Politics of Visual Writing

The senses have therefore become theoreticians
in their immediate praxis. They relate to the thing
for its own sake, but the thing itself is an objective human
relation to itself and to man, and vice-versa.

Karl Marx [1]

More than any other form, visual writing (that which acknowledges and uses writing's graphic base) underscores writing's political mode, even though many such works may initially seem anti-political, obscure, obscene, or minimal gestures.[2] Yet visual writing points simultaneously to the inner world of the irrational and pre-verbal, and to the outer, daylight world of sense and commodities, without opting for either. Each dimension is made to inform the other, often with a degree of violence, parody, or seeming eccentricity absent from purely verbal writing. The tension between these vectors is carefully maintained, even exacerbated by that between verbal and visual images. The verbal image or lettristic element is presented for consideration from the same point of view as the visual elements are. In the work's move to problematize simplistic subject/object ratios, the spectator is overloaded, pushed back from facile interpretations. From this viewpoint, the lyrical directly engages the world itself, flatly contradicting the historically imposed separation of aesthetic experience from labor. In visual writing, the optical illusion which such an imposition has created is corrected. Difficulty is the necessary condition of such correction.

Such an understanding of the function of this kind of work might seem distant from the direct, socially committed, "realist" art Lukacs felt was necessary in a period of unprecedented political corruption, centralization of power, and general cynicism in the face of such force. Not so, since a different dynamic operates here. As indicated above, the cycle we notice perhaps most clearly in visual writing can be summed up as the following movement: establish a pattern, break the pattern repeat. To decode visual writing's political dimension, we may as a tactic take up the historically embedded metaphors of subject and object. Even as subject and object are being attacked as inadequate categories per se, visual writing emphasizes at the same time the separation of these categories and their inseparability. [3] Reconciliation is not a goal. The war of the objective in the form of total bureaucracy and military power against the subject's increasingly unillumined interiority, therefore, is best presented through a medium which exacerbates through an arsenal of strategies.[4]

We live in a culture of visual images, most of them moving (television, cinema, and to a lesser degree the "moving" advertising images on quickly turned magazine pages.) The concentration of power in the hierarchies which mediate this image flow is subverted by visual writing, whose manner of physical reproducibility itself issues a challenge to the infinite reproducibility of the processed image. First, static visual images occur. One-of-a-kind and short press runs characterize the "reproduction" of visual writing. As an example, mail art (an international network with overt alliances with the disarmament and environmental movements) relies heavily upon the use of verbal and visual elements in most of its productions. So do artists' books, an entire subcategory of which exist in editions of one.

The specifically political challenges which such work makes, as I have indicated, have certain precedents in our time. Early twentieth-century German and Russian Expressionism, for example, seemed to inherit a revolutionary impulse, a theory of art based upon a mystical notion of experience as woven into the political and social fabric. Among the Russians there were great hopes for art to transform society, even though "In relation to the nineteenth-century tradition, and indeed to the earlier phase of the modern movement, constructivism signified a revival of the belief in a fixed, classical vocabulary."[5] Such fixity, in the case of Mondrian, could perhaps only end up in the fashionable slushiness of Blavatsky's Theosophy. Again, Walter Gropius's Bauhaus aesthetic, although based on the Werkstatt submersion of the individual within a collective effort (and not at all simply a modernization of Arts and Crafts medievalism) and rationalized as a positive transformation of social relations through controlling and aestheticizing the machine's impact upon life, actually generated a style in architectural design which has servilely paid homage to a machine-determined social and urban environment.

It is primarily in its desire to disassemble the subjective, however, that constructivism has something to contribute to an understanding of the political dimensions in contemporary verbal/visual work. Thus, as had Blake in the early nineteenth century, the constructivists, through fastening upon the principle of the relationship of negative to positive "space," tried to advance their project from a position within and conditioned by the social dynamic. When the Russians, out of the chaos of the failed Bolshevik Revolution, pursued the relevance of the constructivist aesthetic, there appeared the momentary possibility that art could open a chink in the wall being raised by the machine. The locus of creative will, that is, moved outside of the work of art, which pretended to be soulless, a mere assemblage of fragments or pieces (bearing their "traces") ripped out of prior environments, a three-dimensional collaging. Understandably, the best examples of early constructivist practice are sculptural (Rodchenko, Pevsner, Tatlin), even though the new process forced a redefinition of the term sculpture.

Futurist and constructivist principles blend into an odd mix whose air of unreality can perhaps best be located in an adamant refusal to connect theory and art with the disseminated power bases of a complex and negatively mediating social formation which give rise to whatever is called art at a given time. In what is by now a truism, "The system has a power to co-opt and to defuse the most potentially dangerous forms of political art by transforming them into cultural commodities."[6] The truth of this is borne out in a cursory view of corporate art, whose motifs almost exclusively derive from the geometric and biomorphic abstraction once considered revolutionary. I might add, the dominant capitalist/free-enterprise system (a necessarily paranoid formulation) also co-opts and defuses all potentially dangerous forms of discourse in the same way; that is, when artists make sense in an acceptable manner, they acquire power.

In short, in order to tease out the political strands in the various modern "styles" or style-movements, a responsible consideration must open itself up to analyses along other axes than those mentioned above. To gain critical access to the puzzling mirror world of violence, hysteria, paranoia, nonsense, and play which visual/verbal experimentalism manifests, one must forego an exclusive reliance on theoretically inadequate art-historical categories, cutting them crosswise so as to reveal their fully gendered interconnections with political economy as well as the philosophical currents of our time.

The most revealing conjunctions between art and politics in our time have been achieved under the sign of violence. The visual/verbal artist today reasserts a lost responsiblity, now negatively configured: transfiguration in the flesh of the text. First, and predominantly, the violence turns against the "fascism" of grammar and the constrictions of the page format, against the reactionary poetics of both the transparently referential and the fashionably obscure, the latter often condemned as "merely experimental" word games (cf. Lukacs). Syntactic fragmentation, torrential imagery, bizarre rhythmic mixes, and general unpredictability of form complement a repudiation of color, preference for the ugly, the poorly made, bad composition, imperfections in graphic reproduction, use of common (i.e., chemically polluted and short-lived) materials, as opposed to the connoisseurship of the archival "fine print" aesthetic. Violence as disjunction and abrupt change becomes a marking feature of politically charged contemporary verbal/visual work. Images of explosions, rape, murder, war, natural disasters, and dismemberbment are commonly displayed. Industrial pollution of the environment carries over into the artistic enterprise, where word and image are filthied as well, as often in fetishistic emulation of the power structure as in consciously savage parodies of that structure. The machine metaphor mentioned above, which may have had more application in an earlier period, has now become transformed into a cultural crazy house by a massively defense-budgeted and increasingly service-oriented society whose control medium is television, the electronic image machine. In a culture of moving images, television becomes "the commodity-form in its most advanced, and exhausted, expression living finally (as Marx prophecied) as a pure image-system,"[7] stepping up meaning re-production to historically unprecedented rates. Many of the perceptual phenomena of television carry over into still art; visual images are violated by both hand-written and typeset words; conversely, sections of text are overprinted with visual images. Breaks, shifts of con-text, and interruptions of pattern parallel what Mander calls "technical events."[8] In television these shifts are designed to keep the viewer's narcotized attention from recovering its classical configuration (which includes negativizing); in still art these layerings and ruptures have more to do with the breaking of context than with studying the meditative qualities associated with the illusion of space, or with an attempt to "bridge the gap between the poet and the world" or "to provide the reader with a moment of epiphany."[9] One consequence of such work is the naive attribution of ugliness,[10] since in the absence of the accustomed codes of beauty, its contrary category emerges.

Contemporary verbal/visual work, in its move to bare the labor, releases energies which we can only perceive as charged with violence. Politics as the social expression of subjectivity points up that in the absence of such a control center (i.e., the idealized ego), the function of art's relations to politics must be reassessed, something that visual writing forces. Such an apprehension may structure the visual/verbal artist's revulsion from past dogmas: clarity, logic, precision, coherence, balance, the three unities, subordination of parts to whole, appropriateness, decorum, harmony, comprehensibility, or their bemused recycling through fashionable postmodern parody. In this respect, then, such work reveals an implicitly radical, utopian, sophisticated, and continuously disenfranchised politics.

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1 Quoted in Fredric Jameson: The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981, footnote, p. 62.

2 Among the many possible varieties of contemporary verbal/visual art, as examples I cite T. Phillips' A Humument, P. Zelevansky's The Case for the Burial of Ancestors, R. Kostelanetz's Exhaustive Parallel Intervals and Reincarnations, and works of the Post-Arte group in Mexico, Dieter Roth, Karl Kempton, and Guy Beining.

3 Lyotard's classic Discours, Figure (Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1971) takes this very notion as its major preoccupation: "Le langage n'est pas un milieu homogène, il est scindant parce qu'il extériorise le sensible en vis-à-vis, object, et scindé parce qu'il intériorise le figural dans l'articulé." p. 13.

4 For a more traditional interpretation of visual or concrete poetry, see Dick Higgins, "The Strategy of Visual Poetry: Three Aspects," Horizons: The Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984, pp. 29-39.

5 Stephen Bann, The Tradition of Constructivism, New York: Viking, 1974, p. xxx.

6 Fredric Jameson, "Reflections in Conclusion," Aesthetics and Politics, London: NLB, 1977, p. 208.

7 Arthur Kroker and David Cook, The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Asethetics, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986, p. 268.

8 Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1978, p. 303.

9 Bann, pp. 4, 5.

10 Cf. Duchamp's gloss on his "Comb", 1916: there is "no beauty, no ugliness, nothing particularly esthetic about it . . ." 1964.

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