Post 11: 12/8/04
in Virtual Space
How better to embody such ideas in microcosm than to create works where both other human beings & their environments & the world "in general" . . . are all able to act within the general framework set of "rules" given by the poet, "the maker of plots or fables," as Aristotle insists—the poet is pre-eminently the maker of the plot, the framework—not necessarily of everything that takes place within that framework! The poet creates a situation wherein he invites other persons & the world in general to be co-creators with him! He does not wish to be a dictator but a loyal co-initiator of action within the free society of equals which he hopes his work will help to bring about. . . . Not only do the works embody & express certain metaphysical, ethical, & political meanings, but they also bring into being new aesthetic meanings. [From "Statement," 1965]
Jackson Mac Low died in New York today, Wednesday 8 December 2004, aged 82, of complications of a stroke suffered on 4 November. It seemed to me immediately that this was a moment of great public consequence, and personal sadness.
If there is a single poet who transforms the protocols of authorship into a decentered, multi-authorial, social/cultural framework, it is Jackson Mac Low. His works are important not just for their formal/procedural values, but for the kinds of enactment they initiate. In his work, the social formation that goes by the name of "avant-garde" is reconstituted by means of many and various procedures, as the basis for further acts.
It is the necessary openness of the horizons of interpretation and action, by virtue of the suspension or reconfiguring of authorial intention, that makes Mac Low's work deeply ethical. His writings in poetics thus concern not simply the "making of plots," in the Aristotelian tradition he cites, but their re-making as social acts. "Plots" do not simply represent values; they are an intervention into the construction of value. The primary value of a "plot"—or otherwise put, the situation constituted and enacted by the text—may not be simply its positive message but can also be a subtraction, deformance, or reinscription from a preceding text or real-time situation, insofar as what results redefines the total situation. This may be the horizon of language itself—we see, in Mac Low, an Aristotelian "making of the plot" addressed to language.
But language in Mac Low is just another name for the social—the collective body of the text insofar as it is intersubjective. Agency in regard to this intersubjective body, however, is always singular. This is equally an entailment of Mac Low's ethics—deriving as they do from Emerson and the countertradition of American poetics, but redefined crucially as social in origin and impact. The moment of making is a moment of individual decision that extends far beyond poetry to other horizons of implication. In poetry, the decision of method initiates that which results—so that consequences always follow from a decision.
Leading from the horizon of authorship to other horizons of agency, such as the question of participation in war—which Mac Low consistently opposed, even after the attack on the World Trade Center less than a mile from his home, a southern-facing Tribeca loft with plenty of exposure. When I visited Jackson and Anne Tardos in October 2001, they expressed concern for their ailing cat as the reason they had not left the area. I wanted to interview Jackson on the nature of resistance in the aftermath of the attacks, but what resulted spun away from the immediate moment into reminiscences of Mac Low's pacifism in the 1940s—so that the tape awaits transcription. I did not, however, come away with any sense of a missed encounter.
The time, place, and manner of "making the plot" in Mac Low's work is the crux of his aesthetics. There is never a sense of dogged persistence, of churning out texts on the assembly line just to keep in production. Rather, we can observe a kind of fractal variation of kinds of activity in his work, so that the use of dates in, for instance, Bloomsday or From Pearl Harbor Day to FDR's Birthday is both indexical and scalar, both metonym and metaphor, for the variation of activity on any given date, and within a temporal span. A lifetime becomes a fractal variation of the specific activity within it, which may recur at even greater scale. This is not the "one great story" of the autobiographical author, but a subtraction and recasting of it. The event of Mac Low's poetry is distributed throughout its instances, and one encounters it in stages.
Meaning, as a result, is indexical and scalar in Mac Low. It is not simply intentional, if we understand "intention" in logical or phenomenological senses—though Mac Low was aware of both. We might usefully begin to read his work, in fact, as a locus where intention, as both the author's purposes and "a concept formed by directing the mind toward an object" takes place, in language, at the intersection between "intension" ("the internal content of a concept, the sum of the attributes contained in it, the elements of a set") as that which refers in the work, and "extension" ("the range of a term or concept as measured by the number of kinds of object it denotes or contains") as a set of referents in the world. The use of language, then, is an act of meaning that transforms the fixed relation of word to world into an open series, where agency and responsibility are possible. The maker of plots creates situations, not works.
[Flags will be flown at half-staff on Monday, December 13, 2004, in honor of Marine Corporal In C. Kim of Warren who died on December 7, 2004 while on active duty in Iraq. Flags should be returned to full staff Tuesday, December 14, 2004. [E-mail from Wayne State University, 10 December 2004]
[To be continued.]
Jackson Mac Low, "9 Light Poems" (1962–79)
———, "Call Me Ishmael" (1971)
———, "events!" (Fluxus Debris page)
———, "Forties 30: Troelstrup Nightmare Flare Competition" (1999)
———, "Insect Assassins" (1971)
———, "Progress" 1 and 2 (1986)
———, "Statement" (1965)
———, Sound poetry (Ubuweb page)
———, "Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair" and author's note (1999)
———, "Then Calvin Thought That They Were Viewing Life through Beveled Glass" (2003)
———, "Three Poems for Paul Blackburn" (1971, 2000)
———, "Twenties 26" (1990)
———, from "Words nd Ends from Ez" (1981–83)
Bruce Campbell, "Jackson Mac Low" (Dictionary of Literary Biography entry)
Jackson Mac Low, "Biography" and "Bibliography: Books—1963-1995"
EPC, "Jackson Mac Low, 1922–2004"
UCSD Special Collections, "Jackson Mac Low Papers"
Al Filreis, "'Spirit—A Word I Never Use': A Response to Jackson Mac Low and Andrew Levy"
George Hartley, "'Listen' and 'Relate': Notes Toward a Reading of Jackson Mac Low"
Interactivist Info Exchange obituary
Los Angeles Times obituary
New York Times obituary (source of "A New Way to Read a Poem" graphic above)
Photos on Anne Tardos's home page
Photos for Holloway Reading, UC Berkeley
[Photograph by Anne Tardos, copyright © 1990-2005. Text copyright © Barrett Watten 2004. Not to be reprinted without permission, except in short excerpts in electronic media.]