Hyperrhiz 05: Reviews

Jerome McGann, The Point Is to Change It

Neil Patten

University of Central Florida

McGann, Jerome. The Point Is To Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present (Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.

"In Play There Are Two Pleasures ..."

Sometimes single words or phrases serve as clues to very large ideas. Jerome McGann's long career of investigating the intricacy of language has produced many candidates for such connections, including, for instance, possibilities, context, deformation, and the Alice Fallacy. In the case of McGann's book, The Point Is To Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present, perhaps the word would be "undecidability," the uncontrollable potential for meaning in poetry.

As one of the recognized authorities on the evolution of criticism in the literature of cyberspace, McGann's history includes such achievements in speculation about the potential of electronic representation as The Rosetti Archive, The Ivanhoe Game, and Radiant Textuality. Obsession with the complexities of meaning makes McGann, perhaps not so much an opponent of conventional critical concepts as a sly manager, a prodder and a poker, who turns inside-out what has been represented as definitive, an extender and manipulator in the Humpty Dumpty sense of the portmanteau, full of alternatives and competing masters, and master of them in spite of themselves. McGann takes to issue such conventional critical essentials as authoritative texts and authorial voices, not because they are wrong; instead, he objects because these rob the players, taking from them the possibilities in the transaction, the potential for meaning-making, imagined knowledge, and therefore, full participation in art, which is, for McGann, very much like criticism, despite the suggestion that criticism obstructs knowledge. In McGann's view, we are all players of virtual meaning games that more or less parallel Burke's dramatic agency, the "language game" (3); in fact, the discussion will reveal that only a constrictive criticism obstructs knowledge, making analysis a language game in itself.

Be not surprised, therefore, that The Point Is To Change It does not surprise with respect to McGann's literary ideology. Rather, the surprises are in the adroit connections that reveal consistent, but transparent, fluid patterns and textures where only an opaque and glossy surface previously prevailed. The book is an intricate hammer with which McGann self-consciously smacks away at restrictive interpretations and judgments. As a discussion of "the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy," The Point is To Change It is really a discussion of McGann's quarrel with the logic and authority of critical convention, the jealous turf war waged to protect supremacy in the intellectual territory of what Marcel O'Gorman characterized as the "Republic of Scholars," a constrained and contained assessment of meaning in art, especially art as literature in the trappings of poetry. Perhaps the word "trappings" is particularly apt with respect to McGann's fundamental discourse because the conventions of poetic literature are the constraints that threaten to trap, to isolate and separate, both the sender and the receiver in the artistic process.

Typical of both McGann's scope and cumulative process, much of the material in this work represents a compilation of previous publications and reflections; these are presented in both conventional literary forms and as occasional arguments with himself in the voice of various characters, such as "Footnote" and "Printer's Devil," who appeared previously in Radiant Textuality. McGann divides the discussion into four accurate, but equally ironic, sections on expectations of philosophy or the ideology of literary criticism, sections that elaborate the representational nature of poetry (both as convention and as innovation), the evolutionary nature of poetry, the accessibility of meaning, and finally imagined knowledge, which again borrows a concept from Radiant Textuality.

Although the idea of feeling "the phantom in thy hair" could be interpreted as having somewhat peculiar implications in a modern context, the concept is well taken as a launching point for the discussion, possibly for just that reason. As a sort of heuristic advocate of the tangential and contextual, McGann could be considered a profound opponent of such esoteric critical enterprises as Cultural Literacy and New Criticism (the introspective champions of a kind of text-in-the-bag concentration with respect to meaning, and the preoccupation with linguistic purity that it spawned). But again, "opponent" would be the wrong word, because McGann is not so much an opponent of constrained interpretation as a collector and manager. The McGann view merely makes any reading or interpretation one of many, although this is not a careless construct of coincidence either. Interpretation is an accumulation of "utterly determined" connections. In spite of the infinite possibilities, it could not be otherwise.

alt text

McGann immediately invokes Humpty Dumpty and his ubiquitous victim, the Alice In Us All, to examine the ambiguity of language combined with the distinctions of poetry, and finds both language and poetry, despite utter determination, to be transactionally indistinct and inconclusive, making poetry a joy forever because it is open to "endless rereadings." In the end, perhaps replacement of the "superstition of proper and correct meanings" with something like suspicion of meaning takes place. Even if poetry is song, Humpty Dumpty suggests that his refrain is not singing, and if Alice can see that, she has sharper eyes than most. There is nothing metaphysical about it, concludes McGann, through Frank O'Hara. You want it to fit so that everyone will want to go to bed with you, or at least sit by your bed and read to you. In that respect, McGann and O'Hara are equally promiscuous, possibly a hint of the Marxist consideration to come.

That poetry must, somewhat paradoxically, recognizably represent the abstract as the first conventional expectation confronting McGann. The response invokes Coolidge, "fear as the mother of discourse," and the might of the unknown "howling to get in" past the displaced barriers of conventional perceptions, which Charles Bernstein observes to be a reflection of repeated representations of language as a window. Coolidge fears failure to understand his own writing, to be controlled by the writing, to lose the utter determination of the words providing access to the unimaginable that is, in McGann's view, an achievement of authority, so that it can, as for Blake, give body to falsehood that it may be cast away.

alt text

The form of poetry, however, is the Silliman and Zukofsky concept of the alphabet, an arbitrarily ordered representation of language that expresses connections to experience in fluid ways, a vocabulary and a set of rules anticipating and soliciting, although not controlling, the reader's interventions and changes. Referring to Bruce Andrews, Gertrude Stein, and Bertolt Brecht, McGann examines the "staging of the stage" that poetry represents, the invocation of the reader, and the accidents of form that constrain the printed representation but do not damage it. The aberrations of print are elaboration or deformation of poetry in the Oulipo sense, not destruction of it.

Perhaps the Andrews heritage of obdurate resistance to interpretation is a heritage not only of unpredictable condensations or nodes, but also of alarm or suspicion, the "estranged world" in which the ghosts of Shelley and Byron question the morality of simplistic answers and interpretations. In fact, the impressionistic black and white line drawing displayed on the book jacket illustration implies exactly that reflexive but anxious and indirect contemplation of impending realization or consciousness.

Poetry embraces these ambiguities, however, and just as print cannot ultimately confine the meaning of poetry to any restricted dimension, the effect of other deformities also adds even greater potential — for example, Robert Duncan's error with respect to the ideology of St. Thomas Aquinas and Byron's characterization of art as the "glorious blunder," references that McGann approvingly generalizes as "undecidability." So what does that leave to rely on? McGann answers the question with reference to Byron: "[i]n play, there are two pleasures for your choosing. The one is winning, and the other losing" (97).

To an extent, both artistically and critically, poetry is about the "overall weave" described by Bernstein. Involved in the fabric of that weave, the details are a literature that proposes its own interpretations, a series of remarks that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Poetry is a "swoon with a difference." It brings us to our senses.

Is that Marxist, and should we care? The ancient argument between philosophy and poetry is also one of class and society. Marx distrusted art as a tool of capitalist manipulation, irrelevant to social reconciliation. Philosophy, we might believe, retreats into the comfortable prostitution of capitalist endearment, cuddling with the approved superficial forms, abandoning real poetry to struggle with itself over the meaningful production of message and value. What is not Marxist for McGann is the adoption of the trappings of Marxism in a pseudo-Marxist academic delusion, a transgressive interpretation.

On the other hand, there is valid Marxism in deconstructive criticism and the recognition of social interests. McGann distinguishes three "phases" of text that must be addressed to generate critical interpretation: the text as linguistic event; the text as published version; and the text as comprehensive, contextual work. McGann illustrates this three-part Marxist deconstruction using Byron's poetic response to separation and dispute over his marriage, revealing the duplicity and power relationships represented by poetic language. Yes, poetry can be appropriated as a tool of class domination and deception, but it cuts both ways.

McGann's final arguments, if speculation can be stretched to the dimension of argument, are the poetry of an imagined, cartoon language, the Great Apes of Tarzan, and the resulting inevitable constriction that reflects the larger questions of language in the Ivanhoe Game. The Great Apes compose poetry about food and sex, sensibly enough, but McGann disputes Jouet's limitations. Their generative grammar is not as restrictive as the Jouet study suggests. The Great Ape language imagines Godzilla as fluently as it invents Gorilla, and in the game of Ivanhoe, the blind spirits of the players grope among the same unlimited possibilities.

McG(ann) has an unc(ann)y (McGanny?) ability to untangle competing levels of inference, requiring intimate familiarity with the literature as well as absolute command of the language. The reflexive concerns of Coolidge, for instance, are explained with a precision that rivals the associated images of fractured glass and frozen branches, achieving criticism virtually indistinguishable from art. But perhaps that brilliant command of language also comes with a price. In the spirit of his own concern about the insecurity of Coolidge, McGann accuses himself of pedantry. It is a charge he is not comfortable with and that he never entirely resolves, instead worrying around with Marxist invocations of Looney Tunes and Ivanhoe and Bernstein's adaptation of the iconic folk song, "Shenandoah." Perhaps a problem for McGann is an ever-present danger, like the danger of failure in the desperately introspective poetry he addresses, that he will explode in a brilliant but annihilative shower of self-cancelling reductive insights. Bernstein and Coolidge — and in a more measured traditional way, Shelley, Yeats, and Byron — want to know how poetry can produce its own meaning, how words can be connected so that, rather than pointing to an absolute meaning, the words point absolutely to alternative meanings. Bernstein delighted in connecting words along disturbing tangents; Byron delighted in connecting words to create multiple narratives from the same text. These are both ways of playing intellectual games. For McGann, all this multiple meaning on one hand threatens to approach the realm of no meaning at all, and on the other, requires insight that can only be achieved by a profound level of literary and linguistic knowledge.

For the intellectual game, McGann argues a firm case, and in that way, his adventure into the potential of Ivanhoe is perfectly consistent as well, but the truth is that, in the same way that pedantry may be inescapable, Ivanhoe cannot entirely escape intellectualism. In the end, a certain kind of person plays Ivanhoe, and that may be a clue to the discomfort in McGann's speculation. No matter how you cut it, it is not entirely Marxist, nor is it entirely democratic. As much as McGann wants to liberate meaning from colonial scholarship, perhaps scholarship in fact has inescapable colonial and capitalist dimensions. Perhaps it is not possible to invoke class-conscious discourse without the implication of class-consciousness.

"So I conclude by repeating myself," McGann remarks at one point, and perhaps a danger also lurks in the need to bring the point home without blunting it as well. For all of McGann's awe-inspiring ingenuity, linguistic dexterity, and vast scholarly resources, the determination to extend the reach of interpretation occasionally runs up against a tone of self-justification. As for the internal discussions among characters, with McGann as opponent of himself, sometimes only to the extent of a convoluted straw-figure defense which seems to signal ambiguity, in the examples of pedantry and Marxism, for instance. Elaboration demands reconfiguration, but eventually the impact of the nuance becomes conventional in its own way. Shenandoah does in fact reach the sea, and it is, ironically, only one interpretation that suggests otherwise, an interpretation McGann adopts as the representation of Bernstein's adaptation. Nevertheless, even in those terms, McGann's discourse is a brilliant and engaging feat of navigation between winning and losing, a linguistic and electronic critical regatta racing to the cybersea before some kind of unforeseen solidification overtakes the flow.

DOI Permalink