In the presence of absence

A review of Annette Gilbert’s ‘Literature’s Elsewheres’

Literature’s Elsewheres
Annette Gilbert
The MIT Press 2022, 432 pages, $34.95, ISBN 9780262543415


language becomes an infinite museum, whose center is everywhere and whose limits are nowhere.

Robert Smithson, 1968[1]

“… if one were to create a list of contemporary literary practices and production methods, an impressively broad spectrum would emerge”:[2]

to write to place
to narrate to transcribe
to versify to co-write
to rhyme to write off
to dictate to type
to enumerate to scan
to collect to copy
to compile to appropriate
to annotate to recite
to arrange to perform
to correct to publish
to delete to edit
to compose to choose
to refer to curate
to typeset to crowdsource
to relate to frame
to translate to duplicate
to alphabetize to reproduce
to sort to print
to count to post
to parse to blog
to codify to tweet
to generate to release
to program to fake

Annette Gilbert’s compilation of forty-eight actions, written “in the style of Richard Serra’s famous Verb List Compilation” of “eighty-four basic artistic techniques,”[3] provides an instructive meta-example of the breadth of works covered in her new book, Literature’s Elsewheres: On the Necessity of Radical Literary Practices. The fittingly concatenated title of her book was suggested to her by Nick Thurston and comes, in part, from Gerald Bruns book on Maurice Blanchot: 

Poetry is not a work or process of art; it is a déœuvrement: its movement is not toward a point of being finished but a ceaseless, open-ended movement toward what is always elsewhere. Imagine poetry as a name of this elsewhere.[4]

Whether you call it poetry, experimental — non-retinal — appropriation — propositional — or site-specific literature, conceptual writing, a constellation of literary practices, an “instantiated entity,”[5] an otherness, or an elsewhere — perhaps the common denominator is that they are forms of writing that act. That is to say, the literary works presented in Gilbert’s book “reflect upon and performatively test the actual, literal conditions of their existence.”[6]

One example of such performative testing can be found in Timm Ulrichs’ 1970 display of two seemingly identical copies of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The two books are pressed between plexiglas with the words “I have read this book” printed beneath one copy, and “I have not read this book” beneath the other. Ulrichs’ piece registers the difference between the plural “book” of mass production and the individual copy. The statement “I have read this book / I have not read this book” reflects upon and literalizes the conditions of book production. Questions about the relational tension of an individual’s experience of and potential alteration to singular books against the backdrop of a mass-produced text are also the subject of Elfriede Jelinek’s book wir sind lockvögel, baby (we are shills, baby!). Published in the same year as Ulrichs’, Jelinek’s book features a clear plastic pocket on the front cover and a perforated page of cards, just inside, with different titles and authors printed on each — any of which could be slipped interchangeably inside the clear partition. Jelinek’s experiment activates the reader to the position of an accomplice who takes part in decisions about how the contents of the book are outwardly presented. Ulrichs’ and Jelinek’s books are just two examples of many that Gilbert provides of works that, whether introduced as art or literature, engage with literary practices in a way that expands “normative assumptions of what constitutes literature.”[7]

The above examples, nontraditional as they may be, are at least material objects — books, even! — but Gilbert’s study also treats us to invisible and immaterial works of literature. To begin with, Robert Barry’s 1969 contribution to the sixth issue of Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s art and literature magazine 0 to 9. The two-part piece, titled The Space Between Pages 29 & 30 and The Space Between Pages 75 & 76, refers, in the first instance, to the infrathin space between the recto and verso of a single printed page, and in the second, to the variable space spanning a double-page spread. Another striking example of such “non-retinal literature”[8] comes in the form of Elizabeth Tonnard’s 2012 Invisible Book. Tonnard’s is a book that, though never written or printed, was nonetheless produced, published, and made available for purchase in two limited editions of 100 copies each. Since its publication, Invisible Book has been exhibited and listed in book competitions, and can be found in libraries. Gilbert’s attention to invisible and immaterial literature demonstrates how the absence of the book can reveal the paratexts that frame our literary practices.

Such a non-retinal shift toward the “agency of the frame”[9] brings attention to the phenomenon of how “at a certain point, absence flips to become its opposite: presence.”[10] When literary practices are examined in this way, these kinds of reversals are given the space to occur. Take, for instance, the basic literary practice of typesetting. More often than not, the white space of the printed page is overlooked because that’s precisely what it’s meant to do — its role is to recede behind the printed words. But, when realized as an accretion of lead slugs in a frame, one becomes aware of the brute fact of the materiality of space. The space of a page is not an ethereal, airy, or symbolic expanse but rather a materially embodied thing. That brute materiality is easy to see when you look at a block of lead type that the space around each letterform is a precision endeavor of arranging bars of metal from large slugs and quads to fine brasses and coppers in order to fit each line of type within the boundaries of a frame. It becomes easier to see the material form of an abstract concept like space when its increments are precisely shimmed into place in measures of lead, copper, and brass. In letterpress, the terms “a copper” and “a brass” are shorthand for size. In other words, material and measure are brought together to refer to spatial formats. Whether we’re talking about something as heavy and bulky as lead type or something as seemingly disembodied as a computer screen, there is a material reality to the space of a page. Space is what arranges text. Space is what holds it in place.

Space, however, is never abstract. Virginia La Charité, for example, points out that “space is indisputably the predominant element” of Mallarmé’s Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance).[11] As Gilbert insightfully reminds us, the space of the page is three-dimensional, not flat, and so print is always site-specific: “In this way, the site-specificity of Mallarmé’s poem is supplemented by an additional dimension that breaks away from the page as a surface and actually frames the site of the poem as a space in which the poem ‘takes place,’ and in which reading can be experienced as movement in three dimensional space.”[12] Perhaps nowhere else is the experience of reading as movement more literally actualized than in Vito Acconci’s language experiments. Gilbert examines two texts in particular, “READ THIS WORD THEN READ THIS WORD” and “RE,” both of which are characterized by the extreme self-referentiality, spatial relationships, and fixed location of language on the page. The self-referential script of “READ THIS WORD” and deictic allusions of RE are made of language that performs its own reading process. As to the “necessity of radical literary practices” like these, Gilbert’s discussion of Acconci, whose works find fluid exchange in the elsewhere of the artistic and literary, makes a particularly compelling case for the expansion of the literary field from the confines of the page to the surrounding paratexts, and into the spaces beyond. Gilbert recounts how at some point, the limits of Acconci’s characteristic style led to his exit from the literary into the artistic world. As he tells it, “it started to seem impossible to use on the page a word like ‘tree,’ a word like ‘chair,’ because this referred to another space, a space off the page.”[13] Nevertheless, his experiments with language left him with the “idea of a ‘literalness of the page’ modeled as a specific medial space and as a site for concrete poetic action,” as Craig Dworkin puts it. After all, Dworkin continues, “poetic works — as Acconci’s own poetry makes clear — exist in a ‘real space.’”[14] Indeed, the strength of Gilbert’s materialist analysis is such that her readers may come to notice that chairs and trees and paper pages are all made of wood, a physical connection that Acconci could not see. 

Where Gilbert applies the terms of site-specific art to literary practices, her intervention makes it plausible to recursively apply inscriptive terms to artistic practices such as land art, for just one example. If site specificity has been the focus of most writing on land art, the specific nature of its medial space has been largely unexamined. Paratexts of artistic and literary practices, like those discussed in Literature’s Elsewheres, suggest constellatory relationships that resonate with the ways land art brings earth into conversation with the sky as exemplified in pieces like Walter de Maria’s Lightening Field, which creates conditions that invite lightening to inscribe the space between earth and sky, or Smithson’s echoing of our own spiral nebula in his Spiral Jetty, bringing the view of space from earth back to an earth form that can be seen from space: “a mirror and a reflection — but the mirror kept changing places with the reflection,” as Smithson wrote in his “Tour of the Monuments of Passaic,”[15] or the way Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels use the conditions of daylight to project constellations of the night sky onto the shaded floor of a concrete tube.

If Holt turns desert day into starry night, Mallarmé, similarly, reverses and refigures print as black stars on the white outer space of the page — poetic “constellations” of text. The titular dice of his groundbreaking poem signal a connection to form and space, not just in reference to the poem’s typographic layout and the precise use of white space, but also in reference to three-dimensional geometrical space and to the outer space of stars. Mallarmé’s ideas of the elemental and the typographically fluid combine to form a new understanding of the book that explodes the boundary of what a book might be. In fact, Mallarmé famously redefined the book as a spiritual instrument and wrote that “everything in the world exists to end up in a book.”[16] Gilbert’s vast, engaging, and compelling study expands and complicates the horizon of what might count as a book in the first place — and the elsewheres that new understanding might take us. 



[1] Robert Smithson, “Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art,” in Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings, ed. Jack D. Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 78.

[2] Annette Gilbert, Literature's Elsewheres: On the Necessity of Radical Literary Practices (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2022), 332.

[3] Gilbert, 332.

[4] Gerald L. Bruns, Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 88.

[5] Gilbert, 21.

[6] Gilbert, 9.

[7] Gilbert, 10.

[8] Gilbert, 29.

[9] Gilbert, 34.

[10] Gilbert, 40.

[11] Virginia A. La Charité, The Dynamics of Space: Mallarmé's Un Coup De Dés Jamais Nábolira Le Hasard(Lexington: French Forum Publishers, 1987), 83.

[12] Gilbert, 117.

[13] Hans Ulrich Obrist and Vito Acconci, “‘I didn't want to keep any secrets’ (Vito Acconci): Excerpts from a conversation between Hans-Ulrich [sic] Obrist and Vito Acconci,” in Self Construction, ed. Rainer Fuchs (Klagenfurt: Ritter, 1995), 113.

[14] Craig Dworkin, “Fugitive Signs,” October 95 (2001): 90–113.

[15] Smithson, 73.

[16] Stéphane Mallarmé, Igitur; Divagations; Un Coup De dés (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 274.