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This paper explores a dialogue between experimental descriptive poetics and a gendered aestheticization of language as that which resists knowledge. Ferdinand de Saussure famously distinguished the sign as that which “always eludes the individual or social will,” an arbitrary signifier which gestures toward what is absent (or other) through a system of differences (Course in General Linguistics 962). Thus Saussure, and the linguistic turn in critical and literary theory that followed, in this sense repeats the Kantian noumenon-phenomenon distinction, by which the ‘thing-in-itself’ is ineffable. I draw on the distinction Martin Heidegger makes between his thinging of the thing and the Kantian in-itself, and compare it to Jane Bennett’s ‘thing-power’ and to new materialism more generally. I take as my premise, following feminist writers Sherry Ortner and Barbara Johnson, that the form-matter distinction has always been a gendered one, from Aristotle through Kant and others who maintain what Branka Arsić calls an “idealistic vitalism” (Bird Relics 122). Lyn Hejinian productively traces this gendered binary in a range of European Colonial texts in her reading of the Faust tale, arguing that the female body is metaphorized as both the American continent itself and as the silent, withholding repository of knowledge. Woman is othered by virtue of this recession into both the natural world and the unknowable: that which is just beyond our grasp and yet also susceptible to colonization. Susan Gubar’s landmark feminist essay, “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity,” extends this muteness and recession to the act of writing itself, by which feminine matter is the necessary background to creative figuration.


I argue that, whereas Heidegger’s use of etymology and his understanding of language as “the house of the truth of Being” present linguistic origins as a cognitive telos, Lisa Robertson’s use of repetition in The Weather and Hejinian’s emphasis on metonymy in My Life and My Life in the Nineties resist the logic of penetration and difference, by using description and parataxis to shift the focus of inquiry onto textured surfaces of things, emphasizing touch and contact through materialist epistemologies. I explore the ways in which Hejinian and Robertson, clearly influenced by Gertrude Stein, employ repetition as a kind of textured patterning that resuscitates and relishes both sincere facticity and the porousness of thought and memory. This patterned poetics of repetition structurally alters the understanding of poetry as a container that has survived through the lyric tradition (Donne’s “well-wrought urn” to Stevens’ “jar in Tennessee”) and the linguistic turn, in which the arbitrary signifier ‘contains’ meaning by gesturing towards what is absent or unseen. Not coincidentally, Heidegger uses the example of a jug in his essay “The Thing,” defining its essence or ‘thingness’ not “at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that holds” (167). Robertson resists this form-matter (and, by extension, mind-body) distinction by using repetition of a particular word or word cluster to build a kind of netting or fabric that forms a porous basin, a container that fails to properly contain, delimit or localize, in which “every surface [is] discontinuous” (2). And Hejinian similarly disrupts narrative on the level of the paragraph, creating gaps between sentences that only partially flow into one another, with certain repeated sentences of clauses threading through the work. By playing with similarity, repetition, and rhythm, they both create a language of habit, a textural surface of things that resist abstraction and the gendered fetishization of the ineffable.


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