Kent Johnson


from:_Letter from Jerome Rothenberg: Selected Post-Poems 1998-2001_


October 9

Letter from L. Althusser

Dear Mr. Johnson:

Umberto Eco alerted me, and with considerable excitement, to the discussion
at your internet listserv concerning "the academy and the avant-garde." It
was the first time he had communicated with me since the first edition of
_Foucault's Pendulum_, so you can imagine that I was made curious.

Perhaps what first caught my fancy (I began from Mr. Kasey S. Mohammad's
post on this day and have been reading backwards into September), was Mr.
Mohammad's question: "As soon as any mode of writing secures a sizable
audience, it's capable of being sytematized and taught, but is there any
evidence that such a process makes poetry any worse (or better) than it
would otherwise be?"

It occurred to me that Gramsci says something relevant to this somewhere in
his Prison Notebooks, and so I looked it up:
"The crisis consists in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be
born. In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

Imagine my amazement to find that the same quote had been entered in an
earlier posting by Mr. David Baratier, but to get to my point-- Gramsci's
quote is pregnant with significance, and it seems to me that Mr. Mohammad
has missed something crucial about the nature of poetic advance, which has
little to do with bourgeois notions of 'better' or 'worse'. The point, it
seems to me (tho, as you may know, I am a clinically insane philosopher with
a criminal record and not a poet, so you may take what I say with a grain of
salt), is that avant-garde poetry's quickening institutionalization into the
Ideological State Apparatus of the academy (and the resultant stamping into
experiment's naturally libidinal body of reified indices of production and
exchange which the educational ISA is charged with reproducing, if you'll
forgive me for that tortured formulation) virtually guarantees that
"avant-garde" formations --tho their linguistic product on the page may
fetishistically appear "better" or more "advanced" as finished academic
commodity -- retain (historical materialism is like a centrifuge, isn't it,
so breathtaking in its clarifications!) a fundamental *ideological
sameness*, a sameness which encircles poetry into, shall we say, a totalized
epistemic collaborationism, sapping it of its original potential to
scandalize and erode hegemonic technologies and relations of absorption.
"The dialectic," as my wife used to coo from behind the pages of L'Humanite,
"does not always *advance*."

Of course, in the global sense, you are right that Authorship is the

No, Mr. Mohammad, the task of poetry is not to be "good" or "better"; the
task of poetry is (to make an allusion) *to change the world*. This, for
example, is why I liked the young Situationist kids and why they liked me.
The so-called Language poets of the United States and their graduate
students should read some of those old, heady texts-- not to be
confrontational, but in them, they may recognize themselves as among the

Of course, those more literate Language and Post-Language poets who have
studied me (semi-pro and above) will probably be asking by now: "But what
about the ISA as a site of warring discourses, as a site of class struggle?
Isn't our entry into the academy a strategic option in this regard?"

To which I will say: Since my arrest and trial, I have somewhat modified my
position on political realism vis a vis ISA's, but still, even from the view
of _Lenin and Philosophy_ and all my other early work, my stress was
primarily on how ideology interpolates the individual as subject, that this
interpolation "is *realized* in institutions, in their rituals and
practices," and that "from within ideology we have to outline a discourse
which tries to break with ideology." It is clear, to anyone who knows
anything about innovative American poetries since 1989 (as I do, through
having weekly cafe with my good friend Jean-Paul Auxemery), that not only is
there no discourse being outlined, there is no inkling to even *see* the
underlying function and structure from which one has a certain duty to
break. But alas, this is the great power of ideology.

Well, I hope these hurried notes are not so intrusive on my part. It is
amazing how computers bring people into contact, isn't it. Can you imagine
if Marx were alive today? My God!

with esteemed wishes,

Louis Althusser



October 11

Re: Letter from L. Althusser

Dear Mr. Mohammad, MD.:

I feel it is unnecessary for you to shower me with your faux lingo. It is
impolite. I can speak English quite fluently (with, granted, a few missteps
here and here), so may we please keep this conversation on the level? Merci.

Someone is waiting (yes, that is exactly right, someone is waiting) so I
must be brief. When you say:

"If I'd had my eyes open, I would have seen that writers like Charles
Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, and so
forth, by inspiring younger writers to imitate some of their techniques via
academic transmission of texts and practices, are perpetuators of totalized
epistemic collaboration. I mean, it's clear as a dang-blasted bell that
fundamental ideological sameness is the sole and inevitable result of that
cultural moment of dysappropriation."

I should like to say:

This matter of sameness has nothing to do with "textuality itself." It is,
rather, the sameness the museum does not allow you to see. The exhibit space
seems natural, and the frame around the painting, too. Incidentally, in
regards to these topics, and in addition to my writings, you should also
assign to your students the books of my estranged friend, Pierre Macherey.

Later, when you say:

"I made the mistake of thinkin' that poetry had to do with a multi-channeled
current of desire, in which a perfected familiarization with textual
surfaces and sub-surface rhetorical spider veins was as much a legitimate
skill to be directed toward breaking with underlying ideological structures
and functions as more direct and forceful material intervention..."

I should like to say:

It is surely a legitimate "skill" to do these things with currents and
surfaces --currents and surfaces, I will say, that your _Hovercraft_ deftly
glides over (Frederic Jameson had written to me about your book with
certitude from his present post in China, where he is teaching at the
Business College of the People's Revolutionary Army); however, it is my
contention that to think of this surface-darting skill as something that is
"as much a legitimate skill" as "more direct and forceful material
interventions" as you elegantly say, is something akin to equating the
_Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844_ with _Capital_, or to
equate the architecture of Wall Street with the concept of Production, or to
equate a hovercraft with a rocket ship. Yes, as Mr. (or is it Ms.?) Kent
Johnson has perceptively said, ideology is a certain gravity that must be
overcome so as to get a bigger picture of things. You need a "Craft", as
they say at the Ecole Normale, that can go really, really fast, making
little hyper-jumps, using the very curvature that ideology carves in
cultural space-time to slingshot poetic craft into other-dimensional orbit.
I have murdered my beloved wife, but this is not a metaphor.

And the above reason is why it does not matter if I am "boondoggled" at the
University of Santa Clara. Philosophy creates a picture; poetry jumps out of
it. A woman's body has fifty nine stab wounds, randomly, in it; there is a
transparent young worker from Fiat outside my window.

I hope my bad taste does not offend you, Dr. Mohammad, but to make another
allusion, I, for one, am not an Althusserian.

with best regards,

Louis Althusser


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