Named Tomorrow


“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

A Static Picture of a Moving Target

I’ve uncovered a conflict of interests between my own acts of writings and the desire to write, which even now has reared it’s head with that phrase “acts of writing.” Harold Rosenberg coined the phrase “action painting” to describe the work of abstract expressionists produced from, as he described it, their perception of the canvas as “an arena in which to act,” and I am enticed by this conception of one’s ‘canvas.’ I would like to, and to some extent I do, view each blank page as a medium on which I hope to record the condensation of thought and image into the form of words, and I think, perhaps, that is why I feel Walcott’s “terror at the blank page”: my records are perennially unfaithful to their originary action, and it is a lie which I am still understanding how to bear. I do not yet understand how to make my lies tell the truth; they announce themselves as lies with the fervent bluster of a televangelist, unknowingly incriminating themselves with their own eagerness to be presented to an audience, even if the audience is rarely anyone other than myself.

To take a few steps backwards, to the impetus of this post: I was reading an article on the recently released My Kid Could Paint That, about Marla Olmstead, the child who’s successful abstract paintings have already made her an art star, if a controversial one, by the age of four. People look at an abstract painting and think, “My kid could do that,” because they fail to see accurate representation. As the article puts it, “Given the right materials and a little bit of coaching, any kid—or elephant or chimpanzee—can produce something that looks like art, or at least something that looks like Abstract Expressionism.” Yet now such painting is accepted as art so easily (exemplified conversely by how quickly the press beat a retreat at the first allegation of fraud in Marla’s case— no one wants to own up to even the possibility of having been duped), and it perhaps was originally ushered into this acceptance, because we so commonly see forms that are inherently meaningless in the most common sense of the word. What “meaning” does a leaf have, or a cloud? How does it suddenly have that elusive and sought after substance once it has been represented in a poem or picture? A plant, too, records nothing more than the progress of its own growth, without conscious awareness of its precedents, or its phylum and genus; yet we often find them strikingly beautiful, the inspiration for our own human creations which we, thanks to the Nine Muses and the Romantics, swathe in phrases like ‘organic’ or ‘natural,’ meaning unforced and semi-spontaneous.

Form became the central concern of modern visual arts thanks to the abstract expressionists. [To interject, and steal from Octavio Paz, “this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition.”] They ushered in an era in which form itself, not the successful adjustment of something ‘real’ to a form, became the primary concern. Pre-modern art was concerned with verisimilitude, how art could be accurately formed to the world’s preexisting shape; the awkward between phase, á la cubism, made art that explored the forms it was representing and established the line between representation and abstraction; modern art emptied the form of substance and explored it alone. In a way, abstract expressionism was revolutionary and arguably so successful because this was something that, once you wrapped your brain around form alone, is undeniably fascinating. It simultaneously extracted the humanity from art, replacing it with an almost Romantic obsession with naturalness (e.g. the reason that “action painting” became a legitimate defense, for to record nothing more than the actual action of painting is the most primitive, natural form of doing so, as well as why everybody oohs and aahs over the whole notion of Pollock painting fractals), and filled it to the brim with humanity, because it explored the purely human aspects of art that are utterly unnatural.

The question, though, is what this means for textual art. It is seemingly impossible to pull off this type of ironic double-meaning with language, because it is undeniably impossible to empty language of its humanity. One can reduce it to something more primitive, but that is an almost exclusively aural phenomenon, as exemplified by authors’ countless awkward attempts at onomatopoeic versions of our various guttural groans and noises, the intended sound of which we more often deduce from context than the actual sound such an arrangement of letters would produce. And the fact that text in itself, letters, language, words— all are inherently human, were indeed believed to be one of the distinguishing factors of humanity, though our understanding of language has expanded so far, now, as to include the visual signals of cephalopods and the calls of dolphins. I even watched a video in a neuroscience class once in which a seal learned to distinguish characters, going so far as to be able to group and distinguish between concepts such as “letters” versus “numbers,” showing that animals are possible of the type of abstract thinking once thought to be possessed solely by humans. At the same time, one cannot fill text with even more humanity, because it will always just be markings we have learned to identify. The impetus to do to text and language what modern art did to visual concepts highlights inadvertently its opposing thesis.

The most interesting response to this question, I think, is the intersection of text and image, e.g. concrete poetry, Ed Ruscha‘s word paintings, and virtually all advertising nowadays. At this intersection, we have a place where conceptual form, stripped of the burden of representation, and words are no longer exclusive. Company logos are as distinctly image as they are text. The simple addition of a certain pattern of colors to a serif font immediately identifies a word as a spoof on Google’s own self-image, no matter what the word is. The unbridled proliferation of fonts, too, is indicative of this imaging of the word. So the question is now, what do we consider the work of someone like Justin Quinn? Is it visual art or poem? Poem with visual elements, or picture with poetic elements? What about the poetry of Emmett Williams? To what extent is the act of writing itself the record of action? In my worn out copy of Sound and Sense there is a list of sounds that usually have certain meanings: “phonetic intensives [are words] whose sound, by a process as yet obscure, to some degree connects with their meaning. … A word like flicker, though not onomatopoetic, would seem somehow to suggest its sense, with the fl suggesting moving light, the i suggesting smallness, the ck suggesting sudden cessation of movement, and the er suggesting repetition.” I am reminded of the linguistic quandary of whether our language delimits our concepts or our concepts delimit our language, whether or not we can perceive something for which we have no concept or word.

This is the dilemma I face in writing, to reinforce what I said in the first paragraph: I want to record the condensation of thought and images into words. To record the process, though, it must first become words. How does one picture an object in motion without blurring it beyond recognition? Or capture the blur of momentum while creating an object with which not only I but another reader can still identify? To what extent is clarity capable of being sacrificed? A balance must be struck in every artwork. I am only beginning to read Barthes in general, and have just started The Pleasure of the Text (that’s my disclaimer, because I’m probably jumping to conclusions based on the first few pages), but Barthes’ description of “the site of bliss,” the seam between the “obedient, conformist, plagiarizing” and “another edge [that is] mobile, blank,” seems to echo the opposing sides of my subject. I’m omitting some of the stepping stones that lead from the seam concept to the following one, but to borrow an image from a few pages later in the book, my problem seems to be not that the stripper never starts stripping, or the stripper forgets to put on clothes in the first place, or that I jump on stage to rip them off (though it is tempting during the writing process, and I am probably guilty of this in a way), but that the stripper is incapable of fully disrobing due to his arms getting pinned behind his head when the neckline of his shirt catches on his chin. The pleasure, the seam between the two edges, is lost, becomes no longer seductive but pathetic at worst, cloying at best (or vice versa). I suppose the witty (and probably accurate) response would then be that my strippers need practice.

Rereading this last paragraph, though, I seem to have conflated two problems, or perhaps broken through the first one to the underlying issue. My dilemma is apparently the striptease. Too often, I feel, my writings walks out on stage in its underwear and blinks into the spotlight. It would be erotic, it is a scene from the erotic progression, but there is no seduction. It presents itself as is: unanimated, dispirited. In the fourth and fifth paragraphs of The Pleasure…, Barthes describes the writer seeking out, ‘cruising’ the reader “without knowing where he is.” He goes on to describe how the writer’s originary pleasure in writing does not necessarily translate to the reader’s pleasure. “[The text] might be said to prattle” because it embodies “the motions of ungratified sucking, or an undifferentiated orality,” taking on this characteristic because “you [the writer] address yourself to me [the reader] so that I may read you, but I am nothing to you except this address; in your eyes, I am the substitute for nothing… I am merely a field, a vessel for expansion.” I have always adamantly maintained that I write for myself and for no one else; that the “other” I write to is the self I want to be. But perhaps that is flawed, for I am no one but myself now. As Paz describes in Children of the Mire, “modern man is pushed towards the future with the same violence as the Christian was pushed toward heaven or hell,” and that is a push I feel implicitly: a push I want to embrace, despite its contradiction, and a push I want to reject, in a way, like I did heaven and hell. But I do not know how to do either. The future is always “a time which is not.” To quote more Paz, “It is fate and it is freedom;” and to steal a concept from Derrida’s ‘god’, eternally present in its absence. And thus, I cannot write to it. The self I want to be is “merely a field, a vessel for expansion,” which is good and well for self-exploration and growth— it provides a limitless receptacle— but not writing. And if I am positing, if I believe that writing is the means by which I self-explore and grow, if it is an active and transformative record-keeping of self, it must be rejuvenated. It can no longer be static, addressed to a void.

So that’s a theory. Now I just need some praxis.

[And thanks to for the Marla Olmstead and Justin Quinn links, and thus the  original impetus for the post.]
[Last two paragraphs added Nov. 6th]


Filed under: Tangents, Writing

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