Saturday, January 03, 2009

"Noise" /indeterminacy/internationalism

I was thinking about the word/concept "noise" and how I've been using it, and how Seth interpreted my interest in noise as what he calls "syntactic" poetry. And here are a few thoughts I've had about this:

- I may be misusing the word "noise." When I say I am interested in noise, I mean something more like what I talked about when I talked about multilingualism, minor literature and the historical avant-garde (repeatedly on this blog): that is a centrifugal concept of literature and language that is interested in the "noise" of clashing languages. For example, the way Deleuze and Guattari describes how Kafka uses Yiddish to "deterritorialize" German, exaggerating the features of an already clumsy provincial Prague German. So for me, noise is more like the sounds of languages clashing.

- Max resisted this idea, saying that I privileged non-Americans and well-off Americans who had had the benefit of learning a second language. This is a slight but important misreading of my idea. For one, I think a "well-educated" person who has learned a second language in a classroom does not necessarily have the kind of experience I talk about because second-language education tends to reinforce the idea of true, central languages, rather than the noisy experience of the outskirts of language I am talking about. The kind of experience I am talking about is full of the noise of not "properly" learning and interacting with foreign languages - not pure noise in the information theory definition, but not the illusion of language as pure exchange of information.

- A second point I would make: America is full of languages that intermingle. Most obviously I think of all immigrants and ethnic minorities and their "Englishes" (which are so threatening to so many Americans).

- An important difference between my idea of noise and Seth's "syntactic" concept of "noise" is that I think his idea of noise is purely "syntactical" or formal: his noise comes out of playing with grammar. This is very much in line with Perloff's "poetics of indeterminacy." A kind of formal exercise. But my idea is very much political, very much attached to the social meanings of language. For example, if you are an immigrant you are likely to not only have had experiences of having your "english" clash with some kind of monoglossic ideal, but that experience is often incredibly political, and often violent. I've talked about in the past having experienced violence due to the way I speak and for me it's impossible not to think of politics and violence when I talk about minor literature. This is of course a central point of Deleuze and Guattari's minor literature as well.

- But I also want to say that this experience is not limited to immigrants and ethnic minorities. As Bakhtin I think correctly points out, the monoglossic ideal is an illusion used for political supression, or as Benedict Anderson points out, to create the idea of the coherent nation states (we all speak the same language thus we are part of an imaginary community). I think it's just more noticeable to various minor groups.

- This is also why I repeatedly reject calls for poetry for a "general population" or "the lay reader." It's a politically oppressive piece of rhetoric.

- Of course you don't need to be an immigrant or a translator to be interested in centrifugal ideas of literature.

- Of course I don't like all poetry that participates in this kind of poetry. Just like I don't dislike all poetry that does not.

- However, I absolutely reject the kind of thinking that reinforces the idea of an illusory center to poetry/language/culture. What Joyelle and I called "the cult of elegance" in one of our manifestos.

- The danger with this kind of thinking: a vague notion of hybridity eliminates cultural difference.

- To me (but clearly not all) minor literature/language is absolutely intertwined in notions of the grotesque; or as Par Backstrom calls it in his essay on Michaux, "language grotesque." Gregor Samsa becomes a cockroach afterall. Afterall the Body without Organs comes from Artaud.

- There's an element of transvestisism in minor literature. Like a good transvestite it reveals that all language is artificial, there is no natural center. That's what makes that movie "Paris is Burning" so profound: when the kids go from imitating women to imitating other kids from their neighborhood.

- Francois is right: Like Ron's model, Seth's model imagines American poetry as isolated from the rest of the world. It is not, has not been. And this kind of thinking performs the function of perpetuating this illusion.

- On a totally unrelated note I would like to recommend Tony Hoaglund's essay on Sharon Olds in the most recent issue (I think) of American Poetry Review, in which he takes on the macho dismissal of Olds by a some critics. I don't much like (or dislike) Olds poetry, but I like to teach it in creative writing classes because there is always one or two students who really get into it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a rich post, Johannes. Let me test my understanding of it. SO...

• you would consider Harryette Mullen a noisy poet

• you would consider Whitman a somewhat noisy poet because of his mixing of street lingo and standard lyricism, not because he occasionally flings down a French phrase or two

• you would consider Cathy Park Hong, in Dance Dance Revolution, noisy (or does her noise depend too much on a patterned derivation from a "central language"?)

• you would consider poets as disparate as Ron Silliman, Kay Ryan, Robert Creeley, Mark Strand, and Sharon Olds as generally noiseless

I may be way off, of course, but I do like the idea of "good noise"....

10:42 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I think you're basically right but I am uncomfortable making it a black and white rule. I'm sure a lot of people could find noise in the poets you see as noiseless. I think it's as much about how to read as how to write. And I do think the French Whitman is part of what makes him interesting. I love Haryette Mullen and I think Cathy's book is one of my favorites of the past few years.


11:01 AM  

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