The Referent of My Middle Finger

In the February Poetry in a review of Fanny Howe's On the Ground, Brian Phillips writes, "If the complete collapse of reference sounds like a peculiar point of origin for poetry, it is; words are referential."

Oh, really? What is the referent of "as"? The referent of "the sound of one hand clapping"? The referent of "I promise to pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today"?

Phillips's comment demonstrates a glib ignorance, an ignorance inexcusable for someone writing criticism in the 21st century.

Whether or not words are referential, and if so, how, is one of the questions that endured the 20th century and is still with us in the 21st.

Let's take that last example above, "I promise to pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today." In the early twentieth century, J.L. Austin realized that sentences in this form aren't referential in the usual sense. Rather, they depend on context and future events. He called them "performatives," rather than statements. In the odd, frustrating, and wonderful little book, How to Do Things with Words, Austin teases out the implications of the distinction, finally realizing that, ultimately, statements are themselves performatives in that they can be recast. "The cat is on the mat" is really a shortened form of the performative "I believe the cat is on the mat." John Searle later, in Speech Acts, tried to systematize the notion of performatives in order, in part, to re-establish referentiality. It didn't succeed, as Derrida demonstrated in a pair of essays, "Signature, Event, Context," and "Limited, Inc." the latter an ill-tempered response to Searle's inability to understand the issues.

Am I being unfair to Phillips? Should most people know about performatives? No. However, it is inconceivable that one could have been intellectually engaged at any point in the last century and not understand that referentiality is fraught with problems. And those problems make interesting and infinite sources for poetry.

Which leads to a more obvious and disqualifying ignorance on the part of Mr. Phillips. The non-referentiality of language has been the source of a great deal of poetry. Language poetry, surrealism, and zaum all provide ample evidence. Mr. Phillips may not like them, but there they are. He needn't look any farther than the latest appearance of Ashbery in The New Yorker to understand this. And yet he doesn't.

Phillips's glib reference to the referentiality of words not only shows him ignorant of linguistics, but also innocent of critical knowledge of the previous century's poetry, an art of which he would claim the mantle of arbiter.


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