Date: Tue, 22 Jan 2002
Subject: Craig Dworkin talk

>Did any New York listserv folk attend Craig Dworkin's talk "against meaning" last night? If you did, please report. He's a smart cookie and I'd like to get a gist of what he's "for."

Tom Thompson

To: T.T. From: J.J.

I found Craig Dworkin's "Against Meaning" lecture at the White Box gallery very upsetting.

(I was extremely eager to go: I rarely leave the house at night anymore, but I vividly remember his Barnard conference lecture on Lyn Hejinian and paranoia. He shared a panel with Charles Altieri back then at Barnard. Dworkin's talk included references to the asylum-institutionalized "madman" who composed much of the Oxford English Dictionary. Dworkin's scheme had to do with the paranoid underpinnings of language and the paranoid processes of seeking out and finding meaning.)

At White Box, he wasn't using the word "paranoid" anymore.

The audience of perhaps less than three dozen, crammed together in tightly squeezed chair in the midst of any otherwise expansive gallery, included much of the Manhattan illuminati: Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Ulla Dydo, Claudia Rankine, Kenny Goldsmith .
. .

Dworkin passed out xeroxed hand-outs. His hair was moussed into standing.

Partially from my notes:

He began with George Oppen's Discreete Series, from which he drew a model for his "applied paragrammatics," a reading strategy which he defined as "willing to sacrifice its reference", "a grammar of reading".

A "discrete series" is a mathematical term for a series where every term is empirically justified, rather than being derived from preceding propositions. That is, as opposed to an arithmetic progression (the Fibonacci: 1,2,3,5,8,13...), he gave the subway stops on an East Side train. He said, à la Oppen, that it is the very fact of a poem's acceptability as a mechanism that is the proof of meaning.

He proceeded through trailing verbatim dictionary definitions which Oppen had followed in the structuring of his poem: the OED as an organizing structure. (His research included that a new printing of the OED had been a New Year's Day front page story.)

The multiple definitions for a single word as they appear in a dictionary are a discrete series, vs. an inductive "paragogic chain"--- by following a logic from signifier to signifier: glass > grass > crass > class, a "bitter romance" of associations.

He spent a good deal of time discussing the word "rim" in Oppen (with "a straight face").

He next moved on to Saussure's notorious hypogrammes: "multiple, uncontrollable and unhierarchical meanings"; DeMan spoke of the "terror" of the letter.

Riffaterre's book, The Semiotics of Poetry: When a gap opens up between a word and a text, the motivating anxiety is a single unwritten word. Texts have an unwritten core, a "matrix". Grammatical disruptions become a clue to the presence of a matrix.

He gave examples.

From Apollinaire's poem, "Monday in Christine Street":

"Trois becs de gaz allumés
La patronne est poitrinaire"

("Three gas burners lit / The proprietress is consumptive"). Dworkin found Apollinaire's name in the line-endings,

"a-" "-pa-" "-lu-" "naire", or such.

(Saussure's hypogrammes, --- or "la folie de Saussure" [the madness of Saussure]--- was his similar, decades-long notebooks, where he traced the names of Greek gods in Latin literature --- repeat: Greek gods in Latin poetry, Aphrodite, etc.)

Not wanting it to seem that the Dworkin method of reading was applicable only to the avant-garde, he turned to Robert Frost's old chestnut, "Mending Wall".

(In excerpt:

"the frozen ground-swell . . .
. . . The gaps I mean,
. . .
. . . 'Good fences make good neighbors.'
. . . I was like to give offense.
. . . I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly").

Dworkin found the same Semiotics of Poetry dynamic ("it warps itself around a missing core"). (Saussure's term "hypogramme" was taken from the Greek for signature.)

"(F)rozen ground-swell" is a synonym for rime frost; "rime" is a homonym for "rhyme"; "frost" was a term for "literary failure" that Frost would have been fighting against. "The gaps" mean the gaps of Riffaterre lacunae; for "elves", read "selves". "fences"/"offence" was a Russian "zdvig" or "shift".

Dworkin's third example, p. 258 from an edition of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano: "Yvonne's father made his way . . . earnest candid eyes . . . synthetic hemp".

This prose hid a Dworkin matrix for the name--- Ernest Hemingway, Lowry's literary father (known as "Papa Hemingway", with "Papa" appearing on a preceding

earnest hemp way.

These repeated examples were his self-admitted defense against accusations of a "readerly hat trick" or "hermeneutical prestidigitation".

He said he found "recourse to soft psychology not satisfying either" (Lowry, writing around a bullfight, thinks of Hemingway), but acknowledged "the degree to which readers are more comfortable with corroborative" evidence.

He said he found these hypograms "factually, incontroveribly there"; that it was not chance and permutations.

In Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose", which is about an animal (C.D. cited critical commentary as to grandiose literary themes), he said the poem is about--- orthodonture.

He lined up words: "PINK glancing", "beat-up ENAMEL", "BLEACHED, ridged as clamshells", "BRUSHING the dented flank", "waits, PATIENT", and BRACES" to refer to unmentioned teeth.

Bishop at the time was going to the dentist twice a week. (---Bathos?)

(My notes do not record Dworkin commenting on the French word for tooth, "dent", and Bishop's "dented".)

In passing, he also cited Zukofsky, where three or four mentions of "law" are closely accompanied by "tessera", he said, but without Z. ever using the word "mosaic" (Mosaic law = the Law of Moses)!

The Q-&-A was not quite sympathetic: the first questioner accused him of not "opening onto paths that might lead us away from meaning" ("Against Meaning") but rather back to classic modernist grids, an aligning, congruences. Another questioner seemed argumentative in talking about an "architectonic self".

I was quite bothered. My question accused his project of reenacting what Geoffrey Hartman's 1981 Saving the Text had already done with the Romanticists (Wordsworth: word's worth; etc.), which Hartman called "the spectral name."

Dworkin (with the exception of Bishop's teeth) was in all cases "re-discovering" embedded in the text what was already conspicuously written at the top of the text: the author's name.

This differed greatly from Saussure's hypogramme matrices, which found the names of gods like "Apollo" (Saussure's Apollo had been Dworkin's springboard into Apollinaire) or "Aphrodite", --- which, importantly, were not individual author's lemon ink autographs but suprapersonal. Saussure, in search for an explanation for these disturbing archaic forces inscribed across so many writers' texts, even conjectured whether there might have been some cultic or religious explanation.

Dworkin, instead,

at exactly our contemporary turning-pint where reading and criticism have moved beyond the fantasy of (writing packaged one-for-one to) the discrete unit of a self-sufficient author, broader territorities (wilderness) of language as common possession, and a-subjective propulsions that are the agency for writing,

was re-bundling or "re-authoring" these texts back under the souscription of the individual author, neat bundles.

Bishop's teeth: biographical reductivism.

What would be interesting would be finding Louis Zukofsky's name in Lowry, or Hemingway's in Frost, I suggested.

Dworkin demonstrated no corrective familiarity with statistics and randomness, or their anomalies. He had fallen into a statistical rabbit-hole. (You'd be amazed how many time the same doubles will come up in a row.)

Definitely, the name is a narcissistic imago, and we develop fetishistic attachments to its letters. But Dworkin was going from general principles to a sort of "Find-a-Word" puzzle, where the solution --- surprise! --- in x out of y cases was a game of nominal, diagonal acrostics.

He responded by saying that he thought it might have something to do with the numinous or nebulous status of personal names as words, which he does not understand.

---I can't see how it moves "our" mission forward to go retrograde (moving from a self of societal construction to a metaphysics of "confidential, to the point of secrecy," as he said about Oppen). He's re-instating the self-enclosed, autonomous figure of the writer as the prime deciphering key to the text, where the "punch line" solution will be finding at the end what you started off with at the beginning.

His insistence on the "objectivity" of his findings and truth was jettisoning the whole rich ground of indeterminacy, and ambiguity, and The Absurd (that which can be neither true nor false).

---To say nothing of the spuriousness of his methodology.

The Lowry Hemingway was a single confabulation ("objective" or not) on p. 258 of a 400 pp. novel.

A "proof" strung out of four, maybe five tenuous examples, one of them (the Zukofsky) undocumented yields a whole paragrammatics. Between one example and the next, however, there was considerable slippage, with name only putatively unifying tellingly different cases:

Frost's name was hidden in synonyms, but was his own
name in his own text;

Apollinaire's name was his own name in his own text,
but appeared as splintered syllables, unlike Frost's

Lowry's Hemingway was made up of splintered syllables,
but was somebody else's name, not the author's;

"Moses" in Zukofsky involved neither the author's name
nor that of a living or real person nor syllables: it
depended on a Latin-to-English translation.

Bishop's had nothing to do with names or any
"unwritten word" at all, per se (a body part,
instead); etc.

Dworkin's schizo-analysis was conducted without even passing reference to the possibility of a rhetorical trope of paronomasia. Writers writing without any sense of pun.

In resuscitating, after The Death of the Author, these authors this way, and stressing "objectivity", Dworkin absolved himself of the uncomfortable position of being a reader with responsibility for his own idiosyncratic dyslexias: instead, the return of the invisible, Archmidean critic.

I think he lost ground by backing away from his previous "paranoia" model (which was anti-subjective). By moving on instead to a hunt for neutral alphabetic solutions, punch-lines, he has, in a sense, deepened his previous project further by joining into the affectlessness of paranoia's clues.

Paranoia is, literally (etymologically), beside feelings, that is, always a little to the left or right of emotions. Paranoia is more concerned with cracking the FBI's cryptography than with what it feels like to be so consumed and monomaniacal.

He said that the very fact that Frost and Bishop scholars become upset with him makes him think he's on to something. Others' emotive frustration is not an academically recognized barometer for confirming a hypothesis.

We were left with handfuls of alphabet blocks, Scrabble solitaire played with books. Even were they delivered less objectionably, those details could have been bridges into empathic deepening with the source texts, instead of "A-ha!" eureka at yet another ghost writer's signature: Bishop's toothache becomes a sort of joke, in its mundanity, rather than an opportunity to connect with the force of personal, physical pain (toothache, after all, being even Wittgenstein's preferred metaphor for investigations into the language of pain and private sensations); Zukofsky's unwritten (oral?) "Mosaic law" was not a segue into
glimpsing the proud, idealized self-identification that he, as a Jew, self-aggrandized with the sainted law-giver; ...

Dworkin must be right: I'm as bothered as the Frost scholars.

(And from Princeton, no less!)