zero dim sum

"how can we be sure
we're not

Mark Wallace's misreading of "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" in both substance and intent leads him to attempt to demonstrate that the arguments I propose vis-à-vis detachment aren't valid because the concepts I argue against are not universally held within the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement. His strategy is to undermine the conceptual framework of my essay by criticizing my methods, my expertise in my field of reference, my knowledge of poetry, my intelligence and my motives. What he fails to see is that even if all of his critical observations were indeed true, the validity of the problems of detachment posed within my essay is not affected. Wallace's confusion stems from his refusal to understand that, in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S," my interest in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry is restricted to the extent to which it relates to my own project; there are many dimensions in which L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry operates that have nothing to do with the perspective I view it from. But L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, like every other genre, is limited by the biases and ignorance of those that produce it, and as such it is as vulnerable to deconstruction as any other discursive practice; because Wallace is in the service of a denial of this vulnerability, he's forced to confine his critique to peripheral concerns. Consequently, his critical observations amount to little more than unsupported accusations.

Wallace begins his criticisms with the following: I agree with Joe Brennan's concern that contemporary poetry should portray a complex sense of ego relations, or what I might prefer to call subject positions. In so saying he makes it obvious that he fails to see the dimension in which I situate the problems that "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" addresses. I'm not at all interested in whether or not contemporary poets portray a complex sense of ego relations; this is not within the scope of my essay. Furthermore, I can state categorically that within the field of Lacanian psychoanalysis the positions of the subject have nothing to do with what Wallace unfortunately calls ego relations; within this field such a formulation can only stand in opposition to the ego as a kaleidoscopic object, the understanding of which is fundamental to understanding Lacan. Such a profound méconnaissance of embodied ego relations is properly understood as the antithesis of Lacanian analysis; this conflation of ego functions with subject positions hopelessly reduces the identity of the subject to endless representations of imaginary reflections whose sole functions are to impede, in a variety of operations, access to consciousness of these repressed subject positions, which are themselves alienated in an image which is foreign to them, a primal signifier that Lacan designates as the Other (le grand Autre). Wallace's remarks have the comic effect of designating the mechanisms of repression as the contents of the repressed. I shall have more to say about the consequences of Wallace's fundamental confusion later; the effect of this psychological miasma, which blinds him to both Freud and Lacan, is to sweep away the critical ground from beneath him.

Wallace points to my lack of poetic references from the field I discuss with which to clarify and to justify my arguments; he also criticizes my lack of adequate evidence in support of my position; he complains that my brief quotes are insufficient for my undertaking. In particular, he criticizes my approach as narrow because I cite only a few lines from the whole of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, which is true enough. But for Wallace to claim that I attempt to use the poetics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing to measure the value of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing demonstrates the extent to which he has misread my essay; nothing could be further from the truth. I don't employ a wide array of textual citations as supports for my position for several reasons: first, I intend only to show that the original opposition to the position that I put forward, namely, that one can't simply dispense with one's history and connections to that history with methods that don't address this issue, actually exists; and second, there have been no criteria established by which to determine whether or not one has detached from the influence of one's ego functions. I'm either right or I'm wrong in my premise, a premise that Wallace, for a variety of reasons, doesn't directly address, being far more interested in commenting on my character and the character of what I'm doing. One can't psychoanalyze poets through their poetry: I oppose any claim that one can existentially or arbitrarily reduce a work of art to reveal the contents of an artist's specific phantasy, although this doesn't mean that the artist's decomposed phantasy isn't present in the work, or that one can't project one's own phantasy onto its surfaces. I'm operating in a theoretical dimension, responding to theoretical problems by appropriating Lacanian concepts and applying them; a bias, if one can call it that, I acknowledge early on in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S." I felt it would be inappropriate to use textual examples given that the subject I intend to elaborate -- the most oppressed subject of all, the subject of repressed history -- is an unknown quantity: how could I use poetic texts to elaborate a specific psychic structure other than my own? Even if I could coax a particular shade from the imaginary field of say, Lyn Hejinian, why should she accept my conclusions as being any more valid than hers, particularly since the relationship between the subject of the unconscious and conscious perception is one of denial and refusal? I prefer to develop the methods that would help Hejinian and the rest of us to free ourselves. Also, as I go to great pains to point out in my essay, the issues raised in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" are intended as my initial, provisional position, not some grand attempt to take the full measure of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. I simply point out some of the problems in the way of such a self-professed ambition. The criticism is unwarranted for another reason; in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" I state very clearly that it's of little interest to me whether or not this project [detachment] is still viable within the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement. This reasoning still holds.

The fact that I've been a poet for some time now, and one who has arguably made a greater commitment to live in artistic freedom than most of our institutional representatives, will no doubt be considered irrelevant -- or at least inconvenient. Why else would Wallace write in a manner that can only be said to be rudely pedantic, as when he asserts: This failure is far too typical among critical theorists who attempt to approach L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry as some subset of practices within their own critical domain, as Brennan does here in this case by trying to subsume L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry in a failed example of psychoanalytic theory. This failure isn't a failure at all; it's the result of a conscious decision not to confuse the issue by attempting to explicate texts with concepts that I have yet to elaborate. Had Wallace considered the possibility of other options, i.e., if he had given me the benefit of the doubt, he might have at least wondered if I had reasons for the approach I chose; instead Wallace blindly imposes his reasoning over mine and proceeds to declare the enterprise a failure, in both method and example. The fact that the essay fails in what it isn't attempting to achieve is presumably unimportant to Wallace, who writes with a certainty that belies the paucity of the knowledge he claims to be privileged to. I don't say this meanly, but to confuse me for an academic critic, and not only an academic critic but like many academic critics, is about the equivalent of confusing a honey bear for a bee keeper. The fact that I'm called this by an academic critic who apparently is unable to recognize his own species only increases the mirth that runs beneath Wallace's entire critique. I unequivocally deny that in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" I attempt to construct a theory of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing: I intend no world-view, I'm speaking of a particular problem from a phenomenological point of view. What I put in front of poetry is not a muzzle or a brake, but a challenge. No doubt this reasoning is beyond the scope of the defensive perimeters of institutional types, but it does raise the interesting question that if Wallace isn't responding to me, then to whom is he responding? I can hazard a guess, but in the end Wallace is the only one who can answer the question -- which I advise him to do as quickly as possible. Then he won't be as likely to reach such foolhardy conclusions that lead him to claim that I'm ignoring the field specific to poetry, or that I can't see that the structure of this field is discontinuous. There's no reasoning in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" which suggests that I believe otherwise. I find it ironic that Wallace faults me for not realizing that there's an inevitable disjunction between poetry and poetics, since one of the main characteristics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is the admixing of poetry and poetics. And if indeed there is this imaginary disjunction between poetry and poetics, then Wallace should state exactly under what conditions this disjunction appears, instead of conjuring up this abstraction as a way of demonstrating his imaginary point while simultaneously avoiding the substance of my work. In fact, if he would take a gander at my poetry, a sample of which is in the current issue of FlashPøint, he will easily see that I'm no more trying to externally pacify and dominate poetry than I am trying to present a critical Weltanschauung on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Those who think my remarks defensive are simply not hearing the laughter.

Wallace doesn't directly address my use of Lacanian concepts; instead, he resorts to naming authorities who have allegedly deconstructed Lacan and criticized the universalist and masculinist [sic] biases in his theories. But why does Wallace merely allude to critics like Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler? Why doesn't he cite their specific and legitimate opposition to Lacan, and by extension, Brennan? If Wallace can cite any textual references by either Irigaray or Butler that specifically bear on my argument, he should present them. He doesn't because he doesn't know intimately the works of Lacan, or Freud for that matter; he's left to look around for borrowed muscle to do the job, muscle whose expertise he can't make adequate use of because, if he doesn't understand Lacanian theory, he can't know what they're writing about in relation to Lacan. Lacan's theories are not intended to be universalist, as anyone who understands Lacan would know; Lacan specifically denies that his theorizing is intended as a world view, or that it is organized exclusively around masculine terms. If Wallace wants to make that charge, then he ought to make his case fairly and objectively, rather than blithely pronouncing judgement on a thinker whose works he doesn't seem to understand, even if he has read them. Wallace appears unable to grasp that being criticized is a far cry from being proved wrong; why else would Wallace raise the question: can Brennan really be of the opinion that understanding "the Freudian ego...through mediation by Lacan" represents at this stage in psychoanalytic theory a "radical position"? If Wallace understood the reality of the psychoanalytic field he would never question whether the Freudian ego, through mediation by Lacan, is still a radical reading in psychoanalytic theorizing. If Wallace doubts this, let him consult his local psychoanalytic society and ask for a referral to a Lacanian analyst, or consult the publications of various mainstream Psychoanalytic Associations, particularly that of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, for articles favorable to Lacanian concepts and methods. Indeed, within the field Freud established, it's rare to find analysts and treatises faithful to Freud, who, if Lacan reads him rightly, is as radical today as he was a century ago when he was taking his first hesitant steps toward his elaboration of the unconscious. Although Lacan is heavily discussed outside of psychoanalysis, particularly in literary and feminist studies, this doesn't mean that his works have been assimilated and integrated within these disciplines; indeed, most literary references to Lacan that I see wouldn't support such a conclusion. Like so many commentators, Wallace confuses radical with the latest fad. While it's easy for Wallace to casually dismiss Lacanian analysis as a failed example of psychoanalytic theory, -- given the ignorance I point out above, one sees this judgement for the ruse it is -- it's much more difficult for him to comprehend that psychoanalysis doesn't derive its validity from the logic of its metaphors, or its metaphysics or the consistency of its paradigm, but from the sum of analytic encounters that make up its praxis. Wallace, like any academic, could read every book ever written on psychoanalysis and he still wouldn't have an inkling of the realities which give its concepts life, a condition that Freud articulates at the beginning of his Introductory Lectures. Wallace's failure to demonstrate any expertise in this field makes one wonder what prompted him to respond to my essay; it's demonstrably arguable from the gist of his remarks that not only can Wallace not, as he acknowledges, claim a great expertise in psychoanalysis, he can't claim even a passing acquaintance with it.

According to Wallace, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics emphasizes the structural, social and political nature of language as far more central to poetry than the individual ego. It's exactly this point that I'm contesting! How does one disassociate oneself from the influences of ego processes in the categories listed? It's not a matter of conscious choice; the ego is not only structurally central to these categories, it is also an impediment to them, a kind of historical conditioning whose exclusively defensive functions subdue the intensities of lived truths. One can't unilaterally choose to ignore the ego and expect to diminish its decisive influence; it can be cogently argued that such a fiat would in fact itself be decisively mediated by ego functions; consciousness almost never has the last word as to what's central to its thoughts. I disagree with Wallace from another point of view; even at the vulgarized level of ego that he employs, self-awareness is fundamental to the efficacy of poetry that aspires to social and political expression. Yet, as further support for the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction's stated desire to distance themselves from their ego influences, Wallace, somewhat surprisingly, evokes T.S. Eliot's notion that the poet must attempt to eliminate his own personality in the act of composition. Apart from the fact that Eliot hasn't articulated a rigorous definition of personality, his aesthetic sensibilities are not consonant with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics. Eliot appeals to an enthrallment by which the poet enters a historical continuum where the voices of poetry survive and reverberate. In any event, in his formulation of the objective correlative, Eliot is as susceptible to the problems raised in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is. Wallace apparently fails to understand that the complexities of ego structures are there precisely to ensure that one doesn't understand, and attempts to deconstruct these complexities are always met with more complexity; defining ego structures is an endless task, and analyses conducted in this mode are interminable. While Wallace's further observations in this regard, that Ron Silliman is concerned with the subject as material reality, that Charles Bernstein uses biographical material and that Hejinian's My Life is a tale of her evolving consciousness, are not remotely germane to my argument, they highlight yet again Wallace's lack of understanding.

The utmost reduction compatible with efficiency is the first and last thing to aim at. According to Wallace, I interpret this quote from Bob Perelman to mean that Perelman is trying to be efficient; I don't know of anyone to whom I would ever be so cruel as to attribute such crude and unimaginative thinking -- except, of course, to those cruel enough to attribute it to others. This is an old debating tactic in which absurd or malevolent meanings are attributed to the remarks of one's adversary and then subjected to the appropriate ridicule and loathing. Wallace believes Perelman is closer to stating a paradox that the reductions of efficiency are both necessary and to be avoided. If indeed this is Perelman's meaning, then it will no doubt come as news to both Perelman and Wallace that this idea of the first and last thing is not new; it doesn't present a problem for anyone who can think past the biases with which they protect the "integrity" of their beliefs; and at a truly philosophical level this banal observation is no more paradoxical than it is wise. At the level at which I use it in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S," it's to show a proclivity for reductionism predicated on the [coercive] privilege accorded efficiency, forgetting that efficiency is not the only, or the principal, aesthetic possibility, a fact that eludes Wallace's -- and perhaps Perelman's -- critical eye. Wallace exemplifies that un-endearing quality of unimaginative, institutional fixtures who, whenever they fail to understand what someone says or writes, attribute said ignorance to the speaker or to the author, a tactic that Wallace repeatedly employs throughout his response. If I present difficult concepts that Wallace doesn't understand, he should ask for clarification, which is what any honest scholar would do; instead Wallace dispatches my formulations with such superficial remarks as I'm afraid . . . the writing and close reading in Brennan's essay undermines his case. A number of his statements make little sense -- and I don't mean that I don't understand them. Of course, obviously what he really means is that he doesn't understand them. If one doesn't understand what's being said, how can one conclude that it makes no sense? For example, Wallace singles out my phrase, a series of positivist constructs overlaid in subjective terms for special criticism; not for what it means, but because, again, he doesn't understand it; the possible exegeses he proposes are especially lame. I wasn't too happy with the phrase either, but it came nearer to what I meant than anything else I thought of. I mean by it the practice of using structuralist techniques, which are necessarily discrete, couched in subjective terms, which are discontinuous, and arbitrarily imposing both on a real that is neither. The issue has to do with my own poetic project, which is the investigation of poetic techniques that reduce the drag of the ego processes on the imaginary field, an idea I had while attending a reading by Douglas Messerli many years ago, and which I mention at the beginning of "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S." Wallace deliberately takes my recollection out of the context in which I use it and substitutes his own version, whereby a chance remark now becomes the center of my critique of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, which Wallace then impudently impugns. This kind of literary ventriloquism isn't conducive to honest discussions of poetics and aesthetics; it's the sort of defensive verbiage that one generates when one has nothing useful to contribute to further the dialectical ends. At the time I wrote "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S," I remembered Messerli's remark, but if Wallace thinks that this offhand remark informs either my understanding of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing or Lacanian theory, then he doesn't know how to read.

There's a deliciously poignant sidebar to Wallace's spirited, if somewhat confused, defense of Barrett Watten; in the end he has to admit he doesn't know what Watten actually means. An error in the transcription of several quotes leads to their being mistakenly attributed to Watten, when in fact they're from Bruce Andrews' TEXT AND CONTEXT. Wallace's remarks on Watten are completely unnecessary, but they are revealing. Wallace represents himself as someone with significant expertise in what he refers to as the whole body of Language poetry, so much so that he feels competent to criticize my lack of it, making a special point of saying that, as regards L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, isn't it because he [Brennan] hasn't read enough of it to know whether what he's saying is true? While it's in the form of an interrogative, it's rhetorical nature is apparent. Yet to not recognize instantly this work by Andrews, which is seminal to his poetics, and to fail to distinguish between the different signature lines of two such distinctive poets, reveals once again the lacunae that critics like Wallace attempt to cover up by assuming an authority to which in fact they are not entitled. I don't know what my expertise is, or isn't, regarding L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. I've read L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers for the past 15 years or so. I didn't do so in any orderly fashion, but only as the moment chose. And always, when I compare what I know with what it seems possible to know, I feel inadequate. In these circumstances, I'm in no position to defend the level of my L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E erudition; I frankly don't know what it is, and don't care that I don't know; I'll leave the rankings up to the institutional orderlies. Whatever authenticity I possess doesn't depend on the number of books that I've read, or on any degrees and honors signifying institutional certification.

Included in the methodological errors that Wallace attributes to me is a particularly nasty and baseless charge that my text is purely masculine; although Wallace attributes this masculinist contamination to my critical approach of both L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing and psychoanalytic theory, the text of "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" is all that he's entitled to comment on. Wallace initially criticizes me for my dearth of textual references as a fatal weakness in my critical method, then uses this same insufficient body of citations to level his charge of textual sexism, having magically transformed them into proofs positive, even though, at the level of psychoanalytic theory that I put things, notions like masculinity and femininity have no applicability. Much more telling is Wallace's claim that in "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S" I fail to cite any of the women poets engaged in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, a claim which is dead wrong. In footnote #10 I specifically cite Leslie Scalapino, Bernadette Mayer and Hannah Weiner in a context that can only be fairly viewed as a recognition of their strong poetic currency; I also cite Mayer in footnote #16 in a direct reference to her poetics. His lack of neutrality in his critique of my work is revealed by these textual oversights, lapses that any psychoanalyst worth his or her pay would immediately recognize as parapraxes of some importance, whose truths, once revealed, are undeniable. Apparently Wallace's idea of masculine bias depends entirely upon the sex of the writer and of his or her sources, and not on the specific content of the work; under Wallace's heavy hand the Freudian aphorism, gender is destiny, takes on an entirely different load. It's silly to reach conclusions of such magnitude on the basis of such a limited sampling. I maintain there's nothing in my essay that can be considered as having either a masculine or a feminine bias. But what happens if I turn the tables and apply this level of criticism to Wallace's piece: since he didn't mention any African American, Asian, Puerto Rican, East Timorese, Salvadoran or Peruvian L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, shouldn't one assume his world view is essentially a cauldron of Western, lily-white biases? Wallace's critical methods are so overtly anti-intellectual as to have no useful function in criticism proper. Charges of isms should be substantiated with facts, not biased projections. Slurring with a broad brush of any kind is as cheap a tactic as imposing absurd meanings on concepts so as to ridicule them.

Wallace dismisses all of my reservations about the project I am pursuing as having no sincerity, and he does so imperiously, without any demonstrable proof. I don't know the extent to which he's being malevolent, but from the point of view of consistency, Wallace has very little choice; he can't acknowledge my sincerity without having to abandon his own opinion-laden position. Not content with pointing out my failings as a critic, he concludes his remarks by attacking me at the levels of ethics and intellectual honesty; he calls me a thief; yet the very essence of his insincerity is made manifest as he says it: Although I respect Brennan's desire to engage L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, I'm afraid that once again the complexities of poetry and poetics have been plundered by a critical theorist more interested in his theories than in poetry, and who thinks that the part of poetry which does not fit those theories can be conveniently ignored. Why in the world would Wallace respect the desire of a plunderer? More importantly, what's been plundered? The complexities of poetry and poetics? This is English Department double-talk; Wallace can't answer this question in any meaningful way because nothing -- absolutely nothing -- has been stolen. If I appropriate any complex categories or concepts in my essay, it certainly isn't from the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E faction. This charge represents an illogical conclusion to a disingenuous and contorted argument; for if he is unable to understand Lacan, can Wallace have the foggiest notion of what I'm attempting to articulate? His failure to understand the basic intent of my essay vitiates his entire critique and renders it, as a response to "A=R=T M=E=A=N=S," useless. Writers who take the time and effort are entitled to be criticized within the context of what they write, not simply attacked and then dismissed for imagined protocol violations by an institutional functionary who, when pressed, resorts to flexing his multi-cultural muscles that, if one looks closely enough, are as meager as the rest of his argument. But I'm willing to be wrong; if Wallace has an answer to the question, what's been stolen?, expressible in sensibilities other than this reasoning that, as soon as one passes through its obvious meaning, collapses of its own dead weight, I'd like to hear it.