Grammar, linguistic and literary production, and related matters: a note for Kent Johnson

If there’s one thing that indefatigable gadfly of a poet Kent Johnson and I share it’s a stubborn, irritable tick of concern with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and poetics and their “post avant” wake (so wide now few poets or critics seem aware how much they operate within its horizon…).

Recently, his most recent online persona linked an article he had written for absent, “competence, linguistics, politics & post-avant matters”. Therein, he rightly takes to task Charles Bernstein et al. for their loosey-goosey way of discussing (and thinking about) language, grammar, ideology, and society. I can’t say I’m in full agreement with Johnson on all points, but the drift of his argument is surely in the right direction.

It was with no little delight I read in a recently acquired copy of Slavoj Žižek’s 2012 Less Than Nothing the following passage, which sums up pointedly and neatly the fundamental misunderstanding of language (the identification of linguistic or literary production with that of commodities) that underwrote, at least, the early days of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E:

The basic premise of discursive materialism was to conceive language itself as a mode of production, and to apply to it Marx’s logic of commodity fetishism. So, in the same way that, for Marx, the sphere of exchange also obliterates (renders invisible) its process of production, the linguistic exchange also obliterates the textual process that engenders meaning:  in a spontaneous fetishistic misperception, we experience the meaning of a word or act as something that is a direct property of the designated thing or process; that is, we overlook the complex field of discursive practices which produces this meaning. What one should focus on here is the fundamental ambiguity of this notion of linguistic fetishism:  is the idea that, in the good old modern way, we should distinguish between “objective” properties of things and our projections of meanings onto things, or are we dealing with the more radical linguistic version of transcendental constitution, for which the very idea of “objective reality” of “things existing out there, independently of our mind” is a “fetishistic illusion” which is blind to how our symbolic activity ontologically constitutes the very reality to which it “refers” or which it designates? Neither of these two options is correct—what one should drop is their underlying shared premise, the (crude, abstract-universal) homology between discursive “production” and material production. (7)

I am skeptical Žižek’s characteristically canny observation settles the question (one that extends back to the advent of philology (the science of language) and literature-as-such), but it is surely sharp enough to cut through much of the underbrush!

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