Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" & the Performative Nature of Language & Participating in the Divine in the Very Act of Reading It
"Howl" is a poem I taught for eons as it is such a great way to teach the performative — how language not only says things but does things. I borrow this word, performative, from the philosopher, John Austin who gave an incredible set of lectures that became a book, How to Do Things with Words. I cannot recommend Austin's book more ardently.
So this is me talking about the performative via Ginsberg's incredible poem. And how, in the act of reading it, we don't just learn of all the depraved exploits of the Beats: we participate in Beat-dom, we become Beat, which is to participate in the divine through and with the flesh. Oh yes. Oh yes, indeed.
Some thoughts on a government and political discourse that doesn't seek to legislate the good or the profit motive but seeks to create the conditions of the ecstatic. This is different than the pleasure the present capitalist-corporate-state legislates and facilitates. I am interested not in pleasure per se but in enjoyment — in the slow, internal permeation of the self. So rather than a system that focuses on the conditions of profit to buy pleasure, I am interested in a system that focuses on creating time that facilitates enjoyment — and, alas, the ecstatic.
This is a true essay, a try, a reaching with reference to Nietzsche's energetics of saying Yes and No along with some Marcuse and some thoughts and experiences I've had lo these past 50 years. Indulge me, if you would. Or not.
|Writing evacuates the real, introducing a play of identity. The myth of the authentic voice stymies creativity. Forget expressing yourself. Become other and write away.|
Habit blinds us. The things we do of course — in the literal sense — are the things we don't notice. Sure, we may appreciate them. But we don't reckon them. For once we do, things get disorienting. To wit, if you think too much about sleep, sleep becomes truly strange — and then it becomes difficult to sleep.
This is what's happening right now with my writing. I have reckoned my own practice of writing now and again. In fact, I started this blog over 10 years ago as a way to experiment with tone, style, form, content. And I wrote a novel as a way to eject me from the precious pedantry of academese. But, through all that, I haven't really reckoned writing per se. The act remained the act, even if my style and practice changed.
But the fact is writing is odd. There's the awe-inspiring magic of it all: I inscribe these marks and thereby conjure mood and meaning, humor and belief, desire. This fact alone is enough to humble me, to make me tremble before I inscribe every word lest I summon some ill-begotten beast.
Which happens anyway, inevitably, as words refuse domestication. Every word, to a greater or lesser degree, bucks and sprawls. Words don't want to do what they're told; they're always headed somewhere else. Such is their way; words are always multiple.
I just spent several minutes moving between a semi-colon, colon, and period to separate the two clauses of the previous sentence. Each choice makes a slightly different argument about the relationship between the two clauses, the two claims. And each inaugurates a different rhythm and tone. Why one and not another?
And every inscription is itself a reading. And, as we all know so well, that's something the writer cannot control. My humor is a reader's offense. To write is to make a mess, always. This is enough to stop a writer in her tracks. (Why do I use "her"? You tell me.)
And then there is the staggering complexity of communicating in absentia. How do I convey the nuance of my thought — all the irony, doubt, humor, passion— in these common words available to any and all sans inflection? How do I inject all this into the written word that is so stubborn and dry? (To the teachers out there, this is where rhythm and word choice come into play.)
What ethos do I assume? I, for one, am often perturbed by the casual wisdom of the day, the way bloggers and Facebook posters assume a royal we and proffer their knowing takes on life, love, politics, and tidying up. I'm sure that despite my best efforts, I am no different. Just look at the opening sentence of this essay: who is that us? I wrestled that pronoun for too long before settling on it so I could simply keep writing.
To write is always to play dress up. This is true in speaking, too. We choose our clothes, our hair style, our whole shtick so as to play this or that person in the world. So it goes with writing. Only, because I am not present, I have so much more freedom to choose whatever character I want. I usually cop some vague sense of a fancy boy ripe with outdated turns of phrase. Why? Because I can. And it's fun. There is no way my words will ever be me. A writer may find her voice but that voice is not that of the writer. No, that voice is another, one that works for that writer. Writing will never have been a practice of perfect self-expression as there is no perfect, no self, and writing is essentially detached from the writer. There are so many possible voices a writer can assume, adopt, deploy. As the great performer, Fauxnique, might say: it's all drag. Writing is necessarily a put on. To write is to drape, to become, to take on, to steal, to borrow, to cop, to infuse, to inflect, to inhabit.
Writing is enmeshed in cultural expectations. I like to curse; a good fuck adds texture, passion, tone. But there are many readers who read said fuck and recoil. They don't hear my casual humor, my injection of the profane into heady matters, or my ethos as cool thinker (or so I like to imagine). They hear fuck and can't continue. I receive queries all the time asking me why I curse. I'm not sure why it's something I have to defend while a lack of profanity is never questioned. Never trust those who don't curse.
Writing is not just a matter of conveyance. It is an event, something I do with my body and thoughts, an event of cultural manipulation. It is at once personally sensuous and culturally resonant.
I really love the sensation of sitting down to right. It's a ritual of reckoning. We often think of writing as an expressive act — which of course it is. But it's not just outward facing. It demands a certain openness to the world. To write is to have the world flow through you, to have images, thoughts, affects, beliefs, places enter you before being secreted as words. The writer will never have been the master of much. No, to write is closer to surfing (I say never having surfed. Who cares? Can I not invoke surfing just because I haven't surfed? Who am I? What matters who's speaking?). To write is to lean into the waves of the world, poised, and then to move with those waves, to cut across them or nestle into their crest (I'm guessing surfers don't talk of nestling but I hope they do). To sit down to write is to situate oneself just so to let the world enter then inflect before shitting it out.
Writing is in fact much like shitting, the end product of a metabolism and production at once me and not-me. Many young writers have trouble actually sitting down to write and then distributing their prose much as a toddler resists sitting on the toilet only to have this once-piece of her flushed into oblivion. It's terrifying. Whooosh! Writing, like shitting, undoes the visual limits of ourselves. Which makes the flush terrifying. To publish is to flush.
I haven't touched on structure at all — on connecting words and ideas to each other. For now, I just want to introduce a sense of alienation about the very act of inscribing words on the page. I want writing to become alien so I, so we, can (re)discover it. (Parentheses are a great way to make words speak their multiplicity.) This, to me, is the first step in any writing pedagogy.
A writer's will is the winds of dead calm in the Western Lands. Point way out he can start stirring of the sail. Writer, where are you going? To write. Here we are in texts already written on the sky. Where he doesn't need to write anymore. A slight seismic with the cat book. Always remember, the work is the mainsail to reach the Western Lands. The texts sing. Everything is grass and bushes, a desert or a maze of texts. Here you are ... never use the same door twice. Sky in all directions ... on the word for word. The word for word is word. The western sail stirs candles on 1920 country club table. Each page is a door to everything is permitted. The fragile lifeboat between this and that. Your words are the sails. -
I just sat down to write about how my thinking these days has been less, well, ardent. Pointed. Didactic. I think things only to have said things open up their own radical doubt, their own dispersion and eventual effacement — thoughts in quicksand, as Emerson might say. It's as if the great tumult of it all erases the discretion of my thoughts and I find myself in the Big Soup, the sublime, where thoughts' borders are short lived and explosively multiple or folded in such impossibly complex configurations that I lack the stamina to keep up: origami to infinity, that place where chaos and the complexity of order blur. My thinking of late doesn't want to come to a point; my writing doesn't want to hammer or drill.
For that is how I often took to the keyboard: to drive my point home (where- or whatever that home is. What does a writer hope when he assumes such drive? What does he want to do to and with the reader?). I have something to say. Listen to this! That mode of thinking and writing demands a certain kind certainty, even if said certainty is of uncertainty. (In fact, people who claim to know nothing tend to be so sure they don't know things, becoming a negative expert; I'm looking at you, Socrates; and, well, myself). (Phrases and structure often announce our age; the way I use a certain x signals that I came of intellectual age in the 90s, my prose ripe with telling traces of Derrida. (Trace, too, is a word — a figure — we of a certain age inherit from Derrida. Trace is a beautiful, fecund figure, surprisingly visceral — despite its meaning. Traces and ghosts: Derrida's greatest contribution, I believe, and where Derrida is closest to Deleuze and Guattari.)) (How many parentheses can we put in a row? Or embed like Russian dolls? Which becomes an aside to what? Burroughs says he can't imagine writing without parentheses. The fact is there are always parentheses, even when there aren't; writing is asides all the way down, even if silent, even if invisible)(Punctuation enacts a certain synesthesia, sight inflecting sound. Punctuation, of course, does more than that: it articulates a rhythm that moves the text's ideas along with the bodies of readers, an invisible conductor, a way for ghosts to shape experience — a trace of the writer perhaps.)) When I write these days, I hear all the echoes, see and sense a wild wealth of traces — historical, social, rhetorical, conceptual. This has me temper my certainty, shift directions in my writing: writing which was once moving towards a point, a mathematical equation all adding up to something suddenly sees its own lack of ground as well as how it's cross-crossed with so many other trajectories, how it forks and splays and fractures and frays all opening up other ways thinking, and writing, could go — and then I am Wile E. Coyote amid his resounding existential reckoning, realizing there's no ground beneath my feet.
I love when sentences get so long. How do you remember where you are — grammatically, conceptually, and rhetorically? Writing long sentences is what I imagine driving NASCAR is like: it demands such concerted continuous attention, trying to steer this barrelling sense-machine which has its own mad momentum you're at once creating and responding to. It's so easy to get distracted, scratch an itch, forget where you were, and have the whole thing crash and collapse into gibberish by the side of the road.
I usually sit down to write because I like the sensation of writing, not necessarily because I have something to say. I like the feeling of opening up. Writing is always an opening up or an opening onto, a reaching towards. I see the writer more and more as Burroughs imagined her: a medium, a cog. I am not the source of this just as a river is not the source of its water. I lean back into what's there as much as forward into the screen, my body and mind a conduit. Or: the writer is an athlete, a shortstop, poised for a ball that could bounce any which way, at this or that speed with these or those hops and is ready to snatch it to make the next move to complete the play. A great turn of phrase is a well turned out.
The proliferation of figures — rivers, bridges, shortstops — reveals the morphology of an idea and the fundamental plasticity of prose. Words are not a sure and firm passage from here to there. The transmission of writing will never have been a straight line (this strange temporal construction — "will never have been" — is another beautiful figure I inherit from Derrida. But is inheritance the right figure? Is it Derrida's trace? His ghost? Is it my possession of Derrida? Or my possession by Derrida? You suddenly see the ideology of grammar, the way language leads us into conceptual constructions. As Nietzsche says, when we say lighting strikes we double the action, positing a doer behind the deed. Such is what our language demands, a subject and a verb. When there is perhaps only a verb: lightning).
What happens when the writer doesn't try to keep ideas in their lanes? After all, writing is not a NASCAR race. What happens when the writer writes and, in so doing, summons all possible paths — and follows them? At some point, it seems to me, all thinking runs into or against this schizo condition. Usually, it plows ahead, blinders on the horse so she stays on the track. But, from time to time, the writing gives in and goes every which way — Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, Clarice Lispector's Agua Viva, Burroughs' cut-ups. All writing negotiates its own dissipation.
Thinking and writing are acts of what Deleuze and Guattari call deterritorialization and reterritorialization — they colonize some areas, leave others, all while forging their own space. When we write, as when we live, we're always carving out a space, removing something that was there, add phrases and ideas from somewhere else, digging paths between disparate territories, moving through this or that thinker, concept, book — and then planting a flag: This! All writing is an assembling of various and diverse figures and forces into a localized territory. All writing says yes to some things, no to others. Writing is metabolic, an algorithm of not just inclusion and exclusion but of combination — an algorithm of laughter and forgetting alongside a chemistry of thought, body, and affect.
Of course, the way of standing towards this, towards this flag planting, differs. Some want to forge a large continent of rock, construct an immovable edifice; others, a forest; a botanical garden; a labyrinth; or maybe just some grass across fields and into pavement's cracks. So many ways of standing towards the word! Towards the world! So many different postures of the writer! For me, it's interesting, if at times disconcerting, to feel the adamance of my linguistic stance falter before the sublimity of it all. I've seen people, usually on LSD, become rendered mute before the world's sudden sublime illumination. It all becomes too much. Writing, like life, demands forgetting in order to write anything. (I am haunted by Borges' Funes the Memorious who remembers everything:""[H]e seems to me as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, older than the prophecies and the pyramids....Ireneo Funes died in 1889, of congestion of the lungs.")
Writing, like living, demands an ever-shifting algorithm of forgetting and remembering, a play of Yes and No. The adamant Yes of didactic writing leans into the No-saying of life, actively forgetting the play of forces that would unmoor it. The less my writing affirms, the more my writing says Yes to the forces of the chaosmos, of life, body, desire, history, yes to the forces of ghosts and traces of ideas, yes to the meandering of wills and the play of meanings: yes to the great drifts of becoming.
|This book is an easy, fun, and engaging way to introduce high school students to some of the ways of language. Add this to the state syllabus and I can't help but feel that the world would be a better place. Or at least more interesting.|
It suddenly occurs to me that, as a country and culture, we spend shockingly little time teaching — or learning — about language. We teach 14 year olds how to do algebra; we make them memorize Newton's First Law; we sometimes give them a basketball to play with. But we don't teach them about the performative nature of language, the role of rhythm in communication, the manifold ways a piece of writing can be structured. Nor do we teach them how to reckon such things, how to be critical readers of their environment or themselves. These kids might learn some arbitrary grammatical rules and some ludicrous technique for doing a "report." But they are never exposed in any concerted way to the joy, complexity, and mechanics of language — which they use all day every day! But they'll know how to "do" negative exponents (without understanding why)? Really?
My son, a freshman in public high school in San Francisco — a rich and "enlightened" city, we think — does not have one class called, "How the Fuck to Write." He has an "English" class in which they discuss race and citizenship — good topics, no doubt. But this English class never discusses the ways of language and how students can relate it to it in this thing what we call writing — which said students have to do all the time (in texts and emails, if nowhere else).
We seem to consider critical thinking when we talk about race. But how can we talk critically and richly about anything, not to mention race, when we don't teach any way to make sense of communication — of the books, tweets, movies, news programs, art we're teaching in the first place? My son's class read a book called The Hate U Give and then discussed how the heroine became a good citizen. But the class never discussed anything about the book itself — its structure, the play of perspectives, its rhythms. And this was the closest he came to being taught how to work with words. Certainly, his algebra and physics classes never discussed language. So I don't want to blame the English class. It's a failing of the entire state mandated syllabus. It's a conspicuous, glaring, painful failing of our entire pedagogy which is itself a failure of our presumed civilization. None of his classes offer any critical framework, any tool or concepts or tactics to make different kinds of sense. And none of them, certainly not his English class, offer any pedagogy of language, of writing or interpretation.
How is this madness possible? There is surely some screwy ideology at work. If you want a docile crowd that perpetuates the prevailing machine, don't teach its constituents to be critical. Don't teach them how to think across disciplines, to understand that the medium is the message, to disrupt the means of communication and information dissemination, to undo or scramble the very structures of sense-making. Make them parse grammar and take all information at its word. Get them to debate on the terms of content, not the mechanics of structure. Then the structures — of experience and social relations — will remain untouched, free to continue their insidious forms of enslavement.
But we can't just blame ideology or "the System" as that gets us nowhere. The fact is any pedagogic system perpetuates itself as it teaches its way of doing things as the right way of doing things. This insight — that a system teaches its own ways — comes from my understanding of what I'm calling the performative. That is, our school system doesn't come out and say: "This is our structure; repeat it." Rather, it never puts its own way of going to analysis, to critique. It's simply the way things are done: Read this book. Write your "report" in this way. And so that's what students believe is the way things are done. So the next generation of teachers teach the same way. Hurt people hurt people.
For sixth through eight grades, my son attended a private school — an experimental, makers' school of a sort. No academic subjects per se: these kids would learn through doing, through projects they'd concoct on their own and enact throughout the year. But even here, even this school that fancies itself hands-on and experimental, there is a conspicuous lack of writing pedagogy. Yes, they participate in NanoWriMo and so, for most of them, they write concertedly for a month. But there is little to zero discussion of how language works; different kinds of structure; the role of style, tone and rhythm; the way performativity inflects all writing. They don't even read different kinds of texts to explore different modes of writing. How hard is it to have them read some Walt Whitman, Marshall McLuhan, Clarice Lispector, Junot Diaz, or any number of writers who play with language in interesting ways? Like public schools, they read books for the content, never for the structure. At this school of all schools, there are still no tools of critique, of conceptual play, or critical writing. They believe tinkering and making must involve drills and objects, not words and ideas. It's as maddening as it is baffling.
(After the school shooting in Florida, this school decided to join the ranks of schools nationwide and walkout at the same time. My kid asked: Why? They had no answer. So he didn't walk out; he stayed behind and goofed with his friends. I couldn't have been prouder! Not because I didn't support the walkout. But because he questions everything and his school had no answer; it just toed the party line. Which both he and I found so very disappointing.)
I now understand why people can't write. They can't even really write emails or texts with any grace or nuance. And they surely can't write college papers or business presentations. We are a nation of functioning illiterates. Those who think themselves literate call themselves, with peculiar pride, "grammar nazis." Eeesh! And oy! Grammar is not a set of arbitrary rules — don't end sentences in prepositions; don't begin sentences with and or but; don't use fragments. All of that is nonsense. Grammar is not about following rules! Grammar is anything you can get away with! I think of Yeats: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Those who defend writing defend the death of writing by adhering to 19th century grammar and its enforced rules rather than expressive, poetic play. This drives me ape shit.
But I'm starting to think that if there was a syllabus for teaching critical writing (as distinct from, say, fiction) to high school students, perhaps the mere availability of material and the introduction of tools and concepts could shift the way this is all done. A matter of praxis, not theory. Keep it simple. Hand teachers a curriculum.
No doubt, our entire approach to education needs to change. We still have 7 year olds, 12 year olds, 16 year olds sitting in chairs memorizing formulas and facts. It's so 19th century industrial age, training us for the assembly line. And, of course, it's aggressively repressive of youth's will to play, to scramble categories, to be poetic. What gets me is that the so-called alternative schools that talk of play don't understand youth and how to work with it beautiful unwieldiness.
But, in the meantime, it seems we can teach basic literacy to our state-enslaved students without overhauling the entire system (which would entail overhauling more than our curricula). And that means teaching them not just to decipher letters and symbols but to grapple and frolic with language, with communication, to try to read and write in a way that is expressive, engaged, playful.