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Duncan White

“The American Areas”:

Place, Language and the Construction of Everyday Life in the Novels of Ben Marcus

Section 1

It is significant that such-and-such a sentence makes no sense; but also that it sounds funny. [… ] i.e. language is not merely a means of communication.

(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel)

The Reading Wizard, a machine that scans and summarises books to determine their themes and content, determined that this book was “a documentary account of the role of the mouth in the art of deception and failure, with a specific focus on children who have been buried alive.”

(Ben Marcus, Notable American Women)

For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.

(Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Black Cat’)

Cultural Description and the Novel: «The Age of Wire and String»


The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus’ first novel, begins by describing itself:


This book is a catalogue of the life project as prosecuted in the Age of Wire and String and beyond, into the arrangements of states, sites and cities and, further, within the small houses that have been granted erection or temporary placement on the perimeters of districts and river colonies.[1]


Divided into eight archetypes the text is presented as ‘a collection of studies’. Each study or fragment offers an eyewitness account of what everyday life is like in (or during) ‘The Age of Wire and String’. In a sense, each chapter (such as ‘Dog, Mode of Heat Transfer in Barking’ from the Animal archetype or ‘Hidden Ball Inside a Song’ found in the Persons archetype) is a field-recording and acts as an indicative illustration ‘that might serve to clarify the terms obscured within every facet of the living programme.’[2] The ‘terms’, those unfamiliar fragments of the phraseology local to this hidden place, are then lifted from obscurity at the end of each archetype as part of an appendix or glossary that presents the reader with a dictionary definition of terms such as ‘Subfeet Walking Rituals’ as employed in the Society archetype or ‘Frusc’ as used in the Weather archetype.


Having to describe itself in this way might suggest that the book is not automatically a novel but more a kind of ethnographic study, a form of social observation. There seems to be an impulse for ethnography’s ‘participant-observation’.[3] With this in mind, The Age of Wire and String is best considered in light of the various critical and disciplinary perspectives informing contemporary understandings of visual culture, as well as ideas concerning the construction of ‘place’ and the representation of lived experience.


The Age of Wire and String plays on this premise to the extent that the Age of Wire and String, as such, appears to exist only in the terms of its description. It begins to demonstrate the ways in which culture (in particular material and visual culture) is related to the imaginary via the act of representation and description. As James Clifford notes: ‘What has become irreducibly curious is no longer the other but cultural description itself.’[4]


Certain familiar markers, or “known knowables”, those citations that mark out the spaces of everyday life, are present in The Age of Wire and String. There are, for instance, place names (Ohio, Montana, Utah, California), there are the names of people (Walter, John, Thompson), and forms of behaviour and habit (walking, eating, swimming). There are vehicles and animals and there are roles and positions within society such as ‘father’, ‘wife’, ‘son’ and ‘husband’; terms that organise those relationships defining roles of personhood and behaviour (gender, age, family), what Henri Lefebvre calls ‘relationships that define social practice, that is, habitation, and which are indicated or signified by objects of everyday use.’[5] These words, proper-nouns, seem to singularise or ‘house’ a panoply of pre-given stories or narratives. Marcus appears to be using this found code to form a syntax that is spatial. He takes from what Michel de Certeau calls a world of ‘proliferating metaphors – sayings and stories that organise places through the displacements they describe,’ and reorganises the world in its elements.[6] As code words each is re-appropriated (collected and catalogued) in order to decode models of difference formulated in a given language of description, so that names and things (‘the objects of everyday use’) are remodelled in the syntactical arrangements of how such relationships are described.



The model of difference provided by the suburban house provides material for much of the novel’s setting. ‘The House’ section of the book is divided into five fragments that document various aspects of the historical circumstances of the house in The Age of Wire and String. Together they form a broken description of its structure, both in the material and cultural sense, which appear to be constituted according to various practices. These practices are characterised as being (what sounds like) ‘work’ or ‘building’, but the labour that the house and housing involves is signalled by an unlikely arrangement of verbs: ‘sleeping’, ‘chasing’, ‘scratching’, ‘wiring’ and ‘making shade’. The materials employed are equally out of place, to include: air, grass, wire and skin (as well as the more familiar wood, glass and brick). In addition, the opposite practices of making and destroying appear to be inextricably linked, so that the material and labour from which the house is constituted appear to be of the same material and labour that continuously threaten the condition of the house:


Although shade is mistrusted by many occupants, and has rarely been selected as a primary weapon, it must not be overlooked as a key defence against objects that might burn in to take the house from the air, in secret agency with the wires of the hallowed sun.[7]


By being predisposed to them, sun and shade (part of the immediate environment) are in a sense the primary materials out of which the house is constructed. Yet the essential properties of objects and materials are the subject of uncertainty and mistrust as are the essential properties of received practices. The confusion over sleep and dreaming (key practices of the house and housing), for instance, is tied in with the confusion over destruction and building. Sleeping, often a productive exercise (‘forms of sleeping also calm the sky. Wealthy landowners hire professional sleepers to practice their fits on key areas of the grounds… Freelancers take their dream seizures near the door, and storms are said to be held in abeyance.’), is considered at other times to be threatening, injurious and destructive. Here, for instance, is the construction of the house-like ‘gevorts box’:[8]


Archaeologists divide the time of this culture into the house maker and the house destroyer periods; in the latter period, participants turned increasingly to nonuseful and abstract houses, eventually constructing the penetrating gevorts box, of which one thousand wooden units were made during the Texas-Ohio sleep collaboration, 1987. Gevortsing has subsequently become known as any act, intention, or technique that uses negative house imagery during the dream experience as a device to instruct inhabitants to sleep-kill or otherwise destroy themselves, their walls, windows, doors, or roofs upon waking, until a chosen version of the culture has been sufficiently driven from their home.[9]


Much can be drawn from this example. Firstly, the ‘abstract houses’ and ‘wooden boxes’ bring to mind the pre-fabricated tract housing common to the suburban developments that spring up throughout America during the post-War housing boom and have come to characterise contemporary suburban development. Dolores Hayden associates this trend with the production of what she calls ‘dream houses’, and may indeed relate to the above ‘dream experience’ of the gevorts box.[10]


The formulaic model home is not only built quickly and cheaply but the process is endlessly repeatable across vast tracts of land consumed by rapid urban sprawl. Hayden notes that this type of housing means, among other things, that the ‘climatic and cultural connections’ between habitation and the local environment are drastically altered.[11] Local building materials, or designs that respond to local weather conditions, are shunned in favour of universalised materials and designs so that ‘ordering the domestic sphere’ becomes much less than the ‘direct expression of personality or culture’.[12] Material, environment and practice are, in this sense, displaced as a means of constructing the (air-conditioned) ‘dream house’.


‘Dream’ is then associated with the reproduction of a model experience or what Marilyn Chandler calls a ‘habit of mind’.[13] Inhabitants are removed from the labour of construction (the process of building their own homes – in more ways than one) by a form of ideal representation. That is to say the image of the ideal house precedes its construction and becomes in a sense part of the material out of which habitation is organised: such model housing is designed in order to ‘reflect patterns of life’ while at the same time it is meant to ‘configure life in certain patterns’.[14] What Gaston Bachelard calls the ‘dream geometry’ of the house is replaced with habit and industrially conceived patterns.[15] In The Age of Wire and String confusing habit of mind with dream renders occupants susceptible to the ‘negative house imagery’ of the gevorts box. The ‘material culture’ of The Age of Wire and String appears then to be constructed out of the relationship between objects (in the way of a local climate as well as building materials and practices), whether dreamed or experienced, which define the essential qualities of those objects and the practices they habitually tend to signify.


Secondly, a definition of the gevorts box is clarified, as it were, in the glossary to the house section as denoting a means by which the ‘occupant’ receives messages within the living space. These messages are literally inscribed on the walls and floors, characterising the practice of domestic life as being primarily an act of reading; a way of internalising inherited codes of habitation. In the glossary definition they are associated explicitly with written language, the room or house is likened to a text: it is the relaying of ‘an imperative through inscriptions on the walls and floors.’[16] The messaging evokes common analogies between architecture and writing: ‘A house, as any architect will verify, is a text with its own peculiar grammar, syntax and way of communicating and generating meaning.’[17] Or elsewhere, ‘every newly built house or freshly furnished room is a fiction of the life intended to be lived there.’[18] But both analogies point to a single moment in time, an original event that fixes the nature or pattern of the lives to be lived thereafter, as if these patterns will then be conformed to without deviation.


Still, the evocation of the living space in terms of messages being received and worked upon underlines the principal theme in Marcus’ work. The theme is this: to inhabit is to occupy a set of stories or narratives; a set of habitual codes of language characterised as messages received in how something is described. These can be appropriated and re-appropriated but commonly precede the activities of habitation – they are often inherited as gendered spaces of production and reproduction in accord with roles of personhood such as male/female, husband/wife, father/mother. The inscribed messages of the domestic setting organise relationships that define the roles and behaviour of everyday life, they are what Henri Lefebvre calls, ‘the inscription of these facts in habitation’.[19] .pp
Christopher Tilley, in his work on material culture and metaphor, draws attention to this syntactical arrangement in various cultures underlining ‘the role of the house in providing a coherent language with which to organise reality.’[20] The house is characterised as a system of language, of cultural description, metaphorical naming and the organisation of domestic roles. ‘The house’ provides a context for the metaphorical understanding of things and actions in relation to other things and actions.’[21]


An important aspect of the Gevorts Box is an emphasis on reading these messages of the house, how the syntactical arrangements of spaces are read. The initial reading is done by ‘archaeologists’: ‘Archaeologists divide the time of this culture into the house maker and the house destroyer periods.’ Their role is literally to officially identify and demarcate by ‘dividing time’. Yet there is a tension between the official cultural description and immediate observation that is reflected in the resistant language of the narrative.


The novel shifts continuously between the position of observer and observed: two poles of representation that provide the information relevant to each archetype (in this case the archetypal ‘House’). Archaeologists normally employ archetypes in order to categorise the evidence of their observations, the archetypes provide a model of description that is authoritative and automatic. To observe is to measure against the archetype so that description and observation are inextricably linked.


The very nature, then, of what is visible depends on whether it can be described. If it can only be described ‘in terms of’ or ‘in relation to’ then presumably that which does not fit with the archetype will be rendered invisible. The Age of Wire and String, organised in terms of archetypes and (all be it, unfamiliar) categories of description, is principally concerned with the elements of everyday life that are made invisible, hidden or secret as soon as they are described. It achieves this by continuously shifting perspective between participants – between observer and observed.

Observation: Laws of Seeing


Interestingly, the act of observation, or seeing is often considered dangerous and destructive, even taboo in The Age of Wire and String: ‘The outer gaze alters the inner thing… by looking at an object we destroy it.’[22] And later:


Occupants, if any, must train their attention outward (bog); they must never be seen watching themselves or looking at any other objects within the house (heen viewing, forbidden, punished by expulsion to lower house).[23]


The first example, in the first person plural, comes from the novel’s opening ‘argument’ and seems to be calling for a kind of unmediated gaze in which ‘the object must be trained to see itself.’ The second is from the fragment ‘Views from the First House’ (again from the house archetype) and constitutes part of a binary between the house and the first house or ‘heaven container’. The heaven container provides a model for the house and all things: ‘In ancient America and earlier, it was considered one of the four basic objects, a substance from which all things were composed.’[24] Yet what differentiates it from other houses is a law of vision stipulating that occupants of the heaven container look outwards while ‘occupants of a house are instructed always to LOOK IN (strup), to examine the contents within a house (Chakay) and derive instructions and strategies from these.’[25] There is a kind of double looking – one is local and the other removed or objective.


The taboo regarding sight and observation derives from the relationship between an immediate or local perspective on the one hand and a totalising world view on the other. The implication is that the archetype (the heaven container) is never actually seen (it is looked out of) yet is known and understood. In fact, it provides a model for how to view what is seen even if it is not understood.
J. D. Peters calls this predicament ‘seeing bifocally’, a confusion of near and far, and notes the way it characterises the contemporary experience of society within an economy of representation. The prevalence of mass media in everyday life, he argues, means that direct experience contradicts the sense-making activities of the coherent and graspable vision offered up by the ‘totalising images’ of multi-media:


Modern men and women see proximate fragments with their own eyes and global totalities through the diverse media of social description… Institutions of the global constitute totalities that we could experience otherwise only in pieces, such as populations, the weather, employment, inflation, the gross material product or public opinion. The irony is that the general becomes clear through representation, whereas the immediate is subject to the fragmenting effects of our limited experience.[26]


Peters’ argument may account for the taboo of sight and observation in The Age of Wire and String, in that observing without recourse to a model of description risks contradicting the received information of sight. In parallel with The Age of Wire and String, Peters employs the weather as an example: ‘I may see blue skies, but the satellite picture on the TV news tells me a huge storm is on its way.’[27] Immediate or direct experience is contradicted by the bigger picture, while local observation concurrently threatens the totalising narratives of satellite reports.


It is tempting for readers of The Age of Wire and String to consider the preoccupation with weather as a metaphor for the atmosphere generated by people and their various relationships. ‘Human Weather’ is defined in the glossary as ‘Air and atmosphere generated from the speech and perspiration of systems and figures within the society.’[28] But, perhaps more provocatively, weather is also associated with a tension between self-representation and the control of representational mechanisms. Wind, for instance, is associated with the mouth; in some instances it is spoken: ‘wind of certain popularity is rebroadcast’ by ‘water machines’, and ‘roof lenses which project and magnify the contents of each shelter onto the sky of every region in the society.’[29] There is, for instance, a ‘temperature law’: ‘rules of air stating that the recitation or revocation of names will for all time alter the temperature of a locality’, and a ‘storm calendar’ that regulates ‘the dispersal, location, and death of every wind and rain system in existence.’[30] Here the world-view of the satellite is part of a wider cultural description that combines weather patterns with information systems in order to regulate or make sense of what is seen. In The Age of Wire and String, however, weather becomes most meaningful when it enacts a distortion of this representational relationship: ‘human weather’ differs from ‘animal storms, it cannot be predicted, controlled, or even remotely harnessed.’[31]


Weather, as an archetypal arrangement of description and observation, becomes a metaphor for a field of representation within which place is constructed according to the movement of information between local and global perspectives, that is to say, between the point of view of observer and observed. But this distinction (between observer and observed) points to a representational duplicity – of being in two places at once – towards the complex relationship between place and representation. Place is a process of representation: ‘Part of what it means to live in a modern society is to depend on representations of that society.’[32] In a sense, the totalising narratives of global media are as immediate or local as the ‘lived experience of face-to-face communities.’[33] They provide what Peters calls an indexical verifiability, whereby the experience of everyday life can be checked against ‘embedded representations of social totalities.’[34] Yet, immediate experience often contradicts the nature of received information – such as the observation of a bright blue sky at a time when one is meant to be experiencing wind and rain. Consequently, ‘local knowledge’ is constantly undermined as a guide to living in the modern world. My embodied experience belongs to a smaller orbit than that of the ‘information’ I receive.’[35]


Marcus plays on this displaced sense of local knowledge in the face of social totalities through the double meaning of ‘observe’ and the contradictory play on sight and verification. Observation is evoked in its double meaning: on the one hand observation is to ascertain facts, while on the other it is to comply with custom and ritual, it is to heed or to carry out in practice. ‘Members which have viewed the destruction, duplication, or creation of shelters… are required to sign or carve their names or emblems onto the houses in question, and are subject to a separate, vigilant census.’[36] Local seeing is circumscribed by the custom and ritual of an inherently totalising perspective. Consequently the presentation of these practices, the embodiment of any given habitual experience, becomes a form of hiding:


REPRESENTATIONAL LIFE: Life that strives as well as it can to be quick, to present the body (if at all) as infrequently as it should appear to any vigilant observer – in the crowd, in the home, as well as within the open areas of land, among the animals. This life minimizes use of such devices of living as emotional coloration, connotative gesture, words, and imagination, including waking up, opening the eyes, and chewing, if food is found within gnashing range of the mouth.[37]


In this example, local embodiment appears to be something that resists verification. The ‘devices of living’, those gestures that express or are ‘representational’ of the human condition, are duplicitous and difficult to read. To appear is to hide, which is to say that self-representation is to hide within what can be observed. The premise here is that seeing is not the same as observation. Seeing, unlike observing, may deny the authority of verification. The Age of Wire and String as a novel arranged in the way of an ‘indexical verifiability’ (in terms of categories, glossaries and definitions), somewhat parodies the ‘bifocal’ arrangement of cultural description identified by Peters, and presents the reader with local information that refuses to be verified by general totalities. It is the act of sending messages resistant to verification that ‘makes the messages mean’. ‘Certain weather is not recognised by the land it is practiced on.’[38]

Diagrams: Visual Languages


Marcus explores the theme of non-information in his collaborations with visual artists and, in particular, his use of diagrams. In 2005 he collaborated in a group exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York entitled Remote Viewing: Invented Worlds in Recent Painting and Drawing. Marcus’ contribution is a wall-sized diagram that confronts visitors as they enter the exhibition purporting to offer a route around the space while compiling and connecting relevant information about the ‘content’ of the paintings and drawings on display. The theme of the exhibition is identified as landscapes of information: ‘Eight artists create new worlds existing between abstraction and representation as they grapple with the overwhelming abundance of information that pervades contemporary life.’[39] Marcus, as writer and artist, interprets this predicament as a kind of filtering, what he calls a ‘zone of translation’.

The diagram works, if it ‘works’ at all, by ‘testing the results of remote viewing’.[40] It involves a visual language that is apparently dynamic, mobile as well as familiar and everyday – at least in form – borrowing the rhetorical arrangement of the user’s guide or field manual; a set of operating instructions; a route around the exhibition. Yet it is difficult to discern what is being ‘visualised’ by the ‘language’ of the diagram, there is something uneasy or unnerving about the order it purports to articulate. Marcus has said about his use of diagrams:


I like the organisation of a diagram, I like the way it seems to reveal something… It seems as if it is going to tell you something even if upon scrutiny it won’t… I like that as a metaphor for what one does with language in writing.[41]


The cultural assumption that makes the visual rhetoric of a diagram appealing is that this type of language does not produce anything new but works in terms of what is given. The operations of production then exist in how the diagram is read or acted upon. Gilles Deleuze identifies something similar in Francis Bacon’s use of diagrams. According to Deleuze, the painter does not approach the canvas as inherently ‘blank’, instead the blank canvas is defined by pre-existing ‘figurative givens… more or less virtual, more or less actual.’[42]


For instance, the ‘correct’ organisation of a face precedes portraiture. It is already present. Bacon discovers in this presence a diagram (or graph) along the lines of which he is able to alter the position, say, of the mouth in terms of the ‘virtually-actual’ head. In this way the mouth can ‘be elongated stretched from one side of the head to another’.[43] Using the diagram allows the painter to ‘scrub, sweep, or wipe the canvas in order to clear out locales or zones’ and rearrange the given information already embedded in any language of expression.[44] This is what is important: Bacon, in his diagrammatical practice, works with given information (photographs, largely) and attempts to discover how the connections between one thing and another go from being something arbitrary to something automatic (and back again). In the activity of the diagram there is a pointing (the arrow is a common figure in Bacon’s work) to the places constituted by or hidden within the relational mechanisms of information.[45]

You can download and view a PDF file of this diagram here: [»»]. You will need to zoom out considerably.


The diagram, in this way, uncovers or exposes such mechanisms of cognition and association by identifying (literally pointing to) the otherwise ambiguous relationship between one thing and another. For Bacon it produces a kind of distortion, as unlikely associations are brought to the surface. What the distortion reveals are the mechanisms of information that endeavour to control an arbitrary relationship as something automatic.

New Perspectives: Fiction as Sculpture


Nowhere is this more apparent than in the visceral and perpetual frequencies of television where ‘one looks at a certain kind of vision’.[46] The ‘Golden Monica’ fragment in The Age of Wire and String describes ‘the phenomenon of the intruder or mad invader, who enters the American house in order to extinguish himself in the presence’ of the family.[47] The family, arranged diagrammatically by ‘wire or rope’, is made to ‘acquire the status of audience.’ A member of the family breaks free from the arrangement convinced he or she is responsible for the suicide, internalising what he or she has witnessed as an act of murder for which he or she is now undeniably responsible. The scene might be interpreted as an allegory of television-watching in which the family, arranged around the media spectacle in the comfort of their own home is captivated by the transmission of media signals. Yet, in the ‘Golden Monica’ fragment, the relationality (the alternate activities of watching) of the media is complicated by the form of its reception. The sense of its production (that is to say, the location of a sensory or cognitive source) is displaced:[48]


The acts of doing and watching are interchangeable here. It is the genius of the perpetrator of the monica to shift volition onto his audience. The spectacle is arranged to emanate from whoever watches it, where seeing is the first form of doing. The audience is deceived into a sense of creation for the act it has witnessed.[49]


For doing and watching to be interchangeable suggests that sight is itself a cognitive process of arranging material, of what Rudolph Arnheim calls ‘visual thinking’. Observation and the archetypes of description are shown to suggest that seeing is the activity of making sense. It is ‘the first form of doing’. Marcus appears to be commenting on the cultural relationship within this arrangement of seeing and making that the audience comes to embody. It is a cultural act of comparison, a code or logic of being; what Clifford calls ‘a movement of metaphorical comparison in which consistent grounds for similarity and difference are elaborated.’[50]


In terms of what might be called a ‘material of difference’, it might be productive to view Marcus’ work in light of a more specific tradition of Post-war American sculpture and collage that interrogates the material of representational relationships. Indeed, references to writing in The Age of Wire and String often take on a tactile character:


We Frederick [write] with a tool, a stylus, our fingers’ and ‘certain Braille codes are punched into the cloth.[51]
Emphasising the way protagonists touch and handle the fabric of language associates writing with manipulating and modelling material. Literally handling the inter-relatedness of cultural givens, the cloth and fabric of communication, has much in common with the collage and assemblage.


Marjorie Welish, for instance, characterises Robert Rauschenberg’s use of recycled elements scavenged from the detritus of modern material culture as a ‘reckless handling of place’, meaning that place and the representational evidence of place are provocatively interchangeable in how they are ‘handled’.[52] Similarly Jasper Johns characterises his work with the found elements of everyday life as a way of using ‘things the mind already knows.’ In the tradition of this work, place is culturally constructed according to the given organisation of information. Rauschenberg’s Combines incorporate, among other things, cloth, window frames, stuffed-animals and cardboard turning sculpture into a strange form of cultural association whereby the artist can reconfigure the found narratives of an ‘environment in which a person’s relationship to things is more stimulating than the things found in it.’[53]


Marcus ‘handles’ cultural associations of found everyday objects and the narratives they signify as part of a similar process using place and environment as a mixed field of production and reception.[54] In The Age of Wire and String this is characterised as ‘The Style of Space’ and refers to the channels of commodification that seek to control cultural associations and the (often metaphorical) connections between one thing and another:


The distinctive way space opposes us, useful because it frames and highlights the space our hands would make. Space being mobile and persons being static, the spatial style is more energetic, animated and even pictorial. True spaces, not falsified by our occupation, are as rare as true words and cannot be acquired through the routine channel of desire, nor may accidents deliver them for use.[55]


That there might be ‘space our hands would make’ is reminiscent of the sculptor modelling material or the collagist assembling various suspended elements in order to activate spatial strategies of communication. To conceive of space as having an ‘energetic, animated and even pictorial’ ‘style’ suggests that space is to be considered an operation of communication, a way or means of communicating. Rauschenberg considers this style of space to be a ‘random order’, ‘a combination of law and local motivations’ and so uses collage and assemblage to reflect the way the street is experienced as a field of space and communication where, for instance, branded ‘trucks mobilise words’ with ‘sound, scale and insistency.’[56]

For Michel de Certeau ‘Space occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalise it.’[57] Protagonists in The Age of Wire and String redirect these spatial trajectories, the practices hidden in habitual routines, in the way they ‘handle’ space in order to divert ‘the routine channels of desire’. Space exists as an activity of communication in which the novel has to position itself.

A Scriptural Economy: Blueprints, Recipes, Field Notes, Manuals and Maps


The written evidence is incomplete… (Lefebvre)


In Marcus’ second novel, Notable American Women, part of the novel is entitled ‘Blueprint’ and, beginning with the line: ‘I am probably Ben Marcus’, goes on in the form of an instruction manual to define the nature of the book (its (probable) plot, cast of characters, setting, narrative purpose and so on) and how the book should be put to use by the reader.[58]


The Blueprint section is part of a series of textual models in Marcus’ oeuvre that can be associated with what de Certeau calls the scriptural economy of everyday life. These include the (already noted) diagram, fieldwork, the recipe, instruction manuals or blueprints and maps. There is a sense that literary and artistic narratives have to be positioned (or position themselves) in terms of scriptural economies of writing that ‘produce’ information in a transformative process akin to industry in which materials are transformed into products. ‘The page is a transitional place in which an industrial inversion is made: what comes in is something “received”, what comes out is a “product”.’ [59]


In de Certeau’s conception of the scriptural economy the text represents an authorised position in the community; it is the voice of authority, the written source of power, the letter of the law. ‘Scriptural practice has acquired a mythical value over the past four centuries by gradually organising all the domains into which the Occidental ambition to compose its history, and thus to compose history itself, has been extended… [It is] the multiform and murmuring activity of producing… society as a text… a text that has power over the exteriority from which it has first been isolated.’[60]


By invoking this ‘myth’ of writing (a fragmentary process that takes on a symbolic totality) de Certeau attacks the authority of writing, its legal formation of expert scribes and their expert readers, the role of cultural description and its subordination of oral traditions. Marcus’ authorial position seems to articulate a similar attack. Part of the glossary entry for ‘Ben Marcus, The’ in The Age of Wire and String reads:


False map, scroll, caul, or parchment. It is comprised of the first skin. In ancient times, it hung from a pole, where wind and birds inscribed its surface. Every year it was lowered and the engravings and dents that the wind had introduced were studied… When properly decoded (an act in which the rule of opposite perception applies), it indicates only that we should destroy it and look elsewhere for instruction.


The likeness with de Certeau’s work is striking: ‘The law constantly writes itself on bodies. It engraves itself on parchments made from the skin of its subjects. It articulates them in a judicial corpus. It makes its book out of them… living beings are packed into a text… The reason or [logic] of a society ‘becomes flesh’.’[61]


Writing, by inscribing on bodies the law (or corpus) of its constitution, creates what Pierre Bourdieu calls a ‘habitus’, a ‘second order principle of regulation’ whereby members of a society internalise the rules and codes of everyday life as part of practices that may superficially appear spontaneous and unregulated:


The habitus contains within it a set of un-analysed implicit rules which determine the way in which the subject takes up and appears to manipulate the explicit rules prevailing in a social environment… the improvisations on rules are themselves ‘regulated’, but by rules unknown to the agents themselves.[62]


Yet Bourdieu prioritises the role of the expert observer characterised as a ‘scientific interpreter’, a mediatory expert who ‘can come and install himself, armed with the interpretive master key’ that will decode the significance and meaning of social actions on behalf of the habitus.[63] Yet, any kind of decoding on behalf of ‘the other’, de Certeau argues, at least ‘partially constructs’ the condition of that which it describes.


Marcus appears to be equally ambivalent in terms of cultural authority. As the false map (of Ben Marcus, The) instructs: ‘That we should destroy it [the false map] and look elsewhere for instruction’, suggests that the novel is not only inherently unreliable but openly fails to isolate itself from the ‘exteriority’ it purports to describe. Cultural authority and the social constitution of the self are not ‘written’ as part of a distinction or demarcation from what is ‘other’ but as mechanisms or models of difference; the authorial distinction is part of the construction of otherness.[64]


The cultural authority of the novel is made most unreliable in Marcus’ use of the ‘recorded’ voice. In The Age of Wire and String, Marcus borrows from the fieldwork of the folklorist Stith Thompson. Arranged in the 1950s, Thompson’s vast Index of Folk Motifs is appealing to Marcus less for its codifying of an organic or oral folk tradition, but more because of the strange ‘accidental’ language produced by the endeavour to record and categorise oral folk traditions.[65]


The Index, generating sentences such as ‘corn from body of slain person’ or ‘deceptive drinking contest: hole for water’ creates a reservoir of syntactical arrangements derived from the distortion of recordings done ‘in the field’.[66]


The fictional device, for Marcus, is conceived in the cultural distortion generated by the conventional relationship between an informant and arecorder or, more to the point, the observer and the observed. The truth of a place is thus activated somewhere in between, in the space of the language it endeavours to produce and the arbitrary syntax of its recording and categorisation. Employing the material of its distortion, this type of practice undermines the role of recording in the scriptural economy.


To make this clear it is worth considering the confusion of eating and speaking (the inverse functions of the mouth) in Marcus’ work and the scriptural or economic role of the recipe. In the ‘food’ section of The Age of Wire and String the reader is given a new definition of the recipe:


Food Map of Yvonne, The 1. Parchment upon which can be found the location of certain specialized feminine edibles. 2. Locations within a settlement in which food has been ingested, produced, or discussed. 3. Scroll of third Yvonne, comprised of fastened grain and skins. This document sustained the Yvonne when it was restricted from the home grave.[67]


The conflation of map with recipe again highlights a preoccupation with the relationship between language and space. The recipe or the ‘food map’ stands in for writing as a cultural mechanism whereby an order devised elsewhere is purposefully recreated (word for word) within the domestic setting.


The recipe is also insinuated in Notable American Women. ‘Better Reading Through Food’ follows the ‘Blueprint’ section and documents the mechanics and results of a ‘person-shaping’ language diet. It is a ‘diet’ that enables the reader to detect ‘the vowel world hidden within American dialects and weather [… ] because the Marcus family, through elaborate trial and error, bloodshed and heartbreak, believes that food plays an important role in how words enter the body, and what these words come to mean.’[68] The narrator describes a genealogy of eating, where the narratives of habitual behaviour are internalised like fluids and solids:


The notion of Thompson Water™ probably derives from the early American Pantomime Water (Shush), a liquid used to teach children how to behave in the home. [It] was administered to me like baby formula and subsequently taught me how to stand and walk, to run, to read, to call my mother’s name, and to sing using only mouth-carved breath.[69]


Natural functions are ‘handed-down’ in the same way that stories or lessons are handed down. Instinctive development is made synonymous with the exchange of narratives of daily routine, regulation and ritual (eating three times a day). The correct liquids and solids contain ‘the source code of any task’. This is key: these narratives of doing are part of the everyday world in the same way that food and water are necessary for ‘healthy’ development; that is to say, narratives and storytelling are part of the world in the way that objects are part of the world: as a set of relations (like a family and its eating habits) rather than as things in themselves. Notable American Women situates itself explicitly in terms of this everyday geography of learning:


I have field tested this book with control groups under the influence of varying food-combination/absorption strategies, with and without water in varying climates and stress conditions, and I believe there is a clear-cut way to optimise the reading experience, an eating programme to best dispose the reader’s body toward a story.[70]


To ‘field-test’ a book is indicative. The disposition of the reader’s body in Notable American Women is localised: this is the account of a particular person in a particular place, a kind of disclosure or confession.[71] The recipe or food scheme of ‘Better Reading Through Food’ is part of a local vernacular implied by the strange figures of speech and the built-in warnings against foreign interpretation: ‘I cannot say definitively that readers will survive the project I propose for them.’[72]


It is a kind of collage of found and local evidence that is not unlike Harry Mathews’ use of untranslatable local vernaculars in his novel, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1971). The unreliability of the narrator, the uncertainty of the source language undermine the desire to familiarise the strange and unfamiliar. A kind of ‘ethnographic surrealism’: ‘it would not explain away those elements in the foreign culture that render the investigator’s own culture newly incomprehensible.’[73]


Mathews writes poems and stories that look much like recipes. He is an influence on Marcus and it is clear that both authors purposely position their work in a similar relation to language, space (place) and the everyday. Mathews’ short story, ‘Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)’, for instance, is a story of ‘judicious substitution’ in which the travelling narrator attempts to transport the local delicacies of La Tour Lambert (‘a mountain village in Auvernge, that rugged heart of the Masif Central’) to anywhere other than the immediate locality of its origin.[74] ‘Farce double’ mixes instruction with inanity: ‘Cut paste midway between bands, roll these strips into cylinders, and slice the cylinders into sections no larger than a small headache.’[75] The pursuit proves painfully farcical as so much of the recipe’s execution depends on strange local rituals, a lifetime of experience and ingredients unavailable anywhere other than the mythically non-existent La Tour Lambert.


It is perhaps not too much to suggest that the recipe could stand in as the model narrative-style of traditional story-telling. A recipe is an organising principle in real time and space, a method laid down for achieving some desired end. There is a near-automatic narrative quality (beginning, middle, end; direction, purpose, satisfaction) that defines the recipe: Recipĕre is the root of the word recipe, which means to take or receive; a recipe is a rule of promise, purpose and satisfaction.


This rule of promise and satisfaction is one, moreover, that privileges the mouth (the proof of the pudding is in the taste). In the recipe taste has been translated into a kind of universal principle governing the endeavour to read on, to read correctly. Only by being read correctly and in turn correctly internalised (literally and without interpretation) will the recipe produce that which tastes ‘good’ (good taste of course, already being directly attributable to the correct balance and proportion of separate elements made to fuse and mingle favourably in the mouth). More importantly, perhaps, Mathews and Marcus (in their generally unconventional narrative styles – the absurd reality of Mathews’ recipe is that it cannot be executed and thus frustrates the recipe’s essential narrative exercise of final satisfaction) evoke the recipe in order to demonstrate (in terms of fiction) the reciprocal position of the reader, the text and the habitual narratives of everyday life.


Remembered through doing, the recipe is often ‘unwritten but passes from hand to hand’. Indeed, as a text, the automatic narrative of the recipe confuses writing and speech, in the same way that place is constructed according to the rules governing the relationship between language and space. While the mixing of visual and textual language upsets the grammatical setting of place construction, so too does the mixing of writing and speech. De Certeau’s theory of everyday life attempts to get beneath the workings of a scriptural economy that privileges writing over speech. Likewise, The Age of Wire and String with its multiplicity of voices, its various fragmentary perspectives and its emphasis on re-wiring the circuits of cultural and grammatical definitions, undermines the inherent authority of the text in the scriptural economy.

Writing the Mouth:


Finally then, the novel rewires a world that exists in its descriptions, in its observations, in its roles, behaviours and habits, by repositioning itself in terms of speech. While Mathews emphasises everyday speech acts such as the proverbial or the duplicity of local vernaculars that undo the codes of official language use, Marcus employs a kind of ethnography of the mouth; speech is a kind of mouthing where meaning is un-tethered from the material of what is said.[76]


Late in the novel, The Age of Wire and String is described as the ‘Period in which English science devised a parlance system based on the flutter pattern of string and wire structures placed over the mouth during speech.’[77] For Marcus, the ‘judicious substitution’ of Mathews’ recipe-prose, emphasising the ongoing duplicity of words, is translated into a law of naming and doing. At the local level of the mouth ‘the name has the object on a string, so to speak; and if the object ceases to exist, the name which has done its work in conjunction with the object, can be thrown away.’[78] Or, as in the Food archetype of The Age of Wire and String:


The chief legal problem connected with hidden food is that of title. A scavenger cannot acquire title to chicken that he has discovered abruptly, and therefore he cannot transfer title even by barter to an innocent dining man who has requested a stew.[79]


The mouth, and its dual role of eating and speaking, is directly associated in Marcus’ work with the cultural properties (‘the legal problem’) of naming and definition. Food and words, which are in a sense the principal currency of the mouth, become somewhat interchangeable. Language as matter (in terms of its already noted sculptural qualities) must induce a kind of tactile response that upends the relationship between words and feeling. The tactility, like de Certeau’s (and Kafka’s) conception of writing as the law inscribed on bodies, is legalistic as well as learned. Ludwig Wittgenstein notes at the outset of his Philosophical Investigations how Saint Augustine recognises the tactile correspondence between words as they are spoken and that which they signify as being part of the learning or training that enables the (legal) mouth to differentiate (among other things) words from food:


When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out… [As] I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.[80]


The role of food in The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women is not unlike its role in the activity of a pre-vocal child learning to identify food and the manner in which this learned association between food and the material of words continues into later development. Learning, as Augustine notes, can be reduced to a training of the mouth. The mouth is where meaning is made as one learns to use the proper name in its proper place.


In an essay on his childhood experience of the books by Dr Seuss, Marcus describes an early appreciation of (learning) the mouth and its shape-forming activities; a kind of lip-reading that develops into what sounds suggestively like an ethnography of the mouth:


If I had to choose, I’d give up so called landscapes, sunsets, flowers, sky, bodies, anything notoriously beautiful or hideous, for all of the completeness of watching a mouth, just the sight of a mouth and what it does, given that the mouth renders other scenery ridiculous, swallows up the entire category of what can be seen. It is ultimately the only thing to see, and a mouth in the act of shaping out the Seuss lexicon is the premier vision.[81]


To study the mouth in this way (as with an ethnographer in the field) is to study the act of description. Marcus, in the end, writes not from how the world is observed but, more fundamentally, from how it is mouthed. A participant-observer, where ‘the only thing eyes are good for is to look at the mouth’, watches as places are constructed in the language of cultural description. To see the world is already to act in terms of its description, to watch the mouth is to recognise that things are not so much ‘seen’ as they are spoken. The mouth is the lexicon or locality of premier vision because it is the local site of naming, describing and categorisation. For there to be ‘the completeness of watching the mouth’ brings into view the near essential nature of description, that something might only exist according to how it is described. The key element in this primary form of description is the name, or in other words, the primary shapes made by the mouth are names.[82] Writing the mouth de-authorises the scriptural economy that devalues speech. It means that writing is able ‘to maintain its relation to the place of production’.[83] As Marcus would have it:


For life to be possible, language must pursue what is not. Seuss is a hero to me because he made manifest the rampant power of naming, proving that you can name a thing into being as well as name something right out of the world. Objects have no anchors, let’s go after them all and send them into the ether, clear the world of what we already know.[84]

Works Cited

Ahearne, Jeremy, Michel de Certeau: Interpretation and Its Other (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995)

Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, trans. by John R. Stilgoe (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994)

Butler, Judith, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (London: Routledge, 1997)

Certeau, Michel de, The Writing of History, trans. by Tom Conely (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988)
Certeau, Michel de, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. by Steven Rendall (Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1984)

Chandler, Marilyn R., Dwelling in the text: Houses in American Fiction (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996)

Clifford, James, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988)

Culler, Jonathan, The Pursuit of Signs (London: Routledge, 1981)

Deleuze, Gilles, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. by D. W. Smith (London: Continuum, 2002)

Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson, eds., Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology (London: Duke University Press, 1997)

Hayden, Dolores, Redesigning the American Dream, Gender, Housing and Family Life (New York: Norton, 2002)

Krauss, Rosalind, ‘Perpetual Inventory’ in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. by Branden W. Joseph (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002)

Lefebvre, Henri, Key Writings, ed. by Stuart Elden, Elizabeth Lebas & Eleonore Kaufman (London: Continuum, 2003)

Marcus, Ben, ‘Chemical Seuss’ in Conjunctions (Vol. 28: Summer 1997)
Marcus, Ben, Notable American Women (New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2002)
Marcus, Ben, The Age of Wire and String (Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998)

Thompson, Stith, The Folktale (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977)
Thompson, Stith, An Introduction to Research in English Literary History, ed. by Chauncey Sanders (New York: Macmillan, 1952)

Tilley, Christopher, Metaphor and Material Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999),

Tristram, Philippa, Living Space in Fact and Fiction (London: Routledge, 1987)

Welish, Marjorie, Signifying Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, The Philosophical Investigations (trans. G.E.M. Anscombe), Blackwell: London (2001)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Zettel, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970)

Weber, Samuel, ‘Television: Set and Screen,’ in Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996)


[1] Ben Marcus, The Age of Wire and String (Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998), p. 3.

[2] Ibid., p. 3.

[3] See for instance Victor Buchlin’s introduction to The Material Culture Reader, ed. by Victor Buchlin (Oxford: Berg, 2002); Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, ed. by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 1997) which in mapping ‘the present disorderly theoretical moment’ notes the shift in recent times away from anthropological collection and presentation towards an ethnographic writing that emphasises the more ambiguous role of participant observation.

[4] James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 147.

[5] See Henri Lefebvre, ‘Preface to the Study of the Habitat of the Pavillon’ in Key Writings, ed. by Stuart Elden, Elizabeth Lebas & Eleonore Kaufman (London: Continuum, 2003), p. 123.

[6] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. by Steven Rendall (Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1984), p. 116.

[7] Ben Marcus, The Age of Wire and String, p. 53.

[8] Ibid., p. 55.

[9] Ibid., p. 51.

[10] Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream, Gender, Housing and Family Life (New York Norton, 2002).

[11] Ibid., p. 142.

[12] Ibid., p. 142. Hayden is especially concerned with the way in which buildings, as part of the new suburban sprawl, are positioned in disregard of local sunlight and weather patterns.

[13] Marilyn R. Chandler, Dwelling in the text: Houses in American Fiction (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), p. 48.

[14] Ibid., p. 48.

[15] See in particular ‘House and Universe’ in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. by John R. Stilgoe (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).

[16] Marcus, The Age of Wire and String, p. 63.

[17] Marilyn R. Chandler, Dwelling in the Text, p. 23.

[18] Philippa Tristram, Living Space in Fact and Fiction (London: Routledge, 1987), p. 1.

[19] Lefebvre, Key Writings, p. 124.

[20] Christopher Tilley, Metaphor and Material Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 41.

[21] Ibid., p.49. As Lefebvre notes: ‘The manner of inhabiting, the mode or modalities of habitation are expressed in language’ in Key Writings, p. 125. Marcus’ work is situated in terms of these rules and their expression where the narratives of everyday life can be found within the significations of material culture. As a sociologist of space, Lefebvre underlines the notion that it is vital to study the relationships inscribed in everyday language, generally subordinated by ‘sociologists’, as it designates the ways in which habitation is described or expressed and is in a sense (as part of the act of description) how it is constituted in space.

[22] Marcus, The Age of Wire and String, p. 3.

[23] Ibid., p. 58.

[24] Ibid., p. 58.

[25] Ibid., pp. 58-9.

[26] John Durham Peters, ‘Seeing Bifocally’ in Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, ed. by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, p. 78-9.

[27] Ibid., p. 81.

[28] Marcus, The Age of Wire and String, p. 95.

[29] Ibid., p. 96.

[30] Ibid., p. 96.

[31] Ibid., p. 95.

[32] Peters, ‘Seeing Bifocally’ p. 78.

[33] Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, ‘Culture, Power, Place’, in Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, ed. by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, (London: Duke University Press, 1997) p. 9.

[34] Peters, ‘Seeing Bifocally’, p. 78.

[35] Ibid., p. 81.

[36] Ibid., p. 63.

[37] Ibid., p. 77.

[38] Ibid., p. 95.


[40] See diagram.

[41] See interview with the author.

[42] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. by D. W. Smith (London: Continuum, 2002), p. 70.

[43] Ibid., p. 70-1.

[44] Ibid., p. 70.

[45] ‘The diagram has introduced or distributed formless forces throughout the painting, which have a necessary relation with the deformed parts, or which are made use of as, precisely, “places”.’ Ibid., p. 110.

[46] Samuel Weber, ‘Television: Set and Screen,’ in Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 117-8.

[47] Marcus, The Age of Wire and String, p. 47-8.

[48] See Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs (London: Routledge, 1981), p. 202: ‘cognition itself is essentially a process of seeing something as something.’

[49] Ibid., p. 49.

[50] James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, p. 146.

[51] Marcus, The Age of Wire and String, p. 136.

[52] Marjorie Welish, ‘Texas, Japan, Etc. Rauschenberg’s Sense of Place’, in Marjorie Welish, Signifying Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 28.

[53] Ibid., p. 28.

[54] In the Weather archetype of The Age of Wire and String the ‘style of space’ is defined as something haptic or tactile that relates to ‘handling’ as a kind of communication: ‘The proper use of space is to find out the things we have not said, and how our hands might make sure they stay that way.’

[55] Marcus, The Age of Wire and String, p. 94.

[56] See Rosalind Krauss, ‘Perpetual Inventory’ in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. by Branden W. Joseph (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), p. 99-105.

[57] Ibid., p. 117.

[58] Ben Marcus, Notable American Women (New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2002), p. 45.

[59] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 135.

[60] Ibid., pp. 133-4.

[61] Ibid., p140.

[62] Bourdieu quoted in Jeremy Ahearne, Michel de Certeau: Interpretation and Its Other (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), p. 152.

[63] Ibid., p. 151-2.

[64] ‘De Certeau emphasises that the interpreter does not passively absorb the traces of the other, but ‘operates’ on them in such a way as to redistribute them.’ Ibid., p. 15.

[65] Robert Coover introduced Marcus to the Index of Folk Motifs while studying with Coover at Brown University.

[66] Stith Thompson, The Folktale (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977); Thompson describes ‘folklorists’ going into the ‘field and recording tales and songs from the lips of informants. . . A recorder must learn to abbreviate and record as quickly as possible.’ See Stith Thompson, ‘Problems in Folklore’, in An Introduction to Research in English Literary History, ed. by Chauncey Sanders (New York: Macmillan, 1952), pp. 255-7.

[67] Marcus, The Age of Wire and String, p. 42.

[68] Marcus, Notable American Women, p. 72.

[69] Ibid., p. 69.

[70] Ibid., p. 71.

[71] ‘Better Reading Through Food’ begins: ‘My life has been lived under the strategic nourishment of The Thompson Food Scheme, a female eating system (FEAST) devised by an early Jane Dark deity construct named Thompson, who later became an actual person, though not a good one. The food regimen I have followed was further modified by my ‘parents’ to suit their early experiments with silence and voluntary paralysis, not to mention the person-shaping projects they constructed on myself and my sister, who died for other reasons.’ p. 65.

[72] Ibid., p. 71.

[73] Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, p. 147.

[74] Harry Mathews, The Human Country: New and Collected Short Stories, pp. 19-36.

[75] Ibid., p. 23.

[76] Part of Notable American Women is called ‘The Name Machine’. It lists and defines the various names attributed to the narrator’s sister: ‘The names defined here derive from a bank of easily pronounceable and typical slogans used to single out various female persons of America and beyond. A natural bias will be evident towards names that can be sounded with the mouth.’ Notable American Women, p. 89.

[77] Marcus, The Age of Wire and String, p. 135.

[78] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970), p. 123e.

[79] Marcus, The Age of Wire and String, p. 39.

[80] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Philosophical Investigations (trans. G.E.M. Anscombe), Blackwell: London (2001), p. 3

[81] Ben Marcus, ‘Chemical Seuss’ in Conjunctions (Vol. 28: Summer 1997) p. 167-8.

[82] Names come endowed with an injurious quality. Having established the material nature of language (words are substituted by food, wind, rain and knives: ‘the mouth, or word hole, that carves language out of wind’) where, as Marcus writes, ‘words are harder than things’, is to assert, again in resistant relation to the proverbial, that ‘language is physical enough to wreck a body’. Naming is perhaps the most abusive act in language. Judith Butler asserts this notion in her discussion of name-calling and interpellation. To be called a name is to suffer interpellation, that is, to be disturbed by speech. Yet this act of inscription is also one of agency. ‘Could language injure us if we were not, in some sense, linguistic beings, beings who require language in order to be? Is our vulnerability to language a consequence of being constituted in its terms?’ See Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 3.

[83] Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. by Tom Conely (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 217.

[84] Ben Marcus, ‘Chemical Seuss’, p. 168.

Duncan White

Duncan White

Duncan White is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at Central St Martins School of Art and Design, London.

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