Charles Bernstein



Social force is bound to be accompanied by lies. That is why all that is highest in human life, every effort of thought, every effort of love, has a corrosive action on the established order. Thought can just as readily, and on good grounds, be stigmatized as revolutionary on the one side, as counter-revolutionary on the other. In so far as it is ceaselessly creating a scale of values "that is not of this world," it is the enemy of forces which control society.

--Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty

So writing might be exemplary --an instance broken off from and hence not in the service of this economic and cultural --social-- force called capitalism of uninfected substance; or else, a glimpse, a crack into what otherwise might..; or still, "the fact of its own activity," "in itself and for itself" such that....In any case, an appeal, to an other world, as if access is not blocked to an experience (experiencing) whose horizon is not totally a product of the coercive delimiting of the full range of language (the limits of language the limits of experience) by the predominating social forces. An experience (released in the reading) which is noncommoditized, that is where the value is not dollar value (and hence transferable and instrumental) but rather, what is from the point of view of the market, no value (a negativity, inaudible, invisible) --that nongeneralizable residue that is specific to each particular experience. It is in this sense that we speak of poetry as being untranslatable and unparaphrasable, for what is untranslatable is the sum of all the specific conditions of the experience (place, time, order, light, mood, position, to infinity) made available by reading. That the political value of poems resides in the concreteness of the experiences they make available is the reason for the resistance to any form of normative standardization in the ordering of words in a unit or the sequencing of these units, since determining the exact nature of each of these is what makes for the singularity of the text. (It is, for example, a misunderstanding of the fact of untranslatability that would see certain "concretist" tendencies as its most radical manifestation since what is not translatable is the experience released in the reading while in so far as some "visual poems" move toward making the understanding independent of the language it is written in, i.e., no longer requiring translation, they are, indeed, no longer so much writing as works of visual art).

Certainly, one method is the restoration of memory's remembering on its own terms, organizing along the lines of experience's trace, a reconstruction released from the pressures of uniform exposition --"the only true moments" the ones we have lost, which, in returning to them, come to life in a way that now reveals what they had previously concealed-- the social forces that gave shape to them. So what were the unseen operators now are manifest as traces of the psychic blows struck by the social forces (re)pressing us into shape (i.e.: "a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King"). "What we do is to bring our words back" --to make our experiences visible, or again: to see the conditions of experience. So that, in this way, a work may also be constructed --an "other" world made from whatever materials are ready to hand (not just those of memory)-- structuring, in this way, possibilities otherwise not allowed for.

Meanwhile, the social forces hold sway in all the rules for the "clear" and "orderly" functioning of language and Caesar himself is the patron of our grammar books. Experience dutifully translated into these "most accessible" codes loses its aura and is reduced to the digestible contents which these rules alone can generate. There is nothing difficult in the products of such activity because there is no distance to be travelled, no gap to be aware of and to bridge from reader to text: What purports to be an experience is transformed into the blank stare of the commodity --there only to mirror our projections with an unseemly rapidity possible only because no experience of other is in it. --Any limits put on language proscribe the limits of what will be experienced, and, as Wittgenstein remarks, the world can easily be reduced to only the straight rows of the avenues of the industrial district, with no place for the crooked winding streets of the old city. "To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life" --think of that first imagine as the active word here.

"Is there anybody here who thinks that following the orders takes away the blame?" Regardless of what is being said, use of standard patterns of syntax and exposition effectively rebroadcast, often at a subliminal level, the basic constitutive elements of the social structure --they perpetuate them so that by constant reinforcement we are no longer aware that decisions are being made, our base level is then an already preconditioned world view which this deformed language "repeats to us inexorably" but not necessarily. Or else these formations (underscored constantly by all "the media" in the form they "communicate" "information" "facts") take over our form of life (see Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dawn of the Dead for two recent looks at this), as by posthypnotic suggestion we find ourselves in the grip of --living out-- feeling-- the attitudes programmed into us by the phrases, &c, and their sequencing, that are continually being repeated to us --language control = thought control = reality control: it must be decentered, community controlled, taken out of the service of the capitalist project. For now, an image of the antivirus: indigestible, intransigent.


(Charles Bernstein. "The Dollar Value of Poetry." Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1986. 57-60)