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‘Polis is This:’ Space, Community and Biology, 1955-75


‘Polis is This:’ Space, Community and Biology, 1955-75

Michael Hrebeniak and Others

The line in the title is taken from Charles Olson’s Maximus, his colossal serial work on the subject of Gloucester, MA which, on the surface, is focussed primarily upon the organisation and possibilities of the social world, but in fact yields a vision and stance that is expressly ecological, drawn from what he calls earlier ‘American tales . . . of man against the earth.’

Concentrating upon the arts of New York, San Francisco and Black Mountain College in a period of accelerated experimentation, this seminar moves within the interdisciplinary framework of cultural environmentalism and reflects an awareness that the ‘social’ is made not only in historical practices but in the construction of human geographies. 

It explores how an imaginary of place might be performed by literary texts and non-verbal forms through examining relations between lived and socially produced space, and charts the play of forces and forms, of power and knowledge generated by the avant-garde during a time of increased aggression on the part of the Market State.

Themes arising will include notions of performance and performativity, the encoding of cultural memory in the artwork, and the social ambivalence towards technology--as agency of democracy, of mechanisation, of repressive bureaucracy--or what Lewis Mumford dramatised as a dialectical tension between ‘Art and Technics.’ 

Ideas drawn from commentators such as Henry Adams, Michel Foucault, Marshall McLuhan, Michel de Certeau, Judith Butler, Gaston Bachelard and Gilles Deleuze will be brought to bear upon a series of works drawn from the Abstract Expressionist/Beat and Pop/Conceptualist eras: the means of theorising transitions from an immediate postwar emphasis on intuition and the body in creative production to the saturated mediations of the mid-1960s and the origins of what Paul Virilio terms the ‘disappearance of the aesthetic.’

We will discuss how subsequent changes in the definition of subjectivity as the primary determinant of social location and analysis might underwrite moral and political self-confidence, marking out some points of origin, boundary lines and new relationships within the formations of city and biosphere. The topics are arranged thematically. Each will focus on a set of core texts, but will also draw on visual culture, music and performance art as a means of celebrating interdisciplinary and comparative practice.

Students will be encouraged to invent their own coursework essay topics in association with the seminar themes, drawing upon whatever primary and secondary materials they may choose.


What follows is an indication of the primary materials and issues to be addressed in the seminar.

1. Spaces of Improvisation


Charles Olson, ‘Projective Verse’ & ‘Human Universe,’ in Collected Prose (1997)

Harold Rosenberg, ‘The American Action Painters’ in The Tradition of the New (1960) 

Jack Kerouac, ‘October in the Railroad Earth,’ Lonesome Traveller (1960) 

Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air (1982)

Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (1992)

Robert Creeley, ‘A Sense of Measure,’ in A Quick Graph: Collected Notes and Essays (1970)

Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (1960)

Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on Control Societies,’ in Negotiations (1990)

Michael Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces,’ Diacritics 16 (1986)

Michael Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984 (1988)

Nancy Jachet, ed., Jackson Pollock: Works Writings Interviews (2011)

John Litweiler, The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 (1984)

Fielding Dawson, The Black Mountain Book (1991)

David Harvey, Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography (2001)

Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (1973)

Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (1964)

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilisation (1934)

Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power: The Myth of the Machine (1970)

Charlie Parker, Bird at St Nick’s (1950)

Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911)

Irwin Unger, A History of the American New Left, 1959-72 (1974)


2. Habitat


Frank O’Hara, ‘The Day Lady Died,’ in Lunch Poems (1964)

Charles Olson, Selections from The Maximus Poems (1983)

Paul Blackburn, ‘Listening to Sonny Rollins at the Five Spot,’ & ‘How to Get Up Off It,’ in Selected Poems (1989)

Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995),

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1964)

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (2002)

Mike Davis, Dead Cities (2002)

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (1967)

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984)

Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx (1993)

Richard Buckminster Fuller, Earth Inc.. (1973)

Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment (2000)

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

Jack Kerouac, On The Road (1957)

Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology (2006, also available at: )

Henry Miller, The Air Conditioned Nightmare (1945)

Lewis Mumford, The City in History (1961)

Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold (1969)

4. The (A)Social uses of Ecstasy


Euripides, The Bacchae

Amiri Baraka, ‘Black Dada Nihilismus,’ in The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1991)

Richard Schechner & The Performance Group, Dionysus in 69 (available at )

Stan Brakhage, dir., Dog Star Man (1961-64)

Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy (1964, available at

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1984)

William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1960)

John Coltrane, Ascension (1965)

John Coltrane, Interstellar Space (1968),

Nick Roeg, Performance (1969),

Ed Sanders, 1968: A History in Verse (1997)

Brown, Norman O., Closing Time (1973)

R.D. Laing, The Self and Others: Further Studies in Sanity and Madness (1961)

Eric Motttram, Blood on the Nash Ambassador: Investigations in American Culture (1989)

Michael Wadleigh, dir., Woodstock (1969)

Valerie Wilmer, As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (1977)


5. Entropy


Gordon Matta Clark, Splitting (1974, available at

Paul Virilio, Art as Far as the Eye Can See (2007)

Lydia Yee and Philip Ursprung (eds.), Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s (2011)

Carolee Schneemann, Fuses (1965, available at

Robert Smithson, The Collected Writings (1996)

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918)

Sally Banes, Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body (1993)

John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (1961)

John Cage & David Tudor, Indeterminacy (1959)

Morton Feldman, ‘For Franz Kline,’‘De Kooning,’ Ensemble  Avantgarde (1996)

Richard Kostelanetz, Theatre of Mixed Means (1970)

Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)

Jeff Nuttall, Art and the Degradation of Awareness (2001)

Harold Rosenberg, Artworks and Packages (1969)

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