I’m very excited to be travelling to Sydney this Friday for a symposium on “The Theory and Practice of Poetry” at the University of Western Sydney. Convener Gavin Smith has put together an exciting lineup of speakers, including Tom Lee, Fiona Burrows, Kate Middleton, Peter Kirkpatrick, Hazel Smith, Chris Andrews, and Richard James Allan.
My own talk is entitled “Poetry and Philosophy in the Chinese Room” and begins by responding to the online paper by Gavin Smith that serves as a starting point for the symposium, “What Is the Poetic Experience? An Argument in the Philosophy of Poetry.” I plan to open by quoting the following passage from Joan Retallack’s “The Woman in the Chinese Room”:imagine that you are locked in a room and in this room are several baskets full of Chinese characters she is glad they are Chinese of course glad to continue Pound’s Orientalism there will be no punctuated vanishing points she is given only rules of syntax not semantic rules she is relieved of the burden of making meaning she need only make sense for the food to be pushed through the slot in the door it is thought that these are situations more familiar than we would like to think them to be in the new technologies and to men more than to women but it oddly feels quite normal
Philosopher John Searle’s famous thought experiment describes a “Chinese room” in which an English speaker would follow a series of rules to respond correctly to questions in Chinese without ever understanding either the questions or the answers. Searle’s 1980 article purports to address the universal difference between computation and human consciousness. However, as Retallack’s poem suggests, Searle’s argument is historically, culturally, and linguistically locatable. It depends on an orientalist vision of Chinese––and arguably on a renewed interest in China traceable to China’s reentry into the global economic system circa 1980––and on late-twentieth-century anxieties about the entrapping qualities of new technology and of language.
Since Searle wrote his article, a significant number of contemporary poets have taken what I call an iterative turn: a turn towards repetition, rewriting, versioning, performance, and other uses of pre-existing material in poetry. The iterative turn in poetry can be understood not just as a shift in rhetorical form but also as an ethical and political response to the crisis in authority to which Searle, likewise, implicitly responds: the crisis engendered by the rise of computing and new digital technologies and the increasing pace of globalization––the sense that we are all imprisoned by our technologies and by our language.
Like Searle, writers Caroline Bergvall, Kamau Brathwaite, Hsia Yü 夏宇, and Jonathan Stalling use acts of repetition and translation to address what it means to experience words and knowledge. But they also in different ways question Searle’s Orientalism and his accounts of knowledge, language, experience, the body, and the machine. They offer an alternative way of thinking about agency and the mind as embodied in and through language, translation, and the mediation of technology. Or so I’ll be arguing in Sydney on Friday . . .