The Counterfeit Order of Things: Procedures, Poems, and Laurie Blauner

allthis.jpgSeattleite Laurie Blauner has been steadily releasing poetry collections in for years and I rarely see any mention of her work anywhere which makes me wonder how many writers like her are lurking in the kitchens and basements of Seattle? Cherry Grove Collections just released a book of poems, All of this Could be Yours. Her next novel, Infinite Kindness, will be released this winter. She’s will read from both books at Richard Hugo House next month ( Saturday, 20 January 2007 at 2 pm in the cabaret.)

I’ve been struggling through Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, a book that is actually pretty lucid compared to Discipline and Punish and compared to some post-modern or Marxist stuff I sometimes to try to read, Foucault is downright jargon-free(tm). My interest in this book has been learning how information is organized and how we came to develop our organization of symbols. The alphabet is a paradox to me. Why does C follow B?

Foucault’s book is pretty exhaustive on the subjects of syntax and taxonomy, and full of insight that at first seems a case of stating the obvious, but somehow he accretes startling conclusions. He writes, “Structure is that designation of the visible which, by means, of a kind of pre-linguistic sifting, enabled it to be transcribed into language.” Through language and the structure of language, a system parallel to the physical world can be created to understand the physical world.

Foucault’s primary aim is to provide a language for the analysis of political systems. One of my frustrations with Foucault has less to do with his own work than how it has been lifted and simplified. Just as in semiotics, where there is a formal separation of symbol/referent, with Foucault there is a sense that this system because it has autonomy from the physical world. Even the back cover of my edition of the book moves this observation from a simplification into a lie, “The result is nothing less than an archaeology of the sciences that unearths old patterns of meaning and reveals the shocking arbitrariness of our received truths.” The entire point of The Order of Things is the exact opposite of this statement. It is to show that our received truths are not merely embedded in physical reality but rather have a history and have progressed from century to century in the way that soil settles in progressive layers on the ground. It is a natural history of symbolic systems. But these systems are in fact in dialogue with reality, not isolated from reality.

I work now as a technical writer and have been interested in the startling amount of power that a standard operating procedure has over the mysterious physical reality of my work place. I’ve done other writing tasks before, but in creating user manuals or description of services, my work has had no kind of impact or change in how people do things — however in the case of a standard operating procedure, there suddenly becomes the codification of what people do, how they do it, and a corresponding ability of the business to measure and monitor labor. In writing a procedure, though, I am aware of the gaps, the errors, the leaps because it would be impossible to capture all ways that someone performs labor. Nor would a document be able to tell them how to do everything they do. The creation of these texts and corresponding mechanism of measuring and adjusting them results in a great degree of control of the business over the labor. This control in fact comes regardless of the actions of the laborers.

This was my interest in Foucault at first. I was uneasy about creating procedures. It seemed kind of imperialistic to essentially document work and add them to a taxonomy of work performed at the company. Now I see it as less imperialistic and perhaps more in line with creating a structure. It is essentially then disciplining the physical reality of work. It represents the work — and it is important to bear in mind that it is not literally the work. This structure, once created, can be include a dialogue incorporating both the management of the company and the workers. How the structure is used becomes a political argument — the existence of the structure is independent of these concerns.

Mid-way through Laurie Blauner’s book of new poems, All of This Could be Yours, I came across this poem, “The Counterfeiter’s Belief in the Order of Things”:

Trees press their threads of bone against
My window, my wife’s face. We spend

Ourselves and depart like currency. A kingdom
Of acceptance and order. No superstitions,

Black cats or night. I think about
How a read apple absorbs everything but red.

A standard operating procedure is a chilly document, at the root of it scientific in that it uses method, tests for repeatability, and is concerned with usability. It is not an expressive document. Or an emotional document. In a similar way, these poems are cool, precise, and strike me as repeatable experiments in perception. They are devoid of the mystical mojo junk that often decorated a poet like YB Yeats’ poems with garlands of tinsel being passed off as fairy dust.

Compare her lines with some well known WB Yeats lines:

I made my song a cot
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat.

So much contemporary poetry contains at the root of this Yeat’s nostalgia, a deliberate coddling up with the past and received truths. Foucault was interested in finding a language that identified and understood physical reality (even if this reality was partly mental — an phenomena increasingly understood as a physical one as well.) He understood I think that it was a kind impossible struggle because language is at the root, rotten and a lie, but nonetheless worth the fight to make it honest. Blauner, too, is struggling to find precision and accuracy in the language of her poems.


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