Saturday, August 09, 2008

Allegories of Disablement (Talk)

Here is a talk I presented a few weeks ago in San Francisco for the Nonsite Collective's emerging curriculum around disability and poetics.

Click here for the version at the Nonsite Collective's website accompanied by Patrick Durgin's astute commentary, or read below.


Allegories of Disablement: some consequences of form towards potential bodies

Wandering the artist’s monographs at a University of Maryland library in the spring of 2006, I came across the following:

Possibly, in earlier pieces, I used the body as a proof that "I" was there—the way a person might talk to himself in the dark. So, with that assumption—that the body was analogous to a word-system as a placement device—there was an attempt made to "parse" the body: it could be the subject of an action, or it could be the receiver, the object (it should be noted that most of the earlier pieces were kinds of reflexive sentences: "I" acted on "me."

This initial fragment, from a monograph of Vito Acconci’s work, among other materials I’ve gathered in the past few years, has led me to a prospectus of sorts, if not an inchoate essay on what may be called “disability” in relation to practices in poetics, architecture, design, “live art,” and movement research.

What interests me about the Acconci quotation, is how it may encapsulate a larger discourse occurring in the late 60s and early 70s. This discourse, I believe, concerns the constitution of subjects as they are extended in space by movement, language and image; it also concerns what I will call, after a remark by Martha Rosler conveyed to me by a student of hers in conversation, the performance of the body mediated by the imminent threat of harm.

For artists like Rosler, Acconci and others to grow-up and make work in the media environments they did, in which graphic images of the body under threat—those abroad in Vietnam, and those suffering civil strife and disobedience “at home”—were being widely disseminated by an accelerated and avid mass media, meant making work in response to specific images of violence, but also to qualitative and quantitative transformations in how information of and about graphic violence was being conveyed. While such responses were, as in the case of Rosler’s “Bring the War Home” photo-collage series, a matter of strategic reappropriation of text and images from media sources, they also made the body a site for the production of new images, if only fleeting ones, and the undertaking of actions both critically reflective, symptomatic, and therapeutic after Vietnam.

While poet John Taggart often gets flack for his poem explicitly after Vietnam, "Peace on Earth," since Taggart, in the words of Eliot Weinberger, was not a participant in the “arcadia” of 60s activism and counterculture, one way to read beyond this criticism is in terms of Taggart’s own insistence that his poem is one of healing, not reportage or eyewitness testimony. In the interest of healing, Taggart arrives at a form after 13th century Gregorian chant (round or cantor) and the 60s incremental music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. In this way Taggart’s project can be seen alongside those of a host of musicians, film and visual artists who in the 60s sought through forms means of healing, well being, and reformation, looking forward to the traumatic effects of the war upon a civilian culture. Pauline Oliveros, Tony Conrad, Terry Riley, Paul Sharits, and the Living Theater of *Dionysus 68* all come to mind here.

Yet, hasn’t art often asked its viewer to empathize with images of violence, to undergo this violence and respond in various ways? I think of Goya’s “Disasters of War” drawing series, which Susan Sontag considers at length in her book, *Regarding the Pain of Others*, or well before Goya Medieval depictions of the crucifixion. Although the later sought to promote fear and passivity in its viewer, both functioned to activate affective response in the interest of certain effects. Closer to the 60s chronologically if not synchronically, are the Dadists as they sought to present the body under threat through performances which channeled the violence of war, as well as the particular social antagonisms which made the first World War possible. This, in fact, seems the real content of Dada’s “experimentalism”: an anti-representational, however often mimetic, performance of the body under threat.

While I don’t want to reduce 60s/70s art to a particular cause, the looming presence and problem of Vietnam in the popular consciousness of the period no doubt plays a huge part in shaping the most important art of this era. In Acconci’s statement above, summarizing his late 60s/early 70s performances before he would turn to installation and audio-works, and eventually public sculpture, design, and architecture—a career arc which pretty much mirrors that of his contemporary, Arakawa, who with his partner, Madeline Gins, founded the Reversible Destiny architecture project—Acconci recognizes a fundamental split in the subject which all of his work of the period enacts.

Is this caesura of subject and object—for itself and in itself, “I” and “me”—embodied by a particular grammar—“the body… could be the subject of an action, or it could be the receiver, the object”—the result of a transformation in the way the subject is conceived in relation to mediated violence? Does it point to an empathic impulse augmented and transformed by late discourse networks—the fact that the body is conceived and formed by information, that it is a perceptive body as well as a “real” body with real physical limitations; or that the “real” body was always a cybernetic one. These conjectures, albeit ungrounded by any real neurobiological evidence of how images affect the brain and the larger organism via its relationship with the brain, are in the larger interest of understanding art after Vietnam as we live with its legacy currently in relation to Iraq and other imperial conflicts. Likewise, these conjectures are in the interest of thinking about movement research and aesthetics towards the potentialization and healing of the body, as the body intends consciousness, feeling, and common sense.

In Acconci’s photo works of the period, it is as if photography in tandem with language acts as a kind of prothesis or extra organ for cellular memory as cellular memory virtualizes movement in space. The artist photographs himself spinning around until he falls to the grass; he walks the streets under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass in Brooklyn taking photos at each street corner; he takes a picture every time he blinks. During the same period, Acconci enacted a series of works whereby his own body became a kind of measuring device or index for the space around him—on city streets, at the beach, in the woods, between art galleries and his home. Is the artist’s body measuring the world—to encompass or territorialize it? Or is the world measuring him—as if to prove the existence of his own body, to ground this body in actual spatial relations and dimensions: “the way a person might talk to himself in the dark”?

What these works record obsessively is negative experience: losses of perception as they echolocate a subject formed by sensory-motor dislocation (now you see it, because you once didn’t). After the fact of Vietnam—the actual bodies abused and mutilated by war on any side; the harrowing journalism as it made legible and accessible images of cultural violence the products of American sovereignty—to “parse” (Acconci’s curious term for his activities of this period) seems to evidence a caesura of the person as a persistence of information about the body in space-time. Physical space and a space of images coconstitutive with one another; physical space, and the image-body, and a blank through which the body in space comes into being.

Other examples overlap from the period. LANGUAGE magazine coeditor, Charles Bernstein’s first chapbook publication is called, *Parsing*, and features a series of language games after the term from computer science and linguistics. There is Madeline Gins’s book, Helen Keller or Arakawa, in which Gins correlates the perceptive dilemmas of the blind and deaf Keller with those of her partner, Arakawa, fusing incidents and musings of the writer/philosopher/probable founder of disability studies and activism with descriptions and reflections on works by the Wittgensteinian painter/sculptor/installation artist/architect. Though the book was written in retrospection of Arawaka’s late 60s and early 70s work, it is interesting Gins’ uses of the term "cleave"—a near synonym of “parse”—to describe the primary act of perception involved in encountering this work as it resembles Keller’s own poetic descriptions of her extraordinary sensory-motor circumstance.

For Keller to act in the world and therefore be “world-forming” or “cleaving,” not unlike Arakawa’s participant-viewer before one of his synaesthetically challenging canvases, installations or architectural objects, is to become necessarily “aesthetic” or “poetic” (where poesis derives from the Greek for the term “craft” and refers to an “active making”). The works of Arakawa/Gins, force their viewer-participant to react by creating conditions which may be said to augment disabilities and impairments latent or virtual in the “abled” so-called. These works intend new capabilities—actions, perceptions, sense awarenesses, ideas, movements—by both disengaging habitual sensory-motor functioning, dramatizing situations of chiasmus (the simultaneous recognition of cognition (what is thought reflectively) and sensibility (what is felt or sensed as an immediate data of the body)), synaesthesia (“seeing out of one’s ears” as Arthur Russell has it), and negative synaesthesia (the “eyes not having heard” of Shakespeare’s Bottom).

[examples from Arakawa’s painting here]

The following is from Robert Kocik’s *Overcoming Fitness*:

Are there glorious states without fitness? Undeserving and elated? Gratuitous and undying? Aren’t vulnerability and hunger advantageous too (Athens became a philosophical power only after losing its navy)?

That’s precisely what blessedness does—it overcomes fitness. The beatitudes, pronounced by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, brought invaluable symbolic liberation. The democratization of happiness. Woe to the rich for they have already got all they’re ever going to git.

But the beatitudes themselves have only begun to materialize rather recently—applying themselves not to an otherworld or kingdom come but to current socio-economic conditions. Since 1525 when Thomas Muntzer caught cannonballs with his bare hands while leading the Peasant Revolt we’ve been in a period of material beatification. The Last Judgment is for the living.

And this from Kocik’s Rhrurbarb, a prosodic “emergency response” to his mother death:

Because in turmoil, healthy.
Because overextended, healthy.
Because overwrought, unbegun.
* Disservice*: secret name of God.

The following is from an introduction I wrote for Kocik in May of 2007, and presented at Peace On A events series in Manhattan:

While Kocik’s work encourages obsolescence, mis- and dis- use, it also remains entirely useful and generative thru what it can do. Perhaps it is generative in ways similar to disability. For to disable is finally to show how something works by how it doesn’t—it is “knockout” as Kocik puts it; more so, however inadvertently or fortuitously, disability posits the subject at the indiscernible points, the blindspots, where a technology—that which works, or functions all-too-well—has failed to maintain its instrumentality in relation to a user for whom the existence of that technology would otherwise recede in use. A tragic failure to privilege disability I find echoed in Augustine’s lament, which Kocik quotes throughout Overcoming Fitness: "if only they had found a use for the world without using it." To become prosodic body, then, is to occupy those obscure locations, place holders, purchases and pivots where I is not any longer I because it won’t work—so is unmade, inoperative, disabled, and only thus substantiated.

To contrast Robert Kocik’s work here with that of Gins/Arakawa, I believe theirs to be a kind of foil for Robert’s own. Where Gins/Arakawa strategically disequilibrate the sensory-motor coordination and perceptive habits of the “capable” so-called in order to promote eternal ability as “not dying” (Gins/Arakawa’s term), Kocik is more interested in activating ability in the “disabled” so-called, as well as the inverse. He achieves this by means of an elaborate toolbox he has amassed via research in poetics, theology, philosophy, anthroposophy, official medicine, alternative medicine, architecture, dance, biology and design. His recent umbrella term for these tools is prosody. Through prosody Kocik provokes ability—movement, health, thinking, conatus, communication—from a position that presupposes disability as a universal condition of being human or, for that matter, living; that through this condition we can discover advantage and affirm difference. In this way Kocik is a late practical philosopher of overcoming, grace and lightness; like (a certain) Darwin before him, Henri Bergson, Nietzsche and Deleuze, Kocik would have us—apparently human, apparently mortal—capitalize on our “fallen” condition, indeed celebrate it. Recognizing potentia in disability, disability is critical for the achievement of this overcoming. In contrast to Robert’s design practice, thru which he builds structures to practically empower the “disabled” and “abled” alike, Gins/Arakawa’s architectural works appear funhouses of sorts—the manifest fantasies of a wildly generative, however largely metaphoric, conceptual-aesthetic apparatus (all the words, drawings, painting and sculptures which precede the construction of actual architectural structures at the enormous expense of the artists’ benefactors and commissioners).

The following is from Eleni Stecopoulos’ 6/3/08 post, “Response to Disability and Poetics” at the Nonsite Collective website:

“Aesthetics: the improvisation I make of my sensitivity syndrome.” (from _Idiopathic_.) Aesthetics can’t come but from the intelligence of our conditions. All our asymmetrical intelligent bodies. Disability founds aesthetics—-for all persons, not just those with disabilities. If we became conscious of that, perhaps we might start to see how all our conditions determine our forms, how architecture—-physical, social, legislative—-determines all our access. Robert Kocik enters in here: how can architecture, then, treat conditions of inaccess and facilitate aesthetics?

So disability, as Eleni Stecoupolos has put it, is a kind of first aesthetics, where the aesthetic—what is made, what is built or constructed—is the result of conditions of possibility which may derive from limitations, decisions, conditions and determinations indicated by the prefix *dis*. Following Kocik’s intuitions communicated in a private e-mail the other day, that language should now be sufficient to achieve what his architecture and design practices otherwise achieve, disability may also be first poesis—active making in opposition to docility as it manifests in fitness regimes, mechanism, ratiocination, and telic “ablity”—ability where ends justify means.

A problem of discussing or “theorizing” disability, foreseeably, as a lived circumstance linked to the practical realities of specific social struggles—struggles to change the way actual bodies navigate everyday life, for example, or are privileged as subjects and citizens—is that the term would be taken as an indication of lack or insufficiency—that is, as a negation rather than an affirmation of difference. What I realize, when I consider the term disability—both as a political identity and as an ontological formation—is to what extent this term should denote abundance rather than lack. What I believe is consequential in terms of a discourse about disability is the future of consequence itself—ways of proceeding in the world which affirm and activate conditions of possibility, and which make good on opportunities, promises, debts of overcoming.

It is interesting that two “tests” of avant garde poetics in the 70s are, coterminously, Hannah Weiner and Larry Eigner. Whereas Weiner’s abuse of LSD in the late 60s led her to hallucinate text on her own body and in her immediate environment, Eigner’s struggles to write with Cerebral Palsy left their mark in concatenated syntactical patterns, radical uses of line spacing, and of the typewriter as a site of composition. While one may initially be struck by the quotidian content of Eigner’s work, where what appears repeatedly are the words “trees,” “birds,” “windows,” and other common nouns, the real content of the work may be Eigner’s own struggles, physically and psychically, to write. In Eigner’s writing it has rarely been so clear that embodiment—having a body that affects consciousness—cannot be separated from composition, whether as a performance or intention. Likewise, in Weiner’s case, while Weiner’s “clairstyle” (that form of writing by which she gave form to her inner experience of textual hallucination) is obviously shaped by counter-cultural art and literary forms such as Happenings, Intermedia, and New York School poetry, it also clearly originates from bio-chemical transformations in Weiner’s person brought on by LSD use in tandem with her own idiosyncratic thought-experiments, literary performances, and lifestyle choices. As Patrick Durgin has pointed out in conversation with me, these decisions—the choice to become “clairvoyant” and a “silent teacher” (Weiner’s terms for her visionary practice)—introduced difficulties that Weiner lived with until her death in 1997, difficulties which resulted in extreme self-care regimes, as well as the intermittent search for care among her community and friends, if not official medical channels.

A discussion of Weiner, Eigner and other artists of “disability” so-called always risks fetishizing the conditions of their compositions in the interest of making a case or proposing a thesis, and thereby greasing the wheels of literary theory and scholarship. In discussing their work here, I realize I am complicit in this academic tendency. Yet I return to Eigner and Weiner’s writings more or less constantly because they teach me about myself, and principally about writing as it intends the world I live in, and occurs in relation to it. They teach me that what one does on the page or before their materials is never separate from a bodily or psychic circumstance; that, as Robert Creeley refrains in one of his poems, “the plan is the body”. What Eigner and Weiner prove, is the extent to which any one body is always already disabled when they compose; they augment this primal condition, and so I value them—their bodies, their minds affected by their bodies—as they reveal particularities of my own, and possible universals. So, perhaps, any writer or artist who has achieved anything with form, may be said to have worked within disability, or discovered disability as that condition of embodied consciousness which is not a priori, and so intends thinking, vision, understanding, and inquiry without telos.

After an unpublished work by Brenda Iijima, *Remembering Animals*, I have tried to think about Iijima’s use of certain punctuating and diacritical marks in terms of an allegorical dimension of the work. This allegorical dimension has everything to do with how formal choices perform meanings and reflect a reading practice that may be said to be embodied, or intend modes of embodiment through a reading practice. The following is excerpted from a piece on Iijima’s poetics forthcoming in the inaugural issue of the magazine ON, which I coedit. With these excerpts I conclude in the interest of conversation and discussion:

Beyond any procedure or form clearly operative in the work, Iijima’s work moves, and in its movement constitutes an intention beyond descriptive, narrative or propositional qualities of the poem per se. This movement can be discerned in the lines themselves, and line breaks and tabbing in particular, but also in the ways the work has been scored by punctuation and diacritical marks. Throughout Iijima’s work I am struck by her use of parentheses as they delay a reading consciousness, as well as her similar use of bullets in Animate, Inanimate Aims, where these bullets (in succession of twos) function somewhere between a hyphen, ellipses, and periods (because they resemble them). Iijima’s use of these marks remind me that the poem can be a forming space for perception and consciousness. Through them Iijima attends and dramatizes the fact that she and her reader have bodies, are embodied consciousnesses, and that syntax can determine this.

The problem of these punctuation/diacritical marks lead me back to some of the subtler shorter poems of Louis Zukofsky (“Proposition LXI,” for instance, from the series poem, “29 Songs”), as well as Stein’s sparse use of commas, and avoidance of question marks, semi-colons and colons altogether. However I think even more of the ways Leslie Scalapino uses parenthetical marks effectively to create a dialogical consciousness within the poem (reading consciousness delayed in its reading and reflection upon what is being read in different textual intervals and durations) as well as Hannah Weiner’s “interruptive” and “telepathic” texts. These marks are also cleaving as they intend active perception and reflection simultaneously as a singular event of consciousness. I am also reminded of Larry Eigner’s struggles to articulate his unique embodied consciousness through the use of his typewriter, and how the traces of this struggle, a struggle neither merely neural or physical, hinge on certain concatenations of grammar, as well as spacing and recursive dynamics between words, phrases, and sentences (when sentences should occur at all).

In this way Iijima may be said to disable herself, or better yet realize writing as a condition of dis-ability where the intention of the writer is to enable active perception through the page as well as the instrument of writing (in Iijima’s case the computer keyboard of a word processor as well as, I can only imagine, notebooks) mediating this process. While one could say that these marks merely score, I think they do more than score. What they do is site an embodied consciousness coming into being within the world (the page as an intention of the world)—what Madeline Gins calls in her book *Helen Keller or Arakawa* the “forming blank”. Beyond scoring, the marks are what make this conveyance possible between reader and writer, one embodied consciousness circuiting with another. As the consequences of such markings have been little explored in writing, Iijima is brave in her doing so. In this way, I feel like she is advancing little advanced ground for the ways we experience composition as a force potentializing thought’s body, its ever twisting and folding substance.

…[the following passage, from the same piece, concerns the photo-copy before you…]

Several sections from *Remembering Animals* [an unpublished MS by Iijima] are entitled “Cries,” and these “Cries” (the cries of animals? the cries of the poem presenting the cries of animals remembered? the cries of us—humans who are reading and thus mnemotechnical (i.e., remembering animals?)) engage one of the ultimate problems of Iijima’s poetics as it puts an embodied consciousness in relation to political, ethical, social and soul-searching ends. This problem is one of empathy.

When I attended a series of panels about Leslie Scalapino’s work at St. Mark’s Church in October of 2005, organized by Iijima, I remember Iijima discussing Scalapino’s work in terms of neurological research, and mirror neurons in particular. Mirror neurons constitute an activity within the brain activated when one feels empathy. Or, rather, they are what initiate empathic reactions when we recognize the embodied presence of another person: when we see or feel them through cognitive-imaginative contact. In some way, I think the idea of mirror neurons guides Iijima’s own formal practice as she would like her reader to feel something through her work—for others, for animals as an other related to human others, for an ecology felt through these others, for an ecology that is an other (the Other?), for all others to be felt through particular uses of language.

In terms of poetry, mirror neurons “fire” through description and narrative tension, but more so I believe them to take effect through the feeling for words where they intend meaning rather than merely communicate or describe reality. In evoking the struggles of animals in relation to human challenges, Iijima would like us to feel their cries, if not remember them in relation to human ones. The way these cries are felt are through linguistic elements that are under-utilized (and radicalized) by poetic discourse, and yet the stuff of poetry‘s essence: sound, rhythm, movement, prosody, graphology. Once again, the grammatical/diacritical/punctuating elements of Remembering Animals underscore this fact, as double bullets and parentheses … are replaced by multiple dashes (lines) between words, phrases, and other graphic features which shape new habits of reading and encountering language on the page. Like many of Iijima’s idiosyncratic uses of diacritical and punctuating marks these marks allegorize the struggle to reform embodied consciousness. For multiple dashes to cleave textual units between and within lines is to effectively activate a reader’s sense of their embodied consciousness, and thus their responsibility before the page as a site of composition where the stakes of composition are high—an ethical demand.

In the case of the animal body, such bodies are in need of literal reformation and remembrance as they are eviscerated by scientific experiment for causes both humane and inhumane, and historically reified by Western discourses. In the case of the human animal, formally radical writing since the 60s has proven that in the face of empire and the strengthened sovereignty of exchange value the development of new compositional modes and strategies has become central to ways reader and writer are reformed and rendered through composition. After these cultural exigencies, the more “polished” and mannered writing of my generation seems totally outmoded by Iijima’s own insofar as her work abandons received lyric qualities, syntaxes, grammars, prosodies and generic distinctions, eschewing manner and categorization for effectiveness, activity and creative affirmation (joy, blessedness).


Frankly Honest said...

Hi Thom,
My name is Ametha Williams and I am a blogger and poet. I have really enjoyed reading your blog and would like to offer you an invitation to read mine. The name of my blog is Get Some Sense and the web address is .
Feel free to visit the site and leave comments at anytime.
Ametha Williams

jarrod said...

great post!