Garbage Time Never Runs Out: Commentary on Auto-Poetry

rf on 2019-08-29


So let’s talk about reference overtaking content.

Over the course of research it is possible to become too fluent in a subject. This phenomenon — overfluency — manifests about the time subject matter puns begin to occur spontaneously in the researcher’s head. Overfluency isn’t inherently bad but it can harm the writing process. It can result in auto-poetry.

Auto-poetry, a play on autopoiesis, means self-indulgent referential flourishes. This is what killed Big Bang Theory. This is what dampened Gödel, Escher, Bach. Auto-poetry adds nothing of substance, but crucially it appears to. The most common example (in my experience) is when an author claims their work is structured in a way that matches or maps some related thinker’s popular idea. Highlighting parallelism between organization (form) and external ideas (content) is trivia (at best¹).

To relish in auto-poetry, to dabble in coincidences of rhetoric and theory, this is not just irritating. It incurs an undue perception of depth in the casual reader. And this not only hurts the reader, it stifles the author’s odds of growing as a writer and thinker. It is for this reason that Antimetabole for its own sake should be viewed as a red flag.

Alright, alright. Grant that auto-poetry contributes nothing to the substance of a text— maybe it’s still useful. We as readers can ask why it was added, even granting that what it adds is nothing. Nietzsche seems to agree: philosophy is “involuntary and unconscious autobiography” after all. And Lacan might agree as well. Still, forget those guys: psychoanalysis is not in the purview of a good reader. It’s not that auto-poetry adds nothing: it’s that it takes more than it gives.

There’s a reason Deleuze and Guattari emphasize that phenomena they write about are never “mere metaphors.” It’s because a mere metaphor is descriptive without being explanatory. No suggestions or conclusions follow from description absent explanation, and as such it is inert. Perhaps the auto-poetic aspect of the NRx is why I reject it so completely. Mere allusion — “look, this thing maps that thing in a metaphorical sense” — is about as useless as you can get.

You may have guessed it. As with my original commentary on the NRx, my fear here is motivated by the IOED — the illusion of explanatory depth. Descriptions, especially those buttressed with long technical-sounding nonce-terms, license the ignorant to discuss their “ideas” about the world without having any. Auto-poetic writing is worse than empty signifiers. Auto-poetic text does reference things in particular but without making any kind of definite statement about them. If you need a guide to identifying this fluff, brush up on truth-conditional semantics. Until next time, everything you didn’t like about this piece was an example of auto-poetry.

[1] Of course there are exceptions; if you have to ask you aren’t one of them.