"So why not a poem called The Lady Who Exists to Cure Polio? "

-- Ronald Donn

Why Can't It Be X-MA: Agamben's Topoi and Spectacle Notes on the South in Poetry

___by Ronald Donn
___-- gratitude to Pat Hargon for his help and input, ______and for his soluble trousers

I.___An Eschatological Brunch

I even live on the South Side--the south of the south, you might say. A half mile east, over the Endom bridge, all the downtown buildings, the pretty brick ones on the Historic Register that fails to tell me where in history they're registered, fall apart. Certain half-fern half-vines, tropical and carnivorous, actually pull ‘em all down brick by brick. To quote Gravity's Rainbow, which fits: heh, heh.

All in all there is, admittedly, a way the place makes for a tropical Ragnarok. As I was reminded by one local: the Last Day in Goth lore has worked through into an outstandingly white Southern trait: cynicism. But not in me. Like all things in the middle of re-invention though, I prefer to think of cynicism as manners. Howdy. How y'all. Silence. A man stares at his wife, sideways, orders for her and thinks about the kudzu destroying his beets. All contractions, all pre-decisions, all a simulated environment (I assure you) whose presettings, while preset, have no limit. Contracted, paranoid, but nonetheless drawn out, uttered slowly, fiercely. But this is all part of the "topography of the unreal". (1) Just because something doesn't exist--like manners--doesn't mean it won't tear off your jaw and beat you to death with it. Hyperbolically speaking, that is.

II. Does the South Exist / "More original than space"

Does it? A purely technical question. By Technology, though, I can only mean theory--the South for me does not exist any more than the Gulf War existed for Jean Baudrillarde, or that silence existed for John Cage. The technology, the means of a thing's existence renders theoretically impossible then its own atrocities. What we got left is thoroughly a mediated syndrome. Sheer surface-work, like Jim Tate's kicking leg that kicks stuff. Syndrome: the actors can't get the accents right, but they get all the clichés perfect. And the clichés aren't clichés.

And never you mind the individual--and I mean that. The only South that exists are its own surfaces. This interests me because its surfaces are so, well, surface like. The swamp-level truth about, say, Louisiana is that its endless textures of decay should never remind one of country death ballads, soapy wallpaper, alligators and terrible accidents with gar in canoes, or the Tai Chi of Summer Solstices gone by. It should remind one that as long as you are here, simply, you are dead. It should work against memory, rather than for nostalgia (war), because losing one's memory is the only way to not be dead. Yes. I, personally, write to lose memory.

After all there's nothing else for American poetry but American surfaces, its feeling-over of them surfaces, the catching-up to Robbe Grillet, the recreation of idiom as idiotic, posterior to a reconstructable sense of the real (there is a Church of Greater Realness up the road from my house), blithering not with ecstacy or fine madness but with sheer referential mania, which you get a lot with all the sheer junk sitting around:

And if you look at the leaves of a forest, At its dirt and its heights, the stuttering mystic Replication, the blithering symmetry, You'll go crazy, too. (2)

The Goodwill culture, "Trooper Preaches Christ With Help of Puppets," Mojoware, the Trash of white trash, the Elvis incense, the sexual oppression, the caution sign in the ditch, the diagonals on that sign matching the black-eyed susans: for a long time now language has been working with something so much "more original than space".

III.___Over and Over and Over the Rainbow

After the fragments of the Moderns, whose project compensated for the lack of a Whole, we seem to have gone within those fragments. Marx in essence invented Postmodernity the minute he came up with the simple fact that a superstructure of ideas, religious values, aesthetic norms, etc. evolve at a much slower pace, and furthermore depend upon for their evolution, the material infrastructure: the success of sushi, whether or not we liked the new Star Wars (we did), the mood of the Board of Regents, whether or not I have to teach Composition 101 with 4 TV screens and 5 remote control cameras next year or not, the latest Super NES CD, etc. These infrastructural fragments are the very avante-pop garde of ideology, especially for a cultural site--church, for instance--which lacks ideology because it rejects new ideas. This is remarkably like being 5-13 again, and very appealing. I haven't learned by living here to sympathize with my common man: I've learned to escape him.

But the South, at least the South of the movies and the South of the real-time MPEG pornographos where I live (sign at local Coney Isle: " 'Gravy', 35 cents."), still resists Marx's infrastructure, intellectually, while consuming it quicker'n Popeye's New Buttermilk Mantaray Etouffe. The result? Kitsch. And Kitsch is very close to the absurd cold-crystal core of poetry: it is Infrastructural decay; semiotic entropy. It's rendering-strange what wasn't familiar to begin with. It's level of metaremoval at the communicative level. It's giving Grammar to something which is a system of grammar without an initially cohesive whole.

It's taking the fragment of experience--always in the South asking how to say, according to Faulkner--and inverting it, or plumbing within it until nothing is left but the shocking procedures of living and saying--not even the procedures themselves but their own funny reflections and echoes. After all, Nothing is Capitalized until reflected, and what I've learned from living here for 8 years--and Texas 18 years before that--is that process really is the same as product:

I think lemon, and somebody else's mouth waters. (3)

It's no coincidence that the idea of depersonalization found its propenents here: but finally, that which is depersonalized (even "fragmented" Eliot-Pound style) has lost its formal boundaries. No gestures are relevant anymore (we lost those, Agamben points out, in the 19th century as we began to study walking). And the dead gesture = spectacle. And only in the human. In this way I'm a humanist. The Bible is a good example of a dead gesture, whose specular beauty Blake himself embraced in his acid engravings, while mortifying/inverting the flesh of the moral, philosophical, and logical gestures of Heaven and Hell.

And without this spectacle there'd be no simulateable future to speak of, thus no reason to write. There would be no mouths to feed, even if those mouths are all clearly labelled "mouths," even if the topographical nature of this place, any place, the map-nature, the cliché-nature, the language-nature, is the only logically valid nature through which to speak. Burroughs:

The best way to keep something bad from happening is to see it ahead of time . . . and you can't see it if you refuse to face the possibility.

IV.___Micro/Word/Processor. . .I just had a sheer thought

Maybe as things go on, we will see the further development of this (we are, actually, but Minor League only): collaborative Web poetry-writing will produce the likeness of its very own process. And likeness itself, doubling itself . . .the double. . .the mirror. . .the screen play. . .the metaphor. . .will be the very production of process. But we got that not from the South, but from those once master poets of topography, the groundless gesture, the simulators of the philosophical, for whom satire was a matter of language, language a matter of life or death, and all that just matter of. . .heh, heh . .the Russians. According to the Russian Futurists, the Future is equivalent to the device itself "laid bare." So why not a poem called The Lady Who Exists to Cure Polio? Capitalization, Formalization, for example, as the rippling outward of Language from language, rippling out of the entirely arbitrary, a kind of sign/language. You have to lay bare the device...that's all the deaf have anyway when everything happens in a referential mania, occurring and corresponding and passing on and forgetting at the speed of a sheer thought.


1. From Giorgio Agamben's Stanzas.

2. From Denis Johnson's, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly.

3. From William Ryan's To Die in Latin

Ronald Donn teaches at Louisiana Technical U. in Ruston, Louisiana. Previous publications include Jones Ave., Spillway, and Octavo.

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