Friday, April 10, 2009

Cipher Critters

Words and phrases, freed of representation, join and detach to form queued constructions. Often, the forms they generate are rhythmic and visceral, and play against sudden splinterings of meaning. Flawed or unrealized concepts, such as that of the Voynich manuscript, or the key volume in Borges's Library of Babel, give way to absolute music, each measure tended with delicate refinement. "Nonsense" reconfigured as distant modulation: atonality, as truncated leaps to faraway keys.

One trend in 80s decon was to refer to language as a disease (academics suddenly grew obsessed with the word virus) or as a foreign organism evolving relative to, but independent of, readers and authors. Perhaps Goethe started it, with his epigram, "Life is a disease of matter." If so, then onto the next level: Creation is a disease of life, thus, language is the disease of its creators (or of creation itself). Fascinating, even now, to view patterns in words clinically: as a scientist might, but with a poet's sense of music and invention. The endlessly repeated cipher of the spiral, appearing in disc galaxies and heart fibrillations, seems to contradict the idea of a creator with an untraceable and disruptive signature. Perhaps people who work with language as pure form reproduce disruption and change as a process devoid of life. Perhaps Lucifer is a flawed metaphor for the personality of matter, a dead presence whose anatomy and tendencies are far more elaborate than any implied by a familiar feral torso and jaded face.

In the beginning was the cipher. Then the cipher mutated with use into its antonym. Other ciphers joined it in ravishing glossolalia. Or perhaps sense-as-structure is a stage of gestation, and the inspired scratchings of pre-language coalesce into forms that are later misused to represent the world after the trail of revelation's gone cold. Perhaps inspired nonsense is not in code, is not a transmission to be deciphered but a sculpture to be admired. Or perhaps representation is not missing but atomized, taken to a scale so small and distant it depicts hidden processes for which there can be no sounds or names or pictures.

Or perhaps everything has a name, and nonrepresentational language is the naming of things decidedly out of range. Not the Platonic universe, but the complexity with which it is suffused: the process encompassing the claustrophobic symbol. The referent of continuation behind Giotto's toilet-stall-narrow heaven.

(For Charles Bernstein, in memory of a conversation about Thomas Campion.)


Metonymic Orbs. We've often seen drawings of eyes affixed with limbs and slotted mouths. Eyes, in short, substituted for creatures' heads and bodies.(1) This form of metonymy is as common for animals as humans. Equally so, substitutions of heads for eyes.

Less often, the eye replaces the head of a quadruped. Equally atypical, eyes in place of fur. Likelier, to find the bather's averted glance awaiting the voyeur through the torso's white-misted nipples: inward-turned but certainly not unwatched.

Full substitutions of eyes with veinage are slightly less abundant. One thinks of drawings in which orbs with elongated stems slither along the ground, signifying alarmed worms, asps of the imagination. Sighted flowers and plants: less common still, but equally obvious. Inarguably, examples must exist of an ocular sun gazing down at a field of sunflower eyes -- blind ovals straining their tangles of scarlet stems.

No reason, then, to disinclude other metonymic forms: Eyes with artfully knotted stems for formally attired human limbs. Carved birds on plates with eyes in place of organs. Half-hidden eyes in the slots of cutaway creatures (animals that resemble cross-section illustrations in anatomy charts, and camouflage themselves as diagrams in doctors' offices). Eyes floating, matriced within transparent cave crustaceans. Eyes for cryptic parts embedded in the sides of Precambrian crawlers.

The Repetition of Eyes: Orb armies, eye-swarms, eye-pores; patterns of perforations and blemishes flowering into eyes; staring cheese-holes and haunted holes in fabric; floating masses of wincing orbs in place of bubbles; cells, hives, infestations of eyes like liquescent eggs.

Single-object substitutions: Lips, nostrils, wounds and ear apertures as eyes. Lone swordfish with staring gills. One tarot card symbolizing Dennis Oppenheimer's displacement: a single dilated pupil sprouting thorns at the center of the desert floor.

Cosmology: Perhaps what we glimpse above us is "The Father," as so many hope. But perhaps it is only a crowd of strangers' sightless spheres. Glowing sclera-globes revolve in place of stars. The night sky itself: an all-engulfing pupil.

Culinary substitutions: A silent filmstar's fear materializes in a pan, eggs' flickering yolks enclosed in shriveling lashes. Breakfast is served to the frail, sick and sleepless. Later, round puddings and viscous white sweets will be distributed to rested diners; to those in between, gazing caviar.

Precious Gems and Metals: Baubles like pupils with chromatic irises; ring-mounted jewels, the names of which often indicate their resemblance to animals' eyes, displaced by the literal object:-- colored exactly the same way, pupils moving when the wearer isn't looking. The inverse: A living tiger with jewel stones for eyes. He can see through shale, metal and wood to the ready meat beneath.

Behind us, a conspiracy of patterns in ornate wallpaper and furniture: pupiled crescents appear when detailed surfaces converge.

Put away your book, Reader, lest the blurred print gaze back dully. Fall asleep, and follow the small letters darting together. Orbs rise through the armrests of your chair; the dream-world watches you intensely. Staring doorbells ring for you as long as you don't touch them. Neighbors swivel in your direction, neck-stems straining as you sink out of range.

Lower Sleep's hood, sleeper. Picture yourself as squiggles on its chrome. Walk-about, lyre. Blind man, draw the blind.


(1) One could assert that, technically, an eye in place of the head alone is an instance of synecdoche, not metonymy, but head-reduction and body-substitution are so similar that affording separate classifications to each would be misleading, which could cause the Platonic Universe to glitch until a perfect repairgod appeared.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Inaugural Undress

For a long time, I've avoided keeping a blog. Why, you bleat or hiss in response (depending on your shape)? First, anonymity is underrated; second, personal detail is tedious. The minutiae of my day, my preferences, my aspirations -- all seem insufficiently synthetic. Authenticity is both exhausting and impossible. Even those who are known for it have created their personae.

Better, perhaps, to construct artificial beings and inhabit personalities as they emerge. To speak in their voices, whatever the subject, and not my own. The problem with identity politics is the presumption that beings have fixed identities.

Perhaps you've always identified with the Faun who stands at the edges of pastoral lithographs. Perhaps you see yourself as a bearded Himalayan pika or a manatee of mist. Perhaps you have not yet found a name but grip the limbs of trees with fingers like long-nailed tentacles, wrapping them several times over but never feeling secured to the world you fear. Perhaps your antennae detach to precede you like emissaries. Perhaps you exist as sentient CO2 and tend to float toward people of whom you grow too fond. Or perhaps you are a leaden object given temporary voice, an almost-empty inkwell repeating the phrase, "if only."

If you're a reclusive quill pen with flaccid poisonous spines, perhaps you curl and recoil while questioning this entry. No matter, your passing thoughts, unless you voice them. No matter, your voice, since you sound it by existing. Your morphology is your gist, your anatomy, text without context.

We are no longer a society of smokers. We're not allowed to spume kinetic spires in air. As match-tips do Balkan Sobranies, internalized imagery sets fire to our compound eyes. Our bodies are cigarettes. Our organs are ash-strewn auditoriums.

Into this place on the page, we pour out curios and critters. Ours is a Katamari course of discarded dolls' eroded gods. All come to life just when humans do the opposite, falling asleep to become rooms furnished in smooth milk crystal. Uninhabited, human lungs are bellows of papyrus: closet-constrained, shriveling and expanding.

But dreams are creatures, too, creatures encompassing creatures. Vagaries drool processions concretized in paper skulls or, more likely, capsized in woolly maws.

Make yourself a home, your lips, the entranceway. Tread selectively on the paths in permafrost. My cosmology is no one's, my bestiary, everyone else's. I'd welcome you, but, as Pelleas said, I happen to be lost, too.