Coming to terms with absence
A review of 'censory impulse'
with all this talk
of an inevitably vain
medium the latest excuse
for misbehavior is
— erica kaufman
As a college composition instructor at a media arts college, I have found it useful to urge my students to think about human bodies and how our attitudes toward them have changed over time. Juxtaposing the plump, reposed Victorian with the androgynous, waiflike flapper with the armor of abs in vitamin infomercials shows students how aesthetic ideals, the ideals that are closest and most dear to us — those of our bodies — are enmeshed in material and historical contexts. In her 1993 book Unbearable Weight: Feminism Western Culture and the Body, Susan Bordo argues that the managerial class of twentieth-century capitalism creates a “double bind” that requires us to consume but shows no sign of excessive consumption. This is a commonly used and effective idea to explore in a cultural studies-themed composition class; in particular, the “Reading the Slender Body” chapter introduces first-year college students to the culture industry and the damage it does — literally, in the form of various kinds of eating disorders — to our flesh. Bordo focuses primarily on the female body and the war waged by the demands of the gaze, but to find her ideas relevant we might look more widely to the woefully tragic good intentions of a contemporary show like The Biggest Loser, which places the excessive (but reducing) body on display each week.
But as I continue to present Bordo’s ideas to this generation of post- (post-post-?) 9/11 teenagers who find the global war mediated through the music of MIA — all of this compressed and delivered on an impossible scale — I realize that Bordo’s brand of identity politics, in particular her recuperation of feminism and activism, needs some translation. Though I am not entirely comfortable using the term “post-human,” if only because it might shut down discussion, I do think students by and large think of their bodies not as actual agents — they do not bear them — but as possibilities crammed into digital media and new social communication structures. They wield them as a language (that yet escapes them as they’re writing their papers). Certainly, the idea of the body as a complex of semiotic possibility is not a new idea; however, the absence of a recuperative ethic, the idea that we can take back the body, implies that restoration is impossible, the dream of the previous generation.
In this regard, students sense, but do not always articulate, that being has vacated the body and finds itself in transit within the sign. And here is where I begin with erica kaufman’s censory impulse, a book of pieces, several chapbooks stitched around an absent center, that takes the human body as its debatable object. In censory impulse, debate or rhetoric, not the body itself, is the object splayed under the lights of the autopsy table. At once an inventory, a collage, a discordant paean-mixtape addressed to the sign — a “play spontaneous / object amnesia tendency / meta-comment stray” (42) — this work
ruin when i think
visible a decline
noticeable in more
two types of recognition available
move past the procedures
the impaired i see horses
chameleons towers (27)
The poem above begins with the three lines, “begin in outlines / it isn’t that i don’t want / faces,” and by this the poet suggests that thinking “begin[s] in outlines” but that these outlines are not loyal to a singular identity. Like Hannah Weiner and Bruce Andrews before her (among many others), kaufman rejects the tidy, bourgeois appropriation of identity by the restrictive outline of a name and searches for a more inclusive — and anarchic, or nomadic — region of outline. And yet, as Weiner and Andrews know in their own ways, kaufman recognizes that the sign, and the outlines imprinted by it on the page, create an embodied (though perhaps arbitrary) limit. The poet asks, “do / i have a right to use / names? if only / for operational clarity. / for a word in that / position. typeset. / so let’s talk” (12). This talk, or chatter, implied at the end, a “meta-comment stray” that exceeds the boundaries we thought we knew, offers us a chance, at least hypothetically, to bypass the usual circuits of logos. And here we might arrive at a new definition of Other, one that doesn’t require the subject to “sketch [its] own profile. // a continuity scheme” (50).
In a section titled “ocular gentrification,” the poet recalls Weiner, perhaps self-consciously (since the epigraph of the book, “be very careful in your intercourse with strangers,” is taken from Weiner’s “Code Poems”):
in the greater scheme
of lasso coupon radio
hysterectomy i am not
supposed to see the hyper-
text of de-mentation
abject cystic display (31)
Throughout censory impulse, the poet toys with ontology just as late capitalism bats around our modern and perhaps archaic sense of individual subjectivity. Employing the lyric and the lower case “i” to this end, the poet admits that subjecthood remains a work in progress (or -digress), as the speaker yet needs to “figure out how / to deal with being modern.” In a tone that feels something like humor — or “de-mentation,” to borrow from the section quoted above — the lyric estranges the reader from normative structures of sense without seeming entirely groundless. This “figur[ing] out how / to deal with being modern” enacts an excavation of the beleaguered and strained body, and though this “site” has been thoroughly mined for any signs of being, the poet attempts to de-frame the “ontological argument”: “the parody / of this ontological argument / is the loss of feeling brings / emotion.” Or, the “ontological argument” finds its parodic shadow close behind. We seem to be groundless, without being, but at least we know it, or can share space on the sidelines along the “negativity parade”:
enough of this
i want to feel
just handcuff me
with bacon and
wait for the wrists
to swell reveling (82)
This work asks: how do we even begin to account for our bodies, much less fight against the forces that delimit, fragment, parse them? How do we question without becoming a participant in the “negativity parade”? Unlike Surrealist and Oulipian predecessors who attempt to dislodge freedom from language, the poet in censory impulse realizes that argument and its familiar embodied form, the logos of the rhetor, cannot escape the bounds of the letter and the “censory impulse” required of all bodies to find proper measure.
On the opening page, the poet writes, “i no longer choose / to write questions.” She implies that we are inducted into a culture that tends to offer denial as a dreadful inevitability. Though we might think we “choose” to ask questions, we realize that pre-scripted answers determine the angle of inquiry. From “fad diets” to fashion magazines that establish aesthetic norms, and even to the critical language we use to couch our arguments against these structures, we find that the ways we think and talk about our bodies pass through a censor committee. Generated from our own desires and cravings, this censor committee affirms the grand loop of totality — again, the “negativity parade” — and houses the “censory impulse.” The poet confronts the subject’s ability or disability to communicate anything meaningful that is not part of the censory machine through which all questions are passed.
And so, perhaps this is why “instead of rabble rousing and picking fights about thermodynamics / and the inherent need for a bionic arm i focus on the numbers seen / on each piece of fruit and the process of reinnervation” (71). Instead of questions, or bona fide lines of inquiry, most of censory impulse reads like a “meta-comment stray,” a reactivation of newfound nerve endings. Though not quite a celebration of the anarchy of language, since the poet tidily and quietly alternates couplets, tercets, quatrains, and a free-form splay, the work nonetheless operates as an amputated lyric. The idea of amputation opens the book:
first i think i need
to come to terms
purpose less than clear. (11)
The poet’s practice of the lyric then appears to be voiced from a phantom limb. Looking for purpose, we find only “operational clarity” and a complexly unsettled ontology:
my cuticles torn. a sure sign of being
overthrown. representational of more than
tragic flaws. try evolution. argue climate
take a photograph of my coffin
and use as a stage for mass protests, vegan
barbeques, and runway lessons. think
of my mouth as amplified unlike my voice.
tape an arrow over. place sweet things. (69)
All answers — “mass protests, vegan / barbeques and runway lessons” and arguments and lines of inquiry (literal, figurative) that we might use to combat the censory machines — seem inadequate to the task of responding to culture’s tragedies. The “negativity parade” consumes us as we consume ourselves, as we merge with our bacon handcuffs, and the question becomes: how can we save argument from itself and find a mode of response that isn’t equal to the question? The lack of ready answer to this very question might incite melancholy or rage, but as kaufman’s work demonstrates, responses are multiform and varied, and the lyric’s ability to converse with this multiform might provide an alternative to mere reply.