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‘Ready Contents in the New Language of Extreme Joints and Partial Correspondence’:

Michael Scharf reviews

Cable Factory 20 and The Lobe by Lytle Shaw

This piece is 7,600 words or about seventeen printed pages long.

I  On Site Preliminaries

But now follow the path of photography further. What do you see? It becomes ever more nuancé, ever more modern, and the result is that it can no longer depict a tenement block or a refuse heap without transfiguring it. It goes without saying that photography is unable to say anything about a power station or a cable factory other than this: what a beautiful world!

— Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’

Dan Graham: One of the concepts I want to introduce is the idea of place. Carl Andre?

Carl Andre: Yes, that’s an idea I’ve had for quite a long time....The kind of place I mean is not to be confused with an environment. It is futile for an artist to try to create an environment because you have an environment around you all the time. Any living organism has an environment. A place is an area within an environment that has been altered in such a way as the make the general environment more conspicuous. Everything is an environment, but a place is related particularly to both the general qualities of the environment and the particular qualities of the work that has been done.

— April 30, 1968

Under shallow pinkish water is a network of mud cracks supporting the jig-saw puzzle that composes the salt flats. As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, in a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence.

— Robert Smithson, ‘The Spiral Jetty’

It’s a long way from ‘no ideas but in things’ to ‘no ideas,’ but maybe less so for Smithson, a New Jersey native and youth patient of Dr. Williams. But despite Smithson’s claim of the untenability of constructs on the salt flats, his description of first coming upon the section of The Great Salt Lake that would serve as host for the Spiral Jetty is actually driven by an idea: that of Site.

Site, always a capital ‘S’ for Smithson, is a ‘series of points’ of ‘open limits,’ ‘reflection’ and ‘edge.’ As place is for Carl Andre, Site for Smithson is a medium for ‘making the general environment more conspicuous.’ His depiction of the lake as source of vast potential energy and possibility, stored within complex forms that surface as blank flatness and heat, is not just description, but part of Site itself.

Through the concept of Site, Smithson’s essay on the Spiral Jetty participates no less in the production of Site than the actual construction of the Jetty itself. The same is true of Smithson’s filmic documentary showing, as equals, trucks dumping earth, and the range of materials (from dinosaur skeletons to glacial patterning) that came to his mind in conceiving the project as a whole.

The artist that conceives, observes, describes, orders dumping and documents the entire process is a selector among different scales of Site, costlessly sorting information as it arises, like Maxwell’s demon. Such an artist, for Smithson, has a physical solubility, and can seemingly expand or contract at will:

The sound of the helicopter motor became a primal groan echoing into tenuous aerial views. Was I but a shadow in a plastic bubble hovering in a place outside mind and body? Et in Utah ego. I was slipping out of myself again, dissolving into a unicellular beginning, trying to locate the nucleus at the end of the spiral. All that blood stirring makes one aware of protoplasmic solutions, the essential matter between the formed and the unformed, masses of cells consisting largely of water, proteins, lipoids, carbohydrates, and inorganic salts. Each drop that splashed onto the Spiral Jetty coagulated into a crystal. Undulating waters spread millions upon millions of crystals over the basalt. (‘The Spiral Jetty’)

The artist can locate the nucleus from any one of innumerable, and mappable, possible perspectives — from cells to (as he later puts it) ‘James Joyce’s ear channel’ to the salt flats. Smithson: ‘when one refuses to release scale from size, one is left with an object or language that appears to be certain’ — but isn’t. Designating Site selects among scales, but only provisionally. Site is a dialectical concept, and art is its binaristic collaborator.

For Smithson, art is any ‘Nonsite’ relation to Site. Any point or series of points, visual or verbal, can be juxtaposed with another point or series, which relates to or reflects or contains it: Nonsite. In a note to the first sentence of ‘The Spiral Jetty,’ Smithson details Site and Nonsite’s ‘range of convergence’:

The range of convergence between Site and Nonsite consists of a course of hazards, a double path made up of signs, photographs, and maps that belong to both sides of the dialectic at once. Both sides are present and absent at the same time. The land or the ground from the site is placed in the art (Nonsite) rather than the art placed on the ground. The Nonsite is a container within another container — the room. The plot or yard outside is yet another container. Two-dimensional and three dimensional things trade places with each other in the range of convergence....A point on map expands to the size of a land mass. A land mass contracts to a point. Is the Site the reflection of the Nonsite (mirror), or is it the other way around? The rules of this network of signs are discovered as you go along uncertain trails both mental and physical.

Lytle Shaw’s Cable Factory 20 is a double path made up of signs, photographs, and maps that belong to both sides of the dialectic at once, and trade places with each other in a scalar range of convergence. Shaw takes Smithson’s life and work to be nodes in a larger network of Site, one that takes in the built and unbuilt environment of the San Francisco Bay Area, the microhistory of the art and poetry of the last 200 years, Shaw’s own life and work, corporate capital’s 20th century incarnations (at least 20 of them), and the Enlightenment project that, to one degree or another, drove (and drives) it all on.

Miles Champion has written poems within and between poems by other writers, taking their texts as Site and intensely focusing down to the level of the phoneme, simultaneously unraveling and preserving strands of the past, encoding a present. Shaw has noted that his book is ‘literally written inside’ Smithson’s Collected Writings, to the point where Cable Factory’s cover fonts, colors and overall design nearly match the Smithson Collected’s in a manner that cannot be accidental. And Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, the movie he made of it, the essay he wrote about it, his other written and ‘sculpted’ works, his life, and his death in a plane crash are all put in Site/Nonsite relation to each other, directly or indirectly, in Cable Factory.

Shaw’s use of photographs and other visual material in particular takes Smithson at his descriptive word, constructing a ‘double path’ through Smithson/Shaw, one that involves a highly ironized sorting demon similar to Smithson’s Site selector. (‘Who’s the filter feeder?/ Down at the bottom of the tank,’ notes a scene-setting couplet at the book’s beginning.) In the process, Cable Factory 20 shows, in a economically-cognizant manner alien to advertising (which uses similar techniques), how photography can be made to say a great deal more than Benjamin’s (tactically reductive) ‘what a beautiful world!’ when coupled with text, iteration, massive changes of scale and embeddedness in a larger ‘network of signs.’

‘Network of signs’ recalls Baudelaire’s ‘forêts de symboles’ from Fleurs du Mal’s ‘Correspondences’ — forests that are located just to the side of the ‘living pillars’ of the temple of Nature, and watch man pass ‘avec des regards familiers.’ It’s an allusion that echoes through a key passage of Cable Factory 20. The poem ‘#4’ invokes, but is not quite narrated by, a transcendentalist flaneur figure who resembles Goethe (via Wilhelm Meister) or Linnaeus in passion for perambulation and classification, refiguring the ironic ‘prose of investigation and results, with the agency of the hero-artist,’ as Barrett Watten has described the diction that Smithson himself employed. A park and its history are surveyed, but something cannot quite be accounted for:

What’s lacking in this picture —
The Sentiment of Abrasion?
Eyes catch and toast is casual but
           a weakness in the eyes kept him
           from books, and he formed the habit
           of rambling about the countryside by himself:
                      in a mausoleum
           windowed trees and light
                      are figures
           for the permeability of shells,
Ready contents in the new language
           of extreme joints
           and partial correspondence.

Cable Factory 20’s project is the articulation of this language, dimly apprehended in the walker’s surroundings, jammed together between the living pillars of built environment, ideation, violence, and affect — the current forest of symbols. It’s a language that has basic parameters, sets of allowances, and handlings of sentiments.

And if part of Cable Factory 20 is a kind of scalar laboratory experiment in working with artist-as-parameter, then Shaw’s follow-up The Lobe works with sets of artists as Sites for the poem as possibly parasitic Nonsite, destroying the host authority structures that form like crystals on their reputations, lives, and work, but leaving the desire for encounter intact, like a smiling ray from a carefully engineered machine.

II   Likeness Dominates

One of Cable Factory 20’s main strategies for articulating a language of ‘extreme joints and partial correspondence’ is maximizing ambiguity among phrasal units, particularly the simple declarative.

In Quine’s indeterminacy of translation argument, one can never decide absolutely on a one-to-one correspondence between a phrase in one language and a phrase in another, since their components connect down to entirely different associative semantic webs. Shaw uses the ambiguity of simple declaratives to draw out simultaneous, multiple meanings from the differing contexts and histories the book brings together. The book’s first sentence operates this manner: ‘Everyone loves Cable.’ At least five determinate meanings come immediately to mind:

1. Everyone likes the experience of lots of channels and clear reception.
2. No one thinks the technology or content of cable pernicious.
3. Since everyone loves cable, you, reader, will like this book.
4. I’m joking when I imply that no one has objections to cable.
5. I’m joking when I recommend myself and my book to you.

Competing contexts — the technology of cable, its use in the book, the manner in which the book’s speaker is comported towards that history and its use — all make claims on attention, claims that are ultimately irreconcilable and undecideable, but reflect one another to some degree: partial correspondence.

Having made the promise of a multi-stranded experience in the ‘zero’ poem that serves as a preface to the 20 pieces of the book proper, the book continues to work in the overdetermined declarative mode. Situated on the first page of ‘#1’ with finger-sized photo of the young Smithson and the self-admonition ‘At first admit the fan’ as the line preceding it, the two word complete sentence ‘Likeness dominates.’ gets saturated with competing and equal claims on sense from multiple directions:

1. The similarity of my physical appearance with Smithson’s strikes me most of all.

2. Our physical affinity dominates this work as a whole.

3. Affinity of artistic vision strikes me most of all.

4. I really like Smithson.

5. Its similarities to Smithson’s book dominate mine.

6. The idea of likeness dominates my thinking, and this book.

7. There is something inherent in the relation of likeness that privileges it.

8. Likeness dominates, but doesn’t overcome, unlikeness.

Shaw’s use of this mode, and that two word sentence in particular, points back to Smithson’s own complicated negotiations of likeness, as well as to previous poetic appropriations of them.

In the title essay of his book Total Syntax (1985), Barrett Watten reenvisions poetics via Smithson’s sculpture and writing. Focusing on metaphor, Watten writes: ‘Metaphor for Smithson is the structure of an essential structural problem — the increasing scale of an illusionistic ‘likeness’. If A is X, the statue of Mussolini is the state; the Monument to the Third International is history; a cube is the crystallization of a state of mind.’

Watten then quotes Smithson: ‘A is A is never A is A, but rather X is A. The misunderstood notion of metaphor has it that A is X — that is wrong.’

X is A, in the sense that a sentence or work is what comes to define a thing, to set its terms or limits, to be it, not the other way around. Watten: ‘For this reason, metaphor has a particular use in indicating, and altering, the scale of an object.’

It is this alteration of scale that allows Shaw the possibility of a distinct book ‘written inside’ Smithson’s. His book isn’t Smithson’s, Smithson’s is his. Observations of ‘[c]rinoids, horn coral and clam-like brachiopods’ aren’t what make up the book, the book makes up the observations. The very process of drawing equivalences is what simultaneously situates, distinguishes, and (to follow Watten following Olson) ‘projects’ it.

The thing is, Shaw doesn’t draw equivalences. He just observes and recounts their effects. Likeness dominates.

Observation, of likeness or anything else, is quite often primarily visual, while thought, which can be iconic, is paradigmatically verbal, at least in terms of reason and communication; the two modes are intertwined but, like stranded cable, a locked in a kind of dis-imposition, not fully contiguous, though visual likeness dominates.

Like the non-split between Smithson’s writing and sculpture, Cable Factory 20 dramatizes the verbal/visual (yea, symbolic/imaginary) distinction, showing it to be analogous to, or perhaps even a version of, the Site/Nonsite distinction — and just as ambiguously delineated.

III  What a Wonderful World

Before the age of digital reproduction, referential language was the ultimate medium the Site/Non-site distinction, since it was able, and is able (at varying degrees of success), to remove things from their situations, and to make them re-appear within an infinite number of new contexts — infinite in the grammatical sense of an infinite set of sentences producible by a finite set of grammatical rules.

The whiffs of Tel Quel that rise from invocations of generative grammar are entirely apropos. On the one hand, language for Smithson could simply be heaped up as materialist humus. On the other, his writings provide crucial context for, and form part of, work like Spiral Jetty — and form a record his era’s thinking on language. What is Site/Nonsite if not a this-and -that innovation on the this-or -that signifier/signified distinction?

Cable Factory 20, thirty years later, among many other modes of recognition, embraces intellectual kitsch with equal portions of feeling and teasing, and also registers its own era’s shifts. Shaw had undoubtedly taken in Barrett Watten’s Smithsonian founding of ‘total syntax,’ whereby the ‘[t]he objects and contexts of art are relative and continuous,’ particularly in his intermedia treatment of image and text.

Mirroring Jakobson’s selection and combination, Watten made the axes of total syntax space and time, drawing their particular character out of Smithson’s writing:

The realm [of Smithson’s writing] is physical space; its constructive dimension is the illusion of time. The ironies of representation are located on the temporal axis, which is partial, entropic, and negative, while the affirmations of Smithson’s literary method are in space, which is not ironic. If time is ultimately a state of mind for Smithson, space is the redeemed imagination, where the ironies of the mind have been made physically real. Space implies a future that is not ironic.

By the late 1990s, when Shaw was working on the book, language’s ability to call the signified into being was being eclipsed by visually recombinative technologies like Photoshop. And space’s implication of a future that is not ironic had become ironic.

Time and space, for Shaw, become word and image, and they leak. Cable Factory 20 takes a lot of its structure from linguistic accidentals, but it in terms of pure page space, there is more ‘iconic’ material than orthographic — and orthography itself is highlighted as a spatial phenomenon.

In a recent interview with Gary Sullivan, Shaw describes two basic types of intentionally visually-based material in the book: ‘backdrops’ and ‘icons.’

‘Backdrops’ surround and provide spatial foils for the text-as-text (recognizable verse). They come from the photos and reproductions that had played a role in the writing (or construction) of the poem, and are enlarged or reduced into unrecognizability via repeated xeroxing.

The ‘icons,’ like the boyhood image of Smithson, may be smaller than originals, but they leave the original image intact. A compass repeatedly appears, ‘divided into 20 sections — with a blown-up salt crystal inside,’ as Shaw notes in the interview, for orientation effects. A one-into-two coaxial line splitter from the WDM company, and a ‘VX500 Low Profile 1 x N Switch’ ground several pages.

Via the icons, Shaw notes, ‘images take on the role they traditionally do in most books: exemplifying or literalizing the text.’ Conceiving of language as a system that can be visually breached, or enhanced, has recent precedents in the work of Grenier and Michaux, where hand-drawn material complements or replaces or becomes the orthographic — and in comics.

Shaw engaged comics (and scale) in Low Level Bureaucratic Structures; in Cable Factory 20, the visual-to-verbal leaks are mechanized, rather than empanelled, and they are often funny: the young Smithson standing in front of a dinosaur and smiling for the camera; something that looks like a powerful, doorless microwave oven; impedance shifters; two serious looking men in ties bent over a ‘project’ — all acquire a kind of exhausting familiarity, seemingly reappearing through invisible productive algorithms.

The blandness and ubiquity of the icons perfectly concretize the numbing sameness (WDM = ‘World Domination Modus’?) Shaw’s narrator finds at his chosen Site, the suburbo-industrial sections of the Bay Area. And they alter the language.

Take away the surrounding facing-page glacier, and lines like ‘Uplift creases along edge words’ change. And where the drawings of Grenier and Michaux have expressivist elements, Shaw’s visual material seems to parody a kind of linguistic economism, the reduction of communication to words, by zeroing in on visual and syntactic normativity, and showing how their absolutes are impossible, at any scale. (Comics do this, too.)

The effect is heightened by the diction that Shaw employs for the written elements, a kind of neo-didactic 50s science film narrator who has taken some sodium pentothal and is proceeding to demythologize progress in the flattest of affects:

A garage opens to slanted paving.
           Slats line and into dirt:
controlled by window seat, lake
           lines evaporate, bake as

capitals unglue — and you,
           making this work
of neighborhood gates mistake
pleasantness for tryst.

Note boats in park lakes
           raw sewage bubbles over
embankments and a handy man
           must be summoned. (‘#11’)

These lines are set within an enlarged map of the Bay Area, with an icon of what looks like a prison watchtower. The straight face with which the ‘lake/ evaporate/ bake/ gates/ mistake’ ‘unglue/ you’ and ‘Note/ boats’ rhymes are delivered may make their chimings into a kind of low comedy.

Close looks at the book’s many (fragmentary) maps reveal the locations of many of the sites, but in the interview, names that don’t show up in the text of the poem get brought out: Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville. The fact that these lines literally sit on the map of the place they are describing pushes the joke, which I take to be the Bay Area itself, completely over the embankments.

At the same time, the watchtower, and the admonishment that passing by gates is not actual contact, lend a sense of the stakes of saying so.

Shaw’s focus, he notes in the interview, tends toward environmental ‘givens that structure what one is forced to internalize and be transformed by’ — the things that we see, hear, and grok when walking around.

Shaw found most of the 20 Sites of the poem in Emeryville (where he was living at the time) — a ‘semi-public, multi-use, vaguely-dilapidated zone...residual and often transitional...not living up to presentation drawings...not failing wildly, just droning along...park-oid, or spatial leftovers behaving as parks.’

Writing for Landscape Architecture magazine in 1968, Robert Smithson wrote of developing such patches:

Boring, if seen as a discrete step in the development of an entire site, has an esthetic value. It is an invisible hole. It could be defined by Carl Andre’s motto — ‘A thing is a hole in a thing that is not.’

Smithson’s use of ‘boring’ as means for entering a space — undecidable between physically hollowing out or being hollowed out mentally — echoes Warholian boredom as formulated in Popism: ‘The more you look at the exact same thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.’

As Shaw’s narrator walks through Emeryville, ‘the exact same thing’ imposes itself repeatedly. He is forced to internalize and be transformed by it. The meaning goes away for the narrator, but not for the reader.

The narrator, or narrators, since the perspective seems to vary from poem to poem, uncover in Emeryville a Site/Nonsite dialectic within the built environment that is almost infinitely extensive to (as Shaw notes in the interview) ‘historical or vertical axes that don’t connect with what’s there now, but with what had been there’ — the discursive webs that produced the area’s architecture persist only in surface trace.

So while the sentences of the poem track singly, there is disjunction in moving from one to the next, just as there are discontinuities when seeing buildings from different eras stuck next to each other, casting invisible roots into vanished ideologies and diffusing their toxins into the present.

The text’s disjunctiveness is thus motivated by what we might call ‘discontinuities of site’ — impossible linkages perceived through space-time when at a particular point, and brought together, visually and verbally, by the observer-as-artist, and book-as-factory.

But it is wrong to ‘mistake this pleasantness for tryst’ — the encounters afforded by this landscape are not exchanges, but park-oid structures of control.

IV  Rotation May Be Termed Narration

The visual-verbal riffs extend to smaller-scaled allusions. Page 23 features a border of xerographically magnified neo-crosshatchings that suggest hills, paths and tree cover. At the same time, they recall, and apparently use the same technique of magnification as, the cover of Clark Coolidge’s book Smithsonian Depositions (1980), which, like Cable Factory 20, riffs on Smithson’s essay ‘The Spiral Jetty,’ its style and contents:

Can you see me? I’m afoot below tilting. The sun seizes, lasting on a flat of pink colloidals. And basalt over limestone the sound circles the site. Worms rotate in a box of Pacific radio tubes. We’ve put the cap back on it though the heats will still arise. Sag to the center of the bones, so this rotation may be termed narration.

While there is stylistic similarity between Coolidge’s laconic Smithsonian riffing and Shaw’s sentences, Cable Factory draws attention to it using visual, not verbal, cues, a rotation that may be termed narration.

Even the orthography functions as a unit of visual organization, and of allusion: much of the verse is in fact structured by an acrostic:

Recruits head out in that direction
           (owners trick poodles to distraction).
Officers themselves had sat at such tables, unsure,
           as they themselves remind us, if their future
           would be with Tegetal, though proud
                      of oaths, even

Concessions, like renaming the freeway
                      after traffic victims:
Klaus Fluzoig Way, from an overpass,
           traffic speeding along the lagoon.
Slick rooftops after rain, first since
           their return to the state,
                                 rushing out for
           the sudden heaviness in atmosphere:
                      clouds weighing on high-rises,
                                 not quite repetition
                      in pools

Welcome the coincidence, crimes
           appearing regularly
As newspaper reading increases,
           below steady movement,
Teams having been washed down the street
           before the hundred year parade,
Enamel on counters, drums suddenly
           in blocked direction:
Recognition, they called it,
                      as if there were a before. (#14)

Vertical, first-letter-of-the-line acrostics produce ROCKS and WATER — two of the four elements that Smithson saw from 20 different perspectives within the Spiral Jetty: MUD, SALT CRYSTALS, ROCKS, WATER. Cable Factory 20’s twenty sections correspond to the twenty directions (North; North by east; Northeast by north; etc.) Smithson turned within the Jetty.

Smithson’s twenty nothing-in-that-drawer-like iterations form one of the most famous passages of artworld prose. Shaw’s poem is contained in the Nonsite of Smithson’s observations, just scaled up.

Shaw doesn’t let the acrostic be too deterministic; he keeps cataloging time-bound occurrences to get in effects like ‘unsure/future’ and ‘Officers/Concessions’ as consecutive line endings. The last line is brilliant, revealing power, pathos and anger in the ‘recognition’ that as presently configured, the present’s obliteration of the past takes most people with it, and makes comparisons for correspondence impossible, transforming them into ‘coincidence.’

V  Nouning v. Personism

While working from twenty different perspectives fosters a peripatetic quality, there aren’t a lot of people in Cable Factory 20, so it’s difficult to speak of the book’s social imagination in the way one might of that of another frequent stroller, Frank O’Hara. (The people, including O’Hara, are actually in The Lobe.) Yet Shaw’s narrator (or ‘ethnographer’) describes places as if they had intentions and personalities. They are coercive and time-bound, like people.

The ‘nouning’ in line 20 of #8 is, I think, a pretty complicated pun along those lines: ‘Anonymous treks in the wetland, never worrying if the nine year old will drown/ Left on frontage, nouning.’

One gets the sense that ‘nouning,’ which transforms a noun into a participle, is a play on Cage-ian empty mind practice, one that is intent on letting things come to one as themselves, literally becoming themselves within the particular context created by the observer’s perspective, and on ‘crying,’ as a cry is the ultimate non-nounal noun, a signifier without referent.

This reading I think is borne out by line 27, with its mention of Köningsberg, which is a synecdoche for Kant and Kant’s work. Superficially, it was Kantian metaphysics that separated things-in-themselves, or ‘noumena’ from things-are-we-conceive-them, or ‘phenomena.’ In the light of Kant, ‘nouning’ can be read as ‘getting at things in themselves,’ an impossibility in Kant, but why not in the poem?

A parallel visual example is the photo of a boy next to a dinosaur on page 43, which turns out (after a little digging among Shaw’s primary sources) to be Smithson himself. This is both a Warholian, Brillo-box maneuver, substituting the real thing for our expected experience of art, but it also adds a touch of flattened out nostalgia to the speaker-construct, as if that photo and its relation to Smithson’s subsequent production paralleled the relation of a new author to what he recognizes as his first major work.

The simultaneous excitement and nostalgia, like the poems’ didacticism, are more found objects than affective states. The layeredness that Smithson found within the various strata of the jetty, Shaw finds in, and grafts into, the process of textual production. There are many more examples like this.

The book thus seems to be after a larger scale than the ‘personal’ perspective on buildings, or anything else. As Shaw notes to Sullivan: ‘In the clamor to situate themselves in the sweep of History, most things miss. They begin to operate as black holes, sucking up the experience of time and reproducing it as self-interested arguments about history.’

The book thus takes up ‘geological time as a way to complicate temporal frames of reference’:

           Asked for proof: a ‘Mediterranean’ parking
complex with an amphitheater of sponge yellow seats.
Here, we watch a foundation slab grown-over with
grass patches, trash heaps and several sealed entrances
to what must have been basements.

Anticipating objections from the imagined reader, the ethnographer here foregrounds his position within his surroundings, and within the book itself — his ‘apprenticeship’ (as his role in the book’s project is sometimes called, alluding to Wilhelm Meister) is not in knowledge gathering or in the construction of history, but rather in ‘effectivity.’ Time becomes language, a rotation that may be termed narration.

So the demand for proof and its satisfaction are part of the landscape. Obviously, the-walk-around-and-describe-what-you-see-school of poetics has a pretty diverse heritage, one to which, the narrator notes, ‘Everyone, theoretically, has access.’

The specific embeddedness of these observations in Cable Factory 20’s mock enlightenment attempts at systematizing points to larger-scale axes of selection and combination: on the one hand, an acrostic, and on the other, the diachronic layers of a particular area as synchronically sliced by a body moving through them, and the demands that are made upon it. Time and space.

VI  The World in Grain


Good Madam, let me see your face.


Have you any commission from your lord to negotiate with my face? You are now out of your text. But we will now draw the curtain and show you the picture. [She removes her veil.] Look you, sir, such a one I was this present. Is’t not well done?


Excellently done, if God did all.


Tis in grain, sir; ’twill endure wind and weather.

— Twelfth Night

And it’s these unveiled strata of time and space that Cable Factory 20’s (underspecified) socio-political structure is most apparent: in its providing a model for scalar perception. The difference here is that Levinas-like face-to-face encounters here take place with inanimate objects, and at scales impossible other than textually.

This is meant to send-up the dialectics of place. But Shaw is serious about the possibilities of scale. Even if he finds the materials of this preliminary investigation lacking, he is able to make something out of them. The textual component of the book ends with the following verse:

           Now the views have been cut down.
           Toner checked.
           The prosthetic copy machine redescribes the
world in grain. Does grain alert us?

R                      O                      C                      K           S
                                    NNNNN      EEEEE
                                    SSSSS  WWWWW
W                     A                      T                      E            R

           All week the in-between.
           So steal them.
           All that’s left is to see clearly, to think, to con-
ceive, and to begin again.
           What city itself could direct us to something
even larger, but controlled?

As Smithson notes (with a pun): ‘To be in the scale of the Spiral Jetty is to be out of it.’ Shaw himself did leave the Bay Area for another city, ‘even larger, but controlled.’ But this sweeping question of locale is not what ends the book: there is still one more verso-recto spread to the poem when one turns the page, one that actually shows ‘the world in grain.’

Of the poem’s last two pages, page 105, on the right, offers a list of ‘Research Materials’ — a bibliography (one that ethically follows up on the admonition ‘So steal them’). Page 104, however, is completely taken up by a ‘bleed’ (where a printed image takes up an entire page without white-space borders) of a grainy xerox, along with a WDM icon.

The xeroxed image has been enlarged to the point where the shading effects have been rastered into dark and light flecks that seem to have a three-dimensional life of their own, while also giving contours to the dark forms, seemingly a block plan of several buildings, of the image. The altered scale of the xerox mirrors the altered scale of the map’s version (and creation) of the territory. Such scalar shifts in perspective are ‘the world in grain.’

‘Does grain alert us?’ It does.

Just as the orthographically giant ROCKS and WATER seem to respond to the question with blank insistence, Cable Factory 20 effects a removal from the normal experience of place via a kind of freedom of movement between visual and verbal, spatial and temporal, or what Shaw calls in the interview ‘temporary expressivity’ — an ‘active version of intertextuality, where there’s a kind of force and reciprocation between a place and a text....almost as a kind of substance, a pressure bearing down on the field ethnographer doing his ‘research’. Not just bearing down abstractly, but hooking up with what’s actually seen.’

In this way, the narrator can, near the book’s end, say ‘I’m not sorry I was fascinated with cameras and binoculars; that the wars passed. And galvanizing events had to be produced by will.’ I don’t think the book, or rather the book’s author function, can be fully identified with part of this position — that perspective ‘creates’ events, a position that wryly echoes Language Poetry’s point about putting the onus of reading on readers (or readers on reading) rather than on texts and authors.

As Watten notes, ‘Statement causes a change of state.’ And Shaw does (as the last verse admonishes) ‘begin again.’ Carl Andre, on the cusp of May 68, can journey from New York to Vermont to make a commissioned sculpture in a Vermont college’s field: ‘I didn’t know whether I could make a piece of sculpture outside.’

The reader of Cable Factory 20 becomes surrounded by the Bay Area — its topography, its history, its dead forms — and is challenged to begin again, to try to make a piece of sculpture outside, one that might cause a change in state. To be inside the cable factory is to be out of it.

VII  Shattering the Lobe

In a recent review of Bernard Williams’s Truth and Truthfulness, Richard Rorty points up a chapter that dramatizes two competing Enlightenment ideas of ‘what it is to be a truthful person’:

Rousseau thought that you could be authentic simply by laying yourself bare, but Diderot explained why it was not that easy....Diderot’s proto-Freudian account of the agent as ‘awash with many images, many excitements, merging fears and fantasies that dissolve into one another’ leaves us with the need to construct a self to be true to, rather than, as Rousseau thought, the need to make an already extent self transparent to itself.

Shaw opens ‘The Lobe’ section of The Lobe with a quote from Diderot, writing to Sophie Volland:

Why shouldn’t all nature be like the polyp? When it is split into a hundred thousand fragments the original polyp no longer exists, but all its elements continue to live.

For ‘polyp’ and ‘lobe,’ substitute ‘self.’

Shaw jokingly refused to attribute many of the epigraphs in Cable Factory 20 — ascribing them to, among others, ‘A French Historian,’ ‘A Dutch Architect,’ ‘A liar living close by’) sending up the desire for an authorless text. The Lobe plays off the desire to shatter the self-in-text, treating the desire for full fragmentation as a response to a time and place when writing was ‘forced’ to argue against the idea of the end of history, and against the idea of the self as a fully actualizable, discrete little world. It explains why it is no longer necessary to make those arguments, at least in the same way.

Bruce Andrews’s I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism) is, among other things, a mirroring and spitting back of capital’s detritus and its terms for processing it, and a constant reminder of the hard power that lays behind the soft.

The book, already and rightly canonical, arrived in some packaging: the idea of a de-selfed text. Why was that imposed on it?

At the time, the discourse of the individual, atomized, bourgeois self was valorized by corporate media as the highest unit of organization and thinking. It did so in a crushingly totalizing way that has now mutated into ideologies, as Alan Gilbert has noted, like ‘an Army of one.’

On a much smaller scale, a lot of bad poetry was being written whereby the idea of the ‘self’ was what structured the poem — was what held together its impressions and descriptions. Analytical content was scorned, often explicitly, in such work.

Charles Altieri identified the era’s ‘scenic mode’ as a poetic whereby ‘an ideal state where mimetic criteria of naturalness and an ethical standard of humility can be integrated with moments of visionary self-transcendence sustained by careful attention to craftsmanly control.’

While Marvell, Browning, Eliot, etc. had based the genre of lyric around exploring the self-as-structure (its fictitiousness, its layeredness), poets were often being paid well to take the self seriously as an essential whole.

It was galling mostly for its political effects. Whereas previously, lyric was aware that most of what gets called the ‘self’ is conjured into being by forces over which we have little or no control, a certain post-Lowell poetry (it persists) seemed to posit the self as whole, sui generis, natural, and as the only legitimate vehicle of self-transcendence. It was like advertising.

Shut Up was thus, on one level, designed to effectively mimic and disrupt the monolithic, totalizing media, even poetic media, by turning their terms and tactics against them.

So when the book, and others, arrived, some claimed that they got ‘beyond’ the self via those techniques. Then, out of terminological laziness, ‘self’ and ‘author function’ collapsed in on one another.

Just as anyone who reads Ad Week and watches a lot of TV can begin to see the signatures within the media combine, so trying to read Shut Up as without the author function cuts the real power out from under the book — the opening up of a subject position (not the construction of a ‘self’) out of negation, a position that rejects one form of power in order to begin producing others.

Shut Up is not spitting for the sake of spitting, nor is it ‘ambient’ spitting — i.e. it doesn’t propose ‘spit’ as a category that has a metaphysical independence from the spitter. It’s directed and embodied. Shut Up and other books are productive, as well as resistant.

An eloquent formulation of the resistant/productive dialectic is Sianne Ngai’s essay ‘Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust.’ The kind of disgust Ngai finds in Andrews and others does ‘deliberately interfere[ ] with a reading practice based on the principle that what is at stake in every textual encounter is a hidden object, one that can be discovered by the reader only if he or she reads deeply enough.’ But it also has a further function:

Because the force of its utterances is aimed outward rather than inward, the social attunement between subjects disgust does achieve is paradoxically effected by a distancing. One ordinarily thinks of the ‘face-to-face encounter’ as achieved through a process of drawing closer. But in disgust the opposite trajectory makes this ethically important moment happen. Pulling away from the object in revulsion, you’re suddenly in front of the other, who, unlike the others, is attuned to you, who stands in the space you’ve prepared for him through that act of withdrawal. Paradoxically, in the economy of disgust, it is by means of an originary exclusion that the textual encounter is made intersubjective.

This is what makes Shut Up and other texts of its era so effective. Beyond whatever effects it has in heightening the contradictions inherent in sound-bite rhetoric at as systemic level, there is a subject position to which one attaches an act of withdrawal, even if it is not ‘present’ in the text as a ‘self.’ It makes textual encounter intersubjective.

The kinds of face-to-face encounters one gets in The Lobe are mediated by transformations of disgust, much as the investigations of Cable Factory 20 are.

VIII  Emotional Content

It is significant that Frank O’Hara, who shows up repeatedly in The Lobe, and Smithson are two men who were arguably killed by their art. The book works within what we might call ideational life-space, actual cullings from an artist’s work as mixed with myths and anecdotes about the life. It’s a space that most often produces fetish objects.

What I think Shaw is after is a new, non-fetishistic form of encounter, one that dusts off the 18th century ‘Man of Feeling’ indirectly, through the angles by which the poems reject various receptions of art and ideas, and even take pleasure in the act.

Shaw’s poet thinks without prejudice or fetish in the path of others, without repeating their presence or precise movements, or those of their admirers, and in the process creates a kind of mirror displacement: likeness dominates. The book is saturated with the detritus of self in order to show that it is possible to construct a subject position without producing absolute presence or transcendence.

There’s no spitting, just strong orderly bowel movements that refuse to let their revulsion hold back their acts of construction. The speaker sits pleasantly through the entire dinner...

...and inserts Rush lyrics into ‘Wilhelm Meister’; makes Godard’s strike satire ‘Tout Va Bien’ into a downtown 80s office-worker noir disrupted by Tilted Arc; visits with O’Hara and Guy Debord simultaneously in ‘Having a Coke with Guy Debord’; finds public restroom chunks of Olive Garden vomit ‘On Jeff Wall’s Wall’; peeks in on Bartleby and Uncle Fester romancing ‘Sara Merde’; and is sure, in another O’Hara nod (dated July 2000) that ‘Bin Laden is coming on the right day!’

Though such references are set within complicating sets of circumstances, these seem to be the only kinds of encounters that occur in The Lobe.

O’Hara, for one, hovers over the entire enterprise, his presence-in-absence culminating in a section of sometimes homophonic ‘translations’ that includes the Bin Laden poem, ‘An Extra Step in the Plaza’ (‘It’s my lunch hour so I go/ for a walk along the hum-colored arc’) and a ‘homophobic’ translation of ‘At the Old Place’: ‘Earl checks out my twin-cap diesel combo./ Yeah, I got a wrench for that. (Dude, you comin’?)/ Earl hops in.’

Old school purveyors of ‘emotional content’ (as one poem puts it) and straight-edge linguophiles from all eras get equal amounts of piss taken out of them. ‘The Herder’ unleashes a set of perfectly calibrated puns on the name, and ideas, of the 18th century linguistic philosopher. After Herder ruminates on the idea of a sheep, his idea calls back to him as a series of vocalizations, and epiphany is produced:

The sheep bleats!
And the soul recognizes,
       feels inside —

‘Yes, you are that which bleats.’

Herder goes on to imagine herding Goethe, but I also hear Robert Lowell’s car radio bleating ‘Love, O careless Love.’ Just as it’s impossible to write a poetry of place, it is impossible to write a poetry of encounter, with ideas or other people — but that’s a good thing.

Neither of those negative propositions may be finally true, but they are true within the terms Shaw inherits from art and literary history. Destroying (digesting) these inherited terms, clears the way for further encounter through a kind of disgust that is not a turn away or a regurgitation, but a recognition, one the book’s putative speaker can take pleasure in:

      Old School

Behind the consciousness barn raising,
instruments laid out the season’s gift drawings,
‘European Enlightenment’ the campy
organizational style of the gala. We winked
and sipped hooch from our canteens,
while umpteen members sauntered, mouthing
words in explanatory cartouches,
some with ties gone cloven at the seams.
The more we stared, wave patterns
lapped at the lowering clouds.
It was a thing of wonder, this glowing lamb leg:
I felt Ann Lee about and quivered
more than usual in the bowels.

Sipping a cocktail au dehors as one’s inherited ideational structure forms nothing more meaningful than a lamb leg (think ‘golden calf’) is a fairly provocative thing to do. Pleasure in disgust, and pleasure generally, can freak people out. Marketing departments have become amazing at tying pleasure to consumer culture (sent up relentlessly), as have their counterparts in postwar academico-poetic culture.

Andrews’s book remains controversial because eros doesn’t get sent up completely. Alan Davies’s Candor, which tropes even its own appropriations and the pleasure gained therein, hasn’t yet been given the recognition it deserves. Having your pleasure and your critique too feels dirty, something the reversed author of Polyverse might remark, and sometimes like an assertion of class privilege, as ‘Old School’’s accoutrements signal.

Repeated provocation of that reaction is an operative function of The Lobe. Its satire is of encounters that reduce people and ideas, dead or otherwise, to cloaking devices for power.

Duchamp’s Etants Donées speaks of the impossibility of speaking any further through the female form (luridly abject or otherwise), but is very clear that the form’s deadness holds ‘The Illuminating Gas’ by which we will see to proceed.

The Lobe begins with a series of ‘Exemplary Acts’ that include ‘Six Bodily Graphs’ that describe the deadness of the terms by which everyday life proceeds, materially and ideationally.

The pivot point for each of the piece’s six prose paragraphs is the first person singular possessive (‘my’) — ‘Taking its horizon line from the belt of coverings affixed to the ‘free time’ courtyard’s marble piers, my sequence of bodily elongations and collapses attached quotation marks to the space’s de facto protective custody effect.’

The first person here is a place holder. The piece anticipates its own turn against the terms that surround that it (relying, to some degree, on a shared experience of them). It records the real-time unfolding of bad history, but at the same instances betrays pleasure in the ability to construct something even out of the flimsy crap of forced internalization.

Does this leave a self to be true to, and to construct alternate power grids through? It depends on partial correspondence, of a spectral lamb leg to an abjectly thrust-out femur.

August 2003  |  Jacket 23   Contents page
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