New Star Blogs

Discarded Epigraphs to IKMQ

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New Star Books and LINEBooks are co-hosting a co-launch for Roger Farr’s two new books coming out this year: IKMQ(New Star) and Means (LINEBooks). The launch is Friday, October 5 at the People’s Co-op Bookstore, 1391 Commercial Drive (8 pm; free admission). In anticipation of the inevitable reader question, Roger has written this blog post for us to explain himself.

Don’t throw out your old epigraphs: they could be useful to your grandchildren, if they still know how to read.”

— Genette, Paratext

I was asked to write this blog entry on what I was up to when I wrote IKMQ, about why I made certain decisions, my concerns, etc. IKMQ is an unusually — at times obsessively — “meta-” book, and it quite literally contains its own commentary (in “Epimythium”, “Theory of Prose”, and “The Rules” for example). What might be more useful then is to say something about what did not end up in it, and why. In this case, that is a fair bit of material, including a list of discarded epigraphs.

Genette argues that there are four main functions of an epigraph. The first is to justify the title of the work, a move made necessary when the title alludes to or borrows from another text, which was common in the 17th and 18th centuries when the epigraph became commonplace. The second is to offer commentary on the writing that follows. The third is to invoke, via the prestige or infamy of the author, a kind of legitimacy. The last function is what Genette calls the “epigraph-effect,” a self-referential operation in which the passage acts as “a signal .. . of culture, a password of intellectuality .. . With it, [the author] chooses his peers and thus his place in the pantheon.” In Vancouver these days, there seems to be another common use for the epigraph, which is to establish solidarity – affinity, friendship, mutual recognition – with specific social struggles and movements. 

At any rate, I can’t say for sure which function the epigraph to IKMQ serves. Clearly it is not the first. Maybe the second. Here it is, from Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value:

Just as I cannot write verse, so too my ability to write prose extends only so far, and no farther. There is a quite definite limit to the prose I can write and I can no more overstep that than I can write a poem. This is the nature of my equipment; and it is the only equipment I have. It’s as though someone were to say: In this game, I can only attain such and such a degree of perfection, I can’t go beyond it.

Although I considered several other passages, I was committed to something from Wittgenstein because my initial interest in the short prose form stemmed from the concept of the language-game developed in Philosophical Investigations. When I first started reading this somewhat imposing work I found it almost impossible to understand. It didn’t help that I’d once read something by an influential American poet who claimed he had devoured PI “like a novel.” Not so for me. At some point, I turned to writing the short prose pieces that became IKMQ with the idea that they might serve as instances of the “primitive” language-games that Wittgenstein saw as the best demonstrations of how meaning coincides with words.

That was in 2004.  Eight years later, on a different island, I finished (or rather stopped) the project. Only this time, my purpose was to reorganize and revise a selection of the 100+ pieces I had assembled over several years into a book that was to be something more than a record of my experiments. I had no intention of dumping my notebooks on the public.

There is often a residue, a remainder, that accompanies chemical, organic, or mechanical processes. In many ways, IKMQ is precisely such a by-product. This may have something to do with why it returns to scenes of processing, rendering, distilling, manufacturing, harvesting, assembling and disassembling, etc., alongside other forms of production and reproduction.

Which brings me back to the list of discarded epigraphs. Here are the ones I seriously considered but finally rejected. I offer these, in lieu of a more direct commentary, which can be found in the book itself.

“It has been complained, with some justice, that I dump my notebooks on the public.
— Ezra Pound

“The book is full of life — not like a man, but like an ant-heap.
— Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

“Smith and Brown play chess with no difficulty. Do they understand the game? Well, they play it. And they understand the rules in the sense of following them.
— Wittgenstein, Philosophical Occasions

“Sociologists are often accused of treating actors like so many puppets manipulated by social forces. But it appears that the puppeteers, much like sopranos, possess pretty different ideas about what it is that makes their puppets do things.
— Bruno Latour, “Reassembling the Social”