On Do Your Own Damn Laundry
“Even the innocuous news reports and weather are loaded with fact, fear, and emotion, making us aware that language is never simply an innocent carrier of meaning but is widely variable depending upon context and framing.” Poetry Magazine (Endnote, July/August 2009)
“Since spoken language contains no punctuation, what choices go into the act of transcription?” Kenneth Goldsmith (2010)
Do Your Own Damn Laundry [hereafter, DYODL] is an inspired hybrid project formulated by Suzanne Stein and Steve Benson [the “actors”]. Both artists are widely-known and highly-regarded in avant garde circles in the U.S. Stein is a publisher, editor, poet, performer, and curator in California, while Benson is a poet, performance artist, and clinical psychologist in Maine. On her webpage, Stein says that the actors’ theatrical performance, DYODL, delivered in book form by GaussPDF and lulu.com, “documents the improvisational dialogues we performed together between 2011 and 2012” [for a total of 36 “chats”]. In what must have been a monumental and time-consuming organizational and strategic effort, Stein and Benson “chose CoveritLive—a social media tool typically used for informal sportscasting and business-to-business conferencing. This platform would allow us to perform a textual dialogue live to an online audience, share administrative management of the account, and archive the results, with each entry date-, and time-stamped. We embedded the CiL platform on a page in Suzanne’s blog, where readers could read and watch the performances as they happened or scroll at their own pace through the archive.” [DYODL, p 299]. The project, then, was presented to two audiences: readers, as well as, reader-viewers—the latter mode, presumably, having an auditory component, also.
In a literary sense, and like a theatrical drama, DYODL displays discursive tension of an interpersonal nature as each author exerts their identity and agency in a process moving from relative strangers to, more or less, intimate partners. The text is divided into four sections, each section sub-divided into sessions of varying length that increases, on average, over time. Italics distinguish Stein’s words from Benson’s, and the performance’s impact is enhanced by the uniqueness, as well as, the complementarity of the actors’ “voices” and personalities. Throughout this review I will emphasize the ways that Stein’s and Benson’s personas evolve throughout the process of familiarization that highlights the identity-based nature of language—having the potential to reflect both positive and negative aspects and functions of personality. When reading the “script,” I became, particularly, interested in the heteronormative* features of interactions, as well as, how these features might have related to power relations between the actors. As Ferdinand de Saussure argued, identity is relational in ways that modify the personal via interactions with an “other,” in this case, interactions between Stein and Benson.
Section One comprises a single, brief session on 5/8/2011 initiating the actors’ intermittent conversations that would be recorded until the final session of the whole performance on 8/10/2012 in Section Four. A definition of effective communication employed by linguists is termed, “active listening”—a technique requiring the listener to fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said [definition via google.com]. Initially, when reading the script, it was not clear to me that Benson was listening to Stein. Attempting to document my impression, I counted the number of times each speaker used the word, “I.” The results clearly showed that, in this initial performance, Benson was seemingly self-centered, using “I” 71% of the time out of all utterances of “I” [N= 91 total “I”s in Section One]. Indeed, in this section, Stein [in italics throughout the book] assumed a supportive role as if she detected Benson’s possible discomfort, anxiety, hesitance, or insecurity [“Queasy is a wonderful way to be. At first when I read it here I thought you had misspelled it. So I think my own inner unacknowledged queasiness misspelled it for me, at first…Have I lost the thread? No / we’re both here. / I’m still here…” [pp 8-9]. Though one cannot be certain, it might be argued that Stein and Benson are adopting traditional sex roles throughout this and following sections—the male relying on the female to do “emotional work” [note, for example, Stein’s use of the inclusive, “we” and her provision of calming support—“we’re both here”]. It might, also, be suggested that Benson’s overwhelming use of “I” represents his attempt to assert power during the discourse; but, other explanations cannot be discounted (e.g., anxiety, insecurity, ambivalence, etc.). Additional patterns from section to section, as the interactions proceeded, need to be evaluated qualitatively and quantitatively.
In Section Two [5/16 – 8/29/2011], the rudiments of “active listening” are apparent, though it is important to note that the actors communicated with each other between sections and, presumably, sessions [sub-sections]—no doubt enhancing mutual familiarity and coordination. As in Section One, Stein and Benson are given to speaking over each other [a type of erasure and, with pauses, a type of “white space”], suggesting that concentration is less than optimal. Indeed, throughout all four sections of the composed performance, Benson seems to be frequently distracted, as in this exchange on p 19 [recall that Stein’s words appear in italics throughout the book]:
“When we are about to start the screen goes /
white, but also there is this message, /
prompting us to begin to ‘provide content.’ /
As it turns out, I don’t mind ‘anticipation’ /
I feel like I am in another world. Is this the /
future? We can’t pretend it is not us. We expect /
to be living in the future, and suddenly we are. /
the screen hesitates, suggesting ‘the writer’ /
will provide content”
Although Benson may still be seeking support from Stein, it is, nevertheless, evident in this exchange and many others throughout the transcription, that both actors are poets, and, on p 286, Benson makes direct reference to the genre: “Dogs are scavengers. / Poets are scavengers, too. / Dogs are mere pets. / ‘Pets’ is in ‘Poets.’” Kenneth Goldsmith, Benjamin Zephaniah, Nikita Gill, and others, have asked, “What does it take to be a poet in the internet age?” Using modern technology, Stein and Benson transcribe and broadcast conversations into verse, including, meter, rhythm, and play, and, like many examples of Modernist and Post-modernist innovative poetry, repetition is employed to unify the text from what may appear to be disparate elements from section to section [e.g., in the present case, references to swimming, diving, weather, illness, as well as, physical and psychic well-being].
Section Three [10/10/2011 – 2/6/2012] reveals that “active listening” is well-developed, evinced by coordinated and correlated “cutting off,” suggesting that actors are responding to each other intentionally. Also, Stein and Benson sometimes finish each others’ sentences—indicating familiarity [“I’m sorry, that gave me pause. / uncertainty / I heard the sound of breaking glass. / attention to the / light shining on a shattering mirror. / sound listing in the direction / aimless listening.” [p 162]. Despite disjunct elements, this section includes examples of true conversations, reflection, and lengthy statements [e.g., pp 123-124], and empathy is apparent as a signature of the actors’ interactions, suggesting, burgeoning intimacy [e.g., p 156]. By Section Three of the performance, Stein and Benson have a functioning relationship—even demonstrating signs of vulnerability and attraction, as in these exchanges:
“i’m not well-rested and keeping making an /
And keep making mistakes. /
That’s okay with me. It doesn’t to me come /
between us. /
Nothing to you comes between us.”
“We’re already working together. /
Or so it seemed. /
It seems so now, more than ever, to me. /
I was working hard to get to this sense, of /
working together. /
I could sense that.”
“Active listening” is fully developed by the long Section Four [12/1 – 10/2012], and extended passages occur without including the self-directed pronoun “I” [pp 217, 231-236, 291]. Remarkably, in this final section, compared to Section One, Stein and Benson use “I” in statistically equal proportions [Stein, 49%; Benson, 51%: 894 total “I”s in this section], showing that the relationship, over time, has become less one-sided. Nonetheless, it appears that, in this and other parts of the text, Stein sometimes uses “one” in place of the less formal and less direct, “I,” supporting a notion that females, at least, heterosexual females, may be more behaviorally and verbally deferential compared to males—a stereotype open to empirical investigation. As an aside, DYODL could be used as a valuable research document by linguists using “textual analysis” to analyze patterns of speech relative to subject matter and context.
Consistent with my impression that Stein and Benson seem to be displaying traditional sex roles [possibly, as a mode of flirtation?] is the observation that he becomes the information-provider [especially regarding psychology, health, and movies], she, the student and information-seeker [e.g., pp 240-241]. Nonetheless, Section Four, also, demonstrates that conversations are more substantive, including less “chit-chat” and banality. In addition, the actors have become comfortable challenging each other [p 227] and demonstrate facility with conflict-resolution [p 244]. Clearly, by the final transcriptions, Stein and Benson have become emotionally invested in each other. Thus, pp 273-274:
“Even though often we are the same person we /
had an impression already that we had been. /
I don’t have a preference about the ways we /
don’t know who we are going to be next /
I wish this could go on forever /
I am aware /
I think about that more lately too /
I want to know more about you”
But, in stereotypically male, more pragmatic, fashion, Benson goes on to say, “Unfortunately, I also, have other passions and / fascinations beside this one.” Notwithstanding Benson’s capacity for reality-orientation, one feels deeply for Stein’s willingness and capacity for emotional vulnerability.
Throughout the book, I was struck by the remarkable lack of controversial material [say, politics, religion, sex], leading me to wonder what the specific prior agreements were between the actors, despite their claim that the conversations were “improvised.”. Furthermore, transcription requires erasure based upon value judgments, and it would be interesting to understand more about Stein’s and Benson’s beliefs, attitudes, and opinions. In particular, what audience[s] did the performers have in mind when they decided that their manuscript was ready for publication? Who were they hoping to attract to their work? Despite these lingering reservations and questions, Do Your Own Damn Laundry fulfills many formalist criteria, including, in my opinion, the most fundamental one—“interpretive power.” Kenneth Goldsmith has lauded work that is “provocative and challenging,” and this composition is a tour-de-force that will remain, indefinitely, in the mind of any reader having an appreciation for collaborative experimental literature.
*That each actor is heterosexual was determined by their self-references on websites and in the text of DYODL.