This is the bodies: On Jena Osman and Rob Fitterman
For a few months in 2014, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented a small exhibition of photographs by John Divola titled As Far As I Could Get. The exhibit encompassed one square room presenting prints from four different photographic series. In the title series, As Far As I Could Get, Divola has placed his camera on a tripod and set the shutter on a ten-second timer. As he starts the exposure’s countdown, he runs off into the distance marked by the camera’s gaze. At ten seconds, the camera takes its exposure, revealing how far Divola was able to run and the landscape that surrounds him. Each photograph in the series exhibits a different location, a different landscape, and a different time of day.
Over these same months, I read two books: No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself by Robert Fitterman and Corporate Relations by Jena Osman. Fitterman’s book is culled from postings expressing loneliness found on various online forums. Each excision of language is stitched into a continuous stream of single consciousness. Each post’s “I” overlaps, is undifferentiated from the previous and the next.
Fitterman’s text begins:
I’ll just start: no matter what I do I never
seem to be satisfied,
The world spins around me and I feel like
I’m looking in from outside.
I go get a donut, I sit in my favorite part
of the park, but that’s not
The point: the point is that I feel socially
awkward and seem to have
Trouble making friends, which makes me very
sad and lonely indeed. (1)
The book itself does not announce the appropriated nature of the text. As is common with Ugly Duckling Presse books, there is no description on the back cover. There is no afterword, bio, or author’s note. On its face, without knowing the details of the book’s composition, these words are all Fitterman’s words.
The sentences are recognizable outpourings of depressed emotions. Though one might be tempted to say that the utterances are uniformly clichés, most incorporate odd, singular moments that differentiate them as specific, individual utterances. Going to get a donut, finishing a rereading of Frankenstein, or mentioning a little brother named Christopher. The images and statements proliferate, mimicking each other, seeming to be completely recognizable, but in their constant twisting avoid replicating an exact phrase verbatim. Fitterman places before us language that is simultaneously singular and repetitive.
Of the four images on display from As Far As I Could Get, the one I find myself drawn to is “(R02F06).” In this image, Divola is captured running into a scrubby desert. It appears to be dusk, though it is difficult to determine due to the cloud cover. The figure in the photograph appears to have run about the same distance in this photograph as in the others. But I notice something different. Perhaps due to the camera settings or the diffuse lighting, as I approach the 60” x 40” print, my ability to discern the self in the photograph becomes more and more difficult. Divola’s body, which seems so distinct when standing a few feet from the canvas, dissolves into hazy pixilation. I become unsure — is that Divola I’m looking at, or is this just a blotch of something else that has appeared in the camera’s viewfinder? As I approach the limits of where the docent allows me to stand, I watch Divola’s self disappear into the desert landscape.
As Fitterman’s litany of depression and self-loathing continues, it becomes a neverending loop of negativity. The feelings are endless and intense. At various intervals in the single-section book, there are stanza breaks. For a moment, there is a pause of feeling, an instantaneous gap. And then the stream of emotion begins again, renewed, as if it never stopped at all. The language of raw emotions is left alone and untethered on the page:
So, it’s not like I’m a total introvert or I’m afraid
of living. I don’t have agoraphobia
Or anything like that, but I am still SO FUCKING
LONELY, I COULD JUST DIE! (26)
On the one hand, extreme emotional outbursts like this one can be amusing. As the speaker has been totally removed, and the language represented in this litany, I assume that it is not a sincere statement. The statement is pure hyperbole, exhibited in the traditional way of overreacting on the Internet: IN ALL CAPS.
But this response is in reality actually very sad. There likely is an actual person at the other end of this communication, someone who does feel these feelings and is reaching out for some form of language that can express them with true transparency.
Fitterman’s act of appropriation reveals that what becomes transparent is not language but rather the body, the person, the self that was speaking. In seeking statements that represent a pure emotion and assumedly leave little language-residue on the act of communication, the speakers find only themselves effaced. Anyone can say these words, and Fitterman proves this by saying them all together at the same time. The multiple “I”s become a single I — an I that clearly exists and thus does not exist at all. As the I emphasizes its selfness again and again throughout the book, it recedes further and further from view. The I becomes a word in language. And it is the words themselves that are left alone and self-loathing on the page:
[...] It has gotten so bad that I’ve just
turned off completely from
The world: unable to make contact with anyone
with any substance. (33)
What we are left with is the concrete artifact of language, the lone survivor. And so we are forced to read.
Near the end of Fitterman’s book, the I turns its attention to the you:
[...] I’m totally imagining who this “you” might be;
I guess one could say it’s a fantasy because I’m not really talking to
anyone, I’m not really relating to anyone, and it’s not
Like I’m going out and meeting anyone, so when I’m saying “you,”
I really don’t know who I am addressing. (69)
I wonder why Divola titled his series As Far As I Could Get rather than As Far As I Got? As I look deeper into the pixilated form of Divola in “(R02F06),” I realize that I’m also wondering how far I myself would be able to run in ten seconds. How fast is Divola? Am I faster? The title of the series exhibits the slipperiness of the I, how quickly it shifts from Divola’s perspective to my own. Is that as far as I, myself, could get?
Like Fitterman’s book, Osman’s Corporate Relations looks to a specific body (and use) of language as a source text. In Osman’s case, that body is a series of Supreme Court cases relating to the issue of corporate personhood. The first section is a series of redactions and poetic responses to Supreme Court cases related to the First Amendment. The poem derived from Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission begins:
a narrowly tailored remedy to that interest
to use the words of one Justice, that is ventriloquist speak
I would say that it is more like surrogate speech
Justice Ginsburg: who is the “you”? (23)
The form in which Osman presents her language selections makes the origin point of these words diffuse. Whose words are the first three lines? Are they from a single source, or two, or three? Who is the “I” in the third line? Who is the “one Justice” referenced in the second? The second line also brings to mind the legal use of repurposing language — how the language of previous decisions becomes a “surrogate speech” both informing and indicating the direction of the present decision, how a court decision becomes material in the compost to promulgate future decisions.
The Supreme Court stands, symbolically at least, as a single entity. In our ideal imagination, each ruling presents a singular voice. In reality, of course, this is not the case. There is the ostensible single “winner” based on the court’s vote. But then the voices begin to split and diverge. There are opinions that limit, determine, and muddle the straightforward vote. The opinions themselves are typically divided into majority and dissenting opinions. Language from previous decisions is used to justify and determine the current decision at hand.
So who is the you? Or, who are the selves that become embodied in the series of cases Osman’s poetics investigate?
In No Medium, Craig Dworkin studies works of art in which what we typically think of as content has been removed, leaving behind only the framework, or isolated medium, of the pieces. Pieces such as Aram Saroyan’s ream of typing paper and Nick Thurston’s erasure of Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature. Dworkin argues in his readings of these blanked texts that one can never totally isolate medium from content — that, instead, everything is inscribed and everything is, indeed, content. Or that in these acts of erasure, the medium reveals itself as content.
Rather than excising the medium from the content, Osman excises the content of these court cases from their medium. Isolating the language of these cases does not distance the language from its source. Instead, the language of the court is revealed for examination. Dworkin claims “[t]he point then is not so much the play of presence and absence that has animated studies of inscription, but rather the recursive realization that every signifier is also itself a sign” (9). Osman’s use of these cases shows that this is equally true for books drilling down into the language, discarding the original form. In “Hale v. Henkel” in the section on Fourth Amendment rights:
I shall have to respectfully decline to answer
I shall give the same answer to that
I shall repeat the answer as given before
The same answer to that question
I give the same answer to that question
I must decline to answer for the reason stated
I just wish to state that I have declined to answer the questions, with the utmost respect (31)
These supposed answers are pulled entirely out of context, decoupled from the question or questions that triggered them. The result presents a Bartleby-like litany of non-answering answers. The case itself centers around whether a subpoena to produce corporate documents constituted unreasonable search and seizure in violation of Fourth-Amendment protections for the corporation. The amendment protects explicitly “[t]he right of the people to be secure.” In this piece of language, Osman both emphasizes and effaces the bodies of the people speaking. There is an obvious communication occurring, but it is one in which the language produced is more important than the people producing it. When the persons themselves can become so easily lost, is it any wonder that the corporation, a bodiless entity like the courts, receives the writ of protection?
In a prose note at the end of “Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad,” Osman quotes from Justice Hugo Black’s dissent in 1938’s Connecticut General Life Insurance Company v. Johnson:
… of the cases in this Court in which the Fourteenth Amendment was applied during the first fifty years after its adoption, less than one-half of 1 per cent invoked it in protection of the negro race, and more than 50 per cent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.
The language of the courts is layered in its own history, dug out and retrenched for explicit purposes. One wants to speak of intent. One wants to speak of legitimate parameters. One wants to appeal to a common sense. But who do we appeal to and what do we appeal with? The body of the courts, the body of language, the body of our bodies.
Interspersed within the poems addressing specific court cases on corporations are other poems that explore the changing way in which the body and the self are conceived in a capitalist economy. “Mechanized Eccentric” presents the myth of John Henry:
a man holding a hammer
a man competing with a steam drill
a man striking fire
hammer ring hammer ring
hammer my fool self to death (43)
In this retelling, John Henry is not named — his name is stripped away, leaving only the empty language vessel of “a man.” And as Henry is emptied of his individual self, the man becomes indistinguishable from the machine he’s competing against: “in order to do the work in the quickest time, / at what cutting speed shall I run my machine?” (43). Is this the steam drill or is this the man? The body is no longer spoken of as flesh and blood, life and family, desires and dreams. Instead, it is reduced to “the pulling power and the speed and feed changes” that “enable the machine to finish its product” (43).
“Industrial Palace” ends Osman’s collection, completing the transition from machine as a metaphor for the body to the actuality of the body as a cog within a corporate structure. Beginning with “the body is a factory / in the workshop of the head,” the body becomes many: “a group of persons are authorized to act as one / a group of persons combine in one body” (71). The barrier between the body as a sovereign single unit and the group as a sovereign single unit becomes blurred in the rhetoric of the corporation. Lungs are the “pulley and wheel” carrying oxygen, “the liver is a chemical plant,” and in this conception, the corporation can become “a group of persons who can speak with one mind” (72).
As I finish editing this essay, the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby has been handed down, determining that a body that is a privately held corporation holds religious rights and its resultant constitutional protections. I find myself interspersing editing this essay with reading articles on the decision. I look up the full name of the case: Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al., Petitioners v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Mardel, Inc., David Green, Barbara Green, Steve Green, Mart Green, and Darsee Lett; Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation, et al., Petitioners v. Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al. I read an article that includes an anecdote about the Green family, which holds the controlling majority of Hobby Lobby, praying around a table at their company’s Oklahoma City headquarters. David Green — founder, CEO, and father — “thanked the family for remaining in unison” during the case’s long winding through the justice system. There is no mention of Conestoga, the second company attached to the case.
Or, as Osman concludes: “look at the body: it moves” (72).