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The materiality of language: poetry and text based visual art as co-worker


What is immediately striking about Boris Arvatov’s co-worker theory lies in a social reconfiguration of the relationship to the object; rather than urging a slowing or cessation of commercial production, Arvatov advocates for relationships with the material that are meaningful and productive. Where Arvatov sees the saturation of ‘thing’ as a ground for contemplation and cultural growth in which ‘thing’ concurrently becomes active, I suggest that his theory might also enable a reconsideration of what constitutes objecthood, that it might explicate a desire within poetry and text based visual art to interact with language on a material level.

In poetry one can recognise two distinct strains of how language may operate as co-worker. Firstly, as an interaction with, and contemplation of, objecthood in which we consider the constructs of thingness through the poem. This often includes an interruption and interrogation of language’s role in relationships to subject and object, between sign and signified. Secondly, through a prevalence of language as material through a persistent desire to interrupt space as presented on the page, as well as variances in form as digital and print based objects. The effect of such a project, and where the poetry discussed here often becomes most exciting, is realised through a delimiting of the stable object in which malleability is relished and dualism erodes.

In considering how poetry might achieve this, it is useful to think of poetry as a technology, a complex technology that creates new things as distinctive from those it contemplates. Aldous Huxley’s Literature and Science (1963) offers some insight:

The scientist’s aim, as we have seen, is to say one thing, and only one thing, at a time. This, most empathetically, is not the aim of the literary artist. Human life is lived simultaneously on many levels and has many meanings. Literature is a device for reporting the multifarious facts and expressing their various significances.1

While both science and literature can be thought of as technologies, the paths via which they interpret the world are very different. For Huxley, science paves one path to translation; its business is concrete and stable. Conversely, literature, specifically poetry, has no single path. Poetry wanders. Poetry is layered and open to possibility, it is not, to continue the metaphor, set in stone. The seduction of poetry lies in toying with the abstractions of language, moving away from language as a passive, inherent part of consciousness, and instead seizing upon language as an active material.2 I would like to steer away immediately from a crisis of representation, to consider poetry that is not interested in mimetic representation, but rather undermines and deflates what is considered stable, allowing it to reform continuously in an infinite process of production.

John Dewey helps articulate this process, arguing that we cannot ‘ignore the individual contribution which makes the object something new’.3 In a particularly pertinent metaphor he suggests that:

the juice expressed by the wine press is what it is because of a prior act, and it is something new and distinctive. It does not merely represent other things. Yet it has something in common with other objects and it is made to appeal to other persons than the one who produced it.^4

Here we can understand the wine press as a technology, like the act of poetry, and the juice as the poem. We could extend this and liken the grape to the objects and subjects of the poem. The wine and the grape are not the same thing, nor are the poem and the objects and subjects to which they refer to the same, but the technology helps us to create something new and distinctive that aids in an understanding of objects and subjects and our relationship to them. In calling attention to poetry acting as a technology, I am also calling attention to the way in which it is a tool that creates new objects. What is most exciting to me about poetry is the capacity to draw multiples out of what is often considered stable and concrete.

Poet and critic Astrid Lorange refers to language as ‘an ad hoc technology, where ad hoc refers to its circumstantial, occasional use, and technology refers to its modular, recombinatory and reiterative capabilities’5. In approaching language as an adhoc technology, Lorange opposes and interrogates language that has stabilised as fact. Instead of relying on the naturalisation of signification, Lorange’s is a poetic project that is entirely generative and in opposition to habitual meaning.^6

In Ex (2016), Lorange relishes obscurity, what is both there and not there, what cannot be located or pinned down. Here, the speaker is a different kind of poet, an ‘ex’, the speaker then is without. However, this exclusion isn’t necessarily sorrowful, it can also be seen as referring to what has been excluded, or what is not immediately apparent - the subjects, objects, language and meanings that occur not only within the poem, but also around the poem, are bountiful. The ‘ex’ and ‘pheromones’ impress upon one another throughout the poem, both are declared ‘a unit in a broader / system that turns on a concept / or that appears an effect without / origins’.7 The poem and pheromones are applied to bodies, seen and unseen, processes that are not locatable or visible, yet are still enjoyed, ‘I am not a poem because I cannot /sweat, but I try to hide this fact / and others in case the pleasure of / not-writing becomes a burden’.8

Lorange writes, ‘I am never to write a poem or to / be locatable as a text-based / semiochemical body’.9 It is a poem against stagnation, always morphing and transformative. As poet and critic Kate Fagan argues, ‘across Lorange’s poetry, subjects and objects are always in-becoming as objects and subjects’.10 Meaning attached to subjects and objects are repeatedly opposed and interrogated, the reader’s relationship to them are multiplicative. As the poem’s speaker declares, ‘a poem / never merely occurs as in a glimpse, nor is a pheromone a / precursor to anything but the / fraught trade of symbols tugging / their own weight - sweat or no’.11. Regardless of what is immediately apparent and visible, nothing exists in isolation.

Lorange publishes across a range of platforms. Ex (2016 SOd Pres), FOOD TURNS INTO BLOOD (2013, Gauss PDF editions), pussy pussy pussy what what or Au lait day Au lait day (2010 Gauss PDF editions) are all available through digital publishers and available for free download. Other collections like Eating and Speaking (2011, Tea Party Republicans Press) and one that made it alike (2013, Vagabond) are only available for purchase in print. This movement between digital and print technologies is a considered one, a process that highlights the ‘moveability’ of language and enables a deliberation of language as co-worker.12 In a review of the anthology The Material Poem (2007), edited by James Stuart, Lorange writes, ‘moveability is inherent whether writing occurs in a novel or within an impermanent digital setting. Writing is moveable because language is moveable’.^13. In embracing language’s digital presence Lorange does not reject the materiality of language, instead Lorange is embracing the malleability of this materiality, the form of the meaningful object, of co-worker, is not fixed, nor are its modes of consumption. Presenting work in a digital context, by its very nature embraces the hypertextual, Lorange writes, ‘language is and always has been cyber, in the sense that its materiality is unfixed, multiple, simultaneous and evolutionary’.^14 It is not only the content of her poems that force a consideration of the relationship of language to the material, but also the forms in which they present themselves. The book as sign is a tool that is actively toyed with, its signification in a continuous process of rearrangement.

The Material Poem dedicates itself to the material nature of poetry and text based visual art. Stuart argues that, ‘engaging with language necessarily entails engagement with its particular materiality’.15 For Stuart, meaning in poetry is not gathered in the same way as other forms of writing; the reading and writing of poetry requires an active interaction with semiotic structures, how the work presents itself on the page materially is an integral part of how it is understood.16 This ‘aesthetic sensibility’ to semantics is inextricably tied to an experimentation with the material form of the work.^17 This applies to the individual works within the anthology, which include a range of new media technologies, but also to the form in which the anthology is available. The Material Poem is available online as a free PDF download and, thanks to its digital nature, includes hyperlinks and audio files. Where one might initially think that moving away from the book as object might dislocate a relationship to text as object, instead this digital format works to enhance an interaction with the material nature of language. Lorange argues that ‘[r]eading The Material Poem is to experience objecthood’.18 It is not just an experience with one object, but with many. To read this anthology requires constant movement, spatially, aurally and visually. As Lorange points out, experiencing the anthology means moving through a variety of thumbnails and hyperlinks. It is a process of constant reorientation and rearrangement, a reading experience that is by no means linear. While the anthology is available digitally, Stuart has created the collection so that it also encourages a relationship with the book as object, having designed it in such a way that it is easily printable and aesthetically pleasing when put together. This too involves the reader in the process of bookmaking - one doesn’t just come to consume the work, they are also an active participant in its material production.

Anne Carson’s Nox (2009), an elegy for her deceased brother presented as a concertina, similarly engages with the materiality of book as object, as well as the material nature of language through poetry and text based visual art. The third page of the concertina presents an untranslated poem by Latin poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, poem 101. Following this reproduction, Carson layers fragments of poetry, photographs and collage that attempt to assemble the story of her brother alongside translations of each and every latin word in poem 101. Carson’s iteration of the materiality of language, her gradual latin translations, that appear more and more subjective, laid beside her fragmentary translation of her brother, unmask her central proposition - that translation is by nature fluid, malleable, unstable and ultimately mythic. Toward the end of the book Carson writes of Catullus’s poem:

I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times. Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman Elegy… I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do for poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.19

Carson embraces the expansive nature of translation, of language. In presenting translations for each single word within poem 101, in presenting the reader with their multiplicities, the recombinatory possibilities of the poem are enforced as infinite. The book as an object is both continuous and contained, occurring on a single folded sheet of paper in a box. It is a form that creates intentional paradox. On the outside the book itself, like translation, takes on the appearance of defined stability, but the nature of language is of course anything but contained, it is continuous, fragmentary, without separation or end.

As a reader an interaction with Nox as a book and, as an object, serves as a reminder for the malleability and infinite nature of language. Some nights I keep the book inside the box, flip the pages over and they scrape the edges, the book is long and the pages short, the frequent flipping and scraping serving as an irritant, a continuous reminder that I am reading a book, that I am inside a process of understanding, a process of translation that is not and cannot be neat. Other times I pull Nox out of the box, flip pages one by one, always battling the desire to unravel all the pages, the urge unfold it down the street, to see how far it might reach. Sometimes I hold it in my lap and the pages slip. They are unfixed and I worry I might tear them. In referring to translation Carson writes, ‘in one sense it is a room I can never leave, perhaps dreadful for that. At the same time, a place composed entirely of entries.’^20 To read Nox is a continual process of entering, one enters one word, one page, and enters another without exit from the last.

Both the reading and writing of poetry is inseparable from language as material. Meaning is undeniably bound to an interaction between language and the page, its space, absences and internal logic. This desire to interact with materiality is amplified in the work discussed here, however all poetry is by its very nature a material sport. Language in itself is a contemplation of the material, an attempt to make sense of sign and signified. Where poetry succeeds is in creating a meaningful relationship with the material, in relating to the material as co-worker, but it is a relationship that is not fixed, it is intentionally made a mess of, destabilisied and against a notion of universal sense making. The danger of critical writing is to arrive at a final point, however the joy and seduction of language is in its constant pursuit, no language, including this essay, is static. Language is material, but it is malleable, it is generative and it is without end.

Melody Paloma is a poet and critic based in Melbourne. 

1. Huxley, Aldous. Literature and Science. New Haven: Harper & Row, 1963, p. 13.
2. Lorange, Astrid. ‘Tiny, ad hoc technologies’, Das Platforms: Contemporary Art. 2011. Web. 2 January 2016.
3. Dewey, John. ‘The Expressive Object’. Art as Experience. New York : Minton, Balch & Company, 1934, p. 82.

5. Lorange, Astrid, ‘Tiny, ad hoc technologies’, Das Platforms: Contemporary Art, 2011, Web. 2 January 2016.

7. Lorange, Astrid. Ex. Sod Press, 2016, p. 3.
8. Ibid., p. 5
9. Ibid., p. 3.
10. Fagan, Kate. ‘Thinking with Things: Object Habitats and Relational Aesthetics in the Poetry of Astrid Lorange and Pam Brown’. Journal of Poetics Research 2.0 (2015): n. pag. Web. 4 January 2016.
11. Lorange, Astrid, Ex, Sod Press, 2016, p. 6.
12. Lorange, Astrid, ‘The Poetics of Liveliness’, Jacket2, 1.34 (2007): n. pag. Web. 5 January 2016.

15. Stuart, James (ed.), The Material Poem: An E-Anthology of Text-Based Art & Inter-Media Writing, Sydney: Non Generic Productions (2007), p. 12.
16. Ibid., p. 13.

18. Lorange, Astrid., ‘The Poetics of Liveliness’. Jacket2 1.34 (2007): n. pag. Web. 5 January 2016.
19. Carson, Anne. Nox. New York: New Directions, 2010. N. Pag. Print. 

Filed under Article Melody Paloma