AARGH. The horrible, horrible Bookery computer has just eaten the second half of this post, which was my long-promised disquisition on Andrew Joron's Fathom and his call for an "ontological turn" in poetry. As a substitute for my learned commentary, I'll just reprint the last few paragraphs of his essay, "The Emergency," written in the months after 9/11 and which opens the book:
Through the night of these sacred and profane wars of vengeance, the words of a poet must come together with those of others struggling for peace and social justice. Words of anger, argument, and analysis especially are needed, for these words lead to action. But the oldest, deepest oppositional words are those issued in lament. The lament, no less than anger, refuses to accept the fact of suffering. But while anger must possess the stimulus of a proximate causeor else it eventually fades awaythe lament has a universal cause, and rises undiminished through millenia of cultural mediation. Unlike anger, the lament survives translation into silence, into ruins.Joron follows this with a nifty diagram or ratio that I could only travesty with my ignorance of HTML. Anyway, Joron's argument is explicitly situated in the gap laid out between two of Adorno's statements on poetry: the famous remark "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" and the considerably less well-known amendment, "Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems" (Joron quotes them both). The lament, "Cry," or "deep blues" (the collective manifestation of the Cry against suffering, "the matrix of the world's subaltern cultures") demands that poetryor at any rate the lyricturn away from the epistemological concerns that have held it fast since at least Eliot first read Bergson and which were only reinforced in the wake of Derridean criticism and Language poetry's attempt to shift attention from meaning-production to the ludic expenditure of the signifier. It seems to me that Joron might be (deliberately?) confusing epistemology with the linguistic. We do not, after all, speak of Heidegger's "turn" as being from ontology to epistemology, but rather from ontology to language (which is not to say he discards ontology, rather that he concludes that Being only reveals itself in language, in poetic saying). It's true that a great deal of modern and postmodern poetry explicitly concerns itself with what we know and how we know it; even much poetry with ostensible subject matter is actually using that matter (the body, critiques of ideologies, the natural world, personal history) primarily as means to mediate epistemological questions. But when I think of Language poetry, at least as it's argued for in the McCaffery essays I've been reading (old essays, too, from his book North of Intention), it's directed not toward epistemological questions (knowledge) but fundamentally reframing questions of meaning-generation, and the ways in which conventional texts reinforce structures of meaning-making which serve and even imitate the structures of capitalism and the consolidation of surplus value. "Meaning" and "value" seem closer to the ontological sphere than they do to the epistemological. The split happens in and through language: "use-value" seems like an ontological category, but "exchange value" is linguistic, implying as it does the subtraction of the signifier's Being (its signifier-ness) from consideration so that it can be used transparently as a token of its signified. But if I understand Joron's frame of reference correctly, he's lumping the linguistic and the epistemological together by privileging the latter: the questions of saying or meaning-making, which are intensely political when made the first priority, are deferred in favor of a ontologically privileged "Cry" that defers not just these questions, but questioning itself. Questions provide a framework that predetermine the new, preventing it from being New. But without questions, or at least a questioning, searching position vis-a-vis ontology, you end up in a condition of mystical acceptance pretty fast. I suppose Joron is saying that the refusal of suffering is something more fundamental than a question; that this refusal itself somehow has pre-linguistic, ontological status.
Contemporary lyricism has been described as the "singing of song's impossibility." This, too, may be a version of the blueswhose strong ontological claim (to manifest the spontaneous emergenceor emergencyof an unprecendented Cry) must now be renewed.
Such a renewal would constitute an "ontological turn" away from the epistemological dilemmas of modern and postmodern poetics, where poetry is understood to emerge from the questioning of poetry. To the extent that a question anticipates its answer, it is unprepared to receive the Novum. That which is radically other does not reveal itself under interrogation.
The deep blues, then, are not a mode of questioning, but arrive in advance of doubtand represent a negation more primary than doubt.
Anyway, to back out of all this Greek, the practical question seems to be: does this fundamental difference in strategy mean a political departure as well? The emphasis on play (or to use terminology from another context, "the rejection of closure"), put forth by McCaffrey and others is an ultimately structural and Marxist approach to the political, creating room for the new (or Novum) by short-circuiting "reading" in favor of "writing." It's a highly egalitarian vision in which all persons are potentially enlisted as makers of meaningthat is, subjects. The writer abdicates his or her authority and renounces authority's perpetual scramble to cover up the hole or differential trace that is ineluctable to language. Such writing is negative in the sense that it always works to negate totalities, but it can and does have all kinds of multitudinous subject matter, depending on the discourses/desiring-machines the writer chooses to interpolate (Andrews and Watten tend to specialize in pop culture and the historical, respectively; Scalapino's latest explodes personal history by "zithering" her "autobiography"; Silliman works by sheer volume much of the time (business-speak, computer languages, you name it) but is perhaps more often directly engaging "the literary" than the others, etc.).
Joron's project parallels this one, but with a sharply different emphasis, in part because he the demon he wishes to negate is not Capital or even domination, strictly speaking, but sufering (he indicts the U.S. for "its all-consuming pursuit of wealth and power" but says also, rightly, that "no grievance could justify the atrocities committed on 9/11." The real gap between his construction of poetry's function and what I've constructed on behalf of the Language poets comes when he considers the erosion in this country of one of culture's most basic functions, to legitimate the existing power structure:
In [Adorno's] view, aesthetic practices that once prefigured social empancipation now serve only to mask or to legitimate systemic violence. Here in America, however, "culture" has been reduced to a simple play of intensities, to the simultaneously brutal and sentimental pulsions of mass media. Any "legitimation function" would be superfluous: the American machine, with its proudly exposed components of Accumulation and Repression, has no need for such a carapace.This is very moving and illustrates, I think, how Joron's project intensifies for our particularly intense moment (our catastrophe) the Language project which seems devoted primarily to creating more imaginative room in the otherwise always-foreclosing space of language. Their "O" is to dwell in; Joron's is a wound. In some ways he looks back to modernism, which mourned the departure of meaning and grand narratives, rather than postmodernism, wich sees hegemonic narrative as the greatest of threats. But of course Joron is not seeking to restore any elite's cultural authority; authenticity for him comes from the collective sublatern's cry, the counterhegemonic "deep blues." It may ultimately come down to a question of tone, to whether or not you emphasize the pleasure or the pain in the jouissance exposed by writing without closure. But there's also the question of whose mouth is forming the "O." Is it "no one in particular"? (Joron: "Language is a social construct, yet it was fashioned by no one in particular. Language continues to be haunted by this 'no one.'" .) "The deep blues, then, are not a mode of questioning, but arrive in advance of doubtand represent a negation more primary than doubt." That's the enigma I haven't quite unmasked here. Language writing is skeptical, in my view; it is driven by doubt and suspicion. There is an agency here to whom something "more primary than doubt" is being ascribed: the bar that separates "O, the grieving vowel" from "zero, the mouth of astonishment" (25). O/0: the lips parting in lament, the particular place of Any Person confronting suffering, in language. The subject's capacity for suffering that precedes language: that does not itself found subjectivity but something more basic: the face that suffers and the mouth that cries. (And the glad inverse of this: the face that smiles in recognition, the mouth that tastes, kisses, sings.) This, not doubt, is the elemental prerequisite of refusal, negativity, demanding the Novum. At least by Joron's lights.
American poetry is a marginal genre whose existence is irrelevant to the course of Empire. Yet here, only here, at this very juncture between language and power, can the refused word come back to itself as the word of refusal, as the sign of that which canot be assimilated to the system
Word that opens a solar eye in the middle of the Night.
Opens, but fails to dispel the dark. Of necessity, perhaps, because it fails necessity itself. Opens, if only to make an O, an indwelling of zero, an Otherness.
The creative Word comes into its exile here, in the world's most destructive nation. (18)
Perhaps later I'll have a chance to examine the poetry and see how it conforms/confirms the project of "The Emergency." For now, I'm reminded of a piece of Beth Anderson's multipart whodunnit poem, "A Locked Room":
Ankles and cobblestones don't mix
so all claims ably resist corroboration. I prepare again to enter the garden
under the pretense of looking for traces he might have left. But once inside
I will in fact rely on dreams to unveil both guilt and happiness.