Context Needs a Contest:


By George Hartley



Andrews's work, then, functions as a mapping of the social terrain. Such mapping is approached not "just by articulating the gap by avoiding meaning altogether–or theatricalizing that gap by avoiding meaning altogether–but to show off a more systematic idea of language as a system & play of differences, with its own rules of functioning" ("Poetry" 25). It may be instructive to pursue the geographical analogy of mapping for a moment. One appropriate analogical extension involves the term "diastrophism": "the process of deformation that produces in the earth's crust its continents and ocean basins, plateaus and mountains, folds of strata, and faults" (Webster's Third). We then have the "diastrophe," [Gk diastrophe twisting, distortion, fr. diastrephein to twist about, distort, fr. dia + strephein to turn, twist–more at STROPHE], the structural feature in the work which indicates (or produces, or articulates) the discursive faultlines, fissures, and overlappings which mark each ideological system. What we are concerned with is a discursive seismography which will record the tremors and vibrations produced when tectonic plates rub up against one another. Which raises Andrews's question, "How to create an adequacy; how to be 'true to form'?"

The treatment of exchange as an overdetermined site in which a symbolic order is partly constituted differentiates our reading from those that presume already formed agents whose false consciousness prevents them from recognizing the reality of an economic process that is external, but necessary, to their esential constitution. The fact that individuals treat trade as an exchange of equivalents does not warrant the conclusion that these agents have a false consciousness. No discursive privilege should be assigned to the ability, or willingness, of these agents to "see," or "not see," exchange as a trading of equal, or unequal, labor times. (Jack Amariglio & Antonio Callari, "Commodity Fetishism," 57)


Give Em Enough Rope approaches this task in a variety of ways. The title does so first of all by elliptically referring itself to some other context: give who enough rope to do what for what reason? Who is giving this command, and how are we equipped to carry it out? Em at first appears to be a colloquial abbreviation of the pronoun them, with the conventional apostrophe omitted for some unknown reason. But Em could also be an abbreviated form of Emma or Emily or Emiline (etc.). It further could refer to the letter M, which would then introduce the reader to Andrews's common ploy of presenting letters of the alphabet as characters in his works. And it could refer as well to the em-space of the typesetter, the space of a particular articulatory duration and emphasis, the open space of writing itself and of the writing of the subject-position of the reader. In any case, why does Em need rope? To be pulled out of water or a hole or off the face of a cliff or some other danger? Or is this an echo of Lenin's ploy of giving the capitalists just enough rope to hang themselves with? And how much rope is enough? How much might Em have already? This continuous deferral of a "stable" reference for the title is exactly the point, the point at which Andrews begins pulling out the stops, of rerouting our language conventions and thereby opening up the possibility of traversing some new terrain. For in the process of grappling with the multiplying possible references for these words, we place ourselves in the position of creating those possible frames of reference. We might just have a hand in this construction. A, for instance, cannot be "your majesty" to B, unless at the same time majesty in B's eyes assumes the bodily form of A, and, what is more, with every new father of the people, changes its features, hair, and many other things besides. (Karl Marx, Capital v.1, 50-51).



"I Guess Work the Time Up," the first poem in Rope, could be described as a language machine, as meaning in motion, or (to carry through with the geography) as an analogue to the ceaselessly shifting shapes of shoreline or sandbars or sanddunes. The proliferation of meanings in the line resembles the spark and excitement and potential explosion of a burning fuse or the toppling over of dominoes as kinetic sculpture: Criticism is an institutional practice. What interests me in the question "What are the critics saying about the Language poets?" is the assumption that "critics" refers to those institutionally sanctioned readers in the academy, and the parallel assumption


tantamount be healing too extra doggone

too drake gots to get parallax refashion

mean contradiction fire pleasure pain phalanx

up with drops a quarter clarity Involute

cos' amino acids won't thing to spend self free don't

meant car rims neither Blue that is u / e

urine hatband of regret Times insufferably ditto

once pretentious again am just a little lamb

(Rope 7)


Barrett Watten describes the effect of listening to such work read aloud: "The effect of this on a listener involves what the Formalists called 'rhythm as a constructive device.' The phrases are units. The poem goes: unit . . . unit . . . unit. After a while a point of balance takes on a meaning of its own. At first, one is not particularly hearing the words due to their referential shifts; it takes work to get from one isolated plane of reference to another at the speed of reading aloud. But what actually happens is that the rhythmic parallels turn into a meaning-structuring device. that what the poets say about their own or each other's work is not "criticism." But the situation is quite the reverse: some of the best critics (in all senses of the word) of Language writing are Language writers themselves.


After ten minutes of this the phrases start to assume a rhythmic point of balance; the words take on a weight in relation to that" (Total Syntax 17). But in the midst of this joy-in-textuality are some themes which recur in the book, such as the concern with expanded notions of perception (parallax refashion—perhaps the goal of Andrews's work), contradiction both in terms of Marxian social theory and in terms of speaking against (contra/diction; conflicting discourses), and the material character of units of discourse which we put into motion ("u / e" becomes "urine"). Watten writes that "Andrews's poem is a kind of fantastic machine, each line a conveyor belt of semiotic rubble, funny poking things—to flip on the switch is to get action. . . . In this poem there is a solution not imagined by William Carlos Williams to his proposition, in the 1944 introduction to The Wedge, that a poem be a 'machine made of words.' Where Williams's machine is a self-contained entity, a whole consisting of interacting parts, each of which is necessary for the functioning of the other, in Andrews there is no limit to the whole, and the machine consists of placing in motion a sequence of unrelated parts found in the world at large" (Total Syntax 160). While it is true that there is no immediate limit to the whole in this poem (questioning such limits is one of the poem's concerns), the "unrelated parts" become related through contiguity, repetition, thematic coherence, and simply through the onward rush and semantic flow of the poem itself. These brief flashes from the streets, newspapers, textbooks, etc., speak to and through each other as the poem develops according to what Andrews refers to as "framing frenzy," the goal of which is "to open up new relationships by crazed collision" ("Poetry" 31). Presumably, we are being helped to understand the poetic theory and practice of Bruce Andrews. However, no explicit argument is made that Andrews' work merits our attention. Implicitly, of course, we learn that the work is capable of rich explication. But the extensive quotations imply to me (and this is neither refuted nor addressed by the text) that the radical compression of rather monotonic left-wing ideology into bullet-poems is not really worth the trouble of my extended attention, except as a literary curiosity, a sort of postmodernized Beat poetry. A quick computer search of the databases of two major reference libraries failed to find Andrews' poetry at all, suggesting that his work will be rather inaccessible in a practical sense to PMLA's general readership. (Reader's report, PMLA). Marginality is cited here as the rationale for perpetuating the margins of exclusion, the institutional mechanisms of validation.


The crucial theme of the poem perhaps is domination. Throughout are references to racial oppression, sexual oppression (particularly in marriage), and familial oppression (battered children, domineering fathers). The racial theme of this twenty-four-page poem begins at least as early as the eleventh line with "mama sell Sugar triangulation We say – Sadie – Boss." The "mama sell" hints at standard Black dialect (varieties of which recur throughout the poem); the mama seems to be the "breadwinner"; and the "Sugar" becomes the pivotal point where the semantic flow shifts from one sentence kernel to another, from current Black home economics to its historical roots in the slave trade's triangular circuit. The triangulation is then manifested in the "We say – Sadie – Boss" unit which connects denomination (we say) with domination (Boss), Sadie being the one caught within this process (perhaps a reference to the Anglicization of African names). The result of this process for the Black male in the mid-twentieth century is the city slum: [Language poet Ron] Silliman's poem [Tjanting], in its largest sense, aims to represent through textual enactment a redemption of the localities of human history. Marxist in his orientation, Silliman's politicized writing has passed through the filtering critique of the Frankfurt school, and especially through the work of Walter Benjamin. His Marxism is "Western" in the concrete sense that it is carried out within the arena of advanced capitalism and American political imperialism. As a writer his struggle against these exploitive social formations appears as a critique of the modes of language which produce and reproduce the "reality" of a capitalist world and history. (Jerome McGann, "Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes", 632)


slum vocabulary with cage like bear is in it meditating on

him altitude Fundament will jive them out – penis see deep

loves women money and music

mental mind was doin out their qualities Climax

is unable to read or write & king heroin cannot

little pencil comes sliding out from behind the clipboard

use her hands Crime doesn't pay Fabricated

story helix pulsator hazardless

(Rope 18)


The social worker with pencil and clipboard, who offers suggestions such as to send the wife out to work and to avoid crime, is involved in the process of "herky-jerky hot the family but statistical policing overview" which writes the Black family into its peculiar existence in American society where it is controlled through the social work institutions.

Although the above thematic network occasionally rises to the surface of the text, moments of cognition appearing in the froth, it nevertheless is jerked from view by the movement of the poem as it continues to throw up layer upon layer of semantic possibility. In "Be Careful Now You Know Sugar Melts In Water" Andrews recently described an early phase of his writing as follows:



catalyzing circulation; unreasonable precipitation; fractures & waste. this underlies a frenzied & swooning, or delicately agitational, play of bodily drives–nonidiomatic, as sound, rhythm, movement. somatic drives unstitched by the semantic (sewing) machine of representation. uncertainty, tingling, wobbling, nomadic, merely circumstantial, ravishing enthusiasm. a cresting wave of possibilities crashing over our bodies–emptying into a near infinite, contentless affirmation of rupture & divestiture. (122)


While this passage comes close to describing the movement and economy of "I Guess Work The Time Up," that poem is a good deal more complicated because of the moments of semantic foregrounding and thematic interweaving. It is no longer contentless, although it remains an affirmation of rupture & divestiture. What we have is no longer simply a polymorphous pleasure in the text (though that remains) but an attempt to exhibit the process of meaning construction by allowing these disparate words and phrases to meld occasionally into recognizable themes and then quickly to break apart into competing tangents of content. What we have is a recognition that while we might try to abandon content, it is nevertheless constructed around us. The job now is to reveal the processes of its construction and to suggest the possibility of alternative constructions. But those alternatives will involve struggle; we cannot appropriate the means of production without a fight. It is this struggle which in part informs the violent yet euphoric trajectories of "I Guess Work The Time Up."

The movement of "Unit Costs" is quite different. Its placement as the second poem in Rope (whether chronologically "true" or not) helps to underscore the variability of form, movement, structure, economy. Here we face a list of units (words, phrases, occasional sentences) much as we would an inventory of products, the units continuously isolated by the breaking of the line and syntax. On one level, the poem mimics the reductive quantification (reification) of capitalist economics. Ironically, the title is followed by the parenthetical mention that the poem is a score for movement in a poem with very little sense of movement at all. There is an extension of relationship through sequential accretion, but the overall impression is that of a stack of isolated signifiers resisting any integration beyond the line break. Even within the line the movement from word to word is impeded, the rhythm more stocatto and metronomic than the fluid rhythms of the previous poem.

The supposed openness of a work should not be seen in itself as the mark of liberation: We see then, paradoxically, that it is the very logic of openness and of the democratic subversion of differences which creates, in the societies of today, the possibility of a closure far more radical than in the past: to the extent that the resistance of traditional systems of differences is broken, and indeterminacy and ambiguity turn more elements of society into 'floating signifiers', the possibility arises of attempting to institute a centre which radically eliminates the logic of autonomy and reconstitutes around itself the totality of the social body. (Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 186). But Andrews's work is precisely not a collection of free-floating signifiers but a display of alternative articulations of those democratically unsutured chains. This double gesture of democratic opening and provisional and purely local closure is effected in order to slip between the logics of unequality and totalitarianism. Such provisional articulation avoids the concomitant danger Laclau and Mouffe identify with pure openness:


Failed tasks – repetition, as different from, hands


surgical instruments, community

I want a waterbed but don't want waves


Unison diehard meaning

moss however house of cards

Dip prom


Audio Awared-ness for the Consumer

positioning as box

Stars at night

Nameless erratically epistle

scissors reveal post office

vacant anus highlight interminable pegged wafer

(Rope 34)


As the reference to surgical instruments implies, these words appear to be cut and removed from the communal body. There is a denial of movement ("don't want waves"), a perverse command to change ("Mutate" seems awfully close to mutant), and yet an insistence that meaning can exist in unison in a poem where the only unison that is allowed to develop is the fragmented and isolated state of the line which leads to an apparent equivalency of units. The only site of production appears to be the highlighted vacant anus. While someone is "Ill at ease in two dimension" (p.36), that is the only dimension that this geometry offers. The movement is that of enclosure into various shapes (dodecahedrons, triangles, hexagons) which privileges the inside and excludes the out: "Obstruct immigrants at border" (p.40). "She thus carved for herself a small oedipal territory that will resound with all the paranoic tendencies of the institution" (p.48). In such a context the statement "We all live in Pennsylvania" (p.48), while intended to show the interrelatedness of all on earth (even Europeans are affected by Three Mile Island), ironically reveals also that we all inhabit the same box.

The poem "Give Em Enough Rope" develops on a new structural plane: no longer specifically foregrounding motion (or the lack of it), the title poem explores the possibilities of spatial refraction. Now each page is a visual unit which organizes its material as well as the reader's eye movement in a variety of ways. The first page, for instance, is in paragraph form, both margins justified and enlarged (squeezing the text in on itself), and is made up of one extremely long sentence:

[T]here is also a symmetrically opposite danger of a lack of all reference to this unity. For, even though impossible, this remains a horizon which, given the absence of articulation between social relations. is necessary in order to prevent an implosion of the social and an absence of any common point of reference. This unravelling of the social fabric caused by the destruction of the symbolic framework is another form of the disappearance of the political (Laclau & Mouffe, 188). This same fear inhabits the reaction of some other Language poets to the unravelling seemingly at work in Andrews's writing over a certain period: The opposite of utopia, plus ten years, would seem here to be total estrangement. But that ten years has provided these poets with a more valuable working model than their earlier symbolic explosions: What Andrews has learned from this project, as hard as it may be to take, is virtually constitutive of contemporary public space: "failure to acknowledge seems like a natural fact." Andrews's political strategy now is to acknowledge our lack of acknowledgement, to return us to an important aspect of the real. (Silliman, et al., 271).

Accurate I mean that's what, side by side, you ever, to tell anyone perception does best it's right it isn't it's, take whatever can, curtained, into your hands at's catch because spinning & warming only transposeintact,loneliness,a hint of positionism waits, speaks through us, regroup after errand on-
to bed hat's truth not caring what's inside turn out of you some months ago uninvited how phenomenology puffs up whole quadrant in praxis petrifies heart imagine what reticences can breathe drying out after pitch body to hold it as sequence of a wandering persisit as happenstance not dispose to find catchwords, limbs, topping baptismal fashion of accidents by what won't wear in their arms helmets, nipple, neurons, discourse, nostalgia creasing to step back bright abandon penetration in that sympathetic sentence to what frays hesitation cookie- cutter against you to speak again struck might very well.

(Rope 52)

The second page, however, organizes the words in a scattered pattern which begins to break down the dominance of the line ("linarchy"):



nominative pink

3. apartoid 4. wom 5. crost 8. qualits 9. linarchy

lives inevitable and leaving

several and leaving have

release several have lives

inevitable justice

Bullshit Cupid

(Rope 53)

In the paragraph the words are forced together into a block of text, as prose pages often are. But the enlargment of the margins, the magnification of the white space, ironically underscores the enclosure of that blank margin space: while blank space may on the one hand appear as open possibility, on the prose page it works in the opposite way by defining (delimiting) within its quadrants the possibilitities of praxis within that space. It imposes (because of our conventional reading habits) the desire for accuracy (as the first word suggests) and meaning by lining words up "side by side"; the "spinning & warming" of the scattered pages "only transpose" words from one possible reference to another, but the paragraph attempts to pin those references down, to order their wandering into a sequence. White space on the scattered page, however, does open up new possibilities because it breaks down the effects of "linarchy" and allows the reader to chart new paths as in a connect-the-dots puzzle with no prescribed numbers, to make connections between words by a variety of routes besides the left-to-right, top-to-bottom pattern we usually follow. The second page, interestingly, still bears the imprint of linarchy, however, for the lines between "lives inevitable and leaving" and "inevitable justice" attempt to realign the words along a left margin. But the word "Bullshit" pulls the page out of this trance once more, contradicting in the process the (Social Democratic?) belief that ustice would be inevitable in such a lineated arrangement. While the third page does succeed in asserting the justified left margin once more, the fourth then opens up an enormous range of space and direction, its structural principle perhaps summed up in the first four words (out of only nine on the page): "architecture/ piss in powder" (p.55). The "physiognomic cartography" (p.85) of the poem expands our reading of surface space beyond the confines of a road map. We now have something like a topographical map which shows us other possibilities of movement around the rifts and fissures of this (social) space, a reading of the diastrophic collisions of different tectonic masses. Moving away from the margin of course threatens at the same time the very essence of an exploratory experimental literature. Integrated subversion runs the danger of being coopted. Indeed the possibilities of integration reach far beyond literature. The techniques of concrete texts and graphics have long since become an essential part of commercial advertising. Eugen Gomringer, the German-Swiss experimentalist also works for advertising firms. The temptation of a moralistic irony and polemic is great in this situation. But perhaps a degree of integration should rather be a source of surprise for all who consider experimental art an elitist game. If the play of the signifiers indeed can function in the organization of needs and desires by the consumer industry, that means that signifiers are not dead letters but are instead intricately enmeshed in the economy of desire. (Rainer Nägele, "Modernism and Postmodernism," 19)

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