I've been thinking about a question I was asked at MLA this year. Someone asked me about the moment at the end of Marianne Moore's "To a Snail," which ends by alluding to "the curious phenomenon of your [the snail's] occipital horn." In an eventually-to-be-published article, I pointed out that, first of all, "occipital horn" sounds terribly technical, and that, second, when it comes to snails, it isn't technical at all. Snails don't have a part called the "occipital horn"; in the poem it's, in my belief, a metaphor for the whorl of the shell.
The question was, simply, what's up with that? Is Marianne Moore punking us? Are we meant, now, to lose faith in reference, in scientific language, in reality, in all that is good and dear?
The superficial answer (which I think I gave) is that she isn't punking us exactly, but she isn't making a mistake either. She's recuperating the aesthetic (here, metaphoric) properties of scientific language, much in the way that she recuperates the aesthetic properties of quotations from various pop-cultural and/or bureaucratic materials elsewhere in her work.
But there's something else going on here that the occipital horn marks in "To a Snail." The words "occipital horn" are a note of finality; they are the last words in the poem, but also the last and incredibly fitting words in a lengthy, syntactically balanced, chiasmic sentence, a real rhetorical gem. When we get to "occipital horn," we have settled. We have landed, and landed with finality, on something solid, an apparently technical term for a part of the snail. This is why the tricky reversal -- the technical term turning out not to be technical but rather metaphorical -- might seem a little rude.
But not only are we not being punked, I would argue; we are being offered a sense of the real. Turns like the one I've just described characterize the experimental mode all the time. Things are not what they seem -- that's why we need complex experimental processes and regulation of the senses to access reality. The experimental mode takes this as a given; to push on the capacities of technical language doesn't therefore make us lose faith in technical language in general, but rather ground us in the exigencies of particularity that make "occipital horn," in this moment, metaphorical rather than strictly referential. (There is, in fact, such a thing as an occipital horn. Two such things. But not on a snail.) The turn, the revelation that things are not as they seem, helps to impart the sense of the real. But equally, there's no infinite regress or infinite play of meaning here: the words "occipital horn" finally fill a rôle that's aesthetic, and the syntactic balance of the sentence that these words help to complete support the metaphor and lend it formal solidity in lieu of referential solidity.
This is why the language of the joke or of mischief seems wrong to me in the case of "To a Snail." While the experimental mode can be playful, it is not irresponsible. Experimental play works in the service of negotiating an intractable reality -- like the model of play discussed by D.W. Winnicott in Playing and Reality, for instance. Winnicott isn't central to what I'm saying here, but reality is, because the experimental is above all interested in a place for the genuine, in mobilizing whatever mad powers of language there are to create a sense of the real, to land, ultimately, on something solid. It's a responsible mode -- as some put it, "sincere" -- with all the moral overtones that the word entails. This is not intrinsically good or bad, although I think it produced quite a lot of good art.
But to clarify a little further what I mean, think of the 'pataphysical tradition, which runs through surrealism on one side and the Oulipo on the other. The entire 'pataphysical tradition (as the name suggests) is deeply invested in the trappings of science, but largely in the name of travesty, puerility, and irresponsibility. In the 'pataphysical tradition, an infinite regress of meaning is not only possible but desirable; any obligation to reality may be abdicated; 'pataphysical art treads the fine line between meditation and gimmick, and is not sorry when it strays well into gimmick territory. This is art that actually does want us to lose faith in all that is good and dear -- and to laugh about it. (Flarf is without a doubt indebted to the 'pataphysical tradition.) This, too, has produced good art. But it is qualitatively different from the experimental mode, despite some of its practitioners' insistence on the word "experimental."
The distinction between experimental and 'pataphysical is not the same, by the way, as the distinction between modernist and avant-garde, although perhaps the lines often fall out that way. The distinction between modernist and avant-garde is typically thought of in the terms of a relation to the social body, whereas the distinction between experimental and 'pataphysical is given by an attitude toward knowledge.