In “The Strategy of Visual Poetry”[Horizons: The Poetics and Theory of Intermedia. 1984.] Dick Higgins establishes a distinction between geometric and algebraic approaches to composition. I know about the difference between arithmatic and geometric progressions. However I am stumped in trying to locate any antecedants or parallels to Higgins geometric-algebraic distinction. [The impetus, for me, is to trace out some precursors to the discourse on linearity in textual criticism.] This is the passage from Higgins that entices and puzzles:
[…] what syntax there is is geometric rather than, as in traditional poetry, algebraic — cumulative rather than linear. The elements taken separately have no particular power or impact. But each line gets nearly all its meaning from its relation to the others, where in traditional poetry the lines normally make some sense even when isolated. In a geometric painting, shapes get their relevance from their relation to other shapes, and in a ‘Proteus poem’ the pattern of the components is far more important than just what they happen to be.
I wonder how the geometric/algebraic distinction can be aligned with the remarks on catharsis:
Among the traditional thoughts of poem which a poet tends to keep as a paradigm in his mind is the idea of the poem that “catches you up, and won’t let go of you until you have finished reading the poem.” In our Western culture this is almost the normative view. It is the source of “power” in a poem. There is an element of compulsion which leads ultimately to catharsis, the touchstone criterion which Aristotle attributed to the tragedies of Sophocles […] the aim of his [Aristotle’s] rhetoric is to persuade. The goal of our rhetoric today is far less to persuade than to develop the mental or perceptual resource, to share the experience.
He goes on to make reference to the linear expression of an Aristotelian logic…
There appears to be invoked here a tension between the shareable and the exploitable. Reading this back into the geometric/algebraic distinction, one arrives at a sense of muddledness. What does one do with art or poetry that is persuasive in its attempts to share?
Higgins in a Something Else Press Newsletter from 1968 (in a text with a dateline of New York, December 23, 1967) gives a little bit more about this GEOMETRIC VS ALGEBRAIC distinction.
This freedom to use whatever has been proved as a sort of experience leading towards its possible inclusion in the next steps one decides to take seems to me characteristic of Geometry, from Euclid to matrix theory, as well as a key point in the new mentality. […] The algebraic mentality is pretty much the same as McLuhan’s print-oriented man, whom he explains as the end result of the books and newspapers.
This to my mind rests on some contentious dichotomies. What is interesting however is how Higgins in a dialectical movement kicks his discourse up a notch and proposes a new mentality for what he observes to be intermedia. Very interesting that the turn relies on the specifics of computer programming in Fortran.
To finish with this point, there is perhaps a common ground, in set theory, a set theory of the arts, implied by that of, for example, Fortran IV computer programming, where we say: A = A plus 1. In Algebraic logic, this is unthinkable, an obvious example of argument from shifting grounds. In computer work it means, “what was A is now to be increased by one.” It indicates a mathematical usage, to the point of convention, of what I described at the very beginning as the general sense of flux, of things changing their real essence according to their usages. But in the program, each time A is increased, either by being sent back to repeat a process (repetition was a pretty dirty word in art till recently) or by constantly being made to confront itself, it changes. This allows for all kinds of juxtapositions and inter-exchanges of elements of any repeatable modulus in an argument — or in a poem.
This, intuitively or not, the poets who have given us the term concrete poetry seem to have recognized. they were and are cognizant not only of the Geometric aspect of the new mentality, but of the one we seem to be moving towards which, somehow, it’s had to name “synthetic,” so let’s call it simply the “happy mentality” out of love for the world we’re moving ever deeper into.
Little by little it becomes evident that the distinction elaborated by Higgins is simply the rhetorical work of the techniques of parataxis and hypotaxis. I wonder how Higgins’s foray into the hermeneutics of computer programming might have gone if he had realized that the distinction he elaborated with reference to mentalities is from a stylistic perspective simply the categories of parataxis and hypotaxis at work. Just how style becomes the base for a whole mentality is itself a neat rhetorical trick. One I have yet to master, being of sceptical mind.
And so for day 1229