MLA Abstracts: WCW and the “Radiant Gist” of Science

October 27, 2010

William Carlos Williams and the “Radiant Gist” of Science is slated for 3:30-4:45 on Saturday, January 8, 2011 in Plaza III, J. W. Marriott .  Erin Templeton, Vice-President of the WCW Society, will preside.

Natalia Cecire (University of California, Berkeley), “Near and Far in Paterson

Studies in literature and science often link a literary work to specific scientific concepts by way of either a thematic element in the work (for instance, the “radiant gist” in Paterson) or a biographical connection (such as William Carlos Williams’s professional occupation as a physician). In this paper, however, I wish to suggest that the scientific element in Williams’s work is best understood through the work’s own epistemic logic, which manifests not only thematically but also formally. As Clark Lunberry has pointed out, by clinging to Paterson, New Jersey as a specific, physical location knowable through a concrete archive, Williams consciously “abjures the unknowable,” as Williams himself puts it in his essay “The Importance of Place.” This gesture of renunciation, I will suggest, defines Paterson’s basic strategy for producing knowledge. Paterson’s investment in place and the renunciations that regulate its access to the city of Paterson suggest reading the poem against the newly professionalizing discipline of cultural anthropology, whose status as a science was and remains contested. In the first half of the twentieth century, a self-consciously “scientific” Boasian anthropology based on site-specific fieldwork gained ascendancy over the work of comparativists like James Frazer. “Abjur[ing] the unknowable,” I will argue, requires Williams to construct Paterson through a series of artifacts that act as analyzable proxies for the place’s mythic quality.

Andrew Shotts (Auburn University):   On the Beginnings of Paterson: Infinite Complexity, Self-Similarity, and the Search for Williams’ “New World that is Always ‘Real.’”


Williams’ magnum opus, Paterson, spans five, finished, books and some 236 pages, and provides a seemingly inexhaustible richness for the poet and its many readers. Paterson pushes and pulls the reader through a tidal flow of poetry, prose, philosophy, historical documents, and letters, to name only a few of the currents that make up the poem. By bringing a myriad of rhetorical and philosophical oppositions into contact with each other, Paterson constructs a series of cascading narratives.  The poem’s form and construction is commonly thought to be broken, ineffective, essentially something that compromises the integrity of Williams’ project. I will argue that the resistant text of Paterson, like a fractal, repeats and modulates the imagistic bedrock of its own construction; it breaks down, not into constituent parts, themes or individual genres, but into the ever-present, self-propagating fractal images of man, city, and atom.

Borrowing the idea of self-similarity from fractal geometry will allow me to introduce an organizational principle into the discussion of Paterson that offers a productive and synthesizing rubric for understanding Williams’ difficult poem. Self-similarity refers to the construction of fractals that, at every level of magnification, display and replicate the formal properties of the larger “whole.” A fractal infinitely replicates similarity with the larger “self.” Fractals are often called “infinitely complex,” because of this insistent repetition of the represented “whole.”

Jill Richards (University of California, Berkeley):  Kora in Hell’s Outbreak Narrative: Williams, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, and Contagious Form

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic did not get much contemporary press coverage because most western nations were concerned that a panic would deter troop enlistment in World War I. But historians now agree that the influenza claimed at least 30 million lives worldwide, half a million in America. In the Autobiography, Williams directly recounts his experience as a doctor during the worst years of the pandemic. But Kora in Hell (1920) is perhaps more interesting for offering several conflicting versions of contagious forms. In this early work, the worldwide pandemic is also a story of global circulation and the military mobilization that enabled its outbreak. So then Williams’ meditation on influenza is also a meditation on globalization or the forms of experience endemic to a colonial modernity.

In Kora in Hell atmosphere, influenza, and intoxication become overlapping registers for a mode of sensory and perceptual equivalence. These early fragments show all things dissolving, softening, and melting into air. Except each fragment is also a portrait from rural New Jersey, a version of character verging on the ethnographic. Kora in Hell insists both upon the representation of contagious sensation and a form of personhood that can sit in and outside this sensory logic. The text’s ability to toggle between the solidity of portrait and the intoxication of atmosphere attempts to locate a national poetry that can also account for the worldwide reach of the epidemic. The work becomes a project to make a form for a suddenly visible non-simultaneity of simultaneous systems as an ambivalent movement between objects and contagion, local and global, portrait and atmosphere.

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