Commentaries - October 2011
Since the advent of the internet, advocates and critics alike have heralded the end of the book. And yet, despite the worst efforts of the publishing industry, not only has the book persisted, it has proven to be a particularly elastic form, adept at adapting to remarkable changes in the way we read, write and interpolate narrative.
For centuries the printed book operated as a closed system, invested in concealing the structural processes of writing from the reader. In his now infamous 1992 New York Times article, "The End of Books," Robert Coover observed, “much of the novel's alleged power is embedded in the line, that compulsory author-directed movement from the beginning of a sentence to its period, from the top of the page to the bottom, from the first page to the last.” And yet, as Vannevar Bush astutely commented nearly 50 years earlier in "As We May Think," published in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic, "the human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next … in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain." George P. Landow suggested, in his massively influential book Hyper/Text/Theory , "the very idea of hypertextuality seems to have taken form at approximately the same time that poststructuralistm developed… both grow out of a dissatisfaction with the related phenomena of the printed book and hierarchical thought." For three decades Derrida insisted that, “only in the book … could we indefinitely designate the writing beyond the book.” By the time of his last book Paper Machine  Derrida was writing of the World Wide Web as the ubiquitous book finally reconstituted, as "electronic writing, traveling at top speed from one spot on the globe to another, and linking together, beyond frontiers."
Consider, then, the paradoxical position of Vienna-based publishers TRAUMAWIEN.
The vast majority of the text produced by computer systems – protocols, listings, listings, logs, algorithms, binary codes – is never seen or read by humans. This text is nonetheless internal to our daily thoughts and actions. As such, TRAUMAWIEN considers these new structures to be literary. TRAUMAWIEN editor Luc Gross describes this literature as “a system of virtualization in imagination, always describing breaking points in our perception of world.” Gross goes on to say, “Our range not only includes networked texts, algorithmic texts, interfictions, chatlogs, codeworks, software art and visual mashup prose."
Contrary to Derrida’s assertion that "the book is both the apparatus and the expiration date that makes us have to cut off the computer process," TRAUMAWIEN conceive of the print books they publish as narrative snapshots of computer generated literary processes which would otherwise already disappearing as soon as they are written.
TRAUMAWIEN launches each new round of books with a night of performances intended to challenge the digital as the sole locus of these born-digital texts. For example, during the first launch event, excerpts from Shocking Blue Demon Lover – “a real-time, web-written, literary, visual, dada mashup micro prose project… bilingual fictional digital fluxus poetry love story, role-played by the photographer, writer, filmmaker and journalist Margit Hinke (aka @nobabe) – were read aloud by a stuntman, in the form of Zurich/Basel-based Shakespearean stage actor.
All TRAUMAWIEN books are available on Amazon.com
Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein’s interview with Susan Howe captures their early poems and thinking about Language writing poetics: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was just over a year old with Number 7 to be published that month. I will investigate this formative moment for the ideas that continue to be crucial, that were effaced, and that enter into productive crisis in the present.
Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein
Susan Howe’s WBAI-Pacifica radio show, New York City, March 14, 1979
Bruce Andrews, from R + B (R + B, 1981)
Bruce Andrews, How (Wobbling, 1981)
Charles Bernstein, Matters of Policy (Controlling Interests, 1980)
Edited transcript published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Supplement No. 3, October 1981.
Andrews and Bernstein sketch the by-now-familiar program of Language writing, an invocation of writing’s “modernist project […] an exploration of the intrinsic qualities of the media […] which from our point of view is language […] not some concocted verse tradition […] through academic discourse and […] book reviewers in The New York Times.” The “repression of knowledge” through such academic and publishing institutions contributes to a deficiency in “people’s awareness of what poetry and what other writing forms there are.” In addition, Andrews and Bernstein interrogate the very idea of genre in writing and propose “less intrinsic reasons for [the novel, philosophy, and poetry to be] separate than for music to be thought of as separate from painting or painting from writing.”
Bernstein muses on the differences between poetry and painting that result in painting’s greater public interest. He brings up Jackson Pollock’s popularity as stemming from “the fact that his paintings sold for a lot of money” and society’s “certain kind of consumption of art” of “[getting] a little snapshot or postcard of it and […] [consuming] the image.” One consumes the painting’s material image as much as one’s self-image of enjoying capital-intensive art. Bernstein contrasts poetry visually, stating that “poetry is much harder to consume at that level. It’s real hard to get a sense of what a poem is. There’s not really an image […] it looks the same as the way poetry’s always looked, with stanzas and so on, or it looks like words scattered on the page” because “poetry […] is very difficult to understand […] you have to spend time with it.” Bernstein is correct about painting’s popularity being related to its mechanical reproduction that does not annihilate the consumption of one’s self-image, but wrong or at best incomplete in the essentialist conclusions that poetry has to be difficult to understand and has always appeared as stanzas or scattered words. Of many possible counter examples, there are innumerable oral poetries that do not appear as such, and the work of Bruce Andrews, who suggested in “Text and Context” published two years prior, “There is nothing to decipher. / There is nothing to explain.” There is nothing difficult to understand about R + B in vacuo, which begins the radio show, an example of his atomized signifier chain technique that he’s continually used and developed since the beginning of his work: there is only the visceral play of the experiencing intellect.
Andrews and Bernstein’s interest in language concerns empowering the experiencer “to think of writing as practice within the system [of language] […] displaying that system, problematicizing, and making it look like something that’s developed historically, that you don’t have to take for granted” to resist “[thinking] of the system as this apparatus of social control that we’re all going to be subjected to all the time,” and to use “writing in the way it uses language as a paradigm for how people can operate within this larger social system […] [to] come to a greater understanding of how those systems operate and how change within those systems can operate, whether it’s language or whether it’s neighborhood insurrection.” During this formative theoretical moment, this “political dimension […] is going to be undercut […] by demands for the work to take on more obvious or visible so-called political content ‘cause so-called political writers or political poets tend to be ones that do take for granted those larger systems and structures in which language operates.” Andrews and Bernstein therefore promote a non-instrumental poetry “to some degree not mediated to as great an extent by alienation […] some bit of wholeness […] that isn’t completely permeated by the structures of alienation.” Poems are autonomous fields and poetics produce political significance as semiotic scaffoldings to the poems. This groundbreaking desuturing of poems and poetics within the integrated medium of writing proposed by Language writing enabled radical developments in both fields, a relation most recently strongly redeployed by the poems and poetics of Conceptual writing, ironically as its poetics declare an paradigmatic break with Language writing as a final modernism.
Andrews and Bernstein would soon have firmly established the political tenets of Language writing poetics, publishing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 9/10, “The Politics of Poetry” double issue, in October 1979, and from their foundations of non-instrumental self-valorizing autonomous aesthetics enriched with philosophemes from collapsed genres, started to rupture greater social address into their poems, such as Andrews’ inclination to insult and Bernstein’s to humor. In the success of their program, it is interesting how formerly primary concerns toward “neighborhood insurrection” and social action were effaced next to the production of many powerful aesthetic works, and how the conception of freely circulating language between social genres encounters contemporary theories such as Alain Badiou’s insistence of a desuturing between philosophy and poetry, their collapse constituting a reneging on the possibility of truth. As Andrews and Bernstein’s intervention was based on their moment’s cultural conditions, seriously repeating their incomplete formative impulses now necessarily requires a confrontation with their achievements.
Next Sunday: Andrews, Bernstein and Ron Silliman in conversation, Bernstein’s apartment, New York City, March 6, 1981, and Andrews, Bernstein, Ray DiPalma and Silliman reading from LEGEND, Andrews’ apartment, New York City, March 10, 1981.
PT#1: William Carlos Williams between walls
PT#2: Adrienne Rich won't wait
PT#3: George Oppen's ballad
PT#4: Allen Ginsberg sings Blake
PT#5: Ted Berrigan's "3 Pages"
PT#6: Jaap Blonk sound poem
PT#7: Jerome Rothenberg's paradise
PT#8: Rae Armantrout's "The Way"
PT#9: John Ashbery at a crossroads
PT#10: one of Gertrude Stein's portraits
PT#11: Erica Hunt's "voice of no"
PT#12: Ezra Pound's America
PT#13: Kathleen Fraser's dangerous highway
PT#14: Wallace Stevens at the end
PT#15: Lyn Hejinian's change
PT#16: Creeley driving the car
PT#17: Rodrigo Toscano's political poetics
PT#18: Lydia Davis has a position
PT#19: Bob Perelman's inner unruly child
PT#20: Amiri Baraka's Kenyatta
PT#21: Charles Bernstein's restlessness
PT#22: Louis Zukofsky begins anew
PT#23: Cid Corman really knew terror
PT#24: Barbara Guest, a poem about painting
PT#25: Alice Notley on the Lower East Side
PT#26: wild Vachel Lindsay
PT#27: Robert Duncan opens the field
PT#28: Jack Spicer to shrink: drop dead
PT#29: Kit Robinson ponders mad men
PT#30: the W. C. Williams we remember
PT#31: Robert Grenier's box of poem-cards
PT#32: Susan Howe's Emily Dickinson
PT#33: flarfist Sharon Mesmer
PT#34: Charles Olson's Maximus
PT#35: Bruce Andrews at the center
PT#36: J. Scappettone writes through H.D.
PT#37: Jena Osman drops leaflets
PT#38: Norman Fischer would like to see it
PT#39: Etheridge Knight & Gwendolyn Brooks
PT#40: Susan Schultz blogs dementia
PT#41: Ezra Pound in Venice
PT#42: Nathaniel Tarn's eco-poetics
PT#43: John Weiners by night
PT#44: Fred Wah's race to go
PT#45: Eileen Myles does what she teaches
PT#46: Jackson Mac Low writes through Ezra
On March 15, 2011, we celebrated the potential of literatures through the Oulipolooza, a Kelly Writers House-style celebration of all things Oulipo. The OuLiPo, or “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle” (workshop of potential literature), is a group of experimental French poets founded in 1960, devoted to exploring the potential of literature, language and freedom through the lenses of different constraints. Oulipolooza included readings about the Oulipo by Jean-Michel Rabaté and Katie Price, a reception full of Oulipo-inspired foods, and the launch of "An Oulipolooza": a collection of oulipian texts.
We asked attendees to submit their Oulipo-inspired works to "An Oulipolooza": a collection of creative and critical texts to be published as adjunct to Oulipolooza. We read participants' experiments in constraint, got introduced to procedures you've invented. We asked for lipograms and N+7s, prisoner's restrictions! We called for these thusly: “Send beautiful outlaws and all exercises in style you have!”
The video excerpt above captures a moment when a member of the audience asked about failure in such writing — how does it occur, how do we discern it? The video recording of the entire program is available here. The audio recording of the program (a downloadable mp3 file) is here. The event was organized by Sarah Arkebauer, a Penn undergraduate affiliated of the Kelly Writers House.