The Scarlet Aitch
Twenty-Six Notes on the Experimental Feminine
The dissociation defense was giving way to an acceptance of bisexuality as a quality of the unit or total self. I saw that I was dealing with what could be called a pure female element. At first it surprised me that I could reach this only by looking at the material presented by a male patient.
D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality
Chance is always a relative term. The swerve out of one system enters the logic of another. Can't you see, Alice, as long as cultures and their artifacts are identified by internally consistent logics, as long as identity itself is identified as an internally consistent logic, the feminine will be the constant clinamen.
Genre Tallique, GLANCES: An Unwritten Book
- Differential Loquations:
- Hey, it's not the end of history, it's just the end of Hegel. (Anon.)
- It's not the angel of history, it's the angle of attention. (K. Callater)
- The world's not ending, it's just becoming incomprehensible. (Washington Post, March 12, 1999)
- In a culture of strategic simple-mindedness relishing complexity is a political act. (S.M. Quant, Manual for Desperate Times)
- Phallogocentrism, the latest term for a double-ended rationalist telos: What's not coming from the Father must be tending toward Him. (Fast-track from Hegel to Lacan.) This is a dream from which we can awaken. I engage in projects that enact my preferences—reciprocal alterities, the polylogical perverse. Does this mean an ethics of individual
― 103 ―will set against currents of cultural ethos? No. I think it's a different reading of cultural ethos.
- The rationalist telos has got to go, but a constructive myth of progressive social conscience may still be our best hope. (Is it possible to know it's a myth and still believe in it?) We've been calling the crisis of character that cumulative self-consciousness inflicts on us "postmodernism." The communal optic nerve affixed to that post affixed to modern is useful in scoping memory and desire. Is a confusing, embarrassing sense of postness the trial we must make our way through in order to arrive at new visions of possibility? None of this would be a problem if we were satisfied with the cultural work we'd already done; if any of the various wes had constructed a world beaming with kindness and justice.
- Meanwhile (did I wait too long to say this?) with all the noisy deconstruction going on, the ironic critiques, the chronic and tic-like irreverences, the continual exposures of presullied classical thought, history's not ending, civilization's not ending, art's not ending, nature's not ending. Things are just becoming more complicated, less intelligible. (One can define any moment in history as the further complication of what preceded it.) This is exactly as it should be. In the sciences, intelligibility is a sign that the current paradigm is still functioning. If the horrors of the twentieth century are to be taken as a challenge to our humanist conceptual frame-works, it's clear that many of our social paradigms have been working against us. In the arts and humanities untroubled intelligibility is a sign of denial. The ways in which we understand the ongoing history of our values are subject to more constant upheaval than the ways in which we understand atoms and stars. Accelerating change over the twentieth century caused no greater stress than to the processes of making meaning in everyday life. Popular culture, with its market-driven values and stereotypes, has created an imagistic plenum in an opportunistic vacuum, but there have also come to be "everyday life" poetics in aesthetic thought not fueled by fantasy—neither idealized nor nostalgic. Refreshing, given the need for continuous reorientation to the dailiness of culture—its accidents and intentions, its F and M trajectories, its intractable messiness.
- In culture, as Tallique puts it, chance is a relative term. The swerve out of one system rapidly enters the logic of another. We can't remain estranged from chance as though it would leave us to our own devices.
- I've often used this quote from Francis Ponge: "In order for a text to expect in any way to render an account of reality of the concrete world(or the spiritual one), it must first attain reality in its own world, the textual one." I'm thinking now it may be more useful to construe the realism in texts not so much as accounts of but in fractal relation to extratextual reality. Texts (or any other aesthetic realization) may exist as illuminated details, fractal elaborations along the natural-cultural coastline. So Ponge's point is still crucial: literature is not a shadow world; we are not condemned to languish at a remove from the real in Plato's cave or in the social constructionist's "prison house of language." To critically essay into the world of poetry is to explore the nature of textual realities as they engage us in specific and energetic material forms of life.
- If poethics is a lived pattern of conscious and unconscious values, its contested habits of being are performed in literature as lettristic-phonemic practices. These ventures foreground the parts of our human agency exercised by means of configuring words—words that incorporate and transform experiences of mind, society, and nature at increasingly busy linguistic intersections. Poetry, as chronically blurred genre, can demonstrate just how busy by operating simultaneously from multiple perspectives, in multiple dimensions, in multiple languages that draw on the inherent ambiguities, cross-references, polyglot intercultural vectors of all languages in today's electronically intimate world. Poetry, particularly authentically contemporary poetry (that which could only have been written in its own time), is polyglossia in motion. The poethics that comes out of the postmodern crisis is in programmatic dissonance with simplistic thinking and ideals of purity.
- How odd, for instance, to speak of a pure female element. Those things that are identified as pure (absolute, objective, essential, ideal, innocent, chaste, generic …) are thought—when thought is farthest from experience—to exist in the clearest imaginative air. In reality they muddle through netherworlds in conceptual drag. What brings the snap of the real back into the picture is to acknowledge, like D.W. Winnicott, that the pure female element is seen only through the lens of the male and vice versa.
- Masculine and Feminine have long been agonistically defined. In the Möbius comic strip that seems to be our cultural default mode, irrational
― 105 ―Feminine is the swerve (or swish) away from stolid Masculine rationalism; Masculine is heroic resistance to the Feminine. But, in the tumult of the heroic urge, it betrays its own rational principle. (Think of Odysseus and the mess of Troy, Odysseus erectus tied to the mast as yet another ship glides by yet another pack of Sirens.) Perhaps there's some good news in this. That it's an agonistic, dynamical attractive/repellent system means that it's fluid. It can quiver if not quake at the slightest provocation. Its patterns are subject to startling rearrangement.
- We speak of a static binary. But are those tensely positioned pairs ever really so still? The Feminine and Masculine are much more convincing as migratory principles that in principle can work in any body, can be engaged by any one in multivariable proportions. Among other things, this means women/men don't have to parody or subvert or steal power from one another to liberate the self because the other is already part of the self. Acknowledged or not, each of us carries—as inoculation and disease—an internally embedded reciprocal alterity.
- One principle of nonreciprocal alterity is that the invisible other casting a shadow on every other marked as other is the self. To know this self is like knowing the earth only as its shadow casts the moon into eclipse. The Feminine, as it negotiates cultural arrangements in material dialogue with the pattern-bounded unpredictability of everyday life, is chronically foregrounded as ostensive other. That is, as the conductor, rather than connoisseur, of chaos.
- A more hackneyed (realistic?) view: Masculine and Feminine principles are the internal combustion systems of male and female bodies staging agonistic drag races on the cultural Möbius strip. The carnage isterrible. Sexual drag-race history repeats itself as tragedy pupating, mutating into farce that is tragedy/farce/tragedy … ad nauseam. The relation looks suspiciously like profile/vase/profile. One can't ask in such circumstances whether M or F, tragedy or farce, profiles or vase occupies the privileged position. The visibility (intelligibility) of each depends entirely on the other.
- When, in certain experimental arts, Feminine and Masculine are re-leased from oppositional sexual politics into an active aesthetic of transient principles, coming and going as needed for the project at hand, generously available to both men and women, they engender a dynamic disequilibrium of the sort that's so productive in the rest of nature. It
― 106 ―may be that Male is to culture as Female is to nature only in the culture of Nature versus Culture. Could Feminine-Masculine as interdynamic principles nourish a culture of reciprocal alterity?
- And what of that Scarlet Aitch?—aitch with enough texture to thicken a plot called poethics—poetics pregnant with street noises (silences), feminine strains (stains) (contagions), the thickened plots of communitarian ethics. The concrete fact of aitch is this: A with an itch is hitched in aural marriage to the class-indexical letter H. This humorous phoneme has of course had a primary function in the social drama of British—and, to some extent, American—class divisions. It marks the scene of a paradigmatic intersection of language and social destiny. The Scarlet A marks a different sort of paradigm, where the catastrophic swerve out of one's destiny is read as female, the energetic swerve within it as male.
- What would it mean to say that all poets are feminine, all As scar-let? The A that starts up the alphabet that starts up the poet adulterates everything with a lettristic fall from unity. The mess of multiplicity, ofinfinite combinatorics, has begun.
- The A for adultery is indelibly linked to Hawthorne's Hester Prynnein American lit. and moviegoing cultures. I use this emblematic junction box, charged with unacceptability, impurity, the crimes and punishments legislated by law-of-the-father fundamentalist cultures (where the Feminine is always the polluting element and greatest threat) to situate my concerns with poetry and ethics in a poesis/poethos of lettristic play.
- Lettristic play operates illegally, strictly on the diagonal, the glancing tangential, transgressing left-right regulations, right angles of history, institutional rights to dictate meaningful grammars. It streaks through official texts, illuminating subtexts and subliminal noises as letters swerve, collide, coagulate in the wound—the scar in scarlet—the scars of historical/etymological silences.
- By means of poethical concerns (explicit or not) with making forms of life out of language, and vice versa, the language aesthetic becomes a disclosure (or disclaimer) of values that embed it in one's cultural dispositions and silences. A poethics of the Feminine fall (swerve),transfiguration and apotheosis of A, takes place (here) within a lettristic geometry of attention.
Interestingly, Hawthorne's narrator explained his interest in Hester Prynne as an accident, a quite specific swerve of attention that occurs as he is poking about in an old storage room in the Salem Custom-House, scene of what he characterizes as a patriarchy of permanent inspection:
One idle and rainy day, it was my fortune to make a discovery of some little interest. Poking and burrowing into the heaped-up rubbish in the corner … glancing … with … half-reluctant interest … I chanced to lay my hand on a small package.…There was something about it that quickened an instinctive curiosity.…[T]he object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious pack-age, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded.
This event opens up a new angle in his geometry of attention that one could label clinamen of consciousness—taking him from despised world of official respectability to daring poethics of a novel. The embroidered A on the tattered piece of cloth leads Hawthorne to what many critics have called a confused, ambiguous (in my view, admirably complex) examination of a woman whose vision somehow exceeds the legislated hermeticism of seventeenth-century New England. Hester en-acts a remarkable transvaluation of values—lettristically sited—that improbably illuminates a shameful A into icon of pride and grace, an A that might stand for Angel or Adulteress, depending on one's angle of vision.
Lettristic bonds, valences, contagions are angles of realization afforded by the accidents of intellectual and biological alphabets. The letter as letter is a charged vector of transmission, as in "to send a letter"through the chaotic geometries and postal contingencies of everyday life. Letter A, Messenger Angle of attention creating countless Alphabets as it spirals through the thick medium of historical silence. Messenger Angles of connection navigate helical wagers of DNA. In English the first letter of the alphabet moonlights as indefinite article and comes from the Indo-European root oino, meaning "one." (Of course, there literally cannot be a one without an other.) Is there anything to be made of the fact that the starting points of our lettristic and numerical com-binatory systems are cognate? Do they really have entirely different logics? In our geometries, algebras, differential equations, combinatorics of every sort, we choreograph our attention even as our ideas are cho-reographed by delicately indiscreet symbols full of the poetry of transgressive relationship in our fractal brains. How gracefully strange, as the mathematician Brian Rotman points out:― 108 ―
Claiming symbols as artificial romanticizes mathematics as a mysterious and ineffable species of "pure," i.e. linguistically untainted, thought. The history of mathematics is impossible to tell except as an ongoing and highly complex interaction between writing (symbols, notations, diagrams, formalisms) and thinking/imagining (ideas, concepts, intuitions, arguments, narratives). In mathematics, language far from being neutral or inert is always inseparable from and frequently constitutive of the very objects, abstractions and relations it (subsequently) is seen to be "describing."
- The scarlet A as first integer of transfiguration in a Purist society—and in the life of a disgruntled customhouse worker—becomes public sign and ritual instrument of Hester's Assumption into the possibility of a higher social vision. (Additional lettristic accidents: in the English liturgical calendar A indicates Annunciation and Ascension.) From the point of view of a culture freighted with masculinist fears of feminine contagion Hester is the quintessentially feminine ambiguous (conceptually fluid) poethical figure. The A marks an Archimedean point where the idea of adultery no longer fixes identity into stigmatized object but becomes lever for a swerve into the gratuitous utopianism of a liminally conceived contemporary: "her firm belief that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness" (Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter, 177).
- The illuminated A is material sign of Hester Prynne as poethical clinamen, the experimental feminine incarnate. In her verge toward the rocky coastline of a contemporary reconfiguration of virtue Hester is ejected out of a logic inescapable on its own grounds—the Puritan patriarchal logic in which the figure of the independent woman negates masculine principle as final moral arbiter. As character and as feminine principle Hester seems to become a clinamen for Hawthorne's narrator himself, releasing him from what Winnicott would have identified as depressed and bitter compliance, the (autobiographical) state Hawthorne is (in the introduction to the book) brooding about at the scene of his unhappy employment, the customhouse. That is the scene of the A striking Hawthorne with the heat of its "other" history: "I happened to place it on my breast.… It seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of a burning heart; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron" (25).
- An illuminated letter is always a clinamen, sending the reader for a moment into visual logics. (Any letter is illuminated by sustained attention to its graphic presence.) The ethos of Hester Prynne is one that embodies intersecting angles as lettristically improved angels of chance and attention. They collide and transfigure in a feminine principle that makes change possible even within punitive logics of a social structure erected in specific terror of all that is conceived as feminine, all dynamic, destabilizing fluidities.
- The experience of A, or F or M, is always contingent, although their long histories render them anything but arbitrary. These angled marks, linguistic levers, are a function of the range of forms our cultures have played out in their sexual and familial politics. This last tends to be enacted in stereotypically stripped, oppositional gender roles, but the dynamic exchange, the folding in of new materials that gives the reinvention of forms their lively possibility, never stops.
- Adulterations can bring on new angles (angels in geometries of attention) of improbable grace. Perhaps angels of history are of some use with their wing-dinged vectors after all. (Mathematicians once thought of vectors as angel flight patterns.) (A) Alice plummeting into Wonderland or (B) gliding through suddenly airy molecules to Looking Glass world. Swerves occur all the time; Alices and Icaruses fling themselves into uncanny trajectories through cultural space. One might sense this emotionally, but for it to come usefully into consciousness, to effect structural change, it must enter our less stable lettristic logics—our poetries, our poethical analyses.
- Can one say that the Feminine (wherever it may find itself—in woman, man, hermaphrodite) is the experimental principle that projects its vision outside limiting structures? The active "Experimental Feminine" is a necessary update to Goethe's passive "Eternal Feminine." His is just one of many static visions that reassuringly place the Feminine in cultural mausoleums constructed on the outskirts of the Masculine state.
- Can't you see, Alice, as long as all that complicates systems, thickens plots, diverges from invested trajectories and story lines is persistently feared and devalued, the Feminine will be the constant clinamen?