Context Needs a Contest:


By George Hartley


"Swaps Ego," the fourth poem in Rope, then expands this reading of spatial refraction into a charting of possible subject positions opened up by this new attention to space and open movement. The title seems to refer to Benveniste's notion of the shifter, the pronoun slot which is filled by any number of subjects. The I in English holds the primary subject position, the reference of which changes each time a new subject speaks or writes. Ironically, then, the pronoun which seems to ground each individual's identity refers to an infinite possible number of other subjects in other contexts. In this sense the I swaps egos. But the I as pronoun ties in with another theme of the poem, the odyssey of the phoneme, especially those phonemes that are also words in themselves, such as A or I or, in the perverse play of this poem, U (you). The first five words of the poem—"Double You Double You See" (p.91)—are homophonic plays on the letters W, W, and C, which when combined ("Triple Three Triple Three Triple") may or may not form the aggregate structures called morphemes. Andrews thus focusses on the way minimal units can be joined to produce meaning; the key concept in this process is articulation: "Accidents Culmination Drift Toward Articulation Minister" (p.92). What we have is an analogue to a conception of society as a totality—not as some homogeneous entity but as the constellation of units whose cohesion is due their specific articulation, their arrangement in relation to one another: "This may be more like a crossroads than a closed and fixed corpus, ready for the dissection table" ("Total" 52).

In Althusserian theory the attention to the I as subject position and to its position as phoneme/morpheme are related in the sense that the subject's position in society results from the articulation of ideologically defined subject positions in that particular social formation. Each subject position, in other words, works something like the phoneme in its structuration into morphemes and of the morphemes themselves into complex words and sentences. The subject is thus written into the social syntax of a given totality. What interests Andrews is the possibility of movement and counterarticulation from those points; in other words, once we recognize our position within society, how free are we to change positions or to alter the given ideological charge of that spot? This is a question, then, of class struggle. At work in the poem, then, is an attempt to foreground the possibility of rearticulating its elements:

If language is historically changing and constitutive of subjectivity, making us as we make and use it, then it neither reveals nor represses some inner self, some "species being," that exists before the fact of its use. If language poetry calls for the empowerment of all language users—readers as well as writers—it must do so by avoiding an appeal to an illusory "real subject." The collaboration of writer and reader cannot be reinscribed within the humanism of liberation narratives: "plot-centered" stories of finding a position distinct from the fetishism of "man" and the fetishism of commodities is therefore central to the unfinished, on-going project of language poetry. (The Editors, "On Language Poetry," 76)

These languages contain us, and we are simultaneously bearers of the codes of containment. Whatever damage or distortion the codes inflict on our subjectively elastic conception of ourselves, socially we act in an echo chamber of the features ascribed to us, Black woman, daughter, mother, writer, worker and so on. And the social roles and the appropriate actions are similarly inscribed, dwell with us as statistical likelihoods, cast us as queen or servant, heroic or silent, doer or done unto. . . . [But while language is a crucial site of contestation], there is nothing inherent in language centered projects that gives them immunity from a partiality that reproduces the controlling ideas of dominant culture. . . .Certainly writing itself cannot enlarge the body of opposition to the New Wars, it only enhances our capacity to strategically read our condition more critically and creatively in order to interrupt and to join. (Erica Hunt, "Notes For an Oppositonal Poetics," 199-200; 204; 212)


Ways Of Obtaining Film Diphthong

Reminding Enough Sudden Frenzy Arc Blissful

Various Core States Capitalism Of Themselves

Broken Tempo And Vocal Abuse

(Rope 96)


How might we approach this rearticulation? "By eliciting praxis—to carry out language's demand for prescriptions; for the Anti-Obvious. By actively pressing the 'network of differentials' in the writing itself. How to disclose & unclothe the social world: moving outward through these broader & broader layers & concentric circles of intelligibility. By a writing that counter-occludes, or counter-disguises; that politicizes by repositioning its involvement in, its intersection with, a nexus of historical relations" ("Poetry" 28-9).

In "Swaps Ego" the major elements to be rearticulated—the words—are accorded provisionally equal status by capitalizing the initial letter of each word. The sign of priority in the sentence is thus equally distributed to all. But such egalitarian relations are not so easy to come by. "True Flip To," Rope's fifth poem, dramatizes this struggle for dominance by alternating which of two words will open with an upper case letter:


T oo since

yeah! H itchhike

S alute effectiveness

ballpeen I dentification

shuttle tease

C law spoils

C arnival stinger

(Rope 131)


"street life," for instance, fulfills our conventional expectations for word combinations. "Z igzag vinegar," on the other hand, appears to produce nothing more than an interesting and rhythmic combination of sounds, phonemes which seem to break apart from the given semantic combinations into independent phonic materialities. Andrews describes this effect:    


a rematerialiazing of language, with an eliding/eluding of anyone's, or my, privatized grasp, through erotic interplay, through implicatings of an other. possible escape from 'the pursuit of loneliness'–or any enclosed & self-identifying solitude of rapture–by a jointly interior trembling; sound quivers, corporeal resounding. an unknown con carne : mutual flesh incarnated.

("Be Careful Now" 123)


Andrews compares this writing to a love affair between two people, a union which appears to complete each through the other. "habitat conjunction" (Rope 137): the melding juxtaposition of dissimilar units in the poem. But there is also "guillotine T win" (p.140), the separation of units that conventionally work together. A recognition that Andrews attributes (in "Be Careful Now") to his latest writing already informs this poem:  


it becomes harder to find the totally other in duet form–since all points of comparison have already become socially engineered, since any 'I' has less & less control over 'what I myself am not' (which would be the ideal pedagogical space of the other). That space is enfolded in a social discourse & cannot be so easily located as an interpersonal or 'post-personal' 'treat.'

("Be Careful Now" 124)


The title alludes in part to one role of ideology: to lull us into a confident complacency, a belief that things are as they should be (or, more negatively, as they must be), to create a total picture of social forces that appears natural and inevitable and therefore beyond contest. So in "Confidence Trick" Andrews makes his unit of construction not the isloated word or phoneme but the statement. (The word "sentence," as following examples should reveal, hardly fits as a description of these units, although many could be called sentences). As elements of a larger social network, our statements are "organized by an apparatus or a machine of discourse, this policing system of something like power/knowledge. These might not be fixed structures—there's always struggle going on underneath—but it is a configuration of forces out there, an empowered configuration with some historical weight to it. . ." ("Total" 52). Andrews seeks an alternative arrangement, a method of cuts and grafts which creates the agitated totality he describes above: Now, Keats, Worsworth, and especially Coleridge, who is the main ideologue and cultural guru of Romantic theory, promulgate a series of aesthetic positions that Byron will come to just vomit on [laughter]. But they are the positions that will dominate the theory of poetry for 150, 175 years, more, even to our own day. It seems to me only in the theater of postmodernism are these ideas actually beginning to crumble. Up until the Vietnam War, it seems to me they held perfect and total sway. They do not hold sway anymore. (Jerome McGann, "Private Poetry, Public Deception," 141)

Intentionally leaderless — Recite this alphabet; body never ends, little bits of plastic come-on, recite catatonia chic — Up anyway I Say Yes rewriting the body systematic sex cult thing; contrite — Don t give a shit what you think; it s all we do — Not to mention everyone is a bigot, wheels so good; how s your ambient buddy system? — If I understand these words, then I find them disgraceful — Camera obscura don t give a damn about my bad reputation — Capture the street severe machine we talk does loud fast is he rambling? — What rules are innocent, enthusiate me; we died pts 1 & 2, soul not really coordinated like an orientation for me, curtsy kineme like dirt — They re not developing my image anymore, they re just operating it squeamish administrative relationships, this is not one of the regular correction tape tricks, fortunately, more American than I do; tendons as sugar, we can count

(Rope 142)

"Intentionally leaderless": the poem opens with a deliberate call for democracy (anarchy?), yet that call is followed by the command to "Recite this alphabet," which by this point in the book we recognize as a call for order and conventional organization into a system which writes us as we recite it. Nevertheless, "recite" could also be a command to re-cite, to resituate. Derrida: "Never will any citation have so aptly meant both 'setting in motion' (the frequentive form of 'to move'—ciere) and, also since it is a matter of shaking up a whole culture and history in its fundamental text, solicitation, i.e., the shakeup of a whole" (Dissemination 357). When we are then asked to "recite catatonia chic," this may be a command to resituate the mind-dulling (ideological) need to keep up with the latest fashions which fuel the engines of capitalism rather than a

command to take part in this dulling process. And the former is precisely what Andrews attempts in his poem. He hopes to "Capture the street severe machine" of daily discourse that we talk and to emphasize and speed it up ("loud fast") in order to make us approach it from an unusual perspective ("is he rambling?"). Diastrophism, social tectonics, rubbing one ideological configuration up against another. Derrida again: "It is a Tower of Babel in which multiple languages and forms of writing bump into each other or mingle with each other, constantly being transformed and engendered through their most unreconcilable otherness to each other, an otherness which is strongly affirmed, too, for plurality here is bottomless and is not lived as negativity, with any nostalgia for lost unity. It engages on the contrary both writing and song" (Dissemination 341). Andrews exposes the rifts and mistakes which cannot be glossed over with "the regular correction tape tricks." Through such a mode of attention we are empowered: "we [too] can count."


Andrews employs a key strategy in "Confidence Trick" which helps to map the totality in ways not so obvious in the book's earlier works: the guiding metaphor for this work shifts from a focus on form and structure to one of economy. Steve McCaffery has written about the issues involved in such as shift:



[The structural metaphor] tends to promote essence as relational, which has the clear advantage of avoiding all closed notions of the poem as "a well-wrought urn" but suffers from a presupposed stasis, a bracketed immobility among the parts under observation and specification. As an alternative to structure, economy is concerned with the distribution and circulation of the numerous forces and intensities that saturate a text. A textual economy would concern itself not with the order of forms and sites but with the order-disorder of circulations and distributions.

(North of Intention 201)


We need not pose the question, however, as a choice between discrete and exclusive categories. The stasis apparently inherent in the structural model may perhaps be due more to its particular uses and articulations rather than to its limits and possibilities. My choice of the figure of the diastrophe, for instance, grows out of a recognition that structures are never static or stable; they are constellations of points of pressures, dislocations, fusions, retractions, and so on, much as the rifts of the San Andreas fault are signatures of a much larger set of geological processes which continually restructure the face of the earth. All maps are provisional simply because all structures are in motion. Structures are economies, already. What we have is a structure of differences, a chain of metonymic displacements. Such is the nature of Andrews's "Confidence Trick" and later writings as yet to be collected in book form. Derrida: "Every term, every germ depends at every moment on its place and is entrained, like all the parts of a machine, into an ordered series of displacements, slips, transformations, and recurrences that cut out or add a member in every proposition that has gone before" (Dissemination 300).

Which brings us back to Andrews's conceptualization of the text and society as made up of three concentric circles. A possible danger of discussing the social order as three different levels is that the inner levels are each dependent on the third as the ground of their possibility; they are sutured and potentially essentialized into the very static enclosures to which many critiques of structuralism rightly object. The concept of a social horizon and the resulting strategies of mapping the totality run the same risk of enclosing the multiple trajectories of the social text by attempting to intuit the meaning of these "polysemous" texts. "Polysemy," Derrida writes, "always puts out its multiplicities and variations within the horizon, at least, of some integral reading which contains no absolute rift, no senseless deviation—the horizon of the final parousia of a meaning at last deciphered, revealed, made present in the rich collection of its determinations.

Riviere has pointed to the subterranean shocks by which Baudelaire's poetry is shaken; it is as though they caused words to collapse. (Walter Benjamin, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," 164)

If hegemony is a type of political relation and not a topographical concept, it is clear that it cannot either be conceived as an irraditation of effects from a privileged point. In this sense , we could say that hegemony is basically metonymical: its effects always emerge from a surplus of meaning which results from an operation of displacement. (Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 141)

Three concentric horizons must evolve around one central point or they would not be concentric. But this notion of the center is the ideological effect par excellance. The conception of an operation of metonymic displacement (Language poetry) rejects the notions of center and closure that a concentric horizon model implies: the moment of totality ceases to be a horizon and becomes a foundation. (Laclau & Mouffe 141).


. . . All the moments of polysemy are, as the word implies, moments of meaning" (Dissemination 350). It seems more appropriate, therefore, to talk about a "horizon"-value (which reminds us that it is simply an ideological effect) than of a horizon. For "that 'horizon'-value, that pure infinite opening for the presentation of the present and the experience of meaning, suddenly becomes framed. Suddenly it is a part. And just as suddenly apart. Thrown back into play. And into question. Its deformations are no longer even negatively regulated by any form, which is just another name for presence" (Dissemination 351).

But Andrews is aware of these dangers. "Writing's method, in other words, can suggest a social undecidability, a lack of successful suture" ("Poetry" 31). It is precisely because a social order is not a single homogeneous entity that it requires ideologies to function as a sewing machine, tying up all the loose ends which refuse to fit easily into the dominant paradigm. Give Em Enough Rope works toward an unravelling of the stitches by "testing the horizon, setting up a probe, by violating codes so that each unit keeps getting reframed—or keeps reframing what's gone before it and what might come next as you challenge these wider and wider concentric circles of normalization, or of a functional fit, almost a machine-like fit that existswithin the social dimension of language" ("Total" 58). It seeks those repressed dialogues and trajectories which a given ideology seeks to repress through what Fredric Jameson refers to as strategies of containment.

Discursive discontinuity becomes primary and constitutive. The discourse of radical democracy is no longer the discourse of the universal; the epistemological niche from which 'universal' classes and subjects spoke has been eradicated, and it has been replaced by a polyphony of voices, each of which constructs its own irreducible discursive identity. This point is decisive: there is no radical and plural democracy without renouncing the discourse of the universal and its implicit assumption of a privileged point of access to 'the truth', which can be reached by only a limited number of subjects. In political terms this means that just as there are no surfaces [such as class] which are a priori for the emergence of antagonisms, nor are there discursive regions [such as poetry] which the programme of a radical democracy should exclude a priori as possible spheres of struggle. (Laclau & Mouffe 191-2)
Give Em Enough Rope is a profoundly Utopian text. Andrews's negative project of exposing, dismantling, rerouting, disclosing, disseminating, and deconstructing ideological texts points toward the positive project suggested by Jameson of deciphering "the Utopian impulses of these same ideological texts" (The Political Unconscious 296). The social text can be read differently: "By imaging a different sense, you're beginning to imagine a change also in what's possible in the practical transactions between social individuals—even to the point of implicating a different kind of subject: a new subject that could begin to coalesce, or that begins to coalesce around this desire to signify more widely—and fittingly—in light of 'what is, indeed, happening'" ("Total" 59). What is at stake is possibility itself, "to negate the given and to do so in a way that points toward some other anticipated future" ("Total" 58). Don't get me wrong: I know it's almost a joke to speak of poetry and national affairs. Yet in The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes that since our conventions are provisional, the public may choose to reconvene in order to withdraw authority from those conventions which no longer serve our purposes. & poetry is one of the few areas where this right of reconvening is exercized. (Charles Bernstein, "Comedy and the Poetics of Political Form," 240-1)



1 Jacques Derrida, "ME-PSYCHOANALYSIS: An Introduction to the Translation of 'The Shell and the Kernel' by Nicholas Abraham," Diacritics (March 1979), p.4.

2. In addition to the works cited, see also the following critical responses to Language writing: Lee Bartlett, "What Is 'Language Poetry,'" Critical Inquiry 12 (1986): 741-52; Don Byrd, "Language Poetry, 1971-1986'" Sulfur 19 (1987): 149-57; Hank Lazer, "Radical Collages," The Nation 247, 1 (July 2/9, 1988): 24-6; David Lloyd, "Limits of a Language of Desire," Poetics Journal 5 (May 1985): 159-67; Marjorie Perloff, "The Word as Such: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry in the Eighties," American Poetry Review 13 (1984): 15-22 (reprinted in The Dance of the Intellect [Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1985]); Joan Retallack, "The MetaPhysick of Play: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E U.S.A.," Parnassus 12,1 (1984): 213-44; De Villo Sloan, "'Crude Mechanical Access' or 'Crude Personism': A Chronicle of One San Francisco Bay Area Poetry War," Sagetrieb 4,2&3 (1986): 241-54; Michael Greer's "Ideology and Theory in Recent Experimental Writing, or, The Naming of 'Language Poetry.'" (see works cited) offers a stimulating survey of early critical attempts at identifying the appropriate(able?) tendencies of Language writing, as does Ron Silliman et al., in "Aesthetic Tendency And the Politics of Poetry" (see works cited).



Bruce Andrews. "Be Careful Now You Know Sugar Melts In Water." Temblor 6 (1987): 122-25.

---. Give Em Enough Rope. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1987.

---. "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis." In The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990.

---. "Total Equals What: Poetics and Practice." Poetics Journal 6 (1986): 48-61.

Walter Benjamin. "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire." Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schoken, 1969.

Charles Bernstein. "Comedy and the Poetics of Political Form." In The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990.

Jacques Derrida. Dissemination. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1977.

The Editors. "On Language Poetry." Rethinking Marxism 1,4 (Winter 1988): 69-76.

Michel Foucault. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1977.

John Frow. Marxism and Literary History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1986.

Michael Greer. "Ideology and Theory in Recent Experimental Writing, or, The Naming of 'Language Poetry.'" Boundary 2 :335-55.

George Hartley. Textual Politics and the Language Poets. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1989.

Susan Howe. "Encloser." In The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990.

Fredric Jameson. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic. London: Verso, 1990.

---. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso, 1985.

Karl Marx. Capital. Volume One.New York: International Publishers, 1967.

Steve McCaffery. "Appropriation As My Beatrice: Insufficiencies of Theory to Poetical Economies." MS.

---. North of Intention. New York: Roof/Nightwood, 1986.

Jerome McGann. "Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes." Critical Inquiry 13 (Spring 1987): 624-47.

---. "Private Poetry, Public Deception." In The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990.

Rainer Nägele. "Modernism and Postmodernism: The Margins of Articulation." STCL 5,1 (Fall 1980): 5-25.

Reader's Report. Letter to George Hartley from the editors of PMLA, October 27, 1989.

Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, "Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry," Social Text 7, 1&2 (Fall 1988): 261-75.

Barrett Watten. Total Syntax. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985.


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