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Asyndeton: a walking-writing

The syntax of a walk is asyndetic. The elision of conjunctive loci opens gaps in the spatial continuum, fragments the space traversed. The walker cuts from street to street, skips over leaps links and hops.

Asyndeton is a kind of what Allen Fisher calls an energy-jump technology. Electrons jump from one energy level to another. It appears discontinuous because it jumps from one orbit to another, and can jump multiple orbits, rather than gradually passing between. As Barry MacSweeney says: ‘The style is compressed, paratactic. You know what I mean – commas acting as magnets drawing the next thing in.’

Asyndetic jumps from line to line maintain the energy construct. Photon brings energy, creates exciton which jumps from molecule to molecule. Like a synaptic electrical charge there is a cognitive jolt to these paratactic collisions that keeps the reader active, making connections across the gaps. A quantum search: not just following one path but taking multiple paths at the same time.

Maggie O’Sullivan also uses punctuation to magnetise syntactically isolated words within a field. Charles Bernstein comments that the various languages of the British Isles form a ‘“force field” out of which her own distinctive language emerges’. Fragmentary words and phrases strung together like particles, coupled to electromagnetic fields of vocabulary and reference.

 

Asyndeton opens a dialectic between two kinds of text: the text of the walking and the text of the writing. Michel De Certeau observes that when viewed from a map-like overhead vantage, the city becomes ‘a text that lies before one’s eyes’. Distance allows us to see the syntax of its streets and roadways. But if the city is a language, it’s by walking the streets that we speak it and write it: ‘the act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language’.

No map or text can bring forth these walks, these ‘intertwining, unrecognised poems’, ‘moving, intersecting writings’, this ‘story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories’. The text of the walk can never be presented – ‘it remains daily and indefinitely other’. To translate or transcribe the walk into writing is to remove us from the act of walking. The maps’ ‘curves only refer, like words, to the absence of what has passed by’.

It’s in the space of this elision, between the map’s vantage and the immersed pedestrian speech act, that the writer-walker can pull on the tendons between the writing and the walking, operating as a kind of conjunctive membrane. Here I draw on Lisa Samuels’ assertion that ‘The new person must be a conjunction’. Her concept of membranism proposes that space and page are not blank and empty: the eye that looks at representation is wet, the air between hangs with droplets, the brain is wet, the eardrums vibrate, the fingers bud with moistures.

Like Samuels, Jonathan Skinner talks about contact. He comments that our blind/deaf-spots are not divisions but points of contact: a kind of communication between two different systems, such as between humans and bats or poetry and science. De Certeau describes his walkers as ‘blind’ – they cannot read the text they write; walking-writing would be an attempt to inhabit that blindspot, between the walking and the writing, as a point of contact between the overhead vantage of the map and the pedestrian speech act in the street. The walker-writer can be viewed as a conjunctive membrane, a point of contact between the membranes of the walking and the writing. Asyndeton thickens the surface, gaining palpability from increased moistness, making the text damper.

Max Tegmark suggests that consciousness is an emergent property like wetness. A crystal of ice and a drop of water have the same particles but the wetness is experienced differently. This is to do with the pattern into which they are arranged: a single molecule is not wet, only when it is combined in a pattern with other water molecules. Tegmark suggests that consciousness is independent of its substrate just like a wave passes across a lake while the individual water molecules are just revolving in the same place. Following Allen Fisher’s assertion that patterns of connectedness form the basis of consciousness and aesthetics, he proposes that wetness is not to do with the particles but the pattern. Similarly if I fall asleep, the particles are the same but their arrangement changes.

Decoherence might explain our conceptual transition to this shifting state between our body’s sensory perception of the walk and information provided by maps and other interlocutors. These interlocutors assist our perception and understanding of the place, just as the quantum world is observed via a variety of measuring devices – microscopes, lasers, detectors, sensors.

At the quantum level, a quantum element exists as simultaneously a particle and a wave. Yet when we measure it we find it to be either a particle or a wave. The superposition of states breaks down. When the quantum wave function is isolated and maintained it is said to be coherent; decoherence occurs when the quantum particle comes into contact with other quantum particles in its environment, becoming entangled. Coherence decays and the quantum superposition breaks down leading to a mixed state.

The muscular effort to maintain the appearance of coherence conceals the various parts interacting. Joints extended in their most stable positions. Knee slightly flexed to prevent collapse. Gluteus abductors, maximus and minimus, active to resist downward movement. A continual struggle or dance with gravity. Hyperextension, dorsiflexion and resistance by contraction. Tiny micro-dances within the staying still.

The balanced card collapses face up or face down. Decoherence opens a dialectic. At the quantum level there are innumerable superpositions, but the many worlds split along strictly up/down lines. Even flipping a card in a dark vacuum at absolute zero, at least one neuron in my optical nerves will enter superposition of firing and not firing, and this superposition will decohere. Irit Rogoff advises inhabiting that very problem in order to remain critically sensitive to our assumptions about truth. Classical states are most robust against decoherence. Interactions with environment leave face up and face down unharmed but drive any superpositions into classical alternatives. We have to adopt the ‘dual positionality’ of ‘“being spatially inside while being paradigmatically outside” – the unresolved tension of being both embedded and living out the problematic and at the same time (being) perfectly able to analyse it and see through it’.

 

The other dialectic opened by asyndeton is the transfer of energy from writer to reader. Relations that are invariant when a shape is projected onto a curved wall. ‘I almost transfer a shape,’ writes Alice Notley, and in an interview comments, ‘I read like a person standing on a stage projecting voice and feeling, but shaping it all at the same time.’

Following Emmanuel Levinas, Fisher says that the poem calls our spontaneity into question through the presence of the poet as other. My degrees of freedom are self-aware so if you put me in a superposition of two different states then each one is going to know themselves. For Levinas every act of speaking has this ethical dimension at its ground. He formulates it as the Saying and the Said: the Said being the content of the words and the Saying the act of addressing the other. The same might be said for walking as a pedestrian speech act, another kind of speaking. The Saying is proximity to the other, the intentionality. It precedes even verbal signs; a responsibility to the other which makes meaning possible. The Saying without the Said is like silence, he says.

John Biguenet comments that silence is a relationship, like the relationship between reader and writer in silent reading. Lawrence English calls it relational listening: listening to the other’s listening. Reading requires the opening of consciousness to the other and a slackening of the grip on the self. A field recording is not just a recording of sound but of someone’s listening. The text is not a monologue but a conversation, a movement between self and other.

Walking as a speech act also has this movement towards the other. Swing phase occurs when the foot is off the ground and stance phase when it is in contact, bearing weight. The text of the walk remains ‘indefinitely other,’ as De Certeau says. ‘To walk is to lack a place.’ As a mobile, nomadic language act it is a ‘practice of outside’, as Pierre Joris suggests: ‘language others itself always again -> nomadic writing is always “the practice of outside”; writing as nomadic practice – on the move from one other to another other’. Asyndeton is a point of contact, punctuation as heel-strike, between foot and ground, between the writing and the walking, one text and the other, one other and another other. Flexion, extension, abduction and adduction, rotation: ways of moving across the syntagmatic chain, the horizontal axis of streets and roadways, words in active motion, in relation, on the move.

Miriam Nichols calls Olson’s open field a ‘poetics of outside’ and Harriet Tarlo comments ‘I almost always write outside… I’m more at risk, less protected by walls and stoves, chairs and food, and by the constructed explaining subject self… writing outside is being on the outside of what you cannot understand … writing outside is also being in it, being aware of where it is’.

Between interiority and exteriority, the endophone and exophone: the voice within the body, thinking, reading in the head, and the voice that leaves the body, talking, reading aloud. De Certeau describes a similar relationship between walking and reading: one extrovert (to walk is to go outside) and one introvert (a mobility under the stability of the signifier). Walking-writing would entail, as Rogoff puts it, ‘being spatially inside while being paradigmatically outside’. At the point of heel-strike, the muscles relax and weight is transferred.

It’s about immediacy and mediation, like when chris cheek discusses his use of machine interlocutors such as portable speakers in his poetry readings: ‘I’m interested in technology which is close to the body… I like things I can carry around // I like to be able to move with it … to be able to work with senses of spatial projection // proximity // volume // intimacy // disclosure // erasure // through technological mediation so that you get the voice as it were untreated and you get the voices on tape… I like this sense of physical proximity and also physical displacement and mediation’. Like the proximity of the Saying and the mediation of the recording, walking-writing negotiates a dual positionality between the immediacy of the walk and the displacement of the map, text and other interlocutors.

And the voice itself is also a medium, argues Shannon Mattern. In fact, the city takes shape around speech, as a space for discourse. Acoustic principles sculpt the materialisation of its sites. Rituals give rise to caves and henges. Cave art occurs in most resonant places. Resonance of orators gives rise to sites of echo. The herald calls at the city centre. Whispers give rise to nooks and alleys. Brick and stone streets raise the heat, speeding the sound along.

Charles Ferneyhough explains that thought itself is dialogic, a conversation between the voices within. Ferneyhough draws on Lev Vygotsky in stating that ‘the child was entangled in social relationships from the first days of her life.’ Thinking is social, entangled with others. Usually there is a sense of ownership and self-generation of thoughts, yet in hallucination and vision, voices seem to come from without, estranged from the self.

Meditational silencing of inner speech can be found in automaticity of action and being (e.g. playing music). Walter Benjamin’s ‘Chinese Curios’ describes monks engaged in copying out texts, meditational activity silencing inner voice through immersion in activity. Copying is absorption in the other, suppression of distance, closer to the Saying.

Walking through a place is immersive like copying out a text, as opposed to reading it which is akin to viewing the place from an aerial vantage. Walking-writing would be somewhere between the two of these: tracing across the walk and the writing.

‘Prosody is really about your own voice,’ says Notley, ‘your own physiology, your own vibrations. Prosody’s about how objects and voices vibrate, and how they’re packaged.’ We convey information, transfer energy, package it up in some medium, such as the voice or a text or map, and project it towards the other.

The observer can be human, animal, machine or the environment. Jonathan Skinner asks how prosody fits into the soundscape, where the sounds of poetry can be situated in relation to the sonic environment. A posthumanist prosody would be a ‘critique of humanist prosody (whether based on feet and accents or other closed metrical systems) that entails considering how the sounds of poetry are both closed off and radically open, subject to yet uncannily apart from the impulses and vicissitudes of the sonic environment’.

In walking-writing the sounds of the environment interact with, interfere with and shape the prosody of the poem. A prosody of walking takes shape around the cycle from the heel-strike of one foot to the next heel-strike of the same foot. This dimeter of two asyndetic feet interacts with rhythms of breath and heartbeat to form a music of audible human motion, which interacts with rhythms of passing cars and other vehicles, birds, dogs, wind and other ambient noises within the environment.

‘Nature, says Darwin, is an entangled bank – so is the encounter between poetry and science, and one thing a posthumanist prosody is sure to amplify is the noise in the space between disciplines.’

The encounter between walking and writing could be described as an entangled space, and walking-writing would aim to amplify the noise, or decoherence, in that space between.

cris cheek elaborates on this noisy, decoherent space: ‘The sound is not divorced from my physicality or the room in which it appears. Neither is it divorced from your physicality as somebody else who is in that room arguably being affected by that. These are waves, these are vibrations, they’re coming, they’re moving in the room, they’re changing the heat of other particles that are immediately around them. The excited particles from my breath are leaving my body in a highly energised, super-charged state, and they’re flying into your lungs – they’re changing your physicality as well. It might have the appearance of a loop being like that, a feedback loop, but it’s not a closed feedback loop because there is also the room – there are other sounds, there are other presences here.’

cheek stresses here that in the projective transfer between self and other there is also the interaction of the room, the environment. Max Tegmark goes on to decompose the global density matrix into three subsystems: subject, object and environment.

Wojciek Zurek calls it ‘environment as witness’. To be an observer we don’t have to be conscious. It’s the transfer of information that’s important. As Rolf Landauer says, ‘Information is not an abstract entity but exists only through a physical representation, thus tying it to all the restrictions and possibilities of our real physical universe … information is inevitably inscribed in a physical medium’.

Reading a poem might be how the information is processed through the brain. The electrons interact with the page and my neurons. Information is physically interweaved with its interlocutors. As it is transferred our electrons become entangled. Our experience of the world never does cohere. Perception is a dissipation of coherence.

Instead of thinking of the world as solid, we see it as composed of lots of particles and waves in constant flux, so entangled that they appear solid. Our perceptions of the world may seem solid and coherent, but in fact they are made up of multiple entangled interpretations and representations provided by various interlocutors (voices, texts, maps, satellites, microscopes, computer imaging software). There is no natural, universal gait: there are saunters, swaggers, lopes, strides, hobbles, skips, stomps, staggers, shuffles, totters. Multiple dislocations disrupt our syntactic locomotion. We are all measuring devices, interlocutors entangling and decohering with other interlocutors and with our environments.

When we look closely at the waves of the field, they are decohered by the many particles flying through. Field recording is about being in the field, aware of the interconnectedness of self, others and environment. In the asyndetic synaptic junction between walking and writing, electrons are shared between atoms; they move between.

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter, ‘Chinese Curios’, One-Way Street (1928)

Bernstein, Charles, Introduction to Maggie O’Sullivan’s Body of Work (2006)

Biguenet, John, Silence (2015)

cheek, cris, interview on Radio Radio (2003)

cheek, cris, and Mack Hagood, Phantom Power Podcast, Episodes 1-4 (2018)

De Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life (1980)

English, Lawrence, ‘A Beginner’s Guide To… Field Recording’, Fact Magazine (2014)

Ferneyhough, Charles, The Voices Within (2016)

Fisher, Allen, ‘Decoherence Aesthetics’, University of Kent, UPEM Paris (2018)

Fisher, Allen, ‘Aesthetics and Ethics: Tom Raworth’, Kings College London (1998)

Joris, Pierre, Nomad Poetics (2003)

Landauer, Rolf, ‘Information is a physical entity’, Physica A, 263:1–4 (1999)

Levinas, Emmanuel, ‘Ethics as First Philosophy’ (1989)

Levinas, Emmanuel, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974)

MacSweeney, Barry, interview in Poetry Information 18 (1977-78)

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O’Rahilly, Ronan, et al., Basic Human Anatomy: A Regional Study of Human Structure (1982)

Ollivier, Harold, David Poulin, and Wojciech Zurek, ‘Objective properties from subjective quantum states: Environment as witness’, Physical Review Letters 93 (2004)

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Samuels, Lisa, ‘Membranism, Wet Gaps, Archipelago Poetics’, Reading Room: Liquid State 4 (2010)

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Tegmark, Max, and John Archibald Wheeler, ‘100 Years of Quantum Mysteries’, Scientific American (Feb 2001)

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