How Do You Outwit Writing in Writing?

A Handbook of Disappointed Faith cover in a repeated patternA Handbook of Disappointed Fate is an intense collection of essays—fables and manifestos collected from over a decade of Anne Boyer’s work—serving as both a scathing critique of and a brilliant testament to daily existence under the physical realities of oppressive structures. Her writing is relentlessly focused on the material and philosophical problems of writing and living in the contemporary world: A Handbook encompasses systemic oppression, the ethical imperatives of writing about it, the effects it has on the insistently material human body—all things circling the drain of Boyer’s personal experience. These difficult topics are handled through the imperfect medium of language, which both draws attention to problems and distracts from issues through the inevitable abstraction that takes place in writing. This sounds lofty, but A Handbook is actually emphatically grounded in the realities of modern life, and seasoned with a generous dose of wit: Boyer writes about everything from Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige, to clickbait algorithms and crushing (on) people, to Marxist burritos and poetry crafted from the Scarlet Chested Parrots of an Australian bird preserve.

All of the pieces in A Handbook of Disappointed Fate are unified by Boyer’s careful writing style and calculated prose. She uses what often feels like a tone of clinical remove and detachment to better analyze that which affects her directly, and no word is wasted: the sense is that she cannot afford inexact sentiments, practicing an economy of affect. Her writing curiously occupies the space between personal and impersonal. All of her preoccupations and the way they are conveyed are on perfect display in the first pages of the book, heralded by a big bold “No” at the top: “History is full of people who just didn’t.” Boyer is defined by a poetics of refusal, of saying “no” and being unapologetically against: she refuses the oppressive logics that force productivity and, throughout all the pages to come, describes life as a material body—an object—within the realm of the negative, saying that “we endogenously produce our own incapacity to even try, grow sick and depressed and motionless under all the merciless and circulatory conditions of all the capitalist yes and just can’t, even if we thought we really wanted to.” Even that which she operates within, language, is subject to capital, because writing reduces manifestly physical selves and experiences to mere words, writing is difficult and limiting—it is physically taxing to render abstract ideas and pin down words. Writing this review is taking more out of me than I thought possible. So, in “No” she also comments on how silence can be just as much a refusal as actually verbalizing the word, because language has failed so often before.

Boyer uses dialectics as an open rather than closed process, and this enables her to write counterintuitively yet intelligibly. For example, despite being vehemently distrustful of language’s abstractions and the violence they can commit, she is unafraid of venturing into the murky realm of metaphor when an onus might be too much for a person: “This is as if a river, who saw the scale of the levees, decided that rather than try to exceed them, it would outwit them by drying up.” Boyer’s previous work, the award-winning poetry collection Garments Against Women, took on an impossible task: using language to render the harsh realities of her own personal existence. The book was born out of weariness and poverty, a body that was broken by the world around it, and out of a rejection of the language that is necessary to convey that exhaustion. She wrote about the difficulty of writing and crafted a new medium: “not writing.” These same ideas are developed more throughout the pieces in A Handbook of Disappointed Fate but further honed and targeted. Rather than attempt to succeed or exceed the inadequacies of language, Boyer’s writing operates within them, inside the space opened between the material and its linguistic depiction. The material exists in a territory outside of language; thus, Boyer brings her language to the territory of the material.

How do you outwit writing in writing? How can you be subversive in the least subversive medium? It’s easy to imagine physically rejecting something, but how can you push something away in language when you can’t even get a handle on it in the first place? There are political and ethical imperatives involved, considering the incredible amount of power given to the formal structures of language under the regimes of late capitalism and biomedicalization. Boyer writes, “I look for the proper economic term for a body as a sinkhole as a war wound as a poisoned animal as the saddest, most cut-open thing to ever exist.” Language gains power when cut off from nature, material structures, human practices. The question is a familiar one for any radical movement: Is it possible to name and discuss a problem without furthering it? Knowing that writing necessarily involves a problematic form of abstraction, can you acknowledge language’s inadequacies and still continue to use language?

Well, you might start by noting and noticing: you pay attention to the niceties of syntax, to its intricacies, to its limitations as well as its possibilities, as Boyer does in the essays “How to Go from Poetry to Art” and “How to Go from Art to Poetry,” two twinned pieces that mirror each other across the gutter of the book, confronting the reader with the issue of how to read them: Do you take in one entire essay and then the next, or do you go page by page? Both express frustration with what Boyer elsewhere calls “human fondness for received structures,” be they art forms, ideologies, architecture, or the book in one’s hands. She ruthlessly interrogates the myriad ways in which both of these particular forms, i.e. art and poetry, are structures and objects inherited and used by humans, and the ways in which they have failed us. If one does not work, if it has ceased to function in a useful way, it may be tempting to shrug it off in favor of a new form. Language is also the bridge between the two forms, since it is the only apparent method available to discuss them. “The problem with language as a medium,” she writes, “really came about not because of nouns or adjectives but because of prepositions, conjunctions, and verbs. They were always making you melancholy about action and position.” She astutely notes the different types of work done by individual words, always and especially in relation to the body: “Punctuation marks were like facial expressions. They happened to the page as they happened to the flesh, the page wrinkled under the repeated weight of so many ‘______.’ Who imagined that what was so important about a word was that it stood for something else?” Acknowledging that use of the linguistic sign implies the absence of the thing for which it stands could be the first step in grounding language in a physical reality.

Boyer ceaselessly attempts to construct a new language that might return words from abstraction to materiality, as in the titular essay, wherein the text is described as taking form in various emphatically bodily ways: “Only as hands and fingers touched it did words begin to appear…. Verbs emerged from anything that rubbed against them…. The quicker-than-average beating of his heart revealed the book’s title.” The palpable action of creation helps to bring language off the page into the material world: “A reader … became agitated, and threw the book across the room. Through this she learned the means by which the book might get some punctuation!” Needless to say, this is reflective of how any book as a whole takes shape—by manual labor creating the words that are eventually read. She creates her own inside-out language that functions on a different planet: “Could a poet on an alien earth explain how on this earth the sick body of a worker is the source of more profit than her healthy body at work?” New theoretical instruments are necessary to think through these structures that are already supported by oppressive theories. “A poet on an alien earth” is a neat way of describing Boyer’s attempts at finding and writing a new language to describe these issues, here specifically the issue of how illness is profitable, but always the schism between language and the material.

This idea is dramatized most notably in “Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry,” which contains a litany of exactly that: a numbered list of almost laughably difficult and patently physical ways to publish poetry (complete with a list of supplies for each one). How does a writer write under circumstances such as the political and economic institutions that currently oppress us? Not easily: “Arrange animal corpses in the shapes of letters in the shapes of words in the shapes of the lines of a poem.” “Become king/queen of a small or medium-to-small nation. Lay train tracks in the shapes of words.” “Cause traffic lights to blink out poems for Sacramento in Morse Code.” This is playful, but deadly playful; Boyer will not under any circumstances allow her readers to forget all of the physical labor and facts of poetry, and the fact that reading is a physical act. Even if it might be read as being in jest, she returns poetry from the realm of abstraction to the reality of material production.

It is most important to reattach language to the material, because language’s origins are so inevitably physical. Meaning—be it essays, poetry, the book itself, or that which you are reading right now—is not produced by disembodied and ahistorical systems of signs. Meaning begins from the body, the coordinated movements of hands and faces and all the muscles that move them, and all these minutiae as they exist in relation to other bodies. In “Formulary for a New Feeling,” Boyer is thinking about how feeling is information located in the body, framing feeling as information, creating a complex and interesting phenomenological conceit. She writes, “The codes must be sought in the serious locales of fingertips, and thigh muscles, also in the hamstrings, the molars, the minor joints, the mammoth comprehending digestion, the ardent and responsive scalp.” This is attempting to subvert the various ways bodies are translated and transformed by all of the aforementioned structures and ideologies.

In one sense, abstract feelings must be converted into information in order to be made visible, tangible, more easily understood. The conversion of the body and its feelings into legible information is an example of bridging the gap between language and object. But is it productive? Boyer says that “feeling is the most graceful means of engendering feeling. It is an affair not only of bodily articulation and modulation expressing material remedy but also of a modulation producing reparations of faces, lower backs, shoulders, genitals, and palms in accordance with the actual spectrum of who and what exists.” Occam’s razor. Language performs embodiment, language itself embodies and is embodied, but this is easily forgotten, since reading and interpreting are so often considered to be mental acts. When she claims that “all furrowed foreheads are evidentiary,” she is not only saying that meaning begins from the body—she is also making the case that it ends there as well. It need go no further than the body. Language presents lived experience as data—but reading the body circumvents this transaction.

When you tire of what is given to you, you must construct anew: “Say, for example, you are fed up with the language and forms made available to you by literature. The terminologies are too confining, the syntaxes too opaque or dangerously lucid or of the wrong moral quality, the genres a mismatch to the rigors of inhabiting a body.” You must seek to create genres that are more attentive to the rigors of inhabiting a body. Boyer has given us a handbook for returning language from abstraction to the material. The making present of the body through language is always necessarily marked by its absence: writing the body is subject to an endless deferral of meaning. But for Boyer, this deferral is seen as taking up space rather than evacuating it—taking up space in the form of literature, a literature that might not be called literature, may not yet be recognized as such, but takes and breaks the form all the same.

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