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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry new issue

The latest issue of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry is now out, featuring articles on Tambimuttu (Matt Chambers), J.H. Prynne and The English Intelligencer (Ryan Dobran), Ian Hamilton Finlay and Thomas A. Clark (Ross Hair) and Denise Riley (Samuel Solomon). The issue also features conference reports on the Allen Fisher symposium @ Northumbria (SL Mendoza), Literary Collaboration @ Edge Hill (Tom Jenks) and Nomadic Poetics @ Bangor (Steven Hitchens). The reviews section covers The Salt Companion to Maggie O'Sullivan (Joanne Ashcroft), An Andrew Crozier Reader (Alex Latter) and The Ground Aslant (James Wilkes).

You can subscribe to the print version of the journal for £18 per year. Please feel free to circulate this information widely. The website is two issues behind but can be found here:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Joan Retallack, Krzysztof Ziarek and Form

Here’s a part of the manuscript of The Meaning of Form that I am pulling from the text and relegating to a summarised footnote. This makes the introduction from which it comes less vulnerably digressive, but it’s a shame, since I think what it says is interesting in its own right.

The American poet and theorist, Joan Retallack, articulates a formal analysis of avant-garde works by Cage, Stein, Waldrop, Hejinian and others. The Poethical Wager (2003) argues, for, if not a reversal, then a revision, of Henri Focillon’s terms, and states that ‘literature is an engagement with possible forms of life’. (Retallack 2004: 146) Retallack here revives the term ‘form of life’ from Wittgenstein’s vague usage which distinguishes between the various regimes of his ‘language games’ rather than from Schiller’s aesthetics. (Retallack 2004: 23) In Leighton’s terms, life is at the heart of form. For Retallack, as a poet, ‘This is not a question of the daily habits and routines necessary to the sane ordering of any life but of the forms one chooses in one’s poesis, the making of forms of life out of words.’ (Retallack 2004: 147) She continues and introduces her central neologism: ‘If those forms are made in the course of thinking through one’s values, then it’s a matter of poethics.’ (Retallack 2004: 147) The texture of daily life, the necessity of being aware, after Gertrude Stein, ‘that it is the business of the writer to live one’s contemporariness in the composition of one’s writing’ amounts to a poetic-ethics. (Retallack 2004: 15) As Stein says: ‘Everybody is contemporary with his [sic] period… and the whole business of writing is the question of living in that contemporariness…. The thing that is important is that nobody knows what the comtemporariness is. In other words, they don’t know where they are going, but they are on their way.’ (quoted in Retallack 2004: 156) This formally investigative stance toward reality and the concomitant need to find forms to ‘accommodate the mess’ (as Beckett puts it (quoted in Retallack 2004: 147)), are interrelated in Retallack’s closely-argued essays, which amount to ‘a complex-realist aesthetic and a poethics of everyday life’ (Retallack 2004: 206), where ‘complex’ implies the Mandelbrottian fractalism of contemporary experience, and where poetics is aligned to ethics in the very act of making forms consonant to one’s values: ‘Every poetics,’ she says, ‘is a consequential form of life. Any making of forms out of language (poesis) is a practice with a discernable character (ethos).’ (Retallack 2004: 11)
Some avant-gardes – like Retallack’s – develop coterminously with theoretical developments; some theories develop in direct relation to avant-garde practice and poetics, like Krzysztof Ziarek’s. His study The Force of Art (2004) is an immersive book, not unlike the conflicting aesthetics of Ziarek’s twin heroes, Heidegger, in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ essay and Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory and he compares the two in terms of their theories of power. Central to Ziarek’s thesis is his conception of the work of art as a force field, a metaphor Leighton traces back to at least Schiller. It is not an object but an event, and this eventness makes the artwork a ‘forcework’, in his neologism (and in a similar way to its acknowledgement by Attridge). Inhering in neither form or content, the forcework is beyond aesthetics, and presumably beyond poetics as well; the avant-garde artwork is beyond traditional aesthetic categories. No longer being an object, the work of art evades both culture and capital, though it is inscribed by both. Forcework is a non-violent power-free thrusting; it re-orients ‘aesthetic commodity’ in ‘aphesis’, a concept derived from Heidegger which is defined as ‘a letting be or a letting go’, a benign process of enhancement rather than a seizure of power. (Ziarek: 22) Enhancement is non-power, defining the forcework of art as free or ‘de-powered’, not as technocratic participant in increase and production. ‘In art … forces are “empowered” to be “otherwise” than powerful’. (Ziarek: 51.)
In the work of art, forces are no longer tethered by the social, and in a redefinition of the autonomy of the artwork, as that is theorised by Adorno, and in order to address the staticness and sense of separateness implied by Adorno’s lofty critique, Ziarek insists not only that artworks transform and re-work their forces (as Adorno would have agreed), but that they transform the ordinary relations of social power, and the receivers of the artwork can carry this non-violent, power-free relationality into social praxis (which Adorno would have found too direct a relationship under existing social conditions, although he inisisted, like Ziarek, that form was a matter of ‘noncoercion’ (AT: 7)). The event of this transformation is an interruption of the real, a rupture as the artwork works (a term Ziarek valorises over form) by its ‘modalities of relation’, not in terms of its content. (Ziarek: 28) Artworks’ ‘importance for praxis is not in the thematic critique or even in formal subversiveness’, but essentially in the forcework. (Ziarek: 60) An example of these processes is Gertrude Stein’s transformative ‘release of things from the closure of their naming’ in Tender Buttons. (Ziarek: 47) As in the strictly formalist accounts of form above, the particular moment of the reception of the event of forcework will transform our sense of judgement, will involve a qualitative enhancement, a letting be. Ziarek’s denial of aesthetics has led him to be excluded from this chapter’s argument, although his sense of art as a non-violent force is gently absorbed into it, though Susan Wolfson’s account (in Formal Charges) speaks louder.

See my critical poetics-poetry-essay ‘A Carafe, a Blue Guitar, Beyonding Art: Krzysztof Ziarek and the Avant-Garde’ in Armand, Louis, ed. Avant-Post. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2006: 264-280 for a longer response to Ziarek’s book. Avant-Post  may be read free here:

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Claude Herbert Sheppard 1924-2013: Standing by

Standing by

                                                for my father, 2nd July 1924-12th July 2013

                                                There was a time for tears,
                        When Death stood by us, and we dared not weep.

                                                                                    David Raikes

’Chuting through darkness the drop mourns itself
Morphine thickens the glassy eye farther into
Its own refractive density in this world which

Is not the case the dream-chatter of the dead
Meaningless encased in his own deafening dome
Poetry does nothing here the earpiece vibrates

Breathe shallow like aircrew watching gulls
Wheeling above long lines laid out as overhead wires
Inhaling hollow crackling rattling nothing left to say

Nobody to address mouthpiece dry and formal
The soft ‘Oh!’ coughs from the last breath a message
Elegy lost in action on the outskirts of an event

This poem will form part of the Oystercatcher Press pamphlet The Drop. See also here and here and here.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Carys Bray, A Song for Issy Bradley, Creative Writing and Southport

Carys Bray’s novel ASong for Issy Bradley was published this week by Hutchinson, and it is so far meeting with success: radio interviews, good reviews (The Times, The Guardian), soundbites of approval from the likes of Nick Hornby, and the considerable backing of the publisher’s publicity machine (which is both effective and affecting a tired-looking Carys). I knew the book was good. Ailsa Cox and I co-supervised the piece as part of a PhD at Edge Hill University, one of our literary successes (but not our only one). So it was good, before the world gets hold of Carys, that she organised a launch on her home turf of Southport (where the novel is set), in Broadhursts Bookshop in Market Street. Cakes were made carrying the book cover; Patricia thought the cakes referred to the amount of cake consumed in the novel (a bit like the Belgian food she knocked up for the launch of A Translated Man)! But this wasn’t the case. It was emphatically local and the better for that (despite the locality; see below).

Carys stood on a chair, I think, and read a short comic-poignant passage from the book. A Song revolves around the death of a child – Issy –in a Mormon family – the Bradleys and their differing reactions to that. The novel therefore is formally ‘about’ point of view and narrational voice, a good trick since at least since Browning’s The Ring and the Book, handled here with gentle experimentation. (Read my previous posts on form. I’m deliberately speaking across the almost-universal desire to see this book as a ‘woman’s novel’ or as an anti-Mormon novel. It’s not. Men are allowed to weep over this book too. Mormons are welcome to read it.)

Carys thanked a lot of people, including Ailsa and myself, and began to defend the PhD novel and Creative Writing generally, as though Hanif Kurieshi himself, the CW-hating Professor of CW, the Buddha of Kingston, were in the room. For the record: he wasn’t. The room was, however, crowded with talented writers who either teach or have benefited from studying Creative Writing: Rodge Glass, Billy Cowan, Joanne Ashcroft, Patricia Farrell, Christine Riaz, Sarah Billington, Claire Massey (now Dean?), Carol Fenlon, Ailsa Cox, just to mention some of the Edge Hill ones; I spotted Cath Nichols and Sarah Dobbs in the distance too. Luckily Prof Kurieshi wasn’t there. Somebody might have come over all Fabricant. (Topical reference.)

Carys later told Patricia that she expected to be quizzed about this issue in her high-profile interviews, but hasn’t been (thus far). Her novel is dedicated to Ailsa and myself, and I cannot thank Carys enough for that, I found that deeply affecting, and she states boldly that her novel derives from her PhD studies in the acknowledgements. You may notice how many creative writers who have benefited from the academy fail to mention the fact in their biogs and blurbs. Imagine a painter not saying he or she studied at the RCA. But then ‘writing can’t be taught’ we keep being told (when ‘bee and chicken keeping’ (one of the oddest book categories in Broadhurst’s behind Carys’ head as she read), parenting, playing the bassoon, potty-use, sexual intercourse, nuclear physics and driving a car all can, though not together, of course).

Then we are told we turn out clones of our own work! Anybody reading this will gather that there’s not a lot of commonality between A Translated Man and A Song for Issy (expect they are both made up; yes, another media obsession: Carys’ novel is ‘autobiographical’, they say, as if to diminish its originality and artifice.) Nor is there much between Ailsa’s compact, jump-cut stories (read one here) and Carys’ equally compact but proportionate prose. (I could go on to demonstrate the point with reference to Joanne Ashcroft’s new poetry, for example.)

So: congratulations Carys! (And as my colleague Rodge Glass often puts it in emails: ‘Onwards!’) Here’s an account of the novel from Carys.


Diaristic musings: A bit of work: writing exercises; looking at The Drop (to be published by Oystercatcher next year); and ‘Petrarch 3’ in manuscript; Tim Atkins’ wonderful PETRARCH COLLECTED ATKINS (did he?) has arrived….  Then up to Southport with Patricia, the weather glorious. Southport was horrible, despite the sunshine and heat. The streets were clogged with obese people, the restaurants full of porkers chomping their way through triple-decker burgers, or guzzling gallons of fish-bone soup, and lots of lame people cluttering the otherwise impressive Parisian arcades (having trouble with my own feet means I noticed the unusually large proportion of crutch or cane carrying-promenaders, a lot of them of course ‘disabled’ by obesity, it has to be said against them). The sea is a mile away over the sand, a glimmering mirage. The real ale was terrible (except in Wetherspoons, where they even had an Arundel ale). The only bits we enjoyed were the corporate and stylised cool of Pizza Express and the emphatically non-corporate old school swelter of Broadhursts Bookshop itself, which we visited, silently noting the window-display of Carys’ novel, mid-afternoon, before the launch at 5.30. I hummed and harred over an early twentieth century biography of Verlaine, written by some pompous chap in government livery, in his misty photograph, but decided (regretfully) against it.

After the reading we had a good and animated chat with colleagues, students, ex-students and friends (overlapping categories to be sure), before heading back to civilisation, Liverpool, generally, and The Lion, more particularly, with its excellent The Lion Returns ale and pork pies, its tiled décor, and the cheeky-winky eye of George Formby wishing us ‘Best Wishes’ (autographed) from the wall. George rather than Formby, I think.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Robert Sheppard The Meaning of Form: forms and forming in contemporary innovative poetry (Summary and Weblinks)

I have been writing a study of the forms of recent innovative poetries (mainly British but with some international poets), which is underlined by a conception of form itself, that emphasises form not as a vessel to contain its contents, but as a readerly process of forming which is already meaningful, and which brings the text into existence. I have been using this blog as a machine for thinking through some of the implications of this, by posting early thoughts, dry-runs, practice-led spin-offs, some recovered earlier texts, some discarded passages, and even a few completed fragments of the book. Here’s a summary of the main argument which lies behind many of the existing posts. 

Instrumentalist studies of literature abound, which offer readings in terms of socio-historical, contextual issues, ‘issues’ of gender, sexuality, space, place, spectrality, etc. However, to successfully engage in the reading of poetry – and particularly the reading of ‘difficult’ contemporary poetry – means to necessarily engage with the forms of the artifice employed and (at a level of some remove) with the notion of ‘form’ itself. There are, of course, readings of poetic form, but they either tend to cling to the vestigial decencies of New Critical practice or are technical, as in most work on prosody, which seems a descendent of even older philological scholarship. 

The study of what has come to be called ‘linguistically innovative poetry’ has not been given to instrumentalist readings, as it happens, but there has yet to be a study which combines the already close textual reading common within this field with the work of the so-called New Formalist critics, who have spearheaded a cleansing operation within the field of Romantic Studies, where New Historicist and other contextual methods, once held sway over the corpus. The leading theorist of this group, Susan J. Wolfson, states: ‘My deepest claim is that language shaped by poetic form is not simply conscriptable as information for other frameworks of analysis; the forms themselves demand a specific kind of critical attention.’

My approach derives from my axiomatic contention that poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form. Instead of an historical reading of the kinds of alternative British poetries under the label ‘linguistically innovative’ (my previous volumes The Poetry of Saying (Liverpool University Press, 2005) and When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry (Shearsman, 2011) offered this and more), this investigation argues that the attention of any formal study of contemporary poetry must be dual. It must focus on form in the technical sense, on identifiable forms in play (enjambment, line, rhythm, rhyme, etc.), and on form in a general, more performative sense, that prioritises acts of forming and our apprehension of their coming to form. Forms and forming I call this pair for ease. Associating one with the other, Derek Attridge in The Singularity of Literature argues that form is the force that stages a performance of any text: we need to apprehend ‘the eventness of the literary work, which means that form needs to be understood verbally – as ‘taking form”, of “forming”, or even “loosing form”’,  but he insists that the devices of artifice ‘are precisely what call forth the performative response’ of any engaged reader, directly connected to the event of singularity which is the irruption of an inventive otherness in our productive reading.

Both types of form are capable of carrying a semantic or cognitive charge, demonstrating that forms think. They contain or envelop meaning(s) of knowledge(s) and might show how new meaning and (non-propositional) knowledge might be formed and formulated. As such, aesthetic form carries a force operating on the individual (or collective) reader or viewer, which – in the case of poetry – means that the reader is the site where such meanings are staged by form, so that reading is formulating form, and formulating it into fluxing semantic and cognitive forms as a ‘performed mobility’. Wolfson even writes that literature lovers ‘respond to forms as a kind of content’. Formal considerations of both kinds (forms and forming) are engaged by active reading and enact meanings that moderate, exacerbate, subvert (and on rare occasions reinforce) the kind of extractable meaning that Forrest-Thomson and Attridge both decry as ‘paraphrase’. If apprehension of form is not, or not only, a matter of collecting the devices of poetic artifice, of forms, but a question of entering into the process by which the text finds form in our reading, as forming, there can be, strictly, no paraphrase; indeed, paraphrase, a mode by which meaning is supposedly skimmed off the surface of reading as a residue or even an essence, or worse, a ‘political’ slogan, is a violation of the processes of forms forming. Paraphrase is amnesia of form.

Although ‘the vitality of reading for form is freedom from program and manifesto, from any uniform discipline,’ as Wolfson has it, this volume will demonstrate how ‘issues’ may be read in literary works, ‘through’ form and not as an avoidance of it. ‘Formalist’ has a bad press when it seems to imply autonomist or aestheticist remove, but a poem is opened up to the world only through its form. While there will be some contextual information presented, thinking about poems and thinking about form, particularly through its evanescent cognitive content, will be the main focus.

My previous studies have taken historical and ethical approaches to these writers and my criticism has always been informed (tacitly) by my own work as a poet, and by my interest in poetics as a speculative writerly discourse. I have a particular interest in the wily and even self-deceptive way writers talk to themselves through poetics, and this requires a reading that does not reduce its conjectural nature and function to intentional statements or ersatz literary criticism. Poetics arises as an incidental activity of poets throughout and will be addressed directly as text in several parts. Theorised close reading might be a thumbnail description of my method. I have decided to extend the range of my coverage of British poets and have not pursued some writers (Tom Raworth and Iain Sinclair, for example) whose work I have analysed in previous books and articles. Another aim of the book is to demonstrate the formal range of linguistically innovative poetry.

Readers of this book (and these posts) will find a challenging thesis about form (taken dually as identifiable devices of form and processes of forming) that may well influence their reading-processes on a permanent basis. This will be combined with discussions of important British (and some other) poets, most of whom are relatively well-known, others of whom are still emerging. The originality and marketability of the book is that it combines a summary of formalist and aestheticist thinking that is currently fashionable in one area of literary studies (Romanticism) and applies it to another (contemporary poetry) which has not hitherto been overly invaded by this mode of enquiry. It will therefore be of interest to those studying literary theory as well as those studying contemporary poetry. Its interest in form will draw in readers who are following theorists as various as Derek Attridge, T.W. Adorno, as well as the New Formalists and other aesthetic theorists, particularly those who argue the case increasingly for a cognitive function in formal elements.  

What follows is a list of contents with raw links (and references to a number of offline and print sources) to relevant pages on Pages. The final book may differ considerably from these passages, but you could read through the posts to get a glimpse of the rough thinking. Or scroll back through Pages pages until you reach August 2013. Or dip and sample. Or even follow a link and lose yourself.

The Meaning of Form

Introduction: Form’s Mordant Eye

See the above text and the first paragraph or two of this essay on John Seed:

Here are some posts grappling with the question of the cognitive function of form (some of which are linked to later chapters as well since this is a matter of conclusions as well as introductions):

 See review of On Form by Angela Leighton, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, Vol 3: No 1, March 2011: 63-66.

Chapter One: Convention and Constraint: Form in the Innovative Sonnet Sequence

See the 14 posts under that title that deliberately mime the structure of the sonnet. Very early thinking, very playful. Here’s a sonnet made of links:

Chapter 2 Artifice, Artifact and Artificer: Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Christopher Middleton

See ‘Linguistically Wounded: The Poetical Scholarship of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’ in ed. Turley, Richard Margraf, The Writer in the Academy: Creative Interfrictions, Essays and Studies 2011. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011: 133-55. [article, published] and parts of Poetics as Conjecture and Provocation: an inaugural lecture delivered on 13 March 2007 at Edge Hill University’, New Writing. Vol 5: 1 (2008): 3-26.

Chapter 3. Rosmarie Waldrop: Form, what one can work on

Some introductory remarks about her poetics:

Chapter 4. The Trace of Poetry and the Non-Poetic: Conceptual Writing and Appropriation in Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place and John Seed

Chapter 5. Stefan Themerson: Iconopoeia and Thought-Experiments in the Theatre of Semantic Poetry

See ‘Stefan Themerson and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry’. in eds. Blaim, Ludmiły Gruszewskiej, and David, Malcolm (eds.), Eseje o Współczesnej Poezji Brytyjskiej i Irlandzkiej, Volume 5: Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego,Ludmi: 245-262.

Chapter 6. Translation as Transformation: Tim Atkins’ and Peter Hughes’ Petrarch

Thoughts on ‘Petrarch 3’ (and some attention to my later many versions of this one sonnet):

Chapter 7. Geraldine Monk’s poetics and performance: Catching Form in the Act

Read these posts on Monk’s poetics text Transubstantiation of the Text:

These posts are on music (and on an abandoned project on poetry and jazz) and on Monk’s collaborations with Martin Archer and Julie Tippetts:

Chapter 8. Meddling the Medieval: Caroline Bergvall and Erín Moire

A game of two halves:

Chapter 9. The Making of the Book: Bill Griffiths and Allen Fisher

On small presses (part of my Keynote Talk to the Small Press conference in Salford, which does not survive into the book):

On Bill Griffiths’ The Book of the Boat:

On Fisher’s Proposals:

Chapter 10. Translation as Occupation: Simon Perril and Sean Bonney

A game of three halves it seems:

Chapter 11 and Conclusion: Form, Forms and Forming and the Antagonisms of Reality: Barry MacSweeney’s Sin Signs

The Theory of Form, Autonomy and Art:

On Barry MacSweeney’s works of the 1970s:

And finally...

For a general resumé of everything I’m up to, research-wise, watch the video at the bottom of my work webpage, here. Scroll down to find it. It’s only 2 and a half minutes long. I can’t embed it here, for some reason.

For a piece on the nature of POETICS read an early version of The Necessity of Poetics at

or at

If anybody wants to contact me about matters relating to these posts (or others!) my institutional email is

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Robert Sheppard: The Tight Little Paragraph for my Introduction on Form, Cognition and Material Engagement

This is how the contents of the previous two posts (here and here) were chanelled  into a concise paragraph for my work in form. There is some repetition but I thought a few people might be interested in how I square my circles. RS

………………………………………………………experience.’ (Jarvis 2011: 7) His first axiom is that ‘technique is the way art thinks’ (Jarvis 2011: 7). Elsewhere in an incidental attack on Creative Writing workshop methodology, Jarvis affirms that ‘Technique … is itself cognitive and critical, not purely instrumental craft’, which broadens his analysis to all levels of artifice and form, and to poesis and praxis generally. [1] (Jarvis 1998b: 108) In other words, ‘technique knows something about the world. Yet it knows it, Adorno suggests, just by the most obsessive, and perhaps even the most fetishistic and solipsistic, absorption in its own proper stuff,’ that is, in its form. (Jarvis 2011: 7) Form, Adorno reminds us, is ‘the objective organisation within each artwork of what appears to be bindingly eloquent’, but it has an eloquence of its own. (Adorno 2002: 143)
To regard cognition as having independent existence outside the brain, inherent in things in general (or in form in particular), is not a mystical or magical formulation. Indeed it can be conceived of as a variety of ‘material engagement’ in the light of a cognitive theory that takes that very name as its own. Lambros Malafouris’ How Things Shape the Mind (2013) contrasts internalist views of mind, in which a Cartesian entity computes and calibrates a world it cannot enter, with his own externalist one that recognises ‘the intersection between cognition and material culture’, (Malafouris 2013: 17) that sees the mind as engaging, and interacting with, learning from and with, the world, entering it via means of what he calls ‘the extended mind’. (Malafouris 2013: 17) ‘For active externalism, marks made with a pen on paper are not an ongoing external record of the contents of mental states; they are an extension of those states.’ (Malafouris 2013: 74) It follows that ‘Cognition has no location,’ or not fixed location between brains and things. (Malafouris 2013: 85) Malafouris is an archaeologist and his examples are prehistoric as well as historic. ‘Mark-making action and thinking are the same,’ he remarks of early stone inscriptions (Malafouris 2013: 190) which, he points out with care, may not have originally been depictions; the marks and lines may ‘externalize nothing but the very process of externalization’, pure external cognition. As such artefactual actions developed towards depiction (over breathtaking lengths of time) ‘those early pictures bring forth a new process of acting within this world and, at the same time, thinking about it’. (Malafouris 2013: 203) This is nothing less than a story about how we became human (and how we know we are human), through the agency of this radical interpenetration of mind and world: ‘Our ways of thinking are not merely causally dependent upon but constituted by extracranial bodily processes and material artefacts.’ (Malafouris 2013: 227) But things are also mobile, though their affective states have remained largely unrecognised by the social sciences until now. ‘The sensual properties of things and the aesthetic experience of things permeate every aspect of our cognitive activities and permeate our social and emotional relationships.’ (Malafouris 2013: 87)  The uses of objects in mourning, or the uses of religious ikons to access absent beings or to concretize abstract entities, are powerful examples. Arguably a literary work might be one of those objects, and its formal properties, its form, could be thought of in this way as a material cognitive entity. When Malafouris comments that ‘Meaning does not reside in the material sign; it emerges from the various parameters of its performance and usage as they are actualized in the process of engagement,’ he sounds distinctly like Derek Attridge on the way we form objects as art. (Malafouris 2013: 117) More importantly, and from the position of poesis, ‘“Form” is always “informed” by the properties of the material to which it gives shape.’ (Malafouris 2013: 177) The result of this, in the case of a potter, is revelatory. ‘The being of the potter,’ as Malafouris nicely puts it, ‘is co-dependent and interweaved with the becoming of the pot.’ (Malafouris 2013: 212) The cognition of the potter, and even his or her neural pathways, are changed by the cognitive function of the artefact. Form in a literary work is arguably cognitive – whether through de Bolla’s active aesthetic experiencing, Wood’s ‘hunch’ about knowing forms, or Jarvis’ affective prosody – through the processes of material engagement, through the apprehension of actual forms that embody cognition and through a reader’s involvement in perceptible acts of forming.[2]
            Angela Leighton’s On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (2007) has the benefit of coming relatively late to the debate and she judiciously accounts for Wolfson, de Bolla, Attridge and Wood. (It is perhaps symptomatic of the state of current British criticism that the sources referred to above connected with linguistically innovative poetry, Forrest-Thomson, Bernstein, and Jarvis, seem beyond her scope.) Her book offers useful readings of the history of the term form and of…………………………………………………………………………

Quite a lot of this 'work on form' as I call it above has appeared on this blog and a description of it and links to all the posts in order may be found here.

[1] Jarvis identifies another instrumentalism to guard against, that of value-free reifications of technique, particularly in terms of discussions of poesis and in the teaching of creative writing.
There are some unresolved problems with his theory, and they emerge from his study of the poesis of contemporary potters. Unaware of the ‘decisions’ made, the potter nevertheless declares that he or she made the pot. This is an ‘agency judgement’ and while artificers can conceive of the act as enactive, something happens to us in such an act and we nevertheless claim authorship. (Malafouris 2013: 218). ‘Unfortunately,’ laments Lambros, ‘although a good phenomenological description can pull us inside this seamless flow of activity and agency, when we cut the flow and press the question of agency our inner Cartesian self or “interpreter” wakes up to take control of the situation.’ (Malafouris 2013: 220) If Malafouris is to ‘put back together’ the active and passive parts of a creative act, ‘and account for their ongoing and irreducible causal coupling’ he admits, ‘it remains to be seen whether agency can offer a way to bridge the neural and cultural correlates of our bodily selves’. (Malafouris 2013: 226) He is still inspired by a ‘vision of the cognitive life of things’ which involves ‘the distributed and compositionally plastic image of the potter skillfully engaging the clay’, rather than by ‘the linear architecture of a Turing machine’, but admits to not having forged that link in his work thus far. (Malafouris 2013: 238) I should also record that the discovery of Malafouris’ book occurred late in the writing of this book.

Work Cited

Malafouris, Lambros. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2013.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Engaging with How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement by Lambros Malafouris

Fast forward to 13.00 minutes to hear Lambros Malafournis talking about Material Engagement.

On April 30th I went to FACT to attend part of the Torque Symposium ('a day of talks, films and debate, exploring the twisting together of mind, technology and language') co-organised by Nathan Jones, one of my co-organisers of the Storm and Golden Sky readings. It was a relief to find a general sense today of a more interactive notion of human agency among the cybernetic environment, neither utopian nor dystopian. It was for this line of thinking that they invited Lambros Malafouris to speak, and speak he did. As an archaeologist he took the long view – and took a long time. Twenty minutes was clearly not long enough to articulate what was clearly an argument for the re-location of mind from the brain into the environment, a theory of embodied engagement that immediately excited me. As he writes, and may well have said: ‘Our ways of thinking are not merely causally dependent upon but constituted by extracranial bodily processes and material artefacts.’ (Malafouris 2013: 227) In short, and in Jonathan Kingdom’s differently spelt words, humans are ‘artefacts of their own artefacts’. (Malafouris 2013: 231)

Perhaps it stirred something in the archaeology of my own cognition; it took me back to my earliest theoretical days of PhD study (very early 80s), reading Merleau-Ponty, Polyani, Popper and (to a lesser extent) Gregory Bateson, reading that was supplanted quickly by the classics of the post-structuralist revolution, but leaving behind traces: a fondness for phenomenological terminology, the thought of knowledge as personal and integrated and interrelated; and I even recently marshalled Popper in an argument against self-expression in art (here). Those thinkers changed things at a deep structure in a way that (perhaps I’m recognising this for the first time) Derrida and Deleuze never did (though Lyotard and Guattari stuck in parts). In the arguments of Lambros Malafouris I sensed something similar. I didn’t immediately think of an application in my current work on form as forms and acts of forming, work in which old discoveries, like Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Herbert Marcuse, even Yuri Lotman, rub shoulders with newer ones, like Rancière, Susan Wolfson, and Derek Attridge, particularly the latter’s singular The Singularity of Literature which should be read by everyone who makes or receives art. Adorno must belong to some putative middle-period, but he’s there still, casting the dark drape of history over aesthetic utopia. Most of these last names have appeared in posts made here between August 2013 and now. This list is just to clarify, for myself, perhaps, a phenomenology of intellectual influences, to which I think – with a sense that I should return to Merleau-Ponty, Polanyi and Bateson, all three offering the riddle of the blind man’s stick to open the question of where cognition ends – that Lambros Malafouris will be added. I felt the same when I read Doreen Massey's for space.

I left FACT for work. (I had a final evening session of the MA in Creative Writing to run, where we, ironically, all had to expound upon something we’d read that had made us write. I talked about the Petrarch work,both my essay and the ‘Petrarch 3’ poems that followed; my diary records I read my unsavoury Jimmy Savile poem, which had persuaded me to stop this Oulipean versioning, as I told my students.) The first thing I did at Edge Hill was order Malafouris’ new book through interlibrary loan. The first thing I did when I received it was to buy a copy. I sensed that this book, supposedly a volume of ‘cognitive science/archaeology’ according to its back cover, would require a longer read, and would be an influence on my thinking: about thinking (‘metacognition’ as he calls it), about perception, about pre-history and history, about art and artefacts, about poesis and poetics, about writing, about creativity, and even about the teaching of creative writing… Partly this has to do with the fact that, even if every hypothesis he furnishes is wrong, the breadth of knowledge (and, I emphasise, despite my looking back to Merleau-Ponty and co, with whom he kicks off) recent knowledge in many fields that he opens up, is valuable in its own right. It’s a bit of a relief to be delivered from an intellectual environment in which people (including myself) are still spouting Roland Barthes as though it was the Last Word (no harm meant to the old aesthete there!).

To summarise HowThings Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement (MIT Press, 2013) is quite difficult, given how tightly written it is, so I’m not going to attempt that. I’m going to extract his main hypotheses and articulate them. At the back of my mind is whether I can use this material to integrate it into a reading of the cognitive nature of form (material from current researches outlined here).

The blind man’s stick is a fairly mundane example of the ‘zone of material engagement, i.e. the zone in which brains, bodies, and things conflate, mutually catalyzing and constituting one another’. (Malafouris 2013: 5). Internalist views of mind are contrasted with operations in this zone at ‘the intersection between cognition and material culture’, and externalist views are entertained, involving theories of ‘the extended mind, the active sign, and material agency’. (17) ‘For active externalism, marks made with a pen on paper are not an ongoing external record of the contents of mental states’ – which is a widely held belief now – ‘they are an extension of those states’, like the blind man’s stick. (74) ‘Cognition has no location,’ he observes. (85) But things are also mobile, their affective states largely unrecognised by various social sciences, ‘The sensual properties of things and the aesthetic experience of things permeate every aspect of our cognitive activities and permeate our social and emotional relationships.’ (87)  The use of objects in mourning, or the use of religious ikons to access absent beings or to concretize abstract entities, would be powerful examples. (Would a poem?) Discussing what he calls the enactive sign, Malafouris reminds us: ‘Cultural things provide the mediational means to domesticate the embodied imagination.’ (105) It is worth noting that he prefers a Peircian semiotics to a Saussaurean model and rejects the linguistic analogy that has been both generational and distorting for the social sciences, the notion that ‘X’ is structured like a language, for example.

It is surprising, given Malafouris’ range (from sociology to neuro-science, for example), that he doesn’t make some supportive use of Bakhtin (or Vološinov). However, when he says, ‘Meaning does not reside in the material sign; it emerges from the various parameters of its performance and usage as they are actualized in the process of engagement,’ (117) he sounds like an unconscious echo of Derek Attridge on forming objects in our perception of them as art. This is encouraging for me, but we mustn’t lose the big picture.

‘Material signs do not represent; they enact.’ (118) Malafouris is suspicious of representation, largely I think because of its use in internalist neuro-science to describe the mind looking out at the world in a detached Cartesian way; it kind of scribbles down an image of the outside, in a philosophic version of locked-in syndrome, monadic, instead of engaging with, and interacting with, learning from and with, it. Indeed, one of the cornerstones of his Material Engagement Theory is expressed by Malafouris in his frequent enaction of italics: ‘If there is such a thing as human agency, then there is material agency; there is no way human and material agency can be disentangled.’ (119) ‘Agency and intentionality’ belong exclusively to neither humans nor objects; ‘they are emergent properties of material engagement’ (149) for homo faber, as he wishes to designate human kind. (154) What this human kind makes is tools, of course, which he dubs ‘enactive prostheses’. (154) Well and good, although agency and intentionality cause him some problems later on.

Malafouris is an archaeologist and his quest for the cognitive function of things is part of his quest to discover when that faculty was born and how it was born, and he has to counter a number of orthodoxies, which I am going to leave to one side for the sake of expository clarity, as I am going to leave much of his specific archaeological evidence alone. However one example is instructive to summary. ‘Knapping stone’ in pre-history is regarded as ‘an act of thought – that is, a cognitive process that criss-crosses the boundaries of skin and skull, since its effective implementation involves elements that extend beyond the purely “mental” or “neural”… The flaking intention is constituted, at least partially, by the stone and the marks left on its surface.’ (19)  How does this happen? (Or did.) Malafouris is particularly helpful with this example (with diagrams as well as words, some of which he used as slides at FACT and on the video above). ‘Intention .. comes … in the action…’ as the stone and knapper take turns to become the extension of the other. ‘The stone projects toward the knapper as much as the knapper projects towards the stone, and together they delineate the cognitive map of what we may call an extended intentional state. The knapper first thinks through and with the stone before being able to think about the stone and hence about himself as a conscious and reflectively aware agent.’ (176) Metacognition was achieved. Consciousness at this point changed, and perhaps even the brain changed. (Malaforouris makes use of some studies that show that taxi drivers and habitual musicians develop different neural pathways to those not driving or playing. ‘Things change the brain. They effect extensive rewiring by fine tuning existing brain pathways, by generating new connections … or by transforming what was a useful brain function in one context into another.’ (247) What must be happening to writers, I wonder, speaking as one and as the teacher of hundreds? As he says of visual art: ‘The artist’s sketchpad isn’t just a storage vehicle for externalizing pre-existing visual images; it is a tightly coupled and intrinsic part of artistic cognition itself.’ Ditto the acct of writing. (237))

Interestingly for my project this has a formal aspect. ‘Form is not imposed from the outside; it is, rather, brought forth or revealed from the inside. What we call “form” exists as a surface property rather than a static mental event. It exists,’ as we might expect now, ‘where the projective mind meets the material at hand … More importantly, “form” is always “informed” by the properties of the material to which it gives shape.’ (177) Of course, Malafouris’ main point is that cognition develops in interaction with the external world, and it is a good one, but ‘surface property’ probably sells form short in the sense in which I am developing it. An artefact is produced in dialogue. ‘Mark-making action and thinking are the same,’ he remarks of early inscriptions, (190) which, he points out with care, may not have originally been depictions; the marks and lines may ‘externalize nothing but the very process of externalization’ which would develop into depictions (over breathtaking lengths of time). Even then, ‘those early pictures bring forth a new process of acting within this world and, at the same time, thinking about it’. (203) This is nothing less than a story about how we became human (and how we know we are human).

It is also about how we are still human (rather than post-human as some of the contributors to the FACT symposium went on to tell us, having not learnt that man has always been a cyborg, and doesn’t need to throw himself down that stairwell). Malafouris has been watching contemporary potters (doubtless he is drawn to pottery for its archaeological parallels, though he doesn’t say so, but the actions he describes are happening in the present). ‘The being of the potter,’ he rather nicely puts it, ‘is co-dependent and interweaved with the becoming of the pot.’ (212) We really can’t tell the dancer from the dance, as Yeats suggested, or perhaps even the poet from the poem. To do so is to question, or complicate, the kind of causality that any creative artist lays claim to when he or she authors, or claims to author, an artefact. (Leach made this pot; Jo Blowers danced that dance; Yeats wrote that poem. Interestingly, Attridge argues that it is important for us to regard an artistic work as authored.) This is a question of agency too, and it is not clear how causality works here. In fact, at this point in the argument it becomes more conjectural and even morally complicated. ‘Discerning the causal links and determining the direction of causality is not as direct and straightforward as we might initially think. The wheel … subsume(s) the plans of the potter and itself define(s) the contours of activity.’ (217) A good potter, of course, would know this and use ‘this self-as-agent knowledge … to fill in or interpret the gray zones in the phenomenal experience of action.’ (217) Unaware of the ‘decisions’ made, the potter nevertheless declares that he or she made the pot. This is an ‘agency judgement’ and while artificers can conceive of the act as enactive, something happens to us in such an act and we nevertheless claim authorship. (218) ‘Unfortunately,’ laments Lambros, ‘although a good phenomenological description can pull us inside this seamless flow of activity and agency,’ which is what we get, with increasing intensity throughout the book, ‘when we cut the flow and press the question of agency our inner Cartesian self or “interpreter” wakes up to take control of the situation.’ (220) This is true: I claim to play That’s Life; I don’t claim it on the guitar’s behalf. That’s life I guess and the question of agency in the case of man + gun = gunman is raised and leaves a perturbing conclusion: ‘Action involves a coalescence of human and non-human elements, and thus responsibility for action must be shared among those elements.’ (221) A round of applause for my guitar; life without the possibility of parole (I watch too much FBI Files) for the gun.

The conclusion to the chapter dealing with the potter (which may be read here in an earlier version) is more tentative than for others. ‘Some of the most interesting questions about agency in the context of embodied mediated action can be found only “in the wild”,’ (226) he says, for example in the distinction drawn between ownership and agency in the potter’s (and clay’s) actions. ‘Although an experienced potter immersed in the shaping of a vessel will often report that the sense of ownership (that is, the sense that it is his hands that touch and move the clay) is experienced throughout the activity, the sense of agency (that is, the feeling that it is he that is causing the movement) is often disrupted.’ (224) He or she owns his or her body but is not always conscious of its actions. If Malafouris is to ‘put back together’ the active and passive parts of a creative act, ‘and account for their ongoing and irreducible causal coupling’ he admits, ‘it remains to be seen whether agency can offer a way to bridge the neural and cultural correlates of our bodily selves’. (226) He is still inspired by a ‘vision of the cognitive life of things’ which involves ‘the distributed and compositionally plastic image of the potter skillfully engaging the clay’, rather than by ‘the linear architecture of a Turing machine’, but admits to not having forged that link. (238) ‘It remains to be seen,’ is, I hope, a passive formulation to indicate that this research has not yet been done and that Malafouris will conduct, or inspire, it.

In terms of my work on cognitive form I can argue that to regard cognition as being capable of existing outside the brain is not a mystical or magical formulation, indeed it can be conceived of as a variety of ‘material engagement’ in the light of this theory that takes that very name as its own. But that’s a separate argument (and an opening sentence). It’s the next argument and (I should say) only one of the speculative branches of thought that have been provoked by my engagement with the thing that is Malafouris’ book, with which (I should also say) I have not completed my engagement or it its enactment with me.

The Book: The Man
(To access a description of my current project, and to access all the links to posts on Pages relating to The Meaning of Form, click here.)