On Certainty via Stackhouse’s “Latina”

The poem ‘Latina’ in poet & artist Christopher Stackhouse’s recent collection Plural (Counterpath press) opens with the following perplexing stanza: 

Vis-à-vis curricula per – 
pro forma, 
        mere gesticulation
to reverb, to chorus – 

I know that is it not fair on either the author of a poem, the poem itself or its readers to limit one’s interpretation to a part of the work, but I don’t have much time (I have a talk to prepare on how to teach theories & practices of translation via contemporary art exhibitions), so I must focus this post on only this first stanza & these four lines alone. Yet to enrich my brief reading of this minimal part of the poem, I will ask you to consider them through two frameworks. The first framework is another partial quotation from another poem by Stackhouse from the Plural collection – the final stanza of ‘Notes from Panel Disc. @ The Fish Tank Gallery’ which runs as follows:

Art should speak (say) to a position from a position of an artist.
The artist takes a position based on how s/he sees itself in
contextual dialogue (art historical?) with the human condition.
The artist interprets his/her world to create meaning, or/and,
comment on the way meaning may be transmitted.

The second framework is a brief text read by Stackhouse at a roundtable discussion as part of a series of readings that he organized in April 2009, as part of an exhibition and series of events in response to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. Here is the general description of the event:

“Lack of clarity in philosophy is tormenting. It is felt as shameful. We feel: we do not know our way about where we should know our way about. And nevertheless it isn’t so. We can get along very well without… knowing our way about here.”

“…In any serious question uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem.”
-from “Remarks on Colour,” Ludwig Wittgenstein

“On Certainty” includes a group show, a new issue of the magazine Shifter (co-edited by the participating artists), and a series of public dialogues with economists, neurologists, physicists and writers. The participants contemplate the notion of certainty and its sibling, uncertainty: How and why do we constitute a unified self from which to speak and construe meaning in this world? When we say, “I know…” with certainty, what do we mean?

The title of the show, lifted from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s posthumously published book, signals our attempt not only to investigate knowledge and factuality, but furthermore, to interrogate the statement “I saw it with my own eyes.” What is the position of the witness (who represents an event) and the authentic subject (who represents a group) in knowledge production?

The interdisciplinary programming of the lecture series reflects the curatorial desire to use the gallery as an intellectual commons. As Edward Said has said, specialization sometimes “means losing sight of the raw effort of constructing either art or knowledge,” and by opening up an interdisciplinary conversation we hope to investigate the “choices and decisions” that produce these knowledges, and their certainties.

As part of this interdisciplinary programming, Stackhouse organized a reading with the poets Thom Donovan, John Keene (with whom Stackhouse collaborated on the poetry/drawing project Seismosis, published by 1913 press), Stuart Krimko and Katy Lederer. Thankfully for all of us in the wider ‘intellectual commons’, the whole event – the reading & ensuing panel discussion – is available to watch on the Shifter website.

However, as with the poems I quoted from Plural, I want to focus on only a small part of this event – Stackhouse’s introduction to the panel discussion.(You can watch the video for yourself here, note especially the  first 3:28 minutes). Here Stackhouse explains how he asked the participating poets to think about 3 questions & to do so within the framework of what he calls a ‘possible kinship between etymology, philosophy & poetry’. The questions are as follows:

1. What is authorship?
2. How can the meaning of a poem be known?
3. How do you handle the unstable “position” of the subject as a reader & writer of contemporary poetry?

So, it is with these two frameworks – the last stanza of ‘Notes from Panel Disc. @ The Fish Tank Gallery’ and these introductory remarks in the panel/reading for the On Certainty project – that I want to focus on the 4 lines of ‘Latina’ – here they are again.

Vis-à-vis curricula per – 
pro forma, 
        mere gesticulation
to reverb, to chorus –

Although, as I’m running out of time (I also have a lecture on the speech of Pythagoras in Ovid’s Metamorphoses to write), I will have to restrict myself to the first line:

Vis-à-vis curricula per – 

So, we start with a relation, an (unstable?) “position” as articulated by the French vis-à-vis ‘face to face’, from which, nudged by the nuanced meaning of the Latin plural curricula ‘race courses’, we slip into Vis-à-Vis Carriages, still used today by the Amish community, ending with the Latin (& naturalized English) preposition per ‘through, by means of, on account of’ to reach the end of the line per se. If we stop here, we see are left with a sequence of thought (‘the meaning of the poem’) which moves from French back to Latin, to Latin with an English twist. Yet if we sneak forward, onto the next line, the preposition pro (and stop before we get to forma – if you can) brings us – etymologically – back to French, wherein this Romance Language makes per and pro into (mutuo nexu) par and pour. It is only then that we realize that Stackhouse is etymologizing a whole different word: performance, through the form, as a matter of form, mere gesticulation, to reverb, to chorus and so on (& on). It is here, perhaps the position (unstable, certainly!) of authorship of on the one hand the artist who interprets his/her world to create meaning is shown to be at one and the same time a comment on the way meaning may be transmitted.

For more about Christopher Stackhouse & his work, click the image below. 


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