Saturday, January 16, 2010

Aase Berg: Forsla Fett and Minor Literature

[In the comment field from a couple of weeks ago, Mark Wallace suggested a breakdown of contemporary "avant-garde" (provisional term) between Juliana Spahr’s critique of language and Aase Berg’s use of images. Mark asked me about some things I said, so I think I will try to elaborate here. First of all I want to show how Berg’s poetry is most certainly involved in “language.” And then later I’ll write about the problem of images – iconophobia in American poetry, kitsch and the fact that an image in poetry is seldom an image but words (and why this matters).]

I've many times it seems quoted Hermann Broch's highly influential 1933 essay on kitsch, in which he says "kitsch is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art" (which I got from Daniel Tiffany’s essay “Kitsching the Cantos”).

One interesting aspect of this metaphor is that if we turn the equation around, we can conclude that the foreign body is kitsch. Another interesting maneuver would be to see the overall system of art as a kind of mother, in which kitsch is lodged like a child, the horrific foreign body. (One might also consider why kitsch has to use a borrowed term from the German.) Influenced by Broch’s statement on kitsch, Clement Greenberg argued that kitsch was a kind of parasite on art.

It is in this intersection of kitsch, the foreign, the parasite, the body and poetry that I read Aase Berg’s book Forsla Fett (Tranfer Fat), one of my favorite books of poetry. If a dominant feature of (official) modern American poetry has been monologic (poetry is what is lost in translation) and anti-kitsch tastefulness (anti-parasites), Berg’s (admittedly Swedish, not American) book is a poetics based exactly on translation and transformation and parasites. And it does so in a book of “mommy poetry” (to go back to Steve Burt’s review of Rachel Zucker’s book, which most certainly positions “mommy poems” as minor and tasteless).

It’s in the very title: This is a book that is dragging around fat inside of it; that is translating some foreign object – undifferentiated “fat.”

In her essay “Madness and Language” (published not insignificantly in a multilingual anthology of writers from Scandinavia, the Baltic countries and Russia), Berg describes language as a kind of parasite:

“The language cells hovered over the earth looking for a host body… Then came humans. The invisible potential words attacked her, like mosquitoes who know that they need blood… It mustn’t have been an especially logical language, rather paradisical and timeless, a kind of joyful babbling for the babbling’s sake.”

She goes on to find this “babbling” in children’s talk. This model of language as a kind of parasite, a foreignness that comes inside the human body, as well as the “joyful babbling for the babbling’s sake” reminds me of Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of “minor literature”: creating a revolutionary language within language:

“A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language.”

In a sense, minor language is a parasite in the sense that it is countering the major host, which it is part of. The difference is of course that in Aase’s essay, the minor precedes the major; the major is how the patriarchal political forces make utilitarian use of the babbling. Perhaps the minor is a post-major turn back towards “babbling.”

Here are a couple of other relevant points about “minor lit”: the point is to “oppose a purely intensive usage of language to all symbolic or even significant or simply signifying usages of it. Arrive at a perfect and unformed expression, a materially intense expression” (or “fat”); to “hate all languages of masters…[and]be a stranger within one’s own language.” Analogously to Kafka’s Yiddishing of German, Berg makes a strange “babbling” out of Swedish by introducing foreign languages into her Swedish and by exaggerating features of the Swedish language.


In difference to a modern American poetry, which still seems to pivot on Frost’s cliché of poetry being what is lost in translation, Berg’s book is in fact largely based on translations of English-language articles about string theory (a subject about which the poet claims to know little). From these translations she gets words like “strings,” “tone” and “conductor” that she repeats throughout the book. However, her “translations” of these scientific tracts do not make sense of the terminology. She is enchanted by the textures of the scientific language, which, when brought into her grotesque fairytale poetry, turns physical. Thus she also gives us half-science terms like “spänntid” (“strungtime”) and “vibribrerar” (“vibribrates”) in the poem “Harpalt” (“Hare Baby”):

The hare conductor stringed
attracts the opposite tone
the string vibribrates
dimensions that will
crook the Instrument

Hearing has a strungtime
tugs faster than the string beats
harpy births child
conducts child over fields
of the as-of-yet unprepared

By adding an extra “ibr” to “vibrates,” she creates a hindrance to a smooth reading of the term – the reading process “vibribrates” as the reader is forced to stutter, to stumble, to become a foreigner inside the language. Berg uses scientific language the way Deleuze and Guattari says Kafka uses Yiddish: She “sees it less as a sort of linguistic territoriality” for the scientific exchange of information “than as a nomadic movement of deterritorialization that reworks [Swedish]” (25). What Berg transfers into the Swedish is not the sense or signification of string theory, but the “fat.” The poetry vibribrates as a “materially intense expression,” as “fat.” The science becomes grotesque, the grotesque sciency.


Späckhuggaren –

här hänger hugget
väntande på späck
i många tusen år
av långsamhet

[Blubber Biter –

here hangs the bite
waiting for blubber
for many thousand years
of slowness]

Like the pregnancy process, the denaturalization in Berg’s book does not just come from the outside, but also from within. Berg makes constant use of the Swedish language’s penchant for compound words. By forging neologisms like “smoothpipe” and “skinfish,” she teaches the reader to break down the standard compound words, to read them like a foreigner who can see the components but does not know that they form another word. That is why, for example, I translated “späckhuggare” as “Blubber Biter” rather than the standard “killer whale.” When I get to that word I have been trained to break down the compounds, and see “späck” (blubber”) plus “huggare” (biter), rather than the standard term. Elsewhere in the book, I translated “däggdjur” as “suckle animals” rather than “mammals.” The book makes the Swedish language strange, it un-teaches us how to read it; it sabotages our fluency. By translating these words non-fluently, I have tried to follow Aase’s method of translation, to bring the fat – rather than the signifiers - of Swedish into the English language, and thus to deterritorialize it.


The hare is also an astrological sign
in the listless, frigid hydrosphere
Same cosmic fatstiff freezefearflood
same cuntstiff looptrack fatflood
We like suckle animals egg animals, whalenut animals
prefer to not give birth to live young

The entire book is focused on a set of words – whale, hare, fat, strings, conduits, animals – that accumulate shifting, mutating sets of associations, constantly changing in and out of various meanings through puns, decontextualizations and recontextualizations. The whale appears to be the central allegorical trope in the collection. We get a variety of whales – “killer whales,” “toothed whale” and “Hole Whale.” When we get to the second to last line of “Hydrophobia,” the book has taught me to look for the word “val,” so that it becomes hard for me to read “valnöt,” the standard term for “walnut,” without noticing the “val” in it. The compound-based reading process has infiltrated our reading even of non-compound words like walnut. This is why I translated the term as “whalenut.” The whale creates a kind of triple-exposure image. By introducing the blubbery whale material into the walnut, we might see not just whales and nuts, but ultimately perhaps the walnut as an image of a fetus. However, the instability of the language itself makes it hard to put the image exactly into focus. The language itself gets in the way, as the word “vibribrates” between images and words (whalenut, walnut).


And perhaps more importantly, the poem seems to vibribrate between text and blackout, words and images, materiality and holes.

Here’s the Catherine Clement quote I cited in my entry on My Own Private Idaho:

“Surprisingly, this glaring weakness contains a raging force. This frustration is creative; from its disorders, unknown energies are often born… the world in which I have lived until now idolized power and force, muscle and health, vigor and lucidity. Syncope opens onto a universe of weakness and tricks; it leads to new rebellions.”

This is a book that seems to black out and faint all the time. It consists of short little poems, but the darkness (“dark matter” was the title of Berg’s second book) seems to give birth to the fragments; or really, the fragments seem like parasite-babies-fat enveloped in darkness. The poems seem flimsy (minor), not official, certainly not Silliman’s idea of a macho Rigor. As in Joyelle’s “Future” of “Poetry” talk, the poems seem to hover between language and “dark matter”.


But even that metaphor is not good enough. At the core of book, as I said, are a series of words, such as “val” (whale). But depending on the context, “val” can also mean “choice” or “election.” These puns strike me as holes (as in “hole [in the] whale”).

Mamma val

Amma val
Ge harmjölk,
alla val är
samma val

Mom Choice

Nurse whale
Give hare-milk
all whales are
the same whale

Here the poem can be about a whale or an abstract choice. The flimsiness “vibribrates” between the two choices. It feels like a “hole whale.”

Or as another poem has it a “malströmsår,” which may mean “maelstrom year” (the kind one has when hauling fat inside one’s stomach) or a “maelstrom sore” (out of which perhaps the fat springs) or even a “moth stream sore/year.”

Yet I think what I love about these puns is that they don’t feel like a vague “indeterminacy,” they seem much more physical. The pun as a physical flimsiness that “vibribrates.” I don’t know. Something like that.


One poem is called “The hare infects dad with rabies,” and that could be another poetics statement of this poetry. The child does not just infect the mother-tongue but the father as well. And it seems to me that implicit in Berg’s minor poetics there is something that is relevant to my previous musings on My Own Private Idaho and Synecdoche, NY – something of relevant to the idea of “community.”

The model of community one could say present in Berg’s minor poetry is one of “the hare infects dad with rabies,” it is a minor community, a community based on a rejection of a common language in favor of a language that collapses and blacks out and faints and is deformed into anti-hierarchical fat. It is the “no-future” community of the queer boys mourning the Falstaff character outside the official fence of the graveyard.

It is not an official community of lineages and descendants which Keannu Reeves’s character joins (reflect perhaps in Silliman’s obsessive charting of lineages and descendants) but a minor idea of community, the fake kind – not the ideal so frequently perpetuated in American poetry of an unalieanted community, but a counterfeit community.


The interesting wrinkle (or perhaps contradiction) in this argument about community is that with this book, Berg actually went from being more of a cult poet (and a member of the militant avant-garde group Surrealistgruppen of Stockholm) to an acclaimed poet; she was nominated for Augustpriset (Sweden’s Pulitzer Prize), she was made editor of BLM (a journal with circulation of thousands) etc. And now she’s a “major” figure in Swedish poetry in the sense that her influence is hugely apparent in younger poet and she writes a column for the big national daily paper Expressen. She was recently up against an indie rock singer and a film-maker for an annual award of most significant contemporary artist. Her book of reviews, articlces and essays were recently published as a book. Students write dissertations about her. She sells more books in tiny Sweden than supposedly “important” US poets sell in the US. Etc.

What is important to note here is of course that she’s from another country, with a different literary dynamic. I should add, a “minor” country absolutely saturated with translation (from day 1 you have to handle foreign languages, especially English). Our poetry culture discourse still dominated by people who believe in “major” poetry, even when that poetry is very “minor” in the culture at large., people who make lineages and descendants out of poetry.


Blogger Archambeau said...

I'll have to think more about your last paragraph. I've been thinking of American poetry as a literature that valorizes the idea of the minor (Ashbery, elliptical, Langpo, soft-edge Surrealism in the Simic mode, what have you). I don't mean it's always done well, but it has seemed to me that many poets have been attracted to the idea of minor lit at some level. I've been reading Neruda's Canto General, and much of that seems to aim much more squarely at a kind of major lit status than most contemporary American poetry. But let me think it over.


10:20 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

To me minor is more than just oppositional or such. It has to do with a treatment of language.

I would never see Langpo as minor - Just look at Silliman. There can be nobody more "majoritarian" than him! To me Burt and Silliman are cuts off the same block.

Likewise for the others. To me it's a kind of "fat"-language, not minor status within culture (which is of course all of poetry).

Minor literature can for example *never* be in love with the idea of poetry as "high art" - and that pretty much is what poetry's identity in the academy is. So here again the academy does matter.


11:25 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>Minor literature can for example *never* be in love with the idea of poetry as "high art"

You mean until it becomes Major and "high art"...

Which is how the plot tends to work.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

No, Kent, that's not how it works. Because being a "major" writer - in the sense of popular etc - does not necessarily assume a "major" or majoritarian stance towards language etc.

D&G use Kafka afterall as an example. He's super popular, but his writing is minor.

The odd things is that minor writers are often very popular, often in fact more popular than major writers.

And "high art" works similarly. There is a sense in which Kafka for example is not "high art" - more like slapstick humor!


11:51 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I don't know, Johannes. I think one can parse such distinctions a bit too finely and get left cupping a small pile of academic fairy dust, all while setting up academia as the enemy.

Processes of legitimation in the cultural world, high and low, are well established and pretty hard to deny. Early Pop would be a good example of "parasitical" practice, no? Not knocking Berg's poetry at all, nor the other interesting poets you are championing-- I just wonder if "language" alone is enough to keep institutional absorption at bay. I don't think so. The challenge has got to go beyond just performance on the page.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Well Kent, if you have read my responses to you over the past month you would realize that I think several assumptions you with with are way too simplistic:

The idea of "language alone" (which I think my point is that there is no such thing).

And the idea of "Absorption." I just don't believe in this simplistic hero myth of the outsider who lives above the law and is then absorbed.

As I note in the entry, there is added complications because of a different cultural dynamics.


3:57 PM  
Blogger Archambeau said...

I suppose I follow a different strand out of D&G on Kafka -- the stance toward the dominant values of the time, and the stance toward language as articulation, as sense-making, seem important to me in determining major/minor (maybe this is what you mean by "treatment of language" but clearly we're reading this differently) (which is cool by me). Of course those are loaded terms -- it sounds like "Major = good" which neither you nor D&G mean. In fact, most people I know would probably equate minor with good, though I don't think of the terms as being evaluative in that way.

Anyway, I don't think it's of much interest to argue about definitions. I do like where the angle of approach took you re Berg's writing.


4:06 PM  
Blogger Archambeau said...

On the off chance that anyone gives a damn about my reading of D&G's notion of minor lit, here are two posts where I say most of what I have to say about it all:


4:08 PM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

We should remain aware of how many different meanings "minor" can take on, even within the universe of discourse about modern poetry: in one sense Silliman aspires to majority and Housman never does; in another sense Housman wants to be part of a "major" or "central" line and Silliman wants to block or occlude such a line. But here we are (to use another distinction that Silliman likes to make) talking about poetry, not about poems.

The discussion of Berg, above, interacts with Joyelle's essay on the future, or non-future, of poetry more closely than I would have predicted from reading (in your translations) Berg's work.

5:38 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>The idea of "language alone" (which I think my point is that there is no such thing).

We seem to be working out of different concerns. In any case, I read your post above as, well, quite tenaciously focused on language and affect-- a kind of "The New Sentence" of the "abject," really. Or something along those lines. Which is all perfectly fine, and you do it very well. I'm just saying it only takes you so far, insofar as institutional critique goes, and how poetics may begin to engage such. Then again, I realize that is not your primary concern here. Pardon my hobby horses.

>And the idea of "Absorption." I just don't believe in this simplistic hero myth of the outsider who lives above the law and is then absorbed.

Great! Neither do I, if I understand your meaning.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, you are perhaps partly correct that my entry is too formalist and that I don't bring out the wider critiques implied in the minor-ness; they are maybe too much implied. But they are nonetheless there (if you look for them). Perhaps I'll try to write another entry about the implications.


8:03 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes, you are right that there are a lot of meanings of minor/major.

My point about Silliman is this:

Silliman may want to block Housman's lineage but there he's already shown his obsession with lineage (and scholarship of lineage, and creating descendants, mostly with his own poetry as the center).

Furthermore, Ron believes in tropes like "the good ear" and has trouble dealing with not just poetry in translation but poetry from *England* as well (English poetry doesn't make sense to his "American ear[/tree]" as he once put it).

You add to that his obsession with the rigorous and hard (and his anxiety about softness of whatever kind), his obsession with correct scholarship (of his own work). Etc. I can't imagine a more "major" poet.


8:08 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Thanks for this detailed elaboration of Forsla Fett, Johannes. It's really excellent and definitely makes me want to read the book. Action Books published it, yes? It also seems interesting to me to compare the way you're translating certain compound words with what Pierre Joris did in his Celan translations. It would be a finely detailed discussion, but I think a fantastic one.

I haven't read the essay in years at this point, but I'm wondering whether the major/minor distinction really carries that much weight in some cultural contexts these days. The idea of a dominant canon of "major" texts and then a series of eccentric and variously rejected "minor" texts doesn't work as well in, say, contexts like modern and contemporary poetry in which the canon is already significantly decentralized and production has proliferated to the degree we see now. Maybe in Sweden there's still a more defined dominant approach? In any case, the minor/major split runs the danger of just being another way of defining a two-party literary system, the dominant and the marginalized, when many situations are infinitely more complex.

As often happens, I think your context for explaining language poetry comes across as overly homogenizing and one-dimensional.

I agree that Ron Silliman has tendencies towards trying to construct a new notion of major in American poetry specifically, one designed to overthrow the academic and MFA system poetry canon as it was usually defined from, say, the 60s to the 80s. So yes, it's a move towards making a new majority.

At the same time, he's not the only language poet. Steve McCaffery, for instance, has criticized major-making tendencies, highlighting the problems that come from "a certain ossification around the area of consensusand the rigidifying of its heteroglossia into a monologic canon." And one of the first courses I took from Charles Bernstein was called "The Peripheral," and in many ways the course was defined around the idea of minor literature in the sense you're talking about here.

It's odd, but some of your tendency to overstatement on this issue (and sometimes others) actually reminds me of Silliman's tendency to overread a monolithic School of Quietude--what he says about all poets of that loosely defined category is perhaps true only of some of them, and the same thing could be said about some of your own comments.

So it's usually better, if you ask me, to see language poetry as a set of simultaneously shared and contested ideas. And to make it out as a one-dimensional macho-major thing also has the tendency to write women/feminist language poets out of the picture--which I'm sure is the last thing you intend.

So as often happens, I find your detailed explanations of what you like and why you like it to be really amazing and impressive writing, some of the most exciting blog and critical commentary I'm reading, but that the things to which you oppose what you like are often treated more as straw-men. Which is interesting, again, given that such a thing is what you often accuse Stephen Burt and Silliman of doing (and which they do indeed do).

I think the making of a straw-man opposition is in fact one of the most shared errors of all contemporary poetics--it's hard to find an article or book anywhere that doesn't indulge in it, and I'm hardly excepting myself from the problem.

But what you're saying about Berg here is really great.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Kate Zimmerman said...

Really really interesting essay Johannes. Now I can't wait to read her collection! Have been thinking a lot about "mommy" territory being considered too taboo for literature, as well as Killing Kanoko and Joyelle's essay on abject motherhood. Berg's concept of babbling language seems to mirror Kristeva's notion of the semiotic or pre-Oedipal, which she writes about in Revolution in Poetic Language. The pre-Oedipal linked usually to the mother, but Kristeva also links it to a pre-Oedipal father.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I have translated this whole book but it hasn't been published yet; though there's a big chunk of it in the selected poems that Action Books published.

What I take from D&G's minor lit is not necessarily peripheralvs central but a certain attitude toward language.

As such it doesn't really divide the poetry world into binaries, I think, because it doesn't really designate camps - but could run across camps (and certainly this is true in American poetry); and as the definions of itseems to proliferate (on this blog).

Further, I do think langpo is very majoritarian in its approaches. Thatdoesn't mean they are evil or anything. It may even be said to have been necessary. More later about this I"m at a hospital. My seconddaughter Majken was born today.


7:36 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Congratulations, Johannes and Joyelle.

8:24 AM  
Blogger R. Sanford said...

Many congratulations, Johannes!

9:09 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Way to go, J & J (& M)!


7:10 AM  

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