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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Shine a Dark Light on It:

Alan Gilbert reviews

A Knot Is Not a Tangle by Benjamin Friedlander

San Francisco: Krupskaya, 2000. ISBN 1-928650-06-6, USD$9

Available from Small Press Distribution at

This piece is 2,500 words or about five printed pages long.

ONE OF THE MORE PROMINENT TRENDS in visual art during the past decade has been the rise — or is it return? — of abject art. It’s a style that’s even received institutional sanctioning, as in the example of Kiki Smith’s sculpture Tale (1992), a flesh-colored life-size figure of a woman down on all fours with what looks to be a nearly ten-foot long brown trail of feces coming out of her anus. The somewhat ambiguous nature of the scene reflects back, in turn, on the punning title: Is the brown appendage a tail, a trail of shit, a tale pointing to the stress language undergoes at the borders of abjection and transgression? The inclusion of Tale in the second part of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s massive exhibition The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-2000 helped make it one of the more iconographic art images of the ’90s.

In mid-2001, you could view an image of Tale here:
This image may not remain at this location permanently.

Or take Paul McCarthy’s recent retrospective at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, which includes videos of early performances such as Tubbing (1975), in which McCarthy, wearing women’s makeup and a blond wig, smears himself with cold cream and ketchup before shoving a raw sausage down his throat; or Rocky (1976), in which McCarthy, wearing only boxing gloves and an old-fashioned burglar’s mask, plays with his penis before punching himself silly, decades before the masochistic masculinity and pseudo-critique of media culture in the film Fight Club.

Paul McCarthy, Tubbing

Paul McCarthy, Tubbing

(If Brad Pitt wants to keep pushing the envelope of his public body image along the lines of his provocative photo shoot with Steven Klein in the July 1999 issue of W, maybe he should consider reprising McCarthy’s — viz., not Stallone’s — Rocky.) After taking time off from performing in the late ’80s, McCarthy returned with more high-end pieces such as Bossy Burger (1991), in which he dons a chef’s hat and uniform, red over-sized clown shoes, and an Alfred E. Neuman mask, and proceeds to create an incredible mess of himself and an old stage set from the ’60s TV show Family Affair with barbecue sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, milk, flour, and his own saliva.

Paul McCarthy, Bossy Burger

Paul McCarthy, Bossy Burger

Within this art-historical context, it’s almost too easy to say that abjection represents a return of transgressive subjectivity as the repressed. After all, one person’s repression can be another person’s liberation, and vice versa. The more difficult questions are: How did it get repressed in the first place? Who — or what — repressed it? It’s sometimes difficult to remember that the attack on the integrated human subject that became such a central doctrine of postmodernism and poststructuralism was originally rooted in the critique of a European + male + universalist + humanist subjectivity, not subjectivity in general. For many people — actually, for much of the population — establishing one’s position as a viable political and social subject can still be a precarious situation. As the notion of de-centering became less a mode of critical analysis, and more an unexamined theoretical buzzword and formulaic set of artistic and literary techniques, this crucial awareness was lost in the enthusiasm over art and texts that purported to destabilize subjectivity in all its forms.
    There can be little doubt that at some level it’s a privilege to willfully revel in one’s own de-centered subjectivity. In postmodernism, this de-centering oftentimes takes place more at the level of textual and rhetorical processes than in social and individual practice. Nevertheless, it’s obviously important to continue challenging conceptions of subjectivity that are monolithic, universalist, and essentialist — whether these arise consciously or unconsciously, whether they return or are repressed, and whether they occur in dominant or marginal communities. But in doing so, it might be more useful to substitute hybridity and multiplicity for de-centering. Hybridity and multiplicity similarly destabilize reductive approaches to subjectivity, though not from the point of view of an imploding European culture. Instead, they emphasize the complex set of interdependent and dependent relations between different cultures, along with the idea that every identity is formed in relation to other identities.
    While de-centering may take the form of an academic exercise performed by various avant-gardes, in its more substantial form it frequently results from trauma — historical and psychological. This becomes clearer in recent abject art. The highly repetitive actions in Paul McCarthy’s performances function in much the same way repetition does when it’s a symptom of trauma: as both disclosing and controlling / repressing the traumatic experience. Similarly, trauma always disfigures; hence, the grotesque qualities to many of Kiki Smith’s sculptures (some of which take bestial forms) or the bizarre masks McCarthy dons in his performances. In this sense, abject art is the return of the subject — and the resuscitation of Michel Foucault’s dead author — with a certain degree of vengeance, but one traumatized by a century of holocausts, genocides, environmental destructions, and economic depredations. In other words, this subject doesn’t return in the same form in which it existed before, or in a renewed form, as in the example of Stanley Kubrick’s celestial baby at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather, it comes back partially twisted, grotesque, disfigured, burned at the root. But maybe, for all that, a little wiser and better equipped for resistance.

Photo of Ben Friedlander

Ben Friedlander

Many of these elements — abjection, repetition, disfiguration — appear in Benjamin Friedlander’s recent book of poems A Knot Is Not a Tangle, though the work shouldn’t be read exclusively in relation to these ideas, because it also exhibits a strong indebtedness to conceptual art. And while the return of the repressed in Friedlander’s poetry partakes in these larger art world and historical phenomena, the most immediate aesthetic context for his work’s engagement with questions of subjectivity is the wholesale assault on stable subject positions made by the poets and critics associated with the Language Poetry movement — and its sometimes intellectually sloppy equation of these subject positions with the oh-so-dreaded “lyric I.” As in the work of visual artists such as McCarthy, Smith, Mike Kelley, Kara Walker, etc., the subject in Friedlander’s poetry returns from its relegation to the personal and collective unconscious with less conventionally acceptable sets of concerns.
    In A Knot Is Not a Tangle, these concerns manifest themselves on a variety of levels, from Friedlander’s scatological obsessions to his frequent use of a poetic device almost completely forbidden within Modernism and especially postmodernism — rhyme (his use of end rhyme is particularly scandalous in this regard). Rhyme, of course, is one of the most repetitive devices in poetry, sometimes to deadening effect. But in Friedlander’s poems, rhyme is the equivalent of McCarthy’s obsessively repeated gestures and the ways in which they mimic the psyche’s tormented relation to trauma — its need to engage with it but also keep it hidden. Here’s a poem entitled “The Tracks of My Tears”:

Junky vets
from Vietnam
handicap the race

where stunted giants
man the glands
of horse-drawn cares of state

A spoon of sand
weighs down the hand
pulling up their reins

to keep the chain
of strict command
from vein to shining vein (51)

Besides describing the “tracks” tears make on a face (referenced non-ironically — imagine that!), the title references the “tracks” on a junky’s arm, as well as horseracing tracks. Moreover, the references to the Holocaust in other parts of the book here conjure an image of the “tracks” on which the trains ran that transported Jews to Nazi concentration camps.
    Whereas one of the problems with rhyme is that it has the potential to simplify a reader’s relationship to a poetic text, in this poem the use of rhyme has the opposite effect. The other problem with rhyme is that it oftentimes serves to prettify language, though there’s nothing particularly beautiful about Friedlander’s poem. In fact, the more one thinks about its references — to heroin addicts; neglected veterans; the Vietnam War; the disproportionate number of minorities who served as front-line combat troops for the United States in Vietnam; the CIA’s involvement with drug shipments around the world, including to inner cities within the U.S.; a bleak description of power relations between rulers and ruled; the role the media as gigantic spectacle plays in maintaining these relations; the equation of patriotism, and citizenship in general, with addiction — the more disturbing, complex, and interesting the poem becomes.
    Most of the poems in A Knot Is Not a Tangle aren’t nearly so reliant upon rhyme to propel both their form and content, though many of them do share a similar prosody with “The Tracks of My Tears.” However, they are all concerned with otherness, whether an internal or external, literal or metaphysical sense of otherness. One of the ways in which otherness is specifically embedded in Friedlander’s poetry is in language’s breakdown at the limits of rational sense, even when a poem initially seems to be fairly direct and straightforward. He pushes this linguistic disruption to an extreme in a series of poems toward the back of the book that use brackets to designate places where the “appropriate” word was never filled in. In “The Pure Products of America...,” which begins with a description of the Jon Benet Ramsey murder scene, Friedlander writes:

Like an infant beauty queen

strangled in her basement, the poem

lies inert in its [     ]

[     ] surrounded

by snow, with no sign

of forced entry

and no footprints

and a phony note. (88)

As in this poem, the words that appear to be left out in Friedlander’s series of “unfinished” poems are the abstract nouns and proper names with which rationality is usually associated. The murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, the police investigation of it, and the subsequent media coverage strain the capacities of rationality to comprehend what occurred, or to separate the actual event from media representations of it. “The pure products of America / go crazy — “ writes William Carlos Williams in Spring and All; though in Friedlander’s poem (as in McCarthy’s art), nothing is pure, and every experience and understanding has already been mediated, i.e., the insanity comes from within the house.
    But Friedlander’s interest in re-thinking the place of the mediated subject in poetry, postmodernism, and history isn’t done entirely from the point of view of abjection, eruptions from the unconscious, and the failures of language at the edges of meaning. A Knot Is Not a Tangle also presents a sophisticated conceptual approach to undermining authorial authority. Positing authorship, as well as identity, as always collaborative, the book is supposedly edited by Kimberly Filbee, an overt reference — or is it homage? — to the British spy Kim Philby, who as a double agent did serious damage to British and U.S. intelligence services at the beginning of the Cold War and later emigrated to the Soviet Union. The final section of the book contains poems attributed to a writer named Bernie Fox (who frequently goes by the initials B.F.), with an afterword by Filbee. In this afterword, Filbee writes: “After all, the problematizing of authorship is a basic element of contemporary poetry, though having become basic, this ‘problematizing’ is also largely irrelevant. Or rather: not a problem at all — a foundational fact” (120).
    Or, more likely, this postmodern version of “problematizing” has made the idea of authorship a mostly textual issue that’s unable to account for the full range of problematics that history and death present, and with which Friedlander’s work — and Bernie Fox’s fourteen three-line poems — is ultimately concerned.
    In an article on Paul McCarthy in the November 2000 issue of Artforum, Tom Holert writes: “Once one has grown used to the repertoire of signs, the shock is displaced from the visceral to the social and psychological.” A parallel movement occurs in Friedlander’s poetry. For despite the shock-value quality to its descriptions of the body’s most basic functions — along with its many allusions to contemporary poets and poetry, its engagement with hot topics in contemporary experimental poetry (transparency / obscurity, closure / indeterminacy, narrative / disjunction, and lyric I / destabilized subjectivity), and its delight in sound and the surface play of language (“where Crêpe Suzette is Dante’s guest / eating eskimo pies for three” [23]) — there are larger issues at stake in Friedlander’s work, including the role of the poet as participant in and witness to history’s violent passages.
    The poem “Bad History” illustrates all of this. The title is taken from a book by the poet and critic Barrett Watten published in 1998. In the opening few lines, Friedlander alludes to the poet Robert Grenier’s well-known declaration, “I HATE SPEECH,” published at the end of the first issue of This (1971), a predominantly Language Poetry journal edited by Watten in the ’70s. In his poem, Friedlander partially equates speech with the body’s waste products. One might be tempted to think, then, that the poem is mostly an inside joke, and one reads closely for the dig or praise directed at Watten and Grenier. But this isn’t the intent; instead, in the closing lines of the poem speech is described as a repository: “where hopes go // that flow through this // pathetic conduit // called ‘witness’... ” (35). By its conclusion, the poem has moved away from addressing a brand of poetry (read “Language”) that calls conventional forms of representation into question via an assured sense of not making sense, and toward a poetry of witness that also calls representation into question, but this time because of a lack of assurance in making sense. An examination of Friedlander’s various writing and editing projects over two decades might reveal that the movement in this one poem is symptomatic of a larger shift in his work as a whole.
    What is a witness? At one level, a witness is a participant, but a participant who has somehow maintained — for varying lengths of time — just enough distance to narrate her or his experiences: Herman Melville’s Ishmael was a witness; Anna Akhmatova was a witness; the Michael Herr of Dispatches is a witness; Primo Levi and Paul Celan and Osip Mandelstam (the latter three all directly referenced in A Knot Is Not a Tangle) were all witnesses. A spy is a kind of witness. Witness is also related to assimilation and rejection, which in turn refers back to the frequent depictions of bodily processes in Friedlander’s work:

     Written in Yellow

My hands

are washed

in urine,

my heart’s

a yellow star,

my soul

is in your body,


in a squat,

raining down

condemnation. (44)

Some of the more important questions raised by this poem, and raised by A Knot Is Not a Tangle in general, are: What can the human body assimilate, and what is it forced to reject? What can the body politic assimilate, and what is it forced to reject? What does the culture assimilate, and what is it forced to reject? What does a conceptual system assimilate, and what is it forced to reject? And more than these specific binaries, what are the larger social and economic conditions in which these processes of assimilation and rejection themselves occur? Abjection, disfiguration, and witness — in both writing and the visual arts — shine a dark light on these questions, a light courageous in its attempts to illuminate the bowels of the unconscious and the sinkholes of history.

Alan Gilbert’s writings on poetry, art, and politics have appeared in a number of publications, including Afterimage, Boston Review, and Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics. Recent poems have appeared in The Baffler, The Germ, and First Intensity. He lives in New York City, where he edits FYI, a quarterly arts magazine published by the New York Foundation for the Arts.

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