the Body Politic: Languages and Bodies in The
© 2012 Sean M. Donnell
“To recognise another body is to be open to dialogue, debate and
engagement with the other’s law, and the other’s ethics.”—Moira Gatens
“Language is a Trojan Horse, and an untheorized language invariably
reinforces prevailing hegemonic values.”—Jed Rasula (399)
Continuing in the tradition of Planet News, Allen Ginsberg weaves
a powerful patchwork out of his travels across a Vietnam-era
An amalgamation of discourses such as this illustrates what Linda
Hutcheon terms “border tension” in her Politics of Postmodernism.
According to Hutcheon, what earmarks the postmodern is a tension between
the borders of critique and complicity within a discourse.
In other words, a discourse may criticize the dominant culture, but in so
doing it also “acknowledges that it cannot escape implication in that which it
nevertheless still wants to analyze and maybe even undermine” (Hutcheon 4).
Hutcheon further notes, “There are other kinds of border tension in the
postmodern too: the ones created by the transgression of the boundaries between
genres, between disciplines or discourses, between high and mass culture, and
most problematically, perhaps, between practice and theory” (18).
Ginsberg’s poetry in The Fall of America exhibits a wide variety
of these boundary transgressions, but perhaps none are as noteworthy and
relatively unexplored as those instances involving the poet’s political
ideologies, use of languages, and theories of the body.
In The Fall of America, Ginsberg infuses “traditional” poetic
language with the politically charged rhetoric of newspaper headlines and
popular song lyrics. He also
politicizes and sexualizes the culturally constructed body politic as easily as
he does the bodies of lovers, acquaintances, and strangers.
As David R. Jarraway asserts, “Ginsberg polices no barricades” (83).
Hence, Ginsberg collapses the distinctions between the usually discrete
categories of politics, language, and the body.
By conflating these boundaries, Ginsberg creates a new geography within
his poetry—one that delineates the boundaries of political bodies as well as
the body politic, that examines the language of politics as well as political
language, that constructs the language of bodies as well as body languages.
To put it another way, Ginsberg uses this poetic space in The Fall of
America to define a new and uniquely postmodern political ideology from the
constituent elements of the political corpus, the political rhetoric that he
seeks to debunk. Examining some of
the instances in which politics, the body, and language are collapsed and
reformulated should prove instrumental in mapping the boundaries of Ginsberg’s
poetic geography in The Fall of America.
While the body has become an increasingly politicized site in postmodern
theory, concepts of the body—and its cultural extension, the body
politic—have been around for centuries. In
his treatise, Leviathan, for example, seventeenth-century political
theoretician Thomas Hobbes provides what is still considered an eloquent
representation of the body politic:
art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE, in Latin
CIVITAS, which is but an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength
than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which
the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion
to the whole body; the magistrates, and other officers of
judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment
. . . are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; and wealth
and riches of all the particular members are the strength. . . .
Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this
body politic were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that fiat,
or the let us make man, pronounced by God in the creation.
(qtd. in Gatens 80)
within Hobbes’ description of this political corpus, however, is an implicit
exclusionary principle. In essence,
the body politic is a patriarchal construct, or as Moira Gatens asserts, “a
creation of ‘the word’ of men united” (80).
Moreover, this particular political body draws its strength from
financial weal, so those who are unable to contribute or who are prohibited from
contributing to the financial well-being of the body politic are proscribed from
participation within the body. Thus,
different times, different kinds of beings have been excluded from the pact [of
the body politic], often simply by virtue of their corporeal specificity.
Slaves, foreigners, women, the conquered, children, the working classes,
have all been excluded from political participation, at one time or another, by
their bodily specificity. (82)
those who are prohibited from participation in Hobbes’ body politic are those
who do not conform to the bodily image of the dominant culture.
Hence, we can easily extend Gatens’ definition to include anyone who
does not fit within a white, male, heteronormative constituency: people of
color, homosexuals, women, the physically challenged.
Such distinctions are important when considering the political climate of
modern body politic is based on an image of a masculine body which
reflects fantasies about the value and capacities of that body.
The effect of this image shows its contemporary influence in our social
and political behaviour which continues to implicitly accord privilege to
particular bodies and their concerns as they are reflected in our ways of
speaking and in what we speak about. It
refuses to admit anyone who is not capable of miming its reason and its ethics,
in its voice. Its political language
has no vocabulary and no space for the articulation of certain questions.
to this definition, the American culture of the sixties allowed only an
affluent, white male constituency full participation in the political corpus.
Since the American body politic was created in their image, only they
could speak with impunity from within its boundaries.
Any racial or sexual other would have either been denied a voice, or been
forced to adopt a hegemonic voice. Since,
as Jarraway argues, “the project of Post modernism is . . . to problematize
the highly regulated, masculinist, and exclusionary economy of Western art”
(82), a consideration of how Ginsberg’s poetry in The Fall of America
problematizes the body politic seems inherently pertinent to this discussion.
Before we examine this element in Ginsberg’s poetry, however, let us
first return to the question of language and the politics of language in the
poet’s work. In The San
Francisco Renaissance, an interesting study of the Bay area Beat movement,
Michael Davidson attempts “to clarify the nature of the Beats as political
poets” (Rasula 221). In itself,
Davidson’s examination of Beat politics is noteworthy; however, by identifying
the Beat poets with the Language poetry movement, Davidson performs what will
probably become an important critical maneuver for Beat criticism.
In his description of Davidson’s study Jed Rasula notes:
of the task of The San Francisco Renaissance was to delineate a
genealogical portrait of a mythopoetic site, by which the revivalism of the
Beats could be transposed not to their direct heirs (second or third generation
Beats) but to the “language” poets of the Bay area, who rose to prominence
in the eighties by proclaiming a politics of the sign.
the Beat poets with the Language poetry movement provides significant commentary
on the political activism of Language poets, but more importantly, it also
suggests that the Beat poets could have similarly utilized a “politics of the
sign.” This implication allows an
examination of Beat poets from a brand-new perspective: that of the Language
poet (or, perhaps it would be more precise to say, proto-Language poet).
While crediting the Beats with the same level of political investiture in
language that, say, Charles Bernstein has is probably not very prudent, it does
seem plausible that Beat poets in general, and Ginsberg in particular, place
political stock in the form of their poetic language as well as in its political
content. Hence, studying
Ginsberg’s political investment in language seems as fruitful a course of
action as studying the body politic.
Perhaps a propitious place to begin an examination of Ginsberg’s Fall
of America is with Alicia Ostriker’s observation that the collection “is
less ‘composed’ than it is a series of notebook-written and tape recorded
footnotes to Ginsberg’s spiritual and political travels during the bleak war
years 1965-1971” (125). This point
helps to underscore the importance of language within this chronicle of
as well as reason shows that when we have to reduce our multiple-sensory
consciousness of an event which we know about into words, we have to abstract so
much that we eliminate most of the details of the event. . . .
So a language description of an event is not identical with the event, is
an abstraction of the event. And it
is such an abstraction that it picks out only certain aspects of the event that
we’re preoccupied with at the moment. And
so in no way can a language description of an event be said to be
comprehensively representative . . . of an event.
minimize this language abstraction in The Fall of America, Ginsberg
attempts to incorporate everything into his poems, thus abandoning poetic and
literary forms. As James Heffernan
asserts, “Ginsberg seeks to individuate the form of his poetry just as sharply
as he individuates its content” (191). In
this respect, Ginsberg’s poetry resembles that of the contemporary Language
poets. By refusing to follow poetic
and grammatical convention, Ginsberg emphasizes the denseness, the opacity of
Unlike the Language poets, however, making a political statement about
language is not the main factor motivating Ginsberg in The Fall of America.
While his use of anti-poetic language in the collection is meant to
denaturalize the language, the poet’s rationale for this distanciation, this
Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, appears to be more of a measured resistance
against the hegemonic power structure present in the
Written and spoken language are only one part of the body politic’s
discourse; television and radio broadcasts constitute another part, one which
Ginsberg calls the electronic media and describes in such apocalyptic terms in
his poetry and other writings. Countering
the language and electronic media of the body politic is the mantra, or body
chant. As Ginsberg describes it,
this mode of discourse is one of the only methods of escaping from the language
of the body politic:
are one or two uses of language that are identical with truth, as in certain
poetry practice, where language is used as mantra, purely as magic spell, not as
rational description (which one would usually assume to be nearer to truth),
where any attempt at rational description is abandoned from the very beginning
and it is understood that the language is purely magic spell, and that its
function is to be only magic spell, or mantra, or prayer, so to
speak—that its function is only to be a physiological vehicle for feelings and
understood as such. (Verbatim 25)
language as mantra, as magic spell, is perhaps a more accurate description of
Ginsberg’s poetry in The Fall of America.
He uses this mantra-language as a counter to the discourse of the body
politic; the alienation of the text stems from Ginsberg’s attempt to distance
his language from the political discourse and the electronic media.
In positioning himself against the body politic and its manifestation of
electronic media, Ginsberg clarifies the relationship between the two:
is a connecting neurological link between the separate cells of the body politic
our culture. And our communications
network is dominated by capitalistic usury—in other words you’ve got to make
money on it. To the extent that the
body chant is an assertion of a nonusurious common communal communistic sharing
of soul among all members of the body politic, not merely members of the body
politic, but the members of the body of nature, including the animals and the
trees and the grasses . . . to the extent that the highest communal chant is a
chant of unison and oneness with all of nature, and that capitalism and our
economic system require the excessive chopping up of nature into lumber, or the
mining and exhausting of nature—to that extent I think it’s partly our
economic system that forbids us to chant. Partly
the very nature of the machinery. (Verbatim
passage illustrates how the language of Ginsberg’s poetry in The Fall of
America is essentially very political, occupies an extremely resistant
position; however, his use of Eastern philosophy combined with concepts borrowed
from the poetry of William Blake tends to obscure this position initially.
Ironically, Ginsberg’s particular use of language in The Fall of
America is so anti-establishment that few critics bother to examine it as a
resistant discourse. Instead, most
critics either focus on the Eastern philosophy or examine his poems for
allusions to Blake.
Ginsberg makes his political position quite clear, however, with regards
to language. In The Fall of
America, Ginsberg occupies a position not only in opposition to the language
of the body politic, but also emphasizing non-referential language as the key to
word on the Politicians: my poetry is Angelical Ravings & has nothing to do
with dull materialistic vagaries about who should shoot who.
The secrets of individual imagination—which are transconceptual &
non-verbal—I mean unconditioned Spirit—are not for sale to this
consciousness, are of no use to this world, except to make it shut its trap
& listen to the music of the Spheres. (qtd. in Heffernan 189)
Ginsberg strives to connect his poetry with a non-verbal state of consciousness
is essential in understanding his political position on language in The Fall
of America. Such a description
underscores his desire that poetry be experienced rather than read or
interpreted in the language of the body politic.
Further, Ginsberg’s construction of a poetic language separate from the
discourse of the hegemonic power structure initiates a primal moment of
resistance, thus creating a linguistic space capable of accommodating the voice
of the other. In other words,
creating a discourse resistant to the body politic engenders a political corpus
for the other, a political body from which other bodies can speak.
As such, Ginsberg’s poetic language in The Fall of America often
presents itself as without borders, as inviting the encroachment of other
discourses. Such an interpretation
makes sense out of Ginsberg’s description of
The Fall of America as “a poem including history . . . dissociated
thought stream . . . newspaper headlines and all the pop art of Stalinism and
Hitler and Johnson and Kennedy and Vietnam and Congo and Lumumba and the South
and Sacco and Vanzetti—whatever floated into one’s personal field of
consciousness and contact” (qtd. in Ostriker 124).
Even in describing this collection, the poet invites the reader to
experience his blurring of boundaries, his refiguring of discourses.
Let us now consider some poems from The Fall of America so that we
can examine in greater depth Ginsberg’s construction of resistant language and
sexual imagery to delineate a new political position from which the other begins
to be heard. An impressive
collection of poems, The Fall of America represents one of Ginsberg’s
most prolific periods in his artistic career.
While only spanning six years, the collection contains almost eighty
poems and constitutes practically one quarter of the total Collected Poems.
Even if we discount the evident quality of poetry in this collection, The
Fall of America is one of Ginsberg’s most important works for reasons of
An important concept running through this collection is Ginsberg’s
equation of the body politic with Maya, or the world illusion.
A concept that the poet probably picked up while reading Edward
Carpenter’s Towards Democracy, Maya is a Hindu term which, loosely
defined, envisions our present concept of reality as an all-encompassing
illusion that blocks our senses from envisioning Brahma, or the supreme and
eternal essence or spirit of the universe (Carpenter 102).
In several instances throughout The Fall of America, Ginsberg
makes use of the term. For instance,
the poet inquires in “Elegy for Neal Cassady” “If anyone had strength to
hear the invisible / And drive thru Maya Wall” (Poems 487).
Later Ginsberg remembers Neal Cassady’s touch as “Hope beyond
Maya-meat” (Poems 487). In
“Rising over night-blackened Detroit Streets,” the poet exhorts “Masters,
fathers, mayors, Senators, Presidents, Bankers & workers / sweating &
weeping ignorant on your own plastic-pain Maya planet . . .” (Poems
513). Ginsberg makes a truly
poignant reference to Maya in the very last poem of the collection, “September
Many souls walk through Maya in pain
many babes in illusory rain?
many families hollow eyed
many grandmothers turning to
ghost? (Poems 575)
each of these instances, Ginsberg uses the concept of Maya as an illusory, even
painful state of consciousness that often goes unnoticed.
In other texts the poet refers to this state as mind consciousness, a
condition in which the language of the body politic supersedes the more
essential body consciousness:
try to silence that [language] babble and feel with my body more, exist in the
feeling. Because what it is,
finally, that highest level of consciousness, is . . . a body consciousness as
well as a conceptual consciousness. . . . If
mind consciousness is stilled, that is if the matter babble behind the ear,
yakety-yak ticker-tape conceptual language consciousness linear gossip inside
the cranium, is shut up . . . then you have sharper sense consciousness, smell,
taste, touch, optical, because you’re not beclouding the doors of perception
with preconception, you’re not inventing universes which overlie this
universe. (Ginsberg, Verbatim 6-9)
see from this description that Maya is overcome by shutting out the mode of
linear thought prevalent in mind consciousness in favor of the non-verbal
expression of the senses through body consciousness.
To put it another way, one who aspires to overcome Maya must first
conquer the language of the dominant culture, for it is this language that
propagates Maya. It should be
stressed that Maya is not a state that one transcends; it is not real, so one
must merely wake up from the world illusion.
As Linda Hutcheon argues, “There is nothing natural about the
‘real’ and there never was—even before the existence of mass media”
(33). The body politic’s notion of
“reality” is no more than any other representation of the real.
To believe that it is reality is the essence of Maya.
Another important image in The Fall of America is Ginsberg’s
representation the body politic’s constituent members of as sexualized bodies.
Time and again, the poet deconstructs the image of the body politic by
first identifying members of its constituency and then stripping them of their
subjectivity by objectifying, sexualizing and/or fetishizing their individual
bodies. For example, in “Wichita
Vortex Sutra,” Ginsberg declares, “Truth breaks through! /
How big is the prick of the President? / How big is Cardinal Vietnam? /
How little the prince of the FBI, unmarried all these years! / How big are all
the Public Figures? / What kind of flesh hangs, hidden behind their Images?” (Poems
395-96). By first identifying
individual members of the body politic (in this particular case, Lyndon Baines
Johnson, President of The United States of America; Ngo Dinh Diem, the President
of Vietnam and devout Catholic; and J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI) and
then sexualizing the “members” of these members, Ginsberg reduces them to
mere pieces of flesh. He calls into
question the legitimacy of any public figure elevated to a status higher than
“skin bag,” for, as Ginsberg reminds us, behind all of these effigies lies
nothing but a person ultimately reducible to a hairless ape.
Reducing these constituent members of the body politic to mere parts of
bodies also serves to ironize and to deconstruct the political corpus in another
vital way. In a subtle maneuver,
Ginsberg is removing the agency from these constituents of the body politic and
placing them in the position of the object of sexual desire.
As Moira Gatens notes:
of the human body are most often of the male body and, perhaps, around the
borders, one will find insets of representations of the female reproductive
system: a lactating breast, a vagina, ovaries; bits of bodies, body fragments.
They appear there in a way that reminds one of specialised pornographic
magazines which show pictures of isolated, fragmented, disjointed bits: breasts,
vaginas, behinds. Female-bits,
fragments to be consumed, devoured, a bit at a time.
reducing male images of the body politic to sexualized objects, Ginsberg is
placing them into the position of the fetishized object.
They become objects of specular fascination, at once desired and
castrated by the viewing subject. The
body politic is forced to occupy the position of the other, and is thus reduced
to the uncomfortable position of subordinate.
Later in “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Ginsberg delineates a dyad in which
members of the body politic, represented as either elders or simply elderly, are
juxtaposed with a delegation of young people who, not being constituents of the
body politic, represent the marginalized bodies subsumed within the political
corpus. Inherent in this dyad is a
tension between the groups, perhaps even a resistance to the political hegemony
(which, as we will see, is fully realized in later poems).
Thus, in “Vortex” we see “students waken trembling in their beds /
with dreams of a new truth warm as meat, / little girls suspecting their elders
of murder / committed by remote control machinery, / boys with sexual bellies
aroused / chilled in the heart by the mailman / with a letter from an aging
white haired General / Director of selection for service in Deathwar” (Poems
404-05). In this instance, the
elders and the aging white haired General occupy an antagonistic position in
relation to the little girls and boys. Ginsberg initially endows these young men
with the vitality of youth, that is, until they come into contact with the elder
generation. Then they become
“chilled in the heart.” Hence,
the political corpus not only lacks the vitality of youth, it also robs the
younger generation of their vitality. It
is also interesting how Ginsberg portrays the body politic as operating by
proxy. The mailman is the instrument
of the General, and the elders suspected of murder use “remote control
machinery.” Such a depiction
removes the humanity from the body politic, depicting its constituency as a
mechanized and depersonalized force. Creating
a dyad between such obviously disparate groups serves to accentuate the
inhumanness of the body politic through its decorporealized mechanization as
well as its apparent lack of care for a marginalized group ostensibly under the
care of the political corpus.
We see this dyad fully realized in “Elegy Che Guevara,” where the
political body is not only juxtaposed with an image of youthful vitality, but
also the bodies of its constituency are placed in direct comparison with these
images of youth. Already a veteran
of many political insurrections—including the overthrow of the Batista regime
Whether through sexualizing and/or fetishizing the body politic, or
through describing the political corpus as a site of decrepitude, Ginsberg’s
poetry helps to redress the boundaries of the political bodies from both within
the hegemony as well as from a marginalized, possibly resistant position in
relation to the political corpus. Poetry
like Ginsberg’s in The Fall of America aids in diffusing the formerly
stark boundaries of the body politic as well as in delineating a separate sphere
in which the other finds a voice.
One final delineation in The Fall of America is Ginsberg’s
scrutiny of the language produced by the body politic.
Not only does the poet refuse to adhere to language conventions forwarded
by the dominant discourse, but by writing mantra-language poetry to combat and
question the “black magic” language of the political corpus, Ginsberg
obfuscates the language of the body politic and helps to find the language of
the other. “Wichita Vortex
Sutra” is perhaps the finest example of this in The Fall of America.
Ginsberg begins this poem by describing how the body politic uses its
language for the propagation of war rhetoric:
it this way on the radio
it this way in television language
Use the words
“A bad guess”
Put it this way in headlines
Essential For Peace
Put it this way
Vietnam War Brings Prosperity (Poems 399)
actual headlines from
Yet this poem is still a sutra, a ritual chant designed to convey a
religious precept or maxim. As
Ginsberg explains near the end of the poem, “I lift my voice aloud, / make
Mantra of American language now, / I here declare the end of the War! / Ancient
days’ Illusion— / and pronounce words beginning my own millennium” (Poems
407). The poet wishes to subsume the
corrupted “Black Magic” American language of the body politic into his
mantra-language, thus ending the war because there will no longer be a rhetoric
to support it. Without the language
of the political corpus, the Vietnam War becomes a deathly absurd pantomime.
Ginsberg will end the war by removing the World Illusion from the
political rhetoric. In the poet’s
desire, we see the conversion of Black Magic language into mantra-language,
creating a new discourse apart form the language of the body politic, an
inception point for the emergent discourse of the other, a discourse for others.
In light of the implicit tension between the borders of critique and
complicity within a discourse that Linda Hutcheon outlines in The Politics of
Postmodernism, it would indeed be foolhardy to contend that Ginsberg is
transcending the political discourses of language and body to create a new
position for the voice of the other in The Fall of America.
Hopefully, however, this discussion demonstrates that Ginsberg’s poetry
in this collection is a point of debarkation, a beginning point for the further
mapping out of a geography that fully provides a voice for those who are not
represented in the body politic of the dominant culture.
Such a process is a necessary first step in the creation of polymorphous
political bodies and languages that represent truly diverse constituencies.
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