Sunday, September 12, 2004

Blogging from bed on a sunny Sunday morning. Not a bad life. Off to breakfast with Emily and the dog in a bit. Emily, by the way, gave a thrilling perfomance with her a capella singing group Argonauta on Friday. It was their Ithaca debut. If you'll be anywhere near Corning, NY this Friday you can catch them there at the Yoga & More upstairs studio at 34 – 36 Market Street at 7:30 p.m

Anyone looking for a clear explanation of what Language writing was/is all about could do worse than pick up a copy of Steve McCaffrey's North of Intention. The essays are dense and, perhaps, a bit dated—this is commentary from the front lines of the movement when it was new. Various heavy thinkers are invoked: Derrida, Bataille, Lacan, etc. But the essays accumulate into a statement on their program which I now feel I understand a little more intuitively. Most clear is its radicalism: McCaffrey says somewhere that Language writing, unlike say the critique of "closed" writing offered by Charles Olson, does not question values by offering other values; instead it questions value itself. The most valuable metaphor he offers for explaining this is Bataille's notion of the general economy, in which expenditures of energy are uncontrolled and nonproductive, whereas most writing purports to take place in a restricted economy, where the writer's expenditures of verbal and semantic energy are expected to be recuperated and consumed by the reader in the form of meaning (and pleasure, I presume, though McCaffrey doesn't talk about pleasure at all, only the ludic jouissance, a la Barthes, of the writerly text). Since I'm trying to understand if pastoral might constitute a kind of economy in its own right, this analogy has a lot of resonance for me. It seems though that I'm always trying to salvage some scrap of humanism when I think about pastoral—when I talk about its "modesty" or "weakness" or otherwise think of it as being not-quite utopian, not-quite revolutionary. Partly that's because some part of me continues to resist the Language program, as influential as it's been on both me and the poetry I most care about. "Pure" Language writing—the kind that refuses semantic location of any sort, the kind that presents itself as a field of static—bores and frustrates me. Although "content" or "subject matter" seem very much beside the point for Language writers from a strategic (I won't say stylistic) point of view, it does exist. After all, even Finnegans Wake has content: the individual graphemes of a made-up word may send its potential meanings spinning off in half-a-dozen different directions and languages, but it is not ultimately infifinitely undetermined: there's Irish history, literary history, the geography of Dublin, even characters to provide a kind of gauzy limit on the text's interpretationn (or its economy). The problem with the Wake, and with lots of Language texts, is that it's so frigging long. I've written a little bit about this before, when I was reading in Tjanting: while I can enjoy (?) textual jouissance for a page or two, the seemingly endless pages of many Languagey works exhaust me in the mere contemplation of them. The only way I can read the Wake is as I'm currently doing it: in a group, meeting once a week, discussing perhaps two pages at a time. I'd probably have to read The Alphabet in the same way. Or else I'd have to abandon any notion of "reading" it—which is the whole point though, eh Steve? Except I don't feel, when I'm completely knocked out of my role as a consumer (however discriminating) of meanings and images and phanopoetic pleasure, like I've been enlisted in production so much as I'm filled with a desire to be really productive, and seek out a text that I'll be able to use for my own writerly purposes. Put another way, the poetry that (yikes) inspires me to write—that really enlists my own productive capacities—tends not to be Language writing, though it may well have Language inflections in the way it employs parataxis, paragrams, etc. If Language poetry is intended to break down the hegemony of meaning-making, turning writers into readers and vice-versa, I don't know that it succeeds. But, but, I'm speaking generally, as McCaffrey often does. Specific poets and poems in the Language tradition do have lots to offer this wreader: Hejinian's My Life, Watten's Bad History, most of Michael Palmer's work, etc. Why? Because they have palpable subject matter as a kind of nickel-iron core which seems to generate the magnetic field of play with/in/through language. And I tend to assume that any Language text of worth that I haven't necessarily cracked yet (been cracked by?) has a similar core. Along with, of course, a fundamental orientation of critique toward conventional systems and patterns of meaning-making. But doesn't every worthwhile "new" poem do this? That's the thing about Derridean deconstruction: it's not usually used to read texts that are themselves actively deconstructing. Derrida's point is that any text can be read into the ground of non-sense. A text that reads itself that way still has to be coming from somewhere and be on its way to something other than the mere play of the signifier if it's going to hold my interest for very long.

Speaking of being on one's way to something: breakfast calls.

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