WTF?: Witness, Testimony, and Dumb Questions in Juliana Spahr

Lingering amongst my analyses of Juliana Spahr’s work is the concept of witness, and particularly of the notion of poetic witness which functions in Response as a key element of the text’s politics. Witness, which for Spahr is intrinsically linked to a politics of testimony, of needing to speak of real, personal experience, and to transcribe suffering, also inherently links Spahr’s work back to Levertov’s notorious poetics of witness, and the similar processes of recording, witnessing, and testifying that mark feminist poetics at large[i]. Feminist poetics has long grappled with the issue of poetic witness, wanting to transcribe a politic of suffering while remaining aware (and skeptical) of a poetics that represents or speaks for the other. This same concern features throughout Response, as early as its first line which reads: “how to tell without violating?” (“Introduction” 1). Later, Spahr nuances this question even further, asking: “how does one write the question of letters and not appropriate or make bland?” (“witness: III” 11). In a brief e-mail interview, I ask Spahr about this politics of witness in her work, citing specifically that first example. I ask: is it possible to tell without violating? and her answer shocks me. “Probably not,” she states almost matter-of-factly. Then, “That book feels so old to me now. I sort of want to be like wtf was I thinking writing such a dumb question.” For a moment I am taken aback. Why is this question of witness suddenly a dumb question? How has poetry changed so that posing such a question seems, to Spahr now, infantile?

I realize that, at its heart, this question of witnessing without violating, about testifying to the lived experience of politic and suffering, is a question of authorship. It asks: can we speak of the other without speaking for the other? Or, more fully, can we speak without betraying what or whom we speak of? And, of course, these are questions that theorists of various schools (including but not limited to, queer theories, postcolonial and race theories, gender and feminist theories, and a larger semiotics of representation and language) have grappled with for decades. Postanarchism responds to this question tentatively, acknowledging that the writing subject occupies a tenuous position of simultaneous solitariness and connectivity, making this process of “telling” both righteous and risky. In the same e-mail Spahr talks about her complicated relationship with the role of the author explicitly. She writes that she recognizes the isolation of individual writing and the inescapability of subjectivity, and, what’s more, that this is a shared concern of many contemporary writers: “Like many writers at the end of the century and the beginning of the next, I’m a little suspicious of the author. And yet I recognize that I write often in isolation and as a subject in late capitalism, or as an author.” And yet, she also recognizes that authorship is not something you can be completely rid of, even if she doesn’t particularly like the idea of the author much herself. She tells, conversationally,

I guess I see authorship as something that is there. I don’t like it that much as an idea. And yet it doesn’t feel always that one can get rid of it entirely. So I try to think about when to indulge in it and when not. I’m not sure I’ve made the best decisions. They feel more like they’ve been made for me.

One way of getting around this issue of authorship, Spahr’s work more generally tells us, is communal writing and a process of refusing an ownership of language. And yet, despite its “wtf”-factor, Response insists on two related but necessarily separate things: that a subject position is required if there is to be some form of witness or testimony, and also that “when terrible things happen they must be witnessed” (“witness: I” 1).

It is this position that Alicia Ostriker takes in her notion of postmodern witness, which I also brought into my discussions of Levertov. Because Spahr lists Rukeyser as one of the poets who has influenced her in my e-mail interview with her, applying Ostriker’s concept of the postmodern witness is especially fitting as Rukeyser’s poetics of feminist witness is crucial to Ostriker’s theory. And yet, Spahr and Ostriker meet only halfway in their views on postmodern witness. They both agree that “for each time and place there may be appropriately new forms of response to the illness whose two feverish sides are private life and public sphere” (Ostriker 35). And, they both seem to argue that a politically engaged contemporary poem (formally experimental or not) cannot be either purely written with a clearly defined speaking-self in mind, or purely opposed to conceptions of self/history/fact. Ostriker makes this much clear when she asks:

But how is resistance to be poetically organized? Obviously not by a poetics purely of the self. The poem must include history. It must contain the news. But a poetics that denies self is also useless; for without a consciousness that desires, suffers and chooses, there is no ethical or political model for the reader. (35)

And, in some sense, they both assert the importance of a present and located self in the poem, which, as I’ve discussed of Ostriker in my Levertov plateaus, is a major feature of her concept of the poetics of postmodern witness. For Ostriker, in a poetics of postmodern witness, “it is crucial that the poet is present and located in the poem. The poet is not simply a phantom manipulator of words but a confused actual person, caught in a world of catastrophe that the poem must somehow both mirror and transcend” (35). Though, it is at this point that the two begin to disagree.

That is, while Ostriker seems to accept the possibility of a “confused actual person” in the text unproblematically, Spahr grapples with it constantly, asserting ultimately that this person in the text and his/her position as one of witness ultimately becomes a stupid question. And, it’s important to notes that Ostriker patently refuses the politics of Language poetry where Spahr holds it very important. Ostriker dismisses the radical political potentials of a Language poetry that disrupts a writing subject, arguing that

Language poetry, notwithstanding the political posturing of its advocates, seems to me politically vacuous not only because of its captious repartee, and its systemic abandonment of the lyric “I,” but because it denies that the morally responsible human subject is even theoretically possible. (35)

In the end, what they can both agree on most clearly is the refusal to keep silent, positing that the only truly apolitical position is one wherein we accept silence in our speech and in our ability to listen, a moment in which “‘our voices are made silent’ / ‘our ears are made deaf’” (“testimony: III” 28-9).

My own critiques of Ostriker’s theory of postmodern witness can be best demonstrated through Amy Robbins, who, in her discussion of Alice Notley, identifies the primary problematic of Ostriker’s criticism. Robbins notes that Ostriker’s theory seems to accept unproblematically that the self can (and thus should) be represented in the text, an acceptance that needs to be at the very least problematized, if not ultimately refused, by a history of theory and literary criticism that confronts the ability of language to represent anything, let alone a person. Robbins writes: “to claim the presence of a person in language is not an unproblematic contention, as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and other poststructuralists have made clear” (77). Of course, as she is quick to explain, “[m]aterial subjects do not, and cannot, cohere in language – subjects become instead verbal constructs, accumulations of representations that in themselves are merely remnants of desire” (77). Instead, Robbins suggests that Notley’s work makes impossible this present and located “confused person,” by disrupting the “[a]bstract relationships to abstract notions of the self, one way of describing the reader/text interaction that takes place at the site of Language poetry” (88). Spahr’s work follows in a similar vein.

In the end, Ostriker’s suggestion of representation (and especially the representation of a person) is false, misinformative, and Spahr’s testimony adamantly works against it; “this is about the role of testimony / the claims of truth in the age of cover-up and misinformation” (“testimony: I” 3). And thus the collection posits testimony as a means of working against a poetics of witness, and as a remedy for it. Spahr’s poetics of testimony, which follows through Response and continues throughout her work, is made manifest in the intrusion of news, historical, fact, and testimony in her later collections, Fuck You – Aloha – I Love You, thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs, and most recently, well then there now, a collection of seamlessly intertwined confession and found language that seems to say that telling is a violation, and thus the only politically viable text is one that stutters as it violates (a stuttering that is suggested by the collection’s very title). Ultimately, well then there now demands a shift not just away from a process of representation that assumes its potential to witness without violating, but a shift away from that discussion entirely. It offers instead testimony as representation that folds in on itself, becomes so distanced from any real person, no matter how confused, that it is analogy without reference to the real: “analogy from analogy / analogy of analogy” (well then 58). Testimony of testimony.

[i] This poetics of witness is a mainstay of canonical feminist poetics like Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser, and later writers like Carolyn Forché, who make testimony and witness major features of their politics, feminist or otherwise.

3 thoughts on “WTF?: Witness, Testimony, and Dumb Questions in Juliana Spahr

  1. I haven’t read Ostriker’s discussion of postmodern witnessing, but I was wondering if it would lead her/us to the impasse you describe (and work past) so well. Her argument ends up entrenching identity politics because, well, identity politics is what she knows and believes in. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I guess, except that, as you point out, it shuts down other modes of investigation that could be equally or even more fruitful.

    I don’t really have any suggestions for the plateau, since it works its work quite well. I would like to see some textual evidence/illustration of/through Spahr’s own work at the end of the penultimate paragraph, but maybe that’s just me. Even a brief indirect quotation or reference would be helpful.

    Also, I wonder what Cage would say in reference to this point: “what they can both agree on most clearly is the refusal to keep silent, positing that the only truly apolitical position is one wherein we accept silence in our speech and in our ability to listen, a moment in which ‘our voices are made silent’ / ‘our ears are made deaf’”? Cage seems to suggest a politics of silence (at least in terms of his meaning of “silence” as “empty words”), or at least that’s how I like to read his work. Would you agree? If so, is this an impasse, or is there a bridge between Cage’s and Spahr’s stances?

    1. Cage on silence vs Spahr not wanting to be silent. Maybe the bridge is listening, attention, a way out of normativity by finding what one wouldn’t otherwise…

      But for Cage we get there silently, and for Spahr we get there stuttering. In the end, they’re both noise, just differently (though, to be fair, Spahr is noisY whereas the Cunningham mesostics are noise). Spahr doesn’t want empty words (doesn’t see them as helpful), but she wants them opened.

  2. Cage is also working from an Eastern/Zen stance towards silence as necessary for contemplation/connection. Listening/attention would seem to be a possible bridge… but it’s not necessary to have them agree. I’m just curious about how they might/might not overlap.


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