Author Archive

Animal inside (or: the Cogito in space)

by on Oct.12, 2012

“Very probably the sheep found its way into the Boss. That would have been in 1936. And for the next forty years or so, the sheep remained lodged in the Boss. There inside, it must have found a pasture. A birch forest.” from A Wild Seep Chase, by Haruki Murakami

“…so that he doesn’t exist, he only howls…” from Animalinside, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann

Recently, I’ve been reading Animalinside, the wonderfully weird book by the Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai. He was inspired by a series of paintings by Max Neumann. Or rather, as I understand it, the painter came up with an image, the writer responded with a prose piece, the painter made a painting based on the prose piece, which the writer then wrote about, etc. This process interests me. There’s a long tradition (Platonic Forms, etc.) that sets up the Concept (and by implication, language) as being higher than image. We can see traces of this even in some of the rhetoric behind Language writing and Conceptual writing, and it underpins many of the arguments behind Conceptual Art as a whole. Concept is greater than image.

Of course, there’s a great deal of anti-conceptual thought (the mystic tradition, Spinoza, Artaud, Beckett…) that tries to undermine this hierarchy, and Deleuze’s notion of the concept highlights its own fictional, anti-foundationalist status, and becomes the antithesis of the Platonic concept.

The Deleuzean concept is within the plane of immanence, whereas the concept in Plato (and in some of the rhetoric of Conceptual art/writing) is transcendent.

But this process between Krasznahorkai and Neumann undermines the transcendental, Platonic concept in two ways. First, the writing is in the tradition of Artaud and Beckett: it wiggles, it shapeshifts, it spits in one direction and finds the spit landing on its own face in the other direction. It’s the language of meat and ghosts.

Another way they undermine it is by undermining the hierarchy of language/image. It doesn’t replace one with the other, and create a new hierarchy. In fact, it undercuts the idea that such a hierarchy is even possible. Both the process of making this work and the process of reading it/looking at it creates an infinite play between language and image. One leads the other further down the rabbit hole.

I say all this to emphasize how important the images are in Animalside. I’ve read some reviews that barely mention the images at all, or treat the images as nothing more than illustrations for the writing. But the book is hybrid in the most literal sense of that word.

 *******

An image of a feline-like creature in silhouette, a black panther with legs but no arms, or at least no arms that the viewer can see, as if the arms are a secret, or a knife drawn back into its handle, and another figure in silhouette, a figure that looks like a man or a woman with a bat, and a curved yellowish form between the two, the animal and human figure, the leaping feline and the defensive man or woman, a curved strip of yellow that could be an air funnel or a paper structure or a robe appearing miraculously in space, a robe winding in on itself.

And the words below: I have no idea, no ears, no teeth, no tongue, no brain tissue, no hair, no lungs, no heart, no bowels, no cock, no voice, no smell…

In Descartes’ Meditations, when he comes up with the idea that self-consciousness is the one element we can trust, the one element that proves we aren’t dreaming or mad or being deluded by an evil genie, what’s often left out is how empty this “I” is. This is not the “I” of the self with its memories and storage-shed of information. After all, memories could be an illusion too. No, this “I” is empty, it could be anywhere, it could be attached to another body, another time period. The “I” is phantomlike and not the substantial self. Beckett pushes the logic of this ghost “I” further. His Not-I is the Cartesian I that exists right before Descartes brings in his version of the ontological argument for God, and by doing so regains world, self, memory, etc., based on the idea that God by definition is good, and not a deceiver. Beckett stays with that former “I.” The “I” that exists in the dark (or not even the dark, since that too is a defined space). The “I” in Animalinside is much like that: an “I” not of substance, but of nothingness. Not this and not that. Not idea and not body.

Later, the Animalinside says: I am alone, endlessly alone, so incredibly alone that apart from me there isn’t anyone else at all, I am here, but even I am not completely here, because at this moment I’m in the middle of a leap, I am as a matter of fact enclosed within this arc, the arc I happen to be leaping into right now…

This is followed by an image of a reddish sky or space in which four of the feline-like creatures, the armless panthers, are leaping, some about to reach the pinnacle of the arc, and some already descending from that pinnacle.

There is no here: at least it’s impossible to be “completely here.” The “I” is already missing from each space, already moving or being moved someplace else. It is hard to tell if the leap is voluntary, or if it’s instinctual, or mechanical, or something Animalinside does for no reason, and yet cannot stop from doing.

 

************

In Murakami, there’s the sheep that gets lodged in the soul of Boss, and the zookeeper who appears to switch sizes with the elephant in “The Elephant Vanishes.” And there’s his famous charater of the Sheep Man, who is described as wearing a sheepskin costume, with a leather mask, but who has two very real horns, as if he is both a man playing the role of a sheep, and a sheep who wants to dress up like a sheep in order to look like a man in a costume. He speaks with unbroken words: “Woolgetsinmyeyes,” for example. It’s unclear if he speaks like that in order to sound sheep-like, or if he speaks like that because he is so sheep he has no choice. Or if it’s a little of both.

**********

Just as Descartes’ empty “I” can — when we leave it suspended in space, bracketed in that moment before Descartes moves toward the ontological argument — leads to the great rambling voices of Beckett, so can it also lead to Deleuzian schizophrenia. If the “I” is not a self, it can become nomadic, it can move into the orbit of strangers, cars (as in Ballard’s Crash), or animals (the concept of “becoming-animal”). Francis Bacon, I think, is one of the great painters of the “becoming-animal.” He doesn’t paint animal/human hybrids, but rather paints the human figure free from the humanizing aspects of the facial expression. His figures lean and squat and wrestle. Even as they sit, they move and swirl. He paints the human as animal rather than the “human animal.”

*********

Since moving to West Virginia, to a small town on the Potomac River, I’ve had encounters with animals in a way I never did in Chicago, or Memphis, or even in Iowa City. One night, while taking out the trash, I saw a pair of eyes flicker in the wooded area behind the house. For a second I thought they were human eyes, looking at me. It was an uncanny feeling, realizing that it was an animal instead.

And a few weeks back, I heard some sort of howling around three in the morning. It sounded like a teenager pretending to be a wolf. But I think it was a dog howling along a nearby creek. Or maybe it was a teenager. But that wavering back and forth was unsettling, as if the teenager kept slipping into the voice of the dog, and the dog kept slipping into the form of the teenager.

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Nero and O'Hara and Johnson and one of many possible true accounts of talking to the sun…

by on Oct.03, 2012

 

[Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun is being released this week, so I thought I would write a brief account discussing one of many possible origins for the book. This second edition from Starcherone Books includes new essays by John Bradley, Edmond Caldwell, Richard D. Allen, David Hadbawnik, Mark Scroggins, Michael Kelleher, and myself.]

It is late 2007 or early 2008. Kent Johnson is in Chicago for a reading at Danny’s Tavern and staying with a friend who lives near the Belmont El stop, in an apartment that looks over at Lake Michigan. He is excited about the reading, having with him a group of new poems inspired by a late-night viewing of Fellini’s Satyricon (or maybe it was Caligula: the two films often blur in his mind), and yet he is nervous about it too. The poems, he thinks, might still be too rough, too weighed down by historical references. The morning of the reading, he paces the room, reading the poems outloud and practicing, something he rarely does and yet something he does do today, an act he sees as being one more sign of how nervous he is. The poems themselves are a startling departure. Gone are the references to the contemporary avant-garde, gone are the satirical asides about, say, O’Hara or Silliman. These new poems are strange little creatures, very stolid, almost Lowellian. In fact, yes, he thinks as he paces, Lowell is the secret influence here, especially late Lowell, the Lowell of History.

He makes some coffee, drinks it while standing at the window, wonders about what kind of poet he is becoming and what kind of person he will have to be in order to be that kind of poet. It is a hazy winter day. There are pads of ice on the beach and a light film of fog covers the sand and water. He thinks about how, in his youth, he wanted to become Petronius, who was (and is, though he rarely talks about the Roman satirist) his favorite writer. What would Petronius think of Lowell? Both were insiders, sure, and both were close to power. But could you really compare being Nero’s fashion and festival advisor to being the poet who refused an invitation from Lady Bird Johnson? The Roman had slept with his head on the bosom of evil, and it was impossible to tell from his scathing and lurid writings how he felt about it (and hence one reason for their greatness). Lowell to his credit refused to dine with power, refused to have his picture taken with power. And yet, Johnson thinks, we often know too well where Lowell places his head.

Johnson meets some friends in Andersonville for lunch. They eat Algerian crepes and split a pot of mint tea. Afterwards he walks over to the Swedish Museum across the street, and drifts from room to room, his mind seemingly both too busy and too vacant at the same time, as if some stranger was rapidly whispering strange ideas into his head, ideas spoken in a language that at times sounded like English and at other times sounded like Spanish, but which was, actually, neither Spanish nor English. (continue reading…)

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Minor literature and the virtual (or, the infinitive of Kafka)

by on Aug.07, 2012

Because of the interesting and at times heated discussion on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a minor literature that has been going on the past few days, I’ve been thinking about how minor literature might relate to the Deleuzian concept of the virtual, the incorporeal. As I mentioned in the previous discussion, I have mixed thoughts on the concept of minor literature — and less because of the anything D & G wrote about it (I agree with a great deal of what they argue in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature), but more in terms of 1) the dominance it seems to have in anthologies about literary theory (and therefore the way it gets taken out of context of their larger work), and 2) the way it is occasionally misread, I would argue, as an essentialist argument (which would be quite a feat for two such anti-Platonic philosophers).

I largely agree with the way Michael and Johannes have been discussing it. But I thought it might be interesting to try to link minor literature to the virtual in order to argue why D&G are not making essentialist claims, nor letting in a Rousseau-ian cultural authenticity through the back door.

In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze writes about a distinction the Stoics made about phenomena: somata (material bodies, the way they mix, clash, retreat from one another) and asomata (virtual events, the incorporeal). He argues that causality creates the mixing and clashing of the somata domain, and this is the world of Hume, of an inductive logic premised on the shaking ground that the future will be like the past (the sun will rise tomorrow because the sun has risen every other day). But he also claims the virtual, though it rises from the realm of somata, is not bound by the same causal laws, and instead has its own ways of mixing, clashing, retreating, what he calls “quasi-causality.” And yet Deleuze is not a mystic: the incorporeal is not a theological-sounding re-conception of Sartre’s lack.
(continue reading…)

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Andy Warhol's Dracula

by on Jul.29, 2012

Warhol’s Dracula

These shifting and confused gusts of memory never lasted for more than a few seconds; it often happened that, in my brief spell of uncertainty as to where I was, I did not distinguish the various suppositions of which it was composed any more than, when we watch a horse running, we isolate the successive positions of its body as they appear upon a bioscope.                                                                   – Proust, from Swann’s Way

 Last summer, I watched Andy Warhol’s Dracula (aka Blood for Dracula) for the first time in about a decade. The previous time I’d seen it with Johannes back when we were room-mates in a mouse-infested house in Iowa City. And the time previous to that, I was a high school student in Memphis, living in a crack-infested neighborhood where gun fights and police helicopters were a common occurrence. And my reaction to the film every time I’ve seen it has been fairly consistent, despite watching it under incredibly different circumstances. I think it’s brilliant. One of the best horror films ever. And one of the best films from the 70s.

And yet I also always have a second reaction: by the standard of most films, I know Andy Warhol’s Dracula is not very good. The acting is stiff (with the exception of the great Udo Kier, and the cameos by Vittorio De Sica and Roman Polanski). The film is boldly careless with historical consistency: for example, though the film is set in Italy in the early part of the 20th century, one of the characters (Joe Dallesandro) has a contemporary New York accent. The characters are not complicated even by grade B horror films standards. They have as little back-story as figures in a landscape painting.
(continue reading…)

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Books I've read this summer part 1

by on Jul.25, 2012

Horacio Castellanos Moya

Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya (translated by Katherine Silver). New Directions. Castellanos Moya is great at the convoluted sentence. Many critics have talked recently about the long sentence: how, by undercutting scene (dialogue stated in quotation marks, descriptions of gestures, clear physical settings), the long sentence often closely braids together mind and world, consciousness and materiality, and in some hands resembles un-punctuated stream of conscious writing. David Foster Wallace, Bolaño, Vollmann, Bernhard, and others are well-known for their ability to carry out the tight-rope walk of the unending and usually highly qualified sentence. (Of course, there’s a long history of this. Proust and Faulkner also could keep a sentence running for pages.) One of the things I like about the cascading sentences of Senselessness is the writer’s ability to attune those sentences to his main character’s growing sense of paranoia. Here, the long, feverish sentences are expressive of an obsessive, feverish mind.

The plot is incredibly simple. A writer in Latin America is hired by the Catholic Church to edit a manuscript detailing the horrors carried out by the military against a number of Indian villages. He grows increasingly suspicious of everyone, and becomes more and more convinced the military has him in their sights. By the end of the novel, he is on the verge of a breakdown, a break down foreshadowed by the very first words of the book, which are “I am not complete in mind,” though the words are from a villager and not the writer. And yet, despite the somber material, the novel is mostly a comedy. A hellish comedy in the darkest of colors, but still a comedy. The main character is not a liberal humanist, as might well be expected, but a petty, ragingly sarcastic individual who continually ends up in predicaments that seem like X-rated scenes from a Chaplin film. He’s not wholly unsympathetic (part of his mental strain comes from his job, which requires him to spend huge amounts of time reading about atrocities) and yet his suffering through the narrative never elevates him to a heroic status, nor does it cast him into that all-American (that is, North American) role of the victim. The writer is an enraged neurotic to the end.

Many years ago, I heard Salman Rushdie say at a reading that he often tries to write material that seems tragic as comedy, and vice versa. Senselessness is a great example of that against-the-grain approach.

 Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums: Essays on the Poetry of Araki Yasusada, edited by Bill Friend. Shearsman Books. It’s tempting to read this book as a novel (or maybe a “nonfiction novel”). For a collection of literary essays, the book is teeming with anger, hurt feelings, stark admiration, confusion, and dread (dread of the inauthentic, that is). One of my favorite essays is by Forrest Gander. In his “Review of Doubled Flowering; From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada,” he actually carries out a close reading of one of the poems, and then asks the simple question (though one lost in the more abstract debates in this book): Is this poem good? His own answer is yes. (Ron Silliman also famously admired Araki Yasusada before the hoax came to light.) And Marjorie Perloff has an excellent essay arguing that the Yasusada manuscript is a kind of new Ossian, and that just as the Ossian hoax led some readers to look at the medieval with a de-familiarized eye, so the Yasusada manuscript might lead some readers back to post-WWII Japanese poetry with an eye less captivated by shopworn notions of authenticity.

But my two favorite essays are by Jenny Boully and Dan Hoy, both who use the Yasusada controversy as a diving board for their own thought-experiments. Boully in her essay prints the “levels of reality” in the Yasusada manuscript only to find the whole thing “lost in the ‘layered clouds’ of authorship/creation.” And Hoy ends his essay by asking the provocative questions: “Can we exist without making dreamworlds of our suffering? Is our horror our gift to each other?”

 

Peter Richards

Helsinki, by Peters Richards. Action Books. This is book is like a piece of dark chocolate candy with some hard-to-pin filling inside. The collection has an Ashbery-like whimsy at moments (“There is a place in Helsinki called Timocharis / with baleful hills and baleful ditches”), and there is also something of Joseph Cornell’s miniature universe-building (“I came upon this handsome older man / his head was crawling with loam and minotaur lice”), but Richards takes his influences and runs with them into expansive, glittering new territories. The poems are entirely un-punctuated, and yet they are not stream-of-conscious: the diction is, more often than not, a bit elevated (“Sometimes I do wonder is Julia a rethought / sensual being feigning nature eclipsing smell”). But I found that mixture — the slightly formal diction and the lack of commas, periods — oddly exhilarating, as if an Elizabethan poet had decided to write out a series of visions before forgetting them. And in fact Robert Herrick appears (as a young girl), as does Julia, of the Julia poems.

The poems are filled with things approaching and vanishing, and the poet wanders from one landscape to the next. In other words, with perpetual movement. In one poem we are told “a slug is coming towards me / dragging its rail of glister and shine,” and in the very next one the poet states “the star wasn’t guiding me at all / it was leaving / me I was being left behind.”  Or: “When I came to it was a place impossible to distinguish from the place in my sleep.” And: “By the time we reached the stable it was that time / of year when the sun wobbles free of its namesake.” Where is the poet going? What is he searching for? Or is he trying to escape? And yet, on another level, these questions don’t have any real meaning for this book, no more than they do for Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came or Blood Meridian. Helsinki is a brilliant book of mutations, with foreground and background, landscape and figure, constantly maneuvering, slipping into and out of one another.

 

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Some thoughts on negation, voids, and vacuums

by on May.02, 2012

 

Paul Thek and his double

Nature abhors a vacuum      – Aristotle

I’ve always liked this quote, this suggestion that nature abhors some element, that it finds the vacuum repulsive, disgusting, though maybe we should ask what did the vacuum ever do to receive such disdain, how has this emotional break between nature and vacuum come to pass?

The Rigveda has another conception of the void: “Darkness was hidden by darkness.” Here, the “darkness” does not have the same agency as Aristotle’s “nature,” nothing is being abhorred, but there does seem to be a paradox: wouldn’t one type of darkness have to be at least slightly different from the other darkness in order for one to be hidden by the other? And would the darkness doing the hiding be lighter or darker, thinner or thicker, lighter or heavier than the one being hidden?

In an interview from a few years ago, Jonathan Littell, author of The Kindly Ones, said that for him writing is not a movement from the dark to the light but from the dark to a place of greater darkness.
(continue reading…)

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Sean Kilpatrick's fuckscapes: a review

by on Apr.25, 2012

Godard's Weekend

[I tried to write a more straightforward review of Kilpatrick’s fuckscapes, but everything I wrote seemed like an act of containment. So instead I wrote this, a long line of associations, images, things that came to mind…I should also say that I mean ‘signifying nothing’ as a compliment…]

 with apologies to Godard, Abramović,  Lynch, Buñuel, Artaud, Yoko Ono, Pynchon, Flaubert, Guyotat, and Foucault

 bloody your hands on a cactus tree / wipe them on your dress / and send it to me

                                                            – The Pixies, Cactus

fuckscapes is a book adrift in the cosmos, found on a garbage heap, signifying nothing.

fuckscapes started as a red pulse in the center of a blue light, a light whose edges are perpetually bleeding.

fuskscapes begins with three centimeters of cheese turning blue, and then purple, in a refrigerator located in the exact center of a New Jersey garbage dump.

fuckscapes is the espresso spilling from the film producer’s lips and on to the table, and then on to the plush red carpet, and then through the various fibers of the carpet, and then through the floorboards, and then into a basement where a very short man in a Luciferian suit is masturbating while watching the opening scene of Begotten.

fuckscapes is a dog dance at the edge of the volcano, many of which carry rabies, and all of which harbor fleas.

fuckscapes is the fascist orgy taking place on the ship Anubis in which “two of the waiters kneel on deck lapping at the juicy genitals of a blonde in a wine velvet frock, who meantime is licking ardently the tall and shiny French heels of an elderly lady in lemon organza busy fastening felt-lined silver manacles to the wrists of her escort,” etc., and so on, for many, many lines.

fuckscapes is the flag of torn corduroy pants which blows from the pole outside the cave and launches out to the overly-still sea.

fuckscapes is a mystic who believes in nothing.

fuckscapes brings with its several types of noise, some of them with soft pink bellies, others with cracked marble skulls.

fuckscapes about which the 85 year old philosopher Michel Foucault writes while sitting on a beach in northern California: In it “relations between individuals and sexuality are openly and completely reversed, perhaps for the first time; they are no longer characters which are effaced for the benefit of elements, structures or personal pronouns; sexuality moves to the other side of the individual and ceases to be ‘subjectified’…the individual is no more than a pale form which arises for a moment from a great stock that is both stubborn and repetitive. Individuals — the pseudopodia of sexuality, quickly retracted.”

fuckscapes is the Depression-era musical version of Begotten which was only recently discovered in a Finnish mental institution, having for years been used to entertain inmates during quiet time.

fuckscapes is neither foreground nor background nor middle distance.

fuckscapes is the burnt-out ruins of the vantage point.

fuckscapes is The Passion of Marina Abramović as performed in Naples in the early 1970s by a choir of fire ants.

fuckscapes is a conspiracy theory against itself.

fuckscapes is both noun and verb of pig shit, a desert creating its own red light, a mirror exhausted with its own reflection.

fuckscapes is the hip that doesn’t move, covered with summer flies.

fuckscapes is the dinner we can never eat surrounded by the feast we can never leave, cold plates strewn with cold chicken parts, half-conscious gizzards, a lace glove with blood along its fingertips, a warm revolver under each chair.

fuckscapes is about two twins of unknown origin who remove their clothes and stand nude in the doorframe of a bomb shelter waiting for Robert McNamara to stroll by, though he never does.

fuckscapes is Darling Black Francis Candy sitting here on a cement floor, wishing he just had something you wore.

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Artaud's Cruelty and Reines and Eshleman

by on Feb.05, 2012

Ariana Reines’ Mercury and Clayton Eshleman’s An Anatomy of the Night might seem to have little to do with one another. Reines, whose book The Cow is, to my mind, one of the most striking and original books of poetry in the past decade or so, has written a new book that has a Warholian and Joycean inclination to throw in the floating debris of everyday life. In contrast, Eshleman’s An Anatomy is more focused (like much of his work) on threading Experience through the Mythic in a manner reminiscent of Blake. In other words, one book seems to thrive on letting in the scattered, quotidian world, while the other is more invested in selecting certain crucial experiences (particular dreams, memories) that act as doors into the murkier corridors of perception.

But I can’t help but see the similarities too. And it is not the first time I’ve thought there is a correspondence between the two poets. To put it simply: both are Artaud’s heirs in the most extreme sense, the cruelest sense. Mercury and An Anatomy of the Night are dangerous brews in which oblivion and sex, shit and clouds, animals and magic, nightmares and fever dreams flit by, flickering odd bits of light out at the reader. Artaud’s cruelty: which is not petty or sadistic or dominating but rather the cruelty of having a vision without the safety net of allegory or alienation effects, a worldview that does not allow writer or reader to remain safely on shore, watching ships wreck at sea.

Eshleman’s cruelty can be traced, at least in part, to his obsession with finding the fissures that separate the animal from the human. (continue reading…)

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Some thoughts on Beckett's Mouth and Johnson's Sun

by on Jan.02, 2012

from Bosch's Garden

Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible

– Frank O’Hara

The philosophy of representation—of the original, the first time, resemblance, imitation, faithfulness—is dissolving; and the arrow of the simulacrum released by the Epicureans is headed in our direction. It gives birth—rebirth—to a ‘phantasmaphysics.’

— Foucault, from “Theatrum Philosophicum”

I’ve just finished reading Kent Johnson’s controversial book A Question Mark Above the Sun, and I’ve also been rereading some Beckett plays for a paper I’m writing for a conference, and though Beckett and Johnson are worlds away from one another in just about everything, they do have one thing in common: both are obsessed with making “voice” an unnatural manifestation, a spectral effusion. Both undermine certain basic principles of “authentic” creativity.

Often, the idea of the writing hinges on various notions of “the private”: I shape my experience, I tell my story, I find my voice, I am part of a community of other people finding their voices.

As well-meaning as this rhetoric might be, it is also short-sighted and exclusionary. Experience becomes another type of private property. The “I” becomes singular and substantial, and the Subject must be fenced off in order for self-coherence to remain in place.

Writing becomes not an act of invention, but an investigation into roots and origins. Writing becomes not a search for new ways of thinking and experiencing, but a search for foundations, for psychological certitudes.

It has been argued that this vision of writing, of Art in general, dates back to the rise of the Humanist tradition. Here, the human becomes central and controlling. And the inhuman (phantoms, the irrational, all that falls outside of common sense) becomes something we fear and place on trial within the court of human reason.
(continue reading…)

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Blog as Theater

by on Dec.09, 2011

Kent Johnson and Jordon Davis

For anyone who missed it, what has to be one of the funniest, strangest round of exchanges in poetry blog history happened recently in the comment stream at John Gallaher’s blog Nothing To Say & Saying It. It’s under the Surrealist post: the one that has 179 comments.

The back-and-forth between Kent Johnson and Jordon Davis about Johnson’s book A Question Mark Above the Sun could be an off-Broadway production starring Alan Alda as Johnson, and Patrick Stewart as Davis. (Or maybe that should be reversed: I can’t decide.)

I’ve been reading Sun, and I have to admit, I don’t understand what the ruckus is about. I find it a surprisingly moving book. Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch have been two of my favorite American poets for decades now, and the portrayal of their relationship in the book seems, to me, the opposite of scandalous.

Taking the whole “conspiracy” part aside, the book paints nothing but a flattering picture of Koch. Here’s a poet channeling his close, late friend, and he ends up creating one of O’Hara’s most beautiful poems. Talk about hauntology!

I’ll admit, I don’t actually buy the theory. And in the book itself, Johnson seems pretty skeptical of it too. But as a kind of re-imagined history, it’s a very beautiful work. And Art is full of re-imagined histories, alternative histories. In Monsieur Pain, Bolano shows us a Vallejo who is hiccupping himself to death, which I’m fairly sure is not accurate (though if Clayton Eshleman reads this, maybe he can help out here…)

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Cult films vs. the avant-garde

by on Dec.07, 2011

Capote's masked ball: middlebrowism at its sickening worst

A few years ago, James Shea asked me to come to a class he was teaching at Columbia College to talk about the political grotesque, the gurlesque, and other recent poetry movements I had written about on various blogs. Near the end of the class, one of his students asked me if I believed the avant-garde still existed in the modern-day poetry world.

My clumsy, not-very-thought-out response was that it didn’t, and that at a time when poetry readership was relatively small the idea that poetry could shock the masses seemed, to me at least, odd. Not even the American “bourgeoisie” read much poetry anymore. Or many novels. So in a sense there was no bourgeoisie to shock.

I don’t see anything wrong with this: how many people like a particular book or film or painting isn’t indicative of its power. I love the films of Jack Smith, and Flaming Creatures and Normal Love are two of my favorite movies of all time, and the fact that millions of people (arguably not even thousands) have even heard about these films doesn’t take away from my own enjoyment for a moment. In fact, I like that his movies are called “cult” films, as if they attracted a small but hardcore group of admirers.

But the difference, I think, (continue reading…)

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Saenz's The Night

by on Dec.05, 2011

Jaime Saenz

There is a house whose people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness…

– from The Epic of Gilgamesh ( translated by N.K. Sanders)

One of my favorite passages from The Epic of Gilgamesh is the scene where Gilgamesh’s rival/friend/possible lover Enkidu has a nightmare about a house of darkness shortly before he dies. In the house is a goddess reading from the book of the dead, and rulers and princes have lost all power, and now act as servants. What I find interesting in the passage is how bleak this vision of the afterlife is, circa 2500-1500 B.C. No wonder Gilgamesh goes through a violent existential crisis after Enkidu’s death. This is death at its most material: dust, clay, feathers, and darkness. No light, no air, no Platonic salvation, nothing ethereal.

Thousands of years later, Beckett would use similar imagery to convey dissolution. His characters sit in darkness, or are sometimes only mouths speaking from out of an immense darkness. It’s another example of the way Art is an installation piece playing on a constant loop, feverishly re-imagining its own dreams and nightmares, despite the wishes of certain avant-gardists for it to march gloriously into some freeze-dried future.

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I bring this up as a roundabout way to approach Jaime Saenz’s The Night, a book that reminds me a great deal of Enkidu’s dream. (I should mention Kent Johnson was the one who recommended the book to me. He and Forrest Gander did a translation of The Night that came out in 2007.) In this book, Saenz takes us through another dream of darkness, a place where night and body inhabit one another without becoming entirely merged, and where self and darkness inhabit one another, with only the thinnest line of distinction between them. In one of my favorite passages, he writes:

 What is the nature of night’s other side?

                     To put it bluntly, it is the nature of the night’s other side

                     To sink into your spine and colonize your eyes, to see

                      Through them what it can’t see on its own.

The night, or rather the night’s other side, invades us, possesses us, and looks through our eyes to see the human world, the world it would otherwise not be able to see. But of course in the process we are infected by this other night. If it can see through our eyes, can it taste with our tongue? Can it feel with our fingertips?

I also like how the gaze here is double. We look through our eyes but so is the night. Whatever attracts our eyes will attract the night’s eyes. And the eye itself takes on a monstrous element here: what would somebody staring into our eyes at that moment see? Would they sense the night’s presence in our gaze? Would they be aware that the night was staring at them too?

The passage reminds me of other disturbing images of The Eye: the eyeball that is slit in Un Chien Andalou, and Bataille’s obsession with the eye rolling upward in orgasmic ecstasy or in death. And the eyes in 2001 that looks out at the edges of the universe but also into the darkened theater, at us.

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What is the other side of the night? Saenz writes:

  the other side of night is a night without night, without

                        earth, without shelter, without rooms, without furniture,

                        unpeopled

A few lines later he adds about the night:

      —it’s the dock at the very side of your body

                                         and, at the same time, it’s inconceivably remote.

As with much mystical writing, and in a manner reminiscent of Vallejo too, Saenz likes to define things (an event, a sensation, a feeling, a time/place) through negation and paradox. The night is the dock near your body, yet remote, even “inconceivably” so, as if this night is a far away country that existed thousands of years before you were born. Also, the other side of night is not day, but instead this “night without night.”

“A night without night”: it suggests an inhuman night, a night that no longer keeps human time, and a night that no longer adheres to any human definition of night. Not the Platonic Form of night (which would be humanly intelligible), but rather “night” without form. Night beyond the first night and last night.

In section three, Saenz goes into more detail about “night’s other side.” He writes:

Not anyone can pass to the other side of the night;

 The other side of the night is a forbidden dominion, and

                                    Only the condemned enter there.

He goes on to describe these condemned as being alcoholics. (Kent and Forrest Gander mention that Saenz was a massive drinker in their introduction.) He tells us the night’s other side will be revealed only to “those whose eyes go white at the thought of being / blown apart by alcohol. // With those. // Only on those will alcohol confer the grace of everlasting / baptism on the other side of the night.”

These lines remind me of several things: the Christian ritual of turning wine into sacred blood (“the grace of everlasting / baptism on the other side of the night”), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano with its exploration of the dark sublime achieved through the means of alcoholic excess (“blown apart by alcohol”), and Deleuze’s discussion of alcohol in The Logic of Sense, where he compares it to madness, saying that in both we see the dissolution of the ego in favor of a split between the about-to-be and the already-was, that paradoxical no-space where “I” is already someone and somewhere else (though he also says there were other less drastic roads toward that end, and that he means his examples of madness and drink to be descriptive not proscriptive).

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Night, drink, the self, the invasion of the night into the self, into our eyes, the night that looks through our eyes, the alcohol that blows us apart, the other side of the night.

In Poe, there is a recurring scenario: a charater, or a group of characters, sit in the dark, thinking. The curtains are closed against the sun. No lamps are lit. But something about this artificial night allows them to think in ways that would be impossible in the daylight. And once night arrives, they open the door, and they go out into the street. In other words, night never leaves them. Night becomes not a moment in time, but a condition.

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The future of the past

by on Nov.28, 2011

Jack Smith's future past

In the past few months, there have been some comments, both on this blog and in other places, that montevidayo is nihilistic, even quasi-fascist. It has even been called “satanic” by one commentator. And one of the frequent reasons for this has, I think, been the “no future” ethos taken up by some of the writers on this blog. Doesn’t skepticism toward the future imply lack of hope and a lack of political will? Doesn’t it imply a fashionable fatalism?

But the problems that arise  with “future” thinking are the same problems that arises from utopian thinking: 1) they both imply an essentialist notion of human nature, since any utopia is premised on the idea that in the near or far future the “true” elements of human nature will be able to be brought forth, in all their supposed unwavering immediacy and transparency, and 2) they frequently don’t realize one person’s utopia is another person’s hell, and that what might seem humanly essential to X or Z might seem unbearable to F or E.

Contrary to the future, I would side with Foucault, who argued for a constant move toward liberation, but with no end point in sight, no grand totalizing synthesis. And with an emphasis not on the liberation of some notion of “human nature” but on the creation of new ways of thinking, new forms of experience, new ways of moving through the world.

Along these lines, I recently came upon an essay by The International Necronautical Society called “The Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future.’” It was published in The Believer late last year. Here’s an excerpt.

5. The INS rejects the Enlightenment’s version of time: of time as progress, a line growing stronger and clearer as it runs from past to future. This version is tied into a narrative of transcendence: in the Hegelian system, of Aufhebung, in which thought and matter ascend to the realm of spirit as the projects of philosophy and art perfect themselves. Against this totalizing (we would say, totalitarian) idealist vision, we pit counter-Hegelians like Georges Bataille, who inverts this upward movement, miring spirit in the trough of base materialism. Or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who, hearing the moronic poet Russel claim that “art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences,” pictures Platonists crawling through Blake’s buttocks to eternity, and silently retorts: “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”

6. To phrase it in more directly political terms: the INS rejects the idea of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of dominant socioeconomic narratives of progress. As our Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley has recently argued, the neoliberal versions of capitalism and democracy present themselves as an inevitability, a destiny to whom the future belongs. We resist this ideology of the future, in the name of the sheer radical potentiality of the past, and of the way the past can shape the creative impulses and imaginative landscape of the present. The future of thinking is its past, a thinking which turns its back on the future.

7. As Walter Benjamin correctly notes in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” contemplating Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus—a floating figure who stares intently at something he’s moving away from—the angel of history faces backward. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” writes Benjamin, “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” What we call progress, Benjamin calls “the storm.”

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