I’m still bogged down with school (almost done) but I thought I’d throw a little something up, pun intended. Two months ago I wrote an analysis of Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” where I argued that, rather than being opposed to all interpretation, as some believe, Sontag was instead opposed to “metaphorical interpretation”—to critics who interpret artworks metaphorically or allegorically. (“When the artist did X, she really meant Y.”) I thought I’d document a few recent examples of this—not to pick on any particular critics, mind you, but rather to foster some discussion of what this criticism looks like and why critics do it (because critics seem to love doing it).
The first example comes from Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, in particular the exhibit “Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962″ (which is up until 2 June). One of the works on display is Gérard Deschamps’s Tôle irisée de réacteur d’avion (pictured above, image taken from here—I didn’t just stretch out a swath of tinfoil on my apartment floor). The placard next to it reads as follows:
A while back, I ran a little series, “Another way to generate text.” The first one proved fairly popular, and I’ve been meaning to make more of them, but generative techniques haven’t been on my mind. However, my post last week, “Experimental fiction as principle and as genre,” generated a lot of text (haha), in the form of comments. Some people who chimed in questioned whether the Cut-Up Technique that Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs developed and used in the 1950s was ever all that experimental. Specifically, PedestrianX wrote:
I find it hard to accept this argument when its main example, the Cut-up, didn’t start when you’re claiming it did. I’m sure you know Tzara was doing it in the 20s, and Burroughs himself has pointed to predecessors like “The Waste Land.” Eliot may not have been literally cutting and pasting, but Tzara was.
This comment got me thinking about the role influence plays in experimentation; more about that next week. Today I want to address the point PedestrianX is making, as it strikes me as pretty interesting. Were Gysin and Burroughs merely repeating Tzara? Or were they doing something substantially different?
To figure that out, I decided to run through the respective techniques, documenting what happened along the way. Because if I’ve learned anything in my studies of experimental art, it’s that thinking about the techniques is usually no substitute for sitting down and getting one’s hands dirty.
If you want to get dirty, too, then kindly join me after the jump . . .
There used to be some CW pedagogy on here. Maybe there still is, I don’t know. Been away for a few days. My microwave died recently, etc. Anyway, I just remember a lot of people didn’t like it or something, so I thought I would go ahead and add some more.
Ekphrasis sounds like a skin disorder, but is actually when one medium of art attempts to relate to another medium. Like dancing about architecture or fucking about radishes, for example, etc. This can be a fructiferous exercise for a class (or workshop or, you know, just a group of people who like to write [It’s Ok to write just because you like to write, just like it’s OK to run just because, you know, you like to run or collect cats or whatever]). This exercise is ofttimes done with poetry and that’s OK I suppose, but I’d prefer you tried this exercise with flash fiction.
I’ll define flash fiction as under 750 words, since defining the genre any other way—by style, history, worldview—is reductive and wrong.
You’d probably want to show an example. An example actually cracks open the synapses. In fact, writing directly after an example (not with a lag) is a little teacher trick I’ll pass onto you. Sort of like your knowledge is lighter fluid and imagine your students have heads made of charcoal. Pour a little knowledge on their heads. Then toss in the match. The match is writing. This analogy is pretty forced, but it makes a shard of sense.
If you want to use the word “multi-media” on your salary review document, you could show this video, an ekphrasis by Pamela Painter:
Now you can say, “I like to use multi-media in my class…”
“In between surviving multiple point-blank-range assassination attempts and a failed kidnapping in which he emerged alive from the burning wreckage of a battleship his own air force had just bombed, Pibulsongkram decided that Thailand needed noodles that would advance the country’s industry and economy.” — Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s brief history of pad thai (and accompanying recipe) in The Morning News is the best writing criticism/advice I’ve read in months.
Someone grabbed me the other day. He wanted to talk about Rap Genius/Poetry Brain. He wanted me to talk about Rap Genius/Poetry Brain. I am good at talking—so I figure, why not? I mean this guy who asked me, he knew Barry Hannah, and I started right off the jump writing about Barry Hannah, and Hannah’s hospital visitation from Christ—which is just gorgeous and I would like to experience someday before my brain pops:
But then I had to cut the stuff about Hannah.
If this article were up at Rap Genius I could make the words “Hannah’s hospital visitation from Christ” into a link and when you clicked on it, then it would open directly to the part of the interview in The Believer where Hannah talks about Christ appearing in Hannah’s room at the old hospital.
Since it’s not, you have to go to the link and then scroll through the whole interview between Deep Water Hole Tower and Barry Hannah to find that moment of CHRIST appearing in Hannah’s hospital room, and the mountains behind him.
I don’t know much about Rap. I used to smoke Oregon marijuana and drive around as a skinny pale shit listening to my brother’s tape of “Too Short” in my brother’s old red Honda stick shift, driving through the hills of Portland, already making up crazy voices in my head to tell stories with, but not telling any of them, just listening to them making me crazy in my head. So stoned, and driving, and everything like a song. The whole world singing. Which was probably the best. The not telling them and just having them. I definitely didn’t believe Too Short and guessed he was just playing with voices in his head too. I didn’t think of any of it as factual, or having any larger implications, or that there was anything real to find out about. Which was my fault. I was dumb about rap. I was just another freaky weird kid driving around in a brother’s car, cologne in the console, getting drunk and stoned and looking at the sky. I don’t know why, but I want to put this link here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Uee_mcxvrw. If this were Rap Genius I could put this in as a link in the word freaky up above. You’d just click on freaky and the video would open in a little window and you would still be looking at this thing I’m writing and you’re reading. I was dumb about life. I thought it was always going to sing and that I wouldn’t have to find out about life in order to use my voices. READ MORE >
ALL OVER THE NEW GESTURAL POETRY.
The Internet taught children to design themselves in a white space. Now, they are to create in that space. This burden. Laughter.
Appropriation was the first mimetic. The late remix, post-DJ culture of the 20whatevers sidevolved into a romance of the weird and origin-less. Repeat, offend, react. Horse eBooks, PT Cruiser, drugs, fetishes about whispering, shitting, looking into a new blank digital void. But it lasted only as long a generational breath. Weird Twitter rose and fell like a bird in a harsh wind.
OK, back to this. In Part 1, I traced out how in conceptual art, the concept lies outside whatever artwork is produced—how, strictly speaking, the concept itself is the artwork, and whatever thingamabob the artist then uses the concept to go on to make (if anything) counts more as a record or a product of the originating concept. (This is according to the teachings of Sol LeWitt, as practiced by Kenneth Goldsmith.) Thus, we arrived at the following formulation:
- Artist > Concept > Artwork (Record)
Now, I’m not going to argue that every conceptual artist on Planet Earth works according to this model. But LeWitt’s prescription has proven influential, and continues to be revolutionary—because choosing to work with either a concept or a constraint will lead an artist down one of two very different paths. To see how this is the case, let’s try defining what a constraint is, aided by the Puzzle Master himself, Georges Perec . . .
This is what happened in my grad Form & Technique in Fiction class today:
Here is how it happened. Every Wednesday, students read articles and essays that are NOT fiction. Last class, they read & we discussed a unit I called “The Human Body,” which included the following texts: Dong et al, “Unilateral Deep Brain Stimulation of the Right Globus Pallidus Internus in Patients with Tourette’s Syndrome” (from The Journal of International Medicine); Grahek, Feeling Pain and Being in Pain, “Ch. 1: The Biological Function & Importance of Pain”; Ramachandran, Tell-Tale Brain, “Ch. 3: Loud Colors and Hot Babes: Synesthesia”; and Scarry, The Body in Pain, “Ch.3: Pain and Imagining.”
In part one of this series, I introduced a network of ideas aimed at rethinking our approach to criticism by foregrounding observation over interpretation, and participation over judgment, by asking what a text does rather than what it means.
In part two, I expanded on those ideas.
In part three, A D Jameson unwittingly offered a beautiful example of the erotics I have proposed, following the final imperative of Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” — which, for the record is not called “Against A Certain Kind of Interpretation” but is in fact titled “Against Interpretation” — where she writes, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” To destroy a work of art, as Jameson’s example shows and as Sean Lovelace has shown (1 & 2) and as Rauschenberg showed when he erased De Kooning, certainly counts as an erotics, which for me far surpasses the dullardry of interpretation.
In part four, A D Jameson unfortunately embarrasses himself by indulging his obvious obsession with this series. Whereas one self-appointed guest post might seem clever or even naughtily apropos, two self-appointed guest posts (in addition to all of his contributions in the comment sections) conjures the image of a petulant child acting out in hopes of garnering his father’s attention. (Daddy sees you, Adam. He’s just busy doing work right now.) Yet, despite his cringe-worthy infatuation, the example he offers is an effective one. I applaud it. (As Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.”)
This time, I’ll do a little recapitulation, elaboration, and I’ll introduce other lines of flight. But first, an important note about the necessity of revaluation. (Following Nietzsche’s project, of course. Itself predicated on Emersonian antifoundationalism, of course.)
[Update: Part 2 is here.]
I wrote about this to some extent here, but I wanted to expound on the issue in what I hope is a more coherent form. Because I frequently see concepts confused with constraints, and the Oulipo lumped in with conceptual writing. For instance, this entry at Poets.org, “A Brief Guide to Conceptual Poetry,” states:
One direct predecessor of contemporary conceptual writing is Oulipo (l’Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a writers’ group interested in experimenting with different forms of literary constraint, represented by writers like Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Raymound Queneau. One example of an Oulipean constraint is the N + 7 procedure, in which each word in an original text is replaced with the word which appears seven entries below it in a dictionary. Other key influences cited include John Cage’s and Jackson Mac Low’s chance operations, as well as the Brazilian concrete poetry movement.
I would argue that the Oulipo, historically speaking, are not conceptual writers/artists—although it’s easy to see how that confusion has come about, because the Oulipians have proposed some conceptual techniques, such as N+7 (which I’d argue is not a constraint). (Also, it’s each noun that gets replaced, not each word.)
What, then, distinguishes concepts from constraints? And why does that distinction matter? In this series of posts, I’ll try answering those questions, starting with what we mean when we call art conceptual.
“The goal wasn’t to make a huge community site; it was to make something where you can type in someone’s name and find out a bunch of information on them.”
“I just think people have a lot of fiction… I mean, the real story is actually probably pretty boring, right? I mean, we just sat at our computers for six years and coded.”
“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”
“The only meat I eat is from animals I’ve killed myself.”
In Part One of this series, I introduced a network of ideas aimed at rethinking our approach to criticism by foregrounding observation over interpretation, and participation over judgment, by asking what a text does rather than what it means. This time, I’ll expand on those ideas.
The young girl in the picture above demonstrates an angle on the critical practice I proposed. She also brings to mind what Nietzsche said about the ideal reader in Ecco Homo, “When I try to picture the character of a perfect reader I always imagine a monster of courage and curiosity as well as of suppleness, cunning and prudence—in short a born adventurer and explorer.”
The critic as monster, performer, participant, adventurer, explorer.
Advice for Future MFA applicants:On a more serious note, now that I’ve almost read through this year’s batch, here’s the advice I’d give off the top of my head to future MFA fiction applicants. Most of the applicants were interesting people and trying hard and it’s deeply appreciated, particularly when I’m reading so many applications. I don’t think any of the applications I read this year had a single malicious bone in their body. But here are a few things that I would want to be told if I was thinking about applying. Please feel free to steal, revise, mutilate, or dispute:1. Turn in your very best piece of fiction. This really, really matters to me, more than anything else. If I love a piece of writing, I will fight for it, and am willing to overlook a multitude of other sins.
2. Better to turn in one shorter excellent piece than a good piece and one bad one. Don’t turn in work just to max out the page limit. And if you’re finding yourself trying to cram all sorts of things into the page limit by changing the font and single-spacing, then step back and take a deep breath and think again.
3. Don’t try to pretend you’re something you’re not. Most of you don’t, and those of you who do don’t do it maliciously, but just kind of slowly convince yourself into it as you write and rewrite your application. Look, it’s easy to tell if you’re faking. So don’t fake.
4. Be honest, but “we’re dating and getting serious” honest rather than either “First date honest” or “Now that you’ve proposed, here’s all the stuff you need to know about me (like the fact that I killed my first wife)” honest. You can and should talk about your struggles and successes and trials and etc., but in moderation.
5. In the personal statement, write about yourself in a way that allows us to get a real sense of you and the way you are now, right now, and where you’re going. If you feel you have to go back to childhood to do that, that’s okay, but if I go away with a better sense of how you were when you were in 2nd grade (or whatever) than how you are now, that’s not good.
6. Read interesting things and learn how to talk about them in interesting ways. Read, read, read. And read eccentrically. Take chances. There’s no reason, no matter what your job or your circumstances, that you shouldn’t be reading an interesting book every week or two, and that’ll do a great deal for your development as a writer and as a person. It’s okay to let us know what books led you to writing, but better if we find out what books you continue to go back to and who you’re interested in now.
7. Don’t pretend to have read something that you haven’t read. Don’t google the faculty at a program and then try to include a line in your personal statement that suggests what their book is about. This rarely works, and as a result usually does more harm than good.
8. We’re interested in knowing what makes you unique, but within reason. And even if you have a great set of experiences and are incredibly interesting and we’d love to have an 8-hour long coffee with you to learn about your experiences running Substance D. from the American camp to the Norwegian camp in Antarctica, if your writing sample isn’t good enough you won’t get in. There comes a time when you need to choose to work on the writing instead of getting life experience as a carny.
9. If you already have an advanced degree, you have to explain convincingly why you want to get another, and why we should give this opportunity to you rather than to someone else. If you already have a PhD, we need to be convinced that this is the right thing for you and for us, and that you’re not just collecting degrees. But, honestly, the default acceptances for MFAs is usually (but not always) someone who doesn’t yet have an advanced degree. We’ve taken people with advanced degrees in our program, but it’s very much the exception rather than the rule.
10. If you already have a book out, same thing. Are you serious about improving your writing or do you want to treat this as a sort of an artist colony? If the latter, well, I’d suggest an artist colony: they’ll feed you, and we usually won’t. If I get the impression that you want to get the MFA mainly to have a teaching credential, that can be one or more strikes against you.
11. MFA programs make mistakes. We don’t always see the potential of people, which may be partly our fault and partly your own. Do everything you can when you put together your application to make sure that the fault is on our side rather than yours. But also remember: any really good program ends up with many more people they’d like to admit than they actually can admit. When it comes down to that final cut, it’s very very hard, and we’ll have to let people go who, ideally, we’d love to have come. So, if you don’t get in, don’t take it as a judgement. To our shame, we’ve turned down many great writers before, and probably will again. But fingers crossed that it won’t be you…
Over at io9 there’s this post, “How to make sure the language in your historical fantasy novel is period-accurate.” And while “fantasy novel” and “period-accurate” seem contradictory to me, I was happy that the article directed me to two interesting online resources that may also interest . . . you!
1. The Jane Austen Word List: Author Mary Robinette Kowal compiled a list “of all the words that are in the collected works of Jane Austen” (14,793!). You can install it as a “language” in OpenOffice (click here for instructions), then spell check your document against it, which will highlight any words that Austen didn’t use. (Kowal: “It also includes some of Miss Austen’s specific spellings like ‘shew’ and ‘chuse.’”) This would obviously be useful for anyone who wants to write a project using only Austen’s vocabulary. And assuming that Kowal didn’t slip up, we can see that Ms. Austen’s works are zombie-free, the only z-initial words that she used being zeal, zealous, zealously, and zigzags. (Sorry, Seth Grahame-Smith.)
2. The Google Ngram Viewer: This allows you to see check how frequently a word appears over time in any book that Google Books documents. So, for instance, here are the results for “zombie”:
I developed this class. Now, I am teaching it.
ENGL 534: Form & Technique in Fiction
Reading Outside of Fiction
As writers, it’s important that we gather inspiration from a broad array of sources. Often, between coursework and personal interest, it’s impossible for us to read as widely or diversely as we could, and it’s often outside of the discipline of creative writing and literature that we gain the most inspiration. In this course, we will read from a variety of disciplines and use the knowledge to generate prose. The texts you will encounter in this course may be difficult. It isn’t important to understand every word. It is even less important that you “like” it. What matters is that you use it to generate new material.