Turning the table on Bernstein’s spin on Reznikoff
Recently, Jerome Rothenberg posted Charles Bernstein’s liner notes to a CD recording of Charles Reznikoff reading from his Holocaust. As much as I am very much in favour of Reznikoff and his work receiving praise and a wider readership, I must take exception to how Bernstein at points seems to characterize Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony in a sectarian way, one exemplary of much of our contemporary avant-garde.
Both Testimony and Holocaust take up documentary material, court documents from turn-of-the-century America and the Nuremberg Trials respectively, and present it in a powerfully understated manner Bernstein quite illuminatingly compares to the style of Italian neorealist cinema. However, regarding this manner, Bernstein claims
What’s most radical about Testimony is the kind of reading his method makes possible, because this work … can’t be read in traditional literary or aesthetic ways. At first reading Testimony is numbing, but this experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins. Reznikoff’s refusal to aestheticize or sentimentalize (some would say humanize) the legal cases presented is exemplary of Testimony’s ethical grounding…
The deployment of the notion of the aesthetic here is simply too blasé and, morever, subtly spun to position Reznikoff and his work on one side of North America’s poetic, ideological struggles. Who reads Testimony will, yes, likely be “numbed”, overwhelmed by the relentlessness of its material, “numbed” by an exhausting over-stimulation. I cannot count how many times I have used Reznikoff’s poetry as an example of the power of sheer presentation, unsettling classes of college-level English students by reading them the poem from Testimony that begins “Amelia was just fourteen…“. Such poetry is indeed neither “literary” nor “aesthetic” in a “traditional” way in its resolute refusal to metaphorically develop, embellish, or otherwise “cook up” its material, boiling it down, rather, to the plainest, factual presentation, a refusal of a certain kind of (poetically mainstream) “artistry” or “technique” that would make of the poem an “aesthetic” object possessed of artistic beauty, a beauty that would be at odds with the moral repulsiveness of what the poems present. But the squinting limitation of the notion of the “aesthetic” here is betrayed by a contradiction. Bernstein observes Reznikoff refuses to aestheticize his material while at the same time the reading “experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins.” Bernstein, at best, seems to be playing two senses of “the aesthetic” off each other, claiming that the manner of Testimony and Holocaust divides one sense of the aesthetic from another, the traditional (derived originally from Alexander Baumgarten and referring strictly to theories of only artistic beauty) from the more radical, wherein “the aesthetic” denotes how something is or is made sensuously present (derived from Kant, related but not restricted to the experience of the beautiful whether in nature or art, a sense most recently and powerfully developed by Jacques Rancière). Arguably, though, a concept whose effective history can be traced back to Kant is “traditional” however much it differs from that concept found more locally ready-to-hand. It seems truer to say that Reznikoff quite literally re-presents the material that makes up Testimony and Holocaust by the mediation of his editorial labour that produces a striking, marked effect or response, which is precisely the index of its aesthetic power. Bernstein’s point here seems intended to serve interests other than to praise or illuminate Reznikoff’s accomplishment.
Regardless of exactly how Bernstein’s deployment(s) of “the aesthetic” might be taken, I find more troubling his apparent attempt to recruit Reznikoff as a “conceptual” writer. Bernstein remarks
…Reznikoff pose[s] a challenge to how we read and where we find meaning, creating conceptual works that make our initial inability to read an aesthetic challenge to read differently, read anew. As Kenneth Goldsmith remarks about conceptual poetry: it requires not a “readership” but a “thinkership.”
The argument here seems to turn on a too-easy distinction between what Barthes termed works and texts or what Bernstein himself has called in a similar vein absorptive and antiabsorptive. The absorptive work demands little conscious labour on the side of the reader, adhering to literary-aesthetic conventions whose familiarity enables them to function unconsciously and therefore ideologically; the antiabsorptive text, on the other hand, that breaks with or otherwise problematizes these conventions demands an engaged reading, whether playful or laboured, thereby inculcating an awareness of the conventionality of all discourse and the inescapable activity, and thereby collusion or power, of the reader. On the one hand, exactly how Reznikoff’s method demands more than a familiarity with the workings of metonymy to be understood and appreciated eludes me. On the other hand, the distinction apparently deployed here between the readerly and the thinkerly was one roundly and rigorously deconstructed by Barthes himself in S/Z that demonstrates in numbing detail that the readerly absorptive work is always already a writerly antiabsorptive text. More seriously, though, is the way Goldsmith’s distinction characterizes the reader of a conventional work as mindlessly passive, a characterization at odds with the de facto reception of literary and other texts. One need be no connoisseur of reader response theory or devotee of deconstruction to know that even the most prima facie literal texts are subject to an uncontrollable range of interpretation. How different (and humane) is this remark from Friedrich Schlegel’s Critical Fragments that addresses a similar distinction over two centuries ago:
112. The analytic writer observes the reader as he is; he calculates accordingly and develops his machines in order to have the desired effect upon him. The synthetic writer constructs and creates a reader as he should be; he does not conceive of the reader as still and dead, but rather as lively and counteractive. He allows what he has invented gradually to come into being before his eyes, or he entices the reader to invent it himself. He does not want it to have a specific effect on the reader, but enters with him into the holy relationship of the tenderest symphilosophy or sympoesy.
Reznikoff, it seems to me, is precisely a “synthetic” writer, one who understands and assumes that his readers are “lively and counteractive”, thoughtful and sensitive enough to judge for themselves the facts of the case laid before them. His work doesn’t need to be ranked with an avant-garde or legitimated by its participating in the latest thing; it, like the matter it presents, might well be said to speak for itself.