Jim Beatty: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

Many of the critics on MAPS astutely trace the deconstructive force of Stein’s "Patriarchal Poetry," crediting the poem’s form with radically destabilizing binary oppositions. Yet, they seem to take the specific discursive resonances of individual terms as somewhat irrelevant. Quartermain explicitly argues that the poem "covertly if not blatantly invit[es] the reader to skip, since the eye running down a list tends to hurry along, inattentive, expecting more of the same, expecting tedium." He further claims that "The repeated phrase ‘Patriarchal Poetry’ virtually loses all meaning and comes to serve as a functional cypher;" thus the text’s deconstructive project is enacted by denying "patriarchy" any power of meaning. Yearsley agrees, arguing that the poem "places the term ‘patriarchal poetry’ into the multiple suggestive incoherent mode of discourse it is opposed to, where it stands out like a rock, meaning nothing and heard only as a drum beat." This supposed deconstructive draining of meaning is also seen as radically decontextualized. Davidson argues that "Many of the paragraphs create the effect of discourse without any human or social context. If Wordsworth's definition of poetic discourse is a language of men speaking to men, Stein's variation is of systems speaking to systems." And, as Yearsley astutely points out, the sound of "systems speaking to systems" is "often reminiscent of the repeated squeakings and jerkings of a piece of machinery."

While these readings help account for the disturbing, compelling power of this text, I think they somewhat miss the mark. For it seems to me that the poem’s repeatedly insistent identification of what "patriarchal poetry" is describes the monumental and multiple meanings it may have as a repressive agent. Denying "patriarchal" discursive meaning does nothing to resist patriarchal oppression. If "patriarchy" is one name for a discursive system of power that aims for the illusion of totality for the panoptic internalization of its terms, then resistance lies in exposing the illusory nature of that seeming totality and externalizing the terms of oppression, both of which can be done by imagining an other to power. This imagining is what I think the text not so much describes as tries to enact. It is, however, a deconstructive enactment. Far from being de-contextualized and groundless, though, the text speaks from a fundamentally deconstructive place. The trouble in interpreting such a text, however, lies in the fact that this place can only be described metaphorically, not directly. It is the "outside" of discourse that cannot be spoken; we allude to it in an effort to resist repressive discourses. One productive way to approach Stein’s metaphorical gesture towards this impossible outside is by comparing it to other similar projects. I think two such examples are William S. Burroughs’s "cut-up" theory/aesthetic and Martin Heidegger’s proto-deconstructive philosophy.*

Burroughs characterized the discursively constructed "reality" inhabited by the subjects of discourse with the metaphor of a movie set. The way to resist the repressive power of discourse, then, is to move subjectivity off the set. In order to get off the "set" of language, Burroughs proposed that the physical cutting of the text. Based on an accidental dissection of a newspaper by a friend, the artist Brion Gyson, Burroughs began taking pages of both his own prose and the texts of others, cutting them (e.g. into four equal squares), rearranging the sections, and then transcribing the newly juxtaposed words and phrases. While Burroughs sometimes claims that this process is random, his own narrative/editorial control is evident in his "cut-up" short stories and novels. In juxtaposing a story from the New York Times or a text of Kafka’s with his own satirical narratives of resistance to total discursive control, Burroughs uses power’s own terms to deconstruct its repressive construction of subjectivity. In a similar manner, Stein’s re-juxtapositions of both the name and the self-representations of patriarchal power break them free from their usual effects. Without taking patriarchy’s terms off patriarchy’s "set," they would operate according to their usual roles even in Stein’s text. In both Burroughs’s and Stein’s text, the specificity of the discursive power "set" off of which they are trying to move is far from irrelevant, for the "outside" of discourse is only reached by dismantling specific, carefully chosen parts of the "set" and placing them in new, resistant configurations. Burroughs often claimed that he wanted to destroy the form of the novel. In destroying the (usual) form of poetry, Stein opens cracks in the discourse of (patriarchal) power that facilitate resistance; in the same way Burroughs tries to open cracks in the discourse of total governmental surveillance and control.

Another possible comparison for Stein’s metaphorical gesture towards the "outside" of discursive power is Heidegger’s late proto-deconstructive project. Heidegger locates the possibility of subjective meaning outside the determining forms of Western philosophical discourse in the space in-between subject and object. He called this place the "clearing" (as in a forest) where meaning can (re)present itself to the subject. This "clearing" is analogous to Burroughs’s space off the "set" of discourse. While this clearing is neither subjective or objective, both terms are fundamental to its being. This is closely related to the notion that in deconstructing the Cartesian mind/body split, neither term can be ignored (as many deconstructive models often do). Given this scandalously flattened account of Heidegger’s deconstructive impulses, I would say that "Patriarchal Poetry"’s locus of enunciation may be compared to this Heideggerian "clearing." This is why we can recognize the terms but are somewhat at a loss for meaning, for while there is a subjective context, subjectivity is only one aspect. The reader is paradoxically given a foothold of subjective identification in the speaking voice of the poem while at the same time s/he is denied a stable subject position within the text to inhabit by its dislocating move beyond the conventions of subjective speech towards an impossible space of patriarchy’s objective representation. This "clearing" or space "off the set" is both comprised of and radically other than the subjective and objective.

Stein’s text, then, tries to enact a space (like Burroughs’s "off the set" or Heidegger’s "clearing) different from the totalizing potential of patriarchal discourse. One way in which it does this is through the recurrent presence of the number "three," suggesting a third way beyond the logic of "either/or." The frequent juxtapositions of "one" and "two" cumulatively suggest something beyond patriarchy, a discursive clearing in which one need not be subjectified by patriarchal discourse (e.g. 56, 58, etc.). Another way the text uses numbers to suggest something other than patriarchy is in the numbering of patriarchies: "One Patriarchal Poetry / Two Patriarchal Poetry / Three Patriarchal Poetry" (69). Thus patriarchal discourse’s illusory will to totality is exploded, for Stein’s text exposes it as a multiplicity rather than the naturalized, monolithic "way of the world" contained in its self-(mis)representations.

This "other" possibility is also suggested by the verbs which, in the absence of predication, take on an imperative nature. Commands such as "reconsider;" "Compare something else to something else" (57); "Reject rejoice rejuvenate" (59); "Leave it" (60); etc., far from draining the terms of power of all meaning, charge the reader to actively engage and transform the subjective, coercive meanings of patriarchal discourse. Closely related to the text’s use of the imperative is the prevalence of subjunctive voice, e.g. in the repeated "might"s and "as if"s. By speaking in the subjunctive mode of possibility, the text undermines patriarchy’s declarative claims to necessity.

Far from denying the power of patriarchal discourse, then, the text warns that " There is no use at all in reorganizing in reorganizing" (77). One cannot resist patriarchy merely by recapitulating the terms of its power, as a simple inversion or denial would do. Despite Ruddick’s claim that "[a] ‘different’ text is thus a feminist text," Stein’s subversion depends on a recognition not only of the power of difference but also the power of patriarchy’s often stunning mystification of its own duality. The text warns of "Patriarchal poetry recollected" and "Patriarchal poetry relined" (69, 73), taking seriously the power of patriarchy to mutate around resistance, re-inscribing the rebel subject into its discursive policing. The text itself is not purely other than this patriarchal power, for while there is "patriarchal Poetry in Pieces," "patriarchal Poetry has that [reunion] return" (74). Part of the urgent breathlessness of the texts mechanized repetition is the anxiety over its own level of contamination in a discursive system that it can never wholly be outside. Subjects can approach the Heideggerian clearing, but will never reach it. "Patriarchal Poetry" both speaks from and tries to enact a space within that approach.


Title Jim Beatty: On "Patriarchal Poetry" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jim Beatty Criticism Target Gertrude Stein
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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