Genres are not to be mixed.
I will not mix genres.
I repeat: genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix them. (202)
--This is the beginning of "The Law of Genre," by Jacques Derrida.
Genres are not to be mixed. I will
not mix genres.
I repeat: genres are not to be mixed.
I will not mix them. (4)
--This is the beginning of Vice, by Carla Harryman.
"Genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix genres.
I repeat: genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix them."
This is the beginning of Vice by Carla Harryman. (6)
--This is the beginning of the second part of "Language Writing and Audience," a paper delivered at the Modern Language Association by Bob Perelman in 1988.
What else might I repeat to make my point about these three writings? We have been taught, repeatedly, to avoid repetition. "I merely said," Derrida says, "and then repeated: genres are not to be mixed; I will not mix them" (202). But neither Perelman nor Harryman repeats this. Perelman hasn't really begun at the beginning of Vice, I have left out his repetition of the lines that follow this citation in Vice, and Harryman has not, exactly, repeated Derrida.
Allow me to reiterate:
I have cited at length and shall continue to, so the reader is now forewarned. I shall do so, first of all, because it gives me pleasure that I would not like to miss, even though it may be deemed perverse: a certain practice of citation, and also of iteration . . . is at work, constantly altering at once and without delay . . . whatever it seems to reproduce. . . . Iteration alters, something new takes place. (Derrida, Limited 40)
It was, of course, Gertrude Stein who first and most massively instructed us in the pleasures of reiteration, but hers seems a largely untheorized practice, despite the many compositions on composition from her hand. Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the arts of reappropriation and re-citation, but in these contemporary instances our poets' works may often be read as interventions within the theorizing of poetics. As Lyn Hejinian has remarked:Where critics used to debate, as if it were a real thing, a difference between form and content, so now they would separate "theory" from "practice," and thus divide a poet from his or her own intentions and poetry from its motives. But in fact poetic language might be precisely a thinking about thinking, a form of introspection within the unarrested momentum of experience, that makes the polarization of theory and practice as irrelevant as that of form and content, mentality and physicality, art and reality.
What Carla Harryman has done in her Vice is to take Jacques Derrida at his word, a practice for which she has his prior permission, in his own hand, for he has told his readers in "Limited Inc a b c . . .," "you can take my word for it" (Limited 44). In taking his words she has come to represent what I take to be a somewhat altered view of citation, use, mention and allusion which is developing among a number of our more interesting contemporary poets, a view which differs from both the practices of classic allusion and the more visible practice of appropriation by artists such as Sherrie Levine; the new view is more akin to the practice of digital sampling techniques among contemporary recording artists, and shares with these techniques the questionable legal status of all newly transgressive strategies.
More traditional modes of allusion are still alive and well among the most avant-garde of American writers, as is evidenced by these lines from Ron Silliman's poem "Oz":
. . . a circus
for the faint world, hurry
up please it's time
the echoes of your own war
were heard in the poem. (108)
Most educated readers would immediately recognize this echo of one of America's best known twentieth century alluders, T. S. Eliot, and might mark the fact that Silliman here alludes to what may be Eliot's best known appropriation of vernacular speech. Most would also read in these lines a critique both of Eliot's poetics and of the particular repertoire of New Critical reading habits his texts further.
But for many of our newer poets, Silliman among them, this sort of critique of received reading practice couched in the allusive terms of that practice was not enough. Looking to the fluid origins of the "language movement," Bob Perelman recalls the transgressive sensibility many of these poets developed in terms which again challenge Eliotic terms of allusion:
Exchange between audience and writer was fluid and constant: anything heard or read could be rewritten; labels and fixed genres held little attraction. Writing was not a revered tradition, a set of monuments waiting to accommodate the next individual talent, it was a social practice. ("Language" 2, emphasis added)
Many of Perelman's own works exhibit this radical rewriting, and represent movement towards the technique of sampling seen in Harryman's Vice. Perelman's poem "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," from his volume Primer, is a severe redaction of Percy Shelley's poem of the same title. Following the title on Perelman's page we encounter the advisory phrase, "after Shelley," alerting us to the fact that like Pound's and Lowell's translations, this is a post-Romantic reduction of Shelley's stanzas, a loose translation for our contemporary use. The phrase, "after Shelley," like the titles of Sherrie Levine's works "After Monet" and "After Walker Evans," indicates to readers that the act of appropriation and alteration is in progress and invites comparison to the "original," a comparison which takes a critical turn when we read in Perelman's slenderized stanza:
I called the phonemes
A thousand names. Speechless
Thoughts answered each.
But I kept my vow, in dark bondage. (21)
Similarly, Ronald Johnson's long poem RADI OS, which might otherwise be read in intertextual innocence, bears along with its text an apparatus to remind us that this poem is in fact a perforated performance of Paradise Lost. The inside front cover of Johnson's work reproduces the first page of Milton's poem and demonstrates the procedures by which most of Milton's inscription was cancelled. A prefatory note by Johnson and an intriguing afterword by Guy Davenport again take up the relationships between the texts of Milton and Johnson, quite publicly problematizing the status of both authors. RADI OS carries with it on all pages the ghost of Milton's texts, not only in the dismembered remains of his words, but almost as importantly in the spectral spacings where the rest of Paradise Lost used to lodge.
But this type of apparatus is largely missing from Vice, and Carla Harryman, in subsuming the bibliographical context of her opening, makes it clear that she is not in fact citing, using, or mentioning Derrida. She is rather, as Rod Smith suggests in the surprised ending of his review of Vice, "Tak[ing] up the `suppose'" (126) offered by Derrida immediately after the lines Harryman has taken up for her work's opening gesture:
Now suppose I let these utterances resonate all by themselves.
Suppose: I abandon them to their fate, I set free their random virtualities and turn them over to my audience--or rather to your audience, to your auditory grasp, to whatever mobility they retain and you bestow upon them to engender effects of all kinds without my having to stand behind them. ("Law" 202)
Harryman does observe the laws of proper citation on page fifty-two of Vice when she correctly identifies the paragraph she quotes from Max Beckman's exhibition catalog for the Los Angeles County Museum; she follows this law on page fifty-two so that she can refer to her citation again on page fifty-five, where she writes: "What I am thinking about now is my attempt to abuse the Max Beckman catalog copy. The relationship it forms with my other writing is too obvious." When these passages are placed alongside the Derrida derivation, the abuse of allusion and citation becomes increasingly less obvious and more interesting.
It has long been a puzzle to me that critical discussions of intertextuality and allusion seldom cross paths with discussions of the death of the referent, or of the referent's near relative, the author. Harryman's text is a site where these discussions do meet, and where they cross the debate between Jacques Derrida and John Searle over the corpse of J. L. Austin's philosophical performance of the parasitical nature of fictive speech. On page fifty-two of Vice Harryman cites Beckman. On page fifty-five she refers to that citation, and any reader can easily check up on the health of that referent. Less easy to diagnose is the case of Derrida's sample as it works its way through these texts.
In Bob Perelman's essay "Language Writing and Audience," he clearly cites Harryman's Vice, and his argument refers back to that citation. And yet those readers who meet at the intersection of the published texts of Carla Harryman, the as yet uncollected speeches of Jacques Derrida, and the addresses at the Modern Language Association of Bob Perelman (a readership which my investigations indicate is composed of exactly seven people) will immediately perceive a number of transgressions which invite inquiry. As previously noted, Perelman, in quoting, alters Harryman's lineation of the passage in which she has altered the lineation of Derrida's "original." Further, despite what he says, Perelman is not strictly citing the "beginning" of Vice. The passage he cites is one of three or four opening gestures which precede a page headed "Part I." Page one of Vice consists of a short text, dedicated to Larry Ochs, which delivers a preliminary consideration of the status of audiences and authors. Page two, which is counted but not numbered, is a blank page which counts for something as it separates these openings. Page three contains a two line text and the title of Vice, and it is not till we reach the fourth page of the book that we read the Derridean text which Perelman's essay identifies as the "beginning of Vice." But perhaps he is right. Perhaps this is where the writing and reciting of Vice has its beginning.
Harryman could not have expected many to recognize the statement she has altered from Derrida's "The Law of Genre." It first appeared in English in this country in the journal Glyph in 1980, was subsequently reprinted in the same year as part of a collection of essays On Narrative edited by W. J. T. Mitchell, and has yet to appear in a volume of works by its author. The status of Derrida's text is further unsettled by the avowal of its translator, Avital Ronell, that this published text "was originally intended solely for oral delivery" (229) at the 1979 International Colloquium on Genre at the University of Strasbourg. What we encounter near the beginning of Vice, then, is an altered version of the opening lines of a translation originally intended only for oral delivery to an international, but small, audience of careful readers.
The orality of this professed intention is crucial here because it is at the nexus of Harryman's poetic intervention in the debate among Derrida, Searle, and the dead author J. L. Austin. The opening of Derrida's speech is a classic example of what Austin called performative utterance. Derrida cites the law of genre, promises to obey it, and then repeats or re-cites himself. Austin argues that performative utterances of the type "I will not mix genres" will be "` in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem . . .'" (qtd. in Derrida, Limited 16). Thus, according to Austin, Perelman's citation of such a promise in his MLA paper is a performative void. We do not take it as infelicitous when we discover that Perelman has broken the promise and does indeed mix genres, as we didn't take him to be really making such a promise in the first place; he is "merely" citing Harryman, who seems to be citing Derrida. But when Derrida repeats himself, is he making the promise again, is he citing himself, and thus voiding the promise, or is he indicating that the promise is an ironic remark not to be taken as a performative? When his promise is introduced into a poem by Carla Harryman without attribution, is she making the same promise, citing his promise, or, as John Searle might describe it, creating a parasitic discourse in which Derrida's promise is being used, not mentioned. But what use is it? We might well ask, as Derrida asks of a reprinted signature: "Why would anyone repeat this gesture and what would such repetition signify?" (Limited 20)
One thing it signifies is Harryman's participation in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets' continuing critique of poetic "voice" and the author function. Encountering a phrase we recognize, but which is not being cited properly and which might have difficulty functioning as an allusion in the traditional sense, we are tempted to ask who is speaking. Yet in Vice we read that "The author is discarded. . . . Nothing is gratuitous. I am to blame" (37). If I am to blame, though, who or what am "I"?
I am an indication of what occurs around me. For instance, some snakes occur in forests, whereas others occur at the zoo. This is something zoos will not confess, for when you read the labels, snakes occur someplace other than in their cages. (Harryman, Animal 108)
Elsewhere Harryman has said: "I have no identity. I have learned to fabricate an identity by imitating someone else" ("Middle" 144). In turn, this somewhat impersonal pronoun seems to be the same one that cites itself at the close of Derrida's "The Law of Genre":
There, that is the whole of it, it is only what "I," so they say, here kneeling at the edge of literature, can see. In sum, the law. The law summoning: what "I" can sight and what "I" can say that I sight in this site of a recitation where I/we is. (229)
Such ceaseless proliferation of the personal pronoun within the context of a discussion of appropriation and reiteration seemingly wreaks havoc with the Austinian conception of the voided performance. It is possible for two actors to recite marriage vows on a television show and really mean it, and for the state, that ultimate arbiter of recitation, to recognize the intentional status of their performative utterance by recognizing their marriage; we have seen this on several occasions since the marriage of Tiny Tim and Miss Vicky on the Tonight Show and the wonder is that actors aren't accidentally married even more often than they are. Such a marriage is no less an entertainment and fictive commodity for all the felicity of its discursive practice. Conversely, most of Derrida's auditors at the International Colloquium on Genre, given his reputation for irony, probably assumed as he made his promise not to mix genres that he didn't really mean it. These examples are evidence of what Derrida calls a general citationality or iterability which is the prerequisite for felicitous performatives. The possibility of infelicitous performance is seen by Derrida as the principle upon which our promising future is predicated. The peculiarity of the voiding of performative utterance outlined by Austin is the fact that such a repeatable void constitutes the possibility of promissory speech, and the promise of writing. In "Signature Event Context," Derrida proposes, indeed insists upon:
. . . the possibility of disengagement and citational graft which belongs to the structure of every mark, spoken or written, and which constitutes every mark in writing before and outside of every horizon of semio-linguistic communication; in writing, which is to say in the possibility of its functioning being cut off, at a certain point, from its "original" desire-to-say-what-one-means and from its participation in a saturable and constraining context. Every sign, linguistic or nonlinguistic, spoken or written (in the current sense of this opposition), in a small or large unit, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable. This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchorage. This citationality, this duplication or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is neither an accident nor an anomaly, it is that (normal/abnormal) without which a mark could not even have a function called "normal." What would a mark be that could not be cited? Or one whose origins would not get lost along the way? (Limited 12)
In the process of digital sampling discrete segments of sound are inscribed as data and stored for later retrieval. They may be played back at any pitch, given any conceivable timbre, duration, attack. As Bob Perelman felt in the early days of his community of writers, "anything heard or read could be rewritten" within a new context which somehow bore the traces of the old along with it. As Derrida describes the same moment of supplementarity and duplicity, "everything becomes possible against the language-police" (Limited 100). The reappearance of Derrida's ironic declaration of an intention to obey the genre police in Carla Harryman's words in Vice is like the sampled rhythm segment which is looped and altered to form the base line of improvisation in contemporary music. It is a sample which rests upon a voided page, which may be unrecognizable to its listeners, which may resist its own reiteration. Later in the book Harryman writes:
The discrete forms (the fragments, pieces of partially invented genres) of those things I write refer to their own various points of origin. A point of origin might be where many of the same kinds of fragments exit simultaneously. Origin is not synonymous with any specific representation. All that is written becomes involved with a process of production. In order to become parts of the work, the discrete parts must to some extent yield their autonomous identity. Sometimes they don't yield. (54)
The passage I have cited at some length bears a partial explanation of the curious status of the Derrida/Harryman text in what reads as a felicitous typo: "fragments exit simultaneously." The traces of the Derridean fragment exist in different states in the texts of Derrida, Harryman and Perelman, seemingly always seen in the act of disappearing through a side exit, a communicating passage which allows citational characters to appear on several stages at once. In the essay "Signature Event Context" Derrida describes how "even a provisional recourse to ordinary language and to the equivocations of natural language instructs us that one can, for instance, communicate a movement or that a tremor, a shock, a displacement of force can be communicated--that is propagated, transmitted. We also speak of different or remote places communicating with each other by means of a passage or opening" (Limited 1). Such a passage work describes the reiterable sampling evident in Harryman and other contemporary poets. It is, as Harryman has it in Animal Instincts, "A structure for writing that comes from anticipation relative to an elsewhere, which to become a somewhere--i.e. a writing--must borrow from the things of this world in their partiality" (110). That Harryman is partial to the pleasures afforded by such reembedded borrowing accounts in part for the sense we get in reading her texts that they are filled with exits as well as exit lines, that they provide innumerable communicating passages to other texts which exist simultaneously.
John Searle might have it that Harryman's Vice is a parasitic discourse upon a host, the body of Derrida's texts, which have for their part somewhat willfully performed a misprision of the intentions of J. L. Austin. But this might as easily be read as a case of willing contagion. In an unprotected sampling of Derridean data, Harryman's text has picked up a string, a virus, which is now resident within the corpus of her works. Perelman has contracted it from close contact. Like a computer virus, a sampled string of data which is, let us remember, a text, this textual virus replicates rapidly, and often beyond notice. In the realm of Carla Harryman's Vice, a world in which anything can be sampled and rewritten, a world in which everything becomes possible against the language-police, there is no safe passage; there is no such thing as safe texts.
Derrida, Jacques. "The Law of Genre." Trans. Avital Ronell. Glyph: Textual Studies 7 (1980): 202-229.
---. Limited Inc. Ed Gerald Graff. Trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988.
Harryman, Carla. Animal Instincts. San Francisco: This Press, 1989.
---. "The Middle." Writing / Talks. Ed. Bob Perelman. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1985. 135-56.
---. Vice. Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1989.
Hejinian, Lyn. "Jacket Copy for Leslie Scalapino's How Phenomena Appear to Unfold." Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1989.
Johnson, Ronald. RADI OS. Berkeley: Sand Dollar Press, 1977.
Mitchell, W. J. T., Ed. On Narrative. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.
Perelman, Bob. "Language Writing and Audience." paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. New Orleans, 1988.
---. Primer. San Francisco: This Press, 1981.
Silliman, Ron. "From Oz." Screens and Tasted Parallels 1 (1989):
Smith, Rod. Vice, by Carla Harryman and The Jealous Potter, by Claude Levi-Strauss." Paper Air 4.2 (1989): 124-26.
Aldon L. Nielsen
Professor, Department of English
San Jose State University
San Jose, CA 95192-0090