NEGATIVITY by JOCELYN SAIDENBERGTYRONE WILLIAMS Reviews
Negativity by Jocelyn Saidenberg
Near the end of “(New, Improved) Strange Matter,” a prose poem from her 2002 book, Etym(bi)ology, Liz Waldner writes, “ On my body. Of. At. To. For. With. In the body. Is the word.” In her work before and after, Waldner picks at the scab of language, the index of separation, of the wounding called birth, consciousness, entrance into the symbolic order of the world, etc. Healing that breach, language refuses removal from the skin, refuses excavation from the body. And yet, language can never be located, as the list of prepositions above suggests. It appears to have any number of positions in relation to the body. The struggle to locate language by triangulating the self, the self’s body and the other is hampered, first and foremost, by the ideology of carniphobia, the foundation of, among other irrational fears, xenophobia. It is not insignificant that those who have been most interested in the relationship between body and language are subalterns, those at the margin of, if not absolutely outside, normative sexual and gender determinations. Like Waldner and others, Jocelyn Saidenberg has been exploring the foundation of ideology in general—the enabling confusion between the body and language (it gives rise to both the “natural” and the “artificial”) in her writings.
In her most recent book, Negativity, Saidenberg continues the exploration of what, in CUSP ((2001), she provisionally named as “the de-emphasized.” This was merely one term in a series of (mis)nomers that tracked the elusive, receding horizon of what Elizabeth Willis, following William Blake, aptly named as the title of her first book: “the human abstract,” remainder and necessity. For Saidenberg this “abstract” can only be glimpsed in passing, in medias res, for we always find (and lose) ourselves already interpellated in a network of relations. In this situation the body appears as the material cognate to—and so antithesis of—the Cartesian idealizing cogito qua sum. How, then, to “know” the body outside its predetermination by consciousness? How to pose the amniotic against the semiotic when the structure of such oppositions is predetermined by the latter? These problems regarding the eros/logos dynamic have far-reaching consequences; they are, least of all, “personal,” though the dynamo is set into motion as a “private” concern. For what is personal is simply the given, how one has been shaped and filled out, so to speak, by one’s culture. However, the “social construction” of the self is hardly absolute; were it so, resistance or “identity,” in any significant sense, would be foreclosed, literal impossibilities. Yet, resistance itself, the self that resists, is not born ex nihilio, which means the social is the site of both ideology and the resistance to ideology.
For Saidenberg, as for so many, writing turns out to be one site where resistance is enacted, “is the inch of place and the times when we did and us spoke to me, reading spoke to me its deficit, sufficient forces to follow…” (27); however, the point of reading is not construction but destruction of that “forc[ed]…little thing’s personhood.” (20)
Yet the body—and this is its scandal—resides outside all ethical and moral systems. And are not all systems of thought and action—especially religious and political systems—sundry essays at managing, controlling, the body, “sundry essays” because language is the first and foremost attempt at reigning in and over the body? Since there is no way “out” (silence and death do not escape systemization), one can only repeat and reenact negation, not only the negation of negation but also the negation of the negation of the negation…until a work comes into being as the cessation of this logic of deferment.
In Negativity Saidenberg recognizes a self, as she must, initially, through the lens of the normative, but there is no making a heaven of hell. After all, “degradation is but one solitude more and yet another dark wall brooding gloomily.” (32) Saidenberg’s “I” is, in all these poems, polyvocal, not out of some kind of aesthetic tribute to postmodern indeterminacy but because the assertion of an “I” is, here, a kind of hope, an insistence, though the moment it is asserted it is doubled (at least), figured as, to paraphrase English rock singer Joe Jackson, another me—or, as Saidenberg suggests, “merely” “The Quite-Quite”: “I’m the Quite-Quite, Quite-Hideous, Quite-Wastebody, Quite-Lowmurmur.” (42) The moment we utter or write we double ourselves, and each subsequent assertion of a stable “I” (or complete “work’) is only part of the serious game of sincerity we play before different audiences, to say nothing of ourselves.
And what comes “out” is what was put “in, and so in a move familiar to postmodern aesthetes and the uttered marginal merely trying to survive, Saidenberg shuttles, moving back and forth between desire and guilt, assertion and indecision, agency and objectification. This movement could be described otherwise: circumnavigation of a circle, spinning one’s wheels, etc. The structure of this book—its sections, subtitles and individual poems—constitute circles within circles. “Dusky, or Destruction as a Cause of Becoming” begins with this typical conundrum-dilemma shuttling: “1. to tell back dear, dusky, be told to tell…so that I turn and turned…” (17) And the book ends with the body still exhuming what wails but is not heard (itself): “…carnal excavating relentlessly. inaudible slow. howling recalcitrance behind the music. beneath the ground.” (117) Still, to one’s body one goes through, loops around, the Good Book—the Bible, the law and literature—that constitute our collective revulsion toward the body. As Kathy Acker discovered, Saidenberg must confess, must self-abhor (from “The Crave”: “I place myself lower than dirt, will keep digging, filthy, hands taught, in darkness all in order to not. [Infer: that I like it] Here in the dirt I am an inductor, I attract and gender myself in accordance with my habit, attraction, unheeding, steadfastness that wants only to weep over itself, limping further along, in the poured concrete cage, weeping over itself it sheds attraction, ridding and taking its shape dreaming again, that lull.” 39), and yet the “residue” (“The Beginner”: “falling the figures turn their back on falling…” 73), what remains, however much a mere “stain” (from “One of the Spurned”: “Being rotten being stained the stain itself, drained or blocked, I gift me, or that malingering temptation to return, somewhere in the inbetween: that crossroads. I bend down and kiss, marking the confession, signing the poison.” 40) is also a beginning, a matrix, for confession and self-revulsion do not annihilate. As children know, dirt, minutiae incarnate, tastes good: “That description excites me, discursive in its minute detail.” (37) This sentence from “I’m in Heat,” the first poem of the section Not Enough Poison, signifies desire as inescapably bound to language, why one reads and writes, however much caged: “the room was lit.” in the middle of the poem “The Cockcrow” (surrounded by seven lines) is also the middle of this book (67). The path to the body turns out, is turned out, “to be” illuminated by precisely what delimits: the privilege of reading and writing (by) “lit.” And the association of reading with castration (cf. Lacan, Barthes, Derrida, etc., to say nothing of the Islamic-Judaic-Christian triumvirate in general—cf. “In This Country”) simultaneously wounds and heals: “The gash, not separating but unifying the abrasion to all the impure, non-separated…Blending into the boundaries, coterminous sore on the visible, not presentable superannuated surface of self.” (38)
Saidenberg thus calls into question oppositionality itself, including that initial amniotic/semiotic one, but she no more than anyone cannot speak or write outside these enabling dualisms. Though “The Beginner” begins in heteroglossia, “the figures” approach—or one is drawn to the figures. A self is “upthrown,” “light/scattered” into self-disgust/revulsion. That first rope that bound and nourished one’s body to/in the womb is replicated in the outer world. “Beckon” re-imagines Odysseus’s journey—yet another circle—as driven and pulled, and so the scene of the Sirens, like the episodic on general, enacts circles within circles: one is beckoned from, bound to the mast(er) that sails “ere/ear” a self. The rope of language insinuates itself as listening; its binds from within. As “Carnal” reminds us, this rope is the first ruler, first meter, measure and standard that reigns in possibility. Self-revulsion is thus a necessary precondition of other-revulsion, but what happens, this book asks, when the other mirrors the self, when the other is a double of the self? Same-sex desire undercuts the dialectic, those interwoven strands that naturalize the order of binary oppositions. Saidenberg’s gerunds and participles enact the serpentine even as the profane indicatives and imperatives (“Hey Fuck Face,” “Fuck Death”) explode through the decorous constraints of the twine. It is, then, the twin (of sexual orientation, of literary idealism, of political and religious capital and so forth) that threatens to unravel prevailing orders. For the twin, the double, is an index of non-productivity, redundancy, one too many: Jocelyn Saidenberg’s Negativity marks—and remarks—this emblem of re-instantiation, re- and de-sistance.
Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. His book, c.c., was published by Krupskaya Books in 2002, the chapbooks AAB and Futures, Elections were published in 2004, and a chapbook, Musique Noir, was published in 2006. New work is forthcoming in fasicle, Combo, Cincinnati Poetry Review, and West Coast Line. A new book, the Hero Project of the Century, is forthcoming from The Backwaters Press in 2007 and another book, On Spec, is forthcoming from Omnidawn in 2008. He is currently writing a book for Atelos for publication in 2009.