Juliana Spahr

“[my zero-level writing”: Spahr’s New Modes of Articulation

As my first plateau on Juliana Spahr argues, her literary and academic career has long been concerned with those moments when language gets fractured and altered. Her article, “The 90s,” demonstrates a view of contemporary anglophone literary movements as either supporting a traditional view of standard English and upholding its values, or else attempting to disrupt the normative linguistic structures of standard English. Unsurprisingly, Spahr’s article decidedly sides with those varied and various movements in poetry that work to disrupt traditional or normative structures of semiotics. Her own poetry, as demonstrated so clearly in Response, is always interested in the disruption of standardized language practices. And, we can also see this same concern in her extracreative work in literary communities, namely in her work with Jena Osman in the creation of the short-lived but well-known literary magazine, Chain. While Chain is officially on hiatus, a short interview that Spahr and Osman did with Danny Snelson for Jacket2 demonstrates the wide-reaching effects that the magazine had on connecting poets in a community of varied but similarly goal-oriented experimental practices. Spahr and Osman tell Snelson in the interview that they posited Chain as a magazine solely interested in those moments “when language sputters and fractures in unusually beautiful and aesthetically fulfilling ways.” Moreover, the editors wanted the magazine to function as a “map that transgressed the recognized borderlines of genre. This mainly felt important to us intellectually.” Response, too, is interested in transgression and fracture, especially of the signifying and representational qualities of language, hallmarked by one of the collections most resounding lines: “things that once meant nonsense now carry meaning” (“witness: III” 2). While not nearly as nonsensical as the asyntactical writings of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, this plateau argues that Spahr’s interest in the disruption of standardized language practices is designed to disrupt the very signifying and representational functions of standard English to propose a new mode of articulation. And, what’s more, this practice, for Spahr, is also decidedly feminist.

Spahr’s concept of new modes of articulation beyond the limitations of standard English begins, first and foremost, with a skepticism of the representational mode of Saussurian linguistics. She poses a need for new modes of articulation that are not purely representational, and therefore do not rely wholly on the authority of the author to imbue meaning into signifiers. In “A, B, C: Reading Against Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein,” she suggests that this new process of expression must begin where traditional modes of expression fail: “As telling drains, what is spoken of here requires new modes of articulation” (285). Recalling Wittgenstein, she calls this mode of linguistic operation “telling, ” characterizing it as the language game of giving information, and one she is weary of because it poses a danger of limitation and overcoding. But, rather than conceding, as Wittgenstein does, that what we cannot speak we must pass over in silence, Spahr refuses silence and opts instead for a breaking down of the constituent structures of “telling.” Echoing Lyotard’s anti-representational politic, she takes up an interest in words as connectives, wherein they are recognized materially as conglomerates of letters: “A letter is part of a word. Only a and i have the status of words themselves — the beginning and the self. When anybody can name, it is not that there is no authorization, but rather that what is authorized is the letter b (let her be), which is given to the reader” (“A, B, C” 287). In this formula, “let her be” functions as anti-representational, and is borne out of the relinquishing of “authorization,” of the process of authoritative authorship that both expression and representation rely on. This is, thus, a move to more material, politically effective and readerly affective poetry that refuses the guise of representation, of metaphor. Response demonstrates this move throughout, as when Spahr writes of “an unreal world called real because it is so heavily metaphoric” (“responding: II” 9). In Response, language’s metaphorical, representation mode affords it the power to create new realities in order to obscure material ones; by disrupting language structures and transgressing linguistic borders, we move to a new mode of articulation grounded in material and affect (which is to say, grounded in the reader rather than the author).

As I have already suggested, this new mode of articulation is an inherent feminist practice in that it is necessarily a grappling with phallogocentricity and the inherent gendering of language. But, it is too simple to characterize Spahr’s work as anti-expressive or anti-phallogocentric; instead, we see in Spahr an attempt to navigate a paradox not unlike the paradox of the self that I discussed in detail in my previous plateau. The paradox of the feminist experimental writer is one that Sianne Ngai has examined closely in her book Ugly Feelings, and Ngai even uses Spahr as one of the examples of a contemporary writer who explicitly deals with this paradox. For Ngai, the paradox of language that the contemporary feminist avant-gardist faces is clear: s/he must decide either to refuse the binary, and thus ignore it, or to interrogate it and thus risk inadvertently supporting it. On the one hand, Ngai writes,

[f]or the feminist writer, the stance that form is political implies that there is no politically neutral language and, by extension, no language uninflected by gender and its ideological codes. From this standpoint, it makes sense to claim that there indeed are ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ languages, much in the same way there are masculine and feminine garments. (316)

Ultimately, what this standpoint requires of the poet is to accept the idea of a kind of “feminine” form that stands against what Ngai characterizes as open and receptive, but still coming from a “tradition dominated by male modernists and valorized by afeminist poststructuralist theorists” or else to engage in “a strategic reappropriation of ‘feminine’ form” (316). If either of these options is unsatisfactory, the alternative is to accept the position

that the attachment, even the critical attachment of gender codes to language promotes the restriction of women to certain kinds of expression and in fact perpetuates binary gender divisions and the hierarchies inevitably accompanying them. This position culminates in a feminist need to insist that linguistic categories should not be gendered, even in aesthetic or critical efforts to challenge past ways in which forms and genres certainly have been gendered. (317, emphasis in original)

The goal here, of course, is to “do away with the concept of ‘feminine form’ altogether” (317). Facing these two opposing viewpoints, Ngai identifies the central paradox of the feminist experimental poet as a tenuous one. “[I]f one adheres too strongly to either of the positions circumscribed by the ‘politics of form’ position,” she writes, “one runs the risk of asserting ‘no language is code-free’ to a degree that leaves one stuck with the task of constantly negotiating between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ categories, inadvertently strengthening them” on the one hand, and on the other, perhaps more dangerously,  “one runs the risk of dangerously underestimating the pervasiveness of gender ideology in all cultural forms” (317). Spahr grapples with this, too, as Ngai goes on to observe. She writes that in Response, Spahr “deliberately occupies the boundary between these possibilities by using the ‘generic’ phrasing” (317-8), the same “generic” phrasing that gives its title to my own project.

I, too, would like to examine Spahr’s grappling with representation and genericism through one very interesting example; in the fourth section of “responding,” Spahr writes, “[generic pronoun] wished to reduce writing to the zero level where it is without meaning. When culture invades private life on a large scale [generic pronoun] said the individual cannot escape being raped” (33). And, only a few lines later, this long line is separated into a list structure that sees the language sputter:

[my zero-level writing
[generic pronoun] said
protest rape
[generic pronoun] said
my zero-level writing
[generic pronoun] said
dangerous cultural rape
[generic pronoun] said
my zero-level writing
my zero-level writing (37-46)

In order to begin discussing this section, I should first identify its obscure intertextuality. The wording here is borrowed from a quotation by Ni Haifeng, a Chinese avant-garde artist and writer, which Spahr almost certainly came across through Andrew Solomon’s New York Times Magazine article, “Their Irony, Humor (and Art) Can Save China,” which was published in 1993 and discusses the radical political potentials of the contemporaneous Chinese avant-garde. The full quotation from the article reads as follows:

In 1987, he began to paint on houses, streets, stones, trees and he covered his island with strange marks in chalk, oil pant and dye. He has said that he wished to reduce writing to the ‘zero level’ where it is without meaning. ‘When culture invades private life on a large scale,’ he said, ‘the individual cannot escape being raped. From this viewpoint, my zero-level writing can be taken as a protest against the act of rape. I also want to warn people of the dangers inherent in cultural rape. (par 46)

By adapting Ni’s words and Solomon’s writing, Spahr seems to suggest that a “zero-level writing” – a writing with literally no meaning – is impossible, and politically dangerous, running the risk of underestimating how the violence of social institutions like gender necessarily inflect language. Standing in stark contrast to the insertion of the bracketed generic pronoun, the specific and overtly political “protest rape” and “dangerous cultural rape” refuse to tip Spahr’s writing towards either side of the paradox: they neither insist on a feminine form, nor ignore the gendered inflections of language altogether. And the lack of gender specificity of the generic pronoun repeated throughout this passage (nowhere else in the collection is its use so pervasive) both suggests the openness and receptiveness that characterizes the feminine form for Ngai, and also refuses a clearly delineated binarism. In the end, the short, indented lines quoted above begin with “[my zero-level writing” which never sees its bracketing closed. Spahr suggests the radical potentials here of a tightrope walk between two dangerous sides of the feminist experimental paradox; she neither supports nor refuses, embracing a postanarchic alternative rather than giving in to one side or another. It is the sputtering, the stuttering that produces a new mode of articulation.

3 thoughts on ““[my zero-level writing”: Spahr’s New Modes of Articulation

  1. Wow–this is a really rich entry. Lots of excellent points throughout!

    I think a few of those points might need a bit of clarification. Early on in the plateau, there’s a bit of a confusion of terminology, I think. So, at one point you write that “In this formula, ‘let her be’ functions as anti-representational, and is borne out of the relinquishing of ‘authorization,’ of the process of authoritative authorship that both expression and representation rely on.” But is “let her be” actually anti-representational? Or is it a different, punning challenge of normative representationality (to me, it seems more like an example of Duncan’s “multiphasic” language)? Later on, you use the terms “anti-expressive” and “anti-phallogocentric”–I wonder if one of these terms (perhaps the latter?) would be more effective/precise? (Perhaps the problem stems from quickly name-checking Lyotard and then starting briefly down that path before swerving away, but not adjusting terminology to reflect that swerve?)

    I’m a bit confused by your description of Ngai’s points. I think your discussion slightly confuses the two sets of choices she offers: if I understand her argument, the larger choice she offers is whether to accept that language is gendered or to deny that; the second set of choices she mentions is a subset of the “accept language is genered” stance, which is to decide between working in a masculine modernist form or to reappropriate a feminist form. You understand this point much better than I do, but I think the discussion gets confused at several points (partly from a lack of clear definitions for each stance, I think, and so the descriptors shift a bit throughout your discussion). The confusion comes to a head, for me, in the section when you write “The goal here, … ideology in all cultural forms’” (317). I think you need to go through the plateau and clarify Ngai’s options more precisely.

    But, along the lines of differentiation Ngai offers, I think you might make a short, passing reference to Levertov’s positioning, which is (?) that she remains the type of poet who maintains “the idea of a kind of ‘feminine’ form that stands against what Ngai characterizes as open and receptive, but still coming from a ‘tradition dominated by male modernists and valorized by afeminist poststructuralist theorists’ or else to engage in ‘a strategic reappropriation of ‘feminine’ form’ (316).” Would you say that’s correct? Regardless, I think a brief situating of Levertov (and perhaps some of the male poets you’ve dealt with, too) along the categories Ngai offers might help work through some of your project’s larger issues (maybe a paragraph in a footnote would suffice?).

  2. Okay, yeah. I think that I was trying to avoid being repetitive and the result was a lack of clarity. I agree that probably anti-phallogocentric seems more appropriate. Would it be better if I expand on the Lyotard, or just kick him out?

    Okay. Got it. Clarify Ngai. And yes, I agree that Levertov certainly fits into that “feminine” form that Ngai discusses. I also think that’s part of why she gets lumped into the femme group we were talking about. I’ll happily give her a footnote.

  3. Much as I love Lyotard, I’m not sure that he’s central to your discussion here. If he does add something you think is worthwhile, then expand and work through. If it’s not central, though, then you can probably just jettison him.


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