Poetry, Theory, and the Chinese Room in Sydney

Styles of stiles by Tom Lee and Geoff Tonkin, image credit Zoë Sadokierski.

Styles of stiles by Tom Lee and Geoff Tonkin, image credit Zoë Sadokierski.

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 . . .

About Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.
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