Nonhuman Collectives

— a blog by Craig Epplin —

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.



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.

Ekphrasis (notes)

I’ve recently had an opportunity to give form to ideas about some of my favorite contemporary artists. Writing always helps me organize myself, so I’m uploading a few pages–just notes, really, a few of which have appeared in some incarnation elsewhere–that have helped me think through work by Cyprien Gaillard and Koudlam, Teresa Margolles, Rita Indiana y los Misterios, Francis Alÿs, Tanya Tagaq, and the dance duo Campo. Not all the works are visual, but ekphrasis is the best concept to describe my notes so that’s what I’m calling them.

Here’s the PDF version: ekphrasis.

Rustic and similar

What do I care about rustic anything? The root of this word is the same as the root of rural, and having grown up in a small town I have no romantic ideas about country places. But rustic usually means something else, it means rough-hewn or unpolished, which is why I thought that word to myself the other night at a Cinema Project event. Two different artists stood opposite a movie screen, mixing and matching strips of film, sometimes overlaying images and sometimes letting one linger on the screen for a while. The footage seemed mostly to come from found objects (the film itself), though I think one stretch of it was from The Planet of the Apes. The whole thing was impressive, and part of the appeal was that real film being fed into the slow-spinning wheels, film that felt random in its appearance and was full of the inevitable rough edges involved in working with such a messy medium.

Afterwards, I kept thinking about why I so liked this somewhat rustic performance-screening. I’m not even sure that rustic is the right word, but that’s not the point—I could sub in other ones: artisanal, imperfect, improvisational. The point, rather, is to try to understand where the appeal comes from.

The question matters to me in part because my recently published book grew out of an obsession with handmade books. The first half of the book traces an aesthetics of slow, artisanal, and intentionally imperfect aesthetics from Osvaldo Lamborghini through Eloísa Cartonera. This obsession isn’t limited to my academic work. I have a humble library at home of small books, some of them printed on letterpress, others of them handmade in some other way. I used to volunteer sometimes at a print collective here in Portland. I even make the occasional volume or notebook myself, usually as a gift for someone.

For example, I recently asked several of my friends to send me 200 words on something, anything, and they did. Some were in Spanish, some in English. They all got translated at some point. I copied the Spanish versions onto a notepad and took it to the Plaza Santo Domingo in Mexico City. There, I asked one of the typists who sit most days lined up on the west side of the plaza, a man named Jesús, if he would produce a typed version of it for me. He did, for a small price, working on a machine that, he estimates, is thirty or forty years old.

My interest wasn’t just to get a typed-up version of what my friends had sent me—most of these texts were typed out in the first place, sent to me via email—but to observe how these men worked, as well as to see what sorts of changes writing undergoes when it’s passed through a typewriter. The answer is: some, inevitably, through the arbitrariness of human perception and action. Jesús typed up all seven sheets; he was affable and relaxed in his work; we spoke about random things but not too much.

I scanned these typed pages and matched them with translations, printed them out, sewed them and trimmed their edges, making a small print run of these pamphlets. They’re gifts, nothing more, for those friends that sent me their minimal, luminous essays.


I don’t expect to discover much of a meaning in this sort of activity, any more than one might discover the meaning of sex or cooking or music. But it’s hard not to think in terms of meaning, much as I’d like to avoid it. And when I do, it’s clear to me that this sort of obsession is part of a general cultural turn, among enough people that it gathers notice, toward artisanal and classically mechanical—now often seen in the same light as the artisanal—ways. It’s a popular trend, visible in fields from the restaurant industry to publishing. And as with most popular things, most commercial things, it’s easy enough to dismiss it as just that: as commercial or cognate to it, a product of the stupid, loud monster whose shorthand name is the market.

But I’ve lately been trying not to be dismissive, even of things that, squinted at or viewed from a certain angle, seem pointless. And in this case, I’m talking about a personal obsession, so I’m pretty invested in not dismissing it. Instead, I think that this sort of thing feels aimless and that this feeling can be really lovely. I think that aimlessness draws other people in too. It’s a luxury, but it’s a luxury that anyone who wants it deserves to have. And it’s connected in some way to lots of other luxuries that we all deserve: the luxury of being slow, of acting dumb, of cultivating amateurism, of making and having pointless objects and experiences.


I wrote a review of the latest Bolaño translation, A Little Lumpen Novelita. Of all his work that I’ve read, this novelita reminds me most of Roberto Arlt’s fiction. I only began to touch on this in the review, but I think there’s a very clear line between a work like The Savage Detectives and A Little Lumpen Novelita. The first is Cortázar-style encyclopedic–that long list of avant-garde writers that stretches over a couple pages–while the second is pure Arlt: boxing rather than literature, scribbling at meals (before or after a day’s work) rather than typing through the morning (before heading out for a stroll).