Contemporary Literature, Summer
1992 v33 n2 p302(17)
Tenney Nathanson (University of Arizona,
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
it if not
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological
State Apparatuses (Notes toward an Investigation)." Lenin and Philosophy,
and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left, 1971.
Andrews, Bruce. "Text and Context." The Politics of the Referent.
Ed. Steve McCaffery Spec. issue of Open Letter 3rd ser. 7 (1977).
Rpt. as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E supp. 1(1980): n. pag.
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael
Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of
Texas P, 1981.
Benjamin, Walter. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Illuminations.
Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969.
Bernstein, Charles. Artifice of Absorption. Spec. issue of Paper
Air 4.1 (1987).
--. "Characterization." 1983. Content's Dream 428-62.
--. Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon,
--. Controlling Interests. New York: Roof, 1980. --. "An Interview
with Tom Beckett Tom Beckett." 1981. Content's Dream 385-410.
--. "Loving Tissue/Dead Ideas" 1984. Contents's Dream 363-82.
--. "Socialist Realism or Real Socialism?" 1981. Content's Dream
--. "Three or Four things I know about him." 1977. Content's Dream
Dahlen, Beverly. A Reading, 1-7 San Francisco: Momo's, 1985.
Hartley, George. Textual Politics and the Language Poets. Bloomington:
Indiana UP, 1989.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially
Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
Kraitsir, Charles. Glossology: Being a Treatise on the Nature Of
Language and the Language of Nature. New York: George P. Putnam,
Lukacs, Georg. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist
Dialectics. Cambridge: MIT P, 1971.
McCaffery, Steve. "The Death of the Subject: The Implications of
Counter-Communication in Recent Language-Centered Writing." Open
Letter 3.7 (1977): n. pag.
--. "Diminished Reference and the Model Reader." North of Intention:
Critical Writings 1973-1986. New York: Roof, 1986. 13-29.
Silliman, Ron. "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World."
1977 The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles
Bernstein. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP,
--. "For Charles Bernstein Has Such
a Spirit." Charles Bernstein Issue.
Ed. Tom Beckett. Spec. issue of The Difficulties 2.1 (1982): 98-114.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E.
M. Anscombe. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1968