Date: Tue, 10 Dec 2002
Subject: my dog ate the first 17 pages in my copy of Daniel Davidson's Culture


Well, then, I guess what you're saying is [turn on your speakers for sound clip]--- "If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding / How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?" (Pink Floyd's "The Wall")

gpsullivan@HOTMAIL.COM wrote:

> Like having a discussion about a punchline without taking into account the rest of the joke. <

Funny you should say that: I just sent a manuscript off to an open call for submissions, and the opening poem in the book, "Sound Effects," begins:

A man goes into a bar. There's a dog
standing on its hind legs behind the bar,
polishing shotglasses on an apron it wears.

Elected officials should stop leaking news items
to the press if they're unwilling to face
spuming branding irons poised to set fire
to their front gates, stamping searing ensignias
into bleached acacia wood. . . .

The opening lines (tercet) are borrowed from the beginning of numerous commonly told jokes (leading into a sort of illustrated cocktail napkin cartoon, and then veering off elsewhere [into--- the political?!]) without bothering ever to return to or even consider the ~possibility~ of a punch line.

So, on some level, yeah, I am all too willing to discuss punchlines without taking into account the rest of the joke. And vice-versa. (…Although I think your metaphor is sort of flipflopped, proportionately.) I read a book about Aesop's fables which assessed which ones might actually have been the "original" fables and which were the imitative genre that came after it, and the book totally excluded any consideration of the morals that are tagged on at the end. --- Famously, in Biblical studies, there's the "shorter version" of The Gospel According to St. Mark, too: it leaves out the final chapter about the Resurrection.

The problem you're attaching to my reading (which, granted, may indeed be a serious, preposterous problem) is that, by leaving out the first 25 out of 119 pages ("Product" is actually only 17 pages), the 83% of the book that I did read somehow doesn't count or cannot stand on its own footing, without that remaining 1/5th of the book. But then, what you're proposing is an aesthetic of the unitary, of the artwork as an indivisible totality, ---no?--- where Culture can only be approched in its wholeness and intact completeness (really, that "Product" is the filter that the remaining poetry cannot be approached without, the skeleton key),

--- but that only puts Davidson completely out of step with the mentality of the '90s and why he would have used "Breakdown" software in the first place (to deregulate the primacy or necessity of order [whereas order is the very thing you're defending! You're reinstating an unimpeachable global syntax to over-arch the book, whereas he took pains to disempower syntax at every turn]). Is that really the compositional principle of Davidson's that you want to fault me for having failed to respect: his linearity??

Before a deck of cards is dealt, it's shuffled, and then it can be "cut," dividing it in half and moving the second stack in front of the first. That's about how much of "a reason Dan put it at the beginning" survives, after "Breakdown," I'd say.

There is an important underlying difference, though, between my hermeneutic and your reply's (despite that yours superficially resembles or copies mine: list-like "evidence", etc). I did organize my "findings" according to their general types and tried to extract a portraiture that accounts for and harmonizes what emerged,--- but the sort of thematic-motivic analysis that I followed proceeded inductively, by delineating first what's there, without preconceptions, and letting the diction that Davidson himself chose to operate as motifs be shown as such.

These words, "world," "dream," etc., are what he reasserted, over and over. I only come in as an observer trying to interpret the objective content that results from his refrains. In some cases ("absorption", "repeat"), I don't even know how to name what he's doing or saying, it's so abstruse; but I am at least having the honesty to argue that it's a disservice to his artistry to leave all that out of the picture. If the first 1/5th of the book or any part of it is political, that political side has to be reconciled to these other dimensions, without just brushing them into oblivion or missing them entirely.

But your reply moves from the a priori conclusion, that he is in fact political, and then searches out documentation that would substantiate that prejudice.

And the kind of politics that you want to pin on him is a prefabricated doctrinaire position that's as cliché as "productivised social relations". If that's true, then it was politically very unimaginative of him. (As if card-carrying Party member artists were to crib their poetry off of the small print and instructions on the back of the card.) "Productivised social relations" sounds like exactly the sort of empty jargon he was attacking (?) and problematizing in his long series of Jenny Holzer Truism-isms, in the .pdf's poem "An Account". ---There: "Anything not used in the creation of profit is automatically suspected of being subversive" [.pdf p. 14]; and the transgression in my omission of "Product" is that I've left something "not used"!

The dilemma here may be: was Davidson as politically simplistic and exaggerated as the occasional political passages in his poetry would make him seem ("Product Control, Inc."???) and therefore writing political poetry (and maybe just bad at it),


is there a poet there who is good enough, ---a genuine "masterpiece," as Ben Friedlander blurbed,--- that he should be defended from his own ambiguity by insisting that it ~was~ ambiguous and not the agitprop that it resembles?

You're taking his "politicalese" (like the "bureaucratese" he mentions) very literally.

Meanwhile, take a closer look at the Iraqi buttons. (Afterword by Gary Sullivan: "During the Gulf War Dan made up a batch of pins that read 'Iraqi.' The idea was that you'd wear them in public --- which I don't think he convinced many of his friends to do, although he certainly wore one himself. . . . Benjamin Friedlander recalls telling Dan he'd wear one if it read 'Arab' or 'Arabic'---Ben felt that if Dan's point was to humanize the 'enemy' it would be more accurate to refer to them as people (Arabs) as opposed to a government (Iraq).") They can stand in as a model here.

What the Iraqi buttons were doing was taking the immediately and topically political, today's headline, and then swapping and mismatching its signifiers so that the political is exposed as a way of mislabeling and misidentifying everything. Davidson was, essentially, treating politics as though it were a giant form of "Breakdown", scrambling the signification and syntax of people's place within the political order (Americans wearing "Iraqi" buttons were not Iraqis, so the political signifier is as arbitrary and spurious as any).

Your Afterword brings out how he made poetry out of specifically assembled collections of books and "source material", by genre, that included hordes of art and culture theory discourse, mass media, and women's beauty magazines. I don't know why, with his treating discourses as virtually interchangeable anthropological fodder, you then make an exception and see Culture as having retained one sole precious discourse that he would not sully with irony or alienation, a political discourse that must be the "real" herz-sprach of Daniel Davidson.

In which case, the second half of the dilemma, what I would prefer: the critique in Davidson would be a critique of politics,

rather than critique as politics or if its effects.

And I'm not convinced that all the quotes that you collect as counter-weight would in fact hold up as substantively "political" under further review.

In your first example, I can certainly recognize "packaging" and even "exchange" as being more of his cynicism (critique) about relations, alright. But the abstractness of the surrounding thought ("Reception is a particular . . ., an object. This establishes, if attended, a paradigm . . . , walking across the room to find it") seems entirely the language of the "philosophical" Davidson that I was arguing. (The currency of the term "paradigm" originates in science, with Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and in linguistics, with Roman Jakobsen's paradigmatic axis, ---to name only one.)

This effect of his writing, ---a tendency, where political vocabulary does occur, for it to occur as flotsam within a field of other-than-political discourse,--- is what I tried to describe as a fragmentary, residual vocabulary being embedded in an unintegrated way. There has been no absorption of those elements. They're garnished on. If the first 17 pages are very, very politically charged but you're more or less leaving it undisputed that a (terribly) close reading shows the remaining 83 to be only marginally political,--- that's why I was saying that the political in him is "split-off"! Amassing it mainly in the book's prelude or overture compartmentalizes any politicism.

And so on, throughout your examples (another difference in our two methods is that I tried to offer paraphrased explanations alongside each individual quote. You're treating your quotes ---voila!--- as self-evident. They're not): The politics of "Entering is participation, identity, multiply unique, restricted to what replays, recalls, aligns, within the silence that tells about feeding it" seems hermetic, at best, to me (What do you imagine that all those abstractions mean, that it could be an illustration of "critique of productivised social relations"? There seems to be a great deal of reading into on your part. Is it that you equate abstraction with politics? We seem to be reading English with two incompatible dictionaries. What I considered to be an absolute depth sounding of the book, you're calling "face value." [At what level, then, should his "dream" poetry be taken, given the first 17 pages? What does "dream" mean in light of all this political re-tuning? You seem to be saying that getting through "Product" would've allowed me to coast down-hill from there on and only half-read the rest of the book, to unburden everything I found there of its meaning.] To me, that language is psychological ["identity"] or technological ["replays"], etc. Please: What part of the word "silence" am I not understanding?). Etc., etc. I absolutely cannot see what political resonance you find in "See the differences . . . at all locations". . . . Etc.: "Blend in, stand out, in the fragrant melding of trust, warmth and comfort, a fabrication learning to collect"--- politics?? I can see the politics in "armed camp" (who could miss it?) but, in the same sentence that you're arguing against my claims, "ritual" only takes us back to the belief-religiosity question, and "never far from" right back to the "distance" motif.

Yes, to an exent, of course, we're playing Ten Blind Indian Swamis Meet Their First Elephant. The blind swami who touches the elephant's trunk says it's a serpent, and the blind swami who touches its leg says it's a tree trunk . . .

My omission of "Product" was not "selectively ignoring" (in the sense of purposefully "conveniently" or some sort of unfriendly intentionality). It was done arbitrarily. I said "I confess to having, currently, skipped over the opening poem, 'Product.'" "Product" is shaped differently on the page; more of it is prose. Sometimes I skip over prose parts in poetry books: I find that I can't switch my meter-meter quickly. (I once burned a CD of all the connective recitative interludes in Handel's opera, Radamisto, and left out all the arias.) I never saw Deer Hunter. I'm sorry the dog ate the first 17 pages of my copy!

So, I'll read "Product."

{"Return and there's another bag. Return and there's another bag. Return and there's another bag" sounds like just the kind of Koyanisqaatsi politics I can't get enough of.}


The octopus says, 'Play it? Hell if I can work out how to get it's pajamas off, I'm gonna screw it!!'

...and she whispers "Hey big boy....want to go shopping?"

The man throws back his last shot and says, "Fifty cents."