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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Jonathan Fedors

Writing Class in Kevin Davies’ Comp

This piece is about 10 printed pages long.

Synopsis: Taking its cue from the title, a reference to a composition course he taught for several years, this article reads Kevin Davies’ Comp. through the lens of writing theory and pedagogy — in particular regarding what might be called the ideology of writing in modernity — and imagines the text as an alternate or compensatory course syllabus. To this end, I engage with the critical writings of Ron Silliman, John Guillory, and others to locate a coherent theoretical context for Davies’ concerns while separating his poetics from those of his Language (and other poetic) precursors. I argue that Davies’ work represents an evolution in the conceptualization of engaging with networks of ideology in social space, shifting the scale of formal disjunction from the level of language to the level of the expressive subject, from grammar and syntax to voice and phrase.

My job is to suggest that the boilerplate sucks (87)

the great psychic arc,
   the syllabus. (95)

Cover of Comp

Kevin Davies’ Comp. uses a composition classroom and its poet-pedagogue to frame an exploration of the ideology of writing in modernity. In other words, to ask: into what conceptual funnel is the act of writing poured at this cultural site? And what justifications and precedents might poets have for mangling the funnel? My paper explores how Davies thematizes writing pedagogy and provides two theoretical contexts for that account, one historical and one formal.
At a minimum, the title Comp. refers to an undergraduate course Davies taught for several years at New York University, Prose Composition – Prose Comp. for short. The book’s five poems are replete with utterances that address student writers, in tonalities ranging from the instructive to the derisive. I propose that the text be considered an intervention in a rhetoric of linguistic transparency that surrounds writing in modernity – a critical task shared by the Language writers from which Davies’ work in part descends – but one engaged with the fact that its critique originates at the very institutional site inculcating tomorrow’s workforce with such an ideological bearing.

By rhetoric of linguistic transparency, I mean a rhetorical anti-rhetoricality by which the signified occludes the signifier, robbing the latter of its materiality and polyreferentiality. Because materiality and polyreferentiality are incontrovertible aspects of the signifier, a claim otherwise – under the guise of ‘forgetting’ or evading them – is rhetorical.

The intervention is twofold, because the poet-pedagogue occupies a unique position, able to theorize the ideology at work in the composition classroom while engaging with and revising models of resistance pioneered by earlier poets. Namely, I argue that Davies harnesses the disjunctive impulse of Language writing by recasting the formal scale on which it operates, from the level of grammar and syntax (the New Sentence) to the level of voice and phrase. In look and tendency I associate the product with Projectivist and rearticulatory poetics. What Davies finds overtly dogmatic in models of resistance under consideration – the refusal of narrative in Language writing and the corruptible narrative impulse of Marxism – is thereby remaindered. Ultimately, I would like to read Comp. as an alternate or compensatory syllabus for Prose Composition.

The book jacket photographs suggest the ambivalence of Davies’ inhabiting the dual roles of socially engaged poet and institutional pedagogue. Depicting an individual in the process of removing a dark blazer, firstly to reveal the bright, striped interior lining, and secondly a sleeveless t-shirt underneath, they situate the viewer between casual and professional codes of dress, and by extension between personal and professional registers of discourse. Comp. emerges from this discursive middle-ground, which, while it does not delimit every voice that appears throughout the book, delimits the major problematic that these others punctuate.

To extend the reading of the photographs further, the individual’s personal qualities are present at all times during the hypothetical scene of instruction. The fact that the face is cut off specifies the personal qualities in play, namely, those that bear on the social, one’s occupational role and the habiliments signifying that role.

At the book’s outset – step one of the lesson plan, if you will – “Apocryphon” imagines a resolution between the two roles. The first lines present a similarly conflicted set of discursive registers:

If you don’t believe a science, don’t misquote it

Just keep staring into that English-language night sky.

The entire panoply of minimalist histrionics. (3)

Superficially, the first line is instructive. However, each instruction is negative (i.e. don’t rather than do). The counterpart to misquotation is clear enough, but consider how the subjunctive marker “If” undercuts the occasion for instruction. This first line, then, constructs a hollow occasion for instruction. Furthermore, scientists sink or swim by demonstration, so something odd is also occurring with the classification of science as a belief-phenomenon, especially since the target does not appear to be scientism but fields of science understood individually.

Bizarreness clouds the line’s otherwise simple, truistic directive, one for which there is no occasion: quote accurately. (Davies, in a different register, touches on the subject again farther on in the book: “The thrill of being misquoted, of inserting miniature cars into the urethra” (70). More on the issue of masochism later.) The voice of the pedagogue that begins the book proper – Davies includes a poetic epigraph – can find itself necessary only insofar as it leverages instruction on the basis of a false imperative.

Subsequently, the normative authority of the pedagogue – the “You do this, You don’t do that” school of instruction – seems in this case not just predicated on nothing (a non-occasion), but on the intentional application of normative authority despite. An ethos might be formulated: rules work best down the throats of the rule-bound.

The next line – “Just keep staring into that English-language night sky.” – enacts a tonal shift, from teacher to friend – pal or pot dealer – “Just” a flavoring particle intended to evoke a peaceful continuity, of what the text provides no intimation. However, though the register changes from professional to casual, the tone from instructive to suggestive, the occasion for utterance has content. Unlike the subjunctive mood of the prior line, the directive contained here is embedded in the line’s constitutive terms; in other words, the directive is not context-sensitive.

A disjunctive image, “English-language night sky,” imagines the realm of celestial bodies as self-evidently described. Silliman’s phrase for this is social aphasia (Silliman 11), the collective impression that verbal description is unnecessary because all parties looking in the same direction would describe the same things in the same terms. Stated in Saussurean terminology, not merely that the signifier “Little Dipper” is necessarily (itself a gross departure from Saussure’s linguistics) bound to a signified – a grouping of several stars – but that the two are interchangeable.

This is the rhetoric of linguistic transparency. Reference, Silliman writes, is “narrowed into referentiality” (8). The former allows meanings to proliferate, while the latter yokes together signifier and signified as though they were inseparable, thereby obscuring the materiality of the former. Silliman describes this process as “an anaesthetic transformation in the perceived tangibility of the word, with corresponding increases in its expository, descriptive, and narrative capacities… ” (10). In the above case, language divvies the night sky up into areas, groupings and bodies and determines how we perceive it. Davies holds out for a collective realization that our experience of space pre-exists our acquisition of English-language words for it – that is, that there is an arbitrary connection between the two, and that the rhetoric suppressing this fact might be pierced.

Robert Smithson, in his joint piece with Mel Bochner, “The Domain of the Great Bear,” models such a realization when he historicizes the Hayden Planetarium’s aesthetic of outer space. Synthetic materials – “formica and fluorescent, chrome and plexiglass” (Smithson 27) – construct the 1966 experience of, on the realist view, a pre-existing phenomenon. Comparing these materials to those used in the 1930s, Smithson notes brighter colors and more polished surfaces, an expression of the guarded, enforced optimism of the space race. In the same way that language can divvy the night sky up into areas, materials can occlude the fact of space – or, at the very least, on a non-realist view, the viability of different perceptions of space – by drawing on inclinations that to most are unconscious and ideological. Language creates a world that is not the world.

Compare Language writer Barrett Watten, in “The XYZ of Reading”: “The world is structured on its own displacement” (Frame 151). For his part, Smithson seems to adopt a soft (that is to say, non-comprehensive) anti-essentialism, whereby, at least in this case, ways of talking about space are just that – ways of talking. They are equivalent and preferable only insofar as they are practical. The aesthetic of the planetarium is “[a]n artistic conception of the inconceivable, it conforms to no outer necessity” (Ibid). That is to say, it conforms to no objective necessity. On the impulse to inflect space with an ideologically efficacious aesthetic, Smithson writes: “Vertigo at contemplating man’s most futile gesture – patrimony of the infinite” (Ibid). Whether a realist account of the world is available remains a question philosophers pose, but surely it is reasonable that that certain occlusions, bindings, blindings – function to worse ends than others.

In this case, the 1966 association of space with proleptic fashionableness in the form of formica interiors and the 2000 association of space with the English-language reflect in common American political reality. The Space Surveillance Network – a committee devoted to the modernization of which was overseen by Donald Rumsfeld before his nomination as Secretary of Defense in 2001 (Lewis 6) – tracks, to the greatest possible degree, all objects orbiting Earth, from large satellites to small debris. Access to the relevant technologies carves out the contemporary American monopoly: “At this time, the world relies exclusively on the United States for the provision of orbital data necessary to avoid collisions and to monitor activities in outer space” (5). Since the release of Comp. – and since September 11th – the situation has escalated considerably: “[T]he Clinton Administration’s philosophy of a restrained approach has been replaced with the Bush Administration’s unquestioning acceptance of exploitation of space for military purposes” (Sweet 1). The US Department of Defense, in 2001’s Quadrennial Defense Review Report, forecasted that space would be an important proving ground for military superiority in the 21st century: “Space and information operations have become the backbone of networked, highly distributed commercial civilian and military capabilities. This opens up the possibility that space control – the exploitation of space and the denial of the use of space to adversaries – will become a key objective in future military competition” (QDRR 15). Recall “English-language night sky”. This ideological phrase, in naming a lingua franca, reflects a public record of attempted military subjection unfolding in the present tense via patrimony of the infinite.

If such arbitrariness is not exposed in service of freer world-building, language will remain “an atmosphere / of previous tonnage, former clearance. //  You get to be different by changing your “handwriting” / when supplying “samples” / to possible “employers” // But not if it means “behaving / to” the groceries” (Davies 6). The scare quotes in the first two stanzas enclose a paratactic series of naturalized linguistic usages (i.e. “employer,” from one who uses some object to some definite purpose to one who manages the labor of others), the scare quotes in the third stanza an original preposition-verb complement. The former items sound right; the latter does not, an example of the force of “former clearance,” “previous tonnage” something like cognitive heft. That is, a “handwriting sample” does not mean as much to us as “behaving to” something – not yet, Davies means.

Silliman again: “Under the sway of the commodity fetish, language itself appears to become transparent, a mere vessel for the transfer of ostensibly autonomous reference. Thus, as Michael Reddy has documented, contemporary English is a language with no less than 141 metaphoric constructions in which communication itself is posed as a conduit” (11, emphasis mine). The archetypal linguistic metaphor of communication as conduit is ultimately at the bottom of all naturalized linguistic usages, and modern composition chooses the rhetorical anti-rhetoricality of the conduit over forthright rhetorical persuasion: “Early on in academic history / rhetoric declined into trope management” (Davies 107-8). Tropes work (are worked) overtime to make “sense,” so we don’t have to, preferring the extra few dollars we get working overtime at our jobs.

What precisely is the societal backdrop for the rhetoric of linguistic transparency? The answer is at once intuitive and remote. Today, global capitalism reinvests money where costs are cheapest and returns are highest. The aim is maximizing profit. Without the illusion of endless productivity, capitalism would flounder. The streamlining of business practices and labor freedom conduces to this end. Silliman sees a parallel in the linguistic economy that purports to bind signifier and signified in the name of efficiency and control: “[C]apitalism passes on its preferred reality through language itself to individual speakers”(Silliman 8).

As Jeff Derksen puts it, Language poetics is premised on a structuralist homology between textual relations and social relations (“Where Have” 42). The realist novel acts the logical culprit in the field of cultural production, due to its generic claim to representational authority. In the terms directly relevant to Davies, Silliman also singles out “the hypotactic logic of normative expository style” (11) as a mode of writing that achieves a measure of authority upon recognition of its form. The reader of realist novels and expository prose does not, on this view, entertain the possibilities for meaning production or contestation that a reader of poetry, esp. Language poetry, does. Crudely stated, Davies in his official capacity as adjunct professor teaches students to integrate themselves into capitalist patterns of thinking and writing.

Thus the following metaphor both supports and deflates Comp.’s project: “We were brought to this world to advance the plot / Dad always said” (Davies 6). The “we” is ominous. Whose plot? Dad manages to relay an encouraging thought, but it passes through the filter of the language holding sway over life and career.

Homology is originally a biological concept, used to denote instances in which the appearance of similar structures in divergent organisms demonstrates their common ancestry. The desire of Language writers to grant the reader an immensely increased role in meaning production, often in encounters with language that established canons of taste would not call poetic, suggests that the homological model replace one of base and superstructure. There must, they reason, be a reciprocal relationship between the conventions that govern the production and reception of texts and the relations that govern production and consumption at the macroeconomic level. This is as good a rationale as any for mounting a revolution on the page. A question arises, however, as to how much mediation occurs between the expository writing student/reader of the realist novel and the larger structures of relations that embed them in a capitalist economy.

With this in mind, a second historical model might be of use, that of John Guillory’s discussion of linguistic capital and the history of the discipline of composition. His interest lies in the mutually constitutive – and contested – limits of literature and composition course syllabi. Because literature is “no longer the basis of the vernacular standard” (Cultural Capital 80), the kind of language training promised by composition courses overtakes the difference between “standard” and “elite” language once occupied by the categories of non-literary and literary, respectively. Instead, the “elite” language which the syllabus is designed to teach is a sociolect somehow worthy of universal adherence: “[I]t is the speech of the professional-managerial classes, the administrators and bureaucrats; and it is employed in its place, the office. It is not “everyday” language” (79).

Guillory goes on to point out the contradiction between the supposed universal need for linguistic training (hence the inescapability of such courses in general curriculums) and the fact that the institutional context for this sociolect is writing. Thus, while college freshmen plod through Prose Composition, it might occur to them that the universal need for that skill set does not emerge so much as a function of their desire to enter professional life as the other way around: the desire of a professional class to gorge and replenish itself on young blood.

Guillory’s recent essay, “The Memo and Modernity,” also provides a second, non-Marxist account of anti-rhetoricality – what he calls “the forgetting of rhetoric”. Guillory delineates a heretofore unrecognized genre of writing – informational – and charts the development of its purest, most ubiquitous instantiation – the memorandum:

… [A]ll of the writing we consider to be the most intrinsically
interesting—literary or journalistic, scholarly or scientific--
amounts only to a small percentage of the writing of modernity,
crowded to poles of the epistemic axis. In our epoch, large
numbers of people write, are even compelled to write, but they
do not for the most part write poems or scientific papers; they
fill out forms, compose memos or reports, fire-off inter-office
e-mails. This writing is information, and it has the same generic
specificity as any other kind of writing. (112)

Information is “any given (datum) of our cognitive experience that can be materially encoded for purpose of transmission or storage” (110). The attempt to methodize informational transmission (think here of the conduit metaphor) required epochal curricular change. Without rehearsing Guillory’s argument at length, the emergence of informational writing coincided with the removal of rhetoric from curricula, and as a result inattention to Silliman’s gestural aspect of language: “… [I]f rhetoric is the art of persuasion, it makes a difference if the art disappears, leaving us only with persuasion. It must make a difference if information genres are founded upon the deliberate suppression of rhetorical techniques. Such writing may fail to transcend the motive of persuasion, but it cannot fail to be different generically from what proceeded it” (119).

Anti-rhetorical rhetoricality thus involves the ideologically slanted reversal of an idiomatic phrase: missing the trees of material words for the forest of meaning. In this world, the profits of deforestation accrue by virtue of a willful forgetting of the role each tree plays in stabilizing atmospheric CO2 levels. A sufficient obscurity of existing social relations justifies post-secondary conscription into the professional-managerial sociolect, in the name of preparing students to become productive members of society. Encoding the rhetoric of linguistic transparency in social life begins earlier for Silliman than for Guillory, with the printing press of William Caxton and rise of English orthography (Silliman 10), but each recognizes the same unfounded claim to anti-rhetoricality in modern writing pedagogy.

Intuitive, but remote. It is tempting to cast the relationship between writing pedagogy and capitalism as comfortably 1:1, as Silliman does. The critic can then pronounce Davies’ concern justified, and go about reading him with a less-qualified sympathy. Yet there is something attractive about Guillory’s more cautious claims. What if the closure of a hypotactic, expository essay doesn’t really imply or support a homologous structure of authority resisting contestation in the social world? Is not such a hypothetical essay about the truth or falsity of said relationship (textual to social) possible?

The answers, I venture, are “It doesn’t” and “Yes”. The relationship between what happens in composition class and in white-collar culture is not so simple. This does not exclude the existence of the rhetoric of linguistic transparency, nor does it out-and-out rebut the claim that composition courses function to make humans more effective drones. It is to say that the evidence adduced with respect to these two inquiries is respectively over- and under-determined.

As to the first, ideological misuses of language, pervasive as they are, are not confined to capitalist operation. I am willing to be at least as skeptical about this Marxist reduction of the cultural to the economic as Davies is about the more general trend of reduction he sees dominating Marxism, as I will show shortly. As to the second, hypotaxis and exposition are implied in any presentation of the concepts of hypotaxis and exposition, so their a priori association with constrictive realism seems premature. In addition, homology, though highly suggestive, is a problematic case of interdisciplinary word usage, having the ring of science (from those who are fairly likely disabused of scientism) but none of the confirming data.

Guillory’s sociological tack nevertheless underscores the vital contribution of disciplinary histories to grounding attempts to place the cultural site of the composition classroom in a larger context. The truth between the two parties thus exists, as is often the case, somewhere in the middle. That Davies is concerned about complicity but lacks the causal smoking gun to prove he ought to be does not mean that his attempts at resisting ideological misuses of language as poet-pedagogue are misguided. He himself, it need be noted, mocks a speculative theorizing whose dependence on capitalism to connect the damning dots entails all-too-easy answers to contemporary debates about ideology, in one of the text’s funniest moments: “Break and stick and there I am –           capitalism” (79).      

This takes us to Davies’ negotiation of form, as the second tier of his concern over compositional strategies. At the formal level, do disjunctive moments make realization of this rhetoric of anti-rhetoricality possible? In Davies, I take “Lions, Tigers, Bears, Disjunction, Curtain’s on fire / The pleasures of the whip in autumn” (27) as a partial response. The line invokes the film version of The Wizard of Oz, charting a new course for a famous phrase. Instead of “Lions and tigers and bears – oh my!”, the introduction of disjunction sets in motion a chain of events that in turn set the Wizard’s curtain ablaze, presumably forcing him and his linguistic trickery (primarily the discourse of wrathful, Old Testament godhood) out of hiding. The “pleasures” involved in instigating such contestation are figured as masochistic, perhaps the province of a marginal community.

That said, the disjunction in evidence here also has an important self-reflexive component. On one level, Davies distances himself from Language writers by placing the disjunctive element within an explicit pop cultural frame. Christopher Nealon, in distinguishing New York from Language poetics, has written that, while both “were interested in the relationship between mass culture and poetry”, the New York School “mined mass culture as a referential and affective resource”, while Language writers “tended to focus on [language’s] capacity to obscure social truths, especially the truth of the commodification of language” (584). It seems that Davies is doing both of these things in Comp., here most interestingly, as “Disjunction” itself is reified and made the element in question. The humor registered by disjunction as a shift in tone imagines disjunction as attached to a voice in social space, not as the subject-less unfolding of compositional strategy native to works like Silliman’s Tjanting.

Granted, this statement need not be put in the mouth of Davies qua pedagogue. At the very least the speaker has seen The Wizard of Oz and consciously appropriates both it and a formal poetic device to critique one modality of the device’s prior deployment. Furthermore, the redeployment of disjunction as an expressive category supersedes disjunction as a device by which dominant mechanisms of language – grammar and syntax – are deformed and referents put out to pasture. This is thus a critique of the commodification of a very particular kind of language – the formal device of a previous avant-garde.

Earlier, I read Comp.’s jacket photographs as situating the poet-pedagogue in social space. Tellingly, the artwork that graces Tjanting’s cover (this the 2002 Salt reissue) looks more like an advertisement for the theoretical claims set forth in “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World.” A palimpsestic image renders both signifier (words written on paper) and signified (crosswalk, eye) visible. This remains an imperative, but Davies’ point of departure suggests an evolution – in ways that will become clear, a fusion – in the conceptualization of engaging with instrumentalist networks in social space. In other words, the scale shifts from the level of language to the level of the expressive subject.

To put it another way, while in Silliman and other Language writers disjunction occurs at the level of the sentence, with grammar and syntax, in Davies, disjunction occurs at the level of voice (register, tone, subject) and also, in the night sky example, at the level of the phrase, by foregrounding the ideological dimensions of phenomena. Grammar and syntax aid rather than impede expression. As Brian Kim Stefans points out, cued by Davies’ use of the page as a full compositional field enabling stops, fissures, and a kind of splatter effect, disjunction at the level of voice suggests a Projectivist influence that Language Writing – with Grenier’s important but not movement-defining 1971 declaration, “I HATE SPEECH” – could not call its own in any positive sense (Stefans).

I would contend that disjunction at the level of the phrase, meanwhile, is more akin to a rearticulatory poetics, theorized originally by Jeff Derksen, fellow member of the Kootenay School of Writing, a Vancouver-based collective founded in 1984. Such a poetics “articulate[s] links that are currently deflected within social relations and disarticulate[s] other links that give the appearance of an immobile social totality” (Derksen 156). Davies, Derksen and other members of Kootenay are often concerned with the poetics of cultural sites – whether negotiating politics in Vancouver, North America or the expository writing classroom. Formally, they stage the moment of anagnorisis, what Tom Orange describes (in a review of KSW member Dan Farrell’s Last Instance) as the progress “from a simple clarification or confirmation of the original iteration, to the signaling of disbelief or mockery” (Orange). Hence, cognizance as sudden knowledge, at once critical, ironic and tragic.

It bears repeating that one of my chosen epigraphs juxtaposes “the psychic arc” and “the syllabus” in such a way, as the better classroom’s two complementary progressions, one external – textual – and one internal – psychic. Witness the unconverted, a GPA whore: “A flabbergasted A-student type. / You can more or less count on being part of the control group.” (15) For A-student type, the change is external, and not so much a change as a status-quo stabilization (that Phi Beta Kappa 3.85). Control, then, in the sense common to experimental parlance (control group as idiomatic noun phrase), in which a group not undergoing relevant change is observed relevant to one that does, but also in a weird symbiotic sense by which an ideology of writing controls (control as modified modifier – “controlled”) individuals by influencing them such that they reiterate and become, in a generational sense, the next group to wield that influence (again as modified modifier – but “controlling”). For Davies, the development of the syllabus must affect his student-readers consciously, and the difference is thinking about the subject (composition) versus thinking about the class as semester-long graded exercise.

Now we can finish looking at the opening passage. From where does the third line emerge? I envision a second re-articulation, this time of a student’s paper, “The entire panoply of minimalist histrionics” replacing a controlled network of night sky imagery with that imagery’s undoing. That is, the line should be taken as a totalizing – metonymic – form of what preceded it, “English-language night sky.” “[M]inimalist histrionics” cleverly employs artistic metaphor (half visual, half dramatic) to express in paradox the artifice of transparent language, reminding “transparent language” of its self-forgotten rhetoricality. The rhetoric preaches linguistic economy by making the most extravagant claims imaginable for its powers of presentation. “[E]ntire panoply” exaggerates this exaggeration.

The punctuation underscores this reading. Line one lacks a period by virtue of lacking what I have called ‘occasion’ – the fragment is plucked like a piece of driftwood from the pedagogical jet (or main-) stream, instructing without cause. Line two terminates in a period by virtue of its occasion, the supposed givenness of the signified. The two voices, professional and personal, dialectically produce the third, an occasioned, wholly rearticulatory fragment. The strategy (vocal, compositional, phrasal) behind these three lines – vocal and phrasal disjunctions resolving into provisional rearticulation – cannot easily be mapped onto the rest of the book. Most moments of potential resolution are thoroughly fraught with doubt. However, in terming them an “imagined resolution,” I think they function as the useful approximation of an ideal type.

Compare Silliman’s Marxist account of the internal contradictions of realism’s attempted separation of narrative from what he terms the “gestural aspect of language” (10): “Instead of ‘freely’ leaving the gravitational pull of the signifier, the novel, like a rocket with insufficient thrust, is doomed to fall back into the atmosphere of the poem… ” (14). In context, the statement dovetails nicely with a genealogy of self-reflexive novelists, from Gertrude Stein to Kathy Acker, but the naïve determinism shares little with Davies. If anything, the temporal displacement involved in juxtaposing Silliman and Davies as I have chosen to spans nearly twenty-five years, time in which to recognize that the contradictions forcefully staged by postmodern novelists would neither kill the novel nor bleed into a larger context of class conflict.

Thus, while “Disappearance of the Word” informs Comp. with a greater measure of specificity than it might other texts – compositional strategies provide not just the formal thematic but also the cultural context of the work – I do not mean to suggest that Davies draws on Silliman or a more general Language “project,” beyond his continued sense of a particular abuse of language by capitalism. In his turn, Davies is critical of both Language writing and Marxism. He rejects them for opposite reasons, the former for being dogmatically anti-narrative, the latter for dogmatically narrativizing, that is, abductively revising facts – or naïvely wishing outcomes, as above – to fit the theory of historical materialism. Three instances of critique pertaining to Language writing:

Pitbull slays spaniel while owners watch weeping in a poem Silliman
won’t write till three May Days after the assassination of Lyndon
Larouche. Flub grammar to put illiterate MBAs at ease. (40)

First, the jab at Silliman, a requisite moment, considering this paper’s unambivalent juxtaposition of him and Davies. Whether the pets of the leisure class fatally set against one another relates directly to Silliman I cannot say. Nor do I know where Silliman lands, plunked between May Days and Lyndon Larouche (who claims that the Communist party attempted to assassinate him in 1983). However, “Flub[ing] grammar,” a reference to a particular type of linguistic disjunction, is represented as achieving an effect in Language writing wholly counter to its intention. Instead of encouraging reflection on linguistic transparency, such disjunction pats “illiterate MBAs” on the back, convincing them that their non-mastery of the English language will not be an obstacle in the pursuit of monetary gain. Why read literature if you can count, and count gross sums? And if the ability (wherewithal?) to recognize a poetics of disjunction depends upon coming from the right group of speakers, then what necessary difference is there between intentionally flubbed grammar and engaged Language writing?

Second: “Linguistics – whoops – wrong horse” (56). I read this in dialogue with a passage of critique on p.33:

I learned the year after Kindergarten that sentences
are linguistic artifacts with regulations that fill them-
selves out, and that for the purposes of our circus-cannon
ambitions the most important part of the war they enact
is the full-stopping dots that divide the booty amongst
camp-following berserkers of the sub-syllabic frontier. Word. (33)

Briefly: the Language Writers’ particular modality of disjunction constitutes “betting on the wrong horse.” “Linguistics” – a term that rings more technical than “language” – applies to all formal mechanisms by which the signifier is detached from its signified, and, subsequently, from a subject. Davies suggests that the political praxis Language writers profess is disserved by making language rather than social space the site of meaning production.

In other words, it seems like Davies is suggesting that grammar and syntax, even when tinkered with, speciously incite the syllogistic production of readerly meaning – and that the function of having learned to read produces not self-reflexive insights about language use but, well, readings of the available language. He stresses, in the haughty tone of adolescence, how he learned this all in the first grade: language governs itself. While this is the exact claim a critique of linguistic transparency attempts to rebut, in evoking early childhood education (as opposed to post-secondary education), the voice Davies adopts situates the reader of Language writing as an expressive subject in social space, with problematic results. That is, the point here might be that Language writing can’t possibly teach us to unlearn certain lessons when we come to it at ages of decreasing neural plasticity.

What the reader of Language writing does on this account is apply learned (general) rules to thorny particulars, or familiarize the unfamiliar, under the guise of co-producing meaning. Or, unable to do so, simply walk away from the text with an impression of what Oren Izenberg has called the anaesthetic, the extreme disorientation produced by art which does not seem to call for perception according to the medium of its construction (136), i.e. perceiving street sounds but not readily deeming them aesthetic, as would instantly happen overhearing a Top 40 cut. Needless to say, this account excludes any rhetorical relationship by which the poet can “speak” to the reader, which Davies ultimately finds necessary for an effective critique of the rhetoric of linguistic transparency.

Again, from the meta-narrative frame of the poet-pedagogue to the other voices throughout Comp., Davies does not shy away from narrative as structuring device. Instead, he puts on record a wealth of narratives, where common ground might emerge but which more importantly insist on their experiences even while they “model[… ] what it’s like not to know the whole story of [their] object” (Nealon 599). On the other side of the narrative divide, then, critically speaking, there are two moments when Davies criticizes Marxism:

I’m weak on history’s

                         particulates and generosities

                                     The exile of ectoplasmic humanity

so derived from divisions of its source – (58)

“Particulate” evokes “particular” but more directly references the literal “stuff” of history per Marx – material relations. “Generosities” more importantly refers to those actions worthy of the appellation exemplary, acts of resistance, conscience, or expression.

In other words, recuperable particulars. To reduce history to class warfare ignores particulars in favor of superstructural narrative. No past efforts to draw upon are left to the thinker in service of his or her present attempt “to change it” (19) – that textual moment the “I’m going to emphasize materialism more searchingly, unlike you, Marx” gesture of the decade. Before long, the search becomes an interrogation:

                                      The precepts of materialism
interrogated by their own kittenish desires… (59)

The simplicity of the narrative is not a function of its truth (à la Occam’s Razor) but of its rootedness in the human desire for simple and fixed beliefs. Diagnosed, dialectical materialism’s “hard” reality turns out to be the product of “soft” (ideal) forces. Imagine the same adolescent tapping on the glass at the pet store, condescending to a kitten: “Aww, you cute Marxist, you… ”

One particularly poignant passage limns the gamut of the syllabus project with a sort of dying fall:

That pleasure lent from these ends of instructibility,
the expansion of the universe, and the hypothesized existence of language
to lives that are conceived as such, ongoing,
reflected, moved, and fucked, pausing now, buzzed, getting down. (74)

Again, tending as it does to drop the subject (and subjectivity), Language writing probably would not tolerate the incursion of the meta-narrative frame. Here, the ends of “instructibility” – the potential for successful pedagogy – are rather grandiose. “Expansion of the universe” in the context of writing recalls Wittgenstein’s formulation in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. Not only are signifiers to be recognized and experienced as having a variety of significations, but polyvocality, grammatical innovation, and disjunction as well are to be granted a place in language use – social verbosity rather than social aphasia.

“The hypothesized existence of language” refers to language as a realm of material markings rather than of meanings, signifiers rather than signifieds. The tantalizing phrase “as such” – “life as such” might vaguely evoke Ding an sich, a noumenal real free from ideology  – yearns for the kind of utopian linguistic facility whose prospects have diminished in the wake of poststructuralist critiques of the knowing subject. In a more tempered sense, however, the search for a better sense of the relation between life and language is that about which Comp. has so much to say. This while the passage winds down into depression and self-medication – bathos, the fall from sublime thoughts into stringent materiality: “… fucked, pausing now, buzzed, getting down.”

The reading outlined above merits one further point of emphasis, about the rhetorical position(s) the text occupies and what I have been referring to as the cultural site framing Comp., the expository writing classroom. The key word is framing. As I stated at the outset, the range of voices present throughout cannot be ascribed to Davies or limited to classroom space. The text admits as much:

If this is meant to be a manifesto
it is insufficiently aware of its rhetorical context. (101)

This “fractur[ing] the logics of identity” (56) leaves room on the syllabus for an itinerary of social concerns by including voices not necessarily Davies’ own, with their own problems, stagings and observations.

Where the syllabus ideally negotiates such concerns in a representative sampling according to pedagogical discretion, the manifesto genre adopts a static and insistent rhetorical position whose conclusions relating to praxis are predetermined. The knowledge provisionally attained in the expository writing classroom does not constitute a call to action or specialization so much as an introduction to self-reflexive compositional strategies, aware as it is of the complexity of the endeavor and its bearing on social life. Understood another way, other disciplines deserve respect, if a slight dock in priority: “This is not a curriculum.” (100)

Lest one think Davies confidently believes that his students would listen and/or learn, the compensatory syllabus in place, he jokingly puts off any such possibility in the book’s closing lines:

     … How is it possible

         that bits of desk are lodged in the ear,

but there you go. (110)

The attempt is thwarted at the institutional site, ironically not by linguistic means but by material ones. Afeard of acting the “[u]nknowing tool of the neo-feudal / Info order” (83), it is unlikely Davies thought to fear the same of classroom desks. This when “[t]he point, however, is to change it” (19), the totality of material instantiations of abuses of institutional power. Ever the good pedagogue – red pen in hand – Davies is not afraid of shifting Marx’s italics.

Works Cited

Davies, Kevin. Comp.. Washington, D.C.: Edge Books, 2000.

Derksen, Jeff. “Unrecognizable Texts: From Multicultural to Antisystemic Writing.” Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s. Ed. Marks, Steven and Mark Wallace. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2002. 145-160.

———. “Where Have All the Equal Signs Gone?: Inside/Outside the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Site.” Assembling Alternatives: Reading Postmodern Poetries Transnationally. Ed. Romana Huk. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003. 41-65.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

———. “The Memo and Modernity.” Critical Inquiry 31.1 (Fall 2004): 108-132.

Izenberg, Oren. “Language Poetry and Collective Life.” Critical Inquiry 30.1 (Fall 2003): 132-159.

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Nealon, Christopher. “Camp Messianism, or, The Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism.”American Literature 76.3 (2004): 579-602.

Orange, Tom. Review of Last Instance. Lagniappe. 2:1. 04 March 2006. <>.

Silliman, Ron. “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World.” The New Sentence. New York: Roof Books, 2003.

Smithson, Robert, with Mel Bochner. “The Domain of the Great Bear.” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. Ed. Jack Flam. Berkeley: California UP, 1996. 26-33.

Stefans, Brian Kim. Review of Comp.. 04 March 2006. <>.

Sweet, Kathleen. “Space-Based Offensive Weapons: Have policymakers discussed this enough?” Online Journal of Space Communication Issue 6 (Winter 2004). 25 May 2006. Society for Satellite Professional International, 2001. <>.

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Watten, Barrett. Frame: 1971–1990. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1997.

Jonathan Fedors

Jonathan Fedors

Jonathan Fedors grew up in New Jersey. He studies at New York University, where he will graduate in the spring with degrees in literature and philosophy. He is currently starting work on a critical history of the Kootenay School of Writing, and can be contacted at