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Anna Gibbs reviews

by Jeanne Heuving

Portland: Chiasmus Press, 2004

Anna Gibbs teaches at the University of Western Sydney.

Jean Heuving Jeanne Heuving (photo, left) has published widely on twentieth century innovative and avant garde texts, including the book Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore. She is a recipient of NEH and Fulbright research grants, and was recently the H.D. Fellow at the Beinecke Library at Yale. She is on the editorial advisory board of HOW2, an electronic journal devoted to dialogue about innovative writing between writers and critics. She is on the faculty of the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences program at the University of Washington, Bothell and on the graduate faculty of the University of Washington.

This review is 1,400 words
or about 4 printed pages long

‘liquacious, loquacious...’

‘Incapacity’ draws its title from the writings of Georgio Agamben, cultural theorist, in which the term signifies not something negative, (disability or handicap) but rather a kind of potential space, or dimension, perhaps even a virtual realm, aspects of which may be drawn on without their being actualised. In this sense ‘incapacity’ signifies something like an excess, a beyond that may support and sustain the present, the here and now.

Writing about things and the nature of thingness, John Frow points out that we now inhabit ‘the aftermath of a theoretical paradigm which sought to imagine the world rigorously in terms of the play of representations and rigorously to exclude the sleight of hand by which a beyond of representation is posited in such a way that representation could be measured against it. Our problem’, Frow says, ‘is that beyond’. [1]

And it’s into the beyond thought as an in between that Heuving’s writing attempts to move. Or rather, it makes this beyond/ between of representation emerge: it is writing as tekne, a making apparent of something — in this case, a something that is hard to specify. It is a self that does not simply appear as the object of an autobiography, but emerges as a fleeting and discontinuous presence (if ‘presence’ is the word) in the gaps between representations, between autobiography, journal and a third kind of writing that is more explicitly dialogic, engaging with texts by other writers from whom it borrows and, in this process, transforms. Precocious vocabulary provides an analogue:
‘She found herself using large Latinate words, the meanings of which she never could have paraphrased, but which reproduced themselves in her sentences with startling precision.’ (p32).

This is an autobiographical writing that seeks the spaces between what Barthes called ‘biographemes’: ‘a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections’ to which, in certain fantasy of biography, a life may be reduced’ (for example: ‘Protected young woman goes to city because she wants the real thing’ (20)). Writing as Heuving performs it undoes the doings of narrative, and does other things, less expected. (Even if one doesn’t want to reduce narrative itself to a given — since narrative is ambiguous, susceptible to interpretation and to multiple meanings.) One section, ‘Offering’, appears as a version of itself, a gesture towards versions withheld at the time as it suggests both gift and sacrifice. There is a certain slipperiness in this writing which inhabits — without being permanently caught in — those spaces of passage in which one is unable to say from what or into what one is passing. These spaces are liminal, of the threshold, but unritualised, opening into something unknown rather than the known of adulthood, artistic maturity, or a life that can be looked at retrospectively and captured by that looking. They open into the production of a work, but a work which, although it cannot exist without the writing, is to be found between the lines, between ‘I’ and ‘she’, and in the dialogic engagements with other texts — a translation of Cocteau’s The Holy Terrors, Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, and various writings by Marguerite Duras, Helene Cixous and Kathleen Fraser.

It may engage with interlocutors, but this writing knows that ‘the discursive struggle’ of which Bakhtin spoke takes place

...not between one person and another but rather between ways of speaking and writing... [And] such struggle is already under way within the language of a single person. In this case, to interrupt it is simply to provoke tendencies at work in that first language. In this sense, the practice of interruption seeks not to impose a language of its own but to enter critically into existing linguistic configurations, and to re-open the closed structures into which they have ossified.[2]

Heuving’s writing applies this knowledge to itself, and connects it — in part via its use of Cixous and Duras — to the importance of writing for women, even now on the verge of 2005. What emerges as efficacious and enabling here is the speaking or writing of something which may be obscure, but which wants to be understood, which hides, but which wants to be found. In this sense writing represents agency, a fact that may seem paradoxical when the self, usually thought as the author of action, is so difficult to grasp in its singularity.

Writing, though, is a means of action on the world, on others, and on ourselves: the love letter is designed to produce the action of reciprocation; a journal may be designed to act on our own feelings and transform them, to ameliorate our misery or give vent to our rage; an autobiography may be designed as a technology of the self, autobiographical writing as a tool for self-reflection, or it may be a means of justifying ourselves in the eyes of others (Rousseau), and so on. Writing also acts on the writer, so that what is written about and who writes are simultaneously and surreptitiously transformed — the writing of an autobiography acts on the writing subject, changes her view of herself and her own experience, and its meaning for herself. This is more than just saying that writing an autobiography shapes one’s life or gives it a public meaning. Writing is a means of moving beyond the self and drawing on its incapacity (its potential), which is to say, to open onto an outside.

In the interview with her in this issue, Heuving says that ‘ may be all but impossible to attest to the precise ways that texts move readers, ie emotionally and intellectually transform them. Yet, to ignore this effect is to fail to consider texts at their most politically efficacious — the ways they change people.’ To my mind this necessitates engaging with affect, both the writer’s own and that of others, and the concomitant opening up of rhetorical modes (the lyrical, the elegiac, the rhapsodic, the humorous, the parodic, the satirical and so on) which enable the staging of passionate engagements and which emphasise the pragmatics as much as the semiotics of texts and writing, so that the writing itself stages the singular encounter between the writer’s emergent, embodied subjectivity and what is written about. Or to put this another way, in Wlad Godzich’s words:

That human beings are the subjects of stories means then that the communicative act in which a story is told is constitutive of its participants, that it is an experience in itself, and not merely a way of talking about experience, though it is that as well.[3]

Heuving’s writing is exemplary in that it focuses as much on the saying as the said, on how things are said and what kind of difference that in turn makes to ‘things’.

In the context of reflecting on speaking and speaking out, in which men ‘treat me as if I could not possibly do them any harm’, Heuving connects a feeling of being ‘hidden’ with something in writing: ‘I am hidden even in my writing, feeling that the larger words — death, loneliness — are not for me. Rather,’ she says, ‘I confine myself to — melancholy, sadness’(82). The writing, then, associates these things — details — with the feminine. But it is the attention the text pays to small things, to details, to everyday interactions (the man who doesn’t apologise to the ‘tired looking’ waitress he has bumped), to the weather whose shifts instantiate the openings of new passages, in which so much of its power finally resides. If details both generate and signify obsession, the trademark of obsession is that it becomes obsessed with itself, becomes an obsession with obsession, exponentially expanding, in which the object of the obsession is always only a pretext. Obsession feeds off itself — ‘liquacious, loquacious’ — as one of the final paragraphs suggests, functioning as transgressive, exciting shame and yet speaking anyway, because something ‘is directing me from the inside’. Finally, the fear of aggression — the sense of being the rock in the snowball that fells Cocteau’s Paul; anxiety about the snow that, pervasive, only sharpens rather than softens outlines and which seems to ‘presage’ something unnamed or unnameable; the disturbing ‘unfamiliar potency’ of lines recovered from daybooks, all give way to a writing in which nothing may be resolved, but in which images are allowed to appear and to speak for themselves.

— Anna Gibbs, University of Western Sydney

[1] John Frow, ‘A Pebble, a Camera, a Man Who Turns Into a Telegraph Pole’, in Things, ed Bill Brown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) pp 346-361.

[2] David Silverman and Brian Torode, The Material World: some theories of language and its limits. (London: RKP, 1980) p7.

[3] Wlad Godzich, ‘Forward’, in Chambers, op cit.

Anna Gibbs writes experimental(cutup)fiction, fictocriticism, and essays in cultural theory. Her current projects revolve around affect and mimesis. She lives in Sydney.

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