Sofi Thanhauser: I’d like to begin with a question about fear. In Reading the Illegible you relay an anecdote about Ferdinand de Saussure backing away from his own work on paragrammes. Having begun a project of searching out the names of dedicatory figures (you use Apollo as an example) hidden in small fragments inside the text of classical verse, de Saussure discovered something startling: not only could a single couplet “supply an almost endless number of names” but moreover any text could be read this way, yielding an infinite number of hidden messages. At this point, you suggest, the inhumanness of language’s sheer excess, its ability to signal so many meanings over and above those intended by any one writer, may have engendered in a De Saussure a kind of terror: a terror great enough to stop the paragramme project dead in its tracks. I loved reading this story, because I relate to that feeling of de Saussure’s and it is good to have one’s own fears named and taxonomized. My question is, have you ever been afraid of language? This could be in your critical work, your creative work, or outside of your writing life altogether. It could be a fear produced by language’s inadequacies or by its superpotencies, or by any other of its (or your) qualities. Secondly, do you think there is an appropriate level of fear one ought to feel towards language, just as there is perhaps an appropriate level of fear with which a sailor ought to view the sea?
Craig Dworkin: The tone in that account echoes the tenor of Paul de Man’s increasingly dark theology in the Resistance to Theory, and his sense of the inhumanness of language: the realization that it generates significations beyond our intentions and desires. Another way to put it would be to simply note that language exhibits far more organization than is necessary for our communicative purposes.
Just as a less anthropocentric account of environmental history might consider the ways in which corn (say) evolved humans in order to further its genetic success (a once wild plant suddenly coddled with fencing from deer and watering and assured seasonal replanting), we might wonder if language developed the human mind in order to contemplate itself.
Though that’s sounding more paranoid than fearful. But the fear for me comes in with that excessiveness of language, which plays out in a couple of concrete ways. On the one hand, contrary to the clichéd problem of “writer’s block,” I’ve always thought that the scary part of writing is knowing how you would ever stop. Especially once you begin multiplying composition techniques. Finnegans Wake exemplifies this problem for me. It’s a book I love — and have actually read! — but I don’t see why it couldn’t have been 20 pages, or 2,000 pages.
The flip side, though, leads to a certain sense of relief: an invitation to give up on the impossible control of communication and instead to just listen to what language itself is saying — the possibility of attending to its excessively generative structures rather than working futilely against them.
Maybe the way to put it is that the sailor doesn’t need to fear the sea at all, but should be plenty terrified of the ship.
ST: I love the idea of language developing the human mind in order to contemplate itself. I could happily accept my role as being merely a pawn in that game.
I would like to talk more about this idea that we ought to “just listen to what language itself is saying” because it seems to me that much of your work walks this path exactly. I am thinking in particular of the way in which you mine for etymological and homophonic connections between words. Often it seems like writers produce a single etymology and then use it as blunt tool to serve a thesis. You, by contrast, tend to toss up literally dozens of etymological connections and then let them take over and speak for themselves. For example, in No Medium, the proper name Blanchot becomes (via the French) une pigrièche, the ashen shrike, which becomes the shirk, which points to the white owl, (choette blanche, Blanchot, reversed) which leads to Minerva, which alludes to Hegel, and on to shryking in Chaucer, shrieking in Shakespeare, death and madness, til by paragraph’s end Minerva’s owl as exemplar of rationality confronts the shriek as “utterance on the margins of rational language.” It is a remarkably wild chase, offered up with the placidity of a scientific proof.
It is in these moments when I am most unable to draw a line between your critical and poetic work, or rather that I begin to to doubt the relevance of such generic boundaries as applied to your writing. Does this business of simply listening to what language itself is saying automatically render one critic and poet in equal parts? Is it a process of unearthing or constructing or both? Do generic distinctions still seem valuable to you in your own work? Are they another “ship” to perhaps abandon?
CD: The wild chase in the guise of scientific proof, by the way, sounds like a great description of ‘pataphysics, which would be one inspiration for my writing across various genres. I’m thinking of ‘pataphysics non-rationalist but rigorous investigations, its deadpan suspension of the absurdity of a situation, and its discovery of imaginary solutions to problems that result from the act of analysis rather than preceding it (to write, say, a full chapter about an entirely blank artwork with the sort of serious, sustained analysis usually reserved for the most allusive poetry…!).
Indeed, the whole methodology of an argument from etymology might fall under the sign of the ‘pataphysics: to proceed as if words carried their histories with them. It’s a decidedly poetic practice that does indeed often underwrite my scholarly analyses: to read as if similar forms of the signifier could draw unrelated signifieds together; to read words that do not actually appear in a text as structuring the words that are in fact printed; to construct a rigorous, rational argument as if certain letter sequences established a bond between otherwise unrelated words (as Derrida does with his +gl effect in Glas); and so on.
And I think that may be the answer to genre as well: if we think of genre not as inhering in the traits of a text, but rather as a way of approaching a text—not a property of a text but a mode of processing it, a methodology, or a kind reading. To read a text as if it were a personal lyric, or to read the same text as if it were an essay on a topic, or a critical investigation, or a political tract, or . . . .
So the question is perhaps ultimately rhetorical: to what end does one read a text in a certain way? To what purpose does one put the texts one reads? Which is to say that the question of genre in my own work is a question for whoever might read it. The flip side of that coin being the good Wittgensteinian reminder that one can always do something else: one could always proceed differently, even when the situation seems to steer one in a single obvious direction.
At the same time, the guise of scientific objectivity with which ‘pataphysics cloaks its absurdities, together with the decoupling of genre from texts, makes me wonder how often ostensible genres are serving more as distracting camouflage than as earnest guides; is genre mainly a way to slip something past the reader?
ST: I recently heard you speak at Printed Matter on the occasion of the launch of Reading Matters, a multipart project presented by information as material in conjunction with Printed Matter. One of the things you said about your new poem, “Fact” (a poem that records the relative molecular weights of the neurotransmitters activated when it is read) is that it is a political poem, but that it is rarely read that way. Could you say a little bit more about this?
CD: I think of the entire series of FACT poems, each of which attempts to record the material specifics of its substrate, as “political” in two senses.
On the one hand, they lay bare a network of enmeshed commercial, industrial, national, environmental, corporate, proprietary, regulated, activities. What seems like a simple sheet of inked paper, say, has all kinds of invisible chemicals — sizers and surfactants and antifungals, for example—that can be followed from company to company, all over the world. We’re maybe vaguely aware that a tree was killed to make the page, but do we think of it killing microbes and fungi as well? Hopefully, by looking at a page of chemical formulae, we pause for a moment to consider how complex and implicated something like “ink on paper” really is.
On the other hand, that retarding action (a delay in reading, as one might say “a delay in glass”) also has a certain politics to it, which is similar to the politics of a book like Parse [Atelos, 2008]. In these works you are really reading about reading—and indeed about reading the particular reading in front of you. So it’s not so much reading for some instrumental end, for something you could retain and take away after putting the text aside (a narrative, an argument, an emotional response).
In a culture where ideologies of exchange permeate so much of our lives—from economics to communication to pedagogy—here are texts that merely are, that don’t ask you to traffic. Instead, you have recalcitrant, restive, useless, profitless texts that refuse to commute—that give you only the experience of reading themselves, in real time, with nothing to take away but their own brute materiality. In that thickened, retarded activity of reading the reflexive text one is placed temporarily outside of all those other networks of exchange. And that respite feels rare and powerful to me in a world in which commercialized exchanges encroach on every aspect of our lives, from our biochemistry and genetic material to our affective and emotional responses to every second up until the moment we fall asleep (and you can sense it breathing, ravenous, at the very doors of sleep as well).
At the same time, in an era where “fake news” works to help sway national elections, where teams of “fact checkers” are required for every debate, and where the chief apologist for the new president defended Orwellian falsehoods on the grounds that the administration had simply presented “alternative facts,” the political force of the FACT project also feels quite acute, and timely.
ST: Partly as a way to segue into talking about information as material, and also because I am genuinely curious: do you think there is there a politics of collaboration or collaborative work?
CD: Well, I think there’s a politics to everything; the question for me is rather what kind of politics: what sorts of relations of power are evident and encouraged and thwarted by the form a particular situation takes. So there are obviously aspects to collaborative working-relations that could be commendable: decentered, multiplicious, diverse, radically democratic, et cetera. But there’s also the sort of “collaboration” that made the word the very term used to describe Vichy supporters of the Nazis . . . . So “collaboration” could just as easily describe a political situation that is hierarchical, autocratic, exploitative, and so on.
In other words, I don’t see anything inherently virtuous about collaboration per se. And in looking at the “collaborative” I’d be cautious about the suggestion that some other kinds of work are not collaborative (even when I’m working “all by myself” I’m actually in all sorts of dialogues with all sorts of people — not to mention the relationships with everyone involved in printing and producing and distributing something like a book). Labor is hidden enough as it is; I wouldn’t want the focus on certain collaborations to obscure the collaborations always taking place elsewhere.
ST: We’ve been talking a lot about exploding generic conventions and authorship, and I’d like to bring up/in the work you have done as an anthologist and critic (both in and outside of IAM) a lot of which, it seems to me, has to do with delineation: establishing works across time and space as being in conversation with one another, or clarifying a line of descent that might not have been visible before. So there’s this sense in which you seem to me to be comfortable in the the face of vast formlessness, or with the infinitude of possible forms, while at the same time you do so much important labor that involves delineating families of work, wresting from possible formlessness certain specific genealogies. Do you think these parallel impulses to let go of received generic conventions and forms on the one hand, and to establish certain formal lineages on the other, complement each other in some way? Or, if this question seems too overdetermined, is there some other way in which form and formlessness achieve some kind of equilibrium for you, in life or art?
CD: The hinge between them may be my sense that delineations and categories are always provisional — so it’s easier to try and forge networks of signification if you know that whatever you construct is ephemeral. In both cases, then, the point is one of possibility: on the one hand, that vastness, and on the other hand the way in which every provisional arrangement is an emblem, or a reminder, that things can always be different, that you can do something else, that you can reconsider and reconceive. I see the lineages I draw as invitations to remap and rearrange and disrupt, not as final statements or set histories.
This was the impulse that led to the first, on-line assembly “The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing.” I had been finding so many incredible, essentially unknown works (so, suggesting that vastness: the seemingly endless number of undiscovered treasures out there), but then also wondered: what if we take some certain text out of the “Language Poetry” category it’s usually in, and put it next to some other text that is usually in the “Conceptual Art” category, and triangulate them both with another from the OuLiPo set, and another from music, and put them all in dialogue with particular passages in Beckett and Stein . . . ?
The provisional nature of such thought-experiments is a version, to my mind, of the as if that is central to ‘pataphysics. It might not be “true”, or permanent, or useful, but it’s an intellectual construction in a world that could be, and perhaps should be, otherwise.
ST: You work as a professor at the University of Utah, and I’m interested in what it means to you to work from that specific position. It seems to me that, just as you assess and render fruitful the physical facts of writing (sizers, surfactants, antifungals) you must also consider the bureaucratic structures within which your professional life unfolds with some interest. I’m thinking, for example, of the introduction to No Medium, in which you quote from the University of California at Berkeley Graduate Division’s “Guidelines for Submitting a Doctoral Dissertation,” which explicitly forbade the submission of “pages with illegible or disfiguring erasure or corrections.” (No Medium could never have been submitted as a dissertation, you note, given that it is entirely about illegible writing.) As a professor rather than a PhD candidate you obviously have a different relationship to scholarly authority, but I am curious what kind of new constrains that in itself throws up. For example, are the seriousness of ‘pataphysics and the seriousness of academic research (I am unsure here whether to put the word “serious” in quotations, asterisks, or what) one and the same, or of two separate natures?
CD: I notice a few things from the perspective of having been in a variety of universities, in a variety of capacities, over the last thirty years (and before that, growing up around universities — my parents were both professors).
One is a point that Fred Moten and Stefano Harney make about the undercommons. On the one hand, institutions do all they can to proliferate demarcations and then police those borders in turn, but the more starkly they reinforce their divisions, the more neatly those boundaries can be exceeded.
When I was an undergrad, I took a class in anarchist political theory taught by two staff employees (there was a legacy rule from the 60s that permitted these types of non-faculty classes to be offered, under certain circumstance, though almost no one ever took advantage of it). And while we read a lot of Kropotkin and Luxemburg and such, what we really learned was that resources could be détourned (the office xerox machine could be used to pirate entire books, for the entire class, say) and that even the strictest structures could be negotiated (while only certain people had the credentials to submit grades to the Registrar, say, the marks could be decided on collectively before hand).
When I first arrived at Utah, the Humanities College was putting together an xml database to classify all the professors’ subdisciplines: a microprofessionalization that could be used by corporations and news outlets seeking “experts”; it was like a social-media dating sight for credentialed expertise. Since I’d done Eclipse, I was put on the committee to help develop it, and so took the opportunity to introduce the category of “’pataphysician,” and several entirely fabricated fields, alongside things like “18th-century British Novel,” “Philosophy of Mind,” “Comparative Colonialism in the Americas,” and so on . . . . but the whole thing was scrapped before any of them could really catch on as I’d hoped . . . .
But more seriously and far reaching: the vast weight of higher education today, to be sure, bears down to stultify, “professionalize”, and homogenize — to turn potentially interesting thinkers into bureaucrats and corporate managers — but the counterformations are proportional. In Harney and Moten’s terms, the regulated institutional space works to demarcates the utopian space of everything beyond the pale more clearly:
Maroon communities of composition teachers, mentorless graduate students, adjunct Marxist historians, out or queer management professors, state college ethnic studies departments, closed-down film programs, visa- expired Yemeni student newspaper editors, historically black college sociologists, and feminist engineers [Stefano Harney and Fred Moten: The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013): 30].
The other point is one that John Cage realized when he toured around giving lectures and concerts, from Harvard to Illinois to Idaho to Davis and points between: the less prestigious and more isolated state schools were the places where audiences were more receptive to the avant-garde than the fancy marquee institutions. And when I think of the Duchamp readymades on display in the little Indiana University art museum (where they had a set of the replicas authorized in 1964, in an edition of only eight), or what Robert Smithson did while he was visiting here at the University of Utah, I can see exactly what Cage meant.
ST: I’d like to ask you a question about Utah. In “Shift,” a poem(?) in your book Strand, words from the introductory chapter of a geology textbook are replaced by words from the introductory chapter of a linguistics textbook, yielding such marvelous passages as:
Eventually, such words are pulverized into a chaotic, fine-grained contaminate matrix, and although intensely deformed, the mappable body of a text reveals the inclusion of fragments of words of all sizes
“Shift” made me think about how language really does evolve in a way that has something in common with geologic processes. And at the same time, language evolves within actual landscapes and alongside actual human industries that interact with those landscapes. We are left with vestigial phraseologies, like the beautiful artifact of a pun I learned last year in North Carolina, “that man lies like an ash hopper,” which derives from a time when ash from a woodstove was collected and placed in “ash hopper” to produce lye for making soap. In cities like New York, it is easy not to think about coal and petroleum extraction industries, even though our lifestyles depend on them, but I imagine these industries are impossible to forget about in Utah. So I am curious about how the landscape in which you live, its geological structures, its industries, and the kinds of vernaculars it places you in proximity to, inflect the way you use or think of language.
CD: The connection is tantalizing, no? As Robert Smithson wrote: “Words and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void” [“A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996): 107]. If we accept these kinds of abstract equivalences, then there’s a general way in which how one understands geography and geology — the nature of the chthonic — alters how one understands the nature of words, of the linguistic. Which leads to, and then emerges from, the particular, particulate understanding of the specific terrain imagined: the faults and voids of the canyoned and craqueleured Utah landscape, for instance, are different than those of the quarried and canalled New Jersey landscape, or the limestone caves and cavities of southern Indiana, or the splits and ruptures along the intersection of the Hayward and Rodgers Creek faults that collide between the hills and bays of Oakland, and so on.
So in some ways, I think the biggest effect on my language has been having to find the right words to describe the features of the landscape that are significant for navigating the terrain over which I trek and climb: scree from talus from till from moraine; bittem and thalweg from valley floor; meander scars from scrolls; alluviated basins from sinks and swales; a wallow from a dip; peak versus summit — to cirque and cwm and coire; the riffles of a catchment; karst; tarn; rupestral; a runnel; arête.
Or perhaps I’ve finally found the right landscape to describe my language.
Craig Dworkin is the author of Dure (Cuneiform Press, 2004), Strand (Roof Books, 2005), and Parse (Atelos, 2008), among others. He teaches at the University of Utah.
Sofi Thanhauser is a writer, artist, and musician currently living in Brooklyn. She teaches at Pratt Institute and Baruch College.