Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Last night’s post on Humpty-Dumpty-ism was oblique, after having deleted two previous, lengthy posts that gave it more context. Here is the context, re-written:

The other day I’d read an essay by Language-mag poet-maven Barrett Watten that I’d come across via K. Silem Mohammad’s blog. Watten confirmed most of my prejudices against Language-mag poets, including one I’d intuited and written about recently in my joke about their interest in a non-monarchical “political subject”: the willful deafness to the monarchical underpinnings of the word “subject” in a political context reflects their incompetence regarding the connotations of words. Watten’s essay makes it clear: it's not a simple case of incompetence regarding the connotations of words: he talks about the Language-mag poets’ campaign against connotation itself.

Which is what I called Humpty-Dumpty-ism last night: trying to dictate the meanings of words.

The poetry bar in Blogville that I hang out in (usually muttering to myself in the corner) has been strangely quiet in the last couple days, as the bar’s most respected (and most feared) polemicist, Jane Dark, has unloaded his mastery of derision and sarcasm on the bar’s most respected poet, Ange Mlinko. People fear Jane’s sarcasm and derision; having experienced it directed at myself, it does have a way of stirring up unpleasant feelings.

In the fairly heated but respectful discussion on the relationship between poetry and theory, which many of the bar’s denizens recently took part in, including me, Jane and Ange were the chief discussants. Ange’s last post on the matter mentioned how the theory-mavens’ quest for a vision of totality exemplified “false consciousness.” I took those words to mean, roughly, “consciousness imbued with error, hence, false”; another way to say it might be, “mistaken ideation,” or, “grandiose, delusional thinking.” I don’t know that Ange would agree with these attempts at restatements, but that’s what I took her to be saying, and I agreed with her, despite my admiration for the mad, doomed quest for a total vision.

It turns out – and I knew this but had forgotten – that “false consciousness” is a technical term from Marxist theory, and Jane explained with masterful, leeringly false humility the Marxist derivation of the term. I don’t doubt his explication – I appreciate it – but I condemn his Humpty-Dumpty-ism: the intention of his sarcasm is to keep the meanings of words previously in common usage within the colonized, enclosed bounds set by the jargonists. He concludes his post by insinuating – if I’m reading this right – that Ange is panicked at the idea of totality, which is untrue: she is forthrightly criticizing it and finding it wanting as theory and as poetry-practice. Then Jane says, it’s fine to conclude that the concept of totality is wrong, as long as you engage with it. But Ange has engaged, and not panicked. Jane’s underlying statement is: “It’s fine to come to your own conclusions, unless I disagree with them.” (To underline: sarcasm is complex, and Jane has plausible deniability that he has insinuated anything critical of Ange at all, or that he is proclaiming any doctrine; but the emotional force of sarcasm says, “toe the line, or deal with my scorn.”)

Sarcastic people I’ve dealt with before might say, “Oh, don’t take it so personally.” Which is exactly Ange’s point: poetry is personal. Language is personal. Write with your whole humanity, your whole life, including your ego-bound intellect, but don’t limit yourself to that pale thing.

2nd thought: "Most respected" -- silly statement of pseudo-fact based on impressions of interactions amongst the denizens of the "bar" -- people's blogs and so on. Typical rhetorical exaggeration on my part -- an idiosyncrasy I'm trying to keep tabs on.

3rd thought: In response to a thoughtful comment from John Hinchey in the post below, I went back and re-read Barrett Watten's essay linked above, and found to my embarrassment that I have again overstated things based on overconfident too-quick reading. Watten did not quite attack "connotation itself"; he attacked (his word, "attack") the distinction between denotation and connotation, and then went on to say, "Connotation was a lure, leading onward, into the unfolding of a desire to know language." He then describes his subsequent "detour into linguistics" as the "wrong direction," giving the impression that "connotation" was the siren calling him in the wrong direction. Elsewhere he speaks of the "death of the referent": attacks on denotation in language.
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