Either You're With Us and Against Us: Charles Bernstein's Girly Man, 9-11, and the Brechtian Figure of the Reader

Either You're With Us and Against Us: Charles Bernstein's Girly Man, 9-11, and the Brechtian Figure of the Reader

2008-03-09
Girly Man
Charles Bernstein
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Tim Peterson brilliantly lays out for us how Charles Bernstein’s Girly Man represents the mobilization of queer rhetoric, iconoclastic values, and an implied notion of the family in the figure of the Girly Man.

Lori Emerson:

Bernstein continues on with this characteristic political critique in his exploration of speed as a morally-coded concept in his ebr essay “Speed the Movie or Speed the Brand Name or Aren’t You the Kind that Tells: My Sentimental Journey through Future Shock and Present Static Electricity. Version 19.84.

2008-05-31
Lori Emerson:

Michael McDonough’s ebr review of Brian Kim Stefans’ Before Starting Over clearly positions Stefans as a post-language poet who extends Bernstein’s anti-absorptive poetics more deeply into the digital realm.

2008-05-31

The twentieth book of poems by Charles Bernstein, Girly Man signifies a departure and a renewal in this poet’s oeuvre. These changes seem to have been prompted by the political climate following the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Wheras Bernstein’s earlier range of multi-voiced styles created an analogy between the goals of Language poetry and Brecht’s alienation effect, Girly Man adopts new methods of critique, responding to the new political situation that stifles public dialogue and dissent.

1. The Brechtian Figure of the Reader

Bernstein’s sharp-edged, often sarcastic earlier poetry frequently employed a multi-voiced social critique and was known for being humorous and critical rather than empathetic. A range of critics have previously noted key characteristics of this classic Bernstein style. Tenney Nathanson, in an article on Bernstein’s 1980 book Controlling Interests, argues that this poetry’s critique of the commodified Cold War Self was achieved by collaging together multiple reified versions of this self. According to Nathanson’s reading, this earlier style in Bernstein’s poetry saw the Self and narrative as linked symptoms of underlying cultural malaise, and adopted a strategy of interrupting this narrative by destabilizing the traditional notion of the speaker’s monologic voice in poetry. This strategy in Bernstein’s early work offered what Nathanson calls a “rather chilling demonstration of that fading of person into discursive position” as a kind of post-Fordist allegory in which “there is less of a sense of people using language to say what they mean than of discourse recruiting them to mean what it says.” A related approach is offered by Hank Lazer in his review of Bernstein’s 1992 book Dark City; Lazer discusses how Bernstein’s work foregrounds cultural modes of “manipulation and targeting,” achieving a “subversion and defamiliarization of the ‘transparent’ communication used in the world of commodification and consumption.” This process occurs in Bernstein’s poems through a dysraphism or “mis-seaming” of multiple utterances from different contexts. Both critics’ interpretations point to an over-arching strategy for a certain portion of Bernstein’s early poetry: the achievement of social and aesthetic critique through anti-absorptive techniques, meaning gestures through which the reader is alternately drawn into and bounced out of the text being read.

This anti-absorptive strategy is not unlike that of playwright Bertold Brecht, who proposed a concept of “Epic Theater” in contrast to Stanislavski’s naturalistic emotive Method. Others have noted these similarities before: in “After Language Poetry,” Jena Osman draws an explicit analogy between the Aristotelian model in theater and the epiphanic model in poetry, placing Bernstein’s work in the context of the anti-Aristotelian or Brechtian theater. The cornerstone of Brecht’s Epic Theater became the “Alienation Effect” or Verfremdungseffekt, an approach to acting in which the viewer of the play was to be at all times reminded that he or she was watching a play. Brecht wanted to prevent the audience from lapsing into complacent absorption in the entertainments, and instead argued for the importance of keeping the viewer’s mental faculties active at all times. The key work for establishing a connection between the alienation effect and Bernstein’s anti-absorptive techniques would be The Threepenny Opera, Brecht’s musical which presents a multi-voiced, shifting collage of emotional and ideological perspectives while adopting a gleefully critical attitude towards all of them. The theme of Brechtian critique first coalesced as an overtly stated poetic strategy for Bernstein’s readers with the publication of his essay “The Artifice of Absorption,” which drew explicit connections between the antiabsorptive and Brechtian devices in the writing:

Brecht figures prominently in my verse essay “Artifice of Absorption” because I am interested in the dynamic of both being absorbed in the textual “action” and at the same time remaining aware of the structures producing the effect. Like the Russian futurist’s idea of ostranenie (making strange), Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt is a crucial model for breaking the empathic connection between reader and poem, where one reads through the words to get to the idea of content “in the other side.” (“An Interview with Hannah Möckel-Rieke,” My Way, 68)

This influential critique by Bernstein of voice, speech, and the self forged a space of resistance in poetry outside of “Official Verse Culture” throughout the eighties and nineties. As Nathanson notes, claims for the value of the argument went hand-in-hand with a liberatory rhetoric regarding the freedom of the reader to make meaning. Such claims ranged from Steve McCaffery’s emphasis on “producing one’s own reading among the polysemous routes that the text offers” to Bruce Andrews’ insistence that “The constitutive rules of meaning are not taking the words away from us. We can create those rules as we go along” (Nathanson, 310). These are all compelling claims. Yet is Bernstein’s writing so open to interpretation that it can be easily misread or read against its own values by an unsympathetic reader? On the contrary, I think there are an abundance of clues, hints, directional vectors, and especially metaphorical framing devices which in retrospect make the politics of Bernstein’s critique abundantly clear.

So we might ask, how does the aesthetic form of the poetry in some ways guide us toward this politics, and how does the reader figure in? Walter Benjamin in his essay “What Is Epic Theater?” made an observation about Brecht’s work which I think illuminates the political use of alienation throughout Bernstein’s earlier writing. Benjamin in this essay describes the goal of the Alienation effect as being “to discover the conditions of life” in a way that diverges from the assumed version of naturalism, and his figure for this phenomenon is the eyes of a stranger:

This discovery (alienation) of conditions takes place through the interruption of happenings. The most primitive example would be a family scene. Suddenly a stranger enters. The mother was just about to seize a bronze bust and hurl it at her daughter; the father was in the act of opening the window in order to call a policeman. At that moment the stranger appears in the doorway. This means that the stranger is confronted with the situation as with a startling picture: troubled faces, an open window, the furniture in disarray. But there are eyes to which even more ordinary scenes of middle-class life look almost equally startling. (“What is Epic Theater?,” Illuminations, 450-451)

Benjamin’s description of this stranger coming in from outside and seeing the bourgeois family from a startling new viewpoint is like the perspective often adopted by Bernstein’s earlier poetry, in which the detritus of commodified capitalist selves are collaged together and held up for critical examination as if “exhibit A,” “exhibit B,” and so on. For example, this passage from “Emotions of Normal People” in Dark City:

…At which point

you can connect a bi-directional

Buffer or dumb terminal to the

Module’s digital inputs & relay

Outputs with crystal-controlled

External trigger for jitter-free

Duplex data compression & protocol

Source codes.

Dear Fran & Don,

Thanks so much for
dinner last night. You two
are terrific—we knew that about
you, Fran, but, Don—we don’t
meet rocket engineers such as
yourself very often and so
meeting you was a special treat!
Next time—our little
Italian restaurant!

Warm Regards,

Scott & Linda   

Suddenly, in spite of
worrisome statistics that had unnerved
The Street, we
developed conviction and acted on it. Aside
from the arbs
and the rumor mill, the major trend remains up regardless of
street noise.
The liquidity is there, so any catalyst
should hasten the major direction. The market’s internal tech-
nical condition is far from overbought, which leaves
room to rally back to October’s
2500.

I think our big problem is inhibiting post-normalization.
(Dark City, 87-88)

This poem collages together a number of recognizable personas through abrupt transitions. The cloying “Fran & Don” correspondence (probably the closest thing here to “the bourgeois family scene” discussed above) is revealed from an outside perspective as just one of a number of different technological and jargonized languages. The “personal” message is exposed here for Bernstein as a language which traffics in something very different - emotion, comfort, and perhaps sycophancy as a means for creating a false sense of intimacy. The eyes of Benjamin’s stranger which cause middle class life to look startling and strange are like the perspective of the implied or ideal reader for Bernstein’s poetry. This readerly perspective is here provided by cues created partially through the actual tone of utterance and partially through an overlay of sarcasm implied by the collage juxtapositions. As a consequence, all speech acts in the language have a pervasively doubled quality for any reader, creating explosive moments of humor when the transition from one scene to the next incongruous one occurs. None of these speakers seem trustworthy or authoritative in any sense. As in Nathanson’s readings of Bernstein, the poem therefore has a kind of built-in dramatic irony which destabilizes all the discourses that inhabit it. The critique of our situation under capitalism, the polemic, is not directly spoken but rather negatively implied through tone and through juxtaposition of evidence, much like in a documentary which coyly encourages the reader to form his or her own conclusions. But the fact remains that the writing itself takes a political position through its formal technique, and in doing so allows us direct access to the view of Benjamin’s stranger walking in on the bourgeois family from outside.

So who might inhabit this perspective and these eyes, and how does that relate to the politics in Bernstein’s earlier poetry? In Brecht’s writing’s about theater, there is this note about the playwright’s early developing interest in Marxism:

When I read Marx’s Capital I understood my plays. Naturally I want to see this book widely circulated. It wasn’t of course that I found I had unconsciously written a whole pile of Marxist plays; but this man Marx was the only spectator for my plays I’d ever come across. For a man with interests like his must of necessity be interested in my plays, not because they are so intelligent but because he is - they are something for him to think about. (Brecht on Theater, 23-24)

In Bernstein’s work, as in Brecht’s, it might be argued that the stranger coming in from the outside and seeing the bourgeois family from a strange new perspective is implied to be Marx himself. This stranger is an absent figure for the utopian reader of Language Poetry, a possible reader who would adopt a critical eye towards the facile naturalism and emotions of art under a capitalist society.

2. Either You’re With Us or You’re With the Terrorists

By the time we reach Bernstein’s book Girly Man, everything has changed. Rather than sarcastic Brechtian collages, this work demonstrates an entirely different tonal range. Early on in this new book, one encounters passages such as the following:

At about 6, Felix, Susan and I walked down to the Hudson. I wanted to see New Jersey, to see the George Washington Bridge. The sun gleamed on the water. The bridge was calm. Folks were bicycling and rollerblading. The scene was almost serene; just five miles from the Trade Center.

By mistake I first wrote “Word Trade Center.”
(“It’s 8:23 in New York,” Girly Man, 19)

Sincere and urgent statements here such as “I wanted to see New Jersey, to see the George Washington Bridge” make it initially hard to believe that we are dealing with the same poet who wrote the earlier caustic multi-voiced scenarios. Perhaps the most vociferous critic of the self, the memory poem, and the voice in previous years, Bernstein is noticeably breaking several of his own earlier rules about poetics in “Some of These Daze” and is writing for the first time in an overtly biographical and narrative style. Where are the sardonic ironies, the collage assemblage, and the multiple voices used as polemical props? Where is the implied perspective of critique? Instead we are presented with short prose paragraphs, a way of evoking bits of narrative in a process that flits between relating a clear story and figuring the process of writing (“By mistake I first wrote “Word Trade Center.”). The tone seems bleaker and perhaps foggier, as if the speaker is working through the process of enduring a shock:

They thought they were going to heaven.

I find myself walking around making up arguments in my head, but when I try to write them down they dissolve in a flood of questions and misgivings. I value these questions, these misgivings, more than my analysis of the situation.

A new sport is checking not what stores have put up flags but which ones don’t. Still, there is one Afghani joint in midtown that has no flag in sight. Stu and I head over to try out the lamb kebab. (“Report from Liberty Street,” Girly Man, 28-29)

In this poem an outside voice (“They thought they were going to heaven”) is introduced, but the earlier poetry’s atmosphere of pervasive irony regarding outside voices is now absent. Instead the statement “They thought they were going to heaven” becomes quite literal, a symbolic or thematic rhyme which chimes in between the note-taking gestures of this piece. The emphasis on the value of doubt here (valuing one’s own questions and misgivings, eating at the only Afghani restaurant without an American flag) causes “They thought they were going to heaven” to stand in contrast to the stunned speaker’s distrust of a confident argument that might be brandished as a weapon. Narrative and the self are no longer seen as symptoms of monologic discourse as they were in Bernstein’s earlier writing. The Self that is reintroduced in these new poems is not a monologic construction but is rather internally divided in a continuous process of reflection:

What are you fighting for?

What are you fighting for?”
(“Broken English,” Girly Man, 48)

The speaker-as-poet has been reintroduced as only one of many possible witnesses for getting at the real subject: the attack on the world Trade Center and its aftermath in the culture.

Why does this poetry feel so different from Bernstein’s earlier writing, yet so timely? What is it about the old form of multi-voiced Brechtian critique that seems no longer tenable after 9-11 for this poet? Perhaps there’s something about the new political context which appears to be itself at times pre-emptively Brechtian, as in the case of Dick Cheney shooting someone and then making jokes about it at a press conference. How does one parody or even critique that, for instance? As Bernstein notes in a recent article on Bob Dylan’s legacy, “We are all Brechtians now.” Given this political climate, that already-appropriated poetic strategy is potentially headed for a place that’s too bleak or cynical, a dilemma which becomes clear in Bernstein’s hilarious poem “Self Help,” published on the Buffalo Poetics List shortly after the reelection of George Bush in 2004:

Hurricane crushes house. - You never seemed so resilient.

Brother-in-law completes second year in coma. - He seems so much more relaxed than he used to.

$75 ticket for Sunday meter violation on an empty street in residential neighborhood. - The city needs the money to make us safe and educate our kids.

Missed last episode of favorite murder mystery because you misprogrammed VCR. - Write your own ending!

Blue cashmere pullover has three big moth holes. - What a great looking shirt!

Son joins skinhead brigade of Jews for Jesus. - At least he’s following his bliss.

(“Self Help,” Girly Man, 172-173)

The attempt here to consistently find the upside to a bad situation creates inadequate aphoristic solutions that try to project boosterism but continuously fail. These ridiculous responses demonstrate an Orwellian way of naming the current political situation (like a “Clear Skies” initiative that in reality poisons the environment) and also a way of rushing to the wrong solution to a dilemma too quickly. Yet the poem also evokes a larger political difficulty for liberals under the Bush administration after 9-11, the fear that language itself has truly become an inadequate means for changing reality ” it is almost as if language itself has been co-opted in advance and rendered unable to refer directly to reality or to solutions that might solve a real problem. From such a perspective, “anti-absorptive” comes to have a much less triumphant meaning. In “Self-Help,” reality happens (and is correspondingly silenced) during that repeated em-dash which acts as a bridge between phrases. The poem reveals and performs the limits of satire through its exasperated tone, demonstrating in the process how this approach is ultimately a rhetorical (and perhaps a political) dead end because the poem is ultimately trapped in its own closed circuit. Fortunately, the angle of critique is torqued at the end of the poem where there is an attempt by the author to impose a frame: “Self help ” other drowns.” We might recognize the old critique of the Self here from Bernstein’s earlier work, yet it’s barely recognizable as the carnivalesque collage of the earlier writing. Instead it feels bleaker and more frustrated, much less sure of its own moral superiority.

While we all may be pre-emptively Brechtian in a post-9-11 context, pre-emptively “performing,” only some of those performances are considered worthy of being recognized or legitimized by the news media. In the months and years following the 9-11 attacks, a certain critical function of journalists toward our government was suspended, and for a significant period of time there was less toleration of public dissent. A “with-us-or-against-us” mentality developed in which disagreeing with President Bush’s ideas was translated as “Bush-bashing.” Judith Butler recounts this period in her book Precarious Life, published in 2004 the year Bush was re-elected and the Iraq War was already in full swing:

The voicing of critical perspectives against the war has become difficult to do, not only because mainstream media enterprises will not publish them (most of them appear in the progressive or alternative print media or on the internet), but because to voice them is to risk hystericization and censorship. In a strong sense, the binarism that Bush proposes in which only two positions are possible - ‘Either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists’ - makes it untenable to hold a position in which one opposes both and queries the terms in which the opposition is framed…At the beginning of this conflict, to oppose the war meant to some that one somehow felt sympathy with terrorism, or that one saw the terror as justified. (“Explanation and Exoneration, or What We Can Hear,” Precarious Life, 2)

After 9-11, hawkish politicians and media personalities alike obviously made it clear that they thought they were going to heaven. A famous example of this phenomenon was a speech by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the newly-elected Governor of California, in which he denounced the democratic legislature resistant to his outrageous budget proposal as “girlie-men” for supporting “special interests” such as the Unions (Los Angeles Times, Sunday, July 18, 2004). Bernstein’s title, a parody on this quote, evokes the state of emergency in which dissent was silenced, in the process gesturing toward a possible realization of that negative capability in which “one opposes both and queries the terms in which the opposition is framed.”

The dilemma Butler articulates, where to participate in public dialogue was to risk hystericization, has been accounted for in a slightly different way by linguist George Lakoff as a dilemma in which liberals lacked the proper cognitive and metaphorical frames to get their ideas across. In his book Moral Politics and the post 9-11 popular version Don’t Think of an Elephant, Lakoff described two underlying cognitive and metaphorical frames for all public discourse between conservatives and liberals, the conservative one being the “strict father” frame, and the liberal one being the “nurturing parent” frame. Whereas in the conservative worldview, “the strict father is the moral authority who has to support and defend the family, tell his wife what to do, and teach his kids right from wrong,” the liberal alternative of the nurturing family is focused on “empathy (feeling and caring how others feel) and responsibility (for taking care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible)” (Don’t Think of an Elephant, 40).

Given these options, what is a liberal to do in an argument? Nurture the heck out of his or her opponent until they cry “uncle”? Is it possible to develop a rhetorically strong activist poetics out of those twin themes of empathy and responsibility, and what would such a poetics look like? For Bernstein, there is still a certain distrust of the empathy inherent in getting absorbed in the performance too readily:

“That still, small voice may not be the root of all evil but it’s no innocent bystander either.”
(“Sign Under Test,” Girly Man, 158)

“War is an excuse for lots of bad antiwar poetry.”
(“War Stories,” Girly Man, 151)

The poems in Girly Man consistently explore a range of alternate paths to the with-us-or-against-us rhetoric of the popular media as well as the binary posed by Lakoff which suggests that liberals quite literally cannot fight. He accomplishes this by shifting the target of critique. Rather than the earlier poetry in which a monologic consumer Self appeared as chief symptom of cultural malaise, Bernstein’s more recent writing is a battle cry against the monologic implications of Unilateralism. At a reading for the anthology “Enough!” in 2003, Bernstein noted:

At these trying times we keep being hectored toward moral discourse, toward turning our work into digestible messages. This too is a casualty of the war machine, the undermining of the value of the projects of art, of the aesthetic… “Unilateralism” is not just the course the Executive branch is pursuing, with disastrous consequence, in foreign policy, but also the policy it pursues domestically, in its assault on our liberties, on the poor, and indeed on our aspirations for a democratic society.

This is one of the challenges taken up by Bernstein’s book: how is it possible to take a political position in one’s writing without being prematurely “hectored toward moral discourse” and reducing one’s work to “digestible messages” that are always already co-opted?

One answer is to celebrate one’s own dividedness, emphasizing the parallels between provisionality, doubt, and dissent. Bernstein’s book makes these connections through the figure of the Girly Man who acts as a synecdoche for many of the work’s central concerns. The position of the author, too, is multiple and complex; rather than adopting a signature style, more than ever before Bernstein seems to be many different poets within a single volume. Girly Man is divided into seven sections, each of which pursues a different style (and some of which were originally published as discrete chapbooks): “Let’s Just Say”, the aforementioned “Some of These Daze,” “World on Fire,” “Warrant,” “In Parts,” “Likeness,” and “Girly Man.” In addition to the personal narrative of 9-11 recounted in “Some of These Days,” some other styles the book employs include free-ranging philosophical fragments:

Now I am getting weary of ideology and would like to give it up entirely but it seems the more I give it up the more it has me by the throat. I write so I can breathe.

Or let’s say trying to re-imagine the possibilities of sentience through the material sentience of language.

Don’t ask me to be frank. I don’t even know if I can be myself.
(“Sign Under Test”)

In this poem the leaps between sections represent a kind of note-taking rather than a collage in the sense of the earlier work. The troubled, haunted utterances come from one speaker who appears at times to be addressing himself, at times talking to someone else. There is no over-arching rhetorical perspective or implied reader supplying a Brechtian critique in the earlier sense of The Threepenny Opera. If there is a Brechtian aspect here, it would be more redolent of something like the Brecht who wrote Galileo, the (rewritten) last scene of which portrays the protagonist at once angered at being silenced by the papacy and troubled by his own discoveries and the role they have in creating a notion of “progress:”

Threats and bribes fill the air. Can the scientist hold out on the numbers? For what reason do you labor? I take it that the intent of science is to ease human existence. If you give you way to coercion, science can be crippled, and your new machines may simply suggest new drudgeries. (Galileo, 123-124)

The diminished role for sarcasm in Bernstein’s work evokes a similar kind of troubled sadness. In the spirit of Butler’s comments about hystericization, it is harder “to be frank” when one is compelled to respond to ridiculous ultimatums such as “Either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” While Bernstein’s older work saw the ironic anti-absorptive as a way to evade commodification, it is no longer necessarily possible to accomplish this when everyone is Brechtian. Rather, in this new book there is a certain attempt at sincere communication of a multitude of ideas. The strategy has become a mobile, localized questioning of what values are in operation from moment to moment.

This theme of the divided self in the book extends to the micro level of how certain utterances are constructed and then reversed. More than anything else, the aphoristic seems to be the emphasis here rather than the ironic or the sarcastic. At times a barrage of skewed aphorisms, the book proceeds from one cockamamie truism to another through a clustering of flatfooted cliché expressions given new life through minor surgery. In “A Flame in Your Heart,” such rhetorical turns act as an underlying framework for the play of sounds:

As slow as Methuselah and as old as

Molasses, time passes but nobody ever
Does anything about it - the soda water

At the club on Tuesday so much more fishy
Then it used to be and the giant marmoset
In the bedroom wants more cookies and milk

Before fading into memory’s skipped disk.
(“A Flame in Your Heart,” Girly Man, 52)

The wan, lingering irony in this passage may be seen as influenced by John Ashbery’s deadpan befuddled gestures recalling a vague colloquial American idiom. Yet in Bernstein’s version, the wan statements derive their humor from allusions to pre-existing aphoristic structures such as folk sayings:

Every lake has a house…
& every house has a lake
(“Let’s Just Say,” Girly Man, 13)

It’s also spun in a decidedly bleaker, more Althusserian mode than Ashbery would ever attempt:

When I die I’m
sure America
will have
taken hold.
(“There’s Beauty in the Sound of the Rushing Brook as It Forks & Bends in the Moonlight”, Girly Man, 156)

3. The Girly Man

The final and most memorable piece in the book, the title poem “Ballad of the Girly Man,” reveals this dividedness of the author to be a volatile, politically transgressive principle by embodying that dividedness in a speaker who is an allegory for (and a solution to) many of the book’s larger concerns. Also a stylistic departure from earlier Bernstein modes, this poem stages a direct polemic articulated in song form:

The truth is hidden in a veil of tears
The scabs of the mourners grow thick with fear

A democracy once proposed
Is slimmed and grimed again
By men with brute design
Who prefer hate to rime
(Girly Man, 179)

The first few lines feel at once simple, innocent, awkward, and somewhat archaic, in the manner of a nursery rhyme or doggerel verse. The vatic, incantatory language stands in stark contrast to the irony in many of Bernstein’s other poems; any Althusserian smugness has disappeared and been replaced by a sense of bemoaning, a mythic performance mapping the political dilemma:

Thugs from hell have taken freedom’s store
The rich get richer, the poor die quicker
& the only god that sanctions that
is no god at all but rhetorical crap
(Girly Man, 179)

The Bernsteinian tendency toward aphorism here emerges in the warped truism “The rich get richer, the poor die quicker,” as a strategic, provisional prompt to turn away from the Orwellian “rhetorical crap” that makes that aphorism possible. Dedicated in the epigraph to Felix, Bernstein’s son, the poem is recited by a single speaker who gives the sense of explaining something extremely complicated to a child in a simplified way. This speaker’s Cassandra-like cry demonstrates a divided voice that is vulnerable yet defiant, fretting in protest, finally mapping the poem’s addressee onto the reader in an exhortation to action:

So be a Girly Man
& take a gurly stand
Sing a gurly song
& dance with a girly sarong.

In an unprecedented gesture, Bernstein intertwines Schwarzenegger’s epithet “girlie-man” with a Stonewall-like gesture of defiance, deliberately misreading the epithet and turning it on its head as a celebratory label, in the process shifting the entire metaphorical frame of the political discourse. Dissent, figured here as a kind of sophist doubt, is something to be celebrated rather than shamed by:

We girly men are not afraid
Of uncertainty or reason or interdependence
We think before we fight, then think some more
Proclaim our faith in listening, in art, in compromise.

While the earlier Bernstein would have been terrified of the pathos in such gestures, here he appears to be quite serious, and pathos against power is very much the point. The key turn in the poem, the place where the frames shift, happens in the second of the fugue-like choruses when the speaker says:

Sissies and proud
That we would never lie our way to war

The first line here calls upon the legacy of the gay rights movement, and the second line calls upon the collective voice of the left’s protest against the war. This is an aphoristic gesture like so many of Bernstein’s skewed truisms, but upon closer inspection, it makes an inspired kind of sense. This pairing and intersection in a post-9-11 context is neither accidental nor forced, as Judith Butler reminds us in a discussion of feminist and GLBT responses to 9-11:

We tend to narrate the history of the feminist and lesbian/gay movement, for instance, in such a way that ecstasy figured prominently in the sixties and seventies and midway through the eighties. But maybe ecstasy is more persistent than that; maybe it is with us all along. To be ec-static means, literally, to be outside oneself, and thus can have several meanings: to be transported beyond oneself by a passion, but also to be beside oneself with rage or grief. I think that if I can still address a ‘we,’ or include myself within its terms, I am speaking to those of us who are living in certain ways beside ourselves, whether in sexual passion, or emotional grief, or political rage.” (“Violence, Mourning, Politics,” Precarious Life, 24)

Finding the ecstasy of the sixties revived in the current sense of being “beside oneself” post-9-11, we can start to see how Bernstein is forming this sense of a “we” and why it feels convincing. By queering language and queering the left, Bernstein’s speaker momentarily becomes a representative figure both for the poet speaking and for the state of being “beside oneself” in mourning for the victims of 9-11, angry at the aftermath and the U.S. government’s abuse of its own people. This defiant position snowballs as the poem continues, picking up additional identities, additional cohorts in a Hardt and Negri-like assemblage:

The girly men killed Christ
So the platinum DVD says
The Jews and blacks & gays
Are still standing in the way

The Girly Man becomes a kind of accumulative figure for the left in their protest against the neocon agenda and the dismantling of democracy. But we’re not out of the woods yet, the poem reiterates in its final lines, the same lines with which it began:

The truth is hidden in a veil of tears
The scabs of the mourners grow thick with fear

This is the menacing world of words we’re left with at the end of the poem. Does this move indicate, as in “Self Help,” the acknowledgement of language’s inability to directly change reality? Is it the poignant result of “turning our work into digestible messages” after entering discourse? Or is it a caution against being self-congratulatory, a reminder that much more needs to be done and changed “out there”? The interpretation of the ending is ultimately left up to the reader, inviting a different kind of participation and a different way of making meaning.

The way in which the Girly Man figure turns an epithet inside out and draws strength from that position can be seen as a direct response to the dilemma that Lakoff describes for the left when he places the family in the center of his metaphorical schema:

Conservatives know that politics is not just about policy and interest groups and issue-by-issue debate. They have learned that politics is about family and morality, about myth and metaphor and emotional identification. They have, over twenty-five years, managed to forge conceptual links in the voters’ minds between morality and public policy. They have done this by carefully working out their values, comprehending their myths, and designing a language to fit those values and myths so that they can evoke them with powerful slogans, repeated over and over again, that reinforce those family-morality-policy links, until the connections have come to seem natural to many Americans, including many in the media. As long as liberals ignore the moral, mythic, and emotional dimension of politics, as long as they stick to policy and interest groups and issue-by-issue debate, they will have no hope of understanding the nature of the political transformation that has overtaken this country and they will have no hope of changing it. (Moral Politics, 19)

Lakoff’s emphasis on the development of alternate myths here suggests that the family (the “Fran & Don” of Bernstein’s earlier poem) is not dismissable as merely bourgeois or merely a curiosity - on the contrary, it turns out to matter very much how we go about reconceptualizing this notion in liberal political discourse. Bernstein would perhaps agree with this assessment of the problem, but ambivalently, and that restlessness of perspective allows him to discover certain options that may not have been available to Lakoff. That very “we” in “Sissies and proud / that we would never lie our way to war,” bypasses Lakoff’s entire binary by evoking a different kind of family or community, one composed entirely of “sissies.” Here the return of the Brechtian occurs. In the poem’s doggerel moments and occasional flatfootedness as well as its overt political statement of dissent against the war, it achieves a moment more truly Brechtian than any amount of distancing attempted in other contexts. It accomplishes this by using pathos as a broad form of identification. It is joyfully and blatantly celebratory and blatantly manipulative - for a more overtly stated cause this time. The mobilization of queer rhetoric, iconoclastic values, and an implied notion of the family here in the figure of the Girly Man evokes once again the Brechtian figure of the reader, the ghostly presence of Marx himself. But in this situation Benjamin’s stranger is no longer the potential reader of the text. For the first time, this stranger appears in the position of the speaker who utters the poem and who exhorts others to be other. In a single and ingenious stroke, Bernstein at once reveals a way out for the Left and proves that the opposite of liberalism is neither family nor morality, but Empire.

Works Cited:

Benjamin, Walter. “What is Epic Theater?.” Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Bernstein, Charles. Dark City. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1994.

—. “Enough”

—. Girly Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

—. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: Bob Dylan and the Adolescent Sublime.” The Brooklyn Rail.

—. “On Theatricality.” Content’s Dream.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.

Brecht, Bertold. “The Epic Theater and Its Difficulties.” Brecht on Theatre (trans. John Willett). New York: Hill and Wang, 1957.

—. Galileo. New York: Grove Press, 1966.

Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant! Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004.

—. Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Lazer, Hank. “Charles Bernstein’s Dark City: Polis, Policy, and the Policing of Poetry.” American Poetry Review. 24:5 (September-October 1995): 35-44.

Nathanson, Tenney. “Collage and Pulverization in Contemporary Poetry: Charles Bernstein’s Controlling Interests.” Contemporary Literature. 33:2 (Summer 1992): 302-318.

Nicholas, Peter. “Schwarzenegger deems opponents ‘girlie-men’ ” twice: Governor’s rhetoric incites mall crowd, infuriates others,” Los Angeles Times, Sunday, July 18, 2004.

Osman, Jena. “After Language Poetry,” OEI 7:8, 2001.