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Ten Things: Deformance as Conspiracy and Cunning

1 // In the interest of showing the mangle of my practice, here is a miniature commonplace book of current entanglements with our recent readings on deformance and some additional ones on conspiracy and cunning.

Deformance as Interpretation

2 // Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann (“Deformance and Interpretation”) tell us that works of imagination “encourage interpreters,” since imaginative work has a performance element to it that is  “organized as rhetoric and poiesis rather than as exposition and information-transmission.” They argue that, though scholarly criticism often thinks of itself as operating on the expository, informational end of things, in truth, by virtue of its interpretive practice, scholarly criticism is very much a kind of imaginative work, and as such, it inevitably “lies open to deformative moves.” Deformance, here, is both performing and deformed, scrambling what it enacts, reconstructing what it consumes–some version of “the Susie-dancing-Olga scene” in Suspiria (2018), if you’ve had a chance to see it.

3 // What Samuels and McGann are getting at is not unlike what Lev Manovich describes in The Language of New Media, if you think of, here, a text as a “database” and deformative or interpretive reading or criticism as a “narrative”:

As a cultural form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world.

Manovich also quotes Mikhail Kaufman (Man with a Movie Camera) in an illustration I find helpful:

An ordinary person finds himself in some sort of environment, gets lost amidst the zillions of phenomena, and observes these phenomena from a bad vantage point. He registers one phenomenon very well, registers a second and a third, but has no idea of where they may lead. But the man with a movie camera is infused with the particular thought that he is actually seeing the world for other people. Do you understand? He joins these phenomena with others, from elsewhere, which may not even have been filmed by him. Like a kind of scholar he is able to gather empirical observations in one place and then in another. And that is actually the way in which the world has come to be understood.

4 // Texts, Samuels and McGann say, “lose their vital force when they succumb to familiarization,” suggesting that it’s only through defamiliarizing them, through “disordering one’s senses of the work” by cutting through them via “strange diagonals”–that is to say, through making them something that they weren’t before–that we strengthen and propel texts forward. This all sounds like interesting, important, and necessary work.

And yet, deformance also “turns off the controls that organize the… system;” creates results that we “cannot predict;” puts us in a “highly idiosyncratic relation” to things; reorders, isolates, alters, and forcefully inserts; and ultimately changes the previously agreed upon terms for investigation. This, to me, even as one who “gets it”–appropriative conceptual poetry is a primary research interest of mine–is a dangerous rhetoric made all the more dangerous by our current cultural and political climate of trolling, gaslighting, indifference to truth, skepticism of institutions/-al knowledge, and rampant, blatant disinformation.

Deformance as Conspiracy

5 // There are two quotes from Stephen Ramsay’s Algorithmic Criticism that I highlighted during my first reading because of the way they position deformative interpretation as an intentional rejection of fact:

We read and interpret, and we urge others to accept our readings and interpretations. Were we to strike upon a reading or interpretation so unambiguous as to remove hermeneutical questions that arise, we would cease to refer to the activity of reading and interpretation. […] If text analysis is to participate in literary critical endeavor in some manner beyond fact-checking, it must endeavor to assist the critic in the unfolding of interpretive possibilities.


And:

It is in such results that the critic seeks not facts, but patterns. And from pattern the critic may move to the grander rhetorical formations that constitute critical reading.

Elsewhere, Ramsay notes that “pattern” (not fact) is the thing that “unites art, science, and criticism,” and says that literary criticism operates within a framework in which “the specifically scientific meaning of fact, metric, verification, and evidence simply do not apply.” Here, “‘evidence’ stands as a metaphor,” and readings are not the text itself, but new things where “data has been paraphrased, elaborated, selected, truncated, and transduced.”

Though I don’t believe this is what Ramsay himself is doing or suggesting at all–ditto Samuels and McGann above–there is a rhetoric and methodology here that focuses on non-facts and patterns, on the perceived slipperiness of fact and veracity, on building arbitrary patterns into grander formations, on urging others to accept one’s interpretations. The result is that, even when it is meant to liberate literary criticism, such thinking still inadvertently brings criticism squarely into the realm of conspiracy theory, a place that, at its worst, I think we are all very uncomfortable getting close to, given its current status as an alt-right, white nationalist breeding ground.

6 // Does the fact that one can create a brief reading list that links speculative literature and racist/nationalist “alternative beliefs” say anything about the inherent magnetic attraction between deformative criticism and conspiracy theory? (FWIW: Part 2 of this reading list is on the much more palatable topic of aliens.)

7 // In her (very short) essay “Some Preliminary Notes on Conspiracy as Theory” (PDF below) Astrid Lorange writes about “the way that [scholarly] research requires special attention to a set of often imperceptible connections that reveal themselves as increasingly relevant, as if they spoke to a larger whole mostly hidden, apparent only by effort.”

Astrid Lorange – Some Preliminary Notes on Conspiracy as Theory

Here’s one beefy section:

Let’s say we consider scholarship a close ally of conspiracy theory; the practice of research, we can claim, is akin to a mode of thought that perceives, through a strange collusion of paranoia, desire, and experimental detective work, a theory of connectivity that belies a large but difficult-to-see truth… If the aim of the scholar is to uncover hidden truths through the disciplined labor of focusing-in, the conspiracy theorist’s aim is to uncover hidden truths through the the disciplined labor of focusing-out.

Here’s another:

For conspiracy theories, the final reveal reveals that what we feared all along was, indeed, there all along, and the reward is the knowledge of what we knew but could not prove. For scholarship, the final reveal reveals that what we assumed we knew was in fact a falsehood, a red herring, and the reward is the knowledge of the limits of our knowledge.

Even though Lorange frames conspiracy theory and scholarship as moving in opposite directions, the fact that they are doing so on the same track suggests something important about the underlying assumptions that gives her (and me) pause.

Deformance as Cunning

8 // To further complicate matters, I’ve scanned a few pages from Paul Chan’s introduction to a new-ish translation of Plato’s controversial Hippias Minor (or, The Art of Cunning) with a link to the PDF, if you want to take a look:

Paul Chan – Introduction to Hippias Minor

Hippias Minor is so controversial, Chan writes, because in it Socrates argues that there is “no difference between a person who tells the truth and one who lies, that an intentional liar is better than an unintentional one, and that the good man is the one who willingly makes mistakes and does wrong and unjust things,” a position which, initially, is remarkably counter-intuitive, given our longstanding familiarity with Socrates’s relentless pursuit of ideals and objective truths. But rather than reading this as an endorsement of lying for lying’s sake, Chan makes a case for reading this as Socrates’s “advocating for a novel way of thinking about the political potential of the creative act.”

It comes down to a dispute about greatness: Achilles versus Odysseus. The interlocutor Hippias argues that Achilles is more excellent because he tells the truth and Odysseus lies (about his identity, his motives, etc.); Socrates argues that Odysseus is more excellent because his lying is a form of versatility, adaptability, craftiness, and resourcefulness: it is, as Chan puts it, “his creative instinct.” This “cunning” allows Odysseus “to see what he is able (or not able) to get away with by finding or even inventing choices where none are evident or given.” In this way, Odysseus is not lying, but demonstrating through performance “how understanding what is most real and true about reality enables one to more ably reshape it for one’s benefit or pleasure.” Chan links lying back to reason, somehow, in a move I’m still trying to work out in my now-broken brain.

Is this what Samuels and McGann and Ramsay are getting at when they talk about deformance: cunning? Is such an idea compelling or sufficient enough, in 2018?

9 // Here’s a link to (another very short) essay, this time by Édouard U., that employs the concept of conspiracy theory to articulate a pedagogical deformative reading practice that builds personal relationships to ideas and texts and makes meaning through itinerant (rather than linear) wanderings:

My methods for avoiding this type of linear constriction have been simple: Read two or more books at the same time, always. Reject the closed-universe-on-rails nature of every single film ever made, and when possible, use the Wikipedia-while-watching technique to keep connecting the dots as I go. Always encourage myself to follow footnotes into rabbit-hole oblivion. Surf—don’t search—the web. Avoid listening to music simply to listen to music. Instead, intentionally mix and match sounds and styles as one might mix ingredients within a recipe…

At what point might conspiracy-theory mapping with push pins and thread become a more common learning technique for students, to encourage them to make their own connections and find their own lines of meaning?

He later calls this a “networked approach to reading,” by the way, which seems very DH, very “play” (it’s so in right now). 

10 // Does our deformative work tacitly tolerate conspiracy theory? Does it passively or hypocritically reject it? Does the cunning we display in our deformative criticism adequately justify any proximity we show to the practices of dangerous people with alternative beliefs? Is deformance simply the way of the future, a spectrum with both good and bad poles? 

I know that these don’t all align. And I know that, somewhere (or -wheres) in here, I’m wrong. Tell me where I am. What am I missing, misconstruing, forgetting about? Did I get any of it right? 

 

 

Ten Things: Mapping the Eclipse Archive’s “Black Radical Tradition”

1 // Most of my reading and writing centers on poetic experiments. Usually the adjectives involved include at least one from a short list that is: computational, constraint-based, conceptual. Other common adjectives are avant-garde and radical, the latter of which appears twice in the source material for my mapping praxis.

2 // Constraint-based, conceptual poet Craig Dworkin manages Eclipse, the free on-line archive focusing on digital facsimiles of the most radical small-press writing from the last quarter century. I return to the Eclipse archive regularly to look at works from poets like Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Meyer, and Michael Palmer. These are the poets with whom I most familiar. There are many poets in this particular archive with whom I am not familiar at all. In fact, I would say most. These are the poets with whom I want to get familiar. My sense is that I would say most of the poets with whom I am not familiar at all, given their proximity in this particular archive to those poets with whom I am familiar, deserve to have I would say most of their work looked at regularly alongside the others’.

3 // “Given their proximity in this particular archive…”: I am jumping ahead and have one eye on our third dataset/network praxis assignment, wondering to what extent spatial, temporal, racial, gendered, and influential proximity manifests in this particular network of poetic experiments. Conceptual poetry is notoriously white and male, but where isn’t it that way? Where are the radical and avant-garde titles that aren’t being looked at? Where are they? With one eye on our third praxis assignment, I start building a dataset to use for the second. I start with the Black Radical Tradition.

4 // As a rule, for each title in the archive, Eclipse offers: a graf on the title’s publication and material history, a facsimile view of each page, and a PDF download. With lousy Amtrak wifi, I let the facsimiles of each of the 39 titles in the Black Radical Tradition slowly drip down my screen. I don’t yet know what I’ll want for my dataset down the line, but to get started I try to snag from Dworkin’s notes and the first three/last three pages the most obvious data points: author, title, publisher, publication date. Because Eclipse features both authored titles and edited volumes, I learn to add a column to distinguish between the two. I soon add another column to capture notes on the edition, usually to reflect whether the title is part of a series or is significantly different in a subsequent printing. Because I aim to map these spatially–I’m guessing these will cluster on the coasts, but I don’t know this for sure–I snag addresses (street, city, state, zip, country) for each of the publishers. Except for Russell Atkins’s Juxtapositions, which Dworkin notes is self-published and for which I can find no address.

5 // I start my map with ArcGIS’s simplest template, noting two other available templates–the Story Map Shortlist, which allows you to curate sets of places like Great Places in America‘s three “neighborhoods,” “public spaces,” and “streets” maps, and the Story Map Swipe, which allows you to swipe between two contiguous maps like in the Hurricane Florence Damage Viewer–that I might return to in the future if I want to, say, provide curated maps by individual poet, or else compare “publisher maps” of the Black Radical Tradition and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (another set of titles in the Eclipse archive).

6 // Even with the basic template, I experience four early issues with ArcGIS:

First, the map doesn’t recognize, and therefore can’t map, the addresses for each of my three United Kingdom-based publishers. This seems to be a limit of the free version of ArcGIS or possibly the specific template I am working with. This is problematic because it keeps me from making an international analysis or comparison, if I want to.

As I click ahead without a lot of customization, the default visualization presented to me assigns each author a different colored circle (fine). The problem with this is that it, for some reason, lumps four of the poets into a single grey color as “Other,” making it impossible to distinguish Bob Kaufman in San Francisco from Joseph Jarman in Chicago.  Those in the grey “Other” category each have one title to their name, but, confusingly, so do several “named” authors, including Fred Moten in green and Gwendolyn Brooks in purple.

Third, beyond placing a dot on each location (fine), the map suggests and kind of defaults to confusing aesthetic labels/styles, such as making the size of the dot correspond to its publication year. In my first map, the big dots signal the most recently published title, which, worse than telling me nothing, appears to tell me something it doesn’t, like how many titles were published out of a single city or zip code. The correlation between year and dot size seems irrelevant, and ArcGIS is unable to read my data in such a way as to offer me any other categories to filter on (e.g., number of titles by a single author in the dataset, so that more prolific authors look bigger, or smaller, I’m not sure).

Once I make all the dots equally sized, a fourth problem appears: from a fully scoped-out view, multiple authors published in the same city (e.g. San Francisco) vanish under whichever colored circle (here: grey) sits “on top.” This masks the fact that San Francisco houses three publishers, not just one. You don’t know it until you drill down nearly all the way (and, even then, you can barely see it: I had to draw arrows for you).

7 // I test out the same dataset in Google Maps, just to compare. I find the upload both faster and more intuitive. Google Maps is also able to handle all three of my UK addresses, better than the ArcGICS zero. Unlike in ArcGIS, though, Google Maps isunable to map one of my P.O. boxes in Chicago, despite having a working zip code; this is almost certainly a problem with my formatting of the data set, but Google Maps does virtually nothing to let me know what the actual problem is or how I can fix it. Nevertheless, Google Maps proves to be more responsive and easier to see (big pins rather than small circles), so I continue my mapping exploration there.

8 // A sample case study: my dataset tells me that New York in 1970 saw the publication of Lloyd Addison’s Beau-Cocoa Volume 3 Numbers 1 and 2 in Harlem; Tom Weatherly’s Mau Mau American Cantos from Corinth Press in the West Village; and N. H. Pritchard’s The Matrix from Doubleday in Garden City, Long Island. When I look on the map, the triangulation of these 1970 titles “uptown,” “downtown,” and “out of town” roughly corresponds to the distribution of other titles in the following decade. Is there any correlation between the spatial placement of publishers and the qualities of the individual literary titles? Do downtown titles resemble each other in some ways, out of town titles in other ways? Is the location of the publisher as important as, say, the location of the author–and even then, would I want the hometown, the known residence(s) at the time of writing, the city or the neighborhood?

9 // And what about this “around the corner” phenomenon I see in New York, where clusters of titles are published on the same block as one another. My dataset is small–a larger one would tell me more–but, as a gathering hypothesis, perhaps there’s something to having a single author’s titles “walk up the street,” moving through both space and time. What, or who, motivates this walk? There’s a narrative to it. What might the narrative be in, say, Harlem, where after publishing the first two instances (Volume 1 and Volume 2 Number 1) of the periodical Beau-Cocoa from (his home?) 100 East 123 Street, editor/poet/publisher Lloyd Addison moves (in the middle of 1969) Beau Cocoa, Inc. to a P.O. box at the post office around the corner. Did an increased national or international demand for this periodical require more firepower than Addison’s personal mailbox?

And what might the narrative be in the West Village, where Tom Weatherly publishes his 1970 Mau Mau American Cantos and his 1971 Thumbprint with two publishers in a four block radius? A larger dataset might show me a network of poets publishing within this neighborhood. Could it lead me to finding information about poetry readings, salons, collaborative projects? (I’m making a leap without evidence here to evoke a possible trajectory.)

10 // Future steps could have me expand this dataset to include data from the rest of the titles in the Eclipse archive (see #5 // above). It could also go the other direction and have me double down on collecting bibliographic data for these authors in the Black Radical Tradition: the material details and individual printings of their titles (some of which Dworkin provides in an unstructured way, but I skipped over during my first pass through my emerging dataset), perhaps performances of individual poems from these titles that have been documented in poetry/sound archives like PennSound, maybe related titles (by these authors, by others) in other “little databases” like UbuWeb. Stay tuned.