Author Archives: Steven Schroeder

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About Steven Schroeder

I am a poet and visual artist who spent many years moonlighting as a philosophy professor — most often in interdisciplinary settings, most recently at the University of Chicago Graham School. I studied at the University of Chicago (where I received my Ph.D. in Ethics and Society in 1982) and Valparaiso University (where I received my B.A. in Psychology in 1974).

end of the line

A highway never meant to survive
a nuclear war draws a line
from the JC Penney Museum
through three childhoods –
Pershing, Disney, Twain –
before it joins Eisenhower’s system
on the other side of the Mississippi
with the unthinkable in mind
and barrels through Lincoln’s home town
toward the end of the line.

This is what Ike imagined
on the far side of Armageddon.
Pavement is a diversion. Washington

is a sideshow.
The end of the line lies
in Carson County alongside
the Woody Guthrie Memorial Highway,

and this broken city scattered
by wind on the plains is the day after.

©Steven Schroeder

streams of consciousness

When we take a general view of the wonderful stream of our consciousness, what strikes us first is the different pace of its parts. Like a bird’s life, it seems to be an alternation of flights and perchings.
-William James

1

Two finches rise on a wave of sparrows,
perch on the stem of a dry thistle, rise
and rise again when the wave rises
over a scrap of prairie beyond

a temporary fence that stands between them
and a stream of traffic rushing the other way.

Finches glitter gold on the wave of gray
sparrows, like light breaking on living water.
A crumbling walk follows the fence, as do I,
perching when the finches perch until

there is an opening where I can cross
to a new path on the other side

that snakes around old trees toward Osaka
Garden. One broken tree has knelt
toward the water for years, and I
stop to pray with it while

a cardinal watches from the ground
before she flies to the top of a standing tree.

2

Just beyond Yoko’s lotus,
I pass through a gate onto a path
that makes it hard to walk

without leaving a trail
of sound. I keep my good eye
on the pond where a heron sometimes
stands waiting in shallow water. The heron
appears in the corner of the other
eye, and eye to eye we stand

until he turns and wades into the water
to wait for one god or the other
to trouble it with a miracle he can eat.

3

This whole scene rests on what remains of an exposition
that erected a white city and remembered an invasion
as a discovery four hundred years after the fact.

And this city began discarding
the ground beneath our feet long ago
to push back a body of water. I

stop again to watch the heron, standing on
long thin legs, still, waiting, on the other shore,
like a flood, I think, like a memory of water.

©Steven Schroeder

in memoriam 刘晓波

They say it’s always darkest before dawn,
and I say this sheds light on memory
and time. The difference between
dawn and what was before is greater than
the difference between dawn and what follows.

Time ripples like water, and every wave
circles back from shore to shore. What was is
present with what will be now and then.
Light seems blinding when it is nothing but
a new day, and every dawn traces an epiphany
in that moment between night and night. They
say men loved darkness rather than light, and I say
power is as fragile as the grip of a survivor
clinging to whatever is afloat when
a wave rises after a shipwreck, fragile
as perfect fear throwing love overboard
as though the sacrifice would soothe
whatever angry god has made this storm.

Tom was right. Fearful men clinging
to the remnants of a ship that sunk some time
ago will find a daughter or a son to kill in the name
of order. Men of reason will say this is the cost of doing
business, war by other means. Engineers may kill a wave
for now and push an ocean back a while. But they are nothing
without the water rising beneath them, sure as dawn.

©Steven Schroeder

manifestos 5: turning

1. First, a modest proposal. If we choose to name and claim an “age” or an “era” by calling it “ours,” let’s agree not to name it after the chief executive of one place among many places marked by boundaries that can be (and almost always are) contested. Naming “our” age for the chief executive of a place among places attributes more importance to the executive, our punctuations of time, and the temporary barriers we erect around territories we occupy (or in which we make scenes by pitching our tents) more authority than they merit. The barriers, the punctuations, and the executives are undoubtedly significant and have real impact on human beings and other living things (and social scientists spend a good deal of time identifying them and cataloging their effects while the people whose lives they impact spend a good deal of time struggling against them). But they are all made things (products, to a large extent, of language) that can be unmade (at least in part by language). It is unwise to feed the fire of a person who thinks himself or herself in charge in a place s/he thinks the center of the universe. That is to say that naming (or accepting the naming of) a place “the center” and designating a person as being in charge of the place moves the person to the center and gives him or her significant (in some cases, virtually unlimited) power.

2. If we choose to name and claim an “age” or an “era” by calling it “ours,” why not name it όχι and dedicate ourselves to making a world – personal and political – in which “no” means no?

3. This embraces elections as pivots on which ages may turn, but it also turns our attention first to an election in a part of the world (Greece, 2015) other than the United States. By extension, it very likely turns our attention to a sequence of elections that includes the so-called Brexit vote and the US presidential election in 2016 – and perhaps to the question of “election” itself. I suggest the name with Camus’ L’homme révolté in mind, both because it begins (before the beginning, in the introduction) with the uncertain frontier between “crimes of passion” and “crimes of logic” and because it begins with a definition of the human being in revolt: “Qu’est-ce qu’un homme révolté? Un homme qui dit non. Mais s’il refuse, il ne renonce pas: c’est aussi un homme qui dit oui, dès son premier mouvement.” Naming “our” age όχι identifies “us” with reference to negation that is not renunciation, and it identifies the “age” as a time and place defined by acts of negation that are not renunciations.

4. Suggesting the name, I am also mindful that 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, an invitation to scholarly debate (as indicated by Luther’s choice of language) that is often understood as a revolutionary act. This is interesting as an affirmation of the uncertain frontier between logic and passion (whether it is a matter of “crime” or not). Luther’s language is explicitly religious (hardly surprising for a professor of theology who was also a monk), as is the practice (the sale of indulgences) that he criticizes. But Luther’s invitation, like the practice he criticizes, is a matter of politics and economics as well as religion. The invitation lays the groundwork for Marx’s characterization of religion as the “aroma” of a distorted state (and that characterization could well be understood as a scholarly response to the invitation to scholarly debate). The frontier of an open-ended invitation to debate is uncertain, and that means the debate goes on.

5. The starting point is of particular interest in our age of όχι. Luther notes that the call to repentance with which the Gospel begins means that our entire life should be one of repentance. That Luther posted a set of theses in Latin as an invitation to scholarly debate suggests that he had in mind a small circle of scholars (students and teachers) at a small university in the small German city of Wittenberg. But it is also reasonable to assume that the “our” he had in mind reached beyond the small circle of scholars at the university where he taught to encompass the Christian community of Wittenberg. In the early sixteenth century in Germany, it is difficult (if not impossible) to disentangle that community from the civil community. Religion – the aroma of a distorted state – is everywhere in that state. Because the criticism is directed at a practice authorized by the Pope at least in part as a way to fund a building project in Rome, the circle is still wider. And this matter of religious practice is a matter of economics as well as political tension between the local and the global. Luther protested that he didn’t intend the theses for a large audience, but it is unlikely that he was oblivious to the potential for such an audience. And I find it difficult to believe that this was an attempt to internalize sin as has sometimes been claimed. It looks to me more like a critique of religion that is a critique of the distorted state of which religion is the aroma.

6. It turns on repentance, which is to say that it turns on turning.

7. Not the turn, the turning. This is my reading of Luther’s first thesis: we are called not just to turn but to keep on turning. And that is an affirmation of the power of negative thinking.

8. It is the no, here and now, that keeps us turning – in every here and now. The default position for citizens is resistance, and this is because our being citizens is a matter of our being political animals. It is not something that is granted to (some of) us by powers that be. It is who we are, and that defines how we always stand vis-à-vis power (which, as Foucault noted, comes from everywhere).

9. Luther’s first thesis grows directly out of what he reads as decisive (and determinative) good news. This is my reading of that news: “God’s presence is so close you can touch it now. Now, turn and act as though you believe this.” This claim (and the imperative that follows) is made in the context of an aniconic tradition that sees God by negation – so it is consistent to argue that the presence of this negative, the presence of this absence, drives our action vis-à-vis powers and principalities – which, as an earlier interpreter of that good news insisted, are what we struggle against.

©Steven Schroeder

revolution now

and then, in medias res, I am
walking meditation on city pavement
and a proliferation of uncertain Springs.

A car heading due north pulls over to the curb and I hear
a woman’s voice say excuse me sir I need to be
going south
through the open window
on the passenger side and, leaning
so I can see the speaker, I say
you need to turn around.

She says I need to get to 55th and Western
55th and Western, right?
and I can see
the question is for the guy sitting
in the back seat while what has
the form of a statement is
an urgent request

for direction directed to me.
I tell her again you need to turn around
and point to 55th Street, two blocks south.
Turn right there and point again to make sure
she sees which way – and drive west. You have
quite a way to go, but it will take you to Western.
Good luck.
The guy in the back seat says thanks and

she drives off and I walk away thinking
I should have told her the road would wind
through a park and cross an expressway and she
would probably think she was lost but
she shouldn’t give up hope.

But having left that unsaid,
I hope they make it. And I am again
walking meditation on city pavement.

Spring is everywhere, it seems,
since some journalist writing about Tunisia
thought to make a cipher of Prague and 1968. Here,

it comes with a stutter step and can scarcely
keep its feet when it steps over cracks
and fissures left by a long winter.

You’d think we’d take a good hard look
at what this pavement was meant to cover
before we called in a crew to smooth it over,
consider the dandelions, how they neither toil
nor reap nor for a moment think money
is speech but hold each other in the light
that slips through every crevice that follows
a change in the weather. They hold each other
in the light, and light themselves, a body of light,
they dig deep in dirt. Like water, they

turn and do what they must do to make a place
where they are standing now, a barricade
of flowers. And then

they die, sure-footed. And then
they come again, like light when
pavement breaks and yet another
Spring comes stumbling over them.

©Steven Schroeder

on the occasion of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in literature

e pluribus unum: the new Parmenides

1

We drove straight through from Wyoming, Minnesota to New Orleans on Highway 61 – not to avoid the Interstate but because we had it in our heads that one turn after another on a slow road pausing for every signal in every small town was the only way to get to Mardi Gras.

We made our way the way the river does, rising through blue, leaving some (not all) of our shit behind. Right through the middle of the crossroad where Robert Johnson sold his soul. If that doesn’t get you ready for Lent nothing will.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Must have been around Louisiana, Missouri, before we got to Troy – six hours or so from Memphis – that we picked up a hitchhiker, scruffy kid with a guitar. He said his name was Bob. Later, after the Irish whiskey he was sipping from a flask kicked in like Pentecost, he said he was Plato’s little brother and took to speaking in tongues, mumbling about some guy named Abe and running the other way when you see god coming.

(Yes. That Plato.)

The timeline was impossible, but anyone who’s ever driven straight through from Minnesota to Mardi Gras knows what it means to be out of time, surprised by nothing, even if the odds are against knowing what it means to get happy.

He could spin a tale. And that kept us awake, a better reason to pick up a hitchhiker on a dark road than some vague idea you have that something you can do with a machine you own or a machine you think you own on loan from a bank that owns you can get a lost soul closer to wherever it is they think they’re going.

I’m telling you now, it’s hard enough to know where you’re going without worrying about some stranger, especially when you find yourself in a dark place where two roads cross in the middle of nowhere on the map with no sign you can see, wondering if Ike had the right idea after all.

The best you can do is keep on keeping on, keep your eyes on the road, and do whatever comes to mind to keep yourself awake.

2

Bob strummed his guitar off and on all the way to New Orleans. He’d break into a little Woody we knew now and again and then we’d sing along. It rained hard – hard rain – for a while, and while the windshield wipers were keeping time, I thought of Janis and her Mercedes, of nothing left to lose.

But she never came up, and no one was holding Bobby’s hand this time.

Bob spit out names again and again, like they left a bad taste in his mouth that the whiskey couldn’t hide:

Glaucon, Adeimantus, Potone. Glaucon, Adeimantus, Potone. Not a word about little Bertie.

Nearing Memphis, he grew suddenly lucid:

That’s why I left, you know. Tired of being Nobody. Headed west. I ran into this old cat who said he used to be in politics. He said he got fed up with the bullshit and headed west, like me. Turns out he was tired of not being Nobody, not like me.

He comes to a border crossing and while he’s fumbling for his passport, guard says I know who you are. Old cat says you and everybody else. Get in line. Guard says I’ll make you a deal. Write down everything you know about politics, and I’ll let you be on your way. Old cat says You’re putting me on. But he pulls out a notebook and jots down poems he’s been making in his head to pass time on his long march west. Nothing to do with politics. But no doubt the guard will find the politics he’s looking for written in ink and nothing to do with politics between the lines on the pages torn from that notebook.

Sure enough. Guard says that’ll do and waves the old cat through. Right then and there, that old cat decides to keep walking until he comes to a place where he can pass without a word about nothing he’s learned in politics.

I met him in Chicago, many crossings later, in a bar. Sign said Woodlawn Tap, but the locals call it Jimmy’s.

In Chicago, nothing says politics like nobody nobody knows. Coming out of nowhere as the old cat did, he found a disciple waiting where he never would have thought to look, a smart grad student who’d visited every crossing and gathered all the poems the old cat made into a system soon to be a dissertation. He was waiting for us at a table in the middle with a pitcher of Guinness. The old cat did his best to get us to do the talking. But, true to form, the disciple and the gathering crowd insisted.

Another border, another crossing – solitary, singing in the west…

3

There was an assistant professor at the next table (I’d know one anywhere and so would you) who’d read all the poems and been alerted that this old cat was passing through Chicago.

He was part of the crowd.

He had published a treatise on the poems, a little masterpiece of erudition, in a respected academic journal nobody read, and he laid it out for the circle of drinkers, who raised their glasses and cheered. The grad student, who had not found time to read it, made a note to cite it.

But, dazzled though they were, they still wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. We all did.

Someone brought two more pitchers of Guinness while the crowd pulled the tables together.

Another border, another crossing – solitary, singing in the west…

4

If there were a one, the one would not be
many. Not many, the one
would not have parts.
Not having parts, the one
would not be whole.
A part is

a part of a whole, one
missing no part.

One whole having parts would be
many. One that is one is not
whole. One that is one

has no parts. No
parts no beginning
no middle no end no

limit no shape
nowhere

neither in
another nor in
itself uncontained

uncontaining. One
contained would be one
contained and one containing: two.

Move and you are you
here and you there, not one.

Be in the same place and the place is
another: two, you and the place you are in.

One cannot be in the same place. Not
being in the same place, one cannot be still.

Not still not in motion not other than any other. One
cannot be other than itself or another, cannot be
the same as itself, as another. Neither

here nor there, never here now then there. Not
younger than itself not older not the same never in time.

Nothing doing nothing to do. This
one can not be can not not be.
That cannot be.

Begin again.

5

If a one is, it cannot be and not have being.
So there will be one and the being that one has.
One is, not one is one. Being, one has being. If one
has being, the whole is one and the being one has: two.

Each of the two is one that has being. No part is
one. One being is a multitude, unlimited. Say
one, say being, one being, a pair –

then there are two of us –
do tell. Each is
one, two

together another: three.

If there are two, two times
must be, two times three
and three times
three and on
and on

if there is one
there must be number.

If there is number
there must be many.

If there are many,
every one of the many

must be one. And not
being one, the one is many.

6

The parts of the one
are parts of a whole, Being
a whole, the one takes shape.

A whole cannot be
without beginning and
middle and end and the middle
can be nothing but what is the same
distance from beginning and end and so
the one having shape will be
in itself and in another.

If the whole were nowhere,
it would not be. Because it is
not in itself, it must be in
something else. As a whole,

the one is in something else. As
all the parts, it is in itself.

It is in itself and in another. Being
in itself and in another, it is
at rest and in motion.

Itself not itself,
others not others.

If there is no one,
there is nothing.

7

Chicago was not the place.

I continued west with the old cat until we parted company somewhere in Iowa. When I left him, he was in deep discussion with a farmer who’d gone to Oxford thinking he’d pursue an academic career. But now all he really cared about was horses.

The last thing I heard the old cat say was a white horse is not a horse. It is a white horse.

Most true.

8

Laissez les bons temps rouler.

__________

©Steven Schroeder

from mind the gaps: fragments. Chicago, 2014.

manifestos 4: a work of the hands

Don Ihde maps language as a process that begins in sound and moves through music to spoken and written word to silence. Sonically, we first encounter language as music and arrive gradually at word; through word, we arrive gradually at silence. Visually, we arrive by the same route at emptiness. Rather than beginning with silence and filling it with sound – or beginning with an empty page and filling it with writing, we begin with a world that is full and press toward emptying it. In a world of words to the end of it, we make our way toward silence through sound.

In its subtle rejoinder to Adorno, for whom music, though like language, is not language, Ihde’s sketch proposes a relationship between word and music, word and silence, in which there is no outside for human being vis-a-vis language: we may speak or write of language as though from outside; but in so doing we speak or write in language. If we try to step out, language comes with us.

This turns on pressing from music through word toward silence, which, following Paul Friedrich, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Blake, I associate with imagination. Imagination plays through word in two directions, from music toward silence and from silence toward music. The play is a tension that, as in Peirce’s explication of the sign, means a world experienced as an external force and a mind pushing back against it. More properly, what is experienced is tension between two forces. Both are internal to the tension, and neither is independent of the other: there is no experience that is not in medias res, no world that does not contain experience.

In the direction of Ihde’s analysis, children enter the world through a wall of sound, which they experience first as music. And this is the experience of anyone who is a child vis-a-vis language, regardless of age: when we encounter language we do not understand, we can hear its music long before we can decode meanings it might contain. In this direction, as we come to understand, we leave the music of the language behind and push toward a limit, silence, that is presumably opposite. But both are always present: edges give shape to centers, meaning that word emerges in interplay of music and silence.

Friedrich reminds us that poetry is language that calls attention to its own form and that all language is poetic. All language calls attention to its own form; and its form is determined by the place it occupies between music and silence. This is Stevens’s poem of the mind in the act of finding, the poem of the act of the mind. It is metaphor at work, and, as both Percy and Lakoff have argued, it invariably involves saying one thing while meaning another. Though it is saying, it is not, strictly speaking, about language. It is a cognitive function making use of language (the ultimate artifact, as Andy Clark puts it), particularly concerned with mapping. As such, it is a matter of making our way.

I am concerned with poetry as manual labor (to borrow an image from Thoreau by way of Stanley Cavell), a work of the hands that makes a space in which human being can dwell, finds a way in the process of making it.

“Finding a way in the process of making it” resonates with a number of religious traditions, including Christianity and Daoism, and is an important basis from which to consider ethics and literature, particularly poetry. As a work of the hands that makes a space in which human being can dwell, poetry is more than a “container” for ethics understood as a doctrinal system. It is more properly a locus in which ethics takes place, an ethos in its original sense as a dwelling place for animals. As the close connection between Aristotle’s ethics and his poetics (and between both and his politics) suggests, the constructive process, the praxis, of poetry is potentially a source of insight into the construction of character. More to the point, it is a construction of character that, by making a space in which human being can dwell, is the making of a city – the architectonic art, politics – within which ethics is to be understood.

©Steven Schroeder

manifestos 3: a cyborg manifesto

In the final paragraph of her “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985/1991). Donna Haraway recapitulates two crucial arguments:

1. “The production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now.”

2. “…taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts.”

And, echoing a theme introduced near the beginning, she maintains that “cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.” More than a theme, this is the heart of the matter as surely as “spirit” is for Kandinsky – “an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction,” an interplay of pleasure and responsibility that dances around cyborg imagery in a maze of dualisms long deployed to keep selves, tools, and bodies straight. The dance, which Haraway calls a “political-fictional (political-scientific) analysis” (connecting science with fiction) is made possible by three crucial boundary breakdowns:

human/animal
animal-human/machine
physical/nonphysical

Because there is no “natural” matrix of unity (and because such unity is nothing to be desired), no construction is whole, meaning that the play of difference, the play of possibility, is endless. And that leads to a critical insight into both science and fiction, both forms of possibility thinking: “Some differences are playful; some are poles of world-historical systems of domination. ‘Epistemology’ is about knowing the difference.” With Marxist analysis in mind, Haraway follows this knowing, this science/fiction from all work to all play, from organic/industrial society to “polymorphous information system.” And that in turn leads to a critical insight into control strategies: “One should expect control strategies to concentrate on boundary conditions and interfaces, on rates of flow across boundaries – and not on the integrity of natural objects.” This is a revolutionary reconfiguration of Marxist analyses of objectification and alienation. Every construction of an object is a construction of self, and neither is fixed (no matter how hard deployers of the aforementioned dualisms try to fix them).

Like Marx, Haraway recognizes the critical role of tools, of technologies, in this construction of self in construction of object in construction of self. And, recalling that it is not a cyborg (leading like a messiah) but cyborg imagery (pointing like a finger) that makes this political-fictional-political-scientific analysis not only possible but also promising, she recognizes that “myth and tool mutually constitute each other.” Technologies (which are discourses) and discourses (which are technologies) can be partially understood as formalizations (fetishes?) or frozen moments (objects?) of fluid social interactions. But, formalized and frozen, they are also instruments for enforcing meanings. She speaks of “the translation of the world into a problem of coding.” And, as has been noted more than once in the years since Haraway wrote the first version of this manifesto (by, among others, the creators of the content management system that supports this post by “using a simple interface to abstract away low-level details”), code is poetry.

“The issue,” she writes, “is dispersion. The task is to survive in the diaspora.” And that is a matter of myth: “Releasing the play of writing is deadly serious,” a matter of life and death. Bringing Luddites and other revolutionary workers to mind, she calls upon workers and worked upon to seize the tools we need to work (and, by implication, to smash the tools that keep us from working). And that means seizing not only myth but also myth-making: “Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs.” We are makers of myth made of myth, and here as elsewhere, the boundaries we draw between ourselves and our tools are subject to revision.

Haraway describes what she was doing in the 1980s when she wrote the first version of this manifesto as a contribution to the reinvention of nature (and that is the subtitle of Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, a collection of essays that includes the 1991 revision). In a “Western” context, any reinvention of nature is at the same time a reinvention of culture – and that blurs boundaries traditionally fixed between the two. One of the most important contributions Haraway makes lies in the way she connects science with fiction (and in her recognition of science fiction as fertile ground in which to use cyborg imagery as a tool in the constructive process of reinvention) – and in the way she connects both with politics. Politics is, first and foremost, the shape and shaping of the city, the body politic. Fiction is concerned with shaping bodies of knowledge (sciences and discourses). Bodies politic, like other bodies, are transformed in potentially liberating ways (ways out of the maze of dualisms Haraway cites) by cyborg imagery, which delights in the confusion of boundaries – and, in doing so, refigures (rigid) boundaries as (fluid) interfaces. These are problems of coding, no doubt, but they are also external surfaces that simultaneously obscure and provide access to collections of code (which are bodies of text). Interfaces make it possible to use code without reading it, but Haraway uses cyborg imagery to see through this. If city is the interface of human activity with (the rest of) the world (with human activity as code and city as the surface that results when its lower levels are abstracted away), blurring the interface and reconstructing it is a political intervention that remakes the city. Haraway points to science fiction as an art (τέχνη) particularly well suited to that task.

If, as Haraway says, “the issue is dispersion” and “the task is to survive in the diaspora,” and if the “diaspora” is the “polymorphous information system” that has displaced “organic/industrial society,” survival does not consist in preserving the integrity of natural objects by attending to “essential properties” but in the play of subjects, themselves polymorphous systems within polymorphous systems. Dispersion is an “issue,” but the issue is an opportunity, a matrix in which to play rather than an obstacle to be overcome. And that makes for systems that call attention to their own form in ways that open every form to transformation – cities that are complex interfaces supporting the creation and modification of what cannot be contained by abstracting away details, multiple users working in collaborative environments marked by collisions, every one of which is a crossroad.

The devil, they say, is in the details, where the crossroads are.

And crossroads, they say, are where deals are made.

That, as they say, is the deal.

Play on.

©Steven Schroeder