01: A Survey of Materiality in Literature

Much ink has been spilt over Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous dictum: ‘All earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book.’ [1] Because Mallarmé is not the subject of this thesis but, as suggested by the title, its starting point my intention is not to trace a genealogy of such ink-spills. Instead, I want to explore how the fundamental ideas he espoused – namely the idea of pure or essential language and the Book (le Livre) as its repository – are transformed by the creative writing and theoretical practices concerned with the materiality of language.

[Image: Stephane Mallarmé - Un Coup de Des, extract]

Materiality is a term most often used in relation to a work’s medium, that is the form by which language reaches us. This may be book, billboard or Mallarmé’s pet hate, the newspaper. But I have come to believe that understanding the materiality of language requires us to consider the term in a broader socio-cultural context, leading to a model which also integrates the material basis of literature and the materialist notion of the language-object, two terms which I will explain more satisfactorily through this discussion. The fundamental point is this: language is a construct that can never escape either the system that produces it or that in which it is consumed. Writers and artists who engage with this conundrum through the construction of media-specific language-objects are the ultimate subject of this first chapter. Their mode of writing centres on unified and crafted language-based works that move fluidly across artistic genres and, ultimately, continue the spatial and performative compositions seen in Mallarmé’s Un coup de dès, his one and only attempt to realise le Livre.

I have always had reservations about Mallarmé’s poetry and criticism: there is an unashamed obscurity in Mallarmé’s poetic and critical writing, stemming perhaps from an elitist belief that wordsmiths are the ultimate distillers of worldly experience. The more pure your language becomes – a concept explored below – the closer you are to reaching an equivalence with pure being.[2] It is easy to see how poets and writers have come to romanticise a worldview ‘about art which can explode, diamontinely, in this forever time, in the integrity of the Book’.[3]

Maurice Blanchot later tried to position le Livre in this critical context, noting how Mallarmé believed in the transformational power of language, or its ‘converting potential’, and wanted poetry to rebel against the illusion that language can be substantive. [4] Mallarmé, according to Blanchot, maintained that reality is comprised of correspondences rather than objects. Le Livre is entwined with this metaphysics of language: pure being can be inscribed on its pages provided the language used negates the representation of fiction and objects; names or places. This process is one of exacting precision, hence the abolition of chance that Mallarmé famously espoused. Such an enterprise is essentially impossible or at least paradoxical, as Blanchot concedes, echoing Wittgenstein’s notion that we can only know the world through language: [5] ‘The book’s obviousness, its palpable presence, is thus such that we have to say that it exists and is present since without it nothing could ever be present, and yet that it never quite conforms to the conditions of real existence.’[6]

This concession allows Blanchot to reappraise Mallarmé in terms of the political economy and the ability for his ideas to make an impact on the history of ideas: ‘A work of art must express the conflict between the “times” and the creative process.’[7] I would like to further develop this idea in discussing the materiality of language rather than its metaphysics.

3 modes of materiality

Like all concepts, materiality has different meanings within different critical disciplines, but at a base level it might be said to relate to the physicality of an object. It follows that any discussion concerning the materiality of language should centre upon the particularities of the medium through which a lanaguage work is expressed – whether sound, print or screen – and how that materiality relates to a writer’s various conceptual and formal motivations. However, I am proposing here a model for the materiality of language that depends on three interrelated parts.

The first is overwhelmingly engaged with verbal content and style, the structuring of words to represent objects (real or imagined) and embody ideas. This holds as true for a popular novelist using normative grammar and syntax to deliver a straightforward narrative as for an experimental poet assembling words in a system that steps beyond the bounds of consensual linguistic patterns. While their respective thematic and conceptual frameworks differ vastly, (written) language is the common currency. What differ also are the literary devices at play – craft and style – since these guide our aesthetic response to a work (be it intellectual, emotional or both). In this model of materiality, verbal content and the literary devices employed to structure it form the material basis which a reader must internalise in order to formulate an aesthetic response to any given literary text.

A useful essay by Daniel Punday attempts to explore how this literary material basis functions, expanding on the critical thinking of W.K. Wimsatt and Lubomír Dolezel. In Wimsatt’s eyes poetry is amphibious, Punday writes, because it ‘both refers to and, hence, depends on ideas as its material basis, and yet at the same time directs the reader back toward the words themselves as the prime material of the work.’ [8] Fiction, however, ‘demands a different type of response from poetry,’ he continues, elaborating on Dolzel’s approach to the genre’s aesthetic ontology, which has ‘at least three elements […] words, objects [eg. narrative, character and places], and themes.’[9] Different readers will focus upon different aspects of literature: some may be interested purely in narrative, as is often the case; others will balance this interest with a concern for the relative complexity of an author’s use of language and grammar. Also implied is the notion that a poem cannot be read the same way as prose, a concept to be fleshed out in the second chapter of this thesis.

Parallel to this approach has been a concern with exactly how language, as a material form, can embody meaning, which is essentially immaterial. At its extreme is the deconstructionist attitude of Jacques Derrida, Blanchot and others who posit that language only ever defers meaning. More practically, critics such as Bourdieu and Bakhtin have argued that language is a motivated system entwined with socio-cultural contexts; language depends upon the material conditions that produces it and those that regulate its consumption, a critical position that holds some affinity with Marx’s dialectical materialism. [10]

For example, in approaching language through the prism of Bakhtin’s dialogic imagination we find that the discourse of a literary work – the language it deploys and meaning it intends – is no longer a heterogenous unit, the pure intention of a speaker. Instead, the socially constructed nature of language requires that a work of literature be seen as a dialogue between its author and its reader – an outsider to the work who is caught in a separate ‘verbal-ideological life’ and can only engage with it as an object: ‘Discourse lives, as it were, beyond itself in a living impulse toward the object…’[11] In this word, object, we find Bakhtin’s relevance to the question at hand: we move towards a communications model of language whereby the production and reception of a work are entwined with its broadcast – to use a technological analogy – a process that necessitates the presence of a both a material object to carry the language (a book, a radio, a computer) and a transmission framework.[12] I want to propose that when we discuss the materialism of language we are in fact thinking of it as a language-object. This is a critical position closely related to contemporary semiotic models, such as those espoused by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen with regards to visual communication, and the structuralist approaches of Julie Kristeva and Roland Barthes who maintain the encoding and decoding of language are acts that occur within given (and often distinct) cultural systems. Such models have also closely influenced contemporary translation theory.[13]

The third and final model for the materiality of language is that with which I began this discussion: language’s material form or, as I prefer to say, its material expression, a term that captures some of the process-based assumptions inherent to the communications model briefly described above. The issue is not purely a dialectic of visual format and verbal content; instead, we engage the physical, aural and visual texture of a literary work – as technology and imagination unlock further synaesthetic possibilities, we might also add smell and taste to that list. It is with such notions in mind that N. Katherine Hayles argues, ‘Materiality of the [literary] artefact can no longer be positioned as a subspeciality within literary studies; it must be central, for without it we have little hope of forging a robust and nuanced account of how literature is changing under the impact of information technologies.’[14]

However, in expanding my conceptual understanding of materiality it has become clear that the material expression of literature and the two other materialities I have outlined must, to some degree, co-exist and interrelate. My argument is that the material basis of a literary work and larger questions regarding how, and in what contexts, language means are linked by a work’s material expression.

Joseph Grigely, in Textualterity, echoes this approach when he presents a detailed account of the problems faced by textual criticism, arguing that the appeal of a textual object ‘is precisely its ability to dislocate itself from a condition of fixedness, thereby metonymizing that which it represents … Textual criticism has historically worked in the opposite direction … towards fixedness.’[15] This impetus in textual criticism is based upon several fundamental beliefs, among which is the assumed iterability of language and of texts. However, when material considerations are considered as part of this process, Grigely argues, the situation changes: ‘A reprint, one might say, is motivated: it does not necessarily exist for the same reasons as that of which it is a reprint.’ From this he concludes:

Instead of viewing literature, or artworks, as finished productions we might instead view them as works of fluxion that experience stasis or duration in a particular edition or a particular exhibition space. Yet, what is particular about a particular edition or a particular exhibition space is ultimately undermined by its instability: it is particular only in our conceptualization of it as such, not by virtue of its implied or physical context. For [Jerome] McGann there are no final or finished works, but only final or finished texts. 16

While Grigely’s emphasis upon the ultimate instability of a literary work (or indeed a work of art) requires a more nuanced account, and indeed critique[17], I agree with its general thrust.

Take the example of a subversive political novel written by a dissident author living under an authoritarian regime. The work is written, published and very quickly banned by the government. Such a work might only be distributed within the country as illicit photocopied manuscripts. But that same novel, smuggled out by a sympathetic foreigner, is concurrently translated and published as a glossy paperback in another country. There is a gulf in the meaning embodied by these two material expressions and by the socio-cultural motivations at play in each instance. Dissident Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) suffered exactly this fate: imprisoned for his writing; his novels banned by three successive regimes while his work was feted in democratic societies. Similarly, Anna Akhmatova, under Stalin’s Soviet rule, could not risk committing poems to paper, for the very real fear of execution or incarceration should they be found. Instead, she resorted to reciting poems to a close group of friends who helped her commit them to memory – how different a reality this is to mine as I read her story in the elegantly printed New York Review of Books.[18]

Such histories draw into focus the scope for materiality within literary criticism while also situating the relevance of such an approach beyond the technological imperatives that motivate Hayles. They indicate how a literary work’s material expression might form a part of the creative process that delivers it – a question that is not simply one of cover design. The oral culture essential to Akhmatova’s mode of composition, and the role of the body and the voice in poetic performance, point to the broad range of enquiry that material studies of literature encompasses. But the pressing question in this introductory chapter is how such a substantive view of language can co-exist with the seemingly irreconcilable metaphysics of le Livre.

Johanna Drucker, in examining some of the precursors to the so-called Century of Artist’s Books that she espoused in the book of same title, takes up a similar question. She responds by exploring how Mallarmé’s philosophical position – of le Livre as an egoless and timeless entity where language was form and ideas, being – gave rise to the typographical experimentation that was to characterise one of his most enduring works, Un coup de dès: jamais la chance n’abolira le hasard (Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance). In turn, Un coup de dès would influence the expansion of modernist typography in early 20th century Europe.

Realising some of the impossibility of his proposal, Mallarmé began to conceive of the page as space, a white abyss that confronted the writer and which would be filled through spatial composition rather than just literary composition. He positioned the letter as the basic unit for literature and the page as the score of a musical composition, an approach which influenced his understanding of le Livre. He wanted to scatter the structure of the quotidian book and destroy its reliance upon columns, text blocks and other standard typographical devices: ‘Mallarmé was attempting a synthesis between a philosophical vision of the book as an expansive instrument of the spirit and the capacity of its physical forms to embody thought in new visual arrangements.’[19]

Reframing this notion, we might say his idealised material expression for literature – as a spatial composition on the white abyss of the page – was a direct response to his material basis for literature, namely its attempt to embody pure thought.[20] Ironically, the technology and cultural attitudes required to implement this vision were to follow his death: the definitive printed edition of Un coup de dès was only published in 1914 (the work was written in 1895 and first published in 1897).[21] To derive such a pragmatic response from Mallarmé’s ethereal musings might seem reductive. But my central point is that Mallarmé’s work, in conceiving the page as a white abyss for the performance of language as the embodiment of pure thought, challenges some of the fundamental ways in which we conceive the space of literature. A materialist analysis of Mallarmé fleshes out how any thinking about what poetry – or indeed literature or language – might lead to a revision of how such language-objects are embodied and consumed. In this media- and discourse-rich age, it also leads us to call into question the notion that ‘All earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book.’ Hence the title of this thesis: it begins in the book.

The Material Poem: applied materiality

Such a critical framework was at the core of my thinking when I began editing The Material Poem: an e-anthology of text-based art and inter-media writing.[22] This 270-odd-page publication collects the work of 28 Australian poets, artists and critics, all of whom are engaged with poetry, and more broadly language, as a material form.

The body of work is inter-disciplinary, inter-media and often collaborative, spanning a wide variety of formal contexts – page, screen, canvas, book, performance and physical space. While intended to showcase the vibrancy of experimental writing in Australia, its secondary function was to demonstrate how writing functions as a practice that is never purely literary – even for the purest of literary figures, of whom Mallarmé is a shining exemplar. Language depends upon material expression, context and basis for its conception, broadcast and consumption. Each work in the anthology is the result of engagement with this set of relationships, resulting. I will briefly discuss a few such works now.

Though I am loathe to admit to personal favourites among the contributions I find myself constantly drawn to the work of Wayzgoose Press, a private press comprised of Mike Hudson and Jadwiga Jarvis, partly because of the absolute perfection of craft at play but also because they are deal directly with a literary form close to my heart: poetry. Wayzgoose was established in 1985 and, in the intervening 20-odd years, has produced 20 books, 46 broadsides and numerous ephemeral printings all of which are manually typeset and printed in their Blue Mountains studio/workshop. These limited-edition works also feature original prints, which explore the gamut of hand-printing techniques from etchings through to woodblock prints and linocuts. Collaboration with writers is at the core of their book-works, many of which are centred on the poem and its expression as a material form.

Wayzgoose Press
[Image 1: George Alexander and Wayzgoose Press, Orpheus through the rear-vision mirror (2002), detail]

Hudson and Jarvis’s approach to such collaborations – and their fascination with material expression of language – can be gleaned from their introduction to Orpheus through the rear-vision mirror (Image 1), a large concertina-fold bookwork featuring a poem by George Alexander, where they respond to Alexander’s trope that ‘meaning in poetry often seems to float just out of reach, like lost paper sail boats’:

We have rearranged the traditional appearance of the individual words of the poem by mixing in different type styles so as to encourage a slower and more deliberate reading than the average reader is accustomed to with today’s universal emphasis on speed. This multifaceted depiction of words as images made of letters provides yet another visual reminder of the “layering” character of poetry.[23]

This approach – also discussed in my introduction to The Material Poem – provides a counterpoint to Mallarmé’s advocacy of experimental typography. Here Wayzgoose identify the material basis of poetry as its ability to defer or obscure meaning (rather than its ability to embody pure thought) and conclude that this requires an experimental approach to typography, especially in the context of an age suffering from information overload.

c01-2Another feature of their works is their sheer scale. Their most recent concertina-fold books, when fully extended, reach eight metres in length. The process of reading them is best described as one, literally, of navigation: you must physically move through the work to engage with it, necessitating a more bodily relationship to the text than would be expected of standard codex-format books. The idea of navigation also connotes the drawn-out time span required to “read” the text. Given the radically different nature of Wayzgoose’s book-works, a more comprehensive survey would consider each piece individually, examining the relationship between individual author, text, and Hudson and Jarvis’s artistic response. For example, a survey of the radically modern Bauhaus and Dada design and arts movements in early 20th century Europe would be required to fully appraise their interpretation of Jas H. Duke’s Dada: Kampfen um Leben und Tod (Image 2). Here, the fundamentally performative nature of Duke’s text (who was well known for the unique oral delivery of his poems) has been assimilated into the unmistakeably bold typography of early modernist design, so often used for the posters, broadsheets, manifestos and other publications of the period.

While Wayzgoose Press, whose work is collected internationally and can be visited at most major state libraries in Australia, represents the pinnacle of page- and book-based practices, other contributors to The Material Poem demonstrate how language can function as both a spatial and performative practice. Franz Ehmann is an Austrian-born and Brisbane-based painter, performance and installation artist whose practices centre very much on both the written word and a cultivated sense of the absurd.

[Image 2: Jas H. Duke and Wayzgoose Press, Dada: Kampfen Leben Und Tod (1997), Partially unfolded work]

When I think of Ehmann I visualise two things: one is the image of him with a small plank, whereupon is perched a wooden rabbit, extending from his mouth and obscuring his face (from the photographic work Boy am I scared, 2003); the other is the white, hand-painted script on a black background that characterises his use of text. In a painting such as the epic 2.7 x 2.4 metre Happiness, I am struck by the energy of Ehmann’s script overwhelming the black abyss of the canvas. The almost stream-of-consciousness nature of his meditation on happiness assumes the form of a discontinuous and, dare I say, Mallarméan visual essay whose text performs more than it lies passively, waiting to be read.

But Ehmann’s use of text in painting is not in itself original. We might compare it to Angela Brennan’s FAITES L’AMOUR PAS LA GUERRE (Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, 2004, Image 3), an exhibition in which the artist painted various literary quotes over various colourful abstract backgrounds. The results are bland at best, outright kitsch at worst. Apart from her gaudy use of colour, lazily painted backdrops and the need to plunder textual sources rather than use her own writing (or adapt that of others), perhaps what is fundamentally wrong in Brennan’s text-based art is the lack of correlation between material basis of the text and its final material expression in painted form. Indeed, the exhibition notes refer to ‘a bower of poetry and allusion’ in which words become ‘glaze-like or function as structural elements in their semantic content and the shapes and architecture of each letter.’[24] What Brennan has tried to do is to make the architecture of the letters, rather than verbal content, function as meaning. In doing so, little heed has been paid to the original text, its material basis and how this might be expressed in a painterly way. She could just as easily used passages from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and perhaps have generated more intellectually challenging works in the process.[25]


[Image 3: Angela Brennan, It was not I who looked (2003)Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery]

What differentiates Ehmann from Brennan, on the other hand, is not just the correlation between the energy of his writing and its spatial arrangement on the canvas. Ehmann is also interested in how sculptural or performance-based interventions within the gallery space are deployed as part of the reading experience. His Speaking the World into Existence exhibitions at the Institute of Modern Art (2004 and 2006, Image 4) were hung with extensive word works punctuated by various sculptures and spatial transformation that forced the viewer to navigate not just the space but the words themselves. In his 2006 exhibition, Ehmann covered one wall with large black paper on which were scripted the last meals of American death row prisoners. In front of these works, on a newspaper-lined floor, he arranged perishable food items and empty bowls. The combination of these two elements creates a simple poignancy, one that attributes the final wishes and their incarnation as physical objects to the palpable absence of the executed.

[Image 4:
Franz Ehmann, Speaking the world into existence (2006), Exhibition detail]

I have discussed elsewhere the importance of Ehmann’s word-installations in relation to the interactivity of reading so will leave that aspect of his work to one side in this instance.[26] Ehmann and Wayzgoose Press are only two representatives from the artists surveyed in The Material Poem, whether it be collaborative digital work of poet Gareth Jenkins, the word sculpture and performance of Ruark Lewis or the video-poem and text-installations of Elena Knox. Such a discussion would have referred back to my central point about the correlation between the three-different models of materiality that I have outlined in relation to language: material basis –how we form an aesthetic response to the verbal content and style of a literary work; the language-object, stemming from the socio-cultural framework upon which languages depends to “mean”; and, material expression – the final form (physical, aural or virtual) through which language is able to become an object. Such a model allows us to re-assess Mallarmé as a poet whose revolution consisted not just in thinking about what literature and poetry should be but also how these conceptions of language could be made incarnate, that is, material. Such thinking allows the materiality of writing to move beyond Brennan’s text-based art into the evermore-satisfying realm of art-based text. Exactly how we might apply such an undertaking to the genre of poetry is the subject of the next chapter in this thesis.

> Go to Chapter 02

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[1] Mallarmé, S. ‘The Book: a spiritual instrument’ (trans. Caws, M.A.) in Stephane Mallarmé: Selected Poetry and Prose Caws, M. A. ed. (New York: New Directions Books, 1982). p. 80

[2] See for example Blanchot, M. ‘Mallarmé’s Experience’ in Cook, J. (ed.) Poetry in theory: An anthology 1900-2000, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004): ‘In verse, words become “elements” again, and the word nuit despite its brilliance, becomes
night’s intimacy.’ (p.332)

[3] Mallarmé, S. ‘Action Restricted’ (1982). p. 80

[4] Blanchot, M. ‘The Book to Come’ in Rothenberg, J. and Clay, S. (eds.) A Book of the Book (New York: Granary Books, 2000). p. 14

[5] Such a position, for example, relates intuitively to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s arguments on the subject of meaning and understanding: ‘The process we call the understanding of a sentence or of a description is sometimes a process of translation from one symbolism into another; tracing a picture, copying something, or translating into another mode of representation […] When someone interprets, or understands, a sign in one sense or another, what he is doing is taking a step in a calculus (like a calculation). What he does is roughly what he does if he gives expression to his interpretation. / “Thought” sometimes means a particular mental process which may accompany the utterance of a sentence and sometimes the sentence itself in the system of language.’ Wittengenstein, L. The Wittgenstein Reader, Kenny, A. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers 1994). pp. 62-66

[6] Blanchot, M. (2000) p. 146

[7] ibid. p. 146

[8] Punday, D. ‘Toying with the Parser: Aesthetic Materility in Electronic Writing’ in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol 61 No. 2, Spring 2003. p.106

[9] ibid. p.108

[10] See Bakhtin, M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Holquist, M (ed.), Emerson, C. and Holquist, M (trans.) (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).

[11] ibid. pp 290-292.

[12] See for example the Shannon & Weaver communications model, in Clampitt, P.G. Communicating for Managerial Efffectiveness (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2005) p.7, p.12.

[13] See Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. Reading images: the grammar of visual design (London: Routledge, 2006) and Bassnett-McGuire, S. Translations Studies (London: Routledge, 2002 [3rd ed]).

[14] Hayles, N. K. Writing Machines (The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2002) p. 19.

[15] Grigely, J. Textualterity : art, theory, and textual criticism (Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1996) p.90.

[16] ibid, p.92.

[17] Such a critique might follow these lines: ‘No, there is no absolute meaning associated with a text, but yes, there are certainly predictable meanings’ Huisman, R. The Written Poem: semiotic conventions from old to modern English (London: Casell, 1998), p. 7

[18] See Figes, O. ‘Anna the Great’, The New York Review of Books, Vol. 53, No. 11, 22 June, 2006.

[19] Drucker, J. The century of artists’ books (New York City: Granary Books, 2004) p. 36.

[20] See also Sieburth, R. ‘From Mallarmé’s Le Livre’ in A Book of the Book,Rothenberg, J. and Clay, S. (eds.) (New York: Granary Books, 2000). Here Sieburth discusses Mallarmé’s virtually incomprehensible scattered notes as a ‘scene of the mind in play, in action on the support of the page.’ (p.133)

[21] The emergence of new electronic production technologies have further expanded the possibilities for Un Coup des dès with a number of “remixes” or versions appearing, such as Chris Edwards’ mistranslation A Fluke (see http://jacketmagazine.com/29/fluke01en.shtml)

[22] Stuart, J. (ed.) The Material Poem: an e-anthology of text-based art and inter-media writing (Sydney: non-generic productions, 2007), downloadable from www.nongeneric.net

[23] Jarvis, J. and Hudson M. ‘Foreword’, Orpheus through the rear-vision mirror (Katoomba: Wayzgoose Press, 2002)

[24] Press release, Angela Brennan – FAITES L’AMOUR PAS LA GUERRE, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery (Sydney: 2004), from http://www.roslynoxley9.com.au, accessed 21/10/2008.

[25] Australian artist Imant Tillers’s use of text in relation to postcolonial interpretations of the Australian landscape, for example, shows up the underwhelming superficiality at play in Brennan’s text-based paintings.

[26] See Stuart, J. ‘Text-art and interactive reading’ in Artlink, vol. 27 No.1, 2006.

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