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Most of the little that has been written about Ron Silliman's The Chinese Notebook foregrounds its connection to Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophical texts—particularly Wittgenstein's use of the numbered proposition and the interrogative voice. This is the format in which Silliman explores his major theme: the question of linguistic reference.

29. Mallard, drake—if the words change, does the bird remain?

Next to Silliman's meditations on reference, we also have his far less circumspect treatment of the materialities of communication, in particular the relation between speech and writing and the influence of writing instruments on the composition process. In probing the question of reference, Silliman adopts the calmly detached voice of Wittgenstein's project. But in sections where he ponders the materiality of writing and its putative other, speech, the tone is apt to turn sardonic ("8. This is not speech. I wrote it") and even scornful ("22. The page intended to score speech. What an elaborate fiction that seems!"). In a format predicated on the neutralization of tone, Silliman's lapses into voice stand out.

Silliman's resolute distrust of reference and speech crystallizes in The Chinese Notebook and comes to stand as a forceful articulation of emerging Langpo poetic doctrine, but it extends even further suggesting strong connections between the poetics of the seventies and soon to emerge disciplinary formations in media and performance studies. For example, Silliman's thoughts about the impact of certain writing instruments on what gets written anticipate Friedrich Kittler's groundbreaking work in Media Studies. At the same time, his dismissal of intermediality (the way poets might imagine textuality in terms of performance, or view the page by way of analogy to painting) as "fiction" seeks to uphold category distinctions that have since vanished.

This paper examines the many tensions in Silliman's text as key reference points in the ongoing discussion of vanguard poetry and its position within contemporary media ecologies.

This paper evaluates an important text from the mid-70's from the perspective of Media Studies as opposed to Literary Studies. It zeros in on the contested space between what Barrett Watten yesterday referred to as "the Marxist formalist and the macro historical," which I read in an even tighter configuration as a dialectic between the Marxist formalist and the history of media. The purpose of the paper is to tease out of Silliman's work the interplay between a formalist logic based in textuality and a materialist orientation set against the backdrop of mediality. Ultimately, I want to show how the critical power of formalist logic cannot do without a material grounding in either "the macro historical" of Watten's formulation, or in the the case of Silliman, the materialities of communication.

Although written in 1975, The Chinese Notebook wasn't published until 1986 as part of the Roof Books edition of The Age of Huts. [Now available in a new edition from the University of California Press, published just last year.] One of the very first readers of the text is Alan Davies who recalls, "One morning in 1975 or 1976 I received from Ron a lovely chinese notebook in which he had written The Chinese Notebook."

Davies was sufficiently exercised and challenged and amused by the text as to write a rejoinder to it (which Carey Nelson reprints on the Modern American Poetry website). Those who are familiar with it know that The Chinese Notebook is an unusual and provocative work. Silliman's general method is to reterritorialize the poem as a logical positivist discourse on language in the mode of Ludwig Wittgenstein's early philosophy. The poem's resistance to normative poetic device is ironclad. In place of lines we have a series of 223 numbered propositions and questions. The very occasional eruptions of soundplay are spoofs: of alliteration ("Wayward we weigh words" (149)), rhyme ("The chair in the air is covered with hair" (149)), and the pun ("sad is faction" (165) "Alimentary, my dear Watson" (173)). The only recurrent image in the poem is tellingly a non-image: air.

The poem represents Silliman's most complete attempt at a work of pure logopoeia. In Pound's parlance: "the dance of the intelligence among words and ideas." Whereas Wittgenstein claimed that "One should really only do philosophy as poetry" [Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten"], Silliman is testing out the notion that it's possible to do poetry in the mode of philosophy, making use of propositions, questions, and the odd bit of narration to examine the poem's relation to language, truth, subjectivity, and the world. Crucial to this enterprise is the question of linguistic reference, or the relation between words and the things to which they ostensibly refer. In section 29, Silliman writes,

29. Mallard, drake—if the words change, does the bird remain?

The will among Language Poets to question and politicize the referential function of language has done much to structure our sense of Language Poetry as a coherent movement, one that finds poetic capital in the act of corrupting the epistemologies of capitalism and humanism. As Barrett Watten has shown, a poetics of disabled, or complicated, or vanishing reference can work as a method for exposing the ideological structures at work in the cultures of capitalist economies. Watten writes, "Language for us was a process of ideological unmasking, an unlinking of interests from chronic ideas, reified frames" ("Turn to Language" n. pag.). Silliman, in his essays from the 70s, often posits the same relation between form and politics, for example in the following passage from his essay "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World":

What happens when a language moves toward and passes into a capitalist stage of development is an anaesthetic transformation of the perceived tangibility of the word, with corresponding increases in its expository, descriptive, and narrative capacities, preconditions for the invention of "realism," the illusion of reality in capitalist thought. These developments are tied directly to the function of reference in language, which under capitalism is transformed, narrowed into referentiality. (10)

As with Watten, Silliman finds critical force in this coupling of Marxist philosophy and the poststructuralist reading of Saussurean linguistics. The position Silliman and Watten formulate isolates reference as a strategic point of theoretical leverage, the logic being that if capitalist ideology works by oversimplifying reference, passing off highly contrived representations as transparent and natural, then it is possible to expose and critique the procedures of capitalist culture by problematizing reference. Language Poetry lays claim to an active politics when it intervenes to expose reference as a fraught process laden with interests and instabilities.

The strength and the weakness of this position is its extreme formalism. Reference is a precise and powerful locus of linguistic activity and a highly charged point of transfer in the capitalist language game. But it is also an abstraction and attempts to extrapolate from it to the larger sphere of politics lack a material basis. The Language Poets, Silliman and Watten especially, capitalize on the strength of the Marxist formalist model and compensate for its weakness by linking their formalist claims to material histories. And we saw just that in Barrett Watten's presentation yesterday. In Silliman's case, the material strata of his critique is media. In effect, Silliman endows a formalist poetics with material coordinates by historicizing it in terms of the history of communications media. The result is a powerful interdisciplinary heuristic that unites key aspects of Media History and Literary Studies long before such a thing became academically common.

Silliman's binding of formalist propositions to the history and materialities of communication media begins, of course, with the title of the poem itself, which refers to the medium on which the text was composed.

Silliman writes,

18. I chose a Chinese notebook, its thin pages not to be cut, its six red line columns which I turned 90°, the way they are closed by curves at the top and bottom, to see how it would alter the writing. Is it flatter, more airy? The words, as I write them, are larger, cover more surface on this two dimensional picture plane. Shall I, therefore, turn toward shorter terms—impact of page on vocabulary?

Here Silliman demonstrates how the form and format of the notebook brings the visual materiality of words into the composition process and influences his choice of diction.

Other propositions sprinkled throughout the work invoke comparable ideas.

6. I wrote this sentence with a ballpoint pen. If I had used another, would it have been a different sentence?

What Silliman writes in proposition 206 suggests that the answer is yes.

206. A paper which did not absorb fluids well, a pencil that was blunt or wrote only faintly. These would determine the form of the work. Now, when I set out on a piece, choice of instrument and recorder (notebook, typing paper, etc.) are major concerns. I am apt to buy specific pens for specific pieces.

For Silliman, the materialities of communication are ontic rather than descriptive categories. As he writes in proposition 21.

21. Poem in a notebook, manuscript, magazine, book, reprinted in an anthology. Scripts and contexts differ. How could it be the same poem?

Proposition 175 elaborates the notion just expressed:

175. A poem written in pen could never have been written in pencil.

And so, according to Silliman, it is not language that is ontologically prior to the act of composition but rather the instrument used to wield language.

24. If the pen won't work, the words won't form. The meanings are not manifested.

Media therefore play a constitutive role in poetics. Far from being a supplement that extends poetry from the private into the public sphere, the materialities of communication become the ontological condition of poetry, contributing ordering, framing, and selecting functions to the composition process. By furnishing the technical tools by which artists make and distribute their work, media comprise the material substratum of culture. By situating poetry and poetics within media ecology Silliman reframes our understanding of poiesis in materialist terms. Having come to media through Marxism and its signature commands to historicize and contextualize, Silliman discovers a ready method for endowing a formalist poetics with a materialist orientation.

Silliman's Marxist emphasis on the materialities of communication put his work into dialogue with the field of Media Studies. In fact, it leads him straight to the founding insight of Media Studies as a mode of inquiry: which is that, as Friedrich Kittler writes, echoing McLuhan, "media determine our situation" (xxxix). Probably the earliest we pick up this narrative in the Modernist moment is with Nietzsche's response to the the Malling Hansen Writing Ball of 1867, an early prototype of the typewriter. Nietzsche acquired one of the machines in 1882 in an effort to alleviate the eyestrain that manual writing caused him, and it had an immediate effect on his writing and thinking, prompting him to write in a letter to Peter Gast: "Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts" (Qtd. in Kittler 204). Nietzsche's experience with the Malling Hansen Writing Ball marks the point at which he changed "from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style" (Kittler 203). What Nietzsche said about the typewriter in relation to thinking, Silliman is saying about pen and paper in relation to poetry. Media have agency. Media determine our situation.

But the Media Studies narrative accounts for only one set of claims Silliman makes about media in The Chinese Notebook. From Silliman's materializing gloss on writing instruments we run headlong into his very different take on speech. The shift is marked in terms of both the content and tone of the propositions. From Wittgenstein, Silliman adapts not just the form of the proposition and its logical procedures but also the sober, uninflected voice of logical positivist discourse. Except in sections where he ponders what role speech might have in contemporary poetics. There Silliman's tone is apt to turn sardonic ("8. This is not speech. I wrote it.") and even scornful ("22. The page intended to score speech. What an elaborate fiction that seems!"). At moments like these Silliman can't resist sprinkling some intonational spice on his propositions. In a work largely predicated on the suppression of voice, these eruptions of tone deserve careful consideration.

Clearly, the ontological status Silliman grants to writing instruments is not extended to the voice. The Language Poets collective antipathy for speech is, of course, well-known. It is, at one and the same time, both a critically informed intervention in literary history and a brazenly reductive straw man. Both aspects lurk in Robert Genier's highly inflected utterance "I HATE SPEECH!" The ironies of Grenier's statement run deep, but Silliman's use of it as a rallying cry and a historical marker is comparatively simple. In his "Introduction" to the anthology In the American Tree, Silliman writes,

Thus capitalized, these words in an essay entitled "On Speech," the second of five short critical pieces by Robert Grenier in the first issue of This, the magazine he cofounded with Barrett Watten in winter, 1971, announced a breach—and a new moment in American writing.

Silliman's fashioning of Grenier's ironic statement as an event of literary history engineers a soft, but remarkable durable, consensus on "speech" as a synecdoche for a broad spectrum of poetic tendencies, all of them retrograde. These include "the automatism of the poetic 'I' and its naturalized voice," as Bob Perelman has called it (13) alongside a cluster of vatic, expressivist conventions encoded in the lyric. The Language Poets antipathy for what eventually came to be known as "speech-based poetics" (shorthand for everything from Black Mountain, New York School, the Beats to Confessionalism) finds strong resonance in Derrida's theory of phonocentrism, the claim that the history of metaphysics is a story about the triumph of speech over writing.

It's easy to see how "speech" [in quotation marks] came to be such a key marker for the Language Poets. It provides, in one stroke, a method for distinguishing themselves from their precursors and the means to connect with another emergent vanguard, poststructuralism. "That writing was 'speech' 'scored'." Silliman writes in proposition 88, putting 'speech' and 'scored' in quotation marks for intonational effect, "A generation caught in such mixed metaphor (denying the metaphor) as that. That elaboration of technical components of the poem carried the force of prophecy." At the same time, in Derrida's work, the Language poets find a forceful articulation of a recomposed formal hierarchy that elevates the radical articifice of writing over the naïve projections of speech.

The result is some unchecked slippage from a critique of the ideology of speech and "speech-based poetics" to renunciations of speech tout court as medium and source material for poetry. This happens in The Chinese Notebook when Silliman ascribes a purely referential and expressive function to speech. "Speech only tells you the speaker" he writes in proposition 41, adding later (in proposition 137)

137. The concept that the poem "expresses" the poet, vocally or otherwise, is at one with the whole body of thought identified as Capitalist Imperialism.

In a curious twist, speech becomes the organ of capitalist imperialism because it connects language to the expressive subject via reference.

On the one hand, Silliman's logic seems congruent with the media determinism in McLuhan and Kittler's work in that it attributes agency to media, but it is in fact a perversion of that method. Whereas Silliman's analysis of writing instruments, like McLuhan and Kittler's work, foregrounds their materiality, his analysis of speech presupposes a purely virtual phenomenon, pre-programmed by the history of metaphysics to perform an expressive, referential function. Speech, as represented in the formalist logics of Derrida and Silliman, is the medium that doesn't mediate, that eclipses its mediality in a burst of apodictic insight. But only an argument from formalist principles could create such a distorted image.

In materialist terms, the connection Silliman posits between speech and reference doesn't hold because speech, every bit as much as writing, is host to play, irony, semiotic slippage, and all manner of fugitive utterances. The connection between speech and the expressive subject is equally false in its construction of the speaking subject as metaphysical automoton.  Moreover, the idea that an emphasis on speech as a medium for poetry always signals an investment in the metaphysics of presence ignores the strong connection between a vanguard sensibility and the use of speech as source material in writers like Gertrude Stein, William S. Burroughs, and Kenneth Goldsmith. What is more, it blocks an awareness of the ways that Stein, Burroughs, and Goldsmith use speech precisely to imagine post-humanist subjectivities mediated by ideology and technology.

From this perspective, the 70s emerges as one of the very few eras when poets chose the text over speech as the medium by which they measured themselves. The Language Poets' efforts to fashion a poetics that incorporated critique in large part explains the attraction of the formalist logic of textuality. There's no better method for tracking and exposing ideology in language and the Language Poets decisively bring that exigency into the sphere of poetry and poetics. At the same time, there's no doubting, to paraphrase what Jean-Jacques Lecercle says about linguistics, that the ideology of the text has done a lot of harm. It's investment in a formal heirarchy that pits the enlightened artifice of the text against the naive projections of speech furnishes a distorted critical imagination of the literary field and forecloses a critical understanding of the many ways that new media condition speech and remove it from the apodictic sphere of subjective inwardness. Originating as it does in a critique of Husserlian phenmenology, poststructrualist analysis fails to take into account the role of media in exteriorizing and thereby estranging speech from the subject.

No doubt, the formalist logic of poststructuralist analysis awakens us to the status of speech as an ideological trope within the history of metaphysics and performs invaluable critical work by elucidating the ideologies that circulate in literary works. At the same time, its success in structuring the literary field as a disciplinary space obscures the degree to which poetry and poetics cannot do without a materialist understanding of speech as a medium.

Silliman's The Chinese Notebook is an extraordinary text in the way that it manages to combine an extreme formalization of the literary field with a groundbreaking emphasis on the materialities of communication. Throughout Silliman's work, but especially in The Chinese Notebook, the formalist logic of diminished reference convenes with the materialist history of communications media. But Silliman stops short of a full materialization of the poetic field, preferring instead to consider speech in terms of formalist logic of poststructuralism. I read this as an aporia in the methods of Langauge Poetry, one that continues to structure and inform the conversation about Language Poetry in the 70s.