Hole hole on the range


 Review of Symposium of the Whole, a range of discourse toward an ethnopoetics, edited by Jerome and Diane Rothenberg, U. of California Press, 1984, $12.95 pap.


As if people —as if we—were free to make a blend of whatever pleased us from all the ages— or whatever pleased us from the image we make of the ages.  —Christa Wolf, Cassandra


A review of a book that challenges the activity of discourse itself should call into question the activity of re / viewing, even as it acknowledges the need —based on appreciation but also on political economy— for the self-questioning to limit itself so that the review actually gets written. And the special nature of this book demands that commentary about it be problematic and provocative as well as an entrance into the discourse the book proclaims it its title. Symposium of the Whole, a range of discourse toward an ethnopoetics by its title indicates its prejudice for the oral —“symposium,” “discourse”— its possible arrogant assumptions —“of ” the Whole, rather than “on” or “toward”—— and an assumed generosity to process —“toward” an ethnopoetics.  This label for a printed text just points to one of many contradictions —or are they only contraries?— that are immediately suggested but unfortunately never adequately revealed within this artificial “symposium.”


Even though I suspect that Rothenberg’s use of ‘symposium” derives from Pound’s dictum that Rothenberg quotes approvingly, “All ages are contemporaneous in the mind” it may be more appropriate to simply see the bulk of this book as a sampler (I almost wrote “Whitman sampler,” referring to the poet and the candy company but figured the pun would not be obvious though perhaps it is appropriate), a sampler of a “range” Rothenberg as ridden through and one that many readers could sample to advantage. It is, as we would expect of Rothenberg, a range both primitive and cosmo(s)politan: Africa and American tribal language use, examples from European “submerged” cultures, Blake, Thoreau, anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, as well as contemporary storytellers, and poets.


And, while some of these will be refreshingly new to many readers, and all are valuable, it may be more instructive as a way of seeing the restrictions on this “range” to look at what is not included: no pop ritual—sports, fashion, the move toward “wholeness” with MTV; nothing from the Shakers or Quakers (spontaneous voice arising from a pool of shared silence); no liberation theology; no carnies, geeks, or cons; nothing from the American Wobblies’ tradition of song and political action; no examples of preachers and political orators, only a mention by Snyder of Jaime de Angula; almost nothing dealing with popular culture, politics; and, in spite of disclaimers, little that doesn’t now fit comfortably within the university curriculum.


More surprising than many of its inclusions —even if some of the above were added to this admittedly interesting curriculum— are, given the primary terms of this discourse, orality and writing, that both Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong are omitted.


Rothenberg begins his “pre/face” by raising the issue of cultural imperialism and later its relation to “oral and written cultures (and their projected reconciliation).” The contribution McLuhan and Ong could make to clarify the terms of the discourse Rothenberg mentions is dismissed and it is hard to understand just why. Perhaps it is Rothenberg’s unquestioned acceptance of Olson and Creeley’s resentment of McLuhan. Whatever the reason their omission is a serious one. The proposed reconciliation (it sounds so easy —“reconciliation” without even raising the issues of why? how possible? does print culture by its very nature subsume / consume the oral? what are these cultures?  what are their key terms?).


Herder lays the terms out with evaluative labels that, though somewhat qualified, certainly by Quasha’s excellent contribution, inform the assumptions of many of the contributors: the oral is good —“alive and freedom loving,”: “sensuous,” and “savage”; while the written is bad —“artful cultivated thinking,” “dead literary verse.” [This “said” in writing. Awareness of the irony might be a bit helpful here.] Here, especially, Ong’s research would have proven valuable. Not only his book Orality and Literacy but Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue would have helped to avoid the confusion of terminology but also added concreteness to the abstract criticism of Cartesian dualism with Ong’s locating the 16th century’s move from open discourse to closed spatial logic as a consequence of the emerging print technology. Such simplistic divides into good and bad, especially with these valuations hidden, result in distorting the terms that might reveal cultural imperialism in action.


Here is David Antin “speaking” —actually quoted by Quasha: “if robert frost was a poet i don't want to be a poet if socrates was a poet I’ll consider it.”  [It is not at all clear why Antin speaks in lower case, but addressing that issue is another, though related, story]. Here is the CIA “speaking” —actually from its terrorist manual used to incite violence against Nicaragua: “The process is simple and only requires a basic knowledge of the Socrates dialectic ....Orality is simultaneous communication par excellence, i.e. the orator and his audience share the same time and space.” Aside from the terrorists’ use of presence, the uncritical acceptance of the Socratic dialogue avoids Nietzsche’s critique of the Socratic tradition —the whole of Western culture— that he points to as sublimating the Dionysian power under “the one great Cyclops eye of Socrates” [Birth of Tragedy].


A true symposium would raise the pervading issue of cultural imperialism directly with Derrida’s critique of Levi-Strauss’ “A Writing Lesson” chapter of Tristes Tropiques; with a refusal to casually dismiss historical context so that, for instance, there would be a space to present such important issues as the University of Oklahoma —whose press provides texts that inform much of the entrance into “wholeness” of the American Indian tradition— financing the Institute of Religion and Democracy allied with the CIA to destroy the cultures of the Tarahumara (think of this in relation to Artaud), Tepehaun, and Huarogio peoples of Chihuahua; and, perhaps most importantly, a true symposium would not neglect the radical questioning of the key issue of how the Rothenberg selections privilege the idea of presence itself and how this privileging threatens to be, along with unquestioning of wholeness, a disguised (covert?) imperial operation.


The Rothenberg symposium is privileged toward immediacy, performance, and the sacred but what is also needed is recognition of the fact that much of the primitive tradition he values so highly is also distanced, reflective, and at the same time profane.  The issues that Rothenberg raises but never adequately deals with could be at least satisfactorily reveals by opening the symposium to more players —and I mean players, players and tricksters, not only those people with a rage for the serious, for the sacred, for wholeness: McCluhan, Ong, Derrida, but also Freire, Shlovsky, Bahktin, Jameson. At the very least such an opening might avoid the unquestioned acceptance of the Pound tradition with its attending phallic, patriarchal, and imperial implications.

          In spite of my many reservations about this book, it is valuable and if it is ignored or casually dismissed (or casually accepted) by our cultural apparatus then that in itself will be an indictment of that culture. But without more explicit revelations of values, ethnopoetics will suffer the same critique Derrida makes of Levi-Strauss’ bricolage: “The only weakness of bricolage —but, seen as a weakness is it not irremediable?— is a total inability to justify itself in its own discourse.”  In this time of extreme complexities of discourse there are too many dangers in a simple range —or rage— for the whole.

          And —at the risk of opening this review up even more than I already have— I feel two other approaches toward the book should be mentioned in order to begin to deal with cultural imperialism as it refers to ethnopoetics.  One comes from Jean Baudrillard and his studies of simulation. His critique is important because of Rotheberg’s emphasis on performance (and other’s emphasis on re / creation). Performance inspired by tribal cultures that are performed within this media dominated culture risks provoking not a new reality but a hyper-reality:

There is no longer any critical and speculative distance between the real and the rational .... A fantastic short-circuit in the real is hyperrealised. The hyperreal is the abolition of the real not by violent destruction, but by its assumption, elevation to the strength of the model...the model acts as a sphere of absorption of the real.


          This, to me, seems to be a very obvious danger in seeing all the world’s cultures as available for use in a poetics. The second approach confronts the disturbing de-contextualization of this text with its lack of history —the privileging of space over time, one more uncritical acceptance of the Pound tradition.  This “symposium” runs the risk not of being too “wild” for the academics to handle, it may indeed excite and invigorate a moribund culture, but it runs the risk of being irrelevant. I will end by only pointing to the seriousness of this criticism by quoting from Paul Virilio’s Pure War. It seems very appropriate that this larger critique of the dangers of speed should be applied to clarify what is to me a reluctance to look critically at the value of instantaneous “speed”, pure presence:

World unity is no longer a spatial unity. For territory, the unit of measure is distance in time .... The Pharaohs, the Romans, the Greeks were surveyors. That was geo-politics. We're no longer there, we’re in chrono-politics. Organizations, prohibitions, interruptions, orders, powers, structurings, subjections are now in the realm of temporality. And that’s also where resistance should be.