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John Ashbery, Daffy Duck in Hollywood (5)

An introduction, analysis and guide to reading John Ashbery Daffy Duck in Hollywood

His Strange Materials, Materiality and Heterogeneity

While postmodernism undermines predominant dialectical patterns such as form and theme, object and subject, the usual pattern for the reader of postmodern poetry is to deal with the material challenges of a work, before then placing these challenges within some sort of wider, thematic appreciation. Therefore, in the second half of this chapter I want to first look at the materiality of postmodern poetry, before tackling its essential thematic base, which is a reinvention of the subject. In the first instance, however, I want to replace the concept of form with that of materiality. Form presupposes a static coherence of matter into a structure and while coherent structures exist all over postmodern poetry their status is contingent and their purpose to attack formalism. In addition, there is one central element of materiality which needs to be foregrounded, which is that of poetic language’s heterogeneity seen as revelatory of language’s inherent otherness.

One the most influential and controversial concepts associated with postmodern poetry, broached by the Language poets, is the materiality of the signifier. An amalgam of cultural materialist and poststructural conceptions of signification and power, the materiality of the signifier argues that language is the result of material conditions, but more than that, that the postmodern condition of rampant global capitalism and consumerism is perpetrated through the agency of the materials of signification. There is, in other words, an ideology of language but ideology itself is also a language and a material process. This is the radical side of the self-conscious use of rhetoric in postmodern poetry. The concept of the materiality of the signifier has allowed postmodern poetry to concentrate on the semiotics of poetry without being accused of formalism and aestheticism. For postmodern poetry, an understanding of the materiality of language is a means of intervening politically on ideological structures.

Materiality, however, also means the material of poetic language, which is supposedly different from everyday speech. In fact, this is perhaps the meta-narrative claim of poetry: that it is different. In “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” the opening line, “Something strange is creeping across me” echoes the inaugural myth of poetic practice. Poetic language’s otherness, its radical heterogeneity,[i] will give us privileged access to a zone of otherness for the duration of the poem’s process. Therefore, we must take the materiality of the signifier to mean two inter-related but distinct things: that poetry is a part of contemporary discursive practices, but that its performance within such practices is peculiar to it; irreducible and singular. If we pay attention to the particular semiotic procedures of this strange material, then we can learn about how the postmodern world works, and also find a way to intervene upon it.

All of this relates to the semiotic theory of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben and his definition of poetry as a critical tension between semiotic and semantic forces within the poem.[ii] It is widely assumed that the material of the poem works to broach, develop and ultimately serve the meanings within the poem and we sometimes call semiotic/semantic poeticity, Baudrillard might call it the perfect example of exchange equivalence: I give you a ten syllable line followed by another, backed up by a regular pattern of stress and perhaps a rhyme or two, and you exchange it for a legitimised view of the poem as a significant, lasting semantic structure.[iii] Instead, Agamben suggests, poeticity is the moment when the material of the poem takes precedence over the ideas it may or may not be expressing. His example is the line break, which occurs in the poem often in the middle of an idea, interrupting it and privileging semiotic spacing over semantic plenitude. If one pauses in common speech it is to catch a breath, to think, to break the ideas up into manageable units, to build tension and so on. In other words it is a pause for good semantic reasons. Poetry does not work this way and, in not following the western traditional view of language as material one is forced by necessity to employ to get a meaning across, relegating its status to mere vessel,[iv] it remains a radically critical force within our lives.

There is no space here to go into detail as regards the materiality of the signifier and the semiotic strategies it employs, chapters will be devoted to both these ideas. Instead, I want to consider the heterogeneity of the language used in “Daffy Duck,” as a form of radical critique. This is not purely a critique of modernism or even Romanticism, but, as Perloff suggests, rather a fulfilling of the potential of linguistic heterogeneity that previous generations have only hinted at. If the world we live in is a discursive construct made up of the ideology that what you say and see is not only what you get but all there is, poetic language, which is not transparent and tame like that, remains one of the areas where the hegemony of ideology can be broken. Briefly, I am going to look at three material strategies in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood”: titles, line breaks, and diction, suggesting how each attacks semantics for radical and valid reasons.

[i] I am using the term heterogeneity here as it is often applied by psychoanalytic theorists such as Lacan and Kristeva to refer to that part of the subject which is permanently other. This heterogeneous material is essential to the formation of subjectivity, but can never be absorbed totally into the structures of significance. In addition it bisects with a significant culture of scepticism towards language to be found in Levinas, Derrida, Lyotard and Blanchot. Put simply, language is other in at least two ways. First, it never says exactly what you think and is never understood exactly how you want it to be. Therefore, the semantic generation of expression is beyond your control and may even occur without your knowing it. Second, language is actually physical matter. While it may generate from your hand or throat, it is actually an object in the world and so no longer a part of you. Just as one cannot fully know what a vase or a rock is, so one cannot fully know the material you are using to communicate or express. Poetry’s role in this double heterogeneity is fairly obvious: it is clearly the most ambiguous of all language usage and so stresses how meaning exists beyond intention, and it achieves this through a heightened revelation of language as matter by the accentuation of its materiality through metre, lineation, visual design and so on.
[ii] See Agamben’s essay “The End of the Poem” in Agamben, Giorgio. The End of the Poem, Studies in Poetics. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1999) XX.
[iii] Here we can see exactly how Baudrillard’s conception of consumer exchange operates in relation to aesthetic objects. Signification is the possibility of equivalence of value between heterogeneous and thus non-equivalent items. The value of an object does not depend to its relation to an actual material need, which is the traditional Marxist view of exchange and consumption, but to its substitutability within a system. Money works exactly in this way. The paper is materially worthless, but its exchange value is not at all affected by this. Art objects are very similar. One does not pay for the paint in a Picasso but its relative value within a system of discursive ideologies relating to art, genius, craft and the like. Poetry has also worked in this way, its prosody being exchangeable for its cultural value sometimes irrespective of the meanings expressed within. One of the great challenges for readers of postmodern poetry is that the semiotic materiality of the poem it not only worthless on the “market” of Enlightenment senses of aesthetic value, but is actually designed to undermine that very system.
[iv] This is central to basic, Derridean deconstruction and comes to the fore especially in his famous attack on Paul Ricoeur’s ideas of metaphor in the essay “White Mythology.” Here he points out that within western culture, an idea inherited from the Greeks presupposes that language is a means of expressing something already thought, or referring to something that already exists. As such it is in excess of truth, truth does not need it to be true, and therefore can be called supplemental. However, the very fact that language exists means truth must have a need for it. Truth is not portable, nor is it immediately apprehensible or understandable. Therefore it needs a medium that can be transported and that is comprehensible to all others. He notes that metaphor, a particularly supplemental form of speech, is commonly used when trying to establish truth claims. Metaphoric language is of a lower order than ordinary speech and so can be seen as a kind of ornamentation. Yet, he reveals, truth claims are always broached through rhetorical means proving that the supplement is indeed essential to truth. Without the supplement truth cannot be known, yet if it admits that the supplement of rhetoric is essential it disproves its own truthfulness based on its own law of being truth previous to and without recourse to linguistic materiality.
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