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Joel Bettridge

Bruce Andrews’s Language of Belief

Endnotes are given at the end of this file.
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The last line of Bruce Andrews’s Lip Service reads ‘let’s start all over stars’ (380). In addressing the stars as subjects Lip Service recalls the Orphic tradition of writing as world formation. Insofar as Lip Service is composed of celestial bodies, its move to start the ‘stars’ ‘all over’ turns the act of rereading into an act of rewriting, itself the creation of a new world — a ‘paradise’ — within the bounds of the poem.

From Ron Silliman’s Paradise to Bruce Andrews’s Paradise & Method to Bob Perelman’s The First World, this vision of paradise weaves through the self-image of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing. Even when not directly named as such, ‘paradise’ adheres in the theoretical framework of its poets, seen most clearly in the way each articulates a project for the kind of poems they desire in common. This paradise is in part a reading practice, and in part the hoped-for consequence of that reading practice — whether the political reformation of social norms, or the creation of a place where readers can make sense of their linguistically fractured lives. It is this paradise that becomes manifest when readers accept the terms that language-centered poems establish, terms that include an attention to formal difficulty and their personal involvement in a work’s meaning. Which is to say that the paradise of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing involves an aesthetic agreement between reader and writer to accept the value of disjunction — primarily by reading in ways that acknowledge the consequences (political, philosophical, aesthetic) of understanding meaning as the result of poetic process.

What is less clear in this aesthetic agreement is the motivation for envisioning paradise in the first place. When readers accept the terms set by language-centered works, they often do so with the accompanying belief that the world in some fundamental sense has gone wrong, and that by changing language use writing can change culture and society at large. Whether this belief involves the plan for a better world, or instead the hope of achieving a continuous process of re-making that avoids a final — and thus a flawed — world, is harder to determine. The uncertainty over motive arises for the same reasons that there remains a question over whether L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing can even be named as a confederated practice. Certainly most examples of writing under this heading share identifiable characteristics, but its resistance to articulating a unified aesthetics and politics keeps L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing from betraying its insistence on the centrality of individual readers. When overt ideological positions are evident — seen early on, for example, in Ron Silliman’s ‘If by ‘Writing’ We Mean Literature’ — they do less to lay out a concrete platform than to offer a specific form of attention. To do differently would undermine individual readers’ control over their reading.

At the same time, there seems to be little deviation from the consensus that such focus on individual readers is best accomplished through a referentially fractured style — even if there is disagreement over the methodology for achieving this style, and over what manner of leftist politics underwrites it. Such a tension puts those engaged with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing in a difficult spot. While few of these poets desire to give up on the aesthetic and political project of radically disruptive writing, neither do they desire to reduce this work to a series of political or aesthetic norms. The question I want to examine here, then, is a problem of belief. How can we hold to particular aesthetic and political values (and specifically an insistence on their inseparability) while attempting to avoid the despotism that accompanies ideological commitment?

In addressing this question, I want to suggest that L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, with Bruce Andrews’ Lip Service as my exemplar, concerns itself with the way meaning functions as a form of belief. Much of the widespread aversion to self-described ‘believers’ derives from the perception that conviction authorizes the enforcement of orthodoxy, in some cases through violence. But this confuses belief with fundamentalism. Belief presupposes faith, or more secularly, a voluntary agreement: you affirm something is the case without certainty, be it a lover’s word, a political or philosophical claim, or a particular account of God’s character. The possibility that such is not true informs this agreement, and thus believers remain open to change, shifts of perception and doctrine, and in some cases complete reworkings of the most strongly held convictions. Because believers must affirm ambiguity, their primary goal is to gain a better perception of the world within a tradition of inquiry with its own set of values, assumptions, and goals rather than adhere to a particular doctrine. You could say that the hope of a believer is to better understand, articulate, and practice such values.[Note 1]  When an idea or an event disrupts this agreement it may cause believers to change by troubling their perceptions; believes must continually ask, ‘Is this what I actually should believe? Does my present action or position belong to the way I hope to understand the world?’ (‘I say I do not believe in ghosts; does my fear of the dark affirm or undermine my opinion?’) Belief authorizes adjustment by offering believers a vocabulary for judgment. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is characterized by a literalism of interpretation — the refusal of alternative readings. The fundamental expulsion of ambiguity strikes the very terms of agreement that believers take as their means of conversation. Whatever troubles the conviction of the fundamentalist mind can only be done away with. It asks, ‘Does this idea (interpretation, information, etc.) chime with what I already hold to be the case?’ As such, fundamentalism adjusts the world to better fit what it already says it accepts.

Practically, then, we may say that these alternative ways of relating to change and uncertainty permit believers to exist inside a system with the potential for self-critique, where fundamentalism may not. If you believe as a Christian, your acts of cruelty may be critiqued as non-Christian. If you are a Muslim, an Aristotelian, or a democrat, similar terms exist for self-examination. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, moves believers outside the system that initiates their belief. Certainly, much of Andrews’s work might appear to have a fundamentalist veneer, as evidenced in his willingness to take words literally and in the quasi-theological strain of his poetics. Because the ultimate object of his belief, however, is language as a medium its multiple character, adaptability, and shifting values the method of reading that Andrews’s poetry solicits allows readers to test their own convictions about the medium against their experience of the work, as an example of language in action. It also allows Andrews’s poems, through their readers, to test the range of their possible meanings against the very things they explicitly articulate. In the sphere of progressive poetics, then, the job of practitioners must be to explore how their politics and aesthetics might best realize themselves on the terms of their own beliefs.

Connecting meaning with belief is useful because it allows us to refuse the choice between certainty and skepticism; as William James writes, just because we ‘give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth’ (726). To go back somewhat further: in Summa Theologica, Aquinas argues that believing means ‘giving assent’ while ‘having no finished vision of the truth’ (331). From Aquinas we can see that belief, while unavoidable, is not fixed. Neither certainty nor dogmatism, belief is consenting to something to a degree sufficient to allow you to think about it — what you believe is that which is in question. This understanding centers L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing. While it leaves little room for political and aesthetic positions that hide language’s role in the making of meaning, it aims for a textual ‘paradise’ by asking readers to make a poem’s words their own. In doing so readers must examine how they mean what they do. In ‘The Revenge of the Poet-Critic,’ Charles Bernstein writes, ‘The politics of poetry for which I speak is open-ended; the result of its interrogations are not assumed but discovered in the process and available to reformulation’ (4). In such a politics of poetry we engage a doubled poetics: while we lose prescriptive assurance, we give ourselves over to the implications of belief; we can hold that where we stand is in fact a grounding, particularly when we engage in a reading practice where what is meaningful opens up to include a poem’s sounds, shapes, associations, and line breaks. Meaning cannot, in this case, fail us.

Such reading is an act that recognizes one’s medium of value as necessary, so that the world may come into view even as we acknowledge the tenuousness of our position. If we do not give our meanings and our ways of making meaning legitimacy as belief, we take away our project’s claim on the world and on our lives — we do not see others because we do not see ourselves. We cannot inhabit the ground at our feet — we cannot have paradise — while pretending to stand someplace else.[Note 2

Considered in these terms, it is clear that belief — as a method — grounds L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing. Few would be so cavalier as to suggest that the work of Bruce Andrews or Barrett Watten — to name only two obvious cases — is not invested in very particular, non-negotiable politics and ways of thinking and writing. It seems evident, for example, that to say Lip Service takes a ‘pro-life’ position on abortion because of an ironic line like ‘fetus using your body without your consent’ (380) is to read poorly; it is to refuse responsibility to the poem. As readers we are clearly accountable to what we are reading — we cannot ignore the terms a work sets up for us to explore.

A good example of this need for readerly responsibility is the way Lip Service writes itself against Dante’s Paradiso. Each section of Lip Service corresponds to a canto in the Paradiso, the last of which matches up with the last two sections of Andrews’s poem — Primum Mobile 9 and 10. In Dante’s canto the poet encounters God and has a vision of eternity. The canto considers the divine mystery of God, his reunion with Man through Christ after the Fall, and the possibility of salvation through faith. In the Paradiso Dante experiences the mystery of the Absolute firsthand, and thereby finds it certain and everlasting. Lip Service responds to this vision by placing language in the role held by God in the Paradiso, making the primary relationship of Lip Service between meaning in language and its readers. The finale of Lip Service enacts this substitution by adopting the language of the ecstatic:

cope lush coda abruptless,
        risk disappears closing perfume
                                        row of exclamation points
                                        unleash all tenderness suspends future
                                        to voice vote to heat
                                        for hope lay still late
let’s start all over stars. (380)

Because the words are abstract, their material texture gets inflected. The trance-like rhythm, the motion toward chant-based sound over concrete image reflect a quasi-religious ecstasy, but it is a linguistic, material rapture rather than a divine one. Lip Service involves readers with language textures in the same way that Dante’s poem attempts to marry the poet’s consciousness with God’s. Both intensify the object of their fascination to the exclusion of what might otherwise come into view. The lines ‘unleash all tenderness suspends future / to voice vote to heat’ work in the mouth as words to be spoken and heard first. The alliteration of ‘voice vote,’ and the reflection of the ‘t’ sound in the words ‘vote’ and ‘heat,’ create a building voice pattern that determines much of the lines’ tone, hence their possibilities for meaning.

The importance of this shift into language is the recognition that as readers we live in a made, linguistic world — a shared world of readers and their texts. In rereading Dante’s Paradiso, Lip Service recuperates an extra-human model of creation so that readers may consider the way words act on us as much as we act on them. Although the poem lacks an identifiable narrative thread, it often references specific objects and ideas. The lines ‘the lessons of quiet  —  Don’t Call Me — / immediacy of the flesh weighs heavily how it gets from zero / to one’ (21) bring to my mind the opening line of Moby-Dick, and with it Ishmael’s voyage. It additionally suggests the burden of our physical, particular lives as they come to grips with the multiple ways of being in the world that occur not just elsewhere but in the ‘immediacy of [our own] flesh.’ As I work through these lines I both invest them with reference points from my cultural background as well as note the way they perform a cultural negotiation of their own. What is important about such a process is the way it makes evident that any emergent meaning occurs when I meet these words half way — when we both get a say in what is to come.

Such sharing is Lip Service’s paradise. To make meaning on these grounds is to see that meaning is reliable because it remains in process, always in the joining of reader and work, always present but open to change in the act of reading itself. ‘Primum Mobile 9’ begins:

Oh inclusions to advantage
                                                          here = below
                            evaporation instances  —  one of those things
that I had long since despaired of understanding
starting from tonight  —  history mouth amplifier jettisoning
                             everywhere, nowhere. (373)

Remembering the Paradiso, ‘here = below’ argues that the world we have is the paradise we imagine, a possibility that reflects L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing’s insistence on the relation between meaning making and social reality. With this in mind, the next phrase, ‘evaporation instances,’ turns ‘evaporation’ into a moment of our possession of paradise, proposing as it does that our making of meaning, that heaven itself, is much like the experience of steam — nearly ungraspable, there but hard to get a hold of. The ‘s’ at the end of ‘instances’ also allows ‘instance’ to be a verb so that ‘evaporation’ remains in motion. By grounding itself in this grammatical switching Lip Service does what it asks its readers to do: it makes itself a consequence of its language use, a move toward meaning through linguistic shifting. Here, it is evaporation — a material process both in and outside our grasp — that embodies meaning.

Paradise is both knowable and transitory. ‘[E]vaporation instances’ is qualified with the lines ‘one of those things that I had long since despaired of understanding / starting from tonight’ (373). What has ‘long since’ been originates in the present tense ‘tonight.’ This shift into the present from the past makes uncertain the assertion of a ‘despair of understanding.’ What is most doubtful in this case is doubt itself. When Lip Service continues with the lines ‘history mouth amplifier jettisoning / subjectifying’ what stands out is the juxtaposition of history’s ‘mouth’ and the subject of history. If history has a ‘mouth’ then history is as much a language practice as a poem is (remembering Auden’s line from his Yeats elegy). Any sense that history concerns itself with facts and certainties disappears. In language, history jettisons ‘subjectifying,’ but just as the subject is now not clearly certain, neither is it unintelligible; as the next lines indicate, it is ‘everywhere’ and ‘nowhere’ (373). It is the very insecurity of heaven and history that makes them knowable. Lip Service believes in language’s ability to mean because our uncertainty in language keeps us shifting from place to place, knocking into other subject positions and other meanings. In this way meaning and belief come to hold equivalent positions inside Andrews’s poetics because both are the consequence of holding something up in its social condition in order to question and understand it. Put another way, Lip Service insists that readers learn to believe in certain ways rather than in certain things. Lip Service is a poem that finds us in belief as it is belief that makes meaning and constitutes us as identifiable subjects and communities.

By asking readers to believe as believers, Lip Service implicates the meanings of individual readers in the meanings of all other readers. It is a demand that readers see themselves as not simply linked to each other, but as a part of each other, articulated together in socially constitutive ways. Lines like ‘I = you’ (190), or the poem’s continual mixing of voices, keeps the isolated self of the author or the reader from hijacking the poem. Six lines in, Lip Service reads ‘I don’t want to / get over you circumlocution for Paradise’ (8). The use of indirect language to achieve paradise is a rejection of language that puts ideas before words. If writing conceives itself as simply direct address, then the point of meaning becomes to transfer something from one ‘person’ to another, which is to say that subjectivity remains outside of language. But if meaning occurs in the reading of poems, then words are primary and we are their results. As Lip Service has it, we as readers are made together by our reading and it is the social nature of words that gives us all a stake in the meanings words produce.

Denying the right we have on each other’s lives and meanings denies the connection that makes radical politics and aesthetics possible; it assumes the model of an isolated, individual lyric ‘I,’ a form of subjectivity that innovative poetic practice seeks to explode. When we abandon this notion we give up on a conservative, linguistically transparent model of self-governance, and our conviction is checked by those others who believe differently than ourselves. If radical aesthetic practice is to be successful as politics, then it must acknowlege the power of belief — even as it invites us into the realms of plural and conflictual meanings and values. To understand the rhetorical necessity of belief is to see that only in making a claim on the lives of others can we maintain sympathy with them, for it is belief that affirms the link giving your own life over to another. It is in believing that we establish the conditions for mutuality and the possibility of political and aesthetic change:

cometrue — matriarchal matrix be anything
to annex willing total all is one
end of the world dance luscious by-the-book. (380)


Note 1:   In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre argues that a person inherits a view of the world according to their social and historical position and that it is a person’s job to ‘confirm or disconfirm over time this initial view . . . by engaging, to whatever degree is appropriate, both in the ongoing arguments within that tradition and in the argumentative debates and conflicts of that tradition of inquiry with one or more of its rivals’ (394).

Note 2:   I am thinking here of George Lakoff’s argument that liberal politics suffers from theorizing itself in the negative — what it does not want to do, or be. The problem being, in part, that a politics based on the need to consider the individual can leave liberals unable to act, always putting off judgment and the extension of personal conviction into practice.

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce. Lip Service. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2001.

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Ed. Timothy McDermott. Allen: Christian Classics, 1991.

Bernstein, Charles. My Way. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

James, William. The Writings of William James. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Lakoff, George.Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

MacIntyre, Alasdair.Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

Silliman, Ron. ‘If by ‘Writing’ We Mean Literature.’ The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

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