Conference
on the Left
Michael Barrett

Assembling Alternatives,
August 29-September 2, 1996

"Assembling Alternatives," gathered writers to the University of New Hampshire, a few days before school began. Organized by Romana Huk, "Assembling Alternatives" was, essentially, a meeting of poets and scholars affiliated with "language writing." A significant number of the participants are represented in Douglas Messerli's anthology of language writing and its antecedents, From the Other Side of the Century, published by Sun and Moon Press.

Although there are multiple practices of language writing, Bob Perelman, in The Marginalization of Poetry, stitches a loosely fitting coat anyone associated with the movement could wear. Language writers practice:

These writers claim a genealogy that includes The Stein Era, Russian Futurists, Surrealists, Black Mountain Poets and the New York School.

Although language writing began to appear as poetry and theory in the early 1970s, it was during the Reagan years that the movement gained prominence. A foundational scholarly work was Marjorie Perloff's The Poetics of Indeterminacy, first published in 1981. Charles Bernstein played anthologist in a collection of language writing, "A Language Sampler," for The Paris Review in 1983. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, edited by Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, was published in 1984, and the anthology of language writing edited by Ron Silliman, In the American Tree, was published in 1986.

Language writing emerged as cultural anti-Reaganomics, attacking, through radical form and leftist critique, the conservative movement that counted its blessings under the sign of the dollar.

Since the eighties, through the seemingly boundless production of its practitioners, language writing has developed an international reach. "Assembling Alternatives" included writers from Ireland, England, Wales, Australia, Canada, and China.

The success of language writing as a resistance discourse raised an important question during the conference: What happens to the anti-establishment after its establishment? Many in attendance were affiliated with universities. Charles Cantalupo, in his talk, characterized the conference as "the anti-academic academy."

Also at issue was the relationship between theory and poetry. The two have always been closely linked in language writing, if not constituting a seamless web. If language poetry challenges a reader, "Produce the text yourself," the theory says, "I'll help."

Bob Perelman's talk, and the first chapter of The Marginalization of Poetry, turns on this very issue. In it, he calls for:

The theoretical discourse located in New Hampshire wasn't nearly as seamless as the couplets in plain language that composed Perelman's poem/essay. Frequently, presentations were interrupted by elisions, "I'll skip this part"; "Time will not permit me to adduce"; "I won't read this poem but what it says is..."; "I'll jump now right to the conclusion." The poetry readings were at night, after the critical sessions, as if exploding out of the fissures of theory. To be sure, the packed schedule of each day - from 8am to past midnight - can account for some of these fissures.

But, to a larger degree, these gaps in argument point to a more acute discomfort: when can reference justly do the work of our words? Are these gaps signifiers of the otherness of poetic language? Is there an aporia between the poetic utterance and all other attempts at uttering/muttering/mothering/
fathering/furthering words into being? Why cannot reference be trusted to recross that aporia as poetry?

While elisions exposed the problem in referring to the non-referential, repetition served to keep the referrals within the established rhetoric. Stock phrases functioned as shorthand for argumentative assumptions:

This is not to say these phrases aren't part of valid arguments. They are. But they also constitute the speech of the corporate will in language writing. Theoretical positions become reified and codified as oft repeated phrases. These phrases become sites of association within the assembly. They function as commodities in an alternative economy - with its own balance sheet, its own account. What Barrett Watten notes about some mainstream poetry in Total Syntax applies here, "attempts at an extra-social position, specifically one defined apart from the commodity system, often lead directly back to the market" (117).

Adorno's insight that all identity is ideological also applies. Questions of identity and identification within the movement charged two moments during the conference.

The first was Steve McCaffery's pyrotechnic reading. Realize: this is a poet who once spilled AlphaBits from the top of a ladder and then rolled around the floor making phonics. At the conference, it was McCaffery's witty, referential poem that brought the house down. It plowed its way through poets and theory turning on, referring to, the very proper nouns people wore pinned to their chests in the audience. It was a brilliant performance of a joke. The punchline was identity.

The next afternoon, Bob Perelman read and discussed, "The Marginalization of Poetry." During the discussion, he stated that discursive writing practices, "were getting kinda old." His call for change was immediately attacked. Critics accounted for Perelman's call-to-change as a result of his position as a member of the late capitalist academy - who would no longer interrogate the nature of language itself.

"I teach high school students such work and they are thrilled by it" pointed out another critic, shocked that language writing should be called obsolete, when it was just starting its cultural work.

The attacks on Perelman were about identification - discursive linguistic practices have been so long associated with leftist politics in language writing (perhaps uncritically so), that when Perleman changes aesthetic, he is accused of political betrayal. The attacks were conservative at the root - arguments in defense of the status quo.

Language writing is now well established. And because it is taught in high schools, and, for example, at a community college in Central Missouri, it is changing how literature is read and writing is written. These changes have been brought by the prodigious output of quality writing distributed through the movement's network into the poetry market - language writing is, in a way, entrepreneurial. Its influence is proportionate to the innovation and labor that has gone into its construction.

Indeed, the straw man, altar native, of language writing - mainstream academic poetry - has become less and less important in relation. Mainstream poetry is just one poetic discourse among many. The strawman is scattered in the scattering of poetries.

Language writing, not poetry of the Authentic Voice of the Unitary "I," will seed poetries in the 21st century. And because language writing includes the discourse of literary history, literary history will be written on language writing.

In addition, language writing has engaged the formidable intellect of Marjorie Perloff. She has closely followed the evolution of language writing, placing it in the context of 20th century avant-garde art.

Perloff was a primary source of energy at the conference - animated, interested, involved. So was Charles Bernstein.

Bernstein is the poet conjured/conjugated by Khlebnikov's "Invocation by Laughter" (a joyous blossoming of play with morphemes and the root of "to laugh," i.e.: "O laughensteins laughing in laughganistan..."). Bernstein does what Artaud praised the Marx Brothers for - disruption through humor. He takes culture through a "comic spin cycle," introducing the chaos of laughter into the orderworn "necroid ideocracy."

Although long associated with the movement, and seemingly, a ringleader, Bernstein, in a recent interview, argues his way out of group identity:

By attending to the real, "actually existing" communities, and not the "idea" of collectivity, Bernstein manages to avoid the politics of group identity. Bernstein's ethos is energy while constructing, dissembling humor while inside the construction. His position prevents him from substituting a familiar critique for an ethical stance.

Tim Woods, a Welsh writer, examined the role of ethics in language writing. Citing Levinas, Woods offered an ethics of responsibility in the face of the other. Our response to the other, whether we gaze or listen, is the site of the ethical. And when we hear a voice, Woods argued, it is a voice that cannot be thematized.

Woods' argument spoke to another dilemma in language writing. How to address the historical oppression of "others" when critique begins with the dismantling of identity? Is not the voice of the oppressed, processed through a materialist critique, already "thematized"?

This is the issue Miriam Nichols from Canada addressed. Nichols argued for the role of reference in forming a political poetry - specifically, poetry that refers to place. "The political," she said, "is the return of the repressed. The landscape never left." In other words, place gathers temporal actualities that are sites of oppression and keeps them from being overwritten. At the local site, Nichols explained, the political can be given, as in Peter Culley's poetry, a powerful voice. But, when poetic discourse is discursive, the specificity of place is paved over by totalizing ideology.

What made Woods and Nichols' presentations important was that they opened powerful alternatives - to mainstream poetry, and to its alternative on the left. These alternatives can be used to "construct a possible future" (Watten 41).

Nichol's discussion of reference in relation to alternatives poetries was prescient. During the readings there was a sense that poetic structures were becoming more referential. Barrett Watten read from a series called "Bad History." Bob Perelman read from "Fake Dreams." In these and other works, a formal structure - history, dream, allegory - thickens with paradox, linguistic play, and irony. Yet, a familiar form remains. Perhaps as an alternative to the abstract, mathematical formal structure of some language writing (a poem like Tjanting, for example), pre-capitalist literary forms - dream vision, folk tale, nursery rhyme, allegory - will attempt to hold resistance discourses.

More importantly, Woods and Nichol's presentations cleared a site for ethos in radical poetry that is not merely a rehearsal of political positions that have long been occupied.

The difficulty of sketching a poetry of ethos when the "I" has been dispersed through critique is apparent - ethos is predicated on agency. Materialist thinkers often treat agency as if they were misers - they say they've got little and have none to give away.

But regardless of how many ways the self is split and constructed by structures that exist before the subject, at a moment of choice, ethos gathers, collects the selves, and binds them into the singular act. At the site of the self, the "I," alternatives assemble, then we choose one in order to act. Carla Harryman spoke of millennial thinking that "qualifies its hope with anxiety." For ethos, the hope is that the act is just, the anxiety is that the act may be already determined before it's done.

Wittgenstein noted that an "agent is not a locus of representation, but...one who is engaged in practices." The practice of a poethos would not be a predetermined set of actions to be represented. It would be a reminder of an idea that closes Perloff's latest book, Wittgenstein's Ladder, "Ethics and aesthetics are one." Poethos would be a preparation for being in the world. It would be a poetics that prepares identity and meaning for their last, best chance at radical reconstitution - when the self disappears out of the word, into the act.


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