Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

"Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance" by Daniel Tiffany (University of Chicago Press, 2009)

Though this book expanded my understanding of some types of obscurity I had trouble with sections of this book. The "riddles" issue was interesting and relevant but the "nightlife" issue was initially interesting but never very useful. As for "substance", well I've never understood Heidegger and Leibniz. When Deleuze joined the party, my problems increased. See the "Other reviews" section for a more enlightened coverage.

The author mentions in a footnote Steiner's "On Difficulty" essay, and its 4 categories: contingent, modal, tactical and ontological (the latter 2 being labelled as "obscure" by Steiner). He doesn't attempt creating a taxonomy, instead focusing on "lyric obscurity". He starts by considering popular music and Robert Copland's 1536 treatise on "cant" (criminals' jargon), suggesting that in both cases the audience don't worry about obscurity, which later leads him to say "Setting aside the standard view of obscurity as a failure of meaning or communication clears the way as well for a more pragmatic conception of verbal obscurity". He points out that "the phenomonology of lyric obscurity ... remains relatively constant across the conventionally formidable boundaries between literary and vernacular poetries" (p.2)

He considers "three primary modes of obscurity: verbal, sociological, and metaphysical". I think by "verbal" he means things like the "cant" example. Obscurity can perform a sociological role, creating a secret circle (using "concealment, defiance, deception, conservation, mockery, consolation, seduction", p.138). He also points out (for some reason) that an obscure person is the opposite of a famous person. For "metaphysical" he has in mind the sublime, riddles, and performative modes of language -

  • "For theorists of the sublime and for the writers associated with the Jena Circle of German Romanticism, Leibniz's theory of the solipsistic perception of monads and his explanation of relations between these hermetic substances - each with its own imperfect perspective on the universe - provided the basic terms for a model of lyric expression founded upon obscurity" (p.100). Poetry didn't need to be explicable in terms of real world concepts.
  • "art as a whole is a riddle. Another way of putting this is to say that art expresses something while at the same time hiding it", Adorno (176). Several times he mentions the idea that obscurity (unlike invisibility) shows where something's been hidden
  • "lyric obscurity might be regarded principally as an event or deed, as a way of doing things with words", belonging to the same class of speech acts as charms, spells, and oaths

There's quite a lot of repetition - of points, phrases and facts (the original meaning of Slang is given to us more than once, for example). I thought that perhaps the chapters began as individual essays, though even within chapters there's repetition - Leibnitz declares "No one should fear that the contemplation of signs will lead us away from the things in themselves; on the contrary it leads into the interior of things" on p.107, footnote 29 and p.109, footnote 36

It's unfair to quote too much out of context, but

  • I found this sentence hard - "From this perspective, the monadologies of the bathhouse and of the shrinking domain of modern readership become available as general models of social hermeticism compounding the substance of lyric obscurity" (p.13)
  • I can't always follow his train of thought. I came to distrust his use of "therefore" - "The lyrical incorporation of nonhuman sources calls to mind, though it also inverts, the Sirens' flawed imitation of the human voice. In addition, anonymity, understood as a condition that is precipitated by poesis, unites the singing of birds, Sirens and beggars. One might therefore regard the obscurity of lyric poetry in general (and of the infidel song in particular) as a distant expression, or recollection, of the inhuman voice" (p.152)

The following sections seem long-winded and make similar, unsurprising, points. Science may be puzzled, but scientists just get on with it.

  • "Science continues to be puzzled by distinctions between ponderable and imponderable bodies, or more precisely, by the coexistence of these properties in a single entity ... real bodies appear to be composed of unreal substance. And the substance of things - the insensible foundation of material bodies - possesses intuitive reality solely in the form of equations, images, or tropes. Substance, in this sense, is the solution to the conundrum posed by things that speak in riddles: the verbal identity of these objects, which is the source of their obscurity, corresponds to the role of analogy in the determination of material substance. Most precisely, when an object speaks in riddles, it reveals its true "substance"", (p.37)
  • "the question of what sort of reality should be ascribed to the underworld of quantum mechanics (in contrast to the way bodies behave in Newtonian space) resembles debate about the significance of poetry for our conception of physical reality. Which is more real, physics repeatedly asks, the unreal substance of subatomic matter or the mutable appearance of things in perceptual space? ... we may one day grant to lyric substance (what poetry makes of the world) an authority it possesses today only in the realm of speculation", (p.61)

Literary obscurity is largely forgotten later in the book when he spends pages on nightlife

  • "The history of nightlife cannot be separated from the history of illumination and the technology of lighting. These phenomena spawned an evolving vocabulary of lighting, which can be recovered from various textual sources (mostly literary), and which now casts a faulty and often symbolic glow on the nocturnal side of things. History at night becomes evident, though not really visible, through literature" (p.172)
  • "The hermeticism of the nightspot was first breached from within, I have argued, by inscription: by songs written in the jargon of thieves and by shorthand (the writing of spies). As such, public knowledge of the topology of underground nightlife was, from the start, intrinsically lyrical and unavoidably sentimental - because it was caught, unalterably, in the ambiguity of verbal reflection" (p.197)
  • "It is essential to bear in mind that the first modern nightclub, the cabaret artistique, was simultaneously the culmination of an evolving apparatus of sentimentality, which had been mapped on to the topology of nightlife during the nineteenth century, and an authentic locus of adversarial culture. Publicity became an integral part of the various registers of obscurity" (p.202)

That said, some of the results of his research is fun - "London christened its own version of the club in 1912, the Cave of the Golden Calf (named after one of the rooms in the Parisian Chat Noir). Founded by Frida Strindberg (the former wife of the playwright August Strindberg), the Cave of the Golden Calf served as the after-hours headquarters for what would become London's first avant-garde moment, Vorticism. ... Thus, one could plausibly argue that the avant-garde in London ... was housed in a nightclub" (p.211)

Other reviews

  • Michael Snediker (Rain Taxi)
    • "The ambitiousness of Tiffany’s argument is exceeded only by the dazzling success of it"
    • "Obscurity makes writing (whether lines by Wyclef Jean or Baudelaire) seem more material, to the extent that the unavailability of easy transparency forecloses our relation to what the writing is (which is to say, normatively speaking, what the writing would be saying were it clearer). At the same time, as the above already suggests, obscurity makes writing seem less material, insofar as occlusion means we feel so much less substantively what we are holding"
  • Drew Daniel (Project Muse)
    • "If Tiffany does not always achieve the simple clarity which would be the opposite of his chosen subject of vatic obscurity (and given the complexity of his project, how could he?), in Infidel Poetics he has instead done something rarer still: created a text that estranges and illuminates the shadowy subject matter of lyric with a dazzling brilliance entirely its own"
    • "There is a basic commitment to the power of the analogical that drives the argument as it achieves its startling equations: poems are like monads, poetry is like philosophy, Anglo-Saxon riddlers are like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mallarm√© is like Mother Goose"
  • Joyelle McSweeney (Boston Review)
    • "Tiffany’s readings are wittily written, closely argued, and charismatically virtuosic in their attention to the occult powers of etymology"
    • "The implications of Infidel Poetics for poets, academic and otherwise, are still more thrilling. It would be a mistake to reduce Tiffany’s argument in defense of the social obscurity of literary subcultures to a defense of stylistic obscurity, what is commonly called “difficulty” by its detractors or “complexity” by its defenders."

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