Monday, April 17, 2006

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?


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