Not knowing entirely how to live

Kristen Gallagher in conversation with Kim Rosenfield

Kim Rosenfield and Kristen Gallagher performing in "The Bedbug Variations"
Kim Rosenfield and Kristen Gallagher performing in "The Bedbug Variations"

Kristen Gallagher: So this started because we were talking about how we wanted a more historical understanding of the lyric. And so I made you a copy of this essay by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young summarizing Friedrich Kittler’s revolt in German literary criticism, his move from hermeneutics to discourse-analysis, because it leads him to some provocative conclusions about lyric poetry in Germany as a disciplinary effect. 

Kim Rosenfield: Right, that was interesting, how it outlines the uses of lyric poetry as a form of social control. (from Winthrop-Young) “In the name of individual autonomy the enlightened authoritarian state issues a ‘command of free will’” (p.76)

KG: A lot of it seems to come down to what he’s calling “the discursive complicity of education” (76). He identifies a pedagogical strategy linking freedom to the act of writing in the Karlsschule,[i] this early German school, late 18th century, the earliest days of what would become the Romantic period. Part of the pedagogy was that students were assigned personal tutors whose job was to both “become the students' confidantes and report on them,” and to “elicit and receive the love of their students,” by getting the students to write “soul-searching self-analyses” and have long philosophical and confessional talks with them. Kittler saw this as a disciplinary apparatus that worked essentially as a trick: making the students feel they were becoming free, when in fact they were also being observed and groomed to function as self-policing servants and soldiers. He arrives at a similar conclusion about the lyric. For me, this essay describes a few elements of Romanticism that I see as persistent, notions of freedom, a certain idea of musicality, and I wonder why they persist. They get framed as a kind of baseline, the "what we go back to," during periods of wild experimentation. After Language Poetry you get language-lyric, now we have conceptual lyric. Why is this seen as a baseline, or core principle? So I thought we should talk about it.

KR: Yes, this idea also made me think of Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism. She talks about reaction formation and ways people cling to outdated modes because they’re basically trying to avoid a world gone mad. So reading the Winthrop-Young made me feel like while the lyric may have begun as a form of social control, its persistence is a kind of reaction formation against a world that’s gone beyond what most people can manage emotionally. I'm sure I'm mangling her ideas here, but she talks about this promise of the good life, that we all think there’s a way we can still have everyone get a piece of the pie, but in fact the possibilities for that have crumbled around us, and we’re clinging to these ideas even though they’re exhausting us and bankrupting us. That’s the cruel optimism of trying to cling to humanist ideals in a world that’s moved beyond that. I feel like lyric poetry rests on a life-raft kept afloat by ideals of humanism, sincerity, “real” meaning, etc. and I feel like conceptual poetry has come up with a way to weather the fact that the raft is leaky and probably not even our raft in the first place.

KG: Interesting. So both works identify Enlightenment ideals as a problem. Ok, so we're taking a pass on "enlightened man." [...]  I’m looking more for work that is imbricated in complex networks, that’s why I think most conceptual writing performs something way bigger than a critique of the author. It’s a poetics that grapples with discursive networks. Where "man "doesn't quite live.

KR: And I also think conceptualism may be more flexible in accommodating the idea that we may be looking at the end of human life on earth as we’ve come to rely on knowing it.

KG: And even if human beings continue to exist, I think we’ve reached a point where it’s not so hard for anyone to have enough information to realize the planet can go on without us. So we want to move past this false idea of the centrality of the human. I love how Winthrop-Young outlines how the lyric worked as a "program" to suggest the centrality of the human to itself. When discipline became the responsibility of the nucelar family, the education of mothers in their new mothering duties emphasized use of the phoneme and the lullaby to focus, stimulate, and calm down babies. Kittler treats this system as a program—think computer program—and examines the lullaby as one of its inputs. He finds there’s a brand of poetic musicality that is its output, and Goethe is one example. Because of its ties to the post-feudal invention of the nuclear family, etc., and its use as a disciplinary strategy—it replaced drugging and-or beating the children, we learn—the lullaby and its poetic outputs are part and parcel of an individuated, Romantic subject.

KR: I love the image of it coming from the mother. You drink it in with the mother’s milk. She teaches you to behave with little songs. The flow of teaching behavior is embedded in us as an idea of humanness and survival.

KG: And, as Kittler has it, it works by creating a particular type of a desire for meaning in a fragmented reality, that goo goo ga ga is the first tease, that first tease of meaning, that there’s wholeness to be found in the world, that it's all coming to you, baby individual, in little fragments, for you to one day make whole. I love this part where he concludes Goethe is simply repeating his mother’s lullabies—such a blasphemous conclusion for a German scholar. To conclude that those poems were written into him by the new program for mothering, to suggest those poems are not naturally occurring, organic insight. This disturbed the waters in its time. For Kittler, the whole Romantic operation was a program whose output was a particular type of subject, one with an idea of a world that holds together, and holds dear to the idea of individual meaning and freedom, but an idea of freedom rooted in creating obedient subjects. There’s the rub, I guess, when your idea of freedom and pursuing your own meaning turns out to be a bit of a trap. And this essay really helped me hear the sound of this program in the lullaby. And that program still runs pretty hard in poetry.

KR: And after Freud, after WWII, the very idea of a self and an identity that we have control over got further deconstructed and I think it is so problematic to hold strongly to that continuity, to the idea that poetry has always been "naturally occurring" so to speak and must continue to be, or has some essential identity, instead of realizing poetry …

KG: … that it’s a historical form, it changes, is subject to history and is not essentially one way at its core ...

KR: … is just warding off the real fear, the unconscious psychic terror, of what the world has become. I was thinking about the bit about the baby being the receiver of the lullaby, but I guess there’s this idea, I mean, in conceptual poetry too, we don’t assume the receiver is a kind or even a receptive receiver. That seems to me to also be an assumption of lyric poetry, that the poet is some kind of holder of good. I think conceptual writers work in a mode that can handle the idea that the mother or the receiver might be a bad seed, not all is well. Your audience is not one with your milk. You shouldn’t assume that. Conceptualism anticipates there are bad givers and bad receivers.

KG: That’s interesting. Some people have really complained about the kind of language or sentiments reproduced in conceptual writing. Why does Vanessa Place reproduce complicated and-or negated rape narratives, why does Chris Alexander reproduce so many people calling the Panda fat? Poor pandas. Those reactions assume there’s something in poetry that is inherently nice, that its job is to spread political correctness. People might balk at the way I’m phrasing that, but it seems like that is what it boils down to. A lot of people don’t want to deal with anything ugly and confusing in their poetry, as writers or receivers. But if we’re going to say poetry’s supposed to be inherently moral and-or soothing and healing, isn’t that effectively calling for the restoration of a subject engaged in, as you say, warding off the horrors of the contemporary?

KR: It’s not healing it’s colonizing.

KG: Right, and it’s anything but emanating from nature. It’s emanating from discourse. Winthrop-Young asks this great question, on page 79, when he’s talking about how essentially every critic since forever has read Goethe’s “Wanderer’s Nightsong” mostly for the content. The musicality, if discussed at all, is discussed to support the message of the content, and that message is that the message comes from nature. But then he asks this great question, “what order of discourse, what mechanisms of speech production, what rituals of language acquisition, have to be in place in order to assume the trees and mountains are brimming with messages that stimulate the soul?”

KR: Right, what is healing in that model? You have to believe that. It keeps you in a world that doesn’t exist anymore. […] So I always learned that the lyric goes back to ancient ideas of music, the lyre, Homer…

KG: Well, I am no expert but I’ve had a few close encounters with ancient ideas, and Dante too. The word lyric has always had a connection to music—because of lyre—but  different poetries have all had different musics, and different uses for music, and also very very different concepts of art and experience, ways they saw relations among things we’ve come to think of as distinct arts. Greek, Roman, and medieval poetries have all kinds of weird relationships to religion and state, those discourses control everything, but do we even know how to read them? Some people think it's actually impossible for a contemporary person on earth to imagine what poetry meant for the ancient Greeks. But my point is the musics change over different epochs. So why now, at this time, remain attached to the music of the Romantic lyric? And when people make arguments for a return to "lyric," based on the works they point to, this seems to be the version of lyric they assume. For me, previous musics seem mostly inappropriate for the contemporary moment, maybe certain concepts are translatable, like the idea of being “spoken through” as in the Greek model or the Jack Spicer model, maybe the concept of the siren song, but the lullaby—which this essay has made me hear everywhere over the last few years—doesn’t seem like the hook I want to hang my hat on. It’s too wrapped up in these concepts we’re discussing here.

KR: Yeah, it raises a lot of questions for me as to who/what is being colonized. How do we deal with questions of self when the idea of “self” is so amalgamated, disseminated, rife with conscious and unconscious transmissions of racism, genocide, trauma, transgression, etc. What kind of constructs construct a self? As Winthrop-Young asks the most basic lit/crit question: “Who is speaking?” and I think Conceptual writing would respond “no one in particular” or “everyone at once.”  Lyric poets would respond: “I am speaking” and really, who the hell are you, who is the I in your presentation of self?

KG: And the answer for me to “Who is speaking” is “the systems that produce speech.” What is said is what can be said with the mechanisms at hand. For me, this essay made me want to explore things we assume about writing so much that we hardly see them at all, processes that seem invisible but directive, assumptions shaping education or the limits of recognizable “form.” What discourse shapes contemporary practice? What’s in the discourse network right now, and how does that feel? Or how are we being told not to plagiarize when everything at our fingertips says cut/paste/click/pass it on? This situation calls for a very different adventure in speaking than the Romantic one—and that includes the anti-Romantic one, the fragmented lullaby (or even the agro-lullaby—old form, new punch!). Today’s language acquisition framework are more about the screens inside the bellies of the Teletubbies than the lullaby. The recordings in our bellies and brains. They may even be making us sick, but I’m interested in going into that belly, rather than keep it at a supposedly healthy distance, or a righteous one.

So I think maybe this would be a good moment for you to spell out what a reaction formation is, how it works—just in case our readers don’t know—and talk about why you relate it to the persistence of the lyric.

KR: In a way it’s about doing something that is the opposite when something feels unbearable. To mitigate the impact of the bad thing. So, a crude example might be, if somebody treats me badly, well I’m gonna treat them really great and reach out to them even though I want to murder them. That’s simplistic, but you can see how it’s not necessarily the best idea. The world is broken down, and it seems more so than ever these days. With a reaction formation in poetry, you could say it’s when material is too heated up, so you make it palatable by cutting into little pretty gems. Conceptual writing doesn’t seem to feel like it needs to mediate those complications. It’s blunt about the unspeakable. And it’s not personal. It’s not about the person. The Pandora’s Box of evils don’t have to be one’s own personal experience with them. It’s a bigger project. So lyric poetry is soothing in a world that feels otherwise harsh or in disarray, but it’s just avoiding that feeling. I don’t practice that even in my clinical work. I’m not there to soothe.

KG: That’s what Lacan spoke against in U.S. psychoanalysis, ego psychology, propping up egos.

KR: Well, ego psychology isn't just propping up egos, it's contains an idea of lending an ego, which is more interesting, but I'm of the Relational school in which we are invested in the presence of aggression, which is a whole other interview ... But as a clinician I have to help someone face the dark, I often have to hold their feet to the fire. And I feel like my poetic work is like that too. I don’t pretend to have answers or insights into great themes of life, and I'm not interested in brutal reality checks either, I'm just trying to map the chaos and present as many strange attractors as possible. But that’s another thing. In most of the performances I’ve seen of this kind of work, there’s so much effort put into being loved by the audience. Not only to have the work heard and received and maybe questioned or puzzled over, but to have the poet as a person be loved deeply and responded to. There's a different kind of feeling state in the room--a need for the audience to know you, know your process, know your anxieties, know what you were thinking on the bus/plane/train ride over, know your sources, know your history, a preamble of the personalized as if that proves the sincerity and wisdom of your project as well.

KG: I myself do not like a poetry bent on wisdom. There’s pressure to sound wise, or to try to dispense wisdom. It can be so stilted. But I’m fascinated when you can hear an audience give the learned response to just the sound of it, the rhythm of the emphasis of the wise part, the ‘lull’ if you will, even if wisdom-wise it’s a real dud, a lot of audiences will go for it, just the sound of it.

KR: Right, we can all drink from this breast. We can all relate to this sound wisdom. This is the truth & I am wise and insightful enough to have named it for us all. That to me comes too close to a feeling of imperialism. Why would you assume I relate to your supposed insight? The poet reads his/her wise revelations and we all sigh in recognition. I feel like that’s already a major assumption—that I go to poetry for wisdom—to feel how deep you are. Or to connect with how deep I am. And it just ultimately smacks of values and morals.

KG: The thing Kittler is pointing to is not just the interconnectedness but also the transmission of, while believing in the naturalness of, values and morals.

KR: But it’s a false clinging to a sense that things are connected, that they do make sense, that these values are shared. That’s the reaction formation piece of it for me too. If you can’t see that the world is fragmented and meaning is multiple and beyond our control, then what will happen to you? It’s a scary thought. Better to feel like We Are the World.

KG: So there’s a lot of assuming. Assuming poetry is about the transmission of the supposed wisdom of another individual, assuming that poetry is about values and morals…

KR: It really burns me up. I guess that’s also why I wanted us to talk about it.

KG: I guess part of what we’re getting at is that there are programming questions associated with any approach to poetry, and what’s troubling about this one is that it seems to persist under the guise of freedom, free expression. I suspect you’re also frustrated that certain Romantic ideas of poetry seem to have been programmed into almost everyone. As a writing professor, I can say the persistence of these ideas astounds me. And as an analyst you can see how that becomes a form of institutional power that happens to play on the psyches of people looking for a way to survive in a cruel world. A lingering false promise that through a poetry of authentic self expression one can somehow get free. Not to mention that this program of freedom reproduces, in poetry, infinite variations on Goethe (including anti-Goethe), that it’s a program containing the promise of, working on its audience by triggering the longing for, an ideal mother (or, in the negative, her repudiation).

KR: We’re all interpolated.

KG: And conceptualism has its interpolations too. No one is free. The only thing I’d say on behalf of conceptualism, so-called, the works I’d name, they feel contemporary. It’s a move into the current epoch. They operate under the influence of the time of digital media, whatever they do.

So from Berlant’s perspective, or yours through Berlant, how has the lyric persisted? How are these old psychological forces still so powerful?

KR: I think with lyric poetry there’s not the distance to understand the self as an object.

KG: Interesting. I’ve been thinking of the “self” as an ever-morphing, traveling knot in a network.

KR: Yes. A kink or perturbation in the system.

KG: A lot of contemporary work falling under the rubric of conceptualism seems to take this for granted, foregrounding intersections of various discursive regimes. I really appreciate the foregrounding of constructionist principles through the strategy of taking everything, or almost everything, from outside, or staging things as a presentation of findings, a filmic capture of a flow of digitally-(or otherwise)-mediated discourse. Something about it feels like it also foregrounds subject formation, maybe because so much of the work contends with discursive influences.

KR: And our brains are being reshaped by this, by what these technologies allow, and our bodies are being reshaped too. So how can we talk about things in the same way? How can you stay rooted in ideas of meaning that are from such a different time?

KG: Right, some basic terms of reading and writing and embodiment are changing. These contemporary writing interventions, as outputs, suggest real systemic change, changes in the systems of writing. They are not mere style choices. You know what I mean? Like Language Poetry used to be  threatening to the institutions that policed poetry, but now that disjunction is the new normal, that’s become just another style. It too can be soothing. That’s style, when something is no longer surprising. We’re all disjunctivists now! Well, not all. But for me, the disjunctivization of everything has lost contact with Language Poetry. It’s just how it’s been widely absorbed as mere style.

KR: It’s the new lullaby.

KG: But all around us the conditions for discourse have changed. I think that's why form and content and the whole engagement really has changed so much. It’s funny, another thing Winthrop-Young points out that Kittler found in studying the Karlsschule is that the students there were being trained to write poems complaining about the way their power was being infringed on by the Duke. So the Duke was training instructors, tutors, to train pupils to complain about the Duke, a) so that they would feel free, but b) this was all used to monitor them. They were being trained to monitor themselves through the writing of poems and diaries, which they shared with their tutors, who reported to the Duke.

KR: That’s so funky oedipal—you think you’re killing off the father but he’s actually orchestrating your aggression. So when I think about this and Berlant’s concept of cruel optimism, she surfaces this idea in our culture that fear, terror, and complication have to be accompanied by loving guidance. That loving guidance is seen as an antidote. That’s one idea of how lyric poetry operates for me. And I love this quote from her: “Who can bear to lose the world?” It really is a profound statement of how to stay with the ambivalence/knowledge of that which is beyond our control. Here’s another beaut of a Berlant quote: “... people ... choose to ride the wave of the system of attachment that they are used to, to syncopate with it, or to be held in a relation of reciprocity, reconciliation, or resignation that does not mean defeat by it. Or perhaps they move toward the narrative form to get numb with the consensual promise and to misrecognize that promise as an achievement.” (p.28) To me that means, the values most people have learned, the program they’re running, will not allow them to tolerate a major disruption to it. Holding oneself in suspense, not knowing where this is all headed, is too hard, so people cling to what is known or familiar, what you’ve been raised with, or what you hold dear and feel that you can achieve mastery this way over a universe that isn’t up to our discretion.

KG: “Loving guidance” is what the tutors at the Karlsschule were being trained in. And I love how she says attachments to familiar forms produce comfort, which is a kind of numbness. This somehow makes me think of attachments to ideas like American individualism and freedom as empty signifiers that get used to manipulate those who believe in them most, just link them metonymically to the thing you want, and bam, for a portion of citizens, it’s logic. Even to the point of getting people to organize against taxation as socialism while the bridge they take to work is collapsing. Things are crumbling and yet ...

KR: That’s why I think of it as imperialism. I 'm using this conceit a bit dramatically here, but bear with me—making the world safe against conceptualism, meaning making the world safe from having to look at its own demise, the demise of language, structure, and forms that are anchoring and recognizable. We can’t really tolerate what’s happening to our ideas of human-ness. We can’t adapt to escalating changes aesthetically, (although isn't it ironic we can adapt to them technologically-- I Phone everybody?) and the idea is that we have to exert a known and comfortable sense of control, or a return to the familiar and known. But that "return" so to speak, feels colonizing or conserving of a way things have always been and continue to need to be done in the name of "truth" "originality" and "insight." We don’t even have the capacity to recognize for the most part what powers we’ve given over to. We just think we do. Conceptual writing does a better job at creating “diverse dramas of adjustment to being postgenre, postnormative, and not knowing entirely how to live.” Lauren Berlant again. (p.28)


Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press (2011).

 Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey. “Implosion and Intoxication: Kittler, a German Classic, and Pink Floyd.” Theory, Culture, and Society. Vol. 23 (7-8) 2006.

[i] The Karlsschule, school of Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg, where Schiller received his education and wrote some of his earliest plays poems. It was the first state-sponsored school in Germany, and was designed to provide a mode of discipline for potential civil servants as the feudal state was failing. Students there were assigned tutors (other boys about 3 years their senior) whose job was to both “become the students confidantes and report on them,” to both “elicit and receive the love of their students.” The modes of transmission included writing “soul-searching self-analyses” and regular engagement in long philosophical and confessional talks with their tutors.