Peter Larkin: Innovation contra Acceleration

What are the ways in which innovation will bear with us? If innovation carries with it a benign aspect and is more than secular hermeticism or some lay version of the occult, can something be asked of innovation, rather than compulsively innovating the terms of any question put to it? I want to ask what sustains the innovatory, and also is what fuels it something freely or unfreely given, if the given is the sum of our resources in some way? Should we think of finding a place for innovation? If this is to misconstrue its role, is that very misprision at least as important and productive as anything within innovation itself? This line of questioning may open up a way of considering whether or not innovation must inevitably abet acceleration and of seeing if the answer to that question impinges on materiality itself.

Poetic innovation usually presupposes linguistic change, with an ambivalent and partly retrospective glance across at the American Language poets. From this side of the Atlantic poets like Anthony Mellors and D.S.Marriott have pointed to the difficulty of applying a loaded term like innovation to language: attempts to liberate language from spurious or repressive norms of registration still beg the question of what can or cannot be commodified. Some would see terms like authenticity or integrity as themselves brought under commodity, while a more sustainable and less formalist approach leaves something in reserve upon which resistance might draw. Unless, that is, innovation precisely needs no reserve or ground to start from, somewhat like Ernst Bloch's concept of the novum. If that's the case, it does seem innovation can't abide any question put to it. But if poets like Bernstein and Perelman or Watten were saying that language can escape from a received identification with commodity, then it looks to me they have been deploying some notion of a reserve, bringing to the fore some linguistically non-standard registrations which ideally reduce referential ease but deploy an idealism or formal representation of their own to induce a greater structural awareness of what is acted out in language. But how far can a defamilarising contortion go in displaying the syntactic frame? D.S. Marriott argues that linguistic distortion is wide open to further over-determination in terms of disavowed trauma or phobic evasion of speech (1). A likelihood of long-term symbolic attenuation may come to underly the flimsiness of cultural surfaces over which linguistic play skates. For myself, I find it unhelpful to suggest that innovatory poetry gets as far as laying bare syntactic and ideological frames so as to re-empower the reader, since what is going on operates more like, and is to be valued more as, a fantasy of structuration much more ambivalent in its capacity for interaction. I suggest it is fantasy which both does the work of innovation and simultaneously occludes its product: something gets to be value-added beyond exemplary technique, something arrives to answer and burden the material of innovation, and that something is the absorption of innovation into an answerable poetry. If Language poetry has succeeded as enactment and is not reducible to formal representation of itself as a condition, then I feel this is the only way it could happen. If the formal goal of the innovatory is to relate us to some productive site of pure construction, the role of fantasy, I would say by contrast, is to reconnect human and cultural constructs to the fate of naturalisation, or to re-embed conventions as inventions in what it is they can be given to be. Ontologically speaking, it is to go on relating constructs to what it is co-structures them, and politically it is to open writing to what can misrecognise or rerecognise it beyond the formal provisions of innovation itself (2). I am not seeking to decry innovatory techniques so much as wanting to embed innovation (at the cost of some contamination) in a wider sphere of cultural negotiations. I understand the cultural as a zone from which the constructed has to forego formal identity in opening out onto a richer but also more chastening field of pressure-relations only met with as one might meet with givens. The given is in the opportunity or the obstruction.

This means we have to ask not just what is the economy of the new but what provokes the speed of the new, since that is where the nature/culture distinction is most telling, just as it is overtaken. Overtaking is not a surpassing but employs one more narrative of acceleration. What is the new the renewable of? Where, in other words, is the naturality of innovation? The idea of innovation supplies a trace of reformable commodity (and is a key concept in business studies) but remains, as acceleration, tied to the processing speed of commodity put-through, really the speed of communication itself as spectacle of fulfilment. Is it possible, by contrast, to select innovation for the values of restitution and conservation, that is, to loop the emergent through the residual, both of which are versions of the non-dominant in any cultural phase, rather than simply oppose the emergent to the residual in a purely accelerative way? (3)

Most of the cultural acceleration we see around, including cyberspace transmission, remains within the sphere of predominance, a facility for adopting the different as the future legacy of the same. If we believe in schemes for a more radical form of innovation than this, I am still left wondering just what is the identity between the different on one hand and the novel on the other? Could it not be the novel as effect is only what is left after the other is accelerated into the same? Certainly, one can posit the accelerative as an expansionist version of the same, or no more than the same interrupted or exhausted in the same way. Difference, by contrast, may not need to outrun the same, its alterity is not cumulative or susceptible (pace some avant-garde procedures) to intensification.

Acceleration is the least troubling way of absorbing innovation in contemporary culture. This is a contract which brings about the familiar telluric retraction of the spaces of the world, an abolition of the resistance of distance. It is a commonplace that industrial civilisation rests on an ever more intense preoccupation with the process of permanent innovation, divorcing the pace of technological growth from that of cultural evolution. There is a collapse of temporal mediation (and mediation normally implies delay as well as advance) in the relations between nature and invention (physis and techne). If a device goes quicker than its own time, speed emerges as paradoxically older than time: the machine outnatures nature, but the resulting naturalisation of the machine reduces that machine simply to a means, it's no longer a skillful finder. Speed emerging as older than time is what the French thinker Paul Virilio calls the dromocentric revolution where speed is not just an added phenomenon but determines the relations between phenomena, just as one could assume in a similar way a commodity culture doesn't abolish needs but subverts the inhabitable spaces between needs (4). For Virilio the paradox of unabsorbable speeds among life-systems results in a spatial desert and immobilism: people are mobile only on the one reductively unified spot, cocooned as they are in a continuous real-time but placeless interactivity which economises the body to a few basic gestures. Planetary space reduced to one vast floor (like David Jones' world floor in his The Tribune's Visitation) is a product of dromospherical pollution immersed in which we forget the nature of the path or journey, an essence involving resistance, distance and effort. What is distorted, Virilio says, is not subject/object relations so much as object/traject relations: acceleration in perception may spark off an accident in the flow of the real, or what he calls a general accident where the real as pure acceleration has precisely overtaken transformatory change. The immobilism conjured up here is not like the stillness of a lake but blocks off all possible passages from the vantage of the non-place of acceleration. The exhaustion of temporal distancing brings in also a parking accident: if no meaningful or bodily locality survives, the question of any repose (itself a form of stable flow) becomes hopelessly redundant. Virilio's final word seems to be that an earth desertified and lacking any resistance to cybernetic speed is a world in process of dematerialisation (5).

I should like to plead for innovation as a form of restitution, projecting towards a not yet reached future as a space in touch with material localities of reinclusion rather than the already overtaken site of exemplary redundancy. The celebration of boundless energy associated with some forms of experimentalism has rightly been seen as a form of consumption, pricing itself out of more modest but more sustainable modes of becoming within the wider life-community (6). It is also possible to affirm the fantasmic origin of most of our causal constructs, but rather than leading to the usual postmodern neutralisation of relation with the world about us, this can be understood as a fantasy precisely physical and concrete in its effects (7). Andreas Huyssen encourages opposition to a received postmodernism of the anything goes variety, or the art of blank parody (Jameson), and has called for women, green movements and third word movements to reconstitute the map of modernity (8). Virilio will also insist critical thinking must re-establish paths of memory built on topical spaces, local experience and shared discourses among what I take it would be contiguous non-natives.

Poetic thinking is nothing if it can't afford room for variable speeds of interaction, recalling groups that live at slower ecological rates from drifting off into exclusion. Variable speed is what gives currency to flow, and here we can tap into Michel Serres' insight that flow is the norm for the thermodynamics of open systems. In other words flow is the relatively stable form of both imbalance and invariance in what he calls the homeorrhetic, a flow which achieves an open sustainability in and around such undesirables as stasis, redundancy and disorder, all seen as interactive microsystems rather than structural inefficiencies (9). The American conservationist Aldo Leopold related change (especially the self-induced variety) to flow where change is not a disruptive throw-away discharge of energy but tends to elaborate the flow-mechanism itself and lengthen its circuit (10). This species of flow-change can be related to what Karl Kroeber sees as a negatively capable competence where humans accept nature's transformative multiplicity as the essential basis for valuable but non-absolute cultural constructs (11). Its the non-absolute status of the construct, whether poetic or technological, which enables it to be nature-directed, rather than its arbitrary standing serving as justification for overlaying or ignoring the natural.

So what of innovation in terms of this wider, paracultural circuit? In some versions of poetic minimalism it operates effectively as a form of waiting or doing without, as if implementing Robinson Jeffers' vision that the shift in power from builders to destroyers had already culminated in modernism, and a fallow, though not a neutral after-period is what is needed. Lying fallow would certainly require an innovatory technique and on one level is anything but natural. Where innovation remains caught up (as for perhaps most of us here) in a more crowded and expensive mode of linguistic practice, poised at a differential spring to launch itself outside the natural, this can be still be understood as an ecstasis which hollows out a species of articulation from within nature's closure (12). This aporia over the placing of language for me marks a scarcity of relations, and scarcity in my own practice is the cue for innovation to the extent it explores a way round both absence and excess. The natural is not fully open to articulation and remains indifferent to distorted and separative enactments of it, but the fantasmic folds crumpling any attempt at articulation indicate both a scarcity of stable frame (because subjected to flow) and a persistence of shared particle on the cusp of momentary interaction (the pleats are granular). Each moment is a moment of innovation but in a context of sustainability. Flow, if it is to be more than naive organicism, needs to be evoked by both flexible and brittle concepts: a non-accelerative flow is not just a factor of liquidity, being composed not only of what bends with the flow but also of what breaks into symbolic obstruction amid the flow. Obstruction is one frame of relations barred but carried onward into another set of interactive events. These events don't exclude reversions.

Innovation appears as what takes place within the scarcity of the now, a product of excess possibility applying itself to a source of diminishment, the momentary encounter with those few opportunities of being here. From the perspective of the now it's helpful to take account of the likely scarcity (but also non-absence) of any possibility for generating meaning about the world, rather than presume on an excess of received meanings within the human ghetto, contaminated codes too easily colluded with at the very moment of breaking them down in order to provoke an infinite reprovision of meaning from somewhere - without regard to the scarcity of the some. So I don/t see innovation as possessing a key to some laterally infinite fount of possibility beyond known formations of meaning: I stand more for a scarcity of the continuable, a more minimal surprise of a next step (Cavell) from within and across current codes of sign-making which are themselves already in touch (in however contestable a way) with the only reserves we also can be in touch with. An answerable innovation is one that respects the scarcity of fundamental resource-opportunities out of which cultures can be remade and does not squander them in some accelerated hyper-consumption of the other. The other may persist itself only under the sign of scarcity, but scarcity renews where it is found to be such. This is not just a matter of displacing the urban as sole locus for innovatory initiatives, but also a way of deprivileging the problematic status of such tricky essentialised notions as fundamental sources. The problematic itself needs to acknowledge contingency, to admit that it also serves as our problem. Without some such a locality applied to its own aporia, the problematic as a covering cherub easily commutes to offence against wider spirals of community, a biotic community in which we find ourselves amid structures no longer negatively reclaimable or sceptically detachable as pure constructions. Any restitution of reference amid this wider sphere need not revert to a narrow epistemological competence, but instead move along the lines of what one writer has called dual accountability, a recognition of both formal excess within the text but also of its informal derivation and outreach among multiple planes of transmission (13). Without reference conserved as some sort of inclusive burden, if only a recessive one, we risk provoking what can be called a fallacy of derealisation. Constructedness is just what tends to interact on and with the nonhuman, and an arbitrary is not necessarily confined to arbitrary relations. For me this whole area pivots on the notion of re-version, which allows both formal and aesthetic revision but also an informal reverting to the wider, more messily conforming naturals of our non-autonomous condition. It's a way of taking the risk of identifying essential resources without being able to ground them, but at the same time not giving up on them or unsourcing them. And scarcity is certainly a matter of counting something essential to something or someone else, it is not a view of some viral, transhuman plenitude of deregulation. It is a vision of exact need in the context of competing flows of natural energy, where the specificity of human need (by which the human ceases to supervise the whole of nature) precludes any facile mimicking of natural turbulence per se. This is revision in order not to lose contact with, rather than change separating out from: it is reversion amid a prevailing scarcity which can in fact be deployed innovatively to stave off general subtraction.

Harriet Tarlo has been drawing together the threads of what she calls radical pastoral, detecting some sort of common undertow among such diverse names as Thomas A Clark, Barry McSweeney, Maggie O'Sullivan, Richard Caddel and others (14). John Kinsella has also identified himself with versions of pastoralism. I don't think the point is to claim that these poets are special exemplars and they certainly can't be lumped together under a common adherence to a particular technique. What does matter is that the waves they do make should be allowed to rock against and underneath anything more overtly innovatory. Harriet Tarlo points to the double marginality of such work: it is heavily involved in non-standard techniques but also committed to some sort of pastoral deployment of what is usually associated with an urban-privileging stance of radicalism. As such, it may be one of the strongest margins around, a poetry of ecotonal attunement, moving outside oppositional hierarchies, giving space and time for the settings of edge rather than staking everything on a more assertive programme to set on edge. Radical pastoral is emerging, it seems, with a new appreciation of the literal, holding in suspension what must remain undecidable but not unaddressable. Nature can't be fully internalised in human life, but what is not internalisable is not as such isolated. Innovation stumbles if it rubber-stamps cultural formalism or any sort of formalism. It neglects two highly significant forms of history: the nature which our history has denatured, and the nature which constitutes our climate, in other words naturalised history (15). This passage from a pure historicism to a wider narrative of life-forms can be characterised by what has been called a plot of relinquishment which both requires an innovatory practice in order to effect passage but demands that practice be diminishable, free from spurious aesthetic autonomies of its own (16). Such consciousness of the non-human enfolding the human is frankly utopian, as poets like Thomas A. Clark would publicly acknowledge, because it's a rarity of relation we are always in process of finding, and we have to innovate against losing the thread altogether. Certainly in my own work innovation has a function to the extent it enables a poetics of scarcity, understood not as minimalist preciosity, but as the condition of a passage to the future, of a persistence of local relation to plenitude through a strict observance of the irreducible frugality of the now; but also no less in terms of the buffetting self-excesses of the now, with its costly projections onto a future congealing the glimmering margins of the present. To the extent that an innovatory language inherits this fixation on acceleration, it also has within it the possibility of opening up to a more answerable scarcity at the horizon of the burdens of the new.


1. "Signs taken for Signifiers", Fragmente, 6 (1995), 73-83.
2. See Anthony Mellors, "Out of the American Tree", Fragmente, 6 (1995), 84-91.
3. For the terms "residual", "dominant" and "emergent" as competing modes of production, see Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford, 1977), pp. 121-27.
4. Open Sky, trans. J. Rose (London, 1997).
5. Virilio, p. 25. I turn to Virilio's work as a potent Cassandra of our times, without dwelling on the proneness to repetition and unreflection in much of his work.
6. Rethinking Technologies, ed. Verena A. Conley (Minnesota, 1993), p. 83.
7. Teresa Brennan, History after Lacan (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 116-17.
8. Quoted in Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice (Chicago, 1991), p. 10.
9. Quoted in Verena A. Conley, Ecopolitics (London, 1997), p. 62.
10. See his famous essay, "The Land Ethic" in Sand County Almanac (London, 1968).
11. Ecological Literary Criticism (New York, 1994), p. 119.
12. Greg Garrard, "Radical Pastoral?", Studies in Romanticism, 35 (1996), 463.
13. Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), pp. 372;500.
14. Unpublished paper delivered at a conference on Literature and the Environment, Swansea, 1996.
15. Timothy Morton, "Shelley's Green Desert", Studies in Romanticism, 35 (1996), 421.
16. Buell, p. 180.