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Scott Pound

Avant-garde poets hate speech. Or do they?

Robert Grenier’s famously resonant declaration, “I HATE SPEECH!” made in 1971, still echoes after almost fifty years, but the seeming straightforwardness of its legacy can be deceiving.1 “I know ‘we’ hate speech,” Eileen Myles writes in a 2013 essay, “but also we don’t. Nobody hates speech. That’s hyperbole.”2 In a 2015 interview with Paul Stephens, Grenier himself reflects on “what a sacrifice it really is to abandon … not simply the voice of the poem, but the whole range of musical articulation,” and then stops to wonder, “gee wiz, why did I abandon that?”3 The striking candor of these statements alerts us to an important distinction between critical/theoretical accounts where, as Judith Butler points out, “the domain of the speakable is established in part by casting certain intellectual positions as rogue viewpoints”4 and technical accounts where cultural modes tend to converge and mediate one another in complex and generative ways. In their statements, Myles and Grenier call us back from the realm of the critical/theoretical account where writing and speech circulate as names for epistemic antinomies to the historical and technical milieu of poeisis where they exist in a complex relationship of intermediation. I wonder if, from inside the epistemic precincts of the discipline, it is possible to hear what Myles and Grenier are saying. Or, as Butler puts it, “Can we think about how, under certain conditions, certain kinds of questions … can only be framed and posed by breaking through a certain prohibition that functions to condition and circumscribe the domain of the speakable?”5

In this essay, I try to make sense of this contradiction by revisiting the conditions under which speech became, as it were, unspeakable. Over a very long history stretching all the way back to antiquity, the representation of speech as a menace to thought marks a boundary between theoretical knowledge (episteme) and applied knowledge (techne). To adapt Butler’s formulation, the critique of speech, in its many guises from Plato onwards, helps make the domain of epistemology speakable in medium specific terms by casting writing as the technology of the rational mind and speech as the medium of ecstasy, madness, and intellectual chicanery. This boundary remains clearly visible in contemporary conversations about literary history where, until a few decades ago, the construction of speech as a rogue viewpoint has sustained a disciplinary ethic of intense epistemic rigour directed at critical maladies like “phonocentrism” and “speech-based poetics.” In alignment with provocative claims made by Bernard Stiegler (“Philosophy has repressed technics as an object of thought. Technics is the unthought.”6 ) and Bruno Latour (“The depth of our ignorance about techniques is unfathomable”7 ), I argue here that such epistemic models of value obscure an important technical dimension of literary practice. If we are to reclaim technical understanding as a valuable source of knowledge, we need a better understanding of how the repression of techne originates and is sustained via the critical construction of speech as a rogue viewpoint.

What is the unthought nature of technics in literary culture? In what ways does literary studies go astray when technical understanding is subordinated to epistemic models of value, and what do we stand to gain by seeking to revive techne? The efforts of the language writers to refashion speech as a figure of admonishment offer some important clues. In the first section of the essay, I revisit this moment, not in its familiar guise as a breakthrough, but as a case study for a particular kind of reasoning that forsakes technical for theoretical understanding in the name of epistemic integrity. The following sections journey all the way back to Greek metaphysics and back again to demonstrate the remarkable consistency of a critical lens that sees epistemic values in opposition to technical concerns as a contest between seemingly in-built characteristics of writing and speech. The central conflict in this drama has to do with intellectual politics and the medium specificity of intellectual culture. For Plato, rhetoric and poetics represented, not the written arts of persuasion and poetry, but a highly influential system of oral education badly in need of reform. Plato’s scorn for rhetoric and poetics is based principally on judgments about the perceived epistemic inferiority of oral culture and the misleading claims of its chief practitioners: the poets and the Sophists.8 Similar efforts to fashion speech as an epistemic jinx underpin the development of the bourgeois public sphere and the formation and development of literary studies as a discipline. This conflict reaches its apex in the era of poststructuralism, a point at which the pursuit of theoretical understanding starts to resemble what Mark Edmundson calls “epistemological hubris.”9 In the wake of the theory movement, the recovery of technique and the technical as a mode of cultural understanding has become a significant intellectual project, one in which historical and technical knowledge of poets and their efforts to affirm poiesis as a cultural location plays a vital role.



The representation of speech as an epistemic problem was so forcefully and successfully articulated in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s that its existence as a medium and a cultural site was all but eclipsed. This despite the fact that from Wordsworth to Whitman to the modernists and the New American Poets, speech had functioned as a figure for technical innovation and renewal. By opposing the formal stasis of linguistic standards and what Wordsworth referred to as “the common inheritance of poets,” speech was deemed to be a potent source of countercultural energy.10 It was so routinely invoked as a figure for poetic innovation that T.S. Eliot would remark in 1942, “Every revolution in poetry is apt to be, and sometimes announce itself as, a return to common speech.”11 It is not difficult to see the link between revolution and speech in Wordsworth and Whitman whose poetics incorporate republican values via appeals to common experience and vernacular forms. As he relates in Book IX of The Prelude, Wordsworth returned from post-revolutionary France engrossed in the newfound freedoms of common people, their “novelties in speech, domestic manners, customs, gestures, looks, and all the attire of ordinary life.”12 Whitman, operating at a further remove from the American Revolution but no less swayed by its impact, addressed himself to “new potentialities of speech” as a way to index “the new world, the new times, the new peoples, and the new vistas.”13 Speech continued to function as a figure of protest against literary tradition and linguistic norms throughout much of the twentieth century. In notable instances – such as in the work of Stein, Pound, and Eliot – this defiance of linguistic standards took the form of odious acts of racial masquerade,14 but many more vanguard poets would turn to speech as a figure of emancipation from the linearity and uniformity of the printed page.

These perceptions had a lot to do with media change. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a surge of technological enhancements to the printing process. Innovations in graphic and typographic design extending to book design advanced the perception of printed characters and printed volumes as dynamic entities. But even as the renaissance in print culture was setting the stage for modernism, the sanctity of print itself was being brought into question. The emergence of analog new media in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a pivotal effect on literary culture by laying bare the limitations of print literacy as a medium. Phonography, radio, and cinema had brought the prosody of speaking bodies to the cultural forefront. In contrast to the discrete mechanics of alphabetic notation and the metrical foot, these media captured complete traces and transmissions of movement and speech, demonstrating all too clearly the flat-footedness of print relative to emerging media. With the prospect of a full inscription of vocal prosody, the notion of “common speech” crosses over from ideological construct to technical reality. Thus, the turn to speech in modern and contemporary poetics arises primarily in response to concerns about the efficacy of print literacy as a medium (“No art has suffered so much from print as has poetry,” as Amy Lowell put it, voicing a common complaint15 ) and a corresponding desire to expand the bandwidth of writing to keep pace with emerging media. In short, the turn to speech is a way of talking about technical mediation and the fate of literary culture.

In the simplest sense, modernist poets found inspiration in the fact of speech as a living thing. “It is there, in the mouths of the living,” William Carlos Williams argued, “that the language is changing and giving new means for expanded possibilities in literary expression.”16 But not only that. As a figure for the complete sound form of language, speech indexes the specificity of the voiced utterance at the same time that it calls attention to the limits of alphabetic notation as a vehicle for representing intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm. Not merely a symbol of unadulterated sound, then, speech is also a technical image of a certain kind of poiesis: writing as a fraught process of intermediation that summons the variance and dynamism of spoken language into the sonically limited medium of alphabetic literacy. As Lew Welch puts it in an essay written the year before Grenier’s groundbreaking statement, “language is speech” even though “writing is not talking”:

If you want to write you have to want to build things out of language and in order to do that you have to know, really know in your ear and in your tongue and, later, on the page, that language is speech. But the hard thing is that writing is not talking, so what you have to learn to do is to write as if you were talking, and to do it knowing perfectly well you are not talking, you are writing.17

What the Language writers meant by speech was obviously very different. In its original setting, in a short essay from the first issue of This magazine, Grenier’s statement protests, not speech per se, but the “reiteration of the past dragged in on formal habit,”18 or conventional lyricism. In effect, Grenier rails against speech in much the same way and in the same spirit that William Carlos Williams complained about the sonnet. Fifteen years later, Ron Silliman would enlist the phrase in an influential argument about literary history. According to Silliman, Grenier’s declaration “announced a breach – and a new moment in American writing,”19 marking a hard, though not always reliable, distinction between the “speech-based poetics” of modernism and the New American Poetry and the “radical artifice” of Language writing.20 The term “speech-based poetics” would go on to become an expedient piece of critical shorthand as a catch-all term for, in Hank Lazer’s words, “the standardized American poem of the past twenty-five years: simple declarative syntax; the illusion of a craftless, transparent language; a simple, speechlike singular voice in the service of a poem that ends with a moment of epiphanic wonder and/or closure where all parts of the poem relate to a common theme.”21

In transforming the figure of speech from a technical concern into an epistemic problem, poets, critics, and scholars alike found the means to advance a new understanding of literary history and the critical judgments needed to support it. Where previously speech had operated as a figure for technical innovation and renewal in poetics, it was now functioning critically to call out lyric convention and the expressivist subject and assert the ideological complicity of such conventions within the projects of humanism and capitalism. The transition from poetics to ideology critique is at the same time a transition from a technical to an epistemic model of value. This seismic shift in poetics discourse and the turn to critique as a standpoint for poetics proved to be a profoundly enabling gesture for Language writing. Bringing Grenier’s and his peers’ concerns about poetic form into alignment with Marxist and poststructuralist critique greatly expanded the scope of poetics discourse to include trenchant critiques of the humanist subject and commodity fetishism. More importantly, it allowed the Language writers and allied critics to make provocative bids for critical and cultural authority. These bold gestures brought notoriety and put Language Writing into sharp relief as a movement relative to modernism and the New American Poetry at the same time that they installed a polarizing rubric for understanding the cultural field as a battleground between the radical and the reactionary. These developments culminate with highly influential critiques of official verse cultures and the eventual canonization of Language Writing. But the effort to ground poetics discourse in epistemic conventions that associate speech with crimes against reason also introduced distortions into the technical understanding of poetics. While vanguard poets like Grenier, Myles, and notable others including Charles Bernstein continued to nurture an image of speech as technical object, the scapegoating of speech in theoretical and literary historical conversations obscures its technical profile as a way of understanding literary culture in media ecological terms.



For centuries, perceptions of epistemic authority have hinged on judgments about speech and writing, and this opposition forms an integral part of the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. In Stiegler’s telling, the birth of philosophy coincides with a fateful political maneuver whereby the philosopher ousts the Sophist as the protagonist of intellectual culture.

At the beginning of its history philosophy separates tekhnē from epistēmē, a distinction that had not yet been made in Homeric times. The separation is determined by a political context, one in which the philosopher accuses the Sophist of instrumentalizing the logos as rhetoric and logography, that is, as both an instrument of power and a renunciation of knowledge. It is in the inheritance of this conflict … that the essence of technical entities in general is conceived.22

Plato’s critique of the Sophist in Gorgias goes hand in hand with a much broader condemnation of poetry and rhapsody in Cratylus, Ion, Phaedrus, and Books II, III, and X of the Republic. At the center of this critique is a series of discussions about the ethical and pedagogical shortcomings of both arts. The political context is Plato’s attempt to replace an educational system based in rhetoric and poetry with a new philosophical methodology for pursuing insight into the truth of things. The crux of that effort is the distinction between episteme and techne and the claim that rhetorical performances and poetic inspiration short-circuit rational cognition.23 Built into the distinction is a three-fold discrimination: between two classes of educator and intellectual (traffickers in opinions and imitations – the Sophists and the poets – and the seekers of true wisdom – the philosophers), between two kinds of knowledge (technical knowledge of how to make and do and critical knowledge arrived at through deliberation and the exercise of reason), and between two types of media (speech and writing).

For Plato, the problem with rhetoric and poetics is their lack of criticality, itself a function of two things: an indifference to rationality and a reliance on affect. Sophists manufacture truth in the minds and souls of their auditors and poets merely imitate the particulars of the world. All of this takes place outside the purview of reason without questioning or explanation, offering at best little more than chimerical stabs at the truth. In such a culture, unchallenged ideas hold sway and citizens are routinely led astray. Especially damning for both classes of educator/intellectual is the fact that their claims to wisdom are grounded in oral performance. Oratory and rhapsody mobilize embodied language. In the case of rhapsody, it in an intoxicating mix of words, meter, music, and dance delivering the audience to heightened states of emotion. For Socrates, it is an ecstasy akin to madness (Phaedrus 234d1-6, 244 a ff.).24

As techne, rhetoric and poetics are also suspect for the simple reason that acts of making are embodied and are therefore by definition non-metaphysical. They occur on a plane of immanence and becoming and are concerned primarily with finding technical means for producing new possibilities. Techne and poeisis “bring into being what is not,” (Stiegler, Technics and Time, 9.)) “calling something into existence that was not there before” (Symposium 205b). For Plato, nothing that is made can contain or embody metaphysical truths. Epistemic abstractions and conceptualizations are our best attempts to transcend the taint of embodiment. Platonic metaphysics takes a haphazard parade of mimetic particulars based in epic and dramatic poetry and raises them up to the plane of epistemic abstraction so that, for example, representations of sex and war in Homer can become, in Plato’s dialogues, discourses on love and justice. “In this transition from the centrality of the ear to that of the eye,” Adriana Cavarero remarks, “there thus emerges a thought that is capable of capturing sonorous events and freezing them as abstract, universal images, characterized by objectivity, stability and presence, and organized in a coherent system. In other words, a science, or a knowledge, is born, what the Greeks called episteme, grounded in theoria.25

The obvious political element of Plato’s critique is the power to banish, but in terms of intellectual history it is also the power to endow truth and falsehood with medium-specific attributes. The poet’s indifference to reason is bound to the affective dimension of language, its prosody. Poetry mobilizes pathos via prosody and can thereby cause people to lose their minds (Ion 535b2-d9). Poets are said to “maim the thoughts of those who hear them” (Republic 595b-c). And so Plato, himself a poet and a person educated under the influence of poetry, finds in the music of language a pivot-point for intellectual culture. To inaugurate philosophy as the supreme music requires elevating rhythm, harmony, and inflection to an epistemic plane.

To a literary theorist’s ears, this characterization of Platonic metaphysics would seem to have it completely backwards. According to Jacques Derrida, Platonic metaphysics inaugurates a long tradition of phonocentrism, a valorization of speech and a denigration of writing.26 The support for Derrida’s claim that Plato privileges speech is the critique of writing he puts into the mouth of Socrates in The Phaedrus. However, the fact that Plato also gives voice to a critique of writing should not obscure the fact that his critique of poetry, rhapsody, and oratory in Ion, Republic (Books II, III, and X), Gorgias, and elsewhere in the Phaedrus is by far the greater preoccupation. We should also recall that Plato’s reservations about writing were based in metaphysical piety. Nothing in the world, including language and Plato’s own philosophical texts, can embody or contain truth. By definition, metaphysics knows no voice or inscription. “One can thus understand why the platonic attack on writing can be accompanied by a far more detailed and obsessive attack on the rhapsodic voice,” Cavarero writes, “Plato fears the voice of acoustic pleasure, the voice that is rhythm and breath, the voice that escapes the videocentric system of language. He fears, in short, the corporeal realm of the vocal.”27 For Plato, the problem with poetry and rhetoric is that they are insufficiently metaphysical.

The transition from embodied language and the resonance of performance to the epistemic realm of conceptualization and understanding opens up a new era of intellectual culture and with it an enduring suspicion about speech and performance as cognitive jinxes. A rift opens between belief and truth, the audible and the intelligible, affect and reason. The poet is left standing on the wrong side of that divide, lumped in with the lover, the mystic, and the fanatic. Eventually, the harmony, rhythm, and inflection that characterized rhapsody and oratory would be forced to submit to the askesis of epistemic understanding: a system of metrics and a typology of rhetorical tropes and figures.



Plato’s epistemic revolution would eventually provide the rationale for literature’s return to the intellectual fold in its textual guise as, in Bill Readings description, “the primary (although not exclusive) name of the Anglophone cultural project.”28 As the object of epistemic scrutiny within the modern university, written literature becomes a consummate field of study, and it does so, in part, on the strength of its ability to stand in opposition to science and technology, establishing “the founding split … between scientific and literary culture.”29 Newly endowed with epistemic authority as the bearer of a cultural task and a social mission, a general notion of literature overtakes philosophy as the exemplar of intellectual culture. In Readings’ view, the construction of literature as an emblem of intellectual culture is predicated on a swing from techne and poeisis (craft) toward episteme (understood as literary appreciation).

Dryden presides over the development of the notion of literary appreciation: of texts as produced for an appreciating subject (of aesthetics) rather than essentially made according to rules of craft (poeisis, rhetoric). And it is at this point that a general notion of literature, rather than a series of heterogenous rule-bound language practices, can emerge as it does with Dryden. […] The English invoke literature in order to make knowledge a cultural matter.30

It is by means of this opposition, Readings argues, that the idea of a liberal education comes to stand in opposition to applied knowledge and the university comes to represent a place of education rather than instruction. By holding down the cultural side of this foundational split, literature comes to power and glory as a beacon of intellectual culture and the epistemic procedures that animate it.

Similarly, literature’s rise to prominence was part of a broader epistemic shift that witnessed investments in print textuality as a corrective to perceived problems of speech. In “Genesis of the Media Concept,” John Guillory narrates this development as a transition from rhetoric to emergent conceptualizations of the communicative function that extends from the early modern period to the nineteenth century. With specific reference to Bacon and Condorcet, Guillory explains how print came to be understood and valued as a corrective to face-to-face exchange and “rhetoric’s exploitation of fear and ignorance” and its “power to seduce.”31 “If Bacon is moving toward a conceptualization of the communicative function,” Guillory writes, “it is precisely by moving away from speech in order to affirm the greater utility of writing for transferring thoughts, writing as a means of ‘communication’ … that seems to transcend (spoken) words.”32 In this regard, print provides epistemic guarantees that echo Plato’s platform for the dialectic.

The medium of print publication, in part creating a new public sphere for its productions, ensures that “all proofs are developed and all doubts are discussed” and hence that no tyrannical cause prevails through the old techniques of verbal seduction.33

The ascendency of print media and literature as emblems of intellectual culture culminates with the institutionalization of literary studies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a stand-alone discipline. At this juncture a new imperative emerges: the need for a theory that could legitimate literary studies as an independent discipline.34 The struggles that resulted focused on academic jurisdiction and method and pitted the two strongest factions – critics and scholars – against each other in a struggle to secure a degree of epistemic authority for literary study. The flashpoint of these debates was once again the distinction between writing and speech.

In Democratic Eloquence: The Fight of Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America, Kenneth Cmiel describes one of the formative moments in the development of American literary studies. Over a twenty-year period in the late nineteenth century (1860-1880), a debate about educational reform turned into a war between critics and scholars over linguistic norms. The critics – journalists, educators, ministers, essayists – upheld the Arnoldian view of culture and looked to literary study as a way to contain and combat what they perceived as the relentless philistinism of American life.35 The key figure for the critics was Charles Eliot, T.S. Eliot’s cousin, the twenty-first president of Harvard University (1869-1909), and the driving force behind Harvard’s transformation from a provincial college into the country’s preeminent research institution. Eliot viewed literary study as a bulwark against the vulgarity of American speech, “so that no child’s knowledge of his native tongue should be left the chance influences of his home, the street, and the newspaper.”36 For the critics, literary language and the written word were the proper standard. On the other side, the scholars – philologists all – took up the cause of vernacular speech. By the 1870s, they had begun defending slang, dialect, and other forms of unpolished English.

Not only did they portray verbal critics as wrong about the dangers of popular language. The scholarly philologists, particularly William Dwight Whitney, edged toward arguing that technical vocabularies were the heart of educated language and that a refined literary language had no special standing. Verbal critics saw themselves as defending traditional standards threatened by populist democracy. The new philological experts began to see verbal critics as elitist blowhards.37

The philologists believed that popular speech was the lifeblood of language, that the history of language was a history of corruption, blunders, and error – the vulgarisms of one era setting the standard for the next. The critics, however, viewed the poorly educated as a menace to the language. Their recourse to literary education was in the service of decorum and correctness. A similar dynamic played out in England where, as Terry Eagleton maintains, the rise of English under the banner of criticism became a full-blown instrument of social control and redemption answering an urgent need to “cultivate the philistine middle class.”38

And so, the catholic sensibilities of the philologist come up against the elitist rhetoric of the critics. Coming out of the late-nineteenth century culture wars in which humanists debated the being of language (is the proper object of study speech or writing?), the study of language fractured and consolidated many times over. Rhetoric and philology had nurtured a humanities that encompassed speech and writing but pressures to shore up the discipline’s epistemic foundations necessitated the division of eloquence along mediological lines into oratory and elocution on one side and literature and criticism on the other.39

By the turn of the century, things began to settle down, but by then much had changed. Most notably, speech had been excised from the discipline. At Brown College, as Robert Scholes relates,

it is the story of how oratory (with its belletristic flourishes) dwindled into rhetoric, and rhetoric gradually lost its oral emphasis, finally giving way to the exclusively written focus of English composition. The proud tradition of oratory as a fine art was dead at Brown, and by the turn of the century the old Rhetoric department had been swallowed up by the English department. In 1905, what had been courses in the composition of speeches became just plain composition. But without oratory as their subject matter, the courses in composition began to founder. Many of them turned to literature for their subject matter. This meant that the written texts produced by students were of a vastly different kind from the imaginative texts studied in class. Instead of reading orations and producing oratory, students began to read literature and produce criticism – and the stage was set for twentieth-century developments in the field of English.40

These changes happened very quickly.41 What had been at Brown in 1894 the Department of Rhetoric and English Literature was split into a Department of Rhetoric and Oratory and a Department of English Language and Literature. By 1900, the Rhetoric department had been eliminated. As Scholes comments, “It went from its zenith to oblivion in six short years.”42 Theatre and Speech Studies were next to be detached. Julia Walker traces this development to 1914, with Max Hermann’s declaration that theatre studies should be distinguished from the study of dramatic literature, and that same year with the decision of U.S. teachers of “Oral English” to declare their professional independence from departments of English literature.43

According to Gerald Graff, “The appearance of departments of language and literature in the last quarter of the nineteenth century was part of the larger process of professionalization by which the old ‘college’ became the new ‘university’.”44 As the United States transitioned toward a research model of higher education based on the German model, the need to endow literary study with epistemic authority grew, as did the institutional divide between writing and speech. Lacking epistemic standing, imitative skills like oratory, elocution, and acting were either exiled or overhauled.45 Corresponding to these developments was a strong push for “methodological rigor”46 and a redoubling of emphasis on “high seriousness.”47 At this point, “after a long period of guerilla warfare,”48 the critics and the philologists were at peace having divvied up the discipline according to period and genre specializations. The philologists had been placated to an extent by the institutionalization of bibliographical procedures, which allowed them to treat English texts with, as Lanham puts it, “biblical scrupulosity” but most importantly, the discipline had developed “a critical philosophy which sanctifie[d] its departmental and disciplinary status.”49 Amid complaints about the lack of systematic method, Graff notes,

the scholars had established a certain conception of methodological rigor as a condition of professional respectability. This conception, the critics could and did argue, implied the isolation of literature as an autonomous mode of discourse with its own special ‘mode of existence’, distinct from that of philosophy, politics, and history. It also put a premium on methods that seemed systematic and could easily be replicated.50

These attempts to bolster the epistemic authority of literary study greatly intensified the discipline’s focus on literary textuality as an object of study and consolidated its energy in the practice of formalist close reading. As Guillory and others have observed, the period from the 1870s to the 1940s saw a general transition from the study of language to the study of literature.51 The corresponding displacement of rhetoric and philology and the rise of criticism greatly narrowed of the purview of the discipline and its methodological range. On both sides of the Atlantic new modes of criticism – Practical Criticism and New Criticism – honed a formalist method for studying literary textuality as a stand-alone object and cultivated notions epistemic rigor and disinterestedness.

The triumph of the critics and criticism featured two interrelated moves: the ouster of speech and the establishment of a strong epistemic grounding in textuality and a corresponding method of close reading. The efforts among powerful late nineteenth century figures like Matthew Arnold, Cardinal Newman, and Charles Eliot along with early twentieth century figures like F.R. Leavis and I. A. Richards account in large part for the eventual rise of the discipline to supremacy. As Eagleton writes,

In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the nearly 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else. English was not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit, the spiritual essence of the social formation.52

And this was largely the result of the discipline’s success in establishing its epistemic authority as a serious undertaking with an expansive horizon. Eagleton continues,

Far from constituting some amateur or impressionistic enterprise, English was an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence – what it meant to be a person, to engage in significant relationship with others, to live from the most vital centre of the most essential values – were thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny.53

While Graff and Lanham describe the outcome of these culture wars as something between a stalemate and an uneasy alliance between the critics and the philologists, for others, notably Jerome McGann, the progress of literary studies in North America is largely a story about the rejection of philology and its findings, whereby philology,

that comprehensive historical method[,] was gradually displaced in the twentieth century, and the very term … fell into disuse. In the horizon of Modernism, scholars turned to hermeneutics of many kinds and thence – after World War II – to the meta-interpretive interests that played themselves out, in equally diverse ways, under the general banner of Theory.54



The discipline’s orientation toward hermeneutics seems very basic, but there is much at stake in it. Firstly, as McGann points out, it is a choice of theoretical over technical understanding, and implicit in that choice is yet another debate, this one somewhat quieter, about who gets to be the protagonist of literary culture – the critic or the poet. This question underpins the history of close reading to the extent that that history can be discerned as an effort to neutralize or eliminate the agency of authors and set the stage for performances of critical agency. An especially revealing episode in this drama occurred in the 1950s at the University of Toronto where two formidable scholars – Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye – were pursuing competing theories of the literary.

By training and inclination McLuhan was a literary scholar whose main focus was rhetoric and poetics. By the early 1950s, he had published scholarly articles on Keats, Coleridge, Tennyson, Hopkins, Yeats, and Chesterton, whereupon his attention began to shift to symbolism and modernism: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarme alongside Joyce, Pound, and Eliot. Of course, McLuhan was more than just a poetry scholar. He believed that poets were the first and best source of invaluable cultural knowledge about making and technology. He was especially fond of repeating Ezra Pound’s claim that “poets were the antennae of the race,” and this notion of the artist as cultural bellwether was fundamental to his thought. “Artists in various fields are always the first to discover how to enable one medium to use or release the power of another,” he says in one declaration of many.55 McLuhan’s principal method as a scholar was to bring the thought of poets into the arena of cultural study.

Just across campus was Northrop Frye, author of the period’s most important work of literary theory (Anatomy of Criticism, 1957), which begins with an indignant defense of the critic’s cultural standing.

The subject matter of literary criticism is an art, and criticism is evidently something of an art too. This sounds as though criticism were a parasitic form of literary expression, an art based on pre-existing art, a second-hand imitation of creative power. On this theory critics are intellectuals who have a taste for art but lack both the power to produce it and the money to patronize it, and thus form a class of cultural middlemen, distributing culture to society at a profit to themselves while exploiting the artist and increasing the strain on his public. The conception of the critic as a parasite or an artist manqué is still very popular, especially among artists. It is sometimes reinforced by a dubious analogy between the creative and the procreative functions, so that we hear about the ‘impotence’ and ‘dryness’ of the critic, of his hatred for genuinely creative people, and so on.56

Frye’s rebuttal to this characterization is to turn the tables on the artist. In Frye’s estimation, the critic trumps the poet because only the critic has a voice. “Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb,” and that includes poetry, for poets are, according to Frye, “inarticulate” and “speechless.”57 Thus, “the axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows.”58 These are surely some of the most unusual ideas that Frye ever committed to paper, but they auger toward an essential principle from which he never wavered: His belief that there is nothing to distinguish creation from criticism. That such an idea hinges on a silencing of poets is perhaps its least obvious but most telling aspect.

Frye’s distrust of poets and speech revives an age-old complaint and answers a familiar impulse to demote the poet in the interest of epistemic propriety. To be sure, Frye’s career reminds us of the enormous epistemic ambitions of early and mid-century humanists. Behind his defense of the critic’s standing lies a person of resounding ambition. As he put in in one of his late notebooks, “If there’s no real difference between creation & criticism, I have as much right to build palaces of criticism as Milton had to write epic poems.”59 The scope and ambition of Frye’s project in the Anatomy – to produce a “synoptic view” of literary criticism based on inductive principles – was nothing if not ambitious and it may have necessitated the kind of erasure he carries out in his “Polemical Introduction.”60 Frye’s brand of structuralism had an enormous impact on an entire generation of scholars until it was succeeded by Barthesian structuralism and an even harsher indictment of the agency of authors.

Meanwhile, McLuhan’s attempt to elevate the thought of poets was a complete failure. His plan in the late ’40s was to write a book on T. S. Eliot to be followed by a book on Ezra Pound, but by the time Frye sat down to write The Anatomy, McLuhan’s career as a literary critic was already over. His approach had made him an outlier in the discipline, and his alienation from the world of literary scholarship was soon complete. On February 22, 1949, McLuhan confided to Ezra Pound, “Am gradually getting pushed out of the current Quarterlies myself as a result of not hewing to current party-lines.”61 A few years later, Dec. 3, 1952, he wrote to Pound: “McLuhan is banned. No mag. will publish me” (233). And then, on May 31, 1953, to Walter Ong: “I can’t think of a single person to whom I wish to send an off-print.”62 While McLuhan’s attempts to leverage the evidentiary power of poetics from inside the discipline failed, his commitment to poetics would eventually inaugurate a new form of cultural analysis when his attempts to write books on Eliot and Pound culminated in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1963).

McLuhan’s fidelity to the perspectives of poets and artists marked a strong antipathy for the critical point of view of his time and its reluctance to acknowledge poiesis as a cultural ground. The practice of close reading had been thoroughly detached from cultural history. But a warranted suspicion of authors from a hermeneutic point of view soon progressed to a state of generalized critical censure so that, by mid-century, the critical impulse was to unmask the thought of poets as conceptually weak or fanciful, clouded by bad faith and false consciousness, and to hail the sober second thought of the critic/theorist as a corrective. In its most extreme form, as we see with Frye, that impulse resulted in a denial of the ability of poets to speak.

Like all the notable structuralists of the last century (Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and the early Barthes especially), Frye’s project originated in a desire to put humanistic inquiry on a scientific footing, to bolster its epistemic authority as a critical methodology. His program of synchronic analysis took the structures of literary convention as its basis and yielded an encompassing system for making sense of the English literary canon. The unnamed, and unexamined, precondition for this system is an understanding of literary textuality as a stable and autonomous cultural ground. McLuhan’s great early discovery, learned from poets, was that literary textuality is neither stable nor autonomous.

At Cambridge, McLuhan studied with I.A. Richards and received full exposure to formalist method, but he did not consent to the detachment of close reading from cultural history. McLuhan described his experience at Cambridge this way: “Richards, Leavis, Eliot and Pound and Joyce in a few weeks opened the doors of perception on the poetic process, and its role in adjusting the reader to the contemporary world. My study of media began and remains rooted in the work of these men.”63 Just as importantly, McLuhan’s scholarly approach was marked by an incredibly keen attention to the aurality of language. McLuhan’s mother was an actress and professional elocutionist, and his daily exposure to the practice of dramatic performance preceded the onset of his obsession with reading. When McLuhan was 11, after years of preparation, his mother began touring the country as a travelling elocutionist visiting remote towns and cities to deliver programs of dramatic reading, often with her son in tow. “Elocution taught young Marshall about the Play-Doh aspect of words,” McLuhan’s biographer Douglas Coupland writes, “the mutability and their ability to morph and change texture on the tongue.”64 It was after this that McLuhan turned into a reader.

He’d spent eleven years exposed to Elsie’s elocution rehearsals, but be it hormones or DNA or a bump on the head that opened a neural dam, it was only then that he became a book reading machine, obsessed with words in all their aspects: historical, grammatical, and idiosyncratic, as well as (and this is important) the physical – the way the mouth forms a word, the way a word becomes art. For Elsie, Marshall’s literary conversion was a slice of cake from heaven: not only did she have a sparring buddy in Marshall, but suddenly she now also had an elocution buddy. Almost overnight Marshall was forced (by and large cheerfully) to remember vast swaths of English literature and poetry – and not merely to remember it but also recite it out loud with gusto: crisp enunciation and precise metre and tone, as was demanded by the Alice Leone Mitchell School of Expression. In his later life as an academic and teacher this skill set would blow people away.65

The doggedness with which McLuhan would later hunt for recordings of Pound’s readings and the hours he would recall spending in the Harvard Poetry Room listening to them solidified his impression that “The poet’s own voice provides an entry to his world which is otherwise hard to discover.”66

McLuhan extols the thought of poets because they understand print textuality diachronically as a mutable part of the developing mediascape of their time. As he wrote in From Cliché to Archetype, “The poet, or creator, more than the critic, tries to exploit new technology in order to establish new plateaus for perception.”67 It was of singular importance to McLuhan that the thought of poets offers a diachronic perspective on the literary field. Diachrony is anathema to a structuralist sensibility because it comprehends change, which is messy and impervious to systems. In this McLuhan again noticed a sharp distinction between poets and critics. “It is strange that the popular press as an art form has often attracted the enthusiastic attention of poets and aesthetes while rousing the gloomiest apprehensions in the academic mind.”68 For poets, the emergence of analog new media fundamentally altered the stakes of literary expression by disclosing the cultural power of prosody. “It is the poets and the painters who react instantly to a new medium like radio or TV. Radio and gramophone and tape recorder gave us back the poet’s voice as an important dimension of poetic experience.”69

That a scholar of McLuhan’s training and abilities could so thoroughly run afoul of the discipline is telling. It suggests that the discipline’s valorization of critical, epistemic knowledge over the applied knowledge of technê and poeisis was politically binding and that its intolerance of speech was fundamental. Structuralist critical impulses found general accord in the principle of the autonomy of the literary text, itself a proving ground for the critical exercise of systematic method through practices of close reading and formalist analysis. Such moments of disciplinary formation demonstrate progress through a series of political battles between factions over method, but the real stakes of these battles seem to have had more to do with authority. Who has authority over the literary text, authors or critics? Clearly, from the point of view of the discipline, it is the latter. And so literary critical method enacts a telescoping of perspective to the singular agency of this figure whereby, as McGann observes, “texts are largely imagined as scenes of reading rather than scenes of writing. This ‘readerly’ view of text has been most completely elaborated through the modern hermeneutical tradition in which text is not something we make but something we interpret.70

The struggle between the philologists and the critics, like the tensions between McLuhan and Frye, centered on efforts to secure authority, first for the discipline, and then for the critic as exclusive judge of literary value. The crux of those debates and the mechanism of their politics involved the construction of theoretical positions that could delimit an arena for literary study, an epistemic enclosure for the literary artifact, a stage for performances of critical agency, and an antagonist. Within these developments a valorization of textuality and the figure of the critic coincided with a denigration of speech and the figure of the poet. Poetics discourse, a source of invaluable cultural knowledge about making and technology, was largely excluded from critical conversations. In ministering to its epistemic needs, the discipline participates in an ancient dynamic whereby episteme is viewed in opposition to techne and writing is understood in opposition to speech. This staging of a conflict between episteme and techne, writing and speech is part of the general process by which: 1) philosophy replaces rhetoric and poetics as the primary influence over the Greek mind, 2) literature achieves epistemic authority as an emblem of intellectual culture, 3) literary studies legitimates itself as an independent discipline, and 4) the critic assumes the role of preeminent arbiter of the literary text’s, and thereby the critic’s, epistemic authority.



We now head into the last act of the narrative, and the emergence of “French theory.”71 More vividly than any other moment, structuralism and poststructuralism enact the critical wager I have been describing thus far – the leveraging of the writing-speech divide in the name of epistemic authority. In its formative stages, the discipline lays claim to epistemic authority as a function of its rigorous attention to the task of close reading. With structuralism and poststructuralism comes an influx of ideas from structural linguistics that allows the discipline to rationalize and radicalize itself anew.

That Saussure could become such an influential thinker largely on the strength of lecture notes assembled by former students speaks to the epistemic potency of his ideas, not to mention his ambition as a thinker. Saussure conceived a science of signs, which he called semiology. The Course in General Linguistics might best be understood as a prolegomenon to that imagined project. The goal of semiology would be to show “what constitutes signs [and] what laws govern them.”72 As Saussure saw it, the implications of this would be epic in scope, such that Linguistics would be just “a small part of the general science of semiology,” its actual field of application being “the mass of anthropological facts.”73 To produce such a science Saussure would need to find a way to rationalize the signifying function across a diversity of sign systems. His method for doing this was to distinguish for the first time a conceptual plane of linguistic knowledge (langue) from the acoustic plane of speech activity (parole) and to study the former synchronically as a complete system at a given moment in time.

The distinction between langue and parole relieves the linguistic theorist of the need to account for history and utterance, two factors that cause linguistic signs to swerve all over the road. The result was a radical epistemic formalism that proved enabling, and in some cases, intoxicating. In laying out a linguistic schematic whereby signs signify on the basis of arbitrary convention and linguistic difference, Saussure pursues an epistemic totalization of the signifying function. In this purely logical way of understanding signification, the meaning of a sign boils down to its difference from all the other signs in the system. Henceforth, any regime of signs could be stripped of its material and social valances and analyzed as a differential system of conventions. Any vestiges of a link between utterance and world in the form of iconicity, such as onomatopoeia, could be explained away as anomalous.74

Saussure’s intimation that “a science that studies of the life of signs in society was possible” was intellectually enticing enough to inspire some of the most formidable theorists of the day to venture everything on the epistemic promise of the synchronic method.75 While their accomplishments stand for themselves, it is eye-opening to recall how bold some of their critical gestures were. When Rene Wellek and Austin Warren published Theory of Literature in 1948 the cover of the first edition was emblazoned with the tag line, “THIS BOOK MARKS an important milestone in the study of literature.”76 For Wellek and Austin, Saussure’s synchronic method provided an opportunity to reconceptualize the literary artifact – “the poem as such” – as a thoroughly epistemic object detached from the specificities it might engender for individual readers and yoked to “a collection of conventions and norms … having a fundamental coherence and identity.”

Linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure and the Prague Linguistic Circle carefully distinguish between langue and parole, the system of language and the individual speech act; and this distinction corresponds to that between the poem as such and the individual experience of the poem. The system of language (langue) is a collection of conventions and norms whose workings and relations we can observe and describe as having a fundamental coherence and identity in spite of very different, imperfect, or incomplete pronouncements of individual speakers. In this respect at least, a literary work of art is in exactly the same position as a system of language.77

In 1955, Claude Levi-Strauss put forth a similarly bold proposal to apply Saussurean principles to the study of myth in an effort to put an end to the reign of “platitude and sophism” that had taken hold and renew a field of study that had been left “a wasteland” by the discipline of Anthropology.78 Levi-Strauss wanted to solve the problem that myths were baffling in and of themselves (“Anything is likely to happen. There is no logic, no continuity. Any characteristic can be attributed to any subject; every conceivable relation can be met. With myth, everything becomes possible”79 ), but also possessed features that seemed to cohere across cultures. He believed that all this could be put right by the application of Saussure’s synchronic method so that “this apparent arbitrariness [of myth] is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions.”80 “Whatever emendations the original formulation may now call for, everybody will agree that the Saussurean principle of the arbitrary character of the linguistic signs was a prerequisite for the acceding of linguistics to the scientific level …. For language itself can be analyzed into things which are at the same time similar and different. This is precisely what is expressed in Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole.”81

Yet another glimpse of Saussurean linguistics in its guise as epistemic lodestone is provided by the early work of Roland Barthes. In the late 1950s, Barthes began an ambitious study of fashion that would occupy him on and off for twelve years. He called it a “vestimentary linguistics” and set out to find Saussurean cognates for everything in the fashion world that would lend itself to them. As with the previous examples, Barthes was struggling with methodological challenges posed by the need to account for a wealth of particularizing and seemingly random detail. So rather than study fashion itself, Barthes chose to study discourse about fashion in a structuralist way. The Fashion System is

a structuralist analysis of women’s clothing as currently described in fashion magazines; its method was originally inspired by the general science of signs postulated by Saussure under the name of semiology82

At this time, Barthes greatest fidelity was to the epistemic promise of his method, a method seemingly so auspicious as to obviate the very object of study. In an article called “‘Blue is in Fashion this Year: A Note on Research into Signifying Units in Fashion Clothing,” Barthes reveals the completeness of his faith in Saussure’s synchronic method, “I am not yet certain that clothing does carry meaning, but I am right at least to apply a linguistic method of analysis to it.”83 Barthes carried this methodological faith into The Fashion System: “By working not on real Fashion but on written Fashion, the author believes he has ultimately respected a certain complexity and a certain order of the semiological project.”84

There might have been some epistemological overreach at work in the way Saussure’s method was instrumentalized in the postwar years, which the coming of poststructuralism in the 60s would both alter and intensify. Where structuralism brings a rationalization of the signifying field via the application of synchronic method, poststructualism offers a radicalization of the signifying function as itself a species of critique via the self-undermining calculus that Derrida names différance. Where the epistemic piety of the structuralists found expression in an evangelism of the synchronic method, the poststructuralists (particularly Derrida and the late Barthes) sought revolution through acts of structuralist heresy. Structuralists like Wellek and Austin, Levi-Strauss, and the early Barthes sought analytical simplification by eliminating epistemic radicals, those particularizing details that militate against clean conceptualizations, but the poststructuralists took up these epistemic radicals as a source of critical potential in themselves.

As it happened and in its aftermath, the revolutionary ethos of poststructuralism was framed once again as a story about the epistemic virtue of writing versus the epistemic ineptitude of speech. Michael Holquist’s 2007 MLA presidential address is a good example of this. In this short essay, Holquist presents a story about the relationship between writing and speech that radicalizes the discipline’s commitment to writing by giving an account of literacy as scandalous and of language experts as cultural outlaws: “Cultures suspect their language experts because those experts are society’s ultimate custodians of literacy – and literacy is in its essence unnatural.” Holquist goes on to assert that literacy’s essential unnaturalness pits it against the ostensible naturalness of speech: “Speaking may not be instinctual,” Holquist writes,

but it seems natural in a way that reading and writing do not, even though they too, of course, also inhere in language. Whether or not language is a wired human ability is a topic of heated debate among linguists. What cannot be doubted, however, is the almost instinctual ease of words produced by our life’s breath seems closer to the natural state than do the Janus-faced activities that define us as a profession – reading and writing. I have this gulf between speaking and literacy in mind when I assert that literacy must somehow be achieved; it is the product of work. It is the labor that makes us civilized by making us denatured.85

Here we are asked to consider writing, not as a medium, but as an emblem of radical constructivism, criticality, and rigor combined. With this apotheosis of writing as epistemic emblem comes a corresponding aggrandizement of the critic. The heroic actions of this outlaw are to assert and uphold a nature-culture binary so that culture (figured as writing) can triumph over nature (figured as speech).

Holquist’s notion of the inbuilt radicality of writing hearkens to what is perhaps the most important chapter in the history of the distinction between writing and speech: the appearance in English of Derrida’s Of Grammatology and the breathtaking grand narrative of phonologocentrism. According to Derrida’s telling of this story, western metaphysics is underpinned by a faith in inner speech as a pure form of intelligibility, or absolute logos. Derrida’s effort to dismantle “this phonocentrism which is also a logocentrism” is two-pronged.86 His first tactic, a deft and compelling one, is to argue that the difference and deference that undermine signification as a semiotic process “always already” affects all signifiers, whether spoken or written. Thus, the “fallen secondarity” that would seem to be a property of writing alone is a basic condition of all language, speech included. This crucial aspect of signification, which Derrida names écriture, thus inhabits speech and thereby “comprehends language.” 87 With this, Derrida collapses the distinction between writing and speech to arrive at a critical synthesis that rationalizes the literary field as always already textual.

Derrida’s next move, a very strange one, is an attempt to validate writing by casting it as a heroic exile of the western intellectual story, which tells of the “the debasement of writing, and its repression outside ‘full’ speech.”88 Here, inner speech is characterized as a domineering figure in a long tradition that understands writing as a mere supplement, an idea Derrida hammers away at in a series of hyperbolic statements: “The system of ‘hearing (understanding)–oneself-speak’ through the phonic substance … has necessarily dominated the history of the world during an entire epoch.” 89 This figure of speech as dominant episteme is in turn aligned with “all the metaphysical determinations of truth,” or the logos.90 And “[w]ithin this logos,” Derrida holds, “the original and essential link to the phone has never been broken.” 91 Derrida’s critique asks us to believe that Platonic metaphysics posits speech as the ground of metaphysical truth, but in fact it is quite the opposite. Plato faults oral culture in its guise of rhetoric and poetics for being insufficiently metaphysical and abstract. As the foregoing demonstrates, the ensuing tradition has been one in which intellectual history is framed again and again as a story about the epistemic superiority of writing over speech.

In delimiting writing/écriture as différance, Derrida isolates a sovereign linguistic radical, that quantum of difference and deference that condemns language to forever undermine itself. The signifying function always already performs its own critique on language by invalidating the teleology of signification, a notion that has prompted Bruno Latour to mock Derrida as “the Zeno of differance.”92 This formalization of language as auto-critique ministers to the needs of epistemic agents whose job it is to assume authority over the text. With this, the stage is set for performances of the critic’s epistemic dominance over the poet as we see in the great deconstructive readings of romantic poetry, particularly those of Paul de Man.93 In this critical moment, the technical agency of poiesis that presides over the creation of texts is forsaken in favor of the epistemic agency of the critic whereby the act of reading becomes itself the scene of the text’s production. As Barthes puts it, “the Text is experienced only in an activity of production.” The reader, not the author, produces the text. With this, techne and poiesis are completely absorbed into the epistemic machinery of close reading such that scenes of writing come to be understood as scenes of reading.

The focus of McGann’s efforts to recover the historical and material conditions of textuality was, tellingly, poetry. “The object of poetry is to display the textual condition,” he writes.94 Which is also to say, “Poets understand texts better than most information technologists.”95 In saying this McGann sets out to validate the work of poets as technical agents because acts of poiesis mobilize language as a technical object within a material milieu. McGann’s career as a scholar charts a pathway from the epistemic preserve of what he calls the theory movement to a materialist setting where literary culture is the product of multiple agencies acting on and producing the textual condition. McGann was by no means alone, but he deserves special recognition for being able to accomplish what McLuhan could not – bring an awareness of media history into the discipline and an understanding of the epistemic value of poetics to an account of literary history.



If disdaining speech is one of the ways the discipline makes the epistemic speakable and rogue viewpoints damage the idea of what is speakable, then in what sense can we hope to reclaim speech within the epistemic matrix of literary studies? I am less concerned than Butler about the damage rogue viewpoints do to the notion of the viewpoint itself. The McLuhan / McGann axis of poetics scholarship has shown that the mediality of poetry is bound up with an array of related exigencies. Over the past two decades a general shift in critical attention from epistemic and interpretive interests toward historical and technical concerns has done much to reconnect critical knowledge to the circumstances of literary history, such that, as McGann observes, “History-oriented investigations of literature and culture are now impressively widespread, diverse, and learned.”96 One important result of this shift has been to demonstrate the coincidence of literary history and media history and to reveal, as Thomas H. Ford puts it, that poems are “inherently multimedia” because language is itself a mixed medium.97

These inquiries have challenged and changed our understanding of literary culture by demonstrating that, contrary to critical norms, writing and speech do not stand in hierarchical opposition, but rather develop in mutually defining ways “as foils” (Gitelman). In her study of eighteenth century British literary culture, Paula McDowell tracks the development of “an emerging print society and its changing relationship with oral discourse,” demonstrating how “reflections on the spread of print was a key factor in shaping our modern category of oral culture” (3-4). Maureen McLane’s study of nineteenth century balladry reveals a similar phenomenon of “oral-literate conjunction” (183) operating in Romanticism where poets solicit speech through the intermediary of the ballad tradition to construct a “new literary orality” (425).

Learned though they are, these critical developments are not solely the fruits of scholarly inquiry. As McGann, Ford, McDowell, and McLane well know, they owe a significant debt to the historical and technical knowledge of poets and their efforts to affirm poiesis as a cultural location. Paying close attention to the efforts of writers to mobilize language anew discloses a different set of relations between writing and speech than we are used to encountering in critical contexts. Where critical and theoretical understandings have tended to presuppose a hierarchical separation of writing and speech as epistemic antinomies, the history of poetics shows that vanguard writers turn to speech again and again as a means for imagining and achieving technical innovations in writing. Where the discipline opposes writing and speech, the history of poetics shows that they in fact constantly compose.


  1. Robert Grenier, “On Speech,” This 1 (Oakland, CA: This Press, 1971). 

  2. Eileen Myles, “Painted Clear, Painted Black,” Evening Will Come, no. 29 (May 2013), 

  3. Robert Grenier, “Robert Grenier and Paul Stephens,” Interview by Paul Stephens, Bomb no. 132 (July 2015) 

  4. Judith Butler, “Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 4 (Summer 2009), 777. 

  5. Butler, “Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity,” 777. 

  6. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans Richard Beardsworth and George Collins (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1998), ix. 

  7. Bruno Latour, “On Technical Mediation: Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy,” Common Knowledge 3, no. 2 (Fall 1994), 29-64. 

  8. As Guillory notes, “For the antirhetorical tradition, the construction of rhetorical speech is irredeemably tainted by the possibility of lying” See John Guillory, “Genesis of the Media Concept,” Critical Inquiry 32, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 325. 

  9. Mark Edmundston, Literature Against Itself, Plato to Derrida (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995), 16. 

  10. William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (1802), William Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984), 601. 

  11. T.S. Eliot, “The Music of Poetry,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, Ed. Frank Kermode (London: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975), 111. 

  12. William Wordsworth, “The Prelude” (1805), William Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984): 511. 

  13. Walt Whitman, An American Primer (Cambridge, MA.: The University Press, 1904) 

  14. See Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race Language and Twentieth Century Literature (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994). 

  15. Amy Lowell, “Poetry as a Spoken Art” Poetry and Poets: Essays (Boston, MA.: Houghton Mifflin, 1930), 11. 

  16. William Carlos Williams, “The Poem as a Field of Action”, 

  17. Lew Welch, “Language is Speech.” How I Work as a Poet and Other Essays (San Francisco: Grey Fox, 1973): 30. 

  18. Grenier, “On Speech.” 

  19. Ron Silliman, “Introduction,” In the American Tree: Language Realism Poetry, (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2007): xviii. 

  20. For the definitive study that advanced this view, see Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991). 

  21. Hank Lazer, “Anthologies, Poetry, and Postmodernism: Postmodern American Poetry,” Contemporary Literature 36.2 (1995), 362-383. 

  22. Lazer, “Anthologies, Poetry, and Postmodernism,” 362-383. 

  23. As Dana Miller writes, “Plato’s chief argument against rhetoric is epistemological.” See Dana Miller, “Rhetoric in the Light of Plato’s Epistemological Criticism,” Rhetorica XXX, no. 2 (2012), 109. Susan B. Levin’s assessment of Plato’s critique of poetry states, “Plato’s systematic critique of poetry in dialogues up to and including the Republic transpires in terms of its techne status.” See Susan B. Levin, The Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry Revisited: Plato and the Greek Literary Tradition (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001). 

  24. Quotations from and references to Plato’s dialogues are cited parenthetically. The source is The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1961). 

  25. Adriana Cavarero, For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression, tr. Paul A. Kottman (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2005): 81. 

  26. “Phonocentrism” is, of course, Derrida’s term for the privileging of speech over writing, a bias he traces throughout the history of western metaphysics, but which figures most prominently in his critiques of Saussure and Husserl, as one of the signatures of logocentrism. In aligning phonocentrism with logocentrism, Derrida posits speech as the central figure of the metaphysics of presence: “We already have a foreboding that phonocentrism merges with the historical determination of the meaning of being in general as presence, with all the subdeterminations which depend on this general form” (OG 11-12). See Of Grammatology, corrected edition, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), Ch. 2, and Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press), Ch. 6. For a critical reconsideration of Derrida’s use of the term, see Beata Stawarska, Saussure’s Philosophy of Language as Phenomenology: Undoing the Doctrine of the Course in General Linguistics (Oxford Scholarship Online), 2015. 

  27. Cavarero, For More Than One Voice, 84. 

  28. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1997): 71. There is a long hiatus in this history, the Christian Middle Ages, when the oral and literate traditions were deeply interdependent. See Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the 11th and 12th Centuries (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987) and Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past, (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1997): 4. 

  29. Readings, The University in Ruins, 74. 

  30. Readings, The University in Ruins, 78-79. 

  31. Guillory, “Genesis of the Media Concept,” 325. 

  32. Guillory, “Genesis of the Media Concept,” 329. 

  33. Guillory, “Genesis of the Media Concept,” 326. 

  34. Richard Lanham, Literacy and the Survival of Humanism (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1983), 110. 

  35. Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight of Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: William Morrow, 1990), 150. 

  36. Qtd. in Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence, 150. 

  37. Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence, 150. 

  38. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983), 24. 

  39. Robert Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1998), 186. 

  40. Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English, 10-11. 

  41. Guillory writes, “The disappearance of rhetoric from the schools was the final result of an evolutionary change in norms of language-use proceeding too slowly at first to be noticed for its epochal significance; this change was nothing less than a reordering of the relations between speech and writing, a reordering in which writing – in the remediated form of print – would come increasingly to dominate the most important social venues of communication” (“Genesis of the Media Concept” 326). 

  42. Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English, 187. 

  43. Julia Walker, “Why Performance? Why Now? Textuality and the Rearticulation of Human Presence,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 16.1 (2003), 150. 

  44. Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 55. 

  45. See Walker, ““Why Performance? Why Now?” and Graff, Professing Literature, ch. 3. 

  46. Graff, Professing Literature, 145. 

  47. Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English, 12. 

  48. Lanham, Literacy and the Survival of Humanism, 107. 

  49. Lanham, Literacy and the Survival of Humanism, 107-8. 

  50. Graff, Professing Literature, 145. 

  51. “When departments of English and modern foreign languages were created in the 1870s, the primary subject of study within these departments (as their names indicated) was not literature but language. By the 1940s, however, literature and its correlative discourse of ‘literary criticism’ had thoroughly displaced language from its former position of disciplinary preeminence.” See John Guillory, “Literary Study and the System of the Disciplines,” Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle, eds. Amanda Anderson and Joseph Valente (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002). (19). 

  52. Eagleton, Literary Theory, 31. 

  53. Eagleton, Literary Theory, 31. 

  54. Jerome McGann, A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2014), 19. 

  55. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 54. 

  56. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), 3. 

  57. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 4. 

  58. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 5. 

  59. Qtd. In B.W. Powe, Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2014), 44. 

  60. Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 3. 

  61. Marshall McLuhan, Letters of Marshall McLuhan, eds. Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 211. 

  62. McLuhan, Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 236. 

  63. Marshall McLuhan, “Forward,” The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan 1943–1962 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), xiii-xiv. 

  64. Douglas Coupland, Marshall McLuhan (New York: Viking, 2010), 42. 

  65. Coupland, Marshall McLuhan, 44-5. 

  66. McLuhan, Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 223-4. 

  67. Marshall McLuhan, The Essential McLuhan, eds. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 336. 

  68. McLuhan, “Joyce, Mallarme and the Press.” I THINK WE NEED COMPLETE NOTE HERE. 

  69. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 53. 

  70. Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), 4. 

  71. “French theory” is François Crusset’s term of art for the arrival of works by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari on American shores in the late 1970s and 1980s. See François Crusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2008). 

  72. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959), 16. 

  73. Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 16. 

  74. “Onomatopoeic formulations are never organic elements of a linguistic system,” Saussure claims in the Course in General Linguistics (69). 

  75. Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 16. 

  76. René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1948). 

  77. René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, 152. 

  78. Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” The Journal of American Folklore 68, no. 270 (Oct.-Dec. 1955), 428. 

  79. Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” 429. 

  80. Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” 429. 

  81. Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” 430. 

  82. Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1990), ix. 

  83. Roland Barthes, “‘Blue is in Fashion this Year: A Note on Research into Signifying Units in Fashion Clothing,” The Language of Fashion, trans. Andy Stafford, eds. Andy Stafford and Michael Carter (Sydney: Power Publications: 2006), 41. 

  84. Barthes, The Fashion System, x. 

  85. Michael Holquist, “Presidential Address 2007: The Scandal of Literacy,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008), 571. 

  86. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, corrected edition, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1997), 11. 

  87. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 7. 

  88. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 3. 

  89. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 7-8. 

  90. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 10. 

  91. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 11. 

  92. Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2013), 156. 

  93. See, for example, Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-facement,” MLN 94, no. 5 (Dec. 1979), 919-930. 

  94. McGann, The Textual Condition, 10. 

  95. McGann, The Textual Condition, 14. 

  96. McGann, A New Republic of Letters, 156. 

  97. “Poetry’s Media” New Literary History 44:3 (Summer 2013): 450. 

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Image: Abbé Rousselot's device for the inscription of speech.” From Ferdinand Brunot, L'inscription de la parole,” La Nature 998 (16 July 1892), 97.