Saturday, April 10, 2004

Andrew Loewen, the author of the Poetics list post that got me, Eileen, Chris, and others so worked up, has appeared in my comment box (see the previous post), stating that while he's certainly "learned something" from the response to his post, he still feels that the actual points he was trying to make "have been unjustly ignored at the expense combating my 'semantic ugliness.'"

I started comment-boxing back to him, but realized the space limitations there (my own fault) wouldn't allow me to respond adequately. So here goes.

Hello, Andrew. I'm afraid I feel there's nothing unjust at all about how the questions you raised were "ignored"; your own rhetoric--which was surely designed to grab attention--is solely to blame for that. What other effect did you think your subject line could have? Did you believe that interposing "author-function" between "Sylvia Plath" and a misogynist slur would be an adequate defense?

In fact, my point was that the inflammatory nature of your rhetoric worked precisely to undermine the point you were ostensibly making. I am assuming that you'd say your intent was to point out how the "privileged" (i.e. well-educated white men) are able to claim the aesthetic high ground of the "experimental," while dismissing the work of women and non-whites as merely "confessional" and degraded. Though I think these terms are imprecise and have to be contextualized, there's certainly some truth to that insight.

But the very terms in which you stated this claim, I think, served to reinforce or even worsen the binary you're purporting to critique. As unpleasant as it is, I'm afraid I can't show you what I'm talking about without returning to the words in question. Let's look at the first point in your post:

"1. It is mostly those with relatively privileged positions in the social hierarchy who denigrate confession and seek to efface their (our) identity/subjectivity/voice, whathaveyou. White men are traditionally more experimental poets than strung out Filipino crack whores, or so my preliminary investigation into this matter suggests."

The first sentence is the argument here, which is presumably to be taken straight, as a critique of those who have the privilege of denigrating confession. And it is, I guess, supposed to offer a critical explanation of the state of affairs described in the second sentence. Now this second sentence, through its mock-scientific language, signals to us that it's supposed to be read with some irony--an irony that presumably comes from the first sentence, which explains that what looks like a "traditional" binary is really an effect of economic, racial, and gender privilege. And I should note that I'm being generous here; the response of readers like Kazim Ali and Aldon Nielsen, who note that there are many experimental writers who are not white men, suggests that this sentence does not adequately signal that it's meant ironically.

But in any case, what this ostensible irony does not do is to undo the terms of the binary; it does not question the characterization "strung out Filipino crack whore" in the slightest. I assume you chose this phrase (if not just for shock value) as the ultimate opposition to the white male; in short, white/Filipino, man/whore. There is no critique of the system that would generate such a category and such a label, nor any apparent awareness that there is something amiss when "Filipino" and "whore" occur to you as a natural pairing. The image of the Asian woman as sexually degraded object--an image unfortunately rampant in our culture--is left entirely intact.

What's finally most disturbing, though, is that the rest of your post suggests that your use of this characterization is no anomaly, no accident. The language of "whore" is confirmed by your characterization--however qualified and ironized--of Sylvia Plath as a "passe cunt," while the image of the Asian as degraded object of violence is confirmed most alarmingly in your anecdote about South Korean students:

"6. When I forced South Korean adolescents to covertly write poetry (under video surveillance in a cram-school in Seoul) there poems looked radically confessional, and I mean experimental."

Whereas in your first point the language of "research" ironized your statement, this point actually contains an assertion of realism, as you give us the setting and geographic locale where it takes place. In other words, we cannot escape or qualify the image of you as a figure of discipline and authority, exercising force over a group of Asians who are not only described as children, but who are doubly monitored by you and by "video surveillance."

In short, I am arguing that the entire logic of your post hinges on the image of the "strung out Filipino crack whore," requiring that image of otherness and degradation in order to demonstrate the power of the white male literary hierarchy, while setting yourself up as critic and redeemer. But it is not the case that we can find anywhere in your post the idea that those positions you degrade--the Asian, the woman--could speak or write for themselves; the "Filipino crack whore" is clearly not a person we are supposed to imagine as a writer (or else your comparsion of such persons to white male writers would not be as jarring and shocking as it is supposed to be), and the South Korean students in your story write only under your compulsion and oversight.

I was ridiculed on the list for suggesting that the problem here was one of sympathy; but that is precisely the problem. Your post suggests that you are questioning the logic that values the poetry of well-educated white men more highly than that of those who are not well-educated white men. But the images you use to characterize the latter group are only of the most degraded and unsympathetic kind, which makes it difficult to believe that your critique is really motivated by any sense of--to return to your own word--justice. The only other plausible conclusion is that you are using--exploiting, really--the very idea of the poor Asian woman to establish your own credentials as a critic of the literary hierarchy, at the same time that you perpetuate the most destructive stereotypes about Asians and women.

This is very harsh language. But I've gone on at such length because it seems that someone who knows enough and is self-aware enough to use terms like "author-function" really ought to be able to know better than to couch this argument in the terms that you did. I'm trying to follow Chris's lead in responding with argument and analysis, rather than venom and anger (as I easily could), in the hope that it's still possible something constructive will come of this.

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