poetry by charles bernstein

By ‘‘language’’ Bernstein does not mean what logicians, linguists, and philosophers of language mean, namely, language as a formal system for framing representations (signifieds, concepts, propositions, narrative descriptions, expressions of feeling, and so on). There are, in his view, no ‘‘chains of signifiers’’ that can break down, because language is not made of signifiers, chained or unchained. (It is, shall we say, a complex system.) Bernstein was a student of Cavell’s at Harvard, and so it is no surprise that he thinks of language as situated speech, a social practice entirely visible on its surface rather than a deep structure that gives the rule to disposable paroles. For Bernstein the task of poetry (like that of ordinary language philosophy) is to explore these practices of everyday language, framing or staging ‘‘what we say when,’’ often in comic takes and parodies of the voices that circulate in the social environments (from high to low) that we inhabit. The first poem in Dark City, “The Lives of Toll Takers,” is a collage of such voices:


Gerald L. Bruns, On the Anarchy of Poetry and Philosophy: A Guide for the Unruly. Fordham University Press, 2006.



“The Lives of Toll Takers”

Charles Bernstein


There appears to be a receiver off the hook. Not that

you care.

       Beside the gloves resided a hat and two

pinky rings, for which no

finger was ever found. Largesse

with no release became, after

not too long, atrophied, incendiary,

stupefying. Difference or

differance: it’s

the distinction between hauling junk and

removing rubbish, while

I, needless to say, take

        out the garbage



Phone again, phone again, jiggity jig.

            I figured

they do good eggs here.

            Funny $: making a killing on

junk bonds and living to peddle the tale

            (victimless rime)


(Laughing all the way to the Swiss bank where I put my money

in gold bars

[the prison house of language]