Hermes Butts In
He took the word "order" and let it go,
my title from a Clayton Eshleman poem, and thus dedicate my excursion to
Hermes, protector of boundaries, god of poets and thieves, de Certeauean
poachers on company time. I have been interested in hermetic poetries for
a while, and I long ago came to see hermeticism not so much as the paranoid
compulsions of linguistic freaks (or the linguistic compulsions of paranoiacs?)
but as passage intertextual and cross-cultural, the very play of boundaries
that composes cultural space. Writing on Serres, Harari tells us that Hermes
as messenger "is constantly on the move...[he is the] philosopher of plural
spaces... A conception of space crucial to Serres's epistemology: 'To break
with every strategy: the nonthanatocratic solution is to fragment space,'
to opt for local versus global solutions..." But, continues Harari, "the
guide keeps moving; he connects, disconnects, and reconnects the endless
variety of spaces he traverses. Hermes turns weaver of spaces: a weaving
together of places that are closed, isolated, inviolable, inaccessible,
dangerous, or mortal..." (Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy
he strolled with the ripples of
and signs, ordure
I must admit
when I first heard "place(less place)" I thought it somewhat vague and
precious... And it is perhaps still precious, but its vagueness, the wandering
and indefinability it connotes, has the potential to remind us of some
of what I believe is at stake in poetics. Of course, placeless place can
come to mean any indeterminacy or hybridity or deferral -- the unbound
-- the always bound for, never arrived. Thus it is vague and extravagant,
and ultimately useless, and thus perhaps useful
I think of
placelessness mostly in terms of liminality and transgression, Robert Duncan
combatting governmental, military, and corporate orders with poetic form;
I think of it in terms of the imagination, the art of memory, Giordano
Bruno's infinite universe. It's nothing new to think of the mind or the
imagination as a space, but this can be the externalized compendium of
an ars memoria or the omonoia of Alexander's empire, a value translated
as harmony but insidiously implying the union of different peoples under
the same brain... It is an idea, in a way which recalls the quarrel over
the internet, not liberatory or oppressive in itself -- only a means of
initiating a dialogue; a touchpoint, a topos itself, for thinking about
cultural and poetic space.
In the memory
theater of Giulio Camillo, the spectator stands where the stage would be
and looks outward, to the nonexistent audience, to the images plotted there,
in order to speculate on the images in his own recall. Something like a
gigantic filing cabinet pulled inside out, or the mind imagined outside
itself. Never mind that it appears the first installation art, what's significant
is that it had to be a literal place which held the shorthand, the stenography
(and the steganography?) of infinite worlds. If we can understand a book
ultimately as a space in which to read, or as the Quiche Maya do, as "a
place to see", what the memory theater does is to literalize the metaphor
of the book. De Certeau has taught us to pay attention to the consumer,
to the reader, in the practice of everyday life. If a "placeless place,"
then, is a space where we are reading out into the dark audience of our
minds, then it is more than precious, it is the necessary center of absence,
the open chora (and I don't mean Kristeva's) of the imagination.
interesting to me in imagining placelessness at the moment and what it
might have to do with poetics is to locate resistance in particulars of
space and time. Placelessness as the contesting of cultural space performed
by expressive bodies, as resistance against physical, cultural, poetic
and intellectual containment. As situated behavior there is a way in which
performance obviously enacts place. But I would say it also can enact the
placelessness of the body politic, the body enformed and unbound, going
against orders and against the grain... Dance can be thought of as the
human body making patterns in time and space, and I have in mind here the
Ghost Dance of 1890 as practiced by the Lakota Sioux up until the massacre
at Wounded Knee. Working on the Ghost Dance in the context of federal policy
toward Native Americans, an environment of removal, land allotment, reservation,
I've found that most critics too readily see the syncretism of the movement
as unconscious subsumption under the Christian, and too easily pose the
massacre as the inevitable outcome or telos of this "last gasp." But what
gets forgotten in the attention to genocide is the dance itself, a complex
and continually renovated aesthetic form, a spiritual, cultural, and political
movement that was transmitted not only by sign language, but by letters
and emissaries travelling on the railroads of the West.
I see the
Ghost Dance as a "placeless place." First, the reservation is itself such
a placeless place, where Indians are held in a trial period until the government
makes up its mind about their place in the union. In unionist space, the
Indian nation is exterior to and excursive of American union. But the Ghost
Dance enacts a poetics of resistance to Federal orders, it is a tactics
whose patterns, form, and solidarity poach on the concentration and borders
of reservation life.
Dance creates a placeless place by enacting a cultural space, or the lack
of it, which challenges American space. It is a location of culture the
plotting of reservations cannot permit. The aesthetic form of the dance
counters legal orders. It cannot be plotted on the grid of federal logic;
its confederacy fundamentally rejects the way that law makes land into
property, the way logos draws land into abstraction. When land cannot be
alienable, when it cannot be possessed, it is placeless and communal. When
it cannot be civilized or settled it itself is nomadic, outside the law...
One is always in
danger of romanticizing such events, and of course what poetics I locate
in them does not change that these are tactics -- "the art of the weak"
-- and what happens to the weak; it does not change who the weak are. But
in reading resistance we have come to see only tactics, and only weakness,
and in our indictments we have increasingly lost sight of what choices
people make, what choices of language and form. That cultural practice
has to do with aesthetic choices that are political. People do choose,
even when they have no choice; they choose how they will enact their constraints.
And that is art. We have, out of various intentions, read acts of resistance
overwhelmingly as pathetic and unconscious and not as poetic consciousness.
Discussing Creole language, Edouard Glissant distinguishes between a free
and a forced poetics, but the forced or constrained emerges as no less
poetic in its frustrated desire. To see critique and not just victimhood,
to see poetics not pathetics, not the unconscious behavior of primitives
sacrificed in the attempt to force them into American space -- this does
not annul or euphemize genocide.
And this is
as much poetics as the memory theater or Dickinson's marginalia or Paterson...
And I think that is what I'm fighting to learn and to include, to learn
how to read the poetics, free and forced, of a Ghost Dance as being as
necessary to our poetic and noetic common ground... And this isn't just
a question of western or non-western, but of the occultation of form and
language in textualities we have not been able to fitˇor haven't seen fit
to research -- in our memory theaters. Our poetics needs to include more
performance, more history in the form of acting bodies whose resistance
is bodily witnessed. And by this I don't mean a return to cultural poetics
which bleeds out all the poetry, read language, as if language had nothing
to do with history. But a cultural poetics truly about poetics, thick with
description of language and form in all its locations and presences. Paying
attention to the body of songs which accompany the Ghost Dance as well
as the bodies of Wounded Knee. Thinking about the ecstasy of the dancers,
of going outside the body, of going out of bounds in this way and what
it says to containment and to reservation. Seeing the millennialism of
returning buffalo and disappearing whites as a revisionary historiography,
as a way of denying the coevalness of the invader. We need to read performance
events and cultural history and folk epistemology as embedded in and with
the experimental or avant-garde poetries we value, if we do believe that
they are all participant in arts of resistance to commodification, to orders,
to containment -- in arts de faire. This is what I want to work towards.
. . .
I do not want
to be a specialist carving out my piece of land. I want to be a perpetual
student in perpetual travel. The study of literature is crippled by the
national divisions it continues to uphold. Departments and disciplines
are territories and you're not to poach on someone else's turf. It is equally
crippled by its insistence on a fallacious synchronic model which believes
that only reading a writer's contemporaries is relevant to "historicist"
practice -- and not who she read, not remote, past, ancestral or heteroglossic
interlocutors. Diachronic considerations always become spurious, become
archetypal and invalid -- because even if we were talking about such things
as "archetypes," myth has nothing to do with history. But why would imagining
the present of a text be at odds wth tracings and genealogies which cross
time and space and other unlocatable graphing? Have most writers we work
on imagined themselves so locally that they bore no affinity to geographic
or temporal others, or to otherness? The mandates and proscriptions of
the academy become absurd. It suffers in general not only from a lack of
imagination, but a lack of belief in the imagination as integral to history.
(Imagined alterities are as historical as magazines.) It draws up its gridlines
in a way not dissimilar to federal policy in consolidation of the union.
If our experience of language, our poetics, is necessarily intertextual,
then how can we think to eject the diachronic? If we believe in the embeddedness
of words, in correspondences, if we argue for the reader?
We want to
know what is it that distinguishes us from the other, what is going to
confer identity as critic, what will confirm our authority. Our professionalism
is threatened when the boundaries melt down, when Hermes butts in with
a rude joke. Instead of being allowed to offer one's idiosyncratic way
of reading, confluences, particular experience which could make a contribution
to the forum, one must stake out a position or join a camp. Professionalism
is rife with bellicose metaphors, and our profession seems particularly
plagued by them. Reading and writing which appears "roving" to the conventional
reader, which attempts leaps and crossings, yes, transgressions literally
and unsensationalistically, are punished by unquestioned assumptions of
"relevance", "validity", and "field" -- the livestock have strayed, and
how are you going to get them to market? These are concepts that will only
permit narrow interpretations of themselves, and restricted notions of
the right kind of temporalization and spatialization -- which only wants
to talk to neighbors, not the obscure, the esoteric (which is worse than
the exotic), the far-out.
What you are
admonished against, in effect, is continuing to be a student -- or, you're
only allowed to be a student in a limited manner whose function is really
to maintain and confirm your mastery. You're conscripted into a pedagogy
which asserts values with which any pedagogy termed "ethical" today would
have nothing to do -- namely, a monolithic assuredness of place and role,
confirmation of scope of knowledge and command of that scope. As
in, you know where you live, and you don't go to that part of town.
. . .
risky or maybe just offensive analogy brewing here between cultural and
intellectual resistance, but I'll let it stand. If we think of our work
as action, if we think of it as poetics, then a Ghost Dance is such a mode
of our collective, and our project should be a nomadism which runs over
and does violence to the territories of academic title, disciplinary boundaries,
the allotment of legitimacy. This is romantic, you protest, guerrilla language
appropriated to lend cache to an elitist milieu. Perhaps. But I'm arguing
that this is our poetics as well as Dickinson, Spicer, or Zukofsky. And
this is American space shocked into recognition of its heterologous zones,
space that can't be zoned. If form is an extension of content, then method
only draws out or abstracts from its topoi of critical action; it is a
kind of memory -- it takes form on the road...
See note below: limitations of time and space prevent me from exploring
this issue further.
* In discussion following Ben Friedlander and Brian Lampkin
emphasized that unlike others, the Lakota cannot reconstitute their "place"
in another space; the physical site is intrinsic to their cultural location.
By the same token the Lakota are rendered "placeless" by being held, forced
to live, on that same land now made a reservation, which irrevocably alters
it and in effect makes it not the same place -- a placeless place.