Post 1: 9/5/04
A section of The Grand Piano, an on-going, multi-authored account of the San Francisco poetics community in the 1970s. The following excerpt from section 5 also appeared as the introduction to the new edition of Ron Silliman's Tjanting (Salt Press). I am re-presenting it here as an autonomous work. As Larry Eigner notably remarked, "Contexts, ah!"
The Turn to Language in the 1970s
“In the earliest times the intimate unity of word and thing was considered to be part of the bearer of the name, if not indeed to substitute for him,” according to an authoritative account. “Of about to within which,” was Ron’s considered reply.
Of course, it’s not so simple. It’s not being so simple had enormous implications for how we would see the language-centered horizon of our unfolding, collective project. Was the turn to language in the 1970s the same as the collective unfolding of that pact? Or was it a moment of individuation that, against the unlimited and boundless space of language, would return us to tradition in the name of poetry, however modified as critique? What was it we thought we intended, if not what we meant?
are not I . . . .” Nonidentity is the term common to all. The limits of the
imagination contradict wildly at a given time and place. A person thinks his
nonidentity is either a loss or a gain, but it is never simply a fact. Tautology
is assumed by the dominant; recognition is a hole in the face. “But the truly
heroic element, the hero's activity, eludes our perception . . . .” The
recognition of nonidentity is the first step in the appropriation of one's fate.
“Many and various mixes,” as Larry Eigner wrote, in a singular demonstration of language. There is no one approach to this question, whose prospect, we would find out, might appear suspiciously reductive. This is apart from the question of the name—of the group, for instance—about which too much already has been written. Rather, the question is what was meant by language as the horizon of the work. And staring at language on the page, against the background of the page, printing that page, reading to various audiences from it, becoming known and knowing oneself in terms of its effects—language to us would come to mean what?
Proofs for the second edition of In the American Tree have just arrived, along with a request for a new introduction to Tjanting. Looking at my earlier introduction—which now betrays a painful stress of public incomprehension, which I sought to elevate to the status of a method, presented as an authoritative account to the reader, and all this as an introduction to another’s work—I am struck by the violence of its style. The gaps between statements; the need to incorporate a wildly divergent range of references before saying anything that could be taken as assuming authority or knowledge, either of Ron’s work or my own; the attempt to undermine any paraphrase of the work as a condition for entering into it . . .
disappear; idiosyncrasies arrive. Idiosyncrasies are the mediating terms of
the text. Peripheral information, life in the suburbs farthest out, the
deformations of habit leave ghosts of evidence in the perception of the mass. In
this area of language, incompletion can be eliminated simply by being named.
Trivia and language-about-itself disrupt false boundaries of the self; abstraction
is stated in such away that it assumes the objectivity of fact. “We awake in
the same moment to ourselves and things” [Wittgenstein]. The deconstructive
activity of the text finds the destroyed centers of other lives. Idiosyncrasy is
the central term of an assertion of faith in the power of writing to
I identify poetics, as an iconoclastic method, with the generative force of a negation. If not quite with negativity as a form of self-presentation, as if we had wanted to continue the project of doing away with epistemology almost to the point of doing away with ourselves . . . In one fell swoop of disidentification, an act of self-erasure would translate us to the encompassing horizon of language—a capaciousness precisely, at the same time, the difficulty of our address to another. Otherwise put, the interpersonal dynamics of our work, much like the task of introducing it to others, were pressured, stressed. To the point of deformation, a turning away . . .
A turning away from the center of shared concerns evinced, in fact, by the opening of Ron’s work: “Not this. / What then.” And in case anyone missed it the first time, the message repeats: “Not this.” Not this: a denial or surpassing of the act of reference as a condition for the unfolding of the poem. The origins of a metalanguage, beyond the reciprocal canceling of proposition and context. A will to write oneself out of the thicket of particulars, toward the certainty of form. This would seem to imply a transcendental turn, a move to abstraction—if one that was never realized. (It would have been so easy to move toward abstraction, we could immediately have rejoined the company of art.) Not this: but not abstraction, either.
Tjanting writing looks at itself first. Revision, self-consciousness,
the insistence on the typical appear at all points. Verbal “input” is
repeated and broken down in an extensive written continuum based on an iteration
of sentences that could equally stand by themselves. New information is woven
into a fabric of parts which begin to appear as units, divesting themselves of
connotative roots. The writing makes a reality by taking itself apart; the new,
created order finds information to be in the world.
“Not this”: also a sense of going beyond the editorial horizons of This, the magazine I edited and in which all of us appeared. Retrospectively, there seems to be a collective horizon of emergence there. My first thought was, if I am not going to take this as a typical moment of betrayal, what could Ron possibly mean by that—? If we are going beyond This, insofar as it was a product of my labor and desire, and in a way that I thought coincided with that of others—what are we then going to do?
A provisional answer would be the rejected one: a return to the particulars of everyday life, to an experience that had been abstracted and derealized in the horizon of language. Particulars, not language or metalanguage or deixis, but the lure of the things themselves. Here we would rejoin a tradition—at least, the tradition we most cared about: Williams’s “No ideas but in things.” That did not seem to be a going beyond of this. It follows that, wherever one reads the death of the referent in Ron’s writing from the time, one may just as well substitute an endless chain of references to particulars of everyday life. A horizon of writing defined by “the muscles so sore from halving the rump roast I cld barely grip the pen.”
“The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence the unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even if it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation and conception.” [Karl Marx, Grundrisse]
Perhaps the problem with this, if not its demonstration in the pages of This, was that it did not capture the truth of Ron’s method, his way of writing sentence after sentence: the totality of poetic form. In being so bogged down by particulars, one may never see the horizon of totality, the bigger picture, the encompassing whole. But isn’t it precisely in the mode of negation—of refusing to accept the horizon of particulars, even though it is right in front of you—that the bigger picture starts to dawn?
It seemed that what Ron wanted was the reverse—a going beyond this toward a kind of particularity that could no longer be merely called up in the act of referring. Not an obdurate, material fact, but a difficult relation of language. A purely relational determination, in the space opened up between things and the language used to refer to them. The gaps between words and things, rather than the positive existence of either.
semicolon is used to mark a more important break in sentence flow than that
marked by a comma. ‘The controversial portrait was removed from the entrance
hall; in its place was hung a realistic landscape.’” In this directive,
syntax provides a point of departure for a statement that can speak for itself.
[Chicago Manual of Style]
The denial of this, of all acts of pointing to something out there that could be labeled “that,” thus accedes to a relation—as precondition of the total form. The denial of this becomes a test of adequacy of the representation of others, as well. You are not in the place I had reserved for you. Relation is predicated on that which is not. I am led in the direction of saying, the adequacy of representation or the inadequacy of particulars is not the primary reason for that not. Nonreferentiality must then defer, before it enters into any relation, to that not. Not as an intentional act.
Not an intentional act. What is going on here? Wittgenstein turned inside out? Rabbit and duck marching hand and hand, toward the horizon of language? To what were we refusing to refer? Or were we more directly referring to a refusal—as an actually existing state of affairs?
hero is as if concealed in a concrete puzzle; he is broken down into a series of
constituent and subsidiary parts; he is replaced by a chain of objectivized
situations and surrounding objects, both animate and inanimate.” [Roman
Jakobson, “Marginal Notes on the Prose of Boris Pasternak”]
The decisive question has always been the adequacy of statement. Somehow this has been taken to mean, the adequacy of statement in relation to that to which it refers. But reference is everywhere in Ron’s poem. What, then, is the meaning of that constitutive negation? The not that has bound us up in stitches, one might say.
Language must be the relation of an inadequacy, of a statement to itself. But statements are what I wanted to make. In the manner of certain visual artists, who made a statement by placing a pile of anthracite coal in the middle of a white painted cube, the gallery space. Who traveled to the Yucatan and photographed a sequence of mirrors they had installed there. Who were photographed leaping horizontally from the sides of buildings, as a negation of everyday life. In this sense, language has everything to do with strategies in the arts. By which we assume philosophical credibility…
on a billboard, a Camel ad proposes: “Where a man belongs.” Perhaps this is
in the tropics rather than on the corner of 16th and South Van Ness. Limits are
what any of us are inside of; the limit one is staring at is somewhere else. In
the nineteenth century the motive force of the material takes over from there;
in the present, the materials have no motive force: they do not move. There is
no option but for the imagination to turn back on itself. And itself will
generally find itself lacking at that point.
I remember the “Information” show at the Museum of Modern Art, which I saw in 1969. One of the references of this work was to language itself. In the form of documentations of all sorts—lists, statistics, computer-generated texts, defunct categorical schemes. Used paperback editions of logical positivism, from A. J. Ayers to W. V. O. Quine. Logically absurdist definitions of art on the walls by Lawrence Wiener and Joseph Kosuth. The apotheosis of self-consciousness as art recorded earlier in Jasper Johns’s The Critic Speaks. Language was being proposed as an expanded frame of art, and re-presented as art. The inclusive dates of Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object: 1967–73. A defining moment in the historical movement later known as global conceptualism.
Conceptualism was an opening to a more possible world in the 1970s, a departure from the literalism of everyday life. In San Francisco, artists like Terry Fox, Howard Fried, and Tom Marioni put forward site-specific values for a self-canceling art. At the Verbal Eyes performance series at The Farm, poets were drawn into its orbit, on the theory that conceptualism and language had something to do with each other. Here was another route to the overcoming of reference: a video-screen blankness of language as surface to produce a bonafide art effect. Doug Hall’s use of empty repetitions in performance: “They are bombing Afghanistan; they are bombing Cambodia.” Poetry, of course, had long since known how to do things like that. We knew something more about language than its use in conceptual framing or generating abstraction, but the artists had the confidence of an externalized role. Then there was the question of whether the artists could comprehend the literariness of the poets’ use of language, if they could put it to use. Strategies for overcoming reference in language diverge into the prerequisites for each art, even when each is concerned with the relation of the work to the world . . .
bus ride is better than most art . . . .
It was not just literary motives that led to the question of language as a problem in its own right; nor strategies for performance or site-specific art, either. Perhaps, it seemed, we could learn something about our use of language in writing through a study of language itself. Was this another entailment of the turn to language? Would we finally arrive at the ever-receding horizon of language as an object in itself, as something to know?
Immediately I applied myself to the study of language. This was not the same thing. In learning the distinction between the idea of language and the material of linguistics, I learned a great deal. Language for us was a process of ideological unmasking, an unlinking of interests from chronic ideas, reified frames. For the linguists, however, it was an object…
spending is the source of inflation.” Why does the small businessman think
this? Because capital competes for control of liquid assets with the state. And
the small businessman is last on the list for any spare capital to invest. But
perhaps this need for constant new sources of investment capital is precisely
the cause of the inflationary condition he is in. The small businessman
participates in a conflict beyond his control. A mechanical adjustment occurs
that effects all other levels of the state he thinks he is in.
In the 1980s, I had hours of discussions with George Lakoff. We met almost by accident, a phone call after an event at 80 Langton Street. The moment I realized whom I was talking to, I launched into an attack on the distinction between connotation and denotation as philosophically unsound. Connotations likewise have senses—or we cannot understand them. At least, that is what I remember having said. I had been reading Wittgenstein. Connotation was a lure, leading onward, into the unfolding of a desire to know language. George and I immediately met for coffee. The turn to language took me in the wrong direction for a while, in a detour to linguistics. I must continue to think of the meaning of that turn.
It seemed that, one way or another, language leads to everything. It has been good to me, this idea of language leading onward. But once I had learned that, I felt as though I ought to go beyond language. But what would that mean? Would going beyond language be the same as going beyond this? What is the scene of decision I would then find myself in?
tjanting is a drawing instrument used for handwork in batik. The pun is exact: Tjanting
(chanting) would seem to follow its predecessor as an oral form (Ketjak),
but is in fact written toward writing considered as itself. The trace of the
hand on the surface, then, is the hero of the text. “Action is replaced by
topography.” And as any handwriting betrays the continuity of the self, the
science of tearing oneself apart becomes the pleasure of the text.
Language: is it predicated on the inexpressible? Of what we could not express? Of that which could not be taken in the mode of expression? Are you happy/sad, as the Pizzicato 5 would say? What is the meaning of your expression? Do you express the base? What base are you writing your expression in? Would you like to return right now to home base? Do you think there will be any basis for that?
What would it mean to go beyond the inexpressible? To return to expression? Is this circularity the cunning of language? That an inexpressibility of language would return us to a condition of everyday life?
we have a hard time predicting what it's going to be like. And what we do
expect, we don't have ways to relate effectively to what is seen. So it's hard
to tell a reasonable status quo from a viable opportunity for a change from a
disaster area.” [Steve Benson, quoted from The Talks]
We were surrounded by language that we ourselves had made. In endless readings of the endless text. At the Grand Piano, in machine-like style. Kit, Bob, Steve and the Brat Guts writing group. Carla and Steve’s improvisations. The coruscating brilliance of The Talks. The lure of the blank page and the material condensations of type. The hand-stapled aesthetics of Lyn’s letter-press books. Clark Coolidge, holding forth for days at 80 Langton Street. I remember encountering Coolidge at the beginning of the week in which he read two hours a night from his untitled “longwork.” We were enmeshed in a collectively produced labyrinth of relations, made of incommensurate texts. A language that was primarily not about itself, but about . . .
The unutterable inexpressiveness of that not. I wanted to use that not, to put things together in a different way. This was not an abstraction. “A telephone pole is an edited tree.” The constructivist moment, starting again and again, after that not. The opposite of Creeley’s maxim of lyric accountability: “Not from not / but in in,” which sent Robert Grenier turning endlessly into the page. Grenier’s intensity indeed provided a point of focus for us, provoking a self-consciousness of language. At the same time, he was turning away from our concerns, toward an encounter with language in the world as individuating fate. A turn demanding a reinscription of particulars as immanence, almost in a religious sense . . .
this whole system development and underdevelopment reciprocally determine each
other, for while the quest for surplus profits constitutes the prime motive
power behind the mechanisms of growth, surplus-profit can only be achieved at
the expense of less productive countries, regions, and branches of production.
Hence development takes place only in juxtaposition with underdevelopment; it
perpetuates the latter and itself develops thanks to this perpetuation.” By
extension, individual fates are relatively lost or found, moving from peak to
trough on a stagnating, motionless base. [Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism]
We were. In quest of the totality of method. Specifics: in 1977, I published Decay; in 1980, 1–10. This Press brought out Ron’s Ketjak in 1978; I worked on the production of Tjanting in 1980–81. In the same three or four years: Lyn’s Writing Is an Aid to Memory and My Life; Steve’s As Is and Blindspots; Bob’s 7 Works and Primer; Kit’s Down and Back; Carla’s Under the Bridge; and Grenier’s Sentences. Work that had appeared in This, Tuumba, and The Figures and which is collected in In the American Tree. Our writing had gone through a transformation, toward the horizons of a constructive device. We would be patient, building our utopia in the Universal Mountains on the basis of that which is not.
Life continued as a parallel text: Paris, linguistics, C—, 80 Langton Street. Intensive focus and intellectual exogamy. Labor, desire, and the material text. Content—and what is that? Language as relation: not.
self-consciousness fights back. The conversation of men working in any garage
gives a demonstration of this. A mechanic knows more about the mechanics of
statement than most poets. Increasingly, current art tells us only about itself;
while capital is chipping away at our position, we have art to fill in the gaps.
We generate performance artists because there is no drama in everyday life. Art
is possible only as a window on the self-consciousness of the past. The
mechanic accurately measures the helplessness of his fate, but where is the
person whose self-consciousness has survived art?
These are the dots, those are the connections. They are being filled in, even as they are evaporating. Will we ever achieve the horizon of language? Or is the horizon of language only where we started from?
Between dots and connections is a statement. That is what I wanted to make.
this. What then?” The writing is working on itself. The mechanics are
operating on their own terms; to deal with them is to operate on one's own. The
serial order of the work finding itself out is equal to the fixed attention to
be found at all points.
Have you ever wanted to go beyond language? How would you describe your motives for doing so, in so many words?
[From The Grand Piano, a multi-authored account of poetry and poetics in San Francisco in the 1970s, currently in the process of being written by Rae Armantrout, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Tom Mandel, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten. Extracted material is from my introduction to the first edition of Ron Silliman’s Tjanting, published by The Figures (San Francisco) in 1981; the present version appears as the introduction to its second edition, published by Salt Press (Cambridge, Eng.) in 2002. Copyright © Barrett Watten 2004.]