Afterword: 21st-Century Poetics

To begin, we warmly thank those who contributed to this thick double issue of Canadian Literature. The work chosen for the collection illustrates the high quality of engagement across Canada (and beyond) of scholars and writers, often one and the same, with the practice and study of innovative or avant-garde writing. At this point, instead of offering a summary of these works—which speak strongly for themselves—we would rather use this opportunity to consider some of the issues, reading practices, and polemics that we have engaged with during what has been, for us as the guest editors, a productive period of putting the issue together.

For us, Slavoj Žižek’s The Fragile Absolute (2000) contains a number of formulations that speak to this issue’s agenda with respect to the avant-garde in Canadian writing—even if, as we shall see below, we have certain reservations. If there is no Christ outside Saint Paul, or no authentic Marx outside Lenin (xxx), then, too, perhaps, there is no literature outside the avant-garde. If psychoanalysis entails the acceptance and admission that all our discursive formations are forever haunted by some indivisible remainder, by some traumatic spectral rest that resists confession … that can never be redeemed-delivered, laid to rest, pacified/gentrified (90), then, too, the avant-garde’s program surely entails deliberating on the indivisible remainder qua language’s materiality, which resists both confession (a synecdoche for both confessional poetry and the lyric) and its pacification/gentrification (retaining all the colonialism, and neoliberalism, respectively, of those two terms).

However, rather than applying psychoanalysis as a rubric for clarifying or explaining the avant-garde, we use some of Žižek’s ideas in that chapter Of Stones, Lizards and Men (75-83) as a way of engaging some useful problematics. Leading into that chapter, he makes the argument, reading Heidegger, that our derangement upon entry into the Symbolic—into language—is constitutive of its own erasure, of an ontological vanishing mediator (another name for modernism). Then, this ex-timate kernel of truth (75) posited by the modernist explosion of language (a turning back of language onto itself: that is, language as the social order that is not personal, not intimate) is itself gentrified by the fantasy of literature—or poetry—as a proper pursuit, a fantasy that entails the properly fetishistic disavowal to be found in the argument I know very well that formally innovative poetry calls into question the very capacity of language to signify or communicate, nonetheless one can still discuss it in terms of the canonical traditions of the literary.

Žižek gives other examples of such fantasies, for example, the fetishes of anti-Semitism, and it is important to note the sorry history of modernism with respect to this and other ideologies of hatred (for which see Meredith Quartermain’s essay in this journal). Žižek also connects such fetishism to Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism: again, we can argue that it is only a writing practice which breaks with that commodification that is an avant-garde writing practice, in that it breaks with realism (a commodified literary form), and thus constitutes a nonfetishistic, and hence truly literary, practice. Literature, then, is a name for writing that is un-settled (not merely the canonical/dominating/institutional—here the debates in the 1970s over realism as commodified aesthetic, usefully documented in Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence, are key).

But let us hew to the straight path here, as a way of coming to some preliminary conclusions and a reading of a recent work of poetry. Following these ideas of derangement and fetishism, Žižek turns to one of his great Freudian themes, melancholy, arguing (in a discussion of Fellini’s Satyricon), that pagan melancholy bears witness to the fact that they somehow already have the premonition that the true God will soon reveal Himself, and that they were born just a bit too early, so that they cannot be redeemed (80). That is, Žižek makes the Hegelian (and arguably post-colonial) argument that we are not dealing with the Paradise which is then lost due to some fatal intrusion—there is already in paradisiacal satisfaction (in the satisfaction of the naïve organic community) something suffocating … a desire to break out—life in Paradise is always pervaded by an infinite melancholy (80). Surely this reading of the pre-Symbolic must stand alongside Žižek’s work on post-colonial melancholy (in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?) as a warning against the reading of any past—be it national, linguistic, or conceptual—as a Golden Age.

With this conceptual apparatus in place, one text that might lead to productive thoughts on the relationship between language, place, and subjectivity is Nikki Reimer’s 2010 book [sic]. The title’s allusion to a pedant’s or proofreader’s finickyness already indicates a lost language (to allude to the title of one of Maxine Gadd’s feminist, avant-garde works). But we also see (or taste) the brio of Reimer’s poems, as they veer from vegan protestors to chronic diseases, from gentrification to hipster greeting cards, from geographies of scale where it’s five hours from the kitchen to the living room (48) to the absolutely not self-pitying overmedicate me with thorazine (87). Surely Reimer’s work is, to run through Žižek’s checklist, an example of that traumatic spectral rest that resists confession … that can never be redeemed-delivered, laid to rest, pacified/gentrified (90)—that is to say, first of all, her poetry is a matter of confession to language itself. Here, then, the vanishing mediator is any certainty about the relation of form to the political:

i’d like to write because i think it will get

me laid but i’ve

always been left-handed

after discarding the feminine subject

position age six chose

to disavow any knowledge of domestic

responsibility (39)

For Reimer, or for the text at this moment, the semantic shift from left-handed to politics (the left) and the body (the hand, getting laid) is never certain, but certainly always in play. But, to stay within the context of the Canadian avant-garde, we do have some qualms: Žižek’s reading of Pauline Christianity in The Fragile Absolute is compelling but also problematic. If it is important for post-colonialism to state that there never has been a Golden Age, it would be equally important to make clear that neither has there been a naïve organic community—one of Žižek’s terms for pagan. One could also argue that, in fact, there have been many fatal intrusions, and even if we should not theorize a lost language, we know many languages have been lost—or rather—destroyed by colonization and globalization. That is, Žižek’s strictly psychoanalytic and universalist terms (that see any subjectivity as constituted around a lack) illustrate how certain conceptual structures restrict what it might be otherwise possible to consider.

In this case, while Žižek’s position speaks strongly to the concerns and even formal engagements of the avant-garde, his universalist position (which is a universalism of lack) problematizes its engagement in current and historical circumstances in Canada. That is, in explaining and advocating for Pauline Christianity, Žižek argues that we should unplug ourselves from the organic community into which we were born. According to Žižek’s reading, this (traumatic) break from our communities gives every individual access to universality and is the foundation for human rights and freedoms (120). Žižek’s reading of Pauline Christianity is thus resonant with an avant-garde poetics. In a letter to Kevin Killian, the late Nancy Shaw notes of her own writing practice, I am a bibliophile before I am a family member (88). Shaw’s poetics echoes what Christ demands of his followers, as illustrated here in Žižek’s citation of Saint Luke’s gospel: If anyone come to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple (111). Just as Christ requires that his disciples follow the word of God before all else, even (and especially) before their familial connections and obligations, the avant-garde writer typically eschews the expressive I (and familial relations) in favour of language systems (language as social order)—from which identity ultimately comes. Žižek notes that such familial obligations stand in metaphorically not only for the entire socio-symbolic network—and the ethnic substance qua identity politics (111) but also for the implicit spectral obscene supplement of the Law (120); he argues that such an unplugging is also what is demanded by Buddhism (111). Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument suggests that the importance of relations and relationships (familial and otherwise), central to many Indigenous world-views (and thus their philosophical and legal systems), are also the implicit spectral obscene supplement.
Žižek’s reading of Pauline Christianity does allow for many insights into the avant-garde. For example, their shared requirement of breaking with one’s embedded relations might explain what has always been inexplicable for some secular leftists: the attraction of Christianity—and what has always compelled us—the idea of the radical break from tradition that is intrinsic to the avant-garde. Yet it might also explain why so few non-Indigenous avant-garde writing communities in Canada have yet to enter into any extended dialogue with communities of Indigenous writers, philosophers, and artists, or, even raised within their own avant-garde communities the question of their colonial footprints (as Rachel Zolf would say). Nowadays, although many Indigenous communities are Christian or have been deeply/direly influenced by Christianity, what is important to many is the reclamation or repositioning (from underground to above ground) of pre-Christian traditions.

However, according to Žižek, these traditions are antithetical to Pauline Christianity—necessarily locked in a suffocating system of cosmic balance in which derailment is deemed catastrophic and even evil. Reading Christianity, according to Paul, or according to Žižek as based on rupture and not connectivity, Žižek’s argument opens a radical divide between Christianity and Indigenous pre-Christian traditions. (It should be noted that much of Žižek’s (Leninist) reading of Paul is indebted to Alain Badiou’s brief and incendiary Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism [xxix]). Does the same hold true for the avant-garde? And if, as Stacy Doris suggests, [w]riting poetry is a way of living in the world of our time, and so needs to address and participate in the issues of our time (113), how can non-Indigenous avant-garde poetic communities acknowledge some of the most pressing and urgent issues of our time, of our place—such as the living conditions of Indigenous communities across Canada; treaties and treaty negotiations; the vitality of Indigenous cultures, languages, and philosophies and their complex historical and contemporary intersections with and radical interventions into white settler logic; neoliberal notions of multiculturalism; and capitalism?

One of the more obvious problems with Žižek’s case for Pauline Christianity and its (or our) application to the avant-garde, is that it is based on a formula that lumps all non-Judaic Christian and non-Buddhist viewpoints together into one circuitous and claustrophobic condition. It seems that Žižek simply does not know. But he could read John Borrows’ discussion of Anishinabe culture and law in Drawing out Law: A Spirit’s Guide (2010) for a non-Christian worldview that is not based on the pagan practice that Žižek calls crushing the derailed element (121). Or, to stay only within one First Nation’s philosophy, he could think about Anishinabe political theorist Dale Turner’s argument in This is Not a Peace Pipe (2006) that it is only by developing conceptual frameworks in Indigenous languages that Aboriginal intellectuals can meet the full force of Western tradition. Or, to extend our circumference, Blackfoot scholars Narcisse Blood and Ryan Heavy Head, who trace Blackfoot influence in the work of American psychologist Abraham Maslow, suggesting that Indigenous languages already meet the full force of Western tradition with their own conceptual frameworks.

In not knowing, in not reading these scholars, is Žižek’s argument, and by extension this understanding of the avant-garde, bound by a limited discursive system that actively retains colonial, and neoliberal thinking? Would reading and knowing be enough? What kind of labour would it take to unbind these ties? While the question of how post-colonial or not Žižek’s position is (notwithstanding his important work on ethnic violence in the Balkans in the 1990s), his argument reveals something about why so few non-Indigenous avant-garde writers or communities take on the colonial or the post-colonial (in a Canadian context) as sites necessitating investigation and intervention. And if the excitement of working on this issue of Canadian Literature (not least with the journal’s team at UBC, and especially with our longtime friend and mentor Margery Fee), and thinking about the critical and poetic work that goes on in avant-garde Canadian writing, is not to be misread (or fetishized), then these sites, these investigations and interventions, must continue to draw our attention.

Works Cited

  • Badiou, Alain. St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Trans. Ray Brassier. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003. Print.
  • Blood, Narcisse, and Ryan Heavy Head. “Naamitapiikoan: Blackfoot Influences on Abraham Maslow’s Developmental and Organizational Psychology.” Alexandria: Microtraining, 2007. DVD.
  • Borrows, John. Drawing Out Law: A Spirit’s Guide. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010. Print.
  • Doris, Stacy. “Writing Poetry.” o-blek 12 (1993): 113-15. Print.
  • Reimer, Nikki. [sic]. Calgary: Frontenac, 2010. Print.
    Shaw, Nancy. Letter to Kevin Killian. o-blek 12 (1993): 88-91. Print.
  • Turner, Dale. This is Not a Peace Pipe: Towards an Indigenous Critical Philosophy. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006. Print.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? London: Verso, 2000. Print.

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