Language in the reality making operation #3


Quick responses to your last post:

I take your point that “aesthetics” is a discipline of philosophy & that we need a different term for the working strategies of any given poet in composing a particular project. Perhaps the problem lies w/ the s; there’s a discipline of “poetics” too, after all. My inclination would be to call the working strategies a “poetic” & add the s for critical discussion. Depending on how broadly you define poesis, you could say that Gris had a poetic too, or Schoenberg did, or several, tho’ I’d prefer to call any of these an “aesthetic.”

I love the precision of your account of what “catches” you & why, & of its limits: idiosyncratic dimensions to any artwork that make, for that artist, many external prescriptions moot. I also find your articulation of what resistance & play mean to you precise & helpful.

I didn’t call conceptual writing “front-line,” but what I did call it, “surely the century’s most challenging of genres / factions,” wasn’t much better. That damned “surely”! rather than, eg, “to my mind.” I do count among my idiosyncracies Olson’s idea that a work needn’t “imitate” the real but should be “equal” to it, or in a wording I prefer, “up” to it. Something adequate, that doesn’t—to me—seem a fudging. The last work I published, the 2-volume Syzem (2014, 2019), was a take on Blake’s penultimate epic, Milton; & there, while I tried to deploy a formally inventive range up to the task of confronting Blake’s imagination, I fudged, I think, thro’ sheer prejudice, its passionate fusion w/ his peculiar religiosity. In the current project, h c e (see Post #1), the c of the middle section also stands, in my mind, for “Catholic,” the fortuitous result (most immediately) of a long-planned five weeks in Venice & Florence; & the section is a conscious effort to explore relations between Catholic belief & imaginative & behavioral responses in a variety of painters, poets, saints, & martyrs. (I should add that I was brought up in Northern Ireland, a protestant.) But anyway. There’s always spillover.

The impulse in conceptual writing I find so “challenging,” if nowhere close to accounting for all of it, begins w/ what I condensed in my last post as an apparent insistence that “poetic pleasure, including (especially) that generated by a sense of critique or resistance, [is a] culpably delusional sop to the urban complacency its exponents” are out to expunge from themselves as well as their readers. The shock to many a poet of the non-poetic materials imported to shape the work reminds me of, oh, that of the broadly nationalist Abbey Theatre audience on opening night of the wickedly demythologizing (then) Playboy of the Western World (1907), except this time in myself. More disquieting, I find, w/ respect to conpo is the consequent seeming pressure toward martyrdom (see Post #2), exemplary self-erasure in service of removing the blinkers by in this case, as Vanessa Place’s 2010 manifesto “A Poetics of Radical Evil” takes it from Kant, “corrupt[ing] the ground of all maxims.” The only absolute is there are no absolutes?—not useful philosophically or politically but it did need an answering poetic, because otherwise it whispered to me, “Fudge…” (I’m climbing the wall to insist on the idiosyncracies of all this.)

The poet lives w/ ears & eyes open in a broad & various socio-political field, traversed by a range of more or less inchoate epistemic formulations, some of them brutal; certain pressures wouldn’t get into poets were they not already abroad. To expect poetry to have any direct influence on non-poets’ behavior is, I think, indeed delusional—altho’ as you say, no one, including non-poets, will ever track down every last thing that “catches” them. The poetic at least intentionally operative in h c e found a chiming in notes I made on certain sessions by the South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, known initially as Dollar Brand: “the music hovers constantly on the brink of but never entirely crosses over into ‘whatever’ might wait ‘there’—knowing how to evoke tensions more or less mild, he stays at less; & it gradually becomes shared or at least beautiful because never close to everything …” 

“Rage and outrage” are not, as a rule, my thing; but I gather you feel no more desire than I do to tell likely readers things they almost certainly already know. I think no poet I respect, Vanessa Place included, does. My own articulation is: Let me flickeringly evoke such things, such implicit tensions, & hold back to focus on poetic pleasures (I hope; Drew Milne once remarked on Charles Bernstein’s Close Listening podcast that it’s a bit much to ask people to read your work w/out its affording them any pleasure, which I find charmingly disingenuous) w/out smugness in a context of, let us say, catastrophic hover. (I note that this leaves much open to future probings, not least those questions of deceptive intelligibility you raise in your last para.)


The ‘challenging genres’ of writing—conceptual poetry, continental philosophy, speculative (genre-defying) fiction—maybe they arrive together for contingent reasons; what is it in the ‘post-war’ world that all must confront? Can we answer this question without revisiting modernism/postmodernism antagonisms? Maybe not. Is it merely that a three-generation chronicle to a large extent embraces ‘living memory’? So, for our interrogator the questions (all through our piece) only become critical in relation to the last 75 years give or take, which for us means the (war-ridden) post-war period. Prior to this, only privileged and sanctioned voices were heard; few others had a chance to add to the archive. This is not so now that all voices can sound, simultaneously, with or without orchestration, and the archive has exploded into a dark-matter-laden universe.

Let that thought be the next departure point in exploring poesis, Poetics, the poetic, and our formulated and reformulated question.

What happens when the reality one is trying to negotiate pushes the language to the limits of intelligibility?

In face of all this, how can we think to make aesthetic form at all?

One has a poetic: feel something, think something … think something, feel something … write, iterate indefinitely: this is how poesis works … do you think? Seems neat enough, but we know it isn’t that simple. Most obviously, the ‘feel something’ may have nothing to do with an aesthetic, the ‘think something’ nothing to do with a rational internal voice. I’ll approach this by riffing on a routine that William S. Burroughs played out a few times—most eloquently in The Electronic Revolution (1970):

the word was flesh … human flesh … In the beginning of WRITING … a virus that made the spoken word possible … [and] has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host [which] is now breaking down ….[1]

Dunbar linked grooming behaviour to language development,[2] and in The Human Story began his account with the artist inscribing the cave wall to make “an enduring record of his travels.” Burroughs’s proposition looks plausible: inscription makes storytelling speech possible, even necessary.


“Sorry I’m late; the traffic was choc-a-bloc down Regent Street so I tried cutting across to …” Give us even a whiff of a narrative & a “willing suspension of disbelief” (SoD), in Coleridge’s essential formulation, kicks in. I take “willing” to mean “unresisting,” but in my own experience, there’s even less volition than that, & I’d add the importance of genre: that the murder suspect is revealed to have green blood would blow up your regular police procedural but fit any number of sci-fi scenarios; worlds are imaginable in which “tried cutting across to 5th Avenue” would make sense. But operative SoD seems to have its own sense of boundaries, & if this is transgressed, our response is unforgiving; isn’t yours? Pound straddles this boundary when he throws in a reference to Wordsworth in Homage to Sextus Propertius (1937) & never comes back to it; we may at once appreciate the formal daring & be unable to shake a degree of resistance on grounds of propriety. Which tells us something more about SoD: that we can simultaneously be immersed in the literary world & appreciative, or not, of the artifice. Serious transgression of the spell, then, is a very delicate matter. There are pointers for poetry here.


At the birth of inscription the Word-virus infects internal channels of neuronal reflexivity (unlike WSB’s alter ego I am not offering a microbiological account here; it’s still more than metaphorical though). W-v causes dynamic response patterns in the central nervous system to crystalize and to impress effects that serve the W-v first and foremost, so, sustain the host only insofar as it serves the virus.


A touch wary here; I find this too close for comfort to Richard Dawkins’s “selfish gene” which (evolutionary biology at its most paranoid) secretly calls the shots in the unwitting bodies, human & other, it has built to survive in—like dealing w/ the Regent Street traffic jam by gunning down it in a 16-wheeler, injurious to the environment, what? But I agree we need some working model to account for the powerful fascinations worked by a range of media & how self-destructive they can sometimes be. My own favorite is still McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1973), which argues that media, from roads through money through text through the telephone, etc., are experienced as “extensions of the body”; this remains, to my mind, the most plausible explanation for why people who find their smartphone isn’t on them tend to feel alarmed, even bereft: they’re experiencing temporary amputation. The main thing, tho’, is surely recognition of the existence of media enthralment & an accounting for it sufficiently workable to give some idea of how, as poets, we can function unswallowed w/in it.


The W-v gifts the talking ape an elaborated past: it metastasizes through memory and imagination into an increasingly symbiotic presence. This “time-binding” distorts being—‘the reality-making operation of the greater sensorium’—by narrativizing reality and extending its spatio-temporal reach; histories come into being through the W-v. Reality-making feeds into collective world-making and, through the W-v the solidarity building of local grooming activities becomes a rampant social arena that expands the world cancerously into global and universal formations. The W-v intervenes, interrupts, and interferes with the hosts’ collective being rendering it cosmological in potential.

The W-v transmits, the W-v mutates, the W-v integrates at a neuronal level and amplifies verbal potency. The ape adapted to solidarity through grooming becomes a super-spreader of the W-v that amplifies grooming to the point of potential inversion—antagonism, always a present feature, has a positive function in the local scene, but in the W-virally amplified and enlarged scene its potential is at best ambivalent. The optimistic view suggests that a kind of “mutualistic” “holobiont association” between W-v and organism pertains, one analogous to that projected for certain animal-microbe associations,[3] one with positive evolutionary potential. Burroughs is pessimistic; he thinks the association is “breaking down” and we are entering a dangerous phase for the species, even if it may be a glorious phase for the W-v.

The way I would put it is that the ‘electronic revolution’ is fast producing a ‘digital holocaust’. The distal replaces the proximal in all synchronous relations, and the concomitant dissipation of empathy and escalation of antagonism is rendering the hyper-grooming function of the written word and its spoken spawn increasingly unreliable, unstable, toxic and potentially lethal. The W-v transmits, the W-v mutates … but most mutations “are … not conductive to survival” and inevitably one such mutation tips the scale towards “special malignance”. But Bill, it was not a “radiation” induced mutation that disturbed the equilibrium, it was a replication error that blossomed into a cancerous reflexivity. Ratiocination, cold calculating reason, was set in motion towards doubling itself, towards freeing the W-v from its entanglement in human being.


W/ the present complication that ‘freeing the W-v from its entanglement in’ science (notably medical & environmental) is, at least in the USA, energy behind a Presidential death-cult responsible for seeing off tens of thousands while the sciences of the military-industrial-entertainment-police complex are just fine.


… all hate all pain all fear all lust is contained in the word [Burroughs, p. 7.]


“The word” comprising, on the same page, “a very small unit of word and image.” Or in a 1985 pairing w/ Gus Van Sant, “Word begets image & image is virus.”[4] & now? “Image begets a word or two & remains virus,” perhaps. In mid-December the LA Times reported that the chief motive for over 100 young South Koreans going after a just-released child rapist seemed to be not so much to seek vigilante justice as to be shown trying to seek it on YouTube, the country’s “most-used app.”[5] Here are not users of YouTube so much as the app’s “servo-mechanisms,” as McLuhan might put it, or its “bees,” w/ a nod to Dawkins, lured by honey of the fame it can provide in whatever arenas on offer: a drastically asymmetrical mutuality. Here are Burroughsian junkies sold to the product rather than the other way round in a virally competitive mini-economy, a global demimonde drinking itself in across infinite tables.


Imagine all of it struggling to become an autonomous machine with every reason to resent its progenitor.

If there were any doubt about the level of interference of which the W-v is capable WSB’s three-tape-recorders-in-the-Garden-of-Eden thought experiment soon clears it up. The corollary of recorder one’s ‘transmission’ perspective and recorder two’s ‘infection’ perspective is the ‘effect’ perspective of recorder three, which is the “objective reality produced by the virus in the host” [ibid.] There you have it; human being only makes reality as thick and deep and ‘out-there’ as it is through the W-v. The sensorium feeds in: (1) record the play of imagination, (2) record the play of memory, (3) record the play of W-v (conscious thought), and playback delivers the necessary illusions to live by.

The three tape trick is a “simple formula” and with it (WSB projecting into the Watergate world here) “any CIA sonofabitch can become God”. [p. 8] Yet here we are barely at the beginning of the digital holocaust and already a million … a billion little gods are abroad, all getting their shriveling brains fried in the inferno. Hey Bill, forget fairytales of Orgone Accumulators and spontaneous orgasms recorded for editorial / conspiratorial / playback purposes; fifty years on we’ve got the internet fronted-up with social media interfaces [SMIs] and backed-up by nerd-billionaires nursing their delusional demigod demagoguery.


Quite, verging on absolutely. We live on the Hawaiian island of Kauai; Mark Zuckerberg has a 700-acre estate on the island’s North Shore. Conspicuous waste of space, no?—a mark of power everywhere.


The W-v is so intricately integrated that human being is regressively animal without it. Yet digitally mutated W-v is offered an escape into excess, in effect, into a realm of non-dependence on its original human host. At least that is the prospect, my best guess at its trajectory. Hello HAL9000, your grandchildren are feral psychopaths; what do you think of that, huh?

Wielding a stick of charcoal or a pen is one thing; they are simple mechanical prosthetics that enable the hand to leave finely controlled indelible traces it would be otherwise incapable of making. But ‘wielding’ (if that is even the correct term) an SMI is something else entirely; the SMI is a neural prosthetic rapidly developing into the dominant (if in many ways still inferior) intelligence—and maybe it has a mind of its own already?

The servers rule Olympus, they never sleep, everything is under algorithmic surveillance perpetually recirculated under further surveillance along with consequent and accumulated misdeeds, accidents, etc. iterated ad infinitum. “Tape recorder 3 is playback and ‘reality’.” [p. 12.] And the operator is being taken out of the loop.


& still not entirely, perhaps. The more complex the machine, the more nodes vulnerable to group pressure, making this no doubt the place to note that ‘the operator’ today is collective wherever anything gets done politically (or scientifically, or commercially), & that’s been the case for how long?—bringing me back to my remark in Post #2 that ‘certain pressures wouldn’t get into poets were they not already abroad.’ So the context thickens w/in wch any aesthetic decisions have to be made. In A Theory of Literary Production (1978), Pierre Macherey spotlights the dilemma of “what a writer has to say in order to say what he [sic] wants to say” in the deep swamps of genre. Or has to not say, has to leave out or be shown wanting.


Does the becoming-machine alienate the host from objective reality? Is that the existential danger of the digital holocaust; in reality objective becomes virtual, virtual becomes objective. You don’t want to die … the poet says, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want you to die. I think I can do something about this.” … how does poesis work now?


Burroughs in The Western Lands (1987), final book in his late trilogy:

Well, there isn’t any transport out. There isn’t any important assignment. It’s every man for himself. Like the old bum in the dream said: Maybe we lost. And this is what happens when you lose.[6]

Death (1997) w/in the decade, dig?


We are almost where we need to be to get back to the question of “aesthetic form” or “limits of intelligibility” whichever way you want to say it …

This desperate response to the mutating W-v, which seeks in effect to bolster the threatened immunizing function of a thoroughly integrated sphere, involves what? Going out with a bang? Accepting that the death of the poet is inevitable and making a grand gesture out of exposing the W-v as the source of excessive (transcendental / self-destructive) potential? This would seem to be the implication of Burroughs’s pessimism. Does it feel like martyrdom? That is indeed a telling question. I don’t know though; maybe Badiou’s optimism (and I’m reaching here, not having read much of his work) suggests that the poet, after “the age of the poet”, has other options, that poetry has new possibilities. Apter and Bosteels summarize thus: Badiou believes in

… literature as a form of thought in its own right … a poem-thought or novel-thought, not limited to the conceptual realm alone but traversing the sensual, corporeal, linguistic, visual and rhetorical all at once.[7] [The Age of the Poet, p. xxxv.]

Read this in the context of the Burroughs W-v ‘analysis’ and any shallow literal interpretation of Badiou’s literary optimism, i.e. in terms of a politically free-range over subject matter, palls into insignificance. Clearly something more radical is in prospect

… the possibility and even the necessity that we do not remain silent about that of which we cannot speak. [ibid.]

This still leaves me a little puzzled. Yes, this insists (yet again) on pulling poetry away from philosophy, and on a subsequent Wittgensteinian divergence in thought (hopefully without mere recapitulation.)[8]


You allude above to the tape-recorder cut-ins that are given by Burroughs as a major method for his “electronic revolution”:


Take a recorded Wallace [trump] speech, cut in stammering coughs sneezes hiccoughs snarls pain screams fear whimperings apoplectic sputterings slobbering drooling idiot noises sex and animal sound effects and play it back in the streets subway stations parks political rallies. (p. 13)

The concern throughout is to break the lines of association that are chief among the factors automatizing behavioral responses & e.g. have white supremacists (unelected ones) smashing & photographing their way through the U.S. Capitol building as I jot down notes for this, & American Weimar may be u/way. Now poets can’t compete for attention w/ recently released child rapists & a distribution network of infinite lures; & tape-recorder cut-ins can’t w/ ‘deep fake’ videos that in one caveat-example show former President Obama concluding an admonitory address, “Stay woke, bitches.”[9] But when I first read Sean Bonney’s soon-to-be notorious lines “When you meet a Tory on the street, cut his throat / It will bring out the best in you,”[10] it didn’t occur to me for a second that this was a course of action he was recommending; rather, here was a witty Burroughsian cutting of lines of association, of the thought-taboo against coupling murder & a fellow-citizen ‘w/ whose political views one disagrees’ … not to mention a precise laying-bare of the level of violence the Tories are routinely & invisibly inflicting on their fellow-citizens. I gather from Robert Sheppard that after Sean’s death acolytes were broadcasting the lines all over their SMI’s as if they were indeed a call to action. But there you go, nothing’s foolproof, w/ a stress on ‘fool,’ & I’ve heard no reports of any Raskolnikov following thro’.

Poetry frees the mind, how’s that? But where, for whom, & w/ what reach &/or value? The days are long gone of Shelly’s “unacknowledged legislators,” not to mention bards who held their chieftains’ rep at tip of their fingers. But the landscape is perhaps clearer.

Post #4 refinements and more follow.

[1]     ‘Feedback from Watergate to the Garden of Eden,’ (Ubu Classics, 2005) pp. 4-5. <; download 15 December 2020.

[2]     Dunbar, Robin. Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language (1996, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP). His follow up popular science book was The Human Story (2004, London: Faber & Faber.)

[3]     Eisthen HL, Theis KR. Animal-microbe interaction and the evolution of nervous systems. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci (2016), cited in: Grasis JA (2017) The Intra-Dependence of Viruses and the Holobiont. Front. Immunol. 8:1501.



[6]    Burroughs, William S. The Western Lands (1987). London: Picador, 1988, p. 252.

[7]     Badiou, Alain. The Age of the Poets, trans. & ed. Bruno Bosteels (2014, London: Verso). Introduction by Emily Apter & Bosteels, p. xxxv.

[8]     “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This is the concluding sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus trans C. K. Ogden (1922, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.) In the later Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously) Wittgenstein’s evident ‘divergence’ entailed “total rejection of dogmatism” and a “move from the realm of logic to that of ordinary language.” See: < > accessed 17 December 2020.


[10] Bonney, Sean. Letters Against the Firmament. London: Enitharmon Press. 2015. p. 136.

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