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Monthly Archives: November 2016

A florilegium—etymologically linked with its Greek synonym, anthology (both, literally, flower-gathering)—first applied to a collection of small, engraved flower pictures, then to a botanical text, and has come to refer more broadly to collections of textual excerpts, the “flowers” of literature. Additionally, the term florilegium applied to flower-books dedicated to the ornamental plants typical of a Victorian flower garden, rather than the more utilitarian herbals with their descriptions of medicinal plant usages. This proliferation of meanings directs the conceptual layout of this project: this florilegium is a collection of brief, interconnected texts engaged with the passage of flowers between the scientific and the ornamental. It is about discursive transformations, and it is about gendered excess.

I trace this tension between the vital surface life of flowers and the ornamental style with which they have come to be associated through collections of artifacts, historical figures, and botanical texts from the 17th to 19th centuries. I’m interested both in modes of scientific description, stylistic protocols for writing about flowers, and modes of representation, tensions around their illustration.

Each section charts a specific circuit between the scientific and ornamental, beginning with the Enlightenment vision of a true-to-nature description purged of “amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style” (Sprat), where figurative flourishes function as epistemic vice. Thomas Martyn’s translation of Rousseau’s Letters on the Elements of Botany, Addressed to a Lady, offers an example of a discursive tension around flowers: in Rousseau’s letters, the straightforward pursuit of botany, matching the stylistic norm of a “purified” scientific diction, is fringed with a language of flowers as containers for the appropriate affect and behavior of the women to which he writes.

The Linnaean descriptive regime around naming, describing, and illustrating plants, as Daston and Galison’s Objectivity contends, placed an emphasis on training the eye, creating a practice of specialized and selective looking, “one that saw past the surfaces of plants, bones, or crystals to underlying forms” (60). I want to place this epistemological vision of the botanist’s eye beside the demands placed on the designer’s eye, through the writings of Christopher Dresser, a designer who studied and wrote on botany, as well as on the “ministrations of plants to ornaments.” Between botany and decorative design, the creation of a vision in search of underlying forms within nature complicates the distinction between flowers’ surface ornamentation and structural utility, as both convey the flowers’ “vital force.”

The Flora Danica/Flora Delanica section presents two narratives: that of the comprehensive botanical atlas of plants native to Denmark, the Flora Danica, the plates of which were painted onto an opulent porcelain dinner set in 1790, intended as a gift for Catherine the Great of Russia; and that of Mary Delany’s “paper mosaicks”—Flora Delanica—over 1,000 botanically accurate collages of flower specimen, created by the then-72-year-old Delany out of many minute pieces of colored paper, occasionally with some bits of plant matter folded into the reproduction, and using techniques from her extensive familiarity with cutting paper needlework patterns. These narratives raise questions of royal patronage, objets de luxe, and the nationalist project of much botanical illustration, as well as genteel women’s craft, the practice of which makes for the detailed looking and handiwork necessary to bring a scientific accuracy into this new art form.

Finally, in an interview in the Poetry Project Newsletter, poet Lisa Robertson asks, “What is to flourish? How can language be our best ornament?” To flourish is to blossom, to flower, to thrive; it is to grow vigorously and luxuriantly; it is the lively proliferation by which certain plants self-style. To flourish is also to adorn, to embellish, as with literary or rhetorical flourishes; here it signifies a kind of stylistic amplification. In a return to flower rhetoric, I will consider flower dictionaries, Victorian artifacts that claim a “language of flowers,” albeit one that applies sentiments onto the material organisms in a devitalizing emblematization. I want to put this “flower language” into play against a so-called “florid” prose style—a style that exceeds descriptive norms and is often castigated for this excess, yet which offers language in its sensuous detail as resistant materiality, calling attention to the surface “where lively variability takes place” (Robertson, “Rubus Armeniacus”).


Christopher Dresser, Pollen Grain drawing

Christopher Dresser, Pollen Grain drawing


“More and more an experience becomes a contingent particle,” writes Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge in the “Winter Whites” section of “Hello, the Roses.” (28). My essay argues that Berssenbrugge identifies both human and nonhuman “experiences”—coincident but contradicting views of a present moment—as not just “material” presences in the universe, but indeed the constitutive elements—the “contingent particles”—of matter as such. In assigning ontological primacy to the “experience” over matter, Berssenbrugge envisions new means of communication that can transcend the limits of her perception. The success of such communication, I demonstrate over the course of my argument, depends on an “intensification” of experience and a willingness to share or “entangle” one’s personal reality with others’.

My analysis of experience will place Berssenbrugge in conversation primarily with three of the theorists from our course: Karen Barad, Henri Bergson, and Jakob von Uexküll. First, I argue that Berssenbrugge’s poems offer an enrichment of Barad’s “agential realist” ontology. The laws of quantum mechanics, a source of inspiration for both authors, allow Barad to challenge representationalist notions of causality; citing the deterministic effects of observation on the states of subatomic particles, Barad contends that matter results from “material-discursive practices” consisting not of interactions between preexisting objects but rather configurational “intra-actions.” Barad argues that the universe’s ““primary ontological units” are not “things” but “phenomena”—“relations without preexisting relata.” My reading of Berssenbrugge, however, argues that these unitary phenomena are in fact “experiences,” which only concretize as matter because someone or something “lives through” them. I believe that Berssenbrugge’s view of experience enriches and improves Barad’s model by accounting for a phenomenon the latter neglects—namely, the passage of time.

The relationship of time to experience manifests most obviously in memory, which for Berssenbrugge is not one’s mental response to an event but one’s ability to grant it presence: “My memory travels into the memory of another with increasing energy, and an event clarifies as “winter,” for example” (31). In this respect, Berssenbrugge supports Henri Bergson’s assertion that “past images…constantly mingle with our perception of the present and may even take its place” (66); her treatment of memory, like Bergson’s, situates subjectivity at a point in time rather than space. However, whereas Bergson portrays memory as “absolutely independent of matter,” Berssenbrugge’s extension of experience to animal and even plant subjectivities challenges his claim that memory cannot “settle within matter” (177). Her poems affirm that memory “diffuses into [her] surroundings, leaving fragments of itself [she] may notice” as concrete material forms (27). The memories which “mingle” with the present are thus what make it real.

Berssenbrugge departs from Bergson’s dualism by arguing that all bodies—not just “living” ones— are “centers of action” which “choose…the path they will follow to transform themselves” (Bergson 138). In this sense, Berssenbrugge manages to reconcile Bergson’s interpretation of experience with a central tenet of quantum theory—that, as Heisenberg writes, “the transition from the “possible” to the “actual”” within reality “takes place during the act of observation” (54): Whereas Bergson explains the world’s transformation into its perceived actuality as an immaterial process of memory, Berssenbrugge recognizes the extent to which all matter is capable of “observing” its surroundings through physical response. She thereby regards the universe as a superposition of possible realities, which actualize differently for all who experience them.

The fact that time, like space, is a function of perception drives Berssenbrugge’s quest to deepen her connections “with animals and events that are coincident” (3). Her poetic accounts of interspecies encounters isolate moments of contact which, following Barad’s example, I call “entanglements.” Through language, these entanglements make visible the intersecting experiences which bring matter into its present form. I explain Berssenbrugge’s conversion of nonhuman realities into language through Jakob von Uexküll’s analysis of the Umwelt. Berssenbrugge’s awareness that her personal reality has “boundaries” evokes Uexküll’s image of the perceptual “bubble” which encloses the individual organism’s environment. Uexküll even writes of the differences in how creatures experience the duration of a “moment.” Berssenbrugge suggests that entangled moments of “intimacy” allow beings to form a “bridge” between their environments (3). A moment like her encounter with a violet in “Glitter” “opens space by rendering it transparent in intensified consciousness” (47).

My discussion of intimacy in Berssenbrugge’s poems relates her ways of representing the rhythms of nonanimal sounds to Uexküll’s own engagement with quantum theory in his essay, “The new concept of Umwelt.” Uexküll’s attempt to overlay the rules of musical theory onto the laws of quantum mechanics argues for an inherent “harmony” of functions between different elements of the cosmos. While I dispute some of Uexküll’s claims, I believe that his formulation of harmony can help us understand Berssenbrugge’s intimacy-based forms of communication. My paper will conclude by suggesting that an “intensified consciousness” of the kind imagined by Berssenbrugge allows for not only new interpretations of the present, but also new trajectories into the future.


In this paper about avian eggs and claystones, I hope that proliferated, interrupted, mangled, and absent form can be form. Elsewhere, I have drawn a picture of an egg on which I’ve written ‘an egg,’ from which then I’ve drawn an arrow upward towards ‘“egg”.’ Then an identical arrow back down. Beside both arrows: ‘actually an egg.’ Arsic proposes that the metaphor is a function of the mind’s desire to experience its own otherness; Simondon proposes that the metaphor is a function of the real. I hope that Simondon is right, that actualization through material transcendence is not a distance between one form and its other but a recursive activity of a form’s interior, constituted by becomings, or phases, rather than a figurative or material transubstantiation into ‘something else.’ Drawing an arrow could be arbitrary. An egg is an acellular bioceramic and a bioceramicist. The shell cannot grow indefinitely; its crystal layer is made weaker by the growth of its pores, through which oxygen enlarges the protein matrix within. The egg contains phases, at various stages potential and actual. It is not an unstable thing, to not yet be complete, nor to break apart. In pieces, ‘an actual egg’ is intact and in pieces. The prolate spheroidal formation of an egg, mineralized, molecularly regulated, even inhibited, is considered an unusual formation when applied to a stone, which has no ‘interior’ but forms by the incorporation and compression of surrounding elements (‘surrounding elements’ also functionally describing an eggshell). For neither form is this phase ‘final,’ but a change in form does not change what each is. A claystone mineral on a riverbank can be any shape, though perhaps most notable are rarer shapes of oblate or prolate spheroids, the first resembling currency and the second resembling eggs. Edward Hitchcock on the latter, in his 1841 address to the Association of American Geologists: ‘The Swedish scientific men believe these claystones to be something of organic remains—some sort of mollusca, which were more or less wrapped in a mantle. But even if we admit that some soft animal formed the nucleus, it is impossible to doubt that these claystones have assumed their present forms as the result of a concretionary agency.’ The egglike phase of a stone that signals the agency of an organism makes it ‘impossible to doubt’ the agency of an organism. An animal [an arrow] ‘an animal’: actual animal. Simondon: ‘Potential energy expresses the reality of the metastable state, and its energetic situation.’ If being is relation, phases, then singularity is ‘a regime of activity’; ‘the Being is never One.’ An event is not multitudinous as much as it is an interior, often moving, matrix. In Arsic’s proposal of a nondualistic ontology, and Deleuze agrees, the formation of a problem or inquiry is how a being will become, through the movement propelled by inquiry, a space subsumed between disparate forms (though there remains for Deleuze a demarcation on either side of this movement between the virtual and the real). For Arsic, the movement is something real that a form does. For Simondon, problematizing itself (what something is not, what the real is not) is a phase of the real, is in itself an actualization interior to form rather than a movement from one form to another. Included at the center of being is what it is not: ‘Individuated being is not substance but rather the putting into question of being, being through a problematic, divided, reunited, carried in this problematic, which [being] sets itself up through and causes it to become.’ Phases are language, are Being’s interior. Items in the list of a sentence won’t have to move through veils to become one another because a sentence is a lie. [An arrow] The sentence is a method that restores awareness of my own functionality every time I place the sentence—language, apparatus subjectivity—into question. This has the great potential to be minor, to fit inside the hand, to not solve. –Alex

That it sounds facile when said is proof of its givenness: proper light is an essential condition of scientific observation. If the object of study is optical, then one must have light to see it by; what’s more, this light should be constant and uniformly dispersed. This is why Robert Hooke, in the construction of his microscope, attempts to create a kind of artificial sunlight, “for by this means the light is so equally diffused, that all parts are alike inlightned” (Hooke). Such conditions are optimal because they are totalizing, because by illuminating all aspects equally, the light is able to recede into the background, and the object itself comes into focus. This clarity is one of both conceptual and actual luminosity; it is no accident that Galileo’s passing turn of phrase, “as clear as daylight” may register as both literal and metaphorical (Galileo 18).

Clarity is assured so long as artificial daylight’s recession from the field of observation is sustained. As soon as light visibly or palpably intrudes—whether by sudden illumination or gradual play—scientific study is disrupted. So, too, is any pretense to objectivity, as luminous variations shadow, and at times even color, surfaces in ephemeral and presumably deceptive ways. Hooke microscope attempts to correct natural light’s transience and intensity, as he bemoans the distortions of “immediate light” that “falls” on an object: “the reflexions from some few parts are so vivid, that they drown the appearance of all the other, and are themselves also, by reason of the inequality of light, indistinct, and appear only radiant spots” (Hooke). Where light is inconstant, changeable, certain aspects of the object disappear; at the same time, by this disruption, other aspects—particularly textural, material—are made to appear. Sudden flashes create transient effects that materialize both the object and the space of perception.

There may be recognized in this dialectic of luminous recession and disruption an analogy to Elizabeth Grosz’s re-vision of temporality in The Nick of Time. Because time’s constancy is the phenomenon we are closest to, even sunk into, we understand it according to the kind of invisibility of daylight: “Although we live time continuously, although we are immersed in its movement so imperceptibly and naturally that our temporality, our irreducible movement forward, aging, is often unrecognized or automatic, we find it almost impossible to think or conceptualize temporal movement, to theorize it in its full implications” (Grosz 6). It is difficult, therefore, to think time qua time; to experience time as such, one must reproduce Hooke’s “radiant spots” temporally. Grosz does so in time’s “nicks, cuts, in instances of dislocation…disruptions or upheavals” (5).

In place of “nick,” one might add a host of disruptively illuminating terms: flash, blaze, glint. Or, more provocatively, glitter. As in Hooke and Galileo’s writings, glitter—sudden gleams, bright flashes, glimmering minutiae—are disruptive, but simultaneously productive of new textures, ecologies, and communities. Like the “nick” they are the condition of “the unpredictable emergences of our material universe” (5). This dialectic of disruption and production imports the scientific language often used to theorize glimmers and glints on reflective surfaces (usually water). H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins formulates the phenomena of “twinkling surface reflection as a cycle of “creation and annihilation.” That is, “as the wave passes, a single glint appears, brightens, splits into two separate glints that move around the surface before coming back together, brightening and then vanishing, all in a fraction of a second” (Lynch et. al F40). Glitter, then, is not simply revelatory, but creative: that is, variations in light invest objects with texture, producing tangible, unique material states that foreground their situation in perception and time.

This paper will propose the material and temporal character of glitter—in the perceptual event of its substance’s interaction with light—in order to conceive of a new poetics of liveliness. Liveliness here will be considered as the conditions of and for change in poetry, where poetic time (both of its making and reading) is not continuous, but variegated: predicated on the interruptions and discreteness that characterize glitter. Drawing on various lighting situations in jointly poetic and scientific texts, like Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, Galileo’s Siderius Nuncius, and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Alfoxden Journals, I will develop glitter as a particular model (or perhaps, a soft taxonomy) that may be applied to poetry. Because glitter’s very substance occasions change, and one that is inextricable from its external conditions (especially of light), then such a model may be the occasion for a truly textured observation of the material conditions of change in poetry. Particularly, Wordsworth’s writings will be evocative for thinking through the ephemeral ontologies of glittering surfaces, as she herself creates her own taxonomy of surfaces—of things mirrored, glinting, flashing, in certain conditions. The “metaphysics of surface” of Lisa Robertson’s “soft architecture,” will also be useful in this endeavor (Robertson 21).

This model will be particularly effective in considering glitter both as it appears and is instantiated in CA Conrad’s Ecodeviance. Conrad’s “(soma)tic” rituals are themselves glinting interruptions of everyday life. “These rituals create what I refer to as an ‘extreme present’ where the many facets of what is around me wherever I am can come together through a sharper lens,” and his optical metaphor makes us think immediately of his exercises as an adjustment of light (Conrad xi). This “extreme present”—and isn’t this glitter?—interrupts the temporality of Conrad’s poetics at a molecular level: between the ritual and the resulting poem, there is the brilliantine flash of poetic making, a kind of divinatory act. It isn’t hard to imagine Conrad in the act of scrying—we have his reliance on crystals, and his “Scryer’s Invitation”—but in a flash that illumines its own discrete moment. Every poem is in fact a fortune told for the present.

If a poetics of glitter does not map exactly onto Grosz’ nick of time, it is because its interruption is not a dislocation (a future-oriented untimeliness), but a relocation: a reinsertion into the spatio-temporal situation of the present. As such, glitter is an occasion for radical intimacy, even love. After all, glitter’s unique effect is a product of relationship: it is both noun and verb, constituted only in the interaction of light and surface. This occurs, too, at the very structural level: Longuet-Higgins’ glints “com[e] back together, brightening and then vanishing”; they experience a flash of communion, so bright precisely because it is ephemeral. Through this lens, we may consider occasions for glittering, transient intimacy in Conrad. If Grosz imagines the “nick” as necessarily transformative, and thus political, then it might thereby be possible to conceive of a “politics of glitter” at the same time as we propose a poetics of it. The “problem” of such an ethics is ultimately “not how to stop the flow of items and surfaces in order to stabilize space, but how to articulate the politics of their passage” (Robertson 69).


“There comes a moment when recollection thus brought down is capable of blending so well with the present perception that we cannot say where perception ends or where memory begins” (Bergson 57).


I’ve been working on leaf vein structures for my thesis project in architecture, so I was thinking that I could combine my discoveries of maple leaves with poetry. For the final, I’d like to make a project that is of two parts: a visual and more creative portion as well as another more analytical one. The theme of the project will be passage of time and memory. I’m particularly interested in the unclear boundaries between perception and memory in present time, and how the mind can flow between the present and the past simultaneously.

How I relate leaves to time is that they are in a cycle in the passage of time. They grow, change color, fall and dissolve, then grow again. Whenever fall arrives I can’t hold myself from thinking about time. The falling and dissolving leaves make me think of memories that we forget in time or can’t fully remember. Every memory is different from the other, even though they are all short blurry visions, just like every single leaf is slightly different from the other. Also the aspect that the trees regenerate in springtime reminds me that we keep making memories. Thus time never stops flowing, and making memories and remembering also happens in a cycle.

Therefore for the final project, I can write something about leaves, in a similar way of Bernadette Mayer’s technique which intrigued me earlier. I’d like to combine the experience of leaves in the current moment with memories in the flow of thought within my writing. Perhaps I can produce 4-5 different visual poetries by using the leaf form and integration of color. This could form the more creative portion of the project.

To make the project more analytical, I can include quotations from the books and use them as guidelines to go more in depth into my exploration of time and memory. I’d like to focus on Mayer and combining Mayer and Bergson could offer some interesting results. Also if I focus more on repetition in memory then I can also integrate Stein into my writing. Robertson’s writings on the concept of soft architecture and Grosz’s Architecture from the Outside can also become future interests in understanding space and memories of space. I’ll try to make this part of the project less self reflective and more analytical, so I guess this part would be of short writings (or one longer writing) on time and memory. I’m not set with the format of this part, but somehow it can still be linked to the leaf form.

(I’ll have examples of the two parts for tomorrow’s class.)


Catching up the mind with forms, I like the three-fours three-fours in Williams. Monuments like the ones of Smithson’s Passaic occur in threes and fours, little tercets and stuff, discrete sections, two-three pipes or lined in a row, a four-walled sandbox, implanted commonalities. It’s cute. “Human-scale”, “feel-able” and feasible…

Three sets of exits and entrances, as pipes. Whatever base-line liquidity is pulled-from, is split in the interruption, and as a pipe-line this occurs in a straight-line. In deft procedure (analogous to the constantly forming “tonal strands” expressed in Shaw’s Ch. 7) this harnesses a categorizing energy that then allows a fragmented horizontal genre-fication, and dead-pan invention (as in, in following a water-line or river in which there are three or six breaks, the [breaks] become convenient for differentiation. Smithson thinks that the stupidity of this literal transition is very funny. He sloughs off images [“When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel…”] – images of differing resolutions and formats [we could say, as per Shaw, the cover of a science-fiction book, for instance] – that are stitched together [dead-pan and industrial/with a denim needle] into a leaden sphere [Andre foot-tiles]. I suppose the photographs, in a hand, would glow with gloss. I suppose that, as they are presented, as square-format stepping-stones running through the text, they provide a helpful clue, or glue.).

Threes and fours, just shapely repetitions that cause me to think, of repetition. Smithson’s videographed child running in a sandbox – yes, irreversible, still, repeatable…

It’s interesting that the act of noticing is prioritized over material landscape. A way to limit spatialization of the digested area, in a way Bergson might appreciate – a way to elevate the temporal to the monumental aspect of Environmental Art – noticing, being attuned, is a temporal re-action.

“A psychoanalyst might say that the landscape displayed ‘homosexual tendencies,’ but I will not draw such a crass anthropomorphic conclusion. I will merely say, ‘It was there.'”

And this noticing begets the “it was there”. Dead-panning is, I think, panning for gold, because the  all having the same weight (the multitudinous referents being by fact of their slimy insolubility non-hierarchical), creates an even sieve.

The unique thing of Smithson’s practice is having an even sieve. The sand and silk, the materials of local interest, filter down in alignment too.


“The more I learned about Michael Heizer’s position and Robert Smithson’s, the more I watched Smithson’s films and read all he wrote, the more frustrated I became with this erasure of human beings in relationship to the land. Except for the artists themselves, of course; they could be embedded in their work. Smithson films himself walking on the Spiral Jetty. That land just echoes and vibrates with its own history of genocides and migrations and all kinds of things, but he talks about dinosaurs. I became fixated on Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) and Heizer’s Double Negative (1969–70). What does it mean to dig into the earth in this monumental way, for no fucking reason, really? I was getting tired of this blind romanticization in land-art discourse.

Then, on a StoryCorps segment on the radio, I heard the story of a man who as a boy watched the whites in his town try to erase every trace of the black community by digging a deep hole and burying the Negro schoolhouse in it. There was this horrible intersection between the sublime and the obscene in the man’s description. What does it mean that your need for erasure would be so intense that you would dig a hole and bury a whole structure underground? That took me right back to the land art guys.”

I want Cauleen Smith to have the first and last word here. the above is an excerpt from an interview in BOMB (Summer 2011). as far as digging goes, as far as poetic projects go, it might be possible to begin to forgive Williams, to forgive Paterson, even if I’m not sure I can see a way; with Smithson… well, here’s Williams, looking maybe to the destruction and construction of homes:

[…] After all, the slums, unless they are (living)
wiped out they cannot be re-
constituted             .

The words will have to be rebricked up, the
–what? What am I coming to             .

pouring down? (143)

and then, on,

The past above, the future below
and the present pouring down: the roar,
the roar of the present, a speech–
is, of necessity, my sole concern     .  (144)

what is he coming to? at least he wonders. well, Williams “pouring down” is the past pouring down into the future, and is certainly not Smithson’s entropy, as Shaw figures it. Shaw says “Where Williams mines, Smithson strip-mines. Where Williams uncovers buried difference, Smithson covers exposed sameness. Where Williams taps into energy, Smithson trips into entropy. And yet Smithson is by no means simply parodying Williams […]” (17). would that he were only parodying Williams– what Smithson does is, I think, more insidious. Williams says:

[…] I cannot stay here
to spend my life looking into the past:

the future’s no answer. I must
find my meaning and lay it, white,
beside the sliding water: myself–
comb out the language–or succumb

–whatever the complexion! Let
me out! (Well, go!) this rhetoric
is real! (145)

Williams is talking about white water and white skin, I think. this is the end of Book Three, the library dilemma, if you will, and the Book where we find the core sample. Williams feels guilty, and if he is not to be forgiven, it is perhaps because, feeling guilty, he goes on with what he finds to be incriminating work. maybe here’s a foolish fixation on site, on one vertical core, whatever it’s variations– the water that runs over the Passaic Falls does not end at the bottom, and the future’s not just there in that white water, which anyway for Williams is always perfective, just having fallen, future perfective, going to have fallen. Shaw points to “Smithson’s unremarkable trips along the polluted waters of the Passaic, where he discovers that ‘the future is lost somewhere in the dumps of the nonhistorical past’ (RS, 74)”. I want to look to a few other ways of considering guilt, dumps, and futures, that aren’t so (future-)perfective. the character Kelly says, in Cauleen Smith’s Chronicles of a Lying Spirit by Kelly Gabron, “white liberals saved me from my shame and guilt; watching those motherfuckers writhe in [or writhing/robbing?] guilt made me come clean. I am privileged. I am one of the few who could use the masters tools to make my own”. a radical, productive relation to past damage, waste, cataclysmic acceleration– this relation, which Williams fumbles towards– Smith has got that down. Kelly makes “her own goddamn tapes”; in this video, a forensic narration of Kelly’s life is overcome by the voice of Kelly, telling her own story. where could these white men look? early German industrial band Einsturzende Neubauten might point a way, as far as dumps go. in Sogho Ishi’s film Halber Mensch (1986), the members instrumentalize industrial waste and their own bodies; when they went on tour in the states, the band would bring no instruments, but just hustle out to a junkyard and assemble everything from waste found in whatever town. sometimes they just performed in the junkyard, as in Halber Mensch. Ishi shoots their instruments– spring coils, power tools, rebar, sheet metal, pipe fittings– and the members themselves as numbered items, with statistics, in a format largely undifferentiated from human to material. this has its own set of concerns, but the music uses these “tools” to make something of a real problem that is other than hand-wringing. it’s such that, the still I’ve included above, from a moment reminiscent of Smithson running on the Jetty, manages to just be ghoulish, just this sort of idiotic shock value, of Alexander Haacke carrying a mummified cat on a stick. like precisely because mostly the group and filmmaker manage to engage effectively with death, waste, ruin, erstwhile entropy– this moment can be immature, gross, whatever. like I think it just detracts, stoops lower than the line the band and filmmaker actually, otherwise, manages to raise and maintain. I saw some video of Spiral Jetty in a museum in Oberlin, OH recently, and got real frustrated– I think Smith, above, articulates why. this guy has got a helicopter chasing him down the jetty, just to get a shot of the artist walking all over his monument, this monument that does not otherwise engage with human relations to site, place, land, history, whatever… Spiral Jetty erodes, sinks, whatever– this that despairing, future perfective ruin, anticipated almost eagerly. it can leave us cold; it’s just cold. Smithson might as well have carried a dead cat, it’s already ghoulish. I think Williams sometimes comes nearer Smith, Neubauten… but sometimes he’s an awful ghoul, too. and certainly Shaw. Shaw cites a Williams passage, which is this grave-robbing of authenticity moment from American Grain, that I won’t bother reproducing, and calls it “a more vivid (and even self-compromising) call to sensuous experience” (23). just, well, see Ken Chen, “Authenticity Obsession” over at Asian American Writer’s Workshop…

so, in the first excerpt above. Smith is answering questions about two of her recent works, The Grid (2011), and Remote Viewing (also 2011), her turn toward land art. the grid is a failure which, is precisely best as such. I think it’s actually frustrating to watch, but that seems alright for once, even good.

“We weren’t permitted to damage the earth, thank God, so failure was the inevitable outcome. After spending the day trying not to damage the earth in the Malibu Creek State Park, I recognized monumentality as an aggressive, imperialistic expression of power that has no real relationship to the land or people at all.”


Shaw’s attention to Smithson’s treatment of discourses and genres—science fiction, travel narrative, informal account of a field trip, art writing—as themselves sites, and what he terms the materialization of tone in Smithson’s prose, drew my attention to the piece “Language to be looked at and/or things to be read” (1967), which served as a press release for a June 1967 group “Language” show at the Dwan Gallery. On the page in Smithson’s Collected Writings, “Language to be looked at and/or things to be read” is paired with his drawing, “A Heap of Language” (1966), problematizing the generic classification of both.

“A Heap of Language” piles words related to language—one line includes “dead languages classics express say express by words polyglot”—in a triangular shape of Smithson’s cursive on a piece of graph paper evenly sectioned and numbered at top, suggesting the formal order of a more technical drawing. The shape of the heap appears throughout Smithson’s oeuvre; it resonated, for me, with pieces I was more familiar with from college trips to Dia:Beacon, heaps of sand and gravel interacting with mirrors (Leaning Mirror and Gravel Mirrors with Cracks and Dust). There’s the desire to suggest this layering of words, like strata, constructs a sculptural site, at the apex of which the word “language” materializes, but this is, after all, only a heap. Language, as material, piles. Even Smithson’s cursive, a more formal handwriting style, seems to turn the words into material, looped and pencilled and, in our reproduction, mostly blurred away from signification (compared with the visual clarity of the piece’s title).

The title of the press release nods back toward “A Heap of Language,” as the drawing oscillates between “Language to be looked at and/or things to be read.” Both pieces are artworks, both are texts, both invite the perceiver to move dialectically between looking and reading (I think again of the mirrors wedged within heaps of matter, expanding the scale of the non-site, implicating the viewer in her engagement with the piece, seeing herself seeing and the space surrounding her seeing). Smithson’s press release for the exhibition consists of a litany of aphoristic statements on a kind of betweenness of language: “Language operates between literal and metaphorical signification.” Words are fixed or suspended or are “a feeble phenomena that fall into their own mental bogs of meaning”; “here language is built, not written.” The block of text ends with the tension between the entombment of words in books, the obsolescence of print, and “the mind of this death…unrelentingly awake.” Yet the square of text is attributed to “Eton Corrasable,” and set off from R.S.’s own brief statement of feigned clarification, in brackets: “My sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas—i.e., ‘printed matter.’” Eaton’s Corrasable Bond was a well-known brand of erasable typing paper, so well known that “corrasable” became a generic name for such erasable paper (a la Kleenex for tissues). Smithson playfully draws attention to the construction of authorship and the material life of language, its erasability. He makes the press release another chiasmic site of the ideation and/or materialization of language. Smithson’s prose takes up the generic expectations of the press release and treats it as a site where language about the materiality of language oscillates between signification and ludic materiality.


Reading the Shaw was interesting, but I could not help waiting for his discussion of Paterson to get to what I saw as the true ambition of Williams’s project, made clear in the author’s note at the end of the first preface:

Paterson is a long poem in four parts—that a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody—if imaginatively conceived—any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions (xiv)

Shaw offers a compelling analysis of Williams’s move from the abstract and discursively determined “place” to the concrete and particularized “site,” but I am not sure that characterizing this interrogation of “place” in Paterson as a simple project of historiography or geographical history is the most useful approach. Shaw is right to underscore the “polyreferentiality” of Paterson’s imagery, and I agree that Williams’s effort to make his city “speak” in many voices serves, partly, to challenge a monolithic American national identity, but Shaw’s insistence on contemporary historical practice prevents him from recognizing the more personal histories underlying Williams’s epic experiment in style.

The “place” that Williams seeks to deconstruct into its constituent sites is just as much a man as it is a city. Williams originally undertook Paterson as an homage to Ulysses, and Joyce’s influence is clear insofar as both texts treat the mind as a sort of mental topography, an abstract representation of the “interpenetration” (Williams 4) constantly taking place between the body and its (urban) environment. I found Shaw’s brief discussion of “bricolage” as a “rhetoric of immanence” analogous to the “poetics of place” (3) to be relevant not so much for Williams’s engagement with American historical narratives as for his concern with subjectivity. Indeed, I think the more interesting approach would to be consider the move that Williams makes from “place” to “site” as an ontological or even psychoanalytic methodology rather than a merely historiographical one.

When Williams asks in the first lines of Book 1, “how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?” (3), he signals his “quest,” albeit an impossible one, to “unlock” the mind and “free” beauty so that it may be observable in the world of particulars. For Williams, this entails recognizing the body as the site on which the mind takes its “place” through language, and accessing this site as much as possible by studying its relation to space and time. Williams often attempts such an access through mathematical analogies:

“Rolling up, rolling up heavy with

…never in this
world will a man live well in his body
save dying—and not know himself
dying; yet that is
the design. Renews himself
thereby, in addition and subtraction,
walking up and down” (4).

Presenting “the man” as a quantity in flux allows Williams to demonstrate the dependence of identity on the spaces we inhabit and the ideas which inhere in things:

“Who are these people (how complex
the mathematic) among whom I see myself
in the regularly ordered plateglass of
his thoughts, glimmering before shoes and bicycles?” (9).

Arsic’s reading of Thoreau comes to mind at this moment, where Williams’s quasi-transcendalist projection of the self onto the urban landscape yields a delocalizing and decentering of the subject. The switch from “I see myself” to “his thoughts” permits multiple interpretations of the relationship between the poet’s thoughts, the poet’s body, Paterson the man, Paterson the city, and “these people” which occupy it. When the poet stands in front of a window and sees his reflection within a crowd, he confronts the gap between the individual’s subjectivity and the body which unites him with all matter. The innumerable sites that cohere into any given place relate with one another in a “complex mathematics,” and for Williams it is only through language that we can determine the “sense” of their equations if not the “solution” (10).


I’m interested in Shaw’s notion of “dynamic sublimity” insofar as it relates to our interest in this course in moving beyond anthropocentric and dualist modes of relationality. Shaw traces a trajectory from Williams’s “no ideas but in things” to Smithson’s description of the conception and construction of his Spiral Jetty in which sublimity becomes “that which confounds the legibility of the human as a category” (202). For Shaw, Smithson mobilizes a sense of the sublime out of a kind of affective materiality that disrupts stable notions of time and place. Like Williams, his project is in part one of defamiliarization. The sublime tends to arise out of an experience of what feels infinite, a term that Shaw applies to Williams’s unique “polyreferentiality” as that which opens up potentially unending descriptions of the past which prove impossible to synthesize (20). This problem of the infinite recalls our discussion of Stein’s Making of Americans, a project that has an unending trajectory, and that she offers could be continued by future writers, just as Smithson picks up elements of Williams’s Paterson.


One text that could be interesting to consider in relation to this discussion is Richard McGuire’s graphic novel, Here (2014), which uses contiguous and overlapping panels to display a single space (a living room) in distinct time periods. The illustrations open up a potentially infinite relation to temporality, whose point of contact is a particular place. Paterson, in another form, narrates past episodes that palimpsestically refer to that which they necessarily fail to fully represent. As Shaw puts it, countering Joseph Riddel, the poem’s intertextuality doesn’t fail to get outside of itself and its mode of telling, but rather, “the poem itself, in all of its heterogeneous referentiality, is already, paradoxically, a complex constellation of places outside the poem” (22). In this context, the falls themselves become a “radical alterity” conveyed through “raw sonic matter,” because no particular element properly belongs to the poem (32). For Smithson, ‘dynamic sublimity’ arises from charged spaces and charged things themselves, not out of symbolism or narration. There is an evidentiary quality to the place as art.


Of Williams, Shaw writes that “the most characteristic and important mode of blocked transcendence in Paterson—[is] a subject in the field unable to convert materials into symbolic vehicles” (36). And Williams seems to address this blockage directly in certain passages:

A false language. A true. A false language pouring—a

language (misunderstood) pouring (misinterpreted) without

dignity, without minister, crashing upon a stone ear. (15)

As we have discussed, one response to form-matter (mind-body) dualism is to focus on embodiment, touch, texture, etc., while another is to extend the linguistic or semiotic to all living things. Here the falls have a language that seems necessarily insensate: unheard and unhearable. The symbolic rendering is false, but there is a truth that is claimed nonetheless, and the constructs of language as receptivity still stand (the stone is still an ear). I’m interested in how potentiality functions in this passage as a form of language itself. Later, the poem offers a kind of submerged river that allows for subtle awareness, a form of contact below or beyond language:

We sit and talk,

quietly, with long lapses of silence

and I am aware of the stream

that has no language, coursing

beneath the quiet heaven of

your eyes (23)

Here the sublime is alluded to as an unreachable heaven felt to be ‘coursing’ with its otherwise imperceptible strength, almost too-near to see/touch. The stream is perhaps one of consciousness, or a continuation of the (non)language of the falls, but again a certain dynamism is accorded to the felt, the material, and the inarticulate.