Contemporary Literature, Summer 1992 v33 n2 p302(17)

Tenney Nathanson (University of Arizona, Tucson)

Collage and pulverization in contemporary American poetry: Charles Bernstein's 'Controlling Interests.'

(American Poetry of the 1980s)

Abstract: The Language poet Charles Bernstein, in his book 'Controlling Interest', brings the narrative discourse prominently into the foreground in the form of a linguistic collage. Bernstein intersperses standardized business-style language with fractured phrases of a similar, but disassociated nature. These phrases are intended to enable the reader to produce their own meaning rather than consume the meaning created by the poet. Language school discursive philosophy is also examined in context of Steve McAffrey's critical essay 'The Death of the Subject.'

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1992 University of Wisconsin Press

it is what is lost that must be claimed. not found (impossibility) but claimed as loss. to say it.
Beverly Dahlen, A Reading (1-7)


In Charles Bernstein's Controlling Interests, published by Roof in 1980, about the closest we are allowed to come to the pleasure of hearing a story is this:

As President and Chief Executive Officer

of Sea World, Inc., David DeMotte is

responsible for managing all aspects

of the Company's operations at Sea

World parks in San Diego, Aurora,

Ohio, Orlando, Florida, and the Florida

Keys. A native Californian, DeMotte,

and his wife Charlotte, enjoy hunting,

fishing, and tennis in their spare time.


This passage from the poem "Standing Target" isn't so much a narrative as the drastic prolepsis of one; it encapsulates a life that it invites us to think of as both professional and personal, and we might unfold any number of narratives out of it, each proceeding in the terms this pair of sentences deploys. Rather than unpacking this thumbnail sketch, though, Bernstein's strategy is instead to double it, or more precisely to triple it. I quote the first of two more parallel portraits:

Hugh Chronister, President of Harvest

Publishing Company, the Harvest Insurance

Company, and the Harvest Life Insurance

Company--publishers of five state

farm magazines, several trade journals,

and operators of a number of insurance

agencies--is active in many publishing

and agricultural organizations and a

trustee of Baldwin-Wallace College, as

well as being Director and President of

the Ohio 4-H Foundation and a

past president of the Audit Bureau

of Circulation. Chronister, his wife,

Marge, and their three children

live near Medina, Ohio. In his

free time his interests include

books, horses, golf, and Western



This reproduction, of course, brings out sharply the reified quality and reifying function of this language, directing our attention firmly away from the so-called content of these individual portraits to the discursive practices that give them their form as well as their meaning, producing the selves they offer for our approval. For Bernstein as for many of the other Language poets, narrative is simply the playing out of premises already latent in the discourse that purveys it; its progress and closure naturalize meaning-producing operations that ought to be foregrounded rather than concealed. This pre-Bakhtinian equation of narrative with monologic discourse and untroubled totalization is surely questionable; but it helps account for the disenchantment with unimpeded narrative in the work of Bernstein and the poets often associated with him. Language poetry might indeed be regarded as a realization by more drastic means of the dialogic project Mikhail Bakhtin assigns to the novel; rapid collage, answer as more disconcerting strategies of interruption, exhibit a multitude of received discourses and dialogize their hegemonic claims.

In Bernstein's work, however, the refraction of collaged discourse tends to take place along more consistent and predictable lines than it does in the novelistic practice Bakhtin extols, in which a full range of heteroglossia competes for dominance and thus displays what Bakhtin calls the socio-ideological contradictions of the society in which they emerge. Such carnivalistic jostling does sometimes occur in Bernstein's poetry. But for the most part, in Controlling Interests, discursive practices are exhibited to more schematic effect. The material surrounding the corporate bios in "Standing Target" displays the book's characteristic strategy sharply The verse paragraph I quoted is succeeded by the following:

The end result was a gradual

neurosis superimposed upon a pre-existing

borderline character structure.

Note the exclusive right-side-up feature.


The explosive quality of the last line depends on its explicit release of a content also discernible in the material that precedes it, here given hyperbolic form. The corporate bios, too, function as commodification, while the shoot-from-the-hip diagnostic language both standardizes deviance and implicitly mobilizes corrective procedures. The percussive "Note the exclusive right-side-up feature" thus lays bare an ideological machinery to which Bernstein's triple portraiture has already drawn our attention--the human depth evoked by the corporate blurbs, in which an individual complete with family and hobbies does not simply lurk behind but implicitly pervades and humanizes a corporate role, is peremptorily flattened by this cheery brandishing of a commodity, and by the standardized language that touts its standardized features. Bernstein's procedures foreground this latter, linguistic commodification. As Controlling Interests displays it, this version of the personal is itself a product, and what produces it is a standardized, highly reproducible discourse.

The critique of language practices that pervades both Bernstein's poetry and his essays thus proceeds from Georg Laukacs's classic discussion of commodity reification in History and Class Consciousness. "The problem of commodities," Lukacs argues there, "must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects" (83). "In consequence of the rationalization of the work-process," Lukacs suggests, "the human qualities and idiosyncrasies of the worker appear increasingly as mere sources of error when contrasted with these abstract special laws functioning according to rational predictions" (89). For Bernstein as for Lukacs, this critique is applicable to discursive practices: "Clerks & secretaries spend their time typing neatly, removing idiosyncrasies from the language & presiding over a tan neutrality--|unobtrusive'--with the smoothness of flow allowed by explanatory transition" ("Three" 25). Ron Silliman's analysis in the influential essay "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World" is more sweeping, deploying the notion of commodity reification to explain not only the standardization of institutional discourses but also the project of what he calls "realism" or unproblematic reference, the smooth movement from signifier to signified that supposedly characterizes bourgeois discourse. Standardized language, that is, presents itself as a seemingly neutral or transparent medium, a kind of linguistic free market in which objectified and supposedly objective messages are exchanged.

Intervening in this putative marketplace of ideas by foregrounding the coding operation itself, Language poetry attempts to draw our attention to the way discursive practices produce the reality they appear simply to convey. Often presenting a more densely fragmented surface than the passages from Bernstein's "Standing Target" I have quoted so far, Language poetry also works to impede reference or smooth "projection." Whether it thereby makes us conscious not only of the standardizing procedures at work in language but also of their intractability, or instead offers us an alternative to them, discovering another mode of linguistic functioning, is a vexed point in several in-house discussions. Arguments often turn on the homology between economic and linguistic production I have been discussing, which is sometimes brandished with more exuberance than caution.(1) I shall turn in a moment to these stretches of what might be called pulverized language in Bernstein's poetry, and to the competing readings of such extreme disruption that various Language poets have offered. I want first to attend briefly to another passage of less

violently condensed collage, from the long "prose poem" "The Italian Border of the Alps"; like the passages from "Standing Target," it seems more involved with exhibiting reified language than with embodying a revolutionary alternative to it. The passage is part of a longer movement that shares the focus of the portions of "Standing Target" I quoted above: it fastens on the discursive production of what we think of as individuality, and on the compensatory role this notion plays.

While the corporate language in "Standing Target" gives this commodification of individuality rather obvious form, this portion of "The Italian Border of the Alps" displays a subtler but more pervasive standardization:

Again slogans rocking the hall. Longings lose glimmer. Don't get me

wrong, I'm not a tough guy, just careful. Isn't it marvelous that with all

the millions of people in the world, you and I should have met and fallen

in love and now we'll soon be married. Or do you think it was all planned

that way long ago? ... It's something to wear & it's something you've

wanted.... It all ties together. If Eliot is read with attention, he raises

questions which those who differ from him politically must answer. The

feeling that was always new & unexpected & turned the tale was of

humiliation.... So there's the answer to your question: you'd be taking

a big chance & I don't think you have the right to take that chance with

Martha seriously ill & young Joe about ready for college.... Temporary

inactivity, make sure, no place, had been a receptive, in anticipation were

allowed at great lengths some material, & after the dignitaries, shocked

by anything, social gathering through a maze of attics. I believe in change & I

understand the impulse that makes you want to strike out against

regimentation & find new interest & adventure in a business of your

own.... I like hard work and I don't care how long my hours are. I have

an inquisitive and analytical mind, make a good appearance and get

along well with others. Gives way to. A reality continually demanded of,

given up, renovated.


The production of the personal is by no means the only focus here. This long passage is more heterogeneous than many in Controlling Interests, more involved in that unfettered collision of competing idioms and ideologies Bakhtin called carnivalization. Bernstein's abrupt movement from discourse to discourse livens up this excerpt by providing both giddy incongruity and the repeated shock of recognition. Yet the pervasive though not quite monolithic tendency to cliche here makes the passage progressively drearier, the humor it provokes increasingly wan. By its end, the poem has produced a sense not so much of carnival as of stupor mundi: our attention comes to be occupied less with the competing claims of each socially saturated discourse than with the already-spoken quality of the whole, a feature that is global rather than local. "Not all words for just anyone," Bakhtin suggests, "submit equally easily to ... seizure and transformation into private property: many words stubbornly resist, others remain alien, sound foreign in the mouth of the one who appropriated them and who now speaks them ... it is as if they put themselves in quotation marks against the will of the speaker" (294). What for Bakhtin is true of some words in some contexts comes in this passage from "The Italian Border of the Alps" to feel true of all words all of the time: here utterance takes on the uncanny air of citation. This reification is most likely to strike us as wrenching when it produces assertions of individuality as well as the subject committed to making them--"I believe in change and I understand the impulse that makes you want to strike out against regimentation." It is especially bleak when a desperate attempt at individuation takes the form of what might better be called product differentiation: "I like hard work and I don't care how long my hours are. I have an inquisitive and analytical mind, make a good appearance and get along well with others."

But another portion of this passage offers a finally more disconcerting if less immediately heart-rending instance of the reifying power of discourse: "Temporary inactivity, make sure, no place, had been a receptive, in anticipation were allowed at great lengths some material, & after the dignitaries, shocked by anything, social gathering through a maze of attics." This nervous fragment offers a condensed, rather chilling demonstration of that fading of person into discursive position which the whole passage displays: here not only the sender but also the message fades from view as predication disappears; what remains is a series of available phrases from available codes. Whatever they mean to say, this fragment implies, persons and predicates will say only this. Which is not nothing: here speech-acts fade not into thin air but into discursive practices and the ideologies they purvey "Ideology," Louis Althusser suggests, "Interpellates Individuals as Subjects" (160). "You and I," Althusser also notes in a mock-confidential tone which the content of his pronouncement makes a little lurid, "are always already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects" (161-62). In Controlling Interests, brief, densely fragmented passages like the one above tend to infect the slightly more extended and seemingly individuated speech-acts that surround them: in this passage as a whole there is less of a sense of people using language to say what they mean than of discourse recruiting them to mean what it says. What ought to be the expression of individuality is instead the interpellation of subjects.

In their critical writings, Bernstein and other Language poets sometimes suggest that displaying these rituals of ideological coherence is the crucial task of Language poetry; a good deal more might be said about the subtle and frequently humorous means by which Bernstein's poems pursue this critique. But I want instead to turn to some more ambitious claims writers associated with Language poetry have sometimes made about their work. These claims concern the redemptive value of the poetry's disruptions of discourse and syntax and center on what has often been called the repossession of the word. I have especially in mind remarks that appeared in the often-apocalyptic theoretical discourse that accompanied Language writing in the seventies. While some of the specific positions taken then have since been jettisoned, the vision of linguistic reclamation outlined in these early manifestoes continues to surface in recent, less overtly polemical justifications of Language writing, notably in essays by Bernstein himself. We will turn briefly, further on, to some of these recent pronouncements; but we can get at the issues at stake in them by returning to the earlier polemics in which claims for the repossession of the word were given their sharpest form. I want to employ the tactic of appealing to an essay that has since been extensively rewritten, Steve McCaffery's influential "The Death of the Subject: The Implications of Counter-Communication in Recent Language-Centered Writing." Published in 1977, the piece appears in revised form, as "Diminished Reference and the Model Reader," in McCaffery's 1986 collection North of Intention. While the quotations I will marshal reflect positions from which McCaffery has since distanced himself, their interest is not merely historical. Cited repeatedly throughout the seventies and given considerable critical attention in George Hartley's Textual Politics and the Language Poets, the essay maps out positions that often resemble those since articulated in such pieces as Bernstein's 1983 "Characterization," his 1984 "Living Tissues/Dead Ideas," and his 1987 Artifice of Absorption. (2) My argument, for which a close examination of some of the extreme claims McCaffery makes in the 1977 piece can serve as a sort of down payment, is that the utopian strain evident in Bernstein's own recent essays offers a way of interpreting Language writing that is both theoretically problematic and at odds with the textures of the poems themselves.

The kinds of claims I want to isolate are most often provoked by passages of even more violently fractured writing than those I have discussed so far. A section near the end of "Standing Target," the poem with which I began, offers a stretch of what might be called pulverized language. We can use it as a specimen text:

                       of  of
                          open for
                    to      ,sees
                    glass       must
                        are     for
                      in  :they
                          that it
                      watches, leaves,
                                      days that
                    and the
                                to plates
                         all    shaped
                     must get
                            it if not
                        houses, beginnings
                                 hind an
                        other here
                                  .   Give
                        come to

In "The Death of the Subject," McCaffery suggests two different but supposedly equally liberating ways of construing such extreme disjunction. We can, he argues, read what's in front of us as the incomplete transcription of an utterance it is our task to reconstructor, as he would have it, construct. But we might instead teach ourselves to regard what's in front of us as complete rather than fragmentary.

In McCaffery's essay, these reading strategies derive their appeal from the analogy between linguistic standardization and commodity reification I mentioned earlier. The fascination these visions of language compel, that is, involves the supposed political implications of this verbal practice. If we regard passages like this one as fragmentary transcriptions that require our participation in order to attain completion, we supposedly become producers rather than consumers of meaning: such writing, McCaffery suggests, "is not... [a] textual commodity, replete with reference to be consumed by |an understanding' reader. The demand is for praxis not consumption" (71). We can thus supposedly escape the ideological presumptions that pervade prepackaged and passively consumed discourse: "The initial problem in readership here," McCaffery suggests, "is to abandon all prejudicial perceptual sets and to consciously assist oneself in producing one's own reading among the polysemous routes that the text offers" (63). Bruce Andrews, who coedited the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E with Bernstein, hazards a less cautious formulation: "The constitutive rules of meaning are not taking the words away from us. We can create those rules as we go along .... Obedience to Authority vs. the improvisation of rules.... A carnival atmosphere, therefore, ... workers' control... self-management." Taken as it were off the linguistic market, generated by oneself and for oneself, meaning would thus be produced for its use rather than its exchange value, enjoyed rather than circulated, in a linguistic practice no longer alienated or alienating.

Accounting for much of the allure this linguistic prospect possesses, the analogy between verbal and economic production also lends it an air of plausibility But the vistas this analogy opens may well be figmentary. I wonder whether what readers confronting this text in fact experience is the liberating effect of being able to produce rather than consume meaning. It is at any rate far from obvious what it might mean to produce a reading of one's own here, at least if that reading is to be neither determined by the linguistic marketplace nor circulated there as something others might be prepared to consume. "The whole idea of understanding," as Wittgenstein says in a related context, "smells fishy here. I do not know whether I am to say I understand it or don't understand it." He is responding to the following intriguing proposition: "These deaf-mutes have learned only a gesture-language, but each of them talks to himself inwardly in a vocal language'" (Philosophical Investigations sec. 348). This parable is itself part of the so-called private language argument, in which Wittgenstein undertakes to show, precisely, the dependence of linguistic functioning on determinate public norms or codes, on discursive practices or what he calls language games. "Each of these readers sometimes construes according to prejudicial perceptual sets or available discursive codes; but sometimes he abandons them and instead assists himself in producing his own reading." I do not know whether I am to say I understand it or don't understand it.

McCaffery's other reading paradigm is even more radical, or at least more radically disconcerting: it attacks not just the idea that reference is something already encoded which we consume rather than produce, but the very notion of reference itself. A text that so persistently makes referential projection difficult, that is, might be conceived of as doing without it, as simply, so to speak, being itself--"a signifier," as McCaffery's solecism puts it, "without a signified and whose destination is inward to the center of its own form" (75). McCaffery lends this rupture and recentering implications that might be called apocalyptic:

It avoids the central contradiction of the Linguistic Sign--the use of an

absence to re-present a present [sic]. Reference is that absence, leading

out from a present sign to an extrasemiotic state.... language-centered

counter-communication in general provides a text in which the sign

names itself a present naming with signs standing period; not signs standing

for an absence.


This is an old dream--archaic, we will see in a moment, in more than one sense. Here again the embracing appeal to an economic paradigm lends this assertion both its attractiveness and its initial air of plausibility. "At its core," McCaffery argues, "linguistic reference is a displacement of human relationships and as such is fetishistic in the Marxian sense. Reference, like commodity, has no connection with the physical property and material relations of the word" (62). Reference and the communicative purposes it serves, which constrain linguistic production, are like commodity exchange and the reification it leads to: market or exchange value becomes more real than the material reality of the thing itself; like reproduction, representation hollows out material presence. This linguistic debacle is supposedly avoidable. We know what it might mean to produce something without having an eye to exchanging it; might not language also be generated, so to speak, for itself, without the pervasive structure of linguistic exchange affecting its production? But here too the whole notion of understanding smells fishy, since it depends on a conception of verbal immanence that turns out to be not quite thinkable. "Language," McCaffery wants to argue, "enters the domain of its own inwardness; the conventional centrifugality of signification is reversed and the Sign turns inward through the absence of grammar to pure, lexemic presence" (63): the word itself, the word as thing, shines forth in all its autonomous splendor, detached from the codes that allow us to exchange it only because they have already subjected the word "itself" to mechanisms of exchangeability.

But it is hard to imagine what "lexemic presence," the word "itself" absent these structures of substitution, might be. Even the pulverized passage from "Standing Target" is traversed by the ghostly working of diacritical structures. Even if we think of it as the complete transcription of an utterance aspiring to expressive, nonreferential immediacy, rather than as the incomplete record of an utterance we are to fill out, this pulverized passage conveys a strong sense of the inescapability of the already spoken. From the very beginning--"fatigue / of of"--these isolated words seem to flit, whether in desperation or in weariness, among received if not quite specifiable discourses and language games. This effect is partly a function of the particular lexical content: bursts of language that imply social or ethical imperatives--"must," "must get"--recall the socializing, interpellating function of language itself. But the sense that "lexemic presence" loses itself among already extant structures derives as well from the foregrounding of shifters--"they" "her"--and articles--"and the / The," or the concluding, dangling "an"--which display the encoding function of language; their predominance suggests an eerie priority of langue to parole, of available structures to the content they process or produce. This passage thus more strongly suggests the fading than the realization of a dream of expressive potential or unmediated linguistic presence.

These radically truncated utterances, which disrupt syntactic and semantic coherence, do feel like a resistance to symbolic closure and ideological interpellation; we can read this musicated passage as a determined effort to bring out the gestural, rhythmic, or kinesthetic potentials of the word that symbolic language occludes. But such expressive potential is disturbed in turn by the recalcitrant and seemingly ineffaceable presence of symbolic structures, codes that reshape this performance and expropriate its gestures, alienating them in the very moment of their enunciation. Reading this pulverized passage might better be analogized to consuming these structures than to producing them; we read here the way they consume and produce us.

The terms of my discussion here are meant to recall Julia Kristeva's. While Kristeva is rarely mentioned in Bernstein's own essays, her notion of the necessary interpenetration of the registers she calls the semiotic and the symbolic might provide the most useful way of reading the passages of pulverized language in Bernstein's work. Bernstein's poems repeatedly evoke a musicated language, gravitating toward the semiotic and disrupting symbolic coherence; they thereby resist the ideological interpellation that symbolic closure sustains, exhibiting the often invisible violence with which subjects are constructed and inserted in symbolic structures and the practices that purvey them. Yet the poems never embody a language exempt from these structures and the demands they mobilize.

Kristeva suggests that this failure is necessary. Her global terminology may present problems of its own; but it is a useful antidote to the possible misuse of the analogy between linguistic standardization and commodity reification we examined earlier. Faced with the implicit suggestion that a language practice no longer modeled on commodity reification might escape mediation through a code, thus offering a model of unalienated subjectivity with political as well as personal repercussions, it is indeed tempting to argue that the intractability of linguistic structuring also sets limits on what political liberation might mean. But it is safer to suggest that linguistic practice, however revolutionary, will itself offer neither the means to nor the realization of such apocalyptic regeneration.

It is important to note that the messianic pronouncements by Language poets that I have been resisting are matched by a series of more limited and, I think, more tenable claims. A vision of Language poetry as critique rather than apocalyptic liberation, for example, dominates Ron Silliman's reading of Bernstein's Controlling Interests. Bernstein's poetry, Silliman suggests, "restates the constitution of the subject through ideology, insisting ... that, at least by the practice of poetry ... one does not unravel, go beyond, this knot" ("For Charles Bernstein" 110). In a 1981 interview with Tom Beckett, Bernstein himself suggests that his principal concern is to "[focus] attention on the constitutive nature of conventions.... So that the poem itself becomes a machine that spells and dispells [sic] illusion upon illusion, so that illusion's engendering may be witnessed" (392). A remark in the 1981 "Socialist Realism or Real Socialism" complements these formulations by taking up a skeptical stance toward the notion of "expression," implicitly identifying the task of poetry as the foregrounding of particular mechanisms of alienation rather than the projection of a language that would escape them: "The role of the individual isn't so much expressing his or her individual self, but rather resisting various flows, ideologies, and habituations. And I would suggest that listening--attending--is a better model for such resisting than emoting or expressing" (415).

These declarations, however, are matched in Bernstein's essays by arguments that approach McCaffery's in their willingness to suggest that poetry may itself embody a no longer alienated language and subjectivity. Bernstein has himself attacked Saussurian linguistics on a number of occasions, often along lines more like McCaffery's Bakhtin's. In a 1983 round-table discussion later published under the title "Characterization," he declares: "I disagree with the way language is characterized within French structuralist thought from Saussure to Derrida, in which language is thought to be divided in a polarity between the signifier and the signified, as two different things, and that the relation between the sound and the mental image is arbitrary" (442).

Bernstein's remarks on structuralism and poststructuralism are sometimes hasty asides. But it turns out that here Bernstein very much means what he says: meaning inheres in sound, whose value is thus not merely differential but directly expressive. "Sound," he argues in "Living Tissue/Dead Ideas," a lecture delivered at Berkeley in 1984,

is not. simply a neutral mechanism for designating differences... sound's

semantic dimension must be seen not only as a product of negative

differentiation onto which meaning is "attached" but also as consisting in

the positive effects of the "mechanism." Onomatopoeia is the most tangible

example of the nonsystematic dynamic of sound as meaning.... But

while tweet and twit are understandable as nonarbitrary sound choices, it

is more difficult to see how this could equally be true of true or of or or.

What twits! So fixed on seeing an overt mimesis as the only possible

mechanism for the relation of the semantic and the sonic, we fail to hear

the infection of the other variables--associational, iconic extension of

mouth shapes, psychogenic, sociogenic....(3)


We are very close here to the vision of language invoked by McCaffery and Andrews--of the word as positive lexemic presence and present expressive event, liberated from the prior diacritical codes that engender meaning only at the price of robbing the word of its self-sufficiency and the speaker who deploys it of his unalienated autonomy. A formulation Bernstein offers a bit further on in "Living Tissue/Dead Ideas" gestures at just this sort of expressive autonomy and originary integrity: "As against other writing practices, poetry explicitly holds open the possibility of producing, rather than reproducing, ideas. Beyond that, it may make this production of ideas audible" (368). Bernstein thus sometimes suggests that one value of Language poetry is its presentation of what he calls utopian content.(4) "The promise of the return of the world," he argues in the 1977 essay "Three or Four Things I Know about Him," "can [be] (& has always been) fulfilled by poetry. Even before the process of class struggle is complete. Poetry, centered on the condition of its wordness-words of a language not out there but in here, language the place of our commonness--is a momentary restoration of ourselves to ourselves" (29-30).

I'd like to suggest instead that one peculiar value of Bernstein's poetry is its inability to present such content. His poems do not embody a language that would escape symbolic constraint, but instead register, in their straining against received discourse and normative syntax, the desire for such apocalyptic liberation. Unrealized and perhaps unrealizable, this desire may nonetheless energize political practice. "We know," Walter Benjamin remarks in the last of the enigmatic "Theses on the Philosophy of History,"

that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah

and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped

the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the

soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the

Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second

of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.

(264) This parable can be read as a counterpart to the one revolving around Paul Klee's "Angelus Novus" earlier in the "Theses":

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the

past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe

which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his

feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what

has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught

in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.

This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is

turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is

what we call progress.


Benjamin's iconographic and rhetorical intensity may seem like an odd match for the often laconic textures of Bernstein's poetry. Yet I think a reading of Controlling Interests that managed to keep both of Benjamin's antipodal fragments in mind would register the terrors as well as the utopian aspirations mobilized by Bernstein's work. These parables might preside, for example, over the regathering of discursive wreckage that ends "Standing Target," succeeding the even more violently pulverized passage we already attended to:

Game of ball, confused when dictation, outgoing

And generally broadened social adjustment at

Personal endeavors, which is not always

Available, in and fundamentals in,

Silent reading and oral spelling,

Discussions, fair play, group life-Pattern

of careless work and sloppy

Appearance-included is integral,

Quiet and rather vague, at one period,

Skills and coordination, enthusiastic business,

When in actuality the class had merely,

And often both. He seems to feel depressed

And unsure of himself. I hoped,

Holds himself back by doing, this is

Especially true, omits many times.



(1.) On the problems with this homology between discursive production and alienated mechanical labor, see Jameson 45. On the related problem of uncritical, global use of the organizing notion of "modes of production," see Jameson 90.

(2.) While the bulk of this essay was completed before Hartley's book appeared, my remarks on McCaffery's essay parallel his in important respects; see Hartley 66-72.

(3.) This passage weirdly echoes the doctrine of Elizabeth Peabody's prize transcendentalist linguist, Charles Kraitsir, who influenced Thoreau. See Kraitsir's Glossology. This is a peculiar lineage for a broadly Marxist poet; Bernstein's studies at Harvard with Stanley Cavell are a persistent and sometimes surprising influence. See also Bernstein's 1987 Artifice of Absorption (8, 12-13, 32-33, and 36-37) for glossological assertions.

(4.) See, for example, "Socialist Realism or Real Socialism?" 423.


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--. "Loving Tissue/Dead Ideas" 1984. Contents's Dream 363-82.
--. "Socialist Realism or Real Socialism?" 1981. Content's Dream 411-27
--. "Three or Four things I know about him." 1977. Content's Dream 13-33.

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