Read the introduction, "This Mid-Air in Which We Tremble: Women & the Avant-Garde" by Chet'la Sebree.
“The Curious Props”: Placing Memory in Recent Experimental Writing
Who, looking inward, have observed the ties
That bind the perishable hours of life
Each to the other, and the curious props
By which the world of memory and thought
Exists and is sustained.
—William Wordsworth, “The Prelude,” Book Seven
What is the difference between imagination and memory? What are the “curious props” that connect the past and the imaginative space of writing? At a recent reading from her book Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), Claudia Rankine began by quoting from Leviathan: “Hobbes says that imagination and memory are not different in kind.” Perhaps so, if for an empiricist, both are based on fading images. We have “divers” names for the same phenomena because the images of imagination are sharper, less dimmed “by distance of time and place,” while by contrast those of memory have faded further. It is a matter of naming for Hobbes: when “the sense is fading, old, and past, it is called memory” (24). But surely imagination and memory are different, we protest. If not different in kind they differ in the felt-experience of directionality they present: we summon the imagination, and a “figment” of the imagination appears before us, whereas we reach back in memory, we call a memory forth from the past. “We only grasp the past at the place where it is in itself” as Deleuze says (56).
This difference in orientation makes all the difference because it suggests that the workings of the mind are themselves bound to a spatial sense, the orientation of our bodies to this inner theater. And it is the spatial dimension of imagination and memory that Rankine investigates in her use of the prose poem. To protest that there is a difference between memory and imagination suggests that we have some ideas about the nature of memory—at minimal that it requires a notion of time, a time prior to this. Or perhaps that the difference concerns relative plentitude: we have all the time in the world for imagination, less so perhaps for our store of memories. It is one of the fascinating aspects of her poetry that Rankine takes nothing about what Hobbes called “the discourse of the mind” for granted (29). She has understood that the “daily diminishment” of racism affects a person’s experience of time (32). Therefore, she analyzes the time sense of memory by evoking spatial capacities unique to the prose poem, including qualities of expansion, convergence and divergence in an attempt to make the writing stretch, come closer to experience as it is sustained through the body.
When she questions the difference between imagination and memory Rankine launches the formulation of this question itself. What is the difference between a prose poem and verse? Or, in this book-length poem that seems to have swallowed an essay, what is the difference between prose poetry and prose? Questions concerning method are compelling because the form is inseparable from the urgent questions concerning race relations Rankine presses us to consider: “What is the difference between a subject and an object?” and “What is the difference between an animal and a person?” and “What is the difference between the African American citizen and others?” In the heterogeneity of her inclusions (prose poetry, visual art, video scripts) Rankine exposes the exclusionary practices of what Barbara Johnson long ago called “the poetic code,” and thereby renders the inclusion of exclusion a matter of form and a potent instrument in her investigation of race relations (47).
“What is the difference between” is a disarming formulation that Gertrude Stein often posed. It runs like barbed wire come loose and snagging in How To Write: “Now what is the difference between a sentence and I mean” and “What is the difference between a question and an answer” (31 and 33-34). If we let it, this line of questioning takes us far from the familiar as Stein well knew. For instance, in a book that confounds the difference between poetry and prose entirely, Bhanu Kapil poses the surprisingly generative question, “what is the difference between a monster and a cyborg?” Although it may seem an unlikely pairing, I want to follow Nathaniel Mackey’s example and compare these two apparently dissimilar books of experimental writing, Rankine’s Citizen and Kapil’s Incubation: A Space for Monsters (2006). In method, both Rankine and Kapil have rendered time as space so as to examine what we exclude in lived experience by modeling time on linear sequence rather than radial extension.
Rankine raises questions concerning the nature and site of memory from her first poem forward. A memory from school years ruins this moment through the painful association of a present physical sensation with the bitter memory of an exchange with a racist schoolmate. When the past is “reconstructed as metaphor” it is never fully past, or not on a linear trajectory in which we imagine the past located safely at a distance behind this present (5). If it is structured as metaphor the past persists in active exchanges, and so the present is always potentially punctured by the past. The many examples drawn from driving underscore that there is no leaving this feeling behind on a temporal model in which the present moment is displaced to become the past. Recounting another hurtful exchange, Rankine writes: “As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said . . . you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going” (10). Time collapses when experiences repeat, and when it isn’t possible to conceive of a destination that doesn’t include this painful experience as memory just as this moment “now” includes memory of all the other “befores.” In its etymology, metaphor is transporting, but in the experience of those enduring persistent racism “nowhere is where you will get from here” (45).
Rankine mines the narrative qualities of the prose poem for all it’s worth: the appeal of storytelling, its many-voicedness, its wide and quotidian scope. But she deliberately sabotages the gesture narrative makes of openness to the inconclusive; in place of contingency Rankine shows that the experience for African Americans is an exhausting and destructive recurrence of the same: “What did he just say? Did she really just say that?” (9) Repetition alters time sense. When past and present are co-extensive rather than chronological, there is no way to move on. Rankine writes: “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard” (63). Time is a matter of experience always and critically mediated by the body.
She finds this cupboard in the spatial dimensions possible in language use whereby the subject (the one who says “I”) “can position herself” as object (“you”). In some poems the personal pronoun “I” boxes itself into a field created by its proximity to or overlap with the “you” that speaks, and in other poems the “you” comes unbound, “floating above your certain ache” in the space Rankine has cleared for this unrelenting scrutiny (139). Sounding much like the empiricist Hobbes, Rankine reminds us that before it can be categorized or even known, every moment “has to be experienced, it has to be seen” (9). What she adds to Hobbes is the starting premise that the experiencing subject might at the same time undergo an excruciating navigation of subjectivity because it is interpersonal, like the tennis ball that goes back and forth sounding a metronome throughout this book: “And still a world begins its furious erasure— / Who do you think you are, saying I to me?/ You nothing./ You nobody. / You” (142).
Yet another way to examine the experience of time as Stein recognized is to make a duplicate. Her novel Ida begins: “There was a baby born named Ida. Its mother held it with her hands to keep Ida from being born but when the time came Ida came. And as Ida came, with her came her twin, so there she was Ida-Ida” (3).
This is the method Kapil adopts with uncanny results in Incubation: A Space for Monsters. The text is composed of a series of related but not chronological interludes whose very titles signal inconclusiveness, “Handwritten Preface To Reverse The Book.” At first abruptly and then gradually, the character “Laloo” emerges alongside the narrator’s attempts to define her, “If cyborgs are smooth, then Laloo ... Is she? Are you? I don’t know what that means, the biological definition of a cyborg, except that I have to decide who you are, little pink / fluorescing shrimp, little Laloo, before I write you out of the sea and onto the shore” (6)
Only Kapil doesn’t have to decide. As she tries to determine whether Laloo is a monster or a cyborg it becomes increasingly difficult to discern whether Laloo is indeed a character imagined by the narrator who is a writer and/or whether Laloo is a name for the narrator herself, one that allows her to regard herself alternately as monster or cyborg. The narrator purports to distinguish between cyborgs and monsters and her distinctions are compelling: cyborgs are designed for assimilation, whereas monsters refuse to adapt. But even this premise does not limit Laloo’s identity since the terms are immediately descriptive of the narrator as well: “A monster refuses her life and that is why I can only write to you” (14). Is the narrator monstrous because she fails to adapt and what she creates in her writing is a cyborg?
While we try to discern whether in describing Laloo the writer describes herself (rehearsing Mary Shelley’s questions concerning writing and monstrosity) Laloo simply moves on. In a sub-series within one of the series, “Notes Against A Cyborg Preface,” Laloo is alternately a monster, a baby, and/or a cyborg. When a monster, we learn that “Laloo” is an entry in an 1896 encyclopedia of Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine describing an Indian man named Laloo, “the second of four children,” who was born with another partial body, complete with discrete organs and limbs, suspended from his chest. Laloo confounds categorization as Kapil explains, “Two legs hung from him. Am I saying this well? He was duplicate, in a limited sense, within himself. Then I heard these words inside my own body: ‘He’s a monster.’ Like a person in a dream, he was a concentrated block of wrong perceptions” (19). When Laloo (and the narrator?) is a monster, a cyborg, and / or a baby, the writing rejects categories of being in a way that bears directly on time sense, since as readers we must learn to read with the simultaneity of series in place of the exclusions of linear sequence. Duplication multiplies. Whether cyborg or monster (or cyborg having a monstrous day) Laloo is apparently pregnant, but when asked “How far along are you?” she understands the question as a bid from the open road, and this section ends with Laloo waiting at the side of the road watching cars passing (28).
Hitchhiking recurs throughout the book as a response prompted by Kapil’s definitions: a monster who does not adapt to circumstances may want to be always on the move, or perhaps it is because, faced with choosing between monster or cyborg, women will want to “pull a Laloo” and escape. Hitchhiking may be a more familiar conceit to readers. Most of us are either drivers or passengers some of the time; we are less likely to sort ourselves as monsters or cyborgs. The book ends with the bleak and sardonic “Laloo’s Guide To Hitchhiking,” putting women’s vulnerability on display, and disputing Donna Haraway’s utopian vision of the cyborg as a being beyond history and the ideological limitations of sex, gender, and body. On the contrary, the long history of the artificial person is neither utopian nor “post-human” because it is not transcendental, but gendered and racially marked as Despina Kakoudaki argues (8-9). The cyborg is gendered female in Kapil as they so often are in literature and popular culture because of the unique vulnerability of the female body to incursions. Laloo’s advice to the hitchhiker who wants to live is to adapt, so the monster becomes a cyborg, revealing the malleability of these categories to environment.
One of the many ways to read this fascinating and bewildering book is to regard “Laloo” not as a character in any conventional sense, but as a site for sustaining the question, “What is the difference between a monster and a cyborg?” This proves a highly generative question and spins out related questions: What is the difference between a cyborg and an immigrant, or between a monster and an immigrant? Given how she has framed the distinction between monsters that resist and cyborgs that adapt, sorting the difference is a way of asking “what a girl is” (5). Since these are relative terms monsters and cyborgs will never be fully differentiated, and Kapil asserts at one point that a monster is “Anybody different” (16).
When she refuses to determine and maintain the difference among the writer, narrator, reader, and characters, Kapil creates a space in which all of these figures are simultaneously becoming. Our confusion as readers only reveals our insistence on fixing character identity and excluding the fluidity of “about-to-be” states that the text instantiates. Addressing the reader in the opening pages, Kapil realizes that she has set time going and with regret immediately imagines a pre-history or “pre-text” that exists prior to (or perhaps congruent with) this initial moment of contact. Or perhaps it is otherwise or elsewhere, facing a direction other than this, “Reversed” (6). The space of “incubation” is not a place but time sense so multiplied that it sustains the inchoate or unformed states Kapil explores.
Memory and imagination will not be so neatly opposed to the real. As both Rankine and Kapil demonstrate, memory and imagination are shaping forces decisively shaped by lived experience and with real consequences. However imagined, the writer may turn her hand to the story she tells and feel the story respond, as Kapil says: “I feel it (your grip) and adapt, immediately, to the trope or infidelity of the story I am telling. Your real hand inside the prosthesis inside the glove” (6).
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (New York: Collier Books, 1962).
Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991).
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, MI: Graywolf Press, 2014).
Barbara Johnson, “Two Invitations Au Voyage,” The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980).
Gertrude Stein, How To Write, 1931 (New York: Dover Publications, 1975).
Nathaniel Mackey, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1993).
Gertrude Stein, Ida A Novel, 1941, edited and with an introduction by Logan Esdale (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2012).
Bhanu Kapil, Incubation: A Space for Monsters (Providence, RI: Leon Works, 2006).
Despina Kakoudaki, Anatomy of A Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2014).
Linda Voris teaches twentieth-century American and British literature at American University. Her book, The Composition of Sense in Gertrude Stein's Landscape Writing is forthcoming this fall from Palgrave Macmillan.