The Anomaly Contains the Homily :: Placebo & Poiesis

In an essay called “Witches and Shamans,” Carlo Ginzburg recounts a story he heard in graduate school about two professors of grammar. The one was bearded and had a soft spot for irregularities, those legendary hapaxes: cases that only occur once in the extant record. The other was completely bald and a fastidious stickler for the rules. On encountering a grammatical irregularity, the first professor would stroke his beard and joyfully pronounce “c’est bizarre,” while the second would spend hours until he finally succeeded (by whatever means necessary) in reconciling the freak with the regular, upon which he would announce “C’est satisfaisant pour l’esprit.”

Ginzburg confesses his affinity for the first of these positions, preferring to place a premium on the anomaly over its analogical rectification:

[M]y impulse is to identify with the bearded philologist, the one who loved anomalies: this is due to a psychological inclination which, however, I would consider justifying even on rational terms. The violation of the norm contains even the norm itself, inasmuch as it is presupposed; the opposite is not true. Anyone who studies the functioning of a society beginning from the entirety of its norms, or from statistical fictions such as the average man or the average woman, inevitably remains on the surface of things. I think that the in-depth analysis of an anomalous case is much more fruitful, though the contemplation of an isolated oddity does not usually interest me.[1]

Here is where a tale of two professors becomes two tales of two professors. In his largely admiring review of Threads and Traces in the London Review, entitled “The Force of the Anomaly,” Perry Anderson rebukes Ginzburg on both logical and ontological grounds:

In historical research, [Ginzburg] has often contended, the anomaly tells us more than the rule, because it speaks also of the rule, whereas the rule speaks only of itself: the exception is thus always epistemologically richer than the norm. This, however, is not so. By definition, an anomaly is only such in terms of a rule, which ontologically commands it. If there is no rule, there can be no exception to it. But the converse does not hold. A rule does not depend for its existence on an exception.[2]

“The violation of the norm contains even the norm itself”: thus Ginzburg. But under Anderson’s jurisdiction, the rule “ontologically commands” the exception: “If there is no rule, there can be no exception to it.” The blunt confidence of Anderson’s rebuttal (“This, however, is not so”) — vexed as it may be by a genuine appreciation for Ginzburg’s gift — can be diagnosed as a specimen of the scholastic fallacy Pierre Bourdieu called epistemocentrism: Bourdieu’s fancytalk for that bananapeel you skateboard around on when you mistake the laws of logic for the order of things.[3] How do we determine the laws of logic in the first place? And how do we enforce them? Sometimes I think the singular of loss is law. More startling, perhaps, is the fact that Anderson’s counterargument to Ginzburg can be found verbatim in a book called Modern Thomistic Philosophy: An Explanation for Students (1934) by Richard Percival Phillips, a schoolboy’s guide to the Schoolmen: “If there is no rule there can be no exception: if there is nothing essential there can be nothing accidental or by chance.”[4] I can’t imagine Anderson had this exact argument in mind — this comes, after all, in a chapter called “The Demonstration of the Existence of God” — but it does allow us to hear a theological accent in his critique. Perhaps it is even a latent political theological accent.

I propose we take these different ways of framing the anomaly — these arguments on both sides of the case — as an opportunity to ponder the relation between “rules” and “exceptions,” between “norms” and “violations.” What is the substance of these distinctions and these relations? The best answer to the question as I see it can be established by deciding the following: are “rules” to be understood as metonyms or symptoms of a steady-state totalizing law of nature to which the analyst has privileged access — the domain of ontology or theology, as you wish, which in turn gives them a commanding or prescriptive force? Or might “rules” rather be considered human descriptions of states of affairs — which is to say, phenomenological (experienced) and pragmatic (actionable) accounts subject to adjustment when more information (feedback) comes in?

As sometime purveyor of an organ called A Fiery Flying Roule (however that noun may be pronounced), I confess I have a special interest in this topic…


Placebo makes nothing happen

Let’s consider the paradoxical phenomenon known as the “placebo effect” as a fruitful case in point for the ways in which it interrupts a widely subscribed schedule of cause and effect. From the perspective of normal science, a sugar pill has no intrinsic medicinal properties: it “makes nothing happen,” to use a famous phrase that we’ll return to. And yet, when prescribed under the right circumstances as medicine, the sugar pill notoriously not only makes something happen, but produces the desired result. The medical anthropologist Daniel Moerman has a nice way of illustrating how strange this is:

Consider a thought experiment: we fabricate some placebo socket wrenches. They look like socket wrenches, sound like them, feel like them. But we design them so that when you put the socket over the loose nut and tighten it, the nut will stay loose. We secretly place these wrenches in the toolboxes of a randomly selected set of mechanics at the car repair shop. Now if we discovered that the nuts these mechanics were working on really did tighten up, we would have good reason to be surprised. The only thing that can tighten up nuts is a (real) wrench.[5]

When the sugar pill relieves symptoms and cures disease, it confutes a dominant cosmology of cause and effect and achieves what normal science says it couldn’t: it performs the impossible. If we remember (a) that placebo is (according to some recent studies) more effective than the going “antidepressants” and (b) that 11 billion dollars per year are made in that pharmaceutical market, this anomalous blip turns out to be no small matter.

Nicholas Humphrey and John Skoyles have asked a useful question about “the placebo paradox” (as they call it):

When people recover from illness under the influence of fake treatments, they must of course in reality be healing themselves. But if and when people have the capacity to heal themselves by their own efforts, why do they not simply get on with it? Why ever should they wait for third-party permission — from the shaman or the sugar pill — to heal themselves? How strange that people should be condemned to remain dysfunctionally sick just because — as must still often happen — they have not received permission.[6]

If it’s the case that the doctor and the sugar “make nothing happen,” why don’t patients skip the appointment (and the bill it comes with), cut to the chase, and heal themselves by their own efforts? But the very grammar of the question misunderestimates (if I may use that presidential verb) the relational substance of the process at hand. The placebo’s power — its capacity, we might say, to anomalously conjure a return to health — is a distributed accomplishment, contingent on the circuits of trust at hand. It follows as a consequence of “a social fact,” as Durkheim would call it. The shaman heals you because you believe the shaman can heal you. It’s not a private property but a relationship that does the deed, and what the deed indicates is not a shortcoming in the patient’s way of knowing — their failure, as Wittgenstein might put it, to “follow the rules” (Philosophical Investigations §125) — but rather the limits of Western medicine’s empiricism and the cosmology of cause and effect it purports to command. The rule is not that Western medicine has a comprehensive conceptual and practical monopoly over the laws of health, but rather precisely the opposite. The distributed conjuration of health that we call the “placebo effect” is experienced as an exception only to the believer or devotee of the system that cannot explain its operation. The anomaly points to that larger scheme that eludes the grasp of what presumes to be a comprehensive system of explanation. In this sense, as Ginzburg suggests, the violation of the norm contains the norm, precisely to the extent that it reveals the limits of the norm’s application.

I think of the relation like this: the system of rules is a grid that makes legible the anomaly that in turn renders the grid obsolete once the anomaly is properly perceived for what it is. The anomaly, we might say, once it is understood, absorbs the grid it evades by making visible the grid’s provisional character while indicating a larger scheme in which the anomaly both makes sense and is quite simply indicative of the way things are.

If I may hazard a thesis: phenomena do not follow rules because rules are modelled after a transcendental truth (theological, ontological, or otherwise). Rather, phenomena follow rules because our descriptions and demonstrations and the actions and events they describe are in agreement. And perhaps we could also say that phenomena follow rules to the extent that we, the makers and exchangers of descriptions and demonstrations, agree that they do — because we are in the practice of saying, and agreeing with each other when we say, that phenomena follow the rules. This is not to say that phenomena don’t have tendencies and regularities that characterize and perhaps even define their behavior — “norms,” to use Ginzburg’s term — but only to insist that our experience of their unruliness is in direct proportion to the stories we tell about them. Clever as we are, I think we’ve yet to remember that this is the case, that we have the power to tell different stories if and as we need to — to perform actions and precipitate events that swerve against the grid of expectations, and which invite us to compose more deliberately new sets of habits of thinking and feeling, and of trying and doing.


Turn it upside down

The placebo effect’s improbable power inverts the action of the panopticon as Michel Foucault describes it. The “panopticon effect” (if I may call it that) depends on the fact that humans tend to behave as if we’re being watched by a guard if our cell is in view of the watchtower, which need not in fact be occupied for this effect to take hold. “A real subjection is borne mechanically from a fictitious relation,” Foucault writes.[7] With the placebo effect, by contrast, a real liberation is instantiated — a liberation from the symptoms of disease (from pain, for instance) — but the fictitious relation is interesting to specify. After all, the relation between the healer and healed is a real one; the “fiction” lies in the swapping of the sugar pill for the pharmaceutical. As Michael Taussig suggests, “patient and shaman conduct on behalf of society a joint interrogation of their ideological environment.”[8] It’s as if all the doors in the prison swung open suddenly not so much to the touch as to the very thought, revealing that they were never locked in the first place. What was Blake’s phrase? “Mind-forged manacles.” What were walls and barriers turn out to contain windows and doors. The enclosures turn out to be what Emily Abendroth calls “exclosures.”[9] Miranda observes a bird in the yard and says, “That one always lives outside.” Maybe we’re not as stuck as we think we are.

What other forms and structures might we imagine — whether actual architectures or social infrastructures — that could produce not the “real subjection” Foucault describes but rather a “real liberation” of the sort the placebo supplies, forms and structures whose design is aimed at producing not “the homogenous effects of power” (200) but rather a heterogeneous unleashing of potential?

What needs to be the case for things to be otherwise?

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The poem is that which does not fit the measure

Paul Celan in his notebooks defines the poem as “that which does not fit the measure.”[10] The poem in this sense is immune to regulation, an incommensurate anomaly that fails to comply with the going metric. Carl Schmitt, for his part, famously decreed: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”[11] With Celan in hand we might rejoin: poets are — or could be — those who produce the exception by performing the other side of the normal form, metabolizing impossibility and thereby transforming conditions of possibility in the first place.[12] We might imagine here the potential of poetry as sovereignty’s solvent, as a tool for re-imagining our forms of belonging over and against Schmitt’s one-seater model. By failing to “fit the measure” or “follow the rules,” a poem can succeed in refuting what Anderson claims is an “ontological command,” and can contain, to use Ginzburg’s verb, the measure it exceeds. Like the power of the placebo, this potential is not a private property but a substance that transpires in relation, a common ground of language in action. The poem is at last between two (or more) people, as Frank O’Hara once decided, and not between two pages.[13]

Here’s an early modern description of poetry’s improbable action that aligns with Celan’s late modern definition:

[Poetry] commonly exceeds the measure of nature, joining at pleasure things which in nature would never have come together, and introducing things which in nature would never have come to pass; just as painting likewise does. This is the work of the imagination [which] at pleasure makes unlawful matches and divorces of things.

This is Francis Bacon’s fretful account of poetry’s extravagant and antinomian combinatorial power in the Advancement of Learning, as cited by Richard Halpern in The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation (Cornell 1991), 55. Halpern is describing the radical transformations that took place in the humanist classroom in the early sixteenth century, and is particularly interested in a primary contradiction that Erasmus (and others) articulated in the theory and practice of rhetoric. On the one hand, the study of rhetoric leads to a value-neutral power to persuade; thus Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any case the available means of persuasion” (50). On the other hand, it is possible to “subordinate this persuasive force to socially orthodox purposes” (53). These imperatives operate at cross-purposes in persuasion’s favor: “the cultivation of the first [persuasion] has a tendency to impair the second [orthodoxy]” (53). And it is here that we catch sight of poetry’s power as power’s solvent, capable of promoting “the unlawful matches and divorces of things.” Here’s how Halpern describes the crux:

Poetry foregrounds the breach between these two instrumentalities [persuasion and orthodoxy] and also introduces a new breach, this time within the technical instrumentality that is persuasion. For rhetorical persuasion itself effects an (immanently unmotivated) unity of linguistic pleasure and discursive aim, thereby investing the pleasure with a certain direction. But as Longinus (for instance) insists, poetic sublimity carries the listener not to persuasion but to ecstasy and it thus detaches linguistic pleasure from even a discursive instrumentality. [ … ] Its specific gift is to reveal that the articulation of these discursive elements is immanently unmotivated and that they therefore have the potential, if not the tendency, to separate. Persuasion can free itself from “true” or dominant values, or it can devolve into linguistic pleasure without direction or purpose. (53)

“Joining at pleasure,” Bacon tells us, in excess of “the measure of nature”: that’s what poetry does. I like this, in spite of (and perhaps even because of) Bacon’s censorious intent.

Lauren Berlant has described the way in which “a situation […] that feels like a massively genre breaking one can become the kind of event whose enigmatic shape repels being governed by the foreclosure of what has happened before.” [14] Das Ungemäße is Celan’s original German noun, translated by Pierre Joris as “that which does not fit the measure”; the root term here, das Gemäß, is “that which corresponds,” “that which matches,” or “that which is in accordance or in compliance with” — that which is, we might say, in accordance with “what has happened before” (to use Berlant’s terms), or “the measure of nature” (to use Bacon’s). Celan’s radix, Mäß, was some kind of Swiss measure, I gather, which surely has traveled the same route as our word “mass,” from the Latin massa, “lump, bulk, parcel of land, dough.” I admit that I want “mass” to do too much work here, to have the standing of expectation on the one hand, and of something like gravity on the other, so that the poem can become a vehicle in which to achieve a kind of escape velocity — a means by which to exceed, evade, or transform the resistance of norms that have forgotten their origins in practice. How does the Law of Mass Action go again?

Let’s put poetry to the side for a moment and ask: Are there undecideable exceptions to the rule that says “sovereign is he who decides on the exception”? That is, are there exceptions that exceed the power of any one sovereign to “decide”? These questions concern jurisdiction, the area in which a law can be spoken — or better still: heard. The zone in which law is audible.

Here’s a stark and simple-minded version of the kind of question I’m asking: can the sovereign “decide” on an exception to the law of gravity? Of course not. Humans don’t suddenly acquire the power of flight because some primate wearing a suit or a cape declares it so by the power of speech and the wave of a wand.[15]

And yet, as we know, human beings do indeed have the ability to fly. I just got from Bergen to Seattle, for instance, in less than 17 hours door to door. I like Richard Lewontin’s way of describing this exception:

social organization can actually negate individual limitations. I mean this negation in much more than the sense that ten people can lift a weight ten times as great as can one person. None of us can fly by flapping our arms. That is a biological limitation. Yet we do fly as a consequence of the social organization that has given rise to airplanes, airfields, pilots, controllers, fuel, metallurgy, hydrodynamic theory, and organized economic activity. It is not society that flies, however, but individuals. Thus, the constraints on individual human beings have been negated by social activity, and they have become new individual human beings with new properties and abilities.[16]

The airplane thus flies into view as an emblem of individual impotence transformed by means of something we might call collective expotence. A law of nature — the human animal cannot fly — is transformed by a law of culture — the collective power of the human animal to subsume the individual human’s inability to fly. (Surely I don’t need to add: the sovereign has had nothing to do with it.) This is not the same as the causal force of the placebo effect, exactly, but it is not unrelated, insofar as the human power of flight — which is to say, the power to produce and sustain the anomaly, to compose what at first blush looks impossible — is a distributed, not a private, property.


Poetry makes nothing happen

It didn’t come from nowhere. If it came from nowhere, if it came from nothing, it is basically trying to let you know that you need a new theory of nothing and a new theory of nowhere.

—Fred Moten[17]

Sometimes the impossible is the missing ingredient.

—Miranda Mellis[18]

Such anomalous collaborative accomplishments — the placebo effect, the human power of flight — allows W.H Auden’s famous definition of poetry to take on a new shape. “Poetry makes nothing happen”: this line from his 1939 elegy for William Butler Yeats could well be taken as a confession of impotence.[19] But it could also be taken as an affirmation of poetry’s potency, its dynamic capacity to actively make nothing happen. I have in mind here the fact that the root of the word “poem” reaches back to the Greek word poiein — “to make.” What could this mean, to make nothing happen? If we take “nothing” to mean that which is denied existence by a standard model or rulebook — that sugar pills can’t cure disease, that humans can’t fly (“This, however, is not so,” as Perry Anderson avers) — then the sentence would appear to describe a rare and forgotten kind of power: the power to perform what is said to be impossible.

What’s more, “make nothing happen” is a fantastic description of what a general strike could accomplish: an active negation of our status quo (and psychotic) schedule of production and consumption. The general strike in this sense constitutes a maximal instance of sabotage as defined by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in the wake of the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike: “the conscious withdrawal of the worker’s efficiency.”[20] I am aided and abetted in my recycling of Auden’s line in this militant vicinity by a poem by Anna Louise Strong that prefaces a pamphlet describing the Seattle General Strike of 1919. ”They Can’t Understand” is its title, and its first two lines read as follows: “What scares them most is | that NOTHING HAPPENS.”[21] Workers encounter the possibility of their greatest power by removing their efficiency, indulging in a hyperbolic impotence that flips over into a demonstration of otherwise foreclosed forces that frighten the powers that presume themselves to be in command.[22]

Auden’s definition repurposed thus puts an earlier poet’s account of what the poet does and does not do into a new light: “Now for the Poet,” Sir Philip Sidney says, “he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lyeth.” Not bad for a get-out-of-jail-free card against Plato’s indictment of poets for stimulating heresy and revolt among the masses by telling lies about the gods. We could, however, take Sidney’s claim that the poet affirms nothing as a description of a speech act in the concrete and practical sense of making something firm, endowing it with the force of substance. It helps here to remember that practicing Quakers who find themselves in a court of law to this day refuse to swear to tell the truth but rather affirm that they will. And surely Sidney invites us to do just that — to make the truth substantial — when he declares, at another moment in his brief on poetry’s behalf, that “it is not gnosis but praxis that must be the fruit” — not knowing but acting, not thinking but doing. This requires us to consider not only cognition but also action as the appropriate measure of a poem’s accomplishment — its capacity, we might say, to bear fruit, to reproduce itself in the form of seeds (data packets) coated in irresistible flesh, so attractive that you want to get as close to them as possible, to put them in your ear, your mouth, immediately… What figments become radical? Who put the root in fruit? At stake here, I think, is a relationship between negation, truth-telling, and desire. A desire to articulate felicity conditions for utterances that on the face of it make no sense but nevertheless manage against the odds to hit their mark. As Omar says to Brother Mouzone (in the prelude to their shootout deferred): “At this range? With this caliber? Even if I miss I can’t miss.”[23]


From “affirm[ing] nothing” to “affirming the consequent”

Thus far I have been talking about “poetry” in the abstract. Let’s see if we can affirm, or at least firm up, some of these claims in relation to an actual poem written by Robert Creeley as a birthday present for Stan Brakhage, a filmmaker who sought, and achieved, an outlaw undomesticated way of seeing in his films.

Two sentences from the beginning of Brakhage’s 1963 manifesto, Metaphors on Vision, can help us better understand Creeley’s poem by giving us a taste of his target audience’s wild-eyed utopian aesthetic program:

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. […] Imagine a world before the “beginning was the word.”[24]

A world, in other words, before visual and verbal logics enclosed what can be perceived, before concepts dominated the objects of perception.

Many of Brakhage’s films are handpainted — produced, that is to say, by subtracting the camera, and applying pigment directly to the film strip, thus sabotaging or short-circuiting the normal form of the apparatus. One of his more extreme investigations of “unruled” images came in the early film Mothlight (1963), which he made by gluing and taping flowers, moth wings, seeds, dirt directly to blank leader, giving us not a picture or a story about such things but an accelerated projection of the things themselves. It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. It gives viewers the chance to recognize something we’ve never perceived before. Not at that speed. Not together. Not at that scale. Which is to say: Brakhage’s willful misuse of the apparatus reveals not only a potential the medium contains, but also a potential contained by his audience. The conscious withdrawal of efficiency reveals a hitherto foreclosed co-efficiency.

Creeley’s poem addresses this improbable success.


for Stan’s birthday

if we go back to where

we never were we’ll

be there. [REPEAT] But


How are we supposed to read these lines? It’s like a self-licking ice-cream cone spliced with the river Herakleitos says you can’t step in twice. The poem registers an objection to the prelapsarian logoklasm of Brakhage’s program, his desire to go back to before “in the beginning was the word.” But in so doing it inadvertently metamorphoses into an acknowledgement, even a celebration and performance of, the accomplishment it seeks to deny. Is it too obvious to note that the subject here is plural?

The poem’s logic articulates a Möbius Strip that flips back and forth between affirming nothing and actually doing it, between doubting and making nothing happen althesame. Crude paraphrase: if we do what can’t be done, then we’ve done it. We project possibility by projecting impossibility. I take this to be a successfully experimental poem in the primary sense that its effects can be repeated, just as the stage directions in square brackets command. We end where Creeley began, in the adversative: “But” — which the verse that is about to repeat has just converted into the affirmative. The beginning of this objection is also the title, which initiates the circuit that leads to the accomplishment that obviates the exception by making it the norm — a norm that may well await subsequent containment by the anomalies that emerge in its light.

Creeley’s unusual poem performs “an abduction” in the special sense that Charles Sanders Peirce gives that term. In Peirce’s technical vocabulary, “abductive judgment” is a form of logical rapture that dissolves the presumed two-party rule of “induction” and “deduction.” Rather than moving from facts to theories (induction), or from theories to facts (deduction), abduction invites us to invent theories that can help us make sense of strange facts encountered. What swerves and falls allows what is given to leap out of a defaulted and foreclosed understanding. Abductive reasoning used right helps us make sense of such surprising information that cuts against the grain of our tacit expectations. As Peirce puts it:

The surprising fact, C, is observed;

But if A were true, C would be a matter of course,

Hence there is reason to suspect that A is true.[26]

Or to translate this logical operation into the letters of the alphabet and the format preferred by logicians:

1. If P, then Q.

2. Q.

3. Therefore, P.

When abduction occurs in scholarly disputation, it is often called out as a fallacy — the fallacy of “affirming the consequent,” to be precise. One person’s judgement is another’s error. If you’re wrong, I’m right. Creeley’s poem is my favorite instantiation of this problem, not least since it transposes the force of logic to the more slippery slopes of space and time on which Brakhage’s forceful example is projected and refracts verbally into unexpected potential.


Extraordinary investigations

[…] it is just by such difficulties as the one now in question — such roughnesses — such peculiarities — such protuberances above the plane of the ordinary — that Reason feels her way, if at all, in the search for the True.

Edgar Allan Poe, Eureka

I’ve been helped in my thinking about these things that do not fit the measure by Thomas Kuhn’s reckoning of the relationship between paradigms and anomalies in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago 1962), which I suspect has guided Carlo Ginzburg’s work as well. On Kuhn’s account, the paradigms of “normal science” generate “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.” Such paradigms, moreover, supply the answers to all sorts of interesting questions:

What are the fundamental entities of which the universe is composed? How do these interact with each other and with the senses? What questions may be legitimately asked about such entities and what techniques employed in seeking solutions? (4-5)

Anomalies come into view when those “conceptual boxes” and “techniques” can no longer contain all the evidence encountered:

Sometimes a normal problem, one that ought to be solvable by known rules and procedures, resists the reiterated onslaught of the ablest members of the group within whose competence it falls. On other occasions a piece of equipment designed and constructed for the purpose of normal research fails to perform in the anticipated manner, revealing an anomaly that cannot, despite repeated effort, be aligned with professional expectation. In these and other ways besides, normal science repeatedly goes astray. And when it does […] then begin the extraordinary investigations. (4-6)

Those “extraordinary investigations,” properly conducted, generate new understandings of the way things are, a radical epistemological transformation with consequences that go all the way down. The logic of the successful new paradigm, in this sense, would at once contain and exceed the earlier paradigm’s ontological command, insofar as those “conceptual boxes” of “professional expectation” made the stimulating anomaly visible in the first place, which in turn renders those boxes obsolete, at least as truth containers (they could well be repurposed to other ends).

The anomaly etymologically is that which is uneven, irregular, or rough — quite literally “the unsame,” from the Greek an- “not” + homalos “even,” with homo “same” at the root. To out this in the syntax of Ginzburg’s topology (“The violation of the norm contains even the norm itself”) we could say that the unsame contains the same. Playing further with these radicals can allow us to capture a piece of the “collective expotence” I’ve tried to describe. The English word “homily” comes from the Greek homilia, the term translated in the New Testament as “sermon,” but which also means “discourse” or (better still) “conversation,”[27] and derives from homilos “an assembled crowd,” which of course shares the same root as anomaly: homo. The anomaly can thus be said to contain the homily in the sense that the conversation reveals the limit that the contagious irregularity shows us how to exceed. We’ll be there!


Earlier in this essay I noted an inadvertent congruency between Perry Anderson and Thomas Aquinas. And so in closing, for the sake of balance if nothing else, I’d like to invoke a more contemporary theologian. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in April of 1963 (the same year Brakhage made Mothlight), Martin Luther King, Jr. employs an interesting analogy to distinguish the activist early Christian church from the more passive role the church played in his time:

In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

A thermostat is not just a dial on the wall, but a dial capable of setting the temperature — of exceeding the measure, as Celan might put it — as a consequence of its ability to record it accurately in the first place. Another way of putting it: where the thermometer pays attention, the thermostat makes a tension. Mind the verbs. It costs to do the one, while the other involves a making, a poiesis. I freely admit that the etymology is whimsical. But it’s also not far from the mark: a tendon is what we control our muscles with, a crucial component in our relation to power. When we pay attention, our cognition stretches out to the object of our interest. And perhaps we can say, using King’s modifier, that when we merely pay attention, our muscles are at the ready to do someone else’s bidding: that’s what we are paying for by being at another’s command. When we make a tension, on the other hand, we acquire for ourselves the privilege of setting the temperature and the tempo, composing the tempest, even (if I may activate the radix). No doubt that takes a lot of coordination: so many parts involved, ro(u)les to play, coupling an improvisatory understanding of the fleeting situations we find ourselves in with a metabolically competent infrastructure. Not just a sly dial on the wall, but a dial wired to furnace with a steady power source. There’s no joke about the stakes involved. When the set-up malfunctions, at best you’re in the cold; at worst your house or neighborhood burns down. But when your neighborhood is already burnt to the ground, or torched before it even got started, well then, you’re already embarked: the coin is in the air; all that remains is for you to decide. Which side are you on? Pay attention or make a tension. Stick with the environment as it is, repeating it blankly, or rise above or below it, collectively composing the poem Celan describes: the one that does not fit the measure. One nice thing about the choice is that there is no zero-sum here. Just as the anomaly includes the rule it breaks, a thermostat includes a thermometer — which is of course itself a useful device: something the proverbial frog in the pot is lacking.

“Orders are sometimes not obeyed,” Wittgenstein correctly observes. “But what would it be like if no orders were ever obeyed? The concept ‘order’ would have lost its purpose” (§ 345). Such a loss of telos, far from signaling the end of the world as we know it, would contain the limits we have the power to exceed. What has more power, anyway: a command or an invitation? “Abduction merely suggests that something may be,” Peirce writes. “Its only justification is that from its suggestion deduction can draw a prediction which can be tested by induction” (CP 5.171). What are we waiting for? Or if all this puts too optimistic a spin for you on the work to be done, then perhaps I should end instead by saying that maybe it’s time for us to conduct what Anne Boyer, following Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, has described as “a form of sabotage in which you follow the book of rules exactly.”


[1] Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces: True False Fictive, tr. Anne C. Tedeschi and John C. Tedeschi (California 2012), 222.

[2] Perry Anderson, “The Force of the Anomaly,” LRB 34:8 (2012).

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, tr. Richard Nice (Polity 2000 [1997]), 50ff.

[4] Richard Percival Phillips, Modern Thomistic Philosophy: An Explanation for Students, Volume II: Metaphysics (The Newman Bookshop 1934).

[5] Daniel Moerman, Meaning, Medicine and the ‘Placebo Effect’ (Cambridge 2002), 137.

[6] Nicholas Humphrey and John Skoyles, “The evolutionary psychology of healing: a human success story,” Current Biology 22:17 (2012), R697.

[7] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. Alan Sheridan (Vintage 1977), 202. Cf. the first chapter of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain (Oxford 1985): “The Structure of Torture: The Conversion of Real Pain into the Fiction of Power.”

[8] Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago 1987), 460. Taussig is discussing Claude Levi-Strauss’s description and analysis of New World shamanism.

[9] Emily Abendroth, ] Exclosures [ (Asahta 2014).

[10] Paul Celan, The Meridian: Final Version — Drafts — Materials, tr. Pierre Joris (Stanford 2011), 165.

[11] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, tr. George Schwab (Chicago 1985), 5.

[12] “The other side of the normal form” is Niklas Luhmann’s definition of chance.

[13] I explore this hypothesis at greater length in an essay called “Making nothing happen: poetry and sabotage,” forthcoming in postmedieval (2015), 6:4, which (as the title suggest) also intersects with my recycling of Auden’s famous definition of poetry in what follows.

[14] Jordan Greenwald, “Affect in the End Times: A Conversation with Lauren Berlant,” Qui Parle 20:2 (2012), 72.

[15] We could think here on the parable of King Canute, who set his throne on the beach below the high tide line and commanded the sea to halt before it wetted his shoes, which in turn might put us in mind of Cuchullain’s fight with what Yeats nicely describes as “the invulnerable tide” — even as their exertions reflect quite different purposes.

[16] Richard Lewontin, Biological Determinism (Tanner Lectures 1982), 179; cf. his discussion in Biology as Ideology (Harper 1991), 121.

[17] Fred Moten, “The General Antagonism,” in Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons (Minor Compositions 2013), 129

[18] Miranda Mellis, The Spokes (Solid Objects 2012), 19.

[19] See, for instance, the discussion by Keston Sutherland and Joshua Clover in “Always totalize: poetry and revolution,” in Claudius App 5 (2013):

[20] Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers’ Industrial Efficiency (I.W.W. Publications Bureau 1917).

[21] Anise (Anna Louise Strong), “They Can’t Understand,” in The Seattle General Strike (History Committee of the General Strike 1919; reprinted by The Shorey Book Store, 1971). More recently, Jasper Bernes has published a collection of poems called We Are Nothing And So Can You (Tenured Ninja 2012), whose title, among other things, negates the Occupy slogan (“We are the 99%”) to mash it up with Steven Colbert’s I am America and So Can You (2007). Juliana Spahr’s contribution to a portfolio of poems on “The Insurrectionary Turn” in The American Reader (November 2012) offers a more tentative affirmation of nothing: “I could tell you of the other things too. | A European influence. | A Middle Eastern influence.| A list of skirmishes. | A feeling of it being nothing. No wait, something. No see, nothing. Possibly something. No. | Nothing.” Bernes: Spahr:

[22] I explore Flynn’s strategically capacious definition of sabotage further in an essay called “The difference is spreading: sabotage & aesthetics ~1913,” forthcoming in the first volume of Black Box: A Record of the Catastrophe.

[23] David Simon, The Wire (2004), Season 3, Episode 11.

[24] Stan Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision [1963] in Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964-1980 (McPherson 1982).

[25] The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley: 1945-1975 (California 1982), 551. First published in Thirty Things (Black Sparrow 1974).

[26] Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers: Volume 5 (Harvard 1935), 189.

[27] I myself prefer conversation, which is a “turning” | verse we do “together” | con, to sermon, which is too often something done to us.

Two Proofs of Absurdity: How the Geometric Method Sacked Saccheri and Hobbled Hobbes

This paper describes two concepts of absurdity observable in early modern philosophical engagement with Euclidean geometry and the geometric method.


If there is such a concept as absurdity, it cannot be known through itself but only through its opposite, rationality, as its negation. In other words, there can be no definition of absurdity that is not, simply, a definition of rationality with the logical complement sign in front of it (i.e. –p or ¬p, with p being “rationality”). Such an approach to absurdity is embodied in the reductio ad absurdum proof in geometry. You demonstrate that the contrary of what you want to prove contradicts something else you know as true. Therefore, at least in geometry, the negation of the assumption—the theorem you wanted to prove in the first place—must be true.

One famous reductio ad absurdum proof is that of proposition X.117 of Euclid’s The Elements, that the diagonal of a square is incommensurable with the side (i.e., there is no unit, no matter how small, that multiplied many times equals the diagonal, and another many times, the side). The proof of X.117 assumes that the diagonal is, on the contrary, commensurable to the side, but that, in such a case, the ratio of diagonal to side must include a number at once odd and even, a manifest absurdity. By demonstrating the absurdity of the contrary we establish the truth of the original proposition, here, of the incommensurability of the diagonal and the side of a square—or, which amounts to the same, the hypotenuse and the side of a right-angled isosceles triangle.1 That, given a proposition and its negation, one must be true and the other false, is the Law of Excluded Middle, formulated by Aristotle in On Interpretation and the Metaphysics.

Yet sometimes the absurd in mathematical proof turns out to have been not so absurd after all. Already in antiquity mathematicians tried to convert into a theorem the fifth postulate of Elements I, the so-called Parallel Postulate, since its equivalent states that, given a line and a point external that line, only one line may be drawn through the point that is parallel to the first line. The Baroque mathematician Girolamo Saccheri (1677-1733), proceeding by reductio ad absurdum, demonstrated that two possible negations of the postulate—that more than one line may be drawn through the point that is parallel to the first line, or that no such line may be drawn—contradict other rudiments of Euclidean geometry. By showing the absurdity of the contraries, Saccheri believed he transformed the Parallel Postulate into a theorem, making for a more elegant Euclid. In fact he had unknowingly discovered—and then discarded as obvious absurdities—some basic aspects of both elliptic and hyperbolic geometries that had to wait for about another century for the recognition of their possibility.2

La presomption est nostre maladie naturelle et originelle,” wrote Montaigne in the Apologie de Raimond Sebond. Hindsight renders Saccheri’s self-assurance both touching and risible. The construction of non-Euclidean geometries decentered and relativized Euclid, enacting a Copernican revolution in mathematics with deep ramifications for the theory of knowledge. From the science of real spatial relations arrived at by deduction out of absolute and self-evident truths—and consequently from the epistemic model that any knowledge of reality aspiring to sure and certain status would imitate (remember Spinoza’s Ethics)—Euclid became one geometry among several, its formerly self-evident truths about the world demoted to heuristics, assumptions necessary to a particular rational system, one that only described real spatial relations, and not in a very precise manner at that.

The moral we may perhaps draw from Saccheri’s reductio ad absurdum proofs is that, absurdity being derivative of rationality, and rationality being multiple—at least in the sense that multiple systems and definitions of rationality are possible—there might be no absurdity that would remain an absurdity relative to all possible rationalities, and that might not, in some perhaps unknown rational system, itself become rationality. In other words it is possible there does not exist an absurdity that is not ultimately subject to some type of rationalization, and an exhaustive rationalization at that.

Possible but, at least from this argument, not necessary. When Descartes circulated his Meditations on First Philosophy, many philosophers decried the cogito proposition as based on unstated and shaky assumptions (including Hobbes, for whom it entailed rather than disproved the union of mind and body). However, a far more questionable assumption on the part of Descartes is that the object of the mind’s rational investigation, whether it lie outside the mind (=the world) or be the mind turned in on itself, submits to rational investigation, and does so wholly, without any rationally intractable noise—in short, that the real is the rational, and that no irreducible absurdity may exist. As far as assumptions go, this is a tall order.

Nor is the truth of it so self-evident as to be universally accepted. Even Descartes’s predecessor in embracing skepticism to take it by the heel, the Baghdad philosopher al-Ghazali, crowns his systematic doubt with precisely that—doubt in the rationality of the real. After using reason to dislodge the evidence of his senses, al-Ghazali discards reason itself:

Who can guarantee you that you can trust to the evidence of reason more than to that of the senses? You believed in [the] testimony [of the senses] till it was contradicted by the verdict of reason, otherwise you would have continued to believe it to this day. Well, perhaps, there is above reason another judge who, if he appeared, would convict reason of falsehood, just as reason has confuted [the senses]. And if such [another] arbiter is not yet apparent, it does not follow that he does not exist.3

Since al-Ghazali’s passage gives us no ground to distinguish between the world of rationally irreducible absurdity and the “arbiter… above reason” who indicates such a world, is it an anachronism to identify al-Ghazali’s “arbiter” with both all of rationally irreducible absurdity and with God? For the “another judge” must, at least by suggestion of metaphor, be God. Indeed, this particular passage implicitly defines God as exactly that which cannot be rationalized (since “reason” is “falsehood”) and, consequently, as himself at least an example of irreducible absurdity. (The only distinction that might counter the proposition “God is everything that is rationally irreducible” here is, I think, that between God and the thoughts of God, which may perhaps be a specious one.) Note however that, in this particular passage at least, al-Ghazali does not at all affirm the existence of such a God. It may be, he says, that the real is exhaustively rational, but the contrary of this proposition may hold true as well. Only later, by abandoning skepticism and making the leap of faith, does al-Ghazali come to believe. We are not going to follow him.


Hobbes’s readers know he developed his approach to political theory after encountering Euclid. According to his friend and biographer John Aubrey,

Being in a Gentleman’s Library, Euclid’s Elements lay open, and ’twas the 47 El. libri I. He read the Proposition. By G—, sayd he (he would now and then sweare an emphaticall Oath by way of emphasis), this is impossible! So he reads the Demonstration of it, which referred him back to such a Proposition; which proposition he read. That referred him back to another, which he also read. Et sic deinceps [and so on], that at last he was demonstratively convinced of that trueth. This made him in love with Geometry.4

The anecdote strikes one as symbolically loaded, Euclid I.47 being not just any old proposition, but that pearl of them all, the Pythagorean Theorem. Nonetheless, se non è vero, è ben trovato. The foundational significance of the axiomatic deductive method of The Elements, which Hobbes is portrayed as learning through reverse engineering, for rationalist philosophy in the looser sense of the word, is thereby underscored. Indeed, The Leviathan endorses geometry as “the onely science that it hath pleased God hitherto to bestow on mankind” [105].

Hobbes himself contemplates the spectacle of Euclidean proof in order to construct a model of rational thinking, and to find its basic instrument: “Speech,” which he regards as composed of “Names,” or nouns. It is common nouns, “as Man, Horse, Tree; every one of which though but one Name, is nevertheless the name of divers particular things,” that the author of The Leviathan identifies with the universals necessary for reasoning about not this or that one thing, but about many things of one kind at once, “there being nothing in the world Universall but Names; for the things named, are every one of them Individuall and Singular” [102]. In other words, “Names” for Hobbes being the counters with which rational operations are performed, it is only in “Speech” that we apprehend and reason about general laws governing particular instances. Conceiving of the language of geometry as a paragon of proper “Speech,” rather than as something different in kind, Hobbes illustrates his argument by two scenarios of geometrical problem-solving, first, as he thinks, without the help of “Speech,” and then with.

In the first scenario, the would-be geometer is one who is deprived of “Speech,” as Hobbes suggests, a deaf person:

A man that hath no use of Speech at all, (such as is born and remains perfectly deaf and dumb), if he set before his eyes a triangle, and by it two right angles (such as are the corners of a square figure), he may by meditation compare and find, that the three angles of that triangle, are equall to those two right angles that stand by it. But if another triangle be shewn him different in shape from the former, he cannot know without a new labour, whether the three angles of that also be equal to the same.

In the second scenario the would-be geometer is capable of “Speech”:

But he that hath the use of words, when he observes, that such equality was consequent, not to the length of the sides, nor to any other particular thing in his triangle; but onely to this, that the sides were straight, and the angles three; and that that was all, for which he named it a Triangle; will boldly conclude Universally, that such equality of angles is in all triangles whatsoever; and register his invention in these general termes: Every triangle hath its three angles equall to two right angles.

If you read the passage quickly, it appears to confirm that deaf men are incapable of constructing theorems (such as the one in question, Euclid I.325), but hearing and speech-enabled men have no such impediment. In broader terms, “Speech”-deprivation results in incapacity to reason with universal truths. The only knowledge allotted those without “Speech” is knowledge of particulars: presumably, of specific magnitudes and figures rather than of abstract relations concerning them. Such putative knowledge of particulars gets one nowhere in geometry. Yet the slower you read the passage the more problematic it becomes.

First take its apparent confirmation of the proposition that one needs “Speech” to reason. Is the passage a record of an actual experiment? In other words, did Hobbes set a deaf and a hearing person in front of a slew of right-angled triangles? No. Is it a thought experiment, then—like the thought experiments of Descartes? I don’t see how it can be. Hobbes, being “Speech”-endowed, can think through the relation of the deaf to Euclid only by assuming the truth of what he is trying to prove, i.e. that those without “Speech” can’t make the kind of judgments that are necessary in geometry. In other words, if this is supposed to be a thought experiment, it’s a case of petitio principii, begging the question.6 Which would not be out of character for Hobbes, whose objection to the incorporeality of Descartes’s cogito suffers from the same logical handicap.

Next consider the representation of the “Speech”-deprived person as deaf, or to be more literal, “such as born and remains perfectly deaf and dumb.” It may be historically unjust to take Hobbes to task over his audism, or hearing chauvinism that equates lack of sound with lack of language and even intelligence. It is equally anachronistic to charge him with its philosophical corollary, the epistemological privileging of voice that Derrida calls phonocentrism. The terms “audism” and “phonocentrism” are of recent coinage, and so is the position that the assumptions they stand for hurt one’s reasoning.7 Although in the seventeenth century there must have existed communities of deaf people who communicated among themselves in sign languages, little attention was paid to them by hearing scholars and, as a consequence, we know next to nothing about earlier forms of Sign language.8 Nonetheless, on purely logical grounds, why must the concept of “Name” refer to the concept of sound in order to be “Universall”? If we analyze the concept of linguistic sign, what is it about sound that would make it a necessary constituent? (The question may be especially pertinent since Hobbes’s example involves mathematical proof, whose symbolism seems rather removed from vocalization.)

Nonetheless, let us give Hobbes the benefit of the doubt. Let us grant him that a person “such as born and remains perfectly deaf and dumb” is indeed “Speech”-deprived in some nontrivial manner, in that he lacks access to signs that stand for categories of objects. For example, perhaps the deaf man was brought up in isolation outside any community that would enable him to develop Sign language skills. He lived in a small hamlet and never saw another deaf person. He used only a few rudimentary signs with his parents, and they were all deictic. Yes, let us imagine such a deaf Cratylus. As the philosopher imagines, our deaf Cratylus ascends to the attic and proceeds to “set before his eyes a triangle,” any triangle. Next to it, he draws two right angles, perhaps the angles of a square. But wait… What would Cratylus see if he were looking at a “triangle”? What would Cratylus see if he were looking at “angles”? How would Cratylus have the idea that these are “angles,” and those are “angles,” and that he can “compare” them?9 After all, the deaf man is by Hobbes’s fiat incapable of universal concepts!

How then can the deaf man set out to prove Euclid I.32? But is that what the deaf man is really doing? Let us look closely at Hobbes’s wording. After juxtaposing his triangle with the angles of a square, the deaf man “may by meditation compare and find, that the three angles of that triangle, are equall to those two right angles that stand by it.” Let us follow the deaf man:

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 10.09.50 AM

Can you “compare and find,” without recourse to language or proof, that the three angles of this triangle, if joined, are congruent to any two of the angles of this square? Frankly, strain as I might, I cannot. But let us say that the deaf man can apprehend this “by meditation.” Or let us even go farther than Hobbes, and admit that the deaf man establishes the equality of these angles taken together with those angles taken together (no universal concepts there!) not “by meditation” but by measurement (although why someone whose mind is capable only of particulars might want to measure angles, and how he would conduct the act of measuring, remains puzzling). What the deaf man can never do, according to Hobbes, is to conclude that the equality is not a particular case but a universal rule that applies to all triangles inasmuch as they are triangles. So, if you set another triangle before the deaf man, he must again juxtapose it with the square, and perform the same “meditation.” Like this:

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 10.10.01 AM

And so on all over again for every particular triangle, never to arrive at the universal proposition “Every triangle hath its three angles equall to two right angles.” It’s the “every” that deaf men have a particular problems with.

But how does the lucky “Speech”-enabled person prove Euclid I.32? That felicitous gentleman, brought up in the voluble company of other speech-makers, public speakers, lecturers, talkers, speechifiers, expounders, orators, declaimers, rhetoricians, haranguers; spokesmen, spokeswomen, spokespersons, mouthpieces; readers, lectors, commentators, broadcasters, narrators; (informal) tub-thumpers, spielers, spin doctors; (historical) demagogues, rhetors; (rare) prolocutors, and other volucres of that feather, soars over particulars by observing that the relationship of equality depends “not to the length of the sides, nor to any other particular thing in his triangle,” but on the very kind of figure the triangle is: that “that the sides [are] straight, and the angles three; and that that [is] all, for which he named it a Triangle.”

Let us slowly replay the situation. The hearing man looks at a triangle and says to himself, “Aha, this here thing corresponds to the name “Triangle.” But what about this here thing corresponds to the name?” Then he Googles “triangle.” “Well,” reasons the hearing man. “Let’s see. It must be either “(1) a plane figure with three straight sides and three angles” that I am looking at, or “(2) an emotional relationship involving a couple and a third person with whom one of them is also involved.” I will go with the plane figure as perhaps more palatable. The definition tells me that any figure with three sides and three angles is a triangle. Therefore, as far being a triangle is concerned, the lengths of sides is not important, nor is it the ratio of angles to one another.” Now the hearing man’s triangle is a true object of geometry rather than of measurement.

Unfortunately, that’s about all for geometry. The hearing man does not perform any action that operates with certain concepts called “geometrical” according to the axiomatic deductive method. Rather, as soon as he grasps that nothing matters in his particular triangle other than what answers to the name “Triangle,” the hearing man “will boldly conclude Universally,” explains Hobbes, “that such equality of angles is in all triangles whatsoever; and register his invention in these general termes: Every triangle hath its three angles equall to two right angles.” I find the phrase “boldly conclude” to be striking, but not in a good way. If Hobbes wanted his hearing man to construct a proof, he might perhaps have said so explicitly. But his phrasing, on the contrary, implies a leap from the particular case to the general rule, which we may analyze thus:

Step one. The hearing man perceives the equality of angles between his particular triangle and the two right angles juxtaposed with it. This step is the same as for the deaf man.

Step two. The hearing man realizes that the equality stems from whatever lets his particular triangle corresponds to the name “Triangle.” This step cannot be performed by the deaf man.

Step three. The hearing man “boldly conclude[s] Universally, that such equality of angles is in all triangles whatsoever.” This step cannot be performed by the deaf man either.

The hearing man’s procedure is not Euclidean because it is not a deductive proof. It bears no resemblance to any of the possible theorems proving Euclid I.32. If it involves induction, the induction seems entirely unjustified as based on a single case, not does the method of induction have any independent truth-value in mathematics. If the procedure is supposed to parallel the intuition of clear and distinct ideas in Descartes, the proposition “Every triangle hath its three angles equall to two right angles” seems too complex to follow from the (dictionary-induced!) intuition of triangle so self-evidently as to want no proof. It is almost as if Hobbes jettisoned the very concept of proof, and denies all distinction between Euclidean common notions, postulates and definitions on the one hand, and propositions needing theorems on the other. Therefore, the understanding of the hearing man must take the shape of a revelation or a mystic vision. As with all revelations, the resulting proposition can be communicated to others, but, there being no proof, its truth needs to be re-experienced by others by their own mystic vision every time they look into it.

From no possible angle can Hobbes’s comparison of two geometers be regarded as evidence for his claim that one needs “Speech” in order to reason. On the contrary, sometimes it seems that speech gets in the way. For the entire paragraph consists of nothing more than what Hobbes himself names “Absurdity, or senselesse Speech” that takes place “when we Reason in Words of generall signification, and fall upon a generall inference which is false” [112-13]. “The first cause of Absurd conclusions,” explains Hobbes, “I ascribe to want of Method; in that” people who speak absurdities “begin not their Ratiocination from Definitions” [114]. All the other “Absurd assertions,” as Hobbes defines them, derive from improper language use, such as “the giving of the names of the accidents of bodies without us, to the accidents of our own bodies; as they that say, the colour is in the body; the sound is in the ayre,” such confusion between what Descartes calls primary and secondary qualities apparently regarded as more a matter of language rather than physics or neuroscience.

Absurdity is to be distinguished from Error, which is what happens “when a man reckons without the use of words,” dealing merely with particulars [112-13]. Apparently, to make an error for Hobbes is not tantamount to doing something that is false, for, as he notes elsewhere, “where Speech is not, there is neither Truth nor Falsehood” [105]. Yet neither is there error in “Speech,” since to call a statement “absurd” is so much as to say that it is “without meaning”: that it consists of “words whereby we conceive of nothing but the sound” [113]. Indeed, when we begin our ratiocination with definitions, and proceed by carefully analyzing our names for their consequences—Hobbes glosses reason as “nothing but Reckoning (that is, Adding and Subtracting) of the Consequences of generall names” [111],—we cannot be wrong. “When we make a generall assertion,” explains Hobbes, “unlesse it be a true one, the possibility of it is inconceivable” [113]. Just as in geometry, where the reductio ad absurdum proof demonstrates a proposition when it shows that its complement, by implying a contradiction, cannot have geometrical meaning or being, so all that can be properly articulated for Hobbes must necessarily exist as true, and everything that cannot be properly articulated is entirely void of meaning, the equivalent of дыр бул щыл.

Hobbes believes that world is as rational as mathematics, and that “Speech” can be rendered as rational as the language of geometry, with the result that the rationality of world and word coincide. Hence it suffices to set words with correct meaning in a correct order to arrive at the unambiguous truth. It is not certain why he does not employ this laudable strategy in the section of The Leviathan under discussion.



1. Euclid X.117 is usually spoken of as proving the irrationality of the square root of 2, since that such is the diagonal of a square whose side is 1. Yet the idea of “irrational number” is an anachronism in Greek mathematics, which instead focused on incommensurability of magnitudes. For details of proof, see T. L. Heath, The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements (Cambridge UP, 1908), vol. 3, p. 2.

2. For Saccheri on the Parallel Postulate, see Evert W. Beth, Mathematical Thought: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mathematics (Dordrecht, Netherlands : Reidel, 1965), pp. 8-12.

3. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Munkidh min al-Dalal (Confessions, or Deliverance from Error), trans. Claud Field. Text taken from Internet Medieval Sourcebook: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies, ed. Paul Halsall, Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies (, accessed January 6, 2010).

4. As quoted by C. B. Macpherson in his edition of the Leviathan (London: Penguin, 1985), pp 17-18, the edition used in my essay, and one to which all page numbers in square brackets refer.

5. The proposition of Euclid I.32 is: “In any triangle, if one of the sides is produced, then the exterior angle equals the sum of the two interior and opposite angles, and the sum of the three interior angles of the triangle equals two right angles.” See Heath, vol. I, pp. 316-22 for proofs and history.

6. For thought-experiment fraud, see “Kripke resigns as report alleges he faked results of thought experiments,” (February 22, 2012),

7. For ramifications of deconstruction to Deaf studies, see H-Dirksen Bauman, “Listening to Phonocentrism with Deaf Eyes: Derrida’s Mute Philosophy of Sign Language,” Essays in Philosophy (2008) 9:1:2 ( I would like to thank my wife, Oya Ataman, for directing me to Bauman’s work, as well as this issue in general.

8. Certainly at the Ottoman court, where the Venetian diplomat Ottaviano Bon observed that “that in the Serraglio, both the King and others can reason and discourse of any thing as well and as distinctly, alla mutesca, by nods and signes, as they can with words,” an English translation of his account published in 1625 (qtd. in M. Miles, “Signing in the Seraglio: Mutes, dwarfs and jesters at the Ottoman Court 1500-1700,” Disability & Society (2000) 15:1:115-34). A version of the article in paronomastic orthography available at

9. See Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (NY: Routledge, 2002), 49-54, on experiments carried out by Alexander Luria during collectivization with Central Asian farmers of varying degrees of literacy (published in English as Luria, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations [Harvard UP, 1976]). When Luria showed his subjects geometrical pictures, summarizes Ong, “Illiterate (oral) subjects identified geometrical figures by assigning them the names of objects, never abstractly as circles, squares, etc. A circle would be called a plate, sieve, bucket, watch, or moon; a square would be called a mirror, door, house, apricot drying-board. Luria’s subjects identified the designs as representations of real things they knew. They never dealt with abstract circles or squares but rather with concrete objects. Teachers’ school students on the other hand, moderately literate, identified geometrical figures by categorical geometric names: circles, squares, triangles, and so on… They had been trained to give school-room answers, not real-life responses” (Ong, 50). There is no way Hobbes’s “Speech”-deprived person would recognize a triangle as such.

Trans-formation: The Poetic Machines of Alexander Vvedensky

in memory of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko
Translated from the Russian by Lucas Stratton and Lyn Hejinian

“The dictionary of rhymes is a certain type of logic machine.”
– Fritz Mauthner

To begin, I’ll briefly outline six primary principles of Alexander Vvedensky’s poetic system. It is precisely these constructive principles that make Vvedensky’s work acutely contemporary, not only in the narrowly aesthetic sense but also in a broader theoretical, not to mention historical and literary, sense. The later emergence of an independent cultural movement in Leningrad, including the phenomenon of samizdat, would be unthinkable without the existential and poetic positions articulated by Vvedensky and his allies, known as the “chinari” (“titled ones”). The group emerged from efforts by Daniil Kharms and Vvedensky to unify the Leningrad avant-garde, forming OBERIU (Ob’edinenie real’nogo iskusstva, the Association for Real Art) in 1927.[1]

One more indispensable remark: so as to avoid some of the murkiness that often obscures accounts of Vvedensky’s methodology, we must (at least temporarily) set aside the categories (such as the nonsensical, absurd, irrational, alogical, etc.) that have tended to crystallize around the poetics of OBERIU. Instead, we will concentrate on formal—and formative—aspects of its members’ poetic technique.

  1. Heteromorphousness: Vvedensky’s verse is programmatically heterogeneous, or heteromorphous, which is to say that it is constructed by means of constant alternations and sequences of replacements, so that within the confines of a single poem, there’s a great diversity of structure-creating elements, such as lineation, type of verse, stanza structure, meter, catalexis, rhyme.
  2. Heteroglossia: the explosive dramatization and hybridization of forms and genres, the incorporation of “conceptual” personae, and the strong “specific gravity”—given the historical background of a homogeneous, primarily traditional and monological lyric—of impersonation and indirect speech.
  3. Desubjectification: the dispersal of the speaking subject into a multitude of “voices”; its decentralization, additionally accentuating the suspension, displacement, or misidentification of the “I” (or authorial agency).
  4. Poetic machines: use of recurrent folkloric models, with their “chirring rhythms” and “circus-booth rhyme schemes,” as a generative model; use of vulgar punning and other word-play, which undermines habitual and axiomatic verse-writing.
  5. The metapoetic function: criticism of the poetic mode of expression from within and by way of poetry itself—that which, elsewhere, paraphrasing Vvedensky (who was paraphrasing Kant), I propose we call the “critique of poetic reason.”[2]
  6. Trans-formation: Vvedensky’s poetic machines are configured in such a way that they accelerate progress vertiginously, forcing language to act deliriously and to approach its very limits (producing asyntactical, agrammatical, asemantic enunciations).

Separately or sometimes all at once, all of the elements above can be found in the works of other poets (for example, in the work of Alexander Blok, Velemir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Konstantin Vaginov), but only in Vvedensky’s case do these elements form a system in the proper sense. That is to say that these characteristics are interwoven, complementary, and function meta-poetically, as a critique.

Heterogeneity, heteromorphousness

The term heterogeneity, as applied to Vvedensky’s poetry, first appears in Iurii Orlitsky’s lecture “Alexander Vvedensky’s verse in the context of OBERIU’s verse poetics,”[3] and the second term appeared in an article that came out a year later, called just that: “Heteromorphous (Disorderly) Verse in Russian Poetry.”[4]

In this second article, the scholar bases his account of “heteromorphousness” on a large group of poems and excerpts from Khlebnikov’s work of 1920-1922: “We propose calling such disorderly verse heteromorphous, which means that as the text unfolds there is a constant fluctuation of structural patterns; rhyme ‘gets lost’ and then resurfaces, some lines have one discernible rhythmic structure and others another; and both rhyming and free verse occur. The number of feet varies, as does the number of rhythmic units, modalities of rhyme, and stanza form. All the while, similarly-structured lines are, as a rule, grouped into smaller units (“stanzoids) of two to five or more lines, which encourages the reader to anticipate one or another type of verse—an expectation which is systematically undermined.”

In Khlebnikov’s case, we can speak of heteromorphousness as a persistent strain that is especially apparent in his later work (there were around fifty works written in properly heteromorphous verse between 1920 and 1922). With respect to Vvedensky, heteromorphousness is characteristic of practically all of his poems, as is polyrhythmia, which is already markedly present in an early cycle called “Divertisement” (November-December, 1920). Four years later, in “10 Alexandervvedensky Verses,” the emphatically heterogeneous work included the incorporation of visual elements into the text, harkening back to the Futurists’ experimentation with typeface and the graphic design of the text. And by 1926, in a work titled “Minin and Pozharsky,” verse, prose, and drama are getting interwoven to create mixed-genre works.

“Four Descriptions,” written in the early 1930s, brings almost the full array of Vvendensky’s poetic modalities into rapidly changing interplay. It is ostensibly a conversation about death and dying, involving eight speakers named Zumir, Kumir, Chumir, Tumir, and the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Umir(ayuschiy) (umirayuschiy means “dying man” in Russian). Phrases like “I’ll interrupt you” and “Interrupt me” provide a leit motif throughout. For the longer speeches, Vvedensky draws from a wide array of verse cultures, from classical poetry to folklore, doggerel, and nursery rhymes, to create passages without predictability. Hopefully this is apparent even in English translation:

Interrupt me.
So I one day
took up this occupation.
I understood. How pointless is life,
upon this wide dark earth
there is no place for me.
So I grew lucid,
exclaimed, Farewell forever deputy’s daughter
and mineral water,
there will never be me again.
I was sitting in my cabinet
the trigger was glinting
of my handgun.
I put the gun between my lips
like a bottle of red
and in a second I felt
the bullet knock on the back of my head.
My skull split
Into five and six parts.
It happened in the year 1911.[5]

The heteromorphous character of the verse sharply increases its unpredictability and, as a whole, is meant to defamiliarize perception through disruptions to the writing process itself. The refusal of prepared, “lullaby” metrical-rhythmic patterns produces an unhinged, heterogeneous composition that is potentially capable of admitting any material and thus dynamizing the relationship between text and reader; such a composition subverts the boundaries not only of different types of versification but also those defining disparate modalities of speech and literary genres.

In Vvedensky’s poetry the heteromorphous works not simply as to unsettle metrical-rhythmic patterns. One should conceive of it more broadly as a structural principle with a tendency to totalization, capable of subordinating all other constructive elements and, to a certain extent, approximating what Mikhail Bakhtin termed heteroglossia (polyphony, multi-voicedness).

And thus we arrive at the second of the elements I see as central to Vvedensky’s heteromorphous verse. As we know, Bakhtin examined multi-voicedness and polyphony only in the novel and in prose, virtually denying poetry this “privilege” and disqualifying poetry as “naïve monologism” (and this in spite of a close relationship with Konstantin Vaginov and, perhaps, a familiarity with the work of other OBERIU writers). However, this does not prevent us from extending the principle of heteroglossia into poetry, especially since Bakhtin himself, writing under the name of his friend V.N. Voloshinov, encourages us to do so. In the essay originally titled “The Word in Life and the Word in Poetry” and first published in the journal Zvezda (1926), the theorist writes: “A form especially sensitive to the position of the listener is the lyric. The underlying condition for lyric intonation is the absolute certainty of the listener’s sympathy. Should any doubt on this score creep into the lyric situation the style of the lyric changes drastically. This conflict with the listener finds its most egregious expression in so-called lyric irony (Heine, and in modern poetry, Laforgue, Annenskij, and others). The form of irony in general is conditioned by a social conflict: It is the encounter in one voice of two incrnate value judgments and their interference with one another.”[6]

The clash of different judgments (points of view) is the very phenomenon I deem the dramatization of the poetic utterance, that by which the traditional lyric mode is shattered. In at least half of the extant works by Vvedensky, heteroglossia provides the poetry with multiple voicing sites. Discordance reigns and the lyric “I” moves in multiple directions, taking rhetorical masks (third persons), proliferating identities, and taking up residence in conceptual characters.[7] Thus, for example, we find in “God May Be Around” more than a dozen characters, including a “Flying Maiden,” a “Tsar,” a “Crowd,” someone named “Ef,” some “Cows,” someone called “Fomine,” and someone called “Stirkobreyev.”[8] Or again, in the relatively short “Twenty-four Hours” (in Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation, it takes up only four and a half pages of An Invitation for Me to Think), an “Answer,” a “Question,” a “Swallow’s Non-existent Answer,” a “Swallow’s Answer,” and a “Questioner” carry the poetry forward via rapid-fire interchanges.[9] And in “The Witness and the Rat,” we encounter a succession of speakers called “He,” a character (or characters) identified as “Lisa or Margarita” and later as “Lisa or Margarita, now become Katya,” “Grudetsky the Steward,” “ Stepanov-Peskov,” “Kostomarov, Historian”, “Griboedov, Writer”, and “Fontanov.” In these and similar works, Vvedensky carries dramatization to an extreme.

We should also note that in many of Vvedensky’s works, hybridization is concurrent with dramatization: lyric forms interlace with dramatic and prose forms, while heteroglossia predominates as an overall interruptive force, facilitating the collision of various characters’ speeches but also producing “the finest details” in the “microscopic structure” of the separate utterances.

I see all and speak
And say nothing by speaking.
I’ve figured it all out. I understand
I extract thought from my body
lay this serpent on the table
Mine and its own contemporary.
I dash empty across Poland
Yelling sometimes God, sometimes more
I was generally much like a madman,
behind me only paradise could be seen
and each dove, each lion that went by
screamed go on and die
Where will you die?
And what will you devour nearby?[10]

Here the internal discordance reaches a breaking point, with the near disintegration of the speaking subject and his/her total disorientation. Truly, in Vvedensky’s case it is impossible to speak of either a “lyric hero” or a lyric “I.” His poetry is the poetry of radical desubjectification and disorientation, poetry “of the mind’s night”:

It gets dark, it gets light, not a dream to be had,
where’s the sea, where’s the shade, the notebook, the word,
one hundred and fifty-five is nearly at hand.
(“The Gray Notebook”)[11]

soul come here I
come to me I.
it’s a burden without you,
like the self without itself.
tell me I
what time is it?
tell me I
which of us is I?
(“Fact, Theory, and God”)

A detailed analysis of the (meta)linguistic effects of desubjectification would require a another long essay, but two points are worth pointing out here. First, desubjectification is always accompanied by—or initiated by—doubt as to “our logic and our language,” both of which “slip across the surface” and do not correspond to the (profound) experience of lived time, space, and objects. In “The Gray Notebook,” Vvedensky writes:

“Before every word I put the question: what does it mean, and over every word I place the mark of its tense. Where is my dear soul Masha, and where are her wretched hands, and her eyes and other parts? Where does she wander murdered or Alive? I haven’t the strength. Who? I. What” Haven’t the strength. I’m alone as a candle. I’m seven minutes past four alone, 8 minutes past four as, nine minutes past four a candle, 10 minutes past four. A moment is gone as if it had never been. And four o’clock also. The window, also. But everything remains the same.”[12]

Paradoxically, it is precisely through his radical disbelief that the poet finds sufficient ways to verbalize his experience, to represent it in a textual form that can shatter the unconscious axioms and expectations of cultural consciousness—and to return it to “savage misunderstanding.”

The second point concerns tonality, or what Heidegger would call Stimmung. If in Vvedensky’s earlier works desubjectification stands under the sign of emancipation from conventional poetic forms and a reckless “disorganization of the senses,” while in his mature works desubjectification is directed at the destruction of normative protocols of communication, the destabilization of classic subjecthood and the readerly stance, then in his latter works the tonality changes, giving way to the dominant emotions of despair and immobilization. This marks an end to the poetic experiment and, moreover, casts a shadow of “universal revulsion” over the poetic tradition itself:

“Here he remembered, he recalled the entire instant of his death. All these sixes and fives. All that—running around. That rhyme. Which had been his faithful friend companion, as Pushkin said before him. Ah, Pushkin, Pushkin, the very Pushkin who had lived before him. Here the shadow of universal repugnance lay upon everything. Now the shadow of the universal lay upon everything. Here the shadows lay upon everything.” (“Where. When”)[13]

Let’s now turn to the principle of the “poetic machine,” the fourth in the list near the beginning of this essay. At the end of his unfinished excerpt “clearly, / tenderly / and brightly…” (1938-1939), we find a curious self-reflexive remark. According to his account, in response to questions asked by one of his “friends” about the poem he had just finished reading, “the poet” remarks: “I’m sorry if there is something here that could astonish. I myself am astonished, in a not-so-pleasant way, at the presence of national sentiment in my writings.” His contemporary, Yakov Druskin, sees the “end of this unfinished excerpt” as “autobiographic”: “friends” refers to Druskin himself, Leonid Lipavsky, and Daniil Kharms, while “the poet” is Vvedensky. Whatever Vvedensky may have felt about “the presence of national sentiment” in his work, its presence is incontestable. Moreover, starting with the poem “RURal and BLANKED. aNEGDOTE,” the “OBERIU-ter’s authority of absurdity” is based on certain structural features of folklore, and on the elements of glossolalia that are rooted in a folk poetry of “charms and spells.” This poem, like others dating from the 1920s, belongs to the period of Vvedensky’s involvement with the State Institute of Artistic Culture’s Department of Phonology and his short-lived rapprochement with the “Chairman of Global Trans-sense,” Alexander Tufanov.[14] Although he did not consider Vvedensky’s poems “trans-sense” in the strict sense of the term, Tufanov’s reaction to the poems Vvedensky sent to the Leningrad section of the All-Russian Union of Poets in 1924 is of interest. In part, Tufanov writes:

“In trans-sense there is a transition to new culture by way of self-destruction. It [trans-sense] should be organically linked to the elemental force of ta proto-language or of one’s native tongue. It should flow from the fundamental biogenetic law of philogenesis; it is impossible to skip over Pushkin and go straight to trans-sense. That is why I think that there is still no trans-sense in Vvedensky’s poems. <…> This is not trans-sense, not imaginism, not classicism, but rather a neutralization of the verbal layer, a carnival booth from the words of a seeker of “Lef-ish” adventures who has not accounted for the demands of an organic link to language and its past.”[15]

Let’s juxtapose that statement with the following excerpt from “RURal and BLANKED. aNEGDOTE,”:

DRIPPED THE FAT AND flowed and fleet
while his majesTY rasPED at fleas.
To the FLEA on his spine
as cranes fly
MI rrored swallow
shows its BEhind

Certainly this is not trans-sense as the Futurists understood it, but here Vvedensky nevertheless adheres to the “biogenetic law” of his native tongue, alert to its carnivalesque combinatorial force. Similar “carnival booth” tones inaugurate many of Vvedensky’s poems:

I regret that I’m not a beast / running along a blue path (“Rug Hydrangea”)
The sun shines forth in disorder, / flowers on the flowerbeds fly (“God May be Around”)
to make everything clear / live backwards (“The Meaning of the Sea”
the joyful man Franz / maintained protuberance (“The Joyful Man Franz”)
snow lies / earth flies / lights flip (“Snow Lies”)[16]

Just as frequently, folkloric modes—riddles, toasts, cries of traders and hucksters, rhythmic apostrophes, counting rhymes, tongue-twisters, etc.—come to the fore and take on various forms within the text, which allows us to speak of a constant or generative matrix in Vvdensky’s poetry. A high degree of parallelism sustains the generative force propelling the verse. As the linguist Roman Jakobson argues, the essence of the poetic craft consists of periodic returns (from the Latin versus– “turn,” “return” [17]) of phonemes and their sequences: morphological, lexical, syntactical, and phraseological units that end up in metrically and stanzaically analogous positions. As Jakobson notes:

Any form of parallelism is an apportionment of invariants and variants. The stricter the distribution of the former, the greater the discernibility and effectiveness of the variations. Pervasive parallelism inevitably activates all the levels of language: the distinctive feathers, inherent and prosodic, the morphologic and syntactic categories and forms, the lexical units and their semantic classes in both their convergences and divergences acquire an autonomous poetic value. This focusing upon phonological, grammatical, and semantic structures in their multiform interplay does not remain confined to the limits of parallel lines but expands throughout their distribution within the entire context.[18]

Versification mechanisms as they occur in folklore and various other “low” forms often so seem exaggerated, even bordering on (self-) parody. Popular puppet and peep shows can be seen as a transitional link between somewhat improvisational folk art and a style-free graphomania. It is the latter that serves as one of the models for the poetic machines of Alexander Vvedensky.[19]

Daniil Kharms generalizes from the insight of many of his predecessors, including Edgar Allen Poe, Baudelaire, Gerard Manley Hopkins, as well as the Dadaists (viz. Schwitters’ Mertz-machines or Duchamp’s assemblages) and Surrealists (viz. automatic writing and the “exquisite corpse” games), when he writes in his journal: “For now I know four types of verbal machines: poems, prayers, songs, and spells. These machines are built not by way of calculation or reasoning but in another way, the name of which is THE ALPHABET.”[20] And Kharms’s contemporary, Leonid Lipavsky, in his “Theory of Words,” extends the machine principle to the structure of language as such: “The laws of language are extremely simple: a symmetrical table of source elements, rotation and crystallization, the maintenance of a weight ratio, the triangle of conclusive meaning, the disintegration of meaning during rotation, the likelihood of the word. Such are all of the laws, and they are the same for all sorts and series.”[21] However fantastical such “law-making” might seem in the light of linguistic evidence, it fully “works” (with a correction to the terminology) when describing the poetic function, which “disassembles meaning,” as, for example, with rhymes, as a reflexive mechanism producing returns.

Jakobson virtually subsumes any structuralist basis for poetic techniques under a machinal definition: “Poetry sets off the structural elements of all the linguistic levels, from the network of distinctive features to the arrangement of the entire text. The relation between the signans and the signatum (or in Saussure’s translation of the traditional Stoic terms, signifiant and signifié) involves all of these levels and acquires a particular significance I verse, where the introverted nature of the poetic function reaches its apex. In Baudelairean terms, it is a complex and indivisible totality where everything becomes significatif, réciproque, converse, correspondant and where a perpetual interplay of sound and meaning establishes an analogy between the two facets, a relationship either paronomastic and anagrammatic, or figurative (occasionally onomatopoeic).”[22]

Vvedensky’s poetic techniques are built on the mobilization of recurring folkloric series (linkages of signifiers), with their “universal chirr of rhythm” and their “carnival-booth rhymes,”[23] which launch the machine of punning permutations—phonetic, syntactic, phraseological, grammatical, and semantic: “The reverse of the mirror / thunders. The haughty chair / takes a walk.” (“God May Be Around”).[24] As we recall from our initial discussion, dramatization, with its invisible—but implicit—scaffolding, is a fundamental facet of heteroglossia. A parodic-mysterial act, a dramaticus logico-philosophicus, unfolds on this scaffolding, which bears the masks of conceptual personages in clowns’ apparel: Wittgenstein is discussing the theory of wordplay with J.L. Austin, who is declaiming, in response, passages from Benjamin’s “About Language As Such and the Language of Man” to perform speech acts, the orchestra is trimming carcasses, Benveniste enters the menage on a motorcycle, screaming “Unthinkable!”, Jakobson goes tumbling out of a carriage with the manuscript of “A Theory of Words” in hand, a fountain of tears erupts from Heidegger’s eyes, Bakhtin and Buber together chant “while the flea tickled his majesty,” bears on bicycles are making salto mortales, and the Tsar Fomine descends on a trapeze from under a dome carrying his head (it was chopped off by an ax) which is reading the balance-programof paronomasic machines: Every machine, in the first place, is related to a continual flow of the material-corporeal lower stratum, from which it cuts slices. It functions like a machine for slicing ontological ham, removing portions from the associative flow: from the anus and from the flow of shit meted out by the anus, for instance; from the mouth and from the flow of milk but also the flow of air and sound; from the penis and from the flow of urine but also the flow of sperm. Each associative flow must be seen as an ideal thing, an endless flux, flowing from something not unlike the immense thigh of speech genres. The bodily lower stratum suggests the pure uninterruptedness that any poetry ideally possesses. [25]

And now we’ve gently made our way to the principle of the metapoetic function. Usually scholars see in Vvedensky’s work a critique of discursive thought, mechanisms of language, and so on, but they fail to specify just what type of language and discursive mode is in question: is it scientific, religious, philosophical, artistic, or the “language of everyday life”? Yet, Vvedensky questions not merely “concepts,” “conclusive generalizations,” continua, time and space as a priori intuitions of perceptual faculties—in other words, the study of nature, logic, mathematics, and so on—but also, and above all else, art. In particular, Vvedensky questions poetry, which—alas—pertains to subjective and produces only verbal, rather than real, miracles. In almost all of Vvedensky’s comments recorded in Lipavsky’s “Conversations,” we encounter his critique of poetry’s limited means for producing meaning, its problematic aesthetic conventions and norms, and their bankruptcy. Here is the most characteristic example of such: “[Inspiration] does not protect us from mistakes, as is normally thought; rather, it spares us only from particular mistakes, but the general mistake of the text cannot be glimpsed in inspiration’s grip, which is why inspiration allows the possibility of writing. Even a day later I see that I’ve written neither what I wanted nor how I wanted to write. Anyway, can one really write as one desires to write? Daniil Kharms once said that art should operate in such a way that it penetrates walls. But there is no such thing.”[26]

The end and/or death of poetry and art is overtly thematized in Vvedensky’s later works, as, for example, in “Elegy” (“Eradicated inspiration / now visits for almost no duration, ‘ orient yourself by death by death, / singer and poor horseman”[27]). But in Vvedensky’s earlyworks it is also easy to discover the motifs of mockery, vanity, impossibility, the devaluation of verbal art, alongside, of course, other “feelings.” Hence, “Excerpt,” dating from 1925, is now thought to be one of the very first examples of Vvedensky’s debunking of canonical belles-lettres:

It happened near Poltava
no not it but a medal
when we fought a Swedish woman
a bit to the right we to the left
shhh we see she’s escaped
and torn her blue skirt
I scream stop
a bit to the right we to the left
behind a pine tree near Poltava
Mazepa sits naked
says he would have been Fyodor
would have been happier
at this point my whole army
starts sobbing violently
screams out, starts speaking
there’s an unfortunate one
ever since there’s a pub there
(Vvedensky, “Excerpt”)

Riddled with a multitude of voices and with crushing self-irony, Vvedensky’s heteromorphous verse processes and deconstructs stereotyped modes of verse-making and poetic formulas and thereby entails an implicit critique of the poetic mode of utterance as such.

Finally, we come to the principle of trans-formation. Beyond the constant and already habitualized—to the point of monotony—drone of what is called the absurd, the collapse of communication, the discrediting of linguistic mechanisms, apophaticism and alogism, and so on, we hear the scrape of high-velocity poetic machines. They must be distinguished both from abstract schizoanalysis machines and Kharms’s verbal machines. Kharms believed, or wanted to believe, that the power with which words are endowed, given proper deployment, could move objects and go through walls (or break windows). Vvedensky had no such belief. He didn’t trust memory, didn’t believe in the imagination. His word machines are also worm machines—they consume the carrion of dead devices and techniques, and set a limit to the possibility for bodily transformations of conceptual personae; only after this is it possible for an authentic metamorphosis to begin. For the “star of meaninglessness” to ascend, for the “dead citizen” to dash in to announce that time will be no more, it is necessary that the materials of poetry contract to the point where the world becomes a corpse. And you yourself have to become a corpse.

The dining table lets survey
the world cadaver’s crème brülée.
It stinks of rot around.
Some dummies practice
others drink poison.
The dry sun, light, and comets
silently sat down on objects.
Oaks lowered their crowns.
The air smelled abject.
Motion, heat, and density
have lost their intensity.
Hope flaps its shivering wing
alone above the human world.
A sparrow by a pistol hurled
barely holds the tips of ideas in its beak.
Everybody’s gone insane.
(“God May Be Around”)[28]

Not the end of time but the time of the end—a monstrous reduction of the history of the creation of the world and the entirety of human history to mere “tips of ideas,” to the infinitely divisible rhythm of poetry (which also requires time to reach its end), and to the delayed eschatological moment—a moment that is as if arrested and reversed by a release of rhythm. “Time is endless. You’ll say: it’s endless since it’s always been there and it has no end. No, it’s endless between two moments.”[29]

Thus speaks the dead man, who says: “The world is heated by God, and this God is from a machine. He also finds it unbearable. But something makes language stutter, rave—that is, strive to the limit of its own elements, categories, and forms—to that which is on this side of language and beyond. There is only one salvation: a trans-formation, when the meanings of words are taken up in the process of disintegration with a small margin of error. Machine, you are self-denial. The more rapidly language errs under the influence of a reflexive mechanism, the closer it is to the ‘stopping of the world,’ that is ‘infinite between two moments.’ The notorious ‘poverty of language’ is nothing but the limitations of phonetic, phraseological, and syntactical constants, something like table-turning or overload, sweeping away all poetic nutrients, all the components of normative constructions. An analogous overload is parataxis, paraphrase—which manifests the presence of the other’s speech in any utterance.”[30]

In concluding, I should briefly note some of the lines of continuity between Vvedensky’s poetic principles and more recent Russian poetry. During the late Soviet era, heteromorphous verse was picked up and developed formally by such representatives of unofficial Leningrad poetry as Elena Shvarts, Vasily Filippov, and then Elena Fanailova. The folkloric, “trans-sensical” substratum emerges as one of the most important elements in the work of Aleksey Khvostenko and Henri Volokhonsky. Dramatization and conceptual personages, in line with the carnival-populist impulse, became a distinctive feature of Khelenukty poetry, as well as that of several other authors from the “Malaya Sadovaya” (Little Garden) circle, and also (in a more reservedly ironic, intellectual register) of Moscow Conceptualism. For example, Vvedensky’s interest in subversive combinatorial possibilities is continued in the works of Dmitry Prigov; Prigov’s poetic machines construct a logic for utterances of different types, from the artistic to the ideological, from the religious to the scientific, while still keeping the critical function in the foreground. Desubjectification and/or the problematization of the subject’s position is most vividly expressed in Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s work and in that of those young poets who emerged in the second half of the 2000s (Nikita Safonov, Denis Larionov, Evgeniya Suslova), and who have taken Dragomoshchenko’s writerly experience into account. As a form of critique, “desubjectification,” as a method for the self-denial of poetic thought or of its self-withdrawal, emerges as the most promising and the most worthy area for further scholarly investigation and aesthetic practice.



[1]Translator’s note: Along with Alexander Vvedensky and Daniil Kharms, prominent members of “OBERIU” included Yakov Druskin, Nikolay Zabolotsky, Nikolai Oleinikov, Yury Vladimirov, Leonid Lipavsky, Igor Bakhterev, Daniil Kharms, and Konstantin Vaginov

[2] Alexander Skidan, “Kritika poeticheskogo razuma” (“A Critique of Poetic Reason”), Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011. No. 108.

[3] A. Kobrinsky, ed., Alexander Vvedensky i russkii avangard: Materialy mezhdunarodnoy nauchnoy konferentsii (Alexander Vvedensky and the Russian Avant-Garde: International Scholarly Conference Proceedings, Saint Petersburg, 2004.

[4] Iurii B. Orlitsky, “Geteromorfny (neuporyadochenny) stikh v russkoi poezii” (“Heteromorphous (Disorderly) Verse in Russian Poetry”), Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2005. No. 73.

[5] Alexander Vvedensky, An Invitation for Me to Think; selected and translated by Eugene Ostashevsky, with additional translations by Matvei Yankelevich (New York: New York Review Books, 2013); 94-95.

[6] Pam Morris, ed., The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bahktin, Medvedev, Voloshinov (London: Edward Arnold, 1994), 172. Again, writing from a slightly different perspective in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin speaks of polyphony as a prerequisite to the vitality of human thought: “The idea lives not in one person’s isolated individual consciousness—if it remains there only, it degenerates and dies. The idea begins to live, that is, to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression, to give birth to new ideas, only when it enters into genuine dialogic relationships with other ideas, with the ideas of others. Human thought becomes genuine thought, that is, an idea, only under conditions of living contact with another and alien thought, a thought embodied in someone else’s voice, that is, in someone else’s consciousness expressed in discourse. At that point of contact between voice-consciousnesses the idea is born and lives” (The Bakhtin Reader, 98; emphases in original).

[7] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari introduce the idea of philosophic conceptual personaeas the name of thought formation(Plato’s Socrates, Nietzsche’s Dionysus, Nikolay Kuzansky’s Idiot): “In philosophical enunciations we do not do something by saying it but produce movement by thinking it, through the intermediary of a conceptual persona. Conceptual personae are also the true agents of enunciation. ‘Who is “I”?’ It is always a third person.” (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?; Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 64-5.

[8] Alexander Vvedensky, An Invitation for Me to Think, 25-65.

[9] Alexander Vvedensky, An Invitation for Me to Think,116-120.

[10] From Alexander Vvedensky, “Fact, Theory, and God”; translation directly from essay by Lucas Stratton and slightly revised by Eugene Ostashevsky.

[11] An Invitation for Me to Think, 71.

[12] An Invitation for Me to Think, 70-71.

[13] Eugene Ostashevsky, OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism; translated by Ostashevsky and Thomas Epstein (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 59.

[14] Translator’s note: What we are here translating as “trans-sense” is sometimes rendered in English as zaum, a transliteration of the Russian neologism that combines the preposition za (beyond) with ym (mind, reason). The term was coined in 1913 by the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh.).

[15] Alexander Tufanov, “O stikhakh A. Vvedenskogo, in Vvedenskii, A: Vsye(“About A. Vvedensky’s Verse”)in Alexander Vvedensky, Complete Works (Moscow: Publishing House O.G.I., 2010), 732. (Translator’s note: Lef, or Left Front for Art, was founded in 1922 by former Futurist and Russian Formalists; Vladimir Mayakovsky was a founding member.)

[16] All from An Invitation for Me to Think.

[17] Also compare with verto, meaning to turn, to turn over (with a plow), to loosen up. Is this not the origin of Mandel’shtam’s assertion: “Poetry is a plow, churning up time in such a way that the deepest layers of time, its humus come to the top?”

[18] Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1987), 173.

[19] For his part, Yakov Druskin spoke of “mysteria-acts,” of “an abstract theatre created by Vvedensky 20-30 years prior to that of Ionesco and Becket”; see Iakov Druskin, Stadii pominaniya (Stages of Understanding) // “…Sborishche druzei, ostavlennikh sud’boyu”: “Chinari” v tekstakh, dokumentakh i issledovannyakh: V 2 t. M., 1998.T. 1., 644.

[20]Daniil Kharms, Zapisnye Knizhki (Notebooks; Journal), vol 2 (Saint Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 2002), 174.

[21] Leonid Lipavskii, “Teoriya slov” (“Theory of Words”), Issledovanie uzhasa (Studies in Terror) (Moscow: Ad marginem, 2005), 255-256. Lipavsky’s emphasis.

[22] Roman Jakobson, “A Postscript to the Discussion on Grammar of Poetry,” in Diacritics 10, No 1 (Spring 1980), 23.It is curious that in this “Postscript” the Russian linguist cites—without citation—Baudelaire’s “Poem of Hashish” as a confirmation of his own strictly scientific formulations. Notably, the famous utterance “Grammar, the driest grammar, becomes a bewitching incantation,” taken from this poem describing a drug-induced state of consciousness, is similar to ideas expressed in Vvedensky’s “The Gray Notebook.”

[23]“Circus-booth rhymes are provided, however, by language’s word-bank, with its cheap puns and, at times, the universal chirr of rhythms of old-timey opera bouffe texts—all of this is intimated through   the nature of language itself, and this leads to the thought that linguistic play is a means to revealing and harnessing a metaphysics that is lurking the depths of language.” (A Nikolev, Predislovie k poeme “Bespredmetnaya Iunost” (Foreword to the poem “Pointless Youth”), in G. Morev and V. Somsikov, eds., Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, Vienna, 1993. Sbd. 35, 223.

[24] An Invitation for Me to Think, 62.

[25]The reader may correctly guess that this passage borrows parodically from Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “desiring-machines.” For the original passage, see: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia; trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1977), 36.

[26]Leonid Lipavsky, “Conversations,” in Alexander Vvedensky, Vsye (Complete Works), 607.

[27] An Invitation for Me to Think, 126.

[28] An Invitation for Me to Think, 64-65.

[29] Yakov Druskin, “Prisnaki vechnosti” (“Evidence of Eternity”), in Sborishche druzei, ostavlennikh sud’boyu: “Chinari” v tekstakh, douymentakh i issledovaniyakh (A Group of Friends Abandoned by Fate: The “Chinari” in Texts, Documents, and Papers), Vol. 1, 822.

[30] For “overload” and the departure of language from its own confines, see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Linguistic Postulates,” in One Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia; trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 164-175.

“You can’t evade a binary by turning”*

I do all this breathing, it’s involuntary, it accumulates, years go by, suddenly I’m in-my-thirties, This Is Your Life, there’s no out but death but I’m no good at mourning and I’m no good at death. I do all this breathing, it’s involuntary, it accumulates, I’m exceptionally privileged, I’m tremendously lucky, I’m alive and I’ve been born a white USAmerican and people are starving and suffering the whole world over, across the globe and across the street. I walk down the street in the golden California sunshine it hurts.

This constant groundwork, this incessant pulse, screams absurdity: I get to lead my life in this relative dream while so many other lives are brimming with hardship and pain. When this pulsing groundwater is darkest it’s because I’m breathing living drinking eating wearing clothes going to work driving a car paying taxes renting an apartment having sex walking down the street taking a shower going to the beach watching a movie… that so many are suffering. In the darkest parts it is my mere existence that causes the suffering of so many. And it does, I do, that’s not such a far-fetched proposition if one reads just a bit of history and skims the morning news. When the ache lifts a bit, this condition retreats from the frontal lobe to the back of the closet.

If the historical and ongoing global conditions of structural inequality are the basic groundwork for any subject in late capitalism, if this condition of hopelessness and inability to topple what needs toppling is so constant, so ever-present, so basic, can any commentary on the condition itself say much more than: there is so much pain and I do not know how best to live. Or, In Considering Absurdity I Enter The Loop. It’s like being a singular individual trying to wrap one’s head around the prospect of total ecological collapse while dragging one’s body up out of bed to go to work to pay rent while the world still half-heartedly functions like it’s got a chance on the blue & green earth meanwhile the ever-sharpening fangs of capital sink deeper into flesh meat.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says that philosophy cannot and should not give faith, and I wonder, should politics? Faith acts against all odds, against or above or without regard for reason, as if the future is knowable, as if desire alone is enough to give truth value. Does hope for a post-capitalist future perform the same fallacy as religious faith in life-after-death? The good books say a world turned upside is bound to come. Is this propulsive belief, which colors my everyday thinking and feeling, a concession to the absurdity of conviction in the face of a cruel world? But the “here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” (José Esteban Muñoz)

I’m propelling myself to work on the refined anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms. I’m listening to morning public doom radio reporting acidified oceans and disappearing bear habitat. I park, enter the building, walk up three flights of stairs, get a coffee, wedge the key in the office door, and lower myself in front of the work terminal. I turn on the machine. I open two browser windows, one for work (which compels and alienates me), and one for personal affairs (which makes bearable the deadening workweek). The windows occupy two halves of the large Apple machine constructed in China by slaves. I read the news, I follow the links. I see that my friends are interviewing each other about self-care, but I don’t have time to actually read the piece, so instead I print the image of the exercise routine for chair-bound office workers. I pin this to the bulletin board. The machine informs me that my boss has sent me a message.

I see my boss more than I see my loved ones, but I’m lucky, I work only 40 hours a week. On the two allotted roaming days, I mostly reproduce my laboring body. When I’m not walking around in golden California sunshine, I’m preparing for work, being at work, recovering from being at work. On the way to work today, while walking to my car, which runs on blood oil and dead Middle Eastern children, I cross paths with a man exiting a building, he says how are you this morning. I’m okay, I say, it’s Monday. I think weekends should be three days, he says, three days off, four days on. I agree, I say. Doesn’t everyone feel this way? Even my relatively conservative coworkers and I share this limited critique of capitalism together. This is the closest we come to talking about the conditions of our labor. Happy Friday, they say! Or, with a frown, Another Monday. Only a fool would want to work more not less. The world is run by fools. Sometimes I feel like I’m still 16 years old arguing with my soon-to-be financially successful older brother about what “working hard” means. My voice gets weak and I start to cry. I’m trying to tell him about structural inequality (though I don’t call it that) and he is trying to tell me about life in the big city. It is not a sign of laziness to cultivate a fruit that does not require much labor to grow.

We rent a cabin with friends on Tomales Bay. We bring some special chocolates. On psilocybin, one hour feels like four. I feel like I’m still 16 years old contemplating “time” in philosophy class. I can’t eat, I don’t want to eat, feel like I’ll never eat again. I watch the water gleaming. Back of the redwood, through the eucalyptus, I hear the whooshing of a hawk’s wings in slow motion, I see the red sailboat lit up like an animation. C says M’s face is melting.

Brandon and I go to San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to see the Bay Area Now show. We wander, ponder, touch what we are permitted to touch, and exit the art world to find another installation outside: it’s the annual Pistahan Festival celebrating Filipino culture. The festival is held on the same ground where many Filipino residents once lived, that is, before they were displaced by the construction of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This story is not a new one. The Bay Street Mall in Emeryville, where we go couch shopping at IKEA, is built on Ohlone burial ground. Squares are constructed to evoke “public space” but mostly what’s visible is displacement, emptiness, white-washed history. Is every public space also a memorial? There are so many bones. As of January 2015, average apartment rent within 10 miles of San Francisco is $3469.

The governor of the former slave state declares a preemptive state of emergency. The coroner ruled homicide, yet no one is indicted. Is there such a thing as a perpetrator-less murder, a murder without a murderer? Responsibility is vacant, vacated. Suicide and homicide are intimately bound up together where racism, poverty, and systematic destruction of communities is ongoing. Wilderness, cleared of indigenous inhabitants by murder and deceit, is rebranded as frontier. “Stó:lō” literally means “People of the River” but still the rat-faced company lawyer wants to know “do you have an estimate in terms of what proportion of Kwantlen members’ diet comes from sources in the Fraser River?”

On my way home from work, sitting in traffic, a metaphor comes to mind: if paying monthly rent is throwing money into a pit, then working a job I don’t care for is throwing my exuberance, my living breathing body, into a pit. I see my boss more than I see my loved ones. On lunch break I go outside and look to the eastern sky I see the moon maybe a bit more than half full just hanging there in the daytime without a care in the world. Is this what the luxurious rich feel like? Her instagram goes: Palm Springs, Manhattan, Turks & Caicos, yachts, yoga, perfected foods, and beautiful blooms.

We arrive at the lake, it’s an 80-degree Saturday in the Sierras, we are the only ones here, and we have forgotten our swimsuits. If we don’t undress and swim nude, is it because we are prude, or because the world has gotten away from us? Are we doomed? None of my toes is so much longer than the others such that I could dip just one in. The internal extension of the market. “This is the continuous action of the given world on your body.” (Lisa Robertson)

The top-rated comment on the video of the bicyclist confronting the driver blocking the bike lane is: “What a dumb fucking cunt.” The con-man character in the movie didn’t outwardly hate women, and this was a kind of a miracle. The fine for indecent exposure was doubled if the perpetrator and the victim were of the same sex. A discourse of identity (rather than acts) dominates. And what is the absurd but the crystalline mark of knowing laughter where once there was fear, a yoke wide enough to allow the neck to rise from the bed an hour early to pursue some bookish calm in the quiet chill of the exorbitantly rented den. The absurd is “simultaneously awareness and rejection of death” (Camus). He suggests I fake it til I make it.

To distinguishbetween idleness and otium as if it were entirely obvious that one should embrace the opportunity to earn more rather than work less. “They want us to take such great care of the tomatoes, but they don’t take care of us,” said Japolina Jaimez, a field hand at Rene Produce, a grower of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. The “intent is to create the impression of real movement while actual movement is too limited to be significant” (Robert L. Allen). The demand is satiable but the society which must be destroyed is insatiable. The American Revolution “cast off the chains of colonial rule but shackled one-fifth of the population of the newly independent states in the chains of slavery” (Ahmed Shawki). The “criminalized poor of color are characterized as either products of violent environments that should be heavily policed or as irrational people incapable of moral agency who need to be under police surveillance.” (Lisa Marie Cacho). “The gravity (as opposed to the contingency) of violence that accrues to the blackened position” (Frank Wilderson).

My family sends me photos of nachos on a stick and the best burritos in the country. He asks if I’ve ever felt parental pressure to be something other than an office worker, perhaps a doctor, a lawyer? No, none of those in my family. It is through the poetry world that I’ve met the wealthiest people I’ve known. Maybe the void doesn’t look the same from all positions on the intersectionality matrix? If you are a white American, and your family has accumulated wealth over generations, there is a pile of dead bodies in your bank. I am a white American, and there is a mountain of dead bodies on my hands. I can’t bring myself to get a pedicure or a shoeshine because the power dynamics feel too fraught, but everyday I take another step into American life don’t I.

When the blood finally comes rushing it’s a relief, the ever-present absurd rearing a visible head, I sit back and let senselessness take the reins, finding comfort in undeniable materiality (rain) after a period of indeterminate signs (clouds, wind).Maybe the way to happiness or the good life is being amused with the inevitability of pointlessness. Maybe it’s a spiritual practice to construct meaning in the face of meaninglessness. Maybe choosing to live is a day-to-day revolt against that yawning irreconcilable gap. Living is not survival – survival is evolutionary, adaptive – living is something else, something defiant. Capitalism encourages us to find meaning in what reproduces this system – alienated labor, consumption, nationalism, individualism, the heteronormative family. I find meaning despite allthat, against, and underneath, I find meaning in living politics and building intimacy.

I accidentally drop my phone in my cup of tea, I give my phone a rice bath. China, where my phone was produced by slaves, is the world’s largest producer of rice. Over 36 hours, the rice sucks dry the insides of my tea-wet phone so that it works again and I can communicate with friends and connect to the endless news cycle of death and destruction. I’m grateful to the rice and ashamed of the corporate practices I support by buying this phone and relying on it. I cook and eat the rice as a kind of penance, but also because I’m hungry and short on money this month, and rice is cheap. Trisha tells me that after reading Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret as a kid, she was terrified not knowing whether to chew or swallow the church wafer. Is swallowing silent wholesale acceptance, while chewing requires working contemplation of component parts? Does examination of the parts make anyone a better person?

I know it’s April because the sun in my apartment is shining on the same section of couch at the same time of day as it did a few years ago when I sat on the hardwood floor and desperately tried to put my face on the surface of the sun. The fictive future / I guide my hand through / the absurd and sticky / habit whose force / an inflatable estate / along the lobate plains. I drop the little pink pill in the darkness. Searching for it in the radius of light the small lamp provides, knowing that’s not anywhere near where the pill fell, it went flying somewhere far off, but that little radius is the only place with light enough to see.

* The title is a quote from Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present (Coach House Books, 2015).

Abluesurdity: The Ethics of Absurdity in the Aesthetics of Hip-Hop

Outro as Intro: The Ethical Response to Absurdity in “The Message”[1]

The absurd has a meaning for someone. Fate does not precede history; it follows it. Fate is the history of the historiographers, accounts of the survivors, who interpret, that is, utilize the works of the dead. The historical distance which makes this historiography, this violence, this subjection possible is proportionate to the time necessary for the will to lose its work completely. Historiography recounts the way the survivors appropriate the works of dead wills to themselves; it rests on the usurpation carried out by the conquerors, that is, by the survivors; it recounts enslavement, forgetting the life that struggles against slavery.
– Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (1961)

The pressure to be broken by incredible odds, by the poverty, ignorance, violence, indifference, that is one’s day to day environment in the town (Newark, NJ) is immense. It’s like a grey haunting presence one feels pushing against the outside and inside at the same time. But even so, a few fortunate people like Woody Shaw who are not stronger or brighter than the struggling masses of the city, but simply more consistently focused in a direction that can provide a shield and exit from the ghetto horror, do manage to make it out. And many times the stories they carry, told through whatever medium or form, are staggering in their brutality and shattering in their beauty!
— Amiri Baraka, Liner notes to the album Woody III, Columbia Records (1979)

Nietzsche began writing by calling for the rebirth of tragedy from the spirit of music. But that had already happened, as drama lost the use of poetry and turned to music.
– Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge In Six Plays of Shakespeare (1987)



Even if we accept Shakespeare’s self-reflexive analogy that “all the world’s a stage,”[2] we still recognize that the props and sets and plots are not all the same. There are many stages and many theaters, and each one becomes a confining globe. The stage delineates the boundaries within which characters act and are acted upon. When characters confront these existential limits, they usually discover—or, at least, the audience apprehends—that their actions and words cannot change their circumstances. They are not real after all. They stand before us in the flesh and prove their insubstantiality, provoking an essential confrontation with absurdity, since the absurd is what turns reality into unreality, meaning into nonsense, belief into doubt, hope into despair.

“The Message” (1982), hip-hop’s first anthem, ushered in a political aspect to hip-hop that remains in the genre’s DNA. Responding to the political and social realities that eviscerated black and Latino communities in the Bronx during the 1970s, “The Message” is widely recognized for its searing poetic rendition of ghetto life. Yet, the song renders the ghetto in two distinct ways. The first part is a lyric, which displays a powerful poetic vision of the speaker’s experience “in the ghetto living second-rate”; the second part is the outro, a convention that has been used in many rap songs but rarely with such philosophical force. Dialectically opposed, the lyric presents the ghetto in a theater of sincerity; the outro re-presents it in the theater of the absurd. Taken together, this dialectical representation of the ghetto forges a trenchant ethical response to intractable social absurdities.

As Richard A. Cohen argues in his introduction to his translation of Emmanuel Levinas and Philippe Nemo in Ethics and Infinity, “Ethics occurs…across the hiatus of dialogue, not in the content of discourse, in the continuities or discontinuities of what is said, but in the demand for response” (12). If this is so, then the very mode of “The Message” as a message counters the oppressive yet unassailable forces educed by the song with an ethical call that demands a response. The lyric illustrates Cohen’s insistence that “Ethics is forceful not because it opposes power with more power…but rather because it opposes power with what appears to be weakness and vulnerability but is responsibility and sincerity” (13). The outro goes even further by representing individual lives who must confront an absurd situation and to whom we must respond directly. By creating conditions for us to respond, the outro rebuts the machinations of the absurd by restoring in us, the audience, the potential for meaning, the possibility of belief, and the capacity for hope.

For all of its sincerity, the lyric, nevertheless, conveys its message through modes of poetic form; the outro, on the other hand, exists outside a manufactured lyric space, outside the meanings that poetry imposes on poverty and powerlessness through the force of the imagination. Therefore, while both the lyric sincerity and the dramatic absurdity register as authentic renderings of the ghetto, the latter—the rendering of the ghetto absurd—remains more attuned to the real. Shifting from the poetic to the dramatic, where the anonymous speaker is replaced with a cast of characters who appear to be none other than the rappers responsible for the preceding rhymes, the outro comments on the song’s message from the outside, playing out the repressive dynamics of power that make up the conditions out of which the lyric is uttered. Stanley Cavell’s suggestive distinction about the nature of the dramatic as opposed to the nature of the poetic in Disowning Knowledge applies here: “It is different from the experience of comprehending meanings in a complex poem or the experience of finding the sense of a lyric. These are associated with a thrill of recognition, an access of intimacy; not [as it is in drama] with a particular sense of exposure” (85). The seductive poetics of the lyric offer access to the lived experience in the ghetto (especially for those outside of it) through the emotional and psychic states of the speaker as the verbal ingenuity and deft wordplay imaginatively transform these psychological pressures and existential perils into a potent artistic portrayal of ghetto life. In contrast, the outro’s dramatizations of the same existential contingencies unsettle and ultimately destabilize the lyric’s eloquent and potentially transformative rendering, lest we mistake Melle Mel’s eloquence for a kind of control or, worse, an aestheticization of poverty and struggle through the poetic word’s facile mastering of insufferable social conditions.

The song begins with a beat that is both funky[3] and austere, an ominously methodical bass and drum counterpoised with the subtle uplift of ethereal, even spacey[4] arpeggios, all shattered too soon by the sound of broken glass.[5] The crashing glass cues the lyric and Melle Mel launches into a highly sensory poetic flite about the abysmal conditions of the ghetto: “Broken glass everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care.” Sound becomes word. Beginning with “broken,” Mel collages together images of destitution with a series of rhymed lines. The images are sutured together with consonance and an explosive alliteration on the “p” that interrupts the rolling “r”s and “s”s. Like the exquisite, disjunctive glitter of broken glass, the sonic poetics evokes claustrophobic conditions—“Rats in the front room, roaches in the back.” The lyric is a contradiction in itself: like an urban American Rilke, Mel makes something beautiful at the edge of what is, truly, an abyss. The absurd hovers at the edges of his speech, and Melle Mel staves off its meaninglessness by the sheer force and flow of his rhymes.

In these first lines, Mel conjures the absurdity of the situation, the almost unreal, nonsensical, hopelessness of it all. Things are worse than bad and there’s no escape. Just tracing the vehicular metaphors, we see Mel move quickly from the fact of having his car towed to the fantasy of hijacking a plane, moving from paralysis in the face of unalterable circumstances to an escapist fantasy that is only empowering in its absurdity; imagining himself as the agent rather than the recipient of terror, the desire to hijack a plane reverses the power dynamics inherent in his circumstances and amplifies them while the hyperbole shows the extremity of his desperation. In the course of this trajectory from reality to fantasy, Mel remains immobilized, “hanging out the window / Watching all the cars go by, roaring as the breezes blow.” In reality, Mel’s left to contemplate the deafening vicissitudes of the erratic winds, since he “can’t take the train to the job, there’s a strike at the station.” Before the paradox of underpaid workers preventing others from getting to their exploitative jobs can sink in, and before the oxymoron of an idled train can fully undercut an image that has remained a powerful symbol of mobility and social uplift at least since the Great Migration, these piling ironies collapse in on themselves and give way to another absurdity: “They pushed that girl in front of the train.” The train goes from a contradictory state of inertia to its incongruous function as a weapon. Meanwhile the speaker “can’t walk through the park… ‘cause they got me on the run”—another paradox that captures the paralysis as well as the inescapable terror resulting from his chaotic circumstances. The speaker must flee what he can’t escape, and in this we might also hear the spectral history of the slave narrative constructed out of similar contradictions: the need to find freedom even when, as Frederick Douglass pointedly put it, “We could see no spot, this side of the ocean, where we could be free” (123).

The four stanzas of episodic poetic narrative get resolved by a parable, a major tonal shift in the song marked by a rhetorical turn from ethos to logos, from a descriptive narrative to a philosophical moral and ostensible message. Through an intolerable prolepsis—where the speaker must imagine his son raped in prison as “a Maytag” before being found “hung dead in a cell”—the speaker warns his son against adopting any of the ghetto’s interchangeable, and ultimately subjugating, masculine identities:

all the number book-takers

Thugs, pimps, and pushers and the big money-makers


Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers

Pickpockets, peddlers, even panhandlers

The intense repetitions through alliteration, consonance, and assonance help reinforce the point that these identities are one and the same: they seem to guarantee power and respect on the street, but they are really nothing more than a death sentence. This inevitable outcome recalls the earlier scene of “hanging out the window” where, through a series of double-entendres, there is rapid regress from “standing” to “stooping” to “hanging.” The repeated images of hanging conjure a grim and longstanding legacy of lynching and the continuing cycle of vicious entrapments. However deeply painful to hear, the parable stands in ethical defiance of the destructive aspects of the ghetto. The parable rips a scrim of hope from a hopeless situation by revealing the speaker’s protective care for his son amidst ever constricting circumstances, chaotically hostile social forces, and an inventory of destructive identities that everywhere threaten to dehumanize. The insistence that nurture overwhelms nature—“A child is born with no state of mind / Blind to the ways of mankind”—becomes a defiant stand against the ghetto’s capacity to misshape and distort identities. Even as economic opportunities evaporate and possibilities for social uplift vanish, the speaker intimates that the moral force of his vision can change the situation, render something beautiful from the ugliness, and give his son a positive alternative to what’s out there.

The power of the lyric derives from its sincerity. This is the source of its realness, Mel’s empathic and authoritative witness of the stress and his moral insubordination to its rules. His sincerity is what also makes him vulnerable—“broke my last glass jaw”—to the dangers of the “jungle.” As powerful as it is, this penetrating, intimate act of bearing witness leads, as sincerity does, to reasoned argument. It is not an accident that the form of this lyric is more like a sermon or an essay than pop song, beginning with acute, experiential descriptions raised to the level of consciousness through a turn toward more abstract, philosophical conclusions. Following the long-standing dichotomy in African-American culture that the hip-hop scholar Imani Perry limns as “the division between the respectable and the funky stuff” or “the respectable and the rough” (4), the lyric of “The Message” represents, even with its grim images and mordant episodes, a “respectable” (because poeticized) ghetto; that is, it presents the speaker’s ennobling confrontation with denigrations of ghetto life. However noble, Reason is clearly no match against the Absurd.

But the song continues even after it ends, taking yet another unexpected turn, and, like a trickster, signifies on itself, flipping the genre from the poetic to the dramatic and shifting modes from a sincere rendering of absurdity to challenging the absurd on its own irrational grounds. The outro dramatizes the arrest of the group members in a random but all too common deus ex machina of a police raid on the corner. The raid rescinds any and all control over the crew’s autonomy to assemble, hang out, and make plans to go to a club in their pursuit of “the funky stuff.” The outro gives the lie to the promise that the celestial orders and beatific visions of art can overcome social chaos through the force of its vision. In this respect, Mel’s assured rhymes fail. They leave him exposed and vulnerable, while we are lead away from this theater of sincerity into a theater in the rough. Here in the outro, the reasons for the repressed rage (“Don’t push me, I’m close to the edge / I’m just trying not to lose my head) come to the fore, and the son’s protests against his dysfunctional, ill-serving school system, as well as his attraction to the litany of hard identities his father so adamantly warns him against, are cast in a starker light. By now we understand too well that the school is not a real option but a mere façade, a false exit to another dead end. We know, too, that the hard identities in the song are as destructive as they are seductive, not only because we’ve just heard the lyric but also because we listen retroactively. For better and worse, hip-hop has disseminated the thugs, pimps, and pushers through American popular culture for more than thirty years.

But this knowledge, this easy disapproval, can also make it more difficult to recognize the utility of these identities, the real if elusive option they offer a kid who knows that “to be a street sweeper” would be a better option than “a bum education.” At least then he’d have the satisfaction of cleaning up the broken glass and getting paid for it. The only other alternative—to “dance to the beat, shuffle my feet / Wear a shirt and tie and run with the creeps”—smacks of minstrelsy. In contrast to these limited alternatives, the hard identities draw on earlier prototypes designed to make intolerable oppression tolerable; like the traditional Stagolees and other Badmen, these identities mask the emotional, psychological, and physical vulnerability that come from incessant exposure to white supremacist systems. They are versions of a mask, as Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, “that grins and lies”; they are an embodied means of protecting oneself from and even resisting denigrating policies enforced from the outside. As the son concludes, “You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey.” But built on “cons,” these hard identities usually default on their promise of power because they derive from, as the scholar Joshua Clover notes, “the tribulations of living in land where the property and power are always elsewhere” (39).

The parable forecloses hope with an ecce homo image of a boy who “lived so fast and died so young,” but this is only an imagined fate, and the prolepsis of the last line forestalls closure even as it anticipates this terrible end. [6] So while the parable resolves what has gone before, it also serves as a preamble. The speaker is not only prophet but also “chorus to this history”[7] that is about to play out as he sets the stage for the outro: “The places you play and where you stay / Looks like one big alleyway.” Like God “smiling” and “frowning,” fate still hangs in the balance, and the tonal pun in the parable is both a plea to and a sly giving up on God, as in the exasperated idiom, “God only knows.” The pun recalls both the African American spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” and the cagily hidden blues within Bert Williams’s minstrel performances of “Nobody”:

When life seems full of clouds and rain

and I am filled with naught but pain,

who soothes my thumpin’ bumpin’ brain ?


There is solipsism here, a sense of abandonment as well as abdication, and a renunciation of the absolute and of absolution. As prologue, this no-body-ness is a kind of disappearance or erasure that anticipates what happens to the crew in the outro and that the Badmen and other antiheroes associated with hip-hop were conjured to overcome. There’s defiance as well as despair in the conclusive line, “And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate,” an insolence that weathers into a blues: “But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song.” Taken as prologue rather than the moral to the story, the parable pushes us to the edge of absurdity and, as in Shakespeare’s Henry V, the lyric speaker becomes the Chorus who gives us only a poetic rendition of real events.

Now enter the “ciphers to this great accompt.”



Fundamentally interrogative, the outro begins and ends with a question, cycling through who (“that sound like Cowboy, man”), where (“Hey, where’s Creole and Rahiem at, man?”), what (“What?”), when (“When this happen?”), and, finally, why (“Why he doing this?”). Throughout, the questions frame a discourse of relationship and power, setting the terms of inquiry that either serve to acknowledge or to preemptively interpret the interlocutor. The drama of the outro is also organized around a crisis, a key turning point that transforms the questions from one thing into another, flipping their function and causing the outro, which is already signifying on the lyric, to equally signify on itself: half way through the drama, an impromptu gathering sours into a situation of malevolent threat when a police officer enters the scene to repeat, redact, and reinterpret the meaning of what is said in order to enforce an external system of control.

The outro starts with Melle Mel and the rest of the crew gathering and greeting each other. Coming after the lyric concluding with the boy “hung dead in a cell,” this continuance revives hope and contains the lyric by making it feel a little less imminent, a little less inevitable. It makes the lyric into what we want to believe it to be: a parable, an allegory, a metaphor; in other words, “just a poem.” It is a lesson but not an event, artistic expression but not an actual incident. The song is grim, but now that we see the crew who raps it materialize on the corner, we have a verifiable afterlife to the lyric’s fatal conclusion. The outro presents young black men not just surviving in the ghetto but making their struggles into art. What’s more, their pseudonyms—Money, Cowboy, Cooly, Rahiem—personify some of the things that the song has been about, and offer masculine identities distinct from the pimp list tetanized in the parable. Although they inflect American masculine stereotypes, these are playful, generally positive, and individualized alternatives. [8]

The outro begins innocently enough with what sounds like Scorpio telling Mel to check out a girl. The comment clearly defines a masculine space and perspective. Although fairly innocuous in this context, it is worth noting that Scorpio’s “see that girl” has its darker counterpart within the lyric as the peepshow and the grim circumstances of the Zircon princess. The juxtaposition makes clear that, despite the masculine space, the song articulates the distortion of both male and female identities by the pressures of the ghetto. In any event, the question instigates an interrogative mode that will continue until the end. After Scorpio points out the girl, the focus immediately shifts to the crew and again we see a move from sight (“see that girl”) to sound (“that sounds like Cowboy, man”) which echoes the “see-saw” pattern in the lyric: from watching the cars to hearing them roar; from watching the creeps at the peep show to telling stories “to the girls back home”; from watching TV to hearing the phone ringing; all of these resolved in the synesthesic act of witness, “your eyes will sing.” A flurry of acknowledgements follows, all phrased as questions:

Yo, what’s up, Money?


Hey, where’s Creole and Rahiem at man?

These greetings are familiar, a means of collective recognition and, in the ease of their salutations, a sense of acceptance of things as they are. As Cavell emphasizes, “The world is to be accepted; as the presentness of other minds is not to be known, but acknowledged” (95). What is at stake by the end of the outro is this very ability to acknowledge and accept; it is also what, in the end, might stave off the imposing absurdity of a solipsistic authoritarian system, where nothing makes sense nor can sense be made, where no one can acknowledge or be acknowledged, and where acceptance gets crushed under the boot of intolerance.

We find out that Creole and Rahiem are “upstairs cooling out” before Scorpio asks, “So, what’s up for tonight, y’all?” The thing to note here is the repetition of “up,” which is quickly followed by “down”: “Yo, we could go down to the Fever, man” (emphasis mine). These spacial idioms take on particular significance if we hear the resounding rhetorical reverberations from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up”[9] to the theme song for the popular mid-seventies TV sitcom The Jeffersons[10], and all the way back to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life, “my tendency was upward” (122). Unlike these earlier evocations of upward mobility that resist a downward arc, “up” and “down” here are not opposites; they are aligned through the power of their idiomatic usage, so that “up” and “down” become two powerful ways of saying the same thing. “What’s up” and what’s “going down” are both positive. There’s mention of the “Fever,” a reference to the club Disco Fever, a club in the Bronx considered to be the mecca of early hip-hop; there’s the suggestion to “check out Junebug,” a famous local deejay.[11] If we think about lyrics like “Take the A Train” preceding “The Message” or Gang Starr’s “The Place Where We Dwell” coming afterward, we might also glimpse how “The Message” is part of a lyric continuum that denies reductive notions of ghetto life by making its assumed marginality into an artistic mecca, a central site for cultural pilgrimage.[12]

But almost predictably, it is at this ebullient moment where the drama takes its fatal turn and violence bullies in:

Hey, yo, you know that girl Betty?

Yeah, man

Her mom’s got robbed, man


Not again!

She got hurt bad

When this happen? When this happen?

Like the Zircon Princess, we hear about another episode of violence toward a woman. The gossip redacts the Zircon Princess’s “stories to the girls back home.” Where the Zircon Princess tells stories to impress the friends she’s left behind with her glitzy albeit fake identity, the story here passes on vital information about what’s happening in the neighborhood. This gossip intends to elicit concern, compassion, and care. We’re reminded that despite the easygoing joy expressed among the crew, violence is a repeated occurrence and, in the quick move from “what” to “when,” it has happened again. The fact that this time the assault is on a girl’s mother only makes it worse. The occurrence not only a more menacing rendition of the earlier scene where the brother steals his mother’s TV, but it also trounces the sacred, inviolable place mothers have in the culture.

The dialogue also gives an edge to the outro’s opening remark, as we move from “see that girl” to “know that girl.” Coming in the wake of the crew’s greetings and setting up the relaying of violence, the verb “know” here marks a phenomenological shift from noticing to recognizing, a form of acknowledgment that implies responsibility. William Jelani Cobb’s exegisis on the idiomatic and philosophical use of “recognize” in hip-hop culture, a word that literally means “to re-know,” can help explain the significance of this shift from seeing to knowing:

Thus the fact that the word recognize—meaning to “identify as previously known, take notice of, acknowledge, especially with appreciation” according to the books—takes a whole ‘nother level of connotation within this culture. On this street, to be told to recognize is to be issued an injunction, given a warning, schooled to the fact that there are consequences and repercussions for whatever has been said, done, or forgotten. (109)

This idiomatic intensification of the word takes the conventional meaning of “recognize” as “to acknowledge” and raises the stakes by emphasizing that this acknowledgment is a form of intimate awareness of another that has indelible ethical consequences.

Cobb’s description of the word “recognize” puts Cavell’s observations about the reality of the theater in a starker light. Here, Cavell rejoins those who insist that characters in a play are “not persons” and, therefore, while they are seen, they cannot be acknowledged:

Am I to remember that I am not responsible for those people up there? Presumably this is not a way of saying that they are none of my business or that they have not been made real for me by their creator. But what else is it a way of saying? Am I to remember that I do not have to confront them, give them my warnings or advice or compassion? But I am confronting them (unless my head or heart is lowered, in fear or boredom) and I have this advice or warning or compassion or anxiety; if you haven’t, you don’t see what I see. But I cannot offer it to them or share it with them. That is true; they cannot hear my screams. But that is something else; that is something I do not have to remember, something I know as I know that I cannot chose the content of my dreams or suffer my daughter’s pain or alter my father’s childhood. (90)

Applying Cavell to the outro, we must not simply relate to the characters as we relate to ourselves (as we are encouraged to do in the lyric) but put ourselves in relation to them independent of ourselves. Although we cannot offer or share with them our compassion or anxiety, as Cavell says, there are still consequences for us and for them; as we are in their presence, we remain responsible for what happens, although we cannot change the outcome. In fact, our situation as an audience is hardly distinguishable from their own. They, too, feel “compassion or anxiety” for another’s pain, and in their recognition of what happened to Betty and Betty’s mom, they feel responsible for them, even though they “cannot offer it to them or share it.” It’s a paradox we might associate with the absurd. Simply put, when the violence turns on the crew, it is our turn to feel at once responsible and powerless.

Cobb calls this confusion between the factual and the representational, hip-hop’s “asphalt naturalism” (109). Hip-hop, and “The Message” in particular, are not the first to express a radical realism. Writers like Douglass, Dunbar, and Chesnutt, and later Wright and Baldwin, had already confounded the literal and the literary in similar ways; yet, this particular tradition of American realism comes to a poignant extreme in hip-hop’s idea of “keeping it real.” The sense of the real in “The Message” has something to tell us about Cavell’s distinction between acknowledgment and knowing. In “The Message,” we assume to know the lyric speaker better than the crew dramatized in the outro, even though we understand the crew to be an “actual” representation of the Furious Five and Mel’s speaker to be only a persona. Again, this confusion results from the shift from a lyric mode to a dramatic one. We have less access to characters in a drama; they seem more distant, separated from us by the theatrical space and the proverbial fourth wall. As noted earlier, they are not to be known but acknowledged. This is a supreme irony of literary modes of representation: the characters who are more real—who are in closer proximity to the factual—are recognized as such because they remain less knowable. The crew in the outro appears to us like those actual others whom we pass on the street. Cavell explains the paradox by suggesting that we experience drama “more directly, without interposed descriptions or explanations.” However, this does not make dramatized characters more present. Rather, the unmediated aspect of the drama leaves characters “free from the necessity to describe or explain,” so they are more “opaque” (105). We know them as we know others and not, as the illusion and power of the lyric offers, as we know ourselves.

We can’t really know them, and our inability to intervene in any way forces us to grapple with the limits of our ability to change situations. As Cavell argues, “They are in our presence. This means, again, not simply that we are seeing and hearing them, but that we are acknowledging them (or specifically failing to)” (103). For Cavell, “Tragedy shows that we are responsible for the death of others even when we have not murdered them, and even when we have not manslaughtered them innocently” (103). If it seems absurd to think that listening to a song dropped over thirty years ago somehow makes us responsible for what happens to the people in what is at most a dramatic recreation of real events, then you get the point. This sense of absurdity inherent to the experience of listening to this song is what threatens to erode our ethical resolve. Absurdity has a way of presenting us with this philosophical loophole that can reduce “The Message” to an artifact of entertainment. It tells us that the song is just a song, and it isn’t real, that the crew and the officers in the outro are just characters in a drama. It disorients us by shattering our moral compasses until we are addled enough to forget that the song is “The Message” and, as such, means by making us aware of what is happening. And to become aware of what is happening is to reject notions that the song is from “back in the day” and accept that what is happening is still happening. Whether we decide to act on this knowledge or to ignore it is another matter, but either way, there are consequences: “avoidance of the presence of others is not blindness or deafness to their claim upon us; it is as conclusive as acknowledgment that they are present as murdering them would be” (Cavell 103).

So what, then, might be the measure of our obligation? In his philosophical dialogue with Philippe Nemo, Emmanuel Levinas considers the human face, echoing Cavell’s sentiment and adding another valence to this distinction between the act of acknowledgment and that of knowledge:

The face is meaning all by itself. You are you. In this sense once can say that the face is not “seen.” It is what cannot become a content, which your thought would embrace; it is uncontainable, it leads you beyond. It is in this that the signification of the face makes it escape from being, as a correlate of knowing. Vision, to the contrary, is a search for adequation; it is what par excellence absorbs being. But the relation to the face is straightaway ethical. The face is what one cannot kill…. Murder, it is true, is a banal fact: one can kill the Other; the ethical exigency is not an ontological necessity. (86-87)

For Levinas, acknowledging is other than knowing. Knowing intercalates between self and other what one already believes to be true (the officer, we’ll soon see, does this). Acknowledging, on the other hand, destabilizes our sense of self (and thus what we know) by putting us in (an ethical) relation to others, which makes us responsible for what happens to others while simultaneously freeing them from our imposed idea of who or what they are. In recognizing another’s autonomy and capacity for self-determination, we claim the same for ourselves, which, again, means we become responsible for what we do and do not do.

Among the many philosophers he names, Cavell does not mention Levinas, but there remains a strong correlation between Levinasian ethics and what Cavell calls the “tragedy in a theater and tragedy in actuality”:

In both, people in pain are in our presence. But in actuality acknowledgment is incomplete; in actuality there is no acknowledgment, unless we put ourselves in their presence, reveal ourselves to them. We may find that the point of tragedy in a theater is exactly relief from this necessity, a respite within which to prepare for this necessity, to clean out the pity and terror which stand in the way of acknowledgment outside. (104)

It is not the characters, then, that we must respond to. We do not have to decide how real or unreal they are. Rather, our paralysis in their presence rehearses and challenges our response to the real events represented in other more “real” theaters, such as the media. Listen to “The Message” and then ask, “How should I respond to the news of young black men killed by police over the last year: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray?” Cavell acknowledges that art “can be motivated by a thirst for social change. But in an age in which the organs of news, in the very totality and talent of their coverage, becomes distractions from what is happening, presenting everything happening as overwhelmingly present, like events in old theater” (118). Cavell might conclude that if we do not “reveal ourselves” but rather “keep ourselves in the dark”—and I take Cavell to mean this both figuratively and literally—then “the consequence is that we convert the other into a character and make the world a stage for him” (104). Because, as Levinas concedes, “the ethical exigency is not an ontological necessity,” we are not required to act, although there are ramifications either way. In an age mediated by such a deluge of news, our ethical failure can seem almost inevitable. Absurdity has become our demiurge.

If, as Cavell seems to insist, “the intention to serious art can itself become a political act… because it is the intention to make an object which bears one’s conviction and which might bring another to himself” (118), then the lyric displays one individual’s courageous response to absurdity. Might we be more like him? Cavell’s observations again apply:

But we had hardly expected, what now is apparently coming to be the case, that the ordinary citizen’s ordinary faithfulness to his children may become a radical political act…. (118)

The speaker of the lyric presents us with a virtuous response to oppressive circumstances, emboldening us, and, perhaps, even giving us faith. But obviously our voyeuristic experience of the speaker’s struggle is not enough. We must go further, because it is when the lyric gets rescinded and replaced with the outro that the song makes demands on us in a way a lyric alone cannot. In the outro, it is us as well as the crew who are arrested when with “screeching tires—Police enter scene.” The first thing the officer says, a typical cop-show trope, resonates painfully with where we’ve been: “Freeze / Don’t nobody move nothing.” This is exactly the problem. It is exactly what the speaker has been fighting from the beginning and now what we, too, are recognizing as our own struggle. Paralysis. Immobility.

The officer continues: “y’all know what this is!” Out of context, this almost sounds like the MC’s first salvo to get the party started. It would, in fact, mean this if it were said in the first half of the outro by one of the crew. One of the crew immediately responds, “What?” The response answers a question with a question. It echoes the officer’s injunction in an attempt to keep open the interpretation of “what this is.” But we know as well as they that the scene has already been scripted. The officer assumes. He assumes that they’ve all been through this before. The scene has been rehearsed although it hasn’t yet happened. They know how to perform their roles as he does his, and the crew’s attempts to flip the script, to engage the officer, and to say “what this [actually] is” won’t change the narrative.

As suggested before, this is in part a problem of knowledge. The officer already knows “what this is” and his knowledge prevents him from seeing the crew for who they are as they are (“You are you”). The officer is not present to the crew and uses his preconceptions as a replacement for both recognition and acknowledgment.[13] He commands, “Get’em up.” When the officer says this, it is the first step toward arresting the crew; ironically, though, the phrase is exactly what the song has been attempting to do the whole time. To get up. To get over. The speaker of the lyric wants to get out from under the “neon King Kong” and no longer “stoop” and to “keep from going under.” The officer’s use, though, is in line with being “sent up for a eight-year bid.” This is the kind of reverse signifying that re-transfigures an apotheosis back into base matter. From Douglass’s insistence “My tendency was upward” (122) to Mayfield’s and Brown’s inspiring “move on up” and to “get on up” a hundred-and-twenty years later, the officer stops this progress dead in its tracks with his orders and screeching tires. Suddenly, the desire to hijack a plane—to take hostages rather than be the hostage, to get up, up, and away—doesn’t seem so extreme.

The harmony between opposites no longer holds: Get’em up…Get’em up!—We’re down with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five—…Look, shut up!” The signifying “down,” what was just a moment ago aligned with “what’s up,” is back to expressing an opposition; yet, it is a verbal defense insufficient to overturn the official command. In fact, it enforces it. The reason for making the crew shut their mouths and put up their hands is to bring them down, literally and figuratively. It is both arrest and erasure. What could be worse than telling poets not to speak? When they identify themselves as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, an opportunity briefly opens for the officer to acknowledge them; instead, in a self-justifying interpretation, the officer superimposes what he already knows them to be: “What is that, a gang?” It is not a question. The officer imposes one discourse on another in order to decipher (as well as de-cipher) the responses of the crew. In doing so, the officer maintains a brutalizing system of control.

Robin D.G. Kelley gives an explicit account of the interpretive consequences of such imposed perspectives, even when well intentioned:

[T]he culture concept employed by social scientists has severely impoverished contemporary debates over the plight of urban African Americans and contributed to the construction of the ghetto as a reservoir of pathologies and bad cultural values…. When social scientists explore ‘expressive’ cultural forms or what has been called ‘popular culture’ (such as language, music, and style), most reduce it to expressions of pathology, compensatory behavior, or creative ‘coping mechanisms’ to deal with racism and poverty…. Few scholars acknowledge that what might also be at stake here are aesthetics, style, and pleasure…. By conceiving black urban culture in the singular, interpreters unwittingly reduce their subjects to cardboard typologies who fit neatly into their own definition of the “underclass” and render invisible a wide array of complex cultural forms and practices. (120)

The officer’s reduction of the crew to “cardboard typologies” is exactly what the outro of “The Message” exposes and contests, as the ebullient “Yeah, man” now becomes “Naw, man!” In the beginning, questions served as a call and response; now, the questions are rhetorical, and, like the train, they have gone from modes of conveyance to a strange kind of weapon: “Look, shut up! I don’t want to hear your mouth.” The pattern of watching followed by speaking or hearing threading through the song gets repeated—“Look…shut up”—and then negated.

As reciprocity gets undermined, the members of the crew are made to disappear even before they are taken away in the police car. Their retorts to the officer’s assumptions, their attempts to define themselves, their effort to get the officer to recognize, all fall on deaf ears. “What’s the problem?” slips from a question of social decay and political neglect to a question of identity. We can imagine that fixed list of thugs, pimps, and pushers the lyric speaker so desperately wants his son to avoid replaying in the officer’s head as he stutters, “Ain’t no—You the problem.” Antithetical to the Levinasian notion of “You are you,” the officer’s statement objectifies and reduces the crew “to cardboard typologies who fit neatly into [the officer’s] own definition” (Kelley 120). The officer starts to say that there is no problem, but stops short. It is too evident that there is a problem; yet, to articulate the problem the way the lyric does would obligate the officer to question his role in a system of surveillance and control, and this would, in turn, require him to take personal responsibility for the members of the crew standing before him. In his inability to articulate what the problem actually is, he projects the problem onto them. The victimized become scapegoats for the more complex systemic injustices that get obscured, ignored, and even reified by the officer’s insistence on playing out a set script. “You know what this is,” because not to know would thrust the officer into the same ethical quandary in which we find ourselves.

Instead of entering into a personal relation with the crew, the officer quashes any ethical obligation with physical force. By arresting the crew, the officer enacts the very thing the song is meant to stave off: “You ain’t got to push me, man.” This precariously loaded statement gets quickly punctuated with a starkly ironic command: “Get in the car.” An unraveling and then a reversal. A ride out of the ghetto finally appears at the moment we are all pushed over the edge. But it is a ride in the back of a cop car to the very place where the lyric ends. A cell. Whatever innocence and revived hope the outro offered at the beginning is entirely snuffed out. Going down to the Fever is now a trip down to the station. Theme and variation get reduced to violent repetition. And yet. The outro doesn’t end there. In his increasing agitation, the officer again interrupts himself in an attempt to maintain his composure, even as he shoves the crew into the car. The officer stutters, “Get in the god—I said get in the car!”[14] Where before the officer’s “self-restraint” allows him to substitute the crew in place of the circumstances, now, the officer’s attempt to keep his cool emphasizes how emotionally charged this scene has become. The officer’s authoritative rhetoric cannot conceal his personal investment in the role he plays.

But if justice is to prevail, this can’t be. As Levinas emphasizes, “Justice, exercised through institutions, which are inevitable, must always be held in check by the initial interpersonal relation” (90). Especially at the point of arrest, the officer must maintain a compassionate disinterest that suspends any personal investment he might have in the situation: “[J]ustice only has meaning if it retains the spirit of dis-interestedness which animates the idea of responsibility for the other man” (99). He must respond to the situation as it is and not just play a predetermined role. The officer’s apparent moment of verbal restraint reverberates back through the song, from the religious allusion in the reference to All My Children, to the Old Testament reference in needing “a con this land of milk and honey,” to the address to God “smiling” and “frowning” in the parable. However accidental, the officer forges an apt link between “God” and the cop car. All authority remains outside, uninvested, and amoral. “God” is simply another name for the use of force.

It is a fatal irony that the outro can only achieve the lyric’s expressed desire for escape by ending up at the same place where the son is left “hung dead in a cell. ” The two ghettos have merged. In fact, they were always one and the same, even if at times the two ghettos, to borrow again from Cavell, “do not occupy the same space”:

There is no distance between [them], as there is none between me and a figure in my dream, and none, or no one, between me and my image in a mirror…. [They] occupy the same time. And the time is always now; time is measured solely by what is now happening to them, for what they are doing now is all that is happening. The time is of course not necessarily the present…. But the time presented, whether the present or the past, is this moment, at which an arrival is awaited, in which a decision is made or left unmade, at which the past erupts into the present in which reason or emotion fail…. (105)

By coming together, the song’s two ghettos emblematize the way the space of the song and the space we occupy as listeners is one and the same as well. The lyric and the outro are existentially as well as aesthetically interdependent, but they implicate us in “The Message” even as reason fails to explain what happens. It fails because the outro, unlike the parable, which can explain the causes and the effects, cannot take account of what occurs. No matter how staged, the arrest just seems random. We’re left asking, “Why he doing this?”

This lingering question makes it crucial to hear that the song does not end when the drama resolves. The song continues, and in this case, the looping cyclical beats that have become essential to the aesthetics of hip-hop, have existential as well as a temporal effect. Although Bradley and Du Bois end their transcription of the lyric with the officer’s command to “get in the car,” the officer does not, in fact, have the last word. In an urgent plea that gets swallowed by the noisy mayhem during the arrest, a member of the crew—Scorpio?—speaks up: “Why he doing this?” This reopens the song to the ethical question that the officer himself could not ask but that we must hear while the crew gets carted away and the dopplering sirens fade out. We watch the officer act, and we are left asking, “Why?” Do we absolve ourselves from responsibility because we are more like the officer than we might want to admit? Or does absurdity triumph by virtue of the fact that we cannot make sense of what happened and, therefore, are made to feel helpless? How do we account for the fact that the officer acts and we do not, especially when Cavell argues that the point of tragedy is “to make us practical, capable of acting” (118). Is it enough to say we not actors; we’re just the audience?

The absurdity played out in the song would seem to abjure any ethical action and foster a free-for-all, which could only manifest as either social chaos or riotous rebellion. The ethical imperative Levinas lays out, though, means to endure circumstances that remain unstable, unpredictable, and even irrational. When pushed over the edge of reason, ethical action becomes the only viable response to the absurd, the only response that is humanizing, self-sustaining, enduring. In his study of the absurd in literature, Neil Cornwell asks “If the world, or indeed the universe, is an absurdity, why should its existentialist or absurdist proponents trouble themselves to offer coherent artistic or philosophical accounts of this phenomenon (although some at least, it may be claimed, at times do not)?” (np). One reason would be to counterpoise absurdity with an artistic order that contains it, even if the artistic expression is premised on and presents us with an absurd reality. “The Message” as a song exemplifies such an ordering of the intolerable: the song is a constrained channeling of energies and emotions that, if not transmuted into art, would make us all go insane.

In the “Translator’s Introduction” to Ethics and Infinity, Richard A. Cohen says, “Ethical priority, according to Levinas, occurs as the moral height of the other person over being, essence, identity, manifestation, principles, in brief, over me” (10). Consider the myriad, mutually destructive masculine identities proffered by the song along with the officer’s failure to acknowledge the individuals he is about to arrest. In light of a Levinasian ethics, these identities, both the thugs and the officers, are mirror images of one another and want to wrest power for themselves alone. They even create each other and, mutually reinforcing, perpetuate another vicious cycle. The tolerant response of the crew to the officer, while it falls short of changing the outcome of the drama, does present an ethical position bulwarked against the encroachments of the licentious self-legitimization of power. They vociferously protest but keep their cool. They attempt to explain and, in doing so, try to put themselves in relation to the officer. The contrast between them and the officer is revealing. As Levinas insists,

It is extremely important to know if society in the current sense of the term is the result of a limitation of the principle that men are predators of one another, or if to the contrary it results from the limitation of the principle that men are for one another. Does the social, with its institutions, universal forms and laws, result from limiting the consequences of the war between men, or from limiting the infinity which opens in the ethical relationship of man to man?” (80).

Representing “the social, with its institutions, universal forms and laws,” the officer exposes the limit of ethical action by intruding on and curtailing the corner assembly where “the infinity which opens in the ethical relationship of man to man.”

This is what makes “The Message” tragic in Cavell’s sense: “Tragedy was the price of justice, in a disordered world. In a world without the hope of justice, no price is right” (114). In the song, we must bear the fact that the deft ethical eloquence of the lyric is coopted by forces that want to make its sincere regard into theater. Our temporary relief at the beginning of the outro that the lyric is just a poem makes us complicit in this conservative blowback because in this response we deny the reality of what is being said: “Tragedy has moved into the world, and with it the world becomes theatrical” (115 We set ourselves up to mistake the individuals apprehended on the street for characters in a drama who fulfill their subjugated roles as statistics for a police blotter. The world becomes real not despite but because it is the absurd. So what hope do we have? Cavell gives us Kierkegarrd and Kant:

In the realm of the spirit, Kierkegarrd says, there is absolute justice. Fortunately, because if all we had to go on were the way the world goes, we would lose the concept of justice altogether; and then human life would become unbearable…. What is necessary is [the soul’s] own coherence, its ability to judge a world in which evil is successful and the good are doomed; and in particular its knowledge that while injustice may flourish, it cannot rest content. (81)

This uneasy conclusion sounds very much like a testament of faith if not a giving up on the world as presented to us in the here and now. But then returning to “The Message,” it is hard to refute Cavell’s observations. Is it any accident that the only thing on the move, that can move and “cannot rest content,” is the cop car?

And yet, even accepting Cavell’s de-moralizing conclusion, we still might find hope. In referring us to the resources offered by African American culture that can help us “figure out how to live under duress with a sense of possibility that does not deny the suffering of the present,” the scholar Tricia Rose asks, “How could you possibility have a hopeful disposition in the face of [a horrible] reality?” Rose answers:

Well, that’s the only kind of hope African Americans have had a long time cultivating…. The embrace of a kind of tragic/comic sensibility. The ability to see in tragedy, in suffering, in negative conditions a kind of critical, sarcastic, satirical comic response to it… [and to]…recognize the tragedy of it but not be consumed by it.

Is it possible to see “The Message” as operating in such a comic mode, a comedy masked as tragedy, a potent reversal of the mask Dunbar described in “We Wear the Mask” almost a hundred and twenty years ago?” The question returns us to the music. We can hear how “The Message” as a rap song, as a music played in the club or at a party, its ebullient and affecting beats buoying up a penetrating message, is its fiercest form of protest. This creative energy is an enduring form of hope in the face of terror. We feel it when the crew greets each other, an infectious joy emerging from relationships based on mutual respect and care. As suggested before, the question for us is whether to use this moment as a means to turn tragedy into theater (i.e. as proof that things really aren’t that bad), or to recognize in these interactions an alternative way of being in the world, despite a social reality based on the consequences of limiting, if not predatory, institutional forms and laws.

The agitated cop car does indeed drive off with the crew inside; however, here, as with the proleptic conclusion in the lyric, the end is forestalled. We anticipate what will happen to them, but it has yet to occur. It may seem inevitable, but, as Levinas reminds us, it is not: “What goes on to happen is not inevitable; but anything that goes on to happen inevitably bears marks of what has gone before” (113). History repeats. It is the function of art to make it repeat with a difference. Listen again to the chorus:

It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder

How I keep from going under repetitions

In the Bradley and DuBois transcription, there’s a comma after “jungle” which I’ve left out because the grammar enforces one reading of these lines, and we need to hear the if we are to glean what hope there is in the hook. With the comma, the chorus says that the ghetto is like a jungle. This condition makes the speaker wonder sometimes and wonder in particular how he keeps from going under. This reading begs the question, “Why only sometimes?” Sometimes it makes him wonder. And at other times is he too overwhelmed by the struggle to even think, let alone wonder? Are there times when he, like the Zircon Princess, loses his senses? Perhaps there are times that even he, a poet, can no longer think to feel.

The other reading would put a semi-colon after “sometimes.” In this reading, which is also substantiated by the way Mel delivers the line, the simile of the jungle becomes provisional while the speaker’s wondering remains constant. The ghetto is like a jungle sometimes. And other times? Having used Cavell thus far as a means to examine “The Message,” the parallels between the song and Lear naturally spring to mind. When Lear dies heartbroken, Kent wonders: “The wonder is, he hath endured so long.” This is the same tragic wonder we hear in the chorus of “The Message.” Albany’s response attempts to sum up the horror of what’s occurred:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Despite the anachronism, it shouldn’t be hard to see how these lines have an analogue in hip-hop, a genre that arises in response to a extreme social crisis and continues to speak what it feels and not what it ought to say. But in either context, whether Lear or “The Message,” is it that easy to “speak what we feel”? Even when we can find the words, do we always know what that is, especially when “it’s like a jungle sometimes”? If the phrase heard without the comma suggests that the wondering reaches for what else “the jungle” could be, what other simile might allow the speaker to (re)imagine his situation so as not to succumb to the absurdity of it all? The song answers by leaving a fissure of space, a temporal delay, even at the very end, for us to try and imagine an alternative before turning fate’s wheel. Although there are many others, this may be the ultimate message of “The Message.” Even at this final moment of the outro when everything seems said and done, we are left with the incitement that we can still intervene if we can only figure out how. As Cavell might insist, the capability of acting begins with acknowledgment, making others real to us, and not giving in to the debilitating self-justifying conditions of absurdity. We remain responsible for what happens: “Fate does not precede history; it follows it.”



Baraka, Amiri (LeRoi Jones). Blues People: Negro Music in White America New York: Harper, 1963. Print.

Baraka, Amiri. Transbluesency. New York: Marsilio, 1995. Print.

Baraka, Amiri. Liner notes. Woody III. Columbia Records, 1979. CD.

Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge In Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Print.

Clover, Joshua. 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Print.

Cobb, William Jelani. To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic. New York: New York University Press, 2007. Print.

Cornwell, Neil. The Absurd in Literature. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006, Kindle edition 2013.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. New York: Penguin, 1982. Print.

Dubois, Ja’net and Jeff Barry. “Movin’ on Up: The Jeffersons’s Theme Song.” CBS, 1975. Television.

Ellington, Duke. “Transbluency.” The Complete RCA-Victor Mid-Forties Recordings (1944-1946). RCA, 2000. CD.

Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. “The Message.” The Anthology of Rap. Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, Eds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 73-77. Print.

Kelley, Robin D.G. “Looking for the ‘Real’ Nigga: Social Scientists Construct the Ghetto.” That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Eds. Murray Forman & Mark Anthony Neal. New York: Routledge, 2004. 119-136. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1985. Print.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1961. Print.

Mayfield, Curtis. “Move on Up.” Superfly. Curtom, 1972. LP.

Orejuela, Fernando. Rap and Hip Hop Culutre. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.

Perry, Imani. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1996. Print.

Rose, Tricia. American Studies Day: What’s Up America? Eberhard Karls University. Tübingen, Germany. 5 July 2014. Keynote Address. Web.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1997. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Henry V. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1995. Print.

Senger, Travis Gutierrez, dir. White Lines and the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug. Lincoln Leapord Films, 2010. Film.

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

Young, Kevin. The Grey Album. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012. Print.



[1] This is a riff off the title of Amiri Baraka’s collected poems, Transbluesency (1995), which is a play off Duke Ellington’s tune “Transblucency” (1946).

[2] As You Like It, 2.7

[3] LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Harper, 1963). In his discussion of hard bop, Baraka argues, “the adjective funky, which once meant to many Negroes merely a stink (usually associated with sex), was used to qualify the music as meaningful…. The social implication, then, was that even the old stereotype of a distinctive Negro smell that white America subscribed to could be turned against white America. For this smell now, real or not, was made a valuable characteristic of “Negro-ness.” And “Negro-ness,” by the fifties, for many Negroes (and whites) was the only strength left to American culture” (219-220); Kevin Young, The Grey Album (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012). Young updates Baraka’s sense of the word by citing Susan Willis: “‘Funk’ is really nothing more than the intrusion of the past into the present. It is most oppositional when it juxtaposes a not-so-distant social mode to those evolved under bourgeois society” (291). Young then brings us back to Jones by adding his own gloss: “Funk goes even further, a fourth world and term that plays with both respectability and being outré, if only by reveling in the body and black being…. [F]unk, named for the ‘stank’ of dance and sex and work, emphasizes the moment’s journey beyond even the body, a physicality that mirrors spiritual motion….. Recall too that a funk is another, Africanized word for the mood we call having the blues” (292).

[4] Kevin Young, The Grey Album (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012). In its associations with the transcendent, Young, at least, sees outer space as an extension of funk: “But we also may see in funk a broader notion of space—what critic Fredric Jameson views as one of the postmodern era’s dominant features. Just as Jameson sees space as taking over from a previous paradigm of time, let’s stick with space here too—but we need not see it as simply a negative aspect of late capitalism…. [S]pace in all senses not so much as negative as negative capability—a new resource to be played with. Such play is freeing, fun, funky…” (294-295).

[5] The broken glass is the intrusion of the literal and, as the sampling of an actual sound rather than a musical phrase insists, the introduction of “the real.” Kevin Young again explains: “The sound of smoking and hits from the bong in Snoop and Biggie, not to mention the sounds of oral sex or other fluids, were ways of hardcore rap’s further declaring its verisimilitude – often literally pissing on its territory. This is real, the songs insisted, and realness was, just like the broken glass in ‘The Message’ everywhere.” (ibid. 368)


[6] The last line of the parable, and the lyric, ends on the word “so”—“Of how you lived so fast and died so young, so”—and there is no period. The line is an enjambment that flows fluidly back into the chorus (i.e. “so / Don’t push me ‘cause / I’m close to the edge”). But thinking about other significant open-ended poetic endings, like the absence of the period in Walt Whitman’s 1855 version of “Song of Myself” or the last line of Ezra Pound’s first “Canto,” which ends with “So that:.” This “so” signals a powerful continuance in its own right, a refusal of closure, and an insistence on our response (So…?).

[7] Henry V, 1.Prolgue.32

[8] Rahiem might seem like the outlier here, a name rather than a type like Cowboy or Money or Creole; yet, it is the exception that makes the rule. Given the content of the song, Rahiem, meaning “merciful or compassionate,” may be most significant and most allegorical name of all.

[9] “Move on up, and keep on wishing / Remember your dream is your only scheme / So keep on pushing”

[10] Well we’re movin’ on up, /To the east side / To a deluxe apartment in the sky.”

[11] A painful instance of life imitating art that can remind us how the line between the representational and the real is hard to draw. DJ Junebug is slain the year after the release of the “The Message.” For more information on DJ Junebug:

[12] For example, as Fernando Orejuela writes in Rap and Hip Hop Culutre (New York: Oxford UP, 2015): “New Wave pop-crossover sensation Blondie recorded ‘Rapture’ in 1980 and introduced the hip hop scene to a new set of consumers. The tune was the only ‘rap song’ to reach number one on the Billboard chart during the 1980s…. The song lyrics celebrate two icons most notably, Fab Five Freddie and Grandmaster Flash, and the video includes Fab Five Freddie and Lee Quinones writing graffiti, as well as a young Jean-Michel Basquiat as a DJ” (77).

[13] As Cavell puts it: “For its characters, having for whatever reason to forgo presentness to their worlds, extend that disruption in their knowing of it” (95).

[14] Bradley and DuBois transcribe it as “Get in the godda—”; but I hear it as only “god” and, as I argue, this hearing is far more resonant with the way the song signifies on itself and extends its meaning to the larger systems of belief imposed on the crew.

New Light on Riboflavin


A play by Kevin Killian


Jimmy Jay, security guard at the Berkeley Museum… David Kasprzak

May Trix, curator at the Berkeley Museum… Lindsey White

Marshall McLuhan, Canadian media theorist… David Brazil

Bob Bishop, reporter for the Berkeley Barb… Paul Ebenkamp

Kevin Killian, department secretary… Theo Konrad Auer

Lady Jay, the janitor’s wife… May Wilson

Anais Nin… Suzanne Stein

Dan Flavin, sculptor of light… Jordan Stein

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian folksinger… Kevin Killian


Click here for a video of a performance at the Berkeley Art Museum on June 12, 2015.


[Lights fade up: a car has crashed into the Berkeley Museum and though no one is behind the wheel, the headlights are still shining.]


JIMMY JAY. Ms. Trix! Did you hear the crash?


MAY. Yes—I came running to see if—(pause)—well, never mind.


JIMMY JAY (as he spots the car). Whoa, dead ride!


MAY. Jimmy Jay, what has happened here? It’s Berkeley and it’s 1972 and we’re on the brink of real social revolution.


JIMMY JAY. Sorry, Dr. Trix, let me start at the beginning.


MAY. The eternal cycle of starting at the beginning.


JIMMY JAY. At approximately eighteen fifty-five, —


MAY. When? Tonight?


JIMMY JAY. Yes. Tonight a male suspect was seen crashing his car, a late model Chevy wagon, into the concrete wall of the two year old Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, interrupting the premiere of Maya Deren’s Medusa Haiku. The car door cracked open, reported Miss Deren, and the driver staggered away, possessed, she believes, by the divine gods of Haiti.


MAY. Colorful report!


JIMMY JAY. He hasn’t yet returned. Though he left behind—oh, never mind.


MAY. What?


JIMMY JAY. I don’t know what you want me to say. Dr. Trix!


MAY. Jimmy Jay, have you heard of riboflavin?


JIMMY JAY. Did somebody say I did?


MAY. Tell me, have you met our Matrix artist Dan Flavin?


JIMMY JAY. I am a janitor, Dr. Trix. I mean, literally, a janitor. And my wife—


MAY. Yes?


JIMMY JAY. —is a janitor’s wife.


MAY. Then answer me this, have you heard that scientists here on the Berkeley campus have invented a replacement for—


JIMMY JAY. For me? Like, a robot or something?


MAY. No!


JIMMY JAY. A robot janitor?


MAY. No! A replacement for the old electric light bulb of Thomas Edison?


JIMMY JAY. I’m here from Georgia, the land of rich peaches and much capitalist bullshit. There I was born without electric light. My mother had only the village nurse to guide baby Jimmy Jay into a cruel dark hot landscape.


MAY. I’m talking of course, about the modern fluorescent light.


JIMMY JAY. You got me there.


MAY. Wait, that man must be a scientist, look at his coat. He can explain it better than I can.


JIMMY JAY. Dr. Trix, you explain fine.


MAY. Fluorescent lights are the long tubes recently invented by NASA to provide illumination for the space program. Oh dear, you’re shivering, and it’s a warm June night.


JIMMY JAY (shivering). Tubes give me the creeps. Give me a flashlight any old day, with a Double A battery.


[Enter MARSHALL McLUHAN in a white lab coat something like a scientist’s.]


McLUHAN (whistling). Some smash, eh?


MAY. A terrible dust-up.


McLUHAN. Yes…. The collision is the collage.


MAY. You were at the Gordon Lightfoot meet and greet.


McLUHAN. I am a scientist, and my focus is on understanding media. But I’m something of a quick study, and I couldn’t resist the fun of a Gordon Lightfoot meet and greet.


JIMMY JAY. May Trix, this is Marshall McLuhan from University of Canada.


MAY. Oh, you’re Canadian, then you won’t know anything about NASA. Or vitamins.


McLUHAN. Try me.


MAY. Is there a NASA Canada?


McLUHAN. We are all one big nation today with our TV addiction and our long, cool, fluorescent tubes dusted with moon dust.


JIMMY JAY. When the rockets filled with Neil Armstrong landed, a terrible music hit the campus of Berkeley.


McLUHAN. Not music—not Gordon Lightfoot music—but what we in Toronto call “inhabitative noise.”


MAY. You seem very familiar, Marshall, with Gordon Lightfoot’s oeuvre.


McLUHAN. He’s been looking like a queen in a sailors dream, and he don’t often say what he really means.


MAY. He hasn’t been to the Berkeley Museum as often as he used to.


JIMMY JAY. Oh now I know who you’re talking about.


MAY. The gallery girls would tease me that I had a new boyfriend, folk singer Gordon Lightfoot.


McLUHAN. Have you asked yourself why Gordon has not been to see you in months?


MAY. If you could read my mind, Marshall McLuhan, what a tale my heart could tell.


JIMMY JAY. Aw, who needs him? May Trix here’s got a new show with an American artist we’re nuts about.


McLUHAN. Just like a paperback novel, the kind that the drug stores sell.


MAY. As one Berkeley professional to another, sir, will you help me?


McLUHAN. The vacillation is the visage.


MAY. Have you ever seen or touched a fluorescent light?


McLUHAN. I have, Miss Trix.


MAY. And?


McLUHAN. Like TV, they are the cooler emblem of a new cybernetic age. Our anecstors used heat, tamed dragons, roasted meats on spits, had sex. In the new age the temperature drops [voice drops] way down.


JIMMY JAY. Fluorescent lights are the devil’s dick, Miss Trix! Bulbs filled to bursting with a miasma, a thick crummy miasma, that can wilt a cabbage at thirty paces. Break a tube, you die screaming.


McLUHAN. That miasma could wilt a full size sequoia if one chose to harness fluorescence for evil, but luckily the miasma don’t know its own strength.


JIMMY JAY. Ms. Trix, Dr. McLuhan, what are you driving at?


MAY. I woke up this morning and said to myself, “May,” (for I am May Trix, founder of the Matrix program)… “May, it’s your day off but you better go down to the Museum and see what’s going on.”


JIMMY JAY. So you came in….


MAY. I came in and….


JIMMY JAY. Wait! Was the disoriented driver—are you trying to tell me—Maya con Dios, was the driver Dan Flavin? The man they call (pause) the sculptor of light?


MAY. Wait here please.


JIMMY JAY. Do I wait as witness or suspect?


McLUHAN. Wait nearby the car, sir.


JIMMY JAY. Inside the car is there miasma?


MAY. I would never ask you to endanger your health, Jimmy Jay.


McLUHAN. Just get over there.


JIMMY JAY. All right, I will stand near by the death car.


[He walks over to the car and puts a hand on the trunk, as though linked to the car.]


MAY. Heavens to Betsy—Dan Flavin and his quest for a new vitamin—has it led to this car crash?


McLUHAN. Wasn’t there an American cartoon where they say, “Which way did he go, boss? Which way did he go?”


MAY (to herself). Ironic how I, a respected West Coast curator, am reduced to acting like a private eye in a film noir movie, like Kiss Me Deadly, who gets burned in a three way strip.


[Enter BOB BISHOP from the Berkeley Barb.]


BOB. Dr Trix. A few questions from the press?


MAY. Why not?


BOB. I’m Bob Bishop from the Berkeley Barb.


MAY. The radical underground press.


McLUHAN. I will say goodbye—for now. I’m here on a Fulbright interpreting the ways our two countries differ. And I have a full load, as you say here.


MAY. The coursework alone must be an ample burden, Dr. McLuhan.


McLUHAN. In Toronto we say, “The coursework is the corsage.”


[Exit McLUHAN.]


MAY. Bob Bishop of the Berkeley Barb.


BOB. Dr. Trix, is your protégé, Dan Flavin of New York, smuggling the new fluoresecent lights into the museum under cover of darkness?


MAY. Dan Flavin is not my protégé. He belongs to the world, like all great artists of his stripe. I am but the humble curator, flicking a switch onto 1972.


BOB. Does the University receive funds from NASA?


MAY. Certainly not! I’m with the Matrix program and we’re doing a show with Dan Flavin. That’s all I know. I mean I know my Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg. And now that it’s 1972 my Linda Nochlin.


BOB. Does Marshall McLuhan work for NASA? The Canadian man.


MAY. Bob, you grew up in the shadow of the atom bomb, didn’t you?


BOB. Yes, from an early age I, a baby boomer, ducked and covered under the school desk or if I was at home, under the sturdy tool bench my dad had put up in his basement.


MAY. Did dad, or Mom, for we must not discount the power of the woman, ever tell you about vitamins? Or give you one or more to swallow?


BOB. Flintstones vitamins.


MAY. Here we are in the last rays of the sun, can you feel the heat dying on your face?


[BOB turns his face to the sun, rubs his forehead, his cheek.]


BOB. Yes—the dying, June sun.


MAY. Sunlght is a potent source of vitamin D.


BOB. In grade school they used some of the letters for the names of vitamins, there was vitamin C for orange juice, B for beans, A for apple…. There were so many letters left out, I felt quite sorry for them, I did.


MAY. Under the desk you felt sorry for them.


BOB. Kissing my ass goodbye I felt ever so sorry for F, G, H, I, J et cetera.


MAY. Dan Flavin is a talented sculptor using his art world push to provide a place here at UC Berkeley to help others invent a new, site specific vitamin – which we are calling Riboflavin.


BOB. Riboflavin? Isn’t that a thing already?


MAY. Is it? You know Dan was one of twin brothers, and the other one died.


BOB. I actually don’t know much about Dan Flavin.


[Enter ANAIS NIN.]


ANAIS NIN. Why not ask a woman?


BOB. Anais Nin!


ANAIS NIN. Yes, and this is the Chevy that Dan Flavin stole to make love to me in.


MAY. That’s a bare-faced lie!


ANAIS NIN. Is it, Dr. Trix? It was a love making site specific in its details. And what do you care, Dr. Trix? I, Anais, have loved many men, from Henry Miller to Gore Vidal, to Charles Mingus and Jackson Mac Low. Even my own father, if my legend is true. Yet no man has moved me such as the young Dan Flavin.


MAY. I see.


ANAIS NIN. Well, perhaps Gordon Lightfoot.


BOB. “If I could read your mind, girl, what a thought my mind could tell.”


MAY. Nothing annoys Gordon as much as a fan who cannot remember the lyrics


ANAIS NIN. Or makes them up.


MAY. His singing voice is a tenor perfectly suited for our cool, minimalist era.


ANAIS NIN. Yes, like a Canadian sunset. His actual Delta of Venus is small, quite small when compared to those of Mac Low or Flavin.


MAY. You will never be a Matrix artist! You are far too presumptuous.


BOB. Miss Nin, you have lived in California for nearly thirty years, what changes have you observed in your decades of sexual experience?


ANAIS. The long hair on the men. Like yours, Bob.


MAY. Dan’s twin brother was called Robert, but little Dan couldn’t pronounce it, and called him Ribo. So sad.


BOB. You act almost as if there was a tragedy in the Flavin family.


MAY. Young Ribo died of polio.


ANAIS. The chicken.


MAY. No, the disease, polio. Not pollo.


ANAIS. In Spain, when twins are separated, we call it the sundering of the two.


BOB. Impressive!


ANAIS. Old Spanish saying: “Take what you want, saith God—but pay for it.” God bought Dan Flavin a box of lights, the brand new miasma tubes in pastels and primary colors, and Flavin lit up the sky with them.


BOB. No wonder Dan Flavin feels such torment. Here he is, dean of American minimalism, yet his brother’s in Colma gathering dust.


ANAIS. I can still hear Ribo scream out, “Dan, Dan! Can’t you invent something? A vitamin or something?”


MAY. The terrible screams of a man drained of life.


ANAIS. “And name it after me,” cried the brother.


BOB. Didn’t you say something, earlier in this play, May, about how one always has to start at the beginning?


ANAIS. Very meta, May Trix!


MAY. Yes, I did. I remember now. “The eternal cycle of starting at the beginning.”


[Enter KEVIN KILLIAN, May Trix’ executive assistant.]


KEVIN KILLIAN. Dr. Trix, the press conference is beginning and nobody can find Dan Flavin.


BOB. Maybe he’s still installing.


MAY. He had nothing to do with this car crash, nothing, or my name isn’t Mabel Trix and this isn’t Kevin Killian, my personal assistant.


ANAIS. Who designed this building? [After a pause.] I slept with him! It’s coming back to me now. He was a brutalist, just like the heavy concrete that stopped this, how do you say, Flavin’s, how do you say, “hot rod.”


BOB. What strange green light hovers over this concrete creation?






KEVIN KILLIAN. The building was designed in 1970 by a Mario Ciampi. A mere two years old, like my little boy at home.


ANAIS. Yes, Mario! I gave myself to him and he was like a boy at Christmas to whom Santa had delivered his first architecture set of glass, concrete and steel.


MAY. Let us disperse and leave this scene. Kevin, how do I look?




ANAIS. Frazzled.


BOB. Like you’re hiding something.


MAY TRIX. Has Gordon Lightfoot been located? He swore to me he would sing some of his folk hits.


ANAIS. Like “Early Morning Rain.”


BOB. “Carefree Highway.”


MAY. “For Loving Me.”


BOB. “If you could read my mind, girl,”


BOB and ANAIS. “What a tale my thoughts would tell.”


KEVIN KILLIAN. “Just like a paperback novel,”


KEVIN KILLIAN, BOB, ANAIS. “The kind the drugstores sell.”


MAY. “In a castle dark—“


KEVIN KILLIAN. Dr. Trix, reporters are waiting under the huge Hans Hofmann.


MAY (to KEVIN KILLIAN). I hate to leave you alone like this.


KEVIN KILLIAN. Go and do your duty as the first female curator at Berkeley.


MAY. Will Gordon Lightfoot be there?


BOB. Follow me. Maybe we’ll find Dan Flavin.


ANAIS. I for one would welcome that opportunity.




KEVIN KILLIAN. It’s growing dark. Soon the whole world will be glowing red with radiation. Or green, if Marshall McLuhan is correct [Sings.] When the world gets cold—I’ll be your cover. Let’s… just… hold… On to each other. When it all falls, when it all falls down, we’ll be two souls in a ghost town.


[Enter LADY JAY.]


LADY JAY. Jimmy Jay! Where you got yourself off to? I declare, Jimmy Jay, you are the hardest man to pin down.




LADY JAY. Hi, y’all. I’m Lady Jay and my husband is your janitor—you know him, little bruiser of a guy, Jimmy Jay?


KEVIN KILLIAN. Of course I do! He’s the heart and soul of the Berkeley Museum.


LADY JAY. But now he’s AWOL! He had a break at six and I was supposed to meet him in the janitor’s closet. I was right on time and where was he? Don’t know! It’s like he’s being held hostage.


JIMMY JAY. Help! Help me, Lady Jay! I’m like stuck to this old death car.


[But his cries go unheard.]


KEVIN KILLIAN. Sorry, I haven’t seen him! He likes the salad bar at the student center.


LADY JAY. I put up his lunch, every day, in a brown burlap sack, like they do where we come from. He don’t need no salad whatever it is.


KEVIN KILLIAN. Bar. Salad bar. Invented in Berkeley in 1964, the salad bar is the modern-day equivalent of the smorgasbord of the Scandinavian Viking people.


JIMMY JAY. I don’t like salad bar, that’s government lies about me! Kevin Killian is bullshit, man.


LADY JAY. Everything’s the modern-day version of something superior. What happened to love—the love of a good woman. Jimmy Jay! Come and git it!


KEVIN KILLIAN. Lady—is that your name? “Lady Jay”?


LADY JAY. Yes—like Lady Bird Johnson.


KEVIN KILLIAN. I’ve worked for Dr. Trix for two years now, ever since the opening of the museum and the very first Matrix artist was Ursula Schneider.


LADY JAY. How many you up to now?


KEVIN KILLIAN. Oh goodness, we’ve done so many. Dan Flavin is Matrix 6. Or seven.


LADY JAY. That is a lot, but when I see the green lights in the sky I get a little—apocalyptic, Mr. Killian. There’s a man in the forest over there by the way.


KEVIN KILLIAN. Oh my God that’s our Matrix artist, stumbling from the trees! Dan Flavin!


[Enter DAN FLAVIN, stumbling from the trees.]


FLAVIN. Where do I go from here?


JIMMY JAY. And don’t forget, there’s me over here!


LADY JAY (approaching FLAVIN). Poor boy, you have suffered a bump on your head? May I feel?


FLAVIN. If you must.


LADY JAY. My mom taught me phrenology, long ago, in the backwoods of Georgia. It is the art of picking up the vibes of a man from the bumps in his lap. I mean, on his head.


KEVIN KILLIAN. He looks so woebegone!


LADY JAY. And you, Dan Flavin, are complicated.


FLAVIN. One bump’s brand new, woman of the South.


LADY JAY. Very complicated he is.


FLAVIN. I’m not complicated, lady, I’m just an ordinary guy whose twin died of polio, and so I seek a way to bring him back to planet earth, with a new forthcoming site-specific vitamin named after him..


[Enter ANAIS.]


ANAIS NIN. I have known and loved many artists, minimalists all of them, where it counted, in their lack of true value.


FLAVIN. It is here at Berkeley that multiple vitamins were developed, and now I want them to make me a Flavin vitamin. [To LADY JAY and KEVIN KILLIAN.] Find them and bring them to me.


LADY JAY. Hey, I’m still looking for my husband, Jimmy Jay.


KEVIN KILLIAN. He’s probably at the Hotel Durrant. He likes to go there and eat from their salad bar.


JIMMY JAY. Lies! Untruths! Lies of Nixon dimension!


FLAVIN. My scientists?


LADY JAY. We’ll find ‘em, skinny.




ANAIS. Is there not a “Riboflavin” already?


FLAVIN. People keep saying that, Anais Nin. But I don’t think so.


ANAIS. Henry Miller said, “Anais, the inventor.”


FLAVIN. My brother was called Ribo.


ANAIS (with a sharp intake of breath). Ribo Flavin? Polio?


FLAVIN. Did you know him?


ANAIS. He was my lover, like most American men born in the 30s.


FLAVIN. But Ribo had little or no experience with women, due to his illness.


JIMMY JAY. Maybe that’s what he told you! Men are just lying dogs!


ANAIS. He was in the Navy, and the Navy was in me, like molecules in your light saber, Dan Flavin. We used to see him nightly on the docks and wonder who would be the first to explore the crevices, the edges, the curls of his body.


FLAVIN. Some say that I am the greatest American artist, but in my heart, I know I am but a stand-in for my more talented twin.


ANAIS. Elvis says the same, Elvis Presley.


FLAVIN. Twins lie conjoined inside each other, like chrysanthemum stalks bundled for market.


ANAIS. Twins and triplets were my meat, when I walked Navy Pier. Your brother was strong man, Matrix artist. His little legs and arms were nothing, weak, flapping like flypaper, but perhaps in contrast, his qu’est-ce-que c’est, his Poteau was vast, like the north pole, Dan Flavin. With many penguins around it to give it noble strength and intensity, like a hundred stalks of mums bundled together for market.


FLAVIN. Well, I’ll be!


ANAIS. Flash that light in my eyes, make me feel even a thousandth part the dazzle I felt with your dead twin boy. If that is polio, every man in America needs it.


FLAVIN.   OK, you’re from France?


ANAIS. Born under the Seine.


FLAVIN. Do you know Niki de Saint-Phalle?


ANAIS. Tell me more about Ribo, the man who destroyed me.


FLAVIN. Top scientists from the Berkeley Biochemistry department, and the physics department, arrive at eight pm to combine their flasks of atomic miasma. From the four corners of the earth they come, with crystal tubes open at one end.


ANAIS. I see, for the ultimate cocktail.


FLAVIN. From the Nobel Prize of Sweden, I bring you Stephen Hawking, walking towards us before his diagnosis, bringing with him the beaker of DNA he invented.


[Enter JIMMY JAY.]


ANAIS NIN. That is Stephen Hawking?


FLAVIN. Wait—that’s the Matrix janitor!


JIMMY JAY. Trapped in a web of Berkeley lies, I saw me a vision. I say, a vision to rival that of Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, the Berkeley men who brought forth the atom bomb. I tell you this, I, Jimmy Jay of Georgia!


ANAIS. He’s a strong, handsome man but he’s been through [pause] très ordeal.


FLAVIN. Tonight is the night! [To JIMMY JAY.] Where’s that beaker of DNA?


JIMMY JAY. Here it is, like alphabet soup of the soul.


FLAVIN. Green rays of fluorescent light penetrate the concrete hulk of the museum.


JIMMY JAY. And I have seen—look, from the forest floor, the animals bringing gifts of acorns and squash—the healthy food from which riboflavin is derived.


ANAIS NIN. From cold Canada comes the media theorist Marshall McLuhan,


[Enter McLUHAN.]


Author of The medium is the Massage!


JIMMY JAY. He brings with him large cup of maple syrup and Canadian Club.


FLAVIN. Pour it into my beaker, McLuhan, hurry do, and don’t be stingy, baby.


McLUHAN. The tedium is the tiramisu.


FLAVIN. Step back, it’s about to blow!


McLUHAN. Rub it on the rear view mirror.


FLAVIN. Like this?


McLUHAN. We will consult the modern day gods of speed and resurrection.


JIMMY JAY. I have spent forty days and forty nights in that car, and have been vouchsafed a revelation.


McLUHAN. The mirror is the mirage.


FLAVIN. What was once hot is now cool.


McLUHAN. The garish is the garage.


[Enter LADY JAY.]


LADY JAY (to her husband). There you are, little rascal! Where have you been? [As he tries to explain.] Never mind, I know, you were at the salad bar, see I know your little temptations.


JIMMY JAY (slowly). Yes. I was at—the salad bar, Lady Jay.


LADY JAY. You don’t fool me with your disappearing act. Now hush up, this man is about to invent a new vitamin.


JIMMY JAY. I saw it in a vision, at the salad bar.


McLUHAN. The Manon is the mayonnaise.


JIMMY JAY. The Manon is the mayonnaise.


[Enter MAY TRIX.]


MAY. Dan Flavin, bad boy, you cracked up your car to give your curator a scare. Is that the riboflavin?


ANAIS NIN. It needed a woman’s touch. A woman with experience—and a woman with innocence. A curator’s naivete.


FLAVIN. Yes, it is ready.


MAY (looking around). But I am missing a man. The Apollo of our day, with the cool, mechanical voice of the 70s.


JIMMY JAY. I saw him at the salad bar. Look, here he comes now, in my vision.




BOB. Were you missing me, May Trix, or the Gordon Lightfoot of your imagination?




ANAIS. He is Gordon Lightfoot—the John the Baptist of Riboflavin.


McLUHAN. Sing, Canadian brother, sing.


MAY TRIX (to BOB). Don’t ask me who I miss! Just as my dreams of a woman-led Matrix come true. Gordon! I’m here.


BOB. “The eternal cycle of starting at the beginning.”


GORDON LIGHTFOOT. Hi everyone, I’m Gordon Lightfoot from Canada. “If you could read my mind, love, what a tale my thoughts would tell.
Just like a paperback novel, the kind the drugstores sell.
In a castle dark, or a fortress strong, with chains upon my feet, but for now, love, ket’s be real.
I never thought I would feel this way, but I’ve got to say that I just can’t take it.
I don’t know where we went wrong, but the feeling’s gone, and I just can’t get it back.




KEVIN KILLIAN. What about me? I had a vision of an active, committed poets’ theater that would change the world. And yet it still seems to be 1972!


DAN FLAVIN (taking center stage, spreading his arms wide, palms outstretched.) Ladies and gentlemen, behold, I give you riboflavin!




Where is Our Absurd?

There is nothing but. Not this end the ocean of one’s pause. I’m out of the held begins, for must it could. For I may after that will. I need about what but the end that sound. Stick I need, felt be another to me. The old all alike there some. Not this I’m not. It can’t be it will it how will it. All the sorts and that’s but now. Our eyes only swing. Every but on word alone.

—Clark Coolidge, “Beckett,” A Book Beginning What and Ending Away

When Lyn and I thought of the organizing idea for the issue, absurdity in contemporary life, we were drawn to the idea in part because of our sense that absurdity hardly seems like some modernist pre-history to our present situation but rather an ever-encroaching, encompassing condition of our everyday engagements with a finite “reality,” whatever one takes reality to mean.

One apologizes for such flimsy rhetoric hedges—whatever we take reality to mean—but trying to assimilate “the absurd” provokes such equivocations, digressions, willful courting of the anomalous. Is the “absurd” an attitude or a condition, a way of life to be embraced or a historical impasse to be resisted? That contrived common sense of an Internet search suggests “the absurd” has come to mean anything silly, non-sensical, or ridiculous, that one thing that does not belong to the others. And there is delight in this. As the New Yorker says of Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems: “Padgett’s plainspoken, wry poems deliver their wisdom through a kind of connoisseurship of absurdity.” Everything is a cartoon of perfection!

Absurdity has a dimmer and more caustic history, too. The absurd was something of an obsession for European and Anglophone modernisms, particularly postwar drama, but the seeds of that obsession were planted much earlier in debates about how one persists in, and invents new forms of engagement with, realities that seem increasingly irrational, hostile, or pitched to a perpetual state of emergency. In thinking about how “absurdity” might have shifted between “then” and “now,” it also seems important to recognize that we are all limited by how or where we come to recognize what might be glibly generalized as an “absurdity of existence,” particularly when the uneven distribution of environmental and economic risks create new possibilities for solidarity but also make us more aware of our distances from each other.

Implicit in my formulation of the title—”Where is Our Absurd”—is the matter I want to pursue here, particularly the problem of registering both the contemporary character of absurdity—what it is—and how to place it—where it might be—and who belongs to its formulation—mine or yours or ours.


Dialectical Absurdity

Perhaps the most famous philosopher of “the absurd” working in the vein of 19th-century Western philosophy, Søren Kierkegaard, defined “absurdity” has been taken up as a willful impossibility of belief in the face of an intractable, and perhaps radically hostile, reality. Kierkegaard developed this notion of “absurdity” in his “dialectical lyric” titled Fear and Trembling (Copenhagen, 1843)—published under the pseudonym of Johannes de silencio—at a time when he felt that the systemic thought of German idealism and the spurious public of political consensus (see Kierkegaard’s The Present Age (1846)) had diminished the individual’s capacity to have a singular relation to one’s convictions. Kant’s categorical imperatives and Hegel’s Sittlichkeit (usually translated as “ethical life”) had overshadowed the local and irreducibly idiosyncratic problem of pursuing a purpose that no one else can recognize and thus suffering the consequences of deliberately acting in a vacuum of recognition or understanding.

The question of what absurdity might mean, then, was caught up with this broader question of how we differentiate between fanaticism and obstinate belief or individual imperatives and social responsibilities, precisely at times when we might doubt the legitimacy of a sovereign state or “public opinion.” For Kierkegaard, it was actually crucial to resist the force of consensus. In both Fear and Trembling and his later opus, Either/Or, a willful impossibility of belief doesn’t manifest through sublime catharsis but through diminished characters whose passionate “outpourings” are everywhere blunted or misconstrued by their interlocutors. And these outpourings can look like delusional prophecies, as when Abraham believes he has been commanded by god to kill the child him and his wife struggled so hard to conceive. He is committed to carrying out this purpose, his “calling,” without the language to communicate it, and therefore share it, with others.

Without a language for one’s convictions, one finds themselves both out of place and out of time. Borrowing from medieval romance, Kierkegaard defines the absurd artist of everyday life as a Don-Quixote-like figure, an anachronistic “knight of faith,” for whom the “deep sadness of existence” is provoked by a 19th-century reality uncannily like our own: the false public of mass media, the reduction of art to consumer taste and self-affirmation, the allure of total accessibility. But the “knight” remains part of this estranged order of “faith” not because it blesses him in his resignation, like Hegel’s “beautiful soul,” but because it can channels its “worldly sorrow and joy” into the absurd practice of locating “infinity” in the finite, secular, and pedestrian. And Kierkegaard delivers us this absurd character in a signature tone of reprobation and jealous appreciation:

[The knight of faith] lets things take their course with a freedom from care as if he were a reckless good-for-nothing and yet buys every moment he lives at the opportune time for the dearest price, for he does not do even the slightest thing except by virtue of the absurd. And yet, yet—yes, I could fly into a rage over it, if for no other reason than out of envy—yet this person has made and at every moment is making the movement of infinity. He empties the deep sadness of existence in infinite resignation, he knows the blessedness of infinity, he has felt the pain of renouncing everything, the dearest thing he has in the world, and yet the finite tastes every bit as good to him as to someone who never knew anything higher, for his remaining in finitude has no trace of a dispirited, anxious training, and yet he has this confidence to delight in it as if it were the most certain thing of all. And yet, yet the whole earthly figure he presents is a new creation by virtue of the absurd. (Fear and Trembling, 34)[1]

“The absurd” comes to mean not only the anachronistic and misplaced persistence of the knight’s “faith,” but also a rhetorical strategy, lets call it a situation, that presents a variety of passionate figures through the voices of partial and tendentious judges. Unlike a Socratic scene, there is no cool anchor of reason or confident posture of self-knowledge from which to reflect on these swings of pain, sadness, and passionate commitment. It matters too that the tendentious character of this “dialectical lyric” is ascribed to a writerly persona, Johannes de silentio, who declares himself, in third-person, to be a writer who “has not understood the System” and who “already has enough for his weak head in the thought of what huge heads everyone in our age must have since everyone has such huge thoughts” (5). A diminishment of mind is Silentio’s strength because it is enough for his thought, his rebuke to unwavering credulity in “the System.”

Anticipating the present precarity of creative economies, “Silentio” describes his relation to this overwhelming “System” as a “extra-skriver [free-lancer]” who writes because “for him it is a luxury that becomes all the more enjoyable and conspicuous the fewer who buy and read what he writes” (5). We may not trust his assessment of those “others” who read, just as we may not trust the way Abraham heard god’s command, but what I take Kierkegaard to be asking us, as readers, is how we recognize the singular persistence of belief in a climate of mutual resentment, hostility, and suspicion. Absurd belief, we might say, is a way of weathering a deeply polarized world (something that clearly resonates with the current landscape of political rhetoric in the United States).

In undermining the intellectual force of his persona, Kierkegaard is not only pulling our credulous legs—who should we believe?—but also staging a sly critique of those idealist philosophers and public officials who act as if their heads are big enough for a thought that contains “the world.” Conversely, the text never offers us the right response to Abraham’s sacrificial act but rather a partial judge of parabolic episodes we too must contend with. We are caught up within the textures of belief. Explaining away absurdity by naturalizing it to an intellectual or political system comes to seem like an evasion of what is most important of all: paying the “dearest price” of having a conviction.

For Kierkegaard, then, coming to know absurdity is not just about holding a belief, but paying a singular cost for holding on to it. Perversely, it is the cost of losing a son, a community, or a discernible place in the world, that gives one the idiosyncratic measure of what those things truly mean to you.


Theatre of the Absurd

It is this question of how we recognize both the persistence and costs of belief that I take to be most resonant with contemporary questions of how one makes absurdist art today or, for that matter, simply gets through the “pedestrian” absurdities of a day. In the spirit of historical fidelity, I want to take up this question now in relation to Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), his now canonical take on the absurd tradition in theater during the postwar productions of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, among others.

What struck me in re-reading Esslin in preparation for organizing this issue of FLOOR was how far the literary and dramatic techniques of registering the absurdity of contemporary social and political life have shifted from Esslin’s prewar contexts and postwar examples until now. The purpose of Esslin’s text was not only to argue for a distinct generational “significance” of absurdity for dramatists but also to account for how their interpretation of “absurd” traditions of thought provoked distinct shapes of speech and gesture in response to the traumas of recent war, genocide, and ideological struggle.

Where Kierkegaard countered the exploitative character of systemic thinking through a series of passionate believers and voices, often producing rather florid or devotional prose, Esslin’s dramatists seem to take absurdity as a condition of expressive and epistemological privations. The language of their characters, Esslin argues, is resolutely “anti-literary” and “anti-logical,” so as to register a “radical devaluation of language” in all spheres of private and public life. And where romantics and modernists might have relied on the force of poetic images, there is a commitment in these “playwrights” (with “wright” linking the act of playmaking to a pre-history of physical artificers and journeyman) to the gestural concretions of the stage. As Esslin writes: “what happens on the stage transcends, and often contradicts, the words spoken by the characters” (Theatre of the Absurd, xxi.). Highly symbolic plays, like Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinocéros” (1959), took their allegories literally, in the sense that the rhinoceroses rampaging the streets are both symptomatic expressions of mass delusion and real threats to individuals within an urban context.

Many critics have contested the coherence of Esslin’s postwar paradigm of the “absurd,” largely because it emphasizes negativity, death, and silence over other aspects of the plays, including their dark humor and sense of play.[2] Surely not every writer shared Esslin’s underlying conviction in a universal humanism or individual psychology beleaguered by mass movements and communication. But even if we read a play like End Game or The Chairs as farces without a metaphysical message, the question remains how we account for repeated, almost ritualistic turns towards questions of reverence and ritualistic devotion (picked up and expanded by Michael Bennett in Reassessing the Theater of the Absurd: Camus, Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and Pinter (New York: Palgrave, 2011)). The “absurd” need not be read as an exclusive category shared by each of its practitioners, but rather a set of formal and gestural responses—iterability, seriality, mnemonic failures, communication breakdowns, comedic transpositions—to measure the gap between one’s idiosyncratic belief and one’s social or historical knowledge. Errant absurdities parade in the grammar of absurdisms, or, as Clark Coolidge shows in his clustering of parts of speech in the shape of a grammatical expression: “I need about what but the end that sound.”

For Esslin, it is no coincidence that “absurdity” seemed to consolidate into a dramatic style or aesthetic condition around the same time that writers were facing a world that had been violently reorganized by the atrocities of the Holocaust, fire bombing and nuclear decimation in the Pacific “theater,” the carving up of the Middle East by European powers, and beginnings of struggles towards the decolonization of Africa. Being “anti-literary,” then, didn’t mean eschewing language for gesture entirely, but that speaking (and responding to speech) had to make incomprehension palpable, often by way of serial repetition and nonsensical transitions that mimicked breakdowns in discursive formations. There was hope in absurdity, too, in that one could make a speech out of a “human condition” (Esslin’s takes existentialism and absurdity to be motivated by a version of humanism) that seemed punishingly irrational and dissociated from both the practical realities of living. By way of idiosyncracies—”idiosyncratic” being perhaps the adjective, along with “sparse,” most often associated with the postwar eras of Anglophone and Francophone absurd theater—one could hear and feel the disjuncts between an individual life and a history of cruelties it may or may not be complicit with. Esslin cites as a processor to the “Theatre of the Absurd” the work of Antonin Artaud (in Theatre de la Cruaute (1935)), who used ritualistic chanting and repetitive gestures to push dramatic action into a more impersonal or transpersonal terrain.

Esslin gives as his opening example a performance of Waiting for Godot in 1957 by the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop at the San Quentin maximum-security prison. What is striking, Esslin notes, is the difference between how the convicts and critics responded. A reviewer for the prison paper noted: “[Godot] was an expression, symbolic in order to avoid all personal error, by an author who expected each member of his audience to draw his own conclusions, make his own errors. It asked nothing in point, it forced no dramatized moral on the viewer, it held out no specific hope… When the scenery gets too drab and the action too slow, we’ll call each other names and swear to part forever—but then, there’s no place to go!” (Esslin, xvi).

The lack of psychological interiority, plot, and character development as well as the mechanical quality of gestures bemoaned by contemporary theater critics was for this prisoner (and others) a kind of realism, albeit of inhuman subjects. That prisoners might be the ideal audience for Beckett’s “anti-literary” style was reflective of the kind of “absurd” position they literally occupied: placed “outside” of social life yet still treated, by way of the rhetoric of rehabilitation, as a potential member of a “human” community. We can see this also in the work of Jean Genet and Harold Pinter, where the overtness of violence paralleled by a slow deadening of the senses extended the poles of captivity to every intimate encounter and walk of life. For example, interior domestic spaces, as in Pinter’s “Birthday Party” (1957), became porous sites in which characters are exposed to intrusion, surveillance, or physical threat but also reflect a more personal struggle to claim or remember the most basic facts of their lives and surroundings. The grounds for resisting these conditions becomes more and more ambiguous as bodies, spaces, and histories unsettle each other. In Beckett’s Godot, there is also the striking moment when Lucky is commanded to “think” by his master (and former slave), Pozzo, mixing rhetorical gestures, academic jargon, and non-sensical grunts into a cascade of language that captures the deeply physical sense of a person struggling to communicate through verbal and mental remnants:

The “devaluation and disintegration” of language, to use Esslin’s terms, reflect a failure to perceive the outlines of this totalizing violence and the agents who perpetuate it. But it also reflects the fact that property or individual right offer no practical reserve from these intrusions (Esslin, 296). The line between being free and being captive, being safe and being violated, are continually overturned.


We Are Proud to Present…

When thinking about examples of where, or what, absurdity might be now, and who might be invested in its relevance, absurdity seems less and less to do with a deliberate impoverishment of language (to match the impoverishment of the world). And it almost goes without saying, in the world of extensive social mediation, that public opinion and mass belief constantly produce dangerous forms of immediacy and consensus. Regardless of whether we periodize our present situation as an ongoing modernism or post-postmodernism, cultural production has and will continue to shift in the face of an economy driven by big data, global supply chains, debt service, risk management, and financialization. One is probably more likely to hear the word “precarity” than “absurdity” in contemporary art and criticism.

For these reasons, the commitments of Kierkegaard and these absurd dramatists might seem rather anachronistic. Few bemoan the loss of a sense of the “infinite” or the “absolute,” precisely because these are the kinds of scales that these socio-economic processes aspire to (yet, as the physical limits of micro-trading evidences, can never wholly approximate). Yet, if there is a value to thinking of or practicing “absurdity” now, it would lie in the possible connections between absurd belief and the ways in which these structural realities mediate and migrate through our seemingly private languages. “Absurdity” might help us talk about the nature and costs of belief in the face of the militarization of police, ongoing wars against amorphous targets, climate change, austerity economics, and enduring physical and psychological traumas that demand new ways of speaking and practicing culture.

The closing question we might ask, then, is how the character of impossible belief has changed? And what ways have the usages of language and gesture in “absurd” drama, if we can call it that, shifted to meet the “absurd” character of early 21st century life?

The example I have in mind is a fairly meta-critical play by Jackie Sibblies Drury first staged in New York at the Soho Rep in 2012 with the absurdly long title of “ We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.” In fact, the play is billed simply as “We are Proud to Present…,” with the ellipse doing both the work of conversational or industry shorthand and notation of historical aporia. Drury notes as much in interviews about the coincidental origins of the play, which she developed as a side project to address a gap in her own knowledge of the events after a Google search for “Black people in Germany” while writing another play.

The play is ostensibly about a genocide undertaken by colonial Germans, in collaboration with another tribe, Nama, of the Herero people in Namibia during the years mentioned—1884–1915. Historically, it offers an African pre-history to World War I in Europe, the conflict ostensibly ending in the same year that W. E. B. Dubois would publish his “African Roots of War” in the Atlantic Monthly (see: Most of the Herero were killed and the remaining members of the tribe were forced into unpaid labor. But as Charles Isherwood pointed out in his review of the Soho Rep show ( in November 2012, the action of the play is not the “presentation” itself but rehearsals for the presentation. These “live” rehearsals are framed by a narrator/director armed with clunky note cards and a Powerpoint slideshow, and undertaken by actors with generic titles: “white man,” “another white man,” “black man,” “another black man,” etc. The irony is, of course, that racialization often functions on this level of abstraction, even if those abstractions operate largely unconsciously.

The stage direction, too, feels like a practical joke about the experience of learning “history” in an elementary school classroom, itself a campy departure from the austere stage conditions we might expect from, say, a Beckett or Pinter play. The “script” for their individual improvisations is somewhere between researched content—the white actors, playing “German soldiers” read from letters home, just as the black actors portray historical aspects of the two tribes—and historically exacerbated stereotypes—every actor, regardless of their personal attitude towards the genocide, slips in and out of hetero-normative, national, and racial ideologies to fill in the general absence of historical documents. Their interpretive and dramatic solutions become increasingly “absurd,” in that they become increasingly divorced from the historical reality they set out to “present.”

I take the core intelligence of the play to be in its insistence to keep with these aporias, adding on multiple levels of mediation, prejudice, and obstruction without settling off into a formuliac postmodern comedy about the endless instability of texts and production of meta-languages. The fact that the play sticks with the conceit—a “blueprint” for a play that never comes but is, at the same time, already happening—foregrounds the struggles these actors have in deciding between how they feel about genocide, colonialism, its racial afterlives and how their characters might best respond, either in fidelity to a largely non-existent historical record or the expectations of dramatic realism. Not surprisingly, the actors’ own sense of their racial position effect the way they approach dramatic techniques, making visible a range of blackness and whiteness caught somewhere between “real life” and “in character.” But there is also a professionalism that borders on liberalism, in that every actor/character, despite their disparate motivations, wants to see the play performed and consistently subordinates their frustrations to the abstract authority of “the director” and “the play.”

But no one ever gets the atrocity right. And rarely one has the same atrocity in mind as one’s fellow players. Watching “We are Proud to Present…” performed at the Shotgun Theater in Berkeley, CA in March 2015, it not only felt like an exercise in absurdity, but a reminder that “absurdity” was not only a diverse fact of productions attempting to represent the problem of historical violence but a resolutely non-generalizable phenomenon. Unlike some postwar absurdists like Ionesco, Genet, or Pinter, there is no background of universal human dignity or hope that this “Presentation” about genocide will produce a special language or psychology from which to address, in this case, the historical oblivion to colonial violence. Neither will it address head on the commensurate inability to imagine a more ethical present or future. Drury consistently plays with the notion of a historical impasse—how we incorporate the internal and external effects of racism and settler colonialism—precisely because these effects seem so unstable in time and space. This instability is heightened by the fact that these actors are being asked to not just reproduce racial examples (German soldiers, tribal warriors, “Africans”) but to use their personal sense of contemporary racial violence to interpret these types. And despite the insistence on typology, there is a persistent emphasis on how the difficulty of mediating between these roles manifests as a physical struggle, as the performers who always seem on the verge of collapse.

Perhaps the hardest note to swallow in Drury’s version if absurd theater, if we want to continue calling it that, is that the absorptive actions of the stage cannot produce some collective change or catharsis. Rather, the play seems more of an interlocutor in an ongoing problem than an expositor of some violent past. Similarly, the absurd conceits of the performance are not about putting aside racial stereotypes but about going inside of them, pursuing their attendant components of sentimental romance, caricature, even slapstick comedy. To call the play absurd, then, is not to say that it repeats the postwar fascination with gestural force, serial repetition, and discontinuous speech but rather experiments with how speaking and acting involve a deep complicity with history. We are endlessly citing crimes we can neither name or remember. But the play also shares a concern with postwar absurdists about how and why one can still believe in the efficacy of speech and actions, particularly in conditions where expression seems increasingly difficult, problematic, maybe even impossible.


Society of the Absurd

What hides under the spectacular oppositions is a unity of misery. Behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other, all of them built on real contradictions which are repressed.

—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle #63

It was the absurdity of belief that offered, paradoxically, a consistently skeptical attitude toward static notions of public opinion or individual right, what Debord would bemoan later as “spectacular” society, precisely because these coherent illusions had nothing to do with the peculiar way that each person was called to action, survived captivity, or maintained even the clunky semblance of mobility. When Esslin wrote “Theater of the Absurd,” he framed the absurdist mode as not just a revolution in

dramatic communication but also a response, however negative and obscure, to the failures of social imagination. In ways that anticipated the present situation of heightened social mediation and economic precarity, Esslin remarked that absurdist authors turned against not only the commodification of mass communication but also the “growing specialization of life” that isolated members of a society to their own “specialized jargon” (Esslin, 299). It doesn’t take too much of a leap of faith to extend this problem to our present situation where such euphemisms as “the sharing economy” or Amazon’s cynical riff on dehumanizing labor, “Amazon’s Mechanical Turk” (, take the notion of a “specialized” labor and industrial jargon to perverse ends. One can’t make this stuff up. On Amazon’s website, Individual tasks are described as “Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs)” performed by “an on-demand, scalable work force.”

One of the most enduring “virtues of the absurd” is that it served as an internal check on the ability to take “the social” or “the individual” or even “the human” for granted. And precisely because it eschews these assumed unities, absurdity demands radical and constant particularization. Both the social whole and the lives that made it up were presented as a series of opposing parts and abandoned possibilities, as if one leg was working against the other. One thinks of the tortured gait of Beckett’s Watt as an expression of just how hard it is to move when no relation is known or assumed between past and future, a thing and its shadow, one direction over another:

Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and to flight out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. (Watt, 23)[3]

What Watt shows us is still a life, but a life lived through an unknown series of parts. Even in this intricate state of exhaustion, one goes on thinking and speaking anyways, with the hope that we will get something right by being or acting wrong, as in Beckett’s Molloy:

All I know is what the words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, a middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead. And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by hear and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept. To hell with it anyway. (Molloy, 27)

Always under intense self-revision, Molloy sets as his aim of his actions neither invention nor escape. From the standpoint of a radically dissociated personality, one body appears like a series of parts arrayed upon a continuum that is at turns impossibly rich or vast and utterly devoid of purpose or content. Like many of Beckett’s nomadic protagonists, Molloy seems homeless in both a practical and spiritual sense, moving from one abuse to another, and yet he can’t shake the feeling that he is at home wherever his dilapidated bicycle carries him: “But Preferred to abide by my simple feeling and its voice that said, Molloy, your region is vast, you have never left it and you never shall.” (Molloy, 60). The feeling of belief persists, it places and traces him, even while he seems to lose every external guarantee that he is moving in a definite direction, that he is real, and that he is a part of some meaningful shift in history.

When compelled to describe the ludicrous, ridiculous, or nonsensical state of affairs as “absurd,” we might think too of how absurdity has and continues to be mobilized not just to make a comedy of our confusion but to show the personal and social costs of inhabiting a violent order of things—and still keeping some semblance of belief. Acting absurdly is not an evasion, a giving in to a state of resignation, as Kierkegaard reminds us, but a conscious decision to dissemble and reassemble the very tissue of social life. Like Coolidge’s long poem on Beckett, one seeks something like a “word” to stand on by taking apart the very structures in which speech happens, showing how something as simple as pointing toward a thing in the world can involve a tremendous series of contortions: “There is nothing but…”



[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, eds. C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Walsh, trans. Sylvia Walsh (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). For his take on the instrumentalization of ideas of “the public” for political interests, see The Present Age, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962). Perhaps his best example of his dialogic style by way of a series of textual personas, is: Either/Or, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).

[2] Albert Bermel, for example, published an article about humor in Ionesco in 1975 called, “Ionesco: Anything But Absurd,” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 21, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp. 411-420.

[3] Samuel Beckett, Watt (New York: Grove Press, 2009) and Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable (New York: Grove Press, 2009). The English edition of Watt was published in 1953 and the English edition of Molloy was published in 1955


I began the day wandering the streets of the small city where I lived in pursuit of two variables (acts and location) that belonged to the same expression (“acts of location”) but mysteriously so. I was looking for an event (in the world) that would index the moment the expression came into being, such that when one said “acts of location” sound or sight would confirm it. Moreover—I thought as I meandered—the event needed to occur between my body and the city. That is, I wanted to express, within the object world, a series of “acts of location” that needed only the body (and the world) in that moment of expression. Yet, I also wanted to find the variables of the expression as independent facts in the world, and, between them, to recognize some form of visible scarring that would indicate, not only that I’d found those facts, but their interrelation as well. The scarring would act like a body (though not mine) which one approached with a word that functioned like a name but didn’t have to be the name that necessarily belonged to that body but could be a name that the body put on for a time then took off to hand back to one. It needed to be a name that could be worn by most bodies, because the idea was that you’d find scarring everywhere, between every gesture and the space that manifested around it. I was trying to see location like I saw wind blowing the small branches of city trees. I tried to have it sync up with the incessant sparrowing I heard. I wanted location to be ordinary and for acts to be countable. However, I did not want “acts” to be sitting on top of “location” in such a way that one was metaphysically indisposed, having to pull the two apart as I was now doing. There had to be a pre-space, before the expression, where they were adjoined but not merged. An act was everything and location was everywhere, which made the whole thing hard to break down, but when you said “acts of location,” you didn’t think all possible things at once. Rather, you narrowed in on a feeling, a specific event that made a boundary in time. I was trying to walk through the city with this unfolding. I began northeasterly with pieces of paper on which I’d scribbled words like “houses” and “bird” and “cinema,” and carried those pieces to sites I thought of as “church,” “bus station,” and “art gallery,” leaving each piece in some kind of correspondence. I lay “houses” within “church” and pulled out my recorder. I hid “bird” behind a trash barrel at the “bus station,” then got on a bus. Somebody asked me what I was doing when I began making new slips for “acts” on the bus. I tore the paper with ceremony and hunkered down to make the folds. A person tried to grab one, but I retained it at the same time that I put “cinema” in his pocket. I thought he might fall to the floor and allow his face to open. I thought he might do something devotional. But, instead he stared and did not blink. You couldn’t understand it if you couldn’t ask about it and you couldn’t ask about it unless you revealed the “act” in his pocket. I walked into the “art gallery.” The ceramicist had her nests on the wall. They already had pieces of paper coming out of them, so there was no place to put my words. I still had “acts” to pass out, more than the “houses,” “bird,” and “cinema” of several hours ago. I had “fold”: I wanted fold to be an act of location and I wanted everybody to have a nook. Inside the nook, I felt, we could understand something that had always eluded us. We would know enclosure. But, that would be “place,” and place was not precisely location. I let the thought go. I grabbed something that was a hand and, also, another idea about “acts,” how acts are sometimes like “pocket notes” that you use to process an experience or work of art, how you might hang nests on a wall and nest in each of them fragments of a manuscript and let pieces of that book fall to the floor, such that within that sequence would be seven acts and seven pocket notes. However, though “the floor” could be argued as location, a fragment falling to it was not the “acts of location” we were looking for. The ceramicist wanted tequila before her opening. We didn’t know if going next door to drink it was making new location or just extending the old one. We didn’t know when our tequilas stopped belonging to the name on the bottle from which they were poured and became parts of the “bird” we uttered during our sips. There were always extra folds of birds of paper and you could move your finger along the length of them and have witnesses, and do this for minutes at a time never having to explain what you were doing nor the desired effect, because it was clear that these folds were the scarring that made people feel safe in public.

Decline With City

I’d been thinking, in the wake of being forbidden to partake of cinnamon and its chemical components, about the elliptical world of REM’s video and how—with all-over roving visibility fishing for & panning past all miniaturized existential horrors—it resembles the flash-forum of affective noise in which we “live” a.k.a. broadcast, & which is typified by Facebook:

Then got to thinking how in formal terms, one desires to make writing that reads like this: a spreading, multidirectional, obsessive field, in which zooming regress and encroachment are possible upon each divisive element: in twenty seconds of shooting, an infinity:

And then landed in the city of ravaged, souped-up eternality. Here are 16 outtakes from its Fall of 2010.




Unakin to the dogged determination of research leading in obedient step to professionalization, the navigation of cities and the production of poetry will always repay the errant seekings of curiosity off the Corso: look further, a second and a third time, for patterns, stances.

Especially in Rome….





“Understanding is a literal idea based on a geometrical notion of congruence, and tuning is a notion of a negotiated concord or agreement based on vernacular physical actions with visible outcomes like walking together….” —David Antin, A Conversation with David Antin, a dialogue conducted through electronic mail with Charles Bernstein

Rome, governance fabric punctured by synesthesia of historical stoppages, Bulb after Bulb. Disorientation of the day’s ratio that resists being placed definitively within or without the person.

In talk it is shared—tamed? The source text of translation is a magnet to which one must draw near enough to be pulled.

The city will be that magnet for each of us. Perhaps between each of us as well.

Wonders—after Chicago—how a city of rises and downslopes, pitches and edges pulls, also halts thought differently. Pulls hours otherwise. In the body, for starters.

To walk in a culture where a request for coordinates of a decent slice is a topic not for discussion but accompaniment, digression, & the inevitable co-losing of ways, as it was always only an experiment in sociability as opposed to expertise, never restricted either to an isolated age. Rubbing off: an outing to the fountain for private arias eking from its mouth whenever the buses and cars, between lights, abate; & taking the road, instead, of shapely wall that from bird’s eye perspective baroquely inclines otherwise.

Passion’s all in the curving away. In tandem, tuned to not imposed.

To transfer this process to allotments of language—& feel, of a sudden, compassion for the would-be geometers of the twentieth century, with their grids, their cubes and their squares!




Or why I had to make amends with the baroque: stone carved several & a half centuries ago for colloquy with this very cloud, vagula, blandula.




Thinking tremolio: premodern conception of the mind as a substance, a vapor, which can take direct effect on the world.

That was philosophy as cognized in the 15th century, not a sheaf of writings but a way of being in the world. Fanciful following up:  love of—love in?—knowledge. Tiny notebooks force one to redact:

I thank, therefore I swum.

I thunk, therefore I swam.




As a cognitive construct, a field of play, distinction coming down to white on white on white in its more or less vulnerable shades, pinkening, even in the unforeseeable eyes that have arrived to you by paths most angularly destined, magnetic. As an architecture, carefully quartered crown of bloodlike sweet garden food, roof low enough to touch above the aerosol histories and communiques, as after battle our needing above all to swim together in resources, in the grey quarter’s neighborly love for Pierpa’, free ices in peripheral alleys, basements resalvaged, post-cancerous courage, pulled. Fenestration open again like even the thin Roman bricks signifying human skin entrusted to a countervailing vita passeggera—and mirroring once again for revision the uncrowded self, the narrative loosed because longing to be tendered, pooling.







Al rovescio, as in a beginning. Afloat in a fresh lexicon the pale impulse to trace an anniversary (“turning”) for the initial tendering between of each term, coadamic & brave, pale rose as the fall that blooms against this wall, enamorous.

“Such a vertiginous multiplicity of historical lines of sight, through which entire worlds of concepts are constructed on the basis of few and scanty expressions, is further multiplied and rendered ambiguous by the exact uncertainty of philological inquiry, which seeks in vain scientifically to dominate material that is floating, open to question—a field, that is, where the evanescence of dead stuff sucks vigor from every proof.”

[“Tale molteplicità vertiginosa di visuali storiche, per cui interi mondi di concetti si costruiscono sull’appoggio di poche e scarne espressioni, è ancora moltiplicata e resa ambigua dall’incertezza propria dell’indagine filologica, che tenta invano di dominare scientificamente un materiale fluttuante, opinabile, un campo cioè dove l’evanescenza di cose morte toglie vigore ad ogni dimostrazione.”]

Giorgio Colli, Physis kryptesthai philei / La natura ama nascondersi / Nature Loves to Hide (1948)

Spectacular tissue of sky shift from one garden brink to the next, cypressed. Plate after plate of variegating, archivebreaking deliciousness. Mental polaroids of a zillion preciousnesses of mutual unearthing scattered and released. So as to taste, to breathe. This near year; these heated, climatized, material pixels, vaporizable.

“Peripatetic historicism,” the philosopher/philologist/historian called it in his learned book. A route, not reliquary, to remembrance. The Italians being light years ahead of North America on memory, liminal and enfleshed.




Rome’s baroque colloquy with the void well highlit by current luna plus lumière (with the Tower of the City of Lights, notes J, echoed proleptically in the splayed legs of Bernini’s Navona fountain base [or at least that’s how my rococo makes retrospective prose of it: echoey prolepsis]) furnishes a delectable turning of corners, a delectable all-over score, still going forward, of increasing corner negotiations and curls toward the blank before, tuning.




Contradictions or inevitabilities of development? In a city where the disparatest basements meet ancora & ancora.

Sidling through throngs of the flea market behind the 17th-century Janiculum walls in search of socks, mesh of all languages, of the salvaged objects of distances barely imaginable, obliging imagining, hearkening back to ingenuities of the moment before conspicuous consumption, and soundtrack of home for a rummager: idiom of street sales—





—accompanied by ninnanannalike calls in all possible accents, pulse of the day’s sales piercing, ecstatic in solicitation, satisfaction, memory of intermittent dependence on this, unflagging.

The death of the street, the silence of street song—gregarious lyric—reconjures wistful documentaries of the last century: a Sicilian sulfur miners’ song accompanied by thoughtscatterer, reperformed with a difference after the 1954 Lomax/Carpitella recording 50 years later:

And thanks to a commenter, the lyrics, which arrive at my understanding filtered by fifty percent through a dialect of Caltanissetta, dancing in this intermittence around forgetting—or literally, “disrecording.”

(Of one’s life itself, & family, fatherland, friends, the saints. Of everything but you.)

Mi scuordu, mi scurdà, scurdatu sugnu,

mi scuordu di la stessa vita mia.

Mi scurdavu lu bbeni di ma mamma,

era cchiù dduci, cchiù mègliu di tia.

Mi scurdavu lu bbeni di ma patri,

passa lu mari tri bboti pi mmia.

Mi scurdavu l’amici poi a me frati,

di li santi mi scuordu e no di tia.

& in English:

I forget, I forgot, I’ve forgotten (I’m forgotten),
I forget my very life.
Forgotten the goodnesses of my mother,
she was sweeter, better than you.
Forgotten the goodnesses of my father,
he crossed the sea three times for me.
Forgotten were my friends then kin;
The saints I forget and not you.

But the lines should not be broken thus; listening you will hear them otherwise. The act of forgetting as an act of language broken otherwise.

“Scacciapensieri”=”Jawharp,” or “Jew’s harp,” “Ozark harp”: literally, “thoughtdispeller.”




“Mi porti qualcosa di antico.”

Unconsciously and not through appearance, but through the voice? Lidia, in conversation to the soundtrack of noxious tremors in an out-of-order Vespa on the tram avenue, following discussions of “anxious futurism,” in reverse.

Encounter with the tall, unmarked and unXrayable cadaver next door from the 4th or 5th century AD wrapped in 800 pounds of lead burrito-style (probably for economic reasons—having no money for marble, nor for a lid, Gianni explains) providing the perfect sunkenness toward the end of daylight savings and the raising of hell by compound kids: 800 pounds of toil toward a future of total anonymity and stupefaction by one’s heirs: the hopeful holding on to dawn despite the weight of impending winter yet another lesson in presence, while the craving for extensions of summer & an apprehendable future continues to lace the days.

Is it possible to be bearer of what one’s balked at, studied inassimilably, in the absence of all design?




En route to hear actors vocalize traduced Homers and Bibles (progeny of Vico) in a painted theater off the Via del Paradiso (“c’è solo la via; non c’è il paradiso,” reports a waiter whom we’ve asked for help from a nearby stoop), strapieno: spectacular flock ruckus, uploaded in its archive of silence.





To define xenoglossia: the 12th-century Cupola of the Pentecost in St. Mark’s Basilica, abbagliante, dazzling, in the visual correlative of linguistic stupor, hemmed with coupled men and boys emanating from the holy spirit as silent murmurers of every language of earth at once as the Venetians knew it: Parthi, Medi, Elamitae, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontum, Asiatici, Phrygiam, Pamphiliam, Aegiptum, Libiam, Romani, Judei, Cretes, Arabes. A geography more nuanced in dissolution and union than that of Barbarians, Saracens, Moors, the vocabulary of totalitarian center and other, of seized “diritto”—“right.”

Che cosa sono le nuvole?/What are clouds?, a short from Capriccio all’italiana: Pasolini restages Othello as a puppet-world inside of a puppet-world which begins a riot among audience members, after which the murdered protagonist-puppets, Totò as Iago and Ninetto Davoli as the Moor in blackface, end up in a garbage dump where they discover the clouds.

What’s the truth? asks the Moor before the denouement; Iago bids him to listen to what’s in his head. “Sì sì, c’è qualcosa!” (“Yes, yes, there’s something there!”), Othello exclaims with that naïvete one finds only in Pasolini’s cherubic man-boys before Iago tells him shhh, not to name it, lest it dissolve.

Obsessive retellings of Babel & Pentecost in the sixteenth century: soundtrack of confusion to awakenings of the public sphere.




According to Trajan: sublimity of illegible legibility or legible illegibility as imperial totem, beyond mortal or plebeian sights, craning their little necks against the blaze Rome makes, and the manic craftsmanship and centuries of unsung scholarship that have been vacuumed into its glintful spiral.

Parallel to the high Gothic devotional, to the internet as military strategy?




In which Roman light-in-hiding is repackaged and redistributed along the brinks of the objectively discernible as in some liminally representational yet general—yowl the dogs far off—allegory of opening.




Slapdashery in duration:

From inside the Aurelian walls, at the intersection where the Portal S. Sebastian gives onto the Antique Appian Way,

site of the private pied-à-terre, designed by the brilliant & tenaciously Fascist architect Luigi Moretti, 1940-43, of to-be-murdered Ardito Ettore Muti, Gim dagli occhi verdi, “the expression of Superhuman values, an impetus without weight, an offer without measure, a fistful of incense over ember, the scent of a pure soul” (sed Gabriele D’Annunzio), lined with watercolour lionskins, mosaics, decked out with she-wolf cage, et al.

From inside the purely psychological massive Aurelian walls that encroach upon the site of writing, 5 years’ slapdashery in the making, 271-275, a sixth built of prestanding monuments that were far better wrought—Juthungi and Vandals and pissed-off mint workers having made the Empire tender: the state of vulnerability taking monumental form.

From inside the fifth-century restorations and the sentry passages, museal, a cool eye castable on Smart cars flowing below through the arrow slits less encroached, out toward Mastroianni’s villa, or these duration capsules, indifferent, of floral Erlebnis.

Qualiaphobe, dawdle!




Winter even here, where the clarity of drier skies brings with it the general foreshortening and scratching at form so we can locate stricter historical trajectories in the panorama, Hadrianic, Jesuit here, 19th-century bureaucratic there, as restorers sprinkle the march of mustached Garibaldini busts with bleach at dusk, without digression from each once-illustrious story vis-à-vis the swoon of soft light.

Bubbles in the panorama park: and the anxiety of perched consciousness that here we are living in yet another, of an order of months: watching again the admittedly decent adaptation of The Wings of the Dove, with its commercial filling in, opaque, of the contours of James’s every last floating it “swaying a little aloft as one of the objects in her poised basket”—as from Milly Theale’s perch in the Alps—while the days honeyed in costlessness at the end of gilding melt, prone in programming to pop mortally as the years of splendid daigomi, giant appliance trash lacking only remote control in some central Japan of the ‘90s Englished in optimism by government fund:

and the optimism of reassurance that only what is priceless can be cobbled, collective, of the immolated bubble which errs from every marble guarantee of the eternal.


The Eigner Sanction: Keeping Time From the American Century

Whoever dwells everywhere, Maximus, dwells nowhere at all.
—Martial, VII, Ixxiii.

Early in Clint Eastwood’s 1975 film The Eiger Sanction, his character, Dr. Hemlock, an art historian, collector, and retired government assassin, is summoned to a darkened room to meet with Dragon, the albino mastermind of the secret government agency C2, who mentions that a rare Pissarro will soon go on the black market. When Hemlock fails to bite, Dragon turns on the pressure, reminding the underpaid professor that his phenomenal art collection—now 21 world-class canvases kept in a secret vault below his otherwise unassuming Alpine hut—would “make interesting material for the internal revenue people,” and walking him through an imaginary auction of his holdings in which a particularly thuggish C2 nemesis of Hemlocks’s, Mr. Pope, winds up with one of the connoisseur’s precious canvases. This cruel coming to the point is a carefully chosen payback for Hemlock who, on being explained initially that the darkened room was necessary because of Dragon’s medical condition, had cut short their conversation with a cruel rhetorical question, aimed at what he took as an embodiment of the lame and increasingly untrustworthy state, from whose Cold War imperatives Hemlock wished to disaffiliate himself: “Does your physical disability preclude you from coming to the point?”

Two years earlier Leonard Henry and Jan Boon produced “Getting it Together: A Film on Larry Eigner, Poet.” Because Eigner’s speech was affected by his cerebral palsy, the filmmakers decided to have Allen Ginsberg do most of the reading, in some cases followed by Eigner. After one poem and a brief scene setting on Eigner by the narrator, Ginsberg offers his own framing of Eigner’s work:

“Ah, obviously the form of the verse is dictated by his physical condition of slow hesitancy and difficulty in maintaining his hand steady to write words. And as the words come swiftly through his mind he has to stop his whole thought process to write down a word while thoughts are going on still.”

Two temporalities, then, in Ginsberg’s reading—a fast time of thought, and a slow time of difficult key pressing. Eigner’s particular aesthetic, his version of an open field poetics, is produced by the irreconcilable conflict between them. He cannot come fully to the point because the physical labor of registering a single word is so great, and the time of his thinking necessarily so much faster, that his forlorn lexemes, out in their vast expanses of white pages, will always remain but romantic ruins of the richer internal thought processes out of which they emerge. When the transcript of this film was later published, Eigner added a note to Ginsberg’s statement, hinged on the word “obviously.” “Obvious,” it reads, “but not too good a guess” (ibid.).

On September 22, 1965 Eigner, then living in his parents’ house in Swampscott, Massachusetts, started one of his over 1700 poems, beginning with the line “those planes were loud.” First published in the 1980 chapbook Flat and Round, by Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Press, Eigner’s poem would thus travel both 3000 miles across the country to Berkeley and 15 years into the future—from the beginning of escalation in Vietnam to Reagan’s first year in office—before its odd, recalcitrant temporality would claim readers’ attention. References to the sonic dimension of air travel were a common feature of Eigner’s poems. He lived less than ten miles away from Logan airport in Boston and undoubtedly heard planes low in the sky on final approach and takeoff. We think of Eigner, perhaps, as the most minutely focused of the New American poets—the most attuned to his immediate environment, an environment that consistently includes the language of its description, doubling back and complicating easy picturing. Both these features of his poetics—insistence on the contingent surroundings and their reflexive unfolding in language—suggest that the larger, exterior world of airports and transcontinental flight might seem alien to the second-to-second unfolding of perceptual effects among the trees in Swampscott. But there is also an outside to Eigner’s poetry, and it can help give us a richer sense of why its inside was, and remains, so singular.

If not quite at the pitch of the Cuban Missile of 1962, the Cold War was in 1965 nonetheless beginning again to simmer. Air and space were the domain, even the medium, in which this agitation registered most clearly. On March 18, the first person to walk in space had been a Soviet cosmonaut. A month earlier, U.S. bombers from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin began operation Flaming Dart in Vietnam; a week later President Johnson authorized operation Rolling Thunder, an even larger scale bombing mission; then in April the U.S. began dropping napalm throughout Vietnam, where the Johnson administration now—that July—sent 50,000 additional troops, increasing the total to 125,000. In October, the U.S. would test a hydrogen bomb in the Aleutian Islands equal to 80,000 tons of dynamite. And, closer to home, on July 11, a U.S. surveillance aircraft crashed off Nantucket, killing 16 of the 19 crew aboard.

Developed in 1963, this plane, the EC121H Warning Star, was charged with monitoring the eastern seaboard; a sequence of the aircraft flew continuous missions over the Atlantic coast 24 hours a day for a decade. Producing photographic documents that would be beamed across the United States and interpreted by specialists at the North American Air Defense Combat Operations Center in Colorado Springs, the Warning Star sought out singularities in its assigned neighborhood, tracing in particular Russian aircraft and naval vessels cruising off the east coast of the U.S. While other jets of this same make provided surveillance for atomic testing in the Pacific, and for the war in Vietnam, this squad remained in a kind of permanent holding pattern whose center was less than 20 miles from Eigner at another local airport, Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts.2

“The plane sounds protective,” Eigner writes in a May 1960 poem. That October, an Eastern Air Lines flight landing at Logan airport crashed into the sea, killing 62 of the 72 passengers aboard. Eigner writes directly of the accident: “planes again hove by / the corridors light above / sirens, after the crash / this wall off toward the bay.”3 If Eigner’s house in Swampscott was nominally protected by the Warning Star, it was also, however, an around-the-clock center for a very different kind of information gathering. Connected by radio to the outside world, even introduced by radio to the field of poetry, news for Eigner both comes through the air and is often of the air: rockets and jets are launching satellites, dropping bombs, testing nuclear weapons, spewing exfoliates, and crashing into the sea close by. And yet “news” in Eigner’s poetry would seem to be a direct rejection of these kinds of drama, even when highlights of this drama occur within earshot. Rather, Eigner FM tended to register events that could not be noticed, let alone broadcast, by major stations, central among these what he calls “tides of the air” (419) or elsewhere “the inrolled / maps in the sky” (425). Eigner’s attention gravitates toward the air in part because it is an undomesticated, fluctuating space that will not permanently retain man’s physical or linguistic imprint: “no axiom exists / in the air” (428).4

But if air is the constantly mutating and refreshing medium of freedom, it is also the permeable membrane through which his research radio station gets linked to, even harnessed by, the rest of the world, which is why manned flight becomes such a crucial seam within Eigner’s poetics of air. Many of Eigner’s poems from the late 1950s and 60s explicitly reflect on space travel and the possibility of airborne nuclear destruction. But this engagement is typically understated, superimposed as one among several interpretive registers: “That the neighborhood might be covered / by one roof, occurred / this morning,” Eigner writes in a 1959 poem, morphing this image of a dome into a mushroom cloud with the lines, “And death when you don’t want it what you like / is a plain object // the long-trunked clouds / a weltered event” (305). Again, most long-trunked clouds and weltered events in Eigner’s poetry are less about singular tragic occurrences—like nuclear strikes—than about the ongoing perceptual possibilities of clouds transforming in time. But the fact that there is quiet commerce—or perhaps we should call it air loss—between the durational neighborhood diorama in which Eigner labors and the outer world of nuclear strikes and airline crashes helps us understand the degree to which the former is not so much a repression of the latter as it is a patient and radical re-modeling of it with the materials at hand. Or, to put it sonically rather than physically, the slow process poetics of air always available on Eigner FM was a dramaless, eventless broadcast that achieved its traction dialectically as a aural oozing below the frequency of administered news—even public radio.

Like Henry Darger taking daily meteorological data and comparing it to the weatherman’s predictions, or Georges Perec making the micro-occurrences of a single Parisian apartment building the whole story of a gargantuan novel, Eigner’s attention to his occasionally domed domain should also be understood as an intentional and carefully framed project. As Eigner himself put it: “In order to relax at all I had to keep my attention partly away from myself, had to seek a home, coziness in the world.”5 And yet this physiological constraint does not dictate the kind of attention Eigner will lavish on the surrounding world. And this is why he objects to a reading like Ginsberg’s that sees Eigner’s singular open field poetics as a direct mechanical consequence of his cerebral palsy. The type of exterior home Eigner will construct is not a given; nor is his patience, either in Swampscott or in Berkeley. The poem with which I began helps to draw all this out.

+++those planes were loud

+++++++the degree+++with my head down
++++++++half-way to my lap

+++++++what bird’s call
++++++++sounding close
+++++++I haven’t
++++++++learned+++a flute

+++++++++to match silence
+++++++and the sea’s sound

+++there’s nothing like music
+++++in the street

+++++++out the opposite window
+++++++++along through trees

+++++a piano hoisted up-
++++++level storey

+++fire sire
+++++the hot night
+++++++++still to draw

+++the passing earth
+++whirls out (671)

Here the external world of planes is a prompt—an alarm clock even—that as ambient sound often does for poets (think of Wordsworth) begins the focusing process: first, on a rare image of the speaker’s body, and then on a series of less dramatic, less loud, sonic occurrences that organize the neighborhood. The failed identification of a birdcall here is also a rejected identification with birds, say famously melodic nightingales, as idealized figures for poetics. Similarly, the role of the as yet unlearned flute would only be “to match silence / and the sea’s sound.” Another celebrated melody maker, producer of expressive musical figures, must for Eigner compete against the equally fascinating ground of silence (more Cagean than absolute) and sea murmur. Here as elsewhere in Eigner the received hierarchy of event over condition is first challenged and then exploded—as conditions themselves become micro-events. When Eigner writes that “there is nothing like music / in the street” he means not that literal music beyond his driveway would be the asymptote of excellence but that the actual sounds of the street—on which he’s just reflected—would be poorly described by analogies to music. And so flutes and bird songs are poor figures for the poet’s self-assigned role as reflexive transcriber of local audio effects. As he continues, the piano is similarly of interest not for the music that might come out of it, but for the sound its hoisting makes. In the distance fire fathers (or sires) a siren, and crickets fill the subsequent gap, as the poet both draws and draws from the earth, before drawing his poem to a temporary close, which the next poem of his street will quickly open again.

Eigner was not unknown at the time this poem was composed. And yet, his most sustained reception would occur at least a decade later, in the 1970s and 80s, when he was taken up by poets associated with Language writing. Barrett Watten published him in early issues of This, brought out a book of Eigner’s prose in 1978 (the long, elegant sentences of which casually explode Ginsgberg’s claim), and then wrote on Eigner in Total Syntax. Hejinian, as I mentioned, published her Tuumba press Eigner chapbook in 1980 and Ron Silliman dedicated his 1986 anthology of Language writing, In the American Tree, to Eigner. So there was both significant interest, and significant lag time: the odd temporalities of Swampscott in 1965 getting re-released, rebroadcast, in the atmosphere of Berkeley in the 1980s.

But it was not primarily time that caught the attention of the Language writers. Rather, Eigner was recuperated mostly for his rejection of a speech-based poetics. Following the blast of Robert Grenier’s “I HATE SPEECH,” the first line of Silliman’s introduction to In the American Tree, the rest of this essay proposed a re-reading of one wing of the New American poetry, now claimed as the radical wing, in which Creeley and Eigner became “two early ‘projectivists’ whose writing transcended the problematic constraints of that tendency.”6 But did the negation of speech in fact require 1777 poems over the course of roughly 50 years? Either it was a very eloquent and protracted renunciation, or speech kept breaking out, like small fires or insect infestations, on Eigner’s street, thereby requiring his continual attention, his patient acts of sequential shushing. Understood solely as the sanctioner of speech, then, Eigner’s poetics becomes that of the cranky octogenarian neighbor who has always just been woken up. And yet we see, even when he is actually woken up, as in the poem we just read, his poetry performs a range of far more specific sonic, temporal, and conceptual operations than can be conveyed by the raised finger to lips commemorative statue fashioned for him by Silliiman in his Language writing wax museum of literary history.

I’ve suggested some of these already; but by way of conclusion I’ll readdress this problem at larger scale by sketching, very roughly, another way of understanding Eigner historically, one in which his insistence on conditions rather than events might better register as the event it has already become in literary history. Eigner occupies an extreme position within New American poetry not just because he undermined a poetics of speech, but because, unlike Olson, the field of his field poetics was comparatively purged of diachronic references, of collage historicism, and was, instead, identified with an unfolding empirical situation—his Swampscott porch and the street scene beyond it over three decades—that he nonetheless refused to “capture” in pat vignettes. The project of his projectivism was at once to insist upon and destabilize this literal field, by testing relations between its fleeting effects—sonic, visual—and the field of the printed page, where Eigner’s lexemes invariably uncouple themselves from any simple, instrumental roll and begin to take on reflexive relationships only possible on this second field. But it is the dose of empiricism within this otherwise reflexive textuality, the continued, iterative framing in relation to the porch and its surround, that turns Eigner’s writing into such a conceptually unified and in fact singular project: an experimental research station, observation outpost, durational diorama.

What emerged from this diorama was, however, more than a subtly reflexive discourse on the depiction of space. Eigner’s attention to minor time, to “another / time / in fragments” (357)—to non-monumental unfolding, to a micro-temporality diametrically opposed to the would-be major events of Cold War time was in some ways the clearest and most compelling version of a larger project shared by most of the New American poets, in their various ways, through the poetics of daily life: O’Hara, Creeley, Olson, Whalen, Kyger, Baraka, Spicer, Mayer and, in fact, Silliman, among others. Silliman would put his and the larger project of Language writing negatively as the critiques of representation and speech rather than as the positive experimentation with the poetics of daily life because he saw the New American version of this later project as entailing a commitment to representation. But if daily life becomes not merely a spatial picture but a contestatory time, a time below the radar of history with a capital H, then we can begin to recognize a vast project of the New American poets that put them all, in different ways, in dialog with official modes of time keeping, and measuring more generally. More, and this is the rub for Silliman’s reading, we see a continuity rather than a break between New American poetry and Language writing. Both seek another time in fragments—a slowing down. If Language writing proposed a higher degree of reflexivity, still the implied liberation to be wrested from disjunction was not merely an anatomized space of representation, or the suddenly activated co-producer of meaning. No, disjunction was also a temporal project that sought authenticity in a micro-temporality of unfolding linguistic complexity that could be positioned against the rush of administered time.

We can see this now because for the last 25 years or so, since perhaps the late 1980s or early 1990s, since the end of the Cold War, let’s call it, experimental poetry has not been able to position the temporalities of daily life or disjunction as effective antidotes to administered time. While we can acknowledge that avant-garde devices of defamiliarization have half-lives, and thus cannot work their offices indefinitely, this process of exhaustion has been affected more radically from the outside—by the fact that time is now administered very differently from how it was from the 1950s to the 1980s. With the effective obliteration of the opposition between work and leisure, in short, the dialectical temporal frame that guided New American poetry and, yes, Language writing looses its traction. As bleak as this sounds, poetry’s just fine. I can’t tell you now how it’s survived and even prospered, which is another story; only that, with the temporalities of these now classic modes of daily life and disjunction now become the geologic recent past, it’s had to go in search of other times.