New life writing
It was a Thursday in 2003 when Jackson Mac Low and Anne Tardos were giving a reading and conversation at the Buffalo Poetics Program — billed as an eightieth birthday celebration for Mac Low — and someone asked him about his early poem “Sonnet of My Death.” I don’t recall exactly the question, but most of us in the room were disconcerted by it. It wasn’t really about his work, but rather about his views on the afterlife, ostensibly meant to square the content of his poem with his Buddhist devotion to notions of impermanence. Later, alone in a car with Mac Low and Tardos, without thinking it through but with great conviction, I blurted out, “It wasn’t a question about death, it was a question about life,” and that seemed to alleviate lingering frustration. We all agreed, maybe just in consolation, that all questions about death are really questions about life.
My remark now seems explicitly to have stemmed from my obsession with the dialectic between overt motivation (e.g. modeling Buddhist values) and nonintentionality (e.g. procedural composition and “chance operations”). For Mac Low, a primary motivation was to evacuate from the writing process the traces of ego associated with Kantian “taste,” where taste acquires predicative value. As when living life to death, one can’t really hypothesize about the results of composition except quantitatively, never qualitatively. And Mac Low was adamantly interested in poetic quality, prosodic features, aesthetic effects. He sought to make a “thing of beauty,” as his final poetics statement makes abundantly clear. Tardos was right to make Thing of Beauty the title of his posthumous selected works (published five years after his passing, in 2009, by University of California Press), because in his lifetime he had so steadily, thoroughly, and variously disproven Kant’s categorical imperative that he could finally enjoy beauty for what it’s actually worth. And what is that? It must have something to do with the procreative capacity of interpretation, which Mac Low was ever more willing to indulge and affirm. As he put it during an (unpublished) interview I conducted with him in April 2001, “any good performer is … making the work each time, they’re always doing making.” I countered that “many people would call that interpretation.” “I know,” he replied, “That seems to me denigrating the work of the performer, in a sense. I was just listening to Beethoven played by Brendel, and it’s obviously a whole other way of thinking about the pieces, the same tempo marks and that.”
These remarks very near the end of Mac Low’s working life deserve comparison to those from the outset. The language, for instance, that he uses in “Some Remarks to the Dancers” of The Pronouns is explicitly extended to “readers.” As for the number of dancers required to realize them, in some the choice is “obvious” and in “many” it is “somewhat indefinite & [is] to be decided … by careful interpretation of the given text.” This entails “some definite interpretation of the meaning of every line,” abetted by the “seemingly unlimited multiplicity” of judgments as to “degrees of literalness or figurativeness. … [W]hile the text … is completely determinate,” the “actual” realization will be “largely unpredictable” (67–68). By involving interpretation in the constitution of a work, Mac Low retrieves it from its routine status as epiphenomena or, what’s worse, the opportunity to ingratiate presentiments or ideological predispositions. If this is what it means for a text to be “indeterminate,” he uses this interpretive imperative as paradigmatic of, he assured me, not just his own work but “all art.” Any question of his own work is really just a question about work.
When this essay was originally commissioned, and being asked to characterize the poetries of the aughts involving literary-critical projects that have preoccupied me in those ten years, I recalled these episodes from my acquaintance with Mac Low and his work. I have been working toward a theoretical and historical rapprochement between disability studies and radical modernist hermeneutics. For me the former revives the dialectic between social constructionism and proprioception that the latter so spectacularly negotiated from literary experimentalism to the linguistic turn of structuralist and poststructuralist treatments of society and affect. But the conundrum of life’s incessant novelty and the impudent alterity of death, a conundrum amplified by the question of life seeping into the question of work, suggested I think otherwise. It suggested a tangential thought I have now made a critical experiment, turning what was to be a statement on disability poetics into one on a possible new trend I am calling “new life writing.” As the aughts draw to a close, I have been particularly struck by the connections between conceptualism and autobiography or so-called “life writing,” connections that are (perhaps too) historically obvious (to notice) but have been recently, performatively repudiated.
Earlier drafts of this essay tested this claim by dealing, at length, with the tropics of conceptual writing (such as “allegory” and “failure”), the coincidence of Derridean problematics in disability and bio art discourses, and the way disability and poesis are mutually implicated when psyche and socius are transposed in and as ecosystems (whether these systems are of media or natural environment). But I’ve finally settled on the following survey of instances of new life writing that I hope will bring an even wider range of implications into focus, somewhat, while permitting this trend, if it has any currency, to debut where its work is accomplished, in the writing itself. If new life writing exists, it indicates that the proverbial duel between poltical commitment and aesthetic quality has become a negotiation instead. I cannot say what tempered the situation, and won't say tempers no longer flare, bearing in mind things like 2008’s Aggression conference at Small Press Traffic. But what was once the insuperable foil of writing’s authority (said Barthes circa May 1968) now seems a source of it, as if political commitment and aesthetic quality were mutual extremes of legibility. And significantly, if obscurely, in terms of that initial moment of conceptualism when Mac Low’s proceduralism mattered, that is in terms of intentionality as a process of identification, claims for agency, strategies of authorial relinquishment, dispersal and containment.
Important instances for this discussion are early-mid-1960s projects by Jackson Mac Low and later (1980s) writing by Hannah Weiner, both of whom acquired a new visibility and canonicity in the aughts; I’ll leap forward, through mention of other examples, to readings of work from the late aughts by Tan Lin and Brenda Iijima. Though Iijima’s work is associated more with ecopoetics and somatics, I think one of its primary tasks has been to conceive, in the writing process, a sense of “life” as linguistic-cum-epistemological conflict, so that in both texture and conceit it complements the quasi “life writing” of conceptualist Lin.
It is in the aughts that conceptual writing entirely disentangles the psychosomatic of lived experience from procedural strategy. This follows its expressed debt to historical conceptual art’s remit to emerge from the mechanical austerity of minimalism, to which it was a reaction, at times a reaction against disembodied rationality, at others against a parallel scale of artform to somaform. The barest description of these works would by today’s standards seem oxymoronic: procedural life writing, proprioceptive conceptual writing. In the 1960s, life writing was still called “autobiography”; the vast popularity of the memoir was not yet with us, but conceptual engagements with memory were enthusiastically carried out by the likes of Andy Warhol (a, A Novel) and Bernadette Mayer (Memory). Both were precursors for the aughts’ initial salvo of conceptual writing: Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget, and its companion piece Soliloquy, both of which I lack time to do justice to here. These works by Goldsmith attempt to exhaust the vital, intentional core of conceptualism by caricaturing, in photo realist mode, somatics. The works of new life writing I will treat here, though decades apart, and while part of the same range of conceptual impulses, are finally about a quasi-historical passage that conceptualism finds itself reckoning now: inheritance, succession, dying, and being born anew.
In his seventy-fifth birthday festschrift, poet-critic and scholar Joan Retallack surmises, despite “the fear of enjoying something in or about language that the author did not mean for you to enjoy in that way, compounded by the fear that said author didn’t entirely know the meaning of the meaning,” Mac Low’s work is exemplary of the ways “words extend the complex orderly and chaotic structure of the brain’s neural network … into the forms of our social world.” Thus it achieves “a spacious indeterminacy” of “reciprocal alterities.” A sort of new life. The proceduralism of contemporary conceptual writing descends from this emphasis, found also in Sol LeWitt’s contention as appropriated by Goldsmith, that “When an author uses a conceptual form of writing, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the text.” Yet for Mac Low, the “will” is everywhere operative in the performance situation; the ego, per se, is not purged so much as imbricated in the interest of an assumptive “good.” From “Essay Begun in 1965”:
[There is] a continuum from this “nearly pure initiator” — the so-called innovator — to the “interpreter,” whose primary goal is exact & precise actualization of the “initiator’s” intentions, insofar as they are ascertainable, whether from notation or from the “initiator’s” personal instructions. (The degree of “determinateness” is immaterial. Even the most “indeterminate” work has some determinatory intentions of its initiator embodied in it.)
Mac Low’s post-Cartesian blend of somatics and conceptualism strives for or responds to a circumstance so holistic and vital it begs to be called, simply, life. Neither the sum of experiences belonging to an individual nor the mystical force that animates matter; instead we should consider that if life is also these basically static categories, it must also be a concept of novelty checked by death and characterized by endurance (or duration). This is an insight crucial to, even following from, two texts by Mac Low, both “procedural,” both, as it happens, with “life” in the title.
“It is a simple life under the sun all day without decent water to drink or to wash in” is from 1963. Neither collected in Representative Works nor Thing of Beauty, it was probably only ever published in a handout from a performance of it at the New York Public Library on May 22, 1968, a program featuring David Antin, as well, and promising “reading[s] from old and new works, including tape recorder.” “The title,” Mac Low writes in a brief preface, “is a quotation from Herman Benson, writing in his extraordinary newsletter, Union Democracy in Action, about the plight of agricultural workers.” “It is a simple life” is a “chance-acrostic” poem; its vocabulary, line and stanza breaks are dictated by filtering a source text through a “seed text,” usually the title of the source text. An obscure text, we at least know that Mac Low singled it out for the event with Antin, who was at precisely this moment moving from similar deterministic compositional forms to his infamous “talk pieces” — c.f. “the london march” and “talking at pamona.” Antin becomes a sort of current affairs poet. Where the moment takes him becomes what he came to say, even and especially when he came to make art-historical pronouncements. With regard to Mac Low’s text, these talk pieces follow a reverse trajectory. They are not spontaneous discourses on a predetermined theme. “It Is a Simple Life” is a deterministic discourse liable to a “maximum of relatedness,” as he writes with regard to the performance of the next type of poem I want to consider, his “Daily Life” poems. Some lines from the text: “All to water to a without the a to is to to / day sun drink. / Day without drink. / It to life the is water. / It water in It to to wash or water sun all life decent …” The critical question is what is to be done — about migrant agricultural labor exploitation and about the laborious collision of articles, prepositions, pronouns, etc. Refusing to express its passion, the poem recombines the very elements that secure any claim upon life, begging the question that devolves under scrutiny, but persists even after transpositions so severe as to risk illegibility.
Click to view larger versions of manuscript pages of Jackson Mac Low’s “It Is a Simple Life.” Images of Jackson Mac Low’s papers courtesy of the Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego, where the poet’s papers are archived. Mac Low’s work is published here by permission of Anne Tardos, for Jackson Mac Low in trust.
The “Daily Life” poems are similarly a template for the generation of an exponentially infinite number of thematic relevancies. In a 1968 note to Jerome Rothenberg, to whom he was sending a carbon of the Daily Life method and an exemplary poem, Mac Low writes, “The ‘piece’ consists not so much in this particular list as in the concept of making such a list and using it to make poems by these or similar methods. I’ve been thinking, in fact, of making a new list drawn from my present daily life to make a few more poems relevant to now.” It was later in the summer of 1963, and then early the following year, that he codified the concept (procedure). The aforementioned “list” refers to the seed text, here spontaneously devised, based on routine utterances in the home among a couple, a family, and the world which radiates from it. His August 6, 1963, example, “Daily Life 1,” which is collected in both Representative Works and Thing of Beauty, begins:
|1. A. I’m going to the store.
|2. B. Is the baby sleeping?
|3. C. I’d better take the dog out.
|4. D. What do you want?
|5. E. Let’s have eggs for breakfast.
And so forth, to 26, Z, Red King, codes corresponding to combinatory methods detailed via the aleatory ploys “Letters,” “Numbers,” and “Playing Cards.” These instructions are printed alongside “Happy New Year 1964 to Barney and Mary Childs — A Daily Life Poem,” with passing reference to an “essay describing a method for using such lists as sources for dramatic presentations.”
A longhand copy of the essay is among the Mac Low papers at UCSD’s special collections. In it, Mac Low describes a method of scripting the play according to the interaction of each individual actor-participant’s personal list of daily life utterances, which then become “framework sentences” giving context to and cuing actions that make sense within the situation. The lists are arrayed (as the lines and stanzas of a daily life poem would be in the “letters” scenario) by “spelling out” one’s name. Note the outward trajectory from proper name, through one’s quotidian perspective, finally to the hustle and bustle of superimposed perspectives, which become generative of a “dramatic presentation,” a poets theater work and model of the good society. In his instructions, he insists that “actions should always be realistic & appropriate to what is being said,” such that both actions and speeches have “some justification”; “Great attention shd be paid by each participant to everything that is said & done by everyone else as well as by himself.” When the framework sentences run out, you do as little as possible and seize the first opportunity to exit, without rudely ignoring — by failing to answer — questions posed by others’ framework sentences. “Entrances,” on the other hand, “are to be made ad libitum.” Get in and get to work as soon as possible, he insists, even if this seems inappropriate — there is an etiquette for leaving, but entering is at once free and compulsory, like daily life itself.
The compulsive reiteration of the simplest commands, queries, and exclamations in any given daily life poem (or list of “framework sentences”) produces a jarring and even claustrophobic effect, as though one’s linguistic day-in-the-life were solely comprised of obsessive hectoring. In any event, Mac Low’s essay appears unfinished. He waffles on the range of what should be considered “appropriate” reason to enter or exit the community, as well as whether or not to encourage — through emphasis in the essay — use of a single list of framework sentences, his own. Crossed out, at the end of the draft, he ponders the eco-genetic import of the concept: “By analogy with natural science, if the particular performance be the ‘individual,’ a realization on the ‘methods’ level can be considered a ‘species,’ and the more general method (e.g. the ‘Letters’ method) its ‘genus.’” Then he offers his address should you wish to send him three dollars for a copy of “DAILY LIFE.”
Click to view larger versions of the essay accompanying Jackson Mac Low’s "Daily Life" poems. Images of Jackson Mac Low’s papers courtesy of the Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego, where the poet’s papers are archived. Mac Low’s work is published here by permission of Anne Tardos, for Jackson Mac Low in trust.
In another unpublished “DAILY LIFE” piece entitled “MUSIC FOR SINGER,” an “individual” takes us right inside the Bronx apartment of the poet and his then-wife, Iris Lezak, with their infant, plants, quips, and gripes. He uses the “Letters” method to spell out “Iris Mac Low.”
I’ll see you.
What did you say?
I’ll see you.
Look how this plant has grown!
I’m going to close the window.
I’m going to the store.
I’d better take the dog out.
Did somebody knock on the door?
I wish it wasn’t always so noisy.
Though organized according to the arbitrary placement of letters in a name, how oddly appropriate each stanza appears. Something is reiterated “because” it wasn’t heard the first time — and while we’re on the topic of what we’ll “see” we are invited to “Look.” The second stanza is a sequence of tiny promises that, cumulatively, define one’s familial stature. But before we get out the door, someone knocks on it, belongs inside, and yet, despite the exclamatory homecoming, a residual wish that things were different, at least not always “so noisy.” It’s tough to find a more suggestive love poem. The accident of the proper name equally dictates the predicative value of the supposed randonnée that shapes a day in the life. The chance synchronicity of semiotic cue and lived experience is precisely the center of new life writing’s focus.
Hannah Weiner and Kitella, 1967. Photo copyright © 2002 by Carolee Schneemann.
A landmark of this development from historical conceptual writing to new life writing is Hannah Weiner’s Page. Weiner spent the latter half of the 1980s writing it, finishing in 1990. Its texture is similar to that of her best-known project, the Clairvoyant Journal, yet it differs in several important respects. First, it concerns her immediate family, based in Providence, Rhode Island, rather than her artistic community in New York City. The familial context is the setting for a reminiscence and self-reckoning of her life as a writer to that point, making every semiotic cue in Page doubly anecdotal. In 1984 Weiner’s mother passed away. A year later, so did her aunt, to whom she was also quite close, spending extended summers with both for at least the previous fifteen years. She and her “big brother” survived them. Calling him this despite that she was the older of the two sometimes indicates a negotiation over inheritance of an estate, and certainly a shuffling of the familial hierarchy. It also indicates a conflict between heredity and inheritance, a crisis of succession. She is the diminutive “sis” or, very infrequently, “Sister,” capital S. A good deal of the self-referential, metacritical voice in the poem — a long, three-part serial poem — concerns what “mother would do,” i.e. what she would say or write. Weiner struggles to translate this conditional into an imperative, which is an ubiquitous feature of mourning. The thing to do is what they would have wanted done. Hence the mourner is at an epistemological impasse, dying wishes recast as replies from succeeding “generations.” Knowledge is information in the interest of a choice; for Weiner, the occasion necessitating the choice is what differs, not the condition of knowledge per se, because Page is a memoir (a genre necessarily nostalgic ahead of time); what is wanted to be done becomes an assertion of what has been done. Like the recently unearthed Book of Revelations, the subject matter, as Revelations editor Marta Werner puts it, “is lateness. … [I]n place of the illumination of ultimate mysteries, in place of the Parousia that lies at time’s end, Weiner instead reveals the way in which the world comes into being — or rather, into hiding — as an unseeable totality.” 
A second difference from Clairvoyant Journal is formal. Page is written in verse lines, with a standard three-keystroke spacing between phrasal or lexical units adding to the linebreaks a prosodic and ideational level of signification. And third, the trivocal “large-sheet,” page-as-field format of the Clairvoyant Journal accounts for each voice with standard lower case, all capital, or underlined/italicized text. In Page, at any given moment there are only indications of two separate voices. Superscript or all caps, the two never coincide. The first instance of the superscript reads “parasentence above the” (4). A paragrammatic companion tracing something of the memory of the recently deceased, there is always something “twice” to a line. Later, caps appear and seen words are transcribed, transposed from the ambient event of writing and onto the page, as in her work of the seventies. There is very little superscript, in fact. And the transition from one other to another indicates a partial reemergence of clairvoyance over the latter half of the decade, as though, as many who knew Weiner will tell you, it had periodically subsided. Whole projects were undertaken during these periods, for example Weeks (1986). The episodic integrity of PAGE is reinforced by her claim in her letter accompanying the finished manuscript: “So clear I didn’t number in order. In order sequence written honest.”
Weiner used puns as a means of investigating the drifting cohesion of language and consciousness, the intentionality of speech, reading, writing, and listening, as her Code Poems from her early conceptualist period most obviously demonstrate. The “articles” in Page — “articles” is the title of one section of the book — play upon a fascination she had with the hub of these acts: publication — public language, such as we all might see or hear. “Article” also names the designations of definite and indefinite, subject and object. Naming the designations and designating the name are quite possibly identical acts, but the name, famously obdurate and opaque, embodies the “obediently … honest … conflict.” In this linguistic-cum-epistemological conflict Weiner casts Charles Bernstein as the “hero.” It is to him she addressed her cover letter, entrusting him to see the series through to publication. Yet she signs the letter “Hannah Weiner plus object” — and this signature is reproduced in the book. The inscriptional gesture concerns the ethos that authorizes the heroine as a role within the real, an enclosure or attachment. It is not just that “article” is a polysemous word. A pun is effective to the degree we misidentify one such valence. Puns rely on similitude in order to evoke disjunction and multiplicity. Populating the text’s “public” with author figures objectifies lives as it indexically affirms them.
In Clairvoyant Journal voices collide to create another species of pun: the neologism. In Page the neologisms are the result of reflexive “pages in conflict,” as the first and last sections “page” and “same page” illustrate; similitude is a “convers[ation].” We have, in “Hannah Weiner Statement,” the second half of the dual preface, “adempt” — adept and attempt, I think — and “sumit introyou” — sum, submit, it, and so forth. “ohboy” and “obey” rhyming nicely with “histry sumit despoyed.” As Weiner puts it, these are “seen as i words,” shifting signifiers for the antiheroic roles of a participatory readership. A hierarchy subsists all the same; it is “Mother” who has the first word, or rather is the first word to come between hero and heroine — “Mother teaches simple see introduction enclosed” — that is, see the additional “object.” Together, the “Dear Hero” letter and “Hannah Weiner Statement” plot out the central conflict by decentering contiguous lives through its morbid “perverse period” as well as its novel “introyou.” The drama concerns how “adept” the “attempt.” The eponymous first section is a chronological reckoning of her published output to that date, which instigates a temporal crisis, a “histry”:
in our silence well we dont cancel this girls
page this little book returns sis Im
sis please be
honest with yourself practical very careful
have you been a leadership subliminal
leadership carefulis often sis youre in
a hurry are you being written (3, 6)
In the attempt to differentiate the past from the present, The Fast from “this poem,” Weiner worries the distinction in terms of the future, also retrofitting this memoir to clairvoyance-cum-“clair style” (the abandoned format of the Clairvoyant Journal) — the predicative value of clairvoyance, an aspect of the phenomena emphasized with newfound gravity in light of her mother’s passing. “Careful” says the “parasentence.” What is “languageship” if not a return of the word to itself in writing, the utterance’s afterlife where “leadership” risks didacticism. Hereditary clairvoyance means “you” is becoming “mother” as a psychosomatic act of posterity logically dependent on the difference between inventiveness and the fact of a life where there was not one before. Weiner recursively resigns herself to the fact that her becoming-mother is writerly, is wholly dependent on squaring the difference between creativity and procreation: “did you ever have speedfreak / analysis with a doctor pregnant who were you” (21). This “quarrel” of difference and sameness — which she comes to call “alteritive” — allows Weiner to take as axiomatic the first line of the subsequent poem: “youre very different watch yourself,” a condition that, in the struggle for “control” and the deciphering of the “secret alteritive” to follow, appears as “subliminevocareful” (7).
“[U]underwefit language” is the parasentential “indescribable” that “mother would scribble / inabove”; “mother would be more careful,” perhaps, and so Weiner inscribes a wavy line in place of a noun: “on the [scribble] thats what it looks brain discontinue / I got shots I had abortion I had to quit / thats what woman writes” (11). From young girl to woman, the passage is marked by the frustrated maternal “leadership” that provides the bulk of the book’s drama: “mother / do you forgive did you forscribe did you / describe situations any be more practical” (10). “sis … please be honest with herself … switch sisters … young woman,” Weiner’s aunt, Weiner’s self, becoming mother in terms of guardianship before the inheritance is, apparently, assigned to “big brother.” Mother speaks “inabove”: “poet continue in trance” (15). Weiner writes herself in to the scene of hereditary transference: “sis Im making a funny little girl sis it’s a / big little trouble print sis I had the / advantage of them we twice” (17). Twice the same, as recurrence rendered in “simple” integers must be — pages counted, serial, in sequence, “like language repeats … soblete” (22). Similitude and identity are functions of obsolescence where the false promise of temporal identity that death betrays, “some distinctive person matches,” and “like language” is obeyed (23). The author figure is called to reckoning by language. “[W]hat a lesson to be a / subjectover a manuscript enclosed enclosed” (27). Where in previous books involving motherhood — Spoke especially — she referred to her project as a sort of “novel,” near the end of the eponymous first section of PAGE she admits “sis I cant write a novel anymore until sis / death someone else suggests it” (45). “[T]o do for yourself when your mother dies,” she concludes, is “to handle it like someone” and “make yourself a poet” (46).
By this time, Weiner is recounting the period in which she composed Weeks. Like Page, Weeks concerns seeing one’s life passing before one’s eyes. It is literally a chronicle of sitting before a television set. In keeping watch over Weeks, Page draws a more concise and dire conclusion: “see words / on television must be correct program / like news … hannah thats hard believe keep / secret bullshit why struggle feel guilty / when I die I may be” (60). In the final poem of the “plus title” section, the inheritance is completed: “mother / born and educated november 4 1928,” sis’s birthdate, “two die” (66). She concludes the penultimate section with the “quaint” humor that sweetens the irresolvable dilemma, comparing her signature on the postmortem settlement papers to putting herself under contract as a writer — an analogy, as I see it, between clair-style praxis and serving as an agent of the wire services (109). “Hannah puts her name at the end signed silence” (116). But before this, she announces a sequel, “ONEMORESERIOUS PAGE,” which is the final section, “SAME PAGE.”
This section wants to “keep me alive twice,” folding the puns, caps, and oxymoronic, palindromic event of survival into hardly legible lines sans spaces (124) … “I repeat literature … sismotherwords” (132, 133).
* * *
New life writing can be seen as a continuation of radical modernist practices as they abut the conceptualist moment. In 1967, Louis Zukofsky called “A” “a poem of a life / — and a time” and spoke of its ensuing sections as “words still to be lived … as one breathes without pointing to it before and after.” On one hand, there is in this conception the fusty notion that even as indices of historical particulars, poetry transcends them, “braves time” as Zukofsky critic and biographer Marc Scroggins puts it. On the other, as this poem matures, so “life” is redefined as a “special sense of duration,” a life course. Such early examples of what I’m calling new life writing articulate something that recent works of conceptualism and autobiography do: reassert the interdependence of proprioceptive élan and conceptual austerity, lived experience and proceduralism.
Just a few examples of new life writing that are, to speak plainly, newer: Dolores Dorantes’s long form poem Dolores Dorantes structurally is as complex as anything in Gertrude Stein’s most hermetically autobiographical works; Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation might be another example of new life writing, with moments of loopy exhilaration comparable to Craig Dworkin’s supposedly “unreadable” Parse; Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, a major influence on Spahr’s writing, reads today as though it could have been conceived in the aughts of the twenty-first century, rather than the late 1970s conceptual and performance scene; some of CAConrad’s somatic poetry exercises seem germane here, as well as Mark Nowak’s visceral, collaborative, and procedural texts; Tracie Morris’s performances are undoubtedly as conceptually rigorous as they are actuated on several experiential planes; Susan Schultz’s Dementia Blog and Renee Gladman’s toaf (to After That) pick up where Bernadette Mayer’s Memory and Studying Hunger left off, collapsing commemoration and innovation into prose as thoughtform. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and My Life in the Nineties undoubtedly do the same, though with a “conceptual,” numerical, and procedural precision that evokes dendochronology rather than autobiography.
New life writing might not be a specifically US American trend. I am thinking of two North American poets: the Canadian Christian Bök and Mexican Ofelía Pérez Sepúlveda. Bök’s “Piecemeal Bard” sees new media conceptualism as an extension of Oulipo-inflected poetics of constraint, but with more up to date claims regarding the ramifications for the agency of authors and readerships: “When cybernetics has effectively discredited the romantic paradigm of inspiration, poets must take refuge in a new set of aesthetic metaphors for the unconscious, adapting by adopting a machinic attitude, placing the mind on autopilot in order to follow a remote-controlled navigation-system of mechanical procedures: automatic writing, aleatoric writing, mannerist writing, etc.” Elaborating on the deployment of automated compositional tools by late-twentieth-century conceptualists like Mac Low, John Cage, and George Hartman, Bök asserts that “prosthetic automation does not simply assist in the process of writing, so much as replace the concept of writing itself. The text is no longer simply a message produced by, and for, a reading person, so much as it is a program compiled by, and for, a parsing device. … We are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a machinic audience of artificially intellectual peers” (15, 17). Now at decade’s end, Bök is working on a rather literal revivification (or vivisection?) of cybernetic artifice by seeking to encode a poem directly into the DNA of bacteria that will not only outlast its author but perpetuate and succeed itself by birthing a poem in response, ad infinitum.
By contrast, Sepúlveda’s 2000 series Funerarium, set in a quasi-necrophiliac metaphysical laboratory that resembles a factory-like coroner’s theater, dramatizes both the poet’s inspiration and a readerly intentionality by permuting the romantic caution — “we murder to dissect.” The poem constitutes a neo-baroque play of identification between eros and death; the series is about a self in dispute with its romantic self-regard. Excerpts from the third and fourth sections exhibit, literally, the morbid erotic charge of new life as gendered, yet beholden to the general text of self as it dissipates into its particular “reasons”:
She is of the continent, around her everything is light and I observe her
atop the slab in the image of her body.
I am pleased by the landscape of the lingering down between her legs.
May this be the night and I her guide.
Atop other tables new cadavers, in other rooms new surgeons.
They seek reasons …
I hold a piece of paper and a knife …
I approach and dissect and kiss the striated organ, I kiss her feet, then her
but butterflies of death come into me and I write in the notebook that an
attack of the myocardium,
that between her lips was as much death as there are insects populating my
Let’s call him something …
Let’s observe the concretion and the utter expression of dream and
Without angels or mirrors.
Without false devotions, just a lizard resting between the legs…
Let’s say that the light travels along its legs and articulates tendons,
renews them, dies them.
As different as the surface values of Bök’s constraint-based work and Sepúlveda’s freely engaged lyricism are, they do not present uniform views of the metaphysics of life; Bök presents an apocalyptic check on Liebnitzian plenitude, while Sepúlveda flirts with the Kantian suggestion that nature acknowledges the attention we grant it. Their readership might equally agree that while we can’t know what life is, living (writing) is a matter of positioning one (another) to acquire such knowledge. Therein, simply that ineffable epistemological quality we call beautiful has endured in this decade, and these are just two overt if variously turgid examples of its fate when its putative ameliorative force is put in service of the social. Praxis, for both poets, resides in respectfully and progressively conflating what the French theorist and art critic Yves Michaud calls “the metaphor or the staging of science” with the “real … transgenic manipulations” of bio art:
To see the artist, filmed in a white outfit in a research center, commenting sententiously on his or her work and his or her ideas does not give an innocent representation of either the artist or of the scientist. It not only makes the artist a “knower,” “showy” in a classical representation of his or her mission (very nineteenth century, a mage and romantic prophet, cold and clean in light of pasteurization and immunology), but also makes the scientist a wondermaker, largely immunized against what effectively determines most of the scientific research today — the competition between research teams and the profit of investors.
Although the most prevalent model of poetic research today is the creative writing industry where perhaps certain MFA and PhD programs constitute “research teams” and institutional cash cows like the Poetry Foundation and the Associated Writing Programs or Modern Language Association serve as hubs for material and ideological investment, the return of conceptualism to the domain of life and the ambition of novelty relevant to this domain is rather invested in certain utopic engagements because it has, even beyond its bedrock critique of embodiment, a new concept of life as its motive.
Reviewing her 2010 collection If Not Metamorphic for Tarpaulin Sky, Patrick Dunagan lauds the sophistication of Brenda Iijima’s interrogation of “the connections between perceptions and how they pass through consciousness via the body,” differentiating her project from what he calls “easily-packaged-for-reader-consumption-introspective-gleaning trite,” which he claims to be, at present, endemic. Dunagan ends his review with a perfectly apt evocation of Charles Olson, quoting him, in fact, and calling their project a shared one. I think the comparison is apt and, paradoxically, timely; in 2010 Iijima’s book is published and so is the unfinished “Projective Verse II” (edited by Olson/Whitehead scholar Joshua Hoeynck). In some of the more metaphysically strident and ecologically minded declarations of the proprioceptive method he famously espoused, this unfinished text does lend insight into what I take to be the indicative poem of Iijima’s book, “Tertium Organum.” Olson:
By strain I mean what happens literally to the body’s geometry. You know, off-balance etc. The wit(ness) of the body … suddenly the field of construction is a field as experience itself! … A poem, then, can be, if called & seen as a strain-locus, as appropriation of the straight lines, flat loci, & time factors of anything it now is, including the tensors of sound each word its uses then make a new “world” of (an occasion being no less than whatever algae or brown kelp in “life” used to discover herself, and began. … What makes it worth doing … is the new relationships, unrealized in our experiences [which] through the poem introduce into the universe new types of order.
If what in mid-twentieth century found one “off-balance” so pervasively that, “you know,” it went more or less unmentioned, in the aughts it equally contaminated the circuits of self-discovery — experience itself — that which seemed once life-engendering. In other words, the reification of the observer’s paradox is upon us. It deserves recalling the post-Euclidean paradox of finding oneself in the field one had put under observation, complicating and resonating within the results, culpable in all that followed Whitehead’s debate against Einstein and the “discovery” and militarization of the atom.
The title “Tertium Organum” is borrowed from the Russian mystic P. D. Ouspensky’s major opus, which braved the ridiculous extremes of Einsteinian relativity and posited a systematic ethics based in an understanding of the fourth dimension (temporality), a major point of contention for metaphysicians like Whitehead and Henri Bergson. Ouspensky’s morality is proprioceptive only to a certain in fact hermetic end. Iijima’s appropriation is, as Dunagan points out, a timely reversal. While on the surface utopic, the poem begins “Roughly everywhere, sky / border, borderland sky,” grafting topos to topos, intersecting in an “indictment” of “each encasement” of natural “law” — “A sentence can’t handle this fall” (51). Hence, her updating of “open field” poetics: Iijima’s verse makes use of the visual field of the page in a way that has been rarely seen in recent years. Unafraid of the overdetermination of idiom, she proposes writing as “Ethics pursued by other means” (58). Exploding and variously returning to a columnar structure which more than a little recalls Williams’s breath-based line (a precursor to the truly “open” field to come), she seeks to “Shrink the definition of death” (57). Shrunk to the binary structure of the determinate/indeterminate, mirrored in the very indentation/grid one reads, writing becomes an heuristic cycle whose instrumentality asserts that momentum is novelty; there is no life where there was not one before.
Unlike nature poetry, there is no operative imagery here, at least not in a conventional sense. Instead, the list permits the reading eye to do what the language seems to wish upon itself. Nominals go verbal: wave might as well be an imperative, tenses sliding via phonemic autosuggestion right into and out of substantives, to conclude with a gerund poised exactly between the two. This would-be (procreative) imagery comes in for scrutiny in the very act of procreation contemplated in the poem, rendering the whole allegorical in the sense that conceptualism has been found to rewrite itself in terms of its figural meaning.
Sex glistened in a theory
slated for production I has been extricated from
gesture, endures as a symptom
began a sexual relationship with the earth
cherry of this adolescent girl
we swirl, girls …
Water mixes sex
Mistress metamorphose me and my
I shall be living always (62, 63, 66–7)
So the proprioceptive subjectivity is a function of endurance rather than of simple (arrested) locus, which permits the idiomatic (“cherry,” “tricks”) to live its symptom. What is narrated in the poem is not a set of interconnected lives, nor a “theory / slated” of the organism (a mystical life force). What is narrated is a mode (“always”) that can, for lack of a better term, be called “living.”
The circulatory systems of trees lay here
as sexy as elbow
frothy insect delivery
fiction … prophecies … lunatic
heavy frothy waves …
Ruby hard-wired jewel box
rebellion (71, 72, 74)
Like the “Anesthetized truly, Lake Shore Drive” of my hometown Chicago, the chimera of bordering ecosystems is psychosomatically reinforced by the very “Erotic / rebellion” that “Otherwise” holds such promise (75). How does one subvert or extend an open field, anyway?
Two texts usher in congeniality as various specifics
of meaning begin to meld. Essentiality becomes
So, among the brook and hemlock outcroppings
wildness hindered unhindered and spiraling
dance spur beyond an abyss of an act itself
animal vitality freely — objects are blind effects …
Forests have no detritus (75, 76, 88)
The tertium organum then subverts itself in its existential (rather than essential) recycling, “blind effects” consecrating what has no remainder, no anterior motive or reference. Two “touching” sections of the poem, almost exactly midway through it, shore up, as it were, the gendered idiomatic play of the poem. Wittgenstein’s observation that that which dare not speak its name sits precociously on the surface of the visible — what can be shown cannot be said — leads to the seminal hypothesis of the book as a whole (which is a negative, “If Not …” hypothesis):
That is when
your mother who is a man
who your father
could have been (84)
An entire stanza/section, the clause would appear truncated, grammatically, but its logic has been developed throughout. The rest of the poem, bookending this section, predicates it. One reads “Tertium Organum” radially, a reading method that “could have” been at play all along the linear route through its pages. The columnar verse form amplifies as much, allegorizes the text.
The poem’s objects (would-be images) now proliferate.
Now we ruby and blend
you ruby I reminisce
designated for rigors
risk axis — tear out mind loosely by engaging
ears Semblance, a bare relevance
held together …
With all that spawns finality
happenstance is cropped
Tears are integers of feeling
The simulacrum demands this expulsion (101, 104)
The poem’s objecthood solicits its corresponding subject, exactly us. And with a readership at its epicenter (like Bök’s parsing machines stemmed from authorial mechanisms), we must “risk axis — tear out mind” and assume the simulacrum we deserve. The poem recuses itself of its own witness work. And this is what makes the “ruby” and “cherry” images less poetic imagery and more an interpretive imaginary. It obliges us to meet it with a promise so familiar as to appear a “reminisce[nce].” Weiner might have called this obedience, but the connotation of such a term seems extravagant in Iijima’s case. Rather, it is a structure of recurrence and desire that aligns it with other examples of new life writing, even those with apparently different aesthetic values or political commitments. Which brings me to the last example I can offer here.
A prose memoir or, as its catalog copy reads, “a conceptualist take on immigrant literature,” you wouldn’t initially recognize that Tan Lin’s Insomnia and the Aunt was an installment in a project with implications for contemporary poetry, unless you knew of its place in his ongoing “Ambient Stylistics” project. The first book in that project, Blipsoak01, scrolls verse across page spreads rather than the silent grid of traditional prosody, collapsing metadata and imagery. Seven Controlled Vocabularies, the next, contains mostly prose and reminds one of Heriberto Yepez’s contention, in “Poetry in a Time of Crisis,” that “poetry exclusively occurs when it is discussed. [i.e. ‘Poetry’ as a privileged structure is an anachronistic notion. I can only stand poetry in the context of prose].” Insomnia and the Aunt extends the generic but also the argumentative reach of Seven Controlled Vocabularies, so to understand the newer of the two, the memoir, the former deserves some attention here.
The first section of that book, “A Field Guide to American Painting,” entertains the “forms of non-reading” the environment (or ambience) accommodating contemporary media exchanges (literary production) might take; but a characteristic ploy of the book is to advocate for the ambient as a style, hence periodic reference to ambient music tropes, such as dub (overlay/splicing/phasing) techniques, to mimic the textual condition of contemporary poetics: “Poetry should aspire to the most synthetic forms” (26). Always on analogy with other art forms, especially those tending toward design (new media, architecture, e.g.), Lin gives poetry an ultimatum with respect to its relevance in a time-space rendering most reading acts as subliminal, a kind of involuntary looking — the placards in public buildings, the advertisements on sides of buses half-noticed from the sidewalk, the peripheral semiosis of Facebook, and each and every reading practice that produces, for the economic superstructure, a demographic trace of a non-self. But in a fittingly soothing, nondidactic, even encouraging way that transmogrifies instead of personifies.
Private spaces are over-elaborated and under-inhabited. Public spaces are under-elaborated and lack sufficient feedback. Things that are living vs. things that are dead vs. languor.
For this reason, poetry (like a beautiful painting) ought to be replaced by the walls that surround it and doors that lead into empty rooms, kitchens and hypnosis. A poem should be camouflaged into the feelings that the room is having, like drapes, silverware, or candlesticks …
It would be nice to imagine a painting that didn’t need to be looked at but could be sampled, like the newspaper, the television or the weather … As anyone who has ever sequenced a painting will tell you, perceptual mistakes are never sublime. A painting should expire just before we look at it, just like the drapes. The most annoying thing at an art museum is always the wall with a painting hanging on it. (26)
… The interval [of “a strobe light going off”] can be beautiful because the interval can be dubbed. Relaxation like non-designed home décor, has no real bounds. It supplements that thing known as real life. That is why it is so pleasurable to read.
Someone (I think) said the time for poems written with words and the era of reading poems with feelings in them is long gone. Today, no poem should be written to be read and the best form of poetry would make all our feelings disappear the moment we were having them … televisions and computers do this … (24)
… It would be nice to create works of literature that didn’t have to be read but could be looked at, like placemats. The most exasperating thing at a poetry reading is always the sound of a poet reading. (16)
The dystopic lull Lin seemingly reinforces and explains ceases to seem so new after all, once one recognizes that ambient stylistics responds to a sociopolitical environment in which reinforcement and explanation are redundant activities, because permission is granted ad libitum, i.e., where permission was never required (like entrances/exits to/from Mac Low’s “daily life”). Literature attains, then, to the status of information, the quality of the contemporary quantum of social mitigation, which Lin often poignantly associates with racial and intercultural identity politics (the first of the Library of Congress metadata tags for the book, printed incongruously on its cover, is “China — Poetry” and the second is “Mass Media and Language”):
In the world outside the west, it is understood that all reading practices shall be non-time-based and decorative. In that way they can be made ever more abstract and vague, like the non-illusionistic theatres of the east … Generic information is perfect information. Most books, unfortunately, are very imperfect: that is why they are read more than once. The surface is simulated, i.e., restricted by its own surface reflections/variants or logos/editions. (102)
The surface should be allowed to shed the burden of ethical depth, to be “perfect” where the illusion of perfection is too peculiar. The fluidity of the surface matches the attraction to identity construction, and disintegration, that has been, until Insomnia’s appearance, a displaced motif of “Ambient Stylistics.”
On the New York City program Ceptuetics Radio, reading with Kareem Estefan from another book in the series, plagiarism/outsource, Estefan asks Lin about the subject’s compromise, as such, and the paradoxical use of autobiographical details in his writing. The demands of new media dovetail, he replies, with Asian-American “notion[s] of identity”; identity has to be “invented,” and there is a tradition of this “ever since the ‘Paper Sons’ episode … when the records were lost in 1906 and people had to reconstruct a whole series of lineages based on imagined relatives, which was — they were able to bring relatives [from China to the United States], they weren’t really their relatives.” Like the RSS feed piping chatter surrounding the death of film star Heath Ledger — source material for the book — celebrity is a cipher around which anonymous (plagiarized) affect, or family, national, and racial identity are organized. A poetics arising from this recognition would be a poetics of readership, concerned with “how can one read something and participate in it somehow … It’s not really literature. So much of what we read on any given day, it’s not sort of considered meaningful, it’s not eternal, it’s not meant to last. And yet we — I find that I’m incredibly affectively attached to a lot of this material.” Lin even mentions a favorite exercise, “I would rewrite NYTimes stories very loosely and pretend that they happened to me.”
This deployment of social autobiography is precisely why “Ambient Stylistics” and “Tertium Organum” can be legibly called conceptualist projects. Conceptualism in writing, as poet-critic Thom Donovan would have it:
Whereas conceptual art prioritized the dematerialization of the art object as a means of overcoming art-as-commodity, conceptualist practices in recent poetry deconstruct the authority of author and text by prioritizing ideas as the principle source of a work’s authority. Doing so, conceptualist writers invite their erstwhile readership into a discourse about poetry’s function as a site of institutional, epistemic, pedagogical, and social authority (rather than into debates about how “good” or “bad” a poem may be).
But the ideational/(craft-based) formal dichotomy was, from conceptual writing’s outset, exhausted by proceduralism. By the aughts, this dichotomy emerges in the wake of the battle against commodification, the literary commodity having been sublimated by the dematerialization of readerly attention as well as capitalist exchange. Kenneth Goldsmith, also in the virtual pages of BOMB, exploits this abnegated materiality by means of analogy with the reification of creativity (in the persistence of enlightenment values of personal expression), which opportunely abnegates the matter at hand:
Conceptual writing treats words as material objects, not simply carriers of meaning. For us, words are both material and carriers of meaning; it’s language and you can’t get rid of meaning no matter how hard you try. This is made manifest by the digital environment where, since the dawn of media, we’ve had more on our plates than we could ever consume, but something has radically changed: never before has language had so much materiality — fluidity, plasticity, malleability — begging to be actively managed by the writer. Before digital language, words were almost always found imprisoned on a page. How different today when digitized language can be poured into any conceivable container …
Rather than the content-provider of old, today’s literary author holds a sort of lower-middle-management position that affirms organizing principles, concepts. Were we to elaborate the affinities of Lin’s recent work with conceptual writing, a similar analogy is required. In an April 2010 interview featured on the Poetry Foundation website, Lin does just this, but extends it to an immigrant/familial life course:
Thus in 7CV, the concept of the book is mildly operant, but generally and among other functionally differentiated reading platforms, so the book is an image created by a controlled vocabulary system. What is a book? Something that categorizes and controls data and organizes specific reading formats: i.e. the book is a generalized reading environment … coupled to various publishing mechanisms, printed- and non-printed formats, people, meta data tags, wives, genres, TV, the “spectral” cinema, scanners, Chinese people, etc. One might call this “poetry,” but one could just as easily call it “literary studies,” “fiction,” “obit,” or “family.” So in 7CV you have various and conflictual reading practices, and a lot of this is not reading in the sense of what most people think about as “reading a book of literature by a poet in a book published by a university press.”
Insomnia and the Aunt, as a logical extension of Seven Controlled Vocabularies, parses adoration, dissipation, and assimilation from the same (Google reverse-searched) nostalgic predisposition that social media entrepreneurs (each instantly monumentalized in narrative caress) exploit. What if, say, my fatal anonymity were overcome? What if, then, I could raise capital and, indeed, be a contender? And even if the contest had another outcome, I would have affirmed the meritocratic promise of “free trade”? Kickstarter. The democratization of “futures” is a fee structure of personality, a subjection of life-course to profit motive, where to nap is to die; one is never not on the clock. The aunt’s universe of commodity exchange, as a motel-keeper in rural Washington state, is already, if in miniature, insomniac and based on endurance more than labor time. She likes that she isn’t the professional she was in China — no one sleeps in motels — she rents time to oneself. In this sense, she is a perfect structural cipher for reality television, about which Seven Controlled Vocabularies contains a long and hilarious analysis whose conceptual adjacency to poetry is either chilling or invigorating, depending on who you ask.
Being on reality TV is the newest format of class-based identity branding in which people become goods, work is alchemically “removed” from life, and labor is camouflaged as a mediated, i.e., prime-time, leisure format …
The networks are well aware that subjective events like emotions are relatively easy to control and standardize in a viewer … it’s the void at the center of the viewer’s experience that counts. As most network executives can tell you, the mediation of a life on television — like an emotion — is short-lived, and the reality behind the play reality is hardly a luxury because it is about transforming something into nothing: each minute of the viewer’s unpaid leisure time becomes work time in order that we may resemble quasi-celebrities like ourselves. (122, 222)
Insomnia and the Aunt chronicles our nephew-narrator’s overnight hours spent with his aunt in front of a television in the Bear Park Motel office. She is “half-Chinese, half-English,” and it is unclear whether she is related to his mother by blood or “just a Chinese auntie.” The unnamed aunt’s invitations extended to the unnamed mother are written on post cards; the book is illustrated with numerous photos and postcards, each of which is not quite what is mentioned in the text, but a generic stand-in. The aunt is described in a photo wearing a “white cowboy hat and dark sunglasses,” whereas the book opens with a photo of a young man and older woman, hatless and prim, both with warm, not happy, facial expressions, but perhaps one generation previous to the late-twentieth-century adolescence evoked by the text. Numerous motor lodges are depicted, none of them the Bear Park which, being located in the town of Concrete, Washington, is signaled by the first postcard, of the Lake Washington Pontoon Bridge in Seattle, the “only concrete pontoon bridge in the world,” according to the card’s caption. (As the facing text depicts the nephew-narrator embarking in a rental car, heading out from Seattle’s airport toward Concrete, the route is unlikely to take him over the bridge.)
A simulacral scrapbook, Insomnia and the Aunt’s illustrations float in an illusionistic embarrassment which, like the photo of the non-nephew and anti-aunt, evokes a temporal quandary to match the bewildering durance of insomnia itself. This is mirrored in the generic oscillation between (nephew’s) memoir and (aunt’s) biography. If the visual apparatus resists facticity, the narrator’s groping for a suitable backstory for his beloved relative is continually frustrated. And it would stay that way if the dissipating traces of his memory didn’t fall into a relief — like a Man Ray “rayograph” — illustrating an apprehension of love. The apprehension is the cumulative effect of a set of moments of simple comprehension. One such moment follows an account of the aunt’s “linguistic life, the only part of her that I can recollect,” and the one which
makes her appear as a type of linguistic biography that is not much written today but was prevalent during the nineteenth century, a biography where nothing is awestruck because nothing is hidden or concealed from view. In this sense, my aunt resembles the biography of a dead person where the dead person has somehow forgotten to die. She speaks casually, like the speech of a language without a speaker. There is no original Chinese word for “motel,” and no Chinese word for “concrete” either, and so my aunt pronounced the English words as if they already existed in Chinese, thus making out of them a concrete poem …
As any linguist can tell you, it is possible to read a thing without being able to speak it and it is possible to speak a thing without knowing what it is, and this is in fact how many people learn their second and third languages, which they suddenly hear, as if for the first time, when the meanings to words pronounced for hours in a classroom are delivered by a dictionary into an understanding. And this is how my aunt’s understanding of her life in America was arrived at, as a delay in the speed of an understanding.
Ostensibly “Asian” insofar as one is “good at killing emotions,” the aunt’s “uncontrollable wailing” at the arrival of the nephew is one of the only “actions” of the book (beyond viewing television, writing poems, reading them, and stocking a vending machine), and “give[s] off, like the paradox surrounding a guess, the appearance of slightness inside moments that have already happened …” “Asians never stare into your eyes through the glass of a TV screen” except as reruns, spent affective relays whose truth value becomes a figure for and of the television’s mediation of practically everything in the book. The screen’s teleportation effect summons extinct memories like the sentient ocean of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.
As such, celebrity speech functions like the wishes of the dead do in Weiner’s Page. Robert Redford and Paul Newman, especially, and the spectral voice of Ronald Reagan bleeding over from the obscure uncle “Bing-bing’s” room. “For my aunt, and I think for Robert Redford, lying was a specific thing, like a baby crying in a room or an animal with a soul or, at the least, those mental states that scientists believe trigger particular actions …” (A postcard of Reagan the actor feeding a baby’s bottle to a chimp illustrates this passage.) Reportedly Redford’s process involved the body lying to the mind rather than the reverse, but here the process is reversed, thus acting is distinguished from truth; “lying is the most sincere way of expressing oneself, and the best way anyone has of connecting one thing to another. As Paul Newman said, lying is a highly flirtatious and mechanical form that the body has of creating a gene pool. For this reason lying is never natural (in the reproductive sense) …” Here we find the first of ten footnotes consisting of Google reverse searches that bear only the queasiest pertinence to the passage that happens to share their diction: a blithe search term brings up police lie detection truisms, such as excessive speech to paper over the truth. The nephew is led to assert that, “distinct from the somaform,” the eyes, though “everyone thinks you can make love with” them, really are only a vehicle for lies: “To lie and have sex at the same time is one of the greatest things anyone can do.” The erotic charge of the aunt and nephew’s overnight vigils, otherwise tremendously bland, binds the “genealogical” to the grammatical perspectives contemplated and deployed through the narrative. It “holds the parts of a family together,” like a sentence.
The paratactic — “involuntary and achronological” — viewing routines caused by poor reception conditions the syntactic “anthropological dumb show” of the networked programming. For instance, during an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on African game animals, the mercilessly prolonged death of a gazelle (a lion is toying with it) finds the nephew squirming, but the suspense is lost on the aunt. “Already dead,” she bluntly explains.
My aunt has trouble understanding when something is dying on TV and when something is dead in real life and that already dead is not the same thing as the fiction of watching it on TV. “They won’t show that on TV.” “Gazelle. Already dead,” my aunt says. She adds, “not already dying.”
Likewise, the aunt “dislikes live broadcasts” because they “feel canned … as if they have been rehearsed once in real life and once on television, or, in other words, once in somebody else’s life and once in ours.” Hence this “aunt seems to be a part of the anthropology of somebody else’s TV set.” The truth-value of “the aunt” rests on its lack of specificity. The television in this memoir/biography is not a conduit of images, then, but a specific object, a piece of “furniture that moves like a glacier through American life, picking up all sorts of magnetized debris … America … basically is the TV, which is why she decorates it.” It is also why, given the canned quality of even purportedly real time transmissions, such as reports of the Vietnam War, the aunt “has very few memories of violence or even racism in America. TV has made her forget all these things.”
But the great highlight of their viewing recalled here (with the possible exception of a “shiatsu guy” stunning an MTV presenter ill-prepared to translate/convey the metaphysical reality of their physical propinquity) is the Late Show with Conan O’Brien. O’Brien’s social ineptitude and dismal sense of humor are, rather than lampooned, made a figure for the “uses of pleasure” and “versions of happiness I thought a family would have.” His lack of timing is a cherished emotional “delay” in the “communal family chore” of laughter and crying, “which is why the networks invented laugh tracks and why in certain countries you hire mourners to come to a funeral and weep for you. Less distant relatives like my aunt are usually too grief stricken to grieve in the present, which is why most grieving takes place long before or many years after someone has died.” In the meantime, the “relaxing” effect of television stems from its use as a repository of lies, its nonillusionistic mechanisms. “TV, and I think all TV is great, is not about having emotions but escaping from your least predictable emotions.” And in a nod to Eliotonian impersonality, Lin adds, “Of course, only someone who watches a lot of TV like my aunt knows what it means to escape from an emotion.” Just as it “has taught her how to lie,” it has “helped her invent a new life,” an example so enduring that the nephew-narrator admits, in the eleventh footnote (the only non-Google reverse search),
I still prefer, to this day, reading anthologies rather than individual books. A poem like a person in an anthology has forgotten its author. Like a rerun or a flea market photo, it receives coaching from things next to it that probably don’t like or can’t understand it.
No one considers real life a given, but in an age of reality programming and social media the high modernist imputation of numerous realisms echoes in the refractory mediation of postmodern experience. If lived experience is basically entrepreneurial, which is I think how Lin describes it, transgression is redundant. Any realism is redundant, which leads to the temporal paradoxes first essayed in Seven Controlled Vocabularies and then exploited in Insomnia and the Aunt. New life is not reinvention, claiming an epistemological standpoint, e.g. disability, hyphenated ethnic-nationality, or class consciousness. Insomnia and the Aunt displaces immigrant witness work with a view toward the way ego broadcasts citizenship and identity. In this sense, it is one of the most sophisticated adjudications of contemporary “life,” both a prospect contingent upon its environment’s obsolescence and a supple contraption consisting of meta data, affect, and the event horizon of (re)birth. And this is why, like Iijima’s ecopoetics, it demands an ethics of — rather than protest against — reification.
2. The poetics Mac Low describes sounds uncannily like the poetics of “deterritorialization” described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: “When Glenn Gould speeds up the performance of a piece, he is not just displaying virtuosity, he is transforming the musical points into lines, he is making the whole piece proliferate … [in] a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, vol. 2, trans. Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986], 8, 25). The refusal to relegate interpretation to epiphenomenal events of literary production is the first in a set of precursors to a concept of “new” life.
3. The premise of scrutinizing the aughts would not have occurred to me without this commission which, since it was separate from my offering the essay that resulted, deserves mention and even produced the following description as offered to Al Filreis of Jacket2. I wrote, “it grew from thinking about disability poetics, abandoned that discourse in particular, and then conceived a generalized trend tentatively called ‘new life writing’ that closes a gap between expressivist and conceptualist poetics. It is something of a proposal — the concept or trend of ‘new life writing’ is in the works as the essay moves along. So its claims are a bit open-ended, designed very specifically to provoke rather than summarize (unlike other trend-spotting proposals e.g. ‘Elliptical Poets’). It is not polemical, but not entirely speculative or scholarly (somewhere in between). It is perhaps slightly idiosyncratic, then, but I think that’s one of its virtues. The glass half full: it is as theoretical as it is a work of literary criticism. Still, there is very little recourse to ‘critical theory’; it doesn’t put the works I analyze in the service of existing theoretical discourse that nonetheless spirits it. A companion essay is possible at some point (if I can find the time) that does the work of folding ‘new life writing’ back onto disability studies discourse, which has a wealth of important arguments concerning what is more traditionally thought of as ‘life writing.’”
4. On conceptual writing as allegorical writing, see Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009), and Steve Zultanski, “Polemic for P-Queue,” P-Queue 7 (2010): 89–98. Both make “strategies of failure” central to the “poetic” ethos of conceptualism. See Owens for a fuller discussion of the link between the avoidance of epiphenomenal hermeneutics and allegory: “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October 12 (Spring 1980): 67–86; “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism Part 2,” October 13 (Summer 1980): 58–80. For the reemergence of Jacques Derrida’s work in disability and other sociopolitical identity-based discourses, compare his trope of “the time of the promise” in Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006), and Judith Butler, “Finishing, Starting,” in Derrida and the Time of the Political, ed. Pheng Cheah and Suzanne Guerlac (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 291–396. Cary Wolfe’s contribution to bioethical quandaries of bio art is informative; he revisits the famous Austin-Derrida-Searle debate, treated at length in Derrida’s Limited Inc. (trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffery Mehlman; Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988) and haunting such later and fully germane essays as “Psyche: Invention of the Other” (in Psyche: Invention of the Other, vol. 1 [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007], 1–47). See Wolfe, “Bioethics and the Posthumanist Imperative,” in Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond, ed. Eduardo Kac (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 95–114. I point to Brenda Iijima’s use of disability as a critical category of ecopoetics in note 32 below.
6. Kaplan Harris, “‘JGT Very glad of your company’: A Sequence of Code Signals for the Conceptual Writing of Hannah Weiner,” paper presented at the Hannah Weiner Symposium, Buffalo, NY, October 29, 2010.
8. See Andy Warhol, a, A Novel (New York: Grove Press, 1968); Bernadette Mayer, Memory (Plainfield, VT: North Atlantic Books, 1975); Kenneth Goldsmith, Fidget (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000); and Goldsmith, Soliloquy (New York: Granary Books, 2001).
10. Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” Electronic Poetry Center.
12. See Tyrus Miller, Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the Neo Avant Garde (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009) for a brilliant analysis of Mac Low’s quasi-intentionality as it impinges on discourses of incarnation.
13. Mark Priestley appropriates a standard sociological usage to propose a “life course” approach to disability. Social institutions and independently driven transitions from “stages” of life dialectically produce “a critical understanding of disability” that, as the course between these stages comes into focus, renders “life” an extensive (social and ontologically changeable) rather than an intensive (individual and ontologically static) quality (Disability: A Life Course Approach [Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2003], 26–27). Priestely’s chapter “Life, death and disability” is especially evocative; it permits us to critique “life expectancy” as an atemporal normalization of, not least, poetic agency in light of its relinquishment, dispersal, and democratization on conceptualist grounds. Life course has a crucial conceptual affinity with bio art that might also delineate new life writing. Both bio art and conceptualism face the ramifications of working outside of “the well defined domain of objecthood — but rather in the more complex and fluid zone of subjecthood” (Eduardo Kac, “Art that Looks You in the Eye: Hybrids, Clones, Mutants, Synthetics, and Transgenics,” in Signs of Lie: Bio Art and Beyond, ed. Kac (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007], 12). Though the distinction between “living art,” say of Eiko and Koma (Naked) or Vito Acconci (Follow Piece), or conceptualism, both of which use traditional (if sometimes “new,” i.e. digital) media, “bio art is in vivo,” creating “new life” objects as much as “new subjects,” such that its emphasis on “the dialogical and relational” qualities of embodied components that will enter and alter evolutionary processes writ large to encompass the sociopolitical fields of global networks shape the “material and formal qualities of art” itself (3, 9, 19). Like biology per se, whose purview is the continuum of the somaform rather than abberrance or medicinal correction, bio art — but by analogy disability culture and conceptual poetics — challenged the “assumed typicality” of beauty and merge representation with poesis at ontic extremes (from the sign to the cell). Cybernetic, biotechnical, and pathogenic infiltration of the circuits of conventionally defined artistic agency come into focus when “new” modifies “life” at any distance, as it did at the turn of the last century when scientific positivism confronted the novel’s charge, via Emile Zola, of “heredity and environment … to exhibit man living in social conditions produced by himself, which he modifies daily, and in the heart of which he himself experiences a continual transformation,” begging the question of “determinism” and “vitalism” (The Experimental Novel and Other Essays [New York: Cassell Publishing, 1893], 21, 18).
14. Mac Low, “It Is a Simple Life,” MSS 180, box 49, folder 23, Jackson Mac Low Papers. Archive for New Poetry, Mandeville Special Collections, University of California at San Diego Library. In an odd coincidence, the poem was dedicated forty years to the day before Mac Low’s eightieth birthday celebration at Buffalo, when we concurred that questions about death are questions of a life; 1963 is also the year that Weiner claims to have begun writing poetry.
18. See Hannah Weiner, Page (New York: Roof Books, 2002), Clairvoyant Journal (New York: Angel Hair, 1978), and The Fast (New York: United Artists Books, 1992); Marta Werner, “The Landscape of Hannah Weiner’s Late Work,” Jacket2 (April 7, 2011).
In a 1995 exchange with Bernstein for his Linebreak radio program, Weiner insists on the collusion of new life writing and conceptualism:
HW: When I became clairvoyant I just started keeping a journal of everything that was happening.
CB: What interested you about the kinds of diaristic materials that would normally be excluded from poetry, that you’ve put in? The things that most people would edit out. Lots of the Clairvoyant Journal consists of things that in a conventional poetic and literary context would be edited out.
HW: It came from conceptual art, when there was an idea in the late 60s and early 70s to document everything. Or to make documents of things. And so that’s what I did. And then I edited out. For example, The Fast, I edited out forty-five pages from a thousand handwritten ones. And there’s another book following that that’s coming out soon.
19. For analyses of the role of “seen words” in Weiner’s “clairvoyant” writing, see Judith Goldman, “Hannah=hannaH: Politics, Ethics, and Clairvoyance in the Work of Hannah Weiner,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12, no. 2 (2001): 121–68, and Patrick Durgin, “Avant-Garde Journalism: Hannah Weiner’s Early and Clairvoyant Journals,” in The Early and Clairvoyant Journals, Archive for New Poetry, UCSD Libraries Special Collections, 2004.
21. Weiner, Code Poems (Barrytown, NY: Open Book Publications, 1982). See also Rodney Koeneke, “Hannah Weiner and Basic English,” Electronic Poetry Center.
22. Yet in her later projects, Weiner was especially fond of neologisms. In her stories of astral visions and conversations with or about her friend “Paw” the polar bear, for instance, they playfully further plot, emplot voices, and even set micro-prosodic parameters: a very suggestive example being her reference to herself as “ma,” picking up a convenient rhyme. Her biographical preface to silent teachers / remembered sequel (Providence, RI: Tender Buttons, 1994) ends with a golden nod to the self-congratulation inherent to the genre of the short bio: “gosh ma shes a real female tarpsichordist.”
23. Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions + The Collected Critical Essays, ed. Mark Scroggins (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 228. William Carlos Williams, in Spring and All (in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I: 1909–1939 [New York: New Directions, 1991], 177–236), definitively develops the motif of a life where there was not one before as a model of radical modernist aesthetic inventiveness:
One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
entrance — Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken
In a 1929 letter detailing “our need” to preserve this and other, eventually extracted, verse sections of Spring and All for a planned collection he would edit, Zukofsky pointed to “To Elsie” as a “complete poem” (The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, ed. Barry Ahearn [Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003], 40). This putative “need” is really a revisionary collocation of lines into a poem of a life and not a “repetition of a group of poems” (ibid.) It could be said that Zukofsky’s proposal was akin to appropriative, recombinatory conceptualism, though he made the mistake of seeking permission from the author. In other words, the “poem of a life” is not an accumulation, not a career retrospective, but a critical intervention motivated by a successive generation.
26. Sianne Ngai has written on Spahr’s “networked” autobiography in light of actor-network theory; see “Network Aesthetics: Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation and Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social,” Modern Language Association, 2008. Paul Stephen argues that Dworkin’s prior work of conceptual writing, Dure, “enacts something along the lines of a return to expressive autobiography.” See “Self-Portrait in a Context Mirror: Pain and Quotation in the Conceptual Writing of Craig Dworkin,” Postmodern Culture 19, no. 3 (May 2009).
27. See Dolores Dorantes, sexoPURO / sexoVELOZ and Septiembre: A Bilingual Edition of Books Two and Three of Dolores Dorantes, trans. Jen Hofer (Denver and Chicago: Counterpath Press and Kenning Editions, 2008); Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2007); Craig Dworkin, Parse (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2008); Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001); Susan Schultz, Dementia Blog (Philadelphia: Singing Horse Press, 2008); Renee Gladman, To After That (toaf) (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2008); Lyn Hejinian, My Life (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002) and My Life in the Nineties (New York: Shark Books, 2003).
28. Christian Bök, “The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed,” Object 10 (2002), 11.
29. Bök, “The Xenotext Experiment,” SCRIPTed 5, no. 2, #227 (2008).
30. Ofelía Pérez, Sepúlveda, “Four Poems,” in Sin puertas visibles: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by Mexican Women, ed. and trans. Jen Hofer (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), 168–71.
32. Patrick Dunagan, “Brenda Iijima’s If Not Metamorphic reviewed by Patrick Dunagan,” Tarpaulin Sky. The conceptual reach and procedural rigor of this stance is echoed in Iijima’s essay “Metamorphic Morphology,” where she “propose[s] the term re-enable-ment” to point to the epistemological values of the poles of “ability” under scrutiny by the social model of disability studies: “Dysfunction can bring about different sorts of functionality that rebel against categorization.” See Iijima, “Metamorphic Morphology,” in eco language reader, ed. Iijima (Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2010), 277–78, and Iijima, If Not Metamorphic (Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2010).
34. Heriberto Yepez, “Poetry in Time of Crisis.” Yepez’s Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers. (New York: Factory School, 2007) is exemplary new life writing.
35. Tan Lin, Blipsoak01 (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2003), Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2003. The Joy of Cooking (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), and Insomnia and the Aunt (Chicago: Kenning Editions, 2011).
36. Tan Lin, appearance on Ceptuetics Radio, September 24, 2008, PennSound; see also Lin, Heath: plagiarism/outsource, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Untitled Heath Ledger Project, a history of the search engine, disco OS (La Laguna, Canary Islands: Zaesterle, 2007).
37. Thom Donovan, review of Notes on Conceptualisms, Bombsite, March 18, 2011.
38. Katherine Elaine Sanders, “So What Exactly Is Conceptual Writing?: An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith,” Bomblog.