Following Up On Norvell and Barry

I appreciate Barry’s statement (see previous post) that a formal critique of art is called into question by the focus upon a conceptual context or what I call a “zone of meaning.” The problem here is that neither Norvell nor Barry overtly speak to the indissociabilty of artistic elements, all of which variously have to do with the organization of matter, energy, and information as they relate to time and space, as well as to one another in time and space. Even with conceptually oriented art, one can possibly say that any given line is too long or too short. Formal elements don’t dissappear simply because an artist changes the orientation or focus of his or her art. (This is especially applicable to Barry's work, I think, since he utilizes signifiers. The untitled postcard is dated 1970.) Abstract expressionism, for example, still dealt with color, shape, space and so forth, as did the heavy hitters of representationally oriented painting. A Velazquez, just as much anything by Smithson, deals specifically with conceptuality as one formal element that can be differentiated rather than isolated from the other elements. In poetics, one juggles elemental forces: conceptual, sonic, sensory, and typographical.

To read responsibly one needs to take into consideration the formal orientation of the work. In other words, if the work is conceptually oriented, then commenting upon the length of a given line is valid, but probably not as productive as looking into “the idea of what was being done” on a whole. Both approaches to interpretation—conceptually global and rhythmically local—seem necessary. In any given work, one generally balances against the other to keep the thing from tipping over. What’s at issue in this snippet of conversation between Norvell and Barry is the question of isolating theory from materiality, as well as the traditionally inflected notion of judgment. Barry suggests that we can theorize a carrier wave, but that we can’t criticize a carrier wave. I’d agree with him if we located the carrier wave in question within a vacuum. Formal elements relate within a context, and Barry’s example of a carrier wave theoretically constitutes the transmission of radio signal-information that occurs in time and space to create a zone of meaning or matrix of meaningful relationships between elements. Of course it is a bit silly to speak of a carrier wave as though one could indeed discern anything but its effects and/or its linguistic signification. The wave itself is bound up with pure information. Invisible. But its so- called presentation still necessitates a physical context.

Barry’s example of criticism (“these colors don’t work together”) suggests that the work determines what works, rather than some gage that mechanistically transcends both art and artist alike. He’s taking a shot, I’d say, at notions of “good painting,” notions that Guston notably grappled with at the close of his inquiry into abstract expressionism, before the cartoon became the basis of his work. To say that “the thing just is” suggests that the thing just is autonomous.

Even if one determines that a conceptually oriented project by this or that poet isn’t worthwhile, however, it still seems to me as though one clearly makes an ultimate judgment, yet that judgment is of a particularized kind. In other words, criticism should take its directions from the work itself, rather than some notion of a universal good/bad dichotomy that stems directly from a transcendental English language tradition of universal logic, grammar, and metrics. Ti Tum Ti Tum Ti Tum Ti Tum Ho Hum. Taking the work on its own ground, on its own terms, seems crucial to productive reading. And those terms are theoretical, as every term, every spatialized measure of time, is theoretical: an intensity made of matter, energy, and information. And since such a statement seems bloodless, I’ll point out that without the nexus of physicality and affectivity—the qualities of breath and emotional state—there is no measure.

“There'll just have to be some other way of dealing with it,” says Barry. How does one go about “dealing with it,” i.e., how to determine the value (“worthwhile or not”) of contemporary work? As I’ve tried to suggest throughout this post, the autonomous work itself is intrinsically valuable at its most radical level of existence. Our relationships, as readers, become productive to some degree. What one really determines is not necessarily the intrinsic value of a work, but the value of our developing relationship to that work. And this is not to fall back upon the old line of subjectivity or subject position. The potential for productive reading only exists because a particular and autonomous poem itself is an event of intensities. As are we.