Lyn Hejinian & Christopher Patrick Miller

We are the ones in question

An experiment in CALLING TO SITE by Lyn Hejinian and Christopher Patrick Miller

A Note on Procedure: What follows is an experiment in call and response.  The basic constraints were that one of us could ask the other a question and the other would respond in five lines followed by another question.  The impetus was to have the opportunity to ask and respond to questions at once intimate and expansive that don’t seem accessible in ordinary conversation,  perhaps because it seems too much to ask of another.  To remain in the question, we found, is a difficult process and often leads us to places, attitudes, or styles of discourse where, some time later, we don’t recognize the person who troubled to speak and be present there.

Does your place of birth suit your imagination of yourself?

My stone, my stanza, my heap of salvage metal. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. We sank beneath your wisdom like a stone. The way I would walk around the edge of our property, or what I thought was our property, trying the gaps and recombinations the weight of a certain person may cause. Whatever I was born into, I always had the sense that it was falling apart, that birth was falling apart with the people who willed it into being, and now I call that birth New England and describe its various qualities of superstition, reticent candor, and narrowed vigilance from the stranger who visits, who is always visiting, for longer than he may have been willing to admit at the outset.

Do you find the personal wherever, or whenever, you resist it?

The personal was what I was educated to become, myself, albeit nameless, as a personal person, though not my own. We have and get had, and acceding to that is a social bargain I personally can’t ascribe to. As of when, you ask (or might ask)—you, a person, particular and unique and known to me with a pronounced name—when did I resist it, but that assumes that I do. “I” could be anyone’s, anyone—the sort of thing John Wayne might say, though not of a river crossing or mules. The interiorization of self-reflection is a political, social, thing.

What is required for you to feel that you are somewhere?

Lamps seem the closest thing we get to living with apostrophe, vital animations we come home to, watch others approach, and reach to quiet when our bodies would love something other than this day. I mention this about lamps and apostrophe because they are a mere coincidence—light and the things it lights occurring together—which is the shortest definition I can manage for home. How we feel light is another question and gets us into the fray of skin, memory, entropy, time travel, etc. Driving up the dark road we may be surprised so few people are home at 7pm on a Tuesday evening and then maybe we realize that the power is probably out on the road and that we are confident the sun must rise tomorrow so everyone is new to the habits they have waiting in the form of furniture and music and food. Feeling this one is our home, feeling for a switch, our bodies hum with the decadent rhythms of hope and explanation.

Has there ever been a moment when you have doubted the continuity of who you are?

I don’t see how anyone who has consciousness of history, or consciousness of being a participant in the eventfulness of reality, can avoid experiencing him- or herself as becoming, at key junctures, markedly and perhaps lastingly discontinuous with whom he or she had been. Indeed, according to Whitehead’s metaphysics, we (along with all other real things) are each a sequence of events, and different at each site of our eventfulness. The real question is, how does one feel for the switch, the event-shift switch, which is not connected to a lamp, but to circuits of the brain, the mind, the social, the senses. I switch to a different language, and to a different sensorium.

The language of poetry is a language of metamorphosis. If so, what can or do you, as yourself, believe in?

Belief is looking into the multiple faces or stomachs of doubt as they surface recurrently, like objects you thought were drifting in someone else’s ocean, with some errant race of alligators, but float back and show us the swollen bellies of their numbers, cluttering the coasts. We learn how to talk to them, to instruct them, and to strain them from the waters and then, in turning, mistake this process for some personalization of such doubts and the waters as safe for swimming. Leviathan into a behemoth, mermaids into priests or professors. Isn’t it funny too how well crowded our coasts are, how we set up overlooking the oceans in houses that, like Nietzsche’s gay real estate, draw as much color from the monster of the sea as they do from the shifting cataclysms and buckles of land. I myself have never lived in such a house, only visited them, and often dream of the discarded lives revolving in the oceanic vortices of garbage and such privileged vantages of faith.

Can one visit a friend, a home, or a place, that one believes in and still address it as a doubt?

I believe in almost everything that exists in the present and almost nothing in the future. I’m rampantly gullible, but everything projects its own doubt forward and into its path. The significant events in the life of the perceptions unfold as experiences of belief or of doubt, but doubt isn’t the same as disbelief; doubt doesn’t negate belief (though it does make fun of gullibility), it isn’t even a failure of belief. Doubt expands belief into its ramifications. During the visit you ask me to imagine (to “a friend, a home, or a place”), belief and doubt are bound together in the fact that the visited scene has the holding power that we call temporality.

Do you ever feel that you are being visited by ideas?

In fact, by which I mean in bone the being of spirit is, that is the only way I feel by way of ideas: visited, alongside, with, inaccessible in part. Cora Diamond has this notion of companionable thinking, a thinking with or alongside something (in her case with “animal life” that is not antagonistic or at variance from human life) that may still be sought as company because its consumption or reproduction lies outside of reasonable bounds. We seem to believe that ideas are much more easily reproduced, made self-identical. Listening to a program this morning where economists were anthropomorphizing the market all over the place, even describing its “psychology,” and spinning prognostications from Ben Bernanke and the Fed Reserve’s recent announcement to stop buying assets, I was struck by how ideas like inflation or cash reserves are for them not companionable figurations/ideas but markers of how their expertise is generative of their realities, the reality they take everyone else’s necessities to be dictated by. As Marx taught me, I do not just believe in a different premise for social reality, but I believe that being social enables me to be visited by ideas from other forms of life, realms of necessity, and tremors in the voices that would declare them.

Given your gullibility, a quality I think we share, do you ever worry that you (and I) lose (y)our ability, at times, to sort the concretions of the present from the seductions of endless indeterminacy?

Why make a distinction between the “concretions of the present” and the “seductions of endless indeterminacy”? Aren’t the former the very sources and terms of the latter? This may be precisely what the Federal Reserve and the other makers and mongers of monetary policy don’t understand—or won’t: that the present is the site at which history presents the future as what might be, and as what might be beyond determination. All the present is is things changing, shifting position, becoming and ceasing to be eventful, etc., but also with the peculiar characteristic that, despite its momentariness, nothing of or in the present disappears, no true negation of event is possible, whatever happens will never not ever have happened, etc.; all closures are illusory, all compensation is futile—or am I being gullible? Well—no need to answer that question—more pressing is the awareness that one would have to be gullible indeed to believe that yielding to the seductions of endless indeterminacy is entirely distinct from a death wish. W.J.T. Mitchell (in What do Pictures Want?) says that the term totem, derived from Ojibway, properly means “a relative of mine,” and with that in mind, I ask you this, my real question:

Insofar as you undertake “companionable thinking,” are there terms/images of thought that are totemic for you?

Maybe the strongest totem for me, what I have been calling lately my tendency toward a community-effect, is the collective pronoun: we. And maybe there is a death wish lurking in this social positivism, what Lee Edelman-via-Freud might call a drive that leads us to act the unraveling of normative reproducibility of nature by a non-reproducible discontinuity, an impersonal rift in the archive, that can also lead to disastrous moments of shared desire amidst linguistic and representational ruin. But this too seems a fetish of non-reproducibility and non-normative response, a denial that we don’t act beneficially, for ourselves and others, as we “ought” to act all the time, sometimes knowing full well such a normativity is provisional at best. What seems to me lacking in so many accounts of the turns to a productive confusion, shifting revaluations of the present, and truth-as-suspension of coercive and exploitative social mechanisms (these being examples of what “indeterminacy” is sometimes a short-hand for) is an account for how such revolutionary potential enables direct responses to our varied, but shared, histories. The fact that I so often rediscover my totem, “we,” signifies for me both a desire and a failure to not explode indeterminacy but apply it, set it to work, so that elaborate compacts like trust can have a more definite speech.

If we were to end here, how would I know where I began and you ended?