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Friday, November 07, 2003
Sasha linked to this essay on language poetry by Joshua Clover a while back, and I got some things to say about it.

Speaking of assigning cultural and personal activities a political value...

First off, I guess I should give my general position. I don't like poetry. Oh, I like a lot of poetry, probably more than the majority of the population, but I like about 0.1% of the poetry being produced today, as far as I can tell. I don't like the way poetry currently is, or, really, how it's been for the last forty years or so, although again, this may simply be because I haven't been exposed to enough. I've tried from time to time to like what I read or find what I'd like, and the theoretical issues interest me to no end (see below), but I get little to no pleasure or intellectual stimulation out of actually reading the stuff. And this isn't just an issue of being exposed to too much new stuff most of which is necessarily bad, whereas the past is already filtered for me: I read a decent bit of contemporary short fiction, too, and I find a lot to love there, even if some of the more dominant strains annoy the living hell out of me. I know this particular position on poetry is fairly untenable, and it may annoy some people, and yeah, I should probably try and explain it, but I can't, really. I just don't like contemporary poetry, and I don't even feel compelled to try to.

That said, my position on the piece in question--which is really interesting, really well-written, and a great example of why I think criticism can be a far more vital medium than poetry, literature-wise--can probably be best summed up in my reaction to the following section:

The confusion here is twofold1: the first is the rather uninteresting one between whole and hole. Of essence is that this homophone starts the chain of confusion, which gets very interesting very quickly. It engenders the understanding that language is a troubled instrument. The second confusion is that between the sound "(w)hole" and the functional hole through which we escape. This is a confusion of kind between, as a Swiss grad student would have it, signifier and referent.2 And while the riddle poses this as a way out, it presents a terrible trap. If the "hole" and the hole are identical - if they occupy the same space - one can't point at the other; language suddenly can point only at itself; there is no outside.

This riddle is the riddle of our century's philosophical investigations.3 Husserl's phenomenology and Einstein's relativity offer much the same revelation as Cubism: we exist not in g-d's green meadows but within our own perceptive boundaries. Language proposes and vows to bear4 experience across such thresholds, but this solves nothing; if we're not trapped within ourselves, we're still trapped within language itself. This crisis is crystallized by a forlorn Wittgenstein: "A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably."5

My response to which was:

Clearly, Wittgenstein never played guitar.

I need to read more of ol' Ludwig's stuff, which seems pretty key, but I really do think the whole tragic model of language, the whole riff on "the limits of my language are the limits of my world" is enormously short-sighted and the kind of thing only an overintellectualized nerd who spends too much time in his head could take seriously for too long. While it's undeniable that the language we use has a good bit of effect on how we perceive the world, and our perceptions have a big role in our experiences, nonetheless--and you can classify this as blind faith if you want--I do think there's a real, concrete world outside my own selfhood. (I also think my own selfhood is way more porous than most post-structuralist theory seems to admit when it's engaging with these kinds of issues, but that's a side point.) I know, it's very gauche to believe in reality, but eh, I do. On the other hand, I do see what he's saying; often our inability to properly describe something, out inability to bridge the gap between our perceptions and another person's, can be frustrating, and an inability to literally understand sort of ineffable feelings or cause-and-effect chains can cause a lot of problems. But in a way, those unliteralized things have their own language, and even if you can't literally grasp it in the way you understand your native tongue, you can communicate with it; there are methods beyond the verbal. And so when I play guitar, for instance, or listen to someone else playing guitar, that's a form of communication--a way of describing and understanding your world--that breaks free of the supposed prison of language. Even if the message is as simplistic as "I feel better when I hit this E chord," it's still a message that's being conveyed outside of a conventional communicative system.

In footnote #3, which references this paragraph, he gives a good explanation of why this whole debate is relevant, and it's worth reading, as it's honestly one of the smartest things I've read recently:

One might want to confine the debate to Linguistic Theory - after all, the damage seems limited to the sphere of Saussure's semiotics: important enough to merit a department at Brown University, but barely a gleam in the eyes of most curricula. Except that you will likely encounter, say, an ethics debate in which law prof Katherine Mackinnon holds that the representation of rape, in images or words, is an act of violence with an exchange-value equal to a physical rape. Or philosopher/comedian Jean Baudrillard reassuring us that we need not worry about nuclear weapons: because they work only to represent what badasses we are to other nations, they form only a language of annihilation rather than any actual damage. Or J.L. Austin's Speech Act theory, interested in language for its "performatives," the units of speech which are actions unto themselves. Or Gödel's Theorem, showing that there are more true statements than provable ones - the most common lesson drawn from this problematizes the hope of self-consistent systems, but the delightful side effect is that of rendering language as a child's "plus one" game: it will always be more than all the things we can say about it; we will never come to its frontier. Or consider the deconstructionist holding that "the text is composed of all possible readings of the text," or New Criticism's invocation of the "intentional fallacy," the main effect of which is sophomores claiming that The Odyssey is about holding on to your dreams, because "that's what I got out of it" . . .

(Hahaha, "philosopher/comedian Jean Baudrillard.") So I love this--I love that he demonstrates why these kinds of issues aren't just the province of daydreaming philosophers and poets, how widely it's spread and how the fundamental lack of understanding of this position by certain parties leads to a lot of clashes. However, I also think (and Clover may agree) that the first two examples he cites are kind of, well, retarded, and it's worth asking why this particular point, which feels like such a revelation, can lead to such dumbass conclusions. I got a flash after reading the following paragraph and its footnote:

Try to puzzle out which is the word "rose," which indicates the idea of the rose, and which stands for a particular rose . . . and you will find a scented but slippery slope. And what if you imagine the poem to mean not merely that linguistic identity is endless? Consider this reading: [The phrase] "A rose is a rose" is a rose. Not merely does this collapse the distinction between word and thing, but between phrase and thing; between proposition and thing; between metaphor and thing. Language here cannot be about roses any more than you can be about a reader7 - each falls endlessly into the other.

7 Cf. Walter Benjamin, "The sight of immediate reality has become an orchid." (The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940, Harvard University Press, 1992). Benjamin's study of how infinite replication obliterated the real - "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (Illuminations, Schocken, 1968) - takes up the actual (that is, economic) effects of the collapse of the signifying chain, laying the foundation for Baudrillard's simulation theory, and the rest of Postmodernism as well.

But this, as far as I can tell, is absolutely the wrong road to go down, especially if you're going to claim that this is the portal to "actual (that is, economic) effects." Because, first off, "the collapse of the signifying chain" is not a recent phenomenon, mechanical reproduction having been an issue since Lascaux and leading to, among other things, the tablet-etched provision against making graven images. You can't experimentally separate out the effects of mechanical reproduction because they've pretty much always been there. So, in other words, you have to assume--as a shudderingly small percentage of post-structuralists seem to--that people can quite rationally deal with things like simulacra and reproductions and like that. We're equipped to handle it--indeed, anyone who can't contain two contradictory ideas is likely to explode by age 3. They overlook, in other words, that quote I have in my blogroll there: "the death of art, until someone forgets." They can make great arguments for what X doesn't exist anymore, why it's utterly disappeared and why no one can rationally think it's still around, and everyone who reads this will read other things confirming it and, to them, it will be more or less true. But then someone forgets: someone new comes along who doesn't know that the author is dead, or that art is dead, or whatever, and they do something new and good and rejuvenating. They come from outside the discourse and make it whole again. Simulacra is only a problem for you guys: the rest of us like watching Top Model.

In other words, the trap of language is not language but literalism. Language is only confining if you think that words, deep down, do have fixed meanings, or are limited somehow, and they're just not. (Wittgenstein's meaning-as-use formulation, for instance, hilariously commits the intentional fallacy: the meaning is limited by the speaker's intentions, which is clearly not true.) The world is debased only if you honestly think that there are something like platonic ideals which mechanical reproduction and pop culture deviates from, if something has to be literally real--i.e. "authentic"--instead of just, you know, real, i.e. existing.

What this all gets down to is the way language poetry rejects narrative and, eventually, coherency for ostensibly political reasons. Viz:

Supposing I pair Roussel ("a president of the republic of dreams," per Louis Aragon) with Jacques "Language is the whirlpool which picks up the tree and throws it" Derrida: Between the former's construction of fantasy worlds out of photorealistic detail, and the latter's Deconstruction work, I would certainly end at Language poetry's political rejection of narratives of the self - because "the story of well-off European males needs no more telling" - and that would in no way be a false version. Just an incomplete one. And of course, there would be an honor in that: version is the child of verse is the child of veritas.

While I don't think this is an argument Clover is endorsing, it's still one I see a lot--that, somehow, rejecting narrative is a political act. Blech. Most of the time they're not even rejecting narrative at all, just good narrative, but in the case of language poetry, of course, there really is a rejection of narrative. But this cannot be a political act, only an apolitical one. Narrative is one of the languages of politics, symbolism being the other one, and when you reject both, you're just opting out of the game. And that's fine--but don't try and pretend that it's any different, politically, from baking cookies. If you want to make a political statement, ultimately, you have to be willing to participate in politics, and that inevitably involves playing games with power. Maybe this sucks, maybe this feels distasteful to you, but just as you can't help the poor without getting yourself some icky money, you can't play politics without using what power you have to help yourself and others. That's the way it works.

Anyway, great article. I've ordered Mr. Clover's book-and-CD set, partially at Sasha's behest and partially because inventive combos of literature and music is one of my big interests.