04 October 2016

Interview with James Belflower

This articles originally appeared as a post titled "Awful Interview: James Belflower" at Vouched Books on 24 June 2013.

Springgun Press released three new collections in February of this year, two of which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. The third offering they released was James Belflower's The Posture of Contour: A Public Primer, which is by turns poetry, philosophy, and performance art. Over the past several weeks James has been on a reading tour, during which time he and I corresponded about his new  book.

Your new collection, The Posture of Contour: A Public Primer (Springgun Press, 2013), reads like a work of pataphysics, which Jarry defined as “the science of imaginary solutions.” Would you agree with this claim, why or why not? How would you describe your book to someone who has not yet read it? What other texts influence or inspired you to create a work in this form? (I realize the Works Cited section lists many texts; but I'm more interested in the form and/or genre of the text, as opposed, strictly speaking, to the content.)

I think pataphysics is an excellent framework for the book, though I’m wary of getting hung up if the term is too firmly hung on to. Alfred Jarry’s extended definition is helpful for avoiding this since it expands on a couple of the more ambivalent motifs of the text. He describes it as a science which “symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments, [...] it is a science which lies as far beyond metaphysics as metaphysics lies beyond physics, in any direction.” I’m using virtuality a bit differently, but Jarry’s emphasis on description through virtuality to an object’s “lineaments” encourages all types of thinking conducive to investigating postures, gestures, contours, and non-coordinate dimensions.

The effectiveness of pataphysics as a poetic methodology isn’t new, but has remained on the literary periphery in the U.S. For me it’s inextricable from the humor of the epigraph by Andreas Cappellanus that begins the book, and Cage’s cognitive dissonance in “Lecture on Nothing.” I came to it roundaboutly by way of Gilles Deleuze, who is part of a larger coterie promoting this pseudoscience, which includes many of the Oulipo, Marcel Duchamp, Antonin Artaud, and most recently Christian Bök. Its effectiveness really hit home as I approached the fluid dynamic equations that often serve as titles throughout the book. Fluid dynamics is not a traditional discourse for poetry, so part of my reasoning for incorporating equations is that it forced me to approach my ignorance of the topic in very different ways. In other words, I thought of imaginary solutions. I knew that “solution” in the sense of solving these formulas was not an option, so the exercise necessitated returning through ignorance which demanded a repeatedly novel schematic. Rather than a science of imaginary solutions, for me it became a science of imaginary approaches to very real problems. Without the knowledge to solve them, these approaches were sustained through inventive address, rather than mastery or control.

It’s vital (Jarry even called it a “crying need”) that we reinvigorate a science of imaginative solutions because, at the very least, the process of importing solutions from one sense making mode to another generates very real and very fecund conceptual struggles. These are particularly catalytic in the other meaning of solutions: chemical baths, or logic systems (Albert Ayler might have named them smears, Gilbert Simondon uses them to describe individuation) into which alternative mixtures and discourses are introduced to produce very different links across all dimensions of connectibility. In my wildest hopes, The Posture of Contour serves as a primer for approaching some of these dimensions.

Throughout Posture, you've embedded sidebars that provide the reader/performer of the text with physical and tonal flourishes that enhance the written word when performed for an audience. Could you speak about the relationship you've attempted to foster between the abstract and the corporeal self and/or kinetics? What is the relationship between the two, to your mind? What can we learn from the tensions or relationships between them?

The figure began as the “Performer” in my first book Commuter (Instance Press, 2009), but didn’t appear as the Virtuoso until Posture of Contour. In one sense, the figure of the Virtuoso tunes into Jack Spicer’s call for poets to be entertainers. In another sense, the figure is derived from Paolo Virno’s analysis of linguistic economy in the Post-Fordist public sphere, where he describes the contemporary speaker’s flexibility and adaptability as virtuosic, practicing an activity that “produces something which is not distinguishable nor even separable from the act of production itself” and is understood as “an activity which requires the presence of others” (52).  Surprisingly, he pinpoints the most politically salient features of virtuosity as idle talk and curiosity, noting in disagreement with Heidegger’s insistence on a purely mental ecology, that idle talk carries great potential for imaginary invention and experimentation, but is also foundational to social production. Though Heidegger also dismissed curiosity as a contaminated form of knowing, Virno, drawing from Walter Benjamin, finds in it a socially engaged and enriching practice rooted in the commonly sensual.

For me, the Virtuoso is a figure that embodies an enactment of the circulation between ecologies; Buñuel’s sliced eye is a perfect example of mingling the “fluid of a mental ecology” with that of an exterior one: the moon, magically evoking the gut wrench of disgust. Of course, rooting it in violence imports all sorts of other problems I grapple with in the razor sections, but regardless, the Virtuoso enacts this through idle talk and curiosity. The Virtuoso is the most active event that encourages an emerging counterpublic: it is the reader, myself, an object on the wall, an eye, a razor, a gesture, a sound, etc. I like the way Michael Warner puts it, “Counterpublics are ‘counter’ to the extent that they try to supply different ways of imagining stranger sociability and its reflexivity; as publics they remain oriented to stranger circulation in a way that is not just strategic but constitutive of membership and its affects” (122). As one of the figures circulating through these occurrences, the Virtuoso relies on the attraction of curiosity, gestures, confusions, noises, idle talk, and conversations real and imaginary, but all given more to poesis than persuasion. In the process of emerging, the Virtuoso creates a politics of wonder: believes the plastic static of a trash bag might attract anyone’s tongue, and that a grandiose flick of the hand toward any object on the wall also draws that object into a social gambit.

As I’m sure you noticed, most of the activities of the Virtuoso in Posture are limited to gestures or flourishes that don’t require any specialized training outside of basic literacy. I wanted to avoid the more common understanding of Virtuoso, and perhaps transform some of the more exclusionary qualities of performance into invitational alienations. I have misgivings about the term “performance art” (as probably most people do!), but I knew that I wanted to stimulate a “public” by rethinking the reader as a real and imaginary performer through the Virtuosic sidebars. What excites me is the possibility that other virtuosos might publicly perform Posture! This is one of the main reasons for including aural collaborations with the book on Soundcloud, to encourage a public of a different sort.

In Posture, you write that “what if we attempt to enfold mathematical formulas not for the purpose [of] comprehension but for purposes [of] resistance” (54). If “comprehension” and “resistance” are placed in binary relation to one another (and we, thus, can read “resistance” as something akin to obfuscation), does resistance/obfuscation serve as a viable “solution” to a problem? And if resistance/obfuscation is a viable solution, does that negate pragmatics (which Deleuze and Guatarri, particularly, were champions of) and use-value? Are pragmatics and use-value modes of operation or intellectual stances you find compelling or worthwhile? If so, how do you remedy the apparent contradiction; if not, what purpose does your text serve?

The excellent question you raise regarding a binary between comprehension and resistance is an ongoing one for me. I think resistance and comprehension are not necessarily binary. For one thing, resistance can take many forms, but for some reason obfuscation, unintelligibly etc., seem to be the popular ones. I think that’s why I gravitate toward Deleuze because he models a philosophy that wants to (though it’s up for debate how successful he is) reconsider the binary thinking that opposes those two terms.

I always return to his section on the Body Without Organs in 1000 Plateaus for trying to understand the complexity of that comprehension/obfuscation binary. His emphasis on intimacy with the resisted object, or idea, his emphasis on motion, and on provisionality and contingency is of utmost importance for Posture:
Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it., find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times. It is through a meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in bringing forth continuous intensities for a BwO. Connect , conjugate, continue: a whole 'diagram' as opposed to a still signifying and subjective program (161)
His advice here has always struck me as very pragmatic: know the thing, concept, idea, etc., your attempting to subvert, or at least get very close to it!

So the long answer to your question culminates in saying that, yes, I definitely subscribe to a pragmatics and a use-value, but both couched in all the speculation and provisionality one can muster. I think this approach amplifies potential of all sorts: it provides options, and makes them manifest. The “Approaches” to fluid dynamics are an example; rather than obfuscating them, my readings offer other potential methods for engaging them. It recognizes other approaches through which they might potentially sense, and this sense, while not contributing to the primary logic from which they are derived, allows a public to communally engage them and diagram a variety of implications.

I think it was Deleuze who said that current philosophy is not abstract enough. I wonder what happens if we consider contemporary poetry as having a similar issue? If we collectively recognize the virtual quality to life, and tailor our language for that approach, then it has a greater opportunity to emerge. There seem to be many ways of pointing toward virtual things before obscuring others is necessary. Okay, off my soapbox, it's sounding very utopic from up here!

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