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A movement ‘beyond the word’ to the world, where the world is already the word’s monumental immanence. (231)
Are we yet prepared to accept that thought – even as something strictly delimited in terms of operating with signs – is conditioned by a purely mechanical agency? (146)
In 1769 Wolfgang von Kempelen invented a chess-playing automaton, which was in fact no more than a puppet known as ‘the Turk’ operated from inside by a dwarf who happened to be a chess master. A good sixty years later, Edgar Allan Poe – certain that intelligent, creative thought could only come from a human mind – wrote of the fraud of the chess-playing ‘Turk’. In Solicitations Louis Armand refutes Poe and asserts that the mind indeed is a machine. This book explores – from a rigorously materialist perspective – the location of and conditions for the mind, and deploys this question in the form of essays about a wide range of criticism and culture. What connects them in their diversity is the title ‘solicitations’, which is interpreted according to its etymological root to denote a transitive operation of methodically ‘threatening structure’, or ‘shaking up a structure’, in order to understand it more clearly.
But while tied together on the one hand by the underlying procedure of ‘soliciting’, this book is also a very diverse collection of essays in the original sense of attempts (essai) at a problem. Both individually and as a whole, these essays perform a transversal, or ‘swarming’ movement that covers an astonishingly wide spectrum. It is no wonder that an anthology of essays collecting fifteen years of work would cover a large number of subjects, but even by those standards the framework drawn from in this book is extensive. Just to give an idea, these are only the names listed on the back cover: Godard, Beckett, Joyce, Italo Calvino, Cy Twombly, Warhol, Derrida, Kant, Benjamin, Lacan, Karl Jaspers, Baudrillard, Habermas, Wittgenstein, Kubrick, Cage, Jose Delgado, Levi-Strauss, Freud, Shakespeare, Basquiat, Brett Whitely, Michael Dransfield, John Kinsella, and Pierre Daguin. The book is divided into a short preface and six numbered but untitled sections that are loosely ordered according to theme. These gather essays that deal with, very roughly: 1. the role of criticism, 2. media/film, 3. literate technologies, 4. experimental writing machines, 5. avant garde art/poetics, 6. history.
However, precisely because of the seemingly disparate and eclectic nature of this volume, it will be helpful look more closely at the strategy of ‘solicitation’. One important reason for this method is that the soliciting of open-ended structures enables a praxis of immanence; a key concept underlying this book and indeed the rest of Armand’s work. Immanence can simply be thought of as a rejection of any transcendent element supposedly persisting outside of any given situation. Thus there is only inside or outside instead of dichotomies such as mind/matter, subject/object, and nature/culture.
One practical consequence of this is that the object of criticism is always thought as an open-ended multiplicity in immanent connection with its environment (as opposed to discrete, or autonomous). This leads to a method of making transversal cross-sections, which potentially includes quite literally anything from quantum physics to tangible physical processes. So all of these essays discuss their object – be it painting, literature or history – in terms of synthetic processes, constellations, or assemblages. It is a method of affirmative inclusion instead of oppositional, analogical exclusion.
Ultimately, this method of course also comes to include the mind as nothing other than a complex material process. And indeed Armand announces his main goal to be the understanding and locating of the mind from the position of criticism. Whence the appropriateness of phrases like ‘ecology of mind’ (i) and ‘psychogeographies’ (188), which point toward such a transversal method that explains mind as a synthetic structure, as opposed to an autonomous Cartesian cogito, cut-off from its environment. ‘As a means of describing cognitive event-states, the virtue of transversality lies in the necessity of accounting for the materiality of any “phenomenon of consciousness”’ (291).
This is a manner of rhizomatic thinking that is similar to the style of Deleuze and Guattari’s co-authored works. Another important influence in this respect is the highly interdisciplinary field of cybernetics, the study of self-producing and interacting systems. Solicitations is also theoretically comparable to Barret Watten’s equally impressive The Constructivist Moment (2003), which demonstrates how negation is a key moment in the construction of ‘cultural structures’. An important difference is Armand’s shift of focus from cultural production, to the functioning of the mind. These essays can also be seen as an extension in criticism of the trend in – what Paul Mullarkey has called – Postcontinental philosophy (2007), to construct philosophies of immanence.
Within the context of Armand’s own work the present collection of essays are a practical, albeit experimental application of other, more systematic monographs (of which some chapters are included in the present volume of essays). In Literate technologies (2006) Armand studies technology as inherent to literature; Incendiary Devices: Discourses of the Other (2005) examines the value of using structure for understanding subjectivity; Event states (2007), tries to describe the relation between events and states (situations).
But how does Armand come to use the word technology in conjunction with literature, and in what way is the mind explained as mechanical? The idea that there is a little person inside one’s head is replaced with the notion of the mind as machine. So it is not that the chess-playing ‘Turk’ is really human, but the human mind that is no more than a system of mechanics. Armand employs a theory of ‘generalized technology’ in order to think the mind as a complex, but purely material structure (thus literally asking ‘how the interaction of matter can give rise to a situation of what is called intelligence’, 237).
The idea that technology is external to the private world of the artist is a fallacy, as is the idea that technology is external to language, or that language resembles a machine on the basis of a utilitarian function. Each of these ideas proposes an objectification by which the individual… may put this or that to work in the external world and then withdraw into the self (at leisure, as it were). Of course, this is not the case, just as it is not the case that we can forget about language until we need it for the sake of ‘having’ or ‘communicating’ an idea (357).
In order to be able to conceptualize such a generalized technology, Armand takes up the notion of techné as a central tool for analysis. Emphasizing its meaning of a system of making, over art or artifice, Armand argues in Literate Technologies that techné should be seen as the possibility of ‘structure… to underwrite any system whatsoever’ (LT, 1). He claims that instead of being a human projection onto systems, it is an antecedent ‘condition of materiality’ upon which consciousness devolves. The essays in Solicitations are basically explorations, from many different perspectives and situations, of this idea that mind, cognition, and language are immanent to a techné of possibility, or in a citation of Heidegger’s essay on art and technology, that techné belongs: ‘to bringing forth, to poiesis: it is something poetic.’ (231)
From this perspective of techné, Armand discusses the mind as an assemblage of interconnected processes and, citing Lacan, an ‘apparatus of sign operations’ (139). Representational thought (in images) is likened to the external appearance of a computer, in the sense that both suggest that there are images in the brain, or that computers are somehow self-sufficient units. But this conceals the fact of their ‘radical digitality, that there is nothing mimetic in the machine’ (224), and, ‘like computers, the central nervous system and the brain contain neither words, images, or ideas, but merely electrical impulses.’ (206).
An essay appropriately titled ‘The Gutenberg Effect’ discusses a similar latent dualism in the form of a distinction between the book and writing per se, ‘the distinction between bibliographical or artefactual codes and the techné of literacy… ’ (226). The conundrum with the ‘pre-hyper-text’ book-as-artefact being that ‘bibliographical codes and historical context remain conceptually fixed outside any discourses which might challenge the certainties implied by them.’ (225, emphasis added). (Although the extent to which, as Hillis Miller claims, a ‘text’ in cyberspace is ‘detached from its local historical context’ (225), might be questioned; wouldn’t precisely these texts be accurately traceable, through source codes and IP addresses).
In any case, the main point here is that the advent of new media challenges and offers new ways of thinking about literature, not as being externally influenced by technology, but rather as being inherently technological: ‘not a technologisation of literature, but to a way of knowing about the technological condition of literacy.’ (335) One of the main routes Armand follows in this particular exploration is paved by the example of Finnegans Wake. A student of Donald Theall, who was himself a student of McLuhan (also heavily influenced by Joyce), Armand has taken up the project of reading Finnegans Wake as an important moment emblematic of the techno-poetic sensibility common to modernism and – in conjunction with contemporary media – key to preempting the ‘Gutenberg effect’ (see his Techne: James Joyce, Hypertext & Technology).
Armand argues that if Finnegans Wake is approached from a transcendent, analogical viewpoint of any particular discipline (such as philology), it indeed retains an unreadable quality. An alternative however to emphasizing its readability in a philological sense, is to read it as immanently enacting the techné of language, ‘a radical parataxis in which each aspect of signification is revealed in the possibility of open communication with every other’ (240). Consequently, what in any first encounter with Finnegans Wake (probably one of the most talked about, least read books around), ‘presents itself as anomalous – as an aporia or crisis of thought – reveals itself as an “engine of possibility”’ (240). Similarly to the Turing machine (designed to simulate human interaction and capable of reading and creating codes), Joyce’s labyrinthine work is presented as a literate technology. ‘Finnegans Wake is not a mimesis of thought processes, but affective of them.’ (238).
The penultimate section contains more essays on experimental and avant garde poetics and art. There is a wonderful three-part interview with Armand about ‘An ABC of Avant-Gardism’ (which can also be found in full on his website, and provides a good introduction to his thinking). Separate essays about the early deaths of Basquiat and the Australian poet Michael Dransfield, and the role of marginalization, racism, and drugs as crises central to their work. There are essays about the work of artists Cy Twombly and Pierre Daguin. The latter includes no less than 11 reproductions of his ink drawings and paintings, which are beautiful, stylized porn images (if that is not a contradiction in terms) that strongly recall the work of Egon Schiele. This section is closed off with a comparative essay about the subversive use of repetition in the work of John Kinsella and Andy Warhol.
The book’s first section directly addresses the problematic question of the task and possibility of criticism. Armand traces the lineage of criticism from a positivistic, syllogistic mode – that supposedly took an unproblematic external position of analysis with regard to the object of criticism (e.g. literature, film) – to an ever increasing interweaving of style with object. If in the 1930’s, New Criticism tried the former positivistic approach, the contemporary Frankfurt school attempted a ‘critical theory’ that would be immanent to a life-praxis. Armand posits Derrida, McLuhan, and Joyce (three figures central to his own work) as pivotal in expanding the notion of text (Derrida’s (in)famous ‘Il n’y a pas du hors-texte’) to implicate criticism itself and thereby dissipating any clear coherent object for criticism, ‘… structure itself affects a critique and is in effect critical’ (15). In a post-literate world dominated by (media) events that at times become part of the very discourse of critique (prime examples being the Gulf War and the WTC attacks) the question remains what then the possibility and role is for criticism.
The crux of the problem for criticism lies ‘in the absence of a “coherent” object, or in the absence of a positivistic idea of its own “task”.’ (15). Armand comes to the conclusion that this crisis of criticism should itself not be objectified, but should be taken as part of the critical procedure. The crisis of the autonomy of criticism thus constituting a techno-poetics:
a techné of crisis that, above all, is structural and linked to a certain ‘poetic’ matrix of reproducibility… This necessary conjoining of techné and poiésis can likewise be understood as forming the basis of a critical technique immanent to prevailing social, cultural or otherwise ‘technological’ conditions… ’crisis’ in this regard tends neither towards idealism or reactionism, but remains immanent to the conditions of active critique. (23f)
Where criticism came from a position of ostensible objective distance from its object, now there appear ‘strategies of solicitation – whereby “criticism” denotes an on-going series of interventions in a textual field whose multivalent structures are encountered in a state of constant tension… ’ (15). Criticism as (an event of) intervention is an interesting appropriation of the ‘crisis’ of criticism into its own procedure. A recent example, besides Solicitations, of this might be Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms (2009), which combines criticism with creativity. This is mirrored by a work like Kim Rosenfield’s re:evolution (2009), which is presented as poetry, but nevertheless also effects a strategic synthesis of creativity and criticism (through an appropriation of scientific texts from such diverse fields as evolution theory and psychoanalysis). What does remain a bit unclear from the kind of interventionist criticism that Armand describes, is if, when, and how a distinction is retained between the procedure and object of criticism.
As is probably apparent by now, the style of these essays does not make them the most obvious bedside reading material. Armand wastes no time on preliminaries, which definitely makes for (and demands) concentrated reading. Many anthologies include extra texts that contextualize and introduce the book or its sections; pieces that can be interesting essays in themselves and very helpful for getting a grasp on a book as a whole. Solicitations has no such orientational padding other than the book’s motto and a short preface. Maybe these choices were simply pragmatic. On the other hand, leaving out objectifying texts about the texts does retain a more immanent, rhizomatic inter-relation between the essays as open multiplicity. Either way, people who like their anthologies to come with extra introductions will, in that area, be disappointed. Another thing the book does not do is provide an applicable systematized method for the criticism that it practices. Although Armand never claims otherwise, explaining that ‘in place of a system the synergetic approach represents a disposition towards a generalized solicitation’ (i).
But despite Armand’s dense style, it is never wilfully obtuse or convoluted. These essays do, however, presume (an at times more than) casual familiarity with a vast range of subjects. Many essays, for example, have been previously published in specialized journals (ranging from Joyce studies to psychoanalysis). This means that while readers from disciplines as wide ranging as media studies, philosophy of history, and contemporary poetics will find use in the book, it is not ideal for first-year students. However, as a whole, this is an important book. Armand’s method of applying the concept of techné is eminently suitable for the increasingly immanent poetries that are being produced since Charles Olson’s projective verse of ‘open field’ and Steve McCaffery’s landmark Carnival (a post-concrete poem that must be destroyed and reassembled in order to be ‘read’). Many contemporary poets are exploring innovative ways of going beyond the confines of the traditional book. New technologies are being used to inter-disciplinary, multi-media, spatially-immersive ends. Think of the many experiments with Flash and other digital poetry; the group of Conceptual poets; Christian Bök’s Xenotext experiment (which involved the injection of an amino-acid alphabet into a living bacterium resulting in a living, morphing poem) and his Lego and Rubik cube poems. A good example is also Dutch poet/composer Rosalie Hirs’ beautiful electro-acoustic composition Pulsars (2007), which combines poetry with pulses based on the electromagnetic radiation of neutron stars. These are all instances of poets with a view of the poem as a constellation of disparate elements.
The book itself, as other volumes from Litteraria Pragensia, with cover images that illustrate the central thesis, resembles publications from the renowned Continuum series (although with better binding). Solicitations, for example, features a depiction of part of a brick wall with a scratched and flaky surface, revealing more detail of its underlying structure. There are also quite a few pictures throughout the book that illustrate and support a particular essay’s argument (a formal mode reminiscent of, although a bit less interwoven with content than, Deleuze/Guattari and more recently Peter Sloterdijk).
Finally, there is an irony to the fact that while criticizing the book autonomous object, ‘the “text” as artefact”’ (225), Armand still presents his research in the traditional medium of the book. This is similar to the contradiction in Kenneth Goldsmith’s choice to publish his poetry in books, while at the same time emphasizing the pervasiveness and fluidity of language and talking about pouring language into moulds. In fact, coming from the art world as a text-based artist and sculptor, Goldsmith initially did present text more spatially, but he admits enjoying the result of his work in book-form and speculates that this is probably a sign of his generation and that this attitude will certainly be different for coming generations. It will therefore be interesting to see in what ways future works of criticism will incorporate their own conclusions into their formal presentation.
And in fact, Armand himself – who is also a poet and artist – has since 1996 been working on an on-going, multi-faceted poetry, photo and installation project centered around the megaphones of Prague (which have been used since the First Republic for communal, but also propagandistic announcements). It is an artistic venture, but obviously also has a strong element of criticism. Of course, this kind of inter-disciplinary experimental criticism would not easily be accepted within the disciplinary confines of the academy. Although someone like poet and teacher Darren Wershler-Henry, as announced on his home page, tries as much as possible to assimilate the theory that he teaches, as well as the implications of new technologies, into his teaching method.
Anyway, as Aristotle reminds us in his Nicomachean Ethics by way of Armand (in Literate Technologies, 15) techné ‘moves within the circuit of beings which are in the process of becoming, which are on their way to Being.’ And as such, the becoming-other of criticism too stands in ‘open relation to a future possibility’ (15).
Jeroen Nieuwland teaches English and works as a film projectionist in Berlin. He maintains a web log at http://transversalinflections.wordpress.com/