The Next Objectivists, founded in January 2008, begin our SIXTH year as the world only 100% autonomous Poetry & Poetics Workshop dedicated to the study & reproduction of writing in the objectivist tradition—writing alive to what we call the OUTSIDEREAL—with a six-session seminar devoted to the production of a new piece of collectively produced objectivist poetry.
During the first three sessions, we read pairs of texts that adhere to a narrow set of “objectivist” principles. All the texts are based on prior texts, which are “edited” and juxtaposed in order to employ aesthetics in the production of truths that emerge from and exceed the subjective experience normally accorded to lyric writing.
During the first session of this seminar, held on January 17, 2013, we read excerpts from Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust & Eliot Weinberger's What I Heard about Iraq in 2005. Both texts use objectivist poetic techniques to investigate and intervene in knowledge making around horrific historical events. In the first case, Reznikoff draws on Nuremberg trial testimony to memorialize the holocaust, revealing the textures of industrialized genocide. In the second case, Weinberger, one of the few contemporary writers to cite Reznikoff as a mentor, draws on newspapers and blog posts to intervene in the management of public sentiment during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Here are some scattered notes from our conversation:
The importance of truth, compared to facts. The “truth” of an event as a moral impulse that organizes from among the collection of facts made available a principle of orientation. In this sense, we are exploring the 'subjective' aspects of objectivist poetics. We are worried abou the presumption of universal truth and its relation to facts. What stance shall we take to the production of “social realities” and their seemingly inevitable failures? Immediately we notice how Reznikoff's writing problematizes the truth – convincing yet leaving one asking questions about the collective work of authorship that brings this reality into the imagination.
Consider as an alternative approach the stories of survivors articulated by Elie Wiesel. Perhaps upon reading Twilight you thought the survivor would embrace life, but in the end he decides to live with the lie. He lies precisely because he doesn't want to live anymore. Were he to overcome the tragedy, this would make you or me feel better. Regarding the subjectivity of the reader of this fiction: you want the hope. You want closure, but not the wrong kind.
Optimistic objectivity leaves open the gateway to the truth.Pessimistic objectivity cancels the truth of the event by launching the critique of universal slipperiness. It's claim is always that there is no objective truth—ultimately a question about whether or not a workshop based on objectivist poetics is deconstructive or constructive—do we, in our desire for objectivity, reveal its impossibility? Or create a collective objectivity? Are you after mob action & genocide or are you after the truth?
In Wiesel story: the question of whether or not there's a point of living after the holocaust. The anecdote of the survivor. The trouble with children. Killing the child to save the family. Suffocating the wailing baby. The turning of people into objects. “Realness,” in Reznikoff's poetry, is depersonalized. The anti-septic nature of Reznikoff's testimony. The oppressed in Reznikoff seems incapable of these things. They are victims, caught in an absolute violence. Two forms of utilitarianism. The blankness of the system of industrial warfare vs the blankness of the moral parable, as in Wiesel.
Or consider J. S. Prynne's point: The question is always, what truth are we looking for? Truth has to be confined. This is the kind of knowledge we want; people think of truth as non-contingent. What qualifies as proof? In a post-structuralist world, all we have is texts, constructed realities. We can see the realities that are constructed toward us. That face us; that we are made to face. Objectivity as a fantasy; its actually intersubjectivity. THE IMAGINATION IS OBJECTIVE. (It grasps the object in the language of the other.)
We consider the the aesthetic rules, the techniques or mechanisms employed in Reznikoff's poem:
- Being mundane; stripping away the emotions. When putting it into writing, you strip away the emotion. Or is it stripping away emotion? You come to your own conclusion. No interpretation for the reader. The images, scenes, scenarios determine the emotions, rather than telling the reader how to feel. Stripping away the adjectives. “The children screamed with fear.”
- Refusal of parable; the rejection of the operation of narratives. Reznikoff knows. The presence through negation of the moral parable. He rejects the possibility of communicating the barbarity of the event. Forces the imagination to take over.
- The fragment, and seriality. Short passages, perhaps from stopping before positive descriptions emerge as subjective desire. The fragments do not share narrative.
- Vagueness of details. No names or personal details. “Each in one camp or several. Stones or bricks” “Perhaps merely to show” “Between five and twenty-five,” “Sometimes” “If,” “Or even,” “some who were sent” “if it was that kind” “but most”. Definitive statements that emphasize the GENERAL. No names of people. No persons' names. Names of death camps and cities, towns. The names that belong to the event, but the event is a depersonalizing. Compared to names that take the burden of representation, closing the event off. Details that connect us through the anonymity, such as bodily details.
- Strips out any effort at justification. They're just doing it. They are just people doing it. No causes or consequences. This anonymous element prevents the work from being used for other causes. This approach applies a very different kind of politics; a very different response. The 'subject' in this case is objects. Trains and platforms, bags & clothing. Impersonal nouns come to represent. The objects themselves resonate. Shoes, fields. I've been to Dachau. When I was there, it was empty. It didn't look like a place where people lived; they were not living there. They were dying there. Like cattle. So here the objectivity is found in the event.
Compare this to Weinberger's What I heard about Iraq in 2005
The poem is based on hearing as compared to seeing. Hearing rumors, information, rather than the imagistic qualities of Reznikoff's imagism and quest for the punctum of the scene. W cites percentages. Relies on quotations. Evokes an entirely different temporal and geographical relation to event. This is more political, less moral, because of its relation to the event's immediacy? Note the research. Uncovering suppressed facts. The linking together of details to produce “irony” (in the literary and political sense). Urgency vs remembrance? If this doesn't work as well, why not? For Reznikoff, there is no innocence. Weinberger keeps a distance, whereas in Reznikoff you're implicated more. “I heard” makes everything second-hand; distances him. Its clear that he wasn't there. The quotations: second, or thirdly removed. A grim, burlesque quality. Begins with references to the grand destruction of Babylon. Then moves away from the General, epic narrative. The epic vs satire.
We are dealing with two different literary genres: epic & satire.
The quotes lend a hand; people as objects—in this case, because of the journalistic scrutiny. Quotes are equivalent to R's images. The quotation is how they've been materialized. Quotations provide character portraits. This text is only successful if its understood as a future-oriented text. To preserve some record of what happens so that it won't be forgotten. The immediate, agitating, political discourse. Mock incredulity, vs reading the text 30-40 years from now. Preserving the text of the atrocity. Oriented toward the immediate future of the event or the historical future of the event's inscription / conscription into national history. What would it mean, for example, to get a copy of Weinberger's What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles into the collection of the George W. Bush presidential library?
This is still being said, absurd, but the war is still going on. The bystander; the observer. Someone should have done something in 2003. Feeling like we're listening.
The mire; same old, same old. Still in the middle of changing. In Reznikoff, people are under oath.
In Weinberger, its from the media. Ostensibly true, but not necessarily. A 'real-time twitter' feed that will sort itself out. Reliance on the media – it would take time to uncover the 'subjective' truth, whereas with Weinberger its more 'subjective' in the bad way. Understanding based on taste.
Recalls HOWL. A manifest anger in Weinberger. The paratactic structure conveys outrage. Yet it speaks for itself. Uses their own propaganda against them. All the quotes are accurate, deadly precision in the satiric barbs. Yet “I heard” frames it at gossip.
Anonymity vs well known people and proper names. A testimonial PRIOR to a TRIAL. VERY DIFFERENT RELATION to the state. The function of the trail lawyer rather than the judge! Stating the case. Is there an imperial remove in Reznikoff's non-judgmental isolation of the horror that speaks for itself? Reznikoff and the impossibility of justice. For eternity its just this wound. All the 'forgotten' aspects have become a fact of life, part of being a human being, vs W's fact of national life. R. is dealing with representation and communication. “I heard” = this is the social material that was being discussed. You can't approach politics with an inherent innocence anymore. The childlike qualities. The transparency.
The childishness of parataxis as expansion.
The use of proper names: in Holocaust there are no 'reputable sources' but in Weinberger the names are stated but are clearly not reputable sources. Holding open the reality of what is being said: under scrutiny. “What I also heard in 2005.” W's text could be added to. Something that is true of “essay”: a test, putting to the test of something. Putting leaders on trial, putting words to the test. “Road testing the language.” Reznikoff: draws attention to the signifier in some passages. Compared to Paul Celan: the absences. Reznikoff produces a text about an experience that can't be written about. Weinberger depends upon your embedded perception; perception is already arrested. Its already laid out. Whereas in Reznikoff there's a wonder & perception of what's happening. There is a possibility of redemption that is not present in Weinberger's assault on the state. Donald Rumsfeld: you can't even say that he's a good guy.
Which of these texts would we like to use in order to develop our practice?
Reznikoff, for literary reasons: crisis of the lyric, to respond to the non-imagistic, non-collective quality of contemporary lyricism. Lyricism can no longer come to the ability to deal with this. Get out of Weinberger's problem by re-orienting around Reznikoff. Trying to think through Reznikoff. If we try to think through Weinberger we'll distance ourselves—not necessarily the right way to think about things. Agreement: going to trials, back to historical texts. Rape trials in the 1800s: the historical work of reading through the trails. The distance of the past, the otherness of the past to us? Emmet Till trial. The emotional detachment & comfort. Begin with disinterest.
Weinberger synthesizes multiple texts. Reznikoff concentrates the text.
Authorial presence. The voice authorized to speak.
The right to ventriloquize.
Look at me I'm such a sensitive soul who can care about the voices of history. Fuck yourself, all you care about is your sensitive soul. We don't want to cultivate one's individual interiority. Its narcissistic.
What source texts might we choose for our writing project?
Historical or Contemporary? A purposeful combination or juxtaposition of both?
Some initial nominations:
- A data set at the ICPSR containing information about every homicide in Chicago. Who is believed to have done it where. Plus a code book explaining how to read the data.
- Complete testimony of the Salem Witch Trials. All history of the SWT has basically been written from these documents.
- Complete records of Old Bailey have been put on line. All trials: “complete proceedings Old Bailey”.
- Writing with the manual. The instruction manual of the present. Attempting to present a solution with the text. Write from the point of view of the action – creating the never-ending trial. Keeping it in the present. Art in action.
- John Burge torture trials: an on-going problem. Sources of police brutality and conduct.
Our NEXT MEETING WILL BE THURSDAY 31 JANUARY. We will discuss work by Paul Metcalf & Jorge Luis Borges. Readings will be sent to the e-mail list prior to the event. If you wish to join the Next Objectivists e-mail list, please send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.