Saturday, June 10, 2006


"and an island feels no pain..."

If you know anything about the man's work, one thing you know you'll find in abundance when you open the cover of a book of poetry by Ron Silliman is the exposure/analysis of social conditions and structures and mentalities--and gestures toward a different future--from a Socialist perspective he's been honing and re-calibrating for a very long time. (Sometimes this social criticism is subtly registered and sometimes it announces itself as with flashing lights).

At the top of page 5 of Toner (Potes & Poests Press, 1992), a section of Silliman's extensive project The Alphabet, we read the following:

Economists conduct thought experiment
for a society of two islands
containing one individual each.
Man struggles
to move
from wheelchair
to auto.

The "thought experiment" Silliman cites reminds us that Capitalist economists have often been enamored of the image of each person as a quite isolate being, each of whose daily exertions and activities are directed towards the comfort and abundance of Self and Immediate Family.

I believe it's common for critics to regard Robinson Crusoe (1719) as a herald of Capitalist consciousness.

The reader of the poem may well be nodding assent at this point to the implicit point that thinking like that of the Island/I-land economists should be questioned and dispelled so we could have a world of much greater mutuality.

But then the image of the disabled man navigating with difficulty through his enviroment reminds us that Getting Things Done By Ones-self is an essential part of any man's or woman's dignity.

The montage presented in these 7 lines, then, can serve to impress upon the reader that a truly good society would have to be permeated by Fraternity and Sorority and Cooperation; but also would have to allow and foster the Independence of its members.

Which probably sounds like a tedious editorial.

The stanza makes these concerns very exciting.

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I've always loved that book Toner. Nice commentary!
The Japanese are very cooperative and group-oriented but are still all about capitalism.

The Chinese are gung ho communists and also gung ho capitalists.
Greetings from Buffalo! This is a thoroughly enjoyable post.

If you'd like an interesting perspective on fraternity, check out The Idea of Fraternity in America (1978), by Wilson Carey McWilliams.

Go Bills!
Thanks Stan, Kirby, and Patrick!

I just want to note for anyone coming upon this blog post and these wonderful comments that I have now sent personal emails of appreciation to Stan and Patrick, including reactions to my first looks at their own excellent blogs.

I was so despondent at the torpor within which I was not adding anything new to the blog beyond this post for a very long time, that I wasn't even LOOKING to see if there were comments for a long while. So I must have seemed like a rather pathetic "island" type myself, not responding at all to wonderful reactions wafting in from the outside.

But now I have.

And my word verification is "tyrhkp"--Tyr being the Norse God of "victory", I believe the formula is. I'm not sure what "hkp" might mean yet. :)
Oh and let me note that I've known Kirby Olson for a long while. That's why I don't mention a special communication of thanks to him.
An enjoyably probing reading of the passage. But what about the automobile? -- is this a vignette of a man struggling out of his wheelchair into his car? (two mechanical versions of the island), a kind of pathetic snapshot of unsung heroism? The suggestion though, this being "man" per se, is that the isolated individual is barely self-ambulatory (in need of extrinsic supplements)... There seem enough readings as to render the sense of the picture ambiguous.
The opening phrase "Economists conduct thought experiment" is an amusing satirizing of news headlines. When has a thought experiment ever made the news? That is is "a society of two islands" suggests some degree of exchange... Perhaps a blog is one current techno equivalent of such an island. Is the blog automobile or wheelchair?


Good point about satirizing of news headlines.

My sense of the meaning of the man in wheelchair image comes from knowing that Silliman is very much attuned to the Disability Rights movement, and has been for very long. Perhaps most clearly, because poetry is always so difficult to interpret, you can see this on his blog, where, for instance, fairly recently he linked to a Business Week article about an architect/designer who after a serious hospitalization is now designing medical instruments (not the most typical topic for a poetry blog!), and where also fairly recently he assented to someone's point that his reference to "the disabled" was too much like saying "the Jews".

So I think Silliman would not be suggesting "pathos" or "heroism" in an image of a disabled person--Disability Movement thinking, as I understand it, wants you to understand that the disabled people you see (and hopefully don't stare it) are just trying to get on with their lives, buddy, and often gnashing their teeth at unecessary barriers to their active participation in all aspects of life.

And many disabled people are tired of their infirmities providing such fodder for metaphor, and I think Ron is in tune with that, so the man in a wheelchair means basically a man in a wheelchair, not the "isolated individual" as "barely self-ambulatory".

Of course, anytime anyone is trying to restrict one's metaphors to any degree, one can get very pissed. It's a difficult sort of issue. (An activist once conceded to me that "I was blind but now can see" is not actually so bad, because it's introspective and sung sweetly).

For more info on the Disability movement, check out Ragged Edge magazine online.
Interesting further context, thanks.
Looking again at the lines, the question arises: what is the relationship between the two images? (a) 2 islands, (b) 2 devices (wheelchair and car)
The first involves two individuals on two islands, the second involves one individual moving between two mechanical islands.
I don't know the original poem, so don't know if this is but two in a series of various settings and images (as it may be); thus, to infer a special relationship between these two (in particular) may be to be misled (perhaps) by what could be an out-of-context lifting of this passage. But I'm guessing your having lifted these lines out per se, suggests in your reading (at least) a relationship.

I would also tend toward the idea that the particular positions of ANY political or social movement cannot really fully restrict the reading of a thoughtful reader whether or not that reader is well aware of those positions. Such positions are not the sum total of what an image or a line of poetry can carry -- just as position points in a speech do not really restrict the resonance of speech; the voice may still (e.g.) crack a wine glass (if held at the right pitch) even if the preacher happens to be extolling virtues of abstinance. [well, I tried to construct a ringing metaphor; pardon if it shattered]

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