All entries for May 2007

May 21, 2007

Slapp Happy in the Independent

For those of you who missed this, there was a short article about Peter Blegvad’s band, Slapp Happy, in The Independent on Friday!


Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun

This study on depression and melancholia has proved to be extremely interesting and relevant to a poet to be discussed in my PhD thesis, Gwyneth Lewis. Lewis refers to Black Sun in her own book about depression, Sunbathing in the Rain and she writes how Kristeva demands that the depressed subject faces the void that presents itself like a huge black hole. Proceeding with a psychoanalytical approach, Kristeva certainly describes the absence that seems to be at the heart of depression: ‘Absent from other people’s meaning, alien, accident with respect to naïve happiness, I owe a supreme, metaphysical lucidity to my depression’ (4). As Kristeva makes clear in this comment, there are advantages as well as disadvantages in being depressed. Although it provokes extreme suffering, depression can also offer a specific metaphysical view of the world. For Kristeva this view emerges from a confusion of self and other so that ‘we shall see the shadow cast on the fragile self, hardly dissociated from the other, precisely by the loss of that essential other’ (5).

Drawing on concepts such as ‘the death drive’, Kristeva embarks on her analysis of melancholia and depression using ‘a Freudian point of view ‘ and she tries to discover the general issues concerned with object loss (10). Object loss derives from Freud and Melanie Klein and it describes the oscillation between hate and love in the perception of a lost object of desire and the eventual incorporation of that object within oneself as a means of coping with such a confused state of mind. This often leads to self-loathing fro the shadow self that represents the lost object. Hatred that rails against a lost object becomes self-hatred. Kristeva points towards an extreme version of this object loss in which: ‘The depressed narcissist mourns not an Object but the Thing’ (13). According to Kristeva this Thing is ‘the real that does not lend itself to signification, the center[sic] of attraction and repulsion, seat of sexuality from which the object of desire will become separated’ (13). This is the void, the bottomless lack that extreme depressed subjects mourn over and incorporate into themselves. Kristeva uses a metaphor from Nerval to describe it in poetic fashion as ‘an imagined sun, bright and black at the same time’ (13). In wondering how to approach such a state of being, Kristeva recommends a poetic slant tackling the condition ‘through melody, through rhythm, semantic polyvalency, the so-called poetic form, which decomposes and recomposes signs’ (14). Kristeva concludes: ‘For those who are depressed, the Thing like the self is a downfall that carries them along into the invisible and the unnameable’ (15).

May 17, 2007

Gwyneth Lewis: ‘Bayeux Tapestry’

King William conquered the British Isles
by griffin and dragon with knots in their tails:
God’s order in the borders of time –
centaurs rampant and leopards tame
with the lambs they slaughtered and the crane
kind to the wolf that killed it. Now a wife
opens her arm in a garden, starts a gale
that impregnates the Normans’ sails
and brings them in force to Pevensey.
Now the peacock and the harpie cry
out so Saxons die and horses fall
while, in the border, ornament is all
and trees are rooted in history
hold birds more real than the sights they see
until the wyverns are put to rout
by human bodies that blot the border out.

May 04, 2007

Billy Collins: Paradelle for Susan

I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Thinnest love, remember the quick branch.
Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the.

It is time for me to cross the mountain.
It is time for me to cross the mountain.
And find another shore to darken with my pain.
And find another shore to darken with my pain.
Another pain for me to darken the mountain.
And find the time, cross my shore, to with it is to.

The weather warm, the handwriting familiar.
The weather warm, the handwriting familiar.
Your letter flies from my hand into the waters below.
Your letter flies from my hand into the waters below.
The familiar waters below my warm hand.
Into handwriting your weather flies you letter the from the.

I always cross the highest letter, the thinnest bird.
Below the waters of my warm familiar pain,
Another hand to remember your handwriting.
The weather perched for me on the shore.
Quick, your nervous branch flew from love.
Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.

NOTE: The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d’oc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only those words.

For more on Collins’ joke of the paradelle see its Wikipedia entry:

Image of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party

Follow-up to MP3 Article on Judy Chicago from The Midnight Heart

Judy Chicago

MP3 Article on Judy Chicago

See this fascinating podcast about Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

Pierre Bourdieu on The Logic of Practice

Belief and the Body

Practical sense is a quasi-bodily involvement in the world which presupposes no representation either of the body or the world, still less of their relationship. (66)

According to Bourdieu, a feel for a game is the idea of an encounter between habitus and field, between incorporated history and an objectified history. (habitus = physical type esp. as predisposing to disease(med); characteristic appearance, manner of growth etc. of a plant or animal). Feel for the game is what gives the game a subjective sense – a meaning a raison d’etre, but also a direction, an orientation impending outcome for those who take part and therefore acknowledge what is at stake. It gives the game an objective sense; one has a sense of ‘sensible’ practices, conditions of enactment, filled with sense and rationality. It is a consensual validation and a collective belief in the game and its fetishes.

Because native membership in a field implies a feel for the game in the sense of a capacity for practical anticipation of the ‘upcoming’ future continued in the present , everything that takes place in it seems sensible full of sense and objectivity directed in a judicious direction. (66)

What about questions of the aesthete caught in the instant or the idle spectator? Bourdieu writes: “This is exactly the effect produced by the novel when, aiming to be a mirror, pure contemplation, it breaks down action into a series of snapshots, destroying the design, the intention, which, like the thread of discourse would unify the representation, and reduces the acts and actors to absurdity” (67). The field is an arbitrary social construct.

One does not embark on the game by a conscious act, one is born into the game, with the game. (67)

The vocation is to the learning of a game as the acquisition of mother-tongue is to learning a foreign language. When learning one’s own language, one is not aware of its structural rules so much. The earlier the player enters the game, the less aware they are of the associated learning: they believe in the game. “Belief is thus an inherent part of belonging to a field.” It is not the pragmatic faith interrogated by Kant, but an arbitrary acceptance of an uncertain proposition for the purpose of action. It is a practical faith that debars those who would destroy the game. You cannot live another game – “You have to be born into it”. You cannot use other game sites like science to objectify the game, because it is from here that your own beliefs are generated.

Practical belief is a state of the body rather than a state of the mind. The Doxa is the relationship of immediate adherence that is established in practice between a habitus and a field to which it is attuned; it is the pre verbal taking for granted of world that flows practical sense.

Enacted belief, instilled by childhood learning that threats the body as a living memory pad, an automaton that leads the mind unconsciously along it and as a repository for the most precious values, is the form par excellence of the blind and symbolic thought. (62)

Practical sense converted into motor schemes causes practices – it is founded on the invisibility of common sense. Bourdieu writes: “It is because agents never know completely what they are doing that what they do has more sense than they know” (69). Social order takes advantage of disposition of the body and language, to function as depositories of deferred thoughts that can be triggered off at a distance in space and time simply by re-placing the body in an overall posture which recalls associated thoughts and feelings. E.g. collective ceremonial meetings or bodily expression of emotion. Bourdoieu is adamant that: “Symbolic power works partly through the control of other people’s bodies”(69). Arms and legs are full of numb imperatives (Proust). Fundamental principles of arbitrary content of culture inscribed on the body – how you eat or sit – become unconscious.

The cunning of pedagogic reason lies precisely in the fact that it manages to extort what is essential while seeming to demand the insignificant, such as the respect for forms and forms of respect which are most visible and most ‘natural’ manifestation of respect for the established order or the concessions of politeness, which almost always contain political concessions. (69)

Bourdieu suggests that there is opposition between male and female bodies in actions such as walking, eating, stance and that thier bodies are orientated in different directions such as towards ground or upwards. Bourdieu points to the division of labour in oil gathering; the man knocks down the olives, the woman stoops to pick them up. Socialisation instils a sense of equivalences between physical space and social space and between two movements in two spaces – rising/falling, straight/bent, dominance/humility.

The body language of sexual domination and submission has provided the fundamental principles of both the body language and verbal language of social domination and submission. (72)

This is grounded in the social and sexual division of labour. The relation to the body is inseparable from habitus, language and time. Practical mimesis is the relation of identification but has nothing in common with imitation, because it is an unconscious mimesis. “The body believes in what it plays at: it weeps if it mimes grief”(73). What the body learns is not knowledge; it is one, it is the subject. The body hexis speaks directly to the motor function. Every society provides structural exercises, which lend to transmit a particular form of mastery. Its verbal products are proverbs, sayings, gnomic poems, songs and riddles. Its objects are tools, the house and the village. Its practices are games, contests of honour, gift exchanges and rites. It includes temporal disciplines – the regulating of time and/or temporal distribution. Doing things outside the proper time is suspicious. The inhabited space of the house is the site of generative schemes, imposing integration of body space with cosmic and social space. It includes the contrasting centrifugal male space and centripetal female orientation. The male relationship to the body and sexuality is sublimination. It all defines sexual identity.

Susan Bordo on The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity

Reconstructing Feminist Discourse on the Body

The body – what we eat, how we dress, the daily rituals through which we attend to the body – is a medium of culture (165).

Bordo suggests in thsi study that the body can be a metaphor for culture. Plato, Hobbes and Irigaray suggest that an imagination of body morphology has provided a blueprint for diagnosis and/or vision of social and political life. The body is not only a text of culture but also a direct practical locus of social control. Through habitual routines, culture is a “made body”, so it is beyond consciousness. Political strivings may be undermined by the life of our bodies – it is not the craving body of Plato, Augustine and Freud, but the “docile body” regulated by cultural norms of cultural life.

Foucault highlights the primacy of practice over belief. The body is controlled not be ideology but through the organisation of time, space, our daily lives; our bodies are trained, shaped and “impressed with the stamp of prevailing historical forms of selfhood/desire, masculinity/femininity”(166). Women are spending more time on the management of their bodies: this intensification is diversionary and subverting. It is the pursuit of a female ideal. Female bodies become docile bodies: “bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation, subjection, transformation, ‘improvement’”(166). Diet, make-up and dress are the central organising principles of a woman’s day. It is less socially orientated and more focused on self-modification. Inherent in this project is a feeling of lack as women never feel good enough. The preoccupation with the body is a backlash.

Bordo suggests that feminists need to develop a political discourse to combat this. This requires reconstructing the 1960s/70s feminist paradigm of the oppressors versus the oppressed, the villains versus the victims. Like Foucault, we must abandon the idea of power as being possessed by one group and levelled against another; instead it is a network of practices, institutions and technologies. Secondly, we need an analytics adequate to describe a power whose central mechanisms are not repressive but constitutive (establishing). Thirdly, we need a discourse that will account for subversion of potential rebellion i.e. political backlash – how does the subject become enmeshed in collusion with forces that sustain her own oppression?

The Body as a Text of Femininity – Hysteria, Agoraphobia and Anorexia Nervosa

There is a certain symptomatology in these conditions: loss of mobility, loss of voice, the inability to leave home, feeding others while starving oneself, taking up space and whittling down the space that one’s body takes up. The body of the sufferer is inscribed with ideological construction of femininity emblematic of the period in question – that is an ideal. Femininity is written in exaggerated terms. The body becomes a graphic text, a statement about gender.

Hysteria is an exaggeration of stereotypically feminine traits. The nineteenth century lady was supposed to have the characteristics of delicacy, dreaminess, sexual passivity, having a charming lability and a capricious emotional state. (labile = unstable, apt to slip or change). This was the norm in femininity. The symptoms of hysteria were dissociations, drifting or fogging of perception, nervous tremors, faints and anaesthesias – these were all concretisations of the feminine mystique. The term hysterical was often interchangeable with the word feminine.

Femininity has now become a standardised visual image. We learn the rules of what a ‘lady’ is through bodily discourse – images tell us what face, body shape and clothes we need to have. Agoraphobia and anorexia are parodies of the female ideal. Agoraphobia began to rise in women in the 1950s and 60s when the female ideal was asserted as being situated in the home along with babies, sex and house work. Agoraphobia parodies this ideal: “If you want me in the home, I’ll stay home with a vengeance!”

The obsession of the anorectic/anorexic is hyper-slenderness for women. (anorectal = of or relating to the anus and rectum). It is meaning that makes the body admirable. Slenderness is the citadel of contemporary and historical meaning to the anorexic. The rules governing contemporary femininity are painfully described on the anorexic’s body. The construction of femininity is a double bind that legislates contradictory ideals.
1. Culture still widely advertises domestic conceptions of femininity casting woman as the dominant emotional and physical nurturer; she must feed others not herself – it is a totally other-orientated emotional economy. Female hunger for public power, independence, and sexual gratification must be contained. This is etched on the anorexic body.
2. The woman must balance female virtues with masculine language in professional arenas: self control, determination, cool, emotional discipline, mastery etc. A modern lifestyle must include self control and mastery with the advent of health kicks and gyms. The anorexic pursues these values. E.g. The Aliens character, Ripley nicknamed by Weaver as ‘Rambolina’.

Protest and Retreat in the Same Gesture

In all the conditions mentioned, the woman’s body becomes a surface on which conventional constructions of femininity are exposed. It is a language of suffering that speaks the pathology and violence lurking at the horizon of normal femininity. Pathology is an embodied protest, not a productive one but still a protest for those who do not have the language to speak.

The hysteric has a language of protest; Anna O’s aphasia rejected the symbolic order for the “mother-tongue” – that semiotic babble of infancy. (Dianne Hunter, Catherine Clement, Helene Cixous). (aphasia = the inability to express thought in words, or liability to understand thought as expressed in the spoken or written words of others, caused by brain disease or damage). Agoraphobia is a strike against the expectations of house wifely functions like shopping, driving children to school and accompanying husbands to social events. (Robert Seidentery). Hysteria prevents the wife from having to be the caretaker of others, while anorexia is a form of unconscious female protest that indicts a culture that suppresses female hunger. Yet the gesture that expresses protest can also express retreat – does the anorexia assuage a guilt that contemporary women will lead freer, less circumscribed lives than our mothers? The anorexic protest is self defeating since the life of the body becomes an all-absorbing fetish. Muteness is not the best way to protest.

Collusion, Resistance and the Body

Female pathology is a socially formed repression. Anorexia emerges out of conventional female practice – the diet! The Anorexic body is admired for its strength of will. The anorexic comes to hate feminine traits – does this connect to the cultural association of curvaceousness with incompetence? (Brett Silverstein). This is the way for a woman to enter a male body if not a male world.

Textuality, Praxis and the Body

(praxis = the practice or practical side of an art or science as distinct from its theoretical side; customary or accepted practice; a practical exercise). The notions of the useful body and the intelligible body are significant – the intelligible body is related to scientific, philosophic and aesthetic representations of the body. Nineteenth century women needed a feminine praxis to create a certain look: strait-lacing, minimal eating, reduced mobility – this rendered the female body unfit to perform activities outside designated space. This is the useful body responding to aestheticism’s norm. Bordo suggests that we must give attention to the useful body.

Silence and Narrative

(See ‘Introduction: Silences’ pages xi to xxvii).

Although the commentary in this book is specific to Stein, I think that it may have some relevance to my discussion of silence. I am particularly interested in obscurity as a kind of silence – this to me seems to be Doane’s argument. Doane discusses Stein’s statement that: ‘My writing is a clear as mud but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear’. Doane also quotes Stein from Tender Buttons : ‘Why is there that sensible silence … Does silence choke speech or does it not.’ Doane provides more quotation from Stein’s essays, ‘France’ and ‘England’, and from her play What Happened .

A silence is no more than occasional. It respects understanding and salt and even a rope. (‘France’)

This comment reveals an ambiguous attitude to silence – it is ‘no more than occasional’. However, the idea of respect invigorates silence. There is space in silence for deep thought (‘understanding’), for flavour and savouring events (‘salt’) and for the contemplation of death and self-destruction (‘a rope’). All of these aspects are important in Welsh women’s poetics too.

Silence which makes silence gives that sense to all there is, silence which has light and water and vision and appetite and result and a motion and more exaggeration and no recklessness, silence which is there is not disturbed by expression. (‘France’)

Here silence is self-producing and continuous and it seems to be a more essential element of being. Silence has space for many more elements here such as sight, fulfilment, artifice and stability. It seems that silence and expression can co-exist here too.

What comes out of silence. What comes out of silence is that which having usefulness, that nature and fashion is not shown to be managed by the combination. (‘France’)

It is interesting that the initial sentence feel as if it should be a question, yet instead it is a flat statement creating the feeling that one fact is certain – something comes out of silence even if the actual product is uncertain. Usefulness is an interesting theme here. Deryn Rees-Jones writes of ‘useful’ silences in her poetics and it is clear here that silences are useful rather than repressive. There is a certain confusion in the grammatical construction and clauses of the second sentence which shows Stein constructing her silences in the sentence. What combination does she refer to? That of silence and usefulness or nature and fashion? In either case, it seems that dialogues within silence are not easy or simple.

Surely silence is sustained and the change is sudden.(‘England’)

Silence here is defined as the one eternal element of being that is broken by the rude noise of speaking. Yet, there is a certain ambiguity – what change does Stein refer to – a change from speaking to silence, from silence to speaking or changes within silence itself?

Silence is so windowful. (What Happened)

This is perhaps the most interesting of Stein’s comments and one of the most illuminating in relation to my argument for a recognition that silence can be useful and productive. The comment is remiscent of the Herbert Bayer photograph, Lonesome City Dweller , in which two silent hands are proffered to the viewer with eyes in their palms. Behind them a vista of windows fills the space. It is above all, a silent image, absent of that communicator – the face. Possibility is signified by the plenitude of windows each offering a new insight. Similarly in Stein, silence is a presence, a gesture with bountiful potential.

Doane uses these quotations to prove a change in Stein’s treatment of speaking and silence. She describes Stein’s use of silence as ‘both a metaphoric strategy and an explicit theme’ that develops into an ‘aesthetics of silence’ (xii). I think that Doane’s definition of Stein here also applies to the Welsh women writers that I will be interrogating in my thesis.

'Writing' by Toby Litt

Poetry Review, vol. 93, no. 3, pp. 42-48

Litt suggests that the public still think that writers are Romantics, ‘still muse-haunted sensitives, victims of the descending, perhaps bestowed world’ (p. 42). (Why is Litt so hostile to the stereotyped Romantic? This is reminiscent of Carr’s comments about modernist attitudes in From My Guy to Sci-Fi where the ‘mincing Meredith’ et al are reviled by the masculinity of modernist movement.)

Litt thinks that other art-forms have shrugged off Romantic stereotypes:

[C]lassical music had Serialism, sculpture Duchamp, painting Warhol. Literature, however, despite the resolutely anti-Romantic efforts of the Dadaists, William Burroughs and the Oulipo movement, has yet to convince the public, or I would say, itself that it derives from anything other than Inspiration.

Litt suggests that the dominance of a Romantic account of composition is due to writer’s ‘desktop’ experience. Writers use the idea of being inspired for their own purposes whether that be to gain solitude or behave badly. Litt believes that writers lie to themselves.

Litt moves on to describe how cinema has portrayed the writing process. He cites Adaptation and The Shining as the best portrayals of inspiration. He mentions Dorothy Parker and The Vicious Circle as a bad example of a portrayal of inspiration, with its picturing of a waste paper basket filling up with paper.

Litt states: ‘The history of writing is in many departments, that of a descent.’ He mentions The Moronic Inferno by Martin Amis which traces a descent of subject. Amis’ assertion that the protagonists of literature have descended from gods to kings to generals to fabulous lovers (all superhuman) to ordinary people is useful to Litt, because he can compare this with the descent in inspiration: ‘from God plain-and-simple to the God-inspired poet to the thing-inspired poet (Nature, Woman, Beauty), to the self inspired poet, all the way to the non-existent poet’.

Litt is concerned by the argument that if Milton had not existed Paradise Lost would still have existed. He argues that writers are capable of having an engaged relationship with the zeitgeist – a two way relationship.

Litt criticises Graham Swift’s likening of the writing process to wiping the dust off an inscrption or gravestone. Litt thinks that writers lie to avoid what he calls ‘the Great Terror’ i.e. the blank page. He quotes Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, which suggests that the true processes of writing are a dirty secret and that bad must come before good. He states: ‘writing is rewriting’ and suggests that each cancellation is an act of self-cancellation.

How do bad writers become good? Alexander Pope knew the answer: “I believe that no one qualification is so likely to make a good writer, as the power of rejecting his own thoughts, and it must be this (if anything) that can give me the chance to be one.” […]’

Accordinf to Litt, each small erasure teaches the writer something about language.

And so all writers write their way out of the primeval sludge and stodge of bad words with which they all began, by crossing their bad selves out. […] Writing, to define it, is a continuous process of self-criticism motivated by aesthetic self-disgust, self hate. Hate powers. Hate is the motor force.

According to Litt’s argument, all writers are on their way to greatness, but some are slower than others. To Litt, writers are ideas, or at least the idea that some day they may be a writer.

Litt now moves on to the idea of the writer as a performed self. He uses the analogy of writing-as-jazz.

The genius of improvisation is dependent upon hours of practice; the eight bars of God-kissing couldn’t exist without the woodshed. Charlie Parker didn’t play bum notes. He had good and bad nights, sessions, but he never failed to be Parker. To write, really to write, is equivalent to having achieved an unmistakable tone on the piano- like Art Tatum, like Thelonius Monk – the piano, an instrument that any fool can get chopsticks out of.

Litt thinks that the question to be asked is not “where does your inspiration come from?” but “how did you come to own these words?”. The public’s view of inspiration suggests that writing must be beyond a single person. Inspiration is a good explanation otherwise the poet must have cheated or had help.

Litt suggests that Romanticism allows the writer to be free to concentrate on the written rather than the writing. They can be absent from their own process.

I don’t believe, though, that the great writers of the past were ever faux-naif – not about their workings, nor their work, nor their world. (I don’t mean Heaney, Larkin, Carver, Frost, Hemmingway, Lawrence, Hardy, Dickens; I mean Beckett, Celan, Joyce, Rilke, Proust, James, Browning, Flaubert.) They did what they did at a point of necessary awareness and hence difficulty.


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