A Fortnightly Review of
Heretics of Language
by Barry Schwabsky
By NIGEL WHEALE.
BARRY SCHWABSKY IS art critic for The Nation, a prestigious American weekly with a list of contributors that includes Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, Noam Chomsky (and Henry James, back in the day). He’s also a regular contributor to Artforum and New Left Review. In other words, he’s a prolific essayist. Hence his collections of commentary, among which are The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (1997), Words for Art: Criticism, History, Theory, Practice, and The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (2016), a selection of his pieces for The Nation. Not to mention his three collections of poetry. In Heretics of Language, Prof. Schwabsky has collected thirty-five review essays, undated and with no ‘apparatus’, exploring an impressive range of artworks, poetry and fiction. At least half of the material is completely new to me, so it’s been a real education. Here I focus on a selection of writers and artists whose work I have at least read or seen.
I wish that were as easy as it should be. It’s chastening that I know nothing about the Mauritian ‘visionary’, to use Schwabsky’s term, Malcolm de Chazal; the Czech modernist Ivan Blatný, the poet Milan Kundera ‘most admired when [he] was fourteen’; the eraser-author Jonathan Safran Foer, who writes by ‘subtractive composition’, blocking over original text that peeps through, by redaction; Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os (1977) I must look at, a redacted Paradise Lost; Italo Calvino, a ‘science-fiction realist’ (I’ve read him but have nothing to say); Tim Dlugos, possibly ‘the great poet of the AIDS epidemic’; I need to read Alda Merini and Amelia Rosselli, contemporaries of ‘a remarkable generation of Italian poets born in the early 1930s — among them Edoardo Sanguineti, Nanni Balestrini, and Antonio Porta’; call up on your screen the lovely graphic textualities of Natalie Czech, clearly in dialogue with the other redactive creators discussed here; I must also read novelist Bruno Jasieński’s I Burn Paris (1928), which sold out as soon as published, ‘a strange sort of hybrid, mixing avant-garde strategies with the hoariest clichés of pulp adventure stories and large doses of heavy-handed Communist sloganeering’; Amy King manages to reconcile ‘emotional openness with semantic obliquity’; ‘Whatever became of the New York School … the last avant-garde according to some?’ is a really good question, and Schwabsky makes a case for Matvei Yankelevich and Noel Black as the latest generation of that wave; I know nothing of the Italian novelist, Nanni Balestrini, poets Arthur Sze and Wong May, that Facebook aphorist named Jeff Nunokawa, fragmentary essayist and punk guru Richard Hell, or Yugoslavian novelist Borislav Pekić. But Schwabsky’s essays make all of these artists so intriguing that you, perhaps all of us, need to discover them promptly.
But all that leaves many names more familiar to me. Tracy Emin’s ‘I WANT MY TIME WITH YOU’, with its light-pink LED calligraphy, twenty metres long, hangs, until the end of 2018, in the vastness of train-shed St Pancras, a Brief Encounter-motif, greeting every Eurostar arriving at Platform 5. Jenny Holzer was an early sloganizer, moving from painting to compiling provocative statements during the 1970s. Her Truisms (1977) anticipated Emin’s St Pancras installation by four decades: Dan Brown’s fictional Robert Langdon, a Symbologist (like me), admires Holzer’s work. In Origin, he sees her Installation for Bilbao, nine LED legends, each forty feet long, with text in Basque, Spanish and English, memorializing AIDS victims and their grieving loved ones:
The piece resembled nine moving walkways running on a vertical plane. Each conveyor bore an illuminated message, which scrolled skyward.
I pray aloud . . . I smell you on my skin . . . I say your name.
As Langdon got closer, though, he realized that the moving bands were in fact stationary; the illusion of motion was created by a ‘skin’ of tiny LED lights positioned on each vertical beam, and disappearing into the ceiling.
I’m crying hard . . . There was blood . . . No one told me.1
Barry Schwabsky doesn’t give any precursors for Lawrence Weiner’s art-practice, where the titles of the works, are also the works. Weiner’s ‘retrospectical’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art (2008), included ‘A BIT OF / MATTER AND / A LITTLE / BIT MORE (1976), spaced, stencilled cap letters, that make the words appear to disaggregate, semantic degeneration, until they are more sign than meaning: There are only the words, and their situatedness – which in the original ‘Rooms’ show was on the entrance and rear door of MoMA PS1. The signage is the content, but generates a surplus, which is nowhere except in the manner that it is construed, the way we read it, just that BIT MORE. The sculptor Joel Fisher carefully articulated the risk in what is supplemental, around the same time:
Any strong addition to something that is already established risks suggesting that the previous situation was incomplete. The danger of the supplement is that it seems to diminish the integral stance of a previous achievement. It fills a gap that may never have been there. The work that was unquestionably completed now seems as if the whole time it was just waiting. There is a genuine danger here. Almost anything is vulnerable to the supplement.2
Weiner’s ‘Statement of Intent’ (1968) is a work like this: ‘THE DECISION AS TO CONDITION RESTS WITH / THE RECEIVER UPON THE OCCASION OF / RECEIVERSHIP’. These vinyl-letter ‘legends’ are all that there is, crafted to constitute the work they signify. For Schwabsky, ‘it is this uneasy marriage of specificity and possibility, of tangibility and elusiveness, that gives [Weiner’s] work its fascination’. The poetics here is canonically post-structural, working ‘la différence’, as Schwabsky describes the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets of the 1970s, even though there is a ‘paucity of references to Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault, let alone to the less-familiar French figures who are more specifically associated with the study of poetics such as Gérard Genette and Tzvetan Todorov, who cofounded the French journal Poétique in 1970’. This is also true for Schwabsky’s own application of semiotica, as in his analysis of Weiner’s practice, which is unrelated to these broader contexts that created the terms for so much practice at the time.
Schwabsky begins with the wannabe avant-guardist beast, Francis Picabia, in a discussion of Marc Lowenthal’s selection of Picabia’s texts, I Am the Beautiful Monster (2007). Picabia continues to be scandalous. When I first saw some of his post-Surrealia and Dada, realist paintings in the Reina Sofia, I was — I remain — deeply shocked. Their trite offensiveness is beyond parody.
During the Vichy period, Picabia’s paintings were often based on photographs and cheap, porn-magazine images: critics debate how far the banality of these works may be ironic – ‘outrageously anti-modern’ (Robert Rosenblum), or homages to Adolf Ziegler’s naked race-mothers, at which Hitler drooled. Are they a critique of master-race propaganda posters, or just ‘Nazi porn’?3 ‘Pre-postmodern, master of le bien mal fait’.4 Schwabsky doesn’t read Picabia’s exercises in bad-taste in this way, as a knowing critique of all style, a ‘genius of fraudulence’.5 Schwabsky is unpersuaded: ‘As a painter he was facile; as a friend and lover, treacherous … Above all, he was not only unoriginal … but a plagiarist’. Yet he then goes on to make a convincing argument for the originality of Picabia’s little-known poetry, remarkable for its ‘degree of syntactic and semantic disjunctiveness utterly unique at the time’, relying on the ‘torque’ or sudden break in meaning between lines that concentrates the sense within and not across each line.
This phase of Picabia’s work came into view in the late 1970s, when the dominance of Minimalist and highly Conceptual art practice – Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth, the English ‘Art & Language’ movement – had itself become a kind of cliché, an exhausted ideology. ‘ …[T]he later Picabia, it appeared, had barrelled through the orthodoxies of the modern movement in ways that seemed like a gift to a future generation’ 6
I had never before seen painting as untethered to notions of taste or intention; there was no way of knowing how to take it, or whether even to take it seriously at all. The work was so undefended – it was exhilarating.7
The uneasy banality of ‘Femmes au Bull-dog’ and of ‘Printemps’ can be understood as paintings expressive of the false, sinister, self-censored culture produced by the Nazi occupation of France and its fake Vichy state puppetry.
What is it that we’re allowing ourselves not to know when we’re enjoying this state of unknowing?8
Schwabsky persistently writes about poets, artists, whose work eludes, is evasive of, single readings. The strand of classical American twentieth-century poetry that particularly attracts him includes Barbara Guest and John Ashbery. Guest’s long poem, ‘The Türler Losses’, how one can be condemned to lose stuff repeatedly – two luxury Swiss timepieces, in this case – becomes a Proustian slippage, ‘Like time … moving from one thought or image to another almost before one has quite caught its drift’. Schwabsky describes how Denise Levertov, as poetry editor for Norton, rejected a collection by Guest because it was tainted with ‘the typical chic flippness of the NY School’ — O’Hara, Ashbery, again — and that the poems seemed to her to be too often ‘an unrelated series of poem-seeds’ that never grew to any effect. Schwabsky acknowledges the truth of this description, which for his kind of aesthetic, becomes its virtue – evanescence of meaning, ‘artifice verging on artiness’, the mode also of John Ashbery’s lovely first collection, Some Trees (1956). For Schwabsky, Guest’s poems can also attain a sense of materiality, as in Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature (1999), but at their most characteristic, they effect a ‘dematerialization’ of the word: ‘The structure of the poem should create an embrasure, inside of which language is seated in watchful docility’.
The intransigencies of Samuel Beckett’s poetry — another body of work largely overlooked by routine scholarship, since Beckett is perceived as primarily a dramatist or prose-text author — are rewarding challenges for a reader such as Schwabsky. He divides the oeuvre into three nugatory phases: some twenty-five poems from the 1930s, half a dozen poems from the immediate post-war years, around fifty texts from the 1970s and ‘80s. These are ideal texts for Schwabsky’s particular obsession with the ‘perturbation’, the ‘disidentification’ of language with its self, through which, he argues the poems achieved an ‘almost-disappeared’ state. The early poems ‘demand to be looked at as quizzical verbal objects beyond their denotational pretexts’, recalling his reading of Lawrence Weiner’s word-sculpture. Schwabsky again demonstrates subtle, inevitable changes of inflection as the poet moves between the ur-French of the later poems, and their make-over to English – ‘this typical effect of translation – or rather, this typical defect’ becomes ‘the poignant burden of poetry as such’. Schwabsky is able to compare different translations of the same text very acutely, as when he writes about Paul Celan, or John Ashbery’s versions of Rimbaud, Peter Manson’s of Mallarmé, and the adequacy of the translations of Picabia’s poetry by Marc Lowenthal compared to that of Geoffrey Young.
In ‘Contemporary Poetry by Women: The Verge of a Language’, Schwabsky argues for a radical substitution:
Which brings me to my big beef with the British poetry scene: the way the term ‘mainstream’ has been usurped by a backward-looking poetry whose aesthetic lost its freshness a century ago – imagine if mainstream contemporary art comprised reiterations of Post-Impressionist landscape painting while the traditions that stem from Cubism, abstraction, and the readymade were considered marginal.
This is a familiar trope for poet-polemicists who claim to write from an ‘alternative’ poetic practice: the ‘mainstream’ is what has to be rejected / written against / that idiom (whatever it is) that has to be completely made over. In some ways, this is a lazy argument, creating a supposed monolithic poetic discourse without ever really defining who or what these poets are. Maybe the recent incumbents of the Laureateship would be resoundingly mainstream: Ted Hughes, Andrew Motion, Carol Ann Duffy, and then the ‘Liverpool poets’, Seamus Heaney? This is already a various and differentiated bunch, and what about Rap and Performance poets – Kate Tempest, Katie Makkai – the National Poetry Slam, the poetries of BLM writers, Benjamin Zephania, who listens ‘to Gardeners’ Question Time more than you might think’ (he admitted to Radio 4)? Are these the ‘alternatives’ that are somehow now acceptable to ‘the mainstream’? They are also all variously decent, widely studied authors, though for Schwabsky, the posited ‘mainstream’ represents ‘a backward-looking poetry whose aesthetic lost its freshness a century ago’. This category won’t do, without a lot more definition and refinement.
In place of this idea of conventional writing, Schwabsky substitutes the poets represented by Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by U.K. Women Poets (Carrie Etter (ed.) 2010). These include Wendy Mulford, Andrea Brady (curator of the Archive of the Now and ‘one of the best poets in Infinite Difference’), Carrie Etter, and (Schwabsky’s ‘personal favourite’) Denise Riley. Schwabsky describes Denise Riley as ‘one of the finest writers of the English language; along with the late Anna Medelssohn [“Grace Lake”] (like Riley born in 1948)’. He relates her to the group of poets that followed on from ‘the remarkable generation born in the later 1930s, of whom Lee Harwood, J.H. Prynne and Tom Raworth may be the other most salient names’. Schwabsky’s discussion of Denise Riley’s ‘A Part Song’ and her prose reflection on that poem, ‘Time Lived, Without Its Flow’, is a moving tribute to this work: ‘The English language proceeds in indifference to the death that suspends the flow of time, that locks the survivor in her stasis.’
Schwabsky writes challengingly, and uses words new to me – ‘the tremendous trifecta of early modernist French poets’ – ‘trifecta’ an outstanding performance or achievement in some activity, usually horse racing, and a ‘tricast’ to us. And ‘a passel of books’, which sounds like what it is, a ‘parcel’, a group of people or objects, mid-nineteenth century US informal talking; ‘accept the primacy of randomness, the clinamen’ – plural, clinamina, from clīnāre, ‘to incline’, Lucretius’s rather lovely word for the ‘unpredictable swerving of atoms’, according to Wikipedia, more generally, an inclination. When you ‘get the hang’ of a writer, begin to know what they do, you can invent the work that you wish they had done, and see where they might take you, if only they had. So I invent essays by Schwabsky on Proust, and what would he write about Marcel Duchamp, whom he tantalizingly mentions, I need his essay on La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even’) (1915—23). Or, perhaps, Schwabsky is of the mind of Ben Lerner (what would he write about Lerner’s two brilliant novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04?), that Duchamp remains ‘unfortunately, in my opinion – the tutelary spirit of the art world’ (10:04).
Similarly, it would be interesting to read Schwabsky on John Ashbery’s graphic artwork, the witty and various collages that he made throughout his life, just for fun – they were first exhibited in 1981 – partly inspired by the work of his friend Joe Brainard, and which dialogue perfectly with his poetry, translations and critical works.
Something else that Schwabsky doesn’t do is popular culture, mass-consumption work – Why should he, since he focuses on what he takes to be a very specific practice within classical late/post Modernism:
The perturbation of language, its disidentification with itself is also a mass phenomenon. But the writings gathered in this book are about the work of individuals who, innocently or otherwise, have taken this alteration of an already-identified language as an experiment, a project, a vocation, a game, an ordeal, a destiny, or a destitution. They are at variance with what they identify with.
Maybe Schwabsky (here) is not messy enough. For example, there are so many thoughtpieces now about ‘Childish Gambino’’s This Is America, Donald Glover’s layered Trap musical. The online video is a perturbation of its source, it disidentifies mass identity, a risky project. Who is not at variance with how we are identified?9 As Schwabsky writes elsewhere:
…art is the field that exists in order for there to be contention about what art is’10
Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s intrepid, well-toned (but strangely empty) hero, pursues all the big questions, from The Da Vinci Code onwards. In Origin (2017), the questions are, Where do we come from? Where are we going? Langon’s inhuman ally in his quest is Winston, a neural network that often outstrips Langdon’s (limited, human) resources. Winston follows a really complicated algorithm, but is also getting interested in creating music and images – though its composition is a bit dull, a sort of Miró or Mondrian pastiche (it’s also a code, inevitably). It wouldn’t do well in the RobotArt.org competition, held since 2016.
The Painting Fool program held an exhibition of its work at the Galerie Oberkampf, Paris, in 2013, was well received. A-I Art poses questions more complicated than the Turing Test can answer – ‘Essentially,’ writes Brown, ‘a human judge listened to a conversation between a machine and a human, and if the judge was unable to identify which participant was human, then the Turing Test was considered to have been passed. Turing’s benchmark challenge had famously been passed in 2014 at the Royal Society in London. Since then, AI technology had progressed at a blinding rate’.
Langdon is being charitable here about the 2014 experiment, which was widely criticised as overhyped, the brain-machine little better than a mediocre ‘chatbot’. Arthur C. Clarke’s Heuristically Programmed Algorithm (HAL) was way smarter, as early as 1968. Evaluating The Painting Fool’s compositions calls for aesthetic criteria such as composition and originality – in addition to judging whether it is human- or machine-made work. Painting Fool now judges its own work – one image ‘a miserable failure’ – and has moved on to poetry. It would, wouldn’t it? Will this too be anything more than ‘skilful digital ventriloquism’?11 Barry Schwabsky knows how this feels. One of his poems (appeared to have) appeared in Issue l, a 3785-page online anthology of poetry by several thousand poets – none of whom were responsible for ‘their’ work in the collection. It had all been generated by a program devised by Jim Carpenter. Schwabsky compares this spoofing to the ‘Araki Yasusada’ episode from the early 1990s. Haunting, surreal poems written by a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic devastation appeared to acclaim in many prestigious journals, American Poetry Review included — until the poems were denounced as an elaborate deceit perpetrated by a Midwest literary professor, still not certainly identified (possibly Kent Johnson?). In a second discussion of the poetical spoof, Schwabsky concludes ‘nothing is in principle off limits to the imaginative writer – provided that the imagination and the writing and also…the sense of irony are adequate’.
Schwabsky has such thoughtful and original perspectives on the ‘New York School’, Francis Picabia, Lawrence Wiener, Samuel Beckett’s poems, AI creativity and the ‘other poetries’ of UK Women writers, that I find myself wanting to know more about his interests, his thought, and his poetry. Which are the central works for him, how does all this cultural production relate to our times, what is the Tendenz of his artistic perspective, his own clinamen? Reading Heretics of Language makes you want to go on to Barry Schwabsky’s Words for Art and The Perpetual Guest. I certainly will.
Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). An archive of his work for the Fortnightly may be found here.
- Brown, Origin, 2017: 26-7.
- Joel Fisher, Catalogue (untitled) to Substance and Accident, 12 September – 17 October 1981, with works by Colin Crumplin and Joel Fisher, the Arnolfini Gallery Bristol, page 8.
- Jason Farago in Isaac Kaplan, ‘Do Francis Picabia’s Anti-Semitic Remarks Tarnish His MoMA Retrospective?’ ART SY , 14 February 2017, artsy.net.
- Peter Fischli in Barry Schwabsky, ‘Picabia’s monsters’, The Nation, 23 February 2017.
- Jason Farago, ‘Francis Picabia: the art ”loser” who ended up winning it all’, The Guardian, 23 November 2016.
- Sanford Schwartz, ‘Picabia’s Big Moment’, New York Review of Books, 23 February 2017.
- David Salle, in Schwartz, ibid.
- Schwabsky 2017.
- Mitchell S. Jackson, ‘Childish Gambino captures the grim surrealism of being black in America’, Guardian, 10 May 2018.
- Schwabsky, Nation, ‘Agony and Ecstasy’, 2008.
- Martin Gayford, ‘Robot Art Raises Questions about Human Creativity’, MIT Technology Review, 2016.