Like Irving Feldman’s “In Theme Park America,” Paige DeShong’s “Funhouse,” (part of a photographer/poet collaborative exhibition I put together some years ago) eerily captures the sense in which the whole culture, and we ourselves, as persons, become absorbed into the world (call it a “fantasy world,” or an “illusory world,” or a “mythic world”) of our mediations. It has the penetrating advantage of being “candid”—a singular expression of . . . what? The pure products of America going crazy? The woman (a friend of Paige’s) surrounded by figurations of her cultural iconicity, but enthroned and lit up like a celebrity in a nightmare: Fantasy? Illusion? Myth? You can have it all: and that says it all.
Beating Your Media
In a wonderful book entitled Talk’s Body, David Sudnow talks about his imaginative experience as a jazz keyboardist and as a writer—what it means to improvize (or to generate fresh gestures) in each medium (his next book, Pilgrim in the Micro-World, treated the phenomenology of early arcade games). When I first read the book, around 1980 or 81, I was struck by two ideas or processes he described that coincided with my own sense of my writing process: first, a sense of goalless play; and second, a sense of accident. Here’s an example of the first (my examples are from the Penguin paperback, 1980):
Playing the piano at home and alone, I often play differently from when I am playing for others.
I stop and start at will, not terribly bothered by mistakes. I switch styles frequently. I intermingle a little spate of exercises within an ongoing jazz improvisation. I mumble. I hesitate, start over again, erase what I did, and begin something quite different.
My talking to myself at the piano takes on many of the same qualities that talking to myself with words can have, and at times I daydream at the instrument, making musical movements that do not especially go anywhere, fiddle with the keys, bang on some, look out the window, brush against others, repeat a single key to listen to the sound of the instrument, play a figure again and again and again, forgettingaboutthespacing in accordance with a regular pulsation. (64-65)
Sudnow’s talking to himself reminds me of something the great filmmaker Hollis Frampton once told me—that the man who taught him (in the sixties or seventies) how to program a computer explained that he had reached a limit in his ability to handle complex problems until he learned to talk to himself while he did it. He (and I think Frampton, who did this and taught it to his students as well) was a little embarrassed by this, but acknowledged that it works: there seems to be a sense in which the mind has to vocalize—to invoke, perhaps—in order to intermediate between machine and conceptual problem.
Also, what Sudnow calls “daydreaming” here—and he has more to say about it than I’m repeating now—derives (directly, I think) from Freud’s ideas as expressed in “The Creative Writer and Daydreaming,” another of the seminal texts of my life. The idea of taking up the world (but what we’re taking up, I’m saying, is nearly always an instrument, a medium) through an invocation of freedom from specific purposes or goals certainly doesn’t describe what any writer does every single time she writes; but at the crucial spot of what Derrida called “freeplay”—a scene of the undefined and undefinable, of a wheel wobbling rather than perfectly measured on its hub—it suggests that what our instruments gift us with is imprecision, or, better, indeterminacy. Mediation, in this sense, is a freeing from the overworn grooves of “the natural,” of “common sense,” of “rules,” “laws,” “expectations,” of conventional thinking, conventional expression, and cliché of word and cliché of concept. Those moments when we catch ourselves idly playing in the air (see the last painting in Jesse Poimboeuf’s entry on August 20th), going nowhere idly or with manic enthusiasm, may make us feel detached from reality and all cares. But as in Robert Frost’s wonderful simile in “The Silken Tent,” such a perfect disconnect is illusory. Though in no way “strictly held,” we are “loosely bound / By silken ties of love and thought / To everything on earth the compass round.” Frost’s way of imaging this (and it’s just a stand-in for an amazing woman) is the world’s most perfect tent. His image requires a vehicle, a medium of concretion. And our play, whether it is with dolls, trucks, Truck, mathematical symbols, saxophones, legos, mystic writing pads . . . . . . no matter what we choose to play with (and we do have to choose), it gives shape first to our imagination of the world, and then to the world itself. Freud said, “Play is the work of the child”; as he knew better than anyone, it is also crucial to the work, and to the world, of persons who are not children. (Sudnow also saw this: “Jazz is close to sport in some ways. For example, playing fast is important, and the musician’s speed at executing long runs is ranked among players and fans much as batting averages are kept” .)
But Sudnow also says, “The body is a natural higher mathematician” (78). Nevertheless, if he admires its precisions and perfections, he loves its errant mischiefs. Discussing the perfectionism of playing (and he presents a long and persuasive list of reasons for jazz musicians to build a repertoire of phrases and to develop “at least the tendency to say the same fancy things over and over again”), he offers a useful map for recognizing such gestures, and in doing so, projects a mirror-map of what can be recognized as a deeper improvization:
Look especially for the absence of those little false starts being forever turned into the music as the improvisational hand aligns and realigns itself, getting a flexible rhythm under way, now forming up to take a longer stretch. Look for the presence of very long and fast lines that are more unidirectional than interweaving. Look for little in the way of things being said—I mean placed—for things being placed and then placed again, and then again, before a longer burst of venturing movements. Look for the disappearance of those clear mistakes that are then turned into parts of the music as the hand cycles back to pick up a sour-sounding note, doing it again for emphasis, making it of the music by elegantly integrating its harshness into a small digression. Watch out for the disappearance of that special sort of developing tension that resolves with the sense of “Wow, he made it come off.” Watch out for many imitations of that tension. (43-44)
O.k., it’s worth pointing out that, as Sudnow knows very well, one of the things great jazz players have done is add significantly to the historically accumulating phraseology of improvization, and that doesn’t come from single instances, but from building something bigger, a style. Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite celebrations anywhere of the productive impulsion of accident and error. The sense that what someone playing in real time does is not ask for a do-over but instantaneously imagine a build-in speaks to something fundamental in my understanding of how poems emerge. No doubt we don’t always just keep adding paint when we screw up—sometimes we have to throw it away and start over, or “fix it” substantially in revision. But what this sense of play suggests, I’d say, is a tolerance for the extraordinary, a sense that that’s what one was looking for without knowing it, of the production of the unpredictable: of “Wow, I made it come off.” (And yes, this is very close indeed to “Negative Capability.”)
I was reading today a good essay by Gideon Lewis-Kraus (http://www.wired.com/2014/07/history-of-autocorrect/) on the history and theory of word-processing autocorrection. While he’s a lot more enthusiastic about that software than I am, he does mention its surrealistic tendencies (as documented on the site called Damn You Autocorrect [http://www.damnyouautocorrect.com/]). Even though it works brilliantly most of the time, he says, what fascinates us are its goofy errors.
In this, it bears a close family resemblance to Google Translate. Here’s an experiment with Google Translate in which a poem of mine (which appeared in my Venus Transit, from Outriders Poetry Project, 2013), written in response to Paige DeShong’s “Funhouse,” was translated first into French, then into Greek, then back into English:
"She belongs to" "the tyrant," "though she thinks she's" "her own" (Alice Notley, The Descent of Alette)
Her life a cartoon
for which everyone else
writes the captions, each new scene. Until the day
of the throne, her amaze
at its offering, spatter
of gracious smiles from the attendants she never
could have predicted and she got to pull the lever. And
set the speed and tension. Adjust
Control the pitch and g-force. Decide
whether to be poised or precipitous.
Choose the sign: "Welcome!"
or "No Admittance!"
Then locks the brake and brace
back and crank, ease the speed forward
until it revs and throbs
so that the apparatus shakes,
shudders and shakes as if the whole world were sobbing, then
takes her calm between
her teeth, bites down hard (it draws
some blood, it tastes good),
picks her course, kicks
off the brake
Mute (Google-Translate Version)
"Belongs to" "tyrant", "thinks it" "own" (Alice Notley, The Descent of Alette)
Life's a moving
in which everyone
written descriptions, each new scene. By day
the throne, amazing
cute smiles escorts who never
could be predicted and has to pull the lever. and
adjust the speed and voltage. Set
Check the height and strength g. Decide
if you want to be in balance or in haste.
Select the point: "Welcome"
or "no access"
Lock brake straps
and kick back, facilitating the advance speed
until it turns and throbbing
so that the clamping device,
chills and shivering like everyone sobbing, then
takes stand between
his teeth, biting hard (draft
little blood, good taste)
reiterated its course, kicking
Please note: I think my original version is a “better poem,” though I understand the many ways in which that’s open to dispute. All I want to point out here is that passing that poem through a distinct mediatory apparatus has produced eccentricities and deviations that are themselves provocative (“draft / little blood, good taste”; "in balance or in haste"), and while I’m sticking by my poem, the translation device opens its language up in ways I’d be a fool not to continue to consider—as a way of “reiterating its course,” maybe, iteration after iteration.
Just as any translation device always fails in some measure—and in that, achieves its specific success—the “correction” in autocorrection is a joke waiting to happen. We’re better than our machines, because we’re worse. We love that! Our gadgets give us directions and we wind up lost in the most fascinating spaces, inner and outer. We want to be lost, want our math to be off, our scene bizarrely lit, framed, and edited, and our algorithms scrambled. At least, part of what we do, which makes “the media” and, in general, mediation, so crucial to our self-discovering process as artists of one sort and another, is to enlens ourselves before the world. Like the magnificent filmmaker Guy Maddin, we take a bit of pride in not being sure which lens does what. Putting ourselves in a fantasy chair and letting its current shatter us is how we discover the fragments that matter—that “count,” however imprecisely.
And if, like Sudnow’s slick repeaters of phrases, we accommodate ourselves a little too comfortably to a given medium or mode of mediation, part of our training or instinct (perhaps both) presses us to fight the common currency, to beat our media before they beat us. Talk about love-hate.
* * * * *
* * * * *
Whole-hearted thanks to the fine writers and visual artists who gave me permission to upload their work. And to Hal Johnson, to paraphrase John Lennon: Thanks for the use of the medium. (JM)
Paige DeShong is an old friend of Jerry McGuire's who lives in Austin, up the hill from Barton Springs where she swims most days. She makes jewelry and sculpture from various metals and found glass which she sells through her studio and at https://www.etsy.com/shop/paigedeshong. Her son August keeps her out of trouble.
Jerry McGuire splits his time between the state of anxiety and the state of Louisiana, where he teaches film and poetry at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.