'One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star'- Nietzsche
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As I read Marion May Campbell’s new book, Poetic Revolutionaries: Intertextuality and Subversion, I was reminded of the still seemingly sacred notion of a democratic historical progress. This notion celebrates cultural alterity (and all that that implies), and makes an urgent appeal to textual revolution as a means to political resistance. Campbell’s work is rooted in the relativist revolution – the book is part of publisher Rodopi’s Postmodern Series – and her intense, erudite study addresses a state of disunion that has loosely bound the dwindling body of progressives ever since.

Campbell, a lecturer in literary studies and writing at Deakin University in Melbourne, opens her study by posing a seemingly innocuous, academic question: ‘What kind of critical purchase and subversive impact can textual practice have on contemporary socio-political culture?’ Despite this broad gambit, Campbell considerably narrows her focus to an analysis of just seven writers: Jean Genet, Monique Wittig, Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Kathleen Mary Fallon, Kim Scott and Brian Castro. Campbell explains that she has chosen these authors for their ‘generic range (theatre, prose poetry, fable, novel), but more so by the fact all of these writers are informed by the French tradition of a revolutionary poetics.’ Generic range aside, one may observe that only Fallon, Scott and Castro are still alive, and that all of them are Australian. This is not arbitrary, but rather, at the heart of Campbell’s answer to the question she poses. While she presents some stellar examples of transgression at work in her own contemporary culture, the critical mass for broader socio-political change proves elusive. That tipping point should result from such heterodoxic practice, but Campbell’s study suggests that the mainstream has learned to co-opt and accommodate not difference, per se, but the comfort of academe. Worse, this presents an intellectual hegemony that may have learned to plagiarise the ideological dynamism of deconstructive practice to suit its own practice of destructive cons.

What is meant by ‘revolutionary poetics’? Firstly, Campbell acknowledges that it includes the material of verse producers such as Isidor Ducasse, Antonin Artaud, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. In a second phase, Campbell identifies the events of Paris, May 1968 (or thereabouts), with all its teeming intellectual energy working against the grand narratives of the day, as well as against the hegemonic collaboration of the French government with the American hunger machine – then at work feeding on France’s colonial leftovers in Vietnam. In this Paris, Campbell locates the radical post-structuralist review, Tel Quel, with its ‘cream of left-wing Parisian intellectuals’, as the place where the most culturally disruptive textual practice was in production. In short, it was an interrogation of what constitutes the self, through analysis, and how that self intersects (or intertexts) with the social realm to create a ‘better’ world, with more ‘equitable’ distribution of power. Thirdly, and crucial to Campbell’s thesis, is the work of Julia Kristeva, who incorporated key aspects of the works of Mikhail Bakhtin, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, among others, to develop her doctoral thesis, Revolution in Poetic Language.1

Remaining mindful of Kristeva’s thesis – with Campbell’s stage directions – proves to be a formidable task for the reader; one that certainly requires boning up on postmodern terminology and jargon. Suddenly, one is confronted with terms like bricolage, carni-valesque, jouissance, scenographic, abjection, parody, mise en abyme, palimpsest, tessellations, and so on. At times, this is like being led through a Barthian fun-house by Edith Piaf channelling Susan Sontag while strung out on Janis Joplin’s smack; a funhouse whose mirrored panes belong to the theorists in an endless feedback loop of heteroglossic différance. Nevertheless, Campbell’s production is rich and compelling, and deeply intelligent. Ultimately, its rhythms and precision present a kind of musical clarity. She moves from the openness of Paris 1968 to the austerity of Melbourne 2013, using these postmodern leitmotifs and intratextual threads.

Arguably, the key finding of Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language is that subjectivity is not a static condition, and that we are each a sujet en procés (subject-in-process); caught up in an unavoidable dynamic discourse between the freewheeling, pre-lingual semiotic and the linguistic ordering and control that defines the symbolic. In order for the Bob Dylan meme – he not busy being born is busy dying – to be true, the self must constantly be in a state of becoming or revolution. But how to get there?

Campbell points out that the liberating function of the poetic – whether in the textual products of theatre, prose poetry, fable, or novel – is its call to action, to free thinking, difference and alterity. Consequently, as a preliminary answer to Campbell’s opening question, one can say with some confidence that the potential for textual practice to disrupt and subvert the grand narratives of the prevailing socio-political culture is (or, has been, up until now) profound. And, indeed, as she argues the point, ‘Kristeva sees the text’s availability to radicalism and polyphony as orchestrated by the reader’ (Campbell’s emphasis). Thus, theory is not a system but a tool, a kind of browser add-on to the world wide web of subjects in process.

Campbell takes this Kristevan dynamic and applies it across genres. In Genet’s work she shows the sujet en procés by means of abjection, parody, inversion. Campbell further elaborates on this point as it relates to Genet’s last play, The Screens, which:

reignites the sense of terror behind the theatre and all representation, which stems from the interrelatedness of life and death, of spectator and spectacle, of stage and off-stage. All these tensions are actively played out, subjected to constant mutual embedding, imbrication and inversion.

The sujet en procés is not something the textual practitioner enacts alone, but through its (somewhat) unpredictable staging in the reader’s mind. Campbell highlights it in ‘the poetics of the lesbian bodies-in-becoming that is celebrated’ in Monique Wittig’s work. In Angela Carter, one finds ‘The negation of the Erl-King will confirm for the newly liberated subject her parenthood of herself.’ According to Campbell, Kathleen Mary Fallon finds it in a kind of ‘polyphonous’ self-mockery that serves to abject herself from mate-ly communitarianism wherein lurk ‘the most violent aspects of Australian materialism, sexism, homophobia and racism,’ in an act of shedding-as-becoming. Kim Scott finds it in the ‘arsehole’ of his en-whitenment; and Brian Castro, exploring othered-culturalism in Australia, performs the subject-as-process as multiple, asymmetrical selves. Campbell suggests that the one exception to this lot seems to be Kathy Acker, who sees a corruption so devastating that all that’s left for the subject-as-process is circus, carnival, and the dirge of parody.

If the sujet en procés is the overriding theme of Campbell’s Poetic Revolutionaries, then her book argues how the techniques, methods and practices of the semiotic are the clues out of the subjective labyrinth. Campbell demonstrates how mise en abymeappears and operates in, say, Carter’s rehabbed Bluebeard fable, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, when the virginal newlywed espies her husband gazing at her with an expression of pure carnal appetency in one of the castle’s many ‘guilded mirrors’. Then, in turning away, the virgin sees herself as he sees her and understands about herself for the first time ‘a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.’ One sees here the contradictions between desire and death – Liebestod – come together in Carter’s textual victim. As Campbell further elaborates, ‘the story disturbs foremost with its emphasis on the awakening in the young bride of a desire for her own crushing annihilation.’ Similarly, in Kim Scott’s novel of miscegenation and ‘enwhitenment’, Benang, Campbell has us pause before a mirror with the novel’s subject-in-process, Harley. There, we note that the one remaining feature of his Aboriginality is his ‘arsehole.’ Campbell incisively notes:

The mirror functions like hegemony, interpellating the Indigenous subject within the dominant racist discourse. To ‘black eye’ this mirror is to resist its call to abjection and subjugation, to treat it with the contempt it deserves.

It should be noted, however, that not all critics of the postmodern find such analytically constructed moments of mise en abyme entirely convincing. Ron Moshe, for instance, details nine problems he has with the definition and function of the figure, and is persuasively unconvinced that such mirror scenes are emblematic of anything special.2 Nevertheless, Campbell’s observation is an interesting way of performing Scott’s text.

Just as Kristeva’s subject-in-process suggests an individuation that is never static, heteroglossia proffers forth a multiplicity of subjects-in-process, tentatively congealed in a kind of cultural individuation. As Mikhail Bakhtin posits:

Our ideological development is just such an intense struggle within us for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view, approaches, directions and values. The semantic structure of an internally persuasive discourse is not finite, it is open; in each of the new contexts that dialogize it, this discourse is able to reveal ever newer ways to mean … (Bakhtin’s emphasis)3

Campbell demonstrates how heteroglossia is embedded in our thinking to begin with: that often we are not as ‘original’ in our ideological thinking as we like to believe we are; that our thinking in the realm of the symbolic is mediated and dialectical. This is bad news and good news: bad, because the implication is that we are largely products of conditioning, our thoughts and beliefs being part of a cultural co-dependency; good, because a secondary implication is that we can awaken from such conditioning and free our thinking. This is the work of postmodernism (just as it was the work of Socrates a couple of cosmic moments ago). All of the works under Campbell’s scrutiny – no matter the genre – shake, rattle and roll complacency and the conditioned expectation.

Perhaps Campbell’s best discussion of the power and necessity of unfettered heteroglossia comes in her discussion of Kathleen Mary Fallon’s Working Hot, where, citing feminist theoretician Donna Haraway, Campbell draws a distinction between the personal politics of heteroglossic resistance (and the need to carve out one’s own space, as it were) and that of social politics: ‘Complexity, heterogeneity, specific positioning, and power-charged difference are not the same thing as liberal pluralism.’ With its multiplicity of voices, rupturing of genre discourse and assorted registers, Fallon’s Working Hot is, Campbell suggests, a work of what Haraway calls ‘powerful infidel heteroglossia’ and, consequently, a prime example of how textual practice can work to shake up socio-political culture.

Related to this, is Campbell’s marvellous explication of how Kim Scott’s Benangexplores the way language works as a material body, that is, ‘writing as a technology of terror perpetrated upon indigenous Australia.’ Indeed, what is terra nullius if not a ‘failure’ to produce a body of persuasion, a habeas corpus in the form of a sheet of paper called a land deed? What more compelling example of the dangers of controlled, commoditised, and reified language by its ‘possessors’, than the paper lingo of colonialism? In Benang, Campbell shows, miscegenation itself becomes a papering-over of an ancient oral tradition, deeply rooted in kinship, local cadences and rhythms, by the material enslavement to paper. Harley’s body, his ‘enwhitenment’, is the message of radical miscegenation; its own silent, wordless text, a tabula rasa tragedy. And yet, as Campbell amplifies, Scott has managed to ironically, ‘masterfully’ craft a largely parodic subversion of this reality – hoiking the colonials back into their own spittoon.

In the works Campbell examines and enacts, the principal method of textual subversion is by means of staging the carnivalesque. Loosely speaking, and as the term suggests, the carnivalesque involves the staging of a second, parallel reality that is parodic, autonomous and subversive of the hegemonic. The term is derived from a nearly forgotten but then much-practiced medieval folk tradition that Bakhtin describes in ‘Carnival Ambivalence’:

Because of their obvious sensuous character and their strong element of play, carnival images closely resemble certain artistic forms, namely the spectacle. In turn, medieval spectacles often tended toward carnival folk cultures, the culture of the marketplace, and to a certain extent became one of its components. But the basic carnival nucleus of this culture is by no means a purely artistic form nor a spectacle and does not, generally speaking, belong to the sphere of art. It belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play. (my emphasis)4

Of course, harkening back to Kristeva, one might also say that carnival takes place in the borderline between the semiotic and the symbolic; it is the meaning of language and simultaneously its ‘infidel’. Campbell amply demonstrates how this carnival atmosphere prevails in each of the primary and/or secondary works of the authors under consideration. It can take the form of scenographic carnival, as with Genet, or in graphological fulfilment, as with Acker, or in atavistic guises, such as with Harley in Benang, where his body itself becomes a carnival of abjection. The carnivalesque serves to undermine any notions of a stable, authoritative reality; there is no text, per se, but only the hypotheses of power, the centripetal and centrifugal pulling and held together in the atomic proximity of being. Campbell reiterates throughout her analysis that the textual practices of such postmodern works serve to liberate, and in doing so hold out the inexhaustible blessing/curse of socio-political change. In short, intertextuality and subversion are a means to getting at the poetic revolution within; becoming is the revolution.

It is not only Campbell’s analysis that is trenchant and compelling. In many places she employs some exquisite turns of expression that light up the page. She uses the term rubato at one stage to describe the technique of Brian Castro at play, but it could just as easily describe her own approach: keeping her subject of scrutiny in structural suspense with her lefty handwork, while laying down some righteous, handsome melodies with the other. For example, in describing the polybiographical nuances of Castro’s Shanghai Dancing, she writes:

Here, reclaiming cultural and ethnic multiplicity means navigating a universe of stories. The tessellation of genres, modes, and registers proposes inheritance as a relay of linguistic performances in the face of severance and exile. It suggests—through the gaps and abysses of its writing, through its phantasmagoria, its memories and its amnesia, its excesses, the compensatory tempo rubato or the stolen time of its music—that such might be the ‘grounding’, of ‘identity’, whose quest is as monstrous as it is vertiginous.

In this style, through more than mere analysis, Campbell bolsters the sublime which imbues her politics of the poetic.

But in the end one wonders if Campbell has sufficiently answered the simple, straight forward query with which she begins her analytical quest: ‘What kind of critical purchase and subversive impact can textual practice have on contemporary socio-political culture?’ As stated earlier, the contemporary socio-political culture she has in mind is clearly that of Australia. The three living textual practitioners she reviews – Fallon, Scott, and Castro – certainly have put forth transgressive works confronting issues that continue to pile up bad karma in the Australian socio-political culture: gender/sexual identity, the continued marginalisation of Aboriginality, and other-cultural accommodation. Campbell, while holding out a certain degree of optimism and continuing to keep faith with the alchemical processes of the semiotic, nevertheless provides a scathing rebuke to Castro’s reception among mainstream critics, adding what can only be seen as a massive slap-down of Australian mainstream culture:

Such is the myth of Australian egalitarianism that any difficult or ‘complex’ cultural text, whatever form it takes, is condemned by the mainstream critical apparatus as being wilfully abstruse and elitist … it is tempting to see it at once as symptomatic of the continuing mainstream distrust of intellectuals and of any who fail to embrace the feel-good myths of down-to-earth Aussie ‘belonging’, and especially those who celebrate a multiplicity of inheritance, rather than sentimentalised Anglo-Celt assimilationist mediocrity.

This is one of the few places in her work where Campbell sheds her analytical ‘diamonds and furs’, as she so brilliantly puts it in her latest novel, konkretion.1 In fact, Campbell’s konkretion is the rubato and carnival that accompanies her highly structured, academic thesis. The novel features an aging lecturer who complains about the same indifference afforded to postmodern literary experimentation and who seems imprisoned by her nostalgitations on the glory days of ‘revolution in the air’. At one point, the narrative voice of konkretion notes: ‘For some of Monique’s colleagues, poetry, and while we’re at it all of so-called literary fiction, is a right wing plot, effete, aristocratic nostalgia, a stepping out in diamonds and furs.’ This highlights one of the paradoxes of postmodernism: it liberates thought, but, at the same time, like Socrates, it is functionally anti-democratic and sceptical of popular culture, and many critics would like to see it go the way of Socrates (some argue that it already has).2

Poetic Revolutionaries would make for an intoxicating postgraduate survey course in postmodernism, tracing as it does a lineage and continuity of vital processes still at work, although significantly co-opted by rebounding structuralists who want to write a neo-liberal end to history. But postmodernism hasn’t gained the purchase on culture that Campbell wants, although it continues to be a necessary and effective tool, even if not a discernible movement. It is just such a course that is unlikely to ever see the light of day at any contemporary university in Australia, as recent academic labour tensions, followed in recent weeks by substantial budget cuts in education by the Abbott regime, make all too clear.

In the end, one wonders if the seemingly inexhaustible passion of desire expressed in language can any longer be transformative. Living in a world at war with an abstract noun (terror), under surveillance, and with democracy going the way of South Pole ice caps, people of a certain age (of which I’m one) can’t help but moon nostalgically and wonder if a 1968 is possible again – whether raining money down on Wall Street brokers, levitating the Pentagon, or sliding flower stems down gun barrels. The spring and summer of 1968 saw students, artists and intellectuals around the world begin a full-throated resistance to the doings of the Man – a resistance that grew in all the years leading up to the Nixon resignation in 1973, before being subdued again. Or is that all illusory? As Terry Eagleton prefers to remember it:

Imagine, finally, the most bizarre possibility of all. I have spoken of symptoms of political defeat; but what if this defeat never really happened in the first place? What if it were less a matter of the left rising up and being forced back, than of a steady disintegration, a gradual failure of nerve, a creeping paralysis? What if the confrontation never quite took place, but people behaved as though it did? As though someone were to display all the symptoms of rabies, but had never been within biting distance of a mad dog.3

If postmodernism still had its potency one might expect to see Genet’s The Screensbeing performed in one of the Aboriginal graveyards on Rottnest Island, with Pommies and Miners (the neo-Diggers) on stilts, and swimming there being part of the price of admission and submersion. But we hesitate like Hamlets, all ‘to be or not to be’, pondering Polonius-like memes such as, ‘Neither a Subject nor an Object be.’ Can the textual productions of the likes of Fallon, Scott and Castro find that critical purchase and subversive impact on contemporary socio-political Australian culture, as Campbell hopes?

  1. Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984 
  2. Ron Moshe, ‘The Restricted Abyss: Nine Problems in the Theory of Mise en Abyss’, Poetics Today, Volume 8, Number 2 (1987), pp417-438 
  3. Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Dialogic Discourse’, The Bakhtin Reader, ed. Pam Morris, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, p86 
  4. Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Carnival Ambivalence’, The Bakhtin Reader, pp197-8 

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