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, February 09, 2010

Words Got Me the Wound

Part two, and the meat of my presentation, which also forms the crux of my argument. I still have to edit it down.

Words Got Me The Wound and Will Get Me Well

With some reservations in mind, Barthes explains how modern, anti-language poetry, occupying “a position which is the reverse of myth,” can intervene against the mythification of language.

[Poetry] tries to transform the sign back into meaning: its ideal, ultimately, would be to reach not the meaning of words, but the meaning of things themselves. . . . .The subversion of writing was the radical act by which a number of writers have attempted to reject Literature as a mythical system . . . some went as far as the pure and simple scuttling of the discourse . . . as the only possible weapon against the major power of myth.”

Looking to several different literary movements, including Russian Formalism, Surrealism, and more recently, Language Poets and the Umbra Poets, we can see wrestling with language in an attempt to confront these kind of forces. Formalism predates of course, Barthes and Debord, as does the heyday of Surrealism, although several of the founding Surrealist poets, including Breton, continued to practice into the 1960s and 1970s and there still exist a great number of surrealists worldwide who carry on the mantle of language experimentation.

The Formalists looked at poetry through the lens of linguistics, rather than the usually-employed analytic tools of psychology, history, culture or aesthetics. Without knowing what we now know about how the mind processes language, without a mediated culture like ours, they nonetheless saw the tendency for conceptual processes to fall into ruts, rather than original ways of thinking. One of their primary concerns was the way in which “as perception becomes habitual . . . our habits retreat into the area of the unconscious automatic.” The antidote as they saw it, was an estranged language that would keep one alert to perception. “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’ . . . to increase the difficulty and length of perception.” By doing so, “art removes objects from the automatism of perception.” “And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife and the fear of war.” “The language of poetry is, then a difficult, roughened, impeded language . . . attenuated torturous speech . . . poetic speech is formed speech. Prose is ordinary speech.”
Inspired by Freud’s work, Breton and the Surrealists were interested in the liberation of the imagination and toward that end, sought ways to circumvent rational thought and delve into subconscious.

“[T]he mind released from all critical pressures and from academic habits offered images and not logical propositions . . . in which we discovered a universe unexplored up to then.”

The Surrealists are best known for “psychic automatism,” which unlike the numbing “automatism” spoken of by the Formalists, was a method that “made possible informative reconnaissance into the poetic domain.” Breton made it clear that the object of his investigation included language itself. Despite its subsequent influence on visual art and virtual disappearance from literary history, Breton makes it clear in his manifestos that it is thought, first and foremost that Surrealism is concerned with. “Whoever says expression says, to begin with, language . . . you must not be surprised to see Surrealism place itself first of all almost exclusively on the plane of language.”

For the Umbra Poets and the Language Poets, what’s important is not a transparent language, but making obvious and transparent the self-conscious nature of meaning production. Andrews looks as the way in which “Political writing . . . unveils, demystifies the creation and shape of meaning.” Recognizing the struggle for meaning that occurs in the de-formation of myth, “reference . . . is to be seen as the result of a conflictual social process in which various interests compete with one another in order to assign particular values to particular signs.” Language Poets attempt to confront the trappings of myth and spectacle, of ideology and relationship, focusing instead on Barthes’ call for a “fissuring.” Identifying meaning itself as a construct encourages the reader or the audience (in the case of performed poetry) to challenge the universalized, naturalized assumptions behind the word, and consequently, the very social formations that they find themselves within. In Clarence Major’s work, “we see an insistence [also] on the ‘arrangedness’ not only of the poem, but of language inside and outside the poem as well as the reality to which language and poem are commonly said to refer.”
If spectacle offers slick surfaces, easy meaning, and commodified relationships, then a writing that implicates the reader in the process of making meaning is one that stands in opposition to spectacle. If the spectacle is ultimately the relationship itself, then the reader-writer relationship is critical, not merely the one-way transmission of meaning from writer/performer to listener/audience/receptacle. The audience cannot merely be a “fourth wall” on which to be splattered with meaning, like graffiti, a poster, a billboard. When not everything is given outright, then a relationship is created with respect for the reader or audience member who brings something to the relationship as well. The hierarchy is collapsed and reader and writer stand on an equal social footing. Bruce Andrews’ “Text and Context” emphasizes “unreadability” as an element that both requires and teaches “new readings.” These new readings, which must be computed, rather than being able to draw on stock images and prefabricated chunks, keep us awake to language, wake us from the sleepwalk of automatism and help to inoculate us from the de-formed and seemingly naturalized discourses of myth and spectacle.

Spoken word poetry sits in a very unique position as both a literary and performance genre. In Barthes formulation poetry is possibly the only genre that can take on myth, partly because of its imprecision and therefore its inability for its meanings to be stolen and deformed. As a performance form, spoken word is dynamic, able to be written and rewritten with every performance, either spontaneously or rehearsed. The meanings can be drastically altered and even interrupted within a performance. On the other hand, the immediacy of the performance can also bring about in the performer a desire to be liked, not to be rejected by the audience, which means the danger that the poet will play it safe. I have seen and talked to poets who will not do their more challenging literary work because they want to be liked, not to mention understood. They pull out tried and true audience pleasers, not works that will leave the audience scratching their heads. At a poetry slam I attended at the Nuyorican Poets Café, in fact, much time was spent encouraging the audience to “show their love” for the performers, rather than expressing themselves about the work. Where audience expression was encouraged, it was to show their dissatisfaction with the judges for not giving high enough scores. It wasn’t so much about challenging the audience, but getting the audience on the side of the poets. This can leave a poet wanting that positive attention all the time and thus play it safe, relying on humor and heavy on pop culture references, easy to identify (and identify with). When the work is more serious, it tends to be taken from the headlines or from the poet’s own personal experiences. There is, to be sure, a diversity of styles in spoken word poetry that range from the quotidian to the very wildly experimental, which is as it should be, for a variety of reasons. I don’t mean to proscribe exactly what poets should be writing about or in what style, or to suggest that all spoken word poets need to become Dadaists. But at the same time, there are pitfalls we should look at in spoken word, ways in which such work may play into the very thing that poets are so often fighting against.

It is precisely because of its immediacy of form, though, because it is a relatively unmediated form, and because it carries with it the freedom in language that poetry inherently has, that spoken word poetry has the power to challenge both myth and spectacle, to be imaginative, and to set off in the reader a creative or imaginative reaction beyond what we have ever experienced. The poet has the power, as Barthes said, to point not to the referent of language but to the thing itself. It also has the power to point to nothing itself, to nothingness itself, and moreover, to the unknown. It has the power to make connections that we may have never made before, and in doing so, to get us out of our ruts, our slogans, our clichés in thinking by encouraging to think, literally to use our brains, in entirely different ways. Not in the ways of lazy language, prefab chunks, but to use our brains in entirely different ways and to get out of our conceptual ruts and perhaps reconceive of the world. Avant-garde work has often been considered art for art’s sake. But Breton and many other avant gardists and experimental poets, have known for decades that it was not necessarily so. It was and is highly political in its desire to change consciousness—not just consciousness about a particular issue, but all of consciousness, consciousness in general. The fact that it may lack political content per se does not make it apolitical. Helene Lewis makes a spirited defense of the political side of Surrealism, for example, when she writes “[t]he Surrealists, in their collective and anonymous art forms, succeeded in creating an anti-elitist art that acquired a new social meaning. Their belief that talent is irrelevant and that everyone has creative potential in his unconscious could be a perfect vehicle for a truly revolutionary art.” This is anti-myth and anti-spectacle before Barthes or Debord and the goals of Surrealism, particularly as outlined by Lewis, are still current and relevant, even if some of the methods of contemporary Surrealists have changed.

Poetry is a literary genre, but also a visual genre, for the poet creates images in the readers mind. And the spoken word poet can not only create images, but sounds, both musical and bruitistic, in the ears of the audience. It also has the freedom from the constraints of story, character, and plot that other literary and performance genres have. Spoken word poetry works on us on a number of levels and carries with it the potential of its own genre, as a literary form, as well as other genres that act on other areas of the brain. It can give people what they already know, and thus fall back on familiarity and habitualization in language and thought, or the poetry can challenge them, literally, to think for themselves when they listen by offering what is unfamiliar and totally new.

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