In The Flood, Stephen-Paul Martin uses humor and sarcasm to weave together his text made up of the themes and motifs of language, political corruption, sexuality, religion, and cosmic renewal. What is unusual about these traditional concerns is Martin's use of the graphic potential of the Smith-Corona 2500 electric typewriter with which he wrote/designed The Flood. Each page is graphically unique in terms of the layout of the text and imagery; some of the implications of Martin's "style" I would like to explore in what follows.
I used the word "text" in its etymological sense. "Text" derives from Medieval Latin textus, (Scriptural) text, from Latin, literary composition, "woven thing," from the past participle of texere, to weave (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1970). The warp and woof of the loom are paralleled by the mechanical fashion in which the typewriter lays down marks on a sheet, constrained to lines and columns (Martin varies this through some cutting and pasting). Thus, we can begin to appreciate some of the subtleties of Martin's use of Scripture in the Noah story. At the heart of the author's concerns here is the relationship of language, specifically the written representation of speech, to the construction of meaning as a social act involving power relationships. His choice of Scripture as the type of such a process is the perfect, traditional foundation for radical experimentation with the type-writer as technological-modern mediator of meaning, which historically embeds the metaphysical dimension of The Flood, keeping it from floating away in the pointless debris of postmodernism.
No doubt this very historical thrust, to be seen in those passages which attack the President, will simultaneously delight and confuse readers. What I am contending is that these passages can only be theoretically grasped if one has a thoroughly traditional understanding of the role of language in ancient and Medieval Western European culture. Martin thus conflates the two main strands: the Kabbalistic notion that language and the world interpenetrate in a continuum of signification, such that whoever controls language controls the very fabric of nature; and the later Christian sublimation of this through what we would understand as a process of metaphorization (God spoke the world into existence, logos, fiat lux, etc.) in the Christian move to consolidate power through defining selected beliefs and practices as superstition, the chief result of which for our purposes here is that language becomes a device of representation. Thus the former view ipso facto becomes superstition from the viewpoint of the latter.
Martin's preoccupation with meaning both trasncendent and immanent is of course not as baldly presented as the above account might lead one to believe; it couldn't be and still maintain effectiveness as art. On the contrary, Martin's typographic experimentation achieves several goals: it preserves visual-graphic surprise; it underscores chance as a compositional technique that has its analogue in a view of the world as alogical yet not at all therefore meaningless; and it fragments linear discourse with its basis in argumentation. A structural analysis of The Flood must acknowledge these featurtes of the typographic presentation, which otherwise would seem negatively arbitrary, a goal of much art but not of Martin's.
Perhaps one of the most noticeable features of The Flood is its fragmentary quality, which is emphasized by having typed words wrap around from line to line with no word spacing to ease reading. The reader is forced to deal with words and lines almost on an individual level; just as a passage begins to develop, we are abruptly ripped out of fictional time/space and dumped elsewhere. Scenes on the Ark alternate with those in the White House (the latter thereby posited as a kind of ark floating upon the chaos of contemporary American culture). At times one text seems to physically disappear underneath another, Martin using chunks of language as if they were real-world elements to be collaged together creating the illusion of three-dimensional space in the manner of the visual arts. Since The Flood is primarily a word document and about the social and psychological processes of decoding/encoding significations, resorting to techniques of the visual arts serves to complexify the work s primary drives, underscoring the reader/viewer's role in the establishment of meaning. As has been often repeated, the fragmentation of discourse in the modern period starting in the mid-nineteenth century parallels the evacuation of presence from the world under the impacts of industrialization. This fragmentation is evident in all the greatest works of the period (The Cantos, The Waste Land, Dadaist collages, Tzara's sound poetry, Schwitters entire opus both visual and verbal, Schoenberg, Beckett, Benjamin, Adorno, etc.) At the same time, the ancient unity of visual and verbal modes of expression is suggested as a critique of their separation under capitalism.
Fragmentariness is strategically countered with the temptations of an implicit, possible narrative unity where things makes sense. As with Paul Zelevansky's "Crossroads" trilogy, The Flood uses parody to locate itself in a tradition of narrative fiction through its distoring engagements with character, plot, and time, the traditional unities of fiction. The narrator, as in all such works, in his distrust of the blandishments of speech, turns to other (visual) resources for the fixing of meaning; how does one narrate graphic design? In this connection, it is easy to understand why the authorities in the ancient world simultaneously feared visual representation (the taboo on graven images) and moved quickly to monopolize writing by keeping the masses illiterate, this latter situation still with us today. Martin refers to this control scheme over and over throughout The Flood; his preoccupation becomes the locus of energy that powers the work, which otherwise would degenerate into sheer visual jouissance. That Martin's work raises these and many other questions with wit and a piercing critical sensibility places The Flood among the most demanding and rewarding works of contemporary verbal-visual art.
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Light and Dust
Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry