I have long had a fraught relationship to feminism. While I have always been a feminist I struggle with the crabbiness that can come with any kind of identity politics, and I have also always been a radical anti-essentialist when it comes to gender. For these reasons I distanced myself from feminism for a while. I had a realization in the shower one day (2 or 3 years ago now), however, as I was struggling to describe my then-nascent MA thesis (this paper is an excerpt), that feminism was actually critical to my work and I couldn’t exactly go forward with my proposal without reckoning with the feminist component. I have begun to see myself as a participant in feminism mainly through my love of woman writers, and of women in general.
Postmodernism, Feminism and the Monstrous Play of Dialogic Discourse in Lisa Robertson’s The Men and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl
Starting from language as a material surface, this paper explores the implications of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogic discourse for postmodern and feminist poetics through the lens of Lisa Robertson’s The Men and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl. This paper draws a parallel between the political condition of the woman marginalized by patriarchal discourse, and that of Frederic Jameson’s postmodern subject as described in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Dialogic discourse is positioned as an arsenal of discursive tactics that allow the rhetorically marginalized subject to nevertheless “speak” in a way that is communicable through and in spite of a given hegemonic discourse.
In the context of feminism, Virginia Woolf observes that woman is “the most discussed animal in the universe” (28). Lyn Hejinian points to the power that lies in discursive description, showing the impact of being “the most discussed animal in the universe” to be not altogether different from the description of Jameson’s ontologically bereft postmodern subject:
Being an object of description without the authority to describe, a woman may feel herself to be bounded by her own appearance, a representation of her apparent person, not certain whether she is she or only a quotation. She may feel herself to have been defined from without while remaining indefinite in or as herself.
Hejinian’s account describes a flattening of woman’s identity, as it is reduced to external surfaces: “bounded by her own appearance,” “defined from without,” or to textual surfaces: “not certain whether she is she or only a quotation.” We might remember here that Jameson describes the postmodern subject as rhetorically and spatially overwhelmed, and thus crowded out of the ability to take the “critical distance” necessary for viable political articulation . The hegemonic discourse in this context would then be one of spatiality and “depthless” surfaces. In this view, both female and postmodern subjects find themselves in the midst of a language (patriarchal discourse, mute surfaces) that surrounds them on all sides, and perhaps even describes them, but is not configured for their use.
Taking écriture féminine as a heuristic, my analysis will explore tactics through which Robertson and Jackson render themselves (as women) and their texts (as feminine writing) viable in spite of the patriarchal underpinnings of language . I will primarily examine their writing strategies through the lens of dialogic discourse as set forth by Mikhail Bakhtin, which I argue to be fruitfully developed in Julia Kristeva and Gilles Deleuze/Felix Guattari’s works. Judith Butler’s principles of disidentificatory repetition and performativity and Donna Haraway’s heuristic of cyborg embodiment make appearances in my analysis as useful agents of textual practices explicitly aligned with postmodernity, and which also are fundamentally dialogic (Butler Bodies, Butler Gender, Haraway). I place the conceptual contexts of postmodernism and feminism alongside each other not only because feminist theory has long engaged the problem of the discursively occluded subject, an issue that reappears in Jameson’s postmodern subject: I intend to show how the tactics at work in the feminist texts that I explore are not in fact reducible to gender, but rather betray a significant sensitivity to (and appropriation of) surfaces, taking language in particular as a material surface in this inquiry .
Before I get to the meat of my analysis, I begin by outlining some relevant aspects of dialogic discourse, and then I briefly introduce the texts in their material specificity. The conceit of monstrous style emerges in this paper to convey the embodied, unmistakable visibility that the texts achieve .
Dialogic Discourse/Intertextuality/Becoming: From Bakhtin to Kristeva to Deleuze
…discourse lives, as it were, beyond itself,
in a living impulse toward the object (Emerson/Morson 141) .
Dialogue, as an event that occurs between people is a relative, contextual force that is defined as being-outside-of, in-between, external. Dialogue directs existence outside of the self into a relational interdependency. By virtue of dialogue, Bakhtin argues that “neither individuals nor any other social entities are locked within their boundaries. They are extraterritorial, partially ‘located outside’ themselves” (50). This becoming-beside or -outside is the zone of dialogic discourse, which Bakhtin describes as “a living impulse” (141). Bakhtin’s theory of dialogic discourse can be read here as deftly de-centering the Enlightenment ideal of the autonomous rational subject; becoming a theory of dialogic and ludic heterarchy, rather than of rational and monologic hierarchy.
Additional key attributes of Bakhtinian dialogic discourse that will be relevant to my analysis are as follows: (1) addressivity, (2) an interdependent relationship to context, (3) unfinalizability, and (4) unrepeatability. These traits of dialogism are particularly important because of the utter contingency of meaning that they describe, which opens up a potential space for a politically subversive style. To begin with, the addressive aspect of a given unit of dialogic discourse (or “dialogic utterance”), which could be a word, a phrase, or an entire work, imbues the utterance with an object and a purpose, “beyond itself” (141). This notion is indissoluble both from the potential for a political agenda, and from the critical role of context for the ontology of meaning in the utterance. Context here is taken to include actual cognizing subjects in conversation, as well as the dialogic utterance’s surrounding rhetoric or prior meanings. Underscoring the interdependent, dynamically determining relationship between discrete dialogic utterances, Bakhtin writes: “[dialogism] involves the constant redefinition of its participants” (52). Since addressee, context and meaning are always dynamic, the dialogic utterance is thus also necessarily both irreversible and unrepeatable; and the latter aspect becomes especially complicated when I discuss the trope of repetition in The Men. From this dynamism follows the unfinalizability that Bakhtin describes: “the final word has not yet been spoken and never will be spoken” (Ibid). Fixity of meaning is refused, and closure is categorically rejected (Hejinian 40), in favor of contingency.
Close on the heels of the contingency of meaning, we find multiplicity of meanings and voices as a fundamental discursive condition of dialogism, which Bakhtin calls “heteroglossia.” Dialogized heteroglossia is the fullest state of dialogic discourse: Bakhtin most notably theorizes an internally dialogized multi-voiced-ness with the examples of literary style or tone, discussing irony and satire as styles where internal dialogue is at a heightened level, bearing “countless varieties, infinite shadings and gradations, and enormously complex interactions” (132).
Julia Kristeva’s understanding of Bakhtinian dialogic discourse and her development of the concept of intertextuality help here to bring dialogism into closer conversation with feminist politics and the postmodern trope of spatial surfaces. Kristeva contends that Bakhtin’s work portrays “the ‘literary word’ as an intersection of textual surfaces” (65). Further, she writes, “Bakhtinian dialogism … identifies writing as both subjectivity and communication, or better, as intertextuality,” here introducing her own term of “intertextuality,” and underscoring the interpolation of a subjective agency into discourse (“communication”), via dialogism (68). Through her discussion of intertextuality, Kristeva mobilizes dialogic discourse to more explicitly political ends, describing intertextuality as “the establishment and countervailing of a sign system within a social framework,” which causes “the subject [to] undergo an unsettling, questionable process” (18). The concept of countervailing sign systems becomes central to my analysis, as I cast the appropriation and redeployment of patriarchal discourse in Robertson and Jackson’s texts in terms of such a process.
The dynamic concept of “becoming” as set forth by Deleuze and Guattari in Mille Plateaux, serves to further materialize dialogism and intertextuality in a way that foregrounds the dynamism of context . In Plateaux, becoming is described as a concrete and spatial process, with the example of the wasp and the orchid coming together as a “becoming,” and with repeated descriptions of the process-concept of becoming via through spatial rhetoric such as “line of flight,” “deterritorialization” and “reterritorialization,” and so forth (Deleuze/Guattari). As I understand it, the “territory” in de- and re-territorialization is analogous to the dynamic and interactive “context” of Bakhtinian dialogism.
Deleuze’s further theorizing of style as ultimately “contained in a life and expressed in a style” (Deleuze/Parnet 3) is especially fruitful. His notion of style as the expression of becoming usefully distills into a single concept the process of becoming as living dialogic discourse. Deleuze particularizes his understanding of style in a way that recalls heteroglossia, and speaks to the purposes of my project:
We must be bilingual in a single language, we must have our minor language inside our own language, we must create a minor use of our own language … a style is managing to stammer in one’s own language … being like a foreigner in one’s own language.
(emphasis added, Deleuze/Parnet 4)
The notion of bilingualism and a minor language within a single language suggests the heteroglossic state of multiplicity of voices and meanings, and the emphasis on minor use of a language, and the status of being a foreigner in one’s own language is quite applicable to the heuristic of écriture féminine that I adopt for my analysis. Finally, the visceral allusion to “stammer[ing] in one’s own language” aligns itself with the image of the dotted line that emerges from my analysis. Further, Deleuze writes,
…style gives writing an external end – which goes beyond what is written.
Here the addressivity of the dialogical utterance, and its inherent political potentiality are again conveyed. The “external end” could be an addressee or a political agenda, and at the same time refers to the monstrous and unusual text that can also emerge as a consequence of dialogic becoming.
Matter of the Texts: Language Poetry and Hypertext
In keeping with this paper’s structuring notion of language as a material surface, I will take a moment here to introduce the texts in their material aspects. The Men is a short volume of poetry that I characterize as language poetry. A primary convention of such poetry is non-normative use of language and grammar, which brings the material aspects of language and sound to supercede the hegemonic teleology of meaning . The linguistic medium is always before the reader of language poetry, and engenders a slower and less linear reading style. In Robertson’s work, I locate dialogic activity at the level of the grammatically disruptive work her text performs, as language poetry. I propose that Robertson’s text challenges the hierarchical division between the human subject and text inasmuch as the reader becomes compelled to participate in the creation of meaning/s. Further, the text’s repeated recontextualization of the phrase “the men” casts The Men as operating from within the patriarchal discourse that is inseparable from language itself .
Patchwork Girl is a formally experimental hybrid work that I interpret as part novel, part poetry that is written (and read) in hypertext. Patchwork Girl performs a similar disruption to Robertson’s text, but operates on a larger scale; on the level of pieces of text, rather than words and parts of speech, and is thus especially intertextual and heteroglossic in its form. It is filled with threads that would form a linear narrative, but instead appear as an unpredictably encountered array of voices, both plagiarized and original, arranged in hypertext boxes that lead in several potential directions at once. Sources and voices quoted throughout include excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Frank L. Baum’s Patchwork Girl, Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, a handbook for the hypertext program in which the text is composed; and loosely attributed voices of different body parts, of the former “owners” of these parts, the monster (also the text itself, since these are both referred to as Patchwork Girl), Mary Shelley (in a fictional diary), and finally the writer’s own voice, reflecting on and describing the writing process.
As a hypertext in storyboard software, the work is concretized and spatialized into an array of surfaces. It is compressed into cybernetic code, and then displayed on the flat surface of the reader’s computer screen, and then each hypertextual storyboard text-box is an additional virtual surface of its own, contributing to the cumulative effect of a postmodern hegemony of surfaces. There are distinct spatial regions of the text that could be analogous to distinct chapters or books, but the text boxes connect to each other across and between these regions in unpredictable ways. The “home” page of the story shows twelve windows, arranged in a map-like web. Aside from an introduction, “her,” and a title page, “title page,” the map divides the narration into five main section/subsections: (1) hercut/crazy quilt, (2) hercut2/journal, (3) hercut3/story, (4) hercut4/graveyard, and (5) phrenology/body of text. The sections respectively lead to (1) an associative “quilt” of quotations that both comment on and narrate the story, (2) the imagined diary of Mary Shelley, (3) the “main” quasi-linear narrative section (4) the voices, origins and stories of the body parts/organs and the people whose body parts/organs make up the patchwork girl, and finally (5) a meta-discussion on the writing, reading, and being of the hypertext.
N. Katherine Hayles’s analysis of Jackson’s text centers itself around her choice and use of the hypertext storyboard medium. Hayles points out that the hypertext medium requires interaction with an intelligent computer to be experienced: “when we read electronic hypertexts, we do so in environments that include the computer as an active cognizer performing sophisticated acts of interpretation and representation” (12). Hayles’ attribution of cognition to the computer in this context parallels the implicit animation of language as an agent in the reading process of language poetry, as well as Bakhtin’s above-cited animation of dialogic discourse as “a living impulse.” This uncanny coming-to-life of and through the medium also occurs with the verbal medium in The Men. This uncanny textual animism is all-important to the disruptive politics of what I call Robertson and Jackson’s “monstrous style.”
Dialogic Becoming and Monstrous Style
Patchwork Girl performs and describes the creation and life of a monster, while The Men performatively makes a monster of its text, through the subversion of grammatical rules and conventions. Both works dialogize patriarchal discourse in an ultimately performative and embodied fashion, by generating unprecedented junctures in language and text, which reveal patriarchal discourse as unnatural through repetitions and appropriations, and make it literally monstrous to itself (cf. Butler Bodies, Gender) . This disidentificatory stylistic engages gender, language, and patriarchal discourse as material surfaces that can be rearranged and thereby made to “speak” differently, monstrously. As a text box in Patchwork Girl puts it, “We have guidelines as to which arrangements are acceptable, are valid words, legible sentences, and which are typographical or grammatical errors: ‘monsters’” (Bodies Too). This, I argue, is what Robertson’s text refers to as “sweet new style” (9, 16) .
The Men: HowMen/Human?
Men are enjambed.
Above all, Lisa Robertson’s text, The Men, is a performance of appropriation, and expresses a somewhat combative style with respect to patriarchal discourse, taking it head-on, multiplying and subverting it. The title itself, The Men, appropriates the very phrase that epitomizes patriarchy and all of its exclusive privilege. The most striking aspect of Robertson’s text is the persistent, parodic, crisis-inducing extent to which “men” itself is repeated throughout. The ultimately dialogic and heteroglossic use of “the men” through such repetition yields a stylistic of “minor use,” as advocated by Deleuze, and of “unsettling” intertextuality, as described by Kristeva. All of this is subtended by the paradoxical role of “the men”: The speaking voice strives to situate itself in language through and in spite of “men,” thus treating it both as an appropriated agent for its articulation, and as a persistent obstacle that it must constantly negotiate with and work around in order to speak.
Peppered with “men,” the complete opening stanza of the book reads like a pregnant diagram of the book’s project :
Men deft men mental men of loving men all men
Vile men virtuous men same men from which men
Sweet and men of mercy men such making men said
Has each man that sees it
Cry as men to the men sensate
Conceptual recognition the men
Is about timeliness men is about
Previous palpability from which
The problematic politics adorable
And humble especially
Young men of sheepish privilege becoming
Sweet new style
(emphasis added, 9)
In twelve lines, the word “men” appears seventeen times, and “man” appears once. The impact of this repetition leaves one first with the sense of a great crowd gathering, and, after a while, with the distinct impression of having just embarked on an inquiry into the status of humanism as well as a challenge to the status quo of humanism, and the gender hierarchy in particular. In this opening stanza, the paradoxical impact of repetition comes into view: While “men” is perpetually recontextualized, its meaning shifts at its every iteration, and becomes inevitably abstracted; at the same time, the very word-ness of “men” shows itself as ever more persistently material. The persisting remainder of repeatability rests in the word’s very haptic materiality as an audio-visual phenomenon, or a humming refrain, a clearing of one’s throat, a twitch. “The men” is conceptually beyond itself, yet exceeds itself materially. This paradoxical tension brings the word “men” into the realm of the animate, dynamic dialogic discourse: “The men” becomes a “living impulse” that increasingly locates itself in the interstitial spaces of this work. This interstitial aspect is first evident in the opening lines, where “men” appears visibly in between every other word. Toward the end of this stanza, I would suggest that in a dialogic capacity, “men” is still there, in the spaces between words, just not visibly so. As if to elucidate the pervasiveness of “men” even when not as a visible vocable, Robertson writes:
What we refer to as men is any
Communication we begin to perpetrate
Here, “men” is aligned with the hegemony of patriarchal discourse, as “any” implies potentially every act of communication. A challenge to “men” as hegemonic discourse arises from word “perpetrate,” which marks the use of “any communication” by “we” (which I take to be a complicity of the reader with the speaker) with a criminality. “Men” is thus here cast in a very ambivalent position with respect to agency: while it marks potentially all acts of communication, “we” comes in and makes criminal use of it. This remarks on the appropriative and subversive impulse of Robertson’s text as a praxis of transgression. “Begin” is also a significant word in this regard, as it speaks to the unfinalizable aspect of dialogic discourse in its political potential, making an opening for readers to potentially develop further.
Returning now to the book’s opening passage, with the transgressive and unfinalizable dialogism of “men” in mind, the first three lines seem to perpetrate a purposeful disorientation of men, perhaps the better to loosen it from its normative valence, launching it in several contexts at once:
Men deft men mental men of loving men all men
Vile men virtuous men same men from which men
Sweet and men of mercy men such making men said
(emphasis added, 9)
In the lines that follow, the pace slows down a bit, and “man/men” seems to come to life, less surrounded by adjectives, gaining some agency through verbs (has, sees):
Has each man that sees it
Cry as men to the men sensate
Conceptual recognition the men
Is about timeliness men is about
After this brief shift, “men” becomes less frequent, and, after “men is about” appears twice, nearly disappears altogether in the remainder of the opening passage, below:
Previous palpability from which
The problematic politics adorable
And humble especially
Young men of sheepish privilege becoming
Sweet new style
“Men” here begins to vanish into the gaps between the words, and the word thus becomes the interstitial zone of dialogic discourse, like an invisible dialogic engine that nonetheless persists. These last few lines seem to put forward a criticism of patriarchal and hierarchal humanism, via the phrase “problematic politics.” Yet the incursion of “adorable,” appearing on the other side of “politics” creates a dialogic tension. The conventional meanings of these words within patriarchal discourse are such that it is unnatural to string them together and, as a result the cumulative meaning becomes uncertain and open-ended. This recurs with “sheepish privilege,” an unexpected phrase that might cause the reader to puzzle over tone and meaning. The tone that ultimately seems to prevail, wrought by the tense interplay of incommensurate meanings and helped along by “and humble especially,” is one of irony (Bakhtin’s example of dialogized heteroglossia). The last two lines, “Young men of sheepish privilege becoming / Sweet new style” rhetorically outline the project of this work, which is to subvert the hegemony of patriarchal discourse – indicated by “young men of sheepish privilege” – into what Robertson here calls “sweet new style.” In light of the connection between becoming and style as theorized by Deleuze, it is significant that “becoming” here prefaces “sweet new style.”
In line with the concept of becoming-style as developed in Deleuze, a concrete distillation of dialogic style and “minor use” emerges through the conflation of body and text, in the following lines, where Robertson’s speaker reflects on the ontology of this “sweet new style”:
Grows as I speak
This is where I speak from the juicy mouth of a man
your name is a syllable on my face and I speak it from your own juice
Through these lines, Robertson’s style becomes all of a sudden intertextual in a radical way, moving from body to text and back again. This is along the lines of what Kristeva described as “the establishment and countervailing of a sign system within a social framework,” which causes the subject to “undergo an unsettling, questionable process” (18). The initial slippage of context, or countervailing of sign systems, occurs at the level of reflexivity (and this is not the first such instance in the text by any means): the moves to speaking of that which she/it is in the midst of writing/performing, causing the discourses (or, as Kristeva might say, “sign systems”) of commentary and creativity collide in a dialogized heteroglossic intertextuality of criticism and poetics. In the progression of these three examples, the body increasingly encroaches onto the paradigm of the textual space creating the dramatic countervailing of sign systems between body and discourse.
In the first example, the implication is that the speaker’s discourse is an “immaculate equal” to that of patriarchy of “the men.” The turn of phrase to “grows as I speak” addresses and concretizes the metaphor of a “body of text” with a body that seems to have emerged simultaneously with the text (“grows as I speak”). In light of the above-described persistent haptic materiality of the word “men,” it logically follows that, to properly compete with patriarchal discourse, The Men, as a text needs a body, too. The two subsequent excerpts, “This is where I speak from the juicy mouth of a man,” and “your name is a syllable on my face and I speak it from your own juice” serve to crystallize the intertextual, countervailing incursion of the body into the text. Both portray the speaker as appropriating and usurping patriarchal discourse in order to speak by concretely conflating discourse and the physical surfaces of the body. In the first one, she is “speaking from the juicy mouth of a man.” As a synecdoche for “the men,” which itself serves as a signifier of patriarchal discourse, “juicy mouth of a man” here comes to represent patriarchal discourse – ripe, and full of potential taste, as “juicy” would imply. In the second example, material words and body parts are transgressively collided, becoming more monstrous: “your name is a syllable on my face.” With the context of the preceding line, “your name” signifies the entity and the word “man.” In the materiality of the words, “man” is indeed a syllable on the “face” of the word “woman” , which the speaker of the poem conflates with her own physical and embodied face. Bringing her stylistic practice to the level of the body, the subversive appropriation of patriarchal discourse is materially rendered as a syllable on her face, subordinating man to woman in defining “man” as a mere semiotic mark. This in turn stands to be a viable way of explaining the entirety of The Men’s project.
Further, the movement from speaking “from the juicy mouth of a man” to speaking from man’s “own juice” exhibits an insidious appropriative incursion, where the speaker’s voice gets more intimately enmeshed with patriarchal discourse. The casting of “juice” as a bodily excretion (“juicy mouth”), and moreover one that is, by definition, of “men,” imbues these lines with a layer of sexy subversion, wherein the speaker has availed herself of some sperm, and appropriated it. This stands in interesting contrast with the preceding choice of “immaculate equal” to describe the body of text, where “immaculate” dialogically interpellates Mary’s “immaculate conception” of Jesus, which is revered for being a divine act of reproduction, without sperm. As such, “immaculate” here gains a shade of righteous irony, especially in light of the above discussion of the ubiquitous mark of transgression in any act of speaking in the context of this text (“any communication we begin to perpetrate”). It is this “immaculate equal” that proceeds to encroach into the bodily space of “men,” appropriating the syllable into her face, the spermish juice into her mouth, and speaking the name of man from it. The delightfully transgressive and embodied visibility of this speaking comes to distill a monstrous style of becoming that is dynamic and haptically contingent. The semiotic imbrication of male and female bodies in this instance helps one to figure gender in terms of the postmodern rhetoric of surfaces at the same time as it confuses the paradigms of encounter with the radically altering and monstrously irreversible process of becoming.
Patchwork Girl: Suturistic Futurism
…a dotted line demonstrates: even what is
discontinuous and in pieces can blaze a trail.
While The Men arrives at a monstrous representation through its dialogic practice, Patchwork Girl begins from the embodied figure of the monster. As indicated by the title, the primary heuristic and metaphor that literally stitches Jackson’s creative inquiry together is that of patchwork. Patchwork Girl’s subversive dialogism occurs on the level of text, where Jackson performs her inquiry into the question of the situation of woman in patriarchal discourse by a patchwork of plagiarisms drawn from multiple texts, culminating in a concretized intertextuality.
Whereas we left off from Robertson’s text with an image of countervailing intertextuality and imbricated male and female bodies, one of the possible opening passages of Patchwork Girl gives us just that, from the first-person, dialogic voice of the monster :
I am tall, and broad-shouldered enough that many take me for a man, others think me a transsexual (another feat of cut and stitch) and examine my jaw and hands for outsized bones, my throat for the tell-tale Adam’s Apple. My black hair falls down my back but does not make me girlish. Women and men alike mistake my gender and both are drawn to me…
They may be sure that I will lead them for a chase. I am never settled.
Jackson’s monster is a living (female) creature composed of patchworked pieces of different bodies. She is a concrete embodiment of the intertextual becoming-style of dialogic discourse; a living figure of “countervailing” sign systems that have “the subject undergo an unsettling, questionable process” (Kristeva 18). In this passage, the monster is speaking about how others perceive and react to her. That is to say, she offers a relational, dialogic self-description that is always-already in conversation with how she is perceived. In light of Woolf and Hejinian’s above-cited discussions of woman as “the most described animal,” this passage performs a compelling dialogic move, wherein this status as “most described” is in turn appropriated and described. As it happens, patriarchal discourse does not have a sanctioned category for the patchwork girl, and those who perceive her project meanings onto her as they fit into their paradigms, particularly with respect to gender: “many take me for a man, others think me a transsexual.” The monster’s gender identity is unfinalizable (“I am never settled”), and occurs as a result of heteroglossia in her body that is composed of multiple dialogic units (of flesh), interacting and living. This focus on how she does not fit in to the normative paradigm of gender binaries suggests in our context that the woman who challenges or subverts patriarchal discourse or normative textuality can no longer be pinned down or adequately described by it .
Similar to the becoming-interstitial dialogic engine of the “living impulse” of “the men” in Robertson’s text, Jackson’s monster is the interstitially-identified dialogic voice of Patchwork Girl: “My real skeleton is made of scars […] I am most myself in the gaps between my parts” (Dispersed). The patchwork girl’s subjective skeleton as scars and gaps casts the site of dialogic creativity as also the place of identity-creation. This suturistic skeleton reflects the situation of one working in a language that is not her own, and speaks directly to the situation of the woman operating in patriarchal discourse.
Like the site of the word “men,” in Robertson’s text, the scars that compose Jackson’s monster embody an ambivalent site of agency and negotiation that is the interstitial dialogic site of becoming. Notably, the scars are the single zone of the monster’s body that is exclusively personal to her; without a prior history: “Scar tissue is new growth” (emphasis added, Cut). The ahistoricity of the scar is instructive toward the project of addressing Jameson’s postmodern subject, which is purportedly crippled without historicity, or “critical distance.” The promise of the scar suggests a way in which engagement with surfaces can engender a politically potent becoming.
Suture as patchwork appears in the text as a metaphor for the writing process: “I had made her writing deep into the night by candlelight, until the tiny black letters blurred into stitches and I began to feel that I was sewing a great quilt” (Written). Thus, suture is manifest as (1) intertextual writing practice, (2) actual patchwork sewing, and (3) the embodied remainder of these practices in the monster’s scars. Jackson converges these various modes of suture into a single visual conceit that serves as the operating diagram for Patchwork Girl’s project: the typographic image of the dotted line.
Jackson writes, “The dotted line is the best line” (Dotted Line). The dotted line arrives as a juicy potential visual cue to each of the above image-practices of suture: the scar, stitches, and even writing, if one squints. The dotted line is also apt as a visual representation of dialogic discourse: As a rhetorical style, the dotted line is a collection of discrete dialogical utterances standing in contiguity (neither joined nor separate) and contextualizing each other all while leaving a space of potentiality and unfinalizability in between each other for the potential trajectory of “becoming-style.” Incidentally, the figure of “stammer[ing] in one’s own language,” from Deleuze’s discussion of style is easily boiled down to an image of the dotted line (Deleuze/Parnet 4). As we saw in our analyses of Robertson and Jackson’s works, both dialogic texts place emphasis on the interstitial zone, and thus their dialogic practices are also readily gathered up into the visual of the dotted line.
Beyond serving to visually unify the various suturistic and dialogic practices, Jackson’s dotted line yields a futurist orientation:
… it is a potential line, an indication of the way out of two dimensions.
(emphasis added, Dotted Line)
The “two dimensions” here signify not only the plane of the paper (which becomes three-dimensional when “folded along the dotted line”) but also the segregated categories of subject and object, or abstract rationality and embodiment, inherent in heteronormative patriarchal discourse. Incidentally, the dotted line is a sort of a binary code itself , with only presence and absence of the black mark as its coding, but neither the presences nor the absences are determined (as they are in binary code, as unambiguous on/off, yes/no functions), and thus allow this visual to serve as an apt one for the complex potentialities of dialogic discourse. I view this as a future-oriented attribute because these potentials form an unknowable horizon . What seems for Jackson to be an ultimate advantage of the dotted line is indeed distinguished by futurity:
…a dotted line demonstrates: even what is discontinuous and in pieces can blaze a trail.
To “blaze a trail” is to make a path where there has never been one before, and thus speaks more explicitly to the futuristic politics inherent in dialogic discourse. The radical newness of a “blazed trail” in turn speaks also to the countervailing, intertextual becoming-mutations of mind and body that both texts exhibit, and which Jameson suggests are necessary in order to fashion agency amid a hegemonic discourse .
The Future Matter of Monstrous Style
If we are imprisoned by language, then escape from that prison- house requires language poets, a kind of cultural restriction enzyme to cut the code; cyborg heteroglossia is one form of radical cultural politics.
–Donna J. Haraway
Concluding somehow doesn’t seem appropriate in light of the unfinalizable, futuristic politics that I’ve just outlined. Nevertheless, I will move toward a manner of closure by first nodding to Haraway’s nod to language poetry as a potentially liberatory cyborg practice . From the foregoing analysis of dialogic discourse becoming monstrous style in both texts, Robertson’s text leaves us with an intertextual and countervailing attunement to materiality as a site through which the marginal voice makes itself ultimately known. In Jackson, countervailing materiality as the starting point is particularized into the elusive matter of the interstitial zone. The dotted line as the emblem of this zone is offered as a portable arsenal/diagram for becoming-monstrous-style for the potential use of any hegemonically marginalized subject. Based on the convergence of Robertson and Jackson’s discursive tactics, it shouldn’t appear too great a leap to provisionally place Jackson’s text into the camp of language poetry.
The cyborg heuristic as developed by Haraway is consistent with the politically potent “monstrous style” that I have theorized insofar as the cyborg is a metaphorical term that embodies the transgressive countervailing of material and abstract categories upon each other. To use Haraway’s term, language poetry is always-already cyborg in its reflexive awareness of the linguistic medium as a material entity, and in the disjunctive hybrids that it produces from language. The distinctly postmodern (and feminist) figure of the cyborg facilitates the movement of my heuristic of monstrous style from écriture féminine to the ontologically bereft postmodern subject as described by Jameson particularly because the term “cyborg” describes a combination of living and non-living (cybernetic-organic), which might better suit the material conditions of the postmodern subject. “Monstrous style,” on the other hand, is about the contagion of life and agency that is potential within the recursive and recombinatory practices of the texts I have analyzed. Monstrous stands to make the cybernetic and organic equally alive, as a slightly different tactic toward the redistribution of power.
1 Jameson begins Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism with this sentence: “It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place” (ix). The apparent “breakdown of temporality” leads to a subjectivity engulfed in an overwhelming spatial present: Jameson compares the postmodern subject to an overwhelmed and overstimulated schizophrenic patient for whom experience boils down to “the gloss and smooth ness of material things” (27). He argues that as a result “our now postmodern bodies are bereft of spatial coordinates and practically (let alone theoretically) incapable of distantiation” (48). Distantiation, or “critical distance,” is a primary requisite element for subjective and political articulation, per Jameson (which have argued elsewhere to be a vestige of modernism and the modernist world view).
2 I rely on écriture féminine as an open question that my analysis will explore. My project is not so much concerned with feminism as with discursive tactics deployed by feminist texts.
3 And this in turn places gender in the category of surfaces, which is a useful and perhaps more accurate way to understand gender.
4 By using the word “monstrous,” I mean to allow for the root of “monstrare” (meaning “to show”) to come through.
5 My citations of Bakhtin in this paper all come from the incredibly comprehensive Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics by Caryl Emerson and Gary Saul Morson.
6 As aptly put in “along comes something – launched in context” from Hejinian’s “Happily” (386).
7 Incidentally, in Dialogues II, Deleuze points to the connection between dialogue and becoming in the following comment on conversation: “this could be what a conversation is – simply the outline of a becoming” (2).
8 I recognize that there are likely other ways of defining language poetry, and this discussion is more interpretive than meant to be definitive.
9 See discussion of text below.
10 Here I am thinking of what Butler writes in Bodies That Matter about performativity and performative gender as assuming an “understanding of performativity not as the act by which a subject brings into being what she/he names, but, rather, as that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains” (2). I locate here the seed of the disidentificatory power that stands to be generated by the gestural repetition of such a performativity.
11 Since there are no page numbers in Jackson’s text, I cite my quotations based on the title of the text-box that I pull them from.
12 I use “diagram” here according to the way that Deleuze does in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, which offers a very productive vocabulary for a treatment of poiesis.
13 I am working off of the assumption that Robertson’s speaker is meant to be female.
14 Because of the way Jackson’s text is set up as a hypertext, there are several possible places to start the narrative.
15 This is like the independently successful woman who ceases to be “feminine enough,” a common insult leveled at powerful women.
16 …and at this moment I can hear an ironic voice in my head saying, “This, my friends, is a binary to leave all binaries behind!”
17 Here I borrow the rhetoric of futurism as a horizon of possibility from Jose Muñoz’s new book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.
18 This is my interpretation of his comment: “The newer architecture… stands as something like an imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions” (39).
19 This text is found in footnote 4 to “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.”
20 Which, I have to say I came across after having initiated this inquiry, but before having incorporated her ideas into it.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex.” New York: Routledge. 1993.
----. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge. 1990, 1999.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2002
----, and Claire Parnet. Dialogues II. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Columbia University Press. 2002.
----. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Trans. Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2005.
Emerson, Caryl, and Gary Saul Morson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1990.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. 1991.
Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2000.
Jackson, Shelley. Patchwork Girl. Watertown: Eastgate Systems. 1995.
Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press. 1992.
Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 1980.
Muñoz, Jose Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU Press. 2009.
Robertson, Lisa. The Men. Toronto: BookThug. 2006
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1981.