Tom Eyers – The Matter of Poetry: A Review of Nathan Brown’s “The Limits of Fabrication: Materials Science, Materialist Poetics”

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by Tom Eyers

The Limits of Fabrication: Materials Science, Materialist Poetics
New York: Fordham University Press, 2017

If there is a million dollar question in contemporary theory, it is that of materialism. To declare oneself a materialist remains an attractive proposition, and this despite the tangled confusions that have attended the term since the Ancients. There is something dashing about its implications, although any core definition, even any vaguely related set of appropriate objects or applications, remains stubbornly elusive. Materialism, especially in our flighty anxious present, promises something hard-edged, impatient of airy abstractions – the irony being, of course, that this most apparently earthy of terms seems able only to generate ever more windy attempts to pin it down. Historically, it is most often defined according to what it is not, and this is appropriate enough. There has always been something suspiciously thrusting, positive and hubristic about the idealisms, with their over-eager willingness to propose and impose system upon system, and the various materialisms have most often taken shape in flinty opposition to just such empire building.

This is not to say that materialist philosophers have lacked ambition. Karl Marx, the most recognizable and influential materialist in history, came close to proposing an all-embracing schema for interpreting the general movements of human history, scolding Hegel for downplaying the inconveniences of economy and physicality to human history-making, but reproducing the latter’s theoretical capaciousness all the same. If it is fairly easy, if not without controversy, to identify what the ‘material’ in Marxism is – in shorthand, the historically variable productive processes that shape how human beings live and labor – it is rather more difficult to imagine a ‘materialist poetics’. While poetry may aspire to capture something of the density of living matter within the looser folds of literary language – think, among many other possible examples, of the Romantics’ wrangling with the apparently imperturbable autonomy of nature, of Ponge’s poetics of mid-sized objects – it is less clear that the ‘stuff’ of poetry, figural language, can in any non-analogous sense be considered ‘material’.

Of course, materialisms have rarely been concerned only with matter understood as more or less synonymous with the physical. Materialists have more often located characteristics one usually associates with the material in domains that cannot entirely be reduced to the latter. Marx finds in the manner in which human beings perpetually become through labor a combination of historical permanence and flexibility, one that equally characterizes the physical stuff upon which they work, and through which they are able to achieve a kind of relative autonomy. Viewed from such a vantage, the elusive linguistic compressions that make up modern and contemporary poetry seem evanescent, impermanent, allusive, if not quite ‘ideal’. Nathan Brown’s superb and energizing first book is not the first to attempt to square this circle, of course. There are those for whom deconstruction at its most fastidious approached something like a literary materialism, insofar as it trained its gaze on those aspects of meaning-making in literature that seemed most intransigent, those moments of figural contradiction that refused to yield to any smooth or final translation of non-sense to sense. Marxist literary theory would seem another fruitful source. Since Althusser, and especially since Pierre Macherey provided the elaborated Althusserian literary theory that Althusser never quite did, Marxist critics have been wary of too quickly reading the sturdiness of the economic base into the apparently more ephemeral products of literary culture. Instead, and cannily, the likes of Jameson and Eagleton have found in literary form itself intimations of historical conflict that might more conventionally be sought in political-economic contextualizations of literary content. It is dismaying, given this rich history, that recent, ostensibly Marxist literary-critical readings of, say, the neoliberal, have tended toward just such vulgar historicisms, so wary of a caricatured-in-advance aestheticism that they neglect the very matter of their chosen object of study, literary language itself.

To his credit, Brown largely leaves such polemics to one side, preferring to immanently build a poetics of fabrication from the ground up, tracing suggestive parallels between 20th and 21st century avant-garde poetry and materials science. It would do this book a disservice to describe it as a creative reinvention and defense of close reading, not least because the latter has more often obscured the material density of the words on the page than it has illuminated it. Nonetheless, the hard theoretical labor of reading that Brown performs, sweeping from the granular to the scalar, should come to place in stark relief the reigning common sense in literature departments, where the too-easy task of doing history badly has proven far more attractive than any knotty reckoning with the density of the literary signifier. In a virtuosic account of the cross-cutting history of nanoscale carbon chemistry and Ronald Johnson’s ‘architectural’ long poem ARK, Brown quotes the following capitalized line of Johnston’s: “TO GO INTO THE WORDS AND EXPAND THEM”. (142) If a pithy summation of Brown’s practice of reading were possible, it would read something like this: ‘go into the words’, not to extract any pre-ordained ideality of sense, and neither to dwell nostalgically on their ‘literariness’, but rather to expand them, to identify their intersections with practices of fabrication that might at first blush seem entirely unrelated.  To read materially in this way is not just to recognize the constructedness of poetry, its crystals and nanotubes and grains, although this is crucial enough, but also to expand such a materiality through creative articulation with other sites of construction.

To be clear, such articulations very rarely occur in this book by means of any simple, contextualist, or symmetrical glomming of literature onto historical or scientific correlates. Instead, this is a book that takes mediation seriously, that resists the now-commonplace assumption that literary artifacts must by default have everything to do with whatever contemporaneous historical event or framework the scholar has decided to foreground. What brings Johnson and carbon chemistry into agonistic dialogue, for instance, is the ambiguous and complicating intervention of a third figure, Buckminster Fuller. Those familiar with Johnson’s poetry will recognize the affinity – the poet has described his verse as “literally an architecture…fitted together with shards of language, in a kind of cement music”. (Johnson quoted in Brown, 99) But there is more at stake here than the mere recognition of a common architecturality across science and recent avant-garde poetry. Brown is equally attuned to the evasive ideologies that couple with these constructions: “At the center of this story”, Brown writes in his chapter on Johnson, “will be the concept (the ideology, in fact) of ‘design’ and its relation to a certain idealist concept of ‘nature’ and the ‘nature poem’”. (99) While idealized conceptions of nature significantly predate even the Romantics, the adhesion of such notions to the ideologeme of ‘design’, itself a trope that in its (post)modern guise tends to be assiduously scrubbed of anything so messy as manufacture, is rather more recent. Brown locates one root of this problematic in Buckminster Fuller’s writings, where design is figured as eternal, as universal, and as exemplarily accessible. He then traces an opposing trend also emerging from Black Mountain College, that of Olson’s ‘objectism’. If Fuller understands the materials of fabrication as being “just exactly where they want to be” (112), the poet instead affirms the ‘proper confusions’ of objects, their giving out onto a fragmentation resistant to the universal. Johnson, in turn, insists on similar tensions between “whole systems and the materials of which they are composed”. (131)

If these intertwined histories of fabrication and the production of ideology are compelling in their own right, Brown is at his best when he registers the materialities of sound and inscription that are particular to poetry, the better to reveal with due emphasis what the matter of poetry does, over against other forms of materiality. There are times reading this book when the particular curvature and atomicity of poetic materiality is rather lost in the mix, as Brown offers example after example of how one practice – nanotechnology, say – accords with, or helps reorient, our understanding of another – poetry. Some of these case studies could profitably have been left in the archive. But for all that, Brown is a strikingly inventive reader, and there emerges across his book a powerful, if largely implicit, theory of materialist reading that rivals the accompanying account of materialist poetic and scientific practice. Take, for instance, the reading of Emily Dickinson that appears in the book’s Prologue. A line of Dickinson’s poem ‘I cannot live with You’ catches Brown’s eye. The line reads ‘You there – I  – here –‘.

One finds, of course, those characteristic Dickinsonian dashes, but more than this, “[the poem] is composed entirely of deictic terms, or shifters. The dash is a minimal graphemic unit – pen touching down on paper with an instant’s pressure, leaving the barest trace of furtive contact. Shifters are the piezoelectric transducers of grammar – minutely sensitive to the voltage of voice, expanding to generate an apparent fusion of body, language, world at the interface of the tongue’s tip: ‘there’”. (5).  Gradually, the substantiality of that ‘I’ and that ‘You’ seem less important than what Brown refers to as the ‘paragrammatic’, and, one might add, insistently material transformations at the level of the line:

In Dickinson’s line, the paragram operates on a scale below that of even the letter and the phoneme – indeed, below the level of the grapheme. The second half of the line, ‘-I – here – ‘, might be taken to emerge from the subgraphemic elements of ‘there’. Dickinson’s ‘t’ transforms into ‘I’ as the crossbar of the former splits in half to form dashes that both separate and conjoin the vertical stroke of ‘I’ with the remainder of this rupture, ‘there’”. (10).

Ultimately, “grasping this potential significance of the line demands that we read an invisible, subgraphemic dimension of writing operating prior to signification”. (10) These ostensibly invisible elements of transformation are what, for Brown, link materialist poetics to materials science; “to situate these at the limits of fabrication is to open a space between ‘there’ and ‘here’ in which we are approached by bodies and words, in which the poetic image gives way onto invisible structures, wherein text passes over into texture”. (10)

While Brown’s claims here have something in common with all that became bound up with the slogan ‘the materiality of the signifier’, fanning out from French theory of the 1960s, it is rare indeed to see the stakes of the claim unfolded with such finesse and to the fullest of its consequences. It is rarer still to encounter reading pitched at this level of granularity and sensitivity, impervious to the lures of over-contextualization or the widespread fetish for content over form. One wants to know, nonetheless, what the rapid zooms in and out of multiple scales here, from close-ups of the poetic line to widescreen trans-historical tracings, would look like were the question of causality explicitly asked, not at the level of shared metaphors or suggestive parallels but rather according to the very different ontological properties that inhere in the vastly divergent materials that capture Brown’s attention.

From one angle, this is the very question that animates the book, and Brown provides the reader with numerous examples of the transformations of space that the sciences and literature alike are able to induce. Moreover, the problem has an irreducibly political charge. If, as Joshua Clover has claimed, Language poetry and other recent avant-gardes bought their meticulous attention to the minutiae of language at the expense of thinking the ramifications of political totality[1], Brown is concerned to locate a poetics that would be both micro and macro, nano and cosmological. In a bravura chapter on Shanxing Wang’s 2005 collection ‘Mad Science in Imperial City’, Brown finds in its attempted “mathematical formalization of historical processes” (217) a poetic suturing of time and space, drawing together the urban imaginaries of Beijing circa Tiananmen Square and New York following 9/11. More than this, Wang’s collection takes up other oppositions that its initial concern with divergent scales opens up, most pertinently for Brown those between intellectual and manual labor, between the abstract and the concrete – these, one infers, to be understood as implicated in the contrast between the infinitesimally small and the yawningly vast that materials science is especially concerned to explore. Ultimately, Sohn-Rethel’s extension of Marx’s concept of ‘real abstraction’ provides a lens through which Brown is able to historicize the shift in spatial and material imaginaries that Wang’s history-spanning poetry pictures.

And yet, the materialities that compose urban geographies, the nanomaterial, poetry, or collectivities of labor, are anything but equivalent. If one of the characteristics that different forms of matter, in all of their variant forms, may be said to share is a certain resistance, a capacity to elude attempts at their refabrication or repurposing, it may be this most common aspect of materiality that is unwittingly minimized in Brown’s account. To fully foreground this would be to ponder just how that resistance is overcome; how it is that the very different forms of matter in question resonate upon one other or, just as likely, how they are ultimately fated not to do so. The dialectical peculiarity of this logic should not be lost: the characteristic that unites different manifestations of the material, that of resistance, is also that which singularizes, which precludes the formation in material actuality of the very totality that one is nonetheless rightfully enjoined, in theory, to map. One would, in brief, have liked at the level of this book’s concept-production a little more of the spatial noise and constitutive resistance suggested in these lines by Charles Olson, a signal source for Brown:

In the five hindrances men and angels
stay caught in the net, in the immense nets
which spread out across each plane of being, the multiple nets
which hamper at each step of the ladders as the angels
and the demons
and men
go up and down
(‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’ in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding the ‘Maximus’ Poems, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 389).

Leaving aside the post-theistic, ghostly metaphysic that shapes these famous lines, we find a numerical order and a structured kind of spatial disorder in combination here, such that vertical nets and horizontal ladders both enable and disable one another. The nets within which men and angels are caught are immense, and yet somehow limiting; a different order of space, the ladders upon which angels, demons and men ascend, intersects the nets while also being hampered by them. Hindrance and expansiveness; hindrance, perhaps, as expansiveness. Such limitations to possibility are also, potentially, conditions of possibility, and they are not given a sufficient shake in Brown’s otherwise capacious, sometimes too capacious, attention to the movements between various domains of material construction.

For all that, Brown’s practice of reading is tuned to detect precisely such contradictions and aporias, and he often does so beautifully at the level of the line. Nonetheless, the vaulting ambition that supercharges his historical claims occasionally renders artificially smooth what are, one suspects, rather rougher and more incomplete moments of connection and disconnection between the scientific and the poetic, between the minute and the gargantuan. At any rate, this is one of the very finest works of speculative poetics to emerge in quite some time, and one hopes that its highly creative deviations from the historicist-contextualist hegemony in literary studies will spark equally incandescent acts of theoretical disobedience in its wake.

[1] Brown cites this claim on page 222, and takes it seriously. There is certainly something to it, but the argument risks ignoring the over-determined imbrication of historical-political archival work and formal alchemy to be found, for instance, in the Language poetry of Ron Silliman, all the better to boost more recent, performatively militant verse as uniquely and purely radical. I have tried to situate the ambiguous but powerfully formalized political imaginary of Silliman and others in the fifth chapter of my Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory, and the Critical Present, (Evanston, Il.: Northwestern University Press, 2017). The danger, of course, is any recrudescent nostalgia for modernist, pseudo-formalist invocations of literariness, something that the Language poets, admittedly, were often prone to.

Tom Eyers is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University.


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