Not long ago while viewing the Société Anonyme: Modernism for America show at The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., Ron Padgett stood before a painting and said something favorable, which in turn prompted me to ask, “What makes this a good painting?” Now mind you, I was asking a man who has viewed thousands of paintings and whose hunger for the visual only seems to grow. Ron replied (or so I approximately recall), “I could point out all sorts of reasons, technical or aesthetic, that make this is a good painting, but to do so would just limit your experience. You just know a good painting when you see it, and no single aspect makes it so.” And I did just know, without trying to pinpoint exactly which combination of elements made it stand out from rest on that wall.
This conversation reminded me of one with another friend, noted a few posts ago, who, in an ongoing basis, tried to explain singularity to me. To poorly paraphrase one particular discussion (sorry again, Isa), Isabella ‘defined’ what makes a masterpiece: its singularity. Basically, the singularity of a literary work is something people recognize but can’t define (though critics may try) — and it’s what makes it last; people continue to recognize and return to it over time.
Anyway, these little stories are leading to an excerpt from Bruns’ book, but I was sidetracked checking out Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry today at a local bookstore. In an essay called, “The Question of Originality,” she asks, “A question, then, is how does a poet enfold into language the singularity that marks each living creature and object of the world and also those works of art we most admire?” Yes, how, dear public?
Later, Hirshfield quotes Picasso, from which I excerpt for the frivolity of it, “Nobody drew up a program of action, and though our friends the poets followed our efforts attentively, they never dictated to us. … The painter passes through states of fullness and emptying. That is the whole secret of art.”
But even better, her full Walt Whitman quote, “The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. What I tell I tell for precisely what it is.” Ha!
And now for la piece de resistance, one that resists the recipes, we encounter a kind of pointing at of singularity, including one revealing footnote, to wrap the above notes together, however loosely, direct from Gerald L. Bruns’ book, On the Anarchy of Poetry and Philosophy – A Guide for the Unruly:
“In Intimations of Postmodernity, the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman says that what postmodernists know is that we are all of us inhabitants of complex systems. A complex system, unlike logical, mechanical, or cybernetic systems, is temporal, not so much in time as made of it. This means that it is turbulent and unpredictable in its workings and effects (structured, as they say, like the weather). A complex system is not governed by factors of any statistical significance, which is why a single imperceptible event can produce massive changes in the system. It follows that a complex system cannot be described by laws, rules, paradigms, causal chains, deep structures, or even a five-foot shelf of canonical narratives. It is beneath the reach of universal norms and so it forces us to apply what Hans Blumenberg calls the principium rationiis insufficientis: the principle of insufficient reason–which is, however, not the absence of reason but rather, given the lack of self-evidence in a finite situation, a reliance on practical experience, discussion, improvisation, and the capacity for midstream corrections. In certain philosophical circles this is called ‘pragmatism’; in others, ‘ anarchism’ (meaning–the way I mean it in this book — not an embrace of chaos, but a search for alternatives to principles and rules [an-arche], on the belief that what matters is absolutely singular and irreducible to concepts, categories, and assigned models of behavior).” 8 [emphasis mine]
Footnote #8 — On singularity, see Gilles Deleuze, Logique du sens (Paris: Editions du Minuit, 1969), p. 67 (The Logique of Sense, trans. Constantin V. Boundas [New York: Columbia University Press, 1990], p. 52): “The singularity belongs to another dimension than that of denotation, manifestation, or signification. It is essentially pre-individual, non-personal, and a-conceptual. It is quite indifferent to the individual and the collective, the personal and the impersonal, the particular and the general–and to their oppositions. Singularity is neutral.” For a slightly different view, where the singular is not an isolate and is also a person, see Jean-Luc Nancy, Etre singulier pluriel (Paris: Editions Galilee, 1996), pp. 1 – 131 (Being Singular Plural [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000], pp. 1 – 100). The notion of the singular can be traced to Emmanuel Levinas’s conception of ethical alterity, where the other is irreducible to the same, that is, refractory to categories. …