Naturalness and the Illusion of Transparency

What Language writing finds attractive about Stein is her refusal to make her work transparently refer to the world outside of the words. Language poetry's avant-garde lineage is evident in its scrutiny of the naturalness of Realism. Realism, in this instance, refers to the uncomplicated belief that the words on the page offer a transparent window onto the world of everyday life. Such continuity in ideas can be seen in 'The Pacifica Interview' Andrews and Bernstein gave in 1981, which was not subsequently reprinted in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Bernstein is adamant about 'seeing language not as a transparency, not as something which simply dissolves as you get a picture of the world in focus, so that, in reading a text, you are hardly aware of the language at all' (unpaginated). What is most contentious in Language writing is some of the political conclusions drawn from a sense of what motivates the promotion of such transparency, and consequently also the political implications awarded to the activity of 'resisting' it. There has been much debate over the extent to which Language writing is 'non-referential'; particularly over whether such a condition for language is possible, or even desirable. Michael Greer uses an example from Bruce Andrews's 'Tizzy Boost' to illustrate how Language writing 'challenges our "shock-proof faith" in the communicability of meaning':

Cash downy stricture wish looks ratty, the bluff basically buried due to games, drugs & pesticides cashiered glory blood convicted to distance shockproof faith (Greer, 1991, p. 153)

How non-referential is this writing? Greer's reading of its challenge forces him back on a phrase from the poem itself, 'shockproof faith', making the poem in some way self-referential. But how accurate is it to claim also that 'we find ourselves unable to construct a single "frame" or "context" capable of resolving individual phrases into a larger, referential whole'? (ibid.). This text is certainly a good example of the way such writing thickens the texture of words into 'material', so as to challenge faith in the transparency of language. And yet this does not necessarily make it non-referential. The materiality on offer can actually be read as a playfully satirical reference to consumer society. 'Cash downy' gives us not only connotations of the cuddly, fetishistic allure of money; but also puns on the cushioning effects of the 'special offer' reduction. The materiality on offer here is in some way literalized by association with a society of the spectacle in which our dreams have become limited to the things that money can buy: commodities. The recognition of such a 'bluff' certainly involves an acknowledgement that 'stricture wish looks ratty': that such a restriction of our horizons makes our hopes cheap and infested. The poem itself is rather 'ratty' as it is seemingly driven by irritation and anger. It functions by punning on the ideolect of the culture it is seemingly attacking. The title can function as a frame or context: to be in a 'tizzy' is to be in a state of nervous agitation, maybe even to the extent of throwing a tantrum. The 'boost' is suitably overdetermined: does it imply that the poem is an inoculating booster — a protective blast? Or is it an acknowledgement of the poem's increase and intensification of the very forces it might claim to be resisting, and therefore a tantrum fuelled by a sense of complicity? Certainly the tension between symptom and critique in Language writing has been noted (Perelman, 1996). But how accurate is this reading of Andrews's poem? In the sense that it is driven by close attention to the words as such, and the web of connotations they weave, then it is following Language writing's agenda for encouraging readerly production. However, how much of this production is actually 'my own'? Such a question opens up an important preoccupation Language writing has with the 'construction' of identity and the resulting scepticism of the extent to which language is ever really the province of individual ownership.

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