Believe the hype: Vitkauskas' A Neon Tryst

by on Feb.25, 2013

ghost image

ghost image“Everything is true,” he said. “Everything anybody has ever thought.”

— Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


I’m always surprised that in 2013, there’s still a strain of cinemaphobia in some parts of academia. We’ve all heard the by-now well-worn arguments. Movies make us passive. Movies are the Roman bread-circuses of our time. The image is by its very nature oppressive, etc. There’s a deeply conservative strain of argument behind some of this thinking. We see the fear of the image in Plato, for example, where all things are appearances, false images that are nothing but debased forms of the true Concept. An image is doubly evil in this worldview since it is really the shadow of a shadow.

In contrast, there has always been a counter-tradition that sees images as additions, as surplus. And the lack of ground beneath the feet of the Image is really the lack of ground below our own feet.

Derrida used to say film and photography revealed something that had always been the case anyway — the world is full of ghosts. We’re ghosts to ourselves and others are ghosts to us. The fear of Image is often linked to the fear of anti-foundationalism. In this sense, all films are ghost stories.


What is Lina Vitkauskas’ A Neon Tryst? A meeting place under a neon sign? A meeting place between poet and film, under the light of the marquee? Three movies are involved: Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, Frankenheimer’s Seconds, and Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.


The poems aren’t about the films in any literal way. Instead, the poems do something more interesting, more ambitious. They capture what I imagine to be a fairly universal and yet unusual experience. You fall asleep on the couch while watching a movie or TV show. You wake up around two or three in the morning. You have a sense of intense lateness, even if you aren’t sure what time it is. It feels like no one else in your house or apartment building or town or city is awake. You can feel their sleep around you.

The room is dark except of the TV screen. You see the images dance around and try to make some sense of them. They seem more than confusing: they seem chilling, as if they were being broadcast from a failed state, or from some subterranean nightclub that only existed for a few weeks. There’s a sense of magic and conspiracy. The images look utterly alien, and yet intimate too, as if what you’re watching was an extension of the dream you might have been having (even a dream you don’t remember upon waking up).

Back in the late 80s and early 90s there was a television show called Night Flight I used to watch on cable. It showed by-then old punk and New Wave videos, cult films (it was when I first say Warhol’s horror films), odd documentaries from the 50’s about personal hygiene and such. I would sometimes wake up in a stupor and see vampires dashing through the woods or spike-y haired people screaming on a smoke-filled stage or scenes from films like Reefer Madness. But that combination of lateness and disjointedness would create an uncanny effect. The ground beneath the images at such moments completely falls away.


And that is what reading Vitkauskas’s A Neon Tryst is like. It’s a book of codes and lost histories, grainy film stock and the harder-to-catch frequencies, and there’s a Pynchon-esque bend to the work overall, a sense that the images of these films are being translated into other tongues, maybe even languages we don’t speak ourselves, languages that might not exist. There’s a gap between the hour and the meaning.

In “A night in the business,” one of the films in the Antonioni section, we’re told, “Here comes / the dark Fiat honey, the lack of / night above her brow.” As if night is usually just above the brow. As if Figure is usually blurred with background or foreground, and we’re now witnessing an exception. In “Doorbell,” we’re delivered to an especially time-out-of-joint place. There are only three lines in the poem, and the last is, “Here in an office of one thousand telephones.”


The lines are short and the poems are short. They could be poems written on the back of faded receipts or paper napkins. There’s a sense of hurry, of side glances, of writing-before-the-train-pulls-in-the-station.

One of the things I like best about this excellent book is the way phrases pock-mark these poems. Scars and/or grit and/or splinters of glass in the sand. Here are some that really struck me, from various poems:

here we are obsessed in a crowd

         Poles create angles.

         the gunpowder of my apartment / is a cave, a bullhorn nail in the night

          In a trance dance, / raise your geranium / revolver.

         Be a conifer / in dark, dense streets. 

         Cocktails embellish my posture

         My shaved angles.

         Her teeth just like everyone’s.

         Our cabinets immaculate.

         Laugh into the taffeta wood

         Reach for a telegraph. / Guilt the dead.

         My apron flush / with the barn in the distance.

These poems are like flashing, oblique messages from a dead or yet-to-be country. From the nocturnal neon tryst between lateness and image. Between static and paranoia. When you read Vitkauskas’ book, it seems like it’s after midnight, and everyone for miles around is asleep.

16 comments for this entry:
  1. Gene Tanta

    Nice review James. Freedom-evoking as usual. I haven’t read the book, but I agree with you Lina’s a terrific and way underrated poet.

    I am made to wonder by your frame which seems to argue for the goodness (or the venerable value at least) of the image across all conceivable boards. I don’t disagree with your argument and I don’t want to lessen its import, because I think it needs to be made often and with great velocity, I just think it might be too sweeping in scope.

    I wonder if “the image”–beyond distracting people from the need to keep the faith in an ontological/stable/knowable ground of experience– might not ALSO possibly distract people from noticing that they have become consumers in an economy of images, cliques, brand name nostalgias, etc.?

  2. Johannes

    I would say that people are more likely to make the mistake that they can distance themselves out of an “economy of images” by condemning the image for being too visceral. / Johannes

  3. James Pate

    Gene, thanks for the comment. And no, I don’t mean to imply all images are created equal by any means! But lots of things are part of the economy of consumerism: jingles, phrases, even concepts. Poets have occasionally worked on ad campaigns, coming up with product names, etc. — but that doesn’t lead me to the conclusion there is something about the nature of poetry that is threaded into the nature of consumerism. So to with images.

    Also, I disagree with your claim that the image distracts “people from the need to keep the faith in an ontological/stable/knowable ground of experience.” Maybe I’m reading it wrong. But if I’m not, this is a huge claim dictating all-too-clearly what people must want. Why should people “keep the faith” in such things? Personally, I don’t know what “people” should “keep the faith in.”

    I’m more interested in doubt than searches for an absolute “ground of experience.” How boring that would be if we were all forced to tread the same ground (or imagine that there was one).


  4. Gene Tanta

    I was just rereading the phrase you’re unsure about and was remarking on my poor prose. But I’ll have to defend it since I wrote it. What I mean is that we/mortals need to believe the hype that there is a Reality, so we live in the future or in the past or we suppress this and the other savage impulse so we can live with our self and with each other. Without the faith that the world is stable and knowable (the thing you seem to rightly question as less than brave), existence would be an existential cringe-fest or a Nietzschen roiling of musical fuckings. Give or take.

    I was not talking about the essence or fabric of image as the market in-and-of-itself. Not what I was saying. I was suggesting images can distract us from our lack of moral progress just as theory or a great boot sale or grotesque postmodernism can. This is not to say that the self implied by the idea of moral progress (or the metrics of such a “progress” themselves) could ever be stable or knowable. I’m just saying watch your devil, he’s right behind you. You call him ghost. I think we constantly fail in the Derridean dream of melding together the mimetic fireworks show with theory, in favor of theory. Pish posh.

  5. James Pate

    Hi Gene,

    I don’t buy there’s some fixed elements of human nature that “need to believe the hype that there is a Reality.” Maybe you do, and that’s fine, but I don’t think such dictates about “we/mortals” are very interesting. Why should any of us assume we have the right to speak for all? But as I’ve mentioned before (and we had this exact same discussion on Montevidayo a few months ago), this is a matter of faith. I don’t believe in human nature. I don’t believe in a “Reality” that is some fixed foundation we need to find.


  6. rRoss Sélavy

    @Gene – Massive tangent (and long-winded rant), but please forgive me – I don’t think that
    “Without the faith that the world is stable and knowable (the thing you seem to rightly question as less than brave), existence would be an existential cringe-fest or a Nietzschen roiling of musical fuckings. Give or take”
    really holds. Unless you equate a Dark epistemology (what I take from Dark Vitalism, which, reading Ben Woodard’s blog Naught Thought now, I am more iffy about than I used to be – though I still need to read Slime Dynamics) with “a Nietzschen roiling of musical fuckings”. I take a stance that probably large parts of the world (or, rather, universe) are unknowable (examples: ontology and consciousness are untheroizable in a materialist sense because they cannot be observed outside of highly mediated effects and, in the case of the latter, our own subjectivity [cf. Wittgenstein’s beetle in a box] and, to a greater or lesser extent, so are metaphysics [a la Nietzsche]). One can make a similar case for elements of quantum mechanics (the uncertainty principle means that one half of the information about any given particle will remain necessarily dark, observer interference means one can never know what would happen if one didn’t observe actions – the situation beyond the event horizon of a black hole is dark, and only accessible via the projection of mathematical possibilities, which is a level of remove and mediation). This doesn’t follow that “existence [must] be an existential cringe-fest”, because it does away with a lot of the foundations of existentialism – primarily its anthropocentricism (but also phenomenology as an epistemological framework) – which may be a source of existential angst for some, but this isn’t necessary. It also doesn’t require “a Nietzschen roiling of musical fuckings”, which I interpret as an indictment of the abandoning of organizational categories and frameworks and the like, and the idea of rationality, a la the extreme end of Deleuze’s (and Guattari’s) thought. In fact, though I consider these thinkers really important, I would assert that this position is the logical conclusion of rational scepticism, and in keeping with the epistemological program of philosophy of science – namely the highly contingent conception of scientific knowledge asserted by Popperian falsifiability, and the clear implication from that paradigm that some questions are not able to be addressed by scientific investigation – which in turn implies that there are probably things that lie outside of the scope of any epistemological program.

  7. James Pate

    Great comment, rRoss. Related to this, Foucault — who claimed history-writing was a type of fiction-writing — always said he was first and foremost a skeptic.


  8. peter r

    Things rule.

  9. Gene Tanta

    James, that’s a fine straw man (that I am arguing that there is a Human Nature and Reality) that you insinuate to the benefit and purity of your argument. And if I didn’t think you were doing it to make your point via haphazard reading, I’d think you were being cynical. I prefer to assume the prior, out of a mild Rabelaisian disposition. However, I am not saying that we are bound by essence to do so, nor that it’s a good thing that we tend toward, to live our lives through nostalgia about the past or anxiety about the future or repressed desires about others. I’m saying, yes, take an epistemological look around and you’ll see these things in the daily lives of others, if not in your own life.

    Again, I think people need to be “spiritual” (and therefore they sentimentalize, anthropomorphize, and generalize what they experience) because death is scary and death seems scary NOT because it’s Numan Hature but for more constructed historical, social, linguistic reasons. Who knows if the accretion-effect of social construction may give way to a pattern and if that pattern may in time give way to a habit or a condition or something akin to a nature? We cannot gain such distance-knowledge no matter how large we imagine the category of our metaphysics.

    rRoss, thanks for your intricacies about the possibility of knowing or not knowing “the dark side” of experience. It is exactly because conceptual and linguistic paradox is hard to shake for rational skeptics and as you say because “there are probably things that lie outside the scope of any epistemological program” that I wrote “I think we constantly fail in the Derridean dream of melding together the mimetic fireworks show with theory, in favor of theory.” I’m sorry to see my performative point missed but I’m happy for the irony.

  10. James Pate


    You should probably re-read rRoss’ comment — he’s actually disagreeing with you. And no, I don’t buy dictatorial statements that “people need to be ‘spiritual’…because death is scary.” You can say you’re making this argument for cultural reasons, but as soon as anyone says “people” “need” X (considering the huge diversity of “people,” of cultures both marco and micro, considering that there is a wide range of responses to death, to anti-foundationalism, etc.) — such one-dimensional arguments bore me. Sorry. I’m not interested in saying what all “people” need, how all “people” think, etc.


  11. James Pate

    And Gene, here’s your actual words:

    “What I mean is that we/mortals need to believe the hype that there is a Reality, so we live in the future or in the past or we suppress this and the other savage impulse so we can live with our self and with each other. Without the faith that the world is stable and knowable (the thing you seem to rightly question as less than brave), existence would be an existential cringe-fest or a Nietzschen roiling of musical fuckings.”

    That is a defense of “Reality” — you were the one to capitalize it. You’re making the claim here that without “faith” in a stable, knowable world, life is pretty much a nightmare, either existential despair or wild, meaningless anarchy (a complete misreading of Nietzsche, but I won’t go into that).

    In this worldview, there are no happy atheists or radical skeptics or even, say, a content secularist: it’s an impossibility with this (narrow) picture of “people.” But the truth is, there are millions. I guess they don’t count as “people.”

    This isn’t a straw man at all, as it is all too clear for anyone to read.

    Again, I don’t find these debates — massive generalizations about what people think, what they need, etc. — interesting.


  12. rRoss Sélavy

    @James – Yeah, I have to say I share your issues re: “Reality”. I don’t normally go for psychoanalysis, but I think the Lacanian framework is useful here (nicely forshadowed by that capitalisation), in that we need something like the Symbolic Order to mediate the Real, otherwise it’s practically inaccessible. I don’t even think we need to go as far as Derrida – Wittgenstein demonstrates the (im)possibilities and contingencies of knowledge well enough.
    @Gene – I think you misunderstand me. By “dark” I mean epistemologically dark – inaccessible, beyond the possibility of knowledge. It is a purely epistemological value (a kind of counterpoint to the metaphor of (the) enlightenment). To say that something is “dark” in that context is to say that it is unknown, and possibly unknowable, not “intricacies about the possibility of knowing or not knowing “the dark side” of experience”.

  13. Gene Tanta

    James, do you consider your theories are not generalizations? Of course they are: you generalize but refuse to admit it … because you’re doing Science of history not Romantic idealism. I generalize as obvious affront to provoke the pure hearts of liberals to see their own hypocrisy. It rarely works because few thinkers have even a modicum of negative capability.

    Why would a “roiling of musical fuckings” be a “nightmare” … where is your catholic disposition?

    Hegel: “An idea is always a generalization, and generalization is a property of thinking. To generalize means to think.” Of course, you’d say a writer should use a scalpel when fabricating allegories that would include the multiple other because unrepresented members of “the masses” get hurt when bundled up in a cultural generalization and of course, what post-colonialist wannabe wouldn’t agree with such a obvious stance? I mean. Given that all thinking involves ideas and all ideas involve generalizing, we begin to see how representation is a problem for some of us. To cower from inclusive language (which we use because we are social and have to name each other in order to communicate our sociality) is the most tepid kind of liberal non-rocking of the sinking boat, my friend.

    rRoss, umm, I see my flowery language must have given you the impression I did not understand your notion of dark as ineffable. I did.

    We continue, sailing into the abyss of self-satisfaction, to miss the prettier point: that language, and irony more pointedly to the point, is performative and you as readers are one of the sites where this performance may or may not take place. Talk about a failed state. Ha.

  14. James Pate


    I never said I was against generalizations: just massive, meaningless generalizations. About “people,” for instance. Or “we/mortals.”

    I don’t really have anything to add. (Trust me, your comments speak all too clearly for themselves.) Take care in Bucharest, and hope the conference goes well.


    I think you’re right in your above comments — a very lucid, subtle take — and I agree about Wittgenstein. He was breaking up a certain notion of metaphysics long before Derrida.


  15. rRoss Sélavy

    @Gene – Sorry, I have a habit of taking thinks literally – read them straight, so to speak(especially on the internet, as one has no extratextual cues to go by). I’m still unsure as to what peculiarly performative thinks you’re talking about. You said “the possibility of knowing or not knowing “the dark side” of experience”, where “the dark side” seems not to gel with what I was getting at (it reads like the qualifier is value-coded, rather than purely epistemological), and when that is coupled to “knowing or not knowing” that becomes more tenuous, as the “dark” relates to the *impossibility* of knowing(though I do concede there is the possibility of this being contingent, but as soon as it changes, the “dark[ness]” disappears) – and moreso with “experience” – that which is epistemologically dark cannot be experienced (unless you mean the experience of its absence). I’m not talking about experience at all.
    This is why I assumed that you didn’t understand me.

    Further, I have to agree with James (to a greater or lesser extent). Of course everything is a generalisation – the generalisation of categories is a primary function of language – but that doesn’t give one a carte blanche to make as wide and sweeping generalisations as one wants, and then blame the failings of such on structural issues with language. One could argue (as many have) that the failings of language would imply an ethical obligation to be as careful as possible (and I don’t mean solely in terms of the socio-political, and I don’t think James does either – I mean simply careful in thought and articulation) – either that, or one would be bound to silence, which simply isn’t practical.

    But that’s besides the point – my issue here, and I think the one that James shares, is that sweeping generalisations about “people” which imply something like an inherent “human nature” aren’t so much ethically dubious, as evidence of lazy thinking, as much so as any “liberal” academic watered-down Deleuze or Derrida acolytism.

    And your post-facto appeal to “performativity”, I just don’t get it. We’re all performative, language is performative. Do you mean that you either aren’t trying to aproximate (in so far as it is possible) what you mean, or simply saying things that you have no investment in? Or is this some kind of pseudo-Socratic trolling? Whichever way you mean it, what are you trying to achieve? Because all you’re doing is confusing me – I’m not becoming away of my own liberal hypocrisy. And I would hazard that any liberal hypocrisy that you could find here would be more based on saying the same kinds of things in different situations that require different registers, are different language games – and, yes, require different performative roles – whereby the same words become a different speech act. I could be wrong though. But then again, if you found any specific inconsistency that pointed to some form of “liberal hypocrisy”, then the person in question could just say they were being “performative”, couldn’t they?

    I’m sorry for being perhaps overly serious and analytical about this, but it’s kind of what I do.

  16. James Pate

    Very astute comments, rRoss. “The dark side of experience” is not the same thing as “dark” in the manner you were using it — “flowery” language isn’t the problem.

    And unless “performativity” in Gene’s comment means a great deal of back-pedaling, then “performatitvy” means as little as “people” here. To make a vague, sweeping generalization isn’t “performative” — it’s to make such a generalization.

    Anyway, I’m bowing out of this discussion. But great comment, rRoss.