(draft and condensed version of chapter from Everybody's Autonomy originally given as a talk for Poetry as Cultural Critique Symposium, U of Minnesota, Twin Cities)
What we read and how we read it matters. When we tackle literary criticism's central question of what sort of selves do works create, I value works that encourage connections of critique. By connection here I mean works that reach out and engage large, public worlds that are in turn shared with readers. I mean forms of writing that well represent and expand changing notions of the public, of everybody. And I mean forms of writing that take advantage of reading's dynamic and reciprocal nature. "You read," Theresa Hak Kyung Cha writes, "you mouth the transformed object across from you in its new state, other than what it had been" (131).
Thus, I'm interested in this talk in the tension in a work like Bruce Andrews's "Confidence Trick" between collectivity and individualism and what sorts of cultural critique might result from such tension. I have chosen "Confidence Trick" as a focus because the "I" in in this work is not allowed to be generic, not allowed to be naively connective. The privileged "I" is always mocked and exposed as connected to larger systems of power. The moments of reader connection in Andrews's work are, thus, also moments where readers are required to question their own affiliations. If we are willing to locate something "new" in Andrews's writing, and I am willing to do this with the usual qualified reservations, then this new thing is how his work explores the connective possibilities of individualism and yet insists that this individualism be placed in a larger context of cultural critique.
Andrews in his theoretical and creative writing is one of the more strident, and at times self righteous, proponents of poetry as cultural critique. He is a writer associated with language writing, a term used to describe a school of experimental writing of the 1970s and 1980s that often looks at first glance like a disjunctive morass of phrases and sentences. This writing points to how reading is one possible arena of cultural critique in poetry. The disjunctive morass that characterizes much language writing emphasizes the inversion of hierarchical models of reading. It is readers, not an author, which matter here. Andrews, for instance, argues in "Text & Context" for reading as "an enactment, a co-production" and in "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis" he calls for "wild reading" that "let[s] the status quo read itself being quarantined, scolded, frag'd, & interrupted" (Paradise & Method 12, 54-55). Reading, as Andrews envisions it, lauds the rights of individual readers and yet also points out how this individualism is part of a larger social structure. So readers might read freely (or multiply) but also with a self-reflexive awareness."
Confidence Trick" appears in Andrews's 1987 collection Give Em Enough Rope. The work in this collection is decisively anti-poetic and avoids any hint of lyricism. It is built around disjunction. The work has an uncensored (some would say unedited) quality. Appearing side by side is intellectual and often politically inflected language ("Intentionally leaderless"; "rewriting the body"; "Camera obscura"), accusations, insults, challenges ("Don t give a shit what you think"), and punk lyrics (throughout this piece are references to groups like the Pop Group ("How long do we tolerate mass murder" 144), Richard Hell and the Voidoids ("blank generation" 145), the Tubes and Nina Hagen ("white huskies on dope" 147), Velvet Underground ("we don t perform Heroin anymore" 153), Joy Division ("Joy division" 156; "love will tear us" 161), the Buzzcocks ("orgasmaddict" 157), Teenage Jesus and the Jerks ("freud in flop" 161), the Sex Pistols ("NO FUTURE" 166), and the Clash ("radio free europe" 166)). Often racial or sexual slurs are mixed in. The address, the audience, the subject position, and the narrator are all unclear. And it is not unusual for slang and colloquialisms in English and in other languages (especially Spanish) to enter into Andrews's mix. Standard punctuation is avoided and phrases are connected by dashes. It is hard to tell where one phrases ends or begins or how it relates to what precedes or follows. Many different speech registers, quotations, language tendencies, and language systems enter into this work. Writing's sorting principal--the way, say, a novel tends to guide readers to look at certain moments in a certain order--is abandoned. Andrews's works often look like successful attempts to transcribe all the language overheard in a subway car crowded with diverse groups of people. Peter Quartermain rightly calls this "social language" (164).
While an attention to reading's connective moments is a value in its own right, it is no coincidence that the emphasis in language writing on reading as connective and communal happens at the same time as the rise of a literature that primarily addresses gender, ethnicity, and race. The question though has been what the relation between these two sorts of literatures might be. Rather than the clear, singular voice and narrative of much of the literature that gets categorized as consciousness raising, language writing tends to propose group identities with room for individualistic response. As a result, most critics assume that language writing dissolves subjectivity and is opposed to much of the literature of identity. Yet I want to argue in this talk for a more complex relationship. I begin by examining language writing's historical context and then I turn to address what this writing has to add to current debates about identity, especially the field of "white studies."
Crucial to understanding the ramifications of this connective turn and its relation to identity is to realize that language writing emerges in the late 70s and is as much a child of the previous two decades as anything else. Much has been made of these years, especially the 60s. Unfortunately these years often get categorized as an independent moment and fetishized as a brief, failed, possibility in popular commentary. But as Jameson argues, as a result of Vietnam War protests and various decolonization movements throughout the world, the 60s exemplify a seismic switch in how western society thinks of subjectivity. He writes, "[t]he 60s was, then, the period in which all these 'natives' became human beings, and this internally as well as externally: those inner colonized of the first world--'minorities,' marginals, and women--fully as much as its external subjects and official 'natives'" ("Periodizing the 60s" 181). In addition to some civil rights gains, the dominant cultural values of the time are challenged. Diversity is valued over totalization. Patriotism is questioned. Grassroots political organizing challenges the command structures of traditional leftist movements. And although both academic and popular commentators on the 60s point to how the reforms of this period have been uneven (and seem to be eroding today), the civil rights reforms that begin at this time continue to have major cultural and political impact. Or, if the 60s did anything, they at least got issues of race and gender on the table.
In the more specific arena of experimental or avant garde poetry, the 60s begin with Donald Allen's and Warren Tallman's The New American Poetry (published in 1960; the first student sit-ins in North Carolina are this same year). This anthology basically defines American protest poetry and its pluralist "I." This "I" that the New American poets use lets everyone into the privileged position, says all can speak together. It is a utopian poetics that has its roots in Walt Whitman's claim to contain multitudes. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Jerome Rothenberg, Gary Snyder, Anne Waldman again and again sample and riff Whitman's pluralism. They not only use inclusive "I"s, but they also extensively and heroically catalogue. And the New American poetry is at its most convincing (and interestingly remains convincing today to a great number of people otherwise uninterested in poetry) in its use of this inclusive catalogue.
As the 60s develop, identity concerns come to the forefront. In 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society issue the Port Huron Statement and Algerian independence is realized. In 1963, there is a large civil rights march on Washington. In 1965, U.S. combat troops enter Vietnam and large-scale bombings begin. Protests against the war accelerate. In 1966, NOW and the Black Panther Party are founded. In May 1968, students protest in Paris. In 1971, prisoners in Attica rebel. In 1975, Saigon is liberated. As concerns language writing, This begins publication in 1971 and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine begins in 1978. (1978 is also the year the Clash releases Give 'Em Enough Rope--the title of Andrews's collection.)
The differences between the New American poetry (individualistic and ego-centered) and language writing (anti-individualistic and anti-ego-centered), loosely resemble the differences between early 60s politics and late 70s politics. Basically by the mid-60s, the possibility of a pluralist "I" has come under critique. Race and gender separatism more or less begins to dominate American politics in the second half of the 1960s. Pluralism becomes suspect because it leaves the dominant bourgeois subject and all its privileges intact, because it reinforces hierarchy with its individualism, and because it gives no credence to a multitude of power differentials. Or, in other words, while the pluralist "I" claims to be everyone's, it does not allow room for the "I" of the separatist or the nationalist. Nor is it the "I" of those who meekly want to drop out of affiliation altogether. In terms of poetry, the faith in language and the self as under one's control has faded for numerous writers by the 1970s. Some critics have located this lack of faith in a revival of interest in early modernism or in the rise of theories of reading like deconstruction. But following Jameson's observation, once the "native" becomes human, questions of how to represent others and selves in literature change. The bourgeois subject suddenly has to recognize itself as such and as not necessarily natural. Questions further change as the war in Vietnam continues. The issue seems not so much how to save one's self by looking to the other, but rather how to save the other as well as one's self from being killed by the U.S. government.
This is Silliman's argument: language writing is a response and necessary challenge to the government's misuse of language in the Vietnam War.
And Vietnam certainly was very much a part of Andrews's consciousness. Andrews got his Ph.D. from Harvard in Political Science in 1975. His dissertation was on the Vietnam War and he published several crucial articles on the war in the early 1970s. This early work investigates and critiques the argument made by policy elites at the time that resistance to the war was something limited to college students and other radicals and that the general public, htened of communism, demanded the war in Vietnam. His argument--that a political elite uses the rhetoric of public demand that is often unreflective of actual public desires to justify its decisions--challenged the conventional analysis of the War. And while this might be too easy a connection, as Andrews points out the claims that get made in the name of the public, so his work contests the claims that get made in the name of the reader.
The move that I am pointing to here is one from an early 60s inclusiveness to a late 60s and early 70s attention to individualism. Think of the difference between any of those schmaltzy 60s song and the Sex Pistol's "Anarchy in the U.K." Just a quick glance shows that as the "I" of Andrews's work is notably different than the "I" of the New American poets, it is also different from the "I" of many of the works in the ethnic and race studies canon. Andrews's "I" is ever present but not stable. And it has no clearly locatable voice. The term narrator here makes no sense. "Confidence Trick" begins with the words "Intentionally leaderless" and then goes on to demonstrate this by avoiding both decorum and linear development. While the "I" is prominent, it is clustered around negations: "If I understand these words, then I find them disgraceful" — "Camera obscura don t give a damn about my bad reputation" and "They re not developing my image anymore." "Confidence Trick" twists this "I" into a mess of assertion and denial. There is an emphasis on polyvocality. "These I" as is written in "Give Em Enough Rope" (Give Em Enough Rope 55). Yet importantly, the "I" in Andrews's work is never allowed to resemble or make the claims of inclusive pluralism. Throughout "Confidence Trick," for instance, inclusion is continually troubled and denied. "I m so hollow" this work claims (142). And, as if to prove this, the "I"s in this poem are ones that readers, especially the liberal readers of the political poem, would not want anything to do with. "I believe in homicide" one ambiguously claims (143). And also, "what I use is Nestle baby formula to irritate the rodents before they expire" (144). And "I m nobody s fat smart darling anymore" (144). And "I am learning the language earnest" (145). And "I hate humans" (146).
Many would argue that this is another example of the postmodern dissolution of the subject. And that this dissolution is in itself exclusionary. Barbara Christian, for instance, makes a common complaint when she writes that critiques of subjectivity "surfaced, interestingly enough, just when the literature of peoples of color, black women, Latin Americans, and Africans began to move to 'the center'" (71). Following this, one might argue that because those associated with the language movement have been predominantly white and educated than not, that they are yet another example of those who want to deny subjectivity out of an insensitivity to subjectivities other than their own. This is what Perelman notes when he compares Andrews's work to Maya Angelou's inauguration poem "On the Pulse of Morning." He writes, "There are many reasons why Andrews will not be invited to read at any foreseeable inauguration, but high on the list would be the intensity of his aggression toward the range of ethnic and cultural identities that Angelou's poem celebrates" (102).
Perelman is correct that Andrews attacks subjectivity. Following this through Christian's argument, this would be a reason to be suspect. And Christian's suspicions are valid; it is crucial that discussions of subjectivity not prevent or discredit the strategic moves of ethnic and race studies to put marginalized identities to the forefront. Yet at the same time I want to twist this argument. Christian is right to notice that dissolute and performative models of subjectivity and ethnically and racially essentialist models of subjectivity gain prominence at the same time. But these positions might be less antithetical than it is often assumed. Rather than reading the dissolute subject as something that wants to take away the strategic moves made by essentialisms, one could instead read it as a move that similarly wants to challenge the privileges of dominant, bourgeois models of subjectivity. Rather than a postmodern call for the end of subjectivity, one consequence of the attention to individualism and its collective moments in a work like "Confidence Trick" is a more specific critique of the bourgeois subject. The turn to readers is after all a turn to a certain type of subject. Or both these moves can be read as related strategies in the same game plan to critique an unexamined subjectivity that denies power differentials. One move puts forward a marginalized subject in essentialist terms. Another move pulls back away from the essentialism of dominant, bourgeois subjectivities. And not only can these moves be aligned, but both are necessary moves in the pursuit of equality.
At the same time though, I am well aware that these two sides are not always aligned. Rather it seems crucial that there be more examination of how and where these two positions might do related work. I think it is important to avoid dismissing out of hand the complicated nature of the postmodern critique of subjectivity. Instead, I want to point to how this critique does much to counter the privileges of dominant subjectivity. While Perelman is right about the aggression, I want to stress that Andrews's work does not empty or deny subjectivity. The quotes Perelman uses to suggest that Andrews's work is aggressive toward a range of ethnic and cultural identities and that this aggressivity leaves only a "narrow margin for readers" have potency as attack only out of context (108). In context, they clearly have no supportive authorship. And also it would be difficult to read them as anything but a series of statements that want to get at the endlessly complicated construction of subjectivity in contemporary society. His work also avoids cultural appropriation by openly using others' words and yet not claiming ownership over any words. Statements of race and ethnicity are presented in this work as raw social materials. The channeled bricolage quality of Andrews's work is one reason it continually violates the decorum that surrounds discussions of race and ethnicity in leftist literature which privilege a clear position as a political necessity. Andrews's instead of presenting an inclusive "I" presents an uninclusive "I." Or he moves from a pluralism to an attention to the power differentials that make pluralism difficult.
It is also important to look beyond what the dominant bourgeois subject is in the generic and to look more specifically at what this subject does, how it represents and is represented, how it acts in literaryworks. bell hooks and Toni Morrison have already argued for more investigation of dominant subjectivities. They point out that while it has not been unusual to look at representations of marginalized subjectivities in literature, it has been unusual to do the same work on dominant subjectivities. hooks notes that "Critically examining the association of whiteness as terror in the black imagination, deconstructing it, we both name racism's impact and help break its hold. We decolonize our minds and our imaginations" (Black Looks: Race and Representation 178). And Morrison urges for more study of the influence of Africanism in American literature by white writers in Playing In the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
The studies of whiteness that follow their work and reach popular momentum in the 1980s and 1990s no longer present whiteness as an invisible neutrality that escapes comment. Much that is valuable in these studies disrupts a monolithic and naturalized whiteness and attends to how white collectivity perpetuates racism. And some recent work on whiteness in literary studies follows Morrison's advice and points to Africanist influence on white writers and examines the ramifications of this influence. Yet not all of this work has not been as liberatory as one might hope. One colleague of mine calls white studies studies in the cracker diaspora. He is guilty of being too easily dismissive, but his joke points to the ever present danger of white studies: that studies of white ethnicities such as Irishness of Italianness will appropriate the rhetoric of ethnic studies for personal ends while ignoring the larger dominance of whiteness in society.
Yet what is important about Andrews's work in the context of white studies is its continual mocking exposure of dominant identities. He does not explore white ethnicities with any sense of their marginalization. Instead, Noel Ignatiev's and John Garvey's urging that white people be traitors to whiteness makes more sense as a critical frame for Andrews's work. Pointing out that "[t]he white race is a historically constructed social formation," Ignatiev and Garvey argue that "[t]he key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race" (9, 10).
Ignatiev and Garvey are unfortunately often vague on how exactly one renounces the privileges of the white race in literature. Yet "Confidence Trick" gives this a try in several different ways. Most obviously, the work points to how one way to abolish the white club that Ignatiev and Garvey point to would be to renounce years of literary decorum and the individualism of character and voice that upholds whiteness as a confidence trick in itself. Further, as many critics have pointed out, whiteness secures power in literature and other arts by being dominantly invisible and inclusive of a large number of people while maintaining a supposedly clear exclusion at the same time. So as challenging dominant subjectivity means also addressing the dominant positions of the generic subject, throughout "Confidence Trick" the "I" is not allowed to be generic. It is continually racially inflected. And whiteness is never allowed to be neutral in this poem. "I m Dracula" the poem declares and the resonance between blood sucking and paleness is clear (149). "How do we position my body while white is not right?" the poem asks (149). And as if investigating how to write out of a white space without perpetuating a system of privilege, whiteness gets continually associated with privilege: "I don t need to want to remind you of white ambition right now" (150); "The white suburban kids couldn t handle it" (153); "you want MX missile systems up your ass, a white judge has said so" (156); "Caucasians swore by the factory system" (158); "America has all these commodities to cooperate what whites think about birth control" (176).
Further, and as I mentioned earlier, because the "I" in this work is not something that most people would want to identify with, the New American poetry's inclusive pluralism is rejected as an adequate method of challenging privilege. Rather than inviting "everyone" into a space of privilege they cannot possibly be included into, Andrews's work does not allow this space to exist with any solidity, as anything useful. Most obviously, to have an "I" that irritates the rodents with Nestle baby formula is to question the identificatory pleasures that readers might possess with dominant subjectivities. As Sianne Ngai writes in "Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust" (an article which argues that Andrews is a poet of disgust), "the possibility of disgust as a poetics resides in its resistance to pluralism and its ideology of all-inclusiveness which allows it to recuperate and neutralize any critical discourse emphasizing conflict, dissent, or discontinuity" (102). Andrews's work, as Ngai realizes, points to how self-alienation is one possible configuration of reader relations (something that reader-orientated theory tends to avoid as a possibility). And this self-alienation in "Confidence Trick" is continually insisting that readers question their relation to dominance. Similarly, the move to reader autonomy in Andrews's work is a move from the singular reading practices that uphold systems of power to a multiplicity that challenges privilege's singularity. To return to the earlier issue of what sorts of selves does writing allow readers to be, Andrews's work gives a complicated yet useful answer that points the individual to the larger social ramifications of individualism.