The other day I listened to a lecture by […] (afraid I can’t recall his name, or find the lecture now, although it’s online somewhere …) about lyricism in Walt Whitman. At one point the lecturer names Baudelaire and Whitman as the two poets who defined the modern(ist) era of poetry in the way that they wrote (about) openness. If I remember correctly he claims in this lecture that Baudelaire wrote a radically new openness of the body (in the sense of the sublime/abjection); and Whitman wrote (of) an openness towards America / the world. The question I want to take from this comment is how these forms of openness are being written (in/of America) today, recalling also Charles Olson’s great statement: “I take space to be the central fact to man born in America.” (And to that I would add woman, of course).
In particular I am thinking here of the Conceptual Writers, Vanessa Place, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Robert Fitterman. I think these writers similarly to Whitman are writing poems of America, and similarly to Baudelaire also explore notions of physicality. However, in the Conceptual poems this idea of America is not based on generalised, idealised, Romanticist notions, but on specific instances and places. The lyrical, which certainly is also present in Conceptual writing, is not abstract and idealized, but specific and subject to scrutiny.
A passage in a review of Vanessa Place’s sprawling, polyphonic novel (or: Conceptual poem?) La Medusa demonstrates a sort of clinical approach to the lyrical, very different than Whitman’s exalted expansiveness:
The book began as a procedural piece: to write down everything that occurred to me for 41 consecutive days, in 15 minute installments. As I was reading in cognitive science at the time, I had a suspicion that if I kept going after that time, narratives would begin to emerge. Or narrative fragments, some of which would ripen (or bloat) into narratives, some of which would simply stay shards.
What interests me here is the intersection of lyricism with conceptualism and empiricism. The book is obviously lyrical in that it consists of episodes of unmediated subjective expression: “everything that occurred to me for 41 consecutive days, in 15 minute installments”. But it is not naively and uncomplicatedly so: it does not assume that the lyrical subjective position is separate from the world and observing the world from outside. Instead it is (among many other things) a study of consciousness, of how we are prone to make stories from randomness, and of the situatedness of consciousness in a particular historical moment (in this case an American moment, more specifically Los Angeles). “At the novel’s highpoints, an appropriately messy narrative of the contemporary City of Los Angeles emerges from its pages.”
In any case, consciousness in La Medusa is no longer a pondering on/of the real, it is written as (already part) of the real; that is, Place was interested in the pertinence of cognitive science when writing (about) consciousness; in consciousness as a physical/material process. Perhaps we could say that Vanessa Place pursues further and consequently rejects, some distinctions that Baudelaire still upheld. If Baudelaire wrote with an innovative awareness of the openness of the mind to the body and the body to the outside world; Place writes of consciousness itself as a material phenomenon. And similarly, if Whitman, in his poem Leaves of Grass, created a figure who represented the ideal democratic man, a reflection of American society in the figure of one individual; Place, in turn, studies both her place and time by dissecting her mind ‘clinically’ (with empirical procedure) as part of the world, instead of the intuitive barbaric yawp, uttered from a distance to / projected onto the vast world (“I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.”)
This is also true of Place’s trilogy, Statement of Facts, Statement of the Case, and Argument, where Place’s subject position is reduced to the sorting of statements by defendants involved in court cases (Place is also a practising attorney). Instead of holding forth about a projected, ideal, imagined democratic American figure, Place bears witness to real/actual voices (of America). Place’s writing is ‘clinical’, then, in so much as it is empirical and analytical of the (un)healthy symptoms of society (this is a Deleuzian approach, since in his Essays Critical and Clinical he talks about writers as symptomatologists (analysts of the various (un)healthy symptoms of society).
In terms of formal aspects of the text Place equally confounds borders and therefore writes (with (a new?)) openness. Whitman smudged the line-break, extended it all the way up to the edge of the page and beyond. But, finally, he kept his enjambment. Place instead, creates prose texts in which enjambment is transposed to / replaced by the excess of language itself, and (in her trilogy) the exposing of the State’s ordering of / subjugation of language (of both victims and perpetrators).
It is interesting how, in The Guilt Project Place does not start from the position of the victim but from that of the perpetrator, and so showing the ambiguity and ramifications of be(com)ing an offender. The argument of The Guilt Project is that an increasing inclusiveness of the legal definition of rape
means there are now more rapists among us. And more of rape’s camp followers: the prison-makers, the community watchdogs, law-and-order politicians, and the real-crime/real-time entertainment industry. Vanessa Place examines the ambiguity of rape law by presenting cases where guilt lies, but lies uneasily, and leads into larger ethical questions of what defines guilt, what is justice, and what is considered just punishment. Assuming a society can and must be judged by the way it treats its most despicable members, The Guilt Project looks at the way the American legal system defines, prosecutes, and punishes sex offenders, how this Dateline NBC justice has transformed our conception of who is guilty and how they ought to be treated, and how this has come to undo our deeper humanity.
The critic Terry Castle describes Les Figues Press (co-founded by Vanessa Place) as, “an elegant vessel for experimental American writing of an extraordinarily assured and ingenious sort.” Of Vanessa Place’s writing I think it could be said that it is on its way to becoming an elegant/uneasy ode to and portrait of America of an extraordinarily assured and ingenious sort.