Post 27: 9 April 2006
On First Looking into
The Language poets (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, after the magazine that bears that name) are an avant garde group or tendency in United States poetry that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s; its central figures are all actively writing, teaching, and performing their work today. In developing their poetics, members of the Language school took as their starting point the emphasis on method evident in the modernist tradition, particularly as represented by Gertrude Stein, the Objectivist poet Louis Zukofsky and John Cage. Language poetry is also an example of poetic postmodernism. Its immediate postmodern precursors were the New American poets, a rubric which includes the New York School, the Black Mountain School, the Beat poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance.
—"Language poets," Wikipedia entry, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_poets>, 9 April 2006
Wikipedia, for those who do not know it, is an experiment in "postmodern knowledge" on the internet: an evolving, time-based, multi-authored encyclopedia or digital "knowledge base" written and edited by anyone and everyone interested in doing so. About ten days ago, I was made aware of a Wikipedia entry for myself as the author "Barrett Watten," which can be accessed at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrett_Watten>. It is interesting that the link to the site is so intuitive and transparent; one can look up just about anything by substituting the name of a "given entity" for the last string in the address and come up with something. The entry itself is a "stub" or minimal entry that is meant as a basis to be built upon; it was entered by editor Christian Roess on 18 February 2006, and apart from a few clean-ups (the "disambiguation of Robert Grenier" the poet from another person by the same name who has an entry) is pretty much the way it was when first posted. At the bottom of the page appears a series of links to categories under which "Barrett Watten" might be located: "American poets"; "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets"; "Living people"; "1948 births"; "Poetry stubs"; and "U.S. writer stubs." While generally pleased with the beginning that the stub editor had provided—it is likely a compilation of several publicity pages readily available through a Google search, copy provided for various readings—I noted with some irritation the persistence of the category "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets." Under that rubric, one finds a list of (as of today) nineteen poets, most of whom would accede to being called "Language poets" (though at least two of them object). The category page, in turn, linked to an entry for "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets," where one finds an interesting and evolving account of the movement. But the problem, as I discussed pointedly in The Constructivist Moment, is that pesky and inaccurate category: the use of the name of the journal, reflecting one editorial perspective, to name a literary movement that exceeds and precedes it.
The history of this usage began, not with the journal itself, but with essays by two critics who were early advocates and/or interested interpreters of the group: Marjorie Perloff's "The Word as Such: "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets in the Eighties" (published in American Poetry Review, May/June 1984) and Jerome McGann's "Contemporary Poetry, Alternate Routes" (published in Critical Inquiry and anthologized in Politics and Poetic Value, ed. Robert von Hallberg, 1987), which used the equal signs to name the group. I will not repeat my detailed discussion here, but I will say that it is a very nuanced version of an immediately negative reaction that led to my writing both critics. In some lead-lined sarcophagus in a university library, those radioactive letters remain. They led to a heated correspondence with Perloff, where I wondered how someone with the conservative politics she espoused could be interested in a left-identified literary movement that pointedly critiques modernist orthodoxies of authorship and form, and a more restrained discussion with McGann, who admitted that the politics of reception were indeed part of the reason he used the equal signs and that he saw no reason to hold back from that. Let us bookmark this moment of critical arrogation at a specific historical moment—the moment of the early reception of the Language school in academia, which led to much—in relation to the current Wikipedia entry, which can be changed and debated by any editor or critic or even poet who chooses. The model for reception has irrevocably changed: from the interested judgments of critics whose primary motivation was to interpret the then-unknown values of Language poetry in terms of precedent modernist or romantic poetics, and the practice of the multitude who will, in the final analysis, decide whether the equal signs will remain in the category name for the group.
My bet is that they will not, and here I have been interested precisely in the mechanisms by which such a conceptual framework may be interrogated and changed, or accepted and stabilized, in the multi-authored environment of the Wikipedia. The entire concept of a "knowledge base" as mediated by users here is overwriting "literary history" as mediated by critics, though I make no claim that the function of criticism will in any way be threatened by this; it simply must take a larger horizon of use into account. On 4 April 2004, in fact, about the time I became involved in helping add to and clean up the entry, editor Nate Dorward was able to change the category to "Language poets," which it remains; he noted, in the history page of the entry, "The use of equals signs is pretty rare now; it's almost invariably encountered without the funny punctuations." At one point, a sentence in the body of the article as well claimed that the majority of poets, when they use the designation "Language poet," did so without equal signs; that comment has since been edited out since the changing of the rubric itself. For a while, after this change, the article began, "The Language poets or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets . . . ," giving precedence to the non-equal-sign term but allowing for the usage of the equal signs; my edit, which resulted in the current version, sought to specify the context for the use of the equal signs in the context of the journal itself. There is a very interesting set of epistemological questions set to work here: on the stability of a category in relation to the things included in that category; of the relation of that category to reception (something not theorized in linguistic approaches, but necessary in literary ones); and the insertion of historical context into the construction of categories. As I claimed in my discussion in The Constructivist Moment, the term "Language poetry" and its variants "Language poet," "Language writing," "Language school," and its conceptual forebear, "language-centered writing" were all in use from the early 1970s onward, well before the use (or cooptation) of the term by the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in 1978. In one version of this reception history, critics interested in modernist and romantic aesthetics, and audiences in New York with their Saul Steinberg vision of the world only making sense on one side of the Hudson River, valorized the equal signs at a specific historical moment. In the larger version of reception, which had to wait not only for my chapter but for a larger pattern of reception, the equal signs are, in fact, being seen as relative to the name of the journal, while "Language poets" has established itself in usage.
Of course, I am an interested participant in this process, having edited two journals of the Language school that did not use equal signs. The importance of Wikipedia is that it realizes that there are many such interests, and that any such thing as a claim to "knowledge" or even to "fact" must factor them into account. This is not the modern Fregean distinction between sense and reference, where "reference" refers to a unique object while "sense" records the perspective from which the object is known. In postmodern epistemology, there really is no meaningful distinction between a frame of reference and an objective perspective, even as postmodernity demands there be a distinction between fact and fiction, or fact and nonsense, or fact and delusional aggrandizement, as much as any historical episteme—or we would have a hard time saying why we should not be in Iraq or whether it matters that Bush leaked classified documents that were inaccurate and intended to deceive through Scooter Libby. While Wikipedia is not going to provide a rigorous account of how fact and fiction, opinion, delusion, inaccuracy, and so on, are going to be distinguished, it does provide a "knowledge base" for the practical skills necessary to make that distinction. In this sense, I am very interested in the ongoing dialogue it affords between those with interested, particular knowledge bases (such as my own experience of the Language school) and editors whose sole concerns are with the evolving structure of this knowledge base. It also interests me that this evolving practical skill is historical in nature: that the entry for "Language poets" was begun as a stub on 9 December 2003; that the equal signs were added by editor Bryan Derksen (a self-described computer nerd, not a literary person) on 30 September 2005; that Nate Dorward removed the equal signs on 4 April 2006, a few days after I started working on the project; and that as of today, 9 April 2006, the proper usage exists in the entry but has not been corrected in the category.
This writing, too, will become a part of the process as a "knowledge base" generated and offered in a reflexive manner; I plan to notify the editors of the entry that I am writing about the process, and many in the literary community may become aware of the issue through my posting of this discussion on my site and on listservs. Already, in fact, the "discussion" thread for the "Language poets" entry notes: "I really like how much improvement has happened to this article recently. To my thinking, what is currently missing in order to make this article approach the asymptote of completion are some images and the cultural context for the movement, which is one of the goals of Wikiproject:poetry. I don't have the resources or background to do that, but I hope that someone else does. Does anyone else have any other suggestions for items that should be included in the article that aren't currently present?" My response will be to post this discussion for the benefit of nonliterary editors, and to encourage further work on providing material for the site. In the process of writing the Grand Piano, a multi-authored history of the Language school in San Francisco in the 1970s (the scope of its historical account is properly "that part of the Language school that emerged in San Francisco"), I brought the article to the attention of my co-authors, and one of them, Ron Silliman, has begun to work on the site. In the process, I also was able to confirm the negative responses other authors shared to the use of the equal signs to name the group. Having asked for comments I could post to this discussion, I received the following (posted with permission):
It's a matter of historical *fact* that the launch of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E significantly post-dates both the formation of the heterotopic community it emerged from and the various descriptive labels, "language-centered" among them, by which members of the community attempted to "locate" practice. As others have recently noted, the = signs are not and were not "representative"—nor, to my knowledge, correct me if I'm wrong, did the editors of that journal actively seek a consensus before adopting a logotype that would inevitably come to be seen as "representative" by the larger reading public. Why "inevitably"? Because in a "market"-driven, "trademark"-governed, "logo"-obsessed, and "sound-bite"-oriented culture, it would be rather disingenuous to fail to notice the iconic value of the logotype. —Ted Pearson
The application of "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" as usage has always appeared to me to be imposed on others with a quality of tacit domination, while also appearing somewhat pretentious and mystifying. It valorizes a specific journal over and above the multitextual and multitextured poly-situational interpersonal interactions that actually constituted the movement or confluence of projects and projections that might be intended for identification by any overarching denominative term. The oppressive qualities of the term "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E," particularly when applied beyond its status as the name of a specific journal, include the patent labor-intensive concentration and care and self-correction involved in typing it out on any keyboard and its unexplained or difficult-to-recover signifying intentions, fraught with contradictions and double-speak, abstruse intellectual assumptions and typographically sensational demands for attention. I prefer a simpler and more commonly accepted and orally identifiable term like "language poetry" or "language writing," because any literate person can speak it or write it as if it's part of their language, rather than somehow claiming an exceptional status; because any one writing may calculate their relationship to its values as they construe them without depending on an all-or-nothing, authoritarian, or doctrinaire presumption; and because it implies that this poetry or writing is particularly interested in the values, application, and implications of language, without placing requirements on how that is understood or explored. The potential inclusiveness, the rough and porous boundaries, and the potentially inchoate referential implications of such a term reflect, in my opinion, the historically identifiable refusal of exclusivity, dogma, and limitations in this project/movement/consensus. —Steve Benson
Language writing/poetry indicates for me an unknown number of methods that intensify the awareness of language's deployment. It is a "kind" of writing that wants to be open to change, to unknown futures produced by other writers. It seems to want to transverse rather than stabilize the epoch(s) of its own arrivals and realizations. The brand or label L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E claims propriety over all of this writing's activities, its playful, speculative, improvisation, reflexive, performative, rethinkings of, and renegotiations with conventions and traditions, etc. that characterize the practice. L= also maneuvers the readers of such works toward identification and away from critical engagement. I only read fords. I never read coke. I used to read fords. I got tired of coke. —Carla Harryman
It has long been noted that an antinomian character, a resistance to naming and being named, and underneath that a critique of reification in the language forms of late capitalism, are characteristic of the Language school, and these remarks from three writers from the San Francisco wing of the movement testify to that. However, I think it is important to move beyond the specific moment of the name of movement and the possibility for subordination that is possible in any category or name, and the politics behind it, to the question of "postmodern knowledge." At some point, something positive and specific must be said even about an antinomian movement, or it cannot be known at all. It could disappear, or merely anything could be said about it. On the one hand, this mise en abyme of naming evokes and even constitutes what critic Paul Mann, not exactly friendly to the avant-garde, called the "theory death of the avant-garde" and by extension of "language." On the other, the capacity of the object itself to obtain a what African-American critic Fred Moten calls its "fugitive status" must be recognized in any act of designation. What would an entry for Ornette Coleman's concept of "harmolodics" look like, when Coleman himself has pointedly refused to define it, and where it is precisely its resistance to category that is generative of the music that results? This dilemma has certainly been a part of the debates around "language," but they should be extended to a larger question: What counts, in a postmodern episteme, as a statement of fact? What is a "knowledge sentence" that takes into account a multi-perspectival complexity and is still true to usage, still permits access to knowledge, still promotes understanding rather than confusion. Given the politics of the present, where disambiguation of ill-founded claims to fact is of the essence, poets need to move beyond the merely aesthetic benefits of the work of art, however conceptually relevant they may be, and take the next step: How to make a positive claim. The example of Wikipedia shows this as a possibility and necessity that can be realized in an intersubjective, post-authorial way.
[Copyright © Barrett Watten 2006. Comments welcome; not to be cited or reprinted without permission, except in short excerpts in electronic media.]