Context Needs a Contest:


By George Hartley


[This essay originally appeared in Rethinking Marxism 5:4 (Winter 1992): 89-113]


Instead, to make as visible as possible the limits & norms & operations of the machinery. To show the possibilities of sense & meaning being constructed; to foreground the limits of the possible—& our possible lives; to create impossibility. —Bruce Andrews

Transgression carries the limit right to the limit of its being; transgression forces the limit to face the fact of its imminent disappearance, to find itself in what it excludes (perhaps, to be more exact, to recognize itself for the first time), to experience its positive truth in its downward fall. —Michel Foucault



While discussion of the problems of writing an introduction to a work might seem to have been exhausted in the various Derridean, almost auto-erotic gestures of self-reflexivity ("I am introducing here—me—(into) a translation."1), the problem nevertheless remains. I was asked to provide a more general context for my discussion of Andrews's politicizing of a certain poetic economy which would ground my readers, provide a wider frame (more explicitly political, the connections between the political and the poetic being made clearer, more obvious) for the discussion that follows. How, I was asked, does Andrews fit into the context of contemporary American poetry, into the context of Language poetry, into the context of Marxist theory in general? What are the critics saying about him? I want to respond to those questions, but perhaps differently than was expected. Since the guiding theme (if not thesis) of the Andrews piece was the problem of context itself, I am understandably reluctant to provide a clear and seemingly unproblematic context here. I have done so elsewhere, in my booklength response to such a question—Textual Politics and the Language Poets. And others have done so elsewhere,2 not the least of whom were the editors of Rethinking Marxism in their introduction to Charles Bernstein (Winter 1988). That particular context exists in some place other than here.

I hope to approach that problem here, however, in the form of a marginal column running the length of the original text. My intent is to further complicate the issue, not out of some willful perversity—although it is that, especially in the sense of a turning away from what is right and necessary, in its relation to "converse" and "reverse" (this is a question about the economy of verse, after all)—but to provide at the level of critical commentary itself the same problems and questions and transgressions that work through the tropic circulations and distributions of Andrews's text. For the critical text itself is not above the difficulties of language and ideology that many language poets seek to press into service and to interrogate. I am interested in quite a different critical Darstellung than we normally see. What follows, then, in the margins of this discourse, is a putting into dialog—a dialogization, if you will—of various texts concerning the issues raised in the original text. Since I also question the relationship between citation and commentary, I will sometimes let the citations speak for themselves—as if that were possible—without the usual appropriating and regulating frame of my own critical discourse. That is not to say, however, that my own method does not appropriate or regulate—simply that I wish to raise to consciousness those moves common to all critical writing. Steve McCaffery has put the problem thus: "Theory's mandate to critical annexation has an inaugural Socratic endorsement. In the Apology Socrates argues that poets are the worst interpreters of their own work. . . . With the Apology control of meaning enters wholly the readerly-critical sphere. The binding status of the poem is now that of its material inertia and the depreciation of the poet to a non-rational silence" ("Appropriation as My Beatrice," 3-4). It is in this context that I wish to deliver the following dialog.




Give Em Enough Rope: working at the limit of discourse, sabotaging the machinery of ideological closure, this writing turns in on itself, sacrifices itself, in order to establish a space of possibility beyond itself. "Ecstatic," Andrews tells us, "in the root sense: to find yourself standing outside yourself." ("Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis" 25; hereafter "Poetry"). We are written, entrained in the structures of hegemonic discourse, roped in (as Andrews's title suggests) by the language of the oppressors. But we can use that rope, it seems, if not to escape from the prison towers (for we can never be fully outside) then at the least to measure its halls, its walls, to redirect ourselves through its passageways, to cross and recross in labyrinthine circuits which turn the towers in on themselves. To appropriate the machinery of discourse in order to put it to other as yet forbidden or unimagined uses.


If we are asking questions about limits and containment, about the economy of placements and displacements within and between textual strata, and of what the political implications of this economy might be (depending on how, exactly, those questions are raised or positioned or sublated), one way of posing those questions is to interrogate the role of margins and narrative-theoretical enclosures of standard critical strategies, to enlist a discourse beside the "main" one, a posteriori.

But the goals of this work are far from immediately obvious. What does Andrews expect from the following?


Equation Sphinxlike Pmphlet

Misinform Sweet Business Miss Dot Your Eye Favorably

Impressive Rough Interest

Sensational Base Natural Problematize Hey Look

Dominate Ruler Passion

Added Passing Sharp Policy Moving Loco Fancy Line Vibration

Talking Cognitive I'm When Touched


(Give Em Enough Rope 115; hereafter Rope)




Many of Andrews's common techniques appear here—such as unconventional capitalization of letters, references to that which eludes our common knowledge ("sphinxlike"), omission of letters ("pmphlet"), references to domination and oppression, puns ("Dot Your Eye"; homophonic twists), reflexive content ("Loco Fancy Line Vibration" as a description of the poetic line), visual contrasts such as italics, and the giddy flow of unrelated words in the line which create their own relationships through sound and rhythm. All of this marshalled as a conscious political praxis, a breakdown of our common expectations and the possibility of the new.

This praxis begins with the premise that language is a constructed medium, social through and through, and that our unreflexive use of it condemns us to reconstruct the very powers and structures which seek to fence us in. Meaning is not out there in the world waiting to be incorporated into the word; it is produced through the socially determined networks of language and, hence, of power, hegemony, control. Andrews: "So there's this process by which the sign—the material body of the sign—is transformed into meaning. It's allowed to make sense—or not—and this process is socially organized, or coded, at the level of discourse. This is a social government of meaning and value that's built up on top of the structure of the sign. And it enables units in a text to function both as signs and also as pieces of this social body, as materializations of social value ("Total Equals What" 51; hereafter "Total"). The word's material body is made up of its sound and inflection in speech and its graphic elements such as letters and diacritical marks in writing. The particular meaning attached to these sounds and letter combinations, their transformation into phonemes and graphemes, is the result of a social process. Similarly, our experiences become meaningful only within a social context, framed and thereby limited by ideology. Social events are defined (written) for us according to the interests of the hegemonic class.

For what is at stake is the positioning of Andrews's metadiscourse within a certain field of Marxist questions regarding the relationships between language and ideology, language as ideology, the languages of ideology. To begin:

Marxist theory is inescapably involved in making political judgments about discourse, on the basis of categories which are necessarily provisional and are themselves positionally constituted. This political force of the concept must be retained. But if ideology is not to be ontologized, it should be regarded as a state of discourse or of semiotic systems in relation to the class struggle. Rather than being thought through an opposition to theory (a space external to the determinations of ideological production), it would be thought as a differential relation to power. Given that all discourse is informed by power, is constituted as discourse in relation to unequal patterns of power, then political judgments can be made in terms of particular historically specific appropriations of discourse by dominant social forces. (John Frow, Marxism and Literary History, 61)

A poetry which takes its given language for granted consequently circulates within the framework of the dominant ideology, whose powers remain intact because hidden from consciousness. We do not challenge limits if we do not recognize them. According to Andrews, "conventionally progressive literature fails to self-examine writing & its medium, language" ("Poetry" 23). But Andrews desires a poetry in which the "act of enunciating becomes part of the content—in a way that makes the social method become visible (and not just to illuminate the products that can be carried through that method)" ("Total" 57). The key, then, is to reshuffle the elements of the language in order to reveal its structure (which we now become aware of because of its conspicuous condition of violation). The attempt to move outside a particular context makes that context visible and therefore open to conscious change. Writing such as Andrews's operates as Michel Foucault describes here: "It indicates the moment when language, arriving at its confines, overleaps itself, explodes and radically challenges itself in laughter, tears, the overturned eyes of ecstasy, the mute and exorbitated horror of sacrifice, and where it remains fixed in this way at the limit of its void, speaking of itself in a second language in which the absence of a sovereign subject outlines its essential emptiness and incessantly fractures the unity of its discourse" (Language, Counter-Memory, Practice 48). But the powers that be will resist that wrenching out of context. Jacques Derrida: "To try to resist the removal of a textual member from its context is to want to remain protected against this writing poison. It is to want at all costs to maintain the boundary line between the inside and the outside of a context. It is to recognize the legitimacy of the relative specificity of each text, but it is also to believe that any system of writing exists in itself, as the relation of an inside to itself, particularly when it is 'true.' This amounts above all to an imposition of fundamentally classical limits upon generalized textuality. It is a kind of discontinuity prompted by resistance and protectionism" (Dissemination 316). What I want, then, is a visual analogue to this power/discourse economy, a proliferation of marginal texts working towards polyphany (visual rather than aural orchestration) or the polygrammatic, a textual dialog which writes itself across the borders without the usual borderguards of citation.


Pseudo-totality: the illusion of the total system is aroused and encouraged by the sytematic links and cross-references established between a range of concepts, while the baleful spell of the totality itself is abruptly exorcized by the realization that the order of presentation is non-binding, that it might have been arranged in an utterly different fashion, so that, as in a divinatory cast, all the elements are present but the form of their juxtapositions, the shape of their falling out, is merely occasional. (Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism, 50)

According to Andrews, society and language can be seen as sharing the same structure of three concentric circles representing three different levels of specificity. We can breakdown our analysis of society into, first, a surface level on which the social order appears as "a kind of decentered constellation of different practices, of differences, of pluralism, a micro-politics of fragments on this inner circle" ("Total" 48-49). The second level can be represented as the organization of those multiple points in the first circle into a "dominant hegemony and a variety of counter-hegemonies trying to challenge that hegemony, organized into specific functions, specific struggles, and specific blindnesses within society." Finally, we can identify a third level which functions as a "totality, an overall horizon of restriction and constitution, a limit, a set of organizing principles within the social order." The parallel levels of language can be seen as, first, the surface production of meaning (signification). Second is "the structure of discourses: the way in which those differences get organized into a polyphony—of different voices, different literary traditions—" and put into motion. And third is ideology. "The polyphony inside, or the proliferation of signs and discourse are embedded in, limited in certain ways by, or collusive with, or inscribed in different ways by: this set of limits, this set of ideologies, this overall body of sense that makes language into an archive of social effects" ("Total" 49). The third levels of both circles—the totality on the one hand and ideology on the other—are seen as coterminous, for it is through ideology that the totality writes itself, demarcates itself, impresses itself onto the social body. I tried writing a first version of this piece in the usual disinterested academic style. I gave up after a few pages and after some thought decided to disclose a little of the undisclosed margins of that first essay. This decision was based on a certain program at least implicit in all feminist activity: the deconstruction and opposition between the private and the public. (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds, 103)
Andrews is offering us an expansion of scale, an attention to wider ranges of the social topography than we are normally permitted to view or contemplate. The focus is now on the mechanisms of meaning-production which become visible when the limits and methods of conventional discourse are transgressed, manipulated, reappropriated, and solicited (in Derrida's sense in which solicitation involves the shaking of the totality, the marking of rifts and fissures which ideology attempts to gloss over in order to present the totality as complete unto itself, as natural and therefore beyond questioning) in an attempt to allow repressed discourses to come into play. Such a project "looks like one of articulating this content of contested social themes, of a social horizon—in order to better guide our choices and frame the experiences that we're operating with" ("Total" 54). "It involves testing the horizon, setting up a probe, by violating codes so that each unit keeps getting reframed—or keeps reframing what's going before it and what might come next as you challenge these wider and wider concentric circles of normalization" ("Total" 58). Key terms: horizon, frames, codes. And though it [Language poetry] does not talk directly of a "politics of poetry," the politics of such writing—the theory and the practice of it alike—are plain for anyone to see. (Jerome McGann, "Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes", 632). But what is this supposed to mean? Why does McGann revert to a visual model of legitimacy here? Isn't the crucial thematic of Capital precisely that of the phantasm or of social hieroglyphics that have to be read? Isn't this immediacy of the visible also precisely the ideological effect most Language writers hope to complicate? If this politics is so clear, why must McGann assert that fact here?



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