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Reading Patti Smith

[This essay, focusing on Patti Smith’s early songs, emerges from teaching and writing I’m doing around an undergraduate course on the poetics of song lyrics and pop culture studies.]
Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006 is more than an anthology of lyrics, and it’s also hardly complete. Patti Smith’s writing – along with her music and photography – is marked and informed by an essential contrariety, by a conflictedness suggested ironically in the book’s blandly generic title, which gestures, I’d say, toward an admixture of excess and fragmentation, of spontaneous overflow and fraught insufficiency that drives her thinking around the making of poems and songs and around her performance style.  She frames this set of contradictions, her sense of voice and of self as embodied contradictions, in the snippets of memoir and reflection scattered throughout the book; commenting on the lyrics for “Birdland,” a track for Horses spontaneously and collectively realized by her and her band in the recording studio, she says that the “concept of improvisation” – and it’s worth nothing that she says concept, rather than practice – “has long repelled and excited me, for it contains the possibilities of humiliation and illumination,” that is, both of the degrading and the vatic. “Sha da do wop da shaman do way sha da do wop da shaman do way,” she sings at the close of her extemporaneous soliloquy; song, as contingent melody, emerges (as in “Land”) off-and-on in the piece from passages of loosely narrative spoken word; the final gently looping chorus blurs doo-wop girl-group nonsense syllables into a vestigial chant of the word “shaman,” and it’s as a kind of nascent and androgynous rock’n’roll shaman that Smith wants here, at the outset of her singing career, to position herself. In a New York Times review of her 1978 collection Babel, a precursor to the “complete” collection we’re now reading in our course on song lyrics and popular culture, Jonathan Cott nicely encapsulates the contradictions that inhere in Smith’s stagy shamanism as he traces out the complexities of her performance persona, of her onstage self-fashioning:
Patti Smith has taken this magic amalgam and manifested it in what she calls “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word,” claiming that rock-and-roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” . . . [B]y adopting a paradoxical theatrical stance – one that confuses male and female roles and that combines the acoustic magic of Rimbaud and the Ronettes – Patti Smith has been able to develop, explore and create a certain shamanistic presence that has eluded many aspiring rock-and-roll seers and heroes.
Counterpointing bits of scripture with caustic fragments of French symbolist poetry, her performative “magic” emerges as an uneasy blend of what she calls – ventriloquizing Jean Genet’s poemLe Condamné à mort” on the back cover of her 1979 album Wave – a doubling of menace into prayer, of prayer as menace.  (In the pages of her Complete, the crux of the line – “Use menace, use prayer.” – becomes an epigraph to the section reproducing the lyrics for Easter [90].)
The infamous first line of “Gloria” – the first track and the first single from her first album, Horses – combines the liturgical and the blasphemous along this same trajectory: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” As an opening gambit, her declaration doesn’t simply articulate what sounds like a resiliently agnostic, existential individualism, but also voices an entitlement – hers, “mine” – to her own deliberate marginality. Her rock-and-roll “magic,” understood as a gestural negation, isn’t so much about belief and shared redemption as it is about disturbance, about a faith – a belief both in and as resistance – that wants uncompromisingly to test its limits and to refuse any vestiges of comfort or assurance. While never quite rejecting Christian iconology and aesthetics (especially the ritual of Roman Catholicism, as the tone poem “Wave,” for example, makes abundantly clear, as well as a very recent photograph of her meeting Pope Francis) Patti Smith describes her Jesus, in the wake of viewing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, as a  “revolutionary figure”: “I began to see him in another light – a teacher, a fighter, a guerrilla” (96). Her Easter is closer to an Easter uprising, a rebirth in turmoil that implicates her in an uncompromised, if not violent, self-remaking. As she appropriates and repurposes the glorified masculine desire that informs Van Morrison’s (as one of Them) original 1963 single “Gloria” (“And oh, she looks so good. Oh she looks so fine / And I got this crazy feeling that I’m gonna make her mine”), the subject position that defines itself in a tirade of possessives (“And I’ve got to tell the world that I made her mine made her mine / Made her mine made her mine made her mine made her mine”) degenerates into a repetitive chant that pulverizes poeisis, making, and diegesis, telling, into thudding particulate phonemes: her voice, the “I” that sings and by singing both hails and possesses its feminine other, becomes drumming, becomes unclosed, brutal and primeval rhythm, a beating. Liturgical responsorial from the Latin mass – gloria in excelsis deo– is both secularized into an erotic object and pulled apart, as she intones each letter of Gloria’s name, into the molecular fragments. The song at once catalyzes into insistent, thetic syllables and disintegrates into undifferentiated verbal noise: pronouncing and dismantling a beloved name that, through the poetic agency of the lyric itself, becomes simultaneously both mine and not-mine, supplement and other.
This double move is, I think, characteristic of many of Patti Smith’s lyrics, which often assert a confidently singular subject while gesturing to the iterative, collaborative and unsettled character of that voice, of her voice. The sexual ambiguity of “Gloria,” for example, as Patti Smith’s lyrics overtake and then fall into a cover-version, a repetition with difference, of Van Morrison’s original (sung, as the lyrics claim, to “twenty thousand girls” at an imaginary stadium concert), disturbs any clear sense of the erotic narrative in the song: Is this a woman ventriloquizing heterosexual desire? Does the song become a queer paean to same-sex desire? The indeterminate androgyny of Patti Smith’s stage persona unknits any normalizing of the dynamics between man and woman, suitor and ingénue. “Because the Night” (from Easter, two or three years later) thematizes desire as belonging, assembling want and succor into an amalgam of contrarieties that becomes more a testament to faith than its deconstruction: “Because the night belongs to lovers / Because the night belongs to us.” Notably, that belonging is shared, ours instead of mine. Smith describes herself as reluctant to listen to a demo cassette of an early version of the song, supplied through producer/engineer Jimmy Iovine from its composer, Bruce Springsteen. Taken by what she describes as its “anthemic quality,” she finishes the lyrics and “somewhat begrudgingly” presents it to her band to record (100). The resulting hit song, she says, is a “testament to Jimmy Iovine’s vision and the co-writer’s New Jersey heritage,” which is also close to her own. As with “Gloria,” what emerges on record isn’t so much a cover or a version of someone else’s song as much as it is a collaborative mix of voices and articulations. For instance, one line that I take to be closer to Smith’s idiom than Springsteen’s (though who can tell or separate them out?) offers in an archly poetic inversion a strong disavowal of the imperious first-person singular: “Have I doubt when I’m alone.” While such a declaration might easily be taken as an avocation of conquest (and assertions in the lyric about “the way I feel under your command” would likely only reinforce such a reading), it seems to me that what we also hear – given the ambiguity and even absence of gender markers for example – is an unsettled and androgynous collaboration, an affirmation that belonging consists in shared desires rather than in their satisfaction through erotic subjugation. When the song asks us to feel and to heal through touch, to “touch me now” in its performative moment, subject and object are inverted in the imperative form, as “I” becomes “me.” Demand and uncertainty produce a temporary hiatus, an almost: contact suspended in the looping repetitions of the refrain. For me, as a listener, this persistence of desire sounds itself in the rhythmic phase-shift of the chorus; because of where it’s placed metrically, “becáuse” becomes “bécause”, and the song gently but persistently jostles against its own formal limits.
Smith’s songs, though, are hardly ever so gentle. (There is nothing, nothing gentle about “Rock n Roll N****r,” an in-your-face provocation that offers a sort of blasphemous flipside to “Because the Night.” [The actual b-side on the 45 was “God Speed.”] I can’t bring myself to type the word without self-censoring: to me, it’s unredeemable and ugly, a verbal violence out of which Smith draws an insurmountable and irresolute alterity, a brutal vocal enactment of Rimbaud’s grammatically fraught claim that “Je est un autre.” There is a good discussion of much of the background to Smith’s reappropriation of the term n****r here.)
The sequence “Land” (also on Horses) begins with a spoken-word piece “Horses” that builds from rubato free-form narrative to four-on-the-floor incantatory, blistering rock. “Horses” sketches a tale of Johnny and his mirror-image, a nameless boy, who confront each other in an unspecified hallway. This doubling is also echoed, literalized, in the restrained overdubbing of another vocal track by Smith, out-of-synch with the lead, her words softly clashing and crashing into each other, as her delivery becomes more emphatic. As the boy approaches, “a rhythm was generating” the song tells us. Johnny is penetrated by the boy as he’s pushed against a locker. (Is this a high school hallway?) The boy disappears, but Johnny starts crashing his own head against the locker, a violence that seems to produce either delusion or vision, concussion or transcendence: either way, the “rhythm” Johnny now sees and hears with increasing intensity in his head, in his ears, sounds like the hoofbeats of fire breathing horses, a pounding verbalized in a chant-like repetition – similar to the chorus in “Gloria” – of a single word: “He saw horses horses horses / horses horses horses horses horses.” The surging drums and guitars behind Smith’s vocal reach a vatic climax – these are versions of the horses of the Christian apocalypse – only to find release into a high velocity version of “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
As with “Gloria,“ the group inhabits in the fierce present tense of their performances a dynamic trajectory through rock’n’roll history. The apocalyptic horses transform, in the first line of Wilson Pickett’s top 40 hit, into one of a set of teenage dance crazes: “Do you know how to pony like bony maroney” Smith wails. Whoever her Johnny might have been, as a representative disaffected teenager, he now appears to find a moment of catharsis and of shared vitality in the song’s hypnotic repetitions: it’s an old song recovered and made new, and it also asserts an insistently driven 4/4 rhythm in which you can’t help getting caught up and pulled to your feet – “Got to lose control and then you take control [. . .] Do you like it like that like it like that.” Spontaneity and self-control collide and smash; what you (not I and not even we, but the vocalist’s externalized other, her audience) . . . what you get to like in this music – liking taken both as likeness, as in the mirrorings and identifications inherent in popular music, and as Eros, as liking what you feel – what you get to like in this music are the conflicted pleasures of its own creative unmaking, its audible gristle. 

Mixed Materials: Raymond Williams Meets Don McKay

Here is another review-essay that seems not to have made it into the pages of Canadian Literature during my time there as an associate editor, although it was written – the date-stamp on the document file puts it at January 2003 – about unsolicited review copies of books sent to the journal. I hope you can pardon the datedness of some of the references, but I thought it might be worth getting it out into the world, making it a little bit worldly, if only to mark one of my attempts to get Anglo-American intellectual work to resonate with some of its less-obvious Canadian counterparts – in this instance, trying to set up a reading of Don McKay through an overview of some reissued Raymond Williams (and some new-ish, at the time, Edward Said).
New Contexts of Canadian Criticism, a 1997 Broadview Press anthology of cultural analyses collaboratively edited by Ajay Heble, Donna Palmateer Pennee and J. R. (Tim) Struthers, offers more than an update of its namesake, Eli Mandel’s classic (and out-of-print) collection of cultural backgrounds; it also presents theoretically-informed forays, through a set of variously Canadian discursive lenses, into the concepts of context and worldliness: a spate of essays that gesture heterogeneously at the possibilities inherent in a distinctly Canadian materiality— which here suggests everything from historicism to autobiography, from socio-economics to bibliography. Still, the first name mentioned in the book – and a critic who, enmeshed in contradictions and pluralities of his own, appears to set the irresolute tone for the collection – is not a Canadian, but Raymond Williams, late professor of Modern Drama at Cambridge. In the last five years or so, Williams’s unstable and disputatious amalgam of Leavisiteformalism and Lukácsiansocial realism  — which he had come to call “cultural materialism,” and which arguably gave rise to Cultural Studies in the English-speaking world — has undergone a recuperation that, national provenance aside, has a tangible, even material, bearing on practices of Canadian criticism, in its several and conflicted guises.
1.
Before I come to any overtly Canadian content, I want to touch on Williams’s worldliness, to suggest how his method might start to be dislodged from its British sinecure and beach itself on the other side of the Atlantic. Williams’s influence is audible (despite a paucity of direct reference) in Edward Said’s finely crafted Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (from Harvard UP). Williams’s impact registers more than in Said’s style, which has the transparent surety of a public intellectual at his peak; Said reads Williams as the voice of “an emergent or alternative consciousness allied to emergent and alternative subaltern groups within the dominant discursive society” (244), and — perhaps surprisingly, given Williams’s rather ardent Oxbridge traditionalism — as a figure of critical radicalism closely akin to Antonio Gramsci (from whom the vocabulary in the passage I have just quoted is drawn), Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno. Williams probably wouldn’t endorse this reading, particularly the Frankfurt School associations, but it does speak closely to the recuperation of Williams in recent literary criticism, criticism that concerns itself with addressing, and moving non-regressively beyond, the impasses and stalemates of a postmodern condition. Williams, for Said, has been “responsive to the real material texture of socio-political change from the point of view not of what Adorno calls identitarian thought but of fractures and disjunctions,” of the “non-identitarian” thinking that Adorno’s own negative dialectics pursue; Williams writing is not, like Adorno’s, an especially philosophical or conceptual interrogation of these critical alternatives, but instead offers their verbal enactment:
To Williams, quite uniquely among major critics, there is this capacity for seeing literature not as a Whiggish advance in formal and aesthetic awareness, nor as a placid, detached, privileged record of what history wrought and which the institution of literature incorporates with sovereign, almost Olympian prowess, but rather as itself a site of contention within society, in which work, profit, poverty, dispossession, wealth, misery, and happiness are the very materials of the writer’s craft, in which the struggle to be clear or to be partisan or detached or committed is in the very nature of the text. (469)
Williams, as writer, reworks this struggle as he reads and responds; like Said’s, his criticism is suffused with a public, pedagogical imperative. Teaching, for Williams, whether in postwar night-schools or rarefied universities, is a matter of social justice and of the redistribution of cultural wealth, of access to empowerment and to the contingent, pressing formations of identity and self-worth that circulate in the world, and that find themselves embodied, better than anywhere, in the literature of a national tradition. Not that Williams is parochial: for Said, he is the best example of a worldly thinker, one who seeks to restore “works and interpretations of their place in the global setting” and to “engage with cultural works in [an] unprovincial, interested manner while maintaining a strong sense of the contest for forms and values which any decent cultural work embodies, realizes, and contains” (383). Williams’s essays, like Said’s, aspire not to dispense high-blown wisdom but to “teach the conflicts,” as Gerald Graff put it: to enable readers to enter crucial debates in cultural politics and to contest meanings and values, rather than to acquiesce to the false gods of scholarly and cultural authority.
Peterborough’s Broadview Press has also reissued, as “encore editions,” two of Williams’s important works from the 1960s: The Long Revolution and Modern Tragedy. In both, Williams takes up challenges facing the public intellectual, and takes those challenges seriously. He aspires not only to transparency in his prose — framing questions of cultural value in a style accessible to the common literate reader — but also to putting at issue the dynamics of societal transformation — through emergent literacy, through public education and through political heuristics — in writing itself.
He begins Modern Tragedy (1966) by describing a conflict built into the term tragedy, a tension between its literary and its common meanings; he notes how theoreticians and literary scholars have tried to narrow into a “particular kind of event, and kind of response” that is not merely “death and suffering,” or accident, or “simply any response to death and suffering,” the sense commonly called tragedies “in ordinary speech and in the newspapers,” a usage regarded as “loose and vulgar” by academics (14). As long-term readers of Williams will recognize, he never tosses off a word like “ordinary,” and it soon becomes clear that he stands apart from the academics he parodies, finding himself impelled ethically to discover what scholars and theoreticians tend to dismiss, the “actual relations” we “see and live by, between the tradition of tragedy and the kinds of experience, in our own time, that we ordinarily and perhaps mistakenly call tragic” (14-15). The so-called mistakes people make in everyday language, for Williams, are not so easily put aside, but point significantly to literature’s relevance: why it matters and how it materializes in the world. He doesn’t cast critical scholarship aside — the second half of the book is a survey, revised from his lectures on modern drama at Cambridge, of innovations in modern European theatre, a thoroughly academic enterprise — but pursues instead the historical, cultural and institutional conflicts built into both the genre and the concept of tragedy, and transforms what might on first glance seem like a dry piece of literary exegesis into a compelling profession of revolutionary dialectics.
In the book, we oscillate between literary and political problematics, as opposed to progressing from one to the other; it’s significant that Williams concludes with, rather beginning from, literary exempla. Literature, for him, is not as creative work separable from everyday life — as he puts it in The Long Revolution, art neither attains a transcendent priority nor dawdles as secondary, leisure-time activity, both of which, he asserts, are “formulations of the same error” of dividing the creative from the ordinary (54).  Literature is for Williams concerned instead with “communication,” by which he means not simply its “transmission” but the “social fact” of the aesthetic, its recognition and re-inscription of “reception and response,” of audience, into its own fabric: “Art is ratified, in the end, by the fact of creativity in all our living. Everything we see and do, the whole structure of our relationships and institutions, depends, finally, on an effort of learning, description and communication. We create our human world as we have thought of art being created” (46, 54). Material and last causes, poetic making and revolutionary disruption, interweave in Williams’s cogent syntax; his critical method is deceptively banal, but his argument, if we attend to it carefully, is as disturbing as it is affirmative — not to draw art down to some lower level of the everyday, but instead to perceive “creative interpretation and effort” in living, to attempt to abolish all such levels and stratifications, as embodiments of social and cultural imbalances. His methodology neither reduces art to sociology, nor detaches the aesthetic from the lived, but pursues the communicative processes that link text with social or historical context, to see “works and ideas in their immediate contexts, as well as in their historical continuity” (16), a social aesthetics. His historicism evinces a kinship to Foucauldian genealogies, as we trace, for example, the evolving conceptual shifts in the term “tragedy”:
The tragic meaning is always both culturally and historically conditioned [. . .]. The essence of tragedy has been looked for in the pre-existing beliefs and in the consequent order [of a society], but it is precisely these elements that are most narrowly limited, culturally. Any attempt to abstract these orders, as definitions of tragedy, either misleads or condemns us to a merely sterile attitude towards the tragic experience of our own culture. (52-53)
Despite a shared humanist vocabulary, Williams’s work on the genre is diametrically opposed to the archetypalism of his near-contemporary Northrop Frye, which pursues exactly those “abstract orders,” abstractions Williams understands as historical products, rather than as structural fixities of a verbal universe that is ultimately divorced from real human experience.
By historicizing even his own critical apparatus, Williams hopes to push through the aesthetic — here framed as tragic redemption — toward a broader ethics he names revolution. In Modern Tragedy he appears at crucial junctures to inhabit a moment of critical reflex, at which the generic structures of classical tragedy overlap with the social forms of their communication: tragedy provides the structural basis for its own interpretation and application. For example, he takes the Aristotelian apex of anagnoresis, or recognition, and overlays a Marxian rubric of emergent class consciousness as revolutionary flashpoint, to explain the gap between the ideal of revolution and its repeated ossification and failure in real human societies, as well as the epistemic break between the literary and the ordinary:
At the point of this recognition, [. . .] where the received ideology of revolution, its simple quality of liberation, seems most to fail, there is waiting the received ideology of tragedy, in either of its common forms: the old tragic lesson, that man cannot change his condition, but can only drown his world in blood in the failed attempt; or the contemporary reflex, that the taking of rational control over our social destiny is defeated or at best deeply stained by our inevitable irrationality, and by the violence and cruelty that are so quickly released when habitual forms break down. (74)
Williams attributes this impasse to a self-defeating liberalism, that he regards as “hemmed in on all sides” (73). His attitude is never defeatist, however, and by reading the modern European canon of tragedy, he projects — progressing from Ibsen through Ionesco to Brecht — a “new tragedy” that refuses to accept the contradictions of human injustice as inevitable, and moves through that “recognition” to break down the “fixed harshness” of any regime, revolutionary or not, with the ongoing “struggle [to] live in new ways and with new feelings,” and by “including the revolution” in “ordinary living,” to “answer death and suffering with a human voice” (103-4). Admittedly, this insistence on the potentially revolutionary character of the ordinary, as redemptive, remains something of a sticking point for Williams’s readers, because of his mystification of “experience” as resolutely unassimilated by abstract or literary forms, even as those forms seek either to contain or to unleash it. Williams’s theory of tragedy, for this reason, is largely anti-cathartic, not because it does not aim toward changing minds, but because he does not want the energy of that change to be dissipated in aesthetic experience: communication, instead, transmutes pathos into ethos, affect into responsibility.
         The resurgence of a human voice in literary forms even as arch as tragedy produces revolution, however “long,” subtle and attenuated, because it speaks to the fundamental emotive substructure of community (an argument closely akin to Herbert Marcuse’s aesthetics of liberation): “A society in which revolution is necessary is a society in which the incorporation of all its people, as whole human beings , is in practice impossible without a change in its fundamental form of relationships. [. . .] Revolution remains necessary [. . .] because there can be no acceptable human order while the full humanity of any class of men is in practice denied” ( 76, 77; original italics). That revolution should “remain” and endure, rather than find a sudden, violent social articulation, is for Williams a consequence of his New Left mistrust of revolutionary regimes and of revolution’s essentially cultural character; culture, as he defines it in The Long Revolution , names a “creative” process — the “long revolution” locates itself not a fractal shock, but in “the essential relation, the true interaction, between patterns learned and created in the mind and patterns learned and made active in relationships, conventions and institutions. Culture is our name for this process and its results, and then within this process we discover problems that have been the subject of traditional debate and that we may look at again in this new way” (89). This Leavisite insistence on the rediscovery of tradition and an Arnoldian vocabulary of true pedagogy, of what must be “learned,” hardly appears revolutionary at all. But Williams’s rhetoric is designed not to shock but to educate, to forge connections between his own ethical imperatives and a popular status quo enmeshed in histories — such as that of literacy, which Williams explores in this book — that have been misrecognized as stasis, as tradition. When Williams writes, with calculated banality, that he wants to look at culture in “this new way,” he is not falling back into the reactionary radicalism of Thomas Carlyle or Matthew Arnold, whom he often quotes approvingly, but trying to engage with what he calls “a necessary tension in language,” particularly in its popular manifestations in organs such as the press, “between powerful impulses to imitation and to change,” a tension that he understands as “part of our basic processes of growth and change,” and of the human movement toward fundamental betterment. Simply put, you need to speak in a language that can be understood, or you will get nowhere, and no change, revolutionary or otherwise, is possible; you need to discover, in the commonplace or the “traditional,” a revolutionary moment (a critical tactic that is closely reminiscent of Antonio Gramsci’s work on the “national-popular”).
The Long Revolution closes with an extended meditation on “Britain in the 1960s” — a period that was only just about to unfold — which Williams clearly intended as a gesture toward critical immediacy, an attempt to historicize his own present and to map its socio-cultural tendencies (as he does early in the book for the 1840s, the remoteness of which from his own time offers a more rigorous and clear-sighted approach to the selective and accumulative processes of history and historicizing; it is difficult to step back from your own present, even contingently). His critical project, however, is not so much utopian — a concept he associates with a liberal idealism content to proclaim the virtues of such things as education, participatory democracy and “common culture” while still “leaving our training institutions as they are” (176)  — as it is hopeful, that “unevenly, tentatively, we get a sense of movement, and the meanings and values extend,” that language, in other words, gets put into practice, “keeping the revolution going” (383). To this end, Williams precedes his social and historical reflections with a call for renovated literary form, what he calls a “new realism” that is “not the old static realism of the passive observer,” a writing inured in regressive objectivity that, though “nostalgia and imitation” merely reinforces oppression, but is instead “necessarily dynamic and active,” not so much the mere representation of social reality as one means of its continual establishment, by which Williams means that writing enacts “this living tension, achieved in communicable form,” the process he calls “culture,” a negotiation between pattern and practice, imagined ideal and lived reality: the “achievement of realism” in the contemporary novel, as praxis rather than telos , is for Williams both “a continual achievement of balance,” the temporary resolution of this tension, and “the ordinary absence of balance,” the dialectical resurgence of a lived asymmetry, an ethical call (316).
2.
But Williams, sadly, does little better than gesture toward this form. The unavoidable conceptual haziness of “experience” in his work needs to be honed away, and the formal character of that realism more carefully articulated, if his hope is to be (no pun intended) realized. I think that Williams’s realism can be supplemented with a kind of late phenomenology to affect such a precising, specifically that of Emmanuel Levinas, and specifically its inflection in the work of a Canadian poet, Don McKay. There are certainly a number of significant caveats to such a claim: Williams had little sympathy for the privileged defamiliarizations of a phenomenological poetics, one that insists on personal consciousness-raising, poetic complexity or intellectual pretense; Levinas, at least in his work up to Totality and Infinity (1961, tr. 1969), expresses a fundamental distrust of the aesthetic, particularly poetry, and outright refuses any kind of socially or politically engaged writing; and McKay’s own poetics repeatedly discover their indebtedness to Martin Heidegger and, more recently, to Levinas himself, but leave Williams and other social realists largely unmentioned. Still, I think that a coalescence emerges from this conjunction, particularly when Williams is re-read in the way I have been suggesting, and on Canadian turf no less. McKay’s Vis-à-Vis (from Gaspereau Press) is a collection of essays and poems that ostensibly focuses on “nature poetry,” but in fact accomplishes this difficult conceptual mix, in discrete textual space.
McKay’s reflections gather around a set of recurrent concepts: wilderness, alterity, translation, apparatus, place. Poetry is not, for him, a form of apprehension — of consciousness as possession or appropriation — but a release, through language, into what cannot and ought not be completely grasped: a form of listening or attentiveness that honours, and pays homage to, what McKay calls wilderness, which he describes as “not just a set of endangered spaces, but the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations” (21). His work finds an imperative in the intersection of the ethical and the ecological, and seeks to revise our sense of home-making, as a collision of oikos with poiesis , to point to a fundamental form of human responsibility for the world, a revision and an extension of Heidegger’s shepherding of being. Where justice in Raymond Williams’s work adopts a human face, and seeks a better form of human society, for McKay justice must necessarily find a prehuman foundation, must at least gesture beyond its own narrow limits. While acknowledging the inevitable and obvious humanness of language and perspective — an echo of Heidegger’s insistence on the humanity of what the philosopher named Dasein — McKay rethinks this anthropocentrism in terms of response and responsibility, producing a version of what Levinas calls “l’humanisme de l’autre homme, ” the humanism of the other person: “nature poetry should not be taken to be avoiding anthropocentrism, but to be enacting it, thoughtfully. It performs the translation which is at the heart of being human, the simultaneous grasp and gift of home-making” (29). Writing nature, that which is outside or beyond the human, is an essentially human act for McKay, a practice he describes by taking up Levinas’s image from Totality and Infinity of the face — le visage , as in vis-à-vis — as wholly other ; McKay refuses the stalemated, dyadic archetypalism of Margaret Atwood’s “The Animals in that Country” (who have either human faces or “the faces of no-one,” a forbidding juxtaposition of mutual solitudes), and instead gestures toward an otherness that is both vital and responsive, as gift and grasp: “we can perform artistic acts in such a way that, in ‘giving things a face’ the emphasis falls on the gift, the way, for example, a linguistic community might honour a stranger by conferring upon her a name in their language. Homage is, perhaps, simply appropriation with the current reversed” (99). McKay doesn’t idealistically renounce human grasping —  in the capacity of language, for example, to name and overwrite what it cannot finally possess, to give a human aspect, catachrestically, to that which is beyond it, making the stranger a familiar — but suggests that such forms of naming and writing, while unavoidable, need to be enacted thoughtfully, responsibly.
Heidegger’s definition of the tool, as that which is to hand, provides McKay with a crucial instance of how to produce such thoughtfulness, as he revises — in ordinary language, through anecdote and reminiscence — a defining human moment, the utility in taking up a tool, as an encroachment of the non-human, of wilderness: “That tools retain a vestige of wilderness is especially evident when we think of their existence in time and eventual gradation from utility: breakdown” (21). He describes the stuff we find at yard sales and in garages — a disused hand-turned meat grinder, for example — as evidence of this inevitable slippage, of what sounds like a vestigial otherness, as its apparatus, its techincal human contrivance, is foregrounded in its collapse into uselessness. (He attaches a military terminology for waste ordinance to this collapse: Matériel , a word that for him marks not only human appropriation but also, as apparatus, resurgent wildness, and that he defines as “any instance of second-order appropriation, where the first appropriation is the making of tool, or the address to things in the mode of utility,” an infliction of the human “rage for immortality on things, marooning them on static islands” as pollutants, as discards [20].) But McKay is careful not to slip into naive appropriations, by idealizing an otherness in language itself, whether common speech or poetry: “poetic attention is based on a recognition and a valuing of the other’s wilderness; it leads to a work which is not a vestige of the other, but a translation of it” (28). This, again, is a Levinasian claim, that hinges on a distrust of the illusion, within the aesthetic, of an incorporation of its outside, to make meaning of the world, to represent; poetry, for McKay, is an example of the foregrounding in language, lovingly, of its inability to represent, of its artifice, its apparatus, even as it describes the human necessity of representation or of making sense: “Poetry comes in here, as a function of language in its apparatus-nature, and not its crowning glory. Poetry comes about because language is not able to represent raw experience, yet it must; it comes about because translation is only translation, apparatus is apparatus” (65).
This separating off of language from world does not, however, occasion a move into post-structuralism, which McKay repeatedly acknowledges as his own philosophical reflex; but his writing takes up the Levinasian il y a (again, a revision of Dasein , there-ness) as opposed to the Derridean il n’y a pas (a accession to the pervasive texuality of the human), and language, for him, is not so much a giving in to limits as a gift, a gesture toward its outside: “The first indicator of one’s status as a nature poet is that one does not invoke language right off when talking about poetry, but acknowledges some extra-linguistic condition as the poem’s input, output, or both” (26). “They’re out there, the unformed ones,” he opens “The Canoe People,” a reworking of a figure from Robert Bringhurst’s Haida translations (77), linking that sense of place, there, to displacement, a floating outside, as these mythical strangers maunder “their wayless way/ among the islands, and now even/ into English with its one-thing-then-/ another-traffic-signalled syntax” (77-78). The point of Bringhurst’s complex work, he implies, is not and cannot be appropriation, but rather, as translation, it manifests an honouring of what it is not, and an insistence on that alterity as the foundational stuff of poetry: an offering of gifts, as thanks, as listening. Poets, McKay claims — and by these he must mean poets such as himself, since he excludes by implication much of the work of those inured in post-structuralism, from the language poetry of Christian Bök to the ideology-critique of Steve McCaffery, even as he shares their vocabularies — “are supremely interested in what language can’t do; in order to gesture outside, they use language that flirts with its destruction” (32). McKay’s terminology is, again, Heideggerian, and he echoes the concept of Destruktion , which Derrida translates into deconstruction ; that flirtation, however, is neither playfully ironic nor dead-ended in itself, but hopeful, a saving grace.
The image of lichens, with which the book concludes, offers a metaphor, which is to say a translation, a mutuality of word and world, as the rock plants both embody and represent “that tiny, shocking, necessary invasion; that saving of language from itself” (106). Poetic language — and this, for me, is how McKay both supplements and refines the problematic posed in Williams — materializes the attempt at what Williams calls “communication” and McKay writes of as gift, the responsiveness and mutuality that clings, like lichen, in words. Both Williams and McKay can be, as I have already pointed out, deceptively colloquial and quotidian. They seek out, in the everyday and in common speech, a “new way” that was always present, an ordinary revolution.
The Books
McKay, Don. Vis-à-vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness.
Kentville, NS: Gaspereau P, 2001. Print.
Said, Edward. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.
Williams, Raymond. Modern Tragedy. Peterborough: Broadview
P, 2001. Print.
– – -. The Long Revolution. Peterborough: Broadview P, 2001.
Print.