02 May 2014

Leslie Scalapino's Waking Life

The following is the text I presented for the Leslie Scalapino "legacy" panel at AWP this year. In addition to my short essay, called "Waking Life," the panel included additional contributions from Alicia Cohen, Judith Goldman, Carla Harryman, and Maryrose Larkin. The following is a snippet from a much longer essay which will hopefully act as a preface to Leslie's work in an upcoming Wesleyan anthology...

§ Waking Life

For Leslie Scalapino, poetry is a site of rupture, a corrosive stripping away cultural calcification (of text, image, sound, subject) from what’s left of the living tissue of engagement, and through this process, we come to see ourselves in a provisional “present” next to and as ourselves. Her goal is to challenge the tyranny of word and image by using both as primary tools to release imagination from the rigid grasp of exchange—making both image and word inoperative through a complex dialectic ranging between overamplification and underdetermination.

A careful reader of Walter Benjamin, Scalapino saw the image embedded in cultural tensions and aporias that often figurally determine how we come to know who we are and what we see. For Benjamin, “the place one encounters [dialectical images] is language”[1]: it is in and through language, because it is in and through thinking, that we discover the veiled aporias that populate the representations we use to historicize ourselves. As such, a clear picture of the cartography of “now-time” depends on the acuity of our interactions with these dialectical images, as they flash forth in fits and starts from lines of rupture marked by the reader’s “awakening.”

The crepuscular is particularly fertile ground in Scalapino’s writing—that zone between a dream state of hidden (but very real) values and the “waking life” in which those values come to signify (or not)—(what she calls an “antilandscape” through which the subject comes to question the vice grip of the Absolute). In other words, Scalapino juxtaposes “disparate images…so as to create an antilandscape that no longer ‘refers’ to a recognizable world.”[2] By insisting on the legibility of our images, we are drawn back into a comfortable axiom in which what we see is really, truly what we get. Benjamin called this over-codification “myth”; where the diurnal trumps the sur-real of dream, we occupy the present in a dream-state we mistake for authentic experience. Benjamin’s “myth time” is “unsplit,” “empty, homogenous time” or “critical naiveté,””[3] whereas the dialectical image “marks out a limit or blind spot in the visual field of the present.”[4]

According to Benjamin, the dialectical or “thinking” image “blasts” the object out of “the continuum of historical succession,”[5] so that thinking stops “in a configuration pregnant with tensions.”[6] Scalapino uses nearly identical language to frame the image in her first poems: “I intended this work to be the repetition of historically real events the writing of which punches a hole in reality. (As if to void them, but actively).”[7] “Blasting” means to rupture a string of over-codified “events” that frame the content of our lives in a supposedly meaningful way (or at least in a manner we’ve come to understand as meaningful), but what might it mean to write a poetry in which seeing and seeing not seeing exist next to each other as a kind of continuum?

This is Scalapino’s testing-space, where “one is seeing constructing, and seeing ‘not seeing constructing’ by ‘seeing’ being ‘visual’ which is actually only-language”[8]—a typically tortuous construction that sounds remarkably close to Benjamin’s notion of awakening in dialectical images, or what he famously called “the dissolution of ‘mythology’ into the space of history.’”[9] Images that retain the membra disjecta of cultural currency are subtracted from fields of causality and reactivated in a plethora of signifying modes that shake our faith in what we see (while further imbricating the movement between prehension, apprehension and comprehension). Image no longer “illustrates” or links meaning in causal chains or signifies a particular sign. Instead, the image is a nomad, a variable, roaming aim-lessly (not “randomly,” but “without taking aim”) through the work, signifying here, only to act as syntactical shape, or visual fact of color, or sonic plateau of sound.

As a result, writing is the struggle to occupy a perpetual state of awakening—even if being “awake” feels like dreaming—because to occupy and produce this awakening is the dissolution of the real as “myth.” She writes, “Yet for (Walter) Benjamin of course ‘idea’ was its rupture: that is the action. That was the occurrence I wanted in hmmmm, both.”[10] However, she continues, “Now we’ve become inurned to either integration or disruption as filmic illusion, one’s translation of film image as disruption having become inurned to be only image again. That is, disruption of image requires continual change as introduction of a new medium.”[11] The act of writing has to be this shock, with the understanding that “undoing the accepted ‘reality’ is continual as it is constantly being reestablished”[12]—that mystification is often an optical phenomena in the “real world,” so rehabituation is most facile when images are the catalyst. As such, Scalapino has “turn(ed) seeing up to an extreme in order to see it,” and as a result the poetry feels “as if dreaming being suppressed were bursting out as luminous seeing in the waking state.”[13] She calls this the “extinction of images” after Danielle Collobert, “‘not continuing’ the chain of images which constitutes being, and writing”[14] by creating a new chain of images that deconstitute being as stasis.

In The Front Matter, Dead Souls “The writing is scrutiny of our and ‘one’s’ image-making, to produce extreme and vivid images in order for them to be real”[15]—which means, of course, in order for them to have content. The writing’s content is itself seeing seeing itself, and “The images are to be bulbous, ‘extreme’ vivid in the sense of their being ‘of’ eyesight only, as if existing apart from any ‘event’ that is written-meaning.”[16]
“The thin day with the greyhound coagulating in it barely exists. Dead Souls on her way to the race track the officer on the long slender limbs floats by the coagulating dog. His slender black hands drifts in the air to open the car door for her.
He had been in the previous day with the fleck emerging to him when the limousines wallowing in the air with the sumos emerging coming in for the funeral grieving were rubbed by the crowd.
            Dead Souls in the little high-heels comes to the car when there’s only thin air with the    
            greyhound floating in it.[17]

The writing bears the characteristics of this “blasting” or “punching out” of the myth of homogenous time, because the images are disassociated from their context in such a way that they appear monstrously out of scale. As images pass sequentially before the readers’ eyes, one begins habitually to construct a scale or narrative to frame the percussive rupture of this antilandscape. The result is an incredibly intense barrage of detail that begins to visually shape the terrain of this antilandscape as a kind of musical score. As the images pass by, they begin to act more as texture, rhythm, percussive elements, synonymous with trees and rocks and bushes in a visual landscape, and as the eyes pass over the ridge, the reader begins to watch herself reading.
Each image is the rim of occurrence where reader meets the antilandscape of visual texture. There she watches the self struggle to occupy Benjamin’s “now-time,” in which the production of subjectivity is understood as the very moment the present “attain(s) to legibility.”[18] For Scalapino, to occupy the now of recognizability, one must understand the “now” through what makes it legible.    
Further, Leslie’s interest in the hand-painted movie posters of Ghana is an interesting illustration of how the image works in her practice. The “by product” of the short-lived but extremely popular “video clubs” of Ghana, hand-painted movie posters were used to advertise nomadic sites of Western popular culture, where VHS copies of American movies were shown in impromptu “cinemas”—popular gathering sites similar to the domestic family room.[19] These posters, while ostensibly “advertising” the films at hand, speak less to the particular fleeting moment of western culture and more to how that culture attains legibility overseas. Drawn in incredibly vivid colors with details verging on the grotesque, the posters detach themselves completely from previewing their antecedents: rather than provide a mimetic representation, artists often interpreted or modified the subject matter, mostly because they had often yet to see the film. The image then becomes a misrecognition through mistransmission, positively framing the cultural value of the signifiers themselves rather than the content they purport to deliver. The grotesque figures signify particular elements of American culture that are both attractive and repulsive—violence and sex are amplified and in so doing draw our attention to the codification process itself. While the movie poster is designed to deliver content—a mimetic representation of a determinate thing—it is precisely in how these posters rework their content that the images slip from overdetermination into the nomadic life of polysemy. Emphasis on the “accuracy of representation” seems less valuable than the artist’s ability to construct images that arrest the viewer’s attention—that speak to how transmission of information transculturally codifies power.

Scalapino’s writing is similarly very much about how it transmits or mistransmits, depending on where you’re sitting. It skirts mimesis or interpretation for misrecognition—“turning the volume up” serves to detach images from cultural currency while signifying through difference. The bulbous can only signify by what it is not (or can no longer be) and in so doing marries “seeing” with social obsession and desire. The vivacity of her writing draws our attention to how desire enters into our field of disinhibition, allowing us to read and interpret “marks” as culturally significant signs. For Scalapino, the act of misrecognition, coupled with overamplification and underdetermination, creates a scenario by which writing is reactivated as the very tool for understanding emergence.

[1] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1999), 462.
[2] Leslie Scalapino, R-hu (Berkeley: Atelos, 2000), 93.
[3] Tom McCall, “‘The Dynamite of a Tenth of a Second’: Benjamin’s Revolutionary Messianism in Silent Film Comedy,” Benjamin’s Ghosts: Interventions in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory, edited by Gerhard Richter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 79.
[4] Ibid., 75.
[5] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1999), 475.
[6] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), 262.
[7] Leslie Scalapino, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold (Elmwood: Potes & Poets Press, 1989), 21.
[8] Leslie Scalapino, Zither & Autobiography (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 36.
[9] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1999), 458.
[10] Leslie Scalapino, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold (New York: Litmus Press, 2011), 205.
[11] Ibid., 205.
[12] Leslie Scalapino, Objects in the Terrifying Tense Longing from Taking Place (New York: Roof Books, 1993), 26.
[13] Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino, Sight (Washington, DC: Edge Books, 1999), Introduction.
[14] Leslie Scalapino, Objects in the Terrifying Tense Longing from Taking Place (New York: Roof Books, 1993), 8.
[15] Leslie Scalapino, The Front Matter, Dead Souls (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 2.
[16] Leslie Scalapino, Zither & Autobiography (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 36.
[17] Leslie Scalapino, The Front Matter, Dead Souls (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 40.
[18] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1999), 462
[19] For examples, see Extreme Canvas: Hand-Painted Movie Posters from Ghana (New York: Dilettante Press, 2001), a book Scalapino owned in her personal library.

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