Smashing the Control Machine
Bruce Andrews is not fond of hegemonic systems. He views any assertive, accepted, or conventional structure as an undesirable implementation of control that must be revealed and subverted. His targets are as diverse and encompassing as religion, philosophy, capitalism, democracy, justice, and identity. Typically his poetry functions to undermine the norms of grammar, diction, and syntax: of language itself. Language is the principle medium of control and Andrews is doggedly engaged in a guerilla struggle to use their matrix against them, prying open a space for something else. He resents this (generally) invisible control of, and through, language, and he resents its invisibility. He describes the control system in "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis" like this: "Beyond whatever autonomy we'd like to imagine for language, there's an outside: an organized & powered network: a set of priorities & practices, of exclusions & sightings, of promotions & publicizing — which power relations in society organize in a certain way." Or, more succinctly, "Meaning has its FBI" ("C2B2-a"). However since the institutions themselves are reinforced by those who perhaps unwittingly adhere to them, it is not possible to attack them directly. This is the status quo. So Andrews's poetry instead targets his audience—it illumines the control wielded by these structures by violating his readers at the points they are controlled. It is a grass-roots denigration where no norm goes unassailed. His poetry is therefore not an example of existence beyond control, but functions with a vibrant agency to expose the nauseating underbelly of culture/society, provoking anyone listening to stab away. This is what Andrews means when he says "poetry as praxis." Moreover it is somewhat inaccurate to say that he's seeking the utter annihilation of the machine, but rather he "want(s) the biggest possible verb — to take on the machine and remake it...This restores Writing to word-dom, as a social all-over" ("Revolution Only Fact Confected"). The utopia he's fighting for is one where language is not an agent of political and religious determination dominating the norm and controlling the people, but one where the people can interact freely with language, one where the underlying governance is not unified in a normalizing source and is subsequently anarchic.
The principle difficulty in staging guerrilla war on language as a functional avatar of control lies in the "How?" It is not feasible to simply describe the manner in which these social organizations discretely control the masses and reinforce the status quo through language (i.e.: Catholicism controls through guilt by association with and worship of impossible ideals such as virgin motherhood), because the language and the methodology are perpetually in motion, are fluid. In this sense, "The 'real' is at odds with Realism" ("Reinventing Community"). Realism, therefore, is not an option. Andrews's poetic method instead relies upon his use of "syntax as demolition derby" "to open up new relationships by crazed collision — laying bare the device" ("Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis"). What follows is a comprehensive analysis of the various collisions Andrews orchestrates employing extensive examples from I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up and from published excerpts of The Millennium Project.
Andrews's principal motor for collision is juxtaposition. The most primal example of which utilizes units of word length. Even this simple device has multiple variations within his work. Here are two lines from "C2B1-a": "terminally anglo maginot // suckled pico pulpo." These have really no conceivable conventional meaning; to look for one is to miss the point here. What they do have is four words with assonant rhyme on their final syllables that are vertiginously a-lyrical and presented in rapid succession. This is an impressive feat and it's achieved in part by the absence of conventional sense but mostly by the strikingly deviant syllables preceding the terminating ones—which are accentuated by the presence of a different consonant before the rhymed sound in each case. This achieves a complete reversal of the conventional role of rhyme in poetry, that being to beautify and expedite the reading and to provide comfort through repetitive structure. Word juxtaposition functions in another way in instances such as this one: "Brownnosing vibrato tart crudded crystal radar devaluation." ("I Think"). Here the word-to-word discontinuity challenges the very functionality and construction of a sentence—the subject and predicate are absolutely unknowable. Moreover its imagery somehow manages to be both vivid and occluded. Another luminous example is: "Nazi lift-off crotch faux-pas" ("I'm Too Busy To Compromise"). The tone of this phrase fluctuates violently from word-to-word: from the embodiment of pure evil, to an invocation of national-space-program-pride, to the locus of sexual reproduction, and finally to embarrassment at the commission of a social err. This passage concisely throttles the reader by virtue of the socially constructed associations these words possess—it attacks the marionette where its strings are affixed.
Andrews also frequently employs juxtaposition of phrase, sentence, and even paragraph length units. Phrase juxtaposition such as "Exposing the nipples to the air is one of the most efficient ways you can toughen tender nipples; all culture is a Jap" similarly attack norms of sentence structure ("Double Bagging"). However, here we also see the combination of an elementally humorous statement slammed up against an attack on culture that employs viciously dehumanizing slang. The humor and the offense are polar portions of the same sentence and the reader is helpless; two diametric emotional responses are demanded simultaneously. Again, the reader is exposed to violence because of his associations. This passage also contains another common Andrewsian tactic in its neologistic usage of "Jap." Diction and syntax are both challenged whenever he makes such a maneuver. Furthermore, this is a collision of the technical and the colloquial, which occupy diametric ends of the usage spectrum. An example of a lengthier collision comes at the end of "Make Your Customers Nauseous":
This is an interesting passage for a number of reasons. First, it's the only autobiographical detail in a 300-page body of 100 poems, which indicates the importance that Andrews places on the relation of the author to the work: fundamentally negligible. Second, this is one of the select few times that a sentence follows another cogently (the others occur in what seems to be found text: one about the importance of the customer and one pertaining to clitoral awareness). While this easily readable conventional structure seems to be in conflict with his poetic aims, perhaps even a respite from them, the conflict/respite is an illusionary one. This passage is an illustration of how to undermine the system with its own resources—the tag expresses gratitude to the Soviets for scaring the NDEA into funding neo-Marxist research. Moreover in contrast to what precedes (and follows), such stark sense is utterly shocking.
Kids are such a joy, let's eat them. My graduate education, most of which I devoted to thinking about neo-marxist theories of capitalism and imperialism, was financed by a grant, awarded under the National Defense Education Act, NDEA, which was passed in 1958, in reaction to the Soviet Union's triumphant launch of Sputnik in 1957, putting a satellite in space ahead of the U.S. So: thank you, Nikita!
Another tool of juxtaposition is the =, which Andrews has been playing with since the very beginning (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E comes to mind). It pervades the poems of I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up, and serves a multitude of purposes within them. For instance in "My Roots, No Thanks" he writes: "Freedom = groceries." On a basic level he's derailing the very act of equation by placing an abstract concept on one side of the = and a lowly noun of food on the other—but he's also decrying that very concept (freedom) as a commodity which is bought and sold (in other words: freedom is not for free). This equation simultaneously undercuts the tenets of capitalism—if you think you have the freedom to spend your money on whatever you'd like, think again: you need groceries. Additionally Andrews is declaring that freedom is simply an item found on a list (re: The Bill of Rights)—that freedom is something we have (or rather believe we have) because it shows up in (and exists only as) word-form on a piece of paper. In this way freedom possesses no more significance and grants no more agency than creamed corn. Furthering the destruction of conventional symbolic understanding, are utterly absurd equations such as "Cunnilingus = tea cup" ("Make Your Customers Nauseous"). Here the = is absolutely powerless to mean. Moreover, Andrews proves inequality to be equally vulnerable: "E mc2" ("Metaphor As Illness"). The challenge is an amusing one—the audience knows that the statement is incorrect, but a very select few could ever prove it. The point? Perhaps it functions purely Socratically to force the reader to probe and question what they really "know" and establish a reluctance, or even an outright refusal, to accept anything as "fact." Another disruptive equation can be found in "We Are Modern": "helping = possession of another." Andrews declares that even in the most innocent of social interactions there is manipulation and the subtle insinuation of control (re: altruism is a euphemism). On a somewhat related citation from "Make Your Customers Nauseous": "Love of a buck = love of a man," he indicates that citizens of a capitalist society are irrevocably identified with their capital—to the point where "a buck" can represent and even replace "a man."
The broadest breed of juxtaposition Andrews employs is an extended thematic one of poem length. This is rare in his work, but a clear example follows: C4A1-b
defr' bouted spandex
hefting fractured fob
Hybrid mod leveled budgies
Iconic deb orphan whores
vails teen merz, oven biz
Coif slobbers retro tool
pimping Teflon niche
numerals lit up by meat
Tentacled weird darvon bats
This nightmarish piece weaves strands of often deviant sexuality with those of consumer technology. "Hardcore," in pornographic terms, means penetration—so "Hardcore all" can be read as the penetration of everything. The violating presence here is the materialistic one—and it is diseased. Capitalism, even beyond basic pimping, is threateningly sexualized (and threatening sexuality). It possesses the capacity to destroy the immune system; to mention death in its presence is redundant. Which introduces another weapon employed by Andrews—repetition. Repetition with and for varying meanings. The repetition in the above poem, "HIV // HIV // HIV // HIV," is not a repetition which destroys meaning as the lengthy pauses preserve it and make this passage absolutely torturous to listen to. The audience begs for an ending (but HIV only ends one way). This is similar to the sentence "Cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer," however the later also contains the nature of cancer; rapid unimpeded reproduction ("The Public Doesn't Exist"). While this sentence hopelessly defies diagramming, it is effectively both an image and a definition of itself—proving the potential of a-grammatical structures, of unconventional syntax. In "Revolution Only Fact Confected" he writes "Person person person person person person" and later "body body body body body." The former induces numbness to humanity and is indicative of a general annoyance with the unidentifiable (generic) swarming populace that borders on infestation. The later functions along the same lines, but in reference to the bodies of texts of noxiously "familiar subject form" (re: conventional literary endeavors). "Scrape Me Off" includes the line "If, if, if, if." Here the repetition emphasizes the pointlessness of considering the conditional. The same poem also includes another variation on redundancy: "Amebiasis, Hepatitis, A, B & non-A, non-Bi syphilis, Herpes simplex 1 & 2, Venereal warts, Penile, anal & oral gonorrhea, Proctitis, Nonspecific urethritis, Epstein-Barr virus, etc." Here every subject indicates essentially the same thing. The "etc.," of course, is a false conclusion to the list; it ends by noting its continuous proliferation.
Andrews also dynamically attacks cliches and common colloquial speech. Typically he effects this through simple substitution, the juxtaposing of a new word with an old context. For example: "Way of all flush," a pun of biblical origin that completely undercuts whatever inherent beauty there is in scripture ("Just Because"). Here the meaning of the line is fundamentally unchanged, however excrement is inexorably intimated into the word of God. Another example from "I'm Too Busy To Compromise": "How square things count," is a satirical version of the ubiquitous talk show title format which declares the absurdity and pointlessness of both the genre and the medium. In "Double Bagging" there is a similarly compromising spoof of car ads: "When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler." The commercial is simultaneously made ridiculous and identified with evil incarnate. He oft illumines the vapidity and pointlessness of casual conversation with statements such as this one: "Hi, what are you doing, I'm learning the metric system. Too bad we can't pee out of our nipples" ("Neon Helps Us Stupid"). Small talk is proven far less enthralling than non sequitur. Moreover, in the section prior to the non sequitur, this species of idle pratter is shown to be an act of conformity—What are you doing? You're teaching yourself to adhere to the system, to the status quo. And then there's "uh, . . . baby, I need some Charles Bronson," ("Who Has The Pliers To Doubt It"). Which performs a similar denigration for pillow talk. In "My Ovaries Don't Have Enough Room," Andrews assails an age-old cliche when he writes "tempis fuckface." The implication seems to be that the existence and persistence of cliches is an obscene affront to the potential of language. The impact of this collision is enhanced by the use of a high, scholars-only language (Latin) with the basest of English profanity. An ultimate reversal is achieved in Andrews's re-write of the oft-quoted opening to Melville's Moby Dick: "Call me the whale" ("Border State Has To Grow Up"). Of course this "Ishmael" is an unreliable narrator, but who would have expected he was the whale? In his essays and poetry Andrews often voices his disregard for literature, and here, with four monosyllabic words, he has turned an epic-length canonical classic on its head. In all such cases, where a normally inappropriate word is positioned in an otherwise absolutely conventional statement, a paradox seems active, and that is this: the simple substitution points out both the power to transform and effect contained within every linguistic monad (the word in rebellion against the context) and also their arbitrariness by virtue of the fact that the convention is still evoked, still recognizable (the context in rebellion against the word).Another prevalent method of audience provocation is shock. Andrews's use of shocking statements is always heightened by juxtaposition, and in some instances he achieves a completely overpowering efficacy. In "Autocracy Managed By Midgets" he follows a statement about Jesus with: "How can anything so big & black penetrate something so small & pink?" There has always been tension between Christianity and sex, but rarely have they collided so ferociously—and after the impact, Jesus is quite frankly forgotten. The gut response, however, does indicate quite strongly that religion does control, even to the disturbing depth of reflex. More colorful and shocking imagery: "why don't I squeeze some of my pimple juice into your herpes scar?" ("It's Time To Stop Glorifying The White Army"). The question is preposterous, not in that it lacks meaning, its meaning is quite clear, but in that it is impossible to imagine it being posed in any situation. The reader is therefore forced to reconsider what is possible within their social circles and to reevaluate the latitude he possesses in the questioning of others in his own social interactions. Faux pas cannot be an issue. Shocking statements are fundamentally acts of violence against the sensibilities of the audience and Andrews exploits this even to the point of simply insulting them sans pretense: "I want educated oxen; hey, fuckhead, this is art" ("I Want Educated Oxen"). The shock is threefold: it is a non sequitur and is therefore unexpected, it directly degrades anyone who reads/hears the poem, and finally it declares (correctly) that this defamatory act "is art"—that is: the highest form of cultural aesthetic achievement is pointing out that you are a "fuckhead." This heralds a questioning of the conventions of definition, of art, of insult, and of oxen.
Given Andrews's goals, why fundamentally employ juxtaposition to achieve them? In his essay "Text & Context" he offers this image:
Atmospherically: what surrounds words may be more readily and satisfyingly perceived than an iron cage of connection: referential connections which take place below the plane, out of sight, or earshot, therefore self-denyingly, without physique, or erotic delight...As in lowering the iron cage beneath the waters to be attacked by sharks, to be eaten alive by outside forces. Obedience to Authority vs. the improvisation of rules.
An image he refines in "We Are Embodiments Of Circumstance": "Ideology subjects us, makes us subjects — of the cage...Still you can't forget that protection was the purpose of the cage. But here at least the cage fails. The status quo can't allow us to master 'the deeps' without getting us 'eaten alive'." This in mind I can see several motivations for his heavy reliance on juxtaposition. 1) Juxtaposition as an outside force assailing the cage—juxtaposition works by slamming things from diverse sources into one another and simultaneously into the reader's existing conceptions. 2) Juxtaposition explodes connections in language. 3) Juxtaposition proves the existence of the outside forces, the mysteries and possibilities beyond convention and norms; all contexts seem alien. 4) Juxtaposition to this extent is an example of "improvisation of rules": it is praxis.
The essays and interviews: "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis," "Revolution Only Fact Confected," "Reinventing Community," "Text & Context," and "We Are Embodiments Of Circumstance" are from:
Andrews, Bruce. Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996.
The poems: "C2B1-a," "C2B2-a," and "C4A1-b" are from The Millennium Project (unpublished at this time) and appeared in:
Andrews, Bruce. Aerial 9. Washington, DC: Edge Books, 1999.
All other poems cited are from:
Andrews, Bruce. I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism). Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1992.