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Friday, July 01, 2016

Robert Sheppard: Further Thoughts on John Seed: Punctum, Sincerity and Objectification

3.00-ish p.m. I almost doze off, but a magpie on the roof opposite keeps me from sinking under, just as at night it’s a particularly friendly fly, or the friendless sound of S. among his wine bottles, and so I lift my nodding head to the task of facing my John Seed essay. The essay is different from the chapter in The Meaning of Form which treats his documentary poetry as a foil to the increasingly teleologically self-serving poetics of conceptualism, and is destined for an edited volume on After Objectivism which is an important project (and one in which I feel it is important to single-handedly (?) hold up the British end of Objectivism).
Seed holding up the British end of Objectivism!
Previous posts have dealt with Seed (here and here and here), and I've covered some of this material on Objectivist poetics and Barthes' 'Punctum' here, but I'd forgotten that before I started work on this! My hub post (with its links to working notes) to the ‘The Meaning of Form’ project may be read here. (That should be published in August 2016.)

I am working on some revisions I have to make. They are not extensive, but they are crucial and involve the interinanimation of some terms, which I feel might be important for poetics (the speculative writerly discipline that I am more loyal to than I am to the essentially predatory discourse of literary criticism, which I wish to – in the words I used to somebody the other day – ‘go all Scott Walker on’ (meaning to renounce for long periods and not think about it, rather than give up altogether). To bounce back and ‘Bump the Beaky’ only when I want to (or the money is right; it never is). My next two non-creative projects are editorial anyway).

The terms are ‘sincerity’ and ‘objectification’, the Objectivist stalwarts, and ‘Punctum’ (and Studium’) from Barthes’ late and aestheticist Camera Lucida.

The fist pair obviously belong to the discourse of Objectivist poetics and in ‘Sincerity and Objectification’, Zukofsky defines the former quality by saying, ‘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’, while objectification relates to ‘the appearance of the art form as an object’. Well-known, if still slightly mysterious locutions.

But I quote Altieri also: ‘For Oppen, sincerity is above all an ethical term.’ Which then opens up to Tim Woods’ own redefinition of the two terms, which I also quote: he recasts the objectification and sincerity binary thus: ‘What this Objectivist poetics calls for, on the one hand, is a phenomenological concentration in its insistence that poetry must get at the object, at the thing itself, while on the other hand, it must remain “true” to the object without any interference from the imperialist ego, dismissing any essentialism and calling for the “wisdom” of love or sincerity.’ As Woods explains, the first involves an ‘ontological poetics’ while the second involves an ‘ethical relation to the world’.

None of these quotations occur together in the way I’ve accumulated them here, but they form a skein of association across the essay. BOTH sincerity and objectification are ethical in these interinanimating readings, though sincerity could be ontological as well. But shouldn’t ‘objectification’ (with its sense of seeing a poem as an object) also be ontological? ‘Only objectification can body forth “sincerity”,' I say, as though this were The Meaning of Form and I were discussing form and content. Yet the tone is more like the ethical poetics of The Poetry of Saying. What am I saying?  

Or again, Woods has another go at definition: ‘Sincerity is that aspect of aesthetic action that respects the particulars of an object,’ reminding us that ‘sincerity’ is not detached, in this context, from the text and text-production, while ‘Objectification … is the “formal” aspect, the poem as object-in-the-world.’

Fine, as far as it goes, and these quotations and their embodied ideas may well have been useful for a discussion of Seed’s documentary work, both early (Manchester) and late (The Mayhew Project and Smoke Rising¸ which was published after I’d written this article).

But in the introduction to Manchester, Seed introduces other thinkers, Basil Bernstein (whose contribution about enjambment is suggestive, but not in need of revisiting) and Barthes.

Of Roland Barthes’ distinction between ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ which he draws in Camera Lucida (1980), Seed only discusses the latter: ‘Through the individual photograph something shoots out at the perceiver like an arrow, pierces and wounds him.’ He then quotes Barthes: ‘A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’.

For convenience’s sake, the studium is the studious. The culturally acquired. ..

I like this distinction. Who wouldn’t want the quality which Barthes calls ‘punctum’ in a poem that one has written. Rephrase it yourself, myself: ‘Through the individual poem something shoots out at the reader or listener like an arrow, pierces and wounds her.’ Barthes didn’t say: ‘A poem’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’, though he did liken its photographic effect to a haiku (so there is an element of poeticality in it).

Then I go and spoil it all by saying somethin’ stupid like: ‘Punctum’ is where sincerity meets objectification. 

Door slam: 15.41. Sunny outside, post summer-shower.

What a promise I’ve made to the reader.

Formulation 1: The shockless prick of punctum is where the ‘writing which is the detail … of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody’ meets ‘the appearance’ (i.e. its showing) ‘of the art form as an object’.

Formulation 2: The shockless prick of punctum is where the ‘phenomenological concentration in its insistence that’ a poem ‘must get at the object, at the thing itself,’ connects with the process by which a poem remains ‘“true” to the object without any interference from the imperialist ego, dismissing any essentialism and calling for the “wisdom” of love or sincerity’.

(‘Meets’: that Lee Harwood word.)

Formulation 1 re-form-ulated: Punctum occurs at the moment where or when the text which ‘think(s) with the things as they exist’ and which is simultaneously musicated in literary form, meets the coming into being of the art work as objective form. The studium would involve a similar meeting, but without the paradoxical sense that it is ‘what I add to the photograph (or poem, in my shameless re-writing) and what is nonetheless already there.

Formulation 2 re-formu-lated: Punctum is where the ontological sense that a poem encapsulates the thing itself, connects with the process by which a poem remains ‘“true” to the object and ‘calls for the “wisdom” of love or sincerity’. And again: The studium would involve a similar meeting, but without the paradoxical sense that it is ‘what I add to the photograph (or poem, in my shameless re-writing) and what is nonetheless already there.

The second reformulation is clumsy, undigested, but I can live with these, although I believe such formulations lie within the realm of poetics (one doesn’t have to prove them as a speculative discourse), rather than literary criticism (though they have their place in literary theory, if that still exists). (Zukofsky’s piece is, of course, from one of the finest of 20th Century poetics.)   

NB: Barthes presents Punctum as a paradox: ‘what I add to the photograph (or poem) and what is nonetheless already there.’ That makes it dually realisable in the act of reading (which, after Derek Attridge, is an act of making form, forming, on the part of the reader). I suspect this latest essay on Seed wouldn’t resist the onslaught of all that material from The Meaning of Form – hence my trying to isolate these single themes. Important enough on their own, without bringing all that in.

4.15: Time for a walk around the lake in Greenbank Park. When I come back, what sense of it will I make? This:

'Punctum’ is where sincerity meets objectification. It occurs at the moment where or when the text which ‘think(s) with the things as they exist’ and which is simultaneously musicated in literary form, where or when the ontological sense that a poem successfully encapsulates the thing itself, is energised by the process of the poem coming into being as objective form (in the formulating act of reading).

Maybe I’ll have to leave that final parenthesis out (for the reasons expressed concerning The Meaning of Form). Or say it separately:


A more complex formulation than the distinction between form and content, objectification as the process of bringing the poem as an object into phenomenological existence (through the active formulating engagement of the reader); Zukofsky’s word ‘appearance’ is suggestive of this eruption of the poem into existence (i.e, ‘appearance’ does not simply refer to the look of the poem on the page, however important that is for Seed and others). 


And here is another way of reading the poems of the ‘Mayhew Project’ as I call it (and write here):

But the poems also assert a triumphant transformation of their materials, as they capture the [historical] particulars with care and attention, and body them forth in objectified formal structures that carry what Tim Woods calls ‘the “wisdom” of love or sincerity’.

About my recent creative work, which engages me much more these days, perhaps always did, see here.