File under: new media poetics, electronic literature, technotext, flarf and so on

A review of 'Electro Þerdix'

Electro Þerdix

Electro Þerdix

by Christopher Funkhouser

Least Weasel 2011, 43 pages, $9.00, ISBN chapbook

Christopher Funkhouser is a poet engaged in exploring the multiple possibilities of digital language. That involves not only writing pieces using word-processing software but also sound-design and the composition of visual pieces in video—and not rarely he mixes both media. File him under: new media poetics, electronic literature, technotext, flarf and so on.

Besides this intense creative output, Funkhouser is a serious and attentive researcher of his own poetical and artistical genealogy. An excellent example of his deep research is Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959–1995, where the author displays comprehensive erudition. His knowledge with the most interesting tradition of modernist poetics, particularly that one engaged into exploring on different levels the artistic drive towards experimentation, is intimate. His paideuma brings together diverse sources and approaches such as OuLiPo, concrete poetry, cut-up ontology and anthropophagy.

Obviously, this bio-bibliographical introduction wouldn’t be necessary if you’re familiar with the changes in perception, thinking and cultural patterns provoked by digital media. Texts like Electro Þerdix are self-referent and as long as one is acquainted with postmodern communication systems, one will easily recognise la règle du jeu in action and recognise the whole textual scenario in which this work takes place. These texts reflect so much the ambivalencies of our times — particularly towards the social relevance of writing — that we’re caught in the middle of them like we’re caught in the streams of broken narratives of social networks, in the SOS signs implicit in cynical but inconsequential tweetying and pop philosophy (to make sure anything can be metamorphosed into marchandise pour les masses), in the paradox of velocity being reified and sold in the global market.

Electro Þerdix is a welcome book due not only to its aesthetical achievements (and they’re not a few but actually quite many that make the book simply one of the best references when the subject is the direct link between digital language and poetry) but also to the field of discussion that it opens up in front of our conceptual machinery for reading poetry.

Aesthetically, it’s impossible not to notice the fractured and/or hypercubic rhythms. They compose a series of truly interesting experiments in phrase-building and collapsing, in a way very similar to drawing and modelling a sound wave in musical software, via the attack and decay commands, so that the rhythmical assymetry produces not only graphical results but also musical occurrences. It’s like the phonemes have been electronically induced by the broken beats which freefloat on the page. As long as the results are as important as the process, the whole set of poems surely functions as a sort of pocket digital Gesamtkunstwerk, where one finds assymetrical rhythm patterns, sonic and phonetic design, graphical dance of words and unusual imagery acting upon one an other.

Those texts remind me of another highly experimental work by Funkhouser, his blog, Freeholderville. There, he piles feedback-driven layers of a smoky narrative — also a worthy achievement in terms of aleatory narrative string, composed from selected blog posts written by people in his region.

But what strikes me most in Electro Þerdix is the general sense of cut. As the majority of the raw material is — let’s say — borrowed words (or samples, if you want to establish since this very moment the relations that are so evident between Funkhouser’s verbal opus and fringe electronic+rock music, particularly of the improvisational kind), one is necessarily striken by the absence of an autorship as traditionally perceived and dictated by hegemonic western culture paradigm. In Electro Þerdix one finds an operator of multiple choices whose final montages take over the read through the pungence of his absence. It’s really like bassplaying, since when you play the bass you’re obliged to not only produce sound but also silence — or not be there.

This sense of an onipresent Absence is probably tricked by the use of what I like to call Language Black Box, the real motif of the book. Some word combinations conduct sinister mindscapes and I dare say it’s as difficult to translate some of these poems as it is to translate into any human language a fragment by Joyce (I know it sounds a little bit out of context here, but consider it specifically in function of linguistic density) or the most radical cut-up experiments by William S. Burroughs. But “into” (id est: in their nucleus) these texts you won't find a Presence — as you find in “automatic writing” (where you supposedly end up finding Unconscious as The Other) or in Burroughsian cut-ups (where you risk to end up finding The Other as Word in the state of virus). On the contrary, these texts compound something like a book of prayers for a universe where the idea of transcendence was devastatingly swept away but poetry has survived as a matter of possibility (even organically speaking). Just don’t think this is tragic, because it definitely is not. As long as the samples are wildly skewed, the slant of meaning comes up with new possibilities of what seemed to be an exhausted system. Poetry has survived.

That’s the reason why humour plays a particular place in Funkhouser’s works. To counterbalance the angst driven by the sinister LANGUAGE BLACK BOX motif which envelopes creations like Electro Þerdix, one has to explore a work such as his transcreation of Baudelaire’s “Correspondances.” It’s supposed to be a transcreation of one of Baudelaire’s most celebrated poems — itself a sort of remix of Swedenborgian and gnostic tones into a fresh brand new French tune. We know that transcreation means not translation but essentially self-permition for creation on behalf of the transcreator. We also know that the exercise of this self-permission, the exercise of this liberty, is what truly interests in this kind of semiotical intervention — and eventually has its influence on the result of being or not being a failed communicational experiment. Obviously, it can devolve into a trick (more or less aesthetically convincing) and even become a consolidated formula.

The final result of the recreation of “Correspondances” is puzzling: the image of a sinister duck and a sort of subtitle (like an artifact fallen from a silent and nostalgic galaxy lost in time) following the image. It’s like a twisted drink since the correspondence is not where it is supposed to be (creating a strange and disturbing ressonance between iconic information and verbal information), it’s somewhere else, de-conditioning reading patterns and frustrating cognitive expectations. It has a lot to do with de-assembling a formulae, since “correspondence” became sort of a formulae/recipe from the late XIXth poets onwards.

As already detected in the discursive texts, it’s surprisingly interesting to notice how a single image (which is the poem, or its transcreation) can retain so many connections and iconic-verbal puns. E.g.: Lautréamont (proto punk-rock hero for maudit poets) is inscribed in it (through a pun — Mal the error => Maldoror), and you also have a duck (a quite weird one) instead of an albatross (a typical Baudelarian bird). It's like consciously denying or erasing the easiest and most banal levels of intertextuality predictable in a transcreation.

Of course, this “impertinent duck” says “uh oh” and never “never more.” And all these references and signs are anthropophagised in a style of transcreation whose results remind me directly of the Primeiro caderno de poesia do aluno Oswald de Andrade (not by coincidence the self-titled book of a student and so much a testimony of the contacts of the poet with the LANGUAGE BLACK BOX) — at least for its iconoclastic humor, its high level of semiotic compression and the quest for fresh language. This makes things not easier — but harder, since Funkhouser is an attentive reader of Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago, and is fully aware of the aesthetic consequences of the Brazilian author’s cultural project.

A few words about two points I deem medullar in any discussion concerned with Electro Þerdix are still necessary.

The first one is the title, with its extravagant typographical word-shaping (Þerdix) and its portmanteau ambivalencies (Perdix being both a bird, a medicine, and a bit of mythology and having its meaning radically metamorphosed with the addiction of that strange mineral character). The appearence of the letter thorn (Þ) remits so much to a techno-fetishist computer language sign (impression stressed by the word “electro” by its side) as to an archaic (which in fact it is) and totemic language symbol. As the hero of a German expressionist novel says “P for Pumpernickel”, one can surely say “Þ for Þerdix”. And that’s where Funkhouser’s creative output is placed — in between: aware and reverential to a certain modernist and post-modernist lignage but causing effects beyond it and its limitations.

The second and last point is about the fact that Electro Þerdix displays some texts written collectively. The superb art work also shows a collaborative interaction between the visual artists Amy Hufnagel and Karen Pava Randall, in which they converge and combine their processes and approaches to image making. This particularity is an interesting move from the isolationism currently in force among digital experimentalists. The effort for placing writing in a collective perspective is something that shouldn’t be underestimated since it’s one of the paths that seems to signal a possible reinsertion of poetry in a social context and might lead to a horizon of regaining social relevance for the act of writing.