"Raiding the Vernacular": A Roundtable

Discussion on Bruce Andrews

March 8, 1996

Taylor Brady, Ben Friedlander, William Howe, Nick Lawrence


NL       . . . Taylor mentioned that he noticed from the interview that there's a shift in Andrews's poetics from what he's said on previous occasions, and since Bruce is famous for aesthetic consistency over the length of his career, perhaps it would be interesting to address that.

BF       What is the shift?

TB       I wouldn't see it so much as a shift in program or project as a backing-off from some of the more grandiose claims that are made in the talk he gave in the Politics of Poetic Form  anthology. I've got two things highlighted here, one in the body of the talk he gave proper:


            To 'horizon' -- as a verb, an infinitive -- that is, to grasp what the animating pressures (or constructions & arrangements) of intention & desire are given, are up against, are faced with. (This is the hidden 'face' of desire.) The scope of this embraces the overall social body, the contested hegemonies on the map, the whole that needs altering, a total which is close to the 'false': not 'everything,' not statistics, not the 'thousand points of light,' but a system.

                        In its own workings, writing can offer a more intimate grasp of this totality: expanding to the limit the contextual horizon within which you can imagine meaning & sense being produced and realized. (29)


            He seems to be making a claim here for the ability of writing, and particularly the kind of poetic writing in which he's engaged, to engage in a mapping of a social totality. In a sense that rehearses the claim of a theorist like Althusser explaining why Marxism is not just another ideology; there are these particularistic ideologies that all contain some significant blindspots or are based on their position in the sphere of [general] ideology, but Marxism manages to escape that by virtue of being a science. It's a pretty bold claim for Althusser to make, and it seems like a really outrageous claim for Andrews to make when you shift the ground from critical theory to the practice of a certain kind of poetic writing. He seems to be making the same sort of totalizing claim for a mid-'80s "language writing" that Althusser would have made for his own structural Marxism. In the interview, he seems to back off from that. Charles asks, "Do you think poetry is a place that can change political values? is a medium that can change political values?" And Bruce says, "There's a lot of posturing that goes on around that issue. People making theoreticist claims about writing that nobody reads, as having tremendous revolutionary implications, and then other people scoffing at the very possibility or even the desire to have poetry or writing have any kind of social and political implications. I think it works on the writer, and it works on the reader, probably more as a kind of reinforcement of more fragile beliefs or attitudes that were getting formed, that need more support." So . . .

BF       But I don't see those two pieces as addressing the same point.

WH      I think they are. That's what struck me about this interview, that he seems to have changed from a rather severe Marxism in this thinking to something more like an anarchist position, where the direct change-through-writing ambitions he hints at in his early essays is gone. That's what he means when he says he can't motivate people to change that way.

BF       But he doesn't talk about motivation in the interview, he doesn't even really talk about mapping.

NL       In that PPF essay, he uses something like Jameson's cognitive mapping as a metaphor for what he's attempting to do in poetry.

BF       The quote in the interview is about changing political values. And that other piece has much more to do with what formally constitutes the writing, its possibilities. I don't mean his work hasn't changed, I just don't see it in those two quotes side by side.

TB       What I'm responding to in the earlier quote is the implicit attachment of writing to a notion of Marxist critique, whereby constructing that kind of knowledge of the social totality, that kind of social theory, would itself be constitutive of social action, would itself be a politics. And the question of the effectiveness or agency of the writing is answered --

BF       Does he say that in the PPF essay, that cognitive mapping is itself constitutive of a politics?

NL       Not political action in the social sense, but as a more elemental form of politics. What was interesting about that talk series was the primary opposition or tension that developed between his position and the one in Erica Hunt's talk. Erica was arguing for a more grassroots, empowerment sense of the politics of writing, basing it on an essentially sixties understanding of the new social movements, and in favor of a then-nascent multicultural project for literature. Bruce says at one point something to the effect of, I'm just on the point of denying that that is in any way politically progressive, because that kind of identity politics carried to an extreme is just a reinforcing mechanism -- what he calls in the interview a compensatory structure.

BF       I don't know about the Jameson reference, but it seems to me that Bruce's poetics have always had this Lukácsian element, the idea that consciousness is the element of political change, so that that mapping would be part of the consciousness of the poet in the act of writing, incorporating all this social reference; and here, maybe it's downsized for the '90s with that "kind of reinforcement of more fragile beliefs or attitudes," but the emphasis is still on knowledge of the writer in relation to the audience as opposed to actual political work.

NL       But there's something else interesting about that term "reinforcement." Earlier in Andrews's poetics you get the sense that writing's not about reinforcing anything preexisting in the status quo, it's about constituting -- primal, constitutive value-making. It's interesting that you see Bruce transposing the Althusserian analysis from critical theory to poetry as the "outside," the Archimedean point, because it's there, in his view, that language is at its most generative, that's the crucible of political possibility, in a completely self-aware poetry. So by using that term -- I don't know if he'd back off from the claims he makes earlier, but it does seem to be at least tonally a shift, and significant as a shift in the language he uses to describe his project.

WH      You can also see the shift in the way he goes about constituting the work. Early on, especially in the 1970s, he uses fragmented words, word groups, whereas later he tends to use whole phrase structures; the latter seems more a reinforcement of idiomatic language use. The phonetic stuff, especially Love Songs, is all about building new language units, and after that he starts using more phrase- and speech-based colloquialisms, language that's already constituted as social meaning, and piling it on top of each other to address the politics of meaning, as opposed to creating it.

BF       I think you're right to identify this Althusserian aspect of Bruce; and it's almost like that's the grad-student poli-sci hipster in him, where all the scientific jargon comes in, especially in stuff like Love Songs, where it's really only interesting as a kind of attempt to enact a Barthesian pleasure of the text, and then there's the other work, like Shut Up, which is incredibly fun to read but has much more to do with his moral brand of Marxist consciousness of historical processes -- I don't think he's ever reconciled those two aspects into a single poetics. Since he's the poet of hyperbole, he's bound to make statements like those at Charles's New School series that test by their provocativeness, and it's there that their interest lies, rather than in any truth-content as it might apply to his own work. . . .

NL       Actually, in the interview, Andrews sounds very guarded with Charles, as if he's well aware of the potential for cooptation in this nice radio series on poets, LineBreak. -- But we should talk about what it is in Shut Up that is supposedly addressing consciousness, even at that level --

BF       It's not addressing, it's acting it out.

NL       Or acting it out: what goes on in that process.

BF       That's why I resist the word "mapping," because --

NL       It implies a separate language. So he's acting out or theatrically inhabiting the consciousness of diverse segments of society, but curiously you can just about always tell when it's Bruce speaking. That's the interesting thing about his work; he abjures the "I," he abjures subjectivity, and yet it's possible to locate the identifiably Andrewsian "take" in the mix -- thrown in with all the other jargon, with the ad language, the soundbites, the weekly news.

BF       He's a DJ, he's got a thousand records, and he's getting off on the fact that he's got this massive record collection with all these things in it. So there's the pretense that it's not his voice, but . . .

NL       But you can hear the voice. It's almost as if that's part of the strategy: he puts in "his" words along with all the other stuff as a kind of experiment to see how you read it. Someone once used the metaphor of the "town meeting" for his work, and that seems to me completely wrong; it's not about a deliberative polyvocality at all in that sense -- nothing like Rousseau's convocation of the people's voices. That's not the politics of the work . . .

WH      It's not about a consensual agreement, it's a unidirectional effort on his part.

TB       It's very much a mode of orchestration, there's the orchestrating of these energetic clashes between these different idiolects, clashing snippets of different kinds of language -- in that, I would compare his technique, strictly at the level of composition, to somebody like John Zorn, whom he collaborates with. It becomes clear when you make that analogy that however much he eschews that kind of subjectivity and eschews the lyric I, it's still very much his composition; in the same sense as in a Zorn piece like Cobra, where despite the fact that there's no notative music in it, and it's supposedly structured by the guided improvisation of the players, it's still very much a John Zorn composition. That comes through clearly.

NL       There is this slide back and forth: between a hatred of ego, of subjectivity -- sort of the major theoretical aversion of Language writing in the '80s -- and then a return to it, through the back door so to speak, simply in confronting the principle of selection as method. In address, in tone, all that stuff, it all comes back to the problem of individual structuring and its motivation, its vantage point in society.

BF       That has to do with the how of writing, what he needed to say in order to write the way he does. It's like when you're walking on the ledge of a building, if you look down you'll get dizzy and fall, so you have to avoid looking down in order to do this crazy thing. But pretending it's not ego or that it's not his own rhetoric or tone allows him to have this incredible outpouring. If you'd postulated this project in its details beforehand you'd never have come up with it.

WH      This seems to be his argument: that there may be an ego here, but it's not mine. That what's coming out is some other kind of language than the self's. That the ego you're reading and the ego I have are two different things. So that in this welter of language trash, the only ego I'm using is the sorting process, not the culling process.

BF       That brings up psychology. I mean, if there's ever a project that's ripe for a psychoanalytic approach, it's Bruce Andrews's. And it would be interesting to know more about his childhood and all that stuff. But apart from that, and sort of in the grad student lit-crit manner I don't mean to be dismissive of here, the ego of the work itself is all psychic and emotional energy -- sexual violence and so on; it's actually a very narrow range of emotion. There's a certain kind of violent emotion that seizes everything else, so once you include a little bit of that, everything turns into it, like a few colors mixed turn black . . .

WH      It's like watching TV, only you don't have any control over the TV, it turns on its own --

BF       Or someone else is sitting on the couch with your clicker.

WH      And you're totally powerless, it's really frustrating, but it's also funny. What sense it makes is outside the context of the language.

NL       Well, to address Shut Up, and it's true that the tonal range is relatively narrow -- which might explain his later shift to a more lyrical sense of language in the Dante project, which hasn't come out yet in its entirety -- but what I've always liked in this work is precisely the sardonic attack, the no-holds-barred satirical thrust of good parts of the book. I don't know about the melodramatic back-cover copy where "the poet angrily proclaims," etc. -- that makes it sound straighter than it is. It's less interesting where he reverts to his old micro-focus on word clusters. There's the snide commentary: "He has arrogance of ignorance, not so great . . ." But then: "metal servile," etc., which seems to slow it up. It's at the social level, when it's phrase-based, or even sentence-based --

WH      I wouldn't call it sentence-based. It's that there are two different phrases that are put together to form a sentence of sorts; that's where most of the really funny syntheses are in Shut Up, where two sentences are cut up and their parts spliced elsewhere.

NL       But it's not in the suture itself, it's in the recognizable voice of "He has arrogance . . ." If it's too discrete, too much cut-and-splice, the homogeneity of the language gets revealed very quickly, it becomes a blur in the less interesting sense; it lessens the purchase you get on his material.

BF       See, those are the judgments that Bruce's work depends on. Against the argument that it's all the same, it's boring, it's all a blur, he needs people to say I like this one and not this one, because then that's what transforms it into his own lifework: "Yeah I like Cobra  but not this," etc. So that's exactly the response that he wants, in order for it to be what Charles talks about when he mentions "recuperation as literature." He needs to be recuperated as literature; or else what is it.

WH      This project dies.

NL       No, the project doesn't die; what dies are the claims for the work. That's the contradiction you keep coming up against. The claim is not that it's poetry . . .

WH      Well what are the claims of this later work, then?

BF       To put it in Bruce Andrews's terms, the claim is that it's $13.95. You know, the capitalist market thing; in other words, it has to be worth your time to buy it and read it and think about it.

WH      So is that what's being recuperated, the $13.95? I think whether or not this would get recuperated as part of the literary tradition is if it would be worth reading . . .

NL       It depends on whether you want to cede the notion of this writing as transcending the generic limitations of "poetry," which he acknowledges as being a restrictive institutional construct. I maintain that you can do that with anybody, Bruce Andrews not excepted.

BF       Do what?

NL       Treat it as ultimately literary writing, unpack the claim that it's categoryless, that it's about overthrowing literature altogether.

WH      But he doesn't say that. He doesn't write generic writing or non-generic writing, he's just writing writing. Something that's looking primarily at language and not at other aspects of writing. And that gets reconstituted or appropriated or co-opted by the literary structure. He isn't writing outside of literature.

NL       That's what I'm saying. I'm saying it's not necessarily cooptation. Think about the Dada stance. They would be utterly contemptuous -- "$13.95 from Sun and Moon, no thanks, I'd rather throw paper airplanes at the Cabaret Voltaire." Andrews is not about that, he has a much more nuanced or mediated understanding of what his work is doing. And ultimately that lends itself to a literary recuperation. You'd think, from reading the poetics, he'd want to deny that.

BF       I meant something slightly different from that. Partly because I don't give a shit about revolutionary politics, or if anything I'm against them, I feel completely free to ignore that whole aspect of Bruce's work. So instead I see the two poles as being either, it's a critical intervention in a certain arena in which poetry is one aspect of critical theory or political science; or on the other hand, it's literature, meaning therefore the pleasures of the reader. I don't really believe that these two things are so distinct, but Bruce seems to operate between these two poles. From the point of view of critical intervention, the problem his work comes up against is that it all sounds the same, there's no development of ideas; we started out by trying to figure out if there's a shift in the work, and maybe there's one big shift, but it's not like with the different Derrida books where in one he analyzes Heidegger and the question of spirit and in the other he analyzes Kierkegaard and the logic of sacrifice. You can't say with Shut Up Bruce is dealing with the Reagan years but in Love Songs it's really the second-term Nixon. . . . So as critical intervention, the only interest is the idea of the project, and the actual books are irrevelant. But he doesn't want the books to be irrevelant, so he has to have them recuperated as literature in order for it to be worth his while to have done 50 or 100, 000 pages of it. And so that's what I see as his double bind.

TB       I think that may go along with the somewhat more modest claims being made in the interview as opposed to the address in the PPF. That sort of recognition, that there's always that sort of institutional embeddedness to characterize the work, it's always recuperable to some genre or institution of poetic writing, or anti-poetic writing, or whatever. It's very characteristic of a lot of writers from that particular group loosely constituted [laughter] as Language writing. In recent years they've had to come to the realization of their own writing as institutionally embedded, as co-opted by considerations of genre, academic or other institutional protocols, etc., and sort of having to back off from some of those claims for a pre-generic kind of writing, or a writing beyond genre, and recognize the strictures that are placed on the act of writing regardless of whether the intent is to undermine genre or speak to a more total notion of the social. People are having to deal with these questions of the specificity of institutional power, and that comes up in the interview, which is another thing I wouldn't have expected to hear Bruce Andrews say in the mid-'80s, talking about the necessity of dealing with the strictures posed by certain institutional contexts, having to deal with specific institutional powers as opposed to the social as the broadest possible horizon.

NL       That's a problematic way of recasting the "oppositional" in oppositional poetics, because for one thing, it's not as if there were no institutions around this work when it began to come out. Bruce's work, for example, came out of a context that included Michael Lally's writing workshop in DC in the late '60s, and later Bernadette Mayer's workshop at the Poetry Project in New York; those are the scenes within which he defined his own project, as well as the backdrop of the whole visual arts scene -- mediated certainly by powerful institutions -- which he's described as being much more radical and adventurous than virtually any writing being done at the same time. It's freer and easier to be moving away from institutions you're not affiliated with than it is to work within those you are.

BF       I like this idea, though, that there's been a backing off from the earlier claims; can you say more about that?

TB       The quote that really got me thinking along those lines was this: "The scope of this embraces the overall social body, the contested hegemonies on the map, the whole that needs altering, a total which is close to the 'false'. . . . In its own workings, writing can offer a more intimate grasp of this totality." And that idea of horizon and of totality is repeated consistently throughout the piece.

BF       What is he claiming that poetry is doing with regard to that totality?

TB       That it can provide in some sense a total map of the social.

BF       I mean, is it like a urine sample of the social, or something, that you could then study and figure out . . .

NL       He does talk about it simultaneously as "explanation" and as "praxis" -- "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis" -- the bifurcation neatly sums it up. There's understanding as goal, understanding how you have all the numerous conflicts in society at large operating nonetheless under a single systemic limit or sign-boundary; and then there's a practical intervention into it -- and that's the utopian side of the project.

BF       The intervention I understand, it's the explanation part I don't quite get. Does it say more explicitly how that's the case, in that piece? The work is not discursive; that seems like a hard limit.

TB       I'm not pointing to a congruence between what's actually achieved by the work and the claims that are made for it in the poetics, just the claims themselves.

BF       I like the idea of like, we're the revolutionary tribunal, we're in the era of Marat/Sade; you know, "Comrade Andrews has claimed that his work can explain the totality of the social. Is there anyone in his defense? Off with his head!"

TB       "In its own workings, writing can offer a more intimate grasp of this totality: expanding to the limit the contextual horizon within which you can imagine meaning & sense being produced and realized."

BF       He's giving us the ground with which we could make an explanation. But, you know, easier said than done.

TB       But that grasp immediately becomes an intervention. In the next sentence: "Even if the horizon celebrates itself as openness, I doubt we can locate its limits without challenging them, without attempting to set up something outside." So immediately this project of mapping the social is in turn a project of contesting the limits of the social, by virtue of its ability to embrace a totality; to see that as what he calls later "an agitated totality." A unity constituted by a contradiction, or something like that.

BF       Well I'm with him totally if we talk about gathering samples, creating a ground with which we could do some work with that, that would make it easier to do a certain kind of work with what he's gathered from the social totality. But the explanation part seems to fall through the cracks.

TB       I think the former possibility is much more in line with what he says in the interview with Charles, that it's particularized in the sense that he recognizes, if nothing else, an empirical limitation of the writing, that the single act of writing is not going to image the social, that it will be a collection of samples and necessarily limited by the range of that collection: how far afield do I go to collect samples, how open can my ears be, how much can I process.

NL       When I first read the work in the '80s, and I had no idea about the poetics advanced alongside it, I thought of hip-hop. The energy is all focused on a particularly public kind of utterance, or private-made-public, usually street argot or the kind of language from conversations in bars, etc. -- relatively little so-called reflective or intimate speech. It's triangulated in its approach to the reader by the sense of its projection into, or derivation from, public space, with a potential audience in the background, like playground or locker-room talk -- an implicit theatricality. And yet the dynamic remains primarily intersubjective; that public triangulation is what creates its particular orbit on the page. He's not as interested in institutional language as Charles is, for instance; with Bruce it's much more about raiding the vernacular.

WH      But we always end up talking about the later work; in the early work he does sound more personal, does use situations of small groups talking. He's working with a smaller linguistic base, working with words and sounds in an intimate way. . . . It's more about acoustic relationships, about the politics of typography, than about society as a whole. . . .

BF       I would want to insert a parenthesis; I think there is a difference between the earlier work and the later, but I don't think we can talk about the differences as, one is personal and the other is social; maybe the relationship between the personal and the social is different, but if we're going to take seriously the consequences of our argument contesting the claim that there's no ego in the work, that it's been eradicated -- if you follow that out to its logical conclusion, then the social is personal and the social material in this work is as much a way of expressing what's personal as the personal is a way of getting access to the social. The subtitle "Social Romanticism" -- you can treat it as a joke, but I think of it as a serious claim that to some extent also undermines -- if a claim is being made in that [PPF] lecture about the work in terms of its sociality, in terms of a social intervention, then it's undercut by this subtitle; the lecture isn't dealing with the other side of the equation. By repressing "personal," it seems to be repressing half of what the work is about.

TB       There is this residue in Shut Up of the sort of peripatetic movement of pastoral, which is undercut by its alphabetic organization, and by the constant undercutting of the possibility of any sort of continuous lyric voice, but there is still this sort of cinematic image I always get of the poet strolling through the city. And in that sense, questions of subjectivity aren't always bracketed out in a total way; that's the social romanticism, that it's a romantic version of the social.

NL       The title itself questions the link between those two worlds at the same time it draws them together. I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up; Or, Social Romanticism. "Or"? Or "equals"? In both the interview and the lecture Bruce seems to be shying away from the more interesting, disturbing implications of the personal-political commutative principle in favor of a resettling of notions of project or oeuvre. If that's the case, the question becomes how much do we buy this modernist narrative of development -- from the quantum-level micro-technics of word and phoneme explored in the '70s, to the more fully social horizoning of language-use undertaken in the '80s and '90s. I don't see that as a narrative of Greenbergian necessity the way he presents it -- you know, first you start with the atom, and once you've learned all about that you can move on to the water molecule.

WH      It's not a necessity except in the sense of a necessary fiction for undertaking the work. Yes, the personal is there, it's always there, but the importance of the early work is that it enabled him to get a hold on language, what it looks like, how it sounds, to fiddle with its elements without worrying about "making sense" conventionally; and this carries over to the later work where the phrases or sentences make surface sense but include that other sense of play, that childish grapple with language as matter . . .

BF       But what I think Nick is suggesting is that the narrative he gives doesn't -- it's true as far as it goes, but it doesn't account for how he got to this. It's as if I were to ask you, How did you get to graduate school, how did you decide to get a Ph.D., and you said, Well, I was living in California and I bought a plane ticket to Buffalo. It's true, and it says something maybe about the way Bruce thinks that he would account for it this way, but it doesn't really account for the work. What's always struck me about Bruce -- and that's why I see a continuity between the PPF lecture and this -- is that the work has always seemed more interesting than the claims. The claims have never seemed to me grandiose; they've always seemed incredibly banal, like as if somehow I could hold up a mirror to the totality, that would be interesting; as if I'd rather read that than read a Superman comicbook. The work has always been compelling in its own very weird way, and Bruce has always seemed to me to be at a loss to account for what makes it compelling.

TB       I think that it's that bumping up of a vastly expanded range of social reference, and whether he gets that to a social totality or not, we do have to agree that he does incorporate a vastly wider range of social reference than what we're accustomed to think of as involved in writing poetry --

BF       But less than some poets, whom we don't think of talking about in that way. I guarantee you that there's less social reference in Bruce than in Robert Kelly's work. We don't think of Robert Kelly as being this grand poet of the social totality --

WH      But Robert Kelly doesn't juxtapose wildly disparate --

BF       I'm just saying, it's true there are a lot of strange things in Bruce's poems that we're not used to seeing in poetry, but that's not what makes them unique. I could list ten poets who also have an incredible range; Pablo Neruda, for whom it was very important to have a poetry that would include, in his formulation, you know, butterflies and rivers -- in any case, there's a lot of reference there and it's global in a way that Bruce's isn't. Bruce's is America. I don't want to define it as being stuck, it's just that that doesn't seem to me ipso facto what makes the work compelling.

TB       What is interesting about the work is that bumping up against each other of, on the one hand, that urge toward expansion, range, a broad field of reference, and on the other, the limits imposed by compositional strategy, or context in whatever sense, whether it's the context of the book that the piece is published in, or relating it to prior works by Bruce or contemporaneous works by people associated with him -- that for me is what's most interesting about the work, the sort of strains and blockages that are created by the particularizing stops in the work. And I think you're right, it's something that, in his claims for the work, he addresses very little.

BF       I get off on the ugliness myself. I don't think I've ever seen a poetry that's as unrelievedly ugly as Bruce's. I mean, a Philip Levine book is infinitely uglier and tawdrier, but it seems completely blind to its own ugliness; Bruce has a loving attitude about the vulgarity and the coarseness and the profanity. That -- that's actually enough.