|Something's been nagging at me about that panel of talks on Leslie Scalapino at the Poetry Project, to which I alluded, in passing, a few entries back. I won't attempt to reconstruct the overall argument of Brenda Iijima's talk, but at some point she appealled to some recent psychological research suggesting that the brain activity of someone observing a motor action is very similar to that of someone performing such an action. I don't want to put words into Iijima's mouth by saying that this was supposed to show that the distinction between one's own agency and another's is spurious, but that seemed to be the direction things were headed. I don't have a view on whether that's true, or shown by the research, and I'm not sure I even understood exactly how it's reflected in Scalapino's work; my worry is more general. I have serious doubts about the strategy of vindicating a poetics via the claim that it reflects or embodies a materially correct account of some aspect of cognition (or perception, or what have you). For one thing, since "our best science," as they say, is constantly being revised, what happens if the psychologists are wrong on the relevant point, or its interpretation? Would that vitiate the poetry as well? |
I'd wager that hardly anyone for whom poetry counts as a mode of inquiry would care for that conclusion. It doesn't seem that we're all that far from those maddeningly ahistorical/acultural New Formalist claims that, e.g., we're hardwired to respond somatically to iambics -- which claims are then used as a stick to beat alternative, "unnatural" prosodies. I'm caricaturing (not much, though -- what's Mike Snider been up to?), but you get the point. It seems far more fruitful, especially as far as avowedly experimentalist (and maybe even activist) poetries are concerned, to suppose that these might be valued as modeling modes of cognition (or, in a very broad sense, "representation") that might be useful or otherwise salutary in our efforts to interpret and affect our experience/"the world" -- whether or not these modes also match up with "how the brain works." Taking this line, I freely admit, probably commits you to believing that the cultural sphere has some degree of autonomy from, say, the neurobiological one. But if there's a whiff of idealism to this view (and that's a big "if"), I think on balance I'll take the trade, as against the instrumentalism of the apparent alternative.
[To avoid confusion: I admire Brenda Iijima's writing -- I'm mainly familiar with the chapbook In A Glass Box. And Leslie Scalapino's: I've tended to filter my understanding of her project through a comment I once heard her make, to the effect that she wanted her work to be "oppositional all the way down," which I take to mean: at the levels (at least) of genre, rhetoric, syntax, and signification. Now, as I understand language, this goal may actually be impossible to achieve -- which wouldn't make it any less fruitful, as an asymptote or horizon.]