Nonhuman Collectives

— a blog by Craig Epplin —

Typewriters 1

Given enough pages, novels set in the twentieth century always arrive at a typewriter scene. Here we get an office water bottle too:

Los empleados se acostumbraron a verlo a unos metros del escritorio donde Carola manipulaba la máquina de escribir sin ver el teclado; cada tanto, abofeteaba el rodillo con suavidad, como si lo elogiara por travieso. A su lado, un botellón de agua electropura esperaba el momento en que alguien presionara el botón para producir gordas burbujas de aire y llenar un cono de papel. A Julio le fascinaba la consistencia endeble de los conos, a punto de diluirse en forma fresca.

The employees got used to seeing him a few meters from the desk where Carola manipulated the typewriter without looking at the keys; every once in a while she would smack the roller, as if praising its mischievousness. Next to her, a vat of purified water awaited the moment when someone would press the button and produce fat air bubbles and fill a paper cone cup. Julio was fascinated by the feeble consistency of the cups, always about to dissolve into fresh form.

– Juan Villoro, El testigo, p. 197

Cortázar, etc.

I’ve been rereading Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela for a class I’m teaching in the fall. It’s somehow both better and worse this time around—tedious and brilliant by turns, sometimes both at once. I’m hoping it’s mostly the brilliance that shines through to my students next term.

In the middle of my reading, I was alerted to a very thoughtful review of Late Book Culture in Argentina. In it, Víctor Goldgel-Carballo makes some really insightful points about my book, including some of its limitations, and it strikes me that Cortázar can help move the dialogue forward.

Cortázar makes only a small appearance in my study. This isn’t an oversight; it rather owes to the fact that, initial appearances aside, I don’t think he has a ton to tell us about the book as a medium. I have the feeling, however, that this conviction, which I’ll explain below, does not line up with the conventional wisdom. After all, his novel Rayuela is often thought of as a forerunner of hypertext and other nonlinear forms of writing. For just one example, check out his inclusion in the Electronic Labyrinth.

This often assumed parentage with later forms of writing, forms at odds with the putatively linear nature of regular books, has to do with the structure of Rayuela. This book, the first page tells us, is many books, but mostly it’s just two. The reader selects one of two ways of reading: straight through from chapter 1 through chapter 56, or skipping around, reading those same chapters mostly in order but with others, numbered 57 through 155 interspersed among them. “Rayuela” means “hopscotch” in Spanish; hopping from one square to another is inscribed in the name of the novel.

I think that there is a limited measure of freedom for the reader in this form, but it’s basically the freedom to choose among two preset options, one of which eschews the normal pattern of page-turning but doesn’t really alter the experience of reading in an order laid out by the author. In this way, I think that the structure of the novel actually shores up the position of the author, rather than empowering the reader.

But it also does something else. It proposes a certain model of reader—one that makes the “right” choice (the nonlinear one) at the outset, a reader that is open to literature as an adventure or experiment. This is why Cortázar subjects his reader to very boring passages like that of chapter 133, where the redundancies of an obscure writer are reproduced for us to plod through, even as the character reading them criticizes this redundancy. It’s why he criticizes the sentimentality of Benito Pérez Galdós, interspersing a passage from one of his novels among his protagonist’s condescending comments on it. It’s why this same character, the often intolerable Horacio Oliveira, criticizes not just this passage but the woman (his lover) who would read it. Rayuela is, above all, a lifestyle guide, and it seeks to inscribe its ideal reader into a certain sort of reading practice, which is also a practice of living.

That literature should be more than entertainment, that it should wound us, that it should take us beyond the crummy, tawdry reality of everyday life—this is an old idea. One of the clearest influences on this novel, André Breton, made as much clear in Nadja. So did numerous contemporaries of Cortázar. So does he in numerous passages of Rayuela.

For example, take one part that I do cite in my book: the theory of the “male reader,” who ventures undaunted into the serious business of experimental literature and who is unlike the “female reader,” who demands “demotic writing” or else regrets the money wasted on the book. This is where Cortázar has something to say about the book as medium, or rather the book as commercial object. And what he says is that when it’s conceived as such, well, it’s a real shame. The book is meant to be something better than just a commodity, something like a pack of gum or a pack of cigarettes.

To make this point, I think, is to take the book for granted, at least the book as conceived within the parameters of modern literature, where it is understood as the vehicle for something really very important—a convenient container for expressions of a national identity, a human universality, a transcendent encounter. And this taking-for-granted is why Cortázar doesn’t make much of an appearance in my study, for which the central point is that, in the corpus I outline, the book is a problem to be solved, not a given object.

This brings me to the review, and in particular the question that seems most pressing in it, which is prestige and the multifaceted social machine that confers it on certain writers. After all, Cortázar was, still is for many, a very prestigious author. So are, among a (significant) minority of readers, the writers I study in Late Book Culture in Argentina. But they work differently. Cortázar was and is also really popular. César Aira, less so (though he’s not entirely unpopular either). I think we might explore this comparison further.

Specifically, if experimentation with the medium of the book owes partially to technological change, as I claim, then why is it not more widespread today? After all, as Goldgel-Carballo points out, my corpus is identified with a minority of readers. In spite of their successes, they are certainly not (Aira’s recent international acclaim aside) bestsellers. The logical question to ask is, why study them as representative of anything at all, given their relatively small reach?

It’s a good question, and I think that Goldgel-Carballo is basically right when he holds that my study ultimately and unwittingly reveals that, in many ways, literature hasn’t really changed much since the modern period. It still works as a relatively autonomous field, guarded by gatekeepers. And yet, it is precisely that relative autonomy that allows writers to play, to experiment, to say something about the world that might not be said otherwise. In other words, I believe still believe, somewhat naïvely and really only sometimes, in the avant-garde and its importance. And without that faith, there would be no reason to think much about writers who write for a (shrinking) literary public.

Here’s where the parallel with Cortázar can be instructive and revealing of what actually has changed. Both he (in the sixties) and Aira (in the nineties on), were or are experimenting with how literature could take form. Of course, they did or do so against the backdrop of the assumptions typical of their respective eras. Cortázar, I think, really wanted to find out what sort of experience he could inflict on his reader within the literary medium available to him: the print book. I think Aira wants something else—to explore the continuum of literary economy and literary medium and literary enunciation. Both experiment, in their own way, but for Aira (and a significant cluster of loosely affiliated writers) the book is the—or at least a—main object of this experimentation. And I think this change has largely to do with our technological horizon, in which the book is less easy to take for granted.

Networked images

Earlier this week I remembered having once read this very good essay by Barry Schwabsky, which was published a while back in Triple Canopy. His point of departure is the observation that art photography over the past decades has tended to take on large dimensions. He mentions probably the most recognizable exemplars of this tendency—Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, both of whom are masters of the large-format tableau. Their prominence notwithstanding, however, and also despite the convenience of this format for art’s commercial interests, Schwabsky finds this tendency out of step with the dominant direction in photography today.

Summed up in terms I think Schwabsky wouldn’t disagree with, that tendency is toward increased amateurism, increased artistry outside the realm of art proper, and, most importantly, increased accumulation of images. Never before, probably, have so many of us non-artists taken so many photos so well. Of course, we lean on fancy technology to do so, but that’s not a caveat—it’s precisely the point.

These many images, these often-pretty-good images, and also the ones that aren’t good at all—they are accumulated with or without their visualization. Or at least, when they do become visual to someone, the scene of viewing will tend to be ephemeral. Schwabsky notes that very few photographs are printed today. This is true, but the stronger point he brings up is that the destiny of most photographs is simply “to have been seen.” That is, their existence matters, but they are not objects to contemplate at length.

Didn’t Barthes write that the message of any photograph was, this was here (or something along those lines)? The situation I’m describing takes this testimony to the next level—not this (this photographed thing) was here, but rather there was a photograph here.

Innovations in photographic technology have made this scenario possible—the massive amount of photographic accumulation today is simply not possible in a film-only photographic universe. But this isn’t only a story about digital cameras. It’s also about the way our cameras, most of them, are networked to interfaces meant for storing and sharing the pictures they take.

These interfaces are not all the same. Some of them—Facebook and Instagram, for example—foster a constant, often laborious construction of the self. They are identity-forming technologies. But others can make us anonymous—Schwabsky mentions the (now-defunct) app Color, which once allowed “users to see all images captured by strangers within 150 feet.” Despite Color’s demise, anonymity is still part of much photographic culture. Anyone who has scrolled through a Flickr search or gone down the rabbit hole of Airbnb’s “Discover” feature knows about the pleasure of browsing photos with no real interest in the photographer.

This scenario has antecedents from the analogue world. Schwabsky mentions Vivian Maier, and his comment on her boxes of undeveloped rolls of film—that the “posthumous printing and exhibition of these images is arguably a distortion of her work, which was only ever the archive itself”—is correct, as I see it. I don’t know if this distortion is a good thing or not, but I do think that the archival element of her work is more important than the nature of the images themselves. Or maybe they matter together. What that means for how to display her work is for other, more qualified people to say. This is a digression anyway.

The point is that once we decide that the archive matters more than, or at least as much as, the images housed in it, we’ve come to a very different concept of photography than that associated with the tableaux introduced at the outset.

We’ve come, that is, to the idea that photography is more an apparatus for seeing than a technology of production. The camera always has been a vision-transforming tool, but in years past it seems that the crucial aspect of the photographic event was the production of the object—the photograph—itself. Today, for many people, this is less the case.

To understand this difference, it might make sense to look at the other side of the camera lens, particularly the sorts of behaviors that the camera has trained us to enact. Sitting still, for example. Especially in the early days, when exposures were very long, the camera taught its subjects to sit very still. But anyone who claims to have a “good side” has also internalized an effect of the camera. The much derided duck face and sparrow mouth are both implausible phenomena without photography. These are all behaviors that exist to achieve a certain effect in the image, but they have effects on our gestural life beyond the photographic event.

And I think that analogous repercussions might be lying in wait as we wade further into the sea of image accumulation. Cameras might be teaching us to see differently, but not just because they train us to think in terms of composition or a succession of still images. That is, what we’re learning from cameras today likely doesn’t owe to anything inherent to the photographic medium itself. Rather, I think that networked cameras and the ephemeral or disposable images we generate with them teach us more about the network we inhabit than they do about our visual environment. They teach us to think of ourselves and our world as things that don’t necessarily last—more a chain of many networked reproductions, less a series of subjects to be represented.

Two links, César Aira

I read two short essay-stories by César Aira this morning. The first, which was featured in Electric Literature, is called “Athena Magazine,” and it’s about the absurd deliberations that issue from the founding of a small literary magazine. The other is called “The Ovenbird,” a beautiful, longish parable about the automaticity of human action (or the richness and variation of nonhuman action, depending on your perspective). Reading him enough, one starts to see techniques repeated, as is the case with all authors, and one in particular always catches my attention: the fanciful resolution of something that’s been taken deadly seriously, whether the decision to divide up a magazine volume into 2 or 10 or 10,000 issues (the size of each issue minutely calculated, in case a 36-page object should be divided up that small), or the possibility that animals like the ovenbird might think in non-Disney sorts of ways. In both cases, the bulk of the essay or ficción (because I think they share a lot with Borges’s made-up genre) is dedicated to unspooling a thread that won’t be cut or tied up, and much less respooled, in the end; rather, the whole mess will be gathered up and shoved in a drawer. In terms of housekeeping, an Aira story isn’t cleanliness and elegance–it’s a cluttered apartment.

Red

There’s a moment in the opening pages of Autobiography of Red when Anne Carson pauses to consider the nature of adjectives:

What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning “placed on top,” “added,” “appended,” “imported,” “foreign.” Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything int he world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.

In the verse novel that makes up the bulk of this book, one adjective matters more than others: the red of the title, the color that identifies the particularity of the protagonist Geryon (“strange winged red monster”), one that is such a “latch of being” that it stops simply latching and becomes a being itself. An adjective becomes a noun–the subject of an autobiography–just like the word adjective, which is not usually considered one itself, in spite of the etymology Carson traces.

It’s perhaps surprising that their aren’t so many others. The text is relatively poor in adjectives. The ones that stand out also stand together, as in the above description of Geryon or in phrases like “long silk ears,” “bare sandrock mountains,” “big deadweight blocks.” Adjectives come in pairs, like they often do in conversation, and they are used sparingly. More memorable than these are some dazzling verbal inventions–a woman “rhinestoning past on her way to the door,” two boys who “recognized each other like italics.” Or collections of nouns, things uniquely assembled:

Geryon’s mother made their favorite meal, cling peaches from the can and toast
cut into fingers for dipping.
Lots of butter on the toast so a little oil slick floats out on top of the peach juice.

Nouns name what is and verbs describe their animation: these seem to be Carson’s main concerns, beyond how beings and actions are latched together.

In this sense, Carson’s world in Autobiography of Red seems to resist the particularity that she associates with adjectives. One of Borges’s best stories is “Funes the Memorious,” and in it the protagonist suffers the unique inability to forget, which means also that he lives in a perceptual world of adjectives, always awash in details. His world is nothing but latches opening onto other latches, never a door or a window. The world Carson paints for Geryon isn’t like that. He asks big, abstract questions like, “What is time made of?” And the conversation that ensues when he does shows the impossibility of arriving at an answer:

What is time made of? Geryon said suddenly
turning to the yellowbeard who
looked at him surprised. Time isn’t made of anything. It is an abstraction.
Just a meaning that we
impose upon motion. But I see–he looked down at his watch–what you mean.
Wouldn’t want to be late
for my own lecture would I? Let’s go.

Geryon addresses his question to his philosopher interlocutor, who assures him, basically, that time is just how we create continuity among events. Time is what we get when we wick away the particularities of adjectives and remain with solid, durable nouns put in motion by verbs. But then he looks down at his watch and it’s time to go: we’re back in the realm of particularity and practice, the experience of time, not its abstraction. And I think that experience is what Geryon really wants to know about, which is why he doesn’t ask what time is, but rather what it’s made of. It’s made of experiences like this, even if it is not strictly coextensive with them.

Another way of putting Geryon’s question might be, “Why aren’t there more adjectives here?” This doesn’t mean that his world is lacking in detail–he inhabits a fascinatingly odd landscape. But still, it’s missing latches–points of inflection that might help us see how we’re simultaneously in the realm of Greek myth and also at an outdoor café and then a philosophy conference at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. The globe Geryon treks over is unified as much in time as it is in space; it’s a world abstracted from the particularities of history even as it suggests them all the time. What’s missing are the latches, the openings that allow Geryon to handle and manipulate the materials of time himself.

Two links

This morning I posted a longish post over at Urbanities. It’s on two books I read together recently: Cristina Rivera Garza’s Nadie me verá llorar and Raymond Craib’s Cartographic Mexico.

Also, I happened upon this beautiful video the other day. It reminded me of The Isle of Flowers, for the way it recreates a whole network of human and nonhuman action. The video has other purposes that the strictly aesthetic–it’s more a trailer for a hair-based materials project–but just look at the way it documents the passage of human hair on its own path…

Happy new year to anyone reading this.

More on Bolaño

Last term I taught a grad class on Roberto Bolaño and Mexico. The scope of the seminar wasn’t exhaustive—we focused on Los detectives salvajes and read about ten Mexican intertexts alongside it. My copy of the novel is pretty worn out, the spine in a thousand creases and some of its pages falling out, all from having been read a few times over the past decade. It’s always fascinating to me to think about which novels we read multiple times. In my case, probably this one and Pedro Páramo are the novels I’ve most repeated in my adult life. (It feels so different as an adult; when I was a kid it always seemed natural for me to return to the same books.) It’s odd, though, to compare these two novels. The latter is one of my favorites ever, while the other sometimes grates on me, even if it’s objectively a beautiful book. I really prefer Bolaño’s short fiction.

That said, the parts I most like in Los detectives salvajes are the scenes of interpretation. One takes place in January 1976, at the house of aging poet and typist Amadeo Salvatierra, who shows the young Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima the only published poem by Cesárea Tinajero. The text is called “Sión,” and it’s comprised entirely of a series of lines—straight, curving, spiked. Amadeo has never been able to make sense of it, but the savage poets can read it immediately. For them, it’s about images of the sea—placid, wavy, choppy. However, the only way they can get to this interpretation is by adding a little sailboat to the images, a supplement that both makes the poem intelligible and destroys its power of suggestion. They amplify the poem, but they rein it in by restricting is power to signify.

I think the best way to interpret the scene, however, isn’t by reflecting on the role of the reader—the nautical appendices that the poets add to the poem—or on the integrity and round completeness of the literary text. I think rather that we should see the scene as a sort of game.

The two poets suggest this reading. Amadeo asks them what they think the poem means:

I said, boys, what do you make of this poem? I said, boys, I’ve been looking at it for more than forty years and I’ve never understood a goddamn thing. Really. I might as well tell you the truth. And they said: it’s a joke, Amadeo, the poem is a joke covering up something more serious.

That formula—a joke that’s also something more serious—appears constantly throughout the novel. The movement that the poets lead is described in similar terms, so are various encounters between people. In this case, the joke is a pun, or a half pun: Lima and Belano eventually explain to Amadeo that the word “Sión” hides the word “navegación,” and so the poem is really just about sailing the waters of time and space.

Besides this scene, there are other drawings. In the novel’s final section, when Lima and Belano, along with Juan García Madero (the narrator of the diary through which the first and last parts of the novel are narrated) and Lupe, their prostitute friend, are driving through Sonora. They’re running from Lupe’s pimp, just as they’re searching for traces of Cesárea. García Madero draws a series of images, simple circles and lines, engaging the others with a guessing game. What’s this? A Mexican seen from above. What’s this? A Mexican on skis. What’s this? Four Mexicans gathered around a coffin. These sorts of jokes mix childishness with sinister humor (maybe that’s also childish, in as much as kids are better at being innocently sinister).

There are these jokes and there are other games that resemble them, guessing games about poetic forms and street slang. The novel ends with three rectangles—the first one with a triangle peeking out (a star behind a window), the second just a rectangle with nothing else (a window with a sheet over it), and the last one a dotted outline of a rectangle (with no interpretation offered). Why doesn’t the last one, which is the last thing we see in the novel, have a gloss on it like the others do? Probably because Bolaño wants the game to continue. He’s like Cortázar in this regard, in as much as Rayuela ends with a reference back to more pages in the novel. In that case reading never ends, while for Bolaño it’s interpretation that never does.

An idea we worked out in class, in this vein, was that the first rectangle was form and content, a window with something seen through it; the second was just form, a frame and nothing else; the last was the dissolution of form, the dotted line marking the disappearance of the window. This reading seems to work, and I like it because it coheres with the guessing games that Bolaño uses throughout the novel. Not just because it’s elliptical and unresolved, leaving us to keep guessing, but also because guessing games also tend to dissolve form. Sure, they have a right answer from the perspective of the speaker, but we don’t need to fetishize the author so much as to think it’s the only one. Really, when someone asks us to guess what something is, anything goes, as long as it has charm or humor in it. The point is to keep the conversation going, not to close it off.

In this direction, I think that there is some relation between these games and the sorts of anarchist sympathies expressed by so many characters in the novel. That, however, is material for a different discussion.

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