Nathaniel Mackey

From Discrepant Engagement


The title of this book is taken from one of the essays on Wilson Harris's work, "Poseidon (Dub Version)." It is an expression coined in reference to practices that, in the interest of opening presumably closed orders of identity and signification, accent fissure, fracture, incongruity, the rickety, imperfect fit between word and world. Such practices highlight - indeed inhabit - discrepancy, engage rather than seek to ignore it. Recalling the derivation of the word discrepant from a root meaning "to rattle, creak," I relate discrepant engagement to the name the Dogon of West Africa give their weaving block, the base on which the loom they weave upon sits. They call it the "creaking of the word." It is the noise upon which the word is based, the discrepant foundation of all coherence and articulation, of the purchase upon the world fabrication affords. Discrepant engagement, rather than suppressing or seeking to silence that noise, acknowledges it. In its anti-foundational acknowledgment of founding noise, discrepant engagement sings "base," voicing reminders of the axiomatic exclusions upon which positings ofidentity and meaning depend.

Jacques Attali, to whose book Noise: The Political Economy of Music I refer in "Other. From Noun to Verb," offers a relevant definition:

A noise is a resonance that interferes with the audition ofa message in the process of emission.. . . Noise, then, does not exist in itselt but only in relation to the system within which it is inscribed....Information theory uses the concept of noise . . . in a more general way: noise is the term for a signal that interferes with the reception of a message by a receiver, even if the interfering signal itself has a meaning for that receiver.

Noise is whatever the signifying system, in a particular situation, is not intended to transmit, be the system a poem, a piece of music, a novel, or an entire society. Open form (itself a discrepant, oxymoronic formulation, not unlike Williams's "variable foot") is a gesture in the direction of noise. Baraka's valorization of "honking" by rhythm and blurs (R&B) saxophonists, Major's "remarkable verb of/ things," Duncan's invocation of "disturbance," Creeley's bebop-influenced deviation from expected narrative accents, Olson's insistence that things "keep their proper confusions," his advocacy of"shout" as a corrective to discourse, Brathwaite's "calibanisms," and Harris's "language as omen" all in their distinctive ways validate noise. The discrepant openings they advance bespeak, in varying degrees, what Leonard Barrett calls cultural dissonance, "the social and cultural incongruities which the society feel are responsible for its alienation whether real or imagined." Writing about the Rastafarians ofJamaica, Barrtt suggests that in their music, whether ritual Nyabingi or popular reggae, we "detect in the lower beats deep structural dissonance which mirrors the social conflicts within the society." The open practices and aspirations of the writers dealt with in this book, I have been insisting, do likewise. "Dissonance /...leads to discovery," Williams writes.

Discrepant engagement, rather than suppressing resonance, dissonance, noise, seeks to remain open to them. Its admission of resonances contends with resolution. It worries resolute identity and demarcation, resolute boundary lines, resolute definition, obeying a vibrational rather than a corpuscular sense of being, "a quality," as Major puts it, "of which sharp contact is / the qualification, a remarkable verb quiver. To see being as verb rather than noun is to be at odds with hypostasis, the reification of fixed identities that has been the bane of socially marginalized groups. It is to be at odds with taxonomies and categorizations that obscure the fact of heterogeneity and mix. "Poseidon (Dub Version)" brings discrepant engagement to bear upon questions of representation, naming, and identity in a context of cultural mix inherited from colonizing projects, arguing that it dispels or seeks to dispel the specter of inauthenticity that haunts post-colonial hybridity, dislodges or seeks to dislodge homogeneous models of identity and assumptions of monolithic form. But, as I have already indicated and by titling the book as I have, discrepant engagement is relevant not only to writers from recently decolonized regions such as Harris and Brathwaite. It pertains to and is symptomatic of a postmodern/postcolonial suspicion of totalizing paradigms, a suspicion of which Williams's admonition "Waken from . . . this dream of/ the whole poem" (P, 234). Major's caveat with regard to "control versions of any/ coherence" or Olson's dissatisfaction with having "lived long in a generalizing time" is no less an instance than Harris's comments on the partial image or Brathwaite's audition of "some- / thing torn // and new.

Still, because of preconceptions regarding who belongs where and with whom, which have been shaped and reinforced by existing rubrics and academic practice, there are readers who will find the mix of writers dealt with in this book incongruous and problematic. In this respect, the book's title refers to its own practice, its willingness to engage what will be seen by some as an unlikely or an unsanctioned fit, a non-fit. Though I have attempted in this introduction to offer some of my senses of how these essays and the writers with whose work they deal fit together, I have also offered its fortuitous, figurative title, "And All the Birds Sing Bass," as a discrepant note meant to call attention to the problematics of rubric-making, a caveat meant to make the act of categorization creak. Such creaking is always present, even in the case of more customary groupings - groupings that appear unproblematic, proper, only because we agree not to hear it. It is my hope that this book lives up to its title, that it avails itself of resonances and dissonances, the interstitial play between fit and non-fit, the non-totalizing drift a book of essays affords. It is my hope that in addition to making sense it makes noise.