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Bill Freind

Modernism, Advertising, and Lip Service

This piece is 2,800 words or about seven printed pages long.

Barrett Watten has suggested that language poetry is ‘a species of modernism in the largest sense’ (60-61), and that as a result language writers have been concerned to mark their differences with the high modernist tradition. According to Watten, one of the ways they have done this is to reject the allegedly historicist notion of tradition, as articulated in Eliot’s notion of ‘Dante and me,’ which Watten condemns as ‘a very convenient form of modernist advertising’ (61).

So what does it mean that Bruce Andrews claims that Lip Service is his ‘recasting of Dante’s Paradiso’? I would argue that Lip Service does represent a kind of ‘modernist advertising,’ although not quite in the sense of Watten’s original comment. Andrews’ text operates as both a critique and extension of the high modernist long poem, a kind of radical response to Ezra Pound’s attempt ‘to write paradise,’ as Pound described the Cantos after they had irresolved into drafts and fragments. Additionally, one of the major targets of Lip Service is the mediation and commodification of sexuality that occurs in consumer culture, especially in advertising. Lip Service mounts its critique of that culture by inhabiting it — by demonstrating not only what makes it banal and manipulative, but also what makes it compelling.

Strangely enough, the apposite comparison might be to The Waste Land, which, like Andrews’ work, is filled with the disjunctions, fragmentations, and multiple voices of the metropolis. Eliot’s long poem was originally entitled He Do the Police in Different Voices, which comes from a line in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend: ‘Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the police in different voices.’ ‘Sloppy’ is an analogue for Eliot’s role in the poem, a reader and an impersonator of the voices of contemporary culture who pays special attention to the voices of police, perhaps since they’re the voices of power. But if power is not simply a force imposed from above but is instead (as Foucault reminds us) produced everywhere, if late capitalism means that ‘complicity produces our subordination’ (Lip Service 64) — that is, that we must buy (both literally and figuratively) our own unfreedom — then Andrews wants to ‘do’ all of the voices involved in that economy.

Jed Rasula, one of Andrews’ shrewdest critics, has noted that Andrews’ poetry is ‘emphatically anti-literary. It can’t be “read” in the customary sense’ (‘Extremities’ 27). Still, Lip Service is in some ways more ‘readable’ than any of Andrews’ previous texts. While the syntactic unit in Give Em Enough Rope and earlier books rarely comprised more than a few words, Lip Service, like I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up, often includes coherent phrases and entire sentences. It also uses repetitions of related words or phrases to develop the ‘themes’ (for lack of a better word) that are central to the text. For instance, ‘Earth’ and ‘Moon,’ the first two sections of the book, are filled with phrases and words that suggest deception. To cite just a few from the opening pages: ‘lavish lie plastered over’ (8); ‘trick gaze wax to avoid thought’ (9), ‘specious experience’ (9); ‘flexible nocturnal tint eludes/ to misinform/ vibrating perplexes/ shimmered into falsehood’ (9); ‘concealment’s gigantic conceit’ (9); ‘disjoint by sleight’ (10); ‘press “enter” button spool toward falsish’ (11); ‘counterfeit it’s a fact/ lie facts out/ periodic blather illusion’ (11); ‘[p]hony expressionism of lack of speed’ (11), ‘trick them into involutional dreams take stock as fact’ (11), ‘I take off my gloves/ before your lies’ (11); The significance of these lines is glossed in a later passage:

Artifice aborts
Frothy pornoptic
sink & depict pupil;
font flam shone counterfeit go awkward
crawling with tarts
primp within lean, falsely familiar
factless mask of masks
camera invents to prod this host briefs (25)

In this passage, the deception coming under attack is the commodified sexualities and the sexualized commodities that stand at the center of mass culture. ‘Pornoptic’ could be a mode of representation in everything from commercials to music videos to pornography: the use of (primarily) female bodies and faces to sell products. It could also represent a way of seeing the world that is directly shaped by that mode of representation; for example, the ideals of beauty and sexuality. ‘Frothy’ (a word that recurs in a variety of forms in the poem) indicates the insubstantiality of those depictions, perhaps associating the space between pixels on a television or computer screen with the air that is the primary component of froth. ‘Crawling with tarts’ suggests a kind of infestation, as of insects, although the anachronism of ‘tarts’ seems slightly comical, and the word ‘primp’ presents a kind of visual rhyme with ‘pimp,’ especially in conjunction with ‘tarts.’ In the context of the previous lines, ‘[c]amera invents to prod this host briefs’ could suggest a kind of male response to these pornoptic images: ‘host briefs’ are men’s underwear that are ‘prodded,’ by the images themselves or by an erection that results from those images.

In a number of places in his work, Andrews suggests that the erotic/amatory impulse has become overwhelmed by consumerist images and the desires they invoke and create. In ‘Be Careful Now You Know Sugar Melts in Water,’ he notes that ‘a language of sexual pressures becomes one of new consumer demands’ (124). Developing this idea, he continues:

sex figures more & more as discursive within a social world increasingly out of our grasp which sexual writing must still grasp. a more generalized lack of control appears as the problem, rather than the classical motifs of economic exploitation or the repression of drives. this factually congealed matter, this fixing as refrigerating within imagery captivity, this anonymous universality of a massively institutionalized illusion . . . (124)

One ramification of this ‘massively institutionalized illusion’ is that it leads into a kind of scopophilia that is one of the central ways in which sexuality becomes shaped, and ultimately appropriated by consumerism:

ads commemorate my awareness, big hair being
most fashionable: overdressed & overlooked, the glance
becomes a sexual part. (Lip Service 29)

The ‘glance’ referred to is the heterosexual male gaze that is the basis of ideals of female sexuality as presented in mass culture. The words ‘overdressed’ and ‘overlooked’ are ambiguous, since they could refer either to the woman being watched, who is excessively dressed and looked over by various men, or the male watcher, whose gaze is both overdetermined and underscrutinized. Andrews’ response to this situation is an attempt to provide ‘a peripheral vision as a jokester of the gaze — to revoke the sponsors’ (‘Paradise’ 270). He looks askance, smirking at these images, in an attempt to undermine the commercial and social interests that sponsor them.

Of course, Lip Service is not exclusively critique. A fundamental and, I think, a productive ambivalence about the power of mass culture seems to operate in the text. If Andrews wants to disassemble the media images and messages that underlie late capitalism, he also wants to show what makes those images and messages so powerful. This can be seen in his discussion of identity in poetry:

If I’m . . . feeling that a self is constructed out of inducements, solicitation . . . if I’m bringing into the poem a variety of raw materials, social materials that are embodiments of those very kinds of solicitations and commands and inducements and seductions, that make the self, make the readers identify what it is, then that might make a celebration of any existing identity, whether it is that of the heroic, privileged individual, or the oppressed, marginalized individual, begin to seem . . . not enough. (‘Interview’ 13)

If Marx defines humans as those who make their own history, Andrews responds that humans are those who desire it. Because those desires are not simply ‘natural’ or ‘inherent,’ any discussion of the self must include a discussion of the cultural — which is to say, the economic — origins of those desires.

It’s telling that Jerome Sala praises Andrews’ work by comparing it to advertising: ‘[l]ike good [ad] copy, he pokes, fluffs, or chops it up — anything to make it pop’ (30). This points out one of the contradictions of Andrews’ work: while Barrett Watten is certainly accurate in describing it as composed of ‘semiotic rubble’ (qtd. in Quartermain), much of Andrews’ work since Give Em Enough Rope contains a strong aphoristic component that sometimes resembles the concision and power of an effective ad jingle: ‘thoughts/ are accidents inspired by entertainment’ (25); ‘if you dress well, you won’t be lonely’ (29); ‘deceiving is pasteurizing’ (39); ‘I am but the loudspeaker/ of a symptom’ (50); ‘adultery is just another form of consumerism’ (52); ‘today Joan of Arc would get Thorazine’ (60); ‘freedom/ is a symptom of being weak, sweetie’ (61); ‘why be impotent when you can buy shoes’ (63); ‘guilt comes equipped with protective device’ (66); ‘after paternity comes eternity’ (165); ‘what you call emotions, I call propaganda’ (166); ‘everything everything changes — / except what we can’t stand’ (169); ‘propaganda as action on loan’ (180); ‘the world moves, let’s make ambiguity’ (216); ‘saliva adjusts, so will I’ (307); ‘seduce to redeem & redeem to seduce’ (308), etc. Furthermore, Andrews has an absolutely spectacular ear for sound and rhythm and he’s one of the funniest poets writing in English, so I find a certain paradoxical pleasure in reading even the most unpleasant sections of Lip Service.

Of course, all of this has nothing to do with paradise. Andrews has suggested that the second half of the book is ‘a little less critical & more optimistic than the first’ (‘Paradise & Method’ 252), which indicates that Lip Service is (at best) less a recasting of the Paradiso than of the entire Commedia, with the opening sections — the ones that have attracted the most negative criticism — depicting a kind of Inferno. The commodified sexuality of those sections is the flipside of Dante’s idealized and spiritualized Beatrice, occupying a hellish land of the heart’s desire for those trapped in the banal, eroticized consumerist visions of late capitalism.

Note also that Andrews does not suggest that Lip Service doesn’t move toward some form of paradise per se. ‘Primum Mobile’ and ‘Fixed Stars,’ the two final sections, develop a vision of love that provides a striking contrast with the first part of the book. The writing becomes less polyvocal and includes both the disjunctions for which Andrews is known and sections that seem romantic (with a lower-case ‘r’) and even erotic: ‘covert eye on lick/ yielding calm tight limbs & torso baptismally’ (301); or

another part of the body loss disappeared into, the mouth
fingered, giddy stir thaw
bend arch’s over oval, fractures
every gestural infatuation curve wants
a horizontal bad, in hem’s way small fine, pretty
little, little soft, soft and white balancing your mature
beige pairs spread immersion counterpoise bodies
or blush glad blur while you know intense. (302)

It’s hard not to detect just a touch of irony in this section, especially in lines such as ‘small fine, pretty/little, little soft, soft and white.’ At the same time, the Steinian repetitions recall the manifest eroticism of a work like ‘Lifting Belly.’ Such eroticism constitutes a serious break with the rest of Andrews’ work.

Nonetheless, Andrews refuses to develop any extended paradisal vision, and the passages that seem to suggest some kind of paradise are frequently undercut by the lines that follow. For instance:

All I ask is hearts — the rubbing of two skins
sufficiently alone to, minimum respond coitus sap
some more pause, disengages a perfume
separation, was willpower wanton
equal sway undressed in
healing a puss is a face, right?    usurp
in laughing cunt’s alloy behind foreigness in unison Other
refashioned as felt juxtaposed by your actually (!)
liking it. (320)

In the context of Andrews’ previous work, the first line and a half is astonishingly romantic, and that tone can plausibly be read as continuing through the end of the fifth line. But the tone changes with ‘healing a puss is a face, right?,’ which plays on the meanings of ‘puss’ for face and the slang term for vagina. The latter meaning is continued in ‘laughing cunt’s alloy’ a problematic line given the charged nature of the word ‘cunt.’ The next line, ‘refashioned as felt juxtaposed by your actually (!)/ liking it’ could be even more problematic. In the context of the preceding lines, they suggest a male speaker expressing surprise that his female lover enjoyed some sexual act. There’s a (perhaps intentional) clumsiness to the line that is a far cry from the near-paradisal eroticism of the first five lines of the section.

Andrews’ fullest discussion of paradise occurs not in Lip Service but in his essay ‘Paradise and Method,’ the title of which could be reformulated as ‘Paradise as Method,’ or (to borrow the title of Peter Quartermain’s essay on Lip Service, ‘Paradise as Praxis,’ which in turn reworks the title of Andrews’ essay ‘Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis’). Ordinarily, stasis would seem to be the necessary condition of paradise: if paradise is perfection, any change must be for the worse. Yet Andrews defines paradise as ‘a total repertoire of possibilities’ (268), and what he has in mind are the possibilities of a new, liberated form of reading. Specifically, ‘Paradise and Method’ continues the erotics of readings developed in ‘Be Careful Now You Know Sugar Melts in Water,’ presenting a vision of a sexually charged dance between reader and writer:

Sign gains fluidity by passing through a disorder of bodies, a field of flux & constantly negotiated positions & relative weightings of hegemonic & counterhegemonic traditions. The mobilizing of the body — by meaning’s insinuation into our  horizon. Embodiment is transformation. Words fleshlike within a body of meaning. (261)

The word is thus made flesh, but in a way that is sensual instead of spiritual. Pound’s ‘I have tried to write paradise’ becomes ‘We (that is, both writer and reader) have tried to unwrite the discourses that limit paradise.’ The last two pages of Lip Service contain a substantial number of references to reading and writing: ‘love melts friends/ all in the punctuation’ (379); ‘kiss the book some’ (ibid.); ‘wait for the book enarmed unionizing future/ prejudging multiple unscissored surprise!’ (380); ‘end of the world dance luscious by-the-book’ (ibid.); ‘equally read abode pink’ (ibid.).

This is an understanding of paradise that differs fundamentally from the Paradiso, which points out another meaning of the title: Andrews is paying Lip Service to the centrality of Dante to the high modernist long poem. Andrews’ description of Lip Service seems to place the poem in a Dantescan tradition: in addition to the jacket blurb that calls it a ‘recasting of the Paradiso,’ Andrews refers to it as a ‘near-translation’ in the paragraph that precedes ‘Paradise and Method’ (251) and even includes an appendix to Lip Service that lists the sections of his poem that correspond to specific cantos of the Paradiso. Still, it is difficult to believe that a poet who has pushed non- and areferentiality as far as anyone writing in English really expects us to read his text alongside Dante. In other words, just as Andrews both critiques and employs the techniques of advertising, he also employs and rejects the self-promotion of ‘Dante and me.’ If there’s no overcoming the Commedia and the high modernist poems that aspire to stand in its tradition, one possible way out is to make a transparently specious claim to that tradition as a way of undermining the cult of genius in which Dante, et. al., are supposed to offer divine truths to us ordinary humans. Lip Service thus becomes a kind of a confidence trick, a bait-and-switch technique in which readers are not dupes but co-conspirators. As Andrews writes, the goal is to ‘[c]hange (every idea of) partnership — & dance!’ (‘Paradise’ 267).

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce. ‘Be Careful Now You Know Sugar Melts in Water.’ Temblor 6 (1987): 122–125.

———. Lip Service. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2001.

———. ‘Paradise & Method.’ Paradise & Method: Poetics & Praxis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

Andrews, Bruce, with Kevin Davies and Jeff Derksen. ‘Bruce Andrews Interview May 1990 Vancouver.’ Aerial 9 (1999): 5–17.

Quartermain, Peter. ‘Paradise as Praxis: A Preliminary Note on Bruce Andrews’ Lip Service.’, unpaged.

Rasula, Jed. ‘Andrews Extremities Bruce.’ Aerial 9 (1999): 23–27.

Watten, Barrett, with Lytle Shaw. ‘The Poetics of Historiography: An Interview with Barrett Watten.’ Shark 3 (2000): 42–63.

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