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Negative Capability

Posthumous portrait of Keats by William Hilton, National Portrait Gallery, London (c. 1822)


This post has been in formation, along with two or three others, for several months as I've gradually reintegrated office time into my schedule. I can't recall the origins of this post, but I'd been thinking about past fieldwork projects and ways to write about them. And for some reason, the Baltimore project — conducted in 1994-95 in that city — came immediately to mind. I think that the connection was between my work in port communities and the experience of displacement and marginalization, which had been rising there as elsewhere, discussed these days under the category of houseless, but the condition can take other forms. While I don't equate the displaced with the unhoused (the former produces a psychic condition, the latter a material one), this problem got me thinking. And it got me thinking especially about someone named Girlie Hoffman, whom I met while doing fieldwork in East Baltimore, in the port communities strung along the harbor. I'll return to her in a moment.


Meanwhile, I was reading A Poetics of the Press: Interviews with Poets, Printers, & Publishers, a book of interviews, conducted by Kyle Schlesinger, focusing on artisanal letterpress printing and associated crafts (such as letter carving); reading this book out of a personal interest in the relationship between setting type and establishing the appropriate verse form for a given poem; crafting the poetic line. (A number of these printers are also poets; shades of Charles Olson!) The book is co-published by Cuneiform Press and Ugly Duckling Presse.


As Johanna Drucker expounded in her contribution to Threads Talks Series, a collection of talks on book arts (co-published by Cuneiform Press and Granary Books):


What would a descriptive language of the techniques of production add to our understanding of poiesis? How would an understanding of the technical and formal conventions of the graphic means of production in which we experience written poetry shape our understanding of what a poem is and can be? Do the expressive limitations and/or affordances of various graphic means inform the aesthetic qualities of a work through features of its actual production?


This very interesting subject of the relation of setting type (or other graphic technologies) to writing and its effect on the experience of reading poetry may inform the basis of a subsequent post, but for now, I want to mention that one of the interviewees in that book on printers, an Australian poet (and printer) named Alan Loney, spoke of a book called Carving the Elements, with essays by the artisans involved in that bookmaking project. That book was a new edition of Parmenides' writings, the ancient Greek philosopher who formed the subject of one of Plato's dialogues, and who was Zeno's teacher. Readers may know that Zeno was famous — or infamous — for his paradox regarding movement, and especially for my purposes here, his paradox regarding place. Zeno's paradoxes, four in number, were likely efforts on Zeno's part to disrupt the hegemony of common knowledge as it was constituted at that time — common knowledge then as now the bane of philosophers (not to mention mathematicians and physicists).  Zeno's influence has been considerable, as André Laks and Glenn W. Most, editors of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Early Greek Philosophy, Western Greek Thinkers, explain:


…the influence of Zeno's arguments has been immense, if only by reason of the refutations that philosophers have been obliged to seek for them (beginning with Aristotle, in the exposition of his doctrine of the continuous n Books 4 and 6 of his Physics), but it is due less to the philosophical positions that he defended than to the logical challenges that his paradoxes posed. Modern theoreticians of mathematics and physics have continued to find these interesting.


So, what does Zeno have to do with Girlie Hoffman? As I mentioned, I met Girlie while doing fieldwork in East Baltimore, in the Canton neighborhood (her bar and home were located at 1517 S. Canton Street). At that time Girlie had become something of a cause célèbre locally for refusing to sell her property — house and bar/lunch counter — to an oil company who were developing a tank field in that neighborhood. Girlie's bar was right next to the water, and from that place, she (and her mother before her) had served generations of merchant seamen who came ashore for food and drink as the longshore crews worked their ships. The site of the tank farm had at that time become the de facto preserve of the oil company, which wanted to expand and absorb Girlie's property into their tank farm. She refused, even as her business dwindled due to the shift in activity at the port (containerization was advancing at that time, and with it the dramatic shrinkage of turnaround time for visiting ships, leaving sailors with virtually no time ashore). When I met her Girlie was still tending bar, still preparing the homemade soups that she (and her mother) had become famous for. I visited her several times, whenever I was in the immediate area, and wrote a bit about her in my fieldwork report. Here's a brief excerpt (Girlie's friend Henry Erdman was present during this interview):


Girlie Hoffman has refused for many years to move from the site, despite repeated efforts by the oil company to induce her to sell. (Her sister has also refused to sell out. Ms. Hoffman owns the lunch counter and the property it's situated on, as well as another property nearby, and some empty lots and land off the alley that runs behind the store. According to Mr. Erdman, Ms. Hoffman "has tied them [Exxon] up" by refusing to sell her land to the corporation...Girlie Hoffman says that the oil company "didn't give much money" for the properties they purchased from local owners. "And all that money they got," she said. "People think you gotta sell but you don't have to sell." Ms. Hoffman refused to leave because she "grew up right here," at the lunch counter; the family's living quarters were at the rear of the store. "It (the store] feels just like home," she says.


The keyword here is "home", proposed against the powerful corporation's efforts to evict Girlie; she continuing to resist. I'd note that this process of dislocation was widening in Baltimore at the time, especially in the traditional port communities, along with the development of the Inner Harbor (Harbor Place) project, designed to attract tourists and tourist dollars. This development process would be consequential for the people living in those neighborhoods. At one point in our conversation, Girlie Hoffman told me that, "people say this place is like home, it's comfortable. Don't you think so?" I could only agree. Others, not so lucky (or as obstinate) had begun to experience dislocation and displacement from their ancestral port-side neighborhoods. As one resident told me:


I remember the port as always being very busy…You had the feeling that you were really living in a working port…being in the Inner Harbor was something you'd do every day…So today, the Inner Harbor isn't part of the port…and the kinds of people you see are very different. Everybody was there in the old days, for better or worse. Today you see a much more middle-class group of people. And the old working people are gone.


Another resident expanded on this sense of dislocation, locating it in the public domain. She recalled driving along Pratt Street and seeing the ships tied up at docks there:


You could almost reach out and touch them. It was an amazing sight…Harbor Place is okay, but the big ships were impressive.


In short, my fieldwork in East Baltimore at that time, encouraged the view that the people in those neighborhoods were increasingly being distanced from place, from the sites and locales where they'd lived and worked, and where they continued to live, then in the grip of "developers".


I'll conclude for the moment by appropriating Zeno's concept to my purpose here. Hermann Fränkel, writing of Zeno in Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy, notes that:


Of his [Parmenides'] immediate pupils there are two of whom we can form some notion, Melissus and Zeno of Elea. Zeno sought to prove the homogenous continuum postulated by Parmenides by presenting with much wit and ingenuity the difficulties that arise if one assumes, on the one hand, infinite divisibility, or on the other, elementary quanta which are incapable of further division. On the former assumption, Zeno's contemporary Anaxagoras built his original system, while the latter led to the atomic theory.


Is "place" an elementary quantum, or is it infinitely divisible? The historical experience of the people of East Baltimore may have embraced the quantum, but their more recent experience has been subsumed by the divisible. More later...


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