Loosening linking

An introduction to Jordan Scott



Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott

Coach House Books 2013, 144 pages, $24.95 ISBN 978 1 55245

What follows is an introduction to Jordan Scott’s reading/screening at the University of Georgia on Wednesday, September 24, 2014. Sponsored by the creative writing program, the event was held at 7 p.m. in the Lab Room at Ciné, 234 West Hancock Avenue, in Athens, Georgia. Earlier that afternoon, Scott had visited Andrew Zawacki’s advanced undergraduate workshop “Graph & Photograph,” whose twenty-one students interviewed Scott about Decomp.

I hope the Coach House Books editor, Alana Wilcox, won’t be angry with me if I tell you that my copy of this book, Decomp — coassembled by tonight’s guest, Jordan Scott, and activist writer Stephen Collis — arrived damaged. Pages 90–105 are missing, while pages 113–128 appear twice in quick succession. Correctly divvied into five chapters, but with no chapter four and a pair of chapter fives, the volume — in which its authors claim, “Our understanding is at or about limits” — is at once too little and overmuch. Coach House replaced my incomplete, excessive copy with a correct edition, but I wonder whether the altered version isn’t the truer account, given the obsession in Decomp with validating what’s written “rongly,” and with tracking the “erritory.”

One chapter erased, another repeated. What do we call inadvertent or aberrant repetition, if not a stammer? Scott’s second book, Blert, enacts a poetics of the stutter as a deeply somatic musical score that wrestles with language as recalcitrant, sinewy stuff. Replete with tongue twisters, plosive riffs, pronunciation calisthenics, fables about foibles in speech, and other outtakes of glottal spelunking and gobbledygook, Blert is at once an experiential pressure applied to the famous Freudian compulsion and a staccato elaboration of projective verse. Decomp, on the other hand, traffics in the irreducible and unrepeatable. Set in five distinct biogeoclimatic zones of British Columbia, Decomp is premised on site specificity and insists that the natural world is “unre able,” a broken term that suggests the earth is unreadable, unreifiable, unreproducible.

In the spirit of Sir George Airy, who established the modern Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1851, Collis and Scott geotagged the spots where they placed each of five copies of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, whose deterioration they went back to document a year later. Rather than writing about nature, as Darwin did, they let the natural world rewrite the books. Their project is less aligned with Kenny Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” than with an outsourced creative unwriting, whereby a quintet of distinct biosystems becomes the catalyst to an elemental misprision, subjecting the volumes to the very same “natural selection” their author had proposed. This mulching of the text is all the more ironic — or appropriate — given that Darwin himself was known to tear out book pages that didn’t interest him, so he might keep the portion that did. Decomp reminds us that all writing is a species of ascesis and extraction, of erosion if not erasure: a violent cutting away from the saturated, recombinant fields of language and literature every last word and idea and form that is not the thing you’re trying to say.

That creation begins in destruction is evident in the chemical process of photography, where developing a negative means removing light-sensitive silver halides from film. Even as the digital color images in Decomp testify to the unnatural tech selection that has all but eliminated analog photography, they witness the gradual disappearance of humanity from the scene: the death of the author, certainly, and the first-person I, “only / water and / syllables giving way.” A celebration of print culture in our era of Kindle and Kobo and Nook, Decomp is also an elegy for the book, as the “leaves” of a work titled Origin return to the very trees from which they came.

Throughout the book, Scott and Collis reprint what they can discern of the still legible passages of Darwin’s text, after it’s been exhumed. Since its pages are rotting, torn, smeared, occluded, or otherwise fractured by the weather, the authors also provide what they label a “Gloss.” We can’t help but hear inside that moniker, of course, the word “loss,” and indeed the greater part of the Darwin has been effaced, leaving Collis and Scott to invent — or, as it were, translate. Or even to speak in tongues: the term “gloss” is from the Greek glossa, for tongue or language, and Decomp is arguably an inheritor of what Frederic William Ferrar, in 1879, first called heteroglossia. While removed from a Pentecostal or Charismatic context, the book has been nonetheless written by a host of friends and family members: Ken, Pauline, Caroline, Summer. “We are porous,” the book tells us. Allusions to “the with-me” and “with-us” bespeak a society constituted by the mutual exposure of bodies, by opening our corpus — skeletal and scriptural alike — to others, and evoke the beautiful, fragile caring so crucial to a community in which one’s “own” death, so called, in fact belongs to everyone except the one who dies: “stay together,” Gary Snyder implored, “learn the flowers / go light.” With salal and kinnikinnick, Scott and Collis are among those children who have honored “For the Children.”

Within the speculative gloss of Decomp we also see — just a letter removed — “glass,” which may put us in mind of the microscope, the museum vitrine, or the documentary lens. Even the realist artist’s mirror is relevant here, since it reflects an object, but only in a backward way. Furthermore, a reader attuned to the literary theory that aerates the book will look at “Gloss” and also think Glas, the title of Derrida’s 1974 hybrid that put Hegel in one column, Genet in a parallel row, and figured authorship not as a static monolith but a dynamic, conjugal relation. The word means “bell” or “klaxon,” as if a bicolumnar Collis and Scott were honking to one another, rather than conversing per se, across the proprietary zone of the signature; as if both of them were calling across history to Darwin on a far shore; and as if Nature were trying to maintain some distance from a book about Nature, even as their differences weaken with the decay of each— what Decomp calls a “loosening linking.” Or maybe the glas of Decomp is most urgently understood as a siren or blaring alarm, to warn us we’re heating and pillaging the earth at an unsustainable, irreversible pace. (It will be interesting to hear Decomp this evening, just three days after the People’s Climate March in New York. Stephen Collis was among the 400,000 who gathered at the largest climate protest in history.) Derrida took his title from Bataille’s poem “Le Glas,” which in turn had been drawn from a Mallarmé lyric, “Aumône.” Consistent with that praxis of relay and semi-borderlessness, the word glas is intriguing — and remarkable in tonight’s setting — not least because its singular form is identical to the plural.

Behind any coauthored project there lurks the question of labor. Who did what or how much, which words issued from whose mouth? And behind the matter of labor’s division resides a curiosity about how the relationship went — was it symbiotic or parasitic, collaborative or contentious? These are central provocations regarding social dynamics and economies of production that Decomp extends beyond the narrow confines of the literary. Collis and Scott stage a critical conversation about First Nations land rights and second-growth forestry practices, about third-stage global capitalism and the nearly invisible strictures that finance seems to have always prepared in advance for everything we think and say and do. If a labor of love, as they say, this is foremost a book about loving laboring, a work about the essential work of unworking. Whistled in what the authors call “forest language,” Decomp is a new wave work song, “in the service of the soil,” a choral chord in “a struck opus of beings.”

Please join me in welcoming — one of the nicest people on the planet — Jordan Scott.