Zukofsky and the Violence of Objects

by devinking

I’ve been re-gathering thoughts about the poet Louis Zukofsky–whose long poem A I read through with friends in Fall 2008–with the hopes of bringing his ideas about objectification into contact with the object-oriented philosophers Ian Bogost and Graham Harman. These are connections I’ve been making in my head while I go through Bogost and Harman’s books and so it’s nice to go back to Zukofsky and instantly find some nice tension between his ideas and those of Bogost and Harman (well, at this point I’m only half-way through Bogost’s Unit Operations so I can’t really speak to a reading of that yet). This is from Zukofsky’s essay An Objective, written in 1931:

In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses and receives awareness. Parallels sought for in the other arts call up the perfect line of occasional drawing, the clear beginnings of sculpture not proceeded with.

Presented with sincerity, the mind even tends to supply, in further suggestion, which does not attain rested totality, the totality not always found in sincerity and necessary for perfect rest, complete appreciation. This rested totality may be called objectification–the apprehension satisfied completely as to the appearance of the art form as an object. That is: distinct from print which records action and existence and incites the mind to further suggestion, there exists, though it may not be harbored as solidity in the crook of an elbow, writing (audibility in two-dimensional print) which is an object or affects the mind as such.

Zukofsky’s delineation of objectivity falls outside of the object-oriented authors for one main reason: since Zukofsky locates his understanding of the term within poesis he explicitly defines the object with reference to the reader (or, more specifically, the see-er), something Harman, though he doesn’t refuse this type of interaction, at least reduces its importance–all objects have as much importance as, and this is crudely put, the reader of the poem. I’d also argue that Zukofsky’s poetics–his ultimate emphasis on craft and song (“directing along the line of melody”)–further obfuscate a direct line to the object whether as a poem or as a train-car (as objective as A-24 seems) but that’s for a different post.

With these reservations at hand, let’s look at another Zukofsky quote a few paragraphs on in the same essay:

It is questionable, however, whether the state of rest achieved by objectification is more pertinent to the mind than presentation in detail: the isolation of each noun so that in itself it is an image, the grouping of nouns so that they partake of the quality of things being together without violence to their individual intact natures…one is brought back to the entirety of the single word which is itself a relation, an implied metaphor, an arrangement, a harmony or a dissonance.

As I’ve slowly been finding as I go through Pound, this is a slightly more boring, I think, version of Pound (or at least Kenner’s version of Pound), where each word is its own vortex: Zukofsky wants to ascribe importance to each word not just through its relations with those on either side of it, but on its own as a node of internal (historical?) relations. It’s unclear how far Zukofsky wants to go here–does the “single word as object” still have consistency outside of the word’s relationship to the reader, or does the reader give the word its objectness? I’m unclear of the answer at the moment, and hope to clear this up as I read further into Zukofsky, but I wanted to end by quoting from Harman, who in Prince of Networks goes one step further:

An object is weird–it is never replaceable by any sum total of qualities of effects. It is a real thing apart from all foreign relations with the world, and apart from all domestic relations with its own pieces. Stated in more traditional terms, both the foreign and domestic relations of an object are external relations rather than internal ones. Neither of them makes direct contact with the object, though both are capable of destroying it in different ways.

Which is to say that in Harman’s view, the internal relations that Zukofsky privileges may also end up being external to the object itself. Are those internal relations what the poet or reader brings to (forces upon) the object? Answers to this come in Harman’s reading of real and intentional or sensual objects…