The Poetics of Non-Experience:
Repetition, Simulation, and Anxiety
in Leslie Scalapino's Trilogy
NOTE: This is, at least in theory, part one of two. The work characterized here as bleak also discovers a luminous world, none other than the bleak one. Gone to the other shore? Put out that fire on the other side of the river? Save a ghost? We'll see.
The crowd marks the split between themselves and experience.
They construct all the buildings to be the same. (T 157)
Not having historical experience--is the comic book as the form of the serial novel.
"The loss of halo concerns the poet first of all. . . . the exhibition of aura [becomes]
an affair of fifth-rank poets." --Benjamin Convolut J84a, 5 qtd. in Buck-Morss 193
There's certainly nothing wrong with having an experience--we're having one now, I hope. But there tends to be something unsatisfying, and symptomatic, about poems whose principal symbolic act is the displaying of the poet's supposed capacity to sustain this apparently staggering achievement. Epiphanic verse, Charles Altieri argues in Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry, is at any rate starting to look a little strained. It's marked, Altieri notes, by conspicuous retrenchment, typically circumscribing carefully the terrain on which it's willing to test the poet's oracular powers of engagement and assimilation. Altieri takes as a specimen text a 1960s poem by William Stafford, "Ceremony":
On the third finger of my left hand
Under the bank of the Ninneicah
a muskrat whirled and bit to the bone.
The mangled hand made the water red.
That was something the ocean would remember:
I saw me in the current, flowing through the land,
rolling, touching roots, the world incarnadined,
and the river richer by a kind of marriage.
While in the woods an owl started quavering
with drops like tears I raised my arm.
Under the bank a muskrat was trembling
with meaning my hand would wear forever.
In that river my blood flowed on. (Altieri 2-3)
There isn't space to offer a detailed commentary here, though there's much that would repay attention--the portentous shift from "my left hand" to "the mangled hand" in stanza one, for example, or the sudden, almost Crashaw like excess, strangely out of place without the requisite Baroque armature, of the final stanza's image of "drops like tears" falling from the poet's raised arm. We can confine ourselves to noting some more general strategies. First, as Altieri suggests of what he calls "the scenic mode," the size of the claims the poet makes here is in something like inverse proportion to the initial topical compression, which in effect enables them. A sharply focused, almost diagrammatically isolated scene and event, marked by the speaker's conspicuous separation from the social world, are deployed so as to open up into an epiphany that leaps over the muddy middle ground of social action to seize universal terrain. Or bleed into it: a bad instance of what Angus Fletcher calls talisman or cosmic image--the mark of Nature, capital N, writ upon the poet's mangled hand--occasions not simply a counter-prestation--gobbet of flesh clenched in muskrat mouth--but a synecdoche whose late-romantic incarnationist import gets laboriously spelled out. It isn't enough to note that the drops of blood fall into the river, the poet must insist on the drenching of world with self this wound-as-election provokes. We might call this spousal verse the forcing of an aura. Nature as distance, as ritualistic realm unsullied by grubby human concerns, is made to return the poet's gaze in an act of violence figured as acknowledgment rather than rebuff; what's more, the poet, whose blood flows seaward, himself acquires the cultic status of the distant, unique, supposedly unsimulable natural power that bears in on him. So, supposedly, does the poem, which ought to take on the hieratic quality of the cultic nature to which it so clamorously appeals. "Ceremony" thus enacts an instance not only of the pathetic fallacy but also of what might be called its contrapositive: while the poet suffuses nature, what's most important is his own assumption of its supposed auratic distance--which being filled with him, however, isn't all that distant. As the poem isn't either: one has the feeling that it simulates auratic unapproachability, in fact offering itself up only too gladly to the sort of easy familiarity which the auratic chastens. At least, as Altieri implies, its procedures lend themselves to a repetition that is less that of ritual than of mass production, since to the practiced eye they are so conspicuously serviceable. "We are never allowed to forget," Altieri notes, "how each detail must perform the symbolic chore of preparing for the 'surprising' visionary consummation" (2). Altieri thus confesses to "a sense of being moved and a suspicion that roughly the same emotions could be produced endlessly by simple variants on the formula" (35).
Whether good or bad, poems in this "scenic mode" seem increasingly evasive. While this power of evasion is undoubtedly part of their cultural work, it's work they now perform too predictably to perform very well. Enshrining the capacity of the isolate observer to master what impinges on him through epiphanic insight, they should serve to subdue, indirectly and by a force of implication not unrelated to what Freud called magic thinking, the welter of occurrences left unrepresented in their obsession with experience given adequate form. I certainly don't mean to lump all poems about nature into Altieri's category of the "scenic mode"; there is, for example, a strong affinity between the much less facilely appropriated spaces of Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's recent poems about New Mexico landscape and the work of Leslie Scalapino, whose serial poems of urban life in the Bay Area are my subject. Yet what's most conspicuously missing from the poems of the so-called "scenic mode" are probably the condition of modernity and the process of economic modernization, condensed in the space of the urban, that are the great topics of American modernist poetry and of the contemporary work which takes up its legacy. These put the very possibility of assimilated experience into question, such that "having an experience" characteristically becomes a less fruitful subject for poetry than an interrogation of the very possibility, or impossibility, of this desideratum.
Another way to say this is to follow Frederic Jameson, or Rob Wilson, in noting that the problematic of the sublime is now provoked less by encounters with nature than with technology, capitalist transformation, and the urban spaces they shape. Kant's descriptions of the blockage of imagination--the thwarting of experience--in the mathematical sublime, at any rate, tend for us to evoke urban phantasmagoria, at least if we don't fully identify such landscapes, and the economic processes that shape them, with the sense of "human end" or rational teleology that according to Kant is incompatible with the violence of sublime encounter:
we must not point to the sublime in works of art, e.g. buildings, statues and the like,
where a human end determines the form as well as the magnitude, nor yet in things of
nature, that in their very concept import a definite end, e.g. animals of a recognized
natural order, but in rude nature merely as involving magnitude. . . . For in a
representation of this kind nature contains nothing monstrous (nor what is either
magnificent or horrible)--the magnitude apprehended may be increased to any extent
provided imagination is able to grasp it all in one whole. An object is monstrous where by
its size it defeats the end that forms its concept. (100)
To this description of uncognizable extension we might want to add repetition or seriality as attributes of the urban sublime, since these, as it were, defeat scansion or a sense of measure by refusing to give imagination any place of purchase. And we can add that, insofar as such modernist poems as Eliot's Wasteland or Williams's Paterson evoke a sense of the urban sublime, they tend to hover over moments of blockage rather than breakthrough, attending less to imagination's "receiving a final determination in accordance with a law other than that of its empirical employment" than with the fact that any such "ground is concealed from it, and in its place it feels the sacrifice or deprivation. . . . " (120).
Like such high modernist work, Leslie Scalapino's recent books tend to draw out this sense of blockage rather than resolve it. The thwarting of experience is a repeated, explicit topic in her recent The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion: A Trilogy, especially in the last of the book's three long poems. There the withering of experience is associated with the figure of "the comic book," a trope in part for Scalapino's own writing which draws attention to its flat, disjunctive mode of presentation; the differences between this technique and the practice of modernist collage which it in some ways resembles is a topic I want to take up in a bit. The "comic book" conspicuously mimes the seriality of modernization, as Trilogy notes:
Experience is a matter of tradition, in collective existence as well as private life.
Serial as the assembly line.
the comic book is the exact same thing as experience--before it
Is the comic book "experience" reduced to "the exact same thing," in which case, as endless repetition, it would be difficult to tell from lack of experience? Or does it, instead, supposedly amount to "the exact same thing as" actually having an "experience"? If so, with a kind of deadpan irony, "experience" succumbs to the copying or repetition of reproductive technology, to the logic of the simulacrum that tends to vaporize it as subjective possession, placing us "before it / only" rather than in it.
A bit further on, this problematizing of "experience" is linked to the work of Baudelaire:
to be emancipated from experiences, in the comic book--to be it as such.
to have no other self
than in the comic book
and so for one not to be in rapport with it--or with experience--as being
Baudelaire's discovery. (155)
Elsewhere, this predicament is associated not only with Baudelaire but with a particular work on him:
Essay on the comic book
(Walter Benjamin's Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High
Capitalism, Verso Press)
Scalapino focuses especially on Benjamin's discussion of the desiccation of experience brooded over in Baudelaire's writing. Benjamin associates this loss with a phenomenon he calls "shock," a mode of blockage and sensory overload that provokes, not sublime recovery, but a kind of automatic reaction that aims at a bare mimimum of psychic self-protection. The affect--or lack of affect--associated with "shock" may thus be more pertinent to Scalapino's work than the notion of sublimity. "The threat from these energies," Benjamin suggests with modern urban scenarios in mind,
is one of shocks. The more readily consciousness registers these shocks, the less likely
are they to have a traumatic effect. Psychoanalytic theory strives to understand the
nature of these traumatic shocks 'on the basis of their breaking through the protective
shield against stimuli.' According to this theory, fright has 'significance' in the 'absence of
any preparedness for anxiety'" (Benjamin/Baudelaire 115)
Benjamin goes on to suggest the desiccation which this constant guardedness exacts. He's drawing on Freud's assertion, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, that in consciousness as such there are no "mnemic traces," while memory traces, which lodge in the unconscious, are less likely to be strong enough to be traumatic if consciousness registers the offending stimulus rather than letting it pass unimpeded into mnemic trace:
The greater the share of the shock factor in particular impressions, the more constantly
consciousness has to be alert as a screen against stimuli; the more efficiently it is so, the
less do these impressions enter experience (Erfahrung), tending to remain in the sphere
of a certain hour of one's life (Erlebnis). . . . Perhaps the special achievement of shock
defense may be seen in its function of assigning to an incident a precise point in time in
consciousness at the cost of the integrity of its contents. (117)
This notion of consciousness as a kind of lightning rod is admittedly peculiar. While in Freud it depends for its sense on its place in a complex--and shifting--metapsychology, in Benjamin it instead assumes its value in part because of its very bizarre quality: it forms part of the peculiar historical constellation of "the modern"--or "the nineteenth century as hell," as Benjamin put it in a formulation for the Arcades project which Adorno especially admired. I want to come back, in a bit, to the Freud texts that stand behind Benjamin's formulation, since Freud's discussion of the possible reactions to trauma turn out to be germane to Scalapino's work. But for now I want simply to carry forward the notions of shock and "shock defense," and to test their pertinence to the lineage I'm tracing.
More particularly, I want to try to get at some of the distinctions between Scalapino's recent writing and such modernist precursors as, say, Eliot's Wasteland, Williams's Paterson, or Pound's Cantos by attending to the different ways shock is registered and defended against in these texts. In the interests of compression, I'm going to risk reducing modernist works to what amount to received truisms about them, and to consider a kind of generic, composite modernist long poem. The first thing we can note is that, while these works aren't in any literal sense the reproduction of shock or trauma, they repeatedly evoke this reaction, associating it with modernization and the space of the urban. Modernist collage, of course, functions partly as mimesis of this deterritorialized welter. Yet at the same time, we know, it serves, not simply as defense, but as a resource for reflection and recovered experience: not merely a chaos but a series of perspicuous juxtapositions, modernist collage materials tend to arrange themselves along possible axes of similarity and difference that make them assimilable and suggest our ability to incorporate them in ongoing projects--"ideas into action," in Pound's phrase. Such paradigmatic constructions tend to turn on a temporal dimension that lurks in material presented through techniques of simultaneity. As Jameson notes, "the 'spatial form' of the great modernisms (a description we owe to Joseph Frank) proves to have more in common with . . . mnemonic unifying emblems of . . . memory places than with the discontinuous spatial experience and confusions of the postmodern . . . . a pure experience of a spatial present beyond past history and future destiny or project" (154). Modernism, that is, is according to Jameson "the experience and the result of incomplete modernization. . . ." (366). Whether or not it does so with the one-sidedness we sometimes associate with Eliot, it gets its critical leverage on the modernization process by virtue of the persistence and co-presence of not yet modernized elements within the urban space modernization is defining. "Deep memory itself," Jameson notes, ". . . would seem also to depend on 'uneven development' of an existential and psychic, fully as much as on an economic, kind" (366). But the economic, he implies, enables the existential or psychic: "postmodernism begins to make its appearance wherever the modernization process no longer has archaic features and obstacles to overcome and has triumphantly implanted its own autonomous logic" (366).
Jameson's somewhat melancholy, but by now grudgingly admiring, argument, which the work of Scalapino bears out, is accordingly that in "full postmodernism" perspicuous juxtaposition gives way to something closer to a drab replication of fully modernized space. To begin on a thematic level, it's certainly true that material which in modernist texts might open up into temporal vistas, suggesting the continuing presence of the past, tends in Scalapino's Trilogy not to evoke some alternative social space but instead to be presented as irrevocable, late instance of deterritorialization and deskilling:
The artery is the freeway--overpass--and the terminal that is near the cafe.
The cars coursing.
Just for those single individuals.
Farmers come into the city which is completely separate. Having lost their farms,
Lost--themselves there, some ill. Though many on the street who're not ill.
The markets open of the city to which many congregate to pick up things. (T 89)
More generally, Scalapino's purposefully disjointed presentations tend neither to evoke temporal or "developmental" contrasts nor, therefore, to open toward alternative social spaces. One result is that the welter she presents tends not to resolve itself toward perspicuous juxtaposition, staying closer to a mere rendering of "shock":
at night--yet in the empty (serene) center where there is the city hall and the
opera house and a park. In front of the city hall, many people lying covered by blankets.
Rows in the moonlight and slight streetlight of covered outlines who sleep.
The police cars here and there roam in the street. Around--casually. Not having
anything to do with them.
They're not bothering them.
My--walking through the park of the rows of lined up people lying on the ground
with a blanket over them.
The taxi dashing up of empty night serene area--of clogged millions street. Who
also lie in a row on the sidewalks where they sleep. Each is on their back. A cover is
stretched up from their feet over their face.
honking empty--the taxi
by row of people covered.
People taking a nap on the ground in the railroad station with the crowd rushing
by--in the crowd--who pull the cover held by their feet over their face.
Woman lays down her babies in a line--in the open warm night--with the crowd
These people who're not seen--covered--under the sky in the park at night
When I was leaving a reading--walking through the park. (T 56)
This passage is marked by an odd calmness, and by a rather haunting surfacing, at moments, of an unlikely sense of beauty. And it might of course be possible to scan these lines for paradigmatic juxtapositions--taxi to bums, nature to second nature, for example--or in contrast to see them as a kind of monolithic ideogram doggedly determined to make its point. Yet I'd argue that both the tenderness and the ideogrammatic recuperation tend to dissolve in the numbing sense of sameness that sets in--a quality very much reinforced if one reads through the two hundred odd pages of the book and encounters passages like this one recycled in all their increasing drabness. In such a context, the "odd calmness" I noted here comes to seem less reflective than stunned. It both enforces a sense of closure--locking us into the space of urban modernization without discernible alternative--and replicates a crucial quality of that closed space: self-replication or seriality.
This same sense--of incremental repetition robbed of its pith and degraded toward mere seriality--comes in the context of the book as a whole to govern even passages less conspicuously iterative, such as the following:
Lump drifting wet in the yard.
He's talking. The man feeding in cafes is oddly stagnant. A fly on the gazelle.
They are the same as him, in the cafe. Though he is a fly on a gazelle. They
She gets up. The freeway overpasses go on lightened in the dim light of the
evening outside, packed with the crush of cars.
She has a sense of that being what this is. She is in the gourmet section of the town.
She then sees the man who'd been met in the vestibule, who's in charge. He is
on the dock. It is after--Lana is dead. A cargo is being lifted to the wharf. In it was a
It is there.
. . . .
Get me out of here. A woman lies with her mouth open, emaciated. Unmoved.
Another in the bed next to her weeping saying that.
The emaciated hollowed out woman lies on one leg--the other leg, with its foot on
the bed--her mouth open, through this not hearing apparently. Get me out of here, the
She gets out onto the hot freeway
Do you suppose that we will all end this way yes
Innumerable filling stations and stands on it. Above the wrinkled rivulets of the mountains below seem to be smoldering as purple hotbeds. (T 76-77)
This passage seems to suspend itself unhappily between possible modes of legibility. On the one hand, it gestures at narrative, indeed at melodrama. On the other, it seems to flatten out toward the simultaneities of collage, inviting paradigmatic reading. Yet its cumulative effect is to reduce what it enumerates to the status of just one more unassimilable percept, another instance of what is, or what seems, in a space that remains unparsable and undelimitable. Here too, perspicuous juxtaposition seems to collapse into a kind of infinite substitutability.
If we can thus read repetition in Scalapino as symptom, as mimesis of unrelieved modernization, it's also possible to read it, as one reads modernist collage, as resource. Yet Scalapino's repetitions gesture less at the possibility of reflection or a restored capacity for "experience" than at the sort of merely reactive psychic spasm to which Benjamin gives the blunt name "shock defense." Repetition, of course, is intimately related to trauma in Freud's theoretical formulations. The stylized repetitiveness of the symptom, Freud argues in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, has as one of its functions the isolating of anxiety-provoking stimuli, their cordoning off through ritual from the sufferer's other concerns. And the opening pages of Beyond the Pleasure Principle argue that repetition in the service of mastery often characterizes play: repeating a traumatic situation but switching her place in it from passive to active, the child strives to overcome trauma by rehearsing the event that caused it and binding it to a different outcome. But such assuagement feels less pertinent to Scalapino's text than do some of Freud's darker speculations. Repetition, he argues in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, often serves the purpose of generating anxiety rather than allaying it. In this late text Freud distinguishes between automatic anxiety, a kind of drastic overloading which occurs when one is already in the midst of a traumatic situation, and "the intentional reproduction of anxiety as a signal of danger" (67)--a reduced or mitigated anxiety which Freud compares to "a sort of inoculation, submitting to a slight attack of the illness in order to escape its full strength" (97). In cases where this "inoculation" has not proved possible--the trauma supervening before it could take place--one may instead try, as it were, to give the lie to time by producing the signal anxiety retrospectively. This turns out to be grimmer than it sounds. "Now dreams occurring in traumatic neuroses," Freud notes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of the so-called "war neuroses"
have the characteristic of repeatedly bringing the patient back into the situation of his
accident, a situation from which he wakes up in another fright. This astonishes people far
too little. (7)
"These dreams," he notes further on
are endeavoring to master the stimulus retrospectively, by developing the anxiety whose
omission was the cause of the traumatic neurosis. They thus afford us a view of a
function of the mental apparatus which, though it does not contradict the pleasure
principle, is nevertheless independent of it and seems to be more primitive than the
purpose of gaining pleasure and avoiding unpleasure." (26)
We're on the way to the notorious death drive here, to which I want to return (ahem) in a moment. What I want to take from the formulations perused thus far is the notion of repetition as a rather desiccated, or desiccating, resource. Repetition in Scalapino's Trilogy, that is, might serve to generate anxiety and thus bind, but hardly reflect on or turn to productive account, a social trauma that's already occurred, and of which the urban, very nearly in totality, seems in her work to be the site. But we might go further, suggesting a reading that sees repetition as provocation rather than even this sort of grim assuagement. Reversing the logic of Freud's formulations, Scalapino's anxiety-provoking repetitions may serve to generate in individual readers not a retrospective binding but, as it were, a re-awakened memory of a repressed shock, recalling us to the trauma to the social body which we may as private and frequently insulated citizens have managed to bury. Their function would thus be less curative than political.
If in this odd, reduced sense repetition in Scalapino's work may serve as resource as well as symptom, it may be worth turning the screw again by asking in what other ways it might also be thought of as symptomatic. I want to get at this problem by way, not of Freud's own meditations on the relation between the death drive and a mode of repetition independent of the pleasure principle, and thus apparently daemonic, but of Lacan's reconsideration of this connection, as mediated by the constitutive role of the sign and the stabilizing iteration it makes possible. "The signifier," Lacan suggests,
makes manifest the subject of its signification. But it functions as a signifier only to
reduce the subject in question to being no more than a signifier, to petrify the subject in
the same movement in which it calls the subject to function, to speak, as subject. (Four
Fundamental Concepts 207)
the subject manifests himself in this movement of disappearance that I have described as
lethal. . . . I have called this movement the fading of the subject. (Four Fundamental
It is this splitting or fading, Lacan argues, that accounts for
the essential affinity of every drive with the zone of death (199).
Scalapino's recent work is characterized, I want to argue, by a fading, or vaporizing, of social subjects, achieved by a signifying repetition associated with our own peculiar, contemporary version of the Other. The repetitions of Trilogy are of course in some sense the poet's own. Yet the uncanny inexorability which gradually accrues to them seems to make them, as Thoreau once said of Whitman in a very different context, "a little more than human." One crucial function of consciousness, Freud argues in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, is the protection of the organism from overstimulation, a purpose accomplished through what he calls "sampling":
The main purpose of the reception of stimuli is to discover the direction and nature of the
external stimuli; and for that it is enough to take small specimens of the external world, to
sample it in small quantities. . . . the sense organs . . . . deal only with very small
quantities of external stimulation and only take in samples of the external world. They
may perhaps be compared with feelers which are all the time making tentative advances
towards the external world and then drawing back from it. (21-22)
Charles Bernstein aptly characterizes Scalapino's work, in relation to what Andrei Codrescui has called its "signature repetitions," by noting that it presents us with "multiple scans of a field." I'd add that it has the air of giving us many more samples than we need, or indeed than we can stand: on the analogy with "overkill," we might call it "over-sampling." I mean of course to allude to the digital technologies of information retrieval that characterize so much of our postmodern landscape, and to suggest that this evocation of information technology is one source of the daemonic quality of repetition in Scalapino's poetry. Trilogy thus draws attention to a peculiarly postmodern taking up of Lacan's notion of splitting or fading, suggesting that his assertions about the long duree of the western subject acquire for us a particular urgency that Baudrillard's notion of the simulacrum helps pinpoint. If we are arguably both within and beyond Lacan's description--"law" or the symbolic combinatory, as Foucault argues, having ceded some of its normative force to technologies of surveillance and power, while retaining its prestige--we are thus in Trilogy also in some sense beyond Foucault. While Scalapino's massive incremental repetitions certainly feel menacing and do have something of the air of the carceral, the monitoring they evoke would seem to have less to do with surveillance than sample, seeking out minute variations across the surfaces they scan not so much to punish as to poll:
the assistant constructor--fragile--controlling--and that has no ability that is
actual. The setting up--facades--boards--in the city.
the lanky man had come in
to the business-like efficient rigid--former who is the function--who'd come to own
a restaurant, had been in the aerobics gym--the people being here and there in windows
with the machines.
yet he finds her in her own business, coming in begins throwing glasses bottles--
to find something out from her.
he's the father of the flower child--he goes to the important builder from her. But
whom he doesn't find. Who's then missing.
I met her on the street near her
and she wouldn't speak to me (104)
A passage like this one has more in common with narrative than with conspicuously paratactic modernist collage. Yet it's not really a narrative, exactly, or a single, coherent picture of a visual field. Instead, it borrows its controlled jumpiness from something like database operations: it's as if a given field of data were being scanned or polled, multiple times, according to multiple parameters. Regulation, that is, here seems to give way to information-sampling, a mode of behavior monitoring that according to Baudrillard suits the crucial role now played by consumption:
Both objects and information result already from a selection, a montage, from a point-of
-view. They have already tested "reality," and have asked only questions that "answered
back" to them. They have broken down reality into simple elements that they have
reassembled into scenarios of regulated oppositions. . . . It is exactly like the test or the
referendum when they translate a conflict or problem into a game of question/answer.
And reality, thus tested, tests you according to the same grill; you decode it according to
the same code, inscribed within each message and object like a miniaturized genetic
All is presented today in a spread-out series, or as part of a line of products, and
this fact alone tests you already, because you are obliged to make decisions. This
approximates our general attitude toward the world around us to that of a reading, and
to a selective deciphering. We live less like users than readers and selectors, reading
cells. But nevertheless: by the same token you also are constantly selected and tested by
the medium itself. (120-21)
The subjects scanned according to such "regulated oppositions" are thus rendered eerily similar to the field of objects they survey as potential consumers; ideally their tastes would be as finely graded as the incremental series of objects now produced, to maximize "choice," by means of modular diffraction. "All the forms change," Baudrillard notes
once they are not so much mechanically reproduced but even conceived from the point of
view of their very reproducibility, diffracted from a generating nucleus we call the model.
. . . the models from which proceed all forms according to the modulation of their
differences (Sim 100-01)
"New technologies," David Harvey explains,
(particularly computer modeling) have dissolved the need to conjoin mass production
with mass repetition, and permitted the flexible mass production of 'almost personalized
products' expressive of a great variety of styles.'
In Trilogy we don't get to meet such perfect techno-consumers. But in a grim parody of this perfectibility, human bodies are themselves repeatedly depicted as clumsy approximations of such modular reproduction techniques. At any rate their couplings, while they pivot around a phallic term, seem to have less to do with the Lacanian symbolic combinatory than with a sort of groping effort by the social body to exhaust all possible permutations, achieving a maximum diffraction of incrementally graded forms. If in the Lacanian combinatory "the phallus can only play its role as veiled"; and if, therefore, it amounts to a kind of travesty of the symbolic order to suggest that the phallus depends for its authority on the fact that the penis "is chosen as what stands out as most easily seized upon in the real of sexual copulation, and also as the most symbolic in the literal . . . sense of the term, since it is the equivalent in that relation of the (logical) copula" (FS 82),; just this travesty characterizes Scalapino's depictions of sexuality, in which the putative copular term amounts to something like the connecting nodule on a leggo block. One needs to attend to a few such passages to get a sense of their cumulative effect:
The man flat on her--flat and swimming around with his stem in.
her flat swimming--on the stem
flat. and coming--after. as they're both flat and then come. (190)
the man putting the stem in--and then as they're flat coming. they being flat do.
the man with the woman on the stem coming--him pulling comes, as if he were
She drives going because of a job. Is in a disco place a bar and restaurant that
is fragile. (194)
Out in the country.
A man standing, puts his stem in through the hole that's in a door. The open
exposed places. (117)
She is involved with a shill whom she sees standing in his suit working by
standing pretending to play at the roulette tables.
His stem out--at night.
Though he works at night. Afterwards.
The (other) woman goes to see the steely-blue-eyed man, lean muscular body
seated in his trucking line office. He speaks in a curt way.
His stem having been in a blinking young woman stumbling her speech not drunk
or is so. Holding her cigarette, sitting across the table in the restaurant. And blowing the
smoke thinly through her nostrils.
To put his stem into her. (67)
When bodies aren't such bleakly comic, low-tech versions of hi-tech modular diffraction, they're depicted blatantly in Trilogy as the detritus which Baudrillard suggests all bodies, in a world of eroticized miniaturization, become. Too large, too grossly subject to decay, they seem simply abject. If the Lacanian subject of signification becomes in Scalapino's postmodern landscape a sort of permutable, digital-wannabe gendered subject, this abject body gets depicted as a kind of crude technological waste:
The dull metallic dye of hair rose-colored bat as if she is a sack covered with peach fuzz-
down is mourning at the grave site. tears coming out. the old woman's face is distorted
and tears on it.
sack who's emptily weeping at the grave.
. . . .
down on the sack distortedly weeping, teeth in her mouth, tears coming out
which rack her.
the lawn stretches around, a limousine slowly coming through the narrow road.
There's thus, in Trilogy, a disturbing slippage between Scalapino's repetitive scansion and a lot of what gets depicted. A scanning technique evocative of hi-tech procedures, that is, expends itself, in passages like this one, or in the repeated registration of the street life of "bums," on just the sort of unpromising material that would seem likely to produce little if any profitable "information." It's as if, let's say, we somehow got trapped along the wrong, outside surface of Portman's Bonaventure Hotel. "Ideally, " Jameson notes
. . . the minicity of Portman's Bonaventure ought not to have entrances at all, since the
entryway is always the seam that links the building to the rest of the city that surrounds
it: for it does not wish to be a part of the city but rather its equivalent and replacement
or substitute. (40)
This diagnosis is confirmed by the great reflective glass skin of the Bonaventure, whose
function I will now interpret rather differently than I did a moment ago when I saw the
phenomenon of reflection generally as developing a thematics of reproductive technology
(the two readings, however, are not incompatible). Now one would want rather to stress
the way in which the glass skin repels the city outside, a repulsion for which we have
analogies in those reflector sunglasses which make it impossible for your interlocutor to
see your own eyes and thereby achieve a certain aggressivity toward and power over the
Other. In a similar way, the glass skin achieves a peculiar and placeless dissociation of
the Bonaventure from its neighborhood: it is not even an exterior, inasmuch as when you
seek to look at the hotel's outer walls you cannot see the hotel itself but only the
distorted images of everything that surrounds it. (42)
Unlike Portman's building, at least as Jameson describes it, Scalapino's Trilogy both stages and violates this dissociation, rather than simply accomplishing it. In this sense too, Her procedures are implicitly political, though they leave us in a condition of blockage without intimating how it might be overcome.
Scalapino's repetitions thus serve both to accomplish and to exceed one bleakly minimalist function Jameson ascribes to political art in the postmodern. "The . . . properly postmodern political aesthetic," he notes
. . . would confront the structure of image society as such head-on and undermine it from
within. . . . [It] might be termed the homeopathic strategy. . . . undermining the image
by way of the image itself, and planning the implosion of the logic of the simulacrum by
dint of ever greater doses of simulacra. (409)
This seems like a dubious if attractive procedure. As Scalapino puts it enigmatically:
to be the comic book form. It invalidates itself.
It will use itself up as pulp and be regarded as nothing. It is not 'discursive,'
'analytical' 'method'--by in some ways reproducing such and not being that. (169)
Yet if Scalapino's repetitive surfaces resemble this strategy, by scanning the landscape outside the high-tech domain they as it were alter search parameters just enough to draw our attention simultaneously to both "the logic of the simulacrum" and the stubborn persistence of the rubble which information scanning and modular simulation tend willfully to miss.
They thus draw our attention to a recent historical irony, since those same scanning procedures are implicated in the processes which generate such supposed detritus in the first place. I don't of course mean to suggest that digitalization produces homelessness. Yet information saturation is characteristic of the emerging economic arrangement that's come to be known as post-fordist, an unprecedentedly mobile deployment of productive forces whose role in urban immiseration in so-called "core" countries is rather more direct. "Our faulty representations of some immense communicational and computer network," Jameson argues concerning the fascination with technology in the postmodern sublime
are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely, the whole
world system of present-day multinational capitalism. The technology of contemporary
society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating not so much in its own right but because
it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of
power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole
new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself. (37-38)
Like postmodern technology, this economic configuration gets registered in the peculiar urban scansion of Scalapino's work, provoking the strangely inhuman representational mode that I've been arguing can't comfortably be called a mimesis of "experience." Her scanning technique might thus also be considered an instance of a politicized strategy of representation Jameson calls "cognitive mapping," since it draws our attention to the gap between what can be encountered perceptually--and, one sometimes thinks, acted upon--and the dispersed, rapidly self-permuting economic structure largely responsible for generating it. Such forays in conceptual surveying, Jameson suggests in terms that make clear his allegiance to this tack,
may be identified as a more modernist strategy, which retains . . . an impossible concept
of totality whose representational failure seem[s] for the moment as useful and
productive as its (inconceivable) success. (409)
The inconceivability, Jameson notes, derives from
a growing contradiction between lived experience and structure, or between a
phenomenological description of the life of an individual and a more properly structural
model of the conditions of existence of that experience. . . . There comes into being . . . a
situation in which we can say that if individual experience is authentic, then it cannot be
true; and that if a scientific or cognitive model of the same content is true, then it
escapes individual experience. (410-411)
"If this is so for the stage of imperialism," Jameson goes on,
how much the more must it hold for our own movement [sic?], the moment of the
multinational network, or what Mandel calls 'late capitalism,' a moment in which not
merely the older city but even the nation-state itself has ceased to play a central
functional and formal role in a process that has in a new quantum leap of capital
prodigiously expanded beyond them, leaving them behind as ruined and archaic remains
of earlier stages. . . . (412)
Scalapino, in these terms, disrupts what might otherwise be bound as "experience" in the interests of suggesting its failure to register the "truth" of this post-fordist, post-national space. In particular, her writing attends to the aporia between the two crucial senses of Jameson's notions of "mapping" and "space"--one literal or physical, one figurative or cognitive--a gap which reproduces and makes palpable the split between "lived experience" and economic "structure" noted above. "The conception of cognitive mapping," Jameson explains
. . . involves an extrapolation of . . . spatial analysis to the realm of social structure, that is
to say, in our historical moment, to the totality of class relations on a global (or should I
say multinational) scale. Unfortunately, in hindsight, this strength of the formulation is
also its fundamental weakness: the transfer of the visual map from city to globe is so
compelling that it ends up re-spatializing an operation we were supposed to think of in a
different manner altogether. A new sense of global social structure was supposed to take
on figuration and to displace the purely perceptual substitute of the geographical figure;
cognitive mapping, which was meant to have a kind of oxymoronic value and to
transcend the limits of mapping altogether, is, as a concept, drawn back by the force of
gravity of the black hole of the map itself (one of the most powerful of all human
conceptual instruments) and therein cancels out its own impossible originality. (416)
Yet Scalapino, I think, manages to keep the discontinuity between these two senses of "mapping" active in her work--and thus to draw our attention to a difficult politics that must both include and displace what we might still register as experience.
This rift plays an important role in Trilogy. But it's more dramatically evident in her previous book Way, to which I therefore want to turn briefly. A kind of ostentatious, almost garish "spatialization" characterizes all the serial poems in the book. But it's perhaps most important in "bum series." It's hard, without taking up too much space, to quote enough of the poem to give an adequate sense of it, since the few words on each page are dwarfed by the space that surrounds them. But here's the text of the first two and a half pages of the poem:
the men--when I'd
been out in the cold weather--were
found lying on the street, having
died--from the weather; though
usually being there when it's warmer
on the street who'd
died--in the weather--who're bums
observing it, that instance
of where they are--not my
cranes are on the
skyline--which are accustomed
to life the containers to or from
the freighters--as the new
wave attire of the man
though not muscular
the new wave dyed blonde
wait at the bus stop, but
always outside of the
the bums--the men--having
the weather--though their
doing that, seeing things from their view when
they were alive (50-52)
A bit further on, placement on the page gets even more self-conscious:
of our present
know of the foreign
to the freighter and
his and its relation
when our present
president is in an inverse
relation to them--when there's
a social struggle in their
whole setting, which is
died--but could be only when
they're living--though it
doesn't have desire, so inverse in
that one setting (55)
Mallarme must lurk somewhere in the background here, given all that whiteness; but Olson's geographically attentive composition by field is a nearer and more pertinent instance of such aggressively foregrounded spatialization. Yet Olson's linguistic muscularity--a kind of Keatsian turning inside out of Whitman's dream of the body, such that the poet is dissolved into the social field and registers its energies in a kind of global kinesthetics--is rather more imperial and assured than what's in front of us.
Like a lot of Scalapino's work, the content of "bum series" seems rather unexceptional, or exceptionally flat. Yet there's a quickly emergent, rather schematic constellation of actants put on stage here--displaced, distracted new-wave consumer; bums; invisible-hand-on-the-drifting-tiller president; freighters and cargo containers; inactive oil rigs--that to the "who am I" riddle invites the quick answer "post-fordism." What's more interesting, I think, is the way the poem's spatialization provokes the discomfort which any effort to think through the relation of local "experience" to global structure in a post-fordist world is likely to generate. Relation itself is conspicuously problematized throughout the poem, in part through Scalapino's characteristically groping pronouns, articles, and prepositions. And the opening stanzas--if that's the word--draw our attention quickly to the inadequacy, the evasiveness even, of a phenomenological take on the scene:
the men--when I'd
been out in the cold weather--were
found lying on the street, having
died--from the weather; though
usually being there when it's warmer
This experiential registering--or non-experiential non-registering--is seen in part as willful ignorance:
for me to
be dumb--to have
been actually stupid--so that
really could occur--the
bums--in an event
so--dumb as an
active relation to
the bums or to the freighter and (58)
Yet it's a dumbness that conditions make not only easy to fall into but difficult to solve:
social struggle in their
whole setting which is
abroad and its
relation to the freighter (56)
Beyond simply noting such problems, "bum series" spatializes them, in something like Jameson's double, self-contradictory sense. Partly, the big blanks serve to mime a kind of exaggeratedly phenomenological space, as if to encourage the personages in one stanza to reach out and touch someone across an interval whose very portentousness seems to invite galvanic solution. Yet given the represented content, and the absence of any such breakthrough or the intimation of how it might proceed, what's stressed instead is the lack of homology between this phenomenological terrain and the economic or social "space" that the poem forces us to try to map onto it. The series is remarkable for the way in which connection--and "experience"--stay merely virtual, stymied by a "space" that remains frustratingly inert.
We are--to wind down with a solecism--"more blocked" here than we are in Eliot, or certainly Pound, or even Williams (depending on how ironically you read the stuff on Curie, and radium, and the grudging admission to Pound re credit, ["ok, invenshun"]). "There has never," Jameson notes of our postmodern, post-fordist period,
been a moment in the history of capitalism when this last enjoyed greater elbowroom and
space for maneuver; all the threatening forces it generated against itself in the past--labor
movements and insurgencies, mass socialist parties, even socialist states themselves--
seem today in full disarray when not in one way or another effectively neutralized; for the
moment, global capital seems able to follow its own nature and inclinations, without
traditional precautions. Here, then, we have yet another "definition" of postmodernism,
and a useful one indeed, which only an ostrich will wish to accuse of "pessimism." (417)
As in Benjamin, there's a counter proposition to this one, "the necessity of the reinvention of the Utopian vision in any contemporary politics" (159). In Scalapino's work, as in Benjamin's reflections, this vision emerges as the counter-face of what might be called, not anxiety any longer, but mourning--which, we should recall, Freud conceives as another key locus of repetition:
they have lived. they do
along the street
we do live inside
not inside is the jewel (229)
actually the newspapers in isolating events create the jewel (187)
the market creating the jewel
and be that completely (207)
This sounds, of course, more like Buddhism than Old Testament apocalyptic: the jewel as non-attachment, and the desiccation of "experience" as its galvanizing daemonic parody, taking the place of the angel of history and a meditation on messianic time.
But that's--a whole 'nother experience.