Wittgenstein, Deleuze, and the Political Grotesque
by James Pate

Printer-friendly version


...to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life. - Wittgenstein
                                                                                            Philosophical Investigations

Therefore a book also has no object. As an assemblage, a book has only itself, in connection with other assemblages and in relation to other bodies without organs. - Deleuze and Guattari
                                                                                                        A Thousand Plateaus


In one of the interesting ironies in recent American poetry, the Language movement, which formed during the Vietnam era and was spurred forward by a politically radical belief that language needed to be de-militarized and de-stabilized (a view best put forward by Bruce Andrews), was arguably influenced less by the usual philosophers of the left (Hegel, Marx, Fanon, Althusser, etc.) than by the seemingly a-political Wittgenstein.1 On one level, this development certainly inspired Language Poets to move away from standard - and sometimes clichéd - leftist modes of thought. And the movement overall certainly generated some of the most ambitious, challenging, and provocative writing on the American poetry scene in the past few decades, redefining what politically radical poetry might mean. Even Bruce Andrews, who more than any other major Language Poet has brought Marxist themes into his work, continually plays with the language of Marxism, the implication being that Marxism itself needs to be de-stabilized in order to achieve its full radical potential. Yet the question of Wittgenstein's usefulness in terms of creating a politically radical poetry has never really been examined. For example, Marjorie Perloff, in her book Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary, focuses almost exclusively on the linguistic influence Wittgenstein has had on a range of contemporary writers - but without ever examining the political implications of Wittgenstein's approach to language, which was a key factor for many of the Language Poets. (Perloff does reference Adorno's Hegelian critique of Wittgenstein, but that critique has to do more with the dialectical process than with any overt political issues.) The question isn't whether Wittgenstein is a brilliant and unique thinker (and Perloff's book wonderfully shows just how crucial Wittgenstein's writings have been for some of the most daring writers in the past fifty years); the question is whether or not Wittgenstein's approach to language in some ways limits a radical approach to poetry. Does the reliance on Wittgenstein's approach, with its emphasis on describing but not explaining the world, with its resistance to theory (and therefore to the very mode of thought which makes thinkers like Marx possible), necessarily lead to a certain kind of political passivism?
Recently, though, some poets have been moving away from the Wittgensteinian/ semiotic approach to language preferred by the Language Poets. Deleuze and Guattari, Cixous, and Zizek - all writers who focus on the materiality of the body (and bodies) - have become more and more influential for certain poets, and this renewed interest in the materiality of the body has created an aesthetic that is as politically subversive as that of the Language Poets (and arguably even more so), and also one that is highly grotesque/excessive. It could even be said that for these poets the extreme logic of the grotesque relates fundamentally to the logic of radical politics.
To begin with a current example of the Wittgensteinian/semiotic approach:
Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs  is a fascinating example of how Wittgensteinian thought can impact a poetic that attempts to explore, and de-familiarize, our current political vocabulary. Though the poems in this book are far removed from the linguistic acrobatics of Bernstein and Silliman - Spahr's language purposely borders on the journalistic at times - Spahr, like those poets, hopes to move our political language away from fog-and-mirror effects of Washington-speak, and Wittgenstein's influence is important to how she goes about carrying out this project. The book begins, like Wittgenstein's Tractatus, on the atomistic level ("There are the things: // cells, the movement of cells and the division of cells // and then the general beating of circulation," is reminiscent of the first line in the Tractatus, which states, "The world is everything that is the case"), and from there the text slowly accumulates notion upon notion, fact upon fact, until we reach the all-encompassing final line, "Fast combat support ships, landing crafts, air cushioned, all of us / with all of that." In fact, a great deal of the power of this book stems from this sense of accumulation, and the effect is nearly symphonic, with, for example, each new element that appears in the poem, such the "Beloveds" or the image of the parrot, recurring again and again as the book progresses, and taking on different connotations each time it appears.
The basic tension in the book is situated between the post-9/11 world and the idyllic life the poet and the "beloveds" share. "It is so calm here and yet so momentous in the rest of the world," Spahr writes, and just as the idyllic is haunted by war and violence ("We do not speak of it and instead press up against one anothers reveling in the pleasure of being back together"), the world of Bush and the coming Iraq War is contrasted with the life with the "beloveds" ("How can the power of our combination of intimacy and isolation have so little power outside the space of our bed?"). The poems are not confessional, though. The idyllic is rendered with a few broad strokes (the beloveds, the bed, the parrots, the morning, flora and fauna) in a manner that echoes John Ashberry's similarly generalized manner. There are no domestic epiphanies here. Interestingly, the political sections are full of extremely specific detail ("Bradley fighting vehicles," "155 mm Howitzers"). It is a reversal of how we commonly think of the opposition between private/public, with our private lives busy with minutiae and our sense of public life being vague at best. And this aspect of the book might be its most radical implication - that in a truly politicized life the personal is general, and the political specific.2 
And yet, the book as a whole, by carrying out the Wittgensteinian project of describing, and not explaining, by listing so many atomistic facts, seems curiously devoid of any attempt to deal with the odd ideological framework that created the Iraq War. Obviously, it would be naive to ask a book of poetry to offer an analysis of the ideology behind the war, but I would argue that the weakness of Spahr's book is that by failing to take ideology seriously, and by giving us "facts" about the buildup to the Iraq War (as if the simple relation of facts were enough to convince anyone of the injustice of the war), Spahr falls into the logical trap that empirical leftists like Noam Chomsky repeatedly fall into also: because "facts" are always-already part of the fabric of an ideology (whether left, right, or center), "facts" alone never really bring us closer to understanding, or responding to, an issue. If they did, the working-class would be in perpetual war with the upper-class, and the Republican Party would no longer draw so many votes from the poor. And what is intriguing about Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs is the way the book is actually very close to that other seemingly non-ideological mode of thought - New Age philosophy. New Age thought, as found in writers like Deepak Chopra and Matthew Fox, also attempts to create an aura of mystical unity from scientific notions, and similarly tries to create a "politics" of general well-being from such a unity. From the belief that we all share "this connection of everyone with lungs" (in other words, a connection based not on thought or ideology, but on the fact that we are all bodies) to the theme that "our world is small and isolated," with the image of our world in space being an implied argument for world peace, to the statement that what matters most is "whatever you love best," Spahr's book employs several New Age tropes throughout. But such New Age elements, when given specific content, clearly become questionable. For example, the theme of connection seems benevolent at first, but is there really a "connection" between, say, a western CEO and an individual struggling in the Third World (unless bald exploitation is considered a connection)? And what if what "you love best" happens to be playing violent, militaristic video games, or shopping at expensive clothing stores? Such New Age thinking tends to be so vague and non-critical that it implicitly endorses the status quo. By attempting to empty her book of ideology, by trying to base a vision of the utopian/idyllic on biology (we all have lungs) and astronomy (we live on a "small and isolated" planet), Spahr leaves no room for genuine political strife, and the political landscape takes on a murky sameness. Since we all are connected by lungs and cells, there can be no real enemy, no one to fight against (which is another New Age notion).
In a few recent books, though, there has been a move away from the Wittgensteinian approach, and toward an aesthetic that is more influenced by Deleuze, among others. There are some interesting similarities between Wittgenstein and Deleuze. They are both against the concept of depth in philosophy - with Freud in particular being held in great suspicion - and both believed that the line between philosophy and aesthetics should be erased (Wittgenstein even famously writing, "Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry.") But in terms of style there is a crucial difference: Wittgenstein was a deliberate and austere minimalist, and Deleuze both preached and practiced a rampant maximalism, believing that philosophy should be about creation and not truth (or, as Zizek might say, about Meaning and not Truth). Also, due to their philosophy of the "body without organs," and to the plurality of identities created by such a body, the realm of raw materiality is of crucial importance for Deleuze and Guattari in a way that it simply isn't for Wittgenstein.
Ariana Reines' The Cow is a book similar to Spahr's in its obsession with our physicality ("I was a LUNG," she writes), but unlike Spahr, who sees our physical nature as the literal tissue that we all hold in common, Reines views our material selves as full of divisions, holes, with the recurring imagery of the slaughterhouse blending into "human" sex ("Boys rinse their arms in what falls from my carotid. My body is the opposite of my body when they hang me up by my hind legs") and death ("I have to get to the other side of the animal"). There is a horror film atmosphere to the text overall, and not simply because of the amount of carnage and slaughter that occurs in its pages, though carnage does appear everywhere in the book, including its jarring cover. Rather, the voice itself seems monstrous at times, and possessed. In some of the poems, such as "In Which She Pays For Her Tardiness," the poet's persona speaks in such a sputtering, uneven manner ("I was a rock PLUGGED / I was a whole EMPTIED") that the voice seems possessed by a multitude of struggling voices, similar to Linda Blair's demon voice in The Exorcist (where even her sleep-breathing sounds like a room of patients in a sanitarium). And in the poem, "Nico Said Excrement Filters Through The Brain. I's A Kit," the "I" enters "somebody else's house," masturbates, bleeds in the sink, and shits with the door open ("because there's nobody here") - and the persona here has the numbed menacing aura of the character Henry in "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." Instead, Reines is working in a similar vein as Burroughs and Godard, who were committed to stealing from any genre that they might find useful in order to create effects that a more normalized aesthetic (the art film, the literary novel) could never achieve. In the case of The Cow, it could even be said that Reines uses horror film effects partially because the horror film is one of our most subversive genres - a good example of this being seen in the recent film "28 Weeks Later," in a scene that begins on a highly sentimental note (Father is reunited with Mother) and then quickly turns obscene and disgusting (Father eats Mother). In the world of The Cow, as in the world of the horror film, love and Eros do not so much turn into hate (that would be the world of the thriller) as into something monstrous and inhuman: "His thick thick thick in my Warsawa. So basically you peel the skin off and slice the thing in half with a chainsaw, vertically. Does every man really want to split me open." That said, though, I don't think that Reines indulges in the easy misanthropy of most horror films. What seems to fascinate her is not the horror film's paranoid notion that there are dangerous, sick individuals out there that perpetually threaten to obliterate our normal life: instead, she is interested by the more uncanny element in some horror films that suggest there is something shocking and grotesque about material reality itself. The zombies in George Romero's films are so disturbing because they seem so literal, so stripped of biography and psychological motivation. They are the opposite of "the Word made Flesh."
If Spahr's book is implicitly attuned to the ethics of New Age philosophy, Reines' The Cow seems to edge toward a nihilism so extreme it becomes ecstatic at moments ("A hundred kneelers say the dark sky is rent with darker dews that shimmer like rot in the morning"), and whereas Spahr would like to bring material reality under the rubric of a holistic system, Reines writes, "everything is part of something. // I am part of something because my life is so stupid." The reason for this violent disconnection is that for Reines, existence itself, the material quality of it, is in excess. Existence destroys the horizon of meaning, as it does in Artaud. "I was a shaft some light filled / I was a skin," she writes, and the book overall struggles with this contradiction. Recall how in Spahr the bodies consist of cells and lungs - a decaffeinated body, to paraphrase Zizek: one stripped of blood, shit, and muscle. In contrast, Reines' bodies are bodies of utter excess, to the point that they break the bounds of any holistic scale: "I want a world to live in and I am vomiting cause there is no world. There are vessels that have had their innards emptied out, sliding around in the lube." Also, Spahr is attempting to us a Wittgensteinian approach to language, taking our political discourse apart piece by tiny piece, whereas Reines' book truly is an "assemblage" in the Deleuzean sense, with thrown in bits of John Ashberry and Marguerite Duras, along with books with titles such as The Merck Veterinary Manual and Carcass Disposal: A Comprehensive Review and Deleuze and Guattari themselves. She creates a text that continually makes the reader aware of its own stitched, mechanical construction.
In terms relating to political discourse, Reines' The Cow is not as overtly topical as Spahr's book, which early on contains a brief prose statement informing the reader how the text relates to the post-9/11 world. In fact, there are no references to Bush or Iraq; even the quotations from the Koran are not given a political context. But this very lack of topicality, I would argue, actually makes the book much more politically ambitious. With Spahr, the reader always suspects that the poet believes that if Bush were not in power, and the Iraq War had not come about, than we would be living in a near-idyllic society (as if the neo-liberalism of Clinton is the best we can hope for politically). Reines, by not dealing explicitly with the war, and instead focusing on the language and techniques of the slaughterhouse as the mechanism which best illustrates the situation we find ourselves in (the terror and ecstasy, so to speak, of sheer materiality), bypasses the private/public separation found in Spahr and seems to be suggesting that only by walking into the filth and obscenity of the slaughterhouse can we, paradoxically, "clean the language." Of course, our very conception of what "clean" is will probably be liquidated in the process.
Lara Glenum's The Hounds of No also finds in obscenity a site of possible liberation, or at least a site where capital implodes, but whereas Reines is "schizophrenic" - her voice, for example, shifting from the demonic to the childish to the "normal" within the same poem and sometimes even within the same line - Glenum constructs a voice that is fairly consistent from poem to poem, and yet which is, if anything, even more inhuman than the voices Reines employs. Like Sylvia Plath, Glenum is not afraid of using a theatrical persona, and that quality serves these poems well (in fact, the speaker in "Out of the Coffin I Leap," almost sounds as if the character in Plath's "Lady Lazarus" has returned from death itself, having been driven partially mad by the experience). The voice she creates is reminiscent of the witch's otherworldly voice in Kurosawa's Rashomon, being an odd mixture of formality and ghastliness. And though Deleuze and Guattari are clearly influences here ("Use the spine as a flute to play / the soft nationalistic marches of the 'bodies without organs' collective," Glenum writes in "How to Discard the Life You've Now Ruined"), Glenum's interest in theater and spectacle seem related to early Nietzsche, and especially to The Birth of Tragedy. Like Nietzsche's imagined Grecian actors, Glenum's persona is thrown from one extremity to the other, and the theatricality here is quite visual - she is, at various points in the book, crucified ("St. Liberata and the Alien Hordes"), borne into heaven ("How to Obtain the Girl-Scout Badge for Succeeding in the Afterlife"), and resurrected ("Out of the Coffin I Leap"). She also reduplicates ("Message to the Department of the Interior") and promotes violent revolutionary action ("The Regime of Bliss"). And it is this theatricality that shows best how far removed Glenum is from the Language Poets. If many Language Poets were skeptical of the mimetic quality in language, believing that their linguistic experiments could shift language toward a pre-ideological openness, Glenum  correctly realizes, like Althusser, that language can never be stripped of ideology no matter how de-stabilized it becomes, and that the only answer to a Right-Wing "fantasy" (Althusser's term) is a Left-Wing "fantasy."3       
One of the major differences between Reines and Glenum is that Reines is interested in the grotesque on the micro-level (with the poem "Item" being the exception that proves the rule), while Glenum is interested in the grotesque on the macro-level. We are a step removed in her poetry, and can see the poem-world from a certain distance. There is a narrative element in her work, but it is not the highly "crafted," A-unfolding-into-B narrative of more conventional poetry. In the spirit of Deleuze and Guattari, who argue for a nomadic form of literature, of spreading grass across (as opposed to roots down) a particular field, Glenum writes her poems in an "and then...and then" mode. The poem "Excrescence" even ends with the line "and then...and then!" Just as Reines bravely uses language that could be considered stupid or ugly (to amazing effect), Glenum uses the narrative logic of young children (to equally striking effect).
The poems are also extremely complicated. It's sometimes thought that poetry or fiction that is bluntly shocking is also bluntly simplistic, that shock by definition somehow erases nuance and subtly, but the poems in The Hounds of No directly contradict such a notion. Glenum's "How to Discard the Life You've Ruined," for example, has a tone that hovers somewhere between a dry, practical set of instructions (ones that might help someone make a bookcase) and a more spiritual definition of instruction (rules that monks might follow in the hope of attaining closeness to God, or Enlightenment). "Carve tiny beasts out of the teeth & wrap them in strands of black hair," she writes, and "sew the animals into your stomach." But there is no easy irony in this poem. Instead, the reader is placed in the role of the torturer or murdered (the "you" in the title) and told how to "discard" the victim, a process that involves high art ("Hang the loose skin in a weeping museum"), music ("Use the spine as a flute"), and sport ("Tack the two legs onto your own hips & / gallop through zones of agony"). Only in the enraged last line of the poem is the reader given any suggestion that this type of horrific play is sickening, and only at that point does the full irony in the poem become evident. We realize that the ugliness of these instructions is not meant to simply convey the depravity of the "you" - it is also part of the poet's outrage, similar to what happens when a speaker is trying to create rage among an audience by relating one terrible thing about an enemy after another. And that the speaker's voice seems borderline "mad" in the last line (and the rest of the poem retroactively from that line) is exactly the point. Rage, in Glenum's book, is not to be feared: it is embraced and sometimes made oddly jubilant. This, I think, is also related to the type of ferocious irony that Glenum refers to in her "Manifesto of the Anti-Real" at the end of the book. "Irony is not a device," she tells us. "It is a state of being." This type of irony is close to Nietzsche's radical sense of irony - that is, an irony that has no stable point, no safe corner to hide in: an irony born from the most extreme form of skepticism - and it is also an irony that has nothing to do with the so-called postmodern irony found in so much contemporary poetry. One of the fascinating aspects about Glenum's book, in fact, is how post-post-modern it seems. Elizabeth Bishop once remarked that when she read John Berryman's poetry, she felt like she was reading the poetry of the future, and the same could be said about Glenum's poetry. "Hang sentimentality on the gallows of Emergency," she writes in the last line of the book, and the sentiment is so far from the ossified modernist/postmodern ways in which we tend to think about aesthetics that you almost feel as if new notions of poetry are needed simply to read the book in an engaged manner. This is the kind of book that seems to call for new types of criticism.
Another book that uses elements of the political grotesque - that sees the grotesque as a legitimate response to what critics sometimes call "late capitalism" - is Daniel Borzutzky's The Ecstasy of Capitulation. But just as the differences between Glenum and Reines' books are more interesting than the similarities, Borzutzky's book is also stylistically and thematically markedly different from the worlds described by The Cow and The Hounds of No. Whereas Reines is exploring ways of thinking reminiscent of Artaud and Beckett, and Glenum writes in the exulted, ironic style of Blake and Plath, Borzutzky's work has a family resemblance to The New York School aesthetic. The often lengthy lines, the use of "prosaic" language ("Clare never doubted that her husband Phil loved her"), and the blending of surrealism with public life ("Dear Mr. Gorbachev, if we are together / Again do not spank me upon my bare buttocks") recall the playfulness of Frank O'Hara and the early Kenneth Koch. Yet the book is certainly not a rehashing of The New York School sensibility, and there is an undercurrent of menace to many of the poems that gives the book a sense of almost violent nervousness. In "Mission Statement," the poet writes, "Oh the gentle sense of peace that comes from the / impossibility of peace. This more than / anything is what I wish to achieve." And unlike the surrealism of The New York School, which tended to be non-politicized, Borzutzky's poems again and again speak through the voice of political figures (Nixon, Reagan, Kissinger), and/or mimic the "we" voice often used in the public forum: "We prefer alderman to councilmen, but what we really need are chickens." And while the "I" in O'Hara and Koch was the engine on which many of their poems ran, the "I" in Borzutzky's poems either tends to belong to other people (Nixon, etc.) or to shape-shift fundamentally from poem to poem, with, for example, the warm voice in "For Face" having little to do with the wonderfully creepy voice in "Why so Pale and Wan, Fond Lover" - a poem that recalls the intensely biological Eros found in Burroughs and William Vollmann. 
The grotesque is used throughout the book, and often in a very unexpected way. Surprisingly, the most grotesque creatures of all in Borzutzky's book are poets themselves. If some poets would like to imagine the poetry community to be a gracious one, and still secretly believe that poets should be the legislators of the world (a sentiment Spahr evidently shares when she writes, "How can the power of our combination of intimacy and isolation have so little power outside the space of our bed?"), Borzutzky continually describes poets as being feral, savage, and capable of spreading to the general population "intermittent explosive disorder, insomnia, narcissistic personality disorder, panic attacks, premature ejaculation, sadism, delusional disorder," and a host of other related problems. Borzutzky, like Rimbaud and Vallejo, has a notion of the writer as an almost-animal, but while in some writer's hands this theme might easily become pretentious, even self-congratulatory, Borzutzky continually uses humor to undercut any possible glamorization of the "barbaric writers" - and creates a truly funny and exciting anti-heroic aesthetic by doing so: "No, poetry / is not what I want. Only defecation on poetry. For / after years of humiliation, I have finally learned that / to humanize our poems, we must shit on them." Yet, Borzutzky is hardly a primitivist: as in Vallejo, the supposedly primitive is actually constructed by extremely literate, self-conscious means. The notion of "The Barbaric Writers" itself comes from Roberto Bolano's stunning novel Distant Star, whose central character, a Fascist Chilean avant-garde poet, becomes involved with a group who shits on and tears up famous works of literature; Borzutzky, in a Borgesian turn, lifts this idea of the barbaric writer and takes its eccentric aesthetic logic to the limit. Several paradoxes are brought up. In "The Forest of Barbaric Sestinas," the barbaric writer is said to have "loved hate, and hated love," and yet "he knew that his desire for love" was what inspired him to write "The Forest of Barbaric Sestinas." And though the barbaric writer is a poet, and has written the sestina we are currently reading, the barbaric writer also desires "the end of poetry," an event that will only come about "when ordinary barbarians, like you and I, unite to end / the practice of admiring texts, and replace it with the desire / to destroy texts in ceremonies of blood, vomit, defecation" - a revolutionary desire not far removed from the one Godard expresses at the end of Weekend when, in the closing scene, the line The End of Cinema appears on the screen. In Borzutzky's book, "culture" is continually challenged: "A good leek soup smells like vomit," he writes, and "a bad leek soup smells like vomit." But he doesn't fall back on reactionary notions of authenticity, of primal nature, but, again, goes the opposite route of showing how everything is rootless, constructed, Borgesian. As Borzutzky brilliantly demonstrates, the textual and the disgusting, artifice and desire, and intellect and obscenity are not oppositions: they are two aspects of the same phenomena.
The destruction of Art (at least in its heroic, "mature" sense) is a common theme among Reines, Glenum, and Borzutzky, and it is a theme that returns us back to Deleuze and Zizek. Like those writers, these poets are not content to simply examine the world, or to stay within the fairly safe (by now) discourse of the semiotic (though all of these poets have taken various and important cues from the Language Movement). For them, the question of the real (or Real) goes beyond the well-known insight that "sign does not equal signifier," and they do not think that facts alone can create a political point of view. As Reines writes, "While American poetry / dissolved its I the starvational and massacred bodies of all the world / larded newspapers with their blood and guts."