What Outside?
Susan Wheeler

Panel, "Assembling Alternatives"
Sunday, September 1, 1996
other panelists: Lynn Keller, Nancy Gish, Lee Ann Brown

(With apologies to Alan Davies, I'd like to shout this out to the dead horse.) When I was in graduate school in art history, a big portion of our training was devoted to identification: artist, date, title, next slide: "art in the dark." What you have here are fragments of poems in the dark: blasphemy.

Even Derrida's trying to keep up with the Joneses. In his 1991 L'autre cap, (The Other Heading, or Title -- here translated as The Other Shore) on the heels of the Soviet's slip and the Wall's whipping, he uses axioms, albeit noting that the use of axioms is transgressive, the use of transgressive hopelessly tired. He asserts that both Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism are thankfully exhausted as notions, he posits a plane in which "duty" can be conceived and spoken of, and he calls for defining identity neither with, nor against, a self's or an other's codified ideas. Rather, he advocates an opening-up of fixed identity with the recognition that this attempt at opening up, or de-fixing, identity is necessarily flawed. In other words, in my translation of his words, "what if Europe were this: the opening onto a history for which the changing of a title, the relation to the other title or to the other of the title, is experienced as always possible?"

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Colony and culture from the same Latin root. My tenth-grade teacher Connie Lorman's assignment to write a paper on the Cocteau film line, "To break statues you must become one." The Auden rebuke to Spender when Spender, flitting through the issue of a new journal, came across a poem it pained him to envy, "Yay! More to raid!" Prynne's "It is/ a firm question, of election,/ the elect angels. Signs or array,/ we should take this, we should/ really do so. There is no other/ beginning on power."

We should take this. By insisting instead that power is defined by the borders we assert, we lose the mix. Ann Lauterbach and Alice Notley published by Vintage, Joan Retallack by Wesleyan: the problem is not what happens with assimilation, a trope that still depends upon opposition, it is rather how do we acknowledge and yet ignore, move through, not so much to accrue the goods (as the elect angels) but to develop the work. As Bob Perelman noted in his discussion of Bruce Andrews' parody of the Angelou inaugural poem, "the consistent dismissal of identity does not alter the fact that Andrews is writing in a world that is at least as striated and segmented as Angelou's."

Why not see the statue as mutable instead of breakable, borrowing from it, gouging it in order to build something that contains it or preserves it as irrelevant, as a blind spot on the plaza?

Can a body of work define itself outside of the meager arena of "mainstream" and still partake? What is the result of the action of inserting more interesting work into less interesting work, or vice versa? How does the culture alter? How does the work shift?

The inevitability of The Other (or this verb "to other"!) aside, for a moment, think of Nietzsche's dictum concerning the ruling class, which can play, free of resentment simply because it does not define itself against any above it. There is nothing further up the ladder to define. By absenting, is the omission one of self-definition against? Is a blindness to borders the essence of colonialism, a WASPy notion of classlessness? Is it then propre to stay within one's own? To leave The Other alone and not meddle? Is the product essentially so different -- self-interrogatory vs. self-satisfied, disruptive vs. assimilable -- that the question can't even pertain? One the widget and one the X? How does the culture alter by interbreeding?

My other tenth-grade teacher Ephraim Gerber asked us what was the difference between spitting in glasses of water and drinking them, and mingling the water with saliva in our mouths when we drank out of a plain glass of water. The Outside problem. What Outside?

Was it needed to state the obvious, to wait for de Man? Door to door cloth salesmen two hundred years ago knew that the way to create identity for their bolts was to define them against the competition's, the Other's. And so From the Other Side of the Century is a selling, a marketing achievement; Poems for the Millenium identifies in order to sell. It is an attempt to achieve an economic parity, to accrue the goods for Our Team because we've counted off an Our Team, even while one of these anthologies asserts that many of the producers "resist categorization." Can't fault balance-righting.

Now, consider the result of the action of this codification, this self-definition against an Other. Less to raid. Less to read. A snugger rug. New-found affinities. And a border to protect. An economy to support. A kind of nationalism complete with colonizing outposts in the classroom.

Like the Other. More alarmingly, a codification of boundaries that turns what is "outside" into what cannot be admitted "inside." Spit in the water. How else define a social or political conservatism? Or, as Barrett Watten said some time back now in describing Oshima's film Night and Fog in Japan, "the form of the group itself cannot survive objectification."

Meanwhile, the boundaries assert an assumption that confluence between two arenas is closed. See here, we'll have our own party. I won't insert a major book here in the bidding for a major award there. You set up your Cabinet and we'll establish our own.

This, of course, does not go without the notice, and often the participation of, the producers themselves -- these efforts toward economic parity. And what effect does this have on the work? Once identified with national borders, if the work is involved in any kind of disruption, or self- or cultural critique, resistance must also be exerted against its own commodification. Or the statue breaker becomes one. As Michael Palmer has said, "when (a) theory becomes fetishized, a new preciosity emerges, a new kind of artifice, and that can be troublesome."

Let's back up a moment. Fashion will alter. Although this century's aesthetics has privileged the Salon des Refusés, the next will no doubt see a vogue for l'Acadamie. The clichés of the old bitter drunk and angered refusé will always find their testifiers. The individual producer -- whether in self-initiated collaborations or on her own -- will need to write. However, as Watten has noted, Charles Olson, in his discussion on putting the "establishment" out of business, asserted that "the radical of an action lies in finding out how organized things are genuine, are initial," and I would assert this cannot be accomplished with closed borders. It cannot be done while assuming avenues for the work are simply closed a priori. It requires an acting as if there was no assumption that either I or the other side had staked out territories, although it may be reasoned -- or, at least, paranoically sensed -- that both they and I have. This can be the only starting point for a radical work. It is not assimilationist, but rather selfish in the same sense as is faith. It serves me as does giving coins to those solicitors who are the most obnoxious: I could reason it stupid, but I choose not to, because it keeps the borders open.

Some years back now, Guattari and Deleuze's "On the Line" compared -- in a slaphappy combination of French romanticized agrarianism and radical refigurings -- methodologies, psychoanalytic treatments and even countries to the tree-root or to the rhizome, the potato-root. One of these loopy, dead-on arguments ran that as soon as the transparency indicating the route sought is affixed atop the map, the rest of the areas indicated by the map -- however valued they may be -- drop out, do not exist. If the psychoanalytic patient's own complex, self-devised survival mechanisms do not fall on the map of, say, Freudian transference, they are not seen, supported, valued. If we allow ourselves to codify our assumptions about what is inside and outside experimental work, we cannot expect our own work to remain radical.

I don't want to belabor two additional points, but I do want to posit them for further discussion, in terms of issues involved with "outside" and "inside."

The first is the futility -- Mallarmé to Hugo Ball to Stein to Coolidge -- of aiming for what remains "outside" some prime bugaboos, or what Bob Perelman termed last night "denigrated gestures and effects." As has been noted before, a refusal to locate a certainty of self at the center of a poem can leave a pretty hubristic ghost-absence, glaring in the acknowledgement of its own cagey accomplishment. Likewise, eradicating the representation of actual experience can bring on a pretty powerful whiff of nostalgia in the stall where the poet/poem/reader interact. And, besides, as Jakobsen said, what's sequent is simile. Here Auden's remark can apply, too; the work that interests me exploits the FX, uses reference, narrative, self as well as the FX of ambivalence about each, as well as myriad permutations which have not yet been named.

Secondly, in Emerge magazine a year back, there was a piece by Quinn Eli updating the Chess debate, excoriating a recent spate of white writers who have made a mint on black culture -- Richard Price and Clockers, for example, was one. This aspect of "the Other Title" -- a community debate with measurable economic results -- may be a more complicated one: is it only when the bucks get big that choosing to ignore aesthetic territorial divisions becomes appropriation? If there is no unmediated experience, does the group closest to having lived the mediated experience have ownership when there is much at stake? I couldn't bring up this utopian advocacy without also wielding its wrench.

And without also bringing up race: for us Americans, our paradigm "Outside."

In Jerome McGann's Anne Mack's words, "Sometimes I think we have more life than we realize -- or at least that we might have more." Or Prynne's, again: "we are the exotics, with our credit-card view of the speech act."

And I'll let the last word be Stein's: "It was all so nearly alike it must be different and it is different, it is natural that if everything is used and there is a continuous present and a beginning again and again if it is all so alike it must be simply different and everything simply different was the natural way of creating it then."