Upping the Ante of the Real: Speculative Poetics of Leslie Scalapino

by Małgorzata Myk (Author)
©2019 Monographs 314 Pages
Series: New Americanists in Poland, Volume 11


The author frames her reconstruction of the Bay Area poet, scholar, and experimental prose writer Leslie Scalapino’s transmedial poetics in the context of Scalapino’s published writings, available criticism of her works, as well as previously unpublished archival materials located among The Mandeville Special Collections and Archives at UC San Diego. Scalapino’s poetics are reconsidered here along the lines of new materialist modes of inquiry as well as contemporary new realist and speculative approaches that continue to grapple with the tension between thought and the social realm.
«This is a pioneering attempt at grasping the ways in which Scalapino’s oeuvre radically transforms our apprehension of the notion of reality.» — Professor Zofia Kolbuszewska, University of Wroclaw

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Small Poem and Tiny Self
  • New Time
  • Part One Materiality of Form: A Regrounding
  • 1 The Erotic as (Non-)Ground
  • 2 Tracing the Form of Compassion (way)
  • 3 Tracing the Word / (Photo) Image: Between the Conceptual and the Material
  • Part Two “Objects in the Terrifying Tense”: (Re)Writing Ourselves in Events
  • 1 Between Sexuality and Cerebrality
  • 2 Extinguishing the Image: The Negative as Speculative Space
  • Part Three Realism and the Fantastic: Speculative Horizon of Late Writings
  • 1 (Re)Negotiating the Speculative Mode
  • 2 Overriding the Surreal / Bypassing the Sublime: From Anti-Landscape to Ante-Landscape
  • 3 Poetic Fiction as Extro-Science Fiction?
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Vast Motions of a Small Poem

The motions of a small poem, of a sole event, of

whatever nature—social repression, yet as movement

(as written)—are not events compared to each other or

‘event’ually showing a whole construction—of themselves

(even)—not imposed, but sole movements’ ‘fictive’

—Leslie Scalapino, New Time

It would be possible to provide ample testimony that even
a very diminished person remains fundamentally who
they always were.

—Catherine Malabou, The New Wounded

My study is situated against the backdrop of these current explorations of contemporary American innovative and avant-garde poetry and poetics that point to the significance of a realist, Objectivist, and materialist optics in investigating how poetry transforms the relationship between the mind and the social world. Several critical studies have been crucial in the process of formulating the argument that informs this book. Helpful in tracing the complex orientation of Scalapino’s oeuvre, they offered indispensable contexts for approaching her writing as an experimental body of work that emerged out of the intricate fabric of interrelated poetic and artistic practices of her contemporaries. To begin with, I am indebted to critical mappings offered in the 1999 volume The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics, edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain, who re-emphasized Michael Davidson’s earlier recognition of “an Objectivist continuum” in the poetic writing of the 1970s onwards as continuing the legacy of, among others, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Marianne Moore, and constitutive of a reading community of writers that engaged with each other’s work for a long time to come1. The editors of ←33 | 34→The Objectivist Nexus delineate the Objectivist trajectory in the work of recent contemporary American poets as:

those loosely grouped and customarily labeled as Language poets, and an even looser unlabeled affinity, as yet less articulated, but palpable—a neo-Objectivist branch. All writers absorbing the Objectivist example consider the praxis of the poem to be a mode of thought, cognition, investigation—even epistemology; most of these writers are, in an enlarged sense, realists and materialists.…Thus the term “Objectivist” has come to mean a non-symbolist, post-imagist poetics, characterized by a historical, realist, antimythological worldview, one in which “the detail, not mirage” calls attention to the materiality of both the world and the word.2

Addressing the work of Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, and Charles Olson, the volume points to a number of common characteristics of the Objectivist poets, including the utopian underpinning of their Marxist poetics, traced back to Ernst Bloch’s famous 1935 essay “Marxism and Poetry,” which redirected poetic practice from the purely imaginative ground to materialist practices firmly rooted in social life, as well as the strategy of seriality that reflected the Objectivist problematization of “a poetics of presence and transcendence” and the formal relationship between fragment and series that paralleled the dynamics of individual and the community3. Preoccupied with formalist poetics, the Objectivists foregrounded exploration of form and language simultaneously engaging in a sustained critique of their political dimension and aiming at enhancing their capacity to perceive the social and material world more directly and with greater clarity. At the same time, the editors emphasized the less commonly found surrealist aspects of the Objectivist poetics of Lorine Niedecker, whose work emerged as representative of what they identified as the Objectivist nexus in later poetry that destabilized and complicated the Objectivists’ attention to reality by injecting it with the liberatory surrealist energy4. Examining the poet’s letter to her friend Mary Hoard, DuPlessis and Quartermain emphasize Niedecker’s proposition of a “dialectical correction of Objectivism through surrealism”5.

←34 | 35→

Many facets of the Objectivist and neo-Objectivist poetics that DuPlessis and Quartermain illuminate can be also traced in the work of Scalapino, whose name is mentioned in Charles Altieri’s afterword to The Objectivist Nexus among writers seen as representative of the most recent transformations of Objectivism in the writing of such poets as Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Lyn Hejinian, and Nathaniel Mackey6. In Altieri’s The Art of Twentieth-Century American Poetry: Modernism and After (2006), Objectivism emerges as an important orientation for modernist and early post-modernist American poets preoccupied with the need for a transformed mode of realism that the critic refers to as the new realism. For Altieri, the new realism outpaces the older realist model focused on representation (according to which, as the critic reminds us, representation is simply treated as a matter of pictorial truthfulness) by becoming invested in representation as functional and based in the complex processes underlying “the sensations produced by events”7. As he further argues: “The pictures produced by the mind seemed less important than the actual processes, where the relations among sensations could be seen as the products of natural and mental forces”8. In Scalapino’s oeuvre, sensations are vindicated, which corroborates Altieri’s contention that the modernist mode of “objectified witnessing” in innovative American poetry from the 1930s onwards also includes the role of the imaginary9. Whereas the imaginary plays a foundational role in the new realism according to Altieri, for Scalapino it must not only be integrated at all times in one’s efforts to attend to the social reality, but also further transformed by radically speculative means visible not only in her poetics’ gestures of deconstruction and deterritorialization, but also its extraordinary capacity for transmutation of virtually every form with which her writing engages. I am intentionally emphasizing Altieri’s argument regarding the modernist and early post-modernist transformations of realism as particularly relevant for my investigation of Scalapino’s neo-Objectivism. Altieri’s book provides the critical groundwork for further examination of Scalapino’s preoccupation with forging a speculative alignment between close attention to the social reality and its perpetual entanglement with imagination- and image-bound protocols, visible in her works’ ←35 | 36→focus on the tension occurring between highly imaginative, idiosyncratic, or aleatory poetics bent on pushing writing past the limit of what can be imagined and beyond the social as well as cultural regime.

Closely aligned with Objectivism’s realist, materialist, and surrealist legacy, Scalapino’s work emerges as deeply transformative of the Objectivist perspective through forging a poetics that combines and simultaneously complicates the modes of objectivity, realism, and materialism with its attention to subjectivity, the role of the fantastic and science-fictional elements in the production of cultural imagery, surrealist writing techniques that undercut conventional realism, as well as increased preoccupation with materiality. As I argue further, Scalapino’s non-standard poetics projects writing towards a real-oriented vision that may perhaps be called post-poststructuralist, anticipating the conceptual shifts that have currently occurred in the field of philosophy under the recent influence of the speculative turn. In poetry this shift entails a speculatively refigured poetics of the present that simultaneously foregrounds and undercuts the dualisms of abstraction and concreteness, thinking and being, subjectivity and objectivity, immateriality and physicality, fantasy and fact, as well as rationality and emotion. In my reading, Scalapino’s poetics unfolds as a speculatively-oriented project that postulates a radical alignment of the event of writing with the evental landscape of the social world. It enacts a renegotiation of realism and materialism proper to Objectivist and neo-Objectivist poetry through a speculative impulse that frequently turns to the cultural resonance of images and various stripes of fantasy that further problematize the dichotomy between the real and the fantastic, and expand our notion of what realism and materialism could stand for beyond their conventionally construed definitions.

Whereas the philosophical stakes of Scalapino’s project are hard to overstate, they are not readily or comfortably definable given the resistance to paradigms and definitions, which makes inscription of her writing into any singular perspective or philosophy impossible. Consequently, examining Scalapino’s oeuvre I simultaneously critically investigate philosophical contexts that share common preoccupations with her writing, rather than try to determine or define the critical lens through which it should be read. The study that serves as a provocative point of departure in the discussion of the philosophical stakes of Scalapino’s project is Oren Izenberg’s Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life (2011). For Izenberg, who is skeptical towards viewing Language writing in terms of poetics, the efficacy of poetic practice of the Language group is defined as “a tradition of poets for whom our century’s extreme failures to value persons adequately—or even to perceive persons as persons—issue to poetry a reconstructive philosophical imperative that is greater than any imperative to art; indeed, it ←36 | 37→is hostile to art as such”10. He sees Language writing as preoccupied chiefly with questions of ontology and ethics rather than aesthetics or art. Scalapino, whose oeuvre phenomenally bridges these preoccupations, receives only a scant mention in Izenberg’s study in the section featuring an inserted page that showcases an assembly of fragments from the works of several Language poets, namely Barrett Watten, Susan Howe, Steve Benson, and Lyn Hejinian, where the critic also quotes an excerpt from Scalapino’s serial poem way. Decontextualizing the poems’ excerpts for the purpose of demonstration, Izenberg bypasses aspects crucial to Language writing, such as continuity, movement, and sound-shape patterns. Indeed, the fragments assorted by the critic lose the specific resonance of complete works once they are excerpted from their larger formal structure and detached from the expanded context in which they had been originally situated. Ironically, Izenberg emphasizes the “linguistic ontology” of Language writing that fails to demonstrate any meaningful use to which the syntactic experiments found in the poems might be put, except for asserting the existence of the poets themselves11.

According to Izenberg, Language poets are authors of a kind of non-poetry (the critic borrows this term from Harold Bloom), i.e. poetry insufficiently invested in formal aspects of poetics but instead overly invested with a desire to elevate itself to the level of ontology, which for Izenberg appears to be at odds with poetic, aesthetic, and artistic practice. What the critic finds inimical to the task of poetry is contemporary experimental poetics’ investment in ontology and ethics. In the scope of my argument, I hope to show that Scalapino’s preoccupation with the question of poetic form is inseparable from ontological and ethical questions; indeed, her oeuvre radically unsettles the division that Izenberg draws in his study. While my approach to Izenberg’s critique remains polemical, I find the following insight from his book noteworthy: “For a certain type of modern poet, ‘poetry’ names an ontological project: a civilizational wish to reground the concept and the value of the person12. Examining the poems of authors as different as William Butler Yeats, George Oppen, Frank O’Hara, and the Language poets, Izenberg states that these poets:

seek ways to make their poetic thinking yield accounts of personhood that are at once minimal—placing as few restrictions as possible upon the legitimate forms a person ←37 | 38→can take—and universal—tolerating no exemptions or exclusions. Finally, they will also demand that our concepts of personhood identify something real: not political actions we could come to inhabit together, or pragmatic ways of speaking we might come to share, but a ground on which the idea of a “we” might stand. This poetry, I argue, is an important site for the articulation of a new humanism: it seeks a reconstructive response to the great crises of social agreement and recognition in the twentieth century.13

I find this critique useful in situating Scalapino’s poetics as a minoritarian project that hinges on seeing the question of form as fundamental in both radical problematization of selfhood and, simultaneously, rehabilitation of suppressed forms of personhood. For Scalapino, the question of poetic form becomes integral to these preoccupations. The poet follows suit with the Language poets in her radical skepticism regarding subjectivity and, more broadly, collective identity; at the same time, however, her work shows extraordinary attention to personhood, especially in its diminished and vulnerable states, without sacrificing the aesthetic stakes of poetry. As I hope to make clear in the following chapters, Scalapino sees a close, reciprocal relationship between the questions of subjectivity and personhood and the questions of poetic language and form.

Consequently, I approach the poet’s understanding of form as co-extensive with content, examining it, firstly, in the context of the critique of identity politics and lyric subjectivity underlying the work of the Language poets, and, secondly, tracing her project’s commitment to what I propose to view as a new materialist line of inquiry into how the subject is constituted, as well as how personhood can be thought in a non-dualistic and non-identitarian manner. Scalapino’s writings repeatedly feature individuals in precarious situations; those who have been wounded, marginalized, brutalized, or traumatized by social, economic, or political forces beyond their control. Her texts attend to ordinary persons, frequently figured as victims whose lives have been defined by vulnerability and proneness to adverse or tragic circumstances and shown against a larger backdrop of the social world. As such, they are evocative of individuals discussed in Catherine Malabou’s timely reflections on social and political trauma presented in her two consecutive studies The New Wounded and Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. The focus on persons in Scalapino’s texts always occurs in specific social, political and historical contexts in which they are firmly situated, even if the experimental and speculative thrust of her works also yields abstract figurations of subjectivity drawn into fantastic situations, improbable textual sites of disidentification, or extreme imagery that radicalizes the text’s focus on ←38 | 39→the individuals’ material conditions, which testifies to the poet’s investment in integrating the realist and the speculative mode, rather than relying only on the postmodernist perspective. Close scrutiny of Scalapino’s writing shows that her complex poetics has been preoccupied with establishing a nexus between historically contingent, concrete instances of individuals’ precarious circumstances and larger questions of cultural form.

Indeed, the ontological and ethical dimension of her writing remains closely interrelated with formal investigations that constitute the core of her poetics. Invested in the imperative of radical rewriting of the social world, Scalapino’s work oscillates between two kinds of thinking: critical awareness of a postmodernist modality and intuition of a speculative materialist modality, both of which variously motivate the author’s sense of reality and her understanding of form. The postmodernist aspect of Scalapino’s work has been addressed in Barrett Watten’s commentary on Orion, the third part of her 1991 Trilogy. In his The Constructivist Moment, Watten defines Orion as an exemplary postmodernist work preoccupied with the ideological framework of western consumer society characterized by extreme states of alienation and depthlessness. Reading Orion as a fictional cultural commentary written in the wake of Scalapino’s travels to the Soviet Union, Watten approaches this work through his signature negative lens as a paradigmatic text representative of cultural poetics that “marks its precise location in relation to its cultural other”14. Watten’s genealogy of Language writing has advanced systematically over the years in several studies, most recently in Questions of Poetics: Language Writing and Consequences (2016). The strictly political framework that Watten postulates for consideration of the work of this rather loosely grouped cohort of authors to situate their work historically and emphasize the intentionality of their poetics cannot account for the speculative tension that troubles the negative throughout Scalapino’s oeuvre.

An approach better aligned with my consideration of Scalapino’s complicated position within Language writing can be found in Alex Houen’s Powers of Possibility: Experimental American Writing Since the 1960s (2012), which proposes examination of Language writing as a horizon of possibility instead of limiting its scope of engagement to the experience of negativity. Houen’s argument, informed by Georg Lukács’ conception of critical realism advanced in his classic 1957 study The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, offers an alternative account to the one espoused by Watten. Searching for contemporary experimental ←39 | 40→works that display the potential termed throughout the book as “practical imagination,” the critic reexamines the fraught question of engagement in social power struggles of writers associated with the Language group, arguing that Watten’s view is by no means “representative of the poets’ view as a whole,” and suggesting different grounds “for seeing their poetry as confronting context and instituting an alternative ‘polis’ ”15. Houen counters the critiques of possibility as abstract, passive, and fully dependent on the reader’s construction, refocusing it into the notion of potentiality to show the writers’ respective acts of “composing specific literary forms of possibility that are intended to act performatively as affective forces on readers in particular ways16. For Houen, tracing the forms of potentialism in contemporary American poetry transformed into, as in the case of Ginsberg’s poetry, “individual bodies of feeling, and practical ‘particularities,’ ” leads to a distinctly pragmatic conclusion that “poetics must turn possibility into particular forms”17. Importantly, in the final chapter discussing the question of personhood in the work of one of the Language group founders Lyn Hejinian, Houen offers a much needed reminder of her role in initiating the debate about realism among the poets related to the Language writers at the beginning of the 1980s.

In preparation for her 1981 talk on American literary realism at New Langton Arts in San Francisco, Hejinian asked fellow poets about their sense of realism in connection to their poetic practice. The responses, archived at the Mandeville Special Collections Library, UCSD, demonstrate considerable differences between the poets’ approaches to realism, ranging from skepticism toward its usefulness expressed by poets such as Bruce Andrews, Bill Berkson, Rae Armantrout, and Susan Howe, through Bob Perelman’s discussion of ethical implications of realism necessitated by questions of power and authority, Ron Silliman’s emphasis on reportage, Charles Bernstein’s foregrounding of the agency of writing seen as realization of a utopian possibility of “the PRODUCTION of the real” and Hejinian’s own investigation of the realist mode as capable of rewriting the notion of personhood18, to Barrett Watten’s assertion that “realism is the intention ←40 | 41→for the real”19. As Houen argues, the poets’ widely differing views clearly show that realism in American poetry does not form a unified field20. Rather, as Houen notes, poetry in the realist mode is a dynamic force “intended to ‘generate’ and ‘induce’ particular forms of perception, speculation, and curiosity, as well as ‘a desire to create the subject by saying’ ”21. Hejinian’s long-standing preoccupation with European realism and its legacy for the American realist mode, as well as her insistence that realism in America cannot be considered merely as a European “import,” is captured in the following statement:

As I see it, the work of the Realist writers, first in Europe, particularly France and Russia, and then in the United States, argued for an analytical methodology independent of individual talent and subjectivity. Its intention was to vivify clarity of thought, to make art a tool or a technique of perception, and to make the real—that is the ordinary—world its focus.…As I see it, the Realist project is not dated, though Realism in the period I’ve been discussing was limited by its own terms—i.e. by its failure to accomplish anything toward ‘a special way of writing.’ Reality must be continually confronted afresh. Realism as it addresses the real is inexhaustible.22

The poet’s commentary to responses received from prominent writers associated with the Language group corroborates Bernstein’s approach to writing as generative of the real, rather than reproductive, or representative of it. As Hejinian further observes, “reality itself is a formulation of the language we as people construct” and perception is always mediated by language23.

What further motivates Hejinian’s remarks on realism is her attention to the significance of undoing the dichotomy of concreteness and abstraction characteristic of older linguistic models that totalized the relation between signifier and signified. In her poststructuralist account, undercutting this dichotomy is paramount to forging a new sense of realism that does not distort the real by ←41 | 42→laying claim to the words’ presupposed essence: “The fact is that words are both concrete and abstract, that there is a vertiginous relation between the abstraction and the accuracy of the particular in any word; there is a lot happening already here at this level—some sliding around in the contact between concrete and abstract”24. The language-oriented realism that Hejinian theorizes in her talk emerges as a mode that presents a challenge to convention-bound older Realism; that “institutionalized and therefore coercive” code that makes perception “calcified” and that therefore forecloses on “the possibility of movement, plasticity, and perceptual activity”25. Finally, Hejinian conceptualizes the new mode of poetic realism in the following terms:

It is as productive of the real to go to the poem and release a world out of it as it is to look to the world and squeeze a poem out of that. Language in a poem is a stimulus to meaning and the understanding of what is meant. A manifold comprehension of the world proceeds through manifold situations of language. Language is not a means for relating prior perception but a medium of perception itself.…Rather than write about the world, the work writes the world and determines the range in which reality is possible. Where knowledge in science may be discovered, knowledge in writing can be made. Thus the work, the poem, is a dynamic force rather than a static fact.26

The evolution of the poetic realist mode explored by the poet at the time was developed in a series of essays that appeared much later as the well-known volume The Language of Inquiry (2000), where Hejinian discussed Stein’s version of realism and reaffirmed its “discovery that language is an order of reality itself and not a mere mediating medium”27. Along similar lines, re-emphasizing the potential of language-oriented poetic realism for transformation of the social realm, in Carla Billitteri’s Language and the Renewal of Society in Walt Whitman, Laura (Riding) Jackson, and Charles Olson: The American Cratylus (2009), the realist horizon in the work of Language writers is seen as responsive to the “need for a literal equation of language and society…the realist aspect of Language writing took shape as a kind of neo-Cratylism, not a language of natural words consubstantial with things, but a system independent of nature that in its entirety constitutes reality as lived”28. Enquiring about the critically overlooked ←42 | 43→“claim for realism” in the work of Language poets, Billitteri also points to their realism’s latent utopianism as well as its reformative role in transformation of the social realm, which suggests the possibility of a more positive reading of the legacy of Language writing than the one offered by Watten in his on-going critique29. My consideration of Scalapino’ sense of the real is therefore cognizant of these perspectives on the significance of realism with which her writing was co-evolving30.

Finally, in my investigation of the materialist aspect of Scalapino’s work, I am indebted to Mark Noble’s 2015 book American Poetic Materialism from Whitman to Stevens, invested in exploration of contemporary poetry’s materialist and speculative trajectories. Examining the poetry of Whitman, Emerson, and Stevens, Noble identifies challenges that the distinctly materialist preoccupations of these poets present for the different negotiations of subjectivity that their poetries propose, and interrogates a sense of shared materiality identified in their works, delineating “a short history of the atomized human subject—the person conceived as its relation to a field of objects” along the lines of the stance formulated by Lucretius, according to which “the patterns of organisation we think of as persons are in fact aleatory events tied to a physical substrate—irremediably contingent, historical, finite”31. Noble’s analysis probes the poets’ materialist inquiries into the present-day shape of reality, focusing on the limits they encounter in their respective poetic speculations on the promises as well as risks that materialist atomization poses for coherence and stability of subjectivity. Invoking William James’s and Theodor Adorno’s accounts of the materialist stakes as troubled by materialism’s tendency to slide into idealism or metaphysics, Noble arrives at the notion of aporetic materialism, which entails “the ceaseless negation of [one’s] own assertions”32. At the same time, he recognizes the poetic and materialist potential in making claims for “conceptual revolutions” that hinge on anti-dualistic formulations of subjectivity and the more affirmative side of such versions of materialism, defined as “the lively intransigence of the material world” and traceable to Jane Bennett’s ontology developed in Vibrant Matter: A ←43 | 44→Political Ecology of Things (2010)33. Insistent interrogation of the conflicted materialist stakes of writing is part and parcel of the tension central to Scalapino’s poetics; however, her version of materialist speculation emerges as an effort to simultaneously work through the materialist concerns and speculate upon overcoming the aporetic aspect of materialism that Noble points towards in his study. Scalapino’s highly experimental form of realism arises from the need for reexamination of negativity performed by means of a speculative poetic practice operating at the point of conflict between what is impossible, or inconceivable, and what remains to be done, or thought, in the face of impossibility. Invested in the search for forms of thought and ways of being in the world alternative to those beyond which we currently cannot see, even if such alternatives appear to be devastatingly foreclosed on in the reality available to our grasp, Scalapino postulates a poetics that critically accounts for the illusory status of the real, simultaneously forging revised modes of realism and Objectivism that refuse to accept the epistemological and ontological limitations with which we continue to approach reality.

In what follows I propose to consider the stakes of Scalapino’s work against the constellation of contexts that have not been adopted so far by her commentators and that can be rather loosely grouped as philosophical new realisms, belonging to the broader spectrum of so called post-continental philosophy34. Lucidly introduced in Ian James’s The New French Philosophy, these approaches move past the legacy of poststructuralism and deconstruction to return to such questions as the real, the material, and the worldly. As James explains, the post-continental philosophers, including the thinkers considered further in this study, “radically rethink questions of worldliness, shared embodied existence and sensible-intelligible experience,” reinvestigating the status of the real and engaging with ontological questions35. At the same time, investigation of Scalapino’s writing must be attuned to the emancipatory impetus inherent in her rejection of rigidly established theoretical frameworks. It is therefore not my intention to undermine any of the existing readings and commentaries that continue to offer valuable insights into Scalapino’s work or claim that her oeuvre seamlessly belongs to or corroborates the new realist philosophical spectrum; rather, I hope to show that some of the recently burgeoning approaches to transactionality between ←44 | 45→thought, writing, and reality can bring out in the study of Scalapino’s work something that so far has remained hidden from her readers. The critics’ struggle in the encounter with her writing has been frequently ascribed to the way in which it generates sites of language pushed to utter extremes, demanding extraordinary levels of attention, necessitating a considerable degree of scholarship from the reader, as well as requiring one’s willingness to abandon conventional modes of thinking about reading and writing. Whereas Scalapino’s work may indeed initially come across as a largely recalcitrant body of thought preoccupied with its own hermetic protocols even to the most committed of readers, deep study of its formidable engagement with both phenomenal and material reality may serve as enhancement of the readers’ cognitive abilities and sense of agency in the face of social world’s intransigent normativity.

Consequently, what I propose is close re-examination of Scalapino’s emphasis on the mind’s engagement in the phenomenal and material realm beyond dominant poststructuralist or psychological schemes, suggesting that the reading of her writing might benefit from approaches that venture beyond these well-charted domains of whose conceptual underpinnings she was critical. I argue that another modality at work in Scalapino’s oeuvre that awaits exploration is the speculative perspective that complicates received notions of the relationship between thought and the real. Since my focus in this book is Scalapino’s speculative modality of realism and her syntax of the real, I offer a brief overview of three distinct philosophical approaches to realism to appraise their significance for my further analysis. To this end, I mention three thinkers whose work has been foundational for reconceptualizing the conceptual field of realism and materialism and whose critical input gestures beyond the poststructuralist horizon towards new realism, speculative realism, and new materialism: François Laruelle, Quentin Meillassoux, and Catherine Malabou. While some of their ideas remain problematic for readers relying on postmodernist and poststructuralist philosophical accounts, renewed interest in realism that they have recently inspired may in fact re-invigorate today’s investment, however fraught, in reclaiming our grasp on reality. In the spirit of Scalapino’s experimental investigative poetics, any change of received perspective, however risky and uncertain, offers a promise of a new discovery if one approaches its premises critically and in a non-dogmatic manner.

Beginning to map out the field of philosophical new realisms, I turn to the work of a contemporary thinker for whom the real has been the primary subject of investigation, and whose so called non-standard philosophical thought bears out some of the underlying aspects identified in Scalapino’s conceptually radical work. Laruelle’s non-standard philosophy (originally developed as ←45 | 46→non-philosophy) has been critical of a reductive, dogmatic, and normative way of doing philosophy, which has often resulted in attempts to make a given philosophical system appear sufficient, i.e. bound by an overarching rule that Laruelle refers to as a decision36. For Laruelle, it is precisely this decisional nature of most philosophical systems that has prevented philosophy from correlating with reality in meaningful ways. In order to emancipate thought, philosophy must liberate itself from its underlying dogma, i.e. it must relinquish its foundational decision. Importantly, what necessarily follows from Laruelle’s idea of non-standard philosophy is its opening to a highly abstract and broadly defined exploratory and speculative discourse within the purview of which Laruelle develops his highly idiosyncratic understanding of aesthetics, offering readers commentaries on topics as different as James Turrell’s conceptual art, the abstract aspect of photography, or the contemporary condition of victimhood. Laruelle’s non-standard position brings into focus the real in its radical immanence. The philosopher confronts the pitfalls and shortcomings of the Occidental philosophical tradition and urges philosophy to give more ground to non-dualistic ways of thinking that developed outside the Western philosophical tradition. As Laruelle’s commentator Alexander R. Galloway points out in his study Laruelle: Against the Digital (2014), non-standard thought brings together immanence and materialism, and radicalizes them to renegotiate their apparently unquestionable relation to difference, simultaneously challenging the notion of difference as one of the foundational concepts of postmodernism and poststructuralism37.

Engaged in exploration of not only Western but also Asian conceptions of the mind, Scalapino’s writing is similarly preoccupied with the anti-dogmatic, non-standard and non-Western approaches to thought. Like Laruelle, Scalapino investigates the question of our access to the real through examination of paradoxical dynamics between transcendence and immanence, refusing to accept any reductive, normative, and hierarchical decision-bound conceptual framework. In numerous commentaries to her reality-oriented poetics, she has frequently emphasized that the stakes of American poetry in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first century are distinctly philosophical, even if such an orientation ←46 | 47→remains precarious and speculative38. As Scalapino famously wrote in her essay “The Cannon”: “Poetry in this time and nation is doing the work of philosophy—it is writing that is conjecture.…All demonstrations (as writing or speaking) are sidetracked by being defined as a category”39. Foregrounding the speculative character of contemporary poetry and poetics, her work rejects any philosophy that purports to be a closed, self-contained system, and questions rigidly-defined Western philosophical notions of unitary subjectivity and dualistic thinking through engagement with Tibetan and Zen Buddhism that offer trajectories of thought markedly different from Western ones. In as much as Laruelle’s provocative non-standard philosophical model opens the door of philosophy wider to non-normative thinking, it emerges as helpful in unpacking some of the difficult aspects of Scalapino’s poetics as similarly preoccupied with the rejection of systemic closure and attention to modern-day forms of oppression.

Whereas Laruelle’s thinking arrives at a recognition that the real remains foreclosed to thought, this knowledge strengthens the imperative to continue one’s attempts to make thought correlate with the real through the practice of undercutting mechanisms and habits in which thought remains trapped at the level of lived experience. In this sense, one can identify traces of non-philosophical thinking throughout Scalapino’s writing, where poetic language emerges as a practice motivated by a conviction that our access to the real is conditioned by our thought forms, which entails an imperative of constantly interrogating them, but also gestures towards a possibility, indeed, a necessity, of speculating on radically different modes of thinking. Running counter to some of the well-ossified postmodernist accounts, the non-standard philosophical position returns to the question of availability of the real for thought by ←47 | 48→simultaneously problematizing what we habitually make of thought itself, which necessitates inventing new modes of scrutiny and inquiry. Such (re)invention-centered vision of thought is at the core of Scalapino’s poetics.

The two other prominent philosophical positions preoccupied with the question of realism are Quentin Meillassoux’s speculative realism and Catherine Malabou’s version of new materialism. These perspectives, similarly to the perspective offered by Laruelle, are treated here as contexts that, distant as they might initially seem from the intentions of Scalapino’s work, have been invested in covering similar ground to the one explored in her writing, or they have been engaged in formulating positions that intersect in relevant ways, rather than fully overlap, with those present in Scalapino’s work. Both Meillassoux and Malabou keep offering thought-provoking approaches to contemporary philosophy. Moreover, both thinkers have become influential representatives of the present-day reality debate that I am trying to bring into dialogue with different aspects of Scalapino’s investigative writing in the scope of this book, hoping to offer crucial points of contrast or, conversely, bring into sharper focus the stakes of her complex poetics. Whereas, as I will show in the subsequent chapters, the speculative realist position offered by Meillassoux significantly clashes with Scalapino’s quite different sense of what speculative thinking might entail, the speculatively-oriented and progressive new materialist philosophy of Malabou provides a more fertile ground for grasping Scalapino’s radical investment in, on the one hand, the question of form, and, on the other hand, one of the most pressing questions asked by contemporary philosophy, the negative answer to which neither Malabou nor Meillassoux take for granted at any juncture of their respective critiques; namely, the question of whether philosophy can relinquish the transcendental or not. Malabou’s direct engagement with Meillassoux’s philosophy in her lectures and books published to date creates several productive intersections between her own sense of materialism and Meillassoux’s speculative materialist variety of realism, the interrogation of which constitutes a theoretical investment of the present study. I approach Scalapino’s work as a speculative and materialist poetics, showing not only how her thinking resonates and intersects with contemporary philosophy’s intense preoccupation with the available, as well as possible, forms of realism, but also how it manages to outpace philosophical reflection where the latter risks becoming dogmatic or reductive. Working against arriving at any delimited position or closed conception, Scalapino treats poetic writing as a sustained investigative practice poised in a permanent state of speculative tension and urgency, keeping both the writer and the reader engaged and alert to any systemic foreclosure on the emancipatory potential of thought.

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In the following sections I give an overview of Malabou’s two major concepts, explicated in her The Heidegger Change: On the Fantastic in Philosophy (2004) and Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction (2005), both of which strike me as valuable departure points for approaching some of the most vexing aspects of Scalapino’s poetics. Malabou’s reflection demonstrates an affinity with Scalapino’s work with respect to the materialist orientation of thought as well as an experimental approach to the notion of form. Eschewing metaphysics, Malabou’s philosophical texts have continued to show her sustained investment in undoing the Platonic understanding of form, moving beyond the limitations implicit in legacies of philosophical models foundational for the development of Western thinking, including the work of Derrida, Hegel, Heidegger, and Kant, whose works her own philosophical inquiry sets out to reground. Malabou asks whether and how their systems of thought can be philosophically outlived, suggesting to do it in the same ordinary way one would attempt to live through a meaningful experience to move forward. As Clayton Crockett writes in the foreword to Malabou’s Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, her version of materialism “is completely outside the psychic subject, and the subject is exposed to a vulnerability that she cannot control or assimilate”40. Such materialism, as Crockett further observes, “refuses the conventional opposition between brain and thought as well as the distinction between the brain and the unconscious”41.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (June)
language writing poetic fiction neo-Objectivist poetics new materialism new realisms avant-garde writing
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 312 pp.

Biographical notes

Małgorzata Myk (Author)

Małgorzata Myk, PhD, works at the Department of American Literature, University of Lodz, Poland, where she teaches contemporary women’s writing in North America. She is the author of critical articles and co-editor of two scholarly volumes of essays. She is also the recipient of Kosciuszko Foundation Fellowship 2017/2018 (UCSD).


Title: Upping the Ante of the Real: Speculative Poetics of Leslie Scalapino