Olson and Appropriation

Olson v Olson, with Kit Kat
Image by Ben.Harper via Flickr

“Either your experience is of no content, of no change, or it is of a perceptible amount of content or change.  Your acquaintance with reality grows literally by buds or drops of perception.  Intellectually and on reflection you can divide these into components, but as immediately given, they come totally or not at all.”  in Robin Blaser, The Violets, quoting Whitehead (PR II. II.II, 68, Olson underlining)

The time I spent digging through the Charles Olson Archive was focused in two directions: expanding my field of inquiry through Olson’s reading and getting a handle on Olson’s practice.  Over Olson’s shoulder, as it were, I encountered Jung, Whitehead, Corbin, Kerenyi, Peirce, James, Kirk, Sauer, and Havelock.  And each encounter contained lively annotations that demonstrated for me how one could literally wrestle with a text, make “use” in the pragmatic sense of one’s finding, and follow insights into one’s own work.    From what I saw in Olson, I can confidently say that the postmodern movement never quite practiced appropriation with the depth of Olson plummeted through his library.

Olson learned his practice reading into Melville’s library and tracing what he found there into Moby Dick.  See, appropriation is a vehicle for transformation, not just a re-arrangement of external pieces.

Negitive Capability

John Keats


Last week in a post on practice, I sketched the simple pragmatist approach to action which I found scattered through the notebooks of the poet Charles Olson: thought, belief, action.  In Olson’s poetics, the poem flowed onto the page from a place of certainty, but certainty defined with one caveat: negative capability.

In a letter written in 1817, John Keats wrote:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Action flowing from right relation to the cosmos; how difficult it is to hit the mark.  It’s interesting that Gladwell’s Outliers is to be released this week.  The premise there, that it takes 10,000 hours engaged in the practice of whatever to reach mastery in the given activity.  We intuitively know it to be true for athletes and musicians…but the fact is, its true for everything.

Beware the danger: 10, 000 hours of commitment and still the unfortunate “irritable reaching after fact & reason.”  William James refers to this lack of intentional open mindedness coupled with a reliance on common sense as the result of cowardice when faced with the chaos of things.  Such cowardice James claims engenders all and every form of absolutism.

That seems like plenty to chew upon…

(image cc via Wikipedia)

Practice, pragmatically…

Book cover of


“Grant an idea or belief to be true, what concrete difference will it’s being true make in any one’s actual life?” asks William James for a second time in essay The Meaning of Truth: a Sequel to ‘Pragmatism.’ And it is this rub of idea against reality which makes the insistence on practice so inviting.

Consider that Lawyers and Doctors have practices.  Consider the word not as the child struggling to learn a musical instrument, but as a word that you wear into every action.  In doing: a practitioner.  In as much as your practice evolves, a pragmatist.

C. S. Peirce, the other granddaddy of pragmatism (he coined the word), found that belief fueled action.  In fact, he clarifies that without certainty, action cannot proceed. So what emerges is the three fold nature of our engagement: thought, belief, action. Do you clarify dissonance in your practice?  Do you make use of the rush of energy that emerges from certainty?