The Person

The concept of the 'Person' in Language writing is very far from confessional. For Lyn Hejinian, author of a sequence of poems entitled 'The Person', personhood inevitably raises the issue of using language for thinking and socializing. She figures the person as a radically unstable, wide-ranging, discontinuous construct that is not safely predictable, but rather, within the bounds of mortality, open-ended. (Hejinian and Miller, 1989, p. 35)

Such a concept of the person is heavily informed by contemporary theory's replacement of traditional notions of the self as something stable and autonomous, by the unstable category of an unfixed subjectivity. Hejinian's most famous text, My Life, plays out the tension between a subjectivity that is open-ended and yet 'within the bounds of mortality', at a formal level. This prose text strikes a playful dialectic between open and closed forms. It consisted, in its first edition in 1978, of 37 sections each of 37 sentences — to match Hejinian's 37 years. When it was reprinted in 1986, Hejinian added eight new sections, and eight new sentences to each section, so as to preserve the relationship to her then 45 years of age. Nevertheless, the formal arrangement was complicated by the fact that the new material was inserted discon-tinuously into the existing text; this book is very far from being a straight autobiography. The text exists organically alongside Hejinian's ageing at the same time that its formal numerical constraints contain it. The balance between its being an open and a closed text is played out at the textual level of individual lines, particularly in section two:

You spill the sugar when you lift the spoon. My father had filled an old apothecary jar with what he called 'sea glass', bits of old bottles rounded and textured by the sea, so abundant on beaches. There is no solitude. It buries itself in veracity. It is as if one splashed in the water lost by one's tears. My mother had climbed into the garbage can in order to stamp down the accumulated trash, but the can was knocked off balance, and when she fell she broke her arm. (Hejinian, 1991, p. 9)

This brief extract from the opening of section two gives a sense of the reading experience the text generates. Sentences are placed next to each other without any overt narrative logic, and the reader has to bridge the resulting gaps. The closer one reads, the more patterns of preoccupation emerge, such as the dialectic of containment and spillage in the above lines. The prose text that refuses to follow overt narrative, and which suspends readerly attention at the level of the individual sentences rather than the overall accumulation of them into 'plot', has been a dominant feature of Language writing and has been named by Ron Silliman the 'New Sentence'. Again, Stein is a major precursor, especially her claim that 'sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are' (Silliman, 1986, p. 570). For Stein, the sentence only becomes emotional when it is incorporated into the higher unit of the paragraph. Silliman reads into this process a violence that he associates with a totalizing - and more problematically a totalitarian - drive to subsume parts into wholes. In the above Hejinian example, this dynamic is subtly present. The mother's violent attempt at stamping down the accumulated trash itself gives way to the violence of her fall and resulting injury. The statement 'There is no solitude' formally maintains its discontinuous independence, even as semantically it is testament to the text's method of making the reader acknowledge the way each sentence is modified and recontextualized by the one that precedes and follows it. The relationship between parts and wholes is obviously of major import for the renegotiation of reading as active labour, but it is also an aspect of the notion of the person as a discontinuous mass of parts.

Bob Perelman's 'The Story of My Life' dramatizes a version of the part and whole conundrum at the level of a problem close to the American psyche: that of the paradox of a democratic collective founded upon the freedom of the individual. The poem opens with characteristic satire:

I am a moral person, an artificial person, made of parts, non-recurrent.

But if I had been told at birth that I was to have both a body and a country, and that one would have to be balanced on the other . . .

The title of the poem plays upon the construction of subjectivity, just as it also registers the colloquial expression for laughing off bad experiences. This humorous but fatalistic 'story of my life' involves subjection to what poststructuralist psychoanalysis would label the 'symbolic order'; an entry into language, laws, social processes and institutions: 'go sit somewhere and don't come home until you speak the / president's language' (ibid.). It is a 'dead language everyone reads by nature / but no one gets to speak'. This is a major preoccupation of the poem: that entry into language is also a stripping of any autonomy or agency. Charles Bernstein has reiterated his claim that 'You can't fully critique the dominant culture if you are confined to the forms through which it reproduces itself, not because hegemonic forms are compromised "in themselves" but because their criticality has been commandeered' (Bernstein, 1999, p. 4). The problem seems to be one concerning the extent to which one can step outside of hegemonic forms and still be able to communicate with the desired criticality. Perel-man's poem wonders whether it is possible to not speak the president's language, when even to desire freedom from it is to fall for a form of the American dream of heroic individualism:

The citizen is to pry the concrete particulars loose, connect and animate them, freezing them for experience to experience, is that it?

A long-shot self-expressiveness which leads to lifelong self-criticism and serialization, movie rights dangling tantalizingly beyond the fingertips?

One of the earliest, but still most cogent, considerations of the concept of the person is Bernstein's essay—poem 'Three or Four Things I Know About Him', written in 1977 and later included in Content's Dream: Essays 1975—1984. It tackles issues of responsibility, autonomy and agency as they constellate around the experience of the workplace. In particular, it is critical of the consequences of alienation in the workplace as involving the construction of a 'nine to five self' (Bernstein, 1986, pp. 18—19) that is actually a 'vacancy of person' (ibid., p. 18). Alienation and dissatisfaction cause a splitting of the subject into public and private self. The text questions this, particularly as the construction of this private self that is the 'real you' distorts the notion of a person by making the public self 'this sort of neutral gear' that abnegates responsibility for its actions and intentions. Section eight of the essay is a meditation attacking the Romantic cult of the isolated outsider in terms of 'the worship of loneliness . . . as a way of being whole in the world that demands personal fragmentation as the price for fitting into society' (ibid., p. 23).

0 0

Post a comment