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Contemporary Literature 47.1 (2006) 62-90

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Excuses and Other Nonsense:

Joan Retallack's "How to Do Things with Words"

State University of New York at Buffalo
And even the most adroit of languages may fail to "work" in an abnormal situation or to cope, or to cope reasonably simply, with novel discoveries.
J. L. Austin, "Truth"
How to tell that truth that is a strange experimental friction.
Joan Retallack, "G'L'A'N'C'E'S"

In "The Poethical Wager," Joan Retallack jokes that however far we move away from Aristotle's Poetics, its shadow continues to loom over our thinking:

(laughter) Yes, Aristotle, who has cast the most enduring shadow over the course of academic poetics, quite artificially divided everything up into what he took to be thoroughly comprehensible disciplines—theory, practice, ethics, politics, poetry. Poethical poets, whether or not they have themselves used the "h," enact the complex dynamics that criss-cross through these boundaries.

And certainly this criss-crossing of boundaries has been a foundational idea of contemporary innovative writing—the rule of language in the poem as the rule of thought, rather than the rules of comprehensible disciplines, literary convention, or aesthetic form. Such a poetics aims to explore the material and signifying possibilities of language as language, contesting traditional conceptions of certain kinds of language uses or subject positions as essentially "poetic" in order to open the poem to a space of social and cultural [End Page 62] investigation. But as this poetics reimagines the poem as a space of thinking and feeling, as a mode of investigation rather than representation, how are we to understand the interconnections, and mutual relevance, of the kind of thinking that poetry can offer us and the kinds of thinking offered by the disciplined ways of knowing characteristic of other fields, such as analytic philosophy, speech-act theory, formal logic, or physics? Asked this way, these questions—which are the further and more challenging questions raised by the work of Joan Retallack—become at once questions of thought and questions of genre. What happens when a poem uses specific vocabularies or language practices or logics from quantum physics, chaos theory, or mathematics?1 What happens when the very life of a poem arises from a specific and technical philosophical text, as with Retallack's "The Woman in the Chinese Room," which draws from John Searle's infamous thought experiment?2 For Retallack, as a poet-theoretician trained in philosophy and attentive to the complex intersections of disciplinary forms, "[t]he model is no longer one of city or nation states of knowledge each with separate allegiances and consequences, testy about property rights and ownership, but instead the more global patterns of [End Page 63] ecology, environmentalism, bio-realism, the complex modelings of the non-linear sciences, chaos theory" (295). But of course Retallack is talking here of models; not all of these "nation states of knowledge" are so ready to give up their testiness over property rights and ownership, the particular modes of discourse which have historically made them separate and identifiable. At the heart of Retallack's How to Do Things with Words is how to bring this questioning of disciplinarity not only into the space of experimental poetry but into the spaces of philosophy and the sciences as well, and in so doing, to enact a pragmatic, philosophical, and ethical realism—what Retallack terms a "complex realism."

Venturing just such a complex interplay between poetry and philosophy, the title poem of Retallack's How to Do Things with Words opens the vexed question of aesthetics and analysis, intervening in a history of thought that presupposes (and thus articulates) a fundamental distinction between poetry and philosophy in which philosophy is based on an appeal to validity and logic, and poetry on an appeal to experience, sensation, interest. Retallack elaborates the problem in her essay ":RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM: (three essays onto shaky grounds)," critiquing what she terms the "picture theory of meaning," which rests on "a fairly simple (this = that...


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