Archive for the ‘Short reviews essays etc’ Category
Every year in Berlin there is a sandcastle competition outside Berlin’s Central station. These creations are astonishingly intricate. And although the designs are usually too Disney/Fantasia for my taste, I imagine that part of the excitement of sculpting sandcastles must be the unpredictability inherent in the material. Despite the immense control that these artists have, ultimately there remains an element of contingency in the nature of the sand that has been formed into such magnificently chiselled castles.
This becomes more apparent on the simpler level of a pile of sand. As grains are added to a pile of sand the pile will grow bigger, until predictably, it collapses under its own weight and instability. Not so predictable, however, is precisely when the pile will collapse. Predicting this turns out to be almost impossible. This self-organized criticality – in which there is a fluctuation between stable and instable states – is also found in wildfires, earthquakes and avalanches.
Artist Andy Goldsworthy explores this tension between chaos and order in all of his work. He creates meta-stable pieces, always with the intention of allowing them to be destroyed. But unlike a Buddhist monk who destroys a sand Mandala after he (or are there also female monks who perform this ritual? I don’t expect so somehow) has finished it, Goldsworthy does not actively step in. His creations are made so that they will be worn down by natural processes. Goldsworthy’s work ruffles the veil where fragile beauty (or, to use a more neutral term, consistency) meets with forces that cause this consistency to fall apart. This results in creations of breathtaking beauty, as well as a lot of stress about finishing a work in progress before some unforeseen disaster takes place. Witness the moment in the documentary below, when a delicate construction of a web woven from tiny twigs (and appended to a tree), breaks apart moments before its completion.
A recent article discusses new evidence that these systems of self-organised criticality are very much like the functioning of the human brain. It turns out that ‘sand avalanches’ have an analogue in the brain’s ‘neural avalanches’ (that is, in the way that neurons communicate with each other). Even further, it is precisely at this critical border of disorder and chaos that the brain functions. That is to say, the brain is always on the edge of chaos. The article explains that this self-organised criticality (on the edge of chaos) is crucial for a proper functioning of the brain. The brain’s neurons connect with a rate of one to one. If it was the case that neurons transmitted information faster the brain would be swamped with too much information and indeed dive into chaos. On the other hand, if the communication were slower, the neuronal avalanche would die out before having been completed.
Monika Cichoń: creation at the edge of chaos
So, what if you are constantly aware of the chaos bubbling up like lava through the thin film of consistency that is always erupting in our heads? How does chaos traverse the human figure?
- Chaos, 8x8cm, 2007
- ‘Playing the teacher’, Monika Cichoń
These are questions viscerally explored in the artwork of Polish artist Monika Cichoń(1980). If Goldsworthy has taken as his subject the self-organised criticality of nature, Monika Cichoń makes studies of this phenomenon as it applies to the human figure. She portrays figures at the very point where they are sutured to the unnameable void of the real, or in other words where they emerge out of chaos.
When we look at any object or person, we single it/them out from a background of chaos. We assign it certain coherent values so that it becomes a discrete object that we can handle, or a person with whom we can interact. But of course we can never completely and exhaustively perceive an object or person, as they are continually changing and are also not at all as separate from their environment as we – if only for practical purposes – often assume. And in any case, it is impossible to truly describe any object exhaustively, whenever we do talk about objects/people, it is enough to refer to one or a few essential/recognizable features. Nevertheless, a person’s clear idea of an object is interwoven with the chaos of the unthought. As Alain Badiou posits, any object is counted-as-one by people, but is in reality an uncountable multiplicity.
One way to appreciate Monika Cichoń’s graphic art and drawings is to think of them as the direct treatment of the relation between chaos and the human subject. (Parenthetically, it should be noted here that Cichoń employs many more different styles/materials than the works discussed below). Cichoń’s pieces portray the individuation of figures that are attached to chaos like to an umbilical cord.
She locates the situatedness of the human; the event that marks where it is pinned to the void of its situation; the moment of individuation, in which a first distinction becomes apparent between chaos and form. I would like to go through these works by briefly discussing three different ways in which they address this relationship between chaos and the human subject: 1. Scratches and tears in the fabric of the real; 2. Partial objects; 3. Blurred/vanishing/emerging figures.
1. Scratches and tears in the fabric of the real
Gilles Deleuze argues in his book on Francis Bacon that the painter’s cloth is never simply an empty, neutral space. Firstly, the canvas is always already impressed with marks and traces from everyday life that the artist carries with her/him and projects onto the ostensibly white, blank canvas. Secondly, there are ‘figurative probabilities’; places that are more or less likely to be painted.
The painter has many things in his head, or around him, or in his studio. Now everything he has in his head or around him is already in the canvas, more or less virtually, before he begins his work. They are all present in the canvas as so many images, actual or virtual, so that the painter does not have to cover a blank surface, but rather would have to empty it out, clear it, clean it.
Francis Bacon, it is recounted, used to make violent swipes across the canvas before starting work on the actual painting, ‘…make random marks (lines-traits); scrub sweep, or wipe the canvas in order to clear out locales or zones (colour-patches); throw the paint, from various angles and at various speeds.’ (LS, 70).‘It is as if, in the midst of the figurative and probabilistic givens, a catastrophe overcame the canvas.’ (LS, 71) It seems as if Monika Cichoń not so much ‘clear[s] out locales or zones’, as that she allows that very chaos to emerge, to seep through the canvas/paper. The surface of many drawings is literally torn from vigorous scratching as if she is rubbing through the empty paper to the chaos stuck in its fabric.
One thing that is noticeable is that there is nothing obviously ‘artistic’ about this scratching. In one sense they appear as random impressions on the paper. A second thing is the violence with which the marks are made, often resulting in actual tears in the paper. In some cases, tears are also drawn on the paper.‘[P]ainters go through a catastrophe, or through a conflagration, and leave the trace of this passage on the canvas, as of the leap that leads them from chaos to composition.(Deleuze/Guattari, What is Philosophy, 203). Cichoń goes through a catastrophe, a conflagration. But the end result is never that of a linear process from ‘chaos to composition’, it is rather a disjunctive synthesis of both chaos and composition
The scratching, the cuts, the tears; they let in the light, but of course it can not be a composition and at the same time be wholly random. But although there is a plane of composition, it is at times minimally constrained/bound and at times contains actual holes. ‘…it is always a matter of defeating chaos by a secant plane that crosses it. Poets, artists make a slit in the umbrella, they tear open the firmament itself, to let in a bit of free and windy chaos and to frame in a sudden light.’ (WP, 210) Or as Leonard Cohen wrote, ‘There is a crack in everything that’s how the light gets in.’
2. Partial objects
Many of these works depict parts of bodies rather than the whole thing. Before partaking in a full body these parts are depicted as partial objects drifting through and emerging out of a chaotic but consistent plane. The force of life that connects everything in conjunctive and disjunctive flows of desire:
desire constantly couples continuous flows and partial objects that are by nature fragmentary and fragmented. Desire causes the current to flow, itself flows in turn and breaks the flows … produced by partial objects and constantly cut-off by other partial objects which in turn produce other flows interrupted by other partial objects. Every ‘object’ produces the continuity of a flow; every flow, the fragmentation of the object (16f) … Every machine functions as a break in the flow to which it is connected, but also a chain in the flow itself, or the production of a flow, in relation to the machine connected to it (36).
These partial objects are part of the flows and functioning of larger bodies but in their own right also consist of and lead on to other flows within and away from the body. Both the body and the partial objects can thus be seen as flows; the body no longer as a discrete whole that contains organs, but as a body whose organs are flows and concentrations of intensities, in this sense a body without organs.
Partial objects are the direct powers of the body without organs and the body without organs the raw material of the partial objects (Anti Oedipus 326) … The subject, discharged of his personal identity but not of his singularities, enters into relations with others following the communication proper to partial objects: everyone passes into the body of the other on the body without organs (63).
- ‘Untitled’ (paper; 2004), Monika Cichoń
- Fragment of ‘Untitled’ (pen on paper, 34x70cm; 2006), Monika Cichoń
3. Blurred, vanishing and/or emerging figures
Cichoń also depicts many figures that are already recognizable as more than floating partial-objects, but are nevertheless blurred, or vanishing/emerging from a backdrop of chaos or void. The figures (almost exclusively women) in these graphics are masterfully drawn; however, rarely are they rendered beautifully finished. There are either parts missing, or blurred out (in that way sometimes recalling Francis Bacon’s work). This can be unsettling, uncanny. But it can also ring true. In this sense that even a masterful finish and polished beauty can never separate themselves from chaotic turbulence, so showing one and not the other seems more flat than enveloping both in one another. There is bliss in merely being, but there is cruelty no less. If Deleuze illustrates this by invoking the chaotic backdrop of Goya’s paintings, in Cichoń’s work figures are often fading into a similarly chaotic background, against which the rest of their body is distinguishable. It is a violent rubbing out, a becoming-indiscernible, in defiance of a clean-cut representation of the body. Or conversely, this vanishing can be seen as the emergence of a true subject out of chaos.‘[T]he subject is, in the very instant of its coming to be, already in ‘eclipse’, as if the subject itself, in the event of art, were to appear in the flicker of its own vanishing or void.’ (Robert Hughes, ‘Riven: Badiou’s Ethical Subject’). A dark place to be sure. But also a place of pure potential, of any difference about to have taken place.
- ‘Untitled’ (paper, 21x23cm; 2005) Monika Cichoń
- ‘Untitled’, (21x23cm; 2005), Monika Cichoń
- ‘Untitled’ (21x23cm; 2005), Monika Cichoń
- ‘Untitled’ (paper, 21x23cm; 2005), Monika Cichoń
- ‘Untitled’ (paper, 23x28cm; 2007), Monika Cichoń
- ‘Juz wie’ (18,4×9,2cm), Monika Cichoń
- ‘Untitled’ (paper, 21x23cm; 2006), Monika Cichoń
4. Sutured to chaos
This place of potential can be thought of as an inconsistent and therefore unthinkable multiple; one that has not been unified, or counted as one object. It is as if, alongside the masterfully finished creation, the very condition for creation is being simultaneously offered. There is no master in the sense that there is no doormat big enough under which to sweep chaos. ‘Truth results from the fact and the place – the ordeal of absence and void – first nostalgically and then actively arouses the fiction of a master that would be capable of truth – truth results from the disappearance of the master into the anonymity of the empty place. In brief, ‘the master has sacrificed himself so that truth may be’ (Inaesthetics 50). A sacrifice of the delimited masterful stroke for the incoherent doodling of a child. Witold Gombrowicz, the champion of the childlike as creative force, writes of a poet who creates ‘not solely like a wise refined and mature one, but rather like a Wise One who benefits from stupidity, like a Refined One who profits from being tirelessly brutalized, and like a Mature One who is being ceaselessly rejuvenated… Our element is unending immaturity.’ Samuel Beckett another master of failure, who madedoodles of his own, wrung the cloth of language with one end dipped in sparse, formal perfection, the other in the unnameable collapse. And in what is something of an amorous encounter, Cichoń’s works, too, enmesh the perfect Masterful finish with the chaos of failure and childlike doodling. Two lovers do not merge with each other into a blissful One. Two lovers violently clash and meet and are traversed by the infinite extra that is the event of their love.
In a similar way, chaos and craft are both entangled and separately present. Film played at a slower speed such that the frames and the void that connects them become visible, without completely compromising the continuity that is the product of their sum. ‘The entire question can be reformulated as follows: How can a truth be thought, at one and the same time, as anonymous (or impersonal) and nevertheless as immanent and terrestrial?’ (Inaesthetics 54). In their own unthinkability, the figures in these drawings/etchings dwell. Yet if an uncanny emptiness pushes through them with unbound elasticity, it will also always snap back like an elastic band. And as infinity and the figure push through one another, intertwined with one another, neither remains unscathed.
- ‘Untitled’ (paper, 21x23cm; 2005) Monika Cichoń
- ‘Untitled’ (paper, 21x23cm; 2005) Monika Cichoń
First off I want to emphasise the tentative nature of the post below (and come to think of it, of everything I put up here in fact). Just me audibly struggling with the material really.
Ever since Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman’s cute little, yet expansive (dubbed as such by Karla Kelsey), manifesto style book Notes on Conceptualisms came out last year people have been making much, or trying to make something of the statement made therein that Conceptualism is allegorical. How so? people asked. What does allegorical mean in relation to Conceptual Writing? Recently Vanessa Place, invited by Steve McCaffery, gave a talk, perhaps to clarify some of the confusion. And her language is indeed very lucid, as well as being suggestive, which for me sometimes creates a beautiful and/yet uncanny or haunting quality. A few days ago I received this lecture in the mail in the form of a handsome chapbook titled The Allegory and the Archive (published by derek beaulieu’s No Press). Like Notes on Conceptualisms this pamflet is feather light, beautifully bound with red string, but not a word is wasted and although hard work, I also found it a pleasure to read.
Although there is much more to say about the booklet in general I want to focus on how Vanessa Place’s use of allegory is a pointing to, but not a talking about: a decision, a bearing witness, but not a representation. In other words, how Conceptual Writing as allegorical writing rejects representation of in favour of presentation for or alongside the Real.
Place starts off by briefly sketching a history of various understandings of allegory: that of extended metaphor, a text with a literal and symbolic meaning. She then names Walter Benjamin as a turning point in the modern understanding of allegory; equating this through Baudelaire, with the inner life. Benjamin writes about Baudelaire that he, “always concentrates on the inner life, as Dante focused on dogma.” Michael Jennings in an anthology about Benjamin writes that for Baudelaire allegory was his “weapon of preference [against the] ‘harmonious façade of the world’ that surrounded him. This ability to unmask the given order, with its illusion of totality and organic wholeness, is the progressive tendency of allegory.” (in ‘On the Banks of a New Lethe’, in Benjamin Now: Critical Encounters with the Arcades Project, p. 101)
So in place of Dante where the internal/external divide concerns the whole text; the modern allegory is internalized. The internal/external dichotomy is located between the ostensible inner world of a despairing psyche and the supposed outer world. Conceptualism, however, does not accept an internal/external divide between psyche and world. “Rather, there is a recognition of the truth of the soup in which the individuated we and you stew.” Instead of the transcendence of the aforementioned divide, there is only immanence, only the soup of which, although individuated, we are still a part.
I would like to make a distinction between representational allegory and allegory of the Real. The former would be any story that allegorizes abstract universals (in the way that one individual represents the abstract universal Every(wo?)man in the famous medieval (15th c.) tale Everyman), or moral laws, common sense, and good/evil; the delicate balance (for example, the Narnia tales). Conceptualism on the other hand, can be seen as allegorizing specific effects of the Real. Not free-floating abstract ideas or notions right or wrong; but rather effects of language or the subject that are present in a text as lack or excess. These are, for example, effects of uncontainability, unreadability, and material fabrication that express themselves by forcing themselves through the Conceptual text (Place mentions Kenneth Goldsmith’s unreadable Day (for one it consists of 40% stock quotes), or Craig Dworkin’s Parse whose very constitutive procedure simultaneously eats away at the text from within).
Thus, when Place writes that Conceptualism “is concerned with the way that the surface excess of text mirrors the excess of the remainder”, I take this to mean that 1. there is an excess of the immaterial (the irrelevant and the unreadable) which pushes through a given text and 2. that Conceptualism bears witness to this remainder (points to it by way of allegory). “All that poetry is is witness… on a paradigmatic basis.” And the one who witnesses Place calls the “sobject”, to indicate the rejection of the old internal/external divide in favour of immanence. The sobject stands in immanent connection to the outside; is “the one who witnesses some thing it is witnessed by.”
Although I am still not clear on the added value of the coinage “sobject”. If the reason is to get away from a closed-circuit correlation between subject-object, then why not simply think of the subject as an object (albeit it a complex one, with self-awareness) in relation to other objects (and to the “thing it is witnessed by”). Part of what I think Place (and Fitterman (co-author of Notes on Conceptualisms)) are getting at with the concept of “sobject” is an inclusion of the (lyrical-)subject in the event of the poem’s emergence from the Real; or conversely, the rejection of the lyrical subject as discretely/autonomously present somewhere outside of the poem (which is part of the Real); without however, denying a role for the subject (of which there will always be a trace: Think of the interference of Kenneth Goldsmith’s subject position in his works: the typo’s in Day, the impossibility of an objective notation in Fidget; the incorporation of inebriation in Soliloquy. And likewise, in Vanessa Place’s own impure Conceptualism, where the language with effects of baroque/excess is her own).
For all of these reasons I think that philosophies of immanence provide good frameworks for understanding the significance of Conceptualism. Conceptualist writers, “witnesses on a paradigmatic basis” might be seen as clinicians of society (Deleuze), or subjects to an event of truth that emerges through poems, or bodies of work (Badiou). But one philosophy I think fits particularly well with the way Place presents allegory is the non-philosophy of Francois Laruelle. The “non-” is meant not as a negation of philosophy but as a suspension of some of its axioms. One claim Laruelle makes is that all philosophy creates a distance from the Real by talking about it. Even Deleuze’s plane of immanence, according to Laruelle, is already a distancing from the immanence in which it (the plane) must necessarily be contained. Likewise Badiou’s multiplicity too, is already posited. Instead Laruelle proposes a One that underlies everything and of which everything is an expression. Everything including all thought, all philosophy. This One is immediately reminiscent of Neo-Platonism, but Laruelle’s is not of course, a unified One that is transcendent to its expressions; it is what Laruelle calls radical immanence, about which nothing can be said. Therefore instead of making claims directly about the Real, Laruelle’s non-philosophy consists of learning indirectly, by treating works of philosophy themselves as effects of the Real. In the same way that Conceptualism undercuts the lyrical subject by way of the concept, Ray Brassier speaks of an alien subject of Non-philosophy, someone who only points toward, writes alongside, instead of about the Real.
As Nick Srnicek writes in an essay about Laruelle, “The question is not ‘what is the One and how does it operate?’, but rather ‘with philosophy being an object determined by the One, what can be done with it?”. Here echoes sound through of Christian Böks ‘pataphysics (the science of the possible), and more literally of Craig Dworkin’s question: “So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better… but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.”
Non-philosophy as allegorical philosophy? Conceptual poetry as non-conceptual poetry?
The other day I listened to a lecture by [...] (afraid I can’t recall his name, or find the lecture now, although it’s online somewhere …) about lyricism in Walt Whitman. At one point the lecturer names Baudelaire and Whitman as the two poets who defined the modern(ist) era of poetry in the way that they wrote (about) openness. If I remember correctly he claims in this lecture that Baudelaire wrote a radically new openness of the body (in the sense of the sublime/abjection); and Whitman wrote (of) an openness towards America / the world. It seems like a pretty bold/sweeping statement to me, but I don’t know enough to (dis)agree with it. However, the question I want to take from this comment is how these forms of openness are being written (in/of America) today, recalling also Charles Olson’s great statement: “I take space to be the central fact to man born in America.” (And to that I would add woman, of course).
In particular I am thinking here of the Conceptual Writers, Vanessa Place, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Robert Fitterman. I think these writers similarly to Whitman are writing poems of America, and similarly to Baudelaire also explore notions of physicality. However, in the Conceptual poems this idea of America is not based on generalised, idealised, Romanticist notions, but on specific instances and places. The lyrical, which certainly is also present in Conceptual writing, is not abstract and idealized, but specific and subject to scrutiny.
A passage in a review of Vanessa Place’s sprawling, polyphonic novel (or: Conceptual poem?) La Medusa demonstrates a sort of clinical approach to the lyrical, very different than Whitman’s exalted expansiveness:
The book began as a procedural piece: to write down everything that occurred to me for 41 consecutive days, in 15 minute installments. As I was reading in cognitive science at the time, I had a suspicion that if I kept going after that time, narratives would begin to emerge. Or narrative fragments, some of which would ripen (or bloat) into narratives, some of which would simply stay shards.
What interests me here is the intersection of lyricism with conceptualism and empiricism. The book is obviously lyrical in that it consists of episodes of unmediated subjective expression: “everything that occurred to me for 41 consecutive days, in 15 minute installments”. But it is not naively and uncomplicatedly so: it does not assume that the lyrical subjective position is separate from the world and observing the world from outside. Instead it is (among many other things) a study of consciousness, of how we are prone to make stories from randomness, and of the situatedness of consciousness in a particular historical moment (in this case an American moment, more specifically Los Angeles). “At the novel’s highpoints, an appropriately messy narrative of the contemporary City of Los Angeles emerges from its pages.”
In any case, consciousness in La Medusa is no longer a pondering on/of the real, it is written as (already part) of the real; that is, Place was interested in the pertinence of cognitive science when writing (about) consciousness; in consciousness as a physical/material process. Perhaps we could say that Vanessa Place pursues further and consequently rejects, some distinctions that Baudelaire still upheld. If Baudelaire wrote with an innovative awareness of the openness of the mind to the body and the body to the outside world; Place writes of consciousness itself as a material phenomenon. And similarly, if Whitman, in his poem Leaves of Grass, created a figure who represented the ideal democratic man, a reflection of American society in the figure of one individual; Place, in turn, studies both her place and time by dissecting her mind ‘clinically’ (with empirical procedure) as part of the world, instead of the intuitive barbaric yawp, uttered from a distance to / projected onto the vast world (“I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.”)
This is also true of Place’s trilogy, Statement of Facts, Statement of the Case, and Argument, where Place’s subject position is reduced to the sorting of statements by defendants involved in court cases (Place is also a practising attorney). Instead of holding forth about a projected, ideal, imagined democratic American figure, Place bears witness to real/actual voices (of America). Place’s writing is ‘clinical’, then, in so much as it is empirical and analytical of the (un)healthy symptoms of society (this is a Deleuzian approach, since in his Essays Critical and Clinical he talks about writers as symptomatologists (analysts of the various (un)healthy symptoms of society).
In terms of formal aspects of the text Place equally confounds borders and therefore writes (with (a new?)) openness. Whitman smudged the line-break, extended it all the way up to the edge of the page and beyond. But, finally, he kept his enjambment. Place instead, creates prose texts in which enjambment is transposed to / replaced by the excess of language itself, and (in her trilogy) the exposing of the State’s ordering of / subjugation of language (of both victims and perpetrators).
It is interesting how, in The Guilt Project Place does not start from the position of the victim but from that of the perpetrator, and so showing the ambiguity and ramifications of be(com)ing an offender. The argument of The Guilt Project is that an increasing inclusiveness of the legal definition of rape
means there are now more rapists among us. And more of rape’s camp followers: the prison-makers, the community watchdogs, law-and-order politicians, and the real-crime/real-time entertainment industry. Vanessa Place examines the ambiguity of rape law by presenting cases where guilt lies, but lies uneasily, and leads into larger ethical questions of what defines guilt, what is justice, and what is considered just punishment. Assuming a society can and must be judged by the way it treats its most despicable members, The Guilt Project looks at the way the American legal system defines, prosecutes, and punishes sex offenders, how this Dateline NBC justice has transformed our conception of who is guilty and how they ought to be treated, and how this has come to undo our deeper humanity.
The critic Terry Castle describes Les Figues Press (co-founded by Vanessa Place) as, “an elegant vessel for experimental American writing of an extraordinarily assured and ingenious sort.” Of Vanessa Place’s writing I think it could be said that it is on its way to becoming an elegant/uneasy ode to and portrait of America of an extraordinarily assured and ingenious sort.
Shane Anderson who normally blogs here will be writing pieces for the Theater Treffen festival that is going on this month. Shane mentions that an editorial meeting the question was posed about ‘the possibility [of art and theater] to represent or even extend into reality.’ I don’t know anything about contemporary theater, but I prefer the notion that reality is constant creation and that therefore being is continually creative. I would like to think that they are always already as much a part of reality as life outside of the walls of a gallery or theater. Ideally one’s movements might be synchronized with a non-personal creative force surging through everything. A life could become a life as art, sort of like the figure of the Dandy, but then the Dandy internalized.
A difference of course is that galleries/theaters are organized and intended as places for works of art to be conceived/shown/take place, while this is not the primary function of other places (street, house, shopping center etc). But while I think galleries/theaters and other places reserved for the creation/display of art are essential, maybe the fact that they are assigned separate places from ‘the rest’ of life in the first place, is due to the way we organize ourselves, our space, our time, our work, our community, our energy.
What if life equaled theater/play/detours/sidesteps/surprise in each moment; different eyes for each moment? What if we experienced a person not as his/her social function (you are a bus driver I want a bus ride from you; you are a police officer I want you to arrest me, I want you to tell me where to walk; you are a baker I want you to sell me bread and wish me a nice day without meaning it), but as that which s/he is always in the process of becoming from within before s/he is molded by the movements that we are constantly being goaded into making (dance like techno, cross here cross now, sit in the bus, stare quietly demurely ahead, comply with a smile, move patiently along now please, now).
What are we always already in the process of becoming? Certainly not merely human. Both infinitely less and more than just that. We can dance like jelly, we can dance without bones, we can dance like the machine, we can dance like play, ‘of course, because dance frees the body from all social mimicry, from all gravity and conformity.’ (Badiou). We can think like dance. We can be a process of subjectification, instead of a subject of submissiveness to the roles we are asked to play. ‘Experimentation on ourselves is our only identity’ writes (Deleuze). ‘Do not ask me who I am and do not ask me to remain the same’ (Foucault).
The figure of the Dandy who aestheticizes everything he touches with his long gold-knobbed, tasseled walking stick. But more and less than the (don’t forget male gendered) Dandy, for whom beauty is still put on in the form of external attire ‘layer after layer of lace ruffles and gold embroidery and knee buckles, striped stockings, and shoes with bright red heels.’ We can, we may, we are able, we are allowed, to express beauty as a style, like a cough a hiccup, a laughter, a scream, a sigh. We don’t need ‘swords with diamond handles, two fobs, or pocket watches, and elegantly tailored waistcoats.’ I express ruffles in my breathing, I am a suede-lined waistcoat as I turn the corner of this street.
We might feel a dancing studio not as a place we go to practice ballet, but as a place we ‘ballet-dance to’ in order to practice ballet-dancing. We might feel an easel not as a place where we go to paint a canvas, but as a place to focus on practice painting, while however, also ‘painting’ our way through our day (the way the Bhagwan sect people saw work, as an act of devotion to the Lord). We might feel a theater as a place we go to act, but we are always acting, or expressing different intensities. ‘Mr Lonely’ (by Harmony Korine) is a weeird but moving film about impersonators who become, live as, the role that they play. (A movie that could have been pretentious and glib but instead is disarmingly sincere, even though strangge):
If you stand like a soldier you are a soldier. If you jump awkwardly you are a child or a fish. If you dance it can be like thinking; if you think, it can be like dancing. Thinking/dancing can be a sacred nostalgia. “If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief. (Pasolini). But a nostalgia that is the surge of bliss of desire, not for the unattainable object, in fact not for or of anything, the overwhelming surge of desire that the body is made of. Of the breath and the scream, of the affirmation, which (when the body is weak) becomes disintegration.
Often we can allow desire to breathe through us. Then there is nothing but a body becoming-invisible, and it is invisible in the sense that it no longer expresses just one thread of the infinite threads of desire of which it partakes, but has faded like a chameleon into the background (which is not the background) of infinite strands of reality entangled. Sacred infinite strands of desire. Sacredly blowing up the feeling of an ‘I’ (wo)man in your head.
But I do not believe in a metaphysical god. I am religious because I have a natural identification between reality and God. Reality is divine. That is why my films are never naturalistic. The motivation that unites all of my films is to give back to reality its original sacred significance. (Pasolini)
We can disappear into reality. Now it is in front of you. Now it is everywhere/nowhere. If we disappear into reality halfway through a step: vertigo, abyss, open space, endless desert. ‘But not a tragic or uninhabited desert. It is only a desert because of its ocher colour and its blazing shadowless sun.’ (Deleuze). We can become our movements. Bruce Lee magic. Bruce Lee in a Romantic Tutu.
Ok so we can’t always become our movements; not when we think. But maybe it happens that sometimes we dance instead of think and our movements are already our place. Deleuze writes about a desert island; how ideally we might become no more than a dynamic image of the movement which produced the island:
In certain conditions which attach them to the very movement of things, humans do not put an end to desertedness, they make it sacred. Those people who come to the island indeed occupy and populate it; but in reality, were they sufficiently creative, they would give the island only a dynamic image of itself, a consciousness of the movement which produced the island, such that through them the island would in the end become conscious of itself as deserted and unpeopled. The island would be only the dream of humans, and humans, the pure consciousness of the island. For this to be the case, there is again but one condition: humans would have to reduce themselves to the movement that brings them to the island, the movement which prolongs and takes up the elan that produced the island. Then geography and the imagination would be one. To that question so dear to the old explorers—”which creatures live on deserted islands?”—one could only answer: human beings live there already, but uncommon humans, they are absolutely separate, absolute creators, in short, an Idea of humanity, a prototype, a man who would almost be a god, a woman who would be a goddess, a great Amnesiac, a pure Artist, a consciousness of Earth and Ocean, an enormous hurricane, a beautiful witch, a statue from the Easter Islands. There you have a human being who precedes itself. Such a creature on a deserted island would be the deserted island itself, insofar as it imagines and reflects itself in its first movement. A consciousness of the earth and ocean, such is the deserted island, ready to begin the world anew.
All of which has a lot less to do with free-floating romanticism, than with the wolf-man of the TT10 poster.
Let us think of it as the wolf-man in Deleuze/Guattari’s sense. The growl, the snarl, the howl; instead of the nod, the whimper, the whine. The wolf man as a figure from whom multiplicity surges forth. Pure multivalent speed, instead of the prudent drag of one sensible direction. ‘Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.’ (Brian Massumi). ‘The wolf, as the instantaneous apprehension of a multiplicity in a given region, is not a representative, a substitute, but an I feel. I feel myself becoming a wolf, one wolf among others, on the edge of the pack…it is not a question of representation: don’t think for a moment that it has to do with believing oneself a wolf, representing oneself as a wolf. The wolf, wolves, are intensities, speeds, temperatures, nondecomposable variable distances. A swarming, a wolfing ’ (Deleuze/Guattari). The wolf on the poster is out of focus, because it is on its way to becoming what it is not.
Ana Božičević, Stars of the Night Commute, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2009.
A tower is lifted by the crescents of two luminous moons. The tower hangs on them by two straps that are connected to its surface by wheels. In the background there are more moons, full, and with orbiting rings and even farther behind, the night sky is filled with stars. The tower appears to be a rook escaping from a chess-like chequered landscape below. And the tower’s own floor is chequered in the same way. It has a big opening in front and brightly lit windows in the top, emitting a warm glow, possibly by the stars of the night sky, for they are shining with a similar light. Birds that look like mythical swallows circle the tower. But the tower, more than just a rook being hijacked from its landscape below, also resembles some kind of contraption, a ‘pataphysical machine perhaps (a machine of the possible). There is one more wheel beneath it, with two propellers attached.
The scene is the painting ‘Icono’, a fantastical triptych by the female para-surrealist painter Remedios Varo (1908-1963), enclosed by two wooden panels. The painting’s frame is the same shape as the tower’s entrance, with which the viewer is confronted. And in the same way that the panels open up to the scene of the tower, the tower invites the reader in to a similar world of wonder and fragile irony.
The image invites you in not just because it is the book’s cover, but more importantly because both the painting and Ana Božičević’s poems capture similar sensations; that of the distant but imminent, blazingly luminous, yet nocturnal commute. Like the painting, the poems in this book, both in themselves and as a whole, form wondrous stories. In a sense they are failed stories, stories that tried to be, but are reshuffled by a secret that leaves them incomplete, for (to paraphrase Leonard Cohen) they are cracked open to let in a glowing light.
Ana Božičević has been writing and publishing prolifically for some time but Stars of the Night Commute is her first full-length book collecting many poems from four previously published chapbooks. It is divided into three main sections, ‘The Stars on the 7:18 to PENN’, ‘Night Passengers’, and ‘The Long Commute’. One distinctive feature of Božičević’s work is that her poems work well together, that is, not only telling stories individually, but also in the form of several series. This in turn means that the book as a whole is a very open yet coherent collection (reminiscent in this sense of Jack Spicer’s serial poems).
But while it is true that the book consists of several long serial poems, there are also certain series, sequences, that traverse the book as a whole as well as individual poems. These come in the form of recurring objects and characters (e.g. God, valises, and stars), but also in the form of different narrative layers and shifting perspectives. Because of these tropes and the coherent yet not quite linear structure, the book as a whole, as well as individual poems, clearly take place in the same poetic universe.
Poems as snowglobe / constellation
I would like to think of the whole book and its sections and its individual poems as a snowglobe that has been shaken up, and where not snow, but objects are floating around in varying connected but wondrous configurations.
The poems are no longer primarily linear, but are constellations of ideas that have body and dimensions as well as being open and porous. Like a cloud, or a fluffed-up ball of cotton, and indeed in ‘Ode to Cotton’ we read, ‘The catch in your breathing – / a white bit of cotton…Hope lives in the cotton: // and I could pray to cotton.’ (48). These lines are quite typical for Božičević. A gentle sincerity that invokes a sense of the holy in simple everyday objects and situations. Here is an example from the final section:
i. Rhode Island
From water and wood
you build on the jetty
a shrine, and place
1. an acorn
2. a button
on the salt-worn planks.
(O traveller. Grey star.
From your hat, when you upend it,
your small family upturn their faces.)
visit the shrine
(to view the film
of a coat, departing).
This in fact is one of the more straightforward, less open-ended poems, but it too hints at a surreal quality that returns in many of the other pieces. Since it is one of the recurring tropes, let’s take the example of the hat and see how it returns in ‘I write a letter in your handwriting’, in a similar, yet slightly weirder place:
Somewhere a pillowcase.
Somewhere I allow
out of the hat, & the oval mother
the incontinent father
Walk down the brim.
Their sorrowful valises
& tiny centurions march
down my collarbone
into one open palm.
If the above is a poem that seems surreal, the chain of events is nevertheless quite unambiguous (in a way sort of like a Magritte painting where absurd paradoxes are very clearly/starkly portrayed). But often in Božičević’s poetry there are several tangents that do not seem to come full circle. Not in the sense that these poems do not work, but rather the opposite, that they include precisely the broken and fragmentary that is simply part of the fabric of reality. Sometimes these poems trap within the constellations of their words, an elusiveness that the words themselves cannot express directly.
The ensnaring of vanishings
Eileen Myles in a blurb on the back cover writes, ‘I mean in poetry at some point you don’t know what the writer means. In Ana’s work I watch ‘it’ vanish (all the time) & I trust it.’ Now I wouldn’t say that in all poetry per se you at some point don’t know what the writer means; but I completely agree that reading Božičević’s poetry can feel like watching something vanish before your eyes. However, these fleeting moments are not allowed to slip out of the poem (letting the poem collapse), but rather, they remain caught inside of the poem, like flickering fireflies in a glass jar (or like ‘typestrokes of / fish’). The poem does not slip away from you as if in quicksand, but invites you in amid the vanishing. Here is a typical example that I find very beautiful. It is part one of the eight-part poem ‘Some Occurrences on the 7:18 to Penn’:
He showed me this book called ‘Discovering God.’ And guys?
I nearly did choke on the swanning spray of insufferable light –
‘Some people can only take seconds
of God’s voice’, he said. But for me
it was, like, the rubbery-awake I get after a slap,
or (not that I did that in a while) after I
write a poem, then open the window
to the naval dawn air.
I see a hawk being chased by sparrows.
And I won’t ever again write simply again
‘cause I won’t ever feel
the simplicity of an again bloodthirsty
Like the hat in the previous two poems, this poem too has some motives (birds and God) that return in different places in the book, somewhat like the scaffolding of these fragmented stories.
To consider some more of these recurring motives we can turn again to the book’s cover image and the title, both of which share ‘stars’, ‘the night’, and a ‘night commute’. I think these three elements can be read quite well to reflect the complex and delightfully contradictory experiences that Božičević’s poems can be. Stars are both guiding lights and cold indifferent witnesses of human life and death. The night is a place in which strange and wonderful things can happen, but it can also be an empty and cold darkness. And finally, it might seem redundant to emphasize this is a night commute (since don’t stars always come out at night?), but this to me seems the precisely the point; these are not stars of the fading dawn or imminent dusk, where the night and stars find each other’s middle ground. These travels take place where the night and the stars are each other’s most extreme negation. ‘So sorry, dear star that came before the night’ (12).
In one poem (incidentally, featuring a cameo by Anne Carson) the stars flash: ‘ITS NIGHT. THE ELEPHANT OF POETRY’. But that wonderful image which invites you to linger, is contrasted at the end of the poem by a line in which suddenly things seem very real, despite, or maybe because of the generic words (Europe, bomb), ‘WHAT PASSES FOR EUROPE // BOMBS. JUST LIKE US PASSING FOR LIGHT.’ But if ‘Europe / bombs’ remains quite general, the poems are also often characterized by a contemporaneity and specificity reminiscent of Frank O’Hara’s famous style of including names, times and dates in his poems (such as these beautifully intimate lines: ‘Amy / there is a swan in your breathing / there always is’, and in a next poem: ‘you and I are servants of birds’). Božičević might be personal and intimate but also is not averse to addressing socio-political issues even if they are interwoven with a kind of magical, surrealist tone. This combination often leads to a gentle irony that is however never cynical or gratuitous.
In this way these poems harbour contradictions without necessarily reconciling them. This is seen in the poem above where the book Discovering God spreads an insufferable light and yet somehow that poem like many of the other poems in this book, has a sense of the holy in it. God returns in later poems in the company of two emoticons and . She is also gendered female with a tender insolence; ‘God Is President, She’s the Rose of the World’. (Of course, I don’t mean to imply that a female gendered God is a paradox, just that it contradicts the standard portrayal of God. This has been done before (think of Alanis Morissette in ‘Dogma’ for one), but it works well in this poem nonetheless because the tone is not pretentious, and attenion is somehow not drawn to it as some kind of feminist statement, but simply as the reality of that poem).
Godard is to film..
Some other pairs of contradictions that this book envelops are lightness and chaos; childlike innocence and violence. Farrah Field already poignantly compared Ana Božičević to filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. The apparent ease of movement through chaos. Sprezzatura (doing difficult things with apparent ease) minus the cocky Italian attitude. The childlike carefree, anything-can-happen is like Godard’s early films where young heavy French cigarette-smoking, and suit-wearing friends might be discussing Marx and revolution, the next moment they will be dancing, stealing a car and driving off into nowhere. A boy asks a stranger to go have a coffee with him and follows her until she gives in. Anything can happen. There is a sense of lightness, a quick step, a twirl of a dress, a world of possibility in each moment.
But of course, in Godard too, the lightness rarely just floats freely, but often flourishes precisely in situations of conflict or sadness. In one film (‘Une Femme et une Femme’) a young couple argues, then refuses to talk to each other, but the two continue the argument by insulting each other by pointing to words on books that they pull from the shelves. In his later films (like Le Mépris (Contempt) and Éloge de l’Amour) the drama has ripened, is fuller, and heavier, like a sweltering summer day; but always there is the mutual implication of lightness and weight.
One way in which this contradicion is found in Božičević’s poetry is in the figure of the child. On the one hand her writing has a child-like lightness and associative fascination for detail. Yet in no way in these poems is childlike innocence synonymous with ignorance. The figure of the child (and the childlike) functions here to address both innocence and also the darkness that is just as much part of youthful innocence. Or, to let Nietzsche put it in somewhat more blatant terms: ‘Youth itself is intrinsically falsifying and deceitful.’ One poem explicitally invokes children as both soldier and shepherd:
It was said that the child must sing again. I was the child. And inside the jaded
stars was a child. And the soldiers were all children, infinitely valuable.
The shepherds they killed were children.
Their poetry was infinitely valuable.
The poetry of steering by a star – (8)
‘And the soldiers were all children, infinitely valuable’. Are the children here infinitely valuable because they are also soldiers, or vice versa? The image is comic in an absurd way, and unsettelingly self-reflexive (children referring back to children), yet sadly true (child soldiers are no rare occurence in some parts of the world). Perhaps Elie Wiesel was right when he said that ‘the children of murderers are not murderers they are children’; but then again, Wordsworth was no less right when he penned his now famous line, ‘the child is father of the man.’
End / bloom
The epigraphs of one of the book’s parts is a line from Han Shan’s Cold Mountain poems (translated by Gary Snyder): ‘try and make it to cold mountain’, which already makes it sound as if it’s never going to happen, while at the same time you are already there as you read the line. The same is true for this last line of one of the poems in the book: ‘At the end of poetry the poem can no longer be remote’ (5).
Ana Božičević, we are informed, was born in Zagreb, 1977 and emigrated to America in 1997: short factual statements that hint at a much more complicated history. In any case, America is probably as good a candidate as any to take in the impact of these poems. For what is America for better or worse, if not – just like these poems – a blooming place of endless contradictions, constant becomings of ‘almost America’, just like out of these poems stars bloom and poetry is no longer remote, yet continually on the move. ‘The flower of the mouth. In language the earth blossoms toward the bloom of sky.’, writes Heidegger. And Ana Božičević replies:
Listen: stars are blooming.
Out of me. And I’ve become a blooming place. Almost