[courtesy The European Legacy]
The Poethical Wager. By Joan Retallack
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. xii + 279 pp.
The purpose of Joan Retallack's The Poethical Wager is to develop
an aesthetics of complexity, where complexity (as in chaos theory) has
to do with the singularity and irreducibility of things and events in
contrast to their subsumption into categories, hierarchies, systems, or
any of the forms of conceptual determination that we use to make sense
of our experience. And so her first recourse is to a pun: poethics,
which means something like leaving things to chance but nevertheless taking
responsibility for what happens. Poethics is a multifunctional term that
has application in art, science, and politics, as well as in everyday
life, where the economic necessity of reducing our actions and experiences
to schedules, rules, offices, and programs forecloses possibilities that,
opened up to experiment, just might satisfy our basic desire for the good
life. So poethics entails a poor ethics of responsibility to and for the
other as opposed to the traditionally forceful ethics of universal rules
and the sittlichkeit of integrated communities.
The Poethical Wager is a book of twelve essays plus a substantial introduction
("Essay as Wager") on the essay as a form of conceptual art,
which is what each of these twelve essays turns into as it constructs
itself. In her second piece, "Wager as Essay," Retallack says:
"Essays, like poems and philosophical meditations, should elude our
grasp just because their business is to approach the liminal spectrum
of near-unintelligibility-immediate experience complicating what we thought
we knew. In this case, 'to write' means to engage in a probative, speculative
projection of the often surprising vectors of words as they graze the
circumstances of ongoing life" (p. 48). "Unintelligibility"
is the keyword here and throughout The Poethical Wager. It is not a negative
concept but a concept of freedom. Intelligibility by contrast presupposes
confinement to reproductive systems whose progeny either mirror one another
or are cast aside if they don't. Retallack wants a theory of what does
not fit. "Wager as Essay," for example, sketches very quickly
a brief history of the essay as an anarchic form of writing-Montaigne's
essays, for example, which, as Retallack says, are more like puzzles than
discourses. The later Wittgenstein's "remarks," thoughts that
cannot be integrated into "a natural order
are likewise among her models, as are Adorno's Versuche-not just Prisms,
but even the forbidding Aesthetic Theory, which is not a systematic treatise
but a book of large fragments that articulates in uncompromising terms
the basic thesis of modernist aesthetics: "The task of aesthetics
is not to comprehend artworks as hermeneutical objects; in the contemporary
situation, it is their incomprehensibility [Unbegreiflichkeit: literally,
ungraspability] that needs to be comprehended." Arguably all of Retallack's
work-her critical writings, her conversations with John Cage, and above
all her several volumes of innovative poetry-is an exploration and extension
of this thesis.
Like Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and Adorno's Aesthetic
Theory, Retallack's experimental essays are a calculated affront to
the academic paper and the institutions that mass-produce it, gripping
literary study in what Charles Bernstein calls "frame lock."
To break the frame Retallack turns to the essays of Gertrude Stein, John
Cage, and her contemporaries Leslie Scalapino and Rosemary Waldrop-as
well as herself. Retallack's first chapter, "The Poethical Wager,"
is a self-interview on thickening poetics with an h. "Poetics without
an h has primarily to do with questions of style. Style is the manner
in which your experience has understood, assimilated, imprinted you"
(p. 38). By contrast, "your poethical work begins when you no longer
wish to shape materials (words, visual elements, sounds) into legitimate
progeny of your own poetics. When you are released from filling in the
. If you persist, patterns in your work may become
more flexible, permeable, conversational, exploratory" (p. 38). To
which Retallack might have added: more complex. Poethics is a theory and
practice of turbulence, of nomadic forms or forms that never settle into
place but rather consist of breaking patterns (like breaking news). Retallack
herself prefers the concept of swerving, "the sudden zig or zag of
rogue atoms" to which Epicurus gave the term "clinamen"
(p. 2). So we are to think of the poethical essay as having the fragmenting
structure of the weather rather than the unitary repose of objects.
As an example Retallack gives us "Blue Notes on the Know Ledge,"
What is the metaphysics of the ontology of the physics of the neurophysiology
of the epistemology of blue? How many was could I you s/he they we reshuffle
the order of these fun-house nouns. Blue-tipped, blue light distance signifiling
past slide rule's blue shift. A Western poetics of blue (Is pink the navy
blue of India?) is blind sighted at an intersection of the optics of blue
(peripheral vision and distance) the paradoxical psychology of blue (religious
hope and historical sadness) the epistemology of blue (peripheral vision
and cognitive distance). Linea, punctus, circulus, sanctus, sanctus
blue (p. 63)
"Blue Notes" is a series of wordplaying notes & queries on
nineteen citations mostly concerning the various contingencies of blue (which
appear to be stand-ins for the many contingencies of "I"): the
blue in a certain Giotto painting, the steel-blue of a detective-novel pistol,
a remark from Wittgenstein's Blue Book--
If, for instance, you were ordered to paint a particular shade of
blue called "Prussian Blue," you might have to use a table to
lead you from the word "Prussian Blue" to a sample of the colour,
which would serve you as your copy (p. 65).
Blue skies, blue water, blue laws, singing the blues, the poet Carla
Harryman's "Dimblue," blue noses, "wild blue blunders"
(p. 68), cool blue, true blue (as opposed to false blue, or betrayal.
But now imagine a blue truth, or blue knowledge, on the model of the blue
movie). One recalls William Gass's On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry,
which Michael Wood excoriated in the New York Review of Books (August
5, 1976): too many word games. As Gass noted, there's something philosophically
off-color about blue. It is the color of incertitude (which is, philosophical
opinion aside, not a condition of skepticism but a condition of hope).
Certitude forecloses hope. Just so, Retallack's main concern in this wonderfully
unruly essay is the danger of "knowing for sure," an assertion
of the ego that exposes everything to Plato's sun:
The light of the Enlightenment was not to be blue-not
full of misplaced and otherwise abused objects, displaced spectators,
short-wave blurred edges of historical lament. It was to be the white
light that as we know, but cannot see except refractively, contains the
entire spectrum-the light of programmatic optimism: Utopian light. The
light of hope, with its dependence on undependable pleasant surprises,
is, on another hand-to-mouth, blue. It arises out of a strangely luminous
pessimism, late in the day. Blue light to be perceived as light at all
requires an oblique angle of vision, an averting of the eyes from the
glare of our cultural foreground toward the silent periphery that is our
future. Blue-last and first color visible at twilight (p. 77).
Blue is just possibly the most plurisemantic and therefore shady of colors.
This helps to explain why in Retallack's spectrum blue (not pink) is the
color of the feminine, from baby to indigo. I do not think blue can be pictured
in words, but one should still try to distinguish a blue funk from a brown
The feminine is the chief recurrent topic of the essays in The Poethical
Wager. For Retallack the feminine is a mode of complexity-not so much
a gender category as a form of life that a man might inhabit if willing
to chance it, as when John Cage says: "'I am willing to give myself
over to the weather. I like to think of my music as weather, as part of
the weather'" (p. 198). The feminine in this respect is different
from the expression of suppressed experiences that constitutes more traditional
feminist writing (p. 116). In ":RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM,"
Retallack examines the work of Nicole Brossard, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha,
and Carla Harryman, three contemporary writers committed to the invention
of new forms of language as an alternative to the picturing of states
of affairs organized around an "I" or a "We." These
writers are closer to Finnegans Wake than to feminist thinkers
like Judith Butler, Alicia Ostriker or to poets like Adrienne Rich and
Anne Sexton. In addition, Retallack frequently invokes someone you will
not have read before, Genre Tallique, author of Glances: An Unwritten
Book, a Borgesian masterpiece of feminomasculine anarchism
Gender/genre is pure experiment. Every boundary construction is a gamble,
a dare, a hypothetical with consequences. That most have chosen to repeat
old experiments does not logically negate the possibility of new forms
There are energetic experimental traditions in our culture. It's in
their direction our lucky glance falls. Glance, yes. I refuse the word
"gaze." The gaze turns self and other into stone. The glance
is light in the gossamer breeze of chance, un coup de dés, inviting
the unexpected (cited by Retallack, p. 132).
From Genre Tallique Joan Retallack borrows and elucidates her concept
of the "experimental feminine," an aesthetic that cannot be
contained within the agonistic M/F lines of so much of recent theory because
these terms, masculine/feminine, are merely limit-concepts "for a
very complex range of mixes and possibilities that wiggle, slip, slide,
elide, combine, recombine, morph, mongrelize" (p. 99). One recalls
the philosopher Cora Diamond's great essay, "Losing Your Concepts,"
with its argument that losing concepts like masculine/feminine opens the
way for the formation of new possible worlds. Economically loss is not
a deficit but a gain in freedom.
Just so, Retallack's "The Scarlet Aitch: Twenty-Six Notes on the
Experimental Feminine," is a series of Wittgenstein-like "remarks"
against conceptual purity and in favor of "lettristic play, which
"operates illegally, strictly on the diagonal, the glancing, tangential,
transgressing left-right regulations, right angles of history, institutional
rights to dictate meaningful grammars. It streaks through official texts,
illuminating subtexts and subliminal noises as letters swerve, collide,
coagulate in the wound-the scar in scarlet-the scars of historical/etymological
silences" (p. 106). Lettristic play links Hester Prynne's Scarlet
A (adulteress swerving through time into angel) to the dropped aitch
that situates poethics (or, as one might begin to prefer, poethicks) on
the odd side of the street. (Recall the quintessentially lettristic moment
in The Scarlet Letter when the narrator, the misbegotten customs
inspector, having discovered the faded letter A, presses it to his breast:
a gender swerve if there ever was one.) As Retallack happily observes,
aitch is "A with an itch" (p. 106), the itch being that there
is no is no pure h-sound but only an endless play from catch to cough
to ugh! to fish to Henry-no time to list the whole phonemic inventory.
The adulteration of sounds and letters, genres and genders, art and poetry,
texts and concepts trumps purity in all of its versions of transparency
and single-mindedness. Hence Genre Tallique: not so much an alter ego
as a mind/body double.
Not surprisingly, Retallack devotes concerted attention to Gertrude Stein
and especially to John Cage. "The Difficulties of Gertrude Stein,
I & II" is a defense of Stein's "failed" detective
story, "Blood on the Dining Room Floor," which contains a corpse
but no detection because it has no story to tell. But Retallack's point
is that Gertrude Stein's "fractal" sentences are more at home
in opera than in rationative fiction, because opera is a genre open to
simultaneities, interferences, and the production of variations that defeat
forms structured by their targets. Stein perfected "open form,"
the insubordination of elements to any hierarchy, before any of her male
contemporaries (Pound, the Objectivists, Charles Olson). Stein's "open
form" can be traced back to William James, with his preference for
a loose and anarchic way of thinking and speaking that does without universals.
As Retallack observes, "open form" has become a well-worn term,
but one can rejuvenate it by returning to Stein and renewing the anarchic
through new paratactic experiments.
The idea is to appropriate Stein's gift of attention to the singular,
trivial, oblivious, seemingly random and meaningless detail. Attention
is the central ethical concept of Retallack's feminine aesthetic-an aesthetic
she tries to capture with the phrase "complex realism," which
like all realisms is made possible by a concentration on the differences
embedded in indifferent, disposable materials. Attention is the main theme
of the four essays on John Cage that conclude this volume. In Cage's and
Retallack's aesthetics attention is not passive; it is constructive, a
mode of assembling of what is happening into new kinds experience-something
human beings are very good at doing, if only they would let themselves
go, break their routines and leave their comfort zones. Attention cannot
happen without change-to be attentive is to alter oneself (no one has
to think during routines). This is the motive of John Cage's work, namely
to produce experiences of complexity that cause people to change. The
assumption here is of course utopian: it is that change is always a surplus,
because loss is a modality of freedom. The complex point is that freedom
is also a dimension of responsibility-in the end, it is as much an ethical
as political concept. You don't walk away from your experiments; or your
experiences; you try to understand and justify them practically by how
you go on to think and live.
In Cage's work the main idea is not to build structures but rather to
set processes in motion, such that what happens in the environment of
these processes is to be experienced as internal and essential to the
work or event as a whole. So ambient noise is, famously, to be tuned in
rather than out. Cage's intention was explore various modes of non-intentional
composition that could produce multilayered, unpredictable events in which
many different things can happen at once, whether the material is visual,
aural, corporeal, or linguistic (or, as was frequently the case, all four
together). Retallack shows that the basic principle at work in Cage's
compositions is essentially that of the "butterfly effect,"
in which large-scale formations develop from simple initial conditions.
Chaos-theorists try to map these formations via mathematical equations.
Cage was interested in the anarchy of what he set in motion. However,
Retallack's chapter on "The Poethics of a Complex Realism" studies
the internal kinship between Cage and one of the inventors of chaos theory,
Edward Lorenz. What comes out in this chapter is Cage's incredible capacity
to appropriate the intellectual world around him to his own aesthetic
explorations-for example, in the use of the computer to score events of
indeterminate complexity. Lorenz's work on modeling weather systems, Retallack
could also describe Cage's approach to composition in which initial
conditions (e.g., sound sources, pitch, timbre, amplitude, duration)
are fed into the variable slots of a random-number generator program
that replicates the operations of chance in the I Ching (a program called
ic, with a time values specific version called tic) and then asks the
computer to determine how the score (which will initiate the performative
music system) is to be notated. Because Cage's scores always incorporate
significant elements of indeterminacy, each performance of his music,
like each performance of the weather, has a built-in difference of initial
conditions whose variations can produce major changes in the system
that unfolds (p. 204).
In other words, John Cage solved the long-standing problem of the avant-garde,
which is how to escape the inevitability of self-imitation. The early
avant-garde-dada, for example-solved the problem by taking their act on
the road from Zurich to Paris to Berlin to New York, but keeping all the
while to their aleatory nonsense. Duchamp solved it by substituting replicas
for duplicates-a virtually theological distinction that nevertheless does
exact justice to Duchamp's capacity for ironic self-reinevention. Cage
solved it by subjecting composition to the constraints of systematic chance
operations, which insured that his works would be unconstrained by a habit-forming
Retallack's final essay, "Uncaged Words: John Cage's Dialogue with
Chance," is a much-needed study of Cage as a poet. Two things stand
out, namely that his poetry is almost always made of found texts, and that
his poems, particularly his mesostics, were frequently performed as lectures.
Retallack's favorite text, however, appears to be "Empty Words,"
a four-part poem whose words were derived by chance operations from Thoreau's
Journal, and which was inspired in part by Norman O. Brown's observation
that "syntax" was originally a military term ("arrangement
of the army"). So "Empty Words" consists of "Language
free of syntax: demilitarization of language."
Cage: "What can be done with the English language? Use it as material.
Material of five kinds: letters, syllables, words, phrases, sentences.
A text for a song can be a vocalise: just letters. Can be just syllables;
just a string of phrases; sentences. Or combinations of letters and syllables
(for example), letters and words, et cetera. There are 25 possible combinations"
(Empty Words, p. 11). In other words: lettristic play, in
which the text becomes both phonetically and visually a work or event
of complexity, a turbulence of alphabetic noise that we can read by playing
along with it, collaborators in an illicit freedom from the usual conditions
of semantic compliance. The surprise is that the words one then experience
are not empty at all but extremely rich in virtue of the complexity
of their arrangement, especially if one is also a careful reader of Thoreau.
Just so, there is a moral to Joan Retallack's story about complex realism,
it is that nothing is meaningless so long as we do not foreclose our capacities