When Words Have No Equals: A Response to Lisa Robertson’s Thresholds: A Prosody of Citizenship

By | 1 February 2020

A few years ago, various people I knew who didn’t know each other simultaneously suggested that I read Canada-born, France-based poet Lisa Robertson. They emailed me texts – for example, Magenta Soul Whip 2009, and lent me books such as R’s boat 2010. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get Lisa Robertson. I was buried in the work of French feminist Luce Irigaray, rereading a lot of prose and slowly moving toward what became intense readings of other North American and Canadian writers Lyn Hejinian, Evelyn Miles and later Anne Carson. I was in pursuit of my own location in a feminist literary world that did not include Lisa Robertson.

I couldn’t get past Robertson’s style which I found arch. The particular intensity of her delineation of the bodily was not mine. Her use of feminine pronouns irritating – I was trying to avoid any acknowledgment of gender in my writing. Her references to certain Western literary traditions annoyed me especially as I was traversing a lengthy phase where I refused to be reconciled to the classical underpinnings of official Western thought. I didn’t see that she was, and how she was, unpacking those underpinnings. She didn’t fit in my then universe. My friends assured me that Robertson was a force and I needed to gain some understanding. I trusted them but I also trusted my own judgement.

Early in 2019 I came across a reprint of Robertson’s untitled 2012 essay renamed ‘Thresholds: a prosody of citizenship’.1 Dense as this essay is, it gave me some insight into Robertson’s preoccupations and how her work overlapped with other writers and theorists that I had connected to with more immediacy. Perhaps there was a tipping point in my comprehension. I had ceased to be bothered by the classical foundations of Western thought – it is difficult but not impossible to acknowledge and then move away from those ancient speculations which modern institutions continue to concretise and impose upon others.

The fragility of speech, whose proper location is anywhere people face and receive and act towards and for one another, could be anywhere, as we have discerned, and yet it seems that there are fewer anywheres, and many somewheres, fewer anybodies, and many somebodies.2

How far, then, is it possible to move beyond the confines of official languages, to find one’s voice? Is it possible to begin again, to reinvent oneself, and therefore change interactions with others, through language? Lisa Robertson certainly thinks so. Thresholds is a plural, open text. Robertson’s erudition is such that she can pick her way through the minefields of co-option to convincingly break through to provide a solidly reasoned schema for co-operation between subjects. Robertson has a singular way of compressing language in order to expand our perception of what words can mean and do. Her phrasing and syntax is distinctive and can be complex.

‘Sometimes “here” has no walls.’ begins Robertson. The walls are the boundaries of institutionalised knowledge. Painstakingly built over millennia by successive ruling classes their solidity is generally taken as given. Here can be a location, this place, where I am. Generally, here is in the present, as in I am here to witness the present-ness of a location. A location, however, aspires to being fixed, measurable if not already, whereas ‘here’ has a certain transience, temporariness. We have to say or believe we are here, or not. Here can be anywhere just as here can have no walls. Socio-political structures built from official languages dominate most of our lives most of the time. However, they are here for us to accept or not, and they are not truly solid even if appearing impenetrable. ‘Sometimes “here” has no walls’ envisages an open field. This is daunting, lonely, uncomfortable but our bodies have the capacity to support and strengthen our minds, these ‘temporary membranes’.

‘[F]ollowing the movement of thinking, a woman escapes the confinement of identity, moving into the open of language.’ This perfect, active sentence makes clear the richness of the process of forming meaning through thought, and how meaning (and thinking) can be changed, as a continuous process. Regardless of institutional efforts to fix and control language, its fundamental nature is fluid. A glance at the etymology of any word, especially those born on the street or in the domestic sphere will indicate that fluidity. In anyone’s lifetime, words and meanings come and go – adoptions, adaptions, errors, puns.

For ‘a woman to escape the confinement of identity,’ she must acknowledge this fluidity of thinking and meaning. As Italian writer Franco Berardi reminds us, ‘Only from disidentification can a non-oppressive community emerge.’3 Further, ‘Identity does not exist, only identification exists. Identity is the fixation on a process of identification that generally reduces complexity to a predictable pattern of behaviour… Identity is based on an imaginary sense of belonging to a common past, while cultural becoming anticipates the futures inscribed in the present of social life.’4

  1. Republished 2018 by Book Works, London and The Common Guild, Glasgow in the Dialecty series 16 ed. Maria Fusco. First published in Nilling Book*hug Press, Toronto 2012
  2. Ibid p 13
  3. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Breathing: chaos and poetry, semiotext(e) intervention series 26, South Pasadena 2018 p 109
  4. Ibid pp 108-9
This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.