Reading the Illegible
by Craig Dworkin
Northwestern University Press, $29.95 (paper)
Craig Dworkin’s witty and highly incisive study of contemporary poems that deliberately erase, deface, appropriate, and “vandalize” the surface of their texts is a critical sensation. If there were only one reason to read this book, it would be that Reading the Illegible introduces its readers to the pleasures of a seemingly esoteric tradition of poems by such luminaries as Susan Howe, Ken Campbell, and Rosmarie Waldrop (among others), who experiment with pushing poetic meaning literally off the page. Such a tradition doesn’t simply shadow or oppose more canonical lists but contributes its own unique configuring of aesthetics, ethics, and politics, and it is with regard to these configurations that Dworkin addresses his argument. What Dworkin provides is a highly accessible yet sophisticated critical language for appreciating what he conceives of as the notion of a “radical formalism” at work in these texts, “one that reads textual details not merely as points of description but rather as inherently significant (that is, both important and signifying) and independent of lexical reference.” In other words, Dworkin approaches poems that are illegible not in the sense that they are too dense or difficult to gloss (putative hallmarks of modernism) but in the sense that they deploy “strategic illegibility” as their mode of presentation and appreciation.
It might appear that such matters as typeface, line spacing, and textual erasure are merely superficial and have nothing to do with reading a poem. For many readers, they are merely accidental castings on the page of some transcendent form of the poem; at best, they produce ornamental effects that are extraneous to the poem’s purported content. What Dworkin argues is that these matters are in fact deeply important to a variety of poets who deliberately seek to pull apart the page in such a way as to establish an utterly new formalist aesthetic.
The book’s first chapter offers a lucid historical introduction to the poetics of illegibility, identifying the French Situationists as the ideological inaugurators of the mode of writing that Reading the Illegible seeks to explore. Although Dworkin doesn’t suggest that the Situationists were the direct forerunners of the contemporary poets he studies, he does conceive of their work as setting an intriguing cultural precedent. The Situationists, Dworkin writes,combined individual self-management with collective violence in the face of authority, rejecting both capitalist and Marxist models in favor of radically antiauthoritarian and autonomous soviets. Moreover, this model of the soviet, with its continually dissolving and reconstituting self-management, was to be applied to everyday life in the form of “constructed situations”: as hoc, specific, creative, and consensus-based reactions to the demands of an environment by small, transient, spontaneously formed collectives of individuals.
The “soviets” established by the Situationists (in part an outgrowth of the futurist, surrealist, and dada movements), sought to engage the politics and poetics of the everyday by deliberately establishing provisional working groups or critical masses that would disband as quickly as they were formed, evoking a spirit of revolutionary and theoretical mobility that was laudably uncontainable. In carefully historicizing the methodologies, practices, and reception of the Situationists, Dworkin characterizes their work as resembling that of “a bricoleur, making do with ad hoc tactics and eschewing predetermined or received strategies.”The Situationists thus didn’t simply work to overturn authority through heterodox styles of mobilization; rather, the forms their projects took point to ways in which the meaning and experience of such concepts as the aesthetic, the political, and the social might be radically altered, erased, diffused, or rearranged to assume completely different valences—an effort that has everything to do with contesting the sorts of cultural pressures placed on language to communicate ostensibly “immediate” and incontrovertible information. Indeed, one of the strengths of the chapter is that it effortlessly moves from dense explorations to incisive critiques of the theoretical work of such Situationist figures as Asger Jorn and Guy Debord, anticipating the political and social ramifications ofDworkin’s own subsequent readings.
In the following chapter, “The Politics of Noise,” Dworkin explores the notion of noise as a disruption in the transmission of a message, an obstacle to communication, meaning, and even to the conservation of the statuesque. Focusing in particular on the poetry of Susan Howe, Dworkin sees in her “visual prosody”—her practice of defacing text, of appropriating others’ texts, of cutting up and jumbling texts and scattering them across the page—a textual effect analogous to noisiness. Dworkin points out that the textuality of noise in poetry(or rather, the noise of text itself) signals an interruption or break in the currents of interpretation and reception, one that both destabilizes the authority of a centered, authoritative reading and also intimates a kind of violence that the poem involuntarily absorbs as an element of its form. In this way the textual disposition of works such as Howe’s “Scattering as Behavior Toward Risk” and“Melville’s Marginalia” perplex and disturb the reader by calling upon the “sonic” or multimedia aspects of poetic discourse. Dworkin’s analyses throughout this chapter are deft and illuminating, especially when he reads Howe through the writing of Jacques Attali, who found in noise not only “a simulacrum ofmurder” but also “the potential for new social and politicalorders.” One might compare Dworkin’s work here, for example, to Kristin Ross’s marvelous readings into sonic and textual buzzing in Rimbaud and Césaire in The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud the Paris Commune, where poetry as an auditory experience is made to stand for further-reaching social and political claims.
In the third chapter, “Destroying Redness,” Dworkin concentrates on Charles Bernstein’s extraordinary Veil (1987), a series of“journal-like transcriptions of Bernstein’s ‘freely composed’stream-of-consciousness language” which “appear as if the same sheet were reinserted in a typewriter and run through two to four cycles of typing.” Veil’s technical effects are galvanizing, almost conjuring a linguistic veil or shroud that runs words over words in infinite confusion and overlap, a literal weave that irritates the eyes as much as it fascinates in much the same way as the optical paintings of Victor Vasarely or Bridget Riley. “Typewell used is invisible as type,” pronounced the 20th-centuryAnglo-American typographer Beatrice Warde, and Dworkin sees inBernstein’s work a challenge to the ideology implicit in that assertion, claiming that “almost all [of Veil] can be deciphered, if only bit by bit, so that Bernstein’s palimpsests do not so much prevent reading as redirect and discipline usual reading habits.” Dworkin ultimately suggests that the visual prosody of Bernstein’s piece might very well offer new challenges to our sense of how perceiving a text as text rather than merely assimilating it may ultimately influence our being-in-the-world. Dworkin extends this point in“The Inhumanness of Language” through an examination of RosmarieWaldrop’s Camp Printing (1970), a letterpress collection of distorted, smudged, and otherwise ‘erroneously’ printed poems by James Camp. As with Veil, Dworkin reads Camp Printing not as a text whose meaning is to illustrate such familiar modernist assertions as“[Mukarovsky’s] poetic language . . . is not used in the services of communication”—to do so would be to return the text to those very services. Instead he approaches it as belonging to that category of texts which “enact the very condition of the theoretical claims which might be made on their behalf.” The nuance is fundamental.
Perhaps the strongest chapter in Reading the Illegible is the last, “The Aesthetics of Censorship.” Here Dworkin turns to the writings of Ken Campbell, Robert Brown, EsmilioIsgro, and again Susan Howe to examine works of poetry that in various ways repress themselves, forbidding certain words, lines, or even whole passages from bodying forth into legibility. In this respect, censorship evokes the absent presence of meanings that push against the surfaces of texts, promising knowledge or ‘evidence’that is hidden or obfuscated:Regardless of their ultimate effectiveness, those tactics familiar from the editors of massmedia—silencing certain words with an electric beep, or replacing the letters of a supposedly objectionable word with dashes—issymptomatic of a theoretically unsophisticated relationship to language. Ignoring form entirely, such editing reifies the signified and treats it as an uncontextualized fetish. . . . Indeed, at the level of their tactics, the censor and the Situationist are indistinguishable; what differentiates censorship, as such, is the position of power from which it operates.
Dworkin argues that censorship works much like a Foucauldian “repressionhypothesis”: by manipulating texts to obscure their references and almost turning on the brinks of unreadability, censorship produces even more layers of meaning on top of those that have been effaced or excised. In this sense, poetry is neither the repository of a Proustian memoire involontaire or volontaire, nor the site of a Freudian-inflected, traumatic awakening; rather, the text censors itself with the effect of eradicating meaning as part of its intrinsic content and gestures toward a process of reading that is not likened to recovery but rather to production and reproduction, a reception of the blank, censored spaces between the lines as an incitement toward more-diverse responses and interpretations.
Reading the Illegible is animated throughout by a contagious pleasure for the texts it studies, and the implications of Dworkin’s work gesture well beyond the local but nevertheless powerful orbit of illegible poetry and poetics. The book participates in and reflects upon postmodern considerations of identity, voice, and representation, revealing the aesthetic as a troubling category inextricable from—and charged with as many questions as—the political and the social. Always concise and stimulating, Dworkin helps us to see what is meant to be read, and to read what is often formally unseen because it has been taken for granted all along.