[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
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.
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.
Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Platueus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.Translated and with a foreword by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 12.