“Writing (as) (and) thinking”:
was first published in Études
Anglaises LIX 3 (July-September 2006) 341-355. Used with
the permission of the author and publisher. © Hélène
In the opening sentences of his article entitled “Thought’s Measure,” Charles Bernstein makes a distinction between conventional modes of thinking about the circulation of meaning as through language, and its reformulation in terms of “think[ing] and writ[ing] in language” (Content’s Dream 61). If language is a medium, according to Bernstein, it is not the medium of our hermeneutic attempts, the medium through which we convey meanings about the world and our experience. Rather and more radically, it could be the medium through which “we experience the world” (Content’s Dream 61), thus an epistemological tool–or an impediment. Such reflection on the very functioning of language is not entirely new to the domain of poetry and poetics, although it seems to become more and more central as the Modernist experience unfolds and as poets, once free of the constraints of metrics, focus on the materiality of language. The shift from the commitment to the spoken, which was at the origins of the questioning of metrics, to a commitment to the quiddity of words, beyond or beside their visual dimension, is at stake in the so-called linguistic turn.
With Gertrude Stein, Charles Bernstein (although he is not the only one in this) calls attention to the combinatory nature of language and to the potentialities of deviant combinations to increase the awareness of the conventional in conventions, of the limitations enforced by the criteria of legibility and intelligibility. With Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bernstein integrates the idea that thought advances in language and that the borders of the conceivable coincide with the frontiers of the sayable.
This, however, does not preclude the persistence, and resistance, of an unsayable (also inconceivable), but it opens the door to experiments in language that would push back the limits of the sayable, thanks to an expansion, and transgression, of the syntactically acceptable. Thus the poetic mode of the (Steinian) enigmatic proposition comes to meet the (Wittgensteinian) philosophical mode of the aphorism, on the common ground of a (Bernsteinian) reflexive poem. Consequently, “littérature et philosophies mêlées,” the subtitle of the 1975 issue of Poétique, might need qualifying: mixing or blending literature and philosophy together implies an original heterogeneity, with its subsequent possibilities for “hybridization” (Starobinski Poétique 8), for “inclusion” (notably the inclusion of literature into philosophy–Lacoue-Labarthe Poétique 81: “la fiction et la figure appartiennent à la philosophie et lui ont toujours appartenu”), for a “dialogue” between different “genres” (Lacoue-Labarthe et Nancy Poétique 148). What if one came to consider that, since they both work “in” language, literature and philosophy are not generically distinct, that their differentiation stems from differing modes of reading, that both evidence pragmatic attempts or experiments to push back the limits of the sayable, taking chances with the reader and running the risk of the illegible, that being in language cannot be confined either to the aesthetic or to the ethic, but is a mode of inhabiting one and the same world–ours?
So to return briefly and allusively to Jacques Derrida’s distinction between différence and différance, one is tempted to appropriate the idea of a process of differentiation, at work in the separation between philosophy and poetry–and one is also tempted to question it. With Charles Bernstein, the difference between the two is to be abolished: there are not two languages, one which would be the language of philosophy and the other that would be the language of poetry, one voicing the disquisitions of the rational subject as the other leaves free rein to the divagations of the lyrical self. Such positioning stems directly from the teachings of Stanley Cavell whose classes Bernstein attended at Harvard, so that Bernstein’s reflections as he is “reading Cavell reading Wittgenstein” emerge as both a summary of these teachings and the formulation of their relevance to his own poetics. By focusing notably on The Claim of Reason, Bernstein situates his thinking in a context in which reason does not only have claims but also in which reason could be claimed... by poetry for instance. Repeatedly what is to be subverted is what I would call dichotomic thinking, and which Bernstein defines as “schismatic” thinking:
Significantly, the common ground between philosophy and literature, which, according to Bernstein, Cavell would occupy is a place to account for (not generate) “schisms,” that are the expression not so much of our “being” separated from our world as of our “feeling” separated from it. Such assessment of Cavell’s philosophical activity is of course not limited to Cavell, and has major consequences on the way we think of philosophy as related to literature: our method of thinking can be identified with a method of “splitting” or differentiating and it can be recognized equally as we produce what we hold to be philosophical discourse and as we produce literary (poetic, fictional) discourse. What Bernstein here calls for is to transcend generic splittings so that our activity in language can be recognized and evaluated. We are not dealing with the proliferation of codes that need finer and finer analyses and specifications, and their corollary aspirations to (impossible) unity and general communication. Rather, these paradoxically more and more specific generalizations prevent us from seeing and appreciating the “shared grammar” residing not in the plurality of languages but in the common use of language.
Bernstein’s reading of Cavell induces at the same time a reconsideration of philosophy neither as fiction and poetry (which would be just an inversion of Lacoue-Labarthe’s remark which triggered this reflection) nor, but it seems obvious now, as an annexation of literature as a privileged (or unprivileged, at that) object of philosophy.
While this implies different language practices, and an emphasis on the “how” rather than the “what” of both philosophy and poetry, which is not limited to a questioning of the “referential fallacy” of language (Perloff 162), it also opens up onto a redefinition of the objectives of philosophy and of poetry, as identical objectives. The differentiation between the two can be shown as the result of social and professional distinctions, that are emanations from “a tradition of thinking and writing, and a social matrix of publications, professional associations, audience” (Bernstein in Silliman  583). This line of reasoning leads to an inquiry into the “social meaning of specific modes of discourse” (Bernstein in Silliman  583) and to an incitation to the writer–and to the reader:
As the writer is to remove himself from the constraining frame of “normal” modes of writing, he is also to produce texts that will force the reader to distance himself from the conventional circumstances of reading, assuming that the form of one given discourse, “the order of [its]elements,” is “value constituting and indeed experience engendering, and therefore always at issue, never assumable” (Bernstein in Silliman  586).
As Bernstein follows on in a fairly well-known fashion by opposing the writing of Montaigne to that of Descartes (Bernstein in Silliman  587), the strong ties between a refusal to differentiate between the domains of philosophy and poetry and a particular form of political protest come to the fore. In his close analysis of Bernstein 1992 collection of texts (for it is difficult to classify them as poems or essays, as essays in the form of poems or as poems in the form of essays), Bob Perelman links the double choice of the collection’s title (a p o e t i c s) and of including “Artifice of Absorption” to Bernstein’s own definition and approach to poetry. And this definition is poetic, philosophical and political, as if these three terms which we distinguish out of necessity were in fact referring to one and the same thing.
As a “paradigmatic text [...] since it flaunts in its very composition the impossibility of separating the text from its theory” (Cazé 96), “Artifice of Absorption” underlines the fact that an “apoetics” is not an “anti-poetics” though. It is not simply the opposition to a poetics, given, conventional and to be stigmatized. Rather it is a pointer to a poetics that is not the absence of a poetics (a non-poetics, without rules or criteria) but to a poetics that remains aware of the possibility of that absence or lack, which constantly totters on the brink of dissolving itself into “apoetics” because it is taking into account the provisional dimension of its fixities. Thus if “Bernstein claims poetry as the prime theoretical instrument” (Perelman  80) and if the Bernsteinian text is essentially a “a hybrid text” (Cazé 96), this is just one moment of his poetry, one form, one “mode” to use a characteristically Bernsteinian term. The issue is indeed “to avoid self-definition or be convicted of the violence of generalization” (Perelman  85) but it is not merely to the expense of genre, as Perelman puts it:
Not poetry as the vehicle for theory, then, nor poetry as a mix of genres, nor poetry as the genre to put an end to generic distinctions, and yet Bernstein’s poetry does do all this. So the line breaks, for instance, are not “insignificant,” but as Perelman himself qualifies it, they “seem deliberately nonsignificant” (Perelman  89), which makes them all the more significant. Thus in this excerpt from “Artifice of Absorption”:
One could comment on every run-on-line as it sustains the argument unfolded in a dominantly expository sentence. The gap between “insistence” and the proposition that develops it corresponds to the pause which emphatically marks the moment of assertion and unveiling; the movement from the epithet “epistemological” to the noun “inquiry” is to be made over a gap that conventionally separates poetry not so much from the adventure of epistemology but from the systematicity of scientific investigation. Further down the variation, around the line break, between “restricted / epistemological economies” and “restricted / economies”, underlines the loss of the “epistemological” dimension, thus effecting a deeper undermining of these dominant economies, as well as providing the possibility for an extension of meaning that would be “unrestricted” to “epistemological economies.” As a matter of fact, the line breaks do not merely allow for the shaping of prose into poetry, in a formal cutting-up that might remind some of the worst attempts at free verse, but perform a pacing of discourse that breaks down the monolithic quality of argumentation and opens up the gaps necessary to reflection and interpretation. In this respect, Bernstein’s poem does not only attempt to fight on the battle field of theory while artificially keeping its poetic “disguise” (Perelman  89), but it becomes the very embodiment of a criticism of norm–and form.
And this is also where poetry and philosophy compete, carrying on a project of investigation through means and modes that are conventionally conceived of as different, but only when conforming with a convention which demands questioning:
As Bernstein borrows from Descartes the emphasis not on the results of investigation so much as on the method of investigating, he conceptualizes a trend latent in 20 th-century poetry which insists on the commitment to the process of creation rather than on its final object. However, in this specific case, the insistence on process leads to an exploration outside the boundaries of one mode, not taking another as its object but taking itself as its own object. This is what he comes to call a “constructive writing practice,” a term which Barrett Watten also uses in his characterization of contemporary, reflexive and political, experiments in poetry.
Polylogism, if one may use the term, implies for Bernstein the use of punning or the play on orthography, or the recourse to impersonation, constructing the poetic voice as a voice other than the poet’s but still sending us back wonderingly to the poet and the world we share with him. It is this poetic practice, in which the poet becomes a “technician of the human” (Bernstein “Stray Straws and Straw Men” in Andrews  40), which turns Bernstein’s poetics into a pragmatics, radicalizing the Objectivist notion of the poem as object:
In the aphorisms which make up “Stray Straws and Straw Men,” Charles Bernstein makes at least two important claims: a claim for “technical precision” (Bernstein “Stray Straws and Straw Men” in Andrews  40), and the claim to write “manifestation[s] of using a full-blown language” that are fully calculated and premeditated (Bernstein “Stray Straws and Straw Men” in Andrews  43). The underlying statement bridges the gap between the expository or rational and the poetic or lyrical. It implies a denial of the poetic claim to a natural, uncontrived, mode of self-expression, which has become the trademark of some poets of orality. Bernstein does not however lay a claim to radical impersonality in poetry, thus qualifying the High Modernist motto, but he reassesses the poem and its function, stressing intentionality.
Paraphrasing the famous words of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley over and over again (on another instance in “Artifice of Absorption,” see Cazé 95-96), Bernstein is not afraid of contradiction, since it is in contradiction that the very instability of thinking and of writing can be approached. How can one reconcile the following statements, which were published in the same ground-breaking volume edited by Ron Silliman, In the American Tree?
Perhaps they can be reconciled through the very notion of “conventions open to reconvening,” in the sense that all statements would remain open to restating, all writings open to rewriting, etc. This insistence on the exploratory nature of writing itself (writing as thinking) is not unique to Bernstein: it can be found in statements by Lyn Hejinian (“The language itself materializes thought; the writing realizes ideas. One discovers what one thinks, sees, says, and as the words unfold in the work, the work, directed by form, extends outward.”–Hejinian in Silliman  487). Similarly, Bernstein shares with Nick Piombino the idea that “poetry is a graphic form of unrighting the publicly codified colocation of a grapheme with symbolized ordinary writing and speech usage and the imaging function of the mind” (Piombino in Silliman  577).
The aim of poetic practice, then, is not to use “artifice” to erase the markers of self-expression, since writing remain a “trace of a self” (Bernstein in Silliman  593), nor is it just to “characterize the characterizations” at work in the writing (Bernstein in Perelman  20), in a typological investigation reminiscent of the categories of normative philosophy, but it is to “recreate” the conditions of the experience of reading and in so doing make it a palpable experience:
In this respect, Bernstein’s poetics is not against or outside tradition, and it does not have the ambition of earlier Modernist attempts to found a new tradition for a new poem. It is inscribed in language, in a tradition made present through the exhibition of its methods (not through the enforcement of one method made imperceptible through continuous conformity). Not so paradoxically then, the heterogeneity of Bernstein’s poetic modes is the direct consequence of a homogeneous effort to evidence the process of destabilization and to create the need for the reader to work at balancing the unbalanced in an exaggeration of the commonplace act of reading. When reading perforce becomes deciphering, in the case of unorthographic texts, or more simply in the case of expository discourse presented as lineated poetry, the very practice of reading is experienced as what it is: the hazardous piecing together of disrupted elements according to fragile and possibly inadequate preconceived structures.
The recourse to these structures is unavoidable, but the awareness of their shortcomings is not necessarily foregrounded. In Bernstein’s work, one thus finds several examples of these apparently “strong statements,” which under our own eyes “begin to destabilize like a radioisotope” (Bernstein in Perelman  28). It is the commentary Antoine Cazé makes of a similar passage in “Artifice of Absorption”:
“Not this. / What then?”(Silliman  16): the leitmotif of Ron Silliman’s long procedural poem Tjanting could be taken up as a description of the iterated impulse governing the production of interpretations of Bernstein’s texts. Interpretation is not to be checkmated in Bernstein though, but it is to be shown as plural, contradictory, multi-directional and eventually unstable. This is part and parcel of the poet’s fundamental intention:
The trajectory which Bernstein outlines from the limited plurality of interpretations (and his fantasized infinite movement of interpretation) to the use of humor, rather than irony, at the same time takes us back to the refusal of “monoplanar or dyadic movement” (Bernstein in Perelman  20), which was identified as a poetic and philosophical posture, and propels us toward an evaluation of his often comic (and consequently often denigrated) poetry. Contrary to common assumptions, Bernstein’s poetic body is varied and is not massively theoretical, in the sense of what was said here about “Artifice of Absorption.” In fact, “Artifice of Absorption” itself exhibits moments of comic relief–or is it more disturbing moments of comicity? Indeed where irony still functions within the frame of conventional readings, the comic in poetry, a comic that would not convey a stable anti-discourse underlying what is apparently stated but undermined, entails radical reconfigurations of reader expectation and reader response. As Bernstein argues his choice of humor over irony, one comes to understand his very practice of non-choice, non-mastery, and instability in language:
The comic does not work at undermining the seriousness of the conventionally poetic, and it does not aim at entertaining–although as a reader one might think it is an attractive side-effect... Nevertheless it is central to Bernstein’s poetry that the comic should not stop at that, that it should not stop at all, actually.
To take but one example, the poem entitled and beginning “Dear Mr. Fanelli” might first seem to be the lineated transcription of a customer’s letter to complain about the state of disrepair of New York’s 79th Street subway station:
As the poem unfolds, the reader could be more and more convinced that lineation is arbitrary and that the text is an actual letter to the picture posted in the station, a letter that evinces some superficial compassion for commuters and for the homeless who live in the station, minor preoccupation with the maintenance of the station and the running of trains, and a more disquieting, almost pathological need to establish personal communication with someone who might turn out to be something, the product of an adman (the commercial writer Bernstein used to be) to pacify the public. As the poem begins though, one can also construct a reflection on line breaks, in the same way as could be done for “Artifice of Absorption”: on the third line, “you said” lends a voice to the picture (or is it just the caption which is turned into speech, thus emphasizing the impact of the written as spoken?); on the fifth line, with “comments I,” and the I suspended at the end of the line, the poetic voice is visually isolated and foregrounded (yet its closeness to the term “comments” allied to the disrupting elision of the relative leads the reader to wonder about the I as commenting instance); “on the condition of the” precludes the expected “on the condition of man,” but it also rings very much like it, with a twist; at the end of our quotation, the separation between “Mr.” and “Fanelli” calls into question the politeness of the interjection (“mister” alone is condescending after all), as well as the social organization that constructs Mr.-Fanellis. After four pages of this, as the poem winds down, the offer of meeting over lunch or after work, ends the poem, very much unlike a letter with the following two-liner:
The abruptness and concision disrupts the apparently free flow of remarks that preceded, creates the comic effect the ridiculous offer first triggers, but it also somehow fails to ring that funny, and the injunction to think, about an “it” that could be other than just lunch or drinks, with the return of the splitting of the addressee’s name, sounds like a warning, maybe a threat. With Mr. Fanelli, then, we are “absorbed,” integrated, into a web of language that threatens to smother us and leave us speechless. What joy (or enjoyment) is there in this? Very little but for the relief provided by naming, locating, and the more general use of the commonplace, to instill a less commonplace and more disturbing doubt about human relations and the world we live in.
As one moves along to consider other texts, such as Legend, a text written, among other things, to destabilize the authorial figure by Andrews, Bernstein, DiPalma, McCaffery and Silliman, or Veil, a palimpsestic text of superimposed pages made hardly legible but kept decipherable so that reading becomes a painful exercise in peering and eye-crossing, one sees how Bernstein’s “apoetics” is indeed a pragmatics: Legend “stages the undoing of its utopia even as it is being constructed” (Watten 79), whereas “the poems in Veil are surprising less for their illegibility than for their ultimate intelligibility” (Dworkin 53).
All of them signal writing and reading as modes of thinking, but also as modes of living, infinite as being persists and finite as the end of our efforts looms in the not so far distance. The trembling of the hand which Craig Dworkin alludes to is a trembling of a human being, just as the laughter Bernstein resorts to is a postponement of and a way to the ineffable and unbearable–“his” way.
(A)e(s)th(et)ics: an end and a beginning
Just as Charles Bernstein’s poems construct deviant experiences of language as part of our world experience, calling for variant and questioning readings, they inscribe themselves in a practice that is its own theory, a poetry that is philosophy, or at least that inhabits the same terrain as philosophy in its quests for alternative “models of truth and meaning not dependent for their power on the dominant structures” (Bernstein in Silliman  588):
Because of his commitment to a poetics that is a pragmatics, Bernstein comes to contradict the Deleuzian notion of “deterritorialization”, because “everything exists within material, historical situations, within contexts [and] there’s nothing wrong with territorializations or characterizations, if we understand them to be provisional contextualizations” (Bernstein in Perelman  17). By dismantling the conventions of syntax or by cutting up the prosaic into free-verse lines, Bernstein investigates rather than opposes the standards by which we write and think: poetry does it, but so does philosophy.
Since we think and write in language (and not through language), since language is not simply the means but the sole locus of our impressions and expressions, the very notion of medium, as a mode of conveyance, collapses, in such a way that language becomes a place for the subject to inhabit and whose limits or boundaries he is meant to test repeatedly. What does this tell us about our existence? Or at least about some conceptions of our existence?
As Charles Bernstein’s writing as thinking and thinking as writing move from his essays to the poems and to his recent opera libretto Shadowtime on the life and works of Walter Benjamin, there emerges a sort of “ideolect” to take up his own coinage (Bernstein "Poetics of the Americas"  113), which Barrett Watten discusses in The Constructivist Moment (177): not only can (or should or does) the poem think, but it is thinking, i.e. made of the same stuff as thought, it is thinking itself. But as Bernstein returns to Cavell reading Wittgenstein there appears a wondering that opens the poetic and the philosophical to the mystical:
Andrews, Bruce and Charles Bernstein, eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E
Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.