Trans-formation: The Poetic Machines of Alexander Vvedensky

in memory of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko
Translated from the Russian by Lucas Stratton and Lyn Hejinian

“The dictionary of rhymes is a certain type of logic machine.”
– Fritz Mauthner

To begin, I’ll briefly outline six primary principles of Alexander Vvedensky’s poetic system. It is precisely these constructive principles that make Vvedensky’s work acutely contemporary, not only in the narrowly aesthetic sense but also in a broader theoretical, not to mention historical and literary, sense. The later emergence of an independent cultural movement in Leningrad, including the phenomenon of samizdat, would be unthinkable without the existential and poetic positions articulated by Vvedensky and his allies, known as the “chinari” (“titled ones”). The group emerged from efforts by Daniil Kharms and Vvedensky to unify the Leningrad avant-garde, forming OBERIU (Ob’edinenie real’nogo iskusstva, the Association for Real Art) in 1927.[1]

One more indispensable remark: so as to avoid some of the murkiness that often obscures accounts of Vvedensky’s methodology, we must (at least temporarily) set aside the categories (such as the nonsensical, absurd, irrational, alogical, etc.) that have tended to crystallize around the poetics of OBERIU. Instead, we will concentrate on formal—and formative—aspects of its members’ poetic technique.

  1. Heteromorphousness: Vvedensky’s verse is programmatically heterogeneous, or heteromorphous, which is to say that it is constructed by means of constant alternations and sequences of replacements, so that within the confines of a single poem, there’s a great diversity of structure-creating elements, such as lineation, type of verse, stanza structure, meter, catalexis, rhyme.
  2. Heteroglossia: the explosive dramatization and hybridization of forms and genres, the incorporation of “conceptual” personae, and the strong “specific gravity”—given the historical background of a homogeneous, primarily traditional and monological lyric—of impersonation and indirect speech.
  3. Desubjectification: the dispersal of the speaking subject into a multitude of “voices”; its decentralization, additionally accentuating the suspension, displacement, or misidentification of the “I” (or authorial agency).
  4. Poetic machines: use of recurrent folkloric models, with their “chirring rhythms” and “circus-booth rhyme schemes,” as a generative model; use of vulgar punning and other word-play, which undermines habitual and axiomatic verse-writing.
  5. The metapoetic function: criticism of the poetic mode of expression from within and by way of poetry itself—that which, elsewhere, paraphrasing Vvedensky (who was paraphrasing Kant), I propose we call the “critique of poetic reason.”[2]
  6. Trans-formation: Vvedensky’s poetic machines are configured in such a way that they accelerate progress vertiginously, forcing language to act deliriously and to approach its very limits (producing asyntactical, agrammatical, asemantic enunciations).

Separately or sometimes all at once, all of the elements above can be found in the works of other poets (for example, in the work of Alexander Blok, Velemir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Konstantin Vaginov), but only in Vvedensky’s case do these elements form a system in the proper sense. That is to say that these characteristics are interwoven, complementary, and function meta-poetically, as a critique.

Heterogeneity, heteromorphousness

The term heterogeneity, as applied to Vvedensky’s poetry, first appears in Iurii Orlitsky’s lecture “Alexander Vvedensky’s verse in the context of OBERIU’s verse poetics,”[3] and the second term appeared in an article that came out a year later, called just that: “Heteromorphous (Disorderly) Verse in Russian Poetry.”[4]

In this second article, the scholar bases his account of “heteromorphousness” on a large group of poems and excerpts from Khlebnikov’s work of 1920-1922: “We propose calling such disorderly verse heteromorphous, which means that as the text unfolds there is a constant fluctuation of structural patterns; rhyme ‘gets lost’ and then resurfaces, some lines have one discernible rhythmic structure and others another; and both rhyming and free verse occur. The number of feet varies, as does the number of rhythmic units, modalities of rhyme, and stanza form. All the while, similarly-structured lines are, as a rule, grouped into smaller units (“stanzoids) of two to five or more lines, which encourages the reader to anticipate one or another type of verse—an expectation which is systematically undermined.”

In Khlebnikov’s case, we can speak of heteromorphousness as a persistent strain that is especially apparent in his later work (there were around fifty works written in properly heteromorphous verse between 1920 and 1922). With respect to Vvedensky, heteromorphousness is characteristic of practically all of his poems, as is polyrhythmia, which is already markedly present in an early cycle called “Divertisement” (November-December, 1920). Four years later, in “10 Alexandervvedensky Verses,” the emphatically heterogeneous work included the incorporation of visual elements into the text, harkening back to the Futurists’ experimentation with typeface and the graphic design of the text. And by 1926, in a work titled “Minin and Pozharsky,” verse, prose, and drama are getting interwoven to create mixed-genre works.

“Four Descriptions,” written in the early 1930s, brings almost the full array of Vvendensky’s poetic modalities into rapidly changing interplay. It is ostensibly a conversation about death and dying, involving eight speakers named Zumir, Kumir, Chumir, Tumir, and the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Umir(ayuschiy) (umirayuschiy means “dying man” in Russian). Phrases like “I’ll interrupt you” and “Interrupt me” provide a leit motif throughout. For the longer speeches, Vvedensky draws from a wide array of verse cultures, from classical poetry to folklore, doggerel, and nursery rhymes, to create passages without predictability. Hopefully this is apparent even in English translation:

Interrupt me.
So I one day
took up this occupation.
I understood. How pointless is life,
upon this wide dark earth
there is no place for me.
So I grew lucid,
exclaimed, Farewell forever deputy’s daughter
and mineral water,
there will never be me again.
I was sitting in my cabinet
woebegone,
the trigger was glinting
of my handgun.
I put the gun between my lips
like a bottle of red
and in a second I felt
the bullet knock on the back of my head.
My skull split
Into five and six parts.
It happened in the year 1911.[5]

The heteromorphous character of the verse sharply increases its unpredictability and, as a whole, is meant to defamiliarize perception through disruptions to the writing process itself. The refusal of prepared, “lullaby” metrical-rhythmic patterns produces an unhinged, heterogeneous composition that is potentially capable of admitting any material and thus dynamizing the relationship between text and reader; such a composition subverts the boundaries not only of different types of versification but also those defining disparate modalities of speech and literary genres.

In Vvedensky’s poetry the heteromorphous works not simply as to unsettle metrical-rhythmic patterns. One should conceive of it more broadly as a structural principle with a tendency to totalization, capable of subordinating all other constructive elements and, to a certain extent, approximating what Mikhail Bakhtin termed heteroglossia (polyphony, multi-voicedness).

And thus we arrive at the second of the elements I see as central to Vvedensky’s heteromorphous verse. As we know, Bakhtin examined multi-voicedness and polyphony only in the novel and in prose, virtually denying poetry this “privilege” and disqualifying poetry as “naïve monologism” (and this in spite of a close relationship with Konstantin Vaginov and, perhaps, a familiarity with the work of other OBERIU writers). However, this does not prevent us from extending the principle of heteroglossia into poetry, especially since Bakhtin himself, writing under the name of his friend V.N. Voloshinov, encourages us to do so. In the essay originally titled “The Word in Life and the Word in Poetry” and first published in the journal Zvezda (1926), the theorist writes: “A form especially sensitive to the position of the listener is the lyric. The underlying condition for lyric intonation is the absolute certainty of the listener’s sympathy. Should any doubt on this score creep into the lyric situation the style of the lyric changes drastically. This conflict with the listener finds its most egregious expression in so-called lyric irony (Heine, and in modern poetry, Laforgue, Annenskij, and others). The form of irony in general is conditioned by a social conflict: It is the encounter in one voice of two incrnate value judgments and their interference with one another.”[6]

The clash of different judgments (points of view) is the very phenomenon I deem the dramatization of the poetic utterance, that by which the traditional lyric mode is shattered. In at least half of the extant works by Vvedensky, heteroglossia provides the poetry with multiple voicing sites. Discordance reigns and the lyric “I” moves in multiple directions, taking rhetorical masks (third persons), proliferating identities, and taking up residence in conceptual characters.[7] Thus, for example, we find in “God May Be Around” more than a dozen characters, including a “Flying Maiden,” a “Tsar,” a “Crowd,” someone named “Ef,” some “Cows,” someone called “Fomine,” and someone called “Stirkobreyev.”[8] Or again, in the relatively short “Twenty-four Hours” (in Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation, it takes up only four and a half pages of An Invitation for Me to Think), an “Answer,” a “Question,” a “Swallow’s Non-existent Answer,” a “Swallow’s Answer,” and a “Questioner” carry the poetry forward via rapid-fire interchanges.[9] And in “The Witness and the Rat,” we encounter a succession of speakers called “He,” a character (or characters) identified as “Lisa or Margarita” and later as “Lisa or Margarita, now become Katya,” “Grudetsky the Steward,” “ Stepanov-Peskov,” “Kostomarov, Historian”, “Griboedov, Writer”, and “Fontanov.” In these and similar works, Vvedensky carries dramatization to an extreme.

We should also note that in many of Vvedensky’s works, hybridization is concurrent with dramatization: lyric forms interlace with dramatic and prose forms, while heteroglossia predominates as an overall interruptive force, facilitating the collision of various characters’ speeches but also producing “the finest details” in the “microscopic structure” of the separate utterances.

I see all and speak
And say nothing by speaking.
I’ve figured it all out. I understand
I extract thought from my body
lay this serpent on the table
Mine and its own contemporary.
I dash empty across Poland
Yelling sometimes God, sometimes more
I was generally much like a madman,
behind me only paradise could be seen
and each dove, each lion that went by
screamed go on and die
Where will you die?
And what will you devour nearby?[10]

Here the internal discordance reaches a breaking point, with the near disintegration of the speaking subject and his/her total disorientation. Truly, in Vvedensky’s case it is impossible to speak of either a “lyric hero” or a lyric “I.” His poetry is the poetry of radical desubjectification and disorientation, poetry “of the mind’s night”:

It gets dark, it gets light, not a dream to be had,
where’s the sea, where’s the shade, the notebook, the word,
one hundred and fifty-five is nearly at hand.
(“The Gray Notebook”)[11]

soul come here I
come to me I.
it’s a burden without you,
like the self without itself.
tell me I
what time is it?
tell me I
which of us is I?
(“Fact, Theory, and God”)

A detailed analysis of the (meta)linguistic effects of desubjectification would require a another long essay, but two points are worth pointing out here. First, desubjectification is always accompanied by—or initiated by—doubt as to “our logic and our language,” both of which “slip across the surface” and do not correspond to the (profound) experience of lived time, space, and objects. In “The Gray Notebook,” Vvedensky writes:

“Before every word I put the question: what does it mean, and over every word I place the mark of its tense. Where is my dear soul Masha, and where are her wretched hands, and her eyes and other parts? Where does she wander murdered or Alive? I haven’t the strength. Who? I. What” Haven’t the strength. I’m alone as a candle. I’m seven minutes past four alone, 8 minutes past four as, nine minutes past four a candle, 10 minutes past four. A moment is gone as if it had never been. And four o’clock also. The window, also. But everything remains the same.”[12]

Paradoxically, it is precisely through his radical disbelief that the poet finds sufficient ways to verbalize his experience, to represent it in a textual form that can shatter the unconscious axioms and expectations of cultural consciousness—and to return it to “savage misunderstanding.”

The second point concerns tonality, or what Heidegger would call Stimmung. If in Vvedensky’s earlier works desubjectification stands under the sign of emancipation from conventional poetic forms and a reckless “disorganization of the senses,” while in his mature works desubjectification is directed at the destruction of normative protocols of communication, the destabilization of classic subjecthood and the readerly stance, then in his latter works the tonality changes, giving way to the dominant emotions of despair and immobilization. This marks an end to the poetic experiment and, moreover, casts a shadow of “universal revulsion” over the poetic tradition itself:

“Here he remembered, he recalled the entire instant of his death. All these sixes and fives. All that—running around. That rhyme. Which had been his faithful friend companion, as Pushkin said before him. Ah, Pushkin, Pushkin, the very Pushkin who had lived before him. Here the shadow of universal repugnance lay upon everything. Now the shadow of the universal lay upon everything. Here the shadows lay upon everything.” (“Where. When”)[13]

Let’s now turn to the principle of the “poetic machine,” the fourth in the list near the beginning of this essay. At the end of his unfinished excerpt “clearly, / tenderly / and brightly…” (1938-1939), we find a curious self-reflexive remark. According to his account, in response to questions asked by one of his “friends” about the poem he had just finished reading, “the poet” remarks: “I’m sorry if there is something here that could astonish. I myself am astonished, in a not-so-pleasant way, at the presence of national sentiment in my writings.” His contemporary, Yakov Druskin, sees the “end of this unfinished excerpt” as “autobiographic”: “friends” refers to Druskin himself, Leonid Lipavsky, and Daniil Kharms, while “the poet” is Vvedensky. Whatever Vvedensky may have felt about “the presence of national sentiment” in his work, its presence is incontestable. Moreover, starting with the poem “RURal and BLANKED. aNEGDOTE,” the “OBERIU-ter’s authority of absurdity” is based on certain structural features of folklore, and on the elements of glossolalia that are rooted in a folk poetry of “charms and spells.” This poem, like others dating from the 1920s, belongs to the period of Vvedensky’s involvement with the State Institute of Artistic Culture’s Department of Phonology and his short-lived rapprochement with the “Chairman of Global Trans-sense,” Alexander Tufanov.[14] Although he did not consider Vvedensky’s poems “trans-sense” in the strict sense of the term, Tufanov’s reaction to the poems Vvedensky sent to the Leningrad section of the All-Russian Union of Poets in 1924 is of interest. In part, Tufanov writes:

“In trans-sense there is a transition to new culture by way of self-destruction. It [trans-sense] should be organically linked to the elemental force of ta proto-language or of one’s native tongue. It should flow from the fundamental biogenetic law of philogenesis; it is impossible to skip over Pushkin and go straight to trans-sense. That is why I think that there is still no trans-sense in Vvedensky’s poems. <…> This is not trans-sense, not imaginism, not classicism, but rather a neutralization of the verbal layer, a carnival booth from the words of a seeker of “Lef-ish” adventures who has not accounted for the demands of an organic link to language and its past.”[15]

Let’s juxtapose that statement with the following excerpt from “RURal and BLANKED. aNEGDOTE,”:

DRIPPED THE FAT AND flowed and fleet
while his majesTY rasPED at fleas.
To the FLEA on his spine
as cranes fly
MI rrored swallow
shows its BEhind

Certainly this is not trans-sense as the Futurists understood it, but here Vvedensky nevertheless adheres to the “biogenetic law” of his native tongue, alert to its carnivalesque combinatorial force. Similar “carnival booth” tones inaugurate many of Vvedensky’s poems:

I regret that I’m not a beast / running along a blue path (“Rug Hydrangea”)
The sun shines forth in disorder, / flowers on the flowerbeds fly (“God May be Around”)
to make everything clear / live backwards (“The Meaning of the Sea”
the joyful man Franz / maintained protuberance (“The Joyful Man Franz”)
snow lies / earth flies / lights flip (“Snow Lies”)[16]

Just as frequently, folkloric modes—riddles, toasts, cries of traders and hucksters, rhythmic apostrophes, counting rhymes, tongue-twisters, etc.—come to the fore and take on various forms within the text, which allows us to speak of a constant or generative matrix in Vvdensky’s poetry. A high degree of parallelism sustains the generative force propelling the verse. As the linguist Roman Jakobson argues, the essence of the poetic craft consists of periodic returns (from the Latin versus– “turn,” “return” [17]) of phonemes and their sequences: morphological, lexical, syntactical, and phraseological units that end up in metrically and stanzaically analogous positions. As Jakobson notes:

Any form of parallelism is an apportionment of invariants and variants. The stricter the distribution of the former, the greater the discernibility and effectiveness of the variations. Pervasive parallelism inevitably activates all the levels of language: the distinctive feathers, inherent and prosodic, the morphologic and syntactic categories and forms, the lexical units and their semantic classes in both their convergences and divergences acquire an autonomous poetic value. This focusing upon phonological, grammatical, and semantic structures in their multiform interplay does not remain confined to the limits of parallel lines but expands throughout their distribution within the entire context.[18]

Versification mechanisms as they occur in folklore and various other “low” forms often so seem exaggerated, even bordering on (self-) parody. Popular puppet and peep shows can be seen as a transitional link between somewhat improvisational folk art and a style-free graphomania. It is the latter that serves as one of the models for the poetic machines of Alexander Vvedensky.[19]

Daniil Kharms generalizes from the insight of many of his predecessors, including Edgar Allen Poe, Baudelaire, Gerard Manley Hopkins, as well as the Dadaists (viz. Schwitters’ Mertz-machines or Duchamp’s assemblages) and Surrealists (viz. automatic writing and the “exquisite corpse” games), when he writes in his journal: “For now I know four types of verbal machines: poems, prayers, songs, and spells. These machines are built not by way of calculation or reasoning but in another way, the name of which is THE ALPHABET.”[20] And Kharms’s contemporary, Leonid Lipavsky, in his “Theory of Words,” extends the machine principle to the structure of language as such: “The laws of language are extremely simple: a symmetrical table of source elements, rotation and crystallization, the maintenance of a weight ratio, the triangle of conclusive meaning, the disintegration of meaning during rotation, the likelihood of the word. Such are all of the laws, and they are the same for all sorts and series.”[21] However fantastical such “law-making” might seem in the light of linguistic evidence, it fully “works” (with a correction to the terminology) when describing the poetic function, which “disassembles meaning,” as, for example, with rhymes, as a reflexive mechanism producing returns.

Jakobson virtually subsumes any structuralist basis for poetic techniques under a machinal definition: “Poetry sets off the structural elements of all the linguistic levels, from the network of distinctive features to the arrangement of the entire text. The relation between the signans and the signatum (or in Saussure’s translation of the traditional Stoic terms, signifiant and signifié) involves all of these levels and acquires a particular significance I verse, where the introverted nature of the poetic function reaches its apex. In Baudelairean terms, it is a complex and indivisible totality where everything becomes significatif, réciproque, converse, correspondant and where a perpetual interplay of sound and meaning establishes an analogy between the two facets, a relationship either paronomastic and anagrammatic, or figurative (occasionally onomatopoeic).”[22]

Vvedensky’s poetic techniques are built on the mobilization of recurring folkloric series (linkages of signifiers), with their “universal chirr of rhythm” and their “carnival-booth rhymes,”[23] which launch the machine of punning permutations—phonetic, syntactic, phraseological, grammatical, and semantic: “The reverse of the mirror / thunders. The haughty chair / takes a walk.” (“God May Be Around”).[24] As we recall from our initial discussion, dramatization, with its invisible—but implicit—scaffolding, is a fundamental facet of heteroglossia. A parodic-mysterial act, a dramaticus logico-philosophicus, unfolds on this scaffolding, which bears the masks of conceptual personages in clowns’ apparel: Wittgenstein is discussing the theory of wordplay with J.L. Austin, who is declaiming, in response, passages from Benjamin’s “About Language As Such and the Language of Man” to perform speech acts, the orchestra is trimming carcasses, Benveniste enters the menage on a motorcycle, screaming “Unthinkable!”, Jakobson goes tumbling out of a carriage with the manuscript of “A Theory of Words” in hand, a fountain of tears erupts from Heidegger’s eyes, Bakhtin and Buber together chant “while the flea tickled his majesty,” bears on bicycles are making salto mortales, and the Tsar Fomine descends on a trapeze from under a dome carrying his head (it was chopped off by an ax) which is reading the balance-programof paronomasic machines: Every machine, in the first place, is related to a continual flow of the material-corporeal lower stratum, from which it cuts slices. It functions like a machine for slicing ontological ham, removing portions from the associative flow: from the anus and from the flow of shit meted out by the anus, for instance; from the mouth and from the flow of milk but also the flow of air and sound; from the penis and from the flow of urine but also the flow of sperm. Each associative flow must be seen as an ideal thing, an endless flux, flowing from something not unlike the immense thigh of speech genres. The bodily lower stratum suggests the pure uninterruptedness that any poetry ideally possesses. [25]

And now we’ve gently made our way to the principle of the metapoetic function. Usually scholars see in Vvedensky’s work a critique of discursive thought, mechanisms of language, and so on, but they fail to specify just what type of language and discursive mode is in question: is it scientific, religious, philosophical, artistic, or the “language of everyday life”? Yet, Vvedensky questions not merely “concepts,” “conclusive generalizations,” continua, time and space as a priori intuitions of perceptual faculties—in other words, the study of nature, logic, mathematics, and so on—but also, and above all else, art. In particular, Vvedensky questions poetry, which—alas—pertains to subjective and produces only verbal, rather than real, miracles. In almost all of Vvedensky’s comments recorded in Lipavsky’s “Conversations,” we encounter his critique of poetry’s limited means for producing meaning, its problematic aesthetic conventions and norms, and their bankruptcy. Here is the most characteristic example of such: “[Inspiration] does not protect us from mistakes, as is normally thought; rather, it spares us only from particular mistakes, but the general mistake of the text cannot be glimpsed in inspiration’s grip, which is why inspiration allows the possibility of writing. Even a day later I see that I’ve written neither what I wanted nor how I wanted to write. Anyway, can one really write as one desires to write? Daniil Kharms once said that art should operate in such a way that it penetrates walls. But there is no such thing.”[26]

The end and/or death of poetry and art is overtly thematized in Vvedensky’s later works, as, for example, in “Elegy” (“Eradicated inspiration / now visits for almost no duration, ‘ orient yourself by death by death, / singer and poor horseman”[27]). But in Vvedensky’s earlyworks it is also easy to discover the motifs of mockery, vanity, impossibility, the devaluation of verbal art, alongside, of course, other “feelings.” Hence, “Excerpt,” dating from 1925, is now thought to be one of the very first examples of Vvedensky’s debunking of canonical belles-lettres:

It happened near Poltava
no not it but a medal
when we fought a Swedish woman
a bit to the right we to the left
shhh we see she’s escaped
and torn her blue skirt
I scream stop
a bit to the right we to the left
behind a pine tree near Poltava
Mazepa sits naked
says he would have been Fyodor
would have been happier
at this point my whole army
starts sobbing violently
screams out, starts speaking
there’s an unfortunate one
ever since there’s a pub there
(Vvedensky, “Excerpt”)

Riddled with a multitude of voices and with crushing self-irony, Vvedensky’s heteromorphous verse processes and deconstructs stereotyped modes of verse-making and poetic formulas and thereby entails an implicit critique of the poetic mode of utterance as such.

Finally, we come to the principle of trans-formation. Beyond the constant and already habitualized—to the point of monotony—drone of what is called the absurd, the collapse of communication, the discrediting of linguistic mechanisms, apophaticism and alogism, and so on, we hear the scrape of high-velocity poetic machines. They must be distinguished both from abstract schizoanalysis machines and Kharms’s verbal machines. Kharms believed, or wanted to believe, that the power with which words are endowed, given proper deployment, could move objects and go through walls (or break windows). Vvedensky had no such belief. He didn’t trust memory, didn’t believe in the imagination. His word machines are also worm machines—they consume the carrion of dead devices and techniques, and set a limit to the possibility for bodily transformations of conceptual personae; only after this is it possible for an authentic metamorphosis to begin. For the “star of meaninglessness” to ascend, for the “dead citizen” to dash in to announce that time will be no more, it is necessary that the materials of poetry contract to the point where the world becomes a corpse. And you yourself have to become a corpse.

The dining table lets survey
the world cadaver’s crème brülée.
It stinks of rot around.
Some dummies practice
multiplication,
others drink poison.
The dry sun, light, and comets
silently sat down on objects.
Oaks lowered their crowns.
The air smelled abject.
Motion, heat, and density
have lost their intensity.
Hope flaps its shivering wing
alone above the human world.
A sparrow by a pistol hurled
barely holds the tips of ideas in its beak.
Everybody’s gone insane.
(“God May Be Around”)[28]

Not the end of time but the time of the end—a monstrous reduction of the history of the creation of the world and the entirety of human history to mere “tips of ideas,” to the infinitely divisible rhythm of poetry (which also requires time to reach its end), and to the delayed eschatological moment—a moment that is as if arrested and reversed by a release of rhythm. “Time is endless. You’ll say: it’s endless since it’s always been there and it has no end. No, it’s endless between two moments.”[29]

Thus speaks the dead man, who says: “The world is heated by God, and this God is from a machine. He also finds it unbearable. But something makes language stutter, rave—that is, strive to the limit of its own elements, categories, and forms—to that which is on this side of language and beyond. There is only one salvation: a trans-formation, when the meanings of words are taken up in the process of disintegration with a small margin of error. Machine, you are self-denial. The more rapidly language errs under the influence of a reflexive mechanism, the closer it is to the ‘stopping of the world,’ that is ‘infinite between two moments.’ The notorious ‘poverty of language’ is nothing but the limitations of phonetic, phraseological, and syntactical constants, something like table-turning or overload, sweeping away all poetic nutrients, all the components of normative constructions. An analogous overload is parataxis, paraphrase—which manifests the presence of the other’s speech in any utterance.”[30]

In concluding, I should briefly note some of the lines of continuity between Vvedensky’s poetic principles and more recent Russian poetry. During the late Soviet era, heteromorphous verse was picked up and developed formally by such representatives of unofficial Leningrad poetry as Elena Shvarts, Vasily Filippov, and then Elena Fanailova. The folkloric, “trans-sensical” substratum emerges as one of the most important elements in the work of Aleksey Khvostenko and Henri Volokhonsky. Dramatization and conceptual personages, in line with the carnival-populist impulse, became a distinctive feature of Khelenukty poetry, as well as that of several other authors from the “Malaya Sadovaya” (Little Garden) circle, and also (in a more reservedly ironic, intellectual register) of Moscow Conceptualism. For example, Vvedensky’s interest in subversive combinatorial possibilities is continued in the works of Dmitry Prigov; Prigov’s poetic machines construct a logic for utterances of different types, from the artistic to the ideological, from the religious to the scientific, while still keeping the critical function in the foreground. Desubjectification and/or the problematization of the subject’s position is most vividly expressed in Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s work and in that of those young poets who emerged in the second half of the 2000s (Nikita Safonov, Denis Larionov, Evgeniya Suslova), and who have taken Dragomoshchenko’s writerly experience into account. As a form of critique, “desubjectification,” as a method for the self-denial of poetic thought or of its self-withdrawal, emerges as the most promising and the most worthy area for further scholarly investigation and aesthetic practice.

 

NOTES

[1]Translator’s note: Along with Alexander Vvedensky and Daniil Kharms, prominent members of “OBERIU” included Yakov Druskin, Nikolay Zabolotsky, Nikolai Oleinikov, Yury Vladimirov, Leonid Lipavsky, Igor Bakhterev, Daniil Kharms, and Konstantin Vaginov

[2] Alexander Skidan, “Kritika poeticheskogo razuma” (“A Critique of Poetic Reason”), Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011. No. 108.

[3] A. Kobrinsky, ed., Alexander Vvedensky i russkii avangard: Materialy mezhdunarodnoy nauchnoy konferentsii (Alexander Vvedensky and the Russian Avant-Garde: International Scholarly Conference Proceedings, Saint Petersburg, 2004.

[4] Iurii B. Orlitsky, “Geteromorfny (neuporyadochenny) stikh v russkoi poezii” (“Heteromorphous (Disorderly) Verse in Russian Poetry”), Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2005. No. 73. http://magazines.russ.ru/nlo/2005/73/or19.html.

[5] Alexander Vvedensky, An Invitation for Me to Think; selected and translated by Eugene Ostashevsky, with additional translations by Matvei Yankelevich (New York: New York Review Books, 2013); 94-95.

[6] Pam Morris, ed., The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bahktin, Medvedev, Voloshinov (London: Edward Arnold, 1994), 172. Again, writing from a slightly different perspective in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin speaks of polyphony as a prerequisite to the vitality of human thought: “The idea lives not in one person’s isolated individual consciousness—if it remains there only, it degenerates and dies. The idea begins to live, that is, to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression, to give birth to new ideas, only when it enters into genuine dialogic relationships with other ideas, with the ideas of others. Human thought becomes genuine thought, that is, an idea, only under conditions of living contact with another and alien thought, a thought embodied in someone else’s voice, that is, in someone else’s consciousness expressed in discourse. At that point of contact between voice-consciousnesses the idea is born and lives” (The Bakhtin Reader, 98; emphases in original).

[7] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari introduce the idea of philosophic conceptual personaeas the name of thought formation(Plato’s Socrates, Nietzsche’s Dionysus, Nikolay Kuzansky’s Idiot): “In philosophical enunciations we do not do something by saying it but produce movement by thinking it, through the intermediary of a conceptual persona. Conceptual personae are also the true agents of enunciation. ‘Who is “I”?’ It is always a third person.” (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?; Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 64-5.

[8] Alexander Vvedensky, An Invitation for Me to Think, 25-65.

[9] Alexander Vvedensky, An Invitation for Me to Think,116-120.

[10] From Alexander Vvedensky, “Fact, Theory, and God”; translation directly from essay by Lucas Stratton and slightly revised by Eugene Ostashevsky.

[11] An Invitation for Me to Think, 71.

[12] An Invitation for Me to Think, 70-71.

[13] Eugene Ostashevsky, OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism; translated by Ostashevsky and Thomas Epstein (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 59.

[14] Translator’s note: What we are here translating as “trans-sense” is sometimes rendered in English as zaum, a transliteration of the Russian neologism that combines the preposition za (beyond) with ym (mind, reason). The term was coined in 1913 by the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh.).

[15] Alexander Tufanov, “O stikhakh A. Vvedenskogo, in Vvedenskii, A: Vsye(“About A. Vvedensky’s Verse”)in Alexander Vvedensky, Complete Works (Moscow: Publishing House O.G.I., 2010), 732. (Translator’s note: Lef, or Left Front for Art, was founded in 1922 by former Futurist and Russian Formalists; Vladimir Mayakovsky was a founding member.)

[16] All from An Invitation for Me to Think.

[17] Also compare with verto, meaning to turn, to turn over (with a plow), to loosen up. Is this not the origin of Mandel’shtam’s assertion: “Poetry is a plow, churning up time in such a way that the deepest layers of time, its humus come to the top?”

[18] Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1987), 173.

[19] For his part, Yakov Druskin spoke of “mysteria-acts,” of “an abstract theatre created by Vvedensky 20-30 years prior to that of Ionesco and Becket”; see Iakov Druskin, Stadii pominaniya (Stages of Understanding) // “…Sborishche druzei, ostavlennikh sud’boyu”: “Chinari” v tekstakh, dokumentakh i issledovannyakh: V 2 t. M., 1998.T. 1., 644.

[20]Daniil Kharms, Zapisnye Knizhki (Notebooks; Journal), vol 2 (Saint Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 2002), 174.

[21] Leonid Lipavskii, “Teoriya slov” (“Theory of Words”), Issledovanie uzhasa (Studies in Terror) (Moscow: Ad marginem, 2005), 255-256. Lipavsky’s emphasis.

[22] Roman Jakobson, “A Postscript to the Discussion on Grammar of Poetry,” in Diacritics 10, No 1 (Spring 1980), 23.It is curious that in this “Postscript” the Russian linguist cites—without citation—Baudelaire’s “Poem of Hashish” as a confirmation of his own strictly scientific formulations. Notably, the famous utterance “Grammar, the driest grammar, becomes a bewitching incantation,” taken from this poem describing a drug-induced state of consciousness, is similar to ideas expressed in Vvedensky’s “The Gray Notebook.”

[23]“Circus-booth rhymes are provided, however, by language’s word-bank, with its cheap puns and, at times, the universal chirr of rhythms of old-timey opera bouffe texts—all of this is intimated through   the nature of language itself, and this leads to the thought that linguistic play is a means to revealing and harnessing a metaphysics that is lurking the depths of language.” (A Nikolev, Predislovie k poeme “Bespredmetnaya Iunost” (Foreword to the poem “Pointless Youth”), in G. Morev and V. Somsikov, eds., Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, Vienna, 1993. Sbd. 35, 223.

[24] An Invitation for Me to Think, 62.

[25]The reader may correctly guess that this passage borrows parodically from Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “desiring-machines.” For the original passage, see: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia; trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1977), 36.

[26]Leonid Lipavsky, “Conversations,” in Alexander Vvedensky, Vsye (Complete Works), 607.

[27] An Invitation for Me to Think, 126.

[28] An Invitation for Me to Think, 64-65.

[29] Yakov Druskin, “Prisnaki vechnosti” (“Evidence of Eternity”), in Sborishche druzei, ostavlennikh sud’boyu: “Chinari” v tekstakh, douymentakh i issledovaniyakh (A Group of Friends Abandoned by Fate: The “Chinari” in Texts, Documents, and Papers), Vol. 1, 822.

[30] For “overload” and the departure of language from its own confines, see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Linguistic Postulates,” in One Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia; trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 164-175.

necessity, immensity, and crisis (many edges/seeing things)

There’s a more than critical criticism that’s like seeing things—a gift of having been given to love things and how things look and how and what things see. It’s not that you don’t see crisis—cell blocks made out of the general meadow, and all the luxurious destitution and ge(n)ocidal meanness, the theft of beauty and water, the policing of everyday people and their everyday chances. It’s just that all this always seems so small and contingent against the inescapable backdrop of constant escape—which is the other crisis, that is before the first crisis, calling it into being and question. The ones who stay in that running away study and celebrate its violently ludic authenticity, the historicity that sends us into the old-new division and collection of words and sets, passing on and through, as incessant staging and preparation. This necessity and immensity of the alternative surrounds and aerates the contained, contingent fixity of the standard.

The alternative, and the ones who stand (in) for it, can only be defended in what Mario Pedrosá calls its “experimental exercise,” which happens everyday, and in the recognition of its exercise, which is what I think Marx refers to when he speaks, in “Communism and Private Property,” of the everyday engagement in criticism that is an essential part of a communist way of life, and which sometimes he more than critically enacts when he engages in critique, in the elaboration of a general theory of crisis, and in the urgent address of specific instances of crisis. Questions concerning the theory and actuality of crisis are no less urgent now because crisis is always with us. Seeing things doesn’t hide the crisis that critique discloses; rather, it locates it more precisely, within a general tendency for upheaval that it constitutes. Seeing things, the alternative seeing of things, the seen and seeing alternative, which a certain deployment of crisis is meant to police, is the crisis of genuine disclosure and generative disruption.

The crisis of deprivation on a global scale is a function of policing that responds to a global ecologic of generation that regulative power brutally (mis)understands as a crisis of law. This is to say that crisis is not only a function of policing but that it has a policing function; it is also to say that crisis is ongoing, generative resistance to the regulation, the policing, that it generates. This poor description of the interplay of policing and crisis is trying reverently to disclose a reversal that already animates Policing the Crisis, the classic attendance of Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts to the range and force of the generative social and aesthetic upheaval of the alternative in England since World War II. Hall and his fellows analyze the ideological manufacture of crisis as a mode of interpretive regulation. The racialization of already extant criminal activity allows its epidermalized “novelty” to be interpreted as crisis. But the criminalization of that activity, in its relation to the normalization of modes of propriation whose brutality and scale dwarf any and every instance of “mugging,” is the real problem because, in the end, it was never about this or that instance or collection of instances of law breaking; it was, rather, about the social self-defense of jurisgenerative capacity of which mugging can be said to be a particular manifestation, noteworthy not because of its brutality or venality or degeneracy but only because its enactment of self-defense through (re)propriative acts are susceptible to a condition in which they reinforce the brutal axioms of ownership and exception.

Criticism, the capacity to see things in their branching and unfolding and generative differentiation, attends to generation while critique, as Marx deploys it, attends to the regulation and policing of generation and while degenerate critique, which seems to be deployed today almost everywhere in the normal human sciences, is driven by its own implicit claims of national identity or political subjectivity that have themselves been made subject to a force, and been understood by way of a logic, of degeneration implying a mystery of loss and of what was lost. Here’s where the neoliberal lament regarding “the crisis of democracy” (which was, according to Samuel Huntington and his fellows, a function of there being too much democracy) can be understood as the animating trace of certain folks, claiming to be on the left, whose lament of the current loss of “our democracy” is driven by nostalgic fantasies of a democracy that supposedly was held within the structure of, rather than resistance to, American exclusion. It’s not coincidence that this convenient repression of American exclusion is usually accompanied by an assertion of American exception which either takes the form of an invocation of “our” best intentions or, more pragmatically, as the assertion of a right to do just about anything in the name of national defense, whose complete detachment from imperial aggression is sanctioned by the serial invocation of crisis.

When people respond to the suppression of the alternative—and Hall and his fellows brilliantly illuminate how state interpretation of the alternative as crisis is a fundamental element of that suppression—the word riot is deployed in order to augment that suppression; but when suppression of the alternative is more (im)properly understood as a response to the alternative it also becomes possible to understand that with regard to the insistent previousness of the alternative it is more accurate to say, over Sly Stone’s growl or Joe Strummer’s sneer, that there is, and already has been, a riot going on. This is about the anoriginary force of tumultuous derangement, a generative sociopoesis given in and as everyday sensuality. To rise to the defense of this sacred, ordinary, generative violence—to protect it from the ongoing murder—is often to risk a kind of appropriation of the very propriative force one seeks to combat with an otherwise animating fugitivity. Such uprising can take the form of burnin’ and lootin’ but, even more easily, such appropriation can take the form of a critical account of the justificatory causes of burnin’ and lootin’. Meanwhile, what always remains or, more precisely, what must be understood as the irreducible remainder that animates such physical acts as well as such critical accounts, are everyday and everynight things. It’s not about the looting of loot or the assault of persons who take shape as shops and wares, or about the insurgents’ loss of or exclusion from citizenship or belonging that supposedly makes the former inevitable; it is, rather, all about insurgence as the performative declaration of what we are and what we have and what we give. Put another way, the seemingly infinite production of crisis finds its limit in the infinite rehearsal of generative capacity, in the open field of a generative grammar, in the fecundity of a range of generative principles, all of which reveal the sclerotic constraints that are fostered by an empiricist attitude whose structuring force in the determination of Anglo-American intellectual identity can be traced back to a certain valorization of the grasp, and the philosophical nomination of the possessive individual to the office of manager of the enclosure, by way of the bloody fingerprints of a transcendental subject who is unable or unwilling to see things but who can neither let things go nor pass things on.

The riot that’s goin’ on is a party for self-defense. The question concerning its causes, its sources, shouldn’t be left to liberal or neoliberal pundits and prime ministers, even when their more or less racist and ageist elitism leads them to say, with a kind of ignorant and imprecise accuracy, that the causes are cultural. What they don’t mean is that culture is the imprecise word we give to regenerative resources of insurgent social life. There’s another way of living that exhausts imposed arrangements. It’s where and how people fight. When seemingly random and unorganized acts of self-defense erupt against the violence of the state and capital, the only important question is how to maintain their connection to the social field they are meant to defend. This is a question concerning the corrosive, reconstructive force of certain practices that Michael Herzfeld thinks of in terms of “cultural intimacy—the recognition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with their assurance of common sociality, the familiarity with the bases of power that may at one moment assure the disenfranchised a degree of creative irreverence and at the next moment reinforce the effectiveness of intimidation.” But what if we begin to consider, against the grain and over the edge of whatever combination of the critique of authenticity and the appeal to upright, paralytic sovereign recitations of the citizen consumer, that the social poetics Herzfeld is after is an undercommon intellectual project that begins to emerge precisely when the distinction between insiders and outsiders breaks down, when a certain kind of communal claim is made in a certain kind of walking down certain city streets, and when that claim is given in and as an active disruption of the nation-state, in and as a kind of masque in which the very habits of the damned are taken on and, thereby, altered in their free, constant and already given alteration. Meanwhile, we confront the emergence of new black acts—of the kind E. P. Thompson describes in Whigs and Hunters—now outlawing autonomous cybersocial organization for self-defense emerge under the self-regulating cover of the ones who internalize the embarrassment they refuse, the generativity non-citizens claim.

The notion that crisis lies in the ever more brutal interdiction of our capacity to represent or be represented by the normal is as seductive, in its way, as the notion that such interdiction is the necessary response to our incapacity for such representation. Their joint power is held in the fact that whether abnormality is a function of external imposition or of internal malady it can only be understood as pathological. Such power is put in its accidental place, however, by the ones who see, who imaginatively misunderstand, the crisis as our constant disruption of the normal, whose honor is given in and protected by its representations, with the ante-representational generativity that it spurns and craves. This is the crisis that is always with us; this is the crisis that must be policed not just by the lethal physical brutality of the state and capital but also by the equally deadly production of a discourse that serially asserts that the crisis that has befallen us must overwhelm the crisis that we are; that crisis follows rather than prompts our incorporative exclusion.

There’s a connection between poetry and violence that Amiri Baraka, among others, began to explore by way of these terms and which now needs to be re-explored in the full awareness that Baraka’s movement extended, rather than disavowed, that antinomian opening of the field that can be traced back through Charles Olson and Sun Ra, Emily Dickinson and Harriet Jacobs, Anne Hutchinson and Tituba, and beyond. The poetics of the open field, especially when performed in the narrow cell, was always tied to the sociopoetics of riot, of generative differentiation as a kind of self-care, of expropriative disruption as a kind of self-defense, of seeing things as a performed social theory of mind. Baraka took it out, and sometimes tried to take it home, which drove it through him and even further out, in the name of an enformant poetics, spreading the news and the new in the giving and taking of form, as lemons, and people, piled on steps, disarrayed inappropriately against every propriative and counter-propriative intention that claims to have put them there. We still enact, because we desire and cannot live without, the immense poetry of war, by which Wallace Stevens meant and didn’t mean a poetics of social pregnancy, the international, anti-national embarrassment of seeing things and making things. The poetics of the alternative is funereal and venereal, surviving in denotative self-defense and the righteous distortions it enacts in rough advent. There’s a This is England poetics, a Luv ‘n Haight poetics, miving without moving in and against the brutal smallness of imposed needs and nationalized histories with the kind of out lyricism that only comes from being constrained to be somewhere else, that will have already come from the other side to keep on going, that had already come with those of us who are the other things we see.

8.19.11