Karl Kempton's Visual Writing

Primitive societies have survived by a controlled implosion
- Jean Baudrillard [1]


In the destruction of canons by means of which Western European and North American art draws forth its charges of energy from the arbitrary and always changing constructs of culture, increasing demands are placed on today's "consumer" of the products of these collisions and conflagrations. If an earlier age drew pleasure and instruction from the reifying games which art played with the tensions between its viewers' notions of what it should be and what it was, more recent spectators have been all but abandoned by the wildly torqued velocities of some manifestations of contemporary culture. The electronically stimulated market has rendered all signifiers equivalent and exchangeable; this is seen in the rising acceleration of isms following each other with an increasingly dizzying rapidity beginning at the turn of the century and culminating in the 1960s in their total dissolution as meaningful distinctions among arts, genres,[2] movements, styles. Since then artists in a cybernetic parody have plundered the superficial stylistic features of the past for ways to articulate their vision. In the abrogation of history (within the context noted above), whose bases were laid by the German Dadaists, the Italian Futurists, and the Russian Cubo-Futurists, culture is cut free to become a floating signifier; the utter uselessness of a criticism based on genetic canon alteration simply reflects the sea change which we have been undergoing from a print- to a video-dominant society.


A theory of culture which hopes to understand this change can rely neither on the dangerously naive simplicities of a McLuhan nor on a "postmodern" discourse, more a symptom than an analysis, with its fashionably pluralistic embrace of all comers. In addition to requiring some of the rigors of close attention to specifics, based as they are in an Anglo-American empiricism with lateral connections to Russian Formalism, the hybrid visual and audio forms which populate our era's cultural landscape call for a depth psychology of perception and a political economy of events; more importantly, perhaps, is some theory capable of at least provisionally addressing the specific interplay between visual and verbal modalities. With a Fluxus performance, an "artist's book" each page of which is physically different, a multimedia installation, or a site-specific earthwork, the unifying characteristic is physiological, raising an epistemology of the body; in addition to the reading of words, the viewer must allow other senses to be played upon in an act of more complete involvement; in the printed arts this includes vision itself if letter shapes and page design are used. The whole thrust of the most significant modernist works (in spite of Greenberg's misguided "purism" of form) has been to definitively modify the boundaries of elite-controlled genres through adopting the various strategies of attack. Some artists have sought to occupy the spaces between media, to explore the aesthetic possibilities of tensions aroused and maintained through refusing the valences of the media which pull them one way or the other. Since such work places increased demands on criticism, it has received little responsible sustained examination. Max Ernst's collage natural history, the artists' books produced by members of the Lef group, El Lissitzky's Prouns, the Lettrism of Isou and Lemaitre, the Fluxus of Higgins, and related work have lacked a persuasive critical interpretation. Such a theory by definition would require accepting premises which would undo its own assumptions.

Although some contemporary artists have taken this inter-mediate space as their primary focus, few have pursued it with the grace and daring of Karl Kempton. Born in Chicago, educated in economics, history, and Middle East studies at the University of Utah, Kempton has lived in California for many years where he has been affiliated with environmental and ethnic-minority movements (People Generating Energy, Abalone Alliance, Indian Heritage Center). Editor of Kaldron: A Journal of Visual Poetry and Language, author of 14 books of poetry/visual writing, Kempton has published in dozens of magazines worldwide, as well as exhibited his work in galleries in the U.S., France, Canada, Mexico, Sweden, Belgium, Japan, Italy, and elsewhere. Yet, as with others whose work straddles the shifting divisions between visual and verbal arts, Kempton has been systematically ignored by the critical establishment. The following discussion, focusing on Kempton's deep square wave structure, will seek to interrogate the failure of such discourse in the face of the most authentic art of our time.


Kempton's mature work unites concerns with language and seeing, magic and politics, energy and numbers. The artist uses the metaphor of the knot to channel force through his work. As Essary says of Lost Alphabet Found, ". . . what might be called the process and function signs of language, asterisks, less-than arrows, brackets, mathematical function signs and the like, are deployed in root-like knots."[3] This image unlocks Kempton's preoccupations throughout the Rune series. According to Essary, Kempton's interest in the origins of alphabets ("Chinese characters evolving from cracks in tortoise shells thrust into fires for divination; Kali's invention of the 56 characters of Sanskrit which she wears around her neck as skulls; Hermes patterning the Greek alphabet on the flight of cranes") manifests his desire to unite nature with the products of humans.[4] He does this with his "typoglif" constructions, visual pieces created on a typewriter, which try to return verbal language to a sensory base/origin, releasing "the potential energy (material and non-material) of words and their oral, aural and visual elements."[5] In the drive for a fuller aesthetic, Kempton fastens upon the knot as key image. Knots have obvious social connotations of connecting as well as the distortion of this function in bondage, in which they serve to build energy in order to heighten the effects of release through transition. Kempton sees a relation between knots and amulets or charms, word-knots that bind energy in the occult sense.

In the extensive Rune series, Kempton's fascination with the visual qualities of the alphabet in conjunction with his organizing aesthetics of knots with their "natural" connotations are worked out. In Rune I (published as Kaldron #13) the majority of the figures are four-square or have the quaternity implications of mandalas; this centering establishes a fixity from which the specific energies are transmitted. D. R. Wagner says of Kempton's work, "he continues to do much research into Celtic knotting as best represented in the Book of Kells and other texts of the middle ages. He has carefully traced his way through those incredible knots devised by medieval monks, unwound them, and managed a beautiful translation of them into the patterns we have here before us."[6] Text with its derivation from weaving is suggested, as well as the multi-dimensionalities of sand painting, the arabesques of Moorish tilework, as well as Gnostic, Rosicrucian, and especially kabbalistic traditions of the specific energies of letters with their elevation in the Sephirot and the Tree of Life.[7] Rune 4 and Rune 5, although clearly founded on previous work, show evidence of a branching or rhizomatic rejection of the hierarchies implicit in the theodicies of Western magical traditions. The artist moves from hymns to the ocean as sea goddess (continued from Lost Alphabets Found) to the body as a source of language as realized in figures of speech (Rune 5). There is increasing evidence of the influence of Native American petroglyph/pictograph imageries (taken as main focus in Alignment). Musical and number preoccupations appear in Rune 6. Kempton's boldness with the visual potential of the typewriter grows steadily throughout the course of the Rune series and lays the base for an increasingly sophisticated visual cosmology, in which the knot remains as a structuring principle.


Kempton's deep square wave structure is a visual embodiment of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, based in Wittgenstein and paraphraseded as follows: the limits of our language form the limits of our world. As the artist puts it: "I'm also working at eroding the conceptual agreement we have surrounding definition, because our language to a large degree shapes the way we think; shapes the way we see; and the way we respond; which in turn echoes back into/onto our language making for many complex ripples."[8] The epigraph to deep square wave structure points to the urge to synthesize, to drive art into the flesh: "deep square wave structure, / a probe into the left hemisphere." Former preoccupations with anatomy, electronic circuit diagrams, the fetishized vocabularies of the sciences, and computer languages, especially as seen in Ko (co-authored with Essary), join with word and typoglyphic images in this complex exploration of Kempton's basic theme: who we are as creatures of mind and matter in a languaged context of swirling energies.

The epigraph sets up a line of interpretation based in a theory of perception/cognition that transcends right-brain dynamics to incorporate left-brain linguistic functions. In 1874, Carl Wernicke located some of these functions in the left posterior temporal lobe of the brain, thus extending Paul Broca's slightly earlier, similar claims for the frontal lobe in the left cerebral hemisphere. [9] As Bayles points out, since the hemispheres work together it is inaccurate to "refer to the language-dominant left hemisphere as the major one. It is more accurate to conceive of the hemispheres as complementarily specialized." [10] The left hemisphere carries the following functions: speech, writing, temporal-order judgments, language, reading, associative thought, calculation, analytic processing, and the right visual field; the right hemisphere features holistic processing, nonverbal environmental sounds, visuospatial skills, nonverbal ideation, recognition and memory of melodies, and the left visual field.

By a strategic location of poetic interest in the anatomy of the brain, the artist appeals to a base in biological determinism but one so broad that it opens his project out onto a zone in which the rites and experiences of primitive magic cultures can have a role. Kempton thus finds his orientation in Native American models. It follows that a structural anthropology based in Whorfian linguistics he would find appealing. [11] That this does not constitute a nostalgically reactionary return to a mythological past, or a belated Romantic wail a la Rousseau in the face of the corruptions of the Industrial Revolution, becomes clear only through careful attention to the implications of the interplay between the visual and non-visual dimensions of the work. The hypostatized speaker expands to include a hypothetically constructed viewer as well but not one located at the cone of the Albertian perspectival system. Although planar perspectival illusion is alluded to, as in the title-page image, a generally ideational feel is locked down by the technical features of typewriter, as shading, contouring, selective focus, tone, color gradation, and the like play little or no role. A bare schematics of space results, which serves the purpose of focusing attention on the dialectical interplay between verbal and non-verbal modalities; more accurately, the distinction between verbal and visual modes blurs, cutting perception/cognition loose for new experience.

Out of this calculated effect of blur derives an aesthetics, again as indicated above, based in primitivism. As the narrator says in the first poem, "once / trained / anti- / matter / can / do / tricks." This posits a controlling subjectivity yet one the structure of whose identity cannot be theorized in terms of bourgeois epistemology. The shaman/coyote/ trickster function of Native American mythologies informs the languages of contemporary technology as subjected to artistic reprocessing:

implantation of ions

hypersonic helium seeded

perturbed angular correlation

standard serial interconnect z crux pattern

self contained charge coupled, ultrasonic injection

deep square wave structure

with micron dimensions

by reactive sputtering etching

4 phase logic is practical

We find ourselves inside a pattern of shifting dimensions; computer miniaturization relativizes point of view, also achieved through use of graphic potentials of page design. Visual motifs reverberate among the pieces, setting up waves of interconnectedness. Referentiality is present but loosened through refusal of syntactic development, throwing the viewer onto spatial coordinates which optically alter with degree of attention as well as the turning of pages. Kempton's work satirizes the fascism of scientific discourse (be it verbal or visual, as in circuit diagram or flow chart or mathematic formula (cf. "QWING"). Flow-chart structures meld with the carbon-ring diagrams of organic chemistry, themselves based in lettristic units built up with typewriter letters. As soon as a fix is taken, the wave washes through, changing perception. Ambiguities are not sought but the rich multiplicities of rhizomatically spreading meanings, none of which locks down into a totalizing viewpoint. Deleuze and Guattari pursue the implications of a rhizomatic art: "In a rhizome. . . each feature does not necessarily refer to a linguistic feature: semiotic chains of every kind are connected in it according to a very diverse modes of encoding, chains that are biological, political, economic, etc. . . no radical separation can be established between the regimes of signs and their objects." [12] One sees this "literally" in Kempton's literalization of visualities, his visualization of the signans/signatum duplex. In such a realm, divisions between people and the world, nature and culture, are dissolved.


That works such as deep square wave structure pose special challenges for readers/viewers has been indicated. Specifically, the paradigm of the silent reader as a disembodied focal point of receptivity in whom "the text" is reflected will not serve. To apply criteria suitable for high bourgeois narrative, even if they are camouflaged as "art criticism," will yield unusable results. As Karl Young says, "In the mainstream culture of the western world in the twentieth century, reading becomes an ever more ephemeral, desensualized act. At the same time, contemporary poets work against this tendency, rediscovering reading methods of other cultures and discovering new ones of their own." [13] In short, a re-physicalization is occurring; instead of seeking the master discourse, which leads into the hazardous idealizations of totalizing projects, such work celebrates a form of change locatable somewhere between mechanical replication of the crystal and cumulative organic growth. Bataille's eye opens; says Young, "the interaction of components emphasizes continuity and versatility; a mind trained to read interwoven pictograms, gesturegrams, phonograms, and ideograms can be expected to feel a continuity between sight, sound, gesture, and intellection." [14]

electron-electron effects
in the writing and erasing

novel MOS sampled

laser beam writes
characters in liquid
crystal cell

The "writing on magnetic walls" brings up the impact of technology and culture on each other; inscription or encoding within the human organism precedes; "before the beginning / new land marks on human chromosomes." This inscription accepts the death implicit in a radical biology of real time, as constituted within an untheorizable (i.e., infinite) force-field continuum.

The tight interweaving of political art with the social formation which gives rise to it and is in turn altered by it may make it difficult to see an effective political stance in deep square wave structure. In spite of the narrator/artist drawing oblique yet fairly direct connections, as in "electric power lines linked to cancer / an antibody business / squeezing out the universal glue" (what joins communities leads to their destruction), more tellingly there is implicit in the graphic dimension of the work an oppositional, structuralist, non-hierarchized politics. As our philosophers put it, "Typographical, lexical or syntactic creations are only necessary if they cease to belong to a hidden unity's form of expression in order to become themselves one of the dimensions of the multiplicity considered.... RHIZOMATICS = SCHIZOANALYSIS = STRATOANALYSIS = PRAGMATICS = MICRO-POLITICS." [15] Subjectivization is expressly denied in this an antisubjectivist move. To put this another way, as I have indicated above, Kempton's work proceeds on the basis of a strategic re-subjectivization whose points of orientation can best be responsibly traced to a complex calculus of interlocking velocities, shifting energies. "Environmental awareness" in deep square wave structure problematizes itself through its means of manifestation, allowing for a critical politics of scope and range.

In the end, there is no end. As in Escher, the knotted work leads us back into itself in such a way that it leads back into the world, now expanded to include us. Language joins the dancing body's vision to speak itself through us as speakers of the dancing body's vision language.

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1 In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. . . Or the End of the Social. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983, p. 59.

2 However, note the following: "For genre is an organizing principle of the redundancies by which it is possible to break the hermeneutic circle and to reconstruct old or difficult works. Above all dealing in terms of changing genres offers frequent reminders that works of literature come to us from literary communities, with which we in our turn have to form a relation." Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982, p. 278.

3 Loris Essary, "Karl Kempton's Lost Alphabet Found," Menu, 37

4 Ibid., 37-38.

5 Ibid., 37.

6 D. R. Wagner, "Introduction," Kaldron, 13(1981), np.

7 See Israel Regardie, The Tree of Life: A Study in Magic, New York: Samuel Weiser, 1971, pp. 39-41.

8 Karl Kempton, [untitled interview], sipapu, 14, #1(1983), p. 7.

9 Kathryn Bayles, "Language and the Brain," in Language: Introductory Readings, ed. Virginia P. Clark, et al. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981, p. 172.

10 Ibid., pp. 185-86.

11 "The ways in which the structure of a language may shape the reality of its speakers are nowhere more elegantly set down than in Whorf's studies of Hopi and other American Indian languages. 'We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language,' he writes of the differences in linguistic pattern from language to language and the conseuqences (= 'thought worlds') arising therefrom." Editors' introduction to "An American Indian Model of the Universe," Benjamin Lee Whorf, in Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics, Jerome and Diane Rothenberg, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983, p. 191.

12 Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari, "Rhizome," in On the Line, New York: Semiotext(e), 1983, p. 11.

13 Karl Young, "Notation and the Art of Reading," Open Letter, 5, #7, p. 5.

14 Ibid., p. 13.

15 On the Line., p. 51.

List of Publications by Karl Kempton

Lost Alphabet Found. Reno: West Coast Poetry Review, 1979.

Rune. Belfast, ME: Bern Porter Books, 1980.

Rune 2: 26 Voices l January Interlude. Iowa City: Bird in the Bush/ Typewriter 10, 1980.

(Box 409, Iowa City, IA 52244)

Precincts of the 5th Apocalypse (with Michael Hannon's Venerations ). Grover City, CA: Rainbow Resin, 1980.

Eon Pulse. London: Brian Lane Editions, 1981.

Constellations (with Kirk Robertson's Reasons and Methods). Fallon, NV: Duck Down, 1982.

Poem. Toronto: Curved H&Z, 1982.

Film Skript. Grover City, CA: Rainbow Resin, 1982.

Th Letterz U Alwayz Wanted to Receeve. Grover City, CA: Rainbow Resin, 1982.

Film Strip Lojik Tiipoglif Ansirz a Kwechun. Toronto: Curved H&Z, 1983.

Black Strokes White Spaces. Madison: Xerox Sutra Editions, 1984.

Ko with Loris Essary. Oakland: Score, 1984.

The Light We Are. Winters, CA: Konocti Books, 1985.

Alignment. Calexico, CA: Atticus Press, 1985.

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