[Wgcp-whc] WGCP--Minutes on Shadowtime and what's to come

richard.deming at yale.edu richard.deming at yale.edu
Sat Mar 8 16:18:43 EST 2008

Dear All?

I write to present a bit belatedly the minutes from the previous session of the
Working Seminar in Contemporary Poetics (held on Friday February 15th).  This
session was devoted to Charles Bernstein?s Shadowtime to correlate with a
talk presented by Marjorie Perloff to the English Department.  Professor
Perloff had originally been scheduled to present on Shadowtime but changed her
focus to Walter Benjamin?s Arcades Project and its relevance to a poetics of
assemblage.  I will give just the briefest gloss of Professor Perloff?s talk
at the end.

The session on Shadowtime worked as a strong sequel to our discussion of the
Blaise Cendrars/ Sonia Delauney collaboration of the seminal artist book La
Prose du Transsibérien.  In our earlier discussion, we discussed what it means
to separate the visual and the textual elements, if it was even possible.  Or is
the text dependant on the interface/interaction of these constituent elements? 
We talked about the ways that the different grammars and discourses of art and
literature in engaging this piece worked both in conjunction and at
cross-purposes so as to destabilize conventional reading practices and indeed
shows these practices as being conventional and determined.

In the case of Shadowtime, the question that was posed and that we kept
returning to was what it meant to separate the libretto (Bernstein?s text)
from the music of the opera by Brian Ferneyhough, a leading composer of
contemporary music, of which it was part.  Although we thought ultimately we
could put the question aside in that the text was published separately and
because Bernstein had been reading excerpts of Shadowtime for years?thereby
providing authorial insistence tat the work could and should be considered on
its own?it was a question that we would return to as the music (which none of
the group had heard) might help determine even the way that the poem would be
voiced (simultaneously or in sections).  The element of knowing dramatically
who spoke when (and what else might be occurring in and at the moment) did
introduce the idea of temporality.  Since texts are read sequentially (one word
after another, even if the syntactical chain or logical progression is thrown
into question), the fact that at times Shadowtime seems to insist on a
simultaneity of voices (words being delivered at the same time) troubles the
temporal situation of the text.  Perhaps this temporality cannot be overcome by
reading (aloud or quietly to oneself) ad yet the text in and of itself brings
that problem forward. Given the work?s title, it is perhaps no surprise that
one of the issues it tackles is time and sequence.

I will quote here an excerpt of interview available online in which Bernstein
discusses the tension between the libretto and it place within the opera:

 ?The Doctrine of Similarity,? Scene III, is the first section I heard
performed. In the libretto, Scene III has very little in the way of
mise-en-scene, or imagined action, or voiced characters. It is a set of 13
texts (canons as we call them) of various lengths, connected through thematic
and numeric associations. It?s close to a serial poem, and is as far from the
text of a dramatic opera as is Brian?s wordless Scene II. My approach was to
leave things wide open, and very various, for Brian. The texts could be set in
many different ways. I remember once asking Brian what the relation of my own
performance of the libretto of Shadowtime?I had sent him a tape of a reading
I gave from the libretto?would be to that of the text as performed in the
opera. He answered: none. I loved that response because it meant that what he
wanted to do would not be possible within the confines of a solo voice
recitation, which I am well able to do on my own. This was going to go
somewhere else, something I could not imagine. I was not disappointed. For one
thing, and I find this one of the most remarkable aspects of the vocal setting
in Shadowtime, Brian has sometimes overlaid the text: different parts of the
libretto are sung simultaneously. So the verbal matter becomes part of the
acoustic layering of the sound composition. Eventually, if you know the words,
it might be possible to hear the distinct verbal strands, but in composite one
hears not the singular threads but their composite: so here is an example of
what I mentioned before, ?a chordal poetics in which synchronic notes meld
into diachronic tones.?

Given what Bernstein indicates here, we might then situate the problem of
temporality in reading within general ideas of translation (the moving of ideas
from one language into another being only a small part of what occurs in the act
of translating). How can the world?s (and experience) complex fullness be
represented in language when reading is sequential, locked in time, and so
forth.  Indeed, we discussed how Shadowtime itself clearly takes on as a
problem biography and representation within a given historical time (the
present) at a remove from the subject?s own moment and milieu (the past and,
in this case, Germany). Shadowtime is not a standard representation of the life
of Walter Benjamin.  Indeed, it very much prevents a reader from feeling as if
they learn about Benjamin directly in any transparent way.  Thus, Bernstein
does not attempt a mimetic representation of Benjamin.  Instead, he translates
the ideas in various ways, not the least of which is by way of Bernstein?s
characteristic interest in constraint driven writing.

This raised for us the question of what counts as ?about??on what is
?aboutness? determined. Would an opera based on Benjamin?s thought be
more or less faithful to that thought if it did not try to represent that life
in the accepted conventions of narrative and form. In this way, we discussed
how Bernstein takes seriously Benjamin?s ideas of translation and the way
that language is always partial and at a fallen state from language itself. 
Benjamin writes, in a passage we discussed during the session:
 . . . it is self-evident how greatly fidelity in reproducing the form impedes
the rendering of the sense. Thus no case for literalness can be based on a
desire to retain the meaning. Meaning is served far better -- and literature
and language far worse -- by the unrestrained license of bad translators. Of
necessity, therefore, the demand for literalness, whose justification is
obvious, whose legitimate ground is quite obscure, must be understood in a more
meaningful context. Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must
match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one
another. In the same way, a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of
the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original's mode of
signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable
as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.

In light of this, a chain of anagrams formed from the letters of Benjamin?s
name might be as aptly representative of the thinker as anything else.  Thus,
if Bernstein?s rendering of Benjamin is significantly ?Bernsteinian,?
then that puts in well in line of Benjamin?s thinking.  In a paradoxical way,
distance is more apt then a false proximity.

As you can see, this is a remarkably complicated text and the issues it brings
to the fore are not minor. We registered how Bernstein?s text often
registered a kind of emotional and ethical investment that isn?t always
immediately apparent within his poems themselves.

Professor Perloff?s discussion was fascinating in the ways that she argued
that Language Poetry is a finished project and one that may not have escaped
its moment in time.  She reads language poetry has being as insistent on
original genius?despite its emphasis on programmatic estrangement of
language.  Her talk was the introduction to her forthcoming book Unoriginal
Genius, which seems the strategies of appropriation and repetition on a figure
such as Kenneth Goldsmith as providing a way of poet?s to lay claim to the
language by which identity and subjectivity are fashioned.  For a fuller sense
of Goldsmith?s work see here: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/
Perloff argued that Benjamin?s sprawling opus, the Arcades Project, and its
collaging and assembling of materials was a historical corollary for the work
being done in conceptual poetry by Goldsmith or by Susan Howe and Bernstein. 
The poetics described works on the rearranging and appropriating of documents,
advertising, and other ?found? acts of language.

The next WGCP related event is the Conference Metaphor Taking Shape, which will
be held at the Beinecke on Thursday and Friday.  Unfortunately, registration
for that event is now closed. A blog conversation between members of the
publisher?s roundtable is on view here
http://publishersroundtable.wordpress.com/  This has a very compelling and
productive disagreement about artists books.

Also, the exhibition in connection with this conference (now on exhibit at the
Beinecke) will be closing as of March 15th, due to the Beinecke?s renovation.
 However, a podcast describing the exhibition is available here.


The next WGCP session will be Friday, March 28th.  For that session, we will be
reading work by Rachel Blau Duplessis.  We have ordered copies of her most
recent book of poems, Torques. That book should arrive any day, and I will
email a full biography of Duplessis at that time.  Though, just briefly I will
mention that she is one of the foremost poet/critics working in a specifically
feminist tradition.  We will read her poems and representative essays of hers
as well.  A link to her author page is here:

Again, I will give a fuller account of this in the next few days.

Richard Deming, Co-coordinator

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