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Louis Cabri

Mere Essay at Bruce Andrews’ ‘Social’

Endnotes are given at the end of this file.
Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

For now, I do not mean to appropriate any view, but merely tension from entertaining belief. — James Sherry [1]

In Andrews’ poetics trajectory, the 1980s culminate in publication of work that opens to questioning — as questions of — the social. This ‘social turn’[2] in Andrews’ work occurs just when so-called Reaganomics begins its own ‘turn’ — turnover, really — of U.S. domestic policy-involvement with social questions — into the hands of corporations and the religious right.[3] I Shut Up Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism) (Shut Up from now on!) forms part of a larger struggle, carried on discursively as well,[4] against privatizing and ‘nuclearizing’[5] social consciousness.

With Shut Up, Andrews begins from the social as a founding theoretical premise and as a formal (practical) problem: how to make the social. The social does not just happen: Shut Up does not end — ecstatically, indifferently, or with hostility — in the social as site of mere reception. The social is a social construct, a form of poeisis.

Andrews’ work presupposes neither a temporal nor a spatial outside or inside beyond the social. There is no pre- or post-social figured either as nature, subjectivity, object, soul, body, myth, form (e.g. mannerism), or lyric, for example, in Shut Up’s world. Out of these metaphors from which to figure an outside/inside beyond the social, lyric is perhaps the most significant for Andrews — significant for what it can no longer do. The Romantic lyric tradition, specifically, no longer aids and abets formation of individuated subjectivity in a quasi-developmental trajectory that posits soma — body being — as pre-social, and moves ‘from the somatic both toward and against the social’ (Stewart 46).[6] Andrews’ singularity (in this otherwise historically well-diversified critique of the conventional lyric[7]) comes from how extrovertedly he emphasizes a ‘total social explanation’ (to borrow Tom Bottomore’s phrase) for any figure of outside/inside. Shut Up has no originary point inside ‘the human’ countering ‘the social,’ as with Nietzsche according to Georg Simmel, or as when, in Arendt’s phrase, ‘Jean-Jacques rebelled against a man called Rousseau’ in the name (precisely her wit intended!) of intimacy,[8] or as when Hobbes argues, in On the Citizen’s opening chapter, ‘man is not born fit for society,’ and ‘friends are secondary’ to reasons of association (a sentiment and philosophy that Shut Up’s beginning mockingly parallels: ‘All of my friends are dead — too bad for them; which was in practice little more than banging one inadequate category against another’), or as in ideological roots of Christian natural law, and so on. Subtitled ‘The social vs. the human,’ Simmel posits in one of his essays that ‘Nietzsche seems to have been the first to feel, with fundamental distinctness, the difference between the interest of humanity, of mankind, and the interest of society [. . .] [A]ll social institutions, all giving and receiving by which the individual becomes a social being, are mere preconditions or consequences of his own nature’ (17, 18). The emphasis in this last sentence falls heavily on ‘mere,’ so as to render sovereign ‘his own nature.’ For Andrews, by comparison, the preconditions and consequences of ‘his own nature,’ in some infinitely-divisible Zeno’s paradox, are ‘his own nature’ — without remainder. ‘His own nature,’ self-depredations, comprised of mere preconditions and consequences of the social, of the social mark, of socialization, of sociality.

I’ve taken a core-sample from Shut Up to demonstrate these points, spelling out in the text some preconditions and consequences for the lack of any outside to the social:

[. . .] — why don’t I function as more than just an adjective?
Puke on my federal highway on that one, I’m talking social equality [. . .] (56)

To consider the I as an adjective (which the text is asking us to do) is to provocatively imagine a pun, a pun that runs throughout the book whenever personal pronouns or adjectives are used, on ‘possessive individualism.’ The term hearkens back to those seventeenth-century theories of liberalism, notably Hobbes’s and Locke’s, that were then re-articulated in the eighteenth century, and recaptured in turn during the 1960s by C. B. MacPherson, who coined the phrase ‘possessive individualism’ to hearken back to some of capitalism’s historical ‘best-in-show’ moves — principally the move of aspiring to freedom by becoming an individual who first and foremost possesses his own capabilities, as property. Note that the I in the rhetorical question functions as both linguistic shifter and deictic subject; as deictic subject, the I implicates an undisclosed proper name (the author-function ‘Bruce Andrews’ cannot be ruled out). To imagine the personal pronoun as adjective is to render banal and generic the adjective’s distinguishing grammatical noun-modifier function: any noun, instead of being modified into a particular, now is ‘modified’ into an unmodified, i.e. colorless, tasteless, etc. (quality-less) state of thinghood. As adjective the I introduces redundancy into sentences: ‘The color of my car is I’. The personal pronoun thus becomes perceptible as quality-less, too. For things/nouns/persons to have lost their particularity in this way, their ‘color,’ is for them to have lost their use-values — to have become ‘exchangers,’ Marx would say (i.e. gaining value only abstractly in exchange, as commodities). And so, through a structural pun, this micro-sentence[9] from the Shut Up section ‘Cerebellum Replaced with Joy Stick’ reveals the social underside of possessive individualism (a theoretical critique of liberalism). It is to state that the I’s function, in normative usage, fundamentally distorts the social in order to replicate relations of possessive individualism (themselves reified by the 1960s, nostalgic throwback to an earlier capitalist stage). Further, it so happens that in the prose-like sentences of Shut Up, the standard syntactical position allotted to personal pronouns and possessive pronouns is rarely ever altered, which only reinforces the I’s normative usage — hence the pun’s incisiveness.[10]

The critique embodied by the pun might suggest that Andrews is setting up a figure of outside to the social. But his text says specifically, ‘I’m talking social equality’ — not ‘I’m talking real social equality.’ The latter projects an outside whereas the former returns to capitalism’s social. ‘In a capitalist society,’ one critic writes, ‘money becomes the concrete bond that ties its members together. It differs from such earlier social ties as the group, the city-state, or the social hierarchy of a feudal society, in that it remains wholly extrinsic to its possessors and admits no limits but those of the universe of capitalist exchange (which is, potentially, the whole world)’ (Dupré 40). This new ‘universe of capitalist exchange’ produces a strange (estranging) ‘social equality,’ as Marx explains in a draft notebook published after his death[11]:

[I]n so far as the commodity or labour is conceived of only as exchange value, and the relation in which the various commodities are brought into connection with one another is conceived as the exchange of these exchange values with one another, as their equation, then the individuals, the subjects between whom this process goes on, are simply and only conceived of as exchangers. As far as the formal character is concerned, there is absolutely no distinction between them, and this is the economic character, the aspect in which they stand towards one another in the exchange relation; it is the indicator of their social function or social relation towards one another. Each of the subjects is an exchanger; i.e. each has the same social relation towards the other that the other has towards him. As subjects of exchange, their relation is therefore that of equality. (Grundrisse 241; emphasis added)

The persona of Andrews’ text would rather ‘puke on my federal highway’ than project an outside to the social — for literally, ‘I’m talking social equality’ as is (i.e., as distorted), not as it should be. But to recall this micro-sentence in full: ‘Puke on my federal highway on that one.’ I have just read ‘that one’ as referring to any project constituting an outside to the social. Yet Andrews’ micro-sentences frequently permit/encourage multiple, overlapping readings and misreadings. A second reading might focus on micro-sentences-within-micro-sentences, namely ‘my federal highway on that one,’ meaning: the federal highway has asphalted over the very idea of an outside to the social — let’s say, the idea of nature. To make the outside ‘outside-like’ (to paraphrase Shklovsky’s famous phrase) is actually to perceive the federal highway system for what it is (in its social, historical specificity). In Andrews’ poetry, the focus is on preconditions (e.g., possessive individualism) and consequences (e.g., ‘my federal highway’ for I, I or I cars — for all I cars!).

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce. Give Em Enough Rope. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1987.

———. I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism). Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1992.

———. Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern UP, 1996.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition: A Study of the Central Dilemmas Facing Modern Man. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1958.

Dupré, Louis. Marx’s Social Critique of Culture. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1983.

Hill, Dilys M. ‘Domestic Policy in an Era of “Negative” Government.’ The Reagan Presidency: An Incomplete Revolution? Eds. Dilys M. Hill, Raymond A. Moore, Phil Williams. London: The MacMillan Press, Ltd., 1990.

Hobbes, Thomas. On the Citizen. Eds. Michael Tuck and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1998.

MacPherson, C.B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Marx, Karl. ‘Private Property and Communism,’ Third Manuscript. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Marx/Engels Collected Works. Vol. 3: Works of Karl Marx, March 1843-August 1844. N.Y.: International Publishers, 2000. June 8, 2003.

———. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Trans. with a fwd. by Martin Nicolaus. New York: Vintage, 1973.

Perloff, Marjorie. ‘Postmodernism and the impasse of lyric.’ The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 172-200.

Sherry, James. Our Nuclear Heritage. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1991.

Simmel, Georg. ‘Individual and Society in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Views of Life: An Example of Philosophical Sociology.’ Sociological Debates: Thinking about ‘The Social’. Eds. Floya Anthias and Michael P. Kelly. Kent, UK: Greenwich UP, 1995. 15-18.

Stewart, Susan. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002.


[1]    This ‘essay at’ is one part from a much longer work on the term ‘social’ in Bruce Andrews and in other contemporary poets. A second part (on Benjamin Friedlander’s poem, ‘The Social Contract’) is available at

[2]    Andrews uses the phrase ‘social turn’ to characterize his own poetic trajectory at this time: ‘In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, my own writing (and not alone among my peers) takes a more explicit ‘social turn’ [. . .] to aim a spotlight at the social facts of present-day (and often disturbingly omnipresent) discourse, both public and private’ (Andrews, Paradise 201).

[3]    In ‘Domestic Policy in an Era of ‘Negative’ Government,’ Dilys M. Hill comparatively assesses the 1980s Reagan years in a few effective strokes: ‘[T]he ‘Great Society’ era inaugurated by President Johnson has ended [...] The impact of the Reagan era on domestic policy was a vigorous assertion of a new policy perspective which rejected the 1960s and 1970s belief in social intervention and problem solving [. . .] [S]ocial engineering appeared dead [. . .]’ (Hill 165, 176).

[4]    Think of journal and book titles from the 1980s that insist on a conceptual relevance for the term ‘social,’ as if despite odds: Social Text; Walter Kalaidjian’s Languages of Liberation: The Social Text in Contemporary American Poetry; Frank Lentricchia’s Criticism and Social Change and After the New Criticism; Robert Von Hallberg’s Politics and Poetic Value; Jerome McGann’s Social Values and Poetic Acts; to name a few.

[5]    I mean ‘nuclear’ in the sense of prioritizing classical liberal individualism, where the individual is indivisible, much like the fabled subatomic unit, and whose strongest social tie is apparently the nuclear family. In this context I especially think of James Sherry’s magnifying book, Our Nuclear Heritage, updating and extending the metaphor, from which I take my epigraph (33).

[6]    In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Susan Stewart beautifully argues for the conventional lyric from Sappho to the present. Interestingly, Stewart and Andrews both cite — pivotally for their chapter (‘In the Darkness,’ 40) and poem (epigraph to ‘Confidence Trick,’ Give Em Enough Rope 142), respectively — an identical passage in Marx, and yet arrive, on its basis, at opposite conclusions. The Marx passage is: ‘The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians’ (Marx, ‘Private Property and Communism,’ n.p.). Stewart and Andrews differ on how to interpret, for poetry, the senses as new-found theoreticians. Stewart reaffirms the lyric as emancipating — even in its opposition to social being — the human sensorium from inarticulate ‘darkness’ and pain. Andrews compels overturning the entire lyric tradition (much as Marx compels overturning philosophy) in order that the inscribing socius be re-inscribed as social being.

[7]    See, e.g., Perloff.

[8]    Arendt, 36. Arendt’s phrase encapsulates a foundational structural opposition in Rousseau’s thinking (particularly in The Social Contract) between ‘social law’ (last name, associated with public rank and status) and ‘natural law’ (first name, associated with intimacy and the personal). I am grateful to Benjamin Friedlander for bringing Arendt’s book to my attention.

[9]    Shut Up is mostly made out of short sentences forming aggregate sentences. To distinguish these two sentence types, I will call the short sentence-units ‘micro-sentences.’

[10]    Given standard subject-verb-predicate sentence structure, which Shut Up replicates at the micro-sentence level, it is the predicates and clauses of aggregate sentences that receive the greatest poeticization throughout the book.

[11]    These pages of the Grundrisse were brought to my attention thanks to Dupré, 41.

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