Chris Nagler's Introduction to Jocelyn Saidenberg's Reading at Small Press Traffic November 21, 2008
Beth Murray & Jocelyn Saidenberg. Photo taken by Dana Teen Lomax.
Among many other things, Jocelyn Saidenberg’s work is concerned with the compacts we make, and laboriously maintain, between ourselves and the world; our mental and psychosexual magna cartas with the twin polyliths of Empire, and the Other’s Consciousness. Compacts, for which we are now (through some sort of darkly choreographed and bureaucratized dream logic) responsible for providing the terms, since the collective structures that used to supply coherence have maybe completely eroded, or, in the best case, have become “rotten with self-disclosure.”
What we are left with, now, to build selves out of, are dolmens of the gilded age, salvaged scraps of discourse. The ruins, not only of the psychological novel, of Stendahl, of James, as well as the psychoanalysts who culturally flanked them, but of the origins of the psychological novel, the impulse towards a cataclysmic complexity that finds its clearest illustration in our baroque and profoundly interrupted relations with each other.
These compacts are not formulated in a familiar beyond, where the author controls the contours of a human figure in the hopes that, finally, some secure border will hold between self and world. No, according to Jocelyn, the hope of this sort of unity foundered and began to die inward, and not even recently, but sometime in the late nineteenth century, somewhere out on the American frontier, our shamed rebirthing in mass inflorescence and mass solitude, which we are still oddly trying to rehearse our way out of, following the scent, by now almost alien, of some possibility of mutuality in the midst of coded boundlessness, of community in the midst of popularized exile.
From her piece "On Being Ill":
Mementos from the forest animals: thus I am summoned hence. Following along a resistant ear, hard-on wilted in hand, defiant known. I sew my limits.
But it is not only narrative she is interested in. Jocelyn also wants to perform the declamations of this self-system who stumbles, muttering and guilty, into and back out of the outposts of controlled relation. She wants the statements of a historical mind that has recognized in itself the open pit of the Legal. And so Jocelyn’s language often has the character of broken decree or metabolized legislation; broken, metabolized by the hyper-awareness of the fact that the self and the Law are two ways to move through the same labyrinth of transoms and partitions, a maze of convoluted judgments and hastily formulated regulations that are simultaneously petty, corrupt, and objective in the sense that they are utterly indigenous to us, natural, wild; and if we are to find some meaning, some species-wisdom, it will have to be, in Joan Retallack’s words, in “dubious prototypes of difficult processes.”
Dubious as they may be, Jocelyn’s ordering and framing methods are as careful as she is; perhaps Jocelyn would not define us as The Speaking Animal, or the Symbol-making animal, rather, we are maybe the nuancing Animal, or the Animal who proceeds by razor-sharp indecision, or the Animal who acts only by means of represented systems of triangulated desire. Like all animals, what we are gets us into bad trouble.
Like in this passage from "Immure," Jocelyn’s meditation on Stendahl’s the Red and the Black, and on Julian Sorel, the social-climbing protagonist whose animal-like absorption in others’ desiring systems makes him an unwitting pawn of empire:
Behavior’s rigidity. Due in a large part to mechanical associations. Controls me. Controls her. Who accuses the object of my affection. Our affection. Of stealing a small piece of thread. Which causes us to fall into destitution. But our depravity. Leaves us no room. The rigidity of her research.
Jocelyn’s version of the Animal is not a fetish, an ennobling, a nostalgia, a secret wish to be brutal, or a desire to be free from the bureaucracy of human affect. In her work Animality lies somewhere between the wilds of our neurotic and linguistic recursions, and our “morbidly irrational” cities.
A wilderness of signs, yes, but not simply, because crucially decanted with the involuntary bodiliness of our psychodramas, run through with a moment by moment captivation, which Giorgio Agamben has called “the disinhibiting ring of animal life” that is, the fixed chain of behavior that leads us from one incompletely apprehended little emergency to the next. The animal of us is most visible, maybe, in the stacks, where archival classification, in practice, takes on the fluid dynamics of phlegm and bile, where categorization and endocrine response start to seem indistinguishable.
The question then is: how do our natural rights, and thus, our natural definitions, reveal themselves when we are hypnotized by that most human of activities: multiplying dismal, boring shit out of control, and making it seem necessary.
It is a question that, for me, joins Jocelyn with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The suffragist’s 1892 speech, which shares a title with a piece of Jocelyn’s, Self-Sovereignty, deals with the natural right of each person to bear her bitter disappointments and sit alone in the shadow of her afflictions free from the suggestion that she will be aided or shielded by any other.
Like Stanton’s, Jocelyn’s is a misanthropy so deep we come out through the bottom into something resembling an ethics:
Forsaking all outer indulgences. She gives it all to the woods and the animals inside. A word forest under the spell of that which occupies her.
An ethics of continual, unhistrionic self-implication; a negative liberty consisting of the freedom to not be perhaps too vicious in our illusions.
We came pretty close, recently, to being saddled, again, with a nation that would pour itself; with imbecilic abandon, this time into the wilds of Alaska.
It is the kind of move that Jocelyn’s internal statecraft might have us avoid.