Saturday, November 22, 2008

"Find us with the lemurs..." ("Soft Surrealism" reconsidered)

[Mark Novak asked Joyelle and me to write something about cross-cultural poetics for the most recent issue of his fine journal Xcp. This is what we wrote. It got a little messed up in its transition to blog format but I hope you can read it all the same.]

Find Us With the Lemurs: Disability and the Språkgrotesk
By Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson

1. We admit a fatso poetry, lemur poetry, disabled poetry, språkgrotesk. A softness, malformation, which may be penetrated, distended by multiple languages from multiple directions, which is a process, which undermines hierarchies of wellness and illness, ability and disability, which is becoming, minor and non-exemplary.

2. Lennard Davis isolates the connection between normalized languages and normalized bodies in his essay, “Bodies of Difference: Politics, Disability, and Representation”: “Is it a coincidence, then, that normalcy and linguistic standardization begin at roughly the same time? [… F]or the formation of the modern nation-state, not simply language but also bodies and bodily practices had to be standardized, homogenized, normalized.”

3. Deleuze and Guattari propose an antidote to the standardization of language – a minor literature inside of the major language. They call on the writer to “be a stranger within one’s own language”, to “make use of the polylingualism within one’s own language” ; their primary example is Kafka. Such minoritization releases a large quotient of deterritorization and is an element in their anti-ontological notion of becoming-animal (or -insect, -woman, -infant). D + G’s concept of minor literature is now fairly well-trodden, but we would like to call attention to what is often missing in such discussions: the body.

4. It is Gregory Samsa’s body that becomes a cockroach; it is in his mouth that his words begin to vibrate strangely.

5. Leaving the body out of D + G’s model is already an attempt to suppress the threat of the minor—because to admit the theory into one’s own mouth invites one’s own deterritorialization. This is the kind of breakdown we are waiting for, which we invite. We are down with it we have come down with it. We’re embarassed.

6. Kom Leatherface, min älskade

7. Like Samsa and Leatherface, the grotesque body is a hybrid, a monster, both animal and human, threateningly both falling short of and exceeding its components. Language hybridizes with similarly mixed and monstrous results. In an essay on French poet Henri Michaux, Swedish scholar Per Bäckstrom coins the term “språkgrotesk” (language grotesque), a concept that brings Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of the grotesque (the body that is always “becoming”) to bear on language itself. Språkgrotesk speaks to the ways in which certain writers mutate and meld language as if it were a monstrous body.

8. As Andreas Huyssen points out in his study of avant-garde writings, After the Great Divide, the historical avant-garde rejected the High Modernist striation into high and low culture and enacted convulsive effects akin to Bakhtin’s grotesque. Unfortunately, contemporary American discussions of supposed avant-garde poetics have sterilized, hygienified and normalized the avant-garde into a self-righteous, well-bounded, militarized/masculinized political outfit that derives and maintains its hardness via a rigorous outsiderness and rejection of mass culture. This set of tropes has enabled, say, Ron Silliman’s denigration of other writers’ “soft surrealism,” insufficiently rigorous in its politics or endpoints. Such pronouncements cast the American ‘avant-garde’ as an alternative hierarchy rather than an alternative to hierarchy.

9. We think Ron’s got it wrong. The global epidemic of Surrealism derives not from its manifestos and pronouncements, the imperialist/ecumenical instincts of Breton, but because it has traveled with émigrés across borders and oceans, in a flux of disheveled genders, nationalities, and media, in the second-rate garments of sleep, dream, and game.

10. This is not to say that we reject manifestos (such as the one we are writing now). We merely reject replacing one regime with another. We want to recognize the minor, which never takes power, which never sets up a new regime. The Swedish poets Aase Berg and Matthias Forshage, then both members of Surrealistgruppen of Stockholm, called in 1996 for a “Surrealism on the outer edge of time: irrational, compromising, conspiratorial, confused, monotonous, bloodthirsty. Find it with the lemurs, on the bloodstained backstreets or in the parks that are still ugly.” This non-eschatological, non-linear avant-garde project does not identify with the macho hard-core Messiah who knocks out History and sets up His own shop. Here is no utopian endpoint but rather confusion, “zones where interesting things can happen,” where “lemurs” – cuddly but rabid – swarm.

11. This poetics of the teeming mass rather than the organized, well-framed subject is at work in Berg’s book Forsla fett (Transfer Fat), a poem about both translation and pregnancy.

Mamma val Mom choice

Amma val Nurse whale
Valyngelskal Whalebroodshell
Ge harmjölk, Give hare-milk
alla val är all whales are
samma val the same whale


This verse depends on a series of puns—and puns, with their potential to collapse orders of meanings, can only provide the kind of order that enacts its own collapse. The title pun works around ‘val’, which can mean ‘choice’ or ‘whale’, and as the word is repeated in various phrases neither one nor the other meaning becomes dominant. This lexical flux undoes the ability of word ‘choice’ to mean. If one cannot choose among meanings for this word, no choice is possible; all choices are the same whale. Elsewhere in the book the text melds multiple languages—English, horror movies, string theory—into its monstrous body:

Navelsträng Umbilical String

I mittencirkelhålet In the middlecirclehole
hårt suger harespåret hard sucks the hare track
i inåtcirkelvirveln in the inwardcircle whirl
av det spända of the strung

Klar kyla rusar kabel Clear cold rushes cable
Stum stämma rinner sträng Mute voice runs strung
Stram strämja rusar fett Strained struggle ruses fat
i malströmsåret in the malestromsore

Berg produced Transfer Fat in part by translating from English scientific articles on string theory, a subject of which she has no expertise. The deformed English terminology in turn denatures the integrity of the Swedish words, calling attention to their component syllables over their connotative or denotative meanings. To translate this work is not, in fact, to translate from Swedish into English but to invite new coalescences across one multilingual, mongrel swarm.

12. Bakhtin argued that poetry had a centripetal mission – to create the illusion of a central, true language, a hierarchical notion of culture. The prevalence of such a notion in US culture explains why Americans still think poetry is what is “lost in translation,” and why American poets are always turning their attention—enviously, critically, or admiringly—to anthologies and prizes which posit bestness, a bestness which itself ratifies a fantasy notion of poetry as a center of American culture, of American English, and a correlating fantasy of American culture and English as central to the world. Berg presents an antithesis: a poetry of lemurs, of swarms, as translation, as that which doesn’t exclude other languages but draws them into an unstable assemblage. Such an assemblage, though lowly, is dynamic, insidious rather than conquering. In the piece above, the strings (and other scientific language) of string theory are brought together with the pregnant body – making the science corporeal and the body – that supposed icon of the natural – de-essentalized. The result is a flux comparable to what D + G calls rhizome:

"The rhizome is altogether different, a map and not a tracing. Make a map, not a tracing. The orchid does not reproduce the tracing of the wasp; it forms a map with the wasp, in a rhizome. What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs, the maximum opening of bodies without organs onto a plane of consistency. It is itself a part of the rhizome. The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. "

13. The political tendency of fatso poetry, of lemur poetry, comes from its filiations with unwell bodies, with deficient bodies, with disabled bodies, with poor bodies. Like the lemurs, such poetry cannot compete. Its edges cannot be marked, and its figure cannot be judged. Translation works this way. Its excess belies a deficit (of mastery, of fluency, of equivalence) and exposes deficits currently masked within a table of hierarchies. It uncouples priorities and lays bare lacks and needs. In the face of its unnerving debasement, material is unworked from frames and rushes to fill low pits and orifices. Strange mutants congeal at pit-level. This may be going nowhere. It goes on.


Footnotes:
For further elaboration of our intersecting model of translation and disability studies, see our “Manifesto of the Disabled Text” in the Spring 2008 issue of /nor.
Davis, Lennard. “Bodies of Difference: Politics, Disability, and Representation.” In Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Snyder, Brueggmann, and Garland-Thomas, eds. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2002. 101.
Deleuze and Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana B. Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. 26.
“4.5 I reaktor,” from Mörk Materia, collected in Remainland: Selected Poems of Aase Berg. Johannes Göransson, translator. Tuscaloosa: Action Books, 2005. Trans: “Come Leatherface, my love.”
See “Språkgrotesk” in Per Bäckstrom’s Enhet I mångfalden: Henri Michaux och det groteska. (Lund: ellerströms, 2005) 73-85. Translated here by Johannes Göransson.
Andreas Huyssen. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).
One such volley is lobbed at Charles Simic on Silliman’s Blog here: http://ronsilliman.blogspot.com/2007/10/in-recent-years-different-poets.html
Matthias Forshage and Aase Berg. “Surrealismen I den yttersta tiden”. Stora Staltet Nr 4, Mars 1996. Reprinted at http://www.surrealistguppen.org/surrmainsv.htm. Translated here by Johannes Göransson.
“Mamma Val” and “Mom Choice” reprinted in Remainland: Selected Poems of Aase Berg. Johannes Göransson, translator.Tuscaloosa: Action Books, 2005. 46-47.
Ibid, 54-55.
Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Platueus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.Translated and with a foreword by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 12.

8 Comments:

Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

I hadn't read an XCP before this one and loved it. Certainly ya'lls piece is great.

10:04 PM  
Blogger Maximum Etc said...

This is a fascinating essay. I really enjoyed it.

>>Such pronouncements cast the American ‘avant-garde’ as an alternative hierarchy rather than an alternative to hierarchy.<<

I think this is a fundamentally correct observation. Speaking practically, however--as an anarchist, as much as as a poet--I read a sentence like this

>>We want to recognize the minor, which never takes power, which never sets up a new regime. <<

and what I see is a whole other sort of fantasy: the fantasy of a world where un-seized/un-wielded power is a realistic possibility. The cliche runs that "nature abhors a vacuum," (it used to be a broom, natch) but I have come to understand that what truly abhors a vacuum is power. The fact that "nature" and "power" are the two words which are interchangeable may tell us something worth knowing about the world we live in.

The recognition of the minor is a noble and valuable project, but I wonder what the periphery would look like without the counterpoints of the center. How every two-bit poet with an axe to grind and a chapbook to peddle likes to stand up at his/her reading and whine about how "this is the shit you'll never see in Best American Poetry."

Also, I think that it is not necessarily the case that "the minor...never sets up a new regime." The life of the rebel almost always end up in tenured radicalism: molotovs hurled from one tower at another, bursting harmlessly and brightly on the ivory like so many fireworks.

Well, why not? If you believe in a particular politics/poetics/etc enough to practice it and develop it and fight for it, why wouldn't you want to see it ascend to the dominant mode? I think what you're really talking about is the fact that the limit of positions of Power (or the sands of History, if you prefer a more fatalistic model) means that some factions of "the minor" will make the transition, and the rest will disappear. This seems to me a function of the world's finiteness more than anything else.

I'm also interested in this passage: >>This non-eschatological, non-linear avant-garde project does not identify with the macho hard-core Messiah who knocks out History and sets up His own shop.<<

Mostly what interests me about this is that it seems to fail to see how the eschatological project itself, though admittedly linear, is basically designed for perpetual motion. The myth of a Messiah Who Is Coming is valuable *precisely* in that he never gets here. It's the theology of the asymptote, utopianism by any other name, and just so we're totally clear, I would cheerfully count myself among the adherents or anyway believers.

The authors refer constantly back to Kafka, but they don't quote what I find to be his most powerful words on this--or any other--subject: "The messiah will come on the day when he is no longer necessary. Not on the last day, but on the very last."

Question: When will the Messiah ever not be necessary? Answer: never.

Ergo: the Messiah is *never* going to get here.

Question: does it therefore follow that he does not exist, or isn't coming? I say, not necessarily. To me, the eternal process of his getting-here and never-arriving, sounds very much to me like the open-ended and un-ending process of "becoming" which the authors call for.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Maximum,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I'm going to try to write a sequel that answers your concerns asap.

Johannes

5:34 PM  
Blogger cielo fontanero said...

"Unfortunately, contemporary American discussions of supposed avant-garde poetics have sterilized, hygienified and normalized the avant-garde into a self-righteous, well-bounded, militarized/masculinized political outfit that derives and maintains its hardness via a rigorous outsiderness and rejection of mass culture. This set of tropes has enabled, say, Ron Silliman’s denigration of other writers’ “soft surrealism,” insufficiently rigorous in its politics or endpoints."

Mr. Goransson, greetings. I'm new here (blogger), but your essay intrigues me. Can you write more on this point specifically? On the surface I am not prepared to agree - it appears to me that technology by itself is capable of sterilization and normalization/easy militarization - I am not convinced the hierarchy you are seeing actually exists.

Also, what do you think of Peter Lamborn Wilson's claim that surrealism was so easily co-opted by advertising to the extent that one wonders if it was made for advertising in the first place? To entrust surrealist maneuvers to enhance one's creative works would not then beat capital H-hierarchy, but merely substitute one external hierarchy for the hierarchy of advertising, wherein one wants the monster to make a knockout blow on the audience that the lost messiah can't, or won't make.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Peter Lamborn Wilson, writing as Hakim Bey, wrote something rather more scathing in one of his Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism, published as part of T.A.Z.:

"Words belong to those who use them only till someone else steals them back. The Surrealists disgraced themselves by selling amour fou to the ghost-machine of Abstraction--they sought in their unconsciousness only power over others, & in this they followed de Sade (who wanted "freedom" only for grown-up whitemen to eviscerate women & children)."
(from "Amour Fou")

I've always found this striking. It seems to me that your analysis about the ambitious tendency of the avant-garde (or Silliman's touted post-avant) to merely replace one hierarchy with another is dead on target. It has often struck me that the Surrealists did something similar, with Breton as their "strong arm" man: which lends some weight to Hakim Bey's critique. They were of their times, as we all are, usually, and grew up with the hierarchies of power-over rather than the (anarchist?) non-hierarchy of power-with. It's always seemed pointless to me to replace one artistic hierarchy with another, even with one I myself might support, because this is a political move masquerading as an aesthetic one. It's a category error.

Your manifesto is one I could have signed my own name to, I think, as I have always been interested in the small mysteries. The little messy things in the corners of the Towering Edifice that no one wants to talk about. Those other people chatting off in the corner while the Grand Pageant is going on in the main hall. I find Grand Pageants stifling; I'd rather chat with the Grey Eminence than the Pope, as it were.

The universe is fractal: self-similar on all scales, and chaotic as well as ordered. Fractal math is the first math that accurately describes real-world shapes and phenomena. It seems to me that soft surrealism is more fractal than edifice-oriented Surrealism, which still sought some kind of power over nature, rather than with it. Another attitude of those times, which still lingers, no doubt.

To me it's fascinating how Navajo weavers always left in a spirit trail, an imperfection in the pattern, in which spirit could move in and out. If you make the weave too perfect, you lock into it place; and if you weave too perfect a reproduction of the divine into your pattern, you summon the divine into the pattern, which can have real consequences.

7:52 AM  
Blogger angela g. said...

Excellent piece, Johannes!

6:43 AM  
Blogger William Keckler said...

I enjoyed reading this.

"The title pun works around ‘val’, which can mean ‘choice’ or ‘whale’, and as the word is repeated in various phrases neither one nor the other meaning becomes dominant. This lexical flux undoes the ability of word ‘choice’ to mean. If one cannot choose among meanings for this word, no choice is possible; all choices are the same whale."

This made me think of the poetry of Douglas Messerli, which is virtually obsessive in deploying strategies such as those you describe here, especially with punning: bifurcating, trifurcating, etc. language where "meaning" can never get its feet to touch the earth.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

There may be some similarity between Messerli and Berg. I know that she read a lot of American poetry during the writing of her third book where this is from - mainly Susan Howe - though I think Aase is a more interesting writer than Howe- but there are also differences. To begin with Berg's work does not simply prevent "meaning's feet from touching the ground", it manages to be very involved with the body and the visceral for example.

Her work also comes to a large extent out of Bataille and her experiences with the Surrealist Group of Stockholm and a European avant-garde tradition.

8:45 AM  

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