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- The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing | Jacques Rancière Translated by Charlotte Mandell
- INTRODUCTION: The politics of women’s writing
- The Politics of Writing Studies
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There is no such thing as being non-political. Just by making a decision to stay out of politics you are making the decision to allow others to shape politics and exert power over you. And if you are alienated from the current political system, then just by staying out of it you do nothing to change it, you simply entrench it.
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The first step is to try and identify as many of your biases as possible. Try, also, to consider your own demographic details — your race, sex, orientation, nationality, financial status, etc. We have a powerful urge to consider our own defining traits as the societal norm. Appreciating that we understand the world according to a variety of subjective positions makes us at once more able to communicate what those positions are and readier to consider alternative outlooks.
Defaults are where our deepest assumptions take hold. The more their worldview differs from your own, the better. The more deliberate your expression, the more successful your art; absolute control of the form is a fine goal, but not one anyone is actually going to reach. The political theory underpinning your work can be altered and expressed however you see best. Where you have the most control is in the direct political expression in your writing — the belief systems that characters express and act upon.
The best piece of advice here is not to have a single individual embody every idea you want to convey as valuable. Having one character share and succeed through a set ideology is suspicious to readers, and it rarely comes across as organic. In Brian K. Ex Machina simplifies the political landscape, assuming that all members of politically aligned groups want the same thing, that everyone involved is a consistent and logical actor, and that individual goals can be addressed in isolation.
In that environment, anything can seem like a good idea, because the author is in a position to either quieten dissent or completely remove all obstacles. This, really, is the best thing you can do for managing how your politics influence your writing. Art is inherently political. Even trying to make a film that has nothing to do with politics is, in and of itself, a political act. Barthes argues that to make the author the authority on their text is to limit it. This is partly because, as expressed above, our art contains more than we know or intend.
To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. In terms of the political reading of a text, this is dead on, except that the children have grown up and left home. If you manage to write something popular, your readers will start digging down into the politics innate to your work. Digging down into your personal assumptions, the politics by which you live your life, will make you a better, more considered, more communicative writer.
Politics and art stem from the same beliefs, and each will always influence the other. If this all sounds insurmountable, take heart — understanding your politics on a deeper, more comprehensive level, and considering how to communicate them effectively, explores the same territory as honing your craft.
Which writers do you think manage their politics particularly well, which authors do a poor job, and why? Rob is an editor for Standout Books. The New Communist Movement was, at best, a microcosm of the antagonisms by which the New Left was riven, particularly with regard to gender and sexuality. Instead, New Communist Movement cadres championed the revolutionary agency of a racialized lumpenproletariat excluded from the workplace and largely confined to urban ghettos. The shifting terrain of class struggle in the US was further complicated by the changing composition of social classes during the pivotal decade of deindustrialization.
The eclipse of blue- by white-collar workers in had already signaled a profound transformation of the US labor force. Those shares of the workforce relinquished by manufacturers fell to the expanding tertiary sector where a disproportionate number of women and people of color found work in "pink collar," low-wage service sector jobs. That difference does not include the unevenly racialized surplus populations warehoused in a vast carceral complex built up during the decades of deindustrialization that saw many non-white workers among the first expelled from manufacturing jobs.
The real rate of black unemployment — including those excluded from labor markets while locked up — has been nearly thrice the rate for white workers since the end of the s. The emergence of Language Writing against this backdrop confronts literary historians with a seeming paradox.
How do we explain the alignment — by proponents and opponents alike — of an avowedly anticapitalist literary vanguard with an increasingly retro protagonist and form of class struggle during the Poetry Wars? We might, for instance, have expected the theorist-practitioners of Language Writing to engage with the theoretical advances of global Maoism and the organizational welter of the New Communist Movement, not to mention the novel theories of class composition emerging out of new communist currents in Europe that circulated in Telos , New Left Review , and Radical America , the unofficial theoretical organ of Students for a Democratic Society.
At a minimum, if we recall the galvanizing force of Fredric Jameson's call to "Always historicize! Instead, what we find are accounts replete with gestural analogies aligning certain poetic modes — if not particular poets, their readers, or both — with the aims of a generic working class whose literary avatars heroically seize the means of poetic production and materials of language the way workers might take over a factory, even as those factories and that working class were vanishing beneath the horizon of deindustrialization.
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That theoretical anachronism, as we shall see, lies at the heart of the Poetry Wars. It is also an anachronism that some of the most interesting works of Language Writing complicate in spite of their authors' occasionally crude professions elsewhere. To disentangle the crossed wires of this literary and social history, therefore, we need to look once more, and more closely, at the mediations between poetry and politics in the postwar decades.
One of the first full-length collections published by a self-proclaimed Language Writer, Opera — Works had a profound influence on the politics of form attributed to the collective project today.
Written between and , the poems of Opera — Works might best be read, therefore, as something like Language Writing before the Poetry Wars. Here, for instance, is the beginning of "Factors Influencing the Weather:". Thin sun one room clouds passing rapidly to the right the music is amassing to crowd the space and display in line halfway backwards little black discs by the logic or power which envelops it sheath of canned air at the edge less light all day and as suddenly clearing the steady pressure held heaven his life might increase changed and warmed having beaten across dragging the untouched northern half beyond into habitation stretch of flat the level intensity connects current beyond the recesses past turns in the road to sense celebrants glancing yet still pictures the bank is one hill imposes desires wrought tearing pinpoints abstraction of visual certainty on vista pinions as much work done in dreams.
First published in this 4 and the central poem in Opera — Works , "Factors" offers a veritable primer for the subsequently elaborated poetics of Language Writing. The title gestures pointedly towards the familiar, first-person, scenic idyll into which the poem refuses to cohere. At the same time, the title suggests that the poem will disclose the factors influencing the weather that the poem depicts. It is laborious, but possible, to track the oscillations of these contextual frames.
The Flesh of Words: The Politics of Writing | Jacques Rancière Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Line breaks form logical hinges. They unfold the scene while suspending semantic certitude. From sun in an isolated room to an expanse of sky seen out a window through which music drifts from a record player in line with the view, the poem threads the detritus of everyday life through a grammatical precision that deconstructs what it documents. The poem, we might say, lays bare a scene that expands to include the process of its linguistic manufacture.
Such lockstitch techniques are commonplace today. Oscillations between concrete details and grammatical abstractions became a mainstay of formally innovative poetics in the wake of Language Writing. Yet the poem is not, or not simply, a eulogy for the death of the subject bound by signifying chains not of its making. There is an organizing, if inchoate, point of view around which the poem's scalar leaps from concrete phenomena to linguistic abstraction oscillate:.
The lines that follow break that referential chain, however, by rapidly shifting contextual frames.
INTRODUCTION: The politics of women’s writing
By the time "Factors" was published in Opera — Works , it would be hard to see that "refinery" and not think of the oil crisis that erupted a few short months after "Factors" was first published. At the same time, the referential tug of the concrete in the poem's postindustrial bucolic — wind, shapes, refinery, chain link fence — "bypass[es] intense interest" in the historical. Instead it "clouds understanding" with a sylleptic flourish that turns dead metaphor into pictoral description.
The historical violence of words disappearing into a world their referents compose is what the overheard confessions of lyric obliterate. What we see, the poem seems to say, depends on the referential horizon of a given generic and, ultimately, semantic frame. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Frame , the volume that gathers much of Watten's work from , nods to the influential notion of "frame semantics" Lakoff helped to popularize. One of Watten's later collections, Conduit , borrows its title from a pivotal salvo in the "linguistic wars" of the s.
The Poetry Wars were not fought on the generative terrain of universal grammar and semantic frames, however. It was claims placing poetry in the service of class struggle that stoked the flames among poets. Politics, not linguistics, took center stage during the Poetry Wars. No entry in those debates spurred more belligerence than The Politics of the Referent. The title of an important symposium edited by the Canadian poet Steve McCaffery in , "the politics of the referent" became a popular watchword in debates surrounding Language Writing.
In McCaffery's overdetermined yet simplistic theoretical framing, "what Marx exposed as the fetishism of the commodity is the same mode of mystification that is enacted in the fetishism of the referent. In the generic logic of "the politics of the referent," therefore, poetic modes became cultural avatars for class antagonists. Language Writing, in short, is an experimental mode avowedly in line with the values of a working class opposed to the bourgeois "I" of confessional lyrics.
Whether the force of that analogy was somehow functional or merely pedagogical was never entirely clear. Nor was how, precisely, poems might alter larger social roles.
The Politics of Writing Studies
The galvanizing force of The Politics of the Referent was readily apparent, however. For linguistically-minded Marxists, such claims suggested that "the theoretical conditions for a cultural revolution were now fully present. In the more esoteric variants of that politics of form, Language Writing made cultural revolution possible in the era of deindustrialization because somehow, by the s, "signifier and signified correspond[ed] to exchange value and use value" and linguistic "reference replace[d] surplus value" in Marx's critique of political economy in ways that implicated poetic practice in the accumulation of value.
Esoteric analogies between capital and language thus met exoteric analogies between poetic form and class positions in a generically anticapitalist politics of form.
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You have nothing to lose but your referents! While Opera — Works was but one of many formative influences on the "the politics of the referent," however, "Factors" exerted a singular influence on Silliman's justly famous formulation of the "new sentence. The new sentence is a decidedly contextual object. Its effects occur as much between, as within, sentences.
Thus it reveals that the blank space, between words or sentences, is much more than the 27 th letter of the alphabet.