JOE BRENNAN Responds to HENRY GOULD



In his response to "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" Henry Gould asserts that his subjective ego could identify with Joe Brennan's essay, indicating that he understands little of the principal thrust of my remarks; the ego that I sketch out in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" could never behave in the manner that Gould ascribes to his subjective ego, and indeed his doesn't either. Clearly Gould is agreeing with my obviously conscious observations regarding the experimental methodology and the possible scope of the field that the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are trying to inhabit. The ego that I describe as an object, a desk, couldn't possibly identify with anything, although any identifications will have to pass through its blotter. Gould is being redundant when he refers to his ego as subjective, or else he thinks there's also an objective ego, and then no doubt a neutral ego. If this is Gould's meaning, then we're so far out of step it's a wonder that we recognize each other's meaning at all. So to be charitable, what I think Gould is saying is that, as regards the invention and scope of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, he has the feeling that we're kindred spirits.

Gould's protest that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry arises in response to the new Georgians of the 70's is disingenuous; while it's true that t=h=e=y use these diluted cream puffs as straw dogs and stalking horses, there can be no doubt that their targets are the Moderns. Even a casual survey of the field makes this perfectly clear. Gould's description is a little like saying that the great enemy of WWII, against whom the Allies directed the bulk of their firepower, was the Italian army. I say this in passing because Modernism is obviously the intellectual and artistic Everest that t=h=e=y must climb -- not the sentimental nostalgia of the white cliffs of Dover.

Gould reflects that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry's co-joining of theoretical abstracts with the imaginative may have proved to be something of a devil's bargain. If I understand Gould correctly, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction's insistence that this use of abstraction is the very thing that differentiates them from all that precedes them, while simultaneously reflecting a fundamental weakness in their methodology that leads to what Gould calls Dantean rings of reductive universals -- revealing in this unhappy phrase the same fundamental weakness in his own thought -- [L]evels of abstraction lead to further levels of abstraction. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction lives and breathes at multiple levels of abstraction -- if one can't see they're modeled to a large extent on concepts of modern abstractionism, consciously or otherwise, then in what dimension does their abstract dialectic operate? I think Gould's apology is unnecessary and ill-advised: the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction should welcome with open arms any dialectic response that questions their theoretical scaffolding, especially as said scaffolding is folded into the body of their imaginative work. How else do dialectic truths emerge if not by the questions and answers that engender them? If one can't inform the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction that one of their claims might be more difficult to mine than they first supposed, and not to just point it out but to take the time to give it the intellectual support it deserves, then what criticism -- in the best sense of the word -- is valid against their frequently rash and outrageous assertions? I'm not the one who spoke of a standing outside the ego, it was the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet and maven Douglas Messerli, who, so far as I know, is still considered to be a mainstay of this faction. The idea that a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E devotee should complain about levels of abstraction hurls us forthwith into slapstick. If Gould can't see the emperor's newest c=l=o=t=h=e=s, it's because he needs to have his vision adjusted, which is just what I attempt to do in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S."

Gould identifies footnote #34 as an intellectual sleight of hand; i.e., the weakness in my argument. He claims my defense of what he unadvisedly refers to as a psycholinguistic overlay is contained within this footnote, and then proceeds twice to misread the footnote in both word and meaning as a way of demonstrating his point. In the first instance he arbitrarily changes praxis to practice, as if these two words are interchangeable. Lacan defines praxis as the broadest term to designate a concerted human action, whatever it may be, which places man in a position to treat the real by the symbolic. This includes the richness of interactions which one doesn't simply intellectualize, but also feels, senses, hears, speaks, observes, intuits, absorbs, crystallizes, and which is reacted to in the same modes. It's in the accumulation of these instances of exchange that a praxis is arrived at, while practice more generally refers to how one proceeds, the body of rules and procedures, the proper protocols. Secondly, Gould substitutes universal for generality, demonstrating again his misunderstanding of universal, which is a concept that, far from being reductive, is very close to the real, which in this usage stands for those moments in which essence merges with the extant; generality, in the sense of category, is thought of as a description by which one delineates a discrete series. I'll give an example: according to Foucault, who has a certain knack for these things, the only universal he knows derives from Kant: Man, in so far as he is able, applies his reason to himself. Well, this is provable through history and as it applies to Man as a totality; it isn't necessary that each individual human do this -- in fact, we have reason to believe that a great many don't -- but that as a whole the species marches in this direction. People are shit is a reduction to a discrete series that's directed against individuals, and implies no exceptions. The first example is indisputable, the second example is frequently in error. The intent of Gould's misprisions is to situate me on the cusp of positivism, choking off artistic expression by insisting that my descriptions be adhered to, when in fact I am drawing attention to the problematics of detachment, taken at the phenomenological level that I, following Freud and Lacan, designate as the point at which the imaginary collides with the symbolic. I point out the difficulties from this perspective of achieving said detachment with the methods and techniques employed by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction. I show that detachment means separating one's imaginary signified from the symbolic grip of its signifier, freeing it from the signifying field which determines it and gives it meaning. It's against a commonly held position among the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction that words can exist emptied of meaning, deprived of their signifying function, that my inquiries are frequently directed. I merely observe here that words can't be emptied of their signified until they are replaced with other signifieds, even if what's signified is nothing or unknown.

Gould confuses the issue when he suggests that [Brennan's] approach . . . reflects . . . a dependence on the original works of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, in all their ambiguous non-specificity. Does he mean that I'm unable to apply these concepts to other fields or disciplines? Or is this on the level of a banal truism where, to discuss blue and green, it's necessary that a discrete series of colors exists for there to be a context in which to situate my argument? But isn't context most often the first casualty of the destabilizing operations of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry? Aren't all criticisms, or as I prefer, all dialectics contingent on the existence of that which they oppose? Which came first, the psyche or the poem? From my perspective the only possible response is both, and it places us right where I say it should, at the very joint of being. It's this joint -- which is in actuality a gap -- on which I am, like everyone else, dependent, and not on the endless levels of randomness so dear to the hearts of our ambiguous non- specificities. In truth, I don't protest at all, I question, and I do so in the cause of freedom.

As a counter-point, Gould, seeking a less exacting muse, introduces as his champion a pre-pragmatic Russian, Aleksandr Potebnia, who argues for the overall objective and inter-subjective unity of the word as such and the poetic works of art which are homologous, and whom Gould promptly reduces to Potebnia's algorithm: X = a < A, where X is the new knowledge or conceptual whole produced by the poem; "a" is the actual written or spoken form; and A is the aggregate of possible referents or "sources" of "a". I give you all of his quote so as point out that if one really thinks about it, outside of a whimsical neo-Platonic abstraction, it makes absolutely no sense. Overall objective and inter-subjective unity of the word? Homologous? This is a level of context predicated on vague assumptions of totalities. Compare Potebnia's algorithm with one from Lacan, A,m,a,S,, where A is the Other, the field of the unconscious, m is the moi, the ego, which reflects a representation of a, the objet petit a, and S represents the barred $* of the subject. Simply put, this algorithm shows that the appeal of the subject is an appeal to an Other by an other, an appeal mediated by the defensive function of the ego, for the lost object of his memory. The proper context is provided by the latin amas, the second person singular of amare (to love ardently). It's to whom these manifestations of the objet petit a are addressed that is at issue here. One simply can't operate the way Potebnia and Gould advise until one deals with the level at which I'm trying to situate things. I'm not claiming my approach is superior to Potebnia's or Gould's; I'm saying that my position is both interior and anterior to theirs. Inter-subjective as well as intra-subjective define the field that I indicate and that Gould so recklessly dismisses as a psycholinguistic overlay. Of course it's nothing of the sort, which is actually what I'm trying to point out in that infamous footnote #34; the description of the field of A,m,a,S, is not at the same level as the experiences that allow it, in the unconscious regularity of its structure as language, to reveal its alienated face -- just as art is never the critical level which describes it, and to which art, like being, is always other.

I take exception to Gould's general characterization of my essay as a reductive summary or paraphrase designed to displace the field of art within that of Lacanian psychology, and that to raise issues such as I am raising somehow burdens the critique of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry with the refinements of that psychology -- in short, a kind of psyche police. Well, I'm far from being the first to introduce Lacan, et al, into the discussion -- Bernstein points to the difference between his vision and Lacan's vision in his poetics -- since when has honest criticism ever been intelligently viewed as anything other then an attempt to enlighten and to facilitate the developments of new methods and techniques, to help in the generation of a poetry of its own? Why should L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets be exempted from the effects of conversations they participate in? Who's being the police here? All I need to do is to remind Gould that I can take the whole of "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" and shove it into my poem -- -a sample of which appears in the same issue as the essay, and into which it will comfortably fit -- and then what would Gould say? Oh, that's not poetry? When Bernstein directly opposes Olson's methods of projective verse with his own methods, is the rest of the collegium then prohibited from pointing out that certain dimensions of Bernstein's opposition are so unthought out as to be ludicrous? I think not. I think what's happened is that I've challenged the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction -- for that's exactly what they are, a faction -- at a vulnerable link critical to their poetics. If it's a burden, as Gould complains, they've brought it on themselves. I don't view it as a dead weight; I see it as a knot, as an ensnarlment, as something to be gotten through. And if Gould would pay attention to what I'm in fact saying, he wouldn't feel the need to curl up amid the staggered defenses that one tends to erect around one's weaknesses. Poets, despite the cliché, have no need of license or quitclaims, they're entitled to the ground they can take and hold, like everyone else. If what I present in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" has no relevance to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project, then nothing does; to object to criticism in the manner in which Gould does is to be as anti-intellectual and, since the essay has now been theoretically incorporated into my poem in progress, perhaps as anti-artistic as any attack made on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics, which my essay most certainly is not. To be told by someone who can't seem to differentiate between a universal and a discretion that although one's remarks may be accurate, they are unnecessary and irrelevant to art, is a confirmation that one is rubbing up against a limit, or, more explicitly, a raw spot. Gould's tactics demonstrate anew the resentment that this group visits on those who seem to know what they're about. No doubt in his pre-pragmatic X = a < A such ignorance is considered an advantage, but it's an old prejudice nonetheless. It gives the illusion of an opening onto infinity, but is in fact a constricted space operating at the limits of A,m,a,S,; that is, where one tends to confuse infinity with the limits of one's imaginary. Perhaps Gould will take the other tack and designate these aporias not as prejudice, but as timeless truths, and thereby completely abandon the specific theoretical space that he views the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction operating in.

It's disappointing to see the extent to which naiveté is still coupled to ideals of artistic freedom. Nothing in my essay is a prohibition on anyone from doing anything. It's written at the level of theoretical poetics to demonstrate the difficulties inherent in placing a preponderance of effort in techniques that don't appear to address one's overriding aim. One reason for this seems obvious: the participants are too busy staking out little motes of otherness for whatever self-aggrandizing purpose, a judgement buttressed by the comic demands of the leaders of this faction that they be given herewith the royal stamp of approval by the official establishment. This is hardly the stuff of the avant garde; it's more characteristic of a stagnant movement threatened with gradual dissipation.

As regards detachment, it seems to me that the only productive possibilities for the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction are either to return to the opaqueness of its original formulations of first principles for reflection and reconsideration, or to drop all pretense of a theoretical base and allow for whatever to happen. Personally, I have no objection to either eventuality -- to some extent such a schism is almost certainly mirrored in current reality. We need to question whether this recourse to objective operations of destabilization is a fruitful way to proceed. For example, ego functioning isn't something that one can be outside of; it's a maze of signification in which, with work and effort, one can trace, in the echoes of the word, the thread that leads one back to present freedom. Detachment is something other than pretending that imposing arbitrary, discrete orders over the order of one's words somehow magically detaches one from them, la Messerli. But what detaches from what? The problem I address is prior to these conscious decisions, which are all that's possible using overtly discretionary methods; after all, someone chooses which operational overlay, and which discursive formation to apply it to. The poet is, prior to any operation, already disembodied in his words. To further alienate oneself from one's meaning doesn't address this level, it only serves to exacerbate or heighten the alienation, and to transform the field in which i=t functions into an alienating field. For doesn't the problem of an arbitrary break with the order of words arise when the reader/viewer must make whatever use one can of these words by filling each signifier with signifieds consistent with one's individual A,m,a,S? This includes the poets the instant they mis-recognize the meanings of their initial misconstructions. It's this initial, fundamental discord that I claim it's possible to neutralize to a significant degree. The issue for me is whether L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics offers the methods and techniques to achieve this aim, which is clearly one of facilitation and not of order, as many in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction seem to suppose.

To be effective such methods and techniques must address what is speaking as opposed to who is speaking, to understand what's being said in whatever form it speaks from. It may seem an odd concept but to rejoin with the universe of being, one first has to clearly delineate, to the greatest extent possible, what one actually is, which is exactly that which one seeks to join. What precedes who, but that's not all I'm saying; a what dissociated from its who is the cause for the aggressive discord not only among individuals, but within them. It's this space that has my attention; to the extent that my essay questions the efficacy of any method or technique, it's at this level. And although I can't associate entirely with Gould's implication of a multi-definable essence, I empathize with the sentient need that informs such a formulation. But I assert further that the moment of contact with the real -- this touché of essence with the extant -- is always, in the end, being, and which always exceeds the possibility of any description of it; an illumination I owe wholly to Freud -- that to describe being always serves to displace it, in complete accord with the uncertainty operative in any attempt to describe the real in any one dimension.

Gould defends his method of empirical analysis as a more attentive study of the actual workings of poetic art and particular texts [which] will raise perhaps more generative differences of approach. It might also maintain critical perspective about the unique values and functions of art, unshackled with an over-determined universal theory of psycholinguistic operations. Isn't it fair at this point to raise the question of exactly who (and by what criteria) lifts the curtain on exactly what poetic art is, and who decides which particular texts are relevant for study? Who determines which values are unique, and who decides what the functions of art are? Who defines the critical perspectives? Gould? Apart from the distinct odor of philistinism that arises in his final remarks, Gould's simply being narrow-minded, anot uncommon feature of those who have nothing to lose and no clear intellectual mooring beyond a hunch that essence is something both unknowable and at the same time multi-definable; and if he can't take the time just now to explain this contradiction, then chalk it up to the vagaries of art -- just the response that one has come to expect from our institutional representatives. If Gould can't explain why so-called psycholinguistic overlays are not just as valid as Bernstein's numerical overlays or Silliman's Marxist overlays, perhaps I should try to do so for him, and perhaps I can make more of his meaning than he makes of mine. His approach, without any mirrors, is an appeal to ignorance hidden behind a romantic concept of infinite possibilities opposed to any formal knowledge that proposes limits. I oppose this position because it systemically narrows the field of possibility. One may do anything, but one can't do everything, particularly that of which one is ignorant, an ignorance whose scope dwarfs into near non-existence each minuscule slice that one has access to. To read and to study what intelligent thinkers have to offer, and to make use of whatever knowledge one can carve out for oneself, significantly increases one's generative possibilities, which is diametrically opposed to what Gould claims. What Gould sees as limits, I see as jumping off points; what Gould experiences as shackles, I experience as a need to wipe my glasses and to get on with it.

It's this dimension in which I find Gould's arguments most wanting. Inherent in his notion of burden as regards the alleged psycholinguistic overlay is a belief that art is threatened by such an imposition, that it would be restrictive and stifling. Conversely, my faith -- that's all it is, faith -- is with the transforming power of art; I think this holds true no matter what's being poured down the artist's gullet. As any artist will tell you, everything is suitable material for art because the real exists in every direction. If the power of art is not to transform, then I don't know what it could be. If science could develop greater transformational powers than art, it would become art. But as everyone knows, or should know, this can't happen, because there's nothing in science which isn't suitable material for art, while art has dimensions which are impossible to conceive of in science. To those who would politely point out that art can't make a nuclear bomb, to give technology its due, I would just note that it has the power in its unique and transforming action to depict in the real the aesthetic ugliness inherent in those who do -- and not only generally but, more importantly, to each mirrored eye. The still unanswered question of the Sphinx meets one at whatever vector one finds oneself, and always in the guise of an other. But those with the heart to take up this monumental challenge, whose transformations are so painful and so humiliating, will find themselves closer to understanding what, and therefore who, they are. In preparing themselves, artists should remember that any limits of art reside in the artists and, therefore, the wider the limits the artists operate in, the broader the magnitude of their expression. This is Pound's best advice, which in many respects he lived up to; he didn't advise the poets to merely stick their fingers in the air, he suggested that they first wet them to see which way the wind was blowing. Those foolish enough to see in this even an inkling of an apology for Pound should remember that it's Pound's poetic being that most dramatically and decisively renounces him for the evil he embodied as a human being, in the contrast between what Pound as human did and what Pound as poem says about it.

One last barrage: If one's aim is to completely embrace intellectual abstractions within the artistic, then one shouldn't hold back. After all, if we can't argue at this level, what do we do for kicks? I mean this. If anything goes, as Feyerabend maintains, then why ipso facto are some forms and levels of the dialectic declared persona non grata? If the joint of being isn't a suitable venue for a discussion of art, then what is? Perspective? Style? Ethos? Politics? Beauty? Simultaneity? Experiment? Irony? Rebellion? Love? For me the obvious answer is all of the above, and anything else one can get one's head around. Any attribute or characteristic one can name is, in consciousness, already influenced to the point of overdetermination by the power of this awesome joint of being, this gap that I'm challenging poets brave enough to make the commitment to face speech in any of its manifestations to enter -- and to ignore commentators whose purpose is to denigrate challenges to the revolutionary cant of the radical representatives of the ruling class with mannered shibboleths and vague, erudite airs. News may travel fast, but only if one keeps one's eyes, ears, nose, throat and mind open, along with one's mouth.

*A dollar sign must substitute here for the barred S, which ASCII does not recognize.