its entirety:
This is not exactly what I mean Any more than the sun is the sun. Else I think the world and I Must live together as strangers and die— A sour love. for all the ill it sees?
. and a word.” where Stevens recurs to the same figural and phenomenological topos:
One might have thought of sight. Thus is a universe very soon. better for both to be nearly sure Each of each—exactly where Exactly I and exactly the world Fail to meet by a moment. in a whole host of Stevens poems. one might add. I think.14 But not just Stevens. and achieve a pitch and resonance not unlike Riding’s at the end of “Esthétique Du Mal. No. I will offer here. But how to mean more closely If the sun shines but approximately? What a world of awkwardness! What hostile implements of sense! Perhaps this is as close a meaning As perhaps becomes such knowing.15
Or the wonderfully realized and only slightly less beguiling “The World and I. the opening stanza of Laura Riding’s remarkable poem “Opening of Eyes”:
Thought looking out on thought Makes one an eye. One is the mind self-blind. much less explain. (187)
Those paradoxical dynamics of observation and self-reference are very obviously on display as well. without further comment. The other is thought gone To be seen from afar and not known. Stevens’s penchant for not just courting but pressuring paradoxical self-reference as few poets have? How do we make sense of the Stevens whose fundamental mode is to repeatedly insist upon both “things exactly as they are” (“The Man With the Blue Guitar”) and “what I saw / Or heard or felt came not but from myself” (“Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”).
because we knew It was the spirit that we sought and knew That we should ask this often as she sang (CP 129. in the case of this poem. made.” for as we have already seen. by the poem’s staging and restaging of. And out of what one sees and hears and out Of what one feels. “pale” Ramon Fernandez. I think. the central question of the poem:
Whose spirit is this? we said.and second-order observers when he writes. nevertheless. be communicated—and communicated. But the dark italics it could not propound. in differentiating the “she’s” and “we’s” of first. the sea. Whatever self it had. Stevens is characteristically assiduous. the mid-day air. (CP 326)
And it receives what one might call even more technical treatment in “The Idea of Order at Key West. Merely in living as and where we live. Then we. As we beheld her striding there alone. She was the single artificer of the world In which she sang. emphasis mine)
But why not ask “this” just once? Because. art consists precisely in presenting what cannot be conceptualized but can. and increasingly recursive responses to. As if the air. it cannot be answered only once—that is. (CP 129–30)
This does not mean. Knew that there never was a world for her Except the one she sang and. for all the evil sound. who could have thought to make So many selves. so many sensuous worlds. She measured to the hour its solitude.” which is very careful to distinguish the observations of “the single artificer” addressed in the poem and the observations of those observations by the speaker and his strange companion. that we are dealing here with “concepts. once and for all: a fact the poem recursively builds up through the relentless submission of its key terms (song.
It was her voice that made The sky acutest at its vanishing. of course. was swarming With the metaphysical changes that occur. for she was the maker.272
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Speech found the ear. apparently. became the self That was her song. And when she sang. singing. sea)
among which we must choose as either philosophical idealists or realists. takes time. the “song” of the “single artificer”—her observation that makes “the sky acutest at its vanishing”— discloses a “spirit” and not a substance: not the binaries of mind/nature. and this is exactly what he wants to provoke.” which leads in turn to the realization that “paradoxes can be undertaken more or less skillfully. “the problem [of the paradoxical self-reference of any observation] cannot be solved by logical maneuvering but one can only . I think. provisional phalanx of “and’s. subject/object.” “if”s. I think. by definition of course. world) but a third term: “spirit. Thus. .” he continues.the idea of observation at key west
to an increasingly erosive. of Stevens’s suggestion about the poet’s function earlier in the same passage that “certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. although he does not say anything which he does not mean” (NP 26). with no resting place—the paradoxical difference-in-identity of observation’s constitutive structure.” Such is the spirit. the only answer to the question “Whose spirit is this?” would not be—indeed could not be—either “song” or “sea. can have a more or less unblocking effect. . oddly enough: “Often. and so on. Nor is it. . for as Luhmann writes. not “song” (mind. For as Luhmann observes in his “Notes.”17 As in art. Indeed. The one doing the uttering foresees that at the moment of understanding the utterance is already incorrect. Here. .”18 But it is also not just a problem of logic in a second and more important and compelling sense—a sense that once again depends upon our paying attention to the disarticulation of consciousness and communication. to comfort them while they follow their readers to and fro. . and for that reason irreducible. hope to find a less sensitive spot where the problem can be temporarily tolerated. after all—that the function of the poet “is to help people to live their lives. . a movement of observation whose engine is double.” And hence. because “communication requires more time than experience does”—it is sequential and slower than the movement of consciousness—this very fact “requires a certain period of actuality. . can be more or less fruitful. a difference that.”16 I put it in this odd way to make it clear that we are not dealing here simply with problems of logic.” but might be. this is perhaps what Stevens meant when he suggested—rather enigmatically.” “but’s. “the paradox can be made to oscillate. He wants to convey the fact that he does not mean what he says.” and “yet’s. .” Or to put it in Luhmannian terms. for example.” “the observation of a paradox has a peculiar kind of temporal structure: it makes the present shrink to a point to which no reality any longer corresponds. imagination) or “sea” (nature. Within this time period. Quite the contrary. it seems to me. but rather a form. imagination/reality. we are very close to the core dynamic of Stevens’s poetry—especially his most resolutely and opaquely “philosophical” po-
.” And yet. and the difference between firstand second-order observations.
Twenty men crossing a bridge. Into a village. and paradoxical in its self-reference—cannot be overcome.” of “clear water in a brilliant bowl” (CP 193–94). of any observation’s form. and disrelations. the experience of something that. and the difference between firstand second-order observers) that can never add up to the “simplified” “world of white and snowy scents. . Are Twenty men crossing a bridge Into a village. Into twenty villages. That will not declare itself Yet is certain as meaning . vital I”—in Luhmann’s terms. in a way. It both creates and partakes of a world that is “imperfect. (CP 19)
. This is old song That will not declare itself. Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges. Or to put it in the terms of “The Poems of Our Climate.” that “[l]ies in flawed words and stubborn sounds” because the world is thus riven by paradoxical difference (the paradoxical self-reference. the phenomenon of paradoxical self-reference—and the experience of it as an actuality in the disjunction between consciousness and communication. is impossible and yet “oscillates” before us—“reveals that the inference from nondescribability to nonexistence is not logically tenable” (S 135).” which has been central in these sorts of discussions for a host of critics. Into a village. the identity of difference.” Or as Stevens puts it in “Metaphors of a Magnifico. contingent. as Luhmann explains. Or one man Crossing a single bridge into a village.”
Twenty men crossing a bridge. . the fact that observation is multiple. Why is the unavailability of the world “as such and in its being” in fact crucial to the ongoing maintenance of the world? Because. onto another that I cannot pursue here: the relations. in turn. and it is a good thing too.274
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etry—and its signal effect of confirming the otherness and difference of “external” reality precisely by insisting on its inseparability from the work of the mind and imagination. of philosophy and literature in the services of that broader thing called “knowledge. And this question opens. “the evilly compounded.
and Dirk Baecker. As she observes of Stevens’s conspicuous acoustics. Kathleen Cross. trans. see my essay “Lose the Building” referenced above. Art. trans. 103–17. 2000). no. NY: Cornell Univ. Culture. Press. “real. Or perhaps we should say. John Bednarz. 47 (hereafter cited as OM). And yet. 99 (hereafter cited in text). no. William Whobrey (Stanford. 1 (2001): 15–27 (hereafter cited as NP). ed. 2 (2007): 561. Social Systems.” in Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism. Eva Knodt (Stanford. an utter tautology. Press. no. 149–63. 7 Albert Gelpi. “How Can the Mind Participate in Communication?” in Materialities of Communication. no. 3 (1996): 506–22. A useful. Press. no.” His essay is part of The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: Univ.the idea of observation at key west
A pure paradox. 1990). 6 The literature on this point is.” in The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens. of course. Press. 559 (hereafter cited in text). Ludwig Pfeiffer. CA: Stanford Univ. and Society 18. CA: Stanford Univ. the more extreme the contrast the better. 1954). 12 Luhmann. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. CA: Stanford Univ.” Rice University
NOTES 1 For an exploration of these issues and the theoretical underpinnings of Niklas Luhmann’s concept of form as they pertain to architecture. Observations on Modernity. of Kentucky Press. 3 (2006). 13 See Beverly Maeder. “Stevens and Williams: The Epistemology of Modernism. See. Press.” MLN 111. William Whobrey (Stanford. Jr. 10 Dietrich Schwanitz. 11 For a more detailed discussion of this point. Press. “word choice in these cases means less the search for the right word or le mot juste than the experimental
.’” MLN 111. trans. CA: Stanford Univ. 2007). Gelpi (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. 2 Marjorie Levinson. 9 Luhmann. Serio (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. but see. at this juncture quite extensive. 5 (hereafter cited in text). 1994). ed. “Notes on the Project ‘Poetry and Social Theory. texts such as Harold Bloom’s Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca.’” trans. “Systems Theory and the Difference between Communication and Consciousness: An Introducton to a Problem and Its Context. 1995). Theory. canonically. 3 (1996): 494. 2005). true. in connection with Stevens. his essay “A Redescription of ‘Romantic Art. 1998). 26 (hereafter cited as Art). for an important and concise explanation of key points of convergence (and divergence) between the problematics of romanticism and Luhmann’s work. Eva M. as in the classic rhyme “king/thing. short overview is provided by Bart Eeckhout in “Stevens and Philosophy.” Postmodern Culture 16. somehow. 1977) and Simon Critchley’s Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens (London: Routledge. Press. and Diller+Scofidio’s Blur. but Art as a Social System is an especially important text in this regard. intro. his relationship to romanticism is everywhere present in his later work. 8 Luhmann. Knodt (Stanford. “Stevens and Linguistic Structure.” in The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens. 3 Niklas Luhmann. As for Luhmann. ed. 8–9. see my essay “Lose the Building: Systems Theory. trans. 4 Wimsatt argues that the fundamental dynamic of rhyme in English poetry is one that yokes acoustic similarity and semantic contrast. and that. 372 (hereafter cited in text). 5 Luhmann. Art as a Social System. “What Is New Formalism?” PMLA 122. See also Luhmann. Architecture. John N.
. 65 (hereafter cited as CP). 95 (hereafter cited in text). Such is the drift too. but quite the contrary. 1980). Bruce Clarke and Mark Hansen (Durham. “Sthenography. forthcoming 2008). This is not to suggest that this is what Riding (Jackson) thought she was doing. given the common habit of misreading Luhmann as a rigidly binary thinker. the poem’s constructedness or artifice” (154). the “nonidentity of identity and non-identity. 6–7. 18 Stevens. See. rather than one who precisely deontologizes binaries by making them momentary. The Poems of Laura Riding. 16 On why this is not a Hegelian schema. see my essay “Meaning as Event-Machine. “Stevens and Philosophy. The Wallace Stevens Case: Law and the Practice of Poetry (Cambridge. Briefly: because recognizing “the identity of identity and non-identity” in any observation’s paradoxical self-reference is itself dependent upon the difference between first. new ed. Bernd Widdig. of one recent critic’s observation that Stevens’s function in this regard is not so much philosophical as “pragmatic”: “Stevens can speak to the lawyer or legal theorist as a kind of therapist for the habitual and institutional rigidities of binary thought. 114. 68. of Minnesota Press. 29.” Thomas C. or. “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” 17 Luhmann.” trans. her 1980 introduction in this reprint edition of her 1938 Poems. 15 Laura Riding (Jackson). 1982). Stanford Literature Review 7 (1990). For a more detailed articulation of this claim. Press. 2003). ed. on different distinctions)—hence. I think.” in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Random House. see my Critical Environments: Postmodern Theory and the Pragmatics of the “Outside” (Minneapolis: Univ. functional distinctions that systems use to try to reduce overwhelming environmental complexity by virtualizing and temporalizing it. 135 (hereafter cited as S).and second-order observation (that is. Systems Theory and ‘The Reconstruction of Deconstruction. and connotation combine to draw attention to. 1951). for example. New York: Persea. as her unusual and iconoclastic notion of the relationship between poetry and “truth” makes quite clear.276
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combination of surprising signifiers. NC: Duke Univ. quoted in Bart Eeckhout. 14 Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Random House. MA: Harvard Univ. and stimulate pleasure in. Press. tone. (1938. 1991). Grey’s observation is especially appropriate in this context.’” in Neocybernetic Emergence: New Essays in Second-Order Cybernetics. 165. Grey. register. whose strangeness of sound.” in The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens.