Saturday, November 27, 2004

some ideas revolving around a text

From Michael Davidson's Guys Like Us:
While women were often absent from the centers of artistic and intellectual life in general during the 1950s, their absence in these groups was a structural necessity for the liberation of a new, male subject.

While I am overall pleased with Davidson's book (I am working on a review and will share where it can be found when published,) I am dismayed with this claim.

Gender is not necessary for the arrival of a gendered subject; gender itself is not gendered. Gender is language's container for thoughts about bodies. These thoughts are only ever uttered and are only never embodied. A body never is what its gender says it should be. When I talk about male, female or man, woman or masculine, feminine I talk about the talk-about-bodies not the bodies themselves. In other words, I address a form.

The problem, then, with Davidson's qualification through necessity is that women, as subjects, have to be(come) absent each moment they appear in order to make room for any new subject. This qualification might expose the sexism in American popular culture--the recording of culture, the process of enculturation, what have you--nevertheless, the qualification re-enacts or re-instates the sexist mode of discourse because it refuses to allow for the appearance of a female object. Davidson insists that the female subject is there, pushed away, hidden, purposefully; yet, he allows the new, male subject to become the useful object of study to reinvigorate the study of 1950s literature. The female subject is not allowed to be recongized, therefore, to be confronted. This suppression may be a form of repression; I don't know. Quite frankly, I find the whole issue confusing. However, I do know that powerful subjects are objectified through their own discourse. The "I" is always rejuvinated or recuperated through its becoming "Me" or "Myself." Well-meaning feminist critics often prohibit female subjects Me-ness in order to expose the sexist act or practice. But this exhibition/exposition/compositon of the female body concretizes it as a subject with a peculiar place in any discourse.

My question for Davidson would be, why make this claim? Why do we need to excuse the subject of a book about "Guys" with a plea for the need for the exlusion of women from the center?

Though Davidson is admittedly up to something else in his book, he should have spent a page or so developing this problem, which (whether he agrees with me or not) he explicitly recognizes. He claims, after all, that a woman's absence is a kind of presence: "their absence in these groups was a structural necessity." The language confesses the problem with gendering the subject--recovers the conversation about compulsory homosociality (which is the name of the chapter, by the way.) For an absence to be "in" a community--physical or rhetorical--the absence must be a presence (i.e., an identifiable structure; therefore, a structural necessity.)

The new, male subject was long in arriving. We pay so much attention to masculine arrivals; they are always strange. Women's bodies are always de-feminized using obscene (public) methods and then absent-ed to make room for other (always unpredictable) women or new (never predictable) men. It seems that there can only be one female subject and that this is the important marker for compulsory homosociality.

But this is nonsense, common practice or not. If Charles Olson, for example, is one such troubled male subject, he certainly isn't a new subject. Maximus was old news and found a way to finally project himself into the field, some might say found himself there. Olson put himself in the field, interjected as much as projected himself in a variety of positions within the field. He needed the presence of men and women, like-minded and not, to emerge himself. I know Davidson is addressing the real misogyny and active exclusion of women from the public face of the movements he addresses, but the requirement that absence is a necessary quality for the female subject in history is a failure to address what actually is compulsory in (habitual) masculinist discourse (in poetics).

I still hear Creeley's complaint that most writers do not know the form they use. Form is the subject; the object: the poet. We witness the arrival of a new, poetic form not a new, male subject. This new, gendered subject is a misconception and re-covering, of what is there to be had. It is problematic to gender the field and the form, the page and the breath, to sex it all physiologically and spiritually. IT is what it is at the time that it is. Olson's masculinist rhetoric is masculinist rhetoric, but women are not absent from it. They are scattered throughout it.

What is masculinist, in its misogyny, recovers the essential femininity it so desperately rejects. It calls for the female subject in each violent gasp. The response from women and men recognizes the female subject and objectifies the male. If women were necessarily absent, then by definition, a male subject could not come forth. In order to address Davidson's concerns properly, we need to address compulsory heterosexuality, if anything. We need to address the structural demand for gendered bodies to appear at any moment in history at all. Whose voice, what deman, where from, when made?

Davidson plays it safe through qualification: he claims women were absent "from the center." I take this to be his proper admission that women were vital though forcefully kept from celebrity, the public eye. So, the men are visible; the women invisible. Sure. Fine. But this is safe and hardly approaches the complexities such options for visibility create in the field.

What problems arise when we insist on gendering the landscape of literary discourse? Davidson uses Olson's sexist poetics to great effect. But is it actually sexist, or does it just sound that way? What is in the appearance that makes it sexist? (I am not saying he was or wasn't a pig; I am trying to throw off that pointless dialogue.)

What/Who is a new Male/Female subject?

What/Where/At-what-time is the center?--I would begin here. And I would begin with somebody like Olson, as Davidson does. Williams, perhaps. The Wanderer does not merely walk to a center. Wanderers are not self-directed. There is not a place to get to--a point. Places are not actaully Centers; places are here-and-nows.

The fallacy of centers appears in early appraisals of American literature. DH Lawrence, in his essay "A Spirit of Place," claims Americans do not yet know the meaning of place, our place, IT--that we are more interested in being masterless. I take Lawrence to mean American literary artists are center-less. This supposedly snide critique turns out to be our greatest strength. Tie this all together: Gender is a staple used to tether language to a point that can be referenced as one possible center. Whereas I am not arguing that we can simply give it up, we can show it for what it is: a conservative tool for discourse that interprets thought in language. Gender must first disembody what it constructs. Consequently, gender is not a self-evident fact of biology but a reconstruction of human beings into gendered subjects. Gender allows for the history of gender, not of male and female subjects. Always already, through gender, men and women are subjects of their own discourse. We lose our approachability as objects, our ability to transcend socially constructed norms. If we restrict any aspect of poetics to gender, then we lose the opportunity to find ourselves in language and we are always doomed to remain at least one step removed from addressing the activity of thought.

Lawrence compares us to Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest. But this is all wrong. The wandering is the project, the IT is illusive. We have long ago found our borders--politicized North and South, ocean-bound East and West. Where do we go and who do we become? Are we new gendered subjects, turning increasingly inward into ourselves? Are we genital-bound? Are we limited to recognize ourselves as others through pre-defined classes like gender? If so, are we to have nothing else in common?

What is it that tends to use Woman as a subject for all women, and men, who must herself be present but absent to allow Man to get his Word out right about himself and for himself? --Gender.

We walk through not towards.
I can sit and observe where I know to look.
I must walk to observe where I haven't been to become.
What is revealed is not structural, nor necessary.
What is revealed is only that which can be transcended: myself.
Myself is a subject given to becoming an object--
Purposefully doing that which purposelessly happens allows.
I am allowed, not my body,
my language,
(dis)embodied thought.
I see the world after I am given to myself free of all association--
the new subject that arrives is phenomenal.
We form it--thing it--dwell with it.

We should resist excusing "structural necessity."
Such pleas give up not to appearance in the moment of occurrence but to ideologically determined structures,
and structures are not there before uttered, and always permitted
to be uttered by the powerful.

Maybe a little revision is in order.

Of course, I know that the cult of personality surrounds many of our
literary artists and resists the destructuring of its irresistible self-presentation. (Oh, here comes the market-concern vomit.) Nevertheless, if we are to take A Poetics seriously, we need to take A Walk Ourselves. This taking necessarily deconstructs the artist and intellectual who came before to encourage all future walks and reconstructs, revitalizes, recovers (all at the same time) the present form and past breath of the new subject-turning-object. Such a necessity--say, one that utilizes available landscapes as an open gesture for creating discourse--allows for the presence of any subject regardless of gender, race, class...all social spectacles that distract the artist.

Now this is not to say that art is not personal and that the personal cannot be political. It is meant simply to redirect the flow of discourse. Now it flows from the social to the individual and to the social again, a reiterative, closed circuit that builds in intensity with or without the participation of the given individual. In this manner, any art created colonizes space according to the ideological state apparatus regardless of the artist's intent. If we counter the flow of the circuit, three radical alterations occur. First, the obvious: the flow must move from the artist into the society and back to the artist. Art, therefore, is active and not reactive. Second, this circuit is neither open nor closed, and its action occurs only once. After any action, all that is left is the document of the event. In this manner, art can resist operating as a tool for colonization and insist on immanent participation at the level of the happening. Moreover, the creation of an archive to document an artist's events allows for a collection of works that is independent of the artist's work. The third alteration occurs at the level of discourse. The discourse about the work must happen at the level of discourse. Therefore, the poetics or any discussion of aesthetics must occur at the level of the archive--a collection of documents. Such a demand would remind us of our desire to associate texts with bodies, our desire to permit colonization of bodies by confusing, misleading, and disempowering ideologies.

I suppose we find it hard to resist the appeal to sexuality, to incorporating the biological body into the textual body because we wish to expose ourselves not only as we are doing now but as we wish to be seen as following what already has been accomplished. Some call this Affectation: that looking like is close to being like(d). But such fetishisms are not much more than personal idiosyncrasies; they do not actually shape the discourse in any lasting manner. The field itself shapes the discourse, that part of Form we tend to displace as invisible, always in doubt, never concrete. The literary artist cannot possibly self-impose and self-create. I wonder if we want to continue our use of gender as the tool for exposing constraint, restraint, purpose, and technique. At each moment, one of the other subjects must become absent--the foreground/background trick--so that a whole can be constructed. Not too useful...


Laura Carter said...

The penultimate sentence nails it: the idea of "both, both" as an injunction to live. Nice. Thanks for correcting me on this.

A said...
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Thomas Basbøll said...

The part about the archive is interesting. What sort of stuff goes in the archive, what sorts of documents? The archive is no doubt more inclusive than the canon, but the canon is probably the law of the archive, in some sense, the principle of its operation. Not every artist's event is "archived", and part of the task of the artist is to get in there, whether as a minor or a major figure. Now, why the shift to "the level of discourse", i.e., the archive of poetry, in order to do poetics? Or, rather, is there anything to learn about the archive other than what can be learned from an examination of the documents (the poems?). Are the documents themselves not precisely immanent to the event . . . which will include the event of the critic/archivist who "finds" a document or "files" it.

Also, I'm not sure I understand your idea of "countering the flow of the circuit". Aren't you just starting your analytic description of the process at the other pole of oscilation? After your first iteration of artist-society-artist, is there not just as great a probability that the society will take over, building its own intensity in artists, like it or not?

The inexorability of gender may be owed to its geological, not archeological, stratification?

Gary Norris said...

Thomas, I am going to get a response to your questions posted shortly. I like your points--you illuminate some issues I wish to discuss a bit more...gary