Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics

Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics

by Steve McCaffery

Prior to Meaning collects a decade of writing on poetry, language, and the theory of writing by one of the most innovative and conceptually challenging poets of the last twenty-five years. In essays that are wide ranging, richly detailed, and novel in their surprising juxtapositions of disparate material, Steve McCaffery works to undo the current bifurcation


Prior to Meaning collects a decade of writing on poetry, language, and the theory of writing by one of the most innovative and conceptually challenging poets of the last twenty-five years. In essays that are wide ranging, richly detailed, and novel in their surprising juxtapositions of disparate material, Steve McCaffery works to undo the current bifurcation between theory and practice—to show how a poetic text might be the source rather than the product of the theoretical against which it must be read.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A long-awaited follow-up to the Canadian poet's first volume of criticism, North of Intention (recently in reprint from Roof Books), Steve McCaffery's Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics doesn't disappoint. With rigor and a spellbinding range of reference, McCafferey explores language as it operates beyond the control of the conscious reader or writer. Whether sussing out the relationship of Milton editor Richard Bentley to postructuralism, or of prosodic master Joshua Steele to Derrida's Grammatology, or looking beneath the surfaces of figures like Sade, Jackson Mac Low, Charles Olson and Emmanuel Levinas (for whom ethical relations with the "other" are negotiated in the space of a grapheme). While heavily polysyllabic, the book offers the attentive reader with an interest in radical poetic theory a wealth of rapid insights. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Northwestern University Press
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Avant-Garde & Modernism Studies Series
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Prior to Meaning
The Protosemantic and Poetics

Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2001

Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-1790-7

Chapter One Insufficiency of Theory to Poetical Economy

I don't want to enter this risky world of discourse; I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final; I would like to feel it all around me, calm transparent, profound, infinitely open, with others responding to my expectations, and truths emerging, one by one. All I want is to allow myself to be borne along, within it, and by it, a happy wreck. -Foucault

Foucault's words offer a seductive, utopian topography in which to situate pluralistic, theoretical endeavors. With its hedonistic stress and desire for an amniotic provisionality to discourse, the passage suggests that theory's motivation to mastery and epistemic finality is the prime obstacle to a fluid motion through a smooth space of praxis. Certainly, the "happy wreck" that Foucault embraces stands in sharp contrast to the self-investment and motivation underlying the procedures of literary theory, whose willful drive is toward the annexation of cultural works via interpretational and explanatory strategies, and the consequent curation of their meanings. Salutary, if only for its shock value, is Julia Kristeva's description of this theoretical subject.

The product of an ambiguous social attitude, the "theoretical" subject sets himself up with even more power in this situation inasmuch as he will mime the dissolution of all positions. The empty, hollow space he represents by the very fact of its representation, acts as a magnetic pole and experiences itself as such. This subject of enunciation either says nothing or else dissects his speech for the sole purpose of becoming the focal point where all other signifying systems converge. One could say that his discourse becomes hysteric only to position himself better within the place of impregnable transference-dominating, capturing, and monopolizing everything within the discourse's obsessive retreat, which is haunted by power/impotence. (1987, 97)

This coupling of power to its negative dependence recalls Hegel's famous analysis of empowerment in the master-slave relationship in which the self-consciousness of the master (in the case at hand, the field of theory) is necessarily defined by the slave's own relational status. The essence of the slave is to exist for another, while the self-consciousness of the master depends upon the slave's own dependence on him. Conceived as the object of a master-theory, the poem-slave guarantees a stubborn Hegelian sediment to the most un-Hegelian theoretical endeavors. Appropriation is philosophically structured by a transcendental partition separating theory from its object field, thereby allowing its activation across the difference and simultaneously binding theory to its object in the very affirmation of their separateness. This is hardly a novel insight-in fact, this entailment via Hegel's dialectic pertains to all dyadic oppositions and to any transitive practice. Yet passed unnoticed, or bracketed as unproblematic, it inscribes a serious blind spot in theory's self-questioning, and Lyotard for one has pointed to the dangerous presupposition of the rules of its own discourse that permits theory to elude self-scrutiny (Lyotard 1988a, xiv).

Theories, of course, are constructed upon a second-order system of concepts, making use of ancillary discourses that frequently elude analysis. It's common knowledge that structuralism employs a second-order system of organization derived from certain concepts and categories of Saussurean linguistics. A fact less known is that structuralism co-opts a precursory system from Viollet-le-Duc's Dictionnaire de l'architecture francaise. This is no innocent deployment but a subtle derivation of its conceptual base via a dense genealogy of architectural models and metaphors that include both Augustinian and Thomistic theologies. Marc Angenet exposes the institutional distortions of Saussure by the structuralists and the historical complexities of their ascendancy in France, citing structuralism's failure to attain the status of an episteme and enumerating its ad hoc deployments of Saussure's terminology and concepts as a syncretic formulation to bind together numerous competitive (and often incompatible) intellectual investments. Through the 1960s, Angenet argues, Saussure's terminology functioned as a "phraseological cement" binding together basically heterogeneous and even conflicting interests. Saussure's comparatively late entry into French intellectual circles is also remarked.

Saussure's paradigm took forty years to travel from Geneva to Paris. French linguistics at the time, under the hegemonic influence of Antoine Meillet, opposed [sic] insuperable obstacles to Saussure's acceptance and discussion. That is why Saussure migrated eastward, as it were, and found a first institutional landing point in Russia during the first world war ... Saussure came to be polemically criticized and rejected in the late twenties (but at least understood in a pertinent light) by the major literary scholar of our century, Mikhail M. Bakhtin.... By the time it becomes de rigeur to read and draw inspiration from Saussure in France, it is clear that this Saussure is bound to be read through his cosmopolitan tribulations and through layers of superimposed mediations. (Angenet 1984, 153-54)

Theory's mandate to critical annexation has an inaugural Platonic endorsement. In the Apology, Socrates argues that poets are the worst interpreters of their own work:

Well, gentlemen, I hesitate to tell you the truth, but it must be told. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that any of the bystanders could have explained these poems better than their actual authors. So I soon made up my mind about the poets too. I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled them to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean. (Apology 22c, in Plato 1961)

If Socrates' assessment is correct, then the price of creative primacy is the installation of that transcendental rule of the subject-object partitions that Hegel remarks upon. With the Apology, the control of meaning enters wholly the readerly-critical sphere, the binding status of the poem now being that of its material inertia and the concomitant depreciation of the poet to irrationality and silence. In this Socratic exclusion the poet cannot theorize, and since the matrix of the poetic is placed in an inspirational, automatic emission, the poem itself is rendered static in the nondiscursive domain of an object-field.

The Apology anticipates many of the claims of cultural modernity: the fallacy of intention, the death of the author, the privilege of readership; while in assigning initial creativity to "a kind of instinct or inspiration," it premonishes uncannily Kristeva's concept of the prelinguistic process that articulates ephemeral and unstable structures-a process considered by Kristeva to be the underlying foundation of language-and which she terms genotext (1984, 86). In addition, the Apology carries the far more important of Plato's two poetic banishments. Called for in the Republic is a literal expulsion of subjects, functions, and bodies as a practical deportation from the great republic. But in the Apology, it is the axiomatic separation of creator from semantic determination and from all rational procedures that is called for. Poetry (in a manner Foucault later demonstrates of madness) is defined, enclosed, and then silenced. After the Apology, the poet is committed to the domain of semantic heterology. The persistence of this ostracization is worth remarking. For instance, Levinas comparably banishes poetry and art to the realm of the irresponsible, claiming that they elevate "in a world of initiative and responsibility, a dimension of evasion" (1987, 12). The critical stance before such work is the responsible act of integrating "the inhuman work of the artist into the human world" (Levinas 1987, 12). In Benjamin's early thinking the critical task occupies a similarly exalted position at the convergence of artistic, religious, and philosophic domains, enjoying the panoptic perspective where "the essential indivisible unity of all three vantage points can be grasped" (Wolin 1994, 31).

To address theory's insufficiency to some poetical economies involves approaching theoretical practice from the vantage of its thresholds and fully exploiting the negativity of its Hegelian sediment. The potential of poetical economies here is to address theory itself from their own material resistances; consequently not to argue against Plato but beyond him. The concomitant challenge to theoretical disciplines is to redirect their reflexivity into a self-examination staged immanently within their own procedures, addressing those areas of the nondiscursive that theory must leave free, as well as those aspects that escape of necessity through theory's apertures.

Citing the works of Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Joyce, and Artaud as exemplary, Kristeva revisions writing as "textual practice" involving a subject-in-process for its production and maintaining resistance to all binding theoretical annexation. Textual practice threatens all signification and representation through its partly a-symbolic constitution. Issuing from a "split" subject divided between conscious and unconscious drives, such texts involve an oscillating tension between two discrete signifying processes that Kristeva famously terms the "symbolic" and the "semiotic." The latter carries the burden of instinctual drives and forces that affect, but do not support, a social transmission. Despite the strictures of a sociolect, the semiotic is disposed in specific detectable aspects of language, especially its rhythmic and sonic intricacies. The symbolic process, by contrast, involves a disposition toward the normative modes of signification: grammar, syntax, sentence integration, and the covering rules that guarantee unproblematic, intersubjective communication. (Needless to say, textual practice valorizes the former, semiotic disposition.)

Theory (demanding a construction by way of categorical abstractions articulated onto the symbolic) requires a molar stability that renders a lasting relationship with processual textual practices incompatible. Kristeva's revisioned writing involves "giving up the lexical, syntactic, and semantic operation of deciphering, and instead tracing the path of their production" (1984, 103). If theory is to be accommodated, it must be as a provisional operation passed through and finally jettisoned. To solve theory's own metalinguistic dilemma, all theoretical agendas must be replaced by heuristic ones. All attempts to stabilize discursively (by hypothesis, explication, or description) a radically unstable practice are abandoned, and the negativity previously "swallowed" into theory is released into instinctual play (96).

Kristevan textual practice stands in healthy contrast to Murray Krieger's critical assimilation: "This poem before me-as an alien 'other,' outside me and my consciousness-imposes upon me to make it no longer 'other' " (1976, 203), and his binding of textual heterogeneity by appeal to the aesthetic paradigm: "The poem unifies itself aesthetically around its metaphoric and its countermetaphoric tendencies, even as its oppositions remain thematically unresolved. It is, then, self-demystifying, but as such it does not fall outside the symbolist aesthetic, at its most critically aware, its most self-conscious, is able to demand: nothing less than a waking dream" (1981, 22). Though a significant improvement on Krieger's aestheticism, Kristeva's formulation is not entirely satisfactory. At its outset, textual practice is reductive, inaugurating a vanguard writing predestined to cultural marginality. More seriously, it fails to offer a radical "reader practice;" a practice that would involve a split reader-subject-in-process of equal status as the writer, who could effect more radical encounters with meaning and its loss than tracing a prior textual practice. Additionally, Kristeva's prelinguistic or protosemantic concerns commit her to supporting a certain psychic essentialism, while her intrasubjective notion of the textual relation does not allow an approach to writing and reading as differing logics of action.

Certeau delineates two such logics in the strategy and the tactic. "I call a 'strategy' the calculus of force-relationships which become possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an 'environment.' A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, 'clienteles,' 'targets,' or 'objects' of research" (1984, xix). A tactic, on the other hand, is "a calculus which cannot count on a 'proper' (a spatial or institutional) localization nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality" (xix). Deprived of the spatial advantage of a base, tactics take the form of temporal, nomadic, and necessarily provisional actions: "a tactic depends upon time-it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized 'on the wing.' Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into 'opportunities'" (xix). Tactics require "a logic articulated on situations and the will of others" and must "produce without capitalizing, that is, without taking control over time" (xx).

Certeau remains alert to theory as an operational partition carrying a discrete practice of discourse (i.e., a regulated specialization) whose main effect is the maintenance of social reason. The strategic nature of theoretical practice can be readily inferred from Certeau's aforementioned words. Enjoying the spatial advantage of a base in the "proper" (being both an institution and an enterprise) theory generates relations with its numerous fields, intervening in the everyday drift of reading to recover it from temporal erosion and forgetfulness. Deploying reading as a tactic results in something quite different, closer to a loss or slippage of the text in hand and which Certeau likens to poaching as a practice of insinuation and mutation:

a silent production: the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance.... He insinuates into another person's text the ruses of pleasure and appropriation: he poaches on it, is transported into it, pluralizes himself in it like the internal rumblings of one's body ... the viewer reads the landscape of his childhood in the evening news. The thin film of writing becomes a movement of strata, a play of spaces. A different world (the reader's) slips into the author's place. (Certeau 1984, xxi)

Rather than retracing the instinctual drives and gestures inscribed within an initial production, Certeau's implied reader enters a textual space to enjoy an indeterminate production of detours, personal accretions, and mutant assimilations, but as a "consumer practice" that fails to generate a discursive figuration. Between the production of poems and their annexation by theory lies the nondiscursive practice of reading whose range might be fixed as a passive voyeurism at one end and an unfettered, idiosyncratic agency at the other.

What is called "popularization" or "degradation" of a culture is from this point of view a partial and caricatural aspect of the revenge that utilizing tactics take on the power that dominates production. In any case, the consumer cannot be identified or qualified by the newspapers or commercial products he assimilates: between the person (who uses them) and these products (indexes of the "order" which is imposed on him), there is a gap of varying proportions opened up by the use that he makes of them. (Certeau 1984, 32)


Excerpted from Prior to Meaning by STEVE MCCAFFERY
Copyright © 2001 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Steven McCaffery (born January 24, 1947) is a Canadian poet and scholar who was a professor at York University. He currently holds the Gray Chair at SUNY Buffalo (Amherst). McCaffery was born in Sheffield, England and lived in the UK for most of his youth attending University of Hull. He moved to Toronto in 1968. In 1970, he began to collaborate with fellow poets Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, and bpNichol, forming the sound-poetry group, The Four Horsemen. McCaffery's poetry attempts to break language from the logic of syntax and structure to create a purely emotional response. He has created three-dimensional structures of words and has released a number of sound and video works, often in collaboration with other poets.

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