Reader Writer Relations

The préoccupation with the 'referential fallacy', another term used to indicate the illusion of transparency, was also given a political angle. Capitalism, as Silliman expressed it, involves 'an anaesthetic transformation of the perceived tangibility of the word, with corresponding increases in its descriptive and narrative capacities, preconditions for the invention of "realism," the optical illusion of reality in capitalist thought'

(Andrews and Bernstein, 1984, p. 125). In short, capitalism makes us passive consumers of language as a commodity fetishized for its illusion of transparency. In response, Andrews and Bernstein call for a poetry that 'involves repossessing the sign through close attention to, and active participation in, its production' (ibid., p. x). Therefore, Marxist calls for a seizing of the means of production have been fed through reader-response criticism's attention to reading as an active process. What emerges is a bid to redefine reader/writer relations: readerly production is to be freed up from the jaws of passive consumption. One of Charles Bernstein's most anthologized poems, 'The Klupzy Girl', dramatizes the renegotiation of reader/writer relations. Here are the first twenty lines:

Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference: it brings you to your senses. Yet his parables are not singular. The smoke from the boat causes the men to joke. Not gymnastic: pyrotechnic. The continuousness of a smile — wry, perfume scented. No this would go fruity with all these changes around. Sense of variety: panic. Like my eye takes over from the front yard, three pace. Idle gaze — years right down the window. Not clairvoyance, predictions, deciphering — enacting. Analytically, i.e., thoughtlessly. Begin to push and cue together. Or I originate out of this occurrence, stoop down, bend on. The Protest-ant's voice within, calling for this to be shepherded, For moment's expression's enthroning. Able to be alibied (contiguity or vacuity). Or telepathetically? . . . (Silliman, 1986, p. 285)

Bernstein's poem relishes its uneven surface and the bumpy ride it sets up for the reader. It is not gracefully gymnastic, but confrontationally pyrotechnic: an explosion of conflicting discourses unanchored to a single voice; and later incorporating quotations from the leaving speech of a sentimental colleague to co-workers, and the Frankfurt Marxist Walter Benjamin. Nevertheless, the poem's self-consciously discontinuous wry smile is directed at what our response to it might be. It predicts bewilderment at what it envisages as our response to a lack of stable reader—writer relations: 'Sense of variety: panic'. It also seems to map out two possible positions. First, one where the reader actively enters the text and begins 'to push and cue / together' meaning. Second, and slightly more ambiguously, one where 'I originate out of this / occurrence, stoop down, bend on'. Initially this seems also an emerging emancipated reader, but the status of the 'I' emerging is ambiguated by the following line's evocation of 'The / Protest-ant's voice within, calling for / this to be shepherded'. Bernstein's pun 'Protest-ant' unleashes several connotations. As the opposite to readerly autonomy, the 'Protest-ant's voice within' calls for the poem's polyphony to be 'shepherded'; it is a prayer for guidance from the author-god who will emerge as the safely confessional 'I' that will anchor the poem to a stable voice. And yet the pun also plays on a more radical autonomy: the Protestant renegotiation of relations with God as being the realm of personal responsibility rather than institutional mediation - as well as playfully invoking 'ants' protesting as part of a worker's revolution. Bernstein's poem therefore enacts a poetics of readerly choice. However, and as several critics have noted, such freedom of choice is also part of the liberatory rhetoric of the capitalist consumerism supposedly being resisted. In relation to this it is worth briefly returning to Bruce Andrews's 'Tizzy Boost'. Alongside Greer's claims for it offering the readerly experience of an inability to construct a single frame or context, I would have to draw attention to how much 'my own' reading of the poem was actually constructed by the frame and context supplied by the very essays espousing the need for readerly emancipation. In the case of Bernstein's 'The Klupzy Girl' the poem harbours a much deeper understanding of the issues than any poetics essay. The 'Protest-ant's voice' acknowledges the necessary complicity of an avantgarde stance through its pun's connotations of a work ethic that made the spread of Protestantism symbiotic with the spread of capitalism's desired economic individualism.

Language poetry's interest in redefining reader/writer relations has also revealed a suspicion of overly simplistic models of communication. Barrett Watten's Conduit interrogates the figuring of communication as a simple channelling of message from Addresser to Addressee, pointing out that 'A message may be the bottle' (Watten, 1997a, p. 161). Conduit's interrogation is motivated by an Althusserian awareness of the ideological functioning of language. The book's disjunctive juxtaposition of units of communication explores 'how statement builds in the conditions of its reception' (Watten, 1995, p. 36); a recognition of the subtlety of linguistic coercion that owes something to Althusser's notion of interpellation. The opening section of Conduit, 'The XYZ of Reading', sets itself up as an ironic counterpart to Pound's The ABC of Reading; part of a didactic modernist act of readerly 'education' that Watten is presumably uncomfortable with. Watten's 'XYZ of Reading' rejects the model of a writer/reader hierarchy, and formulates its distance not as mandarin commentary, but as an enabling space for readerly activity:

This is precisely the point at which the exemplary rejection structures the reader's involvement in the work. But the meaning of the work has now changed; beginning by deflating its own self-sufficiency, it ends in a form, the limits of a kind of activity that can be identified only at a distance, by another. (Watten, 1997a, p. 153)

More recently, Watten has betrayed dissatisfaction with 'a defunct politics satisfied to claim that the reader is "empowered" to make meaning from material texts' (Watten, 1997b, pp. 3—4) and similarly with the heroic homology between literary and political possibility, so 'that to describe literary possibility is to represent a form of agency, in a circular fashion, as a critique of representation' (ibid., p. 4). Rereading Watten's work, it seems to have always been intent on breaking this 'circular fashion' and on problematizing textual forms of agency through acknowledging the precarious limits between spectatorship and participation. As Conduit puts it: 'From which seats to witness?' (Watten, 1997a, p. 169). In Progress, the reader is buffeted as much as the writer, and the effect is to disallow the stability of the 'formulated distance' aimed for in Conduit. The jolting discontinuities of Progress actually achieve a relentless momentum that reflects the coercive drive of its title concept. The excited motion is revealed in the final stanza as a constantly moving 'map of my position'. The pronoun 'I' recurs regularly within the poem, but it is only a provisional locus of utterance; not so much an agent of participation as a drifting marker in the rapids of different discourses. 'Excite I' italicized, puns on the emptying of the command of first-person address into the turmoil of everyday events; an ongoing process of being buffeted between the poles of spectatorship and participation renders each 'I' an ex cite (Watten, 1985, p. 120).

Nevertheless, it is reductive of the scope of Language poetry to suggest that it always provides the reader with a resistant materiality of language prompting a challenge to the illusion of transparency. Far from being restricted to a feature of language, indeterminacy is very much a feature of the world. As such, many Language writers are preoccupied by dramatizing the experience of being a reader of that world. Stephen Rodefer's Four Lectures is a wonderfully high-octane example, managing to be simultaneously honorific and satiric in its overdriven ideolect: 'And pidgeon means business. It carries / messages' (Rodefer, 1982, p. 11). The end of Rae Armantrout's poem 'Fiction' deftly images this empirical indeterminacy: 'A black man in a Union Jack t-shirt was / yelling, "Do you have any idea what I mean?" ' (Armantrout, 1985a, p. 27).

Armantrout's highly condensed, tensile lyrics couldn't be further from Andrews's work stylistically. And yet they often share similar preoccupations. 'Sit-Calm' is a poem with a title that puns on the genre of the sitcom. And in many respects Armantrout writes a poetry of situation comedy: a wry commentary upon what she has elsewhere termed the 'illegibility' of our environment (Armantrout, 1985b, p. 93). The poem opens her 1995 collection Made to Seem, a book title that hints at a possible sense of the ideological coercion underlying the 'natural'. Lines 2—4 of 'Sit-Calm' seem to confirm an allusion to this process: 'we think we want something / we're made up to seem / exaggeratedly unfit for' (Armantrout, 1995, p. 7). To think we want something involves problematizing individual control over intention and desire — just as what we want figures both that desire and how the media constructs it as a panacea for our lack. The fact that the poem figures us as 'exagger-

atedly unfit for' our desires is richly ambiguous; and perhaps indicates the endlessly deferred desire stimulated by consumer culture. An example of what we might be exaggeratedly unfit for is casually rendered at the end of the first stanza as 'touch'. This, as stanza two suggests, is an amusing comment on the sitcom we are 'touched' by; but the humour is also a 'dangerous / moment' of identification from which distraction is needed:

. . . Right away we're talked out of it -no harm done -by a band of wise-acre friends. (Armantrout, 1995, p. 7)

This process of gently being talked out of a reaction by common-sense peer pressure is a touching moment of bonding. But it is also a situation comedy in which the generic humour of characters' difficulties and misunderstandings is redirected to signify the ambivalent cancellation of agency: 'I don't know / what I'm thinking', we say, only to have such awkwardly poignant self-reflection cushioned by the 'spike of merriment' it solicits from the friends. 'Sit-Calm' is awkwardly situated between safety-in-numbers camaraderie, and the violent safety-in-numbness of consumer passivity that allows the poem's title to signify an order.

Charles Altieri has written very suggestively about how Language poetry diminishes 'what in their predecessors had been a much fuller concern with how texts could exemplify powerful models of human agency' (Altieri, 1996, p. 208). He tactfully challenges the rhetoricity of much of the theorizing of readerly passivity and writerly resistance in Language poetics, concluding that such theorists 'feel the need to resist the mainstream interpretative culture so intensely that they lock themselves into oppositional models' (ibid., p. 216). Thankfully, the poetry is not so trapped and frequently - as in the case of Armantrout - presents itself in Altieri's desired role of 'interface between selves and worlds' (ibid., p. 232). Altieri calls for texts that 'exemplify' powerful human agency, but perhaps it is also important to acknowledge those texts that also question the very nature of what agency is in a textual situation. If we look through the smokescreen of what Alan Golding observes as 'the homology (open to debate) between formal and social disruption characteristic of the historical avant-garde' (Golding, 1994, p. 159), then we will find that Language writing has often engaged with just such issues. Frequently, it is dramatized through a problematizing of posture. This can be seen in Armantrout's situation comedy, Bernstein's poetry figured as a swoon that brings you to your senses, or the precarious balance of the 'I' in Watten's Progress buffeted by myriad interpellatons and orders: 'Relax, / stand at attention, and' (Watten, 1985, p. 1). Most demonstrably, issues of agency are explored in Language poetry's preoccupation with the notion of the person.

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