04 April 2010

Book history, text & context.

Reading Ron Silliman on "The Political Economy of Poetry"; thought the juxtaposition he makes between contextualizing vs. textualizing literature might resonate with those interested in book history or histories of readers. In 1929, Valentin Volosinov writes:
The actual reality of language-speech is not the abstract system of linguistic forms, not the isolated monologic utterance, and not the psychophysiological act of its implementation, but the social event of verbal interaction implemented in an utterance or utterances.

Thus vebal interaction if the basic reality of language ... A book, i.e., a verbal performance in print is also an element of verbal communication. It is something discussable in actual, real-life dialogue, but aside from that, it is calculated for active perception, involving attentive reading and inner responsiveness, and for organized, printed reaction ... (book reviews, critical surveys, defining the influence on subsequent works, and so on). Moreover, a verbal performance of this kind also inevitably orients itself with respect to previous performances in the same sphere, both those by the same author and those by other authors. It inevitably takes its point of departure fro msome particular state of affairs ... Thus the printed verbal performance engages, as it were, in ideological colloquy of large scale: it responds to something, objects to something, affirms something, anticipates possible responses and objections, seeks support, and so on.

Any utterance, no matter how weighty and complete in and of itself, is only a moment in the continuous process of verbal communication. But that continuous verbal communication is, in turn, itself only a moment in the continuous, all-inclusive, generative process of a given social collective ... Verbal communication can never be understood and explained otuside of this connection with a concerete situation.
In 1942, New Critics Rene Wellek and Austin Warren write:
What is the 'real' poem; where should we look for it; how does it exist ... ?

One of the most common and oldest answers is the view that a poem is an 'artefact', an object of the same natures as a piece of sculpture or a painting. Thus the work of art is considered identical with the black lines of ink on white paper or parchment or, if we think of a Babylonian poem, with the grooves in the brick. Obviously this answer is quite unsatisfactory. There is, first of all, the huge oral 'literature'. There are poems or stories which have never been fixed in writing and still continue to exist. thus the lines in black ink are merely a method of recording a poem which must be conceived as existing elsewhere. If we destroy the writing or even all copies of a printed book we still may not destroy the poem ... Besides, not every printing is considered by us, the readers, a correct printing of a poem. The very fact that we are able to correct printer's errors in a text which we might not have read before or, in some rare cases, restore the genuine meaning of the text shows that we do not consider the printed lines as the genuine poem. Thus we have shown that the poem (or any literary work of art) can exist outside its printed version and that the printed artefact contains many elements which we all must consider as not included in the genuine poem.
The distinction here -- used by Silliman to draw out an interesting argument about context vs. text, in relation to the poem as a "commodity" art -- is between reading as a radically singular moment, or an incomplete encounter with a concept that exists in totality elsewhere, in some ideal. Besides the obvious implications, this seems like an interesting angle, by a practicing poet, on the values of book history, histories of reading/readers, and bibliography.

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