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.)

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