Robert Potts's review of Iain Sinclair's CONDUCTORS OF CHAOS (Picador) appeared in the Times Literary Supplement of 20 September 1996. I just got around to reading the review--which bears the lurid title "The blood-soaked perimeter"--this morning.
The single non-ideological claim that I can reconstruct from the full-page, four-column review is this: "There is a book."
This afternoon, when I should have been doing any number of other things, I found myself thinking of Potts's review. It struck me that such a pure example of xenophobic reading doesn't come along everyday, and so I set about writing through the review, trying not to overlook any of its moves.
Since the review was in a manifest state of non-relation to anything like the objective fact of CONDUCTORS OF CHAOS I decided to go along with Potts (and Husserl) and just bracket the "thing-itself" entirely. That is, rather than address the numerous distortions at the level of empirical fact, I thought I would concentrate on what this person took to be "the case." To better watch the way his claims (implicit and explicit) worked, I tried to substitute abstract terms for as many of the particular elements as I could. (In cases where I couldn't bring myself to "abstract" I left the term in between brackets.)
The review is broken into two parts, each of which begins with an oversized drop-cap. There are eleven paragraphs in all, to which the numbered sections of my comments correspond.
HOW NOT TO READ
There is a book.
1. There is a book. But the book does not know (or will not say) what kind of book it really is. The reviewer is in a position to clarify the matter. The book is an anthology.
There is a group. But the group does not know (or will not say) that it is a group. The reviewer, though not a member of any group himself, can tell a group when he sees one.
The group has brought upon itself its own marginality. The reviewer likes to say this while engaged in the application of all the techniques of marginalization known to him.
The editor's project in this book is not original. Having suppressed what is novel about the editor's project in an earlier sentence, the reviewer can now charge him with lack of originality. It does not help that the reviewer can think of one other project that also did not deny the existence of experimental writing.
The group is fearful, idiosyncratic, and sectarian. The reviewer is fearless, normal, disinterested. The group is shy, insular, distrustful. The reviewer is gregarious, open, without worry because without sin. The group has for a long time been complacent and self-absorbed. The reviewer's ethnographic gaze provides "a fresh and foreign" look at the group's essential truth.
2. The writers whom the editor has brought together in his book know that one another exist. The reviewer takes exception to such effrontery. Certain specific writers go so far as to respect other specific writers. The review knows this to be communism. Though united in their anti-capitalist practice of respect for one another and for writing, these writers apparently find it unnecessary to think that they are all writing the same thing. The reviewer is familiar with what passes for intelligence at [Cambridge].
3. The group that does not know itself to be a group is the [X] School. The reviewer will maintain this fact in the face of all evidence, subjective and objective.
There is a writer in the book who is forthright. The reviewer pauses to commend this virtue otherwise so little in evidence in the present volume. This forthright writer once attempted to address the fact that writing he recognizes as having value has existed for quite a while and in many places. The reviewer regrets that this writer chose the insular venue of a little magazine in order to make his remarks; still, the reviewer likes a writer who will name names and spell out the complex internal workings of this arcane and hostile group whose conspiratorial reach cannot be overstated.
The group has pursued its agenda with grim determination in [X] and in [Y]. The reviewer takes this opportunity to warn members of the bourgeoisie in each of these high-risk areas to take measures against the theft of their speaking voices.
4. Some of the writers in the book have a critique of speech-based poetics. Some/others also seem to have read [Rimbaud].
The highly organized ring of voice-thieves, numbering more than thirty, have undertaken voluntarily and arbitrarily an agenda of "willed incoherence," but some (well over half) will their incoherence to a greater degree than do others (the other half). The reviewer makes an important distinction here between the otherwise delightful practice of ripping out the vocal chords of bourgeois poets and the same practice taken to "hideous extremes."
Some of the writers in the book have found it possible to read other poems composed in the twentieth-century. The reviewer takes this opportunity to remind his readers of such oddities and atrocities as "open field" and "(post)modern" poetics and, that most recent aberration, ["L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E"] poetry.
Some of the writers in the book can give reflexive accounts of their aims. Some also are accustomed to reading the reflexive accounts given by others. The reviewer is living proof that pausing to reflect before writing can introduce serious obstacles to facile expression. Some of the writers in the book do not imagine their readership to be incapable of complex thought-processes. The reviewer cannot understand how these writers mean to have literary or political success if they are not willing to accept such basic assumptions as the essential ignorance and laziness of readers and citizens.
A specific writer in the book has so extended his capacity for reflexivity that he actually has a critical relationship to an intellectual position he nonetheless respects. The reviewer firmly believes that a strict separation should always be maintained between what one likes and understands and what one despises and is paid to review in the TLS.
Even this specific writer seems to consider the majority of readers to be human and to be familiar with the phonemic distinction between "th" and "dr," as in the words "think" and "drink." The reviewer avails himself of the opportunity to call his reader a horse while vouching for the clear water in his trough.
The specific writer is an intellectual; not surprisingly, then, he remains committed to certain of the preconditions for reasonable discourse. The reviewer praises the writer for not breaking entirely with form, syntax, and logic.
5. The specific writer has been preceded in his poetic and intellectual practice; indeed, one poet and intellectual in particular has shouldered a great deal of the burden of generating and sustaining interest in the practices this writer values. The reviewer wishes that the younger of the writers could be more discerning with respect to the selection of his predecessors.
This predecessor makes more than ornamental attempts at transforming the processes of "meaning." The reviewer disallows the validity of any meanings that aren't "clear" upon first reading; he does not mind that no text valued by his culture meets this criterion.
This predecessor does not rigidly separate cognition from emotion, thinking perhaps that the expansion of one cannot but expand the other. The reviewer expects to be compensated in pleasure for every meaning he passes up.
The predecessor has a body of work of tremendous breadth, complexity, and internal differentiation. The reviewer extracts the essence of his project from four cited lines. Suspicion is once again the posture recommended to all good people who find themselves in the vicinity of [X].
The same four lines which synopsize a writer's life-work and recommend its wholesale dismissal can, conveniently, also synopsize and facilitate the dismissal of the nearly five hundred pages of writing in the book under review.
6. Knowing all linguistic acts that don't resolve to clear meaning instantly upon encounter to be "gobbledygook," the reviewer introduces an important distinction between strategic "gobbledygook" and that inferior brand of "gobbledygook" which has devolved into mere "charmless mannerism."
Some of the writers in the book bring the visual dimension of their text to the foreground; some/others also have grounds for considering the restriction of meaning to "intention" an intellectual anachronism that did not survive serious examination in any of the disciplines of the human sciences that devoted a moment's thought to it. They might point to philosophy, linguistics, literary and cultural studies, history, sociology in making their case.
The reviewer concedes that some private meaning may incidentally attach to typographical irregularities perpetrated by a given author, but cannot be brought to consider that a reader could ascertain the nature of this entirely hermetic experience from the evidence provided by the text.
Some of the writing in the book values surprise, the unexpected, the spontaneous. The reviewer is certain that just outside the gates of narrative regularity awaits total anarchy.
Some of the writers in this volume have detected what seems to them a
worrisome and cloying uniformity in the kinds of messages produced within
the circuits of the dominant, capital-intensive media; some/others think
that poetry needn't reproduce the structure and content of these messages.
The reviewer reminds his reader once again that these are the sort of
people who forced one to learn a pronunciation of the word "hegemonic."
His verdict upon them is subtly rendered: at least they are not as troubled
as they might be by the "eerie homogeneity of their strings of apparently
7. The editor in introducing the work he has assembled in this book has not adopted a tone of smug indifference toward that work. The reviewer's own style suggests to no one, surely, the adjectives "rabid and polemical." The editor passionately argues his poetic position. The reviewer considers only dispassionate utterances that presuppose his own assumptions to be "clear." The editor's poetics are not merely wrong (a substantive evaluation) but they even fail on procedural grounds--they are "disguised."
The editor in introducing the work he has assembled in this book has taken the trouble to foresee, and respond to, a frequent objection made to much writing of value; namely, that it is (too) difficult. The reviewer notes in his opponent's language (and when wasn't the editor of this volume considered an opponent by this reviewer?) an allusion to a predecessor, but really lights up when he thinks of another (more recent) predecessor's retort to that (less recent) predecessor.
The reviewer's preferred predecessor describes the writer/reader relationship on a contractual mode in which the reader contracts with the writer for a specified amount of meaningful experience, to be paid for in cash and ingested at the reader's convenience, satisfaction guaranteed. The preferred predecessor abases himself before the image of an harried reader tight on time and money. The writer should do nothing unduly troublesome to such a reader. The editor, his book, and the writers whose work is collected in that book, all want to do troubling things to such readers.
8. The reviewer feels just as though he has been appointed to adjudicate the contract dispute between the book and its possible readers (it is a class-action suit). Noted on the readers' behalf are numerous injurious failures to deliver: there are no theses or critiques, no musical pleasures (due in part to the existence of a bad foreign predecessor who encouraged writers to abjure music), nor even fragments of music.
Because no rational alternative to the contract that binds seller to buyer can be imagined by the reviewer, and because certain of the writers in the book under review do not write in a manner conformable to the contract theory of language, a "religious covenant" must be in place. Here the reviewer relies on the old saw, when you try to be secular, it is because you are a Marxist; when you try to be Marxist, it's clearly because you are a cult-member.
9. In a book nearly five hundred pages long there are likely to be techniques, and even whole pieces, that someone out of sympathy with the project in general can like. The reviewer writes one sentence about each of the seven writers who appear to him as having, however inexplicably, broken free of the [cultish], [conspiratorial], [gobbledygook-centered], [communist-plot-hatching], [Cambridge] set.
Exceptional writer 1 floods the reader, speckles the noise, and is grimly amusing.
Exceptional writer 2 wrestles with and somehow overcomes her platitudinous subject matter.
10. Exceptional writer 3 isn't part of the group anyway, as shown by the beauty and self-confidence of his poem imitative of a foreign predecessor of uncertain long-term value.
Exceptional writer 4 contributes an essay and an elegy; the former is careful, the latter quietly subtle.
Exceptional writer 5 receives two sentences. He is said to be careful in how he confuses things and also hilarious and disturbing.
Exceptional writer 6 overcomes a tendency to obliqueness to present a "hospital-centered narrative."
Exceptional writer 7 also receives two sentences. He too shows signs of obliqueness, but he is charming and innocent in addition. Indeed, this writer conflates musicality with mellifluity in a way that excites the reviewer. He is called a "Holy Fool" but the reviewer means it as a compliment.
11. The review of the book that won't say what kind of book it is, collecting work by a group of writers who won't say they are a group, edited by a person who doesn't know what he means to do, and who only writes poetics in disguise, must end sometime (sigh).
What better way to close, thinks the reviewer, than with another allusion to the cultural authority of my preferred predecessor. Poetry is a wide and varied territory, says the predecessor; we understand him to mean that there are many contracts to sign. Taking sides is no way to understand poetry, says the predecessor; we understand his advice to us very well: Quiet subsumption under a false universal is preferable to stubborn endurance in illegitimate particularity. These guiding words of the preferred predecessor are especially stirring in the wake of the reviewer's systematic violation of every norm appealed to therein. It is refreshing to find practice once again so far out ahead of abstraction and theory.
The writers in the book under review have decided to test the validity of their writing against criteria other than those of the market. The reviewer sees this as elective auto-marginalization. The writers in the book under review have contested the assumption that writing which submits to market-criteria is the only writing there is. The reviewer sees this as sour grapes.
The appearance of objectivity requires concessions such as: No work is all bad. The reviewer candidly admires some of the results yielded by "open forms, surrealism, ellipsis." That out of the way, the temporarily postponed judgment arrives with undiminished zeal: No work is all bad, but this work is as near as one gets. What is good about the writing of sullen elective auto-marginalizing types is not specific to them. It is good also in good, accessible, mainstream writing. What is good about the good writing in this bad book may lift some of these writers out of the captivity of the bad group responsible for the bad book. The bad writers will sink back into the shadowlands of narcissism, self-congratulation, and delusory elitism, where they will try to suppress the memory of their brief encounter with "fresh and foreign critical interrogation."
The reviewer will appear again in the pages of the TLS.
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