Extreme fact

“For Antin, facts are not independent of their presentation; they exist as a part of discourse in ‘figures of fact.’ ... [F]igures of fact are not criteria by which to judge the truth or falsity of any fact: figures of fact can just as easily exist for false facts as true ones.” Image from ‘El Mundo físico: gravedad, gravitación, luz, calor, electricidad, magnetismo, etc.’ (1882) by A. Guillemin, via Flickr.

Several years ago I started to listen to the recordings of David Antin’s talk poems available at both the archives of Antin’s papers at the Getty Research Institute and his author page on PennSound. At first my interest was mostly casual. I never had the opportunity to hear Antin perform a talk piece live, and while I have been reading his work for many years, I wanted to get closer to his principal method of operation. In summer 2016 (a few months before Antin died) I decided to try and listen to the recordings more systematically, so I started with the Getty archive recordings more or less in order while keeping track of the topics covered and the relationships between them. I then went a step further and began a spreadsheet index to try and capture the topography of his talks in further detail.

Antin’s ultimate subject matter is reality, the fact of his experience; Antin works in a lexical, syntactic mode that is empirically based. As he says in his talk piece “Beyond Baroque: Reality,” “I’ve always been attracted to the idea  the question  of reality, and it’s a very unpopular idea, reality … And all my life I’ve thought that the idea of reality is a marvelous idea. The only difficulty with it is it wasn’t easy to get at.”[1] For Antin, facts are not independent of their presentation; they exist as a part of discourse in “figures of fact,” a term coined by Antin in his talk “The Invention of Fact.”[2] Figures of fact are what render a fact meaningful. Figures of fact not only embody a fact’s manner of representation, but also its production. Likewise, figures of fact are not criteria by which to judge the truth or falsity of any fact: figures of fact can just as easily exist for false facts as for true ones. Antin’s presentation of fact “is true or at least partially true and some of it is very true and some of it is fiction, but it is fiction that is true, in other words it is serious fiction, it’s not fantasy. It is serious fiction in that it derives from a kind of experiential engagement with it.”[3] Unlike other literary devices, such as metaphor, which tend to obscure fact or take it less seriously in the name of affect, figures of fact are intended to foreground the truth of their subject matter.

Antin himself doesn’t explore the concept of the figure of fact any further in an explicit way. But I have found the concept useful in relation to Antin (and others whose works deal with the “everyday,” such as Georges Perec) and have tried to develop rough categories of figures of fact, including the fact as model, fact as narrative, fact as game, and fact as collage. I won’t discuss all of these in depth here, but it may be worth providing some further detail on the figure of fact as narrative given how often it appears in Antin’s talks. This is the figure of fact as a transformative procedure. It is not simply that information is transformed into fact, but that fact is information transformed. Pursuing this figure in “The Invention of Fact,” Antin examines several examples of historical accounts: the creation of the Truman Doctrine by actors in the Truman administration; Rousseau’s story in his Confessions of an episode in which he flashed some milkmaids; and the newspaper story of Helen Jewett, a murder case from the early nineteenth century. In his discussion of the Truman Doctrine, one of the Cold War’s early pivotal moments, Antin offers a Rashomon-like story combining the accounts of the sequence of events leading to the announcement of the Truman Doctrine that are found in the memoirs of Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and Joseph Jones. Conflicting details among the accounts reveal possible motivations of the actors as well as the differing reasons for the underlying policies. Antin’s point is that the importance of the fact of the Truman Doctrine is the rather muddy circumstances of its emergence. The figure of fact as narrative is the proposition that a fact’s truth lies in the transformation of information by and through an individual subject, showing in the seams and lacunae that result from the transformation and which must be considered part of the facts themselves.

Figures of fact serve not only as subject matter of Antin’s talk pieces but also as components of them. Much of Antin’s work as part of his talk pieces is to push figures of fact to their extreme, revealing them as assemblage — elastic, sloppy, heterogeneous — through various rhetorical devices such as repetition, juxtaposition, and digression. Figures of fact demonstrate the extremities of fact, those porous extremities where factual contradictions, origins, uncertainties, and controversies occur.  

Antin’s talk pieces have as many as four iterations in their “life cycle”: (0) preparation (1) occasion (2) recording (3) text. I have assigned 0 to the preparation stage because that is the iteration whose content is least available, at this point knowable only indirectly if at all, including through information Antin provides in the recordings and texts as to the type and amount of preparation he did for a particular talk. Only the occasion, recording, and text iterations have an audience other than Antin himself, and the audience for the occasion of the talk is obviously finite (usually cozily so). Not all of the talk pieces exist as recordings or texts.  The figures of fact (again mostly figures of fact as narrative) existing in each of the above iterations of a talk piece are different as well, owing not only to the audience but to the requirements of the medium. Antin points out that the process of the tape recording itself presents a different informational experience: “The tape recording is in some ways totally bewildering for most people, because it contains stuff that people don’t hear and it doesn't contain things they do pick up. Whatever is said they ignore certain things and slips at the time which they don’t pay attention to. It is perfectly clear when an audience listens they hear the right thing. They hear what you intend to a very great degree, and a tape recorder records only what is acoustically available to it within certain filters, so the tape recording is the most bizarre mode of dealing with this material.”[4] And as Antin often reminds us, the texts of his talk pieces are not simple transcriptions, but reworkings of certain ideas that were presented initially in a way that was later unsatisfactory to him.

Unlike raw data which tends to manifest digitally, in discrete units (such as a date, or a scalar value), figures of fact are analog, emphasizing connection and continuity. Over the course of his talks Antin crisscrossed topics, often returning to subject matter from slightly different perspectives or telling a story with an emphasis on different details. Consequently, Antin’s figures of fact stretch not only “vertically” through the various iterations of a single talk piece, from preparation to the occasion and then possibly to recording and text, but also often “horizontally” across various talk pieces. Familiar stories, themes, and subject matter overlap across talks, as Antin returns to them, sparked by memory or drawing upon them to show them from a different angle or to make exemplary use of them in a different way. Antin recognizes the coherence of motifs, stories, and topics across his talk poem oeuvre: “I am sure if I went through the talks I would find things that were familiar, but then one isn’t infinite in one’s capabilities.”[5]

In “radical coherency,” Antin describes how his talk-based performances differed from the organization of his earlier collage-based written work: “the idea of what we consider coherent   and the different ways of thinking things are coherent that are based on different organizing principles and it occurred to me that the way i had been working … taking pieces of things that were once parts of certain larger things   usually continuous things you would consider coherent like discourses of some sort or another … and putting them together or next to each other.”[6] Rather than assembling via juxtaposition, the talk piece occurs through the flows of discourse (digression, explanation, argumentation). However, it is also possible to change our frame of coherence, to step back and look at the talk pieces not as separate individuals but as a large collage or assemblage (almost like Leaves of Grass). Certainly, Antin designs his talk pieces so that they don’t completely contain the figures of fact that occur in them, any more than the figures of fact absolutely contain the facts which participate in them: “I like systems, I find them illuminating, but what I find illuminating is the notion of systems that articulate and are elegant and in some way incomplete and clearly so. And it is a relationship between the one incomplete system and the other one which creates a kind of hyperspace, because the spaces between them become interesting.”[7]

Figures of fact are about the radical coherency of fact, one that often reveals the contradictions, confusions, blurriness at their extremities. As Antin states (again from “radical coherency”): “merely trying to formulate a kind of sense   out of someone’s most conventional narrative just to try to make sense of it appears to produce a radical coherence that I had never anticipated.”[8]

The “Antindex” that I have been working on is itself ultimately a figure of fact (what I would call the figure of fact as model). The goal of the Antindex is to map the topics Antin covers so that the figures of fact across his work can be more easily identified (at least across the talk poems as they exist in the recordings but perhaps as a first step for something beyond that). The exercise of creating the index requires an engagement with the entire available body of talk pieces that includes discovering connections between topics, selecting the breadth of the entry’s description, and characterizing the purpose of the reference or topic. Below are sample entries in the Antindex to illustrate the organization:




Dogs (Antin’s)


C96, C118, C159, C199, DL


Carmichael (named after Chargers’ player)

C159, C199



DL, C199


  helps Carmichael



Francesca da Rimini (aka Franny), a kuvasz

C96, DL, C159


  came from Yuma



  died of old age



Haydn, female shepherd, died of serious illness



Mozart, a female shepherd, dislikes hot air balloons and ravens



Susie (mother of Antin’s shepherd litter)


Dominelli, J. David “Jerry”




as performance artist


Don Quixote


C78, C116


referencing Borges’ thought that if written in 1960 would be neo-dada


I have tried to organize the index by general topic (the “Entry” column) and subtopic (“Subentry”), although a third level (indicated by an indention) is often necessary below the Subentry level. The “Reference” column contains the number of the recording given to it by the Getty archives (e.g. C96 is the number assigned to the talk titled “The Sociology of Dreams”) or an abbreviation of the title of Antin’s author page on PennSound (e.g. “DL” for “Dying and Living”). I have kept track of this cross-referencing on a separate spreadsheet.

The index amounts to a conversion from the analog to the digital. And like Antin’s work, it originates from a subject position that is implicated in it. Audio indexing software exists that could be used to create an index faster, but the descriptors and connections would undoubtedly be vastly different from the ones based on my experience of the recordings. Listening to the recordings isn’t the same as attending the actual performance (as Antin often reminds us) because of the distance imposed by the medium. Since it is impossible to overcome that distance, it makes more sense to double down on it and to hear more of what Antin (referring to his live audience) says “most people don’t hear.” The Antindex augments listening (as taking notes does) by directing attention to listening as activity as well as improving my ability to pick up on the threads that run through his body of work.        

As you can see from the link to its current state (below), right now the Antindex remains a fairly shaggy work in progress. Given the nature of Antin’s poetic project, it may be destined to remain so. I have indexed a little more than 90 percent of the Getty recordings and a few of the recordings on PennSound. Once I am at least through indexing the Getty Archive recordings I hope to put the index on the internet in a wiki or similar format. My intent is that the Antindex not remain a closed project, and I welcome anyone who wants to contribute to it:

Click here to download a copy of the full Antindex.

1. David Antin, “C148: Beyond Baroque: Reality, 1985, Performed in Los Angeles,” selected audio and video recordings from the David Antin papers, Getty Research Institute.

2. Antin, Talking at the Boundaries (New York: New Directions, 1976), 147.

3. Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, “Talking and Thinking: David Antin in Conversation with Hazel Smith and Roger Dean,” Postmodern Culture 3, no. 3 (1993)

4. Smith and Dean.

5. Smith and Dean.

6. Antin, Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature 1996–2005 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 227–28.

7. Smith and Dean.

8. Antin, Radical Coherency, 237.