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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Prosody of the Citizen

Thomas turned me on to this fantastic essay by Lisa Robertson. Here is a sample of what its manner of arguing:
For Dante, the vernacular of lyric, whose ‘sweet new style’ was turned from the incipiently wandering language of women and of exile by the Stil Nova poets, was a matrix of potential resistance, radical mobility, and human dignity. Written during Dante’s own exile from Florence, De Vulgare Eloquentia seeks to consolidate a vision of a unified national language by claiming an exilic vernacular as the exemplary speech of the citizen. In this sense it is a deeply conservative text, a precursor to the imposition of standardized national languages carried out much later by European colonial regimes through-out the world, through control of education, print media, health and healing practices and other such quotidian standards. At the same time De Vulgare Eloquentia’s textual radicality unties its own political will, revealing in its ambivalence how vernacular counter-language is at the core of collective resistance and political self-invention.
My first observation is: why can't she write in the vernacular? She uses the "always already" kind of locution in this essay, along with other stylistic tics that signal a comfort with a theoretical discourse whose main feature is its distance from real speech.

Secondly, the twin move of claiming radical and conservative qualities to a text in the past is something I'm quite suspicious of.  Dante could not have anticipated colonialism or other things of which his essay is supposedly a precursor.  His Tuscan became the default for modern "Italian," and we can blame him for that, I suppose, since it was partly because of the success of the commedia, though it seems a boring thing to blame him for.  But then he has to be rescued from this supposed conservatism by a hidden and spurious radicality, that is equally irrelevant to his own context. I don't think there is ambivalence here: rather, it is our ambivalence projected back on him.  We want our canonical figures to be a bit stodgy, so we can resist them, but also a bit transgressive, so we can keep reading them. That's fine, but there's no point in projecting that ambivalence back on them. They just were who they were.

Of course, my critique that she talks about the vernacular but has not imagined a way to embody these ideas in a vernacular language is a cheap gotcha move too.

Despite this, I like the idea of a prosody of the citizen, and wish I had thought of it first. It is a very smart essay about which you should make up your own mind.


Thomas said...

Robertson masters the discourse that incompetents have a given a bad name, i.e., postmodernism. My first reaction to the essay, if I hadn't already been sold on Robertson's poetry, would have been John Latta's: "Uncanny how Robertson is willing—against such deft lyricism—to weight the prose, too, with such abstruse and tedium-inflected verbiage," he says. But on closer inspection (or a slow first reading) we find that she is using every word with precision. She is not posing. She is actually making this jargon do what so many tenured professors merely pretend it does.

As for the vernacular: Maybe this is also a cheap "gotcha" response, but let's not forget what language Dante wrote his defense of demotic Italian in. I think Robertson is doing the same thing: asserting the importance of ordinary language using a high-theoretical discourse—and, like I say, using that jargon much more ably than the snobs who insist (without demonstration) that even the plainest truth is always already deconstructed.

Jonathan said...

For example, "a matrix of potential resistance." Resistance to what, exactly? Of course, since it is only potential resistance, a statement like this is unverifiable. That somebody in the 14th century could use the vernacular instead of Latin in a way that was resistant to some other power... I think I am questioning her text on prosodic terms.

Since I am teaching a translation course, I am being struck by how limited my students' English vocabulary is. They wouldn't know the definitions of "exilic" or "matrix" or "quotidian." Perhaps my tolerance for this has been eroded over time. Although her language is not imprecise, it is not ideal either, and the deconstructive move seems tired to me.

Thomas said...

I'm also tired of deconstruction. Or, rather, I'm tired of what passes for deconstruction. But I continue to give Robertson the benefit of the doubt.

It's worth imagining what her essay would sound like in plainer speech. Here's her most direct statement of the title concept, a passage that I'm willing to defend as a efficient use of language, i.e., not as empty verbiage:

"The urgent social abjection of poetry might act as shelter to a gestured vernacular. Covertly the poem transforms that vernacular to a prosodic gift whose agency flourishes in the bodily time of an institutional and economic evasion. Let us suppose here that poems are those commodious anywheres that might evade determination by continuously inviting their own dissolution in semantic distribution. In poems and through vernaculars citizens begin themselves, because only here speech still evades quantification, escapes the enumerating sign, and follows language towards its ear, which is anybody’s. Here my use of the word poem parts from the conventions of aesthetic autonomy that have resulted from commodity culture’s limits and heroisms, to propose that the poem is the shapely urgency that emerges in language whenever the subject’s desiring vernacular innovates its receivers. The poem is the speech of citizenship."

Here's Irving Layton, fifty years earlier:

"Poetry opposes the totality of the self to the creeping totalitarianism of the twentieth century. The pressures on the individual to simplify and abstract, to deaden his senses, and to live either in his brains or in his loins, are becoming more and more difficult to withstand and resist. In the face of these pressures, poetry affirms that life must be enjoyed in all its delicious complexity. It says to the harassed men and women of today: you must live fully and experience all that you can; only in that way will you be living humanly. A great poet said it a long time ago: we must all be born again. Modern life, with its specialization and division of labour, is turning each of into anatomical and physiological fragments — a brain, an eye, a nose, an arm or a leg. We must somehow find a way to re-assemble these into a human being. I believe that the reading and writing of poetry is a necessary start in the process of reassembling."

It seems to me that they are expressing, if not the same idea, then the same sentiment. But they are using very different vocabularies. I agree with Layton here (on most days) but I don't think his statement is very useful. His criticism of "modern life" is (or has become) a cliché, as is his definition of poetry. Robertson's "shapely urgency that emerges in language whenever the subject’s desiring vernacular innovates its receivers" is an advance on Layton's "miraculous fusion of sound and sense". Her diagnosis, accordingly, is more precise.

Thomas said...

PS. You say that literature should "kick our asses". Robertson says it is a "shapely urgency". You are obviously the more vernacular one there. But you say it "rewrites our subjectivity", while she says it "innovates the receiver". Out of context, her phrase is plainer there.

Of course, yes, she does install "the subject's desiring vocabulary" between the urgency and the receiver, which makes her definition a bit of a mouthful.

Pound said literature is "news that stays news". We might simplify Robertson to be saying merely that literature is an "innovative use of language". But it is precisely the function of Robertson's "tedium-inflected verbiage" to recover and articulate the deep meaning of these slogans.

Jonathan said...

Does she mention that Dante's work is itself a treatise on prosody (among other things)? Does she stop to consider that the dichotomy between conservative / radical has nothing to do with Dante's worldview, and hence the deconstruction of those terms is not particularly pertinent? Those are categories that have relevance after the French Revolution, maybe.

I'd like to see more concrete instantiations. For example, the prosody of the Fascist ballad and the Loyalist ballad during the civil war might be identical. I have the same problem with Meschonnic whom I tried to read but he never gets down to any concrete instantiations of rhythm. Maybe I'd like to see a nice refutation of Adorno on jazz rhythms, etc...

Thomas said...

I can grant her the anachronism. She's reading Dante almost as a contemporary (him as hers, not her as his). And I think she assumes it's obvious that she's developing Dante's ideas on prosody, not adding the theme of prosody to her reading of Dante on the vernacular.

I agree with you about concrete examples. But I think that would be a very risky thing to do rhetorically. If she instantiated her theoretical claims, citing particular lines (like Dante does) she would run into the reader's interpretation and prejudices. I rarely find other people's examples as compelling and obvious as I find my own.

Jonathan said...

Right. The concrete examples are not as compelling for someone else, potentially. Yet...

Isn't that really the test of whether we are talking about the same things? So, if I see her examples I could be even more swayed by her argument, or else think that she is bullshitting me, or anything in between. That is the space of dialogue, in precise terms, that only arises if people risk saying something specific. I have very clear ideas of prosody rooted in linguistics and the study of musical rhythms and the ideologies that people ascribe to prosodies. That was my graduate work before my dissertation, in large part.

Thomas said...

I think it's William James who first suggested that philosophical problems arise because people don't describe all the concrete intermediaries that occupy the space between their "clear and distinct" abstractions. You get the "mind-body problem" only because you refuse to actually pay attention to the parts of your mind that are intimately involved in the motion of your body, etc.

Wittgenstein developed this insight into the method of "perspicuous presentation", by which philosophical problems are dissolved by a series of "intermediate cases". It's a lot like Pound's "ideogrammic method", amassing a "phalanx of particulars".

There's no doubt that this kind of approach, in which we would always demand an objective correlative for any idea, would raise the intellectual bar to a point where only the brightest could have a viable theory of poetry. I like to think I would thrive in such a world. But it isn't the world we live in. (You spoke of a "beautiful ideological fantasy" before.) And I think Robertson is intentionally trying to engage with thinkers, "theorists", who have misplaced their concreteness (if you will) and thrive among abstractions.

Like I say, she puts them to shame at their own game. Just as Dante, like I also say, chose to make his argument for Italian in Latin.

Jonathan said...

No ideas but in things.

Jonathan said...

No prosody without scansions.

Thomas said...

No taxation without representation.