Friday, August 08, 2008


Valentin N. Vološinov

I’m thinking out loud here. For a future part of the Grand Piano project, we’ve been tossing around the idea of putting together some sort of bibliography of works that were influential to us during the general period in which we were collectively active in the San Francisco scene. The time parameters being nothing published in English prior to 1965 or after 1985. That was a period of maximum absorption, if you know what I mean. In 1965, I was still a teenager & just starting to write & publish. I would spend the next six years bouncing around (really the right verb phrase) different schools, go through my first marriage, be quickly accepted into (and then walk away from) what I would now call the School of Quietude¹, begin to truly get a grasp of 20th century poetry & meet some incredible people, starting with Barrett Watten that same year of ’65.

I was something of an omnivorous reader in those days, more so than I am now, alas. But what are / were the works outside of poetry per se that had an impact. I tried to put together a list of just ten books, excluding volumes of poetry, and the following is at least my first draft of such a roster. I left some obvious works off of it, such as books by Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes, or the great anthology of works from the 1966 “post-structuralist” conference at Johns Hopkins (Bruce Andrews being the one poet I know who attended) since other people were already bandying their names about. Ditto Fred Jameson’s Prison-House of Language. And there were a number of vitally important works for me that were published prior to 1965, such as Sartre’s What is Literature?, the volumes of Wittgenstein that I found most valuable, the class notes that pass for the collected writings of Saussure. Other works were important, but either not yet in book form (like Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs” which first appeared in Socialist Review in April 1985, a year before I signed on as editor), or not reducible to book form at all (the performance art of Terry Fox, the music of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, the films of Abigail Child). And every time I think of one text, I think of a dozen more (why not, say, Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, a book that led me eventually to blogging?).

But at least today, if I had to choose ten with all of those constraints, these are some books I might think to name, and a hint as to why.

Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, 1971, NY, Monthly Review Press. Althusser is an embarrassment in the annals of Western Marxism, the old Stalinoid who turned out to be a homicidal maniac. His ideas on how to read Marx’s Capital, the most important essay of which appears in this volume, are all wrong. But his piece on “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation),” the centerpiece of this volume, is the best statement of what ideology is and how it functions in practice I’ve ever read. The current Monthly Review Press edition is updated some from the version I have.

Roman Jakobson, Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning, 1978, Cambridge, MIT. Jakobson was teaching at the New School during World War 2 when Claude Lévi-Strauss, having just made it out of South America but unable to get back to France, sat in on these lectures and had an Aha experience that would lead directly to structuralism. Of all Jakobson’s many works that relate to poetry, these talks are the best. The one-time pal of Mayakovsky & later teacher of Rene Wellek shows exactly why a foundation in linguistics is a prerequisite to writing verse. Jakobson is the Kilroy of so many of the important intellectual movements of the last century – from Russian Futurism to post-Chomskyian linguistics (he was George Lakoff’s poetry teacher), even New Criticism. Given Jakobson’s standing in the history of linguistics, it is appalling that this edition has not been reprinted in the past 30 years.

Fred Jameson, Marxism and Form, 1974, Princeton, NJ, Princeton UP. This is a secondary work, Jameson synthesizing the writings of Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, Bloch, Lukács, Sartre. It’s masterful for what it is, yoking these diverse writers together into a single broader dialogue. This volume gave enormous impetus to the decade of theory precisely by showing how all this writing might be connected. Or read as connected. Of his six subjects, only Ernst Bloch never was important to me.

Henri Lefebvre, Dialectical Materialism, 1968, London, Cape Editions. The godfather of the Situationists, this earlier study by Lefebvre was published by Nathaniel Tarn as part of the brilliant series that included works by Barthes (Writing Degree Zero), Zukofsky’s “A”-22 & 23, Olson’s Mayan Leters, Ponge’s Soap, Trakl’s Selected Poems & more. For me, it’s the clearest statement of this central practice of Western Marxism. Unfortunately, this series did not continue after Grossman/Cape was acquired, and this volume appears not to have been republished since.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropique, 1974, Boston, Atheneum. This is a memoir and a few chapters are reprinted from an earlier edition, so maybe it doesn’t warrant being on this list. Many of the chapters amount to set pieces, but the attempt at “writing a sunset” is one of the great moments in the history of descriptive writing. Lévi-Strauss’ account of inadvertently “giving” writing to the Nambikwara by explaining to the chief what he was doing with his tablets of legal paper, and the fatal consequences this had is, I think, an important message in and of itself as well as for what it conveys about the nature of writing, as such. Why a good trade paperback of this work isn’t generally available in English is a mystery to me.

Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972: a cross-reference book of information on some esthetic boundaries: consisting of a bibliography into which are inserted a fragmented text, art works, documents, interviews, and symposia, arranged chronologically and focused on so-called conceptual or information or idea art with mentions of such vaguely designated areas as minimal, anti-form, systems, earth, or process art, occurring now in the Americas, Europe, England, Australia, and Asia (with occasional political overtones), edited and annotated by Lucy R. Lippard, 1973, New York & Washington, Praeger. The full title gives some of the flavor of this great book. It was (still is) the Junior Woodchuck’s handbook (Huey, Dewey & Louie’s antecedent of Wikipedia) for all performance and  conceptual art. I may have gotten more diverse ideas from this volume than from any other. The current UC Press edition cuts the title off just before the second colon.

Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 1968, Cambridge, MIT. Not being fiction-centered in my thinking or work, I never would have read this book had it not been for the Marxist Study Group at Small Press Traffic pulled together & led by Bruce Boone. The group, which was not large, included Kathleen Fraser, Bob Glück, Steven Benson & Denise Kastan among its members. This is the work that gave me the idea of opacity, which I had never seen described in literature before. It’s still available in paper, but at a price ($32.95) quite a bit higher than the $5.95 I paid for it new thirty years ago.

Charles Olson, Proprioception, 1965, San Francisco, Four Seasons Foundation. This is Olson’s best critical work, and in many ways is a restatement of Lefebvre’s concepts applied directly to literature. I would read them together, Lefebvre’s first. This is now available in Olson’s Collected Prose.

Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, Linguistics and Economics, 1975, The Hague, Mouton. Rossi-Landi was an Italian semiotician who attempted, in this work, to contrast these two seemingly dissimilar domains on the basis of the fundamental metaphor of exchange, understood here to be related to how we transmit ideas through language as well through the abstraction of labor into money.

Valentin Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 1973, Seminar Press, New York & London. Vološinov may very well have been fronting for his friend Mikhail Bakhtin in publishing this work under his own name. This was the first attempt to broach the possibility of discussion between the two fields, although even in the 1920s, it eschews returning directly to Marx, but rather to Saussure. I think Vološinov may go so far as to use the phrase Social Formalism, which has always struck me as being an apt depiction of langpo two (or three) generations hence. The current Harvard edition is the same translation with a better cover & distribution.


¹ I had work accepted into Poetry, TriQuarterly, Poetry Northwest and The Southern Review by the time I was 21. My first big complaint about the SoQ was that basically it’s too easy, a poetic practice for the intellectually lazy.


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