Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 169-172
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Going the Distance
Paulette Gergen Lane
The title of David R. Jarraway's new monograph evokes the figure of a marathon, suggesting a theme of authorial distance that suffuses the text on numerous levels. Assembling information from a wide variety of sources, both philosophical and literary, Jarraway discovers poetic techniques of defamiliarization to explore the social and political implications of dissident subject formation in the works of the modernist poets Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Frank O'Hara, and Elizabeth Bishop. He brings depth and breadth to each of the five chapters devoted to these poets through extensive references to scholars, philosophers, poets, dramatists, and artists, such as William James, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, Edward Said, Walter Benjamin, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Cezanne, among others. Jarraway himself thereby "goes the distance" in this thorough and notable work, offering readers an in-depth exploration of dissident subjectivity in modern American poetics.
Combining philosophical and literary theory with textual analysis, Jarraway brings together two critical approaches currently important in the field of literary theory, phenomenology and cultural criticism, though he is also indebted to deconstruction and structuralism. He explores subjectivity as an ongoing process that is constructed by association with the other (in a Levinasian phenomenological sense), by socio-cultural paradigms, and by discourse, and he points out the ideological implications of such influences. Jarraway shows that subjectivity is constituted by the space, the distance, between the inner self and the outer world.Jarraway's identification of dissident subjectivity is derived from the pragmatist traditions of such philosophers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and, later, Theodor Adorno. Building on Adorno's sense of textual distance as "purposeless activity" and "formlessness," Jarraway notes that the modernist subject, by measuring the distance between thought and experience, comes to realize not only the complexity of experience, but also the possibilities for new perspectives offered by an expanded, pluralist sense of self. By defamiliarizing the language of experience, poets create subjectivity as a constantly shifting phenomenon, [End Page 169] "democratic" in its relativistic distance and "inaccessible" due to its temporal deferment. Jarraway explores the linguistic creation of dissident subjectivity within political, social, sexual, and racial contexts in Stein's "absence" as presence, Williams's "secret" cultural criticisms, Hughes's "otherness deferred," O'Hara's "queer perversities," and Bishop's "spectral poetics."
Recognizing Gertrude Stein as one of the most important of our modern American poets, Jarraway locates her struggle for self-authorization in the "polyvocal discourse" of Tender Buttons, ultimately revealing Stein's relative identity as feminist, sapphist, and pragmatist. In Stein's work, which is influenced by William James, language empowers the subject through its unique experience of phenomena. Rather than a mimetic representation of reality, the repetitive and inventive language of Tender Buttons impressionistically expands perceptions of reality to create infinite possibilities for understanding and renewal. As Jarraway observes, Stein's "proliferation of discourse" sets in motion a cycle of presence leading to semiotic absence, then renewed presence.Stein's personal struggle for self-authorization through the language of Tender Buttons, Jarraway argues, also empowers her readers to reassess their own subjectivity through an engagement with her dialectical, poetic encounter with the existential world.In Jarraway's view, Stein reveals that language, world, and self-identity are resistant to categorization. Thus, Stein's "discursive distancing," like that of Emily Dickinson, ushers in a "dissident authorship," one that questions, rather than names identity, and one that creates a "fluid subjectivity" that ultimately incorporates her feminism and sapphism.
Jarraway explores the "secret gardens" of William Carlos Williams's prose and poetry to discover a similarly fluid subjectivity by way of cultural critique.He shows how Williams's representations of selfhood in his Autobiography and his early poetry spring from immersion into "the process of...