Anti-Gift

Below is short essay that I contributed to the Organism for Poetic Research's Re: Theory, A Sunday chapbook, published as an "OPR Edition." I feel that the original Theory, a Sunday document, translated in 2013 by Belladonna Press, is a multiple and non-hierarchical reading experience. In recognition of this, I sought to capture a sense of the different and even contradictory kinds of critical and creative work that these Quebecois women were exploring during the 1980s. My intention was both to give a sense of the stakes of the original project and, additionally, to highlight the importance of taking up the same questions thirty years later and responding to them in kind. 

A link to the Organism for Poetic Research Website: http://organismforpoeticresearch.org/re-theory-a-sunday/ 

A link to the Belladonna Press book: http://www.belladonnaseries.org/theory-a-sunday/

Is she taking herself seriously or taking herself too seriously? Does she exhibit judgment or is she judgmental? Where might she locate present and future sites of intervention for her feminist world-making? These questions emerged in reading the creative and critical texts that together constitute Belladonna’s new English translation of Theory, A Sunday. We also discussed these types of questions as a collective – particularly in relation to issues of legibility, reception, and language politics – during the Organism for Poetic Research’s “Theory, A Sunday” seminar that took place in the winter of 2014.

In one of the book’s critical texts, entitled “The Frame Work of Desire,” Nicole Brossard articulates the high stakes at-hand in fashioning any kind of feminist praxis, emphasizing the challenge of recognizing herself as a beholder, but nonetheless rationalizing herself as, perhaps primarily, beheld. From “what position, what base,” she asks, “can feminist consciousness situate its gaze? What sort of distance does feminist consciousness have to overcome in order to draw close to women, what sort of energy does it have at its disposal, and what kinds of interference does it run up against?”[1] I think of my own labyrinthine negotiations between, on the one hand, the preoccupations of an everyday pursuit of knowledge (aspiring rigor, language resolving into a discourse privileging close analysis and reason) and, on the other hand, more oblique and contingent processes (always creating problems for the former category) that privilege the flux of sensory experience and pervade poetic and artistic engagements.

The man-made concept of “collective memory” – which purports to reside in the nebulous space that inconclusively bridges sensation and intellect – is one of those conceptual fissures identifiable through Brossard’s consciousness precisely, I suggest, because it is still trying to situate its gaze.[2] I am reminded here of Susan Sontag’s qualification, in Regarding the Pain of Others, that “strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory – part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction.”[3] Lisa Robertson, who wrote the introduction for this new translation (“Theory, A City”), expresses a similar distrust of pat phraseology (i.e. of the comparative ease with which language petrifies into dogma) in The Weather, a book of poems in which she asserts: “I am always wrong / to anticipate the intelligible,” as if she were actively attempting to convince both herself and the reader of her creative ability to critique her own critical impulses.[4] Later, she wonders: “How are we to unlearn each thing?”[5] Here, the paradoxical implication is that the “process” of unlearning is not the same thing as mere forgetting (although a return to naiveté is assumedly inevitable in both situations), because it would somehow necessitate an active intellect in the Aristotelian sense of that which would make or craft all things.[6]

Robertson recognizes that any answer to her question initiates a new process of learning: a new theoretical approach that would be subtractive or excavatory, as opposed to additive or accumulative. Yet despite these apparently decisive observations, she cannot help but reflect on – and try to make sense of – her own perceptions, to interpret her own “eye” as a particular “I” that is seen by another “eye/I” and therefore judged from a distance: “When no perception, doing warning. When none would, a pip of wet, stillness, a runnel. When observed from a perspective, we want to be perceived.”[7] The experience of perspective is not simply pre-intelligible. It might be understood, rather, as the interval of articulation, which always contains a deferral, a time-lapse that shades into meaning-lapse: an interval that provides, by virtue of its symbolic or indexical space, the conditions for both empathy and intellectual isolation, relationality and miscommunication.

The problem of precedence – of why Robertson in these short lines ascribes primary status to intuitive experience, but then to an interpretive distance, and then, again, to the shredding of knowledge and, hence, a new perspective by way of “unlearning” (Denise Riley highlights this kind of dissolving or “vulnerability […] of a category” in her book The Words of Selves) – may provide us with a cipher for the pervasive, underlying issue of a “feminist consciousness” that the various authors/members of the group – Louise Cotnoir, Gail Scott, Louise Dupré, France Théoret, Nicole Brossard, and Louky Bersianik – investigate and disrupt throughout Theory, A Sunday.[8]

Reflecting on Lacan’s theorization of the symbolic, Louky Bersianik observes, in “Aristotle’s Lantern,” that a continuous difficulty for her is the unwieldy sensation that she is in some way perversely appropriating theory as a discourse – taking something that is not hers – by using it and even deriving pleasure from it. Theory, in this sense, might be likened to a capricious, Disney-esque mirror, which could choose not to reveal or register her reflection:

Within the term of recognition, there is also the notion of gratitude. How could women possibly give recognition to a symbolic system that has done them such harm? One can imagine that men, for the most part, are incapable of being grateful for the questioning of a system that has done them so much good, or, more precisely, that still grants them so many privileges.[9]

It seems that the question is not only or especially: “How could women possibly give recognition to a symbolic system that has done them such harm?” It is also: “How could women possibly give recognition to a symbolic system that does not recognize them?”[10] That is, Bersianik expresses the sense that theory is a kind of anti-gift: something that must be taken rather than given and that need not create a debt. Theory is not only or not merely some thing to be deployed at will. It is, instead, an ambivalent tool that both retains and transmutes a trace of theft, along with the possibility of misapplication and less-than-satisfactory recognition.

As Bersianik’s words reveal, this challenge demands that we cultivate but also interrogate our abilities to theorize, to abstract, to collect, to revise, to display, to displace, to register and provoke discomfort, to find a purpose, and to repurpose so that the discourse around and produced by theory alters the word itself and its anticipated context. This text does not let us rest easily in the territory of our singular orientations and experiences, especially because it provides us with diverse, even contradictory routes of exploration, some of which ought not to be parsed or explained according to any clear logic (or with the utilitarian objective of a resolution in mind) but which nonetheless speak directly to the problems of recognition and representation that preoccupy any “feminist gaze.”

To the somnambulant lover who will never read [this], Theory, A Sunday admits: “I am terrified you’ll ask me who I am when I wake up in the middle of the night, heart racing, trying to find your smell to come back up to the surface” (Louise Dupré, “Voiceover”).[11] With cool, sexy, and not-altogether-convincing resignation, it reflects: “The anguish that overwhelms her echoes in the headlines. She contemplates the scandal of her own mutation” (Louise Cotnoir, “Pagan Signature”).[12] In dialogue with the unreliable “I,” it reasons both against and with reason: “Time is a gift, if I don’t manage to use it correctly, I rob it of its originality and at night my dreams are chaotic. […] If I killed time, I think I would kill the faculty I have to establish a distance from the places I love” (France Théoret, “This is not a Lake”).[13]

 

Endnotes

1. Nicole Brossard, “The Frame Work of Desire,” in Theory, A Sunday (New York: Belladonna, 2013), 27. 

2. See Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, edited, translated, and with an introduction by Lewis A. Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). According to Halbwachs: “The dreamer cannot escape from himself in that he is not capable of considering, from the collective point of view, these totalities – people and fact, regions and periods, groups of objects and general images – which are in the forefront of the memory of society” (45). [↩]

3. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York; Penguin, 2004), 76. 

4. Lisa Robertson, The Weather (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2001), 42. 

5. Ibid., 42. 

6. Aristotle, De Anima (III, v), in The Basic Works, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Modern Library, 2001). 

7. Ibid., 46-7.

8. Riley asserts that a “historical phenomenology of self-naming would fill the world; the vulnerability or the impregnability of a category marks its history as the history of attempts to establish it and get it solidly installed, to politicize it, to dissolve it, to shred it,” in The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony (Stamford: Stamford University Press, 2000), 8. 

9. Louky Bersianik, “Aristotle’s Lantern,” in Theory, A Sunday, 72.

10. Or, like Aristotle, only recognizes them as a lack (see Rachael Wilson’s response).

11. Ibid., 105. Here, the “feminist gaze” intervenes and questions: why might this excerpt be construed as sexy? Who is dividing uncontrollably and what is the source of this error? 

12. Ibid., 125. 

13. Ibid., 147.