Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ecology of Vispo – A Blindfold Test

This is my essay from The Last Vispo Anthology, edited by Nico Vassilakis & Crag Hill. You can buy it here or here.  Free sample of the book is here.

Colored by my own predisposition for the idea of the non-ocular, I’m afraid I’d prefer to unsee the visible in visual poetry.  That is, I’d prefer a blindfold test, where the audient can happily focus on the crisp turning of pages and other less obscure signals. 

The new sentience alive in its calling.  Time to unhook to see. 

But I’m afraid I’ll have to leave the affective mapping, or how visual poems consciously and unconsciously impact us, to others.  I cannot even bear witness, ala Charles Reznikoff, to things not seen.  The truth is that the impetus for this essay was to try to explain why I’m not a partisan of the form.

What intrigues me and what I want to think about here is the ecology of visual poetry, or the logic of its environment.  The point is to try to understand what makes visual poets matter in their own ways, rather than trying to generalize the divergent practices of visual poets.  That is, I want to avoid a general review that looks for potential unity, or that would illustrate what visual poetry is, or what this anthology represents.

In short, I have only questions, no answers: what makes visual poets think – rather than recognize?  And how are visual poets attached to their practice?  The point is not to find some consensus or commonality among visual poets, for these are intractably subjective questions.  How one is attached to a practice relates to how one belongs and belonging could be thought of as a condition of both owning and being owned by a social nexus or community.  How does that sense of belonging obligate us in an affirmative way, i.e., not in the sense of duty?  Maybe this relates to how practitioners are in debt to their habitat, i.e., not completely autonomous?  We’re not alone in the world.

After Mallarme used white space as silence, there’s a mise-en-page that can be endlessly explored.  But visual poetry continues to be impacted by new technologies:  from Gutenberg to the typewriter to early computers to new digital technologies -- which provide toolsets that build on the array of prior toolsets.  There is now easy access to virtually all known alphabets, as well as programs to construct and design (and deconstruct and redesign) new alphabets, which are themselves easily deployable via vectors that mathematically describe each point and curve of each letter form.

There is a “relationship of relevance between situation and tool.”  The “gesture of taking in hand” both produces and is produced by this relationship.  -Isabelle Stengers

Communion crowds the worker.  It crowns her.  Queen of finger painting.  After alpha blockage, manna stored and resold.

Anthems and Definitions

The Last Vispo Anthology as a spectrum of the current state of the art – “documenting the recent surge in visual poetry, ... [extending] the dialectic between art and literature that began with the concrete poetry movement fifty years ago.”

“Vispo” as a separate compact, an abbreviated entity?  Is this a mere Gitmo-ification that mobilizes a term for the digital era?  That's not clear.  But the provocative title ("Last...") suggests Vispo is all but in a crypt, or that the editors feel the practice is coming up against some kind of a pivotal limitation, perhaps on the verge of becoming other than itself, or in desperate need of a revitalized or new habitat.

It swallows the eye -- the all time best hits.  Chasing the non-human toolkits our future presents.  What's never excluded, aka the affect that escapes capture.  The emotion celebrates its lucre, oozing excess.  Book reports that report on the informer.

“Visual poetry is poetry against metaphor. Scram.  Metaphor is let's make dividends in the boom economy of our passion.  Against Metaphor.  Against Description…”   -Donato Mancini

Following Geof Huth’s definition, a visual poet is a poet irrepressibly drawn to the visual.  In an attempt to describe the discipline, Huth suggests that there are three competencies of the visual poet:
(1) printer’s palette -- or mastery of the visual, non-verbal;
(2) poet’s pen -- or mastery of the linguistic aspects; and
(3) printer’s fist -- or mastery of the emotive and intellectual value of letters/gramma, punctuation, typefaces, words, design.

I use the word “mastery” here, though Huth does not, because of the slippery slope inherent to the model he sets forth.  While Huth may be merely describing what he believes the qualities of a competent visual poet are, rather than necessarily ascribing to them, any such model sets up canonical qualities or categories upon which to judge works of visual poetry.

“Visual poetry, unhooked from the instrumentality of design or the discursive histories of contemporary art.  Most visual poets aren't making images, they're making visually over-coded texts that push the Poetry Master back into pre-school.”  -Donato Mancini

Proposition: the visual poem as a record of the decisions that happen to the visual poet.  But this proposition only makes sense if you understand “decision” in the way that Whitehead uses it, where decisions are what happen to enduring entities or subjects. 

“Decision precedes consciousness and it precedes cognition.”  That is, “decisions make cognition possible, not the other way around…  We don’t make decisions because we are free and responsible; rather we are free and responsible because – and precisely to the extent that – we make decisions.” 
-Steve Shaviro

Dick Higgins suggests that both concrete poetry and pattern poetry tell “the story of an ongoing human wish to combine the visual and literary impulses, to tie together the experience of these two areas into an aesthetic whole… To those who attempt this synthesis, something of the picture of the whole seems crucially important.”

Higgins goes on to say that pattern/concrete poetry has no single origin.  And it is easy to speculate that the reflexive act of making marks led to a foregrounding the visual elements of the grapheme in its unfolding or recording.  Calling attention to itself and aware of its own motion – the record of the grapheme in motion becomes a sort of proprioceptive trace/gesture, a constructive practice and extension of the body.

Vispo’s Dog Ate My Homework

1. This convergence of literary and visual impulses has something to do with the problems in the reception of pattern poetry.  Rather than creating singularities that diverge and are somehow beyond comprehension, the image unified with its content was dismissed as a visual pun – a naïve version of reality, simply not complex or serious enough to tackle enlightened notions of the “truth” that art was supposed to express.

2. As Higgins writes of pattern poetry: “it was never the predominant mode and… there were violent attacks upon it in each age in which it occurred; since the history of any poetry is always to some extent the history of responses to it, the antagonism which it aroused continued great during the colonial era, so that it fell into disrepute in one literature after another, eventually, by the 19th century, surviving only in comic, folk, or popular verse.”

3. Ben Jonson dismissed it as “a pair of scissors and a combe in verse.”  Montaigne claimed the pattern poem’s means of composition displayed subtleties which are “frivolous and vain.”  Perhaps Montaigne's objection was that it seems to turn poetry into a mere parlor game.  Divorced from the pursuit of truth, he disparages it as novelty, a mere amusement.  Visual puns generate mere iconic effects that don’t obligate us to think, and that violate the ideals of platonic form.

4. Another explanation for the poor reception is that visual and/or pattern poetry is non-modern and violates a sense of decorum or the tradition that privileges the purity of art forms.

5. “Thus the visual poem claims to abolish playfully the oldest oppositions of our alphabetic civilization: showing and naming; representing and telling; reproducing and articulating; imitating and signifying; looking and reading.”  -Michel Foucault 

6. Visual poetry is a constructive practice, it both shows and names, both represents and tells, etc.  Visual poetry stands outside these oppositions – they are irrelevant to its concerns.

7. In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour describes a world full of hybrid combinations of social and natural objects & subjects.  Humans were never divorced from nature.  Modernity attempts to purify the human and the natural realms, privileging the human realm, including language.  “The proliferation of quasi-objects [viz. the industrial revolution] was… greeted by three different strategies:” first, the ever-increasing separation between the poles of nature and that of society; second, the autonomization of language or meaning; third, the deconstruction of metaphysics.  [my paraphrase]

8. Elias Canetti on the dangers of mixing mediums: “the separate arts should live in the most chaste co-habitation.”  It’s as if the non-platonic intercourse between the word and the image would close up the space in which the reader can breathe.  Welcome to the Kama Sutra school of interconnection.

9. As Whitehead said: “life lurks in the interstices…”   The reader constitutes herself in the gaps.  But there's no reason to think that visual poems necessarily clog these interstices – even when they do aim at unity.  The reader’s faculties are not harmonized by an encounter with a visual poem.

10. The argument may really be about maximizing intensity and affect.  That a unified or closed hybrid object lacks allure.  To unify is a kind of destruction of possibility.

11. Since the world isn’t pure chaos, then there must be some pre-established harmony, even if that’s just a common ground for disagreement. 

12. Friction is an adventure.  The autobiography of a stone.  But there are no marriageable metaphors in a world of physical comedy.

13. “There is no science of the beautiful, but only critique.”  -Kant

14. The divorce of art and science, where science becomes fixated on efficient causes.  But don’t art and science need each other?  Tools with which to think and make marks. 

15. Poetry and other art forms are attached to human interests – they’re attempts to make alluring artifacts.  On the other hand, science demands answers that can be detached from human interest; science wants to eliminate artifacts of subjectivity (i.e., all traces of subjectivity) from the experimental apparatus.  Science wants to find reliable facts, to discover or explain mysteries of nature.

16. This said, art and poetry have always deployed technology or tools – much like science, e.g., the alphabet, the hand.  And science can never completely purify itself of the human artifact.  The experimental apparatus also attempts to uncover alluring facts, which might be precisely those facts that seem to have an alluring lack of human artifact.

17. The real source of this apparent contradiction may be the notion of human interest.  The hybrid objects or assemblages produced by visual poets are facts, regardless of how alluring they are to others.  Perhaps it's a question of what’s reliable (recognition, emotion) versus what allures (or what generates thinking, affect)?

18. “ for thinking are then the ones that address and actualize this power of the situation, that make it a matter of concern, in other words, make us think and not recognize.  When we deal with practices, recognition would lead to the question-- why should we take practices seriously as we know very well that they are in the process of being destroyed by Capitalism?  This is their 'sameness', indeed, the only difference being between the already destroyed one and the still-surviving ones.  The ecology of practices is a non-neutral tool as it entails the decisions never to accept Capitalist destruction as freeing the ground for anything but Capitalism itself.”   -Isabelle Stengers

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