Marion May Campbell
Polyamorous ventriloquy: Loiterature as textual cruising
This paper was delivered on 25 November 2012 as a Keynote Address for Encounters: Place/Situation/Context, the 17th Annual Conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, Deakin University, Waterfront Campus, 25-27 November 2012
I would like to address the potential of a critical project for the generation of creative work, deploying Ross Chambers’ concept of ‘loiterature’ as a mode of textual cruising, and to consider the kind of polyamorous ventriloquy which this practice can catalyse. While the paper draws on my own recent experience of this dialogue between critical and creative enquiries I hope that it works as an argument for the nurturing space the academy can offer for experimentation and for new creative departures. I also hope it challenges the romance of the ‘creator’ as individual; implicit throughout this presentation is the idea of ‘creativity’ as polyamorous receptivity.
These words from Antonin Artaud conjure for me the text-to-come with its spectral nervure, a phantasmagorical organism: all aperture, a dream-catcher, a text-sampler – the device that is the draft, and beyond, future anterior selves, which will-have-come, which will feed on it, disrupt it and traverse it with their s/hearing jolts, multiplying fissures though which new texts will perhaps be spawned. The draft is an intersection of infinite virtual pathways and in wishing to be buoyed by this fragile thing that I suspend before me in life I’m in a state of radical passivity. I send partial selves out without specific agency, to attract encounters, to undergo encounters, to sufferencounters with alterity. To start with I need to welcome what unsettles my knowing.
To turn what seems like a terminus into points of departure I await accidents on an under-written bench at the airport concourse, for example, an inevitably perforated bench. It’s here, in this porosity, that it begins, but for the moment, it’s holding its breath and the mesh which suggests the surfaces of the text-to-come is tenuous indeed, a sticky blow-away emulsion from dream but carrying, like Kristeva’s semiotic chora (Kristeva 1974) that pre-linguistic, libidinous pulsation, and rhythmic echoes of all the writings one has slept in and with. One way of doing this, while one suspends this draft and those selves-to-come, is to engage with others whose minds and knowledge might be radically unsettlingof one’s own, whose intellect and ethical engagement excite something beyond mere respect, whose energies and enthusiasm promise a dialogue of reciprocal provocation to pass beyond oneself, of myriad encounters through the scrupulous, attentive reading of a wide range of texts, re-inflected and intensified though this exchange. These ‘others’ might include any interlocutor, any writer one reads, whether philosopher, critic or poet, collaborator, mentor – or, indeed, supervisor.
Not wanting a PhD project to be an onerous task but rather a most pleasurably unsettling and radical make-over, I sought out for supervision, Professor Michele Grossman, a person I fiercely admired for her rousing enthusiasm, political engagement, super-quick intellect and her streetwise straight-talking, and most importantly for me, her fabulously irreverent sense of humour, all of which promised to catalyse the intellectual and artistic renovation I was looking for. I had, through the cumulative effects of the increasingly market-driven nature of the so-called Australian literary ‘industry’, and of my own internalisation of publishers’ and editors’ cautionary advice, lost quite a bit of the experimental verve I might have once had and, thanks to Grossman’s extraordinary mentoring, I soon felt exhilaratingly re-emboldened. In this sheltered place I need no longer heed calls for compromises, realignments, greater textual cohesion, realist suturing and to foreswear from the poetics of the fragment.
I wanted to drive the project by the question of the subversive text, how it might harness the intertextual to get a disruptive, critical purchase on its host culture. The generative power of ‘the problem of the poetic revolutionary’ would take me I didn’t know where, if not to a new ‘pathlessness’. There’s at once risk and a certain euphoria in this aporia, since as Ross Chambers points out, in his Loiterature (Chambers 1999: 92) if aporia implies etymologically ‘pathlessness’, it also implies a potential infinity of new pathways. In my early study of literature I’d been enthused by the research and practice promoted by the Parisian group of intellectuals, artists and writers constellated around the Tel quel review (Brandt 1997; Forest 1995; Ffrench 1995; Fallon 1997; Marx-Scouras 1996) funded by Les éditions du Seuil, and which began in 1963 and endured until Philippe Sollers’ editorial leadership until 1980.
Rising to the wager of revolutionising literature and transforming society, as cultural historian and theorist Danielle Marx-Scouras argues in her critical history (Marx-Scouras: 1996), under the aegis of Tel Quel some of the most provocative reflection on literature, art, and society was published from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, including key interventions by Roland Barthes, Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gérard Genette, Julia Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet, Philippe Sollers, and Tzvetan Todorov. These names suggest an intensive confluence of lines of thought: from the theorisation of the gift and sacrifice in Malinowski and Mauss via Bataille, to revisitations of Nietzsche by Foucault and of Hegel and Husserl by Derrida, through Bakhtin’s dialogism critically reworked in Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality (Kristeva 1969) and the critical reappraisal and dissemination of key works of Russian formalism via Tzvetan Todorov (Todorov 1966). One of the most exciting aspects of Tel Quel’s work in the 1960s and early 1970s was its refusal to hierarchise the relation between textual theory and practice. In fact, these two modes of enquiry were mutually driven and imbricated. Tel Quel’s experimental practice drew inspiration from writers as diverse as Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Artaud, Joyce, Kafka and Ponge as much as from their own colleagues’ theoretical practice. They emphasised text as against literature and virtually abolished – as reactionary – generic demarcations, promoting instead writing as lutte et rature, (Sollers 1972) as struggle and erasure, and ‘intransitive’ process (Barthes 1984: 975). Noticeably, towards 1967-1968, this collective work drew increasingly on Marxism through the lens of the Lacanian theorisation of the desiring subject in language (Kristeva 1974; Kristeva 1980). A landmark event for avant-garde Paris was Bulgarian-born Kristeva’s 1974 defence of her Doctorat d’état thesis La Révolution du langage poétique, attended by a who’s who of French intellectual life, and in which she trove to deliver to the Tel Quel group (Kristeva 1992) a theorisation of a revolutionary poetics, and in particular of le sujet en procès, the subject-in-process and -on-trial enabled by the disruptions of the semiotic in the symbolic and by the repudiations of negativity.Post-1968 she was certainly aware of the European history of these hyphenated propensities: poetics-revolution, and the fact that their articulation had not led to the hoped-for social transformation. The theoretical kernel  of the thesis translated into American English as Revolution of Poetic Language (Kristeva 1984) has proved vastly influential in the Anglo-sphere for textual theory at large. Kristeva had already by 1966 introduced the anti-formalist 1930s work of Mikhaïl Bakhtin to a France still locked in the thrall of structuralism and formalism, promoting the concept of intertextuality to cover parody, textual dialogism and heteroglossic practice, which crucially restored the socio-political context to poetics. With Le mot, le dialogue et le roman (1969: 143-173) Kristeva argues that the text’s availability to radicalism and polyphony is orchestrated by the reader, and thus her version of intertextuality announces and feeds what will become the Barthesian model. In fact, almost word for word, Kristeva anticipates Barthes’s famous ‘tissue of quotations’ in his polemical ‘Death of the Author’ (1983): ‘Every text is elaborated as a mosaic of quotations, every text is the absorption and transformation of another text,’ (Kristeva 1969: 146) . Barthes will maintain in S/Z that
In drafting aspects of this thesis I took my cue from Tel Quel’s promotion of ‘text’ rather than genre and its attack on ‘literature’ as institution, not to be hemmed in by what was so-called critical and what was said to be creative: all texts are susceptible to provoke writing which might just as easily end up in the creative intervention as in the critical. In fact I saw it as one of my tasks to create a chiasmus, as it were, a cross-over in the heart of each by the other so that their dialogue might be palpable in image, motif and rhythmic pattern. I remembered the euphoria with which Kristeva and Sollers tried to build on May 1968:
This is Philippe Sollers flying very optimistically the red flag here. Avant-garde catch-cries predicated on the hyphenation of poetics and revolution, as mapped in their staggering variety from the left and the right by Laurent Jenny in his wonderful book Je suis la révolution: histoire d’une métaphore (Jenny 2008) can now look violent and absurd when we reflect on how soon each avant-garde gesture becomes canon fodder, if not an exhausted t-shirt icon, when it is remembered at all.
So, picking up on these energies, contradictions, and frustrations I wrote from the perspective of a barely emergent persona:
Revisiting the cultural politics and the theoretical issues which sought to catalyse new practices then, the thematic weave of my fiction started to emerge and I gladly took on this charge. But simultaneously the features of the writers I investigated for the relationship of intertextual practice and subversive force: Jean Genet (2007; 2001), Monique Wittig (1973), Angela Carter (2006), Kathy Acker (1984), Kathleen Fallon (2001), Kim Scott (1999), and Brian Castro (2003) emerged as key elements of a radical practice: what I found there I began, by more or less pre-conscious ventriloquy to apply. Building on Hutcheon’s concept of ironic trans-conceptualisation (Cheetham & Hutcheon 1991; Hutcheon 2000) whereby parody gains critical force when it activates the political context of the text parodied or what Genette has called the hypotext (Genette 1983), I looked into how the confluence of these strategies can draw attention to the violence that grounds representation and the claims to universality of the sovereign patriarchal subject. Across this range of texts certain features were significantly recurrent: macro-structurally, radical montage was the dominant compositional mode; syntactically, parataxis or simple coordination rather than subordination, was pervasive and the asyndeton or syntactical ‘jump-cut’ was strikingly manifest, especially in Wittig (1973), Acker (1984) and Fallon (2001). In terms of what stylisticians and discourse theorists call ‘discursive cohesion’ (Halliday 1976), there were frequent occurrences of radical interruption, or of the non-sequitur, at times delivered through strategies I’ve mentioned; at others, through intense heteroglossia, involving a jamming of registers from gutter slang to high lyricism and back, segueing from pop cultural slogans to quotes from philosophers; ways of insisting on text as material practice by visual interrupters like font changes, through the insertion of graphics problematising reference, through the intersplicing of parodied and ‘plagiarised’ texts, and the narratorial switching of grammatical person and tense.
In all these works, the ‘disappeared’ and abjected body is re-semanticised: absence or ‘disappearance’ is inscribed as active, scandalous hole or lesion, and the grotesque treatment of the pathologised body magnifies the perversions of colonial and sexist affliction. On the other hand, it is the body positively celebrated through the endless turns of animal-becoming that delivers a concerted challenge to humanism, to anthropocentrism and phallologocentrism. All the writers I looked at, from Genet to Castro, remind us in their synaesthesic raucousness, with their appeal beyond the merely visual to all the senses – auditory, tactile, olfactory, kinesic – how the purring of the visual machine operates in realism to hold us in the sway of the well-sutured spectacle. All of the texts considered put mimesis on trial, drawing attention through these myriad interruptive devices to the forms of discursive seduction that subjugate diversity and subordinate the heteroglossic to the aesthetics of harmonic integration, assimilation and resolution.
I closed my study by suggesting that textual practices that counter the teleological imperative of the ‘well-made’ story, that foreground the body’s metamorphic power, along with its corruptibility, that exploit compositional montage, heteroglossia, as an interweaving of often clashing registers, and a scenography (or spatial practices on stage or page) calling into question these ‘insides and outsides’ invoked by Sollers, can still deliver potent and critical parodies of oppressive modes of representation. By comic derision and the protest of grotesque magnification, by displaying at what violent expense power and capital seduce, subjugate or exclude, by foregrounding the play of contradictions and voices within its own productivity, radical textual practice can, at the very least, fuel critique and empower resistance.
So what I needed was to explore equally in my ‘creative’ work was the relationship between language and revolution and I decided to explore the case of the German Rote Armee Fraktion, the Red Army Faction, partly because the first RAF generation coincided with the rise of Tel quel and shared the same intellectual climate. To re-coin the cliché, these would-be revolutionaries held the Bundesrepublik of Western Germany to ransom from 1970 through to the late 1990s and beyond, and I wanted both to channel and to parody their leaders of the ‘first generation’ of the RAF, in particular the feminists with whom I might have had a dangerous identification, had I known them at the time: Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin, who struck me as the most interesting since they were initially driven by high political passion and ethical ardour, yet ended up apparently as cold-blooded killers. But I wanted to stage them for us now, because nostalgic revisitation of this ‘armed struggle’ as such, and not as terror, is dangerous indeed; and in any case the romantic recycling and commodification of revolutionary icons is, as everyone knows, one of capitalism’s great success stories. I took my cue from my investigation of parody, and especially from Bakhtin on Rabelais (Bakhtin 1970), who saw laughter (by which I understand comic derision and parodic magnification) as the mode resisting sublimation, unlike say pathos, or mere romantic irony. First I had to invest by entering their Umwelt through their texts and texts about them and then disinvest, as my supervisor encouraged me to do, through laughter.
Part of this process involved reading their texts in German; the body of my German always anorexic and long since comatose, had to be painfully jolted back into life and tube-fed with lexis gleaned from Meinhof (2008; 1995; 2009), Ensslin (Ensslin and Vesper 2009; Ennslin 2011) and their commentators and biographers (Becker 1989; Aust 2008; Röhl 2007; Sontheimer 2010; Steinseifer 2011). I began with reading Meinhof’s essays (2008). My German-English dictionary was soon black. In the novella developed from this material I have a writer Angel Beigesang, whose name means parody, or what is sung alongside, confess:
But how to make this present, speak to us in 2012? In terms of my project on Intertextuality and Subversion I had occasion to re-read Ross Chambers’ Loiterature and, while this went underground for me in a kind of cryptamnesia, I realise it catalysed me into letting my perambulatory other, the cranky old crone, my crony, my sister, walk the streets of contemporary Paris. What Loiterature suggests as a pleasurable mode of textuality, is to take the chronotopeof the road (Bakhtin 1981) or of the pavement, and to make the constant ‘trivium’, of the Y, the three prongs of the forever-bifurcating pathway, into an improvisational and digressive practice of reading and of writing one’s readings. As Michel de Certeau points out, the ‘rhetoric’ of walking in the contemporary city is a practice of both the asyndeton, or radical jump-cut of jolting impressions, with the synecdoche, or the fragmented glimpse, where the part stands in place of the all (de Certeau 1984: 101). If digression is ‘trivial’ it is only in the etymological sense of the ‘trivium’ as constant invitation to the pleasure of straying. In Chambers’ practice loiterature is like a contemporary version of flânerie or cruising for the serendipitous encounter. He argues:
My main character, whose name itself would make me digress endlessly – Monique Piquet ex-commo Aussie, formerly Monica Picket, who’s fleur-de-lysed herself to pass as French – would be moving towards an encounter with Angel Beigesang, the former student she once tempered in her own revolutionary fire, Angel Beigesang, who has just brought out this dramatic reimagining of Meinhof and Ensslin, the two feminists as I mentioned behind the kernel original membership of the Red Army Faction. Monique Piquet, curmudgeonly, grief-numb, a writer who thinks of herself as having been ‘disappeared’, is going into freefall breakdown and heads towards this re-encounter with her ex-student, forgetfully contemptuous of the idea of romancing revolution which she once instilled in her students.
Paris, map of revolution and repression, of imperial boast and crushing defeat, of fearless sustained insurrection and bloody suppression; Paris where every second demo ploughs the avenue of blood from Nation to Bastille; but Paris is also like any city in offering a proliferation of chronotopes of the threshold, of the road, and of the encounter (Bakhtin 1981) which enable one to encounter subjects and texts: the aleatory, the unforeseeable, along with the scripts bent on sinister telos which state power would write in – all inflect the trajectory of the loiterer. The loiterer’s subjectivity is endlessly playing host to and falling hostage to; being captivated and seduced by the voices of the other, the stories of the other. So seismographically I wanted to enable my perambulatory character to pick up histories through her bone, as it were, putting them into montage with the material she is reading about the RAF, thus spatialising stories from the past, turning back-stories of place into practised space as de Certeau would have it (de Certeau 1988). As mentioned, aporia is pathlessness; wiped-out by grief and failure, my character is radically passive, her breakdown in freefall. She is moved by the contingency of place acting on her, pressing stories into her circuitry.
There are many chronotopes or space-time matrices of the threshold or liminal type, some of which were suggested to me by the pragmatics of where I started, at arrival: the airport travelator at Paris-Charles de Gaulle, the pavement along Rue de la Convention (a revolutionary street name if ever there was one), where accidents and pick-ups happen, Le Divan bookshop window busy with intertexts, the bus stop Rue Vercingétorix, the escalators in the Great National Library, the Bibliothèque National Site Francois Mittérand. These liminal chronotopes can be productive in tripping things into elsewheres; these bring past time back into active space.
So Monique Piquet sips a pinot gris on a cafe terrace, Place de la Bastille and finds it
The world of pan-capital, of repression and violence informs the transnational salade composée: these elements are set in montage with the self-parodying romantic revolutionaries of the RAF. To stage them I sampled their language and pushed it towards parody, for example by turning Goethe’s ‘Wandrers Nachlied II: ein Gleiches’ (von Goethe 1964) as representative of Germany’s most ‘noble’ canon, to make it work like escapism into the ‘peace’ of shopping. Gudrun Ensslin, evangelical pastor’s daughter is retreating from the cops who’ve caught her current wig in their cameras, into the changing booth of a luxury boutique, where she’ll try to buy a new disguise. As in a confessional alcove; she addresses herself as ‘you’. I had earlier on written in Gudrun Ensslin, as a product of my own binary entrapment, as almost entirely lacking in compassionate warmth, vis-a-vis a mixture of depression and passionate ardour that are there in Meinhof, until I was able to read in Berlin a recent German publication of her correspondence with her then husband Berward Vesper when she was in prison for the department store arson in protest against napalm bombing in Vietnam. This enabled me to mix the sentimental and adoring young mother with the revolutionary discipline she forced on herself, in deciding to turn all Ten Commandments upside down, for the sake of revolution:
The text places this in immediate montage with another scene of would-be sale in Paris, Porte de Montmartre in which impoverished North Africans offer digital age junk for sale and are scattered by the police.
For Meinhof’s voice and key imagery, I translated this from her German prose poem, effectively a protest against the sensory deprivation she endured in prison, and in this intimate slithering inside another’s language one cannot help but identify...
Here against the convoluted syntax of her earnest and thoroughly researched Marxist analyses of Bundesrepublik political culture in the Cold War, she is writing from the body and it struck me that if only she had had a more playful attitude to language not caught in the wild veering from Mehl im Maul Hoch Deutsch, mealy mouthed High German, to the gutter slang she ventriloquised from Gudrun Ensslin and the young women in homes she tried to help, she might have avoided taking the fatal step into terror. A lot of the expressions are taken from actual Info notes passed to the other RAF prisoners in Stuttgart Stammheim prison:
And incrementally or asymptotically Piquet undergoes accidents through the hauntedness of place until her re-encounter with Beigesang. After being ejected violently from the nightmarish Bibliothèque Nationale Site François Mittérand, Piquet buses her way towards their meeting place, Le Merle Moqueur café. The bus becomes a glorious ship of fools where laughter releases all from the impoverishment of solitude:
Here contingency and image-suggestiveness wrote a weird solution in. My character’s ‘little red riding dot’ breaks comes out in a rash of red spots at the Merle Moqueur café, when she sees how many paintings on exhibition are signalled as sold. In truth the coincidence of her inner imaging with pure contingency, which only happened unconsciously in the writing becomes part of her own writing, drawing her out to writing a rescue in for her own teenaged lovers in their Valiant Regal Torqueflite.
In the end the text returns to what remains, what survives, and the penultimate word is given over in the dialogue of the two writers, to Felix Ensslin, son of Gudrun, now a professor of art history, who says that ‘The measure of our humanity is what we make of the stories we inherit’ (Ensslin 2011). No one is finished business, no story complete. But the way we reopen and subject to redrafting, radical revision, to polyamorous ventriloquy the stories we encounter against those we inherit and would reroute, he suggests, is the gift and the challenge of existence. Thus also the novella konkretion hangs, even in its willed finitude, as merely a draft, open at each end, and through which blow the draughts of the real, as it were. In this way the ending is foremost a vector outwards: its last words are a resolve and a hope: Maybe in the next draft....
I have tried to say how the work was enabled by a project of critical reflection and that it was finally an improvisation in the mode of Chambers’ Loiterature around the problem of language and social transformation. This was all made possible by an ideal supervisory situation in which the productive dialogue was not only between supervisor and supervisee but in which the two-way traffic between critical and creative discourses, encouraged their cross-fertilisation. Whether the market place of texts likes this kind of thing is of course another question entirely.
Marion May Campbell is Associate Professor in Professional & Creative Writing at Deakin University. Her latest work konkretion, concerning language and revolution, has just come out with UWA Publishing.
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Vol 17 No 1 April 2013
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo