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Simon Jarvis

The incommunicable silhouette

This piece is about nine printed pages long.

The Incommunicable Silhouette

Or, a compleat Account of a notable Failure
to read a Book, entitled
For the Monogram.

With a Note
On one Possible Source.

Considerations on Mr. Prynne’s late Manner.

A Paper,
Delivered to the Academy of Millenial Crosswordists.

Hilarius Bookbinder,
Late Ink-Monitor of the Academy.

PX Monogram

A monogram is anything consisting of a single line or consisting only of lines, like the single line which runs across the cover and each page of J.H. Prynne’s sequence For The Monogram, and like the sequence itself, which consists, like all sequences, only of lines. Thus for many centuries the term referred primarily to the monogramma Christi, the first two letters of Christ’s name in the Greek alphabet converted into a symbol which also resembled a cross (see title-page, above). It might also today refer to some possibilities the dictionary entry for the term doesn’t cover: to the company logo, an essential fetish of corporate superstition; or, equally, to its inverted shadow, the encrypted aerosol’d tags which mark the extent of an individual sprayer’s raids when left on fences running along a railway line. Both forms of monogram mark a complementary mutation of communication: they at once brand territory and self-brand the monogrammatist. Any reader of this sequence might be understood to be hunting for Prynne’s own monogram as though for a key to unlock an encrypted database; attention in any case fixes at once on the title as a possible fault or point of purchase in what at first looks like the unassailable rockwall of this sequence. Its difficulties hardly arise from the extent of its lexicon. On the contrary, a reader may seize avidly on any out of the way items as a chance to disappear into the dictionaries and other compendia, so as to bring some scraps of determinateness back to his task, or, viewed less sympathetically, so as to replace Prynne’s own text with others that are found easier to read. The difficulty, rather, arises from an extreme development of a tendency which has already been noticed by other interpreters in other of Prynne’s later works. The words themselves are not always the difficulty so much as the fact that their syntactical status remains uncertain. An instance of this is provided by the final text in the sequence, on page 18. Here we read “Fissile drag under gang profile, all brows raised at surround inhibition of the tonic yellow signal;...”. The word “surround” might normally be expected to be a verb. Here, however, its position appears to suggest that it is a substantival adjective qualifying “inhibition”. It can only become so because the word “surround” has already been converted into a verbal substantive. Diverting our attention to the difficulties which are caused for interpretation by the uncertain syntactic status of perfectly familiar words appears to be an important part of the point of Prynne’s later poetry. From the start his work has been concerned with the way in which mutations of language intimately both shadow and control those of our lived experience; the attention in his poetry to lexicons often regarded as technical and thus beyond the reasonably anticipable competence of a common reader exhibits the ways in which this sleight of language is itself in part the means by which powers and competences of a political kind are removed from such readers. But the more drastic difficulty of the later work appears to wish to work at a more fundamental level still; language mutates or is mutated not merely or even primarily by the hiving-off of vocabularies of expertise, but also and centrally by changing the grammatical status of existing items. In this sense, one of the difficulties of the kind Prynne’s poetry offers is as common as a newspaper headline: that language which aims at a maximum economy and violence of utterance can also become that which presents barely superable difficulties of interpretation, as in TV SHOCKER CRITIC BOSS IN CRUISE TRAUMA, where substantives are successively converted into adjectives in a vertiginous sequence whose logic we must infer for ourselves. Compare a phrase such as “adopt strike point rip barrens/ swept barley”: after adopt, the next three words might either be verbs or substantives, but in order to coerce them into a possible syntax they tend to be read as substantival adjectives. With many other sentences readers literally do not know where to start, in the sense that word order, which usually in English offers a great deal of information as to meaning, offers almost none in these texts. The experience is rather as though a poet used to composing in an inflected language had Englished his work in some haste without realizing that the absence of inflections might make his work a little hard to follow. (Here Peter Nicholls’s remarks on Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius and the deliberate use it makes of translationese come to mind). To this, of course, we can add the further deletion, perhaps the most important one, of markers which might show to which phrase-regime a given word might belong: as with a word like “radial” in the first poem, which can belong to physical geography, to tyre construction, to power generation, to urban planning, amongst other contexts. The refusal immediately to force a classification of such a word into one of its operational sectors is intended to encourage readers to see how the connections between those sectors are more than merely lexical. In particular, that the adventures of such words are not arbitrary accidents but rather the sedimented traces, perhaps the closest shadow, the most attentive outline or monogram we know, of human natural-historical experience.

One might interpret these critical deletions of syntactic orientation points, I would want to suggest, as a systematic attempt on the poet’s part to deprive his work of what he often refers to as “vantage”. Firstly, it is an attempt at absolute relinquishment of the comforts provided by the carefully nurtured distinctive personal voice. (Oddly this relinquishment in the event has the effect of making the poems at once look as though they could only be by Prynne and no one else.) Secondly, and connectedly, it is an attempt at absolute relinquishment of the vantage of a particular sector, class, dialect, jargon, idiolect or diction. For the later as for the earlier Prynne, I think, Wordsworth’s view in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads is decisive: poetry must not be the jargon of an expert fraternity, a special kind of luxury purveyed to its fanciers and whose pleasures would thus be primarily those of a self-applauding distinctiveness. Prynne’s poetry holds unswervingly to the concept of universality which underlies the idea of the common reader, but turns it against the false, limited, and vantaged pseudo-universality which the common reader has come to stand for. It is as though his work, always impatient of any self-exculpating alibi of delay, had at once decided to write from the standpoint of universality. Yet this with three riders: that relinquishing vantage should never mean absolutizing indifference; that writing as if from the standpoint of universality shows that no single individual can ever stand there; and that the attempt to write universally necessarily, and for this purpose, exhibits the privated sectors of “our” language in their deepest failure to communicate. Where in his letter to Drew Milne Prynne expresses scepticism as to the possibility of a “dialectic without standpoint” and ends by pointing out that the refusal of standpoint is a stand anyway, this signifies not a slide into some kind of particularism but a wish to distinguish the Good from indifference.

The later work considers the so-called revolution in communication technology as the prime site of the failure of communication, whose means is a surplus of information so vast as to induce the foundering of thought in favour of sclerotic downloading. It is this that produces the paradox that the attempt wholly to relinquish vantage results in the appearance of an ever-more resistant encryption. The result of all this is that I’ve now read the sequence three times without being able to make very much of it. But it would follow from what I have said that there is no cipher. The encryption is the world’s; as access denied flashes up on screens in the immigration office as well as in the university library. So my remarks today don’t offer any such decoding but, restricted as they are almost entirely to an attention to one possible source for the title, evidence of some of the flows of information which the poem appears to be attempting to direct, dam and obtain its own power from, as well as an exhibition through a single instance of the difficulties of having what has memorably been called both “nearly too much” and “nowhere near enough” information.

Although the epigraph given by Prynne comes from the introduction to a translation of Leibniz’s Theodicy, and although there may be in the many volumes of the still incomplete critical edition of Leibniz’s works more than one reference to monograms, I have so far been unable to find any, and have turned instead to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where the term is used a number of times in a quite particular way, or rather series of ways. The first is in the section which Kant calls “the schematism of the pure concepts of the understanding”. In the schematism Kant is trying to explain how it is possible for a pure concept of the understanding to be applied to sensuous appearances, given the apparent incommensurability between the intelligible and the sensible standpoints. He argues that “it is clear that there must be a third thing, which must stand in homogeneity with the category on the one hand and the appearance on the other, and makes possible the application of the former to the latter.” This “third thing” is a “transcendental schema”. Kant then goes on to explain the idea of a schema in the following way: “The concept of a dog signifies a rule in accordance with which my imagination can specify the shape of a four-footed animal in general, without being referred to any single particular shape that experience offers me or any possible image that I can exhibit in concreto. This schematism of our understanding with regard to appearances and their mere form is a hidden art in the depths of the human soul, whose true operations we can divine from nature and lay unveiled before our eyes only with difficulty. We can say only this much: the image is a product of the empirical faculty of productive imagination, the schema of sensible concepts (such as figures in space) is a product and as it were a monogram of pure a priori imagination, through which and in accordance with which the images first become possible, but which must be connected with the concept, to which they are in themselves never fully congruent, always only by means of the schema that they designate. The schema of a pure concept of the understanding, on the contrary, is something that can never be brought to an image at all...”. Kant needs the schema because he has to be able to explain how it is possible for synthetic a priori judgements to be made about triangles, for example, judgements which are about something apparently sensible, and yet which must be made independently of any reference to experience. This needs to be possible for Kant, otherwise the whole category of synthetic a priori judgements, on which his resistance to Humean scepticism is built, will founder. The peculiarity of this “monogram”, then, is that it is an outline, yet one which is produced a priori, without any reference to sensuous experience. What clinches the relevance of the schematism of the Critique of Pure Reason as a source for Prynne’s sequence, I think, is the second poem, in which we read of “the scheme of a pure sensible outline”. This “pure sensible outline” is just what Kant’s “schema of sensible concepts”, Kant’s monogram, consists of: the outline of a triangle, for example, produced by the pure a priori imagination.

There are also, however, two other appearances of the term monogram in the first critique. The term first reappears several hundred pages later, in the section on “the ideal of pure reason”. Here Kant begins with a discussion of the relation of the ideal to the categories and the ideas of pure reason. The categories can represent objects only in conjunction with conditions of sensibility. Ideas can never be represented in concreto. “But something that seems to be even further removed from objective reality than the idea is what I call the ideal, by which I understand the idea not merely in concreto but in individuo, i.e., as an individual thing which is determinable, or even determined, through the idea alone....What is an ideal to us, was to Plato an idea in the divine understanding, an individual object in that understanding’s pure intuition, the most perfect thing of each species of possible beings and the original ground of all its copies in appearance....Virtue, and with it human wisdom in its entire purity, are ideas. But the sage (of the Stoics) is an ideal, i.e., a human being who exists merely in thoughts, but who is fully congruent with the idea of wisdom.” For Kant such an ideal has no objective reality, yet is more than a mere figment of the brain, since “they provide an indispensable standard for reason”. Finally Kant distinguishes between this ideal of reason and “the creatures of imagination, of which no one can give an explanation or an intelligible concept; they are, as it were, monograms, individual traits, though not determined by any assignable rule, constituting more a wavering sketch, as it were, which mediates between various appearances, than a determinate image, such as what painters and physiognomists say they have in their heads, and is supposed to be an incommunicable silhouette of their products or even of their critical judgements. These images can, though only improperly, be called ideals of sensibility because they are supposed to be the unattainable model for possible empirical intuitions, and yet at the same time they are not supposed to provide any rule capable of being explained or tested.” This discussion of the monogram offers a discussion of aesthetic questions rare indeed in the first critique. The monogram as “an incommunicable silhouette” of the work of art in the mind of an artist: it might be just such an incommunicable silhouette, a preliminary design, which the reader of For the Monogram bent on deciphering that text might be looking for. Once again, the second poem in Prynne’s sequence offers a link with Kant’s discussion: the incommunicable silhouette, “ein nicht mitzuteilende Schattenbild” (translated by Pluhar and Kemp Smith as an “incommunicable shadowy image”) finds its echo in the “shadow play” of line eleven.

The final reference to the monogram comes in the third chapter of the transcendental doctrine of method, “the architectonic of pure reason”. Here Kant is dealing with the structure of philosophical systems themselves: “Under the government of reason our cognitions cannot at all constitute a rhapsody but must constitute a system...”. “For its execution the idea needs a schema, i.e., an essential manifoldness and order of the parts determined a priori from the principle of the end. A schema that is not determined in accordance with an idea, [692] i.e., from the chief end of reason, but empirically, in accordance with aims occurring contingently (whose number one cannot know in advance), yields technical unity, but that which arises only in consequence of an idea (where reason provides the ends a priori and does not await them empirically) grounds architectonic unity. What we call science, whose schema contains the outline (monogramma) and the division of the whole into members in conformity with the idea, i.e., a priori, cannot arise technically, from the similarity of the manifold or the contingent use of cognition in concreto for all sorts of arbitrary external ends, but arises architectonically, for the sake of its affinity and its derivation from a single supreme and inner end, which first makes possible the whole; such a science must be distinguished from all others with certainty and in accordance with principles.” Following this Kant remarks that “It is too bad that it is first possible for us to glimpse the idea in a clearer light and to outline a whole architectonically, in accordance with the ends of reason, only after we have long collected relevant cognitions haphazardly like building materials and worked through them technically with only a hint from an idea lying hidden within us”. These are remarks which any reader of For the Monogram might echo. Kant goes on: “The systems seem to have been formed, like maggots, by a generatio aequivoca from the mere confluence of aggregated concepts, garbled at first but complete in time, as though they all had their schema, as the original seed, in the mere self-development of reason, and on that account are not merely each articulated for themselves in accordance with an idea but are rather all in turn purposively united with each other as members of a whole in a system of human cognition, and allow an architectonic to all human knowledge, which at the present time, since so much material has already been collected or can be taken from the ruin of collapsed older edifices, would not merely be possible but would not even be difficult.” The monogram, in Kant’s architectonic, is an outline of the organization of the system of science, produced entirely a priori. Here and throughout the first critique, intriguingly, the “monogram” is the location of the eruption of the suppressed incongruent counterpart of science — art — into the first critique. Even science, Kant here concedes, needs enough art to articulate itself, the art which makes of science an articulatio rather than a coervatio or mere heaping up, as well as, still more fundamentally, the “art concealed in the depths of the human soul” without which, in truth, the possibility of applying categories to appearances and thus the whole edifice of the critique of reason would be impossible, yet which remains concealed even from the Critique’s own searching gaze.

While these lines have no obvious local analogue in Prynne’s sequence, they may offer the possibility of outlining a rationale for the sequence as a whole. The notion that an architectonic of all human knowledge would not even be difficult sounds absurdly optimistic (or perhaps pessimistic); yet it is just this absurd optimism or pessimism which is practically embodied in the current scramble for monopoly over information technologies. The drastic technical development of Prynne’s work since Brass, as well as its persistent, even absurd, determination to keep up with technical developments in the most disparate fields, such as computer languages and biochemistry, is what we might think of as a counter-architectonic working within and against the existing databanks: what Prynne once referred to in a response to Nigel Wheale’s poem Pleiadica, with a striking near-echo of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, as “[t]he algorithm of the possible within the disorder of the real!” (letter to Nigel Wheale, 13. x. 1983, xeroxed as reverse of circulated booklet Pleiadica): “method is wanted even when the want powers an engine, and indeed specially there — and thus the circuit of assertion beats its bounds. The algorithm of the possible within the disorder of the real: un beau rêve!” Earlier Prynne has characterized Peter Riley’s “Eight Preludes” from Tracks and Mineshafts as evincing a “constant turning to figural abstraction as a kind of consoling integument” which “half-proposes a hidden alternative, buried alive with rejected passion. I admire all this writing a lot, but it does seem to accept the terms on which it must suffer as largely determined by brokers not within the reach of direct challenge. Why should the poet be once again so forced to the margins of acutely painful circumstance?” Prynne’s own later poetry may be understood as just this refusal to be forced to the margins by any alibi whatever: as a search for the monogram, the sketch, outline, figure or programme of the engines of mutation themselves: so as to make their refiguring imaginable. It is as braced a sung curriculum of the arts and sciences as might be managed by some single pedagogue. My hunch is that the difficulties, though, emerge from an attempt to pay scrupulous attention to some single quite discrete object, experience or phenomenon and, instead of allowing the functional directives of divided intellectual labour to govern the presentation of that object, continually to exhibit the connexions and fissures between such languages from the demands made upon them by the complexity of the object itself. The opposition between ethos and pathos developed in the lecture on O’Hara and De Kooning implies nothing less: as though even the epoch of pathos none the less has its own concealed, damaged and broken ethos, which the philologist-poet must track and sing within and outwards from: “Or yet by good grief outward one way ought as ready/ to shine....”.

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