Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Liberation of the Imagination: From “Feminine Writing” to Revolutionary Poetry

In the introduction to Feminist Critique of Language, editor Deborah Cameron cites a quote by Shoshona Feldman on language that particularly resonates with me and my work on poetry, language and liberation.

Shoshona Feldman (1975)

“The challenge facing women today is nothing less than to reinvent language . . . to speak not only against but outside the structure . . . to establish a discourse the status of which would no longer be defined by the phallacy of male meaning.” (In Feminist Critique of Language, ed. Deborah Cameron, p. 8)

Cameron elaborates further upon Feldman’s idea, discussing briefly the work of French Feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous and a search for a “feminine writing” and “women’s language.” (By the way, I highly recomment Cixous. I have not delved much into Irigaray, but to me her work seems very much grounded in some rather complicated Freudian and psychoanalytic theory. Cixous is lively and quite readable.) Cameron also raises the other side of the debate, citing Elaine Showalter’s position that the issue for women is not so much a male-based “prisonhouse of language” (props to Jameson) but the very fact of access and entitlement for women to speak. The issue is not the inadequacy of language, or as Judith Butler would point to, the way in which language performs, enacts, speaks into being our condition (from the moment the declaration is made “It’s a girl” Butler tells us, a whole universe of implications is set in motion.). Others reject an essentialist strain that says that women need different language than men to express their lives, their realities, their psyches, their thoughts, etc.

To me the core issue here is that all marginalized, disempowered people, need access to a language of imagination. Not a replacement language per se, but a paralanguage, a language that works, functions on a completely different level than the ordinary, the quotidian, the banal, the mundane, and (consequently) the hegemonic uses of language. The language as it is now practiced, even if it is not inherently structured to protect and maintain power, it has certainly been subverted to that use, propagated in contemporary life, by the constant onslaught of mainstream media—advertising, news, the normative values promoted by almost all television programming and many movies (look at the glorification of the police not only through shows like Cops, but through shows like CSI that glamorize police work, or the nuclear-family centered values of most sitcoms, etc.). In insidious ways we are constantly being told what to believe, what to buy, how to act, how to be moral, how to be patriotic, how to look a certain way, how to fit in and belong in American society, etc. etc. How is one to rethink the world, remake the world, the government, the neighborhood, the culture, the communities we come from and live in, our own very daily existence, among the onslaught of images that perpetuate someone else’s vision and serve up to us only the world as we already (think) we know it?

Resistance is possible through the remaking of language, of finding new, creative, imaginative linguistic practices to sustain us, to help us move toward our visions, to help us have visions we never even thought possible. I am talking here about a language that speaks outside of the dominant discourse, whether racialized, patriarchal, class-based, etc., an un-discourses or non-discourse, a paradiscourse, that brings with it the chance to step outside, run alongside, that does not attempt to use the tools of power that already exist, but to forge new tools that could create new structures, new edifices not previously imagined. The techne, the tool, in many ways proscribes what can be built. We know that with new technology new ways of thinking emerge. So why would we not want new mental and imaginative linguistic tools of our own? As Sol Lewitt says, rational thoughts repeat rational thoughts. The way we think perpetuates itself, we continue to think only in the ways we’ve always thought. I’m not looking then for a feminine language per se, except insofar as it might offer a resistive language, a paralanguage that we can frolic in and search for something unknown, a Dada language a non-sense that leads to sense a zaum a de-formed formalism that will birth new forms.


It has to be said, lest it sound like I am proscribing something equally restrictive and repressive . . . I am not arguing against any type of poetry per se. I do not want to create a monolith of styles, themes, as restrictive as a Marxist insistence on social realism. I do oppose the stilted reification that much slam work has fallen into. But I also do honor and acknowledge the word of identity formation, community building, and progressive values that many forms of poetry can participate in. But I want to ask, then what? NOW what? Where do we go? After at least a century of searching actively for a revolutionary function of poetry, (why) have we given up? (why) have we abandoned the incomplete experiments of the past? Where and how can poetry function uniquely, in other words, what are the unique functions of poetry, as a revolutionary practice?

In the term avant garde, where avant garde falls into elitism, is in its very accepted (if perhaps unofficial, naturalized) definition that the avant garde is ahead of, “anticipates” and in many ways, is therefore, more advanced and “better” than mainstream art, culture, society. And art, culture, and society need only to “catch up” Then of course, in the catching up, the mainstream has then co-opted the avant garde, misusing for commerce or entertainment, for style, failing to recognize the true substance, the original intent (as contemporary Surrealists are famously wont to lament).

I prefer instead to think of the avant garde as the “first wave,” the ground work of consciousness, preparing the field. The change of consciousness, overused and virtually emptied of meaning as that idea may have become, is what necessarily must predate genuine social change. It is not up to poets (or even activists, politicians or “leaders”) to proscribe where that change needs to go, but to empower the imaginations around us to imagine something new, to dream our way out of the current world, which works only for a very few people.

Education is the watchword and it has a very important role to play, but as an instrument of “instruction” and propaganda, it is subject to the same pitfalls that all other forms of discourse and communication fall pretty to. Religious missionaries often (almost always) accompanied or came fast upon the heels of conquerors to ensure that hears and spirits were converted while trying to enforce a new culture and a new rule upon the conquered. Poets must see themselves as missionaries of the imagination, not as propagandists.

To restructure language is to restructure thought, to restructure possibilities. To scramble, if not permanently, which is impractical and will not lead to the world we want, but temporarily, the world as we (think) we know it, the language that binds us to the now, to put new ideas, new juxtapositions into play, new planets into orbit. This is the revolutionary work of the poet.

1 comment:

Michael K. Gause said...

Hey, Laura! A million years, no?

Just a shout to say hello, and good to see you are still at the pen (or keyboard).

Some of us are still in our caves, coaxing ink from the stars.

Michael Gause