El imperio de la neomemoria

[Photo by Ricardo E. Tatto for La Jornada]

In his new book, El imperio de la neomemoria (Oaxaca, México: Editorial Almadía, 2007), Heriberto Yépez tries to analyze the U.S. as an empire by exploring the poetics of Charles Olson. For several years now, Yépez has been a crucial link between experimental writers in the U.S. and Mexico, publishing fiction, poetry and essays in both countries. As he explains in the first section of this three-part essay, Yépez studies Olson’s relationship with Mexico in order to understand the U.S. and its imperial role today:

“Olson is part of the American dream, the dream of expansionism in all its variations. It is in order to understand this empire that I’ve written this book. I’m not interested in Olson himself, but rather his condition as a micro-analogy in order to decipher the Empire’s psychopoetics.” (79) [All translations from the Spanish are my own.]

The book’s three sections are titled, “America|Pseudo-Patriarchy|Pantopia,” which recounts Olson’s poetic investigations of Mayan culture in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula in 1951; “Co-Occident|Kinh-Time|Empire,” where he delves into aspects of Mayan cosmology; and “Neomemory|Modernity-Post|Cybermnemics,” a series of reflections on postmodernism and philosophical attempts to interpret our present moment. Yépez’s ambition is evident from the scope of his subject matter alone, ranging from the ancient Maya to Olson’s poetics to our current age. The book leads in various directions simultaneously, choosing a nomadic form of poetry/criticism/philosophy. I read this multiplicity as an explicit part of his thesis, that there are no clear solutions to the problem of Empire, which involves not only American citizens but huge swaths of the world.

I remember Yépez once commented about his mixed feelings toward Octavio Paz’s work at his blog (I can’t find the post and assume it vanished during one of his occasional erasures of his archives). The one aspect of Paz’s ouevre Yépez spoke of admiringly was his work as an essayist. This comes to mind when reading El imperio de la neomemoria [Neomemory’s Empire] because, like Paz, Yépez tries to comprehend his own time & place through the filter of Mexican culture and its convoluted relationship with itself and the world. Likewise, both writers are deeply aware that poetry is a form of philosophical discourse. Yépez’s prose is wonderfully lithe throughout this essay, maintaining an analytical tone imbued with intriguing and unexpected jump-cuts. For instance, he places Olson on a much wider field than most critics, reminding us that his exploration of the idea of space in his writing coincides with a similar impulse in writers he is not usually associated with, such as José Lezama Lima and Jorge Luis Borges:

“Since the forties, Lezama Lima was fabricating the notion of “gnostic space” until he manifested it explicitly in his 1957 lectures. On the far south of the continent, Borges, in his own way, in “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941), described a tenuous space in which perception could discern all of time converging on a single plane, a synchrony and politopia he would explore in several of his stories and essays, until arriving at the concept of Aleph (1949).” (71)

Yépez does Olson a service by connecting his writing, by nature of its very “Americanness,” with a global range of ideas, unbound by readings of his work within a narrow Anglo-American context. In the second and third parts of his essay, we see Yépez using Olson’s poetics as a starting point to analyze the political and cultural landscape of Mexico and the United States as we begin the 21st century, in many ways more awash in violence and danger than ever before. Poetry as a means of philosophizing our present.

El imperio de la neomemoria comments on Olson’s essays, letters, poems and personal life within the context of the months he spent studying Mayan culture in Mexico before he moved to North Carolina to teach at Black Mountain College. Olson’s turn toward Latin America was in itself a sign of a particular moment in American literature, when several generations of writers began to seek an understanding of the rest of the Americas. But within that cosmopolitan impulse to break away from American provincialism, Yépez notes an emerging empire’s effort to create a new memory for itself:

“Olson and the Beats are not a random event. The white man, the hegemonic man, the American, didn’t start to seriously rewrite his artificial memory until the fifties. What Romanticism was for Modernity, the fifties will be for the North American empire.” (147)

Yépez argues that this new form of empire is different because it manages to subsume anything that revolts against it, incorporating all of us within its reach. This isn’t pessimism as much as realism, an acknowledgment that a critique of imperialism today must begin from an awareness of that phenomenon’s ability to bleed through borders and ideologies. When discussing Olson’s book on Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael (1947), he notes his own (and our) complicity with empire:

“Until now no one has noticed that, above all, Bartleby is the writer – socially disdained – from a capitalist society whose emblem is Wall Street, who refuses to realize that his work is a replica of what he thinks he is rejecting. What this scrivener refuses to acknowledge – and I include myself and you in this situation – is that his words are copies of the words of the Law of Capital and the State.” (41-42)

Under Yépez’s glance, we note Olson’s frequent misreadings of Mayan cosmology. The middle section of the essay offers an overview of certain Mayan philosophical concepts that Olson either didn’t understand or completely missed in his research. This is not an attempt to contrast a supposed indigenous sanctity with Western imperialism, as he acknowledges the imperial aspects of Mayan culture. Rather, we are guided through various blind spots in Olson’s research on the Maya, emblems of his inability to acknowledge his own complicity with the American impulse towards continual expansion:

“The base of an empire is, precisely, this conversion of autonomous times into threaded times. To turn the nomadic into a systematized carrier along with other carriers.” (196)

If ¥épez offers any hint of a resolution, we might find it in his exploration of this concept of nomadic time, as opposed to imperial time:

“Imperialist notions transform time into space. Nomadic notions, on the other hand, tend to understand time as a multiplicity of times. These times – nomadic tribes – are autonomous from each other, each one obeying its own laws. (The notion of a single, spacialized time is linked to the historical appearance of the State.)” (265)

Yépez is concerned with Olson as a central figure in several generations of American literary avant-gardes, including those of us reading & writing blogs today. Whenever this book gets translated into English – and it’s crucial that someone take on this task – I imagine certain sectors of the avant-garde (post-avant, etc.) in the U.S. will interpret it as an attack on Olson, or a dismissal of his poetics. But Yépez is asking us to slow down, to pay attention, to look beyond the notion of a heroic or insurgent literary vanguard that can critique and resist American imperialism. His reading of Olson within the context of the Americas reflects a belief in the centrality of poetic discourse in understanding our historical moment. The poet is, in a sense, acknowledged as a philosophical catalyst. What Yépez does reiterate is the need for certain American writers to look closely at their own complicity with empire:

“Since Whitman and Pound, North American poetics also persist in the project of a neomemory. In contrast to turn of the century cinema, this neomemory projected by North American poetry is considered sublime or subversive. The two fields in which American representation has best thought about neomemory have not been linked. Their analogies have not been noted. Hollywood and poetry think about the same nightmare.” (214-215)

Olson’s concept of Projective Verse is interpreted as one sign of this imperial impulse. I can easily imagine the following fragment creating a stir among some American writers:

“From various perspectives, then, the “projective” has much less to do with a poetics of “energy” and “breathing” than it does with a poetics of military movements and information gathering transformed into a poetic sublime.

The projective in Olson is techno-logistics.” (233)

On several occasions, Yépez makes it clear that he’s not merely attacking Olson or the United States out of spite. Rather, he is trying to decipher an empire through the work of one of its most innovative poets. Yépez’s includes himself, and his readers, within the global presence of American empire. A comment he makes in the final pages of this essay underscores his awareness of the limitations of philosophical inquiry when it comes to disentangling imperial threads. We have all helped sustain our current empire, within what Yépez calls pantopia [pantopía], a fantasy of a space where time has been converted into space, or fragments of a total space:

“Pantopia has infiltrated our semi-awareness so deeply – located on the border between unconsciousness and consciousness, in such a way that it permeates in both directions of human thought, because Interzone or semi-awareness has become the key region of today’s psyche – and pantopia seems so “natural” to us that to doubt that different events are not actually linked together, and to think that each event obeys the laws of the space-time in which it is realized, different from other space-times, seems like a strange idea to us, or at least an unusual one.” (263)

Olson and Yépez (and you, dear reader) are unable to fully escape this imperial notion of a single space-time. Yépez doesn’t see a solution to this situation, at least not through his own interpretive methods. What he might offer instead is a critical approach to oblivion, a form of writing and reading that could (theoretically) break through our imperial moment. And yet, this essay also seems resigned to acknowledging the muddle we inhabit today. In a prologue in the form of a poem entitled “Umbral,” Yépez points to the dead end of his book and our own global landscape:

Cybermnemics [cibermnémica] is a method of production of loose images. It is a procedure of fragmenting reality, experience and memory; by means of the illusion of cybermnemics – since the cybermnemic cannot be anything but fantasy – the West accumulates.

It accumulates images for its relapse.
Language turned into space for a single-echo.
Cybermnemics is a neomemory’s dream.
Cybermnemics is the base of Empire.
Without cybermnemics there would be no pantopia.
“America” is cybermnemics.

And yet, death will free us from everything.
Including the “Universe.” (7)

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