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In 1977, Steve McCaffery wrote in an early forum on what would soon come to be known as language poetry that "The main thrust of this work is hence political, rather than aesthetic." This paper seeks to understand the stakes of the tendency that emerged in experimental poetry during the 1970s —towards a coupling of theory and practice, as a politicization of aesthetics—by comparison of the political poetics theorized therein with the poetic politics of the Situationist International. Specifically, we will use McCaffery's account to explore the then emergent conception of the poem as a textual environment through which a reader moves freely by constructing temporary and contextually specific meanings from its parts (sounds, words, lines, sentences) as analogous to the SI's dream of a permanent revolution in the cityscape (as context providing the contents of daily experience). Against the backdrop of the failures of 1968 and political despair attending the Vietnam War, in the context of "minimal employment and low cost of living that was the late 1970s" in San Francisco, we will take this comparison as an occasion for thinking through the collective and utopian nature of that project. Beginning with McCaffery's account as a signal (but partial) instance of the effort to wed Marxist political praxis with post-structuralist textual agency, we will argue that this fusion of critique and aesthetic practice—via the development of conceptual and aesthetic technologies that shifted poetics from writerly concerns with textual production to readerly concerns with contextual production—made possible an imaginative instantiation of the political desires which the SI momentarily organized, at a moment when possibilities for their materialization were coming to seem everywhere foreclosed. In doing so we will argue as well that from a properly Debordian perspective no aesthetic tendency can answer the cry trapped in the thesis "All that was once directly lived has passed away into mere representation." Consequently, we will insist on the necessity for a rigorous differentiation of the considerable and very real aesthetic gains the tendency in question made from the political ambitions that motivated them in any critical accounting adequate to that moment and the lessons it affords utopian thinking today.

Since this comes at the tail end of a long conference I'm going to cut out the prefatory remarks situating my talk within larger projects, except to acknowledge that the thinking that went into this presentation owes a great debt to the year-long language poetry reading group in Berkeley I was lucky enough to participate in with Jasper Bernes, David Brazil, Dan Glass, Lyn Hejinian, Erica Staiti, and Brian Whitener. I certainly don't want to make anyone else responible for my account—least of all Lyn, who hasn't had a chance to see this paper—but I do want to acknowledge that it would not be what it is without their insights.

That said, this talk aims at producing a critical account attentive to both the possibilities and the limits, during the moment of its formation in the 1970s, of what would become known to us as language poetry. To do so I'll be attending to the curious ease with which the theoretical accounts of aesthetic tendencies in American poetry advanced in the 1977 forum The Politics of the Referent (edited by Steve McCaffery and published in Open Letter) might be said to map onto political practices and programs advanced by Guy Debord and the Situationist International in France in the 1960s.

This will perforce be a partial accounting, and entails several caveats. First, while there is ample archival evidence to more than suggest that many (if not all) of the poets in question were more or less familiar with Debord's work and the activities of the SI (one obvious source is the Grand Piano vol. 4, where the loosely organizing conceit is the dérive), I will not be tracing those connections here; I will be arguing instead for a relationship of affinity rather than one of influence or lineage. Second, in choosing to focus on early accounts of what would soon become known as language poetry presented by Mcaffery, Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ray Dipalma, and Ron Silliman in The Politics of the Referent—amidst the runs of Hills (1973-80; ed. Bob Perelman), This (1971-82), and Tottel's (1970-81), before L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978-81), Poetics Journal (1982-98), and the Talks (1977-83)—for the purposes of this talk I aim to follow Ron Silliman in endeavoring to take as the object of analysis a moment rather than a movement. In doing so, I do not want to be mistaken for taking the case McCaffery et al make in that forum to encompass all things that moment was, then or now. As I hope we will see, one of the virtues of this particular instantiation is that it offers multiple accounts from multiple voices not at all moments in agreement. Accordingly, I take The Politics of the Referent to be a signal but partial instance of a tendency, or tendencies.

A first step, then, in getting a handle on the tendency in question is to attend to what these differing accounts share. (And here I want to say to those for whom much of this may be old hat that while I hope not to belabor the familiar too much, I do want to attend to some of the particularities of these arguments, by way of seeing what was seen at the time.) First and foremost, what is shared is an insistence upon the poem as a webbed tissue of contexts, making meaning a contingent process of meaning-making constructed by the reader, rather than the fetishized product of an authorial intention. The Marxian vocabulary is, of course, not incidental. McCaffery's contribution to the forum, a lengthy theoretical essay titled "The Death of the Subject: The Implications of Counter-Communication in Recent Language-Centered Writing," attempts a direct mapping of the referential onto the commodity fetish (although he credits Silliman with the discovery): "At its core, linguistic reference is a displacement of human relationships and as such is fetishistic in the Marxian sense" (62).

The "human relationships" McCaffery has in mind are predictably enough those between readers and writers, producers and consumers. The effort to create poetic texts modelled on a situation other than that in which texts are produced by some to be consumed by others in turn supplies the context for McCaffery's central claim concerning the political motivations of the poetic tendencies in question: "The main thrust of this work is hence political, rather than aesthetic, towards a frontal assault on the steady categories of authorship and readership. What it offers is the alternative sense of reader and writer as equal and simultaneous participants within a language product" (62). The specific political work McCaffery imagines language-centered poems doing, then, is an undoing of the referential fetish analogous to an undoing of the commodity fetish. Or as he puts it somewhat hyperbolically in his editorial note introducing The Politics of the Referent: "To change the structure of language is, in large part, to change the nature of the superstructure" (60).

Before going on I want to acknowledge that Silliman in particular offers important qualifications troubling the ease with which McCaffery makes this homology. Most notably, Silliman points out in his contribution to the forum that language has always had and will always have referential qualities, by making what he calls "a crucial distinction between non-referential and post-referential poetries which," as he goes on to say, "has only recently become clear" (89). The difference is an historical one, where the poem's resistance to a fetishized referentiality is, again in Silliman's words, "a defense mechanism. By difficulty, a writer makes it harder to be absorbed and commoditized. It is a form of buying time" (92). Silliman's qualification positions language-centered writing at the end of a tradition stretching back through modernism and its avant-gardes, the various ""isms of which were all means of warding off the reifying tendencies of the commodity. But only for a time, and therein lies the crucial difference: where McCaffery seems to envision real possibility for a permanent re-writing of the social by scrambling the codes of the superstructure, Silliman offers a more tempered and temporal account, in which resisting the referential fetish is "the first step (and only that)" (Silliman's words). The political possibilities a poem affords are therefore not immediate social effects (in McCaffery's sense), but a revolution of consciousness as prerequisite to possible political results: "the great rush of energy one gets in any good poem is nothing other than dialectical consciousness itself" (93).

Without wanting to diminish the importance of these differences I do want to move on, by briefly pointing out that arguments surrounding the emancipatory potential of other-than referential modes of writing became critical mainstays in accounting these aesthetic tendencies. Silliman's 1979 (in its talk form) "The New Sentence", Lyn Hejinian's 1983 "The Rejection of Closure", and Charles Bernstein's 1986 "Artifice of Absorption"—to name a few exemplary instances—may all, in very different ways (and at the risk of unifying what were after all disparate aesthetic techniques), fairly be said to offer accounts of poetic practices that resist the reifying tendencies of referential meaning, in hopes of provoking dynamic change in the consciousness of readers. It is to an examination of the means for doing so to which I want to turn, then, by way of returning to the 1970s generally and McCaffery's "The Death of the Subject" in particular.

Here "context" emerges as a key determinant in the process of making readers authors of their own experiences of texts. McCaffery has several names for this, each more Derridean than the last—iconicity, event, cipher. But at the risk of generalizing once more and in the interest of time, what is at stake in each case is a freeing of language from the shackles of grammar, leading as grammar does down the fetishized road to referentiality. Freeing processes of signification from grammatical convention in order to wake readers from the torpor of referential habitude, on the other hand, makes readers authors of their own reading experience, via the formal imperative to actively construct contingent meanings out of collaboratively generated contexts. To quote McCaffery one last time: "Meaning here is not the product nor the attendant of a referring, not a destination outside of the living event of the words and graphic shapes; it is rather the occasioning of a focus upon text, that environment which encompasses such readings and makes them possible. In other words, language centered texts respond better to a sense of meaning as an imported context into decontextualized language zones" (73).

Context, in other words, is the lynchpin of the new meaning-making machinery, and doubly so. On the one hand, texts are themselves taken to be environments which encompass reading practices; on the other hand, meaning itself is a function of readers supplying contexts for texts (or parts of texts) situated within "decontextualized language zones." Context, we might say, is made antidote to reference, by making readers producers of their own textual experience. This is still more explicit in Bruce Andrews' contribution to the forum titled (appropriately enough) "Text and Context," in which he writes "Meaning is not produced by the sign, but by the contexts we bring to the potentials of language" (80). Texts that dynamically seek to activate those potentialities are, in Andrews' words, "scrimmages against reference," producing (again in Andrews' words) "A semantic atmosphere or milieu, rather than the possessive individualism of reference" (83).

Again, I want to retain while going on the real sense in which this remained a live and vexed question at the time, however familiar a refrain it may be for us. Andrews himself, in the 1993 publication of journals he kept during the first half of the 1970s titled Divestiture E, worrys the question in the following aphoristic query: "who says a poem which is based on the integrity of the word will instead allow the reader to be in charge" (unpaginated, 10). But in "Text and Context," at least, Andrews says the hoped-for political potential stored inside the shift from authorial labor and textual production to readerly play and contextual construction as site of meaning-making activity is clear: "Altering textual roles might bring us closer to altering the larger social roles of which textual ones are a feature. READING: not the glazed gaze of the consumer, but the careful attention of a producer, or co-producer" (83). And in this regard "context," as a major device to be elaborated into techniques effecting the critique of reference, would play a major role in what becomes the canonical poetics of language poetry as well, perhaps most emblematically as "the 27th letter of the alphabet" (92) in Silliman's "The New Sentence."

I don't have time to rehearse that account here, however, as this is the moment I want to turn to a rather different story in which "context" figures prominently, albeit under a somewhat different name: "situation." The Situationist International's critique of separation and program for unitary urbanism were founded, after all, on a rejection of the routinization of social roles attending commodity production and an insistence on the construction of new situations enabling new desires. As Debord put it in "The Great Sleep and its Clients," a pre-SI tract published in Potlatch in 1955, "the next revolution in sensibility can no longer be conceived of as a novel expression of facts, but rather as the conscious construction of new emotional states" (22). The events of Paris 1968, and the SI's notorious role therein (which figure among the stories not told here) would make clear what is already implicit here: namely, that aesthetic consolations ("novel expression of facts") for continued social miseries and immiseration, heretofore the specialized provenance of those ""isms of the modernist avant-garde tradition within which Silliman situated the nascent project of language writing, would no longer be accepted as compensation. Instead the whole business of compensation would be abolished.

(In this regard it is worth recalling what I won't go into here, namely that Debord's critique of the artistic avant-garde grew out of his involvement with it, most notably through Letterism and his apprenticeship to Isidore Isou—which Joshua touched on in his talk yesterday—before he broke to form the Letterist International, a lineage that ends in the rise and decline of the SI.)

What was sought in place of poetry was accordingly a poetics of nothing less than a total re-imagining of the city itself. But such imagining had itself not (as in the case of language poetry) to potentially become but to be social practice. And this, for Debord and the Situationists, put the politics into the poetic politics of the dérive, a spontaneous drifting through the city, its neighborhoods and archives of desires, free to respond to seemingly chance encounters and discoveries and thereby able to attend to current determinants by way of imagining how the city itself, rather than the grammar of its description, might better be constructed to make possible a life other than the one the circuits of capital chart, as Debord describes it in "The Theory of the Dérive." But the dérive was to be neither theory nor art, much less poetry. As Debord put it, "Written descriptions can be no more than passwords to this great game" (53). To make possible the imagining of a life designed for the cultivation of desires, rather than their administration within routinized circuits from labor to leisure and back again, entailed nothing less than re-making the material context within which everyday life takes place.

Here we can see, I think, the situationist city as analog to McCaffery's dream of a cipheral poetics, where readerly freedom to construct contingent experiences of the poem by drifting through its contexts is akin to the dérive's license to drift through the city following the determinants and contingencies of desire. The difference remains, by the same token, that where the situationist dérive maps the streets, buildings and infrastructure shackling individual experience to routinized circuits and social roles as research for re-making the city itself, in a total revolution of the material context for everyday life, the shift to thinking poetics in terms of readerly contextual construction remains a representation of what a life so constructed might be like.

Such a textualization of the politics motivating the dérive can, of course, only be viewed as signalling the failure of the dérive's poetic politics according to Debord's opening thesis in Society of the Spectacle: "All that was once directly lived has passed away into mere representation." The reasons for this should be fairly clear, but to spell it out: if the qualities of life art was once able to imagine active participation within have themselves gone the route of the commodity, then those qualities themselves are accessible only as fetishized representations of what they no longer are. They are so many quantities, products, artworks, spectacles, in other words, as much symptom as antidote—even in the case of poems designed to contest the effects of this social logic. Art, so goes the logic, remains no more than compensation for the loss of direct experience of life, in a world where the logic of compensation still holds court.

But this doesn't strike me as an especially useful terminus for the comparison; it is no longer news that people die everyday for lack of what poetry cannot give them, which is not a story about poetry but a story about the world in which poetry merely takes its place. What does seem useful to me in this comparison, then, is what the juxtaposition of Debord's thesis and the political project of the SI with the poetics set forth in The Politics of the Referent helps us to ask: how might we account, with the benefit of hindsight that is 2008, what was underwriting the desire to think in 1977—a decade and more after the SI critique of art as compensation—that "to change the nature of language was to change the nature of the superstructure"? And here I want to turn, in the little time that remains, from abstract similarities and differences—ignoring as they do what are nonetheless very real national and historical differences—towards the concrete situation of the moment to which such claims belong.

One of the virtues of a project like the Grand Piano (apart from the gossip), it seems to me, is precisely that its messiness reveals and fills in a little, without really making up for, the partiality of theoretical accounts such as this one. Take, for instance, the figure Tom Mandel cuts in the Grand Piano volumes. Credited by Barret Watten with bringing Benjamin into the circle courtesy of having studied with Hannah Arendt, Mandel's arrival and entry into the scene (as Mandel himself tells it in vol. 2) was more than a little accidental. He arrived on a whim knowing one person, with cash in his pocket for a few months, saved while waiting tables and living with his parents), after doing time in Paris during the year 1972-3. While there he met Georges Perec and other Oulipians (vol. 2, 49), and read Bataille, Blanchot, Deleuze, Lacan, Derrida and others in Paris bookstores (vol. 4, 48). Once in San Francisco, as he tells it, Mandel met Watten and Silliman at dinner with mutual friends; ideas and presumably addresses, if not phone numbers, were exchanged. Less than a year later, Silliman asked Mandel to co-curate the Grand Piano reading series.

Similar stories can be (and are) told for each of the contributors. But consider such stories in the context of McCaffrey's crediting Silliman with the discovery of the correspondence between referential and commodity fetish, itself now situated within the context of Grand Piano contributors crediting one another with discoveries and insights partially shorn of their initial contexts by the intensities of collective creative energies then and the vagaries of individual memories now. And consider it as well in the context of Eileen Myles' remark Wednesday night from her remarkable novel in progress of a poet's life in New York in the 1970s (I am quoting this from memory, so I hope I am getting it right), marvelling at how everyone was spending the day not writing in their miraculous lofts: "What the 70s had that we don't have was time." Read alongside the recurring themes in the Grand Piano of partial employment, cheap rent, and other temporary benefits of the already booming if not then fully visible as such crisis of over-accumulation, and poets' relative freedom as a result to drift from context to context, apartment to apartment, bar to bar, city to city, developing poetic techniques adequate to the representation of that experience, what begins to emerge from the Grand Piano is something like the story of a historical moment in which individuals and concepts were circulating across the Atlantic and through American cities (in ways not dissimilar from the freedom of the signifier floating through contexts Barret Watten indexed to finance capital drifting free from the industrial base), all becoming formed into a community forming a collective poetic practice in San Francisco.

And in this context—to the extent we can retrospectively think from within past moments of prospective imagining, to borrow Barrett's useful terms—what emerges from a critical reading of these arguments is less the either/or of retrograde dismissal of a period style or retrospective projection of prospective categories as motivations for devices yet to be superseded, complete with dismissal or advocacy, as the case may be, of strategies for resisting reification history must (bearing in mind Silliman's timely remarks) sooner or later grind into grist for the mill of so many reproducible tendencies and techniques. Instead, what emerges is the still very real sense of a living sifting and sorting out of methodologies and critical concepts to see what might be of use, then and there, for a poetry (and poetics) that wanted to imagine itself a form of social contest within its own historical moment.

I'd like to conclude by suggesting, then, that critical attention to the difference between strategies and techniques—the new sentence, opacity, rejection of closure—whose political possibilities seem retrospectively foreclosed for us, and the historical context fueling the utopian politics that motivated that poetics within its own moment, might not only afford a better method for accounting (as Barrett sugested) the moment that became the movement we know, for better or worse, as language poetry. It might also be a way of holding open the question of whether the historical context and horizon of imagining to which those techniques and political hopes alike belong are in fact still the same; and if so, whether the techniques and strategies that resulted then are still adequate to a poetry that wants an imagining able to contest its own present moment. That question seems worth asking, not only but not least to understand why those tendencies emerged in the forms they assumed in America during the 1970s. And in that sense, perhaps, we find language poetry's momentary hopefulness and Debord's relentless negativity meeting where we might least expect it, in Debord's own words: "Avant-gardes have only one time: and the best thing that can happen to them is, in the full sense of the term, to have had their time."