Saturday, April 29, 2006

Day Ten

I've been trying to consolidate what I know about performance theory this week, and I've found Marvin Carlson's Performance: A Critical Introduction provides a good overview, in particular in its comparison of the influences of anthropology (via people like Victor Turner), sociology (Erving Goffman), and linguistics (speech-act theory) on what came to be performance theory. Many of the theorists involved can't easily be pegged in one category, of course, which indicates how intertwined these theories are. Also important are various writings by literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (especially his concepts of the utterance and the carnivalesque), cultural historian Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens), anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Richard Bauman, literary theorists Kenneth Burke and Umberto Eco and Shoshana Felman and Mary Louise Pratt, reader-response theorist Stanley Fish, psychoanalysts J.L. Moreno and Eric Berne, Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau (whom I will discuss later), philosopher Jacques Derrida, and of course Richard Schechner, who might be considered the father of contemporary performance studies, not to mention a whole range of theatrical theorists such as Artaud or Brecht. Carlson, by the way, is in the Comp. Lit. department at the Grad Center. It's all rather a lot to try to keep straight, so while I want to have a basic grasp of each of these theorists, I'm going to focus more on some of the issues brought up by their disagreements.

As a side note, Carlson also illuminated for me one of the sources of the basic confusion of performance and performativity and the wide range of meanings and uses of these terms (as pointed out by Sedgwick, for example), which lies in the different fundamental meanings of the verb "perform": first, in the sense of a theatrical performance, a citational utterance, or a "restored beahviour" as Schechner calls it — to perform like an actor — and second, in the broader sense of an act that accomplishes something, such as when we say a car performs well on the highway. While performance theory focusses on the first meaning, speech-act theory is really about the second: how language performs (succeeds) or not. The trick, though, is that on re-examining speech-act theory (which Austin supposedly wanted to exclude the theatrical kind of performance) with a poststructuralist understanding of meaning, we see that in language the performative is always infected by performance. The theory of gender performance, which could be seen as combining the two meanings, developed out of the same understanding.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Day Nine

For the rest of this week, in between my dabblings in various poets including John Cage and Eileen Myles and Robert Creeley and etc., and readings of Dada texts from Robert Motherwell's Dada anthology which I finally got my hands on today, I will be mostly focussing on theories of orality and literacy. This means writers such as Eric Havelock, Walter J. Ong, Jack Goody, Gregory Nagy, and Paul Zumthor. I've read all of them before: I had a great class in my first year here with Catherine MacKenna, focussing on this topic. But I need a refresher course.

Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word is probably one of the best known and most influential books in this field; it came out in 1982 and gives a sort of overview of the development in the 20th century of the received understanding of the differences between orality (that is, purely oral culture) and literacy (culture affected by writing). Ong makes it clear that he thinks the study of language over the last few centuries has had a prejudice against oral culture: written literature has been taken seriously by scholars while oral art forms have been seen as not worth the trouble. He suggests that this is part of a long-standing trend instigated by the historical switch from oral culture to literate culture and the effects that the switch had and has on the way we think. Once a society is literate, it can no longer think in terms of orality, he says, and therefore literate communication takes precedence. This is not what his book is mainly about, but it is the fundamental premise of the book. It's interesting to apply this to the neglect of performed poetry in literary studies, of course: the fact that the kind of work I'm doing - seriously studying spoken word - is a bit of an anomaly in an English department. The very term literary studies excludes that kind of work. Ong sets out to rectify this state of affairs, and starts by insisting not just that oral culture is worth study, but that oral culture is primary and therefore more fundamental to humanity than written culture. He wants us to return to our oral roots, in essence.

If the idea of orality being "primary" or fundamental sounds a little vague it's because Ong is dangerously unclear about what he means by this, aside from the fact that historically spoken language precedes written language. It seems to be an article of faith for him that in losing touch with oral culture we lost something that we should be trying to regain. Ong's ideas resonate strongly with Marshall McLuhan's (who was Ong's teacher at one point in St.Louis), in the sense that both think of the evolution of communication in a fairly strict diachronic way: first, we made noises and gestures. Then we spoke. Then we drew pictures. Then we wrote. Then we had print. Then we had radio, then television, and now other kinds of electronic communication which have engendered a "secondary orality". And in each transition, while we gained many abilities, we also lost certain capacities for thought. In Mcluhan it makes a lot of sense for me, I think because he is not overtly judgmental about the changes. Ong, though, is sort of chauvinistic about orality, characterizing it almost as the victim of literate culture. In his introduction to Zumthor's book, he even uses words like "magical" and "sacred" in talking about the power of using the human voice. This reminds me of certain strains of spoken word where the performer acts like some kind of fiery shaman empowered by the very use of his or her voice.

It's really interesting to read this theory, then, in parallel with Derrida's ideas in Limited inc. (and in Of Grammatology as well), where the perceived bias against spoken language is inverted: Derrida's concept of logocentrism is based on phonocentrism, the idea that spoken language is given preferential treatment as a form of communication closer to the true intentions of the sender. Writing therefore is relegated to the status of a parasitic imitation of speech. Of course, Derrida goes on to say that writing can not be expected to convey meaning transparently but neither can speech; both are susceptible to - in fact inevitably characterized by - a disconnect between thought and communicated meaning. Neither is purely representational. It would seem that Ong and Derrida are saying opposite things, but in his book Ong addresses Derrida (along with what he calls the "textualists" - structuralists and post-structuralists, who he says are obsessed with textuality) and manages to suggest that they are actually in agreement, although Derrida doesn't go far enough in his historical analysis. Where does logocentrism come from in the first place? he asks, and then answers his own question: it's a product of literate culture and the thought processes it creates. Ong is glad for Derrida's theory because he says it shows how writing is not speech. I can't help feeling that Ong has seriously missed the point in some of his analysis of Derrida; he seems to suggest that Derrida is basically just saying what McLuhan said - "The medium is the message." McLuhan seems to be Ong's prescription for everything.

I find Ong's writing extremely interesting, and his basic idea that orality and literacy promote different kinds of thought is a valuable one. But at the same time I feel that his project is fundamentally conservative. By claiming that literacy has become dominant over orality he is at the same time asserting the (unacknowledged) primacy of speech, and in the very ways that Derrida would identify as logocentric: speech as voice, speech as presence.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Day Eight

When my advisor Wayne Koestenbaum suggested that I should add some texts by John Cage to my lists, I reflexively came up with some sort of excuse for why I hadn't in the first place - I had thought about him, of course - he was influential on so many of the poets I'm reading. But I suppose I thought of him foremost as a composer, and that's what I told Wayne: I was trying to stick to poets. Of course, John Cage wrote poetry, so I have to admit he was a poet. So I ordered A Year From Monday and today it came in the mail, a paperback edition from 1969 containing poetry and essays that are hard to tell apart. I am convinced, Wayne. I haven't read all of it yet, but I want to: some of it collage of text from various sources, some of it beautifully surreal prose poems, some of it "diaries" of random eloquent thoughts, some hand-written notes. In the introduction he announces that he is basically done being a composer, which after all simply involves telling other people what to do. Now he is more interested in improving the world. One of my favourites bits, though, is the dedication, which reads: "To us and all those who hate us, that the U.S.A. may become just another part of the world, no more, no less."

Day Seven

Today I read I Never Knew What Time It Was by David Antin, a collection of his talk pieces. Like Jackson MacLow with whom he was friends (it seems like he was friends with everyone), David Antin is another poet from the 60s and beyond whom I saw speaking before I realized who he was exactly or what he did. I saw him at a memorial event for Kathy Acker at NYU a few years ago - he was also a good friend of Kathy Acker. At the event, he did what he has become known for: he talked. His pieces are not planned, but neither are they improvised; they are quite obviously distinct from MacLow or Cage's non-intentional writing - they are more like hyper-intentional writing, in that he can evidently be swayed in his intentions during the actual performance. Intentions may crop up that he didn't realize were there. One way to describe what he does is as an attempt to dramatize the actual process through which writing becomes imbued with significance. Aside from that one time I saw him speak when I didn't realize that what he was doing was what he always does, I haven't seen him perform. But I imagine that as you watch him speak, knowing that he is speaking extemporaneously, you imagine that in his head is going on something very similar to what is going on in your head: the process of words igniting ideas that weren't there before. It demonstrates how similar the process of writing is to reading, and speaking to talking. Antin had a great idea - or rather he had a certain sort of chutzpah - that I'm quite jealous of: he realized that performance (ie. speaking to an audience) is one of the best compositional states of being, and hewasn't afraid to use it that way. I see this when I'm teaching, when I walk into class not knowing what I'm going to say about a certain text, and leave wishing that I had brought a tape recorder.

Antin does take a tape recorder along when he does a talk piece, and later he transcribes the pieces (maybe this is not a standard practice for him, I don't know), adding to them and editing a bit as he sees fit, although he says that the original performance is essentially respected. Some of these transcripts make up the book. He tells stories for the most part, although one story will run unannounced into another story, and there may be only a quirkily tangential relationship of the story to the subject of the talk. One of my favourites is titled "The Theory and Practice of Postmodernism," but it's really a rather drawn-out story about buying a mattress. Or, in a story about time he will talk about his son trying to hire a prostitute for an elderly poet friend and ultimately failing to find anyone who is willing to listen to poetry for money. Some of these stories are surprisingly sentimental, but they are presented in such a nonchalant way that there is at the same time a rather detached, critical flavour to them. I should correct myself when I say "story" and say "narrative" instead because in one piece Antin draws his own distinction between these two: stories have a plot, like what you read in a newspaper, but narratives are really about desire and may not actually have much of a plot. His pieces may be made up of stories, but they are really narratives.

The other thing that sort of fascinates me about Antin's texts is that even though I enjoy his style and I was excited by the practice, in reading them I actually got bored sooner or later - this wouldn't be remarkable in itself, except that Antin seems to anticipate this and even encourage it as an essential part of his process. The stories are drawn out, get interrupted, and often seem to have no point: a catalogue of characteristics of a bad storyteller, in fact. But Antin says this is because he is entertaining ideas (in the sense of nurturing them), not entertaining people. I am both impressed by and skeptical of this resistance to entertaining the audience, and I'm not sure I accept his claim at face value. He says: "im quite happy for people to feel free to get up and leave whenever they stop finding this entertaining and thats how i know im a poet and not an entertainer" And then later: "in my case i always imagine i should put a sign over the door that says ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE." And yet because so many of his talk pieces address the art world or make reference to particular people and scenes and practices, it seems clear that his unique process makes it possible for him to tailor the "writing" to the audience. Which would seem the opposite of the conceptual autonomy he wants to claim for himself in saying that he doesn't entertain.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Day Six

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe is one of the most amazing poetry phenomena of the late 20th century: amazing because it made poetry cool and current in a way that even the Beat poets didn't (wouldn't?). Not all alone of course - the Nuyorican was and is a symbol of a larger movement that included strange bedfellows such as MTV and made the performance of poems not just accessible but popular. There have always been high and low culture elements in poetry, of course, but this movement created a unique blurring of the registers, a move that has been both celebrated and criticized. The poetry slam, which originated at the Green Mill in Chicago as the well-worn story goes, found its New York home at the Nuyorican, where it's still going strong. The Cafe was originally founded by Miguel Algarin and a circle of other poets around 1973, beginning in Algarin's living room, and survived in a few locales including the present one until 1982, when it was shut down. Algarin, in his introduction to Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (co-edited by him and Bob Holman), which I spent some of tonight reading through, says that when one of his co-founders Miguel "Miky" Pinero died in 1988 and his ashes were scattered across the Lower East Side in a rowdy poetic procession, he knew it was time to reopen the Cafe. It had always been a place for community - especially the community of Nuyoricans (New York-born Puerto Ricans) - but in the 90's it became something extraordinary, a place that would inspire a wide cross-section of young poets to speak their writing aloud, and that would in the process upset the mainstream paradigm of a dominant white culture and an alternative black culture, replacing it with a more accurate picture of the demographic of the city encompassing mixed cultures: a living subversion of the concept of race.

I visited the Cafe for the first time in something like 1994, on my first ever visit to New York City, and I remember being surprised - I sheepishly confess this now, on behalf of my 22-year-old self who had so little urban experience - at how different what I saw was from what I suppose I expected from poetry performance in a literary capital like New York. Maybe I was expecting some kind of modernized beatnik scene, but what happened was more Latino and more African-American, more influenced by rap, more inflected with Spanish, but also blending all traditions of poetry and performance from troubadours to sonnets to sound poetry - a scene that was intensely aware of its roots in history and in the community. It was also more bluntly political and angrier, more direct, funnier sometimes, less stylish. If you attend the long-running Friday night slam now, you'll see it still attracts a diverse range of people and poets, although the subject matter and styles that come up are usually within a fairly narrow range. Perhaps because the problems that people find most important to write about don't change that much, and the mode of expression - suggestive wit, sardonic indignation - is the one that presents itself most obviously or works most quickly. In the anthology there are some talented poets, and many whom I've seen perform in various places and who have developed reputations that stretch well beyond the Nuyorican or the National Slam or wherever they made their names: Regie Cabico, Maggie Estep, Reg E. Gaines, Tracie Morris, Willie Perdomo, Edwin Torres, Wanda Coleman, Sapphire, Patricia Smith, Emily XYZ, Ntozake Shange, Nicole Blackman, and Eileen Myles, to name just a few of the most well-known, whose careers have gone in as many different directions. But the really interesting thing about this book is how it reverently reproduces the democratic immediacy of the Nuyorican open room: it includes MTV and Broadway stars as well as poets with serious academic reputations along with the steadfast personalities of the community, the absolutely local celebrities, along with some of those who were just passing through and got on the mike one night after a few beers. The Nuyorican became internationally famous as a poetry venue, but what happens there remains a local phenomenon, the community in discussion with itself.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Day Five

Today I received in the mail the CD Kenneth Patchen Reads With Jazz in Canada, so I put it on and continued my immersion in the Beats. I had heard these tracks before - my friend Patchen, who was named after the poet, used to have an LP of Patchen's jazz poems. Released in 1959, this recording is widely considered one of the earliest records of jazz poetry - something Patchen had been doing live for a couple of years already, predating performance efforts by the other Beat poets. Kenneth Patchen's popular appeal hasn't had the longevity of Kerouac's or Ginsberg's or Ferlinghetti's (I've heard Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) described as the best-selling book in contemporary poetry, or sometimes as the best-selling book by a living poet. Of course, Ferlinghetti has outlived most of the other Beats.) He was an influential and well-known poet in his lifetime, but he had a Blakean (Patchen sometimes illustrated his own books), out-of-time, world-of-his-own quality that ensured that he never had much of a reputation in academic circles. His career is reminiscent of the status of spoken word today, actually: often political, often schlocky, not taken seriously by some, inspiring to others. He died the year I was born.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Day Four

Today had limited time for reading, but the project was to immerse myself in the Beats. I didn't do this in a subtle way: I spent the afternoon with Ginsberg's Howl and Kaddish, and flipping through Kerouac's On the Road. I also read bits of a memoir called Minor Characters by the novelist Joyce Johnson, who was living with Kerouac when On the Road came out. The objectification of, the need for mastery over, women surfaces again and again in Kerouac's writing, but as my friend Vince pointed out to me in discussing these texts, it's too easy to say that the Beats (I slipped and typed Beast) were all about virility—Kerouac struggles with it; it seems that Johnson, who would be in a position to know, also thinks it's too simple a take. When I get a copy of Diane Di Prima's memoir I'll return to this.

Also, tonight I started reading Irving Goffman's The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, the classic 1956 work of sociology that tried to look at people's social interactions in terms of performance, using a theatrical metaphor. I wasn't sure that this book would be useful to me at all, but it's quite interesting to read in tandem with How to do Things with Words; it's a sort of theory of performatives expanded to encompass all social behaviour. Interestingly, it is structurally so similar to Austin's theories that it is open to the same critiques that Derrida had for Austin. Goffman relies, not surprisingly, on the same notions of communication as coherent expression of stable feelings and ideas (which can be counterfeited, of course, but the idea of counterfeit expression simply confirms that there is a "true" or original form to whatever is being expressed). He is also is careful to explicitly preserve the hierarchical distinction between performance as it happens in the theatre, and performance in real life. But his text is significant in that it creates the beginnings (if only metaphorical) of a blurring between theatre pure and simple and the ways people perform their lives, their rituals: a new way of thinking "performance" which would eventually develop into performance studies.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Day Three

Poets House is a great and somewhat astonishing institution located in Soho. It has various aims, but most of all it's a repository of poetry, and a quiet place where anyone can go and read poetry, surrounded by poetry. Their collection is immense, very America-centric, but that's to be expected and useful for me in any case because my reading list #1 is largely made up of the American poets I felt I should become more familiar with. So spending lots of days there has been a part of my exam-prep plan. It has the added advantage that my Australian poet friend Tim works there so we can step out for a coffee now and then.

Today, though, was a bit of a reading disapointment. For various reasons I left the apartment late, and didn't get to PH until around 4, and upon arrival was saddened to discover that they are currently displaying a showcase of new books in the reading room, making it impossible to access the stacks to find the old books. Most of the poets I wanted to browse - Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Frank O'Hara, Amiri Baraka, Jerome Rothenberg, Anne Sexton, Charles Bernstein, Langston Hughes, etc. - were inaccessible, and I'm told will remain inaccessible for another couple of weeks. So I guess I'm back to hunting for things in libraries until then.

One book I had wanted to find was available because it is a new book (2005), and I spent two hours reading it until I was kicked out for an event. It's quite a treasure in itself: Jackson Mac Low's Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces, a big collection of his works from the 50s right up until his death in 2004, that comes with a CD. Mac Low was an original and influential NYC poet/artist/performer (he effectively blurred the distinctions) who was best known for pioneering "non-intentional" writing, using various aleatory techniques in order to empty the influence of the ego from the compositional process. He did this in a way that no one had done it before (notwithstanding the activities of the Dada poets, for example), but he was influenced by John Cage and actually studied with Cage for a time. His writings often came in two forms: concrete word collage or chaotic sound performance, and it was not necessarily clear if the collage was a score for the performance or if the performance was an interpretation of the collage: neither the oral nor the visual were privileged.

I managed to meet Mac Low before he died, briefly, one Saturday afternoon in 2002 I think it was, shortly after I moved to New York, when I saw him perform at the Bowery Poetry Club. At the time I had heard of him, but it was without realizing what an innovative and interesting figure he was. My gradually increasing awareness of the New York poetry scene(s) has produced numerous experiences like that for me: the generation of poets discussed in All Poets Welcome, including some very influential writers, are dying off just as I get to know them. Kenneth Koch, one of the original New York School poets, died the month before I moved here, and Larry Rivers, the pop artist who collaborated with Frank O'Hara and other New York poets, died shortly after. Barbara Guest died just two months ago, which leaves John Ashbery as the only main "1st generation" NY school poet still living. Robert Creeley died last spring, and I attended the memorial reading held for him at St.Mark's Poetry Project, where I had also seen him read before he died. He had an amazingly distinctive voice, and although I wouldn't say his poetry affected me deeply, I can still clearly hear his voice in my head. And of course every time I go to teach a class at Brooklyn College I am reminded that it wasn't very long ago that Allen Ginsberg was riling up students in the same classrooms. I seem to be vulnerable to the postmodern (or is it universal?) suspicion of having been born too late. At the same time, although this sounds like a horrible thing to say, perhaps it is just as well that these formidable figures have passed from the world. It creates space for newness.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Day Two

One of the ways to get easily confused when jumping into the kind of theory represented on my third list has to do with the multiple uses of the term "performativity." I've already mentioned the performative utterance in speech act theory; that use of performative does not on the surface correspond to a study of performance in the traditional sense of theatrical art—and in fact Austin deliberately excludes theatre from his study of the performative. But in addition to Austin's use, the word has accumulated other theoretical uses as well as considerable cachet. There is the deconstructive use of the word (Derrida's critique of speech act theory and contributions by Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller, for example) which lays the groundwork for the popular way Judith Butler used the word in Gender Trouble to explain the construction of gender (the performance of gender relies on iterability just as Derrida says speech acts do). And then there is its centrality to the ever-expanding field of performance studies, which, also inspired by iterability, has taken up ritual and ceremony and everyday performance of all types in addition to the traditionally theatrical. So all these theoretical projects—speech act theory, deconstruction, queer theory, performance studies—make use of the word, but not necessarily in the same way. What does any of it have to do with getting on a stage and performing a poem, for example? It seems that around the word "performativity" there has developed what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls a "carnivalesque echolalia of extraordinarily productive cross-purposes."

That phrase, so apt and so exquisite, is an example of why Eve Sedgwick is one of my favourite writers. It comes from the introduction to a book she co-edited with Andrew Parker, published in 1995, Performativity and Performance. Some of the essays in the book approach Austinian theory directly; some of them are more affiliated with the broad scope of performance studies and talk about theatre, performance art, or AIDS epidemiology; they include an essay by Judith Butler that I will come back to later; the introduction, though, gives a sparkling clear outline of some of the connections between those various uses of the word, and what we are to do with it in the real world. At the end of the intro (which is co-authored by Parker and Sedgwick, but which I can't help reading as Sedgwick's voice because of its inimitable style and diction, because it reminds me of Epistemology of the Closet, because I know Eve Sedgwick (she teaches at the Grad Center) and because it deploys words like "wussitude" and "nonce"), it is pointed out that perhaps even more interesting than the over-worked epistemological questions related to speech acts (how can we really know intentions, truths, or identities?) are the more practical concerns of how we can actually do things with words.

Sedgwick also emphasizes that Austin's original efforts to exclude or even stigmatize the theatrical and fictional are tellingly overdetermined: not only does he call them "parasitic" uses of language, they are also "ill" and "etiolated" (unnaturally pale, sickly, weak). This resonates with de Man's characterization of the performative as "aberrant". It is enough for Sedgwick to suggest a few other adjectives: abnormal, effete, perverse, to drive home that performance may always in one way be queer performance. Another interesting thing she does is to suggest the rich possibilities available in discussing the agents involved in any performative speech act: not just the speaker and the addressee but the interpellated witnesses. She examines, for instance, how Austin's most re-iterated example — that of the utterance "I do" at a wedding — necessarily implicates not just the bride and the groom and the minister but the entire audience as well — and therefore has a forcibly normative function.

There's more to come on speech act theory, and much more to come on performance theory: I want to mention J. Hillis Miller's Speech Acts in Literature, which is much clearer and more engaging than I expected for some reason and which synthesizes some of these issues; Benjamin Lee's book also gives an overview and talks more about the linguistic side of the debate; and next up I plan to talk about Judith Butler's Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. Later I will get into the theorists of performance studies: Richard Schechner, Victor Turner, Peggy Phelan, and so on. Tomorrow, though, I plan to spend the day at Poet's House in SoHo, taking a break from theory and just reading poetry.

Day One

This marks the beginning of an exercise in book-logging which I intend to pursue between today (April 17th) and one month from now (May 17th), which is the date of my much-anticipated, anxiety-inducing Second Comprehensive Exam ("the orals"). It is the final hurdle I face before my advancement to doctoral candidacy (if you don't count my dissertation prospectus, or that grade of incomplete that I have to get cleared up before June). It is a "fields" exam, meaning that it is meant to establish my expertise in certain subject(s), my familiarity with the landmark books in the domain(s) that I intend to make my scholarly bailiwick. There are one hundred and eighteen books (more or less) on the three lists I have established in collaboration with the three professors who make up my examination committee (they are, for the record, Ammiel Alcalay, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Steven Kruger). Of course, my plan is not to read all of those books in the next thirty days: most of them I have already read. This last month, though, will be an intense period of reading, re-reading, making notes, and rehearsing arguments, and this blog is meant to help me be systematic in doing that. In addition, it may ultimately be a help to me in deciding which of these texts will be of the greatest help to me in the next step: writing my dissertation. On May 17th, in the Thesis Room at the English Department at the Grad Center in midtown Manhattan, I will sit in front of my committee and talk about these books and answer questions for two hours. When it is all over I will have either passed or failed, but without question I will have a better understanding of these fields. What will I know? Or, if this were a pocket-sized French reference book, Que Saurai-Je?

The three lists are titled: 1. Poets who perform (from the Beats to the Present), 2. Poetry Communities and Contexts, and 3. Performance, Performativity, Speech Acts, and Related Theory. The titles are to varying degrees inaccurate, but they're only meant as rough labels. If you want to see the entire list, you can peek at it here.

So, in the last week I've been going over speech act theory and the various reactions and objections to it. This is a branch of ordinary language philosophy which was quite hot in the 60's, and which continues to some degree to be significant, especially to performance theory, because of its central endeavour: trying to establish what a "performative" utterance might be. That is, which kinds of speech acts make things happen simply by saying them? What is it, more generally, that speech acts do? Do they declare, describe, persuade, judge, confess, create? And what is the difference between these actions? They are what would be described as illocutionary acts by J.L. Austin, whose lectures entitled How to Do Things With Words are the foundational text of Speech Act theory. He gave the lectures in 1955, and they are actually very funny to read, mostly because they utterly fail to do what they set out to do: define performative utterances. He initially differentiates between performative and constative utterances - the latter state something that is true or false, while the former make something happen (successfully or not), such as when the bride says "I do" at a wedding, or when a judge says "I sentence you to one month of literary theory." This distinction, though, barely survives the first few chapters. The reasons that it turns out to be so hard to do it are complex and illuminating, and have formed the basis of a lot of theoretical exchange since then.

John Searle is a philosopher who established his reputation by taking up where Austin left off (Austin died young) and taking speech act theory to what seem to be ridiculous extremes of distinction-tweezing, ridiculous because he attempts to handle "natural" language - how we speak everyday - with rigorous rules of taxonomy which necessitate outlandish simplifications. He says, for instance, that fictional language is a completely different species from "serious" language, and basically the difference is that in fiction one is only "pretending" to commit speech acts. No one need take them seriously. Even I can intuitively understand that it's not that simple. This turns out to be a very significant part of the debate, because Austin self-consciously - almost anxiously - excludes fictional language from his study, calling it "parasitic" on ordinary language. A lot of people since have found this rather curious and perturbing, including Jacques Derrida.

In "Signature Event Context", Derrida critiques Austin's theory on several levels, saying for one thing that it's crazy to subordinate fictional language to "serious" language, or to try to demarcate "use" and "mention". He says that it may be true that speech on stage or in a poem is a "citation" of other utterances, but he points out that citation is essential to the utterances Austin would call "ordinary" as well. Utterances are always an impure repetition of other utterances; language does not work without what he calls "iterability." Taking this point even further (although this comes first in his essay), Derrida also finds fault with the idea that writing can be set aside in this discussion based on the assumption that it comes "after" speech. Writing is based on the potential absence of the sender or the receiver, which in the classical view makes it different from speech, which relies on the presence of both. This is misguided, says J.D. Speech too can only work if is it iterable, capable of being repeated. Even in the absence of the speaker. Therefore speech and writing are fundamentally similar in this way; they are both "graphemic." This is of course one of Derrida's big ideas, one of the ways he attacks the classical philosophical reliance on a "metaphysics of presence."

Searle rather clumsily attacked Derrida's critique - his response is clumsy because he insists on sticking to the very same classical assumptions that Derrida is questioning. It is as though Derrida said, "you know, speech is perhaps not quite as simple as you speaking your thoughts and me interpreting your intentions. perhaps we are not as in control of language as we would like to think," and Searle responded with, "don't be silly. of course it is that simple." Derrida's rejoinder, though, an essay called "Limited Inc.," is brilliant and illuminating but petulant in its own, haughtily continental way, as it basically pokes fun at Searle and Anglo-American philosophy for a hundred pages or so.

All of this is relevant to my project - spoken word - for several reasons, the chief being that the questions of "serious" vs. fictional language and citationality are crucial to understanding what goes on at spoken word events. When someone performs a spoken word piece, are they actually committing speech acts, or simply pretending to? Is the performer really talking to the audience, or simply reciting a previous utterance in quotations? And importantly, is it a performative utterance?Does it do anything?

Today I've also been reading Daniel Kane's All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s, which is both a great way to learn about the various poets of the multiple schools involved in that scene (the Beats, the New York Schools, the Black Mountain school, the "Deep Image" poets, etc.), and a superb illustration of how poetry communities come into being, which involves everything from real estate trends to fashion to philosophy, everything from sexism, racism and homophobia to petty jealousy and mistrust, and everything from fervent dedication to inspired idiocy. Today, it seems like the kind of community which apparently existed on the L.E.S. in the 1960's is hard to come by. If artists and writers colonize a neighbourhood like those poets colonized the East Village, they most likely aren't seen as revolutionary bohemians but as the bourgeois outriders of gentrification. And no one really believes anymore in the alternative-academic distinction that was the driving force behind so much of the innovation of that time. Simple social subversiveness doesn't have the same credibility either. Getting high and sleeping around will usually get you labelled an asshole, not a poet. Of course, today poetry communities find themselves on the internet, editing online journals and writing blogs. Which is both better and worse, I think. Efficient, but lonely somehow.

Tomorrow: maybe some J. Hillis Miller, maybe some Judy Butler. Eve Sedgwick? Perfomativity? Or maybe I do my taxes?