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

By | 1 February 2020

‘[T]he open of language.’ is, for Robertson, the vernacular, the constantly shifting quotidian language of the home and street, the young, and women. These are the words of the unconstrained moment. Not only words but, following Austrian-born philosopher Ivan Illich, all sustaining things such as food and healing are part of that moment. So-called dialects and slang are the fertile grounds from which meanings spring. The formation of the subject is dependent upon a relationship to the world and its various inhabitants. Language enables that relationship, and meaning is a constantly engaged set of possibilities, of rhythms demanded by daily experience of the self and the world. There is no closure.

The words our bodies produce are always beginning in form and meaning, and the rhythms of any beginning emerge bodily. This circulatory system is to be prized because ‘this beginning is what anyone belongs to.’ Built of ‘temporary membranes’, the body is permeable within and between all things. It is possible, indeed necessary to shed and regrow, to begin again. Robertson, following German American philosopher Hannah Arendt, is emphatic in her emphasis on beginning, on natality, on formation rather than the focus on mortality, finitude and closure in Western socio-political structures. This beginning takes place at the thresholds to any where and any time. We can choose to step through, or not.

We cannot speak without a body to think and form the words, and to give those words to others. Not yet at any rate. Robertson acknowledges that ‘the great fear is that vernaculars could disappear, quantified then subsumed by the instrumental grammar of capital.’ Subcultural ‘dialects’ may disturb and enhance official languages but are never allowed to replace them in either function or form. In her text The middle, commissioned in 2017 by documenta 14, Robertson writes:

This year I am sick of language
cut radiant gentle and frank
little angle of dissolved rhyme
who sires the fragrant exemplum
what if language is the suppression
of vitalist vocal co-movement
by the military-industrial complex?
What if language is the market?1

This moment of doubt is rare in Robertson’s writing. Generally, she acknowledges the state of social control and moves on to offer the ways in which that control can be circumvented. For example, she begins The middle with:

I had thought 
to be a woman breathing
through the door of my body
I would begin to bark 
so as to violate my preferences.

A woman ‘barking’ has usually been quickly silenced by society’s dismay if not revulsion, and the woman’s incarceration if not medication. Anne Carson’s essay ‘The gender of sound’2 works through a Western history from the Greek philosopher Aristotle and into the 20th Century focusing on responses to the sounds women can make, whether in pleasure or in pain. The notion of a woman’s mouth being a doorway is commonly expressed from Aristotle to North American writer Ernest Hemingway and beyond. Greek playwright Sophocles described the nymph Echo as having no door on her mouth.

There is a prevalence of writers discussing a need to close a woman’s mouth, and there is the formation of an equivalence between the vagina and the mouth as problematic orifices. Both are then considered to need closure and must be kept chaste according to patriarchal systems. Why close a woman’s mouth? In all cases her voice is considered by the ruling class as too high pitched or too hearty and therefore immodest (for a woman). More recently, closure of a woman’s mouth has been promoted in mainstream Australian media with the proposal to shove ‘a sock down her throat.’3

Carson finishes her essay with,

I wonder about this concept of self-control [sophrosyne] and whether it really is, as the Greeks believed, an answer to most questions of human goodness and dilemmas of civility. I wonder if there might not be another idea of human order than repression, another notion of human virtue than self-control, another kind of human self than one based on dissociation of inside and outside. Or indeed, another human essence than self.4

For Lisa Robertson, that human essence is the openness and perpetual beginning of vernacular speech, its vocalisation. It is an essence which sidesteps binaries and oppositions and is engaged in capacious co-operations. Citing poems as ‘commodious anywheres’ and ‘the shapely urgency’, Robertson proposes that ‘the poem is the speech of citizenship’ – which is inclusive of that quality of belonging and not the belief in fixed identity.

Rather than a utopic notion, Robertson’s thesis is built upon her researches into the history of Western vernaculars. The history of the troubadour is particularly relevant to Robertson because troubadours sang in vernacular whether in royal courts or elsewhere. These singers and musicians, who could be from all classes, included women amongst their number, and the epoch of the troubadour coincides with periods of comparative social, cultural and religious harmony in the 12th and 13th centuries. While the work of the troubadour led eventually to the fixed form of the sonnet, Robertson considers another route, discussing rhythm for example as ‘a moving figuring, an improvisational continuance …’, as the poem’s (and subject’s) rightful agency.

  1. Lisa Robertson, ‘The middle’, 3 summers, Coach House Books, Toronto 2016 pp 53-71
  2. Anne Carson, ‘The gender of sound’, Glass, irony, and God, New Directions Books, New York 1995 pp 119-142
  3. See for example ‘Alan Jones Doubles Down on Criticism of Jacinda Ardern’, ABC News, online.
  4. Carson op cit pp 136-7
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