Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Reznikoff and historiography

Writing a paper on Charles Reznikoff (actually, it should have been turned in a week ago for a seminar this fall, but, alas, as is my wont, it is late). I'm looking, specifically at his two volume Testimony. I've spent a good amount of time thinking about various theories of historiography, especially since that's what the seminar was concerned with. (Well, actually it was *about* time, history, and modernity, but historiography played a major role in our attempts to understand the relationship betwen texts from that period as well as the relationship between the three themes.) So, anyway, like I said, for my research on the Reznikoff paper I went through a good portion of our texts from the course, trying to find the *right* frameworks or methodology. I looked back through Latour, LaCapra, Chandler, de Certeau, Macheray, Jameson, Lukacs, and a few other short pieces I've forgotten now. Then I realized something. I had spent all of two minutes reading Reznikoff. This reminded me, sheepishly, of a moment early on in my grad school career--an attempt to write a paper on experimental music. I was talking about my struggle to understand and frame my paper's argument with a (non-academic) friend, and he asked me: " Have you listened lately to any of the music you're talking about?" "Um...no." I think this is a common grad student issue/mistake, and certainly one that can be leveled at the rise of theory in the academy (though it is, in general, I think, an overblown and not generalizable accusation). The fact that I found myself nervously avoiding a serious read of the very texts I was ostensibly about to stake an argument on struck me as a return to this misguided habit, and certainly not at all what the seminar itself had attempted to accomplish; we had spent a considerable amount of time and critical focus on how literary texts construct history. Now the relation between form/content, historiography, and justice is not quite clear to me, but I feel it is where I'm moving, circling around.

This all prompted... a return to Reznikoff. Now I know why I initially decided to write about him. The question of how one might narrate history--to my mind, *the* concern/question of historiography--is the central issue of Reznikoff's work. The fact that Reznikoff chooses to piece together/ transform legal cases--the archive of written documents that determine legal history/practice--in order to present an epoch as well as critique its failures and injustices through and as poetry is to question, to think through, the relationship between various narrative forms and historical contents, and to see them as inextricably linked to the institutional mediums and discourses in which they arise. The question of narrative/historical voice, and the issue of witnessing (the poet as witness) is then almost impossible to locate, which means that one's decision as a reader (as judge and jury) is also put to the test. I'm not making that tired old "the reader makes the meaning" argument. Rather, I'm interested in the ways Reznikoff's work, his practice, attempts to discern the outlines of a fragmented, particular, lived historical moment through the transformation of archival documents, and how those documents then become an attempt to redeem ( in the Benjaminian sense) a forgotten or erased history. This may sound naive, but this issue of redemption reminds me of one of the central questions Socrates poses in Plato's Republic : "What is justice?" I think Reznikoff 's work asks that question, or pushes his readers to ponder it. I'm also reminded, in this context, of Robert Creeley's correction of his often (mis) used remark--"Form is never more than an extension of content." Creeley reminds us that this is only half of the quote, the other half being: "And content is never more than an extension of form." Historiography as a quasi-literary practice and literature as a quasi-historical act seem, to me, to map onto the constitutive relation between form and content. In fact history is, in a way, the central term.

Finally, reading Reznikoff , I was struck by how deeply moving is the tragedy of working class, impoverished life. I've been thinking of my father throughout. His death due to unsanitary working conditions, which literally poisoned him (carbon tetrachloride used illegally at a printing factory), could be a test case in Rez's work. In fact my father's legal case was the first workmen's compensation suit won in the state of Michigan (1977). I think I know why Reznikoff wrote Testimony.

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