Thursday, June 18, 2009

I remember Tilla Brading telling me what a good teacher Tony Lopez was, and reading his book of essays, 'Meaning Performance', I'm sure it's true. The first essay in the book, 'Limits of Reference and Abstraction in American Poetry', is an admirably clear, non-techical description of Language Poetry, its rationale, and what it's trying to achieve. I'm sure that if the average, reasonably intelligent person-in-the-street were to read this essay, they'd be able to read Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian and all the rest, with no problem at all, and with a great deal of pleasure. It strikes me that an absence of such clear, non-academic explanations of so-called 'difficult' poetry may be what keeps such poetry on the margins.

Lopez identifies Gertrude Stein as a seminal figure, whose influence has increased over the years. In a later essay, he says of Stein's writing, "It is a kind of postmodernism that is not foreseen in the writings of Eliot, Pound or Williams." And on Stein's increasing influence, Lopez says:

"Stein's work has been appropriated by various interest groups because you can make it anything you like. It is abstract writing that resists meaning, so little bits of it can be made to seem full of intention that may be invention. Reading Stein's work as it is is a real and permanent challenge. She hugely expanded the possibilities for writing, and we are nowhere near using them up."


John B-R said...

Ulla Dydo has a book on Stein that leads me to think her work isn't really all that abstract. How free are readers when it comes to using a text? (Of course *I* would ask this question, given what I do to/with text! Some irony there ...) I was just looking at Thomas Keenan's *Fables of Responsibility*: "By 'reading' I mean our exposure to the singularity of a text, something that cannot be organized in advance, whose compelxity cannot be decided or settled by "theory", or the application or more or less mechanical programs. Reading, in this sense, is what happens when we cannot apply the rules. ..." Anyhow, he goes on to claim that, sans "rules", reading is an ungrounded act, and that only ungrounded acts can be truly ethical. Karl Lowith was afraid of ungrounded acts, since that leaves the term "ethics" content-empty, thus creating the possibility for a somewhat arbitrary "decisionism": Lowith's two examples of bad decisionism are Heidegger and Schmitt, both of whom filled the void with National Socialism. Of course I'm not calling Lopez a Nazi (that would be insane, he's anything but!), nor am I accusing the readers/writers he mentions in your quote of any such thing. What I am asking, however, is: is a reading of Stein that "make[s] [her text] anything you like" an ethical reading?

Alan Baker said...

In the extract I quote, Lopez was referring mainly to Stein's "How to Write", which was used by Ron Silliman as a sort of manifesto for the "New Sentence" movement. In "How to Write" there are quotes like "A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is". I think Lopez is arguing that that sentence can no more be taken as an edict, than the paragraphs in "Tender Buttons" can be taken as being "about" food, rooms or objects. Stein's writing often doesn't make sense as description of or statements about the 'real world', and make more sense in terms of language patterning and rhythm. But if you use words you can't help but make some reference to reality, and this gives scope for interpreting her statements in one of several ways (which way would be dependent on the reader and her circumstances, and is very likely to be an experience of "the singularity of a text").

A regards your question: isn't making Stein's text "anything you like" another way of saying that the meaning is supplied by the reader during an "exposure to the singularity of the text", making it an ungrounded act, and therefore ethical (according to the logic of the Keenan quote)?

John B-R said...

Exactly, Alan, I guess my question is about an ungrounded ethics, really. Were Schmitt and Heidegger ethical when they chose National Socialism? If not, why not? Or, better put maybe, w/no ground, how would we even answer such a question? And, if it's unanswerable, then what the hell is ethics, anyway?