* When PQRS: A Poets Theater Script was published I faced the necessity of reading from a text that resists dramatic or staged readings, even a partial production, and had moved on to related projects, and so I wrote this for readings in Los Angeles at the Poetic Research Bureau and in Chicago at the New Corpse Space. For the latter, I screened passages from the films Solaris and Jubilee, as well as the Tumblr mentioned near the end.1 And afterward, the audience and I moved over to a salad bar to complete the piece. Passages from the book that I did read are embedded here; similarly, the screenings and other media were spliced into the reading, sometimes running silently behind me, sometimes interrupting.
In Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, Rheya is an iteration of an “imperfect god,” though not in an attempt to scale either God or nature toward the human. Even human stupidity relents, but the adaptability of Rheya is relentless. She and the sentient ocean of planet Solaris are extrasensory projections linked to the conscience of the cosmonauts peering down from the orbiting station, also called Solaris. The crew are called Solarists and their discipline Solaristics. The novel’s lexicon is maximally dense and redundant, in keeping with a certain conceit. The Solarists have forfeited life on Earth for the possibility of contact with the planet. Most likely to make that sacrifice would be persons fleeing a guilty conscience or maintaining a missionary zeal ill-suited to the inevitable diplomacy of earthly existence (these reasons are of course wholly compatible). (Lem devises a feature of planet Solaris that resembles solar flares, the “mimoid,” which simply rehearses the loneliness of the demiurge; with no model nor audience, what good is it to be the Creator?)
Rheya’s doppelganger Hari, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinematic adaptation of the novel, is “imprinted time.” The intergalactic psychologist who happened to have quasi-intentionally led her to suicide some years back is, with his understandably perturbed conscience, the author of this iteration and/or imprint. Yet the filmmaker amplifies her experience, and forces us to recognize her fate without the satisfaction of witnessing it play through. She is a failure who can’t be allowed to fail, because she is always this or that side of human. Kelvin, the psychologist, is, rather than wracked with guilt, either (in Lem) at loose ends with his ethos as a scientist (the burden of first person narration is one culprit) or (in Tarkovsky) engaged in an elaborate displacement of that guilt onto familial imaginations. A made thing is an evolution of a desire for repetition that itself adapts to desire the thing. In none of this has a creative faculty emerged, hence we take mimesis as a principle of adaptation between media (which, if they don’t already differ—say, I write a poetic adaptation of an essay—would have to be made to differ). The source of desire is a social arrangement, so remakes are always better than their sources, always contemporary rather than original, and we make a fetish of media with respect to whatever originality (creativity) we still consider lost (like Rheya’s humanity). Hari can’t fail to live, can’t be made to die or cease recurring, whereas humans fail simply by virtue of their mortality, though failure itself is nothing compared to the dread of living in (as) its wake.
So while Lem’s mimoids remind us that Rheya can only be a reconstructed concept of a bad conscience, Tarkovsky’s Kelvin, in attempting to hide from her this fact (upon her resurrection stashing the redundant garments she’d left behind), knows that he nurses his conscience by loving her, not the other way around. This is what is evoked when, while Kelvin’s Virgil attempts to distract him from his morbid pining with the sensible expedient of deferring such questions until he finds himself “at the end of life,” Kelvin can know what Hari’s failure defined. Not only do we not know when we are at the end of life, but that ignorance “makes us practically immortal.” The slow (not langorous, but fixed) pan into Kelvin’s ear cavity as he sits in profile—with the expression of a very satisfied thinker—sends us from a single extant shawl to the island in his mind that renders Earth an ersatz Solaris.
Hari is remade in the image of failure and the only recourse she has is to suicide, which she must remake in the image of the knowledge of life she has second hand—third hand, depending on how thoughtful you consider the character of Solaris itself. What you’re seeing here appears to be an attempt to remain by Kelvin’s side at any cost, but it can also be considered a suicide attempt. Until we consider the degree to which suicide is violence—and what or whom it violates—we aren’t asking the right questions or seeking relevant answers in a universe of virtual or perpetual availability.
That is this universe of ours, I think, or it starts to seem that way now. And right now is a particularly difficult time to be a pacifist. All the harder when we’re so easily pacified by moral righteousness. Pacifism is the sole position dogmatism supports, since peace is the sole condition in which an inviolable critique of power occurs. I am encouraged by certain examples that I would wish to emulate that my failures are aspects of “process,” such that I may claim that finishing a project is really just a cop out, when the whole point of generating a text, since I am a writer, is to generate knowledge. I am nearly ten minutes through the “Prelude to PQRS,” which is a text and now a book I call a poets theater script. The prelude is my way out of writing it, which I can’t stop doing anyway—I just revise—I can’t finish—I just pet the flesh, the letter, and whoosh, like a special effect, thoughts are caused. “Prelude to PQRS” is a delay tactic. It talks about the relationship between knowledge and belief and phenomena and sanity and art and so on. It is preemptively nostalgic when it gives gifts or is, most of the time, beside the point.
The conditions for the practice of pacifism may be dire, but no worse than the conditions for writing as I practice it. I have to admit that I love the cold, Socratic comforts of blaming and shaming the audience. In that case, we can take the word of Amiri Baraka:
Thought is more important than art. Without thought, art could certainly not exist. Art is one of many products of thought... Even though the process, in good art, is everywhere perceptible, the risk of perfection corrupts the lazy public into accepting the material in place of what it is only the remains of.
And we could nod inwardly at someone reciting Adorno’s sentiment:
A writer will find that the more precisely, conscientiously, appropriately he expresses himself, the more obscure the literary result [...] people know what they want because they know what other people want. Regard for the object, rather than for communication is suspect in any expression: anything specific, not taken from pre-existent patterns, appears inconsiderate, a symptom of eccentricity, almost of confusion. [...] Few things contribute so much to the demoralization of intellectuals. Those who would escape it must recognize the advocates of communicability as traitors to what they communicate.
But I will try to make a virtue of the necessity of writing if anything is to be left unfinished and anything can be made known.
An alphabet rescues what’s real from the stupor that inevitably follows a job well done. A script runs when what seems to happen does and then did and now it’s over and no longer so fortuitous as to bother occurring. Violence always aims at death, either as logical extreme or intended effect; the fact that intentions differ from motives is what makes violent acts possible. The actor needs to regard their motivations as ends and their intentions as means, to the extent that the action committed may not seem phenomenal at all. A fortuitous phenomenon always ceases where this duplicity or, if you wish, double-conscience begins. Death can’t be a subject of ethics because we don’t live to concern it. But its utter intractability is what makes suicide appear to be an innocent, singular choice and violence a regrettable, occasional necessity. Adrian Piper once said that knowledge is information in the interest of a choice. That would explain something about this false dichotomy without announcing the obvious motive for claiming that violence and suicide are the same thing. And that this has to do with the logical function or poets theater script called PQRS is evident from an entailment Piper follows into one “visual pathology” and I will into another, the kind you can smell and whose presence is amplified by being invisible. If knowledge is information in the interest of a choice, then belief is confidence in the absence of knowledge.
Violence is beyond belief because it shares none of the conditions of knowledge, neither confidence nor interest. A violent act is always disinterested in the one or thing violated and confides nothing. Nothing can be gathered from it. And that is so obviously true that it is irrelevant.
I once met an advocate for the right to bear arms who was not so much worried about desperate people. She was worried about crazy people. Insanity could be fatal, but a desperate person would take what they need for their living, perhaps even one’s livelihood, but wouldn’t confuse that with her life, wouldn’t take her life. Madness, she figured, could be curbed only with the capacity to shoot from a distance.
But can the desperate believe? If all knowledge is conditioned, can someone insane not believe? If failure to question one’s sanity points to madness as a failure of belief, insanity is not a condition. Both knowledge and belief are impertinent—not only absent but irrelevant.
Language is insane.
In The Coming Insurrection we read: “Pacifism without being able to fire a shot is nothing but the theoretical formulation of impotence... [I]t’s only in an extreme position of strength that we are freed from the need to fire.” But theoretical formulation is not unconditional. The real argument is against the artificial condition of what peace knows, as a pragmatics or maxim, an exercise of freedom or a belief in the freedom of one’s exercise (of freedom).
In The Uprising, Franco “Bifo” Berardi claims that “violence is a pathological demonstration of impotence when power is protected by armies of professional killers. ...The uprising is not a form of judgment, but a form of healing.” Yet it is “truth value” and not mere “effectiveness” that, for Berardi, characterizes the inviolability of poetic language.
If violence is hinged to passion and knowledge is hinged to belief, Socratic epistemology persists in its own sobriety while martyrdom is the best hope for interventionist heroics. This tiresome dichotomy over-determines the relationship of aesthetic value to political efficacy.
Language is insane.
In PQRS, language is confused with a hazy toxin that is inhaled, ambient, and industrial. Ambient music and industrial music emerged, as pop genres, simultaneously (Brian Eno and Throbbing Gristle). Ambient music, following from the example of John Cage, entails a choice, electing to pay attention, or not. Industrial music is the reversal of this prerogative. Industrial music is an imperative; attention to oblivion and boycotting the rapture are its first commandments. The ecology of listening is evoked in Act One: Scene One of PQRS. The first theme of the script is linguistic contagion, which is really just a figure for the ways in which partial fluency disables.
The most conscientious, sane, and literally studious student I ever had was from Seoul. Her English was extremely labored because it was available only in translation, in terms of her expository capacity. We studied together the writings of Gertrude Stein and worked to hone her prose expositions and arguments regarding Stein’s use of English. In English. Her diligence as a student of English in English was conditioned by her fluency in Hongul, a language I do not know in the least. I could not put it out of my mind that the power relationship between us was perverted by my monolingualism, figured as fluency, and her failing bilingualism, which was always already my failed bilingualism. She had more but it proffered less. Working with her, I was painfully unaware of my superficiality and superficially aware of my obliviousness.
I imitate fluency. All fluency is derived. There is only dis-fluency.
For example, my artist’s book project Daughter draws inspiration from the Argentinian asemic writer Mirtha Dermisache, the photo-based books of Ed Ruscha, and the contrived elan of independence that is post-punk 45 rpm vinyl culture. Daughter attempts to apply the Deleuzian notion of the “mot d’ordre,” that language “always goes from saying to saying” rather than conducting information, a precept that might dovetail with negotiations between the sex/gender axes explored by theorists like Judith Butler and Monique Wittig. A neo-Taschist experiment in familial spectatorship, Daughter is a set of offset prints, photographic details of preliterate “writing” alongside the iconic imagery of early childhood educational materials—especially sticker books that introduce and enforce monstrous race, class, and gender norms as platforms for developing fine motor skills. The project maintains a necessary and constructive distance; the entailments are fixed at the point of maximal insight rather than being discussed. It was shot at a distance.
My next project is an essay placed in virtual space. I am collaborating with Los Angeles artist Rob Ray to complete Docent, a pirate audio tour of permanent exhibitions in encyclopedic museums. Docent takes up the themes of social labor time as synchronous median effort, real-to-ready phenomena, and failure, in the context of civic pedagogy and private consumption of publicly exhibited artefacts for which subversive uses are implied. When complete, the work will exist as a smart phone app. It will then “travel” to museums internationally.
The portability of Docent rhymes nicely with Andrea Fraser’s Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk. It also brings to mind recent, ongoing work by Audio Tour Hack, such as Momma Unadulterated, an assessment of the permanent collection of the MOMA by children. These and other interventionist works find ways to be site-specific “with the same script but very different frames,” to quote Fraser. Somewhat closer to the textual condition of Docent, and also parts of PQRS, is the Echelle Inconnue’s September 2010 Smala project in “plan d’Aou,” a district of Marseilles: “a sound cartography of Islam in the city of Marseilles.” I am also interested in what Carrie Lambert-Beatty calls “parafictions”:
Like a paramedic as opposed to a medical doctor, a parafiction is related to but not quite a member of the category of fiction as established in literary and dramatic art... [It] has one foot in the field of the real. Unlike historical fiction’s fact-based but imagined worlds, in parafiction real and/or imaginary personages and stories intersect with the world as it is being lived. Post-simulacral, parafictional strategies are oriented less toward the disappearance of the real than toward the pragmatics of trust. Simply put, with various degrees of success, for various durations, and for various purposes, these fictions are experienced as fact.
Although interventionist—institutional critique informs both Docent and PQRS—I am more interested in facticity and post-medium conditions for the sake of affect, genre, and the problem of “the world as it is being lived.” Institutional critique must make use of the institution of art; art must be available as a use-value, equally prone to approbation and corroboration as it is to antagonism and abnegation. An intervention will exhibit and demonstrate the institution in the course of leveling its criticisms. It is interventionist to the extent that its object is actualized. It is parasitic, and this is one of its virtues. I am more interested in mis-use (rather than expanded usage, as with Momma Unadulterated) or misprision (see Lambert-Beatty’s discussion of Michael Blum’s A Tribute to Safiye Behar). The Smala project’s cartographic import relies on site-specificity to gird that most ephemeral medium: sound. The difference between these and my own projects is that rather than exhibit and demonstrate, I engage in lore. Stupendous lore. The stupefying facticity of the encyclopedic, I wager, is best interrogated through digitally, virtually “placed” objects, which require no labor to come into being and are not actually there except as affective prods. The initial draft of the project proposal began:
The “virtual object” (in the sense new media gives to virtual) is the axiomatic of contemporary effort, understanding, or enterprise. [Effort is the new labor—decentralized and a matter of degree, not kind.] So for an essay to be fortuitous now means it should be “placed.” Spatially, its effort is curatorial. Temporally, it is redundant with the space it occupies, since it may as well be absent, but also recombined with the duration of any reading of it, since reading dovetails with its presence (it never happens otherwise).
But a poem, of course, must remain a poem in order to be mis-used in this way, in order for the experiment to have, as it were, a control to scrim the variables. Unlike mis-using objects, the mis-use of discourse must be apparently also a misconstrual. Ambience and industry are imbricated here and I thought to really mis-use I would need to imitate my sanity—at one point I wished to revise my poem “Color Music” as “Cartridge Music” using only the phonemes of the former as seed text for the latter. But I couldn’t square this with the epigraph to the book, something Nam June Paik once said:
I hope must renew the ontological form of music.
The word “hope” is struck-thru.
Language is insane.
In PQRS I attempt to set up the control as a drama involving a “dirty little secret.” The variable could be anything that ensues when the proverbial pater is found to have sired a boy in an illicit dalliance with a mother (tongue) who refuses to play the mean old witch, the wicked witch. I crib this plot entirely from Djuna Barnes. Also, I attempt to use a poetic form that Hannah Weiner used in a pair of relatively obscure pieces, the best known of which now is “Radcliffe and Guatemalan Women.” The form consists in staggered lines from divergent source texts whose clashing produces, on one hand, odd flashes of recognition, and on the other syntactic challenges. I thought it would be interesting for the syntax in my attempts to be highly regulated and normate.
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s important concept of the “normate” subject is based on the cultural capital assumed by certain “bodily configurations” that are visibly and thus “physically” so constructed. However “extraordinary” they may be by ableist standards, visual evidence of bodily difference is sufficient evidence for ableist ascriptions of disability, no matter the intrinsic affective states particular to any given body. Thus, one of the tasks of disability aesthetics and scholarship has been to accentuate the intrinsic affect of impairment in contradistinction to its extrinsic aspects. The dichotomy enlisted is not unlike Gertrude Stein’s between “entity” and “identity,” which she used to gauge the natural within the labors of the mind.
It is important that in both PQRS and Docent the essay is unseen and invisible. It can only happen, but it never does. This is why it is important that PQRS be impossible to stage. Hence, I tend to think the script can’t be fodder for poetry readings. It is designed to be unstageable, too, as a dramatic work—it can’t be produced and resists even the hoary heights of “production” (effort is one thing, labor is another).
Nonetheless, I will read an example of the “staggered” poems, there are two in PQRS—because I think one might be able to hear, if I read it well, how immaterial forms are substantiated. The script directs it to be read to the tune of “12XU” by Wire, which is ridiculous.
Since Marx’s famous description of the talking commodity,
I once heard a learned man say that time is nothing but the movement
we are accustomed to seeing, economic forms brought to life. It is less common
of the sun and the moon and the stars, but I
however—to see such a form given life only to be put to death—
did not agree. Yet this is what we find in the name for a contract.
But we apprehend time only when we have marked motion
on a real estate loan, a mortgage, which comes from the French for “dead pledge,”
marking it by before and after. And it is only when
trying to understand why this particular contract should take on such a mortal
we have perceived before and after in motion, that we say that time has elapsed.
The sixteenth-century jurist Sir Edward Coke explained, “It seemeth that the
guilt is like the moral thread which duplicates the thread of time,
it is called mortgage, is for that it is doubtful whether the Debtor will pay.
I once heard a learned man say that
at the day limited such summe or not, & if he doth not
time is nothing but the movement of the sun.
Pay, then, the Land...and the moon
is taken from him for ever, and the stars, but I did not agree.
And so dead to him upon condition, &c. And if he doth pay the money,
but we apprehend time only when we have marked motion,
then the pledge is dead as to the Tenant.” The mortgaged property
marking it by before and after exists in an ontologically perilous realm,
and it is only when we have perceived before and after
alive to one but not another, rising from the grave and returning
in motion that we say that time has elapsed to life as it changes hands.
What is it about the real estate loan that makes all its paths lead to death?
Guilt is like the moral thread which duplicates the thread of time.
The connection between borrowing and burying is encrypted
I once heard
in the etymology of the word
a learned man say “mortgage,”
but the language of horror that time is nothing
has also been manifestly present,
but the movement of the sun and the moon and the stars
in contemporary representations of the ongoing financial and credit crises. But I
did not agree.
But we apprehend time only when we have marked motion
from the ubiquitous “zombie banks” to muckraker Matt Taibbi’s description of
Goldman Sachs as a “great, blood-sucking vampire squid,” a discourse of
the gothic, the uncanny,
marking it by before and after, and the terrifying is itself,
and it is only when we have perceived before and after in
the specter haunting late capitalism. In
motion that we say this essay, I argue
that time has elapsed,
that this discourse does not
merely reflect the anxiety and fear guilt is
associated with, current economic volatility, but
like the moral thread which duplicates the thread
is rooted in fundamental transformations in the economy
of time itself: specifically, the financialization of credit markets. And
I once heard a learned man say that the power of securitized debt to penetrate the very fabric of daily life,
that time, to understand the increasing inextricability
is nothing but the movement of the sun and the moon and the stars, but of horror
and securitized credit, I turn to a text that
I did—brings them explicitly together: not
the 2009 horror film Drag Me to Hell (dir. Sam Raimi), in which the standard
tropes of the horror genre agree.
But we apprehend time only when we have marked motion, marking it by.
Before and after are repurposed
to represent the emerging horrors of our dangerous new economic order
and it is only when we have, in Raimi’s film, I’ll show, the formal mechanisms
of suspense perceived before and after in motion
become an index of the somatic tolls of risk; the visual excesses that we say
of gore that time has are now the signs elapsed
of financial contagion and toxicity. Like the guilt characterization is like,
the moral thread of complex financial derivatives which,
as “Frankenstein’s monsters” Raimi’s film draws on, duplicates
the traditions of horror, the thread of time.
To describe, I once heard a new kind of terror—
a learned man—say
the deadliness of financialized debt and credit crisis.
That in offering a surprisingly nuanced representation is nothing
but of the contemporary financial economy, Drag Me to Hell.
The movement of the sun and the moon and the stars
also allows us to track larger historical transformations in both markets and
I want to make two related arguments concerning these changes.
But I did not agree. First, unlike eighteenth-century novels of credit,
but we apprehend time only when we have marked motion, marking it by early-
twentieth-century financial panic novels, and a long tradition of horror-
genre economic allegories,
Drag Me to Hell refuses either before or after
to contain economic anxiety or to imagine a restored calculus for accountability.
And it is only when we have perceived before and after. Second, I see this refusal
in motion as a consequence of a fundamental shift in the relationship between
credit and financial markets.
That we say. That time, particularly the introduction of commodified risk into the
credit transaction, has elapsed.2
I will also read a small excerpt from Act Two: Scene One, which is an attempt to propagate lore regarding the familial drama of the script, as an interloper therein. It is a misuse of a script about misused landmarks, failed cartographies that instead generate ludic events that seems to affirm that the initials function as characters, especially S, the unwilling mother of us all.
Productions in Chicago:
Audience and players without stepping out of character gather in Millennium Park, surround Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, each with a flash bulb in hand angled from a unique stance like gawking tourists enjoying fresh, lake air and a funhouse mirror. All bulbs are set off simultaneously. An aerial photograph is taken of the event and shows a poltergeist effect. S takes the photo home.
Productions in Madrid:
Audience members climb a ladder cautiously placed before Guernica and trace the hen. The first with egg on their face becomes S. Because museums in Europe frequently do not charge admission, the queue to trace Guernica will seem miniscule in comparison to the crowds gathered to see art rather than poets theater. But this only improves the odds of entering the script as S, who then exits into the painting to make way for herself.
Productions in London:
The theater and its scenario—that is, the house and its inhabitants—enter the transverse realm of cinema, Derek Jarman’s Jubilee: specifically the super-8 scene of a bonfire featuring Amyl Nitrate, the historian, dancing a ballet beside “the boys.”3 This scene elaborates on and foreshadows the scope of the tenacious grip of lucre on the imagination of temporality—not only history, but time itself, signaled by the classical masque dangling above the flaccid penis of one of the brother-lovers, as well as the sheen of decay over both the visuals and the soundtrack (deeply romanticized ennui—lugubrious nostalgia). We hear Amyl utter the line “Carnation from Floris: not all the good things have disappeared” in the voice of S and recognize we are the kidnapped young women, “punk” hooligans, attending a lesson in the hovel Amyl shares with Bod (Elizabeth I’s doppelganger), Mad, Chaos, Crabs, and the boys. We hear this line again in voice-over as the car is pulling up to Borgia Ginz’s estate in the gated community of Dorset, after the girls have sold out to the media machine. Amyl’s obsession with the destruction of civilization through commercialism, on one hand, or through ennui on the other sits uneasily beside her adoration of all things flash. She is distraught when her Winston Churchill mug breaks. She loves expensive French perfume and enjoys the help of a French au pair. Yet she is not at all bothered by this fundamental contradiction. Mad’s take on history is quite different, it seems. Mad duplicates the contradiction. “This is how to compress [history],” she says, “you forget it.” But she doesn’t advocate the abolition of memory so much as the destruction of half-remembered artifacts. She sets light to Amyl’s “Teach Yourself History” book. Viv, the “artist” is a romantic. She’s not nostalgic, but she believes and invests in love. She and the boys have a tender affair. She says to them, “I know [Mad] is right, that’s what upsets me.” Theater’s allusive texture is transformed into didacticism in cinema. S is Amyl, but also Viv, Mad, and the boys themselves (not a resolution of their conflicting traits, but a combination). And we know this as we come out of the screen back into the theater. S does not acknowledge this collective epiphany, but why should she? She resolves the known, not the spasm of the onset of knowledge. She is beyond irony.
The final, anti-climactic scene of PQRS is, along with the first scene, actually stageable, and cuts most closely to the control element when the male functions P, Q, and R find themselves in S’s parlor. They are there to lay hands on her stash of love letters from their father—and ostensibly to discover S is the mother of one or the other. As things come to a head, S has a speech refuting any attempt to function as an “epistemological tart” and brother-function R parries with the URL of womenlaughingalonewithsalad.tumblr.com.
I loved this Tumblr because, as gender-normate clip art, the images offer an unseen and so underdeveloped motif to be read back into the script, which already begs to be repurposed. Let’s attempt to develop that motif by passively chewing on something together. Let’s ruminate and remember, never order salad on a dinner date. You’ll be afraid to smile with all that roughage pinched between your teeth.
—Patrick Durgin, October 3, 2013
1Mark Booth and Devin King also improvised an electro-acoustic sound piece involving musical cues referenced in the script, voice, and other elements responsive to the text.
Return to Reference.
2Mash up of maximal source text: Annie McClanahan’s “Dead Pledges: Debt, Horror, and the Credit Crisis” (Post 45, 5/7/2012, http://post45.research.yale.edu/archives/2291)--Introductory paragraphs only—with the following passages:
“I once heard a learned man say that time is nothing but the movement of the sun and the moon and the stars, but I did not agree.”—Saint Augustine, Confessions, XI, 23:29.
“But we apprehend time only when we have marked motion, marking it by before and after; and it is only when we have perceived before and after in motion that we say that time has elapsed.”—Aristotle, Physics, IV, 220a.
“Guilt is like the moral thread which duplicates the thread of time.”—Deleuze, “Four Poetic Formulas which Might Summarize the Kantian Philosophy.”
3Here Jubilee screens from 9:33-13:48.
Return to Reference.