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Steve Evans

That Sublime Object of Marginality

This paper is taken from the Vol. 1 No. 4 May 1997 pamphlet in The Impercipient Lecture Series, edited and published by Jennifer Moxley and Steve Evans in Providence, Rhode Island, and is 4,000 words or about nine printed pages long.

At the risk of raising the suspicion that I ventured no further than the first page of The Marginalization of Poetry, a scant ten lines into the opening chapter/poem (not counting those richly “telling” acknowledgments), I want to offer three additional speech-acts to the one Perelman himself starts with, Jack Spicer’s line from the poem “Thing Language,” published the year I was born —

“no one listens to poetry.”

Spicer is reworking familiar terrain in this line, echoing — to take only one example — his contribution to a 1949 forum in Berkeley’s Occident magazine, which almost as famously begins: “Here we are, holding a ghostly symposium, five poets holding forth on their peculiar problems. One will say magic: one will say God; one will say form. When my turn comes I can only ask an embarrassing question ’Why is nobody here? Who is listening to us?’ ” (One Night Stand 90).

[ The Three Speech Acts ]

Adorno once observed that “the soundness of a conception can be judged by whether it causes one quotation to summon another. Where thought has opened up one cell of reality,” he wrote, “it should, without violence by the subject, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow” (Minima Moralia 87).

While my object — our shared object — is Bob Perelman’s 1996 Princeton University Press book, a hearing-aid held to the deaf ear of the academy — I will proceed in the somewhat oblique, prismatic fashion recommended by Adorno. The three speech-acts summoned by Spicer’s “no one listens to poetry” and “why is nobody here” (a single utterance bifurcated around the pun on hear/here?) are all in fact variations on a declaration of presence, in one instance “I am here,” in the second case, “I am (still) here,” and, finally, in what I’ll call our case, “We are here (now).”

The nearly-identical nature of these statements proves a point that Perelman himself makes by way of Hegel about those other two Bobs, Creeley and Grenier, and their insistence on “avant-garde particulars.” Perelman recalls Hegel’s demolition of naïve verbal reference in the first chapter of the Phenomenology, in which the “believer in sense-certainty [is asked] to write down a present fact: when the statement that it is night is read at noon, it turns out to be perfectly false” (45). It is such an ineradicable gap that Creeley sounds in a poem like this one from Pieces, and I quote: “Here here / here. Here.”

The dialectic of “deixis” where the linguistic form ostensibly most conducive to the particular and specific is shown to in fact be a universal — is what gets the whole Hegelian show — not to mention the best sequences in Buster Keaton films (think of Sherlock, Jr. for example) — under way. But that’s another story. What deictic utterances direct us to is the frame or situation in which that utterance takes place and that is what I now want to sketch for you: three frames around an identical-seeming deictic: I/we are here.

[ A Constitutive Blind Spot ]

The speaker in the first instance is a startling young French girl named Aliette Legendre in Buñuel’s great paratactic non-narrative meditation on the opening lines of the Communist manifesto, The Phantom of Liberty (1974). Her “je suis là” is uttered at the juncture where three institutions — the bourgeois family, the school, and the law — join to disappear her.

[ The opening lines of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police spies...”]

I would hate to be too subtle about this: I very plainly hope to make you hear her “je suis là” as I do — as a voice of poetry not so much marginalized as consigned to a constitutive blindspot. The locus of the second utterance is also French and bears the proper name perhaps most closely associated with poetry’s disappearance into that constitutive blind spot in capitalist modernity; I mean Rimbaud. Aliette’s passage into this blind spot is coded by Buñuel in institutional terms. The Rimbaud who ends his Commune-period poem “What’s it matter to us, my heart” with the words: “It is nothing: I am here; I am still here” is punctuating a vision of sublimely totalizing (as opposed to marginalizing) political transformation.
The subsiding of this vision, the subject’s subsistence at its end, is what I would like to call to your attention there. The first and second utterances confirm the disjunctive moment in Hegel’s debunking of the deictic: neither Aliette nor Rimbaud are “here” though they may still be heard.

Luis Bunuel

Luis Buñuel

The third and last utterance — “We are here” — is not disjunctive in this way, since we are here. But as Jean-Luc Nancy once said in and of San Diego: “Who are we, here in San Diego, Americans, French, Chicanos, Japanese, Greeks, Koreans. Which is our tongue? ... We make unlikely a we.” The implausible community convened here tonight — through the good planning and sweated details, it must be said, of Sean Killian and Dan Machlin — raises the question of what our being here has to do with The Marginalization of Poetry, whether those words are inside or outside italics. We who are here hardly comprise a stable synthesis, or even for that matter a synchronization, though what time it is is a question still worth asking, if only to remind us that institutional chronometers seldom can tell us the time of practice, a fact with ramifications not just for poetic but for intellectual practice as well. Of the interfering patterns and temporalities that I know are operative in the unstable synthesis we make up, those at the border between Formation (and its distinctive rhetoric and practice of autonomy) and Institution (with its rhetoric and practice of complicity) are perhaps the most noticeable, but there is another unstable transition zone constituted around “generation” as well.

I Am Here.
Aliette Disparue; or the Institutional Sublime

I will try very quickly to remind you of what happens to Aliette Legendre in Phantom of Liberty. It will help if you keep the following statement in mind while I perform this verbal sketch of a scenario that, it must be said, is irreducibly cinematic.

[ The Sublime ]

Theorist Slavoj Zizek says: “We must remember that there is nothing intrinsically sublime in a sublime object — according to Lacan, a sublime object is an ordinary everyday object which, quite by chance, finds itself occupying the place of what he calls das Ding, the impossible-real object of desire. It is its structural place ... and not its intrinsic qualities that confers on it its sublimity” (194). There is a way in which Aliette becomes sublime in the sequence I will describe, but Buñuel’s genius here — working to somewhat different effect than in cognate scenes of the sudden inexplicable impossibility of ordinary events in numerous other films — is to recognize that within the institutional sublime, being sublime is actually exactly the same as not being sublime, with the exception that you are processed differently. But to understand this you need to know something of the scenario.

Note: Zizek does a quick rundown of these objects or events that are prevented by having happened into this “structural place” of sublimity: a couple who can’t fuck in L’Age d’or; a murder in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, leaving a room after a party in The Exterminating Angel; a shared dinner in Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, etc.

The Aliette sequence comes two-thirds of the way into the film. A minimal unit of continuity is provided when a middle-aged, mustachioed, French bourgeois is abruptly told by his insipidly polite physician that he is dying of advanced liver cancer. Offered a cigarette one moment later by this doctor, he unsurrealistically slaps the bastard across the face.

[ A brief Synopsis of the Film ]

Driving his Mercedes through a wet Parisian street he arrives at his palatial home; first the rich exterior and then the lush interior is carefully documented in the establishing shots. The man finds his wife knitting; he lies to her about the results of the tests. She is visibly relieved. He is distracted and fidgety, lying, his car or house key in his hand. He looks around the apartment and asks, “Aliette isn’t here?”

[ The Bourgeois Family ]

His wife reminds him that their daughter is at school at such an hour in the morning. At that very moment, the phone rings and the wife walks across the room to answer. One gathers from her fragmentary statements that she is being addressed by an official voice bearing unexpected news. A huge oil painting looms over the telephone area; the surface of the table cluttered with objets. She responds with amazement and alarm, asking “but when, how.” Her husband enters the frame. She declares to the caller “but that’s impossible” before hanging up the phone (with a wonderfully clumsy hesitation) and informing her husband that Aliette is “disparue.” He finds this news as incredible as she initially had. He asks for an explanation. Didn’t the nanny take her to school? Indeed she had as usual done so and was now returned, reporting nothing extraordinary whatsoever.

[ School ]

Next comes an exterior shot of what will turn out to be the school grounds; kids parking their bikes, dashing to class, etc. We see this high bourgeois couple, their nanny behind them, walking hurriedly with the school’s female director.

The mother questions the principal. The principal can offer no explanation. Aliette was under constant supervision, as were all the girls; “she was always there,” she asserts. The adults continue crossing the school grounds, traversing lines of students on their way to the main building.

Cut to the interior of a classroom with a knee-socksed, thirty-something teacher surrounded by dutifully scribbling young French students maybe eight or nine years old. She breaks off the lesson upon noticing the entrance of the principal and Mr. and Mrs. Legendre, the parents of Aliette. Introductions are made. Pleasantries are exchanged. The principal begins her explanation, recapitulating what the teacher has already told her. “When they came into class the teacher counted them. There were twenty-two girls as usual. After five minutes she realized that Aliette was gone.” Upon the pronunciation of these words the camera closes in on the mother, wrapped in her brown fur-trimmed coat, looking distressed. We’ve now returned to the point where the phone call was made. “Could she have run away,” the mother asks. The principal reasons that the doorman would have seen her. The father persists in his stout empiricism, shrugging his shoulders and exclaiming “that’s incredible, isn’t anyone in charge here.”

The students standing out of frame through this whole exchange are brought into frame by the principal’s gaze. We see a small dark-haired girl in a blue dress taking her seat with the rest of her classmates. This fearless blue-clad young girl rises, approaches, receives a kiss on the cheek from her nanny, and grabs at her mother’s arm. The mother, still in conversation with the principal, shakes her daughter’s hand from her elbow and proclaims, looking at her husband, “I’ve lost faith in this school.”

[ “Je suis là” ]

The little girl is again at her arm, “Mommy,” she asks, and is told to be quiet. She persists: “Je suis là.” Her now annoyed mother plants one hand firmly on the little girl’s back, while the other condescendingly cups her chin and cheek, and tells her not to talk while the principal is speaking. Etiquette lesson concluded, the mother gives the girl a gentle push back toward her desk and she obediently returns to her seat.

benefit. She calls one name, a second, a third, before finally coming to: “Legendre, Aliette.” The little girl rises and charmingly pipes up “presente” as the camera zooms toward her, isolating her in the posture of presentation, hands dutifully tucked behind back, a great indefinable expression on her face. The principal turns to the mother and states the obvious: “you see, she’s there.” The father asks: “and all the other girls as well?” “All of them, I checked,” says the principal. Now, astonishingly, given the apparent resolution just offered by both camera and characters, the mother continues to question: “you looked everywhere?” “We searched the entire school, nothing” says the principal. “My god what could have happened to her,” says the mother. The father indignantly asserts that such poor explanations will not be accepted by them; they will bring the matter before the police.

He strolls down the aisle between the children’s desks, lays a paternal arm on his daughter’s shoulder, asks her to find her coat, gathers her up, and off they go to report her absence to the police. Aliette is taken by her nanny’s hand, the father gives an insulting departing shrug (chin-bob) to the principal, and they exit.

[ The Law ]

The next thing you see are the outspread arms of the white-smocked central figure in Goya’s painting “The Executions of the Third of May, 1808” (which also provided the opening tableau of the film), a half-dozen or so bayoneted rifles aimed right at him. It is the interior of the Chief Inspector’s office.

I won’t recount much more of this, but one sequence is too crucial to omit. At the appropriate moment in the discussion the Inspector reaches into his desk and draws out a missing person’s form. Throwing open the folder, he says to the parents “good thing you brought her, it’ll be easier.” Aliette is summoned to his side. The space on the form for her name is penned in; encountering the box for “race” he looks at her and fills in “white.” In the box for age goes the fact that she’s eight and a half, for marital status he supplies “single”; he takes her eye color and hair color; he’s processing her for bureaucratic utilization. When asked how tall she is, Aliette stands straight but her mother has to supply the measure, and same with the weight.



[ “Search all of Paris .. “ ]

Sizing her up again the Inspector notes her blue coat, black shoes, white socks. An officer is now called in. “Search all of Paris, you must find this child.” Upon receiving the small slip with the physical description on it he looks to Aliette and asks “is she the one?” Receiving the answer “yes, why” he asks whether they can take her along. “No just take a look at her so you’ll recognize her,” is the Inspector’s response. The officer approaches, seizes Aliette by the shoulders, brusquely straightens her out, takes a full long look at her, throwing open her coat to note the style of her blouse. Firing off a salute he departs the room. This business concluded, the Inspector whirls towards the father, “well, don’t worry, we’ve got the ball rolling,” he says amid a storm of casualizing hand-gestures, “everything’s under control.”

[ The lesson of resolute Aliette ]

The lesson of Aliette might be summarized this way: being where you are makes you very hard to find (the search for her lasts fourteen months before it is “successfully” concluded, changing nothing). As applied to poetry and its marginalization the lesson is in fact rather optimistic; it offers a different kind of “new hope for the disappeared.” In Ron Silliman’s touchstone 1988 essay on “Canons and Institutions,” “public canons” are said to “disempower readers and disappear poets. They are conscious acts of violence” (153). I do not dispute this claim, having all too often seen direct evidence of its validity. I merely want to point out the way bureaucracies perform the task Auden wanted to ascribe to poetry: to make nothing happen. Aliette’s vividly intractable and visibly non-pathological response to being disappeared, her subsistence through it, is what I look to here.

I am Still Here.
Rimbaud; or the Political Sublime

Besides being an important poetic precedent for O’Hara’s great “Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets,” Rimbaud’s poem “Qu’est-ce pour nous? mon coeur” records some of what Kristin Ross calls the central “geopolitical perception(s)” of Communard culture.

[ Totality vs. Marginality ]

What interests me here, and I can only point towards it before dashing onward, is the way this poem — and by extension the Left from which it drew its structure and intent and very words — competed for categories of totality at least as effectively as the 1945-1989 period, cultural left competed for the category of marginality.

Verlaine and Rimbaud

Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud (at right, chin on hand), detail from Henri Fantin-Latour, Un coin de table, 1872, painted a year after the events of the Paris Commune. The subjects were surprised to stumble across the painting in an exhibition of French art in London not long after they had sat for it.

Ross tells us that

Rimbaud’s later poetry is marked by a distinct proliferation of geographic terms and proper names: poles and climates, countries, continents and cities — a kind of charting of social movements in geographic terms. A vast geography of mass displacements, movements of populations and human emigrations dominates not only Une Saison en Enfer, but a large number of the Illuminations as well.... Rimbaud’s poetry — and Commune culture in general — seemed to me to collapse or render artificial such a division between the psychoanalytic and the social ... [cutting against the] widespread notion that there exists a social production of reality on the one hand, and a desiring production that is mere fantasy on the other. (The Emergence of Social Space 76)

As I read Wallace Fowlie’s translation of this poem, I’ll point out to you the places where one lexical index of totality — the word “tout” — occurs in the French:

What does it matter for us, my heart, the sheets of blood
And coals, and a thousand murders, and the long cries
Of rage, sobs from every [tout] hell upsetting
Every [tout] order; and the north wind still over the debris;
And all [toute] vengeance? Nothing! — But yes, still [toute encore],
We want it! Industrialists, princes, senates:
Perish! Power, justice, history: down with you!
That is our due. Blood! blood! golden flame!
All [tout] to war, to vengeance and to terror,
My spirit! Let us turn about in the biting jaws. Ah! vanish,
Republics of this world! Of emperors,
Regiments, colonists, peoples — enough!
Who would stir up the whirlwinds of furious fire,
Except ourselves and those we imagine brothers?
It is for us, romantic friends: it will give us pleasure.
Never shall we work, 0 waves of fire!
Europe, Asia, America — disappear!
Our avenging march has occupied every place [a tout occupé]
City and country! — We will be overcome [éncrasés: punished]
Volcanos will explode! And the Ocean, struck...
Oh! my friends! — My heart, it is certain, they are brothers:
Dark strangers [Noirs inconnus], what if we left! Come! Come!
Woe! Woe! [0 malheur!] I feel myself tremble, the old earth
On me, more and more yours! the earth melts.
     It is nothing: I am here; I am still here
     [ Ce n’est rien; j’y suis; j’y suis toujours ]

What subsists after the terrible political sublimities pass, after all that is solid has melted into air — and then congealed anew, order reassembled, reconvened — is just this intractably unsublime kernel utterance: “I am here; I am still / always here.” Is this subsistence necessarily a mode of resignation? The restoration of the I after the phantoms of collectivity, of dark strangers and romantic comrades, are dispelled?

We Are Here.
Unstable Syntheses; or the Ordinary Intellectual

In thanking our hosts, Segue, Sean Killian, and Dan Machlin, for convening this discussion I want to point out the valuable principle they are putting into practice, namely the opening of spaces that are genuinely alternative to — without being dogmatically closed to interaction with — the “Academy.” Let me reiterate the point I made at the outset: the time of practice is seldom discernible within institutional chronometries and this impacts not only on poetic practice but on intellectual practice as well. The temporalities of at least these three practices — institutional, poetic, and intellectual — structure the field of our own conversation tonight. Not surprisingly, they also structure the flickering subject / object of analysis in The Marginalization of Poetry. More than once Perelman is troubled by what tense to assign his verbs, what case his nouns are in.

[ Troubled by Verbs ]

Walter Benjamin opens his brilliant critical profile of Surrealism with a sly note to the effect that “[i]ntellectual currents can generate a sufficient head of water for the critic to install his power station on them” (Reflections 177). On this metaphor, Perelman has gotten downstream of himself and harnessed the energies of an emergent formation he helped constitute (the movement, the current) to light the institutional lights. Has this conversion released transformational energies within the institution, or has it led to non-transformative accommodation? Has what Ron Silliman calls the “absolute and essential difference between contesting canons and contesting institutions” been recognized and the spread of “canonic amnesia or Vendler’s syndrome” been checked and reversed?

[ Agency ]

These questions mark something of where we are and what time it is. And already through the agency of tonight’s organizers, and your agency in attending this panel, a modest alternative to the “antinomy” Perelman aims to dissolve — between “a centralized, professionalized, cross-referenced criticism studying I marginalized, inspired (i.e., amateur), singular, poetries” — is not merely proposed but manifested. (As Charles Bernstein might say at this juncture, “you say antinomy, I say autonomy.”) It is also a salutary act of desublimation, dislodging the ordinary but indispensable practice of poetry from its temporary resting place in the hollow where sublime objects of marginality are generated.

Steve Evans

Steve Evans
Photograph copyright © Steve Evans, 1997

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