by Bruce Serafin
HERE ARE Two quotations. I would like the reader to look at them as much for their vocabulary and syntax as for their content:
Whereby we see that in the total system of the image the structural functions are polarized; on the one hand there is a sort of paradigmatic condensation on the level of connotators (i.e., by and large, of the "Symbols," which are strong, erratic, and one might say "reified" signs; and on the other there is a syntagmatic "flow" on the level of denotation; it will not be forgotten that the syntagm is always very close to speech, and it is indeed the iconic "discourse" which naturalizes its symbols.
In the place of "voice` and presence are the agents of deferral operating in the shifting spaces where all phono-centric investments have been effectively marginalized. Inscribed throughout Palmer`s work, as its syntactic motion, are the protean, nomadic locales of the subject`s disappearance, provisional topographies beyond the symmetries of line, where language instigates self-reflexiveness and the poems interrogate their own limits.
One of these quotations comes from Steve McCaffery`s book, North of Intention, and the other comes from an essay written in the 1960s by the French structuralist Roland Barthes. Can you tell them apart? If you are familiar with Barthes`s work, it is probably fairly easy to tell that the first quotation is his and the second McCaffery`s. Still, just on the strength of these examples, I think we can say that McCaffery`s critical style is very similar to that of Barthes. It has the same density, the same quasi-scientific vocabulary, the same coolly objective viewpoint, the same commitment to a kind of exhaustive exploration of the text, and the same dependence on the idea that a piece of writing is first and foremost a linguistic structure whose effect is determined by the laws of language. This influential style originated in France in the early `60s, and has had a tremendous impact on avant-garde criticism in Canada. Its difference from conventional criticism written in English -- above all, its verbal density -- makes it very attractive to some writers; and in McCaffery`s case, his use of this style has turned him into a bit of a cult figure. Those who have a high regard for McCaffery admire his assimilation of French thought and his ability to use this thought to describe the work of marginal or avant-garde writers in Canada and the United States; for such readers, reading McCaffery is a little like having a brilliant French critic right here at home.
Now, I like Barthes, too, and to some extent I am sympathetic with the viewpoint of McCaffery`s aficionados. Yet it seems to me that there is a more revealing way to look at McCaffery`s work. And that is to see it as colonial -- as work anxious to mimic a body of "master texts" originating elsewhere. From this viewpoint, McCaffery is like those early Canadian poets who wrote in the style of Swinburne or Longfellow, for instance; as with them, the chief thing you notice in his work is a sort of unconscious pathos, the pathos of whatever is derivative or second-hand without meaning to be so. Each time I read North of Intention (or just drift through it, noting a phrase here, a word there), I am struck by the fact that I have seen those words and phrases elsewhere; I notice his infatuation with the more superficial stylistic aspects of French criticism, and his consequent inability to steal from the writers he uses and so make their ideas his own. Indeed, there are a great many places in his writing where his mimicry of the French style is so blatant that I feel the only thing notable about the book is its epigonism: the real interest of North of Intention seems to me to lie in the fact that it is the work of a writer who is like other writers, a characteristic figure.
McCaffery also has a strongly collegial sensibility something that he shares with other members of the Canadian avant-garde, such as Robert Kroetsch and Stephen Scobie. Like an astronaut, or a radical feminist, he is a colleague, someone involved in a project that he develops in a "responsible" manner for others who are similarly involved. His writing is determined and given shape by an extremely strong sense of solidarity: as with the `60s Barthes, there is a group he writes for, a group to which he belongs and to which he is utterly wedded, right down to the style of his prose. For Barthes, this group was the structuralists and avant-garde writers who contributed to the magazines Communications and Tel Quel; for McCaffery it is the "language-centred" writers grouped around the magazines L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Open Letter. It is for them that he writes, and it is from them that he gets his sense of what is worth doing.
Another quality that makes McCaffery`s writing characteristic is what I will call its heroism. This heroism is due in part to the verbal density -- the atmosphere of difficulty -- that McCaffery has borrowed from the French; but it is due even more to the lofty, impersonal tone that his solidarity with the group gives him. It is the tone of someone whose very language is determined by the collective that gives him its strength, and it can occasionally lead to absurdity. One of the pieces collected in North of Intention, for instance, is an interview with McCaffery conducted by Andrew Payne. At one point, after discussing the avant-garde writers who are McCaffery`s subjects, Payne asks the following:
Andy: I wonder if we don`t find, in a lot of this work, a kind of monodimensionality of "tone"...at times, too, a lack of humor. Steve: Yes, Creeley mentioned this in a recent issue of Sagetrieb, although I`m not sure of the validity of any generalization here. I`ve personally come to see humor as a useful tonal- ideological destabilizer, an agent of relativization, dispersal and inversion (similar to Bakhtin`s notion of the carnivalization of literature). Humor tends to operate as a visceral, or tactile investment upon the level of the verbal order; it is not entirely "of" language.
This is practically self parody; but what is really interesting is the stolidity of McCaffery`s response, the unblinking assurance, the complete reliance on a kind of "secured" vocabulary. This is the house style not only of the avant-garde, but of any large government corporation, and its chief purpose is to mask the individual writer and give him a kind of group sensibility. At bottom, it is an unfree style. In prose, at least, the chief way to get across the sense of a freely speaking voice is through the use of dramatic arrhythmia -- i.e., the use of digressions, questions, changes in register, the interruption of a mass of complex sentences with a short declarative one, etc. But there is almost none of this linguistic drama in McCaffery`s work. Instead you get a "colleague`s" sentence -- long, impersonal, jargon- ridden -- that imposes its rhythm on the work to the exclusion of any other. This effectively masks McCaffery as an individual, while making him stand out as a heroic representative of a project and program of work.
McCaffery`s methodology is also characteristic. It consists of a kind of exhaustive "covering" of the text being considered, in which you bring to bear every piece of knowledge you have that might be relevant or in some sense illuminating. This is the structuralist approach (Barthes said that all he could do as a structuralist was "cover" the texts he dealt with), but it is also very close to what in English is called bullshitting. The difference between the two is largely a matter of tact and of having a sense of proportion, but it is exactly these qualities that are missing from much of McCaffery`s work, as well as from the work of his peers. Here are the opening sentences of two of the essays in North of Intention:
We will focus on the ludic features of The Martyrology, those varieties of wordplay (pun, homophony, palindrome, anagram, paragram, charade), which relate writing to the limits of intentionality and the Subject`s own relation to meaning.
We can trace in Jackson Mac Low`s work the putting into play of a kind of writing machine that opens up scriptive practice to an infinite semiosis through the infra-textual and combinatory nature of words.
It will be seen from these quotations that McCaffery tends to use the collegial "we," that his tone is coolly objective, and that he is interested above all in exploring the linguistic practices of writers - - in short, that he functions as a student or academic. But the problem is that McCaffery is bringing a scholarly type of criticism to bear on writers whose interest lies chiefly in their eccentricity. By "scholarly" I mean the kind of work usually found in academic articles on Kafka or Blake or William Congreve -- i.e., articles that take the literary worth of their authors for granted and subject them to little or no evaluation, being interested instead in some aspect of what they have done. Now, by treating his writers this way McCaffery is making a claim about them: he is implying that their literary worth is in some sense indisputable. And again, this is characteristic. Throughout the literary avantgarde you find enormous claims being made for writers that the common reader finds tedious or unintelligible -- the treatment of bp Nichol is a great example of this -- and you find these claims being made in the context of the academy, where reader interest doesn`t count. In short, like a number of his peers, McCaffery`s project is to legitimate his colleagues, to stake a claim for them by discussing them in the kind of cool, non-judgemental way that Marvell or Keats might be discussed.
There are real difficulties with this approach. First of all, it leads to a sort of fatuity or "deadness" that is rather hard to describe, though it is easy enough to sense When you come across it. But the other side of this approach is also noteworthy, since it a mounts to a kind of conspiracy of silence. If bp Nichol is a major poet, for instance, and is treated as Such, then what do you do with Margaret Avison or Czeslaw Milosz? Why, you ignore them, in order not to give the game away. Both these devices or methods of approach are everywhere in avant-garde criticism, and when You add to them a fake or Superficial objectivity, an often quite staggering pomposity in the choice of vocabulary and sentence structure, and a "seriousness" that is self- serving and tends to take the place of a strongly aesthetic sensibility, then I think you have the chief qualities that contribute to the air of fatuity that characterizes the kind of criticism typified by McCaffery.
But the deeper problem with such criticism is that it doesn`t really serve the writers it aims to legitimate. There is a great deal to say about the language poets, for instance, especially about their relationship to mass media such as radio and TV; but it simply will not he revealed unless there is a genuine tension between the critic and the writer being discussed. Instead, McCaffery is in a sort of complicity with his writers: either he treats their work in exactly the way the writers would like it to he treated, or else he assumes that the literary and linguistic intentions of the critic and of the writer being discussed are the same. What you learn from North of Intention is not what the writers being discussed are like, hut what is the right attitude to take to them.
I am being harsh. It is plain that McCaffery intends a kind of heroic defence of colleagues and peers such as bp Nichol, Fred Wah, hill bissett, George Bowering, and Christopher Dewdney, to mention just a few of the writers who are either discussed or quoted in North of Intention. Some of these writers are more interesting than others, some are barely readable; hut taken together they constitute a core sample of the literary avant-garde -- the "zoo of the new," to use Sylvia Plath`s phrase. This is an interesting zoo, after all, and yet dealing with it requires certain qualities that are implicit in Plath`s language. Youthful qualities: brightness, vivacity, curiosity, and above all, the kind of quickeyed temperament that can at once see as well as evoke the exotic animals before it. But these dot* come through in the book, because the true object of McCaffery`s attention isn`t the indigenous avant-garde, but the great mass of European masters in whose shadow he and his colleagues huddle. The writers that matter in this book are European. They include Roland Barthes, Roman Jakobson, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and Mikhail Bakhtin, and McCaffery is utterly passive in the face of their authority. Two consequences follow, First, the influence of these writers has led McCaffery to all but forsake the particular genius of his own language; it has led him, that is, to write a prose that is not merely an amalgam of the ideas of these writers, but also a kind of pastiche of their styles. And so (the second consequence) his work is monotonous. It has that dull sameness of tone that invariably speaks of timidity; or, more exactly, of a writer`s boredom with what he is producing. Because he has forsaken his native speech rhythms, and in general the bumptiousness of North American English, there is no pleasure in McCaffery`s writing, no feeling for the communicative side of prose. On the contrary: his writing is so derivative and so removed from the language he speaks that there is an almost brontosaurian quality to his essays. You feel he is producing the work by sheer will-power alone.
We live in an international age, a time when regional and cultural boundaries are becoming less and less meaningful, and for a great many writers this has led to a kind of split between them and the place in which they live. It is their home, certainly, they speak its language, its politics affect them, its streets and buildings are intimately familiar; yet at the same time a great many -- if not most -- of its concerns seem Somehow parochial and unreal. What does it mean, for instance, to live in Vancouver if the books You read are translated from the French and German, say, if your magazines come from the States and Great Britain, if your TV shows are American, your movies European, your clothes made by Benetton, and last year you rook that trip to Italy you`d been planning? What seems certain is that over time a "world sense` develops; the life one lives seems merely background. And for a writer, this makes the idea of an "audience" difficult. Where is the audience? Is it the audience that knows the same jingles you know? Or is it the audience that shares your ideas? This question is particularly hard for intellectuals, since there is Such a gap between the discourse they hear around them and the discourse they turn to in books to keep them stimulated. For such writers, the temptation to give up on the local or even national scene, and hence to give up on its language, can be overwhelming -- as overwhelming as the complementary temptation to join forces with a like-minded group. So a paradox arises: seeking the largest language, the language that seems most international, most part of an over-arching intellectual project, the critic ends up writing for fewer and fewer people. Wanting to be significant, he first of all loses his "place," then his sense of proportion, his ease with his native speech, and finally his pleasure in the use of language.
The loss of speech: one keeps coming back to that. The pathos in McCaffery`s work is the pathos of baffled effort, of a voice muffed by a kind of plate glass of borrowed styles. His texts are as misshapen as they are because he has lost the writer`s intense connection to his own language. And I believe that this is a function of writing for a group. Do that -- write for a group -and you gain security. Your writing becomes protected: you no longer know the anxiety of writing "blind," of wondering whether your work will be entertaining, or read. And without that anxiety the work turns bad. Intensity drains away: Your writing becomes tedious, right-minded. You go to books for your ideas; you learn what you are supposed to say. Ultimately, you become unfree.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Zajets.