Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Scrambling Narrative: Niedecker and the White Dome of Logic

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Scrambling Narrative: Niedecker and the White Dome of Logic

Article excerpt

The Depression-era work of poet Lorine Niedecker, incubated in Wisconsin and quickened by contact with the American cosmopolitan core and transnational Surrealisms, provokes the following question: how do the spatial landscapes of capitalism in crisis pattern the formal imagination of the revolutionary avant-garde? The crisis without binds to consciousness within; Niedecker's poetry, I argue, shows that the ruptured political and economic geographies that comprise American capitalism in the opening decades of the twentieth century come to corrugate interior life itself. Niedecker, we'll see, recruits these rich unevennesses to expose the ways in which the relentless march of syntax in the service of things as they are forecloses an anti-capitalist imagination of things as they might be. Niedecker's poetry, born precisely from such imaginative impulses, nurtures the breaks and swerves within, and the ultimate upending of, modernity's soi-disant "progress" narratives. In the essay that follows, I explore how Niedecker cultivates a poetics that embraces dissonance in geographical and psychic topographies. In doing so, Niedecker's work strives for what Language poet Ron Silliman has called "denarrativization," or the unbinding of available significations from "ideological unities" (323, 317). Thusly unbound, dissonant spatial and historical particulars recombine, and resignify, in a process of radical "renarrativization." Over the course of this process, a plurality of "larger narrative frames" sprouts from the fissures of unexpected paratactical assemblies (323). The analyses that follow trace the molecular movements of this "renarrativization" in Niedecker's Objectivist-Surrealist work. The new "narrative frames" that emerge are dark and unvarnished, screening a host of unfreedoms that roil beneath the smooth surface of modernity's official histories.

Niedecker's Progression (1933) and Next Year or I Fly My Rounds Tempestuous (1935) emerged in intimate conversation with two contemporary currents within early twentieth-century poetics: Objectivism and Surrealism. WMIe Surrealism's experimental forms and radical politics have enjoyed generous critical attention, Objectivism has only recently emerged as an object of general scholarship. Objectivism, initiated in New York City by Niedecker's close colleague, Louis Zukofsky, was a high modernism, but it was also a modernism whose practitioners remained in constant contact with the diverse and radical cultures which sprouted from crisis-driven cracks in the edifice of capitalism.1 Objectivism's numbers included Jews, Yiddish speakers, feminists, working-class women and men, rural dwellers, Communists, and first-generation immigrants. These non-hegemonic subject positions provided the foundational texture for Objectivists' lived experience of the "immense left force-field" of 1930s America (Jameson, Modernist 25). While the Objectivists shared with the canonical modernists an interest in experiment and innovation, they also held commitments to radical democracy and the realization of the cultural potentials simultaneously unleashed and underdeveloped by capitalist modernity, commitments which they saw as the political parallels of their artistic avant-gardism.

The Great Depression is the crisis that furnishes the national and global conditions for the inception of Objectivism, along with the host of other revolutionary arts that were produced during what Michael Denning has called "the cultural front."2 The vastly asymmetrical relations between wages, profit, and the prices of commodities could no longer be papered over by an official ideology of their harmonious interdependence. All received notions of a "modern" progress balanced in its dispersal of benefits experienced a crisis of legitimacy. Unevenness was thrown into relief and intensified as the tectonics of this crisis widened the chasm between rural and urban forms of immiseration nationally, and between core and peripheral nations within the imperialist world system. …

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