Rob Halpern on Robert Gluck's Jack the Modernist

from Where No Meaning Is: Robert Gluck's Jack the Modernist and the Expulsion of Desire

by Rob Halpern

Together with transgression and abjection, “scandal” offers a critical key to understanding New Narrative’s emergence in the early 1980s as something more than just a gay reaction to Bay Area Language Poetry’s investment in form and technique, more than just a queer counter to the New Sentence, and not only something more but something entirely other, something organic to a specific set of social constraints. As thematized and formalized in Bob’s work, and in New Narrative more generally, scandal presents a formal problem as it challenges and pressures, strains and undermines the limits of articulable emotion bound to particular bodies in social space. As a formal problem, scandal is aroused when one’s writing attempts to go where meaning has been banished. I’m thinking here of that line from Jack the Modernist where Bob writes, as if creating a categorical imperative : “Go where no meaning is to create meaning.” Scandal arouses and pressures the accessibility of its own content, while posing a problem of propriety and property, of social codes and sanctioned subjects: in short scandal provokes the whole problem of proper selfhood and the false division between the personal and the impersonal: in other words, scandal formalizes a problem of politics.

First I want to consider two of New Narrative’s 19th century antecedents: Rimbaud and Lautréamont both of whom may have delivered the first of many deaths blows to so-called ‘personal poetry.’ Whether true or not, I like this idea because of the contradictions it arouses; for with every radical gesture toward depersonalization, Rimbaud’s and Lautréamont’s writing becomes evermore personal, not less—strangely raw and confected, visceral and artificial, intimate and constructed.  “Personal poetry has had its moment of juggling with the relative and contorting with the contingent … let us take up again the indestructible thread of impersonal poetry,” writes Lautréamont.   While condemning the pretensions of self-expression and the fallacies of the ‘merely subjective,’ this fledgling avant-garde registered the violent convergence of the ‘individual’ with the market-driven civil society that was its protected life sphere.  And Rimbaud pursued a related line of attack in his emphases on non-identity, “objective poetry” and the social forces that alienate language and body, work and worker. Rimbaud’s critique of subjective poetry can’t be separated from the high stakes of subjectivity itself. Unlike the bourgeois novel that was its antithesis, A Season in Hell began the excruciating process of demystifying the divisions of public and private upon which the reproduction of the social order still depends. Rimbaud’s and Lautréamont’s subversion of ‘personal poetry’ thus became, both gesturally and technically, a social praxis inseparable from the performance of its personal stakes.

One may not immediately link Rimbaud and Lautréamont to the work of Robert Glück, associating these early poets of disjunction and détournement, collage and plagiarism, with someone like Kathy Acker instead.  But this convergence of the personal and the impersonal in Acker, as in Sade and Bataille, underscores the stakes of Glück’s entire project, the stakes of the most personal of depersonalizations, while helping to inform the importance of “scandal” for New Narrative more generally. In other words, de-subjectivization becomes inseparable from the work’s radical subjectivity.
Throughout Bob’s work, the body in orgasm provides both an allegorization and a literalization of this formal problem. For example, in Jack the Modernist:

The purely physical deepened, or rather became more incisive, more pressing, relegating any previous terms as though I were a body torn into existence. I, my identity, was more and more a part of my body so I/it cried out with each released breath, not to express myself but as a by-product of physical absorption. But the spasms that were not me overtook and became me along with a sense of dread. I felt like a tooth being pulled. I covered my eyes and laughed once with excitement and dismay; I yielded to the gathering fullness with shame as though I pissed thinking everyone can see me, and glanced down with confusion at my sperm. (54-5)

And again a little later in Jack:

Getting fucked and masturbated produces an orgasm that can be read in two ways, like the painting of a Victorian woman with her sensual hair piled up who gazes into the mirror of her vanity table. Then the same lights and darks reveal a different set of contours: her head becomes one eye, the reflection of her face another eye and her mirror becomes the dome of a grinning skull/woman/skull/woman/skull—I wanted my orgasm to fall between those images. That's not really a place. I know. The pious Victorian names his visual pun ‘Vanity.’ I rename it ‘Identity.’ (55)

There is nothing gratuitous about Bob’s attempt to write into sexuality’s “unspeakable”—this is not writing sex for the sake of writing sex—nor is it therapeutic or merely an exercise in creating expressive content: it is rather a conscientious  social practice to bring into language something that has been banished from it—or something that had never been there to begin with.  To maintain the boundary between the speakable and the unspeakable is to police the social order, to reproduce the structure of illicit zones. To go where language cannot go, to speak about that which it is not possible to speak, is to struggle against the limits of cultural visibility and against the violent norms of social intelligibility.


For Bob, narrative becomes a vehicle that transports the narrating body in social space precisely around this occlusion of experience, this fault in common sense that organizes what is and what is not sayable, a metaphorical vehicle that always risks the intelligibility of its tenor. This is related to the structure of market-driven pornography, which as a genre reinforces the social divisions between the visible and the invisible, the licit and the illicit. New Narrative pushes off the conventions of porn, not to reproduce the generic codes which police these divisions, but rather to negotiate, scramble, pressure, and reorganize the divisions themselves. This is why porn is important: not as an endless provider of sexual content, but as a formal means to arouse new subjectivities around the dislocated faults between the perceptible and imperceptible, feeling and its representation.

As Foucault would have it in his 1963 essay on Bataille called “Preface to Transgression”: “Transgression carries the limit right to the limit of being; transgression forces the limit to face the fact of its imminent disappearance, to find itself in what it excludes (perhaps to be more exact, to recognize itself for the first time) to experience its positive truth in its downward fall.”  And the limit here—at once personal and impersonal—recalls the present, which Bob refers to as “the one thing that has yet to be put into words,” where one must go to create meaning. The limit that scandal troubles is the frame of intelligibility, which only becomes visible at the moment it is exceeded, when something that the limit excludes becomes suddenly visible and perceptible in that proverbial flash of lightening that illuminates not only this or that transgressive content as it migrates from nothingness to being, but the whole fucking structure that determines what is and what is not at any particular moment in historical time. 

This has its analog in the way the self becomes perceptible as a structure of feeling wherein the absolute distance lives within the most proximate closeness. This is not a metaphysical structure but a social ontology: a struggle over what is perceptible as social being. And this may be Robert Glück’s most intimate concern.

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