Harryette Mullen

Imagining the Renegade Author of _Sleeping with the Dictionary_

Necessarily tied into my last plateau’s concerns with the Author of Sleeping with the Dictionary and her relationship with the reader are the issues of selfhood and identity politics that permeate this project. Mullen’s relationship to authorship and authority is complicated in some obvious ways, for example through her use of “sampling” and allusion, which I will discuss in more detail next week. But, what I find most fascinating about selfhood and authorship in this collection in particular is the way the identity politics are simultaneous embraced and put under erasure. The result is an identity politic that recalls the tactics Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri discuss in Commonwealth, a discussion that features in my introduction prominently. That is, identity in this text seeks flux, but knows that in order to be moved from the oppressive structures of categorizing and overcoding, one must first take control of the means of producing identities, and in so doing turn it against those structures. Hardt and Negri describe this process in three steps. The first is to attack invisibility, “to reveal the violence of identity as property and thereby in some sense reappropriate that identity” (327). The second is a “struggle for freedom[i]” (330), a new relationship to identity that is no longer viewed as property. The final  is the “self-abolition of identity” which (332), in an anarchist fashion, “fills the traditional role of the abolition of property and of the state” (333). While this third term is implied by the multiplicity of experiential communities described in my previous plateau, I am most interested in the ways that Sleeping with the Dictionary enacts these first two tasks. Amy Moorman Robbins seems even to suggest these very processes in action when she observes that “Mullen turns from encoded descriptions of the culture’s aggression toward bearers of these various identity markers toward the question of agency, asking how a marked subject can effectively regain control of her personhood in such a hostile climate” (362). Robbins also notes the moments of erasure littered through the collection, a process of erasure that she argues “recalls the silencing of Ellison’s narrator in The Invisible Man” (363). I argue that it is precisely through erasure and exclusion that Mullen works to regain control of the production of identity.

Regaining control of “personhood” or the production of subjectivity thus involves foregrounding those aspects of identity production that make the marginalized subject invisible or silent. Part of the way that Mullen does this is by putting the lyric “I” under erasure, as many scholars of her work discuss. For example, Jessica Lewis Luck observes that “[t]hese poems are not the product of a traditional lyric ‘I’ shaping the language to evoke the epiphanies of an essential self. Instead, Mullen conspicuously puts that ‘I’ under erasure” (357). For Luck, this in turn foregrounds the constructedness of political subjectivity, a process that she sees most clearly enacted in Mullen’s collections Trimmings and Muse & Drudge, collections that “illustrate a shift from writing the ‘I’ to considering the subject and language itself ‘not as transparent by constructed’” (358). This leads her to read “Choice voice noise,” the frequently referenced line in Muse & Drudge, as a reference to gaining personal agency, a choice to voice noise, or what would be otherwise passed over. But, we must also read this as a decision to speak in the language of noise, which, as Craig Dworkin argues, moves this politics beyond issues of witness and testimony in that noise has the “potential to disrupt the message, to unsettle the code of the status quo, [which] is what makes noise more than simply the record of violence” (39). “Choice voice noise,” in its similarity to slang and baby talk, is one way that Mullen uses sound and nonsense as a move towards noise.

While Mullen’s work is never “noise” in the way that I argued Cage was, she definitely uses nonsense and marginalized voices that are typically considered to be illiterate or barbaric. This is a way of opening up her work to more potential readers, which she theorizes in “Imagining the Unimagined Reader.” She begins this essay by foregrounding the reader who is silenced before s/he reaches the text because s/he is never imagined, and is thus excluded, a silencing she admits to feeling herself: “There is another kind of experience I sometimes have when reading the words of authors who never imagined that someone like me might be included in the potential audience for their work” (199). This process typically reifies identity through the process of exclusion, in that they provoke the reader to identify with the markers of their subjectivity that cause their exclusion. Mullen describes this process clearly, writing: “When I read words never meant for me, or anyone like me – words that exclude me, or anyone like me, as a possible reader – then I feel simultaneously my exclusion and my inclusion as a literate black woman, the unimagined reader of the text” (ibid). She also notes that this exclusionary process is based on language itself, which is often used to create a divide between literacy and illiteracy, a divide designed to perpetuate systems of domination.

Indeed, as Mullen goes on to observe, “[w]hat constitutes literacy has always been determined by the powerful, while illiteracy as an attribute to the disempowered” (ibid). This is part of the reason why Mullen tends towards slang, baby talk, nonsense words, and onomatopoeia, foregrounding “the quirks, contradictions, even the inanities, in the language of the declining Anglo-American empire” (203), an “inclination … to pursue what is minor, marginal, idiosyncratic, trivial, debased, or aberrant in the language that I speak and write” (202). By opening up language in this way, and trying to disrupt its exclusionary process, Mullen tries to envision as many readers as possible, but knows that a completely inclusive text is totally impossible. And yet, as Hardt and Negri insist, Mullen’s politics and poetics are predicated on drawing attention to this exclusion and the silences and invisibilities it creates. She describes this issue at the close of “Imagining the Unexamined Reader,” which I quote at length because I understand it as so central not only to her project but to my own. She writes:

Not when I am writing, but after I have written, I consider who would be left out, excluded from the poem. Although it’s not necessary or possible to include everyone, I find that it is useful to me as a writer to think about the fact that language, culture, and poetry always exclude as well as they include potential audiences. One reason I have avoided a singular style or voice for my poetry is the possibility of including a diverse audience of readers attracted to different poems and different aspects of the work. I try to leave room for unknown readers I can only imagine. (203)

One element of exclusion that Mullen does not discuss here[ii], but that I find hugely important is the issue of the materiality of the text and its distribution. In fact, I would argue that the digital humanities, the process of online self-publication (like my own), and the hypertext model work towards not just imagining unimagined readers, but also placing the text within their reach.

One of the most striking ways that Sleeping with the Dictionary foregrounds this process of exclusion is by way of what the poetry itself puts under erasure, what words it conspicuously does not speak. A perfect example of this is the poem “Denigration” (19), a poem that suggests, but refuses to articulate, the racial epithet “nigger” throughout. Instead, the poem repeatedly – almost incessantly – recalls the epithet through words linked to it etymologically and sonically: “niggling,” “nigrescence,” “niggardly,” “enigma,” “neglect,” “negligible,” “niggling,” “negotiate,” “renege.” On one level, this poem is deliberately not exclusionary in its refusal to speak a word constantly associated with violence. But, it also points out how we talk about issues of censorship and exclusion, preferring political correctness above an actual abolition of the processes of oppression, of denigration, themselves. Mullen says here that she’s responding to an event in which a staff member of the American government was pressured to resign after people misheard his use of the word “niggardly,” a word that Mullen correctly identifies as having no etymological relation to the epithet. “So,” she goes on to say, “this poem was a commentary on the power of language, even when it’s misheard or misapprehended” (Henning 60). But, interestingly, Mullen also notes that relating concepts sonically rather than etymologically is a distinctly poetic task, and thus the individuals who called for his resignation “were listening more like poets than lexicographers” (ibid). This suggests that poetry has the ability to conflate words, and thus to bastardize a language in both positive and negative ways.

The poem seems to suggest that ignoring or refusing the power of language to oppress contributes to that oppression. Consider, for example, the extreme awkwardness required in this poem to avoid saying certain words even beyond violent epithets. One of these cases is the absurdity of the question, “How muddy is the Mississippi compared to the third-longest river of the darkest continent?” In this case, the speaker of the poem cannot say “Niger,” the river that is the third-largest in Africa, the continent in this poem that dare not speak its name. Here, it is not a violent word that cannot be spoken, but rather words that name the places specifically for fear that speaking these names would make loud the silence of typically excluded readers and make manifest the structures of oppression that function globally. These two elements of the poem essentially suggest that there is nothing innate in the language itself that is oppressive (recall Mullen’s forgiveness of Saussure), but that language is often used as a force of oppression. This is something that Juliana Spahr also observes in Mullen’s work, arguing that “language and narration are not by themselves responsible for categorical oppression; rather, they at times walk hand in hand with the forces of oppression enabling an justifying these practices by providing a grammar of categorization and hierarchy” (Everybody’s Autonomy 90). And Mullen constantly engages with this hierarchy, making manifest the processes of labeling certain languages illiterate, of refusing alternative literacies, of devaluing whole sets of beliefs, and of silencing the marginalized. In noting the violence of invisibility and silence, Mullen also draws attention to the paradox of her successes in speaking a language of illiteracy to an academy that relies on literacy to exist. In “Denigration,” she also asks: “If I disagree with your beliefs, do you chalk it up to my negligible powers of discrimination, supposing I’m just trifling and not worth considering?” Alongside a critique of literacies, this also draws attention to the ways that radical voices are also silenced, an issue Henning connects with the word “renegade.” Their exchange on this is telling:

BH: I was thinking as I read this that I like being called a renegade … the beats, the black arts, it was a plus to be a renegade.
HM: Yes, there’s power in that. Negation can be empowering in a certain sense, when you are free to define yourself against the dominant culture and not be crushed by it.
BH: But not when you think that your “self” has been erased before you know that there has been no erasing, that there can be no erasing. (60-1)

In this case, both Mullen and Henning seem to articulate precisely the tactics Hardt and Negri advocate. Self-abolition or a self in flux, a self that you can determine yourself, is impossible unless we first make visible the invisible, make loud the silenced, and refuse ownership of identity as property. Sleeping with the Dictionary seems to do precisely this.


[i] It is important to note that, in contrast to many activist movements predicated on identity politics, Hardt and Negri are careful to distinguish “freedom” from “emancipation.” They write that “whereas emancipation strives for the freedom of identity, the freedom to be who you really are, liberation aims at the from of self-determination and self-transformation, the freedom to determine what you can become” (333). This elements is precisely what distinguishes this form of reading and writing from identitarian politics and classical anarchism in general.

[ii] Part of the reason that Mullen does not discuss this issue is because the essay is written in 1999, when these digital possibilities did not exist. Another part of that reason is that Mullen tends to dislike technology. For example, while she does note that digital publication of poems, on the “Worldwide Web,” may “virtually expand[] the potential  audience beyond those who see my work in books or periodicals,” she also laments the fact that these poems appear online “with or without [her] permission” (“Imagining” 201). Additionally, Looking Up Harryette Mullen sees both Mullen and interviewer Barbara Henning lamenting the increasing technologization of writing communities, preferring “snail mail” to e-mail, and typically understanding the digital as inferior to print.

4 thoughts on “Imagining the Renegade Author of _Sleeping with the Dictionary_

  1. Lots of good work in this one. I particularly like your discussion of why the poem avoid speaking certain words/ideas–very interesting.

    I just have a few small questions/requests:

    You seem to ignore half of Mullen’s point in the quotation you offer from “Imagining…” in your 3rd paragraph. Mullen says that “… I feel simultaneously my exclusion and my inclusion as a literate black woman, the unimagined reader of the text”–what about that feeling of inclusion, which Mullen seems to find liberating and/or affirming (almost as a form of literary trespassing)? I think there’s something to work through there in relation to your ideas.

    I like the overall structure of this plateau, but I think you should more clearly signpost the moments when you’re talking about Hardt and Negri’s 1st and 2nd steps to taking control of the means of producing identities (I think you tend to blur the lines between those steps in this plateau, and a more distinct division between these steps would help–even, or perhaps especially, when those two steps are working simultaneously).

    Finally, this is where I get to “pretend” to be a cranky old man. You write that “I would argue that the digital humanities, the process of online self-publication (like my own), and the hypertext model work towards not just imagining unimagined readers, but also placing the text within their reach.” I don’t disagree, but I feel that you’re being just a bit Pollyannaish here, because you imply that hypertext doesn’t have any material limitations. Not everyone owns, likes, or can afford a computer, nor does everyone have easy access to the internet. Granted, small press has a very limited reach, but it is possible that someone could lend or give away a printed book, which can’t really happen online. Finally, it’s theoretically possible for an author to write or type out a copy of a text and disperse it for free–I don’t think the internet (and you should correct me if I’m wrong on this point) has such areas that escape the material costs and demands of telecommunications companies et al (by that, I mean that the internet isn’t free of charge for readers, outside of libraries and such). So, okay, bring it on Dani–school me on the glories of the internet!

    [PS Just a quick note in relation to your second footnote–believe it or not, the internet did exist in 1999! One day I’ll tell you horror stories about dial-up modems and huge desktop PCs….]

    • Andy,

      You’re right. My interest in exclusion here has led me to basically ignore inclusion here. I think that probably comes from a very non utopian project that leads me to point out moments of erasure or exclusion first before approaching moments of affirmation and inclusion. This is also the pessimist in me. But, these issues of affinity and inclusion are things I’ve been working through in my readings on Susan Howe lately; I can pretty clearly see how they’d apply to Mullen, though, and I will incorporate them into this section in my revisions.

      And yes, more clear signposts. This is a consistent problem with me. I can definitely see how they will help organize this section more clearly, and will streamline my argument.

      AND OKAY, fine, maybe I’ve been too long in discussions with the crazy people in DH who always blabber on about the revolutionary potentials of the hypertext &c. And you’re correct to note that there are (of course) material limitations to the digital project, not just the economic and preferential ones you’ve pointed to, but also literal material limitations (such as the inherently more transient nature of the digital project). These are limitations I’m willing to embrace–and that I certainly prefer over the limitations of more analog mediums–but I know that I can be a bit utopian in this regard.

      AND OKAY OKAY, there was an internet (a series of tubes, if I remember correctly) in 1999. I remember. I was 14 and I had ICQ and MSN Messenger and a secret relationship with a boy in a chat room. We had a dial-up modem and a PC that opened Windows 3.1 through a DOS screen. I’m not as young as you think! But I would ABSOLUTELY say that the revolutionary potentials of digital projects had not been realized at the time. It was a crazy time, 1999. We were all worried about Y2K and whether Prince’s premonitions would come true. But the rare optimist in me still wants to say… we’ve come a long way, baby. Or something.

  2. I agree with all of your comments, including the real and productive progress electronic publishing/communications have enabled.

    And, yes, you’re obviously very old. So you must remember learning basic programming on Apple II machines in high school Computer Science class, like me? And how excited we were when the Apple IIE machines showed up? And how about those cassette drives for our Commodore 64s–weren’t they great! [Digitally, you may be old, but I fear I’m practically Noah–I remember stepping off the ark into the computer age….]

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