Academic journal article Criticism

Lyric Noise: Lisa Robertson, Claudia Rankine, and the Phatic Subject of Poetry in the Mass Public Sphere

Academic journal article Criticism

Lyric Noise: Lisa Robertson, Claudia Rankine, and the Phatic Subject of Poetry in the Mass Public Sphere

Article excerpt

The first image one encounters reading past the title page of Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004) is of a nineties-era CRT television placed diminutively in the lower right of an empty spread, its screen filled with the black and white static sometimes called snow (figure 1). Rankine's text returns to this refrain as to a baseline, affective or conceptual. It signals the breaks between sections and recurs enlarged and plotted as a frame around many of the images that appear in-line with her prose. Most of these are not taken from actual network broadcasts. One represents the transcript of an interview with an incarcerated juvenile offender, another the message of an ad for the antidepressant Paxil: "YOUR LIFE IS WAITING."1 Others refer to major media events, many of these horrific or mournful; there is a photo of the memorial for Princess Diana, an image of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, who was brutalized by police in 1997. Some images appear without the frame, but all bear the mark of mass mediation that Rankine's framing device confers. It's a device that extends to mediate the reception of the text as a whole so that the language of Don't Let Me Be Lonely, as if it were the content of the screens, takes on an analogical relation to the noise of the static television and its possible meanings within the mass public sphere.

I want to consider this image of static, not only because it can be figured as a trope reflecting the status of lyricism in Rankine's work- and postmodern American poetry in general-but also because it gives a specifically racial inflection to the dynamics of lyric subjectivity in the age of radio and cathode ray. That the phrase "white noise," which is the scientific term to describe what fills Rankine's television, can be harnessed to this end may seem merely fortuitous. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the association between noise forwarded by a conduit of mass communication not definitively tuned and the default whiteness of mass subjectivity in the contemporary American context is something profoundly apparent to Rankine, ľd like, ultimately, to read this association in relation to Rankine's most recent book Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). But to begin with, the repeated invocation of televisual noise within a text fundamentally apprehensive about its own spectaculari zed mode of transmission-the cover of Don't Let Me Be Lonely, for example, reproduces the book's title on the ground of a highway billboard-begs contemplating. What is this noise and what does it signify in the field of poetics and for Rankine in particular? What might it tell us about the condition of the lyric subject, oriented as that subject is towards a virtual and noisy mass audience, in contemporary American poetry?

The image that comprises Rankine's refrain is one of what can be characterized as phatic noise. Phatic expressions, as the linguist Roman Jakobson defines them, are signifying acts that indicate merely that a channel for communication is open, that signification can occur.2 We are most familiar with phatic gestures like "hello" and "hi." In electronically aided communications, the phatic often takes the form of a question, one that sometimes answers itself: "Is this thing on?" But the phatic can also be accomplished by the use of non-verbal indicators that we would casually deem noisy: the clearing of the throat, the tapping of a microphone with the hand. Television static and the hum of a radio are phatic insofar as they convey the potential for the reception of a signal without conveying further detail. In present day texting or chat technology, we have signifiers built in to applications that tell us when our devices think an interlocutor is "online" or in the process of "typing." All of these, to varying degrees of fidelity, are phatic signs.

Variation in the degree to which an expression can be considered phatic, furthermore, proves there is no such thing as an absolutely phatic sign. …

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