Julie Carr: The first thing I want to talk about is surface, surfaces. Last night [at a screening of Robertson’s collaborative film-works held at Counterpath in Denver] you were talking about The Weather, especially the prose sections, as creating layers of simultaneity in time. We can think of these prose sections as dense surfaces of some kind, layers of present-time. In Occasional Work and 7 Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture you write, “But the chaos of surface compels us toward new states of happiness.” Can you talk about the relationship for you between surface and pleasure or surface and happiness?
Lisa Robertson: Surface was something I had been thinking of stylistically far before I wrote The Office for Soft Architecture pieces. In XEclogue, for example, there’s a very florid, trumped up decorative style going on. It gives this lush surface effect, which was something I was specifically trying to work towards. At that time the way I conceptualized that style was through the gendering of surface, the call within modernism from imagism on up basically for a reduction of surface effects in favour of structural traits. A minimalization. Even in writers who are working with a sense of orality or vernacular the work is quite stripped back or pared back—thinking of Creeley for example. So I wanted to face the opposite direction and go toward a florid excess, and to present a written text as a decorative object.
JC: Did you have any pre-modernist, Romantic or Victorian models in mind?
LR: 18th century—I was reading Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Alexander Pope, and a lot of Dryden, Dryden’s translations of Virgil—those were really exciting for me to read—but also some New York School, especially O’Hara. It was O’Hara who led me towards reading Virgil because he wrote Eclogues, and I was fascinated by that. A combination of classical literary texts and their trace and reception and marks in the 18th century and later, their trace as style, was what I turned to as models or teachers for a reimagination of surface density.
JC: So speak a little bit more about the gendering of surface.
LR: Well, decorative traits and qualities have always been feminized and have been granted little or no value in terms of serious cultural pursuit and thought. I was reading William Morris and thinking about his decorative work, which he closely aligned with the political. For Morris politics and pleasure were not separate. He located popular agency within the decorative.
JC: Right, agency for the individual maker.
LR: For the individual maker and for makers as a class of people, for the working class. And that was extremely liberating for me to read. As far as I know he never specifically spoke about gender, and I don’t think feminism was specifically on his chart…
LR: Although it might have been—there were activities like the dress reform movement going on…
JC: Also, he was involved with a group of people who were interested in breaking down and changing the marriage laws.
LR: That wasn’t something I was aware of. I didn’t study the biography, but was reading his essays. I was able to transpose the politicization of the decorative that I found in Morris over to my own thinking about gender and language and literary form.
JC: And how about happiness?
LR: Well, I’m not sure that pleasure and happiness are always necessarily aligned, but at an earlier period of my life I might have thought that was so.
Happiness is something that Ruskin talks about a lot in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and in various essays on architecture. He talks about one of the goals of architecture as being happiness. I think this probably comes from his readings of Vitruvius—and Vitruvius’s claim that architecture ought to first of all be commodious—commodious not necessarily meaning “big,” but commodious in the sense of architectural form being a space for human conviviality, exploration, and well-being. Those were all ideas that I found interesting to talk and think about.
I don’t think I’ve been that aware of poets or literary critics talking about happiness as a criteria. Especially in contemporary leftist avant-garde practices there’s been such a kind of pedanticism about what literary texts ought to achieve politically, and often that has to do with breaking down pleasure, foreclosing identificatory pleasure, which is seen as ideologically complicit. I’m giving a kind of caricature of a theory, but from a Brechtian perspective, say, the breaking down of an observer/reader identificatory participation in a text or a narrative tends to be looked at as being politically efficient, as a way to block or problematize normative political narratives.
JC: As if pleasure is always necessarily aligned with power…
LR: Sure. But in feminist film criticism in the early 80s there was a reconsideration of that repudiation of pleasure and identification. Theresa De Lauretis and Laura Mulvey were two critics I was reading in the late 80s. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Laura Mulvey looks at Douglas Sirk and the Hollywood “Women’s Picture” and reclaims narrative and identification from the point of view of a specifically female embodied politics, which centered on pleasure as the source of political agency. That film criticism, which was circulating quite intensively in the feminist visual art circles in Vancouver in the 80s and early 90s, was what I really grabbed on to, and from there the movement into Judith Butler’s early work, Gender Trouble. She’s talking about gender as a self-fashioning that can be claimed, chosen, rather than as an imposed power over. Self-fashioning becomes a decisive reshaping of gendered experience. And what was also coming up critically in that same era was Stephen Greenblatt’s early work in Renaissance studies, Renaissance Self Fashioning and Joel Fineman’s Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye. Renaissance studies was really exploding around the New Historicism in the early 90s and I was reading all of that with a great deal of pleasure, so thinking of all of those sorts of self-fashioning pleasure-positions…
JC: You were talking about Foucault earlier, and it makes me think of his “What is Enlightenment?” where he talks very specifically about the politics of self-fashioning. The ability to look at the self as an object of art, something that can be made, that is always being remade, would lead naturally to the ability to see the institutions that make up the self also as available for rethinking or remaking. This is a very hopeful essay written toward the end of his life. He seems to be referencing the gay liberation movement specifically, but the argument is definitely translatable into any liberatory politics.
LR: Yes. In the past few months I’ve been reading a historian of ancient philosophy who was a colleague of Foucault’s, a guy named Pierre Hadot. Much of Hadot’s work is about the Epicurean and the early Atomist philosophers (the Hellenist school). His thesis is that for these philosophers, philosophy was not conceived as or intended to be a discourse; it was a quotidian practice upon the self. The only reason to embark on a life of philosophical practice was to transform the self, and here the self is not considered in a closed, personal 19th or 20th century sense, but in an open social sense. Subjectivity is radically pliable and receptive to collective practices. Of course one of the main thrusts of Epicurus’s philosophy is to learn how not be afraid of death, how to expand the experience of the present into a plenitude that is not organized around an end-thinking or a fearfulness but around an open embrace of embodiment. Not necessarily excess. Actually not excess. One of Hadot’s books is called Philosophy as a Way of Life. I learned about this relationship between Foucault and Hadot in part through Denise Riley, the British poet and philosopher, and in part through the historian of late Classicism, Peter Brown, who is also looking at philosophy as a practice rather than a discourse.
JC: There’s a stanza I like a lot from the poem “A Hotel”: “I believe my critique of devastation began with delight / now what surprises me are the folds of political desire / their fragile nobility. Sundays / of rain.” This seems to speak to the relationship between political agency or urgency and pleasure. But now as we are talking, pleasure starts to sound like it’s own little thing, like we have pleasure over here and then we have life, but instead we can think of pleasure as a life, a life that is enjoying itself.
LR: Yeah, a life that is affirming life.
JC: Now I feel we’ve already begun to answer this question, but I’ll ask you to consider it anyway. What is Utopia? [Laughter] You’ve been using that word at least as far back as I’ve been reading you. It’s in every book, I think.
LR: I used to prefer the term Dystopia because, I don’t know, it seemed less soft or something.
LR: Yeah. How can I put this? My idea of Utopia is not that it’s an elsewhere, a non-situated elsewhere to strive towards, nor that it’s contained only within an imaginative projection. Utopia could be instead considered almost in phenomenological terms as a sensed present.
I have the feeling that political transformation has to be situated in what we are already in the midst of experiencing. The repudiation of the present, of sensing and of relationship, which is the present, is uninteresting and flattened out. There’s a plenitude of unrepresented agency already existent. The present is materially infinite.
JC: Does this have anything to do in your thinking with Walter Benjamin’s—with Jewish Messianism’s—idea of “now-time”?
LR: I’m not familiar with that aspect of Benjamin.
JC: You know that phrase from his Theses on History: “every moment is a strait gate through which the Messiah might enter” – so it’s that idea that the present moment is or could be the Messianic arrival.
LR: Yes, I concur with that. In my own vocabulary, messianism hasn’t featured, but yeah…
JC: Somebody might ask you (it wouldn’t really be me, but I’m going to be that voice): “Well then, are you somehow sidestepping or rejecting real political need for action? If you argue that the present moment is already ripe with agency and a potential utopia if experienced in the right way—what does that do to the hope for an actual revolution or political transformation?”
LR: No. To me these two statements, these two claims, are not oppositional at all. I think that action has to be situated in a detailed seizing of the present. It’s specifically Hannah Arendt’s thinking in The Human Condition that’s recently helped me to arrive—hopefully a little bit more carefully—at thinking through that problem. She talks about natality and beginning as being this recognition of the moment of speaking and acting towards the other in the present. That is, “beginning” is an open relationship to otherness, which guarantees that political action will not erode into violence. So for her, violence, political violence, is the result of action that does not situate itself in the plenitude of the present and all of the relationship that is already occurring.
JC: Does she use that phrase, “the plenitude of the present,” or is that yours?
LR: I don’t think she uses that exact phrase.
JC: There’s this from a scholar of Benjamin named Stephane Moses.
[F]or Benjamin and Scholem ... Utopia, which can no longer be thought of as belief in the necessary advent of the ideal at the mythical end of history, reemerges—through the category of Redemption—as the modality of its possible advent at each moment in time. In this model of random time, open at any moment to the unpredictable eruption of the new, the imminent realization of the ideal becomes conceivable again, as one of the possibilities offered by the unfathomable complexity of historical processes ... [T]he idea of ‘now-time’ ...that idea inspired by Jewish messianism, proposes a model of history that, after the collapse of the ideologies of progress, gives a new chance for hope by locating utopia in the heart of the present. (Moses, 12-13, 14)
LR: Yes. Totally.
JC: Isn’t that beautiful?
LR: I’m all for it.
JC: Alright this is going to shift our focus—I was curious about Rousseau in R’s Boat. What drew you to Rousseau?
LR: The first Rousseau I read was the Reveries of a Solitary Walker; I read that after I started writing walks, the walks that became part of the Office for Soft Architecture work. What lead me to walks and walking was Situationism and texts about the 19th century flaneur. So I was already primed towards walking as a kind of radical aesthetic practice, and then I belatedly discovered the walk as a literary genre through Rousseau. I spent a lot of time reading Rousseau’s walks and thinking about that work—to the extent that I actually reduplicated one of his walks through Paris. . . I forget the number of the walk now that can be actually reduplicated, since many of them aren’t mapable as walks. There’s one so-called promenade where he’s floating in a boat, snoozing.
JC: Is that what lead you to choose the shot of yourself as a kid in a boat for the author photo in R’s Boat?
LR: Yeah. That floating promenade is cited in an epigraph too. I had so much pleasure in reading Rousseau’s walks, I moved on to reading the Confessions and other work, his “Essay on the Origin of Languages,” and the political discourses. I had already been reading quite a lot of 18th century literature and was really interested in the transition between an 18th century classicism with its irony and its theatrical sense of a performed subjectivity, the transition from neo-Classicism to early Romanticism and Romantic sincerity. It just seemed like such a huge shift that I was repeatedly trying to imagine for myself how that could have happened historically. I feel we are still lodged in the outcome and problems of that shift. So reading Rousseau’s Confessions became part of my attempt to track that transformation.
JC: That’s really interesting. I’m thinking of the poem “Face” from R’s Boat– the one with all the “I” sentences —I heard you read this at Berkeley, so I guess that was 2002, and what I loved about it then and still is the way that it’s both an authentic “I” and not at the same time. You spoke about having sourced your sentences from years of journals, so they are all “you” in some sense.
LR: No, they’re not, since my journal is not diaristic. Mostly it’s little citations of stuff I like.
JC: Okay, but still, there’s this way they’re coming from your history, from the history of being you.
JC: There’s no way that one reads those sentences thinking, “Oh, she feels this” or “Oh, this happened to her, or that happened to her.” But to me they’re playing that border between a rejection of subjectivity and perhaps a longing for that, a reaching towards it, or a flirting with it. How do you think about it?
LR: Well, the first person pronoun is usually organized around or deployed in reference to the situatedness of a speaker, the enunciative present of a speaker. There’s a kind of focused, centralized organization of that “I” in the time of utterance. It’s always referring back to the moment of subjectivity, of enunciation, which becomes a way of organizing narrative, story, and arguably psychological structure and self-experience. But I was interested to see if I could use the 1st person as a distribution, rather than in a way that always would refer back to a point of origin.
LR: I think this interest came directly out of my experience of writing the prose texts in The Weather, this desire I had to experiment with subjectivity as a surface effect that had no narrative arc, had no point of veracity which would guarantee its representational unity. So basically that’s why I was interested in learning about the descriptive tradition of English meteorology. It seemed like an interesting thing to attempt to transpose that lack of a center into an autobiographical text. We are required to behave as if we are a center of our life, of our biography, as if we originate our own experience. You know, this would be the mark of sanity and a well-socialized persona. But in terms of a text I just wanted to see what would happen if that enunciation was completely decentered, if there was no point of veracity or origin that “I” authenticated, if that first person was distributed much as a weather system is distributed.
JC: So, back to the idea of walking and Rousseau; did you consider “the walk” as a form, as something you could translate into a form? I’m wondering about the form of R’s Boat, really, the lines, the long lines.
LR: No, by the time I was writing the poems in R’s Boat I wasn’t specifically thinking about walking anymore, I’d moved my interest over to the problems around confession and autobiography. The unit was the sentence. I really wasn’t thinking of lines so much as sentences, how to put sentences into relationship. At certain points I started to fragment those sentences so there’s a line-like effect, but that wasn’t at the center of my query.
JC: For me this book has the effect of being impossible to remember. I read this book (my confession) for about a year many times over and yet I never remembered having read it.
I was very focused as I was reading, but it could not stay with me. Maybe it had something to do with me, with my state of mind, but I think it also had something to do with the sentences, with how unhinged they are from one another. Of course there’s the anaphora and the strong titles that yoke them, but they are incredibly free.
You were talking about this transition that you’re interested in from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th, this movement away from a performative sense of self towards some idea of authentic or coherent selfhood that we think of as originating in the Romantic period. Do you think of R’s Boat as playing that line, playing that transition, or just asking questions about it?
LR: I think that question wasn’t explicitly on my horizon when I was composing those poems (not the way it had been when I was writing The Weather), but I had interiorized the question pretty profoundly. That would be a good description of what the query was. Is it possible to perform both in a text? Is there a theatrics of sincerity?
JC: Okay, so I have some other questions that are kind of technical. One of those questions has to do with repetition. So much of your recent work makes use of anaphora and other forms of repetition. I wonder where that interest comes from.
LR: I was a major Gertrude Stein junky; in my late 20s early 30s I was reading tons of Stein with my friends and studying Stein with Peter Quartermain and George Bowering and other teachers. I just loved Gertrude Stein. And then in the late 80s reading Stein lead pretty organically to reading Lyn Hejnian’s My Life. Her use of repetition is quite different from Steinian repetition, but I was really interested by the way Hejinian uses repetition as a compositional motif in My Life.
Repetition, whether it’s structural or stylistic, a motif or a more substantive repetition of phrase or lexical unit, is partly what helps me get to this surface effect that I’m seeking, the sense of a distribution. It’s partly what blocks or disallows a more centralized narrative construction. With repetition there’s always this sense of beginning again, so you’re always more or less at the beginning. I can’t remember if that’s actually a quote or crib from Stein or not, but she does talk about the continuous present, doesn’t she?
These questions are also really interesting to me in terms of various philosophical queries that were going on in early modernist thinking, and that continue in the present. Say, Henri Bergson’s thought or a bit later Merleau-Ponty’s thought, then Deleuze’s. The question of the continuous present was introduced to me by Stein through her practice of repetition and then I began to diversify my thinking about it through my readings of philosophy. As my readings of philosophy repeatedly problematized and brought the concept of the continuous present to the foreground, the more I experimented with repetition in my texts.
But my sense of the present is quite poly-temporal. I mean to me, to talk about the “continuous present” doesn’t exclude a profound interest in historical style or historicity per se. I’ve always been deeply motivated by thinking about sentences and sentence structure, the shapeliness of the sentence, and exploring historical transformations and transitions in the conceptions of what a sentence can perform, how a sentence unfolds and shapes itself, and how utterances themselves shape subjectivity. For example, 18th century sentences are so different from the contemporary norm. My study of the structure of sentence has moved back and forth between the 18th century and the modern or contemporary —Leslie Scalapino’s sentences, for example.
JC: Since we’re talking about the historicity of the sentence, can we talk about the essay form and its history and your interest in moving between poem and essay? What does that mean to you?
LR: Well, I’m a repeated reader of Montaigne’s essays and some critical work around Montaigne—Jean Starobinski and Auerbach. Reading Montaigne’s essays is still such a decentering, amazing, pleasurable and dense experience. Although I’ve had a strong relationship to academic intellectual culture, my training is not specifically within that culture. I’ve overlapped with it at different points, but in fact, I never wrote a thesis, I never wrote a dissertation, so I managed to escape some of that very intense formation. In terms of my own formation I found that I was more interested in quite a traditional essay—traditional in the sense of a Montaigne essay—as an open exploration. Montaigne added to his essays over years and years, so you can track the gradual accretion that becomes an essay. I’ve also been really excited by reading Adorno’s essay called “The Essay as Form.” He’s rejecting any sort of Cartesian shaping of causation, and opening the essay as a kind of series of forays that don’t necessarily relate to each other by typical causal, temporal or cognitive chains. Equivocation, humour and paradox are permitted.
If I tell myself that I’m writing an essay it feels very freeing to me. It feels almost more free than to tell myself I’m writing a poem, partly because the cultural projections and expectations around subjectivity and expressivity are completely different in the essay, at least for me. It’s been easier for me to be more playful in that form. So, yeah, I’ve always been very, very interested in genre, and genre has always helped me to explore history. Genre in literature has given me ways to sit down and write. If I say, “I am writing an eclogue” or “I am writing an epic” I have a task to undertake. My developing interest in the essay has freed up and opened what those tasks might be in an increasingly liberating way. I’m not interested any more in working through classical genre. For a time this seemed to be a really stimulating screen for thinking through problems of gender and language, but now it’s the essay that is helping me think through problems of subjectivity and language, which may be gendered, and which aren’t necessarily organized around any concept of the self as a unified entity.
JC: Thinking back to the discussion we were having last night about the difference between “thinking” and the “inner voice,” I was wondering, well, does the essay get to be thinking and the poem get to be inner voice? It wouldn’t ever be as simple as that, but is there a difference in terms of who or what gets to speak, and I think you’re saying there is, when we call it a poem or when we call it an essay?
LR: Well, for me a poem is probably hardly ever an expression of what I might consider an inner voice. When I brought up that question, it was as an abstract query. When I write poems, probably not for a good 25 years have I had a sense of it being in relationship to an inner voice. It was letting go of that idea that helped me get to the point where the poems I was writing had some sort of complexity that sustained my interest in writing as a practice.
JC: That sounds like you actually believe there is an inner voice, but that it just might not be very interesting…
LR: Maybe, maybe. Maybe in a certain way the practice of writing has been a means of critiquing or querying or opening or distributing my own experience of whatever an inner voice might be. For me whatever I might identify as being an inner voice is not very compelling. It’s really what I want to escape from when I write, what I want to expose to as much otherness and strangeness as possible. Much as I want to escape the confines of gender. Part of what caused me to ask that question—what is the difference between thinking and an inner voice—was reading a biography of Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein describes, or the biographer describes, Wittgenstein’s conception of what thinking was. Reading this I felt quite profoundly that I’d never experienced anything like what Wittgenstein said he experienced as thinking.
JC: Which was what?
LR: Well, it was a highly purposeful, highly structured prying open and querying of the most basic terms and positions, but following a specific sequence…
JC: Right, in a traditional philosophical way.
LR: It was actually a series of very specific techniques that he could apply to cognitive habits and experience, and I felt that I would never be able to achieve or acquire that skill. So I was sort of amazed that maybe all this time I’d thought I’d been thinking, I actually wasn’t thinking! [Laughter] And this seemed funny to me, but also kind of exciting.
JC: Because you could now start thinking in a new way, or because you’re doing something else that might itself be exciting?
LR: Both of those things.
JC: Just to have a new way of thinking about thinking…Well, you write in Nilling that thinking is inseparable from reading.
LR: That’s one feeling I’ve definitely had.
JC: That one thinks only when one is reading…I’ve often thought that I only think when I’m writing.
JC: Okay, here’s a hard question. In your poem “Of Mechanics in Rousseau’s Thought” you say, “I wanted to make something free.” And it struck me, listening last night and watching the films you made, that there’s a desire in your work for the unplanned, an effort to create in language that feeling or experience you can have in collaboration or through more time-based media where things happen that you don’t expect. There’s a certain pleasure to be found in that, or in relationship with others, as a kind of improvisation. A freedom occurs there, a breaking down of expectations. So I was wondering if you have ever written something that is free.
LR: I don’t know. I don’t know. For me, in so far as I have a goal when I’m writing, it is to be changed by language. Which is something I can experience as freedom. What that might mean could be something like being able to substitute different constraints for the ones I experience in social and political life.
JC: Say that again?
LR: What freedom might mean for me in writing might be to substitute constraints that temporarily displace the social and political constraints that identify us so often damagingly as persons.
JC: So rather than imagining that the writing can escape all constraints—
LR: Right, that’s not what I mean by freedom; it’s not an escape from constraint—
JC: You instead find a different kind of structure that might somehow liberate you from real world constraints. That’s interesting…
Which brings me to another question from last night’s screening and Q and A. So much of what you were saying about enjoying the work you’ve done with the painter Allyson Clay and the writer Nathanaël has to do with finding pleasure in the improvisation that occurs in the making of the work and also in the surprise of seeing the work for the first time. Suddenly, there it is, and you didn’t know XY or Z was going to happen and then it did. And so I wondered, why not just improvise? It’s just kind of a curiosity—if you are experiencing that pleasure, what about just getting up on stage and improvising as a practice?
LR: Well, I don’t think that there’s any cultural or aesthetic practice that happens without constraint. Because it’s all historical. If you just get up on a stage and start improvising, you’re getting up on a stage and improvising within the tradition of improvisation, whether that’s in the tradition of bodily movement or jazz improvisation, which does follow certain protocols. There are always protocols in any improvisational practice, so…
JC: Yeah, I know, but I guess what I mean is, and this isn’t to say that you should improvise, but I just wondered, why not? If the pleasure in the work is to experience the unexpected, which is what an improviser experiences no matter how much structure s/he places on the improvisation, why not just improvise? In the end, what improvisers are looking for, looking to find, within a structure, is something that they didn’t expect. The films you made with Clay and Nathanaël are not finally improvisations; they are not going to change once they’re made. Are there ways you could imagine experiencing the pleasure of the unexpected in a performance setting?
LR: I’m interested in other people’s subjectivity, and collaborating is what really opens my thinking and my experience to other people’s subjectivity. I’m not so interested in what I can achieve if I individually release myself of whatever constraints I’m capable of releasing. That’s not really what my query is, it’s not to see how wild I, Lisa Robertson, can get. That’s not really what interests me. What interests me is—
JC: The relationship—
LR: The relationship. For me collaboration is improvisation; it’s an improvisation in relationship.
JC: So, on Thursday you’ll be giving a talk at the University of Denver. Would you be willing to give a preview or mini summary? I have the paragraph you wrote to describe it. The line in that description that I got really excited by was “The critique of the duality of the sign wishes to return an incommensurable vitality to collective life.”
LR: Vast claim!
LR: It’s the claim, and was the project, of Henri Meschonnic, the French linguist, who died a couple of years ago. His life work was to reframe the concept of rhythm in language and in culture and to profoundly critique and question the model of the signified / signifier description of the linguistic sign. He rejected the dual sign as being an invalid and inadequate descriptor of how meaning functions in language and in political and cultural life. Meschonnic’s work returns to pre-Saussure Saussure, if you like. Saussure taught in Paris for 10 years as a very young man after the publication of his first book, which was on vowel transformation in early Indo-European languages. Saussure brought a historical comparativist method to Paris and taught this to young linguists and anthropologists. The structuralist Saussure, which provides the dual model of the sign that we now use as the main interpretive or analytic unit of cultural analysis and linguistics, basically came from the book Course in General Linguistics. This book was composed of fragments of lecture notes made by five or six people after his death—and the lecture notes came from a survey course that his department forced him to teach. So this tightened package of a structuralist Saussure is a certain retroactive Saussure that doesn’t fully reflect his profound interest in another kind of thinking about the place of language in history and in culture. This earlier Saussure was much more concerned with language as being specifically socially, culturally, and historically situated.
Saussure was the teacher of an early French linguist who is very, very important within comparative linguistics in France, a guy named Antoine Meillet, and Meillet in turn taught Emile Benveniste and Marcel Jousse and many, many other thinkers. He had a more than thirty-year-long career as a very distinguished teacher in France. Benveniste took up this historical comparative technique that he learned through Meillet, this other historical Saussurianism. He undertook some really amazing studies about the relationship of language to institutional formations in Indo-European society. This work of Benveniste might sound familiar because it profoundly influenced Foucault and Derrida. Foucault’s early work can basically be read as Benvenistian analysis with slightly altered vocabulary or lexicon for his analysis. But the techniques of institutional and enunciative analysis are Benventistian.
One of the terms that Benveniste subjected to this very detailed historical analysis is the word “rhythm.” He wrote an essay on rhythm that begins by describing and then completely repudiating and rejecting the normal etymology of the word “rhythm,” which, within Indo-European etymological tradition, is associated with the Indo-European roots “rheum” or “rhein,” meaning the flowing of water. The etymology of rhythm has therefore been traditionally associated with the movement of water, and specifically the patterned fluctuation or alteration of waves. So, Benveniste pulls this apart, says actually this can’t be proven to be so. Let’s reject this speculation, since of course all etymology’s only speculation—and let’s look at how the word was actually used in philosophical discourse, let’s look at the word in relation to human thought and culture instead of in relation to nature. Let’s look at rhythm as a humanly invented concept, not as some sort of found matrix in nature.
I can’t really recount it all right now, since that’s what I’m going to do in my talk on Thursday, but he returns the word rhythm to a very different sense of historical human shaping, where it doesn’t have to do with regulation, it doesn’t have to do with an alternating beat. In fact, rhythm and meter were not the same thing and they only came to mean the same thing in Plato’s writing about dance, where Plato brought a regulating meter to contain the movement of the body, and so married these two very different concepts to create what still functions as a metaphor. . .You know, we still think of rhythm as an alternating beat, as regulatory temporality. Benveniste traces how the concept of rhythm developed and how certain now-dominant assumptions about rhythm and nature can actually be let go of in order to think of rhythm in a much more open sense, as an embodied historical shaping. Meschonnic takes up this idea of rhythm in his own work as a way of critiquing the dual sign, as a way of breaking down the associated dualism of the written and the oral, and as a way of breaking down what he frames as an occidental political rejection of non-Western, often Jewish or Eastern, practices around signification and meaning and the embodiment of language. Meschonnic talks about prosody not as a discourse that seeks to describe regulatory meters in language, but as a way of thinking through cultural relation and embodiment.
JC: It sounds like there will be two levels of critique going on in your talk. The first being a critique of the very idea of language that divides signifier from signified—
LR: ...as being an inadequate description. It’s just one way to describe language...
JC: ...and it’s inadequate because it doesn’t do enough to take in the cultural constructions of language.
LR: Yes, and the historical situatedness of language, and its intersubjectivity.
JC: Right, right. And so, when we do take that in, we get to do things like what Benveniste did around the word “rhythm,” which allows us to understand that our idea of rhythm is in fact culturally and historically constrained and constructed. If we know that, then we can begin to look at rhythm in a different way. Is that the second level of critique you’ll be offering?
LR: Right. And in fact if we can look at rhythm in a different way, we might actually experience linguistic being in a different way.
JC: So it sort of does a little of a loop there: to reject the Structuralist split is to think of language as more historically shaped. Once we do that, we can think of “rhythm” in a new way, which allows us to further reject the dualism inherent in structuralism.
LR: That’s where Meschonnic carries Benveniste’s thought.
JC: Okay, okay, that’s sort of beautiful. And that very much ties in with what we were talking about earlier: Foucault and self-fashioning.
JC: Nice. And I wondered how these ideas might be playing into your own writing. Are they? Or is it more that once you engage with this material you recognize something that you already were interested in?
LR: It’s a little bit the latter. My work on rhythm and linguistics is all relatively recent, it’s been happening within the past three years. And during the past three years, as I’ve been learning and educating myself with my collaborator Avra Spector about this different lineage within French linguistics, I’ve been writing the essays in Nilling, which at certain points do touch upon this. Not profoundly, but they reference this thinking. I don’t know how it’s going to affect the writing I will do because I haven’t done it yet. But clearly I’m not interested in figuring out a way that writing can actually explicate these new critiques and theorizations that I’m learning about. I’m just more curious to know what they might become.
It’s been such a slow, laborious, and profoundly energizing study, just to, for example, reach this point, to try to actually reach this idea of rhythm that is not regulatory, to really try to understand that, in a really basic way, to understand it and to even begin to imagine how that could enliven a different thinking. Very little that I’ve been reading in contemporary philosophy and critical thought has prepared me for this thinking that Avra and I are discovering.
JC: What could that mean, then, that rhythm is closer to what we think of when we think of—
JC: Or movement in a broader sense?
LR: It’s a little bit more than movement in a broader sense because the idea of particularity pertains to it, the idea of character. Character both, say, as a movement in the human face or body that is expressing a passing particularity, a situated particularity, and character in the sense of written character, how strokes or marks come together, a limited repertoire of strokes or marks come together in passing.
JC: As you’re talking about rhythm and trying to divorce it from regulation, I’m watching you move and knowing that your movements are your own rhythm, but they’re not patterned.
LR: Yeah, right, exactly. One of the similes Benveniste uses, one example of this non-regulated sense of rhythm as passing character, would be the folds of cloth in a garment as that garment’s being worn in movement.
JC: That fabric, that clothing on the body that becomes a metaphor for the body’s own rhythms, makes me think of the earlier idea we were discussing: that subjectivity might be somehow both performative and sincere.
LR: Yes, Meschonnic closely aligns rhythm and subjectivity, extremely closely, as if to suggest they’re almost the same thing, and in so doing he’s rejecting a conception of subjectivity as being the “individual,” the “self,” and he’s looking at subjectivity as social circulation, as an enunciated collective circulation.
JC: We participate in a subjectivity? As individuals we participate in a subjectivity as we participate in social relations?
LR: Yes, and it’s in movement, it’s being shaped as it’s being performed. He says subjectivity is historicity.
JC: I can see why you’re interested in this because of your interest in relation as an improvisation.
JC: Can we return to Meschonnic’s point about how our understanding of “rhythm” as regulation can be seen as a rejection of Eastern or Jewish linguistic practices? I have only a vague sense of what that could possibly mean, but I wondered if it might have something to do with a more performative use of language.
LR: Meschonnic’s critique of the sign, his critique of “rhythm,” is in part coming through his practice as a poet and as a translator of the Old Testament from Hebrew into contemporary French. He looked at the translation history of the Old Testament texts and realized that a major part of their mode of meaning in Hebrew, which was gestural and which is indicated in the written Hebrew by cantillation marks, the te `amim, has been systematically and even aggressively ignored by European translators. It’s been assumed that it’s not necessary to translate the te `amim marks, as if they don’t actually contribute to the meaning of the text. And so part of his interest in rhythm came out of this problem he set himself as a translator, and which he wrote about later in an essay called “Translating Biblical Rhythm,” about how he as a translator could come to attend to these marks and include the te `amim, the gestural, rhythmic (not in the regulatory sense but in the more historically embodied sense). How could he include them in translation? What would that mean for him, for language? And he thought any translation of those Hebrew texts which did not include the te `amim marks, which did not include the rhythmic tradition of the text as meaning (instead of as a secondary, regulatory structure) was in fact a profoundly Eurocentric violence against the text. This is one way that translation, and rhythm, are profoundly political for Meschonnic.
One of the things that kept coming up for me when reading the essay in Nilling titled “Time and the Codex,” is this idea of reading as a Utopian space. At the end of the poem “Utopia” in R’s Boat you have an image of a decaying reading chair. This image made me think that any model of Utopia has to include some idea of reading, or a text, or a poem. You talk about reading as an attempt to give over to the otherness of the text, about losing one’s hold on one’s self as a kind of Utopian act or space—can you comment on that?
LR: Yes. That is so.
JC: Okay. The other thing that came up for me in reading the essay “Lastingness” was this image of the gutter as a place. You are talking about the gutter between Latin and English, for example. You seem also interested in the concept of the gutter of a book (the inside margins) as a metaphor for some other kind of space between, as space that houses fecundity or decay.
LR: My specific use of that word came from Pauline Réage. She talks about the female character “O” as a kind of gutter through which men’s desire flows. I think there’s actually a citation from her: “The gutter in which writing speaks.” That’s my translation of her, that’s the word I chose for whatever the French word was. The word has a kind of obvious and somewhat funny relationship to pornography, the gutter as a place of filth. There’s the patriarchal conception of female subjectivity itself as a kind of gutter, a kind of uncontrollable zone of excess and refuse.
JC: And I guess one of the ways that you figure this association between pornography and reading is to consider both as a giving over of the self. You take back the gutter as a place of pleasure and transformation.
JC: About the title, Nilling—that comes from Arendt and it means a lack of will or an unwillingness?
LR: It’s not a lack of will because it is itself an agency that must always accompany will in order for will to advance, but its agency takes the form of a refusal or a resistance. Refusal or resistance don’t necessarily mean a lack of will, they are specific agencies within the texture of willing.
JC: Saying no to something in order to say yes to something else?
LR: Right. Within the “yes” there is also the specificity of a resistance which isn’t separate from willing itself. She gets the concept from St. Augustine. The will contains its own equivocation.
JC: Do you want to say a little bit about why you chose that word as a title for the book?
LR: Each of the essays is exploring a form or a concept that has taken a negative place in Western culture. For instance, there’s an essay on melancholy, an essay on noise, an essay that is in part on pornography. They are all modes of knowledge, I could say, which are negatively configured in relation to more culturally dominant and acceptable forms and agencies. But these negative modes are also performing a necessary work politically, and in the subject. In a sense they give authority its site.
JC: Do you know the book Ugly Feelings by Sianne Ngai?
LR: Yeah—her essay on disgust…
JC: This is my last question: This is personal so you don’t have to answer it, but it comes from a dream that I had last night in which I woke up to find you leaving my house. I was a bit disappointed, since we’d planned to do the interview today. But then, as I was washing dishes, I saw you just outside the house, sitting in the grass with your notebook on your lap. You were surrounded by a group of friends—vagabonds or circus performers. And you were wearing this great little jacket and a very jaunty cap! Later in the dream one of your friends came into the house. He was looking for food, and I ask him if he’d seen you. “You mean ________,” he answered? The word, which I don’t remember, was Latin for “female wanderer.”
I thought of this figure of the female wanderer or flaneur that you’ve written about and I wondered if you’d like to say any last things about the feminism of taking on the role of the wanderer. Just as I woke from the dream, I picked up Nilling and read the following: “In heavy and worthy houses I feel a violent dismay, it gets harder and harder to be female in one’s life in such a house. What has commodiousness become? I abandon the house for the forbidden book.” The book gets to be, then, the place of freedom, this “Utopia” as you say. I think those lines apply to those of us who are pretty situated in heavy and worthy houses, as well as those who are not. Anything about that and your feminism?
LR: I’m really reluctant to talk in autobiographical terms, but my experience of reading since childhood has been of a really unbounded space of almost unlimited differentiation. I’ve always had an intense pleasure as a reading female. It seems to me that this radical differentiation that unfolds within the experience of reading is not really the aspect of reading which the institutions that have formed themselves around reading tend to validate, or tend to open up or offer as the official version of what reading is. The institutionalized form of what reading is has been more a transmission of power, knowledge as power. We learn to read texts in specific ways in order to be admitted into various institutional formations. But I’ve always experienced reading very differently from that; I’ve pursued much of my life as a reader via a series of withdrawals from those institutional formations, obviously speaking here of the university. But also, even within my own thinking, there are ways I’ve internalized such framings of power as part of my own interpretive apparatus. You know, it’s not only some heavy punitive outside. We interpolate those roles. And I think that part of my trajectory as a reader and a writer has been involved in trying to locate or understand those kind of topoi of interpellation in order to either analyze them or avoid them or flee them. Which probably is part of the reason there is such a kind of inconsistency in my work, speaking stylistically, for example. I mean I’m extremely interested in style, but not at all interested in style as authority.
JC: Yes. I have a line from you here: “Whatever style I choose operates in me as a sky, it passes and changes and persists and I possess nothing.”
LR: Yeah. Where did I say that?
JC: Magenta Soul Whip. It’s funny, I was recently introducing some students to The Weather. I had introduced them to Hopkins and to Inger Christensen and I had things to say. And then I came to you and I was like, “Um. A Canadian poet….” And I realized that though I know your work really well, I don’t know how to classify it.
I think that has to do with that mobile style. But you were saying: “fleeing and avoiding topoi of interpellation.”
LR: That sounds fancy!
JC: It does!
LR: I’m sure I could say it more simply. Just plain fleeing would be fine!
JC: Fleeing into reading and into that sense of possibility that reading offers.
LR: Yes. I really do experience reading as a virtual space. It’s a space of potentiality; it’s a space of becoming. And that’s largely why I want to defend it as a cultural practice, as a historical practice.
JC: Yes, someone said something to me the other day—we were talking about books and why it’s important to have books in the house, and she said, “well, it’s important to you since that’s your world.” My world! How can it be just my world? It has to be everybody’s world! It was heartbreaking.
LR: It’s like imagining if humans were to cease to speak. Only a few people off in the ivory tower actually need to speak, since in the world there are way more efficient ways of getting knowledge across. Maybe speaking isn’t about getting knowledge across. It’s one of the activities that constitutes us as humans, as a group.
JC: Right. That’s what makes relationality happen.
LR: Yes, exactly, and reading is one of the sites of that relationality. It’s one of the sites where those kinds of relations can take place in poly-temporal modes. We have the incredible privilege of being able to open a book written in the 17th century for example, and then to find a way to engage our minds, in the present. I can’t think of any other form, really, where that’s the case. Although arguably that’s the case in architectural space...
JC: Or other forms of art.
LR: But because of the reproducibility of the book, and the portability…it’s just such a perfect design, a perfect evolution.
JC: That’s all I have, then. The wanderer is the reader. Or the writer. Which is why you were out there scribbling. With your circus friends.
LR: My circus friends? I just want the hat.
JC: The jacket was good, too, though! It didn’t have purple lining and ribbons like the jacket in your poem “Lucite,” but it was pretty good.