Crisis and the US Avant-garde — Ben Hickman

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The French philosopher Alain Badiou can help translate some of Olson’s only apparently vague assertions regarding history into the vocabulary of ‘social action’ Olson had announced as a poetic concern at the very start of his career. Badiou’s theory of the subject is tied up with his theory of the Event, which closely echoes Olson’s ‘act’ as radi- cally discontinuous. Indeed, for Badiou the event is an event because of its ‘impossibility’71 within the logics it displaces; it is a ‘totally ab-nor- mal’ void in the structure of being.72 Being absent, the Event is uniquely that which exists by being chosen by subjects, who in the act of this decision are constituted as such. For Badiou the subject is not given, but ‘becomes’ through the act of choosing and instituting the Event. Thus in his attempt to renew the notion of agency in the wake of poststructural- ism, Badiou denies the category of subjecthood to any human lacking a precise, and probably revolutionary, social agency. Olson’s notion of man as ‘[a]n active’, opposed in Special View to rationalism’s ‘counsel of despair’ in which ‘Man is simply lling an empty space’, likewise opens the notion of the human up to a future beyond what is made to seem necessary and consummate by the past.73 The being of the subject for Olson is what he does (though not, as we shall see, without limit). ‘Man is, He acts.’ The two are identical and cannot, one suspects, exist apart for Olson: ‘Actual wilful man,’ he writes, ‘has to do something about himself.’74

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Absentee ownership is an issue for Olson for many reasons, not least of which is its role in destroying the link between community and place, but here it represents the absence of power in the people who are subject to it.

Creeley speaks of his mistake in once taking Olsonian limits ‘to be a frustration of possibility rather than the literal possibility they in fact must provoke’. [...]

one gets two sorts of will, a will of power or a will of achievement. The rst one is the one in which the will collapses back to the subjective understand- ing – tries to make it by asserting the self as character. The second makes it by non-asserting the self as self. In other words the riddle is that the true self is not the asserting function but an obeying one, that the actionable is larger than the individual and so can be obeyed to.80 — Charles Olson 'The Special View of History'

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His anti-social egotism, however, is itself a limit in histori- cal terms: as Olson grandly declares in Call Me Ishmael, Ahab is the end of the project of Western Man, of humanism, of ‘what we have had’.

There must be an ‘END of individual responsible only to himself’ represented by Ahab.83 Only then is man responsible to ‘history’ conceived as ‘the con dence of limit as a man is caught in the assumption and power of change’ – a richly ambiguous statement akin to Marx’s ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please’.84 Man is caught in the power of change but he must also assume that power and institute change through action. This action is neither the negation of history nor resignation to determinism; it is, as ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’ tells us, the application of ‘method’, of a special view of history in which we awaken ourselves and historical processes simultaneously. The ‘nets of being’ are limits, but they need not be escaped or transcended, but rather red up, transformed and made transformative. In itself a performance in how we might ‘slip the cog’, Olson’s poem is the enactment of this transformation. Its dramatisation of a mind thinking itself simultaneously through, out of and awake from the deadening effects of a culture obsessed with repeating its past repre- sents one of the key articulations of Olson’s radical projective poetics.