The Dwelling Place / Surprised by Sign

Up front: the title of this collection is an enormous misreading of Roland Barthes. In his essay "Surprised by Sign (Notes on Nine)" concluding the collection, Ron Silliman quotes at greatest length from Writing Degree Zero:

    "it is the Word which is 'the dwelling place'… it shines with an infinite freedom and prepares to radiate towards innumerable uncertain and possible connections. Fixed connections being abolished, the word is left only with a vertical project, it is like a monolith, or a pillar which plunges into a totality of meanings, reflexes and recollections…"1

Silliman reads this passage—dissected and arranged—as a confrontation of "diminished referentiality as achieved by effacing connections."2 What he misses is the implicit tradition of canonical modern poetry Barthes is writing against, from Baudelaire to ValĂ©ry in their claim to the transcendental signified: what Silliman cuts out is the "terrible and inhuman" character of the 'Word' in its overdetermination of the sign—which is, in fact, the opposite of diminished referentiality. For example, the first ellipsis of his citation removes Barthes' characterization of the truth-value of the "the dwelling place" 'Word' as a fons et origo that "fulfills like the sudden revelation of a truth" and "can never be untrue."3 Silliman instead emphasizes a dwelling of "innumerable uncertain and possible connections." Further distortion continues as he misaligns Clark Coolidge's rhythmic planar 'voice-less' work ("there is on time / to there is to time / as of district / to be is at there")4 with the "Hunger of the Word" that Barthes applies with "a kind of sacred relish" to the consumption of the overnourishing Word of modern poetry. Finally, Silliman chokes off Barthes passage at its peak: the words which would follow Silliman's final ellipsis: "it is a sign that stands."5 Coolidge's signs, to the contrary, establish a "spacetime place…building off vectoring-geometries," a "huge lingual continua grinding/humming"—a movement that never stands.6 Doubtlessly these moving words form a strange, unintentional dwelling place for Silliman's collection!7

But there is much more that can be read from Silliman's confused dwelling place for Barthes' 'Word' of modern poetry. In its periodical afterlife, this passage from Writing Degree Zero has had more than one love affair with Language writing. In April of 1978, a careful excerpting of this section concerning the 'Word' of "Is There Any Poetic Writing?" from Barthes' essay opens the second issue of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E journal. Printed on the occasion of the re-release of Barthes' text in 1978, the editors of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (Bernstein and Andrews) include nearly the entire section on modern poetry beginning just after Barthes declares Hugo's distortion of the alexandrine "contains the whole future of modern poetry."8 The essential excision, in this version, removes of two interior sentences:

– the first: "To say that this truth is of a poetic order is merely to say that the Word in poetry can never be untrue, because it is whole; it shines with an infinite freedom and prepares to radiate towards innumerable uncertain and possible connections."9

– and the second: "This Hunger of the Word, common to the whole of modern poetry, makes poetic speech terrible and inhuman."10

The absence of these lines (replaced by ellipsis) dramatically transforms Barthes' message—first, by removing the "truth" and "wholeness" of the transcendentally shining Word of "infinite freedom," which reconfigures the section as Silliman does, only in a more clearly politically motivated way. This can be read from a small article toward the end of this issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in the aptly titled "Repossessing the Word" by Steve McCaffery.

A key text of Language politics, McCaffery's article (reprinted from an "Infraview" for Canadian magazine Centerfold) applies Marx's notion of commodity fetishism to a politicized textual economy of audience/performer relations: "reference in language is a strategy of promise and postponement; it's the thing that language never is, never can be, but to which language is always moving. This linguistic promise that the signified gives of something beyond language i've come to feel as being central to capitalism (the fetish of the commodity)."11 McCaffery's argument is parallel to the argument L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, in which there is no place for a "sign that stands" in "Words that can never be untrue." For McCaffery the diminishment of "reference" is the method of demystifying this fetish, calling for "a structural reappraisal of the functional roles of author and reader" to "reveal the human relationships involved within the labour of process."12 In a critique of the Capitalism of language, the "Hunger for the Word" is as welcome as a hunger for commodity. Or rather, as Barthes would say at Baltimore, the facts of language, (of the real itself) are not perceivable "as long as literature maintained a totalitarian ideology of the referent, or more commonly speaking, as long as literature was realistic."13

Thus, unlike Silliman's misunderstanding this presentation of Barthes' "dwelling place," the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E excerpts are actively violent to the text, employing a strange political strategy of detournement through ellipsis that subverts the original message through selective erasure—presenting a contrary message through a significantly altered version of the original text.14 But the important question is, what is the difference between a tactical misreading in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Silliman's unintentional misreading in Alcheringa? It would appear that these two instances point to the one performance Language poetry continually staged: the diversity of possibilities of meaning-making experience through a text. The Word, in both cases is thoroughly alterable: regardless of intention, ripped from the European context, Barthes' cryptic allusive style and open vocabulary leave his text open to these conflicting citations. In a sense, these citational games imply in each message always already its own reversal.

Charles Olson's epitaph to Silliman's collection is another place to begin. It takes practically no leap of the imagination to picture the massive Olson as the Oedipal figure necessary to overcome for multiple strands of post-war American poetry. His "Projective Verse" stands as one of the most important poetic manifestos of the century, powering through anthologies and references despite the devastating critique Perloff extends to the "pseudo-profundities" of its derivation of the poetics of Pound and Williams in the 1973 issue of John Hopkins University's ELH journal—a rite of passage of its own sort for the young Marjorie Perloff—written exactly as Silliman collects poetry for "The Dwelling Place."15

Here, Silliman's citation is violent homage. As Olson says in 1965, "I am a perfect father, until I am not."16 The lines—"that which exists / through itself / is what is called meaning"—are from his Causal Mythologies, (1969) and is used as part of a reinterpretation of the eighth century Chinese alchemical text The Secret of the Golden Flower—however it was first uttered by Olson—sans line breaks—at his infamous drunken reading at the Berkeley Conference of Poetry in 1965. Thus while the message of Olson's lines are essential to the tendency Silliman is trying to group (the irrelevance of reference) its origins stem from the greatest dramatic demonstration of the individual voice of countercultural poetry in the latter half of the century.17 "You're the boss poet here, daddy!" Robert Duncan calls out just before walking out of the conference hall.18 Silliman's structuralist tendency can be traced even to a clever play with the history of these lines (their origin in the voice) in a paradox of reference (which is itself against reference) establishing a critique of the lack of practical follow-through he sees even in Olson's maxim, the message of which is ideal for his collection as it was famously cited by Robert Creeley as the boldest challenge to lyric poetry.19

This critique is made all the more powerful in conjunction (the verse lines' disjunction) with the first of Bruce Andrew's extreme page-altering field poems. "3 Poems" it says, in what a perverse reader might hear as an echo of Ashbery's anomalous "Three Poems" that would profoundly effect Bruce Andrews and other Language poets: in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 12 (1980) Andrews writes that Ashbery's work uniquely demands "Behavioral readings, rather than hermeneutic ones."20 And further: "we could say that only here [in Tennis Court Oaths] and in Three Poems does the disjunct formal structure fully double, or reiterate the implicit lessons embodied in the discourse."21 The formal structure of this opening poem to "The Dwelling Place" is linguistic. It takes the Olsonian field to the extreme, the words seemed dropped in random dispersal—ale, rate, an, lint, late, lain, etc… However, these words are anything but random—the poem instead explores a series of phonic permutations of minimal combinations of the sounds for 'l,' 'r,' 'n,' and 't' with vowels 'a,' 'i,' and 'e'—forming words of two to four letters in length. In this field, conventional reading habit quickly proves pointless—the writing demands the reader begins with this observation and proceeds to form pairings, triangulations, combinations attempting to discover the laws governing the system of the poem—in effect, it demands a structuralist activity.

Openly adventuring into this field makes a structuralist out of anyone: differential pairings (or pseudo-differential-pairings) emerge—rate/late, nit/net, lain/lane—a course of playful anarchic rearrangements; this delicately composed poem is open to each. Recalling Xisto's concrete reversals, Andrew's poem multiplies the activity and removes a subject reading, an intentional message—all the while demanding the same reading practice. The 'reading' of the poem is just this play, from which a pleasurable movement, a coordination of differential arrangements and sounds are produced, what Barthes, in his lecture of the year before, "The Semiological Adventure" (1974) called "less the project of instituting semiology as a science than the pleasure of exercising a Systematics: there is, in the activity of classification, a kind of creative intoxication…the pleasure of System."22 Silliman, in his article following the collection, calls this "creation of non-referring structure" the essential tactic of 'diminished referentiality' common to all nine poets.23 As Prefaced by Andrew's handwritten comments at the head of the chapter—cited in Silliman's essay—this non-referential structure forces the reader into a structural arrangement of "sound, texture, weight, discreteness, silence, targets, rhythms, presence, physicality" that is doomed from the start.24 The important effect, however, is that these fundamentally illogical structures ultimately force the reader to take each of these elements for what they are—that which exists / through itself / is what is called meaning.

"Surprised by Sign (Notes on Nine)" begins with an uncited quotation of William Carlos Williams: "the perfection of new forms as additions to nature."25 In addition to WCW, Silliman's projected 'community' lineage, includes Others modernists like Arensberg, the Russian Futurists, and unexplored 'concerns' for American poetry "(e.g., for the work of such as Lacan or Barthes)."26 From Silliman's impression, these remarks actively construct the community that will be called Language poets. "What this is, then, is a fix-in-time of writing which bears a family resemblance"—which is to say, a synchronic sample of writing from a specific paradigm: Silliman begins by equating his activity as editor with an equivalent activity as a structuralist.27