Farid Matuk               (page 3)
To Claim Great Things for Such a Practice, or, Getting Over

Pryor’s dexterous rhetorical turns undermine the moment and render him unlikeable, uncivil, and unavailable to the interviewer’s agenda and unavailable to the expectations of any audience Pryor could have anticipated at the time. For a sense of context, only four years before did Dallas, the city where I now live, begin to integrate its public schools in earnest, and only after a prolonged battle in the federal courts. Though Pryor was ostensibly beyond such struggles and, in the particular exchange of this interview, Pryor occupied the position of power, he repeatedly calls attention to his criminal status. Criminal, to be of a people who were property and to now be free. Hence, you have the corporate-prison complex that profits from voters’ silence at the disproportionate prosecution of drug crimes among blacks today. Hence, Reagan and company’s successful move to win back working and middle class southern whites away from unions and away from Democrats by mounting a media campaign in support of his “war on drugs” that depicted, almost exclusively, blacks as addicts and pushers. Hence, Brittany Williams. Hence, Taneka Talley. Hence, Cheryl Green. Hence, Brandon McClelland. Hence, James Byrd. So Pryor rejects that moment of civility and acts like a jerk, even as a purveyor of hate. I admire deeply his ability to resist the ways that civil interaction can actually be a means of coercion, a means to make us validate narratives of normalcy. On the other hand, his resistance seems ultimately so nihilistic or at least lonely. But, to take it back to Mercer, the “moment of undecidability” for Pryor in that situation, I think, is precisely the moment most of us would elide, it is the moment of being addressed. We respond because we need to be seen, and we are willing to accept the constitutive particularities of the address, the way the address positions us before we even speak. Pryor chose to contest that power. He tries to cast himself as object, I think, in order to claim a black subjectivity, one perhaps more permanent and truly his than the double bind offered by his celebrity of being an exceptional representative. Pryor leaves me with questions integral to any poetics I might claim: what good are our gains in civil rights when they induct blacks and other minority groups into a middle class that obscures, as legal scholar Michelle Alexander has recently argued, the racial caste system on which it depends, and, what good are modes of testimony, representation, and legibility, when they serve to normalize this condition?2


In his essay “The Romantic-Modern Lyric: Poetry for the Non- Poet,” 3 Dale Smith imagines new possibilities for the lyric beyond the binary of unexamined personal expression on the one hand and symptom of late capitalist ideology on the other. He turns to Jeffrey Walker’s study Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity, a carefully researched look at the transition from oral to written expression in the ancient world. According to Smith, Walker “adopt[s] the name of ‘lyric’ for an epideictic ‘speech’ composed in verse and meant typically to be performed in ritual, festal, symposiastic, or paideutic settings.” This emphasis on ceremonial staging, with its attendant assumption of a dynamic between speaker and audience, edges the lyric text toward performance. Or maybe more precisely, it locates lyric’s potential to stage arguments in the chasm between the illocutionary force of the lyric, or its intended meaning, and its perlocutionary force, its actual effect on the reader or audience, to use terms associated with J.L. Austin’s old “speech act” theory. Smith continues:

Walker gives us a transpersonal view of the lyric, opposing this to the self-regarding and self-situated author of lyric sensitivity and consciousness. Lyric poetry “makes arguments” according to this view, and runs counter to romantic-modern notions that perceive the lyric as a “state of feeling” or “subjectivity” (168). While modern critics have been skeptical of this romantic view of the lyric, few have examined it as a means of interrogating specific ideologies because they perceive in the lyric a problem, itself a malignant ideological structure used to “embody a state of subjectivity” (168).4

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