(!x==) Book 1 Volume 1
Blanc Press, 2011
776 pages / $50 Buy from Blanc Press
To be clear: (!x==) Book 1 Volume 1 is a reformatting of Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The book itself, a conceptual work by .UNFO (a collaboration between Dan Richert and Harold Abramowitz) published by Blanc Press, acknowledges its source only obliquely. The publisher’s website simply tells us that this series “seeks to indexically lengthen the world’s most monumental texts through failed software operations”—that is, by filtering existing texts through the eponymous formula, redistributing chapters and paragraphs into chunks of approximately 33 syllables (rounded to the nearest whole word). On the book’s title page we find an innocuous url for a “0200601.txt” containing a (different) English translation of Mein Kampf archived by Project Gutenberg Australia. Indeed, the source text is apparent enough. We read the signature that follows the author’s forward, the table of contents, the recurring page header: MEIN KAMPF. It seems evasive, even disingenuous, certainly loaded, to characterize this project in such detached terms as a conceptual exercise, a “failed software operation”—the predictable imperfection, somehow poetic, of a system applied to lived reality. This instrumentalization maintains the willfully problematic stance that words are just words—stuff, material, to be shoveled around at will.
These are Adolph Hitler’s words, written in German in 1926, hastily translated by a New School committee in 1938, adapted for an artwork by .UNFO in 2011. The present iteration underscores the ability of a certain indexical “aura” to survive these various semiotic filtrations. In this light, (!x==) prompts the reader to reconsider the ostensible amorality of the appropriations of the Internet age, the Internet being an ever expanding aggregation of text and images, a rhizomatic systems-based poem increasingly divorced from context.
In their hubris, the Nazis kept meticulous records—a damning inventory of their own atrocities. The almost literary precision of the Nazi bureaucracy (excerpts of memos on cattle cars, medical experiments, abstract lists of names and numbers) is appropriated by Heimrad Bäcker in his chilling book of concrete poetry, transcript, 2010. Bäcker condemns the Third Reich insofar as he renders their high crimes as material, even as they did the same to their victims. These abominably terse records return the sting of fact to supposedly “unspeakable” events; the dehumanization of information becomes unacceptable, itself tantamount to genocide. Similarly, Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, 1975, consists of poems composed of the testimonies of death camp survivors in the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials. The language is graphic, bureaucratic, but above all imbued with a truth factor by its proximity to an unspeakable crime (unspeakable—indeed, incomprehensible, despite the lengthy deposition intended to render it palpable to judge and jury).
Following Reznikoff, Blanc Press also publishes the Tragodía trilogy by Vanessa Place, a writer and criminal appellate lawyer specializing in sexual assault cases. This work consists of the court documents of Place’s trials reframed as her own poetry. Implicit in both books is an absence of judgement, a re-presentation of buried material that, like a courtroom, provides an impartial platform. Like Reznikoff, Place usurps the authorship of her client’s words; yet her appropriation also gives voice to the victim, piling tombstones upon the airy indifference of conceptualism. Rightness or wrongness, innocence or guilt, emerge as self-evident from the “facts of the case.” Of course, we are not so naive—every line break is a judgement in its way. Every aestheticization shores up authority—its ambivalence in this regard notwithstanding. While in some small way undermining the monumentality of his autobiography, (!x==) does Hitler similar service by echoing his—his, make no mistake—his voice.
The equation (!x==) is a logic operation in Perl script, where “x” is either true or false. Hitler’s text is held up for judgement, in some subjective sense, as morally tainted material; yet it is parsed by a computer program for which true and false are de facto and absolute: an operation of digital truth. While we might see certain chunks containing more or less than 33 syllables as “failed,” this is a human sentiment—and what’s more, an irregularity foreseen by the programmers. The “rewards” of a sustained reading of .UNFO’s book are few and beside the point. It is a conceptual work, after all—one that hinges on the realization that this is Mein Kampf, that book, the kind of text that tries the convictions of the defenders of free speech (for it is, after all, for all its historical importance, a book of genuine and pointed hate). For better or worse, Hitler’s book is a symbol even to those who haven’t read it; the ostensibly mechanized .UNFO text functions insofar as Hitler’s book has already been judged. Thus any condemnation of this book is already built into its program. It is a book designed to be damned. The .UNFO text is a structuralist gesture bordering on bad faith that predictably fails to overcome its material.
We live in the world of aesthetic genocide—and make no mistake, this darkest of human drives is not absent from our technology, from our art—from any attempt at order—even as totalitarian regimes are aesthetic at their core. Cold conceptual operations are not without their human cost. Abstraction serves to destroy the individual as idea, even before taking their body. In this way perhaps Robert Smithson’s A Heap of Language is truly, as Smithson recognized, a burial mound or ziggurat mortared with the blood of slaves, evilly imperious in its pretensions toward immortality. (!x==) reminds us of the rhetorical morality that attends mass murder in this country, from Vietnam to the War on Terror.
But how to proceed from our knowledge of the subjectivity of truth, of the dangers of appropriation, and the escapism of the conceptual gesture, in a way that does more than acknowledge the existence of evil? Graffiti swastikas are fairly common in Europe, while in the United States their appearance makes local headlines. In academia and in art, such “over-codified” symbols often receive similarly punkish treatment under the guise of cold, transcendent logic. Consider also the way Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh use “Nazi” as a synonym for “Liberal.” It will be a very long time before the aesthetics of the Third Reich can be “used” without their previous instrumentalization overcoming their appropriation. Starting with such obviously loaded source material, the .UNFO authors’ various distancing mechanisms seem like little more than a cynical endgame, elegant and irresponsible as a swastika scratched on a bathroom mirror.
Travis Diehl is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared most recently in P&Co., Artforum, and X-Tra. He is editor of Prism of Reality.