How it works I: technical supports

Featuring Chris Alexander

who is never not on twitter

“How It Works” is a column where I ask contemporaries for new ideas and terms to help us describe and analyze writing happening now. For my first guest I've invited Chris Alexander, my partner, the esteemed author of Panda, CEO of United Plastics, and co-editor, with me, of Truck Books, is a poet, professor, and graphic designer who reads a lot of German Media Theory, and also works on Robert Duncan. First, a little background on my assignment for him.

A few years ago, there was serious talk of creating an anthology of critical essays on conceptual writing. A number of people started essays, but then many aspects of the project were abandoned by different people for different reasons, and the anthology was not made. Then, last summer, Steve Zultanski was asking anyone who wanted to write collective manifestoes about contemporary poetry. These were both useful exercises for many of those who participated, but ultimately I think what emerged was the realization that few of us agreed on much, that people were coming from all manner of position on what was important, and that having emerged from different traditions gave us very different frameworks for imagining the situation. This difference is useful and good for learning and dialogue, not so good for group definitive statement-production.

In our household, this process ultimately left us with little desire to name, explain, or otherwise concoct one framework to account for everything happening in poetry. First, it kept not working; second, it seemed to invite lots of arguments we didn’t want to spend our time on; third, after awhile it wasn’t as fun as we thought it would be. But we learned a lot in the effort. One concept we have been discussing in analyzing recent poetry is Rosalind Krauss' notion of "technical supports." Chris found this term a few years ago, and every time we find our conversation back on the big, overarching, epistemic description end of things, we come back to this: maybe we should just write about specific works and their technical supports. I asked him to write a “How It Works” for us concerning technical supports. Here’s what he did.

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So let's tentatively accept a few propositions. First, there's Frederic Jameson's description of the diffusion of "the aesthetic" as a category of experience under the regime of flexible accumulation (so-called late capitalism). For Jameson, the present era is defined by the mutual collapse of culture and economics -- a transformation that coincides with the post-war boom and (as Harvey also notes) the rise of computational media. Where modernity was characterized by an uneven overlap of everyday life and capitalist production, with whole spheres of communal and cultural life remaining outside the market, we now live entirely within the market and its derivative forms. This is true where money changes hands, for example in the requisite shaping of personal and group identity thru the choice of consumer goods. But it's also true where no money changes hands, for example in the logic of web 2.0 communications platforms, which are essentially markets driven by an economy of attention. (If you add to this the further "monetization" of attention thru data aggregation and advertising sales, you begin to see the mobius-like relationship Jameson is trying to describe.) Culture has become an extension of economics. But this collapse has also led to a reciprocal inflation of culture -- and specifically, of aesthetic experience, which is no longer confined (as in the modern era) to discrete spheres of cultural enrichment such as the appreciation of the fine arts. Instead, the mantle of "the aesthetic" falls over everything: "no longer limited to its earlier, traditional or experimental forms, [it] is consumed throughout daily life itself, in shopping, in professional activities, in the various often televisual forms of leisure, in production for the market and in the consumption of those market products." (You can see this, for example, in the prominence of the connoisseur and the curator as figures of the age.) Economics has become an extension of culture. Under these conditions, Jameson observes, aesthetics as such resides everywhere and nowhere: "the traditional distinctiveness or 'specificity' of the aesthetic (and even of culture as such) is necessarily blurred or lost altogether."

Now here's a second (and not unrelated) proposition: American poetry has entered -- in a handful of sites, and maybe temporarily -- into a post-medium condition. Contemporary writers have turned away, variously, from the specifically literary techniques, materials, and modes of distribution that figured in the work of most writers of previous generations. The "human scale" of utterance, whether spoken in a tone of intimate confidence or picked up in the street; a certain authenticity of voice, however coy or coyly deconstructed; the line, the breath, the tone-leading of the vowel sounds, the syllable; torque, the disruption of normative syntax, semantic forms of disjunction; poetic prosody and reader-centered paradigms that rely on close reading; the book as a platform for collecting and presenting separate, previously-composed poems -- all of these techniques and more besides have been tweaked, troubled, abandoned or forcefully rejected in various quarters of contemporary writing. In their place, we find the embrace of nonliterary forms and sources (Kenny Goldsmith's use of broadcast media, Vanessa Place's engagement with the system of law, Joey Yearous-Algozin's use of online databases giving the names of deceased persons), nonliterary strategies for the genesis and organization of works (Tan Lin's use of the RSS feed in Heath, Simon Morris' computationally-randomized Rewriting Freud), nonliterary platforms and modes of distribution (Tan Lin's recent use of PowerPoint, J. Gordon Faylor's mazelike click-thru Marginal Contribution Twin, Chris Sylvester's Tumblr- and YouTube-based work) or disruptions of distribution networks (Holly Melgard's Black Friday, an all-black book designed to exceed the limits of on-demand printing facilities) -- with these extra-generic elements sometimes occuring in dense layers within a single project. 

"Poetry" has become a place-holder for other kinds of activity that include highly attentuated forms of writing, but also, increasingly, other things. At the outer edge, one thinks here of pieces like Kieran Daly's Tentatively nullpropriated assay from Gauss PDF's 36 (missed by two), a ZIP file that decompresses into a folder whose subfolders appear to divide the work into stages suggestive of the chapter headings of a book or the acts of a play, yet whose contents -- PNG image files, MP4 movies -- are presented nonsequentially (though sortable by the date and time of their last modification) because of the nature of the GUI file folder and are simultaneously accessible because of the nature of the multitasking operating system. An ambiguous relationship is established between two comparable and familiar, yet deeply dissimilar systems: the table of contents in a printed book, and the digital "folder." Add to this the fact that although most of the heading-like subfolders are empty (thus functioning purely as headings, not as containers), two are not. The third, "Lipogram; Field Guide," is especially disturbing as it contains a series of TXT files and a PDF of a field guide to Texas wildflowers -- that is, an entire other "book," and one with a particularly complex indexical structure -- thus dramatically breaking the effect of mimesis. As for the "content" of the files, besides the field guide we find blank text boxes suggestive of unused paper, inert images of click-boxes containing computer error messages, and movies that depict greenhouse gas sampling and low-fi handheld footage of a carpet and desk respectively. This is one of my favorite pieces of "writing" from the past two years. But what does it mean to "read" it?

One concept that may give us traction on some of these works is Rosalind Krauss' notion of the "technical support." Krauss arrives at this concept in the course of a career-long resistance to the purported dematerialization of art (cf. Lippard) that stood in part as the framework for conceptual and installation art of the 1960s and 70s. Responding to the dissolution of Greenbergian categories of the medium -- the turn away from discrete "medium specific" practices such as painting and sculpture -- and the explicit devaluation of Greenberg's thought, Krauss sought to reassert the category of artistic medium by seeking out "another avant garde" that preserved that specificity in a changed form. "Mediums are specified by the material support they supply for artistic practice: the way canvas and stretcher support the images of traditional painting and plaster wall those of fresco, or the way metal armatures support the material of sculptural volume. The artists I observed persevering in the service of a medium had abandoned traditional supports in favor of strange new apparatuses, ones they often adopted from commercial culture."

Her mainstay example is Ed Ruscha, whose photo-books present banal features of the American roadway in repetitive serial form, often shot from the habituated perspective of the driver. According to Krauss, Ruscha had adopted the automobile itself as the "technical support" of his work: "His books, such as 26 Gasoline Stations, and 34 Parking Lots, as well as Every Building on the Sunset Strip, acknowledge the car as the underlying matrix of his production." As with traditional artistic media, technical supports generate their own rules thru the virtualities (possibilities and prohibitions) inherent in their physical composition and conventional usage, taking on a share of agency in the production of art works. Krauss gives the example of Ruscha's 26 Gasoline Stations, explaining that the precise length of the series was suggested by "the number of refills necessary between California and Oklahoma and thus referred to the demands of driving and the exigencies of the car." In my reading, another example would be Kieran Daly's use of the digital folder in Tentatively nullpropriated: designed and conventionally used as a container in graphical user interfaces, the folder's list view nevertheless superficially approximates a table of contents; it has a liminal status, not quite an object and not quite a text. In taking up the folder to make  a "book," Tentatively nullpropriated takes up this ambiguity, which is only available thru the use of this support. 

Krauss' resistance to conceptual art (and her sustained polemic against Donald Judd) might seem out of place here. But since contemporary writing has largely moved away from Kosuth and LeWitt's identification of the work with the idea of the work, there is no framework of "dematerialization" to contend with. Under conditions in which the material qualities of nonliterary forms are emphasized, Krauss' defense of the artistic medium zealously overshoots the mark in a way that makes it useful for delineating the layered complexity of these forms of writing, like someone left shouting when the song ends. "If the car can become a medium, then anything might be pressed into such service. It only needs the set of rules that will open onto the possibility of artistic practice."

Take Rob Fitterman's Sprawl, a book in the form of a mall directory whose contents are pieced together from online user reviews of the franchises included there. Although the book has a standard table of contents listing the sections of the work and relevant page numbers, the directory itself, printed in isolation near the beginning of the "Indian Mound Mall" section, quickly takes over its function as the index and main structural element of the work, listing the stores and their locations in the imagined space of a shopping mall. (Although Indian Mound Mall purportedly exists and can be visited at 771 South 30th St. in Heath, Ohio, Fitterman's directory is partially fantasized, a composite of the many similar directories that can be found online.) Strangely, the spatial cues the directory gives us ("Bose F119 / Banana Republic N134 / Bath & Body Works E119") are irrelevant to the organization of the piece: instead, it's arranged according to the order of the list, with Bose preceding Banana Republic, followed by Bath & Body Works, etc. An ambiguous relationship is established between two comparable and familiar, yet deeply dissimilar systems: the table of contents in a printed book, and the mall directory as the index to an architecturally disorienting commercial space.

The directory presents a problem for reading: because of its structural position, it can hardly be called "content" -- just as the table of contents itself is rarely considered to be part of a work, figuring instead as paratext. Yet the directory isn't exactly the table of contents, either, since the book already has a table of contents in its paratextual apparatus --  which even lists the directory as a part of the book's contents. More importantly, the residual impression of spatial relations that comes from long habituation to the mall directory (at least, for those of us who grew up in the midwest) is disorienting in relation to the book as a platform; the locative elements ("F119.. N134") that stand in for page numbers call on a variety of training that quite different from that of reading. As a reader, I find myself reflexively slipping into spatial thinking (three dimensional, multi-directional, proprioceptive) as opposed to the sequential order (word by word, sentence by sentence) that normative reading calls for.  This quasi-textual, quasi-technical quality -- is it content? is it structure? is it text? is it object? -- corresponds to what I'm trying to describe as a technical support. Sprawl can only arrive at this set of contrary sensations thru the use of this specific support: by adopting the mall directory as the structure of a book. 

There's a lot more I could say about Sprawl -- for example, how Fitterman's use of the online user review in the context of a finding aid from commercial architecture suggests a shift, under the regime of flexible accumulation, from shopping as discrete activity to a state of limited perpetual shopping (corresponding also to the rise of preemptive time-sharing in CPU scheduling and the attendant dawn of intensive multitasking in human users); or the relationship of so-called avant garde writing to commercial forms (Stein's not particularly famous "Evian water is very good"); or the role of planned obsolescence in the Crabtree & Evelyn product line. But anyway, this is what's been on my mind lately: how to read.

Follow Chris Alexander on Twitter as @hedorah55 or check out his Tumblr, Everythings Okay.