Twisting the reader’s eye around the threshold, Sharon Daniel’s Undoing Time reveals and unravels the racially-charged contradictions of certain American symbols: the hoodie, the gun, the flag. In the process, she shows how white culture’s racism is contributing to the mass incarceration crisis — even as some incarcerated individuals resist.

The eye is a battleground. In Kingdom in the Cornea, Heidi Rhodes’s prose poem forcefully disavows the “shuttered myopia” of whiteness. Across the threshold, Kenji Liu curates a gallery of GIFs that interweave scenes of Black and Brown suffering with queer, embodied resistances. Together, their collaboration constitutes a training ground for dissident modes of seeing|looking|being.

In Gesture of Photographing, Carla Nappi and Dominic Pettman document an experiment in collaboration and the critical gaze. Each author sinks into the work of Vilem Flusser’s writings on photography and emerges having penned a short creative work. Using mediums of light and dark to represent these states of submersion, this piece sits poised at the threshold between fiction and theory.

Hélène Cixous | “Savoir” | Veils | Trans. by Geoffrey Bennington | 2001









All images for this piece have been designed by Sharon Daniel. The early description of aporia, which cites books by Wolfreys and Rahaman, is from Wikipedia. The description of entrance and exit wounds are from Joseph A. Prahlow and Roger W. Byard, Atlas of Forensic Pathology, p. 488. Statistics on police shootings were sourced from The Counted, an ongoing digital project hosted by The Guardian. Statistics on incarceration numbers come from the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative. Quotes by Michelle Alexander (the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness), George Jackson, and Anthony Robinson Jr. come from a post by San Francisco Bay View titled, “The Value of Black Life in America.” The Michael Eric Dyson quote is from his 2016 New York Times op ed titled “Death in Black and White.”














Undoing TimeSharon Daniel

>The eye is inhabited.

We tend to think the eye resides in a universe, but there is also a universe living in the eye, a universe that has its own laws, its own gravitational pull. Our lines of sight are directed.

The kingdom in the cornea is monotheistic. A single reality lends itself to simplicity, to safety, to salvation: preconfigured, predictable tomorrows. Loyalty, we are told, guarantees life. “Do not acknowledge other gods” = do not look past or beyond. Do not, in fact, think.

Audience to a scene, we interpret its significations in 1/20th of a second.

The rest is time-travel, chiseling a past to concoct a future, to concoct resemblance, a semblance, again.

Somebody once said we see what we want to see. But also, we see what the political present wants us to see. Like a magician, it distracts us to the spectacular, so we do not catch the flick of the wrist—the mechanisms of violence weaving the historical present.

In the glow of special effects, the background fades.

The eye and its organic alliances are occupied, the eye is harnessed, alley-wayed with shadows – a site, a stage, an entire theatre of visceral discomposure manufactured for sense-making.

What you see is what you get; or, what you get is what you see; or what you see is infinitesimal.

>There is a universe out of your reach.

Discourse is that which delimits the edges of the world that will appear. An eyelid self-sewn/system-sewn shut that thinks it is wide open, wide, wide open. The viscera blurs distinctions, rods and cones detect colors, space, the movement of time across a frame: blood’s reds, melanin’s epidermal storying.

The liberal eye is a moral organ, tuned to the melody of good and evil, declarative. It cannot see itself. And every event of violence is a mirror.

Or, whiteness is a shuttered myopia ballasted by the liberal language of animality, axiologies of the body, the neoliberal zoo, menagerie of life forms, forms of life: of who is deemed worthy enough of being seen, of a met gaze, and who shall be left to writhe in the dust.

Sense, sens, scene, scène.


You feel a pinch in your toe, detect a strange scent wafted in the grain of your leather shoe: factory worker’s sweat beneath the sole, her body in a street somewhere, soup in a forgotten barrel.

The spectacle of violence takes these bodies, ours, Black and Brown, and renders them invisible and hyper-visible, disposable and necessary.

The spectacle of the violated Black or Brown body dilates and contracts the pupil, the lacrimatory agent upon the oceanic iris where swim words; pathways of empathy, pathos, and ethos.

A politics of the flesh, of organs, of affects: the body is a battlefield.


The eye has been constructed through history. The whole of our senses: a production, a composition.

Epigenetic memories. Trauma of our grandmothers, if that is our story. We remember in our bones how much we are used to being served, if that is our story.

A future we sense, the whole of it. A future we enflesh, filling the holes with a dream. Spackling bullet holes over with the grammar of dreaming, wanting something else. This too will be the embrace of an other in the present, this too is invitation. Grievable life and its grim insistences.

Mourning and I, we see each other.

We will not break beneath the weight of it all.


There is a frame, its demarcations, nailed 2x4s painted to match the walls. The negative of the photograph, inside of the scene foregrounding matter, mattering the foreground. Wide apertures blur the background.

What comes into focus will be what is spoken of as the intelligible.

Dramaturgically, if there is a theater where performance takes place, there is a backstage; there are wings; the cross-over; the traproom, the proscenium…each housing the elements and hiding the movements that collaborate to produce what it is the audience actually sees.

The performance itself is an operation.

Saidiya Hartman tells of the “obscene theatricality" of slavery’s staging of subjugation. The melodrama distracts the liberal eye from the scenes of terror in the surrounds.

The parceling out as souvenirs of Jesse Washington’s charred limbs.

Joaquin Murrieta’s head pickled in a jar.


What is evident is not the all of what is relevant.

The event. What surrounds the event. The whole of its making. Apparatuses converge. Law. Affect. Bureaucracy. Epigenetics. Memory and its circulations. Droughts invited by war or industrial pollution. Missions.

The spectacle, her ravished body torn asunder, war-craft severing her flesh, this will stain you.

But the whole of the scene, and its conditions of possibility, the economies of abjection, its orchestrations, the coloniality of its textures, imbrications, the reliance of your pleasure and leisure upon the subjection of others to untenable violence: this will escape you.

It is no mistake.

>Death and the Afternoon Delight

August 13, 1911. Coatesville, Pennsylvania. Zachariah Walker. 3,000-5,000 spectators; burned alive. Hunger. Ice cream sundaes in the aftermath. The big question on everyone’s mind (when the “everyone” is white): chocolate or vanilla? Cherry or sprinkles?

Did you watch the video of Alfred Olango killed by police at close range? Or the one of Terence Crutcher? Oscar Grant? Eric Garner? Philando Castile?

What did you eat after?

>This Brutal Mundane, or the Tree is a Weapon

The body “run up a tree” in the scene of lynching: the shame of an animal carcass strapped to a butcher’s hang-line. This, the charitable mouth denounces, but—

state intervention—the act of killing—is viewed as a natural expression of the state (the threat must be “neutralized”): whether such intervention is that of legal hanging in the outer context of the scene of lynching, or by present-day practices of capital punishment.

Strange fruit may no longer hang on trees

But burnt fruit still bleeds.

The tree! The tree! (The Horror! The Horror!), they will say.

And then turn the other way when an elderly Black man seizures on the sidewalk, or a Brown tongue salivates for the bread on someone else’s table.

Empathy strives for convenience.

>The Eye Must Grow Wings

See what has been disappeared:

the web of it all, bodies long underground

(the plow’s trails over Rosewood, Florida, or every mass grave on the border or behind the fields of missionary schools)

recipes for life that pulse under the stench-warmth of death

the sinew and leather of another’s skin laced up beneath those bootstraps

(and they say pull yourself up and up and up and up)

the relation between you and everybody else.

Dissident eye, organ unsubmissive, might we even dream up ghosts in the fissures of the real to possess the spaces uprooted from history by the indoctrination of universals? 

Like Fanon said,
“O my body, make of me always a man who questions!”

We will be beasts with the sharpest eye.


>Coda: Uncanny death and the song

That other time, in the south, that one time, uncountable times, a fiddle plays.

Scholars have written about the history of music as a device for torture. In the Nazi Concentration camps, prisoners were forced, after long days of work and exhaustion, to listen to nationalist marches, polkas: a parade-song sounding the death march. 

In the quiet solitudes of the camps, the sound of the fiddle is a secret lullaby that mourns in the synagogue of the mind.

At the scene of lynching: a fiddle plays winding the fire of the jamboree, raging fire, swallowing flesh, a fiddle plays beneath the white-whiskered chin. Kickin’ mule wasn’t about an equine. Swing your partner round the fire, fill your plate with food from the grill. Satiate your hunger.

Fugitive life: A fiddle plays in the dimly lit cottage across the swampy forest toward the cypress grove, quietly. A living, living man gets the last word, 

through the mouth of a gourd, 
horse hair on pig gut.





All GIFs were sourced from Some of these are from films: for example, the first and penultimate GIFs are scenes from Metropolis (1927), directed by Fritz Lang. Others are from music videos, such as the fourth clip, which is from Beyonce’s “Formation.” Others are news footage both historical and contemporary: clip 10 is CNN footage of the protests following the murder of Freddie Gray in 2016; clip 11 is from a 1971 debate between Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky; clip 13 is a 1972 interview with the Black Panther and intellectual, Angela Davis. The origins of the other clips are unknown to the authors.

Kingdom in the CorneaHeidi Rhodes (poem) | (art) Kenji Liu

When Vilém Flusser first wrote these words, in the late 1980s, he had in mind a generic, rhetorical, and all-inclusive “we.” In this instance, however, “we” refers very specifically to us, two writers who decided to observe Flusser’s suggestive analytical work on gestures with sustained and collaborative attention. Together, we produced a creative response for all sixteen gestures cataloged in his book of the same name. Two of these responses are published below.

Flusser’s book helps us see something we did not see so clearly before: the gesture itself. While we may be able to talk endlessly about photographs or photographers, we might fall mute when asked to elaborate on the bodily praxis of photographing — what Flusser describes as the rather restless search for ‘the “gestalt” of the situation.’ Like the figure in the original treatise, we paced around and inside Flusser’s prose, searching for an angle, a precise spot, from which to offer our own perspective on the topic. As we did so, we began to remake Flusser’s gestures, using them as a kind of material stuff to create with, reimagining our respective worlds and populating them with invented gestural beings.

Sometimes we make gods. Sometimes factory-workers, or birds, or angels, or people who can inhabit each other’s bodily experiences.

Sometimes earthworms made of fingers, or storytellers who live in parks and drink green tea.

Sometimes we make vampires who feed on color.

Always, we have been experimenting with fiction as part of our practice of engaging theory, and of making lives with it, individually and together.





She was born eyeless but with a kind of sight in her fingers, her cameras, her takers of touch and outline and her little spinners of apparition.

Mr. D felt himself the dense focal point of the dark room in which he had not left for more than three weeks. His lungs were filled with fluid, just as his soul was heavy with fatigue. There was a sharp pain which accompanied each shallow breath, just below his left shoulder blade, which insinuated itself as a kind of swallowed, stubborn pulse, measuring the seemingly interminable passage of his illness. The thick velvet curtains protected him from almost all external light, even though the clock was autistically ticking itself just past noon, and a gas lamp hissed near his bedside, should he gather the strength to read. (Something which happened only for minutes at a time, if at all, on some days.) The patient both welcomed and dreaded the almost hourly appearance of his solicitous sister, who would fluff his pillows, and bring him tea, broth, medicine, soporifics, and news from the outside world — whether it be of the village, or the wider world.

She saw in moments that connected themselves or not, and so she lived sometimes frame by frame and sometimes in a sequence of small pannings across and back and then again.

Mr. D was dying. He could feel it. Slithering through his fleshly vessel like a thousand tiny black serpents, breeding and hatching the end of all tomorrows. And yet he did not feel the dread he expected. He trusted in God to receive him; despite his sins and faults, having spent his later years repenting, scrubbing his thoughts with strict mental hygiene, and collecting an accumulation of banal but surely effective good graces. As he stared at the ceiling — a dark blue, featureless landscape which had become the very shade and texture of his monotonous consciousness since falling ill — the gas lamp sputtered and died.

As she grew her fingertips shed themselves like snakeskin and new patterns grew in their place, new perspectives and new forms of truth and new illusions and new trickery.

Mr. D had no breath to call for assistance; and so he stared into the sudden darkness, half-wondering if he had indeed just died. Slowly, however, a few rays pushed their way past the velvet curtains and their way into his retinas; and the sounds of passing horses persisted in cantering across his eardrums. It appeared to the patient that he hadn’t quite been snuffed out yet.

She kept a box of her fingerprints, and when she picked them up and pressed them to her lips they let her see again in the ways she had when she was younger.

Indeed, the sudden darkness soothed him, and he felt as free from troublesome thoughts or prickled emotions as the unseen, but intimately felt, furniture in the room. Suddenly, however, as his eyes adjusted, a vision emerged out of the void, and imprinted itself on the ceiling above him. It was a colorful carbon copy of the small church across the road; inverted. For a moment, once again, Mr. D’s rather uncertain mind took this as a sign from his maker. But the patient was sufficiently a gentleman of his era that he soon guessed at the scientific reasons for this unexpected spectral visitation. By virtue of accidental physics, the bedroom was acting as a camera obscura, thanks to the absence of the gaslight, and the sun’s rays, which were now — thanks to organic optics — sending him a natural photograph of the world outside.

One finger saw the way birds see, draping surfaces with more color than she knew how to understand or share. (This was a lonely kind of sight.)

The somewhat watery image — rusty colored stone, and the delicate green of the ivy wrapped around the spire — were exquisite to the invalid, who had been staring at a featureless, flat canopy for weeks. It was a delicate thing of beauty.

One finger saw like a frog.

Occasionally the floating photograph would shift into motion, like a magic lantern, as when a slight breeze obliged the ivy leaves to rustle in little wavelets; or when a carriage went by, revealing only a trio of top hats and a single ivory-colored parasol, extending down from the top of the “frame.”

One finger saw like an octopus, touching the colors of things into being.

Mr. D felt unexpected tears pricking his eyes, and the image became blurry. He was entranced by this spontaneous window on to an upside down world; a world that he was surely departing soon.

One finger was a kaleidoscope, briefly and sweetly, during a great and consuming love.

Here was a souvenir to travel to the next life with, in the front pocket of his memory. 

One finger only saw in the light and night of an erupting volcano, reds and oranges and smoke.

Indeed, the rather tranquil and Spartan room of his mind was suddenly jolted, as if an overstuffed suitcase, that he had placed on top of a wardrobe in a deliberate act of planned negligence, had finally toppled from its perch, and come crashing the ground, flinging its forgotten contents to every corner of his soul.

One finger saw like a snake, in waves and pulses of the heat coming off bodies as they moved.

One specific memory rose up to him, as vivid as the little church scene, superimposing itself upon it. He was standing in the garden of the L. family; seized in the fierce pincers of both anger and misery.

One finger saw underwater.

He was facing away from the house that he had been trying to summon signs of life from, for many minutes.

One finger saw the world in slow motion, like a dragonfly.

The sun was setting, and he distinctly recalled the wheelbarrow propped up against the wall, as well as the intricate Oriental bells that hung from the lime tree (one of his many offerings to this domestic clan). The family had clearly fled in relative haste, as the house had not been “turned down” for the off-season. He sensed once again in his bones, reliving the humiliation, that he was likely the spur for this sudden, and untimely migration back to the city.

(She had once dipped a fingertip into a glass of gin and from then on it spun and whirled the vision that it gave her.)

But it had been a misunderstanding! A misunderstanding, I tell you! And yet, no matter how many letters he would subsequently write, explaining the size, shape, provenance, and dire repercussions of this misunderstanding, the only reply he ever received came in the form of a very deliberate silence, monogrammed with the L. family seal.

One finger was for a wide-eyed taking of the world, like a child takes.

Peeling loose from the present, Mr. D felt himself traveling to the same place, there in the warm garden, with thunder rumbling and pawing the treetops of the valley, even as he was still stricken to his bed. His skin was etched with lines, this time, and his hair was shot with grey. But there he was. Again. As before. Abandoned.

One finger saw the world as if lying down and looking up through its canopy.

And yet, on this occasion the bitterness had lost its poison. Indeed, he could not taste it at all. The projections continued, originating deep in his being, spooled across his memory, and shimmering out into the room; as if his entire life was now a camera obscura, and his every breath a gaseous glass plate that bore a message of release.

One finger was for recognizing faces.

He saw the young girl, A., posing for him, in the same garden, since his magic machine required the long exposure of the outdoors.

One finger could see constellations in the daytime. 

He heard her sisters making gentle fun of the hasty, musty and old-fashioned props that he assembled around the young sylph. He felt her parents watching with some concern from the conservatory; but reassuring each other, more with subtle elisions and tea-spooning gestures than actual words, that a man of the cloth could have no unsavory motives. He had assured them that this device neither stole nor entrapped souls, but rather captured the essence of its subject, only to return it tenfold, through the miracle of motherless reproduction.

One finger saw only what its object most wanted to forget.

Did they themselves fear for their souls when sitting for an oil painting? Well, then! This is no different. Indeed, there is less cause for misgivings, as the process is much faster, and clearly occurs with God’s blessing, since it happens with little or no human intervention. One would spend one’s time more wisely admonishing the stones for remembering the shells, leaves, or fish that persist in the fossil.

She was careful to wear gloves in company.

Indeed, at times Mr. D felt more like a gardener, than that strange new creature, the gentleman photographer. He would push the sturdy wooden legs of his camera into the soft ground, and then he would plant seeds. Soon enough, photographs would bloom. It was still unclear to him whether he was engaged in an art, science, craft, or technique. Either way, he felt more continuity with the practices of his forebears than rupture. After all, weren’t the trees themselves photosynthesizing? Isn’t the sun itself a flashing device, with an inordinately long exposure? Aren’t our fellow men and women sensitive plates of a sort, registering the specificity of light at any given moment, and storing each layer in their hearts. A type of animation.

(If she stroked a finger across your skin, she would give you visions.

Was not God the ultimate photographer, staging and memorializing every moment on this earth? From this perspective, Mr. D himself was merely paying homage to the grace of holy sight and sacred insight. “Let there be light.”

If she used two fingers, she would send you into ecstasy...but only for a moment.

And let there be things to write of, in the divine medium of light.

Three fingers had driven people mad.

Such were the inchoate philosophies that Mr. D had starting developing in a little treatise, that he had dedicated and given to the L. family, in order that they would better understand his quiet and unusual passion for recording their lives.

Once she touched a lover with all of her fingertips, very softly and very carefully and very very slowly, one at a time.)

Here he had explained, with a Deacon’s modest mastery of rhetoric, that there was little difference whether the subject was the household fruit bowl, pet dog, or daughter. These all were aspects of God’s plan, each with their place and purpose, for which the machine would capture but one fleeting moment, to enable reflection and gratitude. “The man with the apparatus is not hunting for reflected light,” he had written in his portable notebook, while drafting his treatise, “but rather selecting specific rays of light within the parameters of those available to him.” Everything upon which Mr. D turned his glassy third eye to responded to being watched, whether it was Alice or the horses in the fields. Even the pond, empty of all visible life shimmered differently, under the passage of the water striders. Every exposure was a portrait. Even a landscape. So that giggling girls and silent trees were equally self-conscious under his mnemonic gaze. (A phrase which he borrowed for the title of his little book on the subject.) This new way of seeing — a way of seeing which fixes what is seen — encourages an appreciation for singularity, he insisted. It selects this tree, from this angle, at this moment. And through the very framing of the unique, it creates one piece in a never-to-be-completed collage called the Eternal.

(She had only done that once.)

But such high-sounding words soured on the page, after the Misunderstanding. Indeed, the book itself had served as a missile thrown at Mr. D’s person on that unfortunate afternoon, the hard- leather corner catching him on the cheek, and leaving a bruise. Alice herself had vanished upstairs during the commotion, and that was the last time he had seen her in person. Thankfully Mr. D still had her image, imprinted on paper. But he half-suspected even these traces would evaporate soon enough, by virtue of her ongoing absence. (Did she forgive him? Did she miss him? Did she understand him? . . . He would never know.)

As she picked her way through the box of fingerprints — the box of photographs — she took each one out and carefully taped it to the wall.

After this incident, he continued to refine his photographic praxis. But it never felt quite so devout again; no longer tied to a greater mission. Indeed, at times he wondered if he was in fact fingerprinting the world, as one takes the fingerprints of a criminal: a thought that led him to abandon the whole enterprise years before he found himself, unable to get out of bed, indeed, unable to cling much longer to his own vitality.

By the time the box was empty she had used up her tape and the wall was covered in ridges, a map of forms of vision, a map of herself, and she gently brushed her lips across them, one by one, and tasted the worlds of her past.

He realized now the hubris of his former years, and how much time he had spent upon it. The gentleman photographer thought he had been doing God’s work, but was instead naively attempting to play God. In posing his young muse just so, he was attempting to precisely capture the enigmatic intersection of time and space. But these two coiling lines will forever escape the mortal desire to fix their secret congress. The image which remains is merely a caricatured phantom of what is. Or what was.

And after she had spent some time this way, she chose from among them, and plucked them off the wall, and put them in her bag, and went to sleep.

The true camera is the one we stumble upon, or find ourselves within, like this room in the North end of town, with the creaking pipes along the walls. We are forever inside the mechanism, and should understand ourselves as the subjects of its gaze; and not the master observer.

The next day she left the room and walked down the street with her bag of fingerprints to visit a tattoo artist she knew. It took a day and a night and by the time they had finished she left his studio and returned home covered in fingerprints.

Moreover, “writing in light” is not at all about preserving the past, or being haunted by what was (despite both popular and expert opinion). Rather, it is about fashioning steps upon which we can more mindfully walk towards the future.

She spent a week, and then another, alone and still and healing.

Had he the time, energy, and materials to revisit his treatise on the subject, Mr. D would have emphasized this unacknowledged aspect of the art, with its forward-looking orientation.

And then one evening she made a call,

Indeed, had he himself fully appreciated that the gesture of photographing permits us to see, concretely, how choice functions as a projection into the future, then he may not have forsaken the practice, which had become for him mildewed with melancholy.

and the doorbell rang,

Indeed, as Mr. D’s vision began to blur and withdraw, an eternal moment of great lucidity visited him.

and she opened the door,

The eyes in our heads are cameras, he realized, with no film upon which to print what it sees, save for the dubious medium — the unfaithful clay — of memory.

and she reached out one fingertip (this was a finger that saw like a prism) until she felt the bridge of a nose, and a cheek, and a chin,

Our fellow creatures are the living images, written in light.

and she used that finger to hook the collar of the shirt of the man attached to these parts, and she drew him inside and shut the door behind them.

Were it not for the sun, we would be virtual whispers of being, blindly groping about in shadows, pressed against the walls of a glass darkly. But with God’s grace, the sons and daughters of Adam — our intimates especially — provide pinhole perspectives on the universe. And it is up to us to appreciate that specific illumination of the whole, via our own fleeting flames.

(If you could see him, you would notice that he was also born without eyes.

The ancients believed that every object had a phantom film, that would fling itself, layer by layer towards the human eye, in order to be seen as such. And as always, the ancients were not far wrong.

And if you had visited his home, you would also find a box of tactile whorled and ridged prints from his own life seeing with fingertips. He had never shown her that box.)

And the rusty vision of the church persisted on the ceiling, even as it faded in Mr. D’s pupils, until he saw nothing. Heard nothing. Felt nothing.

And so he readies his lips, and the photographer — her body now covered in her work — prepares for her first exhibition.

But still, the living photograph on the ceiling persisted, shimmering in the afternoon breeze, until his sister entered the room mid-sentence, throwing open the curtains and inadvertently banishing the picture she was never privileged to see; instead finding her brother in the state she had dreaded for weeks.

On the right hand side, two photographs are overlaid. The first is of Emil Racovitza as diver at Observatoire Oceanologique de Banyuls-sur-Mer, 1899, taken by Louis Boutan and available on wikicommons. The second is “Guy Morandière and Octopus,” taken during the Jacques-Yves Cousteau expedition, 'Calypso' Oceanographic Expedition, c. 1950.




























































    Carla Nappi                Dominic Pettman 

The Gesture of PhotographingCarla Nappi | Dominic Pettman

In Resonances, Betsy Wing makes of the threshold a shoreline. Here, artifacts from the past — photographs, watercolors, and scribbled notes — wash up against the author’s memoir. In these shifting tides, the process of writing and remembering is never static but always contingent, always subject to revision; and the piece emerges as a fragile monument to the opacity of history. 

William N. West’s In The Detail is a study of the life and work of German cultural theorist Aby Warburg, specifically, his gargantuan and unfinished collage project the Mnemosyne Atlas. West recognizes in Warburg’s work a new hermeneutics that takes the shape of the open spiral rather than the closed circle. Taking inspiration from Warburg’s combinatory experiments, a plethora of textual and visual fragments collide with one another on the right to form vast constellations of relation.

The fragment speaks. In Margaret Simon’s Poetical Fugitives, the errant lives of literary verse are visualized in the slow assembling of the title page to Loves Garland, a Renaissance collection of posies. As the threshold playfully recalls the gutter of a codex, the margins here recall a space beyond the book where fugitive bits of texts, themselves rendered as digitized posies, flee past in the peripheries of our vision.

Édouard Glissant | Poetics of Relation | trans. by Betsy Wing | 2009


It’s pretty clear that I’m the only one who needs to sound out this history. But it also turns out that Vanessa has recently revisited memories that are, if not shared, at least converging. When she married Ken three years ago at the age of 80 they came to the ocean—where? Maybe I’ll call her and ask but, as she said to me when she finally returned my second phone call: maybe she’s busy, or probably she’s taking her nap now and I shouldn’t call, or (this is my worry, not hers) she’s going to get tired of my asking questions and think I should stick my nose out of her business.

Where? I’d thought Willoughby Spit, a spot that had always charmed me. It’s the first bit that seems to be ocean when one comes down from Charles City. If it’s not literally the ocean yet, it’s at the mouth of Hampton Roads where the conjoined three rivers—James, Elizabeth, and Nansemond—first encounter its salty thrust near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Anyhow, it’s a pretty little strip of beach and in my childhood (and it’s our shared childhood that’s in question here) I liked it because its name made me laugh.

I have a picture in my head of the wedding, but I also saw photos. They stood there, ankle deep in the small waves and waited for the Holy Spirit to join them in Holy Matrimony. A reverend was there to ensure that it all went pro forma. Wedding breakfast with family at Dennys, then a drive along the beach to 53rd Street to show Kenneth the cottage where she used to work.

This is where I begin to think the wedding was not on Willoughby Spit at all, because she said they just drove along the beach to 53rd and Ocean Front. If they’d stood in the waves on Willoughby Spit they would have had to drive a good half hour to the cottage and another half hour back before setting out for Charles City — on their wedding day. Plus, that really wasn’t the ocean, just Chesapeake Bay.

When they came to the cottage where, as a slightly older child than I, she had worked for my family for three years, she told Ken that it all looked different. Things had changed from what she remembered—which, indeed, they had. It’s considerably fancier now, thanks to the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962—a Northeaster, which, like all northeasters, lasted 3 days. We used to play cards or do jigsaw puzzles to wait them out in one of the rooms that was now gone in this most violent version of a common storm. My summer-friend’s house next door was described as “just matchsticks,” and our cottage had been picked up off its foundations and thrown back on its haunches, losing the wing that held our little room for doing puzzles, as well as a small bedroom and bath where my grandmother used to sleep when stairs became too hard on her knees.

And here now, at an indentation on the long, Atlantic shoreline, Linekin Bay, I am making an attempt to remember scenes from when we were together in that beach house. But where am I then, really?

Intersections: then/now/here/there/where, so much memory being visual and so much of it overwritten by later knowledge, the stories we’ve told ourselves about events, and by later attempts to put it together into something coherent — turning it consciously into fiction in order to escape my own preconceptions. Did I really remember this? Or is it something in a snapshot that I’ve looked at so many times that I think I remember it? But then, sometimes, something comes back that’s sensual: smells, tastes, sounds, sea breeze, watermelon, surf; now do I still have to wonder whose memory it is?

My memory, for sure, my notes: October, 2015—Indian Summer in Tidewater Virginia. On a road from the beach to the city. John Tyler Highway going up James River—a “scenic byway” now with a bike path running alongside fields and trees that conceal the “fine” old houses of plantation country and show the deep yards of brick houses, which are just fine but built with FDA loans instead of the labor of enslaved people. The only times I would have been on this road before would have been when Mother drove down through Charles City (not a city but a county, real country farms and forests) from Richmond to and from Virginia Beach so that we could pick up Vanessa who came to work for us for the month of August. Then we would drive the same road to take her home afterwards, the day after Labor Day. Our schools were about to begin—Vanessa’s and mine and my brothers’ too.

This is a particular part of my past and beyond that, the past of my past, my inheritance of attitudes, opinions and guilt from the history of the south.

This part of the story began here in this chair (in this chair with a view of Linekin Bay) with a call I made from the phone, now silent in my pocket. I introduced myself with my maiden name and Kinloch’s name, supposing that Vanessa would remember him, my brother, if not me. The three of us had, in fact, met ten or so years ago in Richmond. Kinloch used to run into her at the Medical College where she oversaw the microbiology lab when he was in med school, and that would have been the late 60s and early 70s. She had come back home after running labs at Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania to help out with her mother who had had a stroke. Kinloch knew how to get in touch with her and invited her to come out to have coffee with us. We sat on the terrace together and just talked—mostly about our adult lives, but also remembering things together, like how she’d lock Kinloch in the kitchen closet when he was being a nuisance, and how she couldn’t cook and had to learn from mother’s cookbook, and how Kinloch taught her how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and how he always shared with her the candy Mrs. Bryan, our neighbor, gave him.

But some of our memories differed. I told her that I’d written a story about the time my brothers had put a greensnake in the salad and persuaded her to pass it at the table.

“That never did happen,” she said. “Nothing like that ever did happen!”

I was sure I remembered it and hadn’t just made it up. But no, her argument was convincing: “You all never did eat salad. Nobody ate just plain salad in those days. You all sure didn’t!”

Vanessa knew who I was when I called. She even remembered my now last name — which somehow made me think I still had some resonance in her life as she has had in mine.

Summers are gone, winter blizzards yet to come. A perfect October day to go looking for a creek with some people I want to know.

On our way back to Richmond, Kinloch and his wife Mary will drop me off to visit there, in Charles City, at Vanessa’s “back home” while they go off to see if they can find some lunch in the nearby town, actually, Charles City the town. We’ve just spent roughly a week in the same cottage where we had all been children together: Vanessa 16, me 13, Kinloch 6. Our other sibling was 9 then; he died almost 20 years ago.

I am 80, Vanessa 83. This trip is for understanding some of that time.

We were lost for a while.

Kinloch, Mary, and I actually got lost in Norfolk and ended up almost back at the road to our cottage—but not quite. GPS saved us and we just went out the back way, which we could have taken an hour before, to Charles City. On our way we passed Willoughby Spit, which would be the first spot Vanessa, coming from Charles City, could have found to stand in the ocean with Ken when they were pronounced man and wife. They were married at 9 in the morning (though maybe not there) by a preacher in Bermuda shorts; Ken rolled his trousers and Vanessa’s wedding hem got wet.

She had told me on the phone that when he asked her if she would marry him she said yes, “but only if we can get married in the ocean at 9AM.” That was, she said, backing it up with chapter and verse (Acts 2:14), the precise hour that the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles; so that was the time she wanted to be married. His reply was that there was no reverend in the world who would marry them in the ocean and she said she knew of one.

Two days earlier we’d seen pictures of her damp hem, Ken’s rolled trousers, the minister’s Bermuda shorts, all the smiles and the wedding breakfast with her sister from New Jersey and her handsome nephew afterwards. When I realized how close Charles City was to the beach I’d invited her and Kenneth for lunch. I would be the one to cook it and serve it this time.

Vanessa had brought her wedding album to Virginia Beach when they came and after we’d looked at those wedding pictures and she had studied the cottage, remarking on all the changes that had taken place in about 65 years, we struggled down the dune for a walk on the beach. There had been a big storm a few weeks before and the cottage wasn’t really dug out yet. When we had arrived it was covered with a paste of sand that had to be swept down onto the ground and then the porch had to be shoveled and the dune was much larger. It was good for taking care of the children (grandchildren) because they could play in the yard just as well as on the beach, making whatever it is children want to make of the sand. For me and Vanessa, however, our knees not what they used to be, it was difficult trying to slip-slide down the dune, which a few years before had been stairs, onto the beach to take a walk and talk about what it had been like when she had been “with us” before. In fact, it was more than 60 years ago that she had walked out onto the sand there, and at that time we used to walk between two dunes covered with sea oats and go straight out to the ocean, which was close or far depending on the season, the tides, and the weather of the previous winter.

A few northeasters and hurricanes ago the beach had been scoured out so that the cottage stood on land at least four feet higher than the beach the last time I was there. That had been “corrected” by a beach reclamation project that dredged ancient sand from 20 miles offshore and rebuilt the beach with it—full of fossils of sea creatures that hadn’t been around for eons so they were not part of or memory, but rather of our theoretical knowledge. We’d found coprolites and sharks’ teeth as well as bivalves that were totally unfamiliar to us but that a museum specialist could have named. This summer, when Vanessa came, that same (always the same but never the same) beach was piling up onto the so-called lawn and trying to make dunes in the porch. We foiled its porch project but I wonder about the dune creeping in from the side against the wall of the house where the children were playing war or teaparty, depending.

All photographs and artwork in “Resonances” are the author’s own. More information about Betsy Wing’s paintings can be found at her website.






Who am I writing for? Why am I writing? This is entirely too much detail... I need to remember — why? In so many ways, we all live in the past, picturing who we were yesterday as if that is who we are today. The Arrow of Time runs just one way and there’s no way of knowing tomorrow.

The rest stacks up behind us.


And, when you used to walk Kinloch on the beach Vanessa, did you used to go barefoot and wade in the water?


Good Lord, yes! Didn't I tell you about the time we were chasing sand crabs and he was right beside me but then went up on the beach and I was still after a crab and he just let a big old wave come in right up to my neck!


No, you never did tell me that —


— and he was just laughing away. I said, 'Kinloch, why did you let that big, cold wave catch me like that? Why didn't you tell me it was coming?' He said, 'Didn't you see me get out of the water? Didn't you see it coming?' I said, 'No, Kinloch, I didn't see it coming. I was looking for that crab.' And he just laughed and laughed. He always had that twinkle in his eye. We always had fun. We always had fun!

ResonancesBetsy Wing


In 1925, the collector-scholar Aby Warburg offered a seminar at the University of Hamburg on the topic of antiquity and stylistic change in early Italian Renaissance art. Although already an established independent scholar on the culture of the Renaissance in its broadest contours, Warburg had never led a seminar at a university. For his first one, he chose two guiding mottos:

1.) We seek out our ignorance and strike wherever we find it
2.) The good God lies in the detail

The first echoes a statement of the Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke: we seek out the enemy and strike wherever we find him. The second has the familiar feeling of a maxim, but Warburg seems to have invented it. It is usually translated into English as God is in the details, but the god of Warburg’s maxim is more active and more ambiguous than that: like the English verb to stick, stecken can mean to set something or to be set into something, also to be trapped in something; in some contexts it can even mean to kindle (in Brand stecken). God sticks in the details, God is stuck in the details, God sets the detail alight: each of these sentences sparks within Warburg’s formulation.

Certain kinds of scholarly investigation might be said always to have been founded in the detail, in particular historical, philological, scientific, and poetic strains deriving from the ancient trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. But during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a particular investment in the telling detail among what the historian Carlo Ginzburg calls “presumptive or divinatory disciplines,” from those of Sherlock Holmes to those of Sigmund Freud. These heroes of analysis model a kind of interpretation that relies on the patient observation of concrete details, their selection and organization into new constellations, and finally experienced guesswork to infer conclusions. Picking out details of gesture, bearing, and dress, Holmes astutely reconstructs (or constructs) the histories of clients and others; from the slips, symptoms, and dreams of his patients Freud plots their fears and desires. But the pioneer of these “presumptive or divinatory” methods was the art historian Giovanni Morelli. Like Conan Doyle and Freud, Morelli trained as a physician but became famous for his ability to reattribute Old Master paintings “by insisting,” as Freud explained, “that attention should be withdrawn from the general impression and main features of a picture...” and applied instead to “little trivialities like the drawing of fingernails, earlobes, haloes, and such unconsidered things which the copyist neglects to imitate and yet which every artist executes in his own characteristic way.”

In this paradigm of interpretation, the detail bespeaks. To the observer who does not overlook it, it signals irrepressibly when other sources are mute. But the detail hides among other details (sometimes Warburg’s motto is given as “God hides in the detail”). This is why it requires analysis, to tease it out from similar elements that obscure both it and its significance, muffling it with their own claims to attention. The skillful analyst, or detective, or scholar, sifts the infinite of possible details to single out the decisive ones that will enable him or her to relate a story that embraces all of them, or most, or many, and so unlock a hidden synecdochic history. When it is picked out, the telling detail makes visible the implicit logic of the complex that embeds it. Such details are, in a sense, not details at all, but centers of meaning that conceal their gravitational pull. Teasing them from the worldly mass in which they hide requires what Paul Ricoeur called a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

Warburg’s work sometimes participates in this paradigm of the telling detail, but he did not want to be one of Morelli’s “nosey crew," settling attributions and foreclosing possibilities. His hunting after details is more often a search towards a point that transforms the orientations of other details. Warburg gathers these details not to reveal an unrecalled past, but to direct light into an unanticipated future. His discipline is “presumptive,” in Ginzburg’s word, because it discovers or invents relations not already given: it pre-sumes them, snatching them from the futures in which they could appear. Warburg’s skills are “divinatory” in the sense of the philologist’s practice of divinatio, a scholarly insight into how a text should read so singular and unexpected that it seems supernaturally dictated. C.S. Peirce saw in such reasoning a new logical process, which he called abduction

In his dissertation on Botticelli’s paintings Birth of Venus and Spring, Warburg’s presumption was to “show how a fifteenth-century artist sought out from an original work of antiquity what ‘interests’ him.” What particularly interested Warburg was Botticelli’s interest in windblown hair and clothing, “the representation of accessories externally set in motion (aüßerlich bewegten Beiwerks),” features in which he detected a tradition different from the monumental ones usually traced in histories of art. This constellation of interests captured in those forms lodged in elements that seemed decorative and inessential, was mobile, flickering, laden with affect.

Such motive forms can participate in the fixed history of monuments, too. A scholar can adeptly follow the trail of a work’s influences backwards: a blowing garment on a Hellenistic sarcophagus, the frieze below a freestanding sculpture by Donatello. Warburg notices that Botticelli’s image closely follows a passage in Giostra, Angelo Poliziano’s poem of praise for the Medici that adapts the birth of Venus from the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, transforming it into the description of a sculptural relief. Like Botticelli, Poliziano is interested in ornament, the “delineation of details and accessories (Einzelheiten und Beiwerks),” like the movement of Venus’ blowing hair. And interests are not influences. Interest moves discontinuously, in leaps, not predictably or determinately step by step. The motive details of Venus’ hair cannot be plotted from a history of imitations and variations. The details Warburg sees in Botticelli or Poliziano do not reveal, do not encode explanations; they pattern further details and set them into motion. They distract. They radiate. They orient. Warburg steps between individual sources and the more vaguely sketched desires that marked Botticelli’s work, its foreshadowings, its possible afterlives. 

We are accustomed to speaking of a hermeneutic circle, moving back and forth between horizons. But interpretation is more properly a spiral, opening gradually outwards and making the horizons more coincident. Warburg replots that whirl as turbulence. Swirling hair or blowing drapery in these Renaissance paintings and poems hint towards antiquity as what is lively still. Venus’ wind-whipped hair and Warburg’s account overflow across eras and media towards strange intensities of affect, a contagious vitality that Renaissance artists associated with the static remains of antiquity. As shaping as the event of Venus’ birth is the always-changing, always-already, never-not twining of her hair. Its exuberance is the impulse, the motive, the motif, of the artwork, dissolving solid bodies into moods, impressions, action: treetops stirring from the force of a storm passing elsewhere, far away.

The word Warburg uses for the detail of hair or cloth, dependent and obscuring and fascinating, is Beiwerk. A Beiwerk is, with clunking homonymy, by the work, a parergon or superfluity or ornament, gesturing towards the extraneous. But the ornament, the detail, always threatens to stray to the center of things. Since the eighteenth century, theorists of aesthetics have pointed out that the Greek word for ornament, kosmos, is also the word for universe. It is both a decoration and the decorous all, the scintillating manifold of the perceived world envisioned as an integrated, appealing totality.

Warburg’s Beiwerk moves, but not on its own; it is set in motion (bewegt) by some force external (aüßerlich) to it. It transmits movement that is conveyed to it, without revealing the source of its motion, which may be gusts of wind around the main figure, that figure’s movements, even, symbolically, some psychic turmoil in character or atmosphere. It serves as a touchstone or switchpoint for other forces, relaying and transforming them, pointing to directions it cannot see or foresee. It is unpredictably centrifugal, flying out of itself and spinning whatever or whoever follows it in a new direction.

Warburg’s lectures were performances. He would meticulously arrange and rearrange as many as a hundred photographic images onto black panels, placing these on three sides of a lecture room. Without notes, led by details, Warburg would move among the panels, elaborating relations among the images until eventually all things seemed to spiral through each other. Undisciplined by the norms of the university, he sometimes spun out connections at such length that his hosts had to interrupt him. 

Late in his career, about the same time as the Hamburg seminar, Warburg planned a project that seems like an attempt to preserve his improvisations as images, and to cultivate his spiral of details into new relations and new forms. Warburg called it the Mnemosyne Atlas, after the giant who carried the world on his shoulders and Memory, mother of the Muses. Warburg imagined Memory as a riddle, not an archive,“the great Sphynx Mnemosyne.” He intended the diagrams of his Atlas to demand the kind of motion in thought that he sensed in Renaissance paintings and poems.

As he did for his lectures, for Mnemosyne Warburg prepared arranged images, mostly photographs, but also postcards, stamps, and newspaper clippings, in relation to each other in grids, whorls, diagonals on black panels. Some panels were photographed, then the images from the panels were taken back down and returned to their files in Warburg’s extensive collection, where many of them remain today. No panels survive, and they were not meant to. Like memory, Mnemosyne does not exist anywhere. It has no final state. It is an instrument for thinking rather than an illustration of thought. Itself moving, it sets thought into motion, each panel a snapshot of a configuration of images poised in the midst of a whirlwind.

Warburg’s Mnemosyne aimed first at an understanding of the eddying movements of cultural memory. It did not seek to know more but to know further. Its power was to order existing forms in such a way that new worlds emerged within them. Often in studying and comparing the images on the panels, Warburg felt he saw what had been intended in them. Just as often he saw what could only by his recognition now be set in motion.

In most of the photographs of the panels Warburg designated for Mnemosyne, no particular spatial orientation is visible, although it takes practice not to follow the habits of reading, horizontally from left to right, from top to bottom. Because almost every image on a panel was already a representation of another image, and because the whole panel was then photographed together, the photographs of panels present a smooth plane which the eye can learn to traverse in any direction.

The flattening photography evens the different scales and media of the images of paintings, sculptures, texts into similar formats; in their grisaille of black and white they assimilate to each other in texture, intensity, hue. Images lose their own forms and become parts of a larger syntax. In a way, the panel renders every image as a detail of a whole, set in motion and setting each other in motion. The original images—as photographs, most already reproductions—abandon the contexts in which we expect to encounter them and instead become contexts for each other, reminders of how they and all images are mutually mediated by other images, seen and unseen, remembered and unremembered.

Near the turn of the twentieth century, the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin pioneered a method of lecturing using two slide projectors. Wölfflin would project paired images onto a screen side by side to show students their determining points of difference: round Romanesque arch and flamelike Gothic one, Gothic again and rounded Renaissance. Wölfflin’s rigorously comparative two-slide method of lecturing pioneered quickly became central to the teaching of the history of art.

Warburg’s Mnemosyne takes Wölfflin’s two-slide innovation and explodes it. Multiplying the number of images changes everything: point-by-point comparison kaleidoscopes into a dazzle of possibilities. Wölfflin’s technique was designed to reveal the representative differences between two images. Now look at Warburg’s panel. It chases fleeting likenesses from image to image, oscillating moment to moment as a viewer’s attention shifts. Look from its center, from the image of Botticelli’s Spring right and upwards to the two expanded details from it; from the figure of Spring to that of Abundance below it and Pallas to its right; down the circular forms of the tondo, a painted torus, a medal, along the left margin; across the women becoming trees and flowers. In the panels of Memory, every image is neighbor to every other. Every image is a stranger to every other. The difference between Wölfflin and Warburg is between seeing in the detail something that reveals what is the case and seeing in it what generates new situations of the world. It is the gap between hermeneutics and poetics.

Warburg tended to look past the central scenes of paintings to the figures at their edges, as in Ghirlandaio’s frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, “in which the bystanders seem to become protagonists.” In this way too the detail claims the center. The decorousness of Ghirlandaio’s Birth of John the Baptist, for instance, is startlingly interrupted by the animated entrance of a serving girl, balancing a basket of fruit on her head and swinging a sack in her hand. As a kind of Beiwerk beside the carefully composed row of matrons and in the calculated display of the donor’s tame piety, she seemed to Warburg an outsider to the ethos of the rest of the image. She gave him the impression of having burst into the room and the painting from some other world.

Warburg called her the Nymph. He and a friend began exchanging joking letters, in which Warburg’s friend said he had fallen in love with the “life and movement” of her image. Her externality to the scene that frames her — as servant, as foreign (so she seemed to Warburg), as mobile, as imitation of an ancient Victory in a Florentine setting, as rightmost figure closest to the painting’s edge and last to be read in it—is what fascinates Warburg. She steps in as an emissary of the alien:

Who, then, is the Nymph? According to her bodily reality, she might be a freed Tartar slave... but in her real essence she is an elemental spirit, a pagan goddess in exile. If you want to see her ancestors, look at the relief under her feet.

“Pagan goddess in exile” is familiar praise in thinking about the Renaissance. But why Tartar? Why slave? Why freed? About her classical ancestors Warburg seemed sure. But she also seemed curiously unbound by them: “Is this strangely delicate plant really rooted in the sober Florentine soil?” She eluded Warburg’s explanations:

The most beautiful butterfly I have ever pinned down suddenly shatters the glass cover and dances teasingly upwards into the blue air… Now I ought to catch it again, but I am not made to move this way. Or precisely, I would like to, but my scholarly training does not permit it.

What was left to him was description, and pursuit.

A detail set in motion, like the irruption of the unexpected Nymph, refuses to distinguish external causes—wind, the rush of limbs, command—from internal ones—fear, desire, insistence. This flickering image, entering, offcenter,, embraces like a whirlpool; it loops the extraneous and the marginal towards its center. It reconstitutes where a center or an identity falls. What does not belong is drawn in and reorients what else there is. Everything is changed in this new ordering; no theory, as von Moltke said, survives its first contact with the enemy. Her elusive strangeness is everywhere, reordering everything. Later in Warburg’s introduction to his atlas of memories, she becomes John the Baptist’s Salome (the painting she enters is of John’s birth), a Maenad rending Orpheus, a headhunter.

Warburg’s analysis of the Nymph suggests that details that seem like the recovery of something past can rather be taken as incursions of something alien, like unexpected, unaligned shards of a broken mirror reflecting another world. The “Antique” in which the Renaissance was interested, hints Warburg, was not really a heritage or even a rebirth, but a capacity for dislocation, or relocation, from an other place, as available for re-representation in new orientations as things more properly belonging. What characterizes Renaissance art is not its relation to a fixed history, but the irruptions of strange forms into it, as its transformative details. It enables the outlier. The motion of the bewegtes Beiwerk reflects the turbulence of temporality itself, its eddying transmission of forms and formulas between times and spaces. History is one name we give to how one identity stands outside another. But identities also step into one another, as Warburg’s Nymph shows. What will we call them then? These whirlpools of time swirl alongside linear histories, opening discontinuities within them, opening relations of their own. They do not tell a story, but plot a field of virtualities. To the details that are reckoned, new ones enter: less communicative, more incendiary.




For their help in shaping this essay, I am especially grateful for the intelligence, erudition, and creativity of Eula Biss, John Bresland, Anthony Grafton, Christopher Johnson, Frances McDonald, Claudia Swan, Whitney Trettien, and Sam Weber.

The background image depicts selected panels from Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas at the Reading Room of the Kunstwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, 1927. It is reproduced here courtesy of The Warburg Institute, directed by David Freedberg.

William N. West is an Associate Professor in English and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University.






The oldest meaning of détailler is to cut something into parts for sale or trade, to handle it piecemeal rather than whole. Some words with contrasting meanings to detail include wholesale, totalize, Gestalt.

interest < inter-esse, to be between

According to Alexander von Humboldt, the Roman poet Ennius first translated Greek kosmos as Latin mundus, with the same double sense of neatness and order—which is central to the constitution of the world and visible in its most peripheral parts, a fractal universe.

In the DetailWilliam N. West

This is the simple inscription that adorns the interior hoop of an English posy ring made of silver and dated by the British Museum as from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

Towards the bottom of a page from the seventeenth-century text Loves Garlands (1648), we again find this message, “I live in hope,” as the collection’s eighty-sixth posy, or short poem meant to be inscribed on a gift object. 

In both of its manifestations, the ring and the printed text, the phrase plays with the off-rhyme of object and inscription — the ring’s hoop, the lover’s hope. Echoes in the object itself. But we cannot trace the hopeful lover’s inscription with certainty.

“Posy rings often work to underline the structural match between themselves and their inscription.”
Juliet Fleming

I discovered Loves Garland in a digital archive while sitting in the chilly reading room of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Surrounded by one of the richest collections of early modern textual materials in the world, I found the research object at the heart of this essay not in the stacks or vault, but in the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database. Made up of scanned microfilms of pre-1800 books held in libraries and archives around the world, EEBO offers the sense of archival contact through multiple removes of transmission. Though I couldn’t know it then, my encounter was appropriate to the posy’s own curious history of propagation and dislocation, of being both absent and present at different points in time and in different media. Looking at how Loves Garland appeared in its own day is important to forging this connection between early modern textual circulation and today’s research encounters.

“The object is always already image and word.”
Anders Kreuger

In 1624, the printer identified only as N.O. produced Loves Garland for John Spencer to be sold at his shop on London Bridge. Consisting of a hundred or so posies designed for or deriving from gift objects, the collection was reprinted in 1648 and 1674. Aside from its title page, Loves Garland does not include further introductory material typical in early modern printed texts. It does not announce its claims to patronage nor make explicit the editorial controls which motivate other printed miscellanies. Its contents—short poems that reference the absent objects (a ring, a set of gloves, a handkerchief) the book could not contain—seem haphazard, held in sequence only by numbers.

This rhyming verse acts as the volume’s title: Loves Garland: or Posies for Rings, Hand-ke[r]-chers, and [G]loves: And such pretty Tokens that Lovers send their Loves.

“My concern is not, that is, with what things appear in Renaissance texts and how they might relate to questions of production and consumption but with how there are things at all.”
Jonathan Goldberg

As posy, the book’s title marks it as token and potential gift object, collapsing the literary collection and the social function of its contents. Because the posies the book contains lack their objects, this title becomes the book’s only fully realized posy, both object and inscription. The title promises a list of items that readers can only encounter within the book as textual traces. The reader, whether historical or contemporary, is immediately called to consider the relation of text to its material supports, whether in the form of book, ring, or textile. In its play of presence and deferral, the posy collection likewise reveals the book form as preservative, and, at the same time, a mutable, transferable object of its own. These vagabond, immaterial objects play with the boards and borders of the material book.

“On all these rings characteristic inscriptions may be found: of all these inscriptions none bring us more closely into contact with the thoughts and feelings of their former wearers than the amatory inscriptions to be found on betrothal and marriage rings and other tokens exchanged between friends and lovers.”
Joan Evans

The word “garland” in the title of Loves Garland has literary and ornamental significance: it organizes this text of ornaments into a garland, or crown, to accessorize Love, and perhaps to itself become an accessory to love. The posy collection performs a double paradox: it claims to preserve posies, a promise which can only be partially kept since the fragments it contains are dislocated from their accessories. Print is a means of affixing text to a durable material, yet because Loves Garland is also the object for a posy, the text foregrounds its own potential to be lost.

The title-as-posy also blurs text and “paratext”(the linguistic and material features that frame the main body of a work). Paratexts are the thresholds of a text, governing its relations to readers and uses. At the outer threshold, the title at once invites readers to enter or turn away, but in reading it as a posy one has already entered. The text toys with the theoretical boundaries and social signification of its form and with the reader’s ability to control his or her relationship to it.

“Early modern books carried miscellaneous content as regularly as bags and boxes did. Yet books have done a better job of keeping their diverse contents intact than have most other containers.”
J. Eckhardt & Daniel Starza Smith

How does one read a posy? In the first edition of Loves Garland, the title page includes these instructions: “Read, Skanne, then Judge.” To “skanne” in this period indicates not only scansion but also deep and careful reading; it does not mean to skim or give a once-over as it does today. Readers might have found the “read, scan, judge” injunction humorous, given the extremely short tidbits the book contains. Paired with the title, this phrase also puts into question the goals for such collections—were they sourcebooks for lovers? Or antiquarian compilations, preserving the early modern inscriptive landscape? Spins on the poetical miscellany?

Most poems in the collection do not come with instructions. They are simply numbered and listed, leaving the reader to decide. Some include narrative context with varying degrees of specificity, some general, as in “The posie of a Handkercher from a young man to his love” (No. 1), others more specific: “A drooping Lovers posie, sent with a pair of Gloves” (No. 76). The readerly and transactional merge as the reader must judge how fitting such poems are for their occasions, their purported objects, or for the reader’s own amorous exchanges. The text asks us to parse literary value and use value in a way that connects to the text’s own playfulness with the enduring or accessory nature of its book form.

“More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather a threshold ... a ‘vestibule’ that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back.”
Gérard Genette

The collection is a thing, made and transacted in the year of its production. It contains, however, ghosts of things from the past while it envisions each posy’s potential relevance to objects made and gifted in the future. In presenting brief narratives of the social life of things, the posy offers period perspectives (though not absolute evidence of cultural practice) on how objects circulated and were used as means of social access. But the juxtaposition of the absent objects, their inscriptions, and the book’s own thingly self-conception present a world in which material objects envision and critique their own fleeting and future utility.

On the one hand, if the objects the poems inscribe are lost, so too might be the inscribed book that contains them.

“Let us in fact make a theoretical reconstruction of an imaginary object, basing our work on fragments of unknown function and uncertain origin. Whatever emerges from this, we will not know exactly what it is, or what world it belongs to. Maybe it will belong solely to the world of aesthetics and imagination.”
Bruno Munari

On the other hand, this absent-present dynamic helps to activate the text’s radiance in its historical moment.

It calls on readers to negotiate several material and temporal frameworks at once: the poems as literary fictions, the poems as traces from a now-lost material past, and the poems as offerings for future authors, objects, and transactions.

Because posies and their objects cannot, alone, forge official social bonds, they occupy a space between aesthetic utterance and speech act. Gifted objects could advance courtship, and could certainly become contested evidence if betrothals went sour. But without accompanying language and witness, objects themselves, even rings, could only contract individuals to one another in very specific local circumstances. Posies often have an unbounded rhetoric, and coupled with the circularity of a ring, reinforce “the continuous flow of love.” Love may be endless, as may the ring’s form, but the ring itself cannot connect alone these features within the social world.

“But their utterances are never disembodied. Things communicate by what they are as well as by how they mean. A particular cultural setting may accentuate this or that property, but a thing without any properties is silent.”
Lorraine Daston

Loves Garland intermingles such posies with brief exchanges that remind readers of how the social present keeps the posy and its object as an accessory, something that can be sent, sent back, or reciprocated, whose agency may offer access but cannot guarantee or perform marriage or preferment. Posies are both integral and to some extent extraneous to such contracts. Because their language is not necessarily prescriptive, posies are free to be read as traces of lovers past, fictions of the compiler’s fancy, and models for futures lovers. They can also play with the agency of giver and receiver, inviting the reader to imagine more grossly embodied amorous outcomes. In the actual marriage ritual outlined in The Book of Common Prayer it is the man who gives the wife a ring, in symbol of their emotional, spiritual, and economic “connection.” The prose introductions to many of the posies in Loves Garland make them seem like bespoke pieces, designed for a specific occasion.

By contrast, William Strode’s posies, copied frequently in manuscripts, sometimes let the user choose the appropriate pronoun for their recipient: “Silk though thou bee/ more soft {hee shee that weareth thee.” Strode’s poem instantiates on the page the posy’s malleability, its ability to slide, through the omission of one letter, from one lover to another:

“Contrary to our either/or habits of local and universal reading, English Renaissance theorists of matter regard it as neither of an age nor for all time. Rather, they see it as out of time with itself—that is, untimely.”
Jonathan Gil Harris

The posy’s adaptability comes from its accessory social position and its protean material existence. If all early modern poems were subject to transcription, Strode’s posy openly asks to be copied and altered. Posies can thus imagine their own mutability as a constituting feature of their fully-fledged materiality. This is another way posies negotiate their ostensible permanence on the page with the shifting temporal and material landscape their language conjures.

In the printed posy, the lovers’ bodies are often just out of view.

“It is worth insisting that the posy — a piece of writing with physical extension — cannot exist as text in the abstract.”
Juliet Fleming

Loves Garland does not draw attention to how its posies might be modified for different recipients. It embeds detailed narratives of exchange which conjure the bodies these tokens seek to join. These narratives activate the injunction “Read, Skanne, Judge.” Sometimes the act of deep reading, “skanning,” these narratives contributes to our understanding of the text’s material claims and conditions. In one case, the amorous bodies of the lovers are revealed almost as fully as the posies Loves Garland divulges:

In this exchange, the gifted object blurs the difference between the accessory and the body it adorns. The printed transcription also remains very aware of the material appearance of the ostensible original.

In gifting William a poem “lapt up” in a codpiece point in response, Nanne amplifies the way clothing (like the gloves she has just received from him) could provide an access-by-proxy to the body of the beloved. The compiler joins her, noting that the codpiece point she sends is both “cruell” and “long.” Codpiece points perform physical traits. To have trouble with one’s codpiece point was a way of describing impotence, and witches accused of unraveling a man’s codpiece point were guilty of impeding his sexual performance .

“the conceptual opposition of person and thing”
P. Stallybrass & A.R. Jones

The compiler also brings subtle attention to the bodies involved in this exchange by reminding readers that the posy would have originally been written in Nanne’s “fair Romish” script. The editorial voice is intent on preserving the posy’s human agent; it is shaped by a particular hand. The emphasis on Nanne’s handwriting as “fair” might suggest it as pretty, or as mediocre, perhaps reinforcing her lower status as a milk maid. It also joins other strategies of the printed text for keeping present but out-of-reach not just lost objects and the bodily encounters they broker, but even the unique hands that sometimes created their inscriptions.

“I believe the codpiece wasn’t simply a sign of masculinity, but that it quite literally helped to mold the body and make the man...We might therefore say that the codpiece was a constitutive accessory.”
Will Fisher

While this exchange offers readers the text’s most cohesive narrative, this narrative ultimately works towards the posy’s recognition of its own necessary erasure. The original manuscript posy, now lost, is reinscribed on the printed page, which carries the trace of the lost accessory that bound it. These exfoliating losses and their proximity to the body remind us that the posy seeks its own obsolescence when, if it is successful, the lovers’ bodies become the idealized substrate for their amorous transactions.

“The poem-thing isn’t the thing: it is something else which exchanges signs of intelligence with the thing.”
Octavio Paz

Posies inform critical reading across media.The dislocated texts, out-of-view objects, and evolving goals of the posies in Loves Garland summon the further challenges of haptic encounters with books as well as the accessory objects that attend them or which they transcribe.

“The inscribed thought proceeds from no originating human or subjective source: it is thoroughly exteriorized, disembodied, existing as a discrete entity, given form in script and called into being by its material continuum.”
Andrew Morrall

As codes for the propagation of objects, posies demonstrate, and ask us to investigate, problems in the material transmission or reproduction of things. Early moderns themselves perceived how posies could be intersectional, both materially and conceptually. Thomas Whythorne, a composer and early autobiographer, records an event that brings together the posy’s temporal, material, and conceptual challenges. He describes having a ring made for a widow engraved with: “The eye doth find, the heart doth choose and love doth bind Till death doth loose.” He continues, “I do write this sentence in this sort because it is not of my making; yet so well liked of me, as if I should make another wedding ring it should have the same sentence.”

“Works—even the greatest works, especially the greatest works—have no stable, universal, fixed meaning. They are invested with plural and mobile significations that are constructed in the encounter between a proposal and a reception.”
Roger Chartier

Adaptation and prolepsis are his amorous practice, as the posy serves his immediate turn and helps him to imagine future transactions. When the affair ends badly, Whythorne is unfazed by a token that now can’t be remade to suit his sentiment. He turns to paper to amend its posy, giving her the ring with its supplemental text: “For reason now/ Hath broke the band/ Since to your vow/ Ye would not stand.” Whythorne uses the posy’s multi-materiality to impose on it the conceptual flexibility it had for him at the start of the affair. He sees the posy as a process not just of transcribing and adapting, but even of bootstrapping his own material hybrids to craft texts that respond to his changing fortunes.

“the accidents of the written trace”
Juliet Fleming

As a printed collection, Loves Garland is merely a preface to the unfolding complexities of how to represent fugitive poems and objects in various mediums. Collections of inscribed rings have been catalogued, often with illustrative engravings, as in Franks Bequest: Catalogue of the Finger Rings (1912). In addition to the high-flown symbolism of their circularity, rings present the print and digital archivist a more terrestrial, yet no less endless, dilemma—how to visually transpose a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional textual vehicle. Franks Bequest imports wood engravings from an unpublished catalog to accompany its published account.

Most signet and seal rings are more straightforwardly depicted in terms of written and image text since such texts are localized on the bezel, but rings with the shank or inner band fully inscribed are impossible to render without doing the form some representational violence. In Franks Bequest, the clasped hands of one early example are sundered to make the inscription legible; in another the heart motif of the ring’s bezel is broken in half. Photography has less recourse than engraving technologies since the camera angle can only capture inscriptions on the inner band, or around the entire shank, as multi-image fragments.

The poems of Loves Garland may not seem to warrant the deep reading of the title page’s motto (“Read, Skanne, Judge”), but the text’s material dynamics can help us think about today’s research challenges. Scanning, the detailed recording of an object’s material contours, acts as a point of contact between the “scanned” objects of Loves Garland and those of today’s emerging 3-D digital archives. Attention to the dimensionality of objects in digital technologies asks us to scan, to look deeply, into these surface-focused modes of representation, posing important questions about access, accessibility, and embodied learning. It also refreshes concerns about how value is ascribed to collections. Thus far, 3-D scanning of historical objects has been primarily the purview of digital archaeology as well as cultural heritage institutions like The British Museum and the Smithsonian, which have both launched beta 3-D exploration tools.

For example, the British Museum captures a lovers’ badge emblazoned with “herte be trew.” The scan is high resolution and the interface includes zooming and rotational capabilities. It even offers a virtual reality experience available through stereoscopic viewing platforms like Google’s Cardboard. The virtual object, whose uneven contours have been edited, floats on a black field, detached from any context, and can be enlarged to engulf the screen or shrunk out of view. These dilations reveal an uncanny scale of the object, now a virtual fugitive from its historical contexts and physical dimensions. The cost of immediacy is hypermediacy; increased detail and manipulability might still obscure as much as reveal an object in such remediations.

Loves Garland exposes the very losses and insufficiencies of any preservative medium. Considering how a text like Loves Garland negotiates its own temporal and physical borders can help us judge emerging methods of digital preservation and dissemination. To judge is not just to rule with finality, but to undertake a process of inquiry, assessment, appraisal, a process incited by the games Loves Garland plays with language and matter. If scans of objects offer access, what do they offer access to? What is the role of historical and material context in such digitally mediated haptic encounters? What are the implications of reifying a single digital rendering as the avatar of an idealized original, as such scans might do?

“New media, like the computer technology on which it relies, races simultaneously towards the future and the past, towards what we might call the bleeding edge of obsolescence. ”
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

Remediation always has casualties on the road to new methods of access. A database like Early English Books Online (EEBO) offers greater, though certainly not universal, access to things which are incredibly exclusive, though with its own signature distortions of its objects. In the case of posies, digital collections like EEBO also ironically replay the problems of presence and absence the posy has long conjured. The web-accessible form of Loves Garland only makes us more aware of the material contingencies of its transmitted contents. Deriving from microfilm, the digitally scanned page’s texture becomes itself binary—the frayed edges, tears, or folds the same black as the page’s type, reminding the viewer of the inaccessible textual object it represents. A direct transcription of the 1624 edition’s cropped title page keeps the volume listed as “Loves Garlan,” and thus is hard to search for in the EEBO archive. The researcher in an elegiac mood might view such a page and think, “I present thee absent.”

“...criticism (scholarship as well as interpretation) tends to imagine itself as an informative rather than deformative activity.”
Jerome J. McGann

The posy invites an accessorizing research practice. In the 1648 edition served on EEBO, a combination of source material, scanning quality, and ink bleed-through renders parts of the pages in gothic type illegible.

Yet this illegibility can inspire a research practice that is ironically faithful to the printed posy collection’s insistence on its own theoretical multi-materiality. To read Loves Garland requires looking at all three scanned editions. Since the text has not been transcribed in EEBO, words illegible in all scans can be decoded by digitized print transcriptions like Arthur Humphreys’s version, printed in the nineteenth century, or A.H. Bullen’s An English Garner (1903).

None of these variously edited and mediated primary source encounters involves accessing a physical book. If I had traveled to the Bodleian Library to handle the 1624 edition of Loves Garland, I would unquestionably know more about its paper, its collation and construction, its dimensions, its typography, its patterns of wear. But I would not necessarily know more about its own theory of textual liveliness, enacted perhaps only in the pursuit of its fugitive manifestations which characterize the posy as well as our own contemporary research environment.

The intersection of absent gifted objects and overheard secrets in this early modern text with the remote textual objects that define today’s online research is a sublime encounter with the not-to-be known. Like the shadows of rings, handkerchiefs, and gloves in Loves Garland the bespoke texts behind these scans are out of reach, but productively so. Illegibility becomes a trope in literary representations of posy rings for authors like Geoffrey Chaucer and John Lyly. Loves Garland both lets us in on such secrets and, by transcribing them, often without context, mediates our full understanding of them. To see the text digitally remediated, transcribed, embedded among an archive’s bibliographic records and navigational tags, its later editions perhaps inartfully scanned by Google Books, is to glimpse a post-modern performance of its early modern materiality. If the posies of are both of the past and for the future, the digital traces of this text help us see what deformations and reformations this sort of temporal double-play involves.

The remediated page of Loves Garland that assembles itself on the right side of the screen is the frontispiece from Loues Garland or, Posies for rings, hand-ker-chers, and cloues and such pretty tokens that louers sent their loues. Read, skanne, then judge (1624). The holding library for this copy is the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. The digitized version that is used here is sourced from Early English Books Online. The images of posy rings in the margins on the right — the first (c. 1500-1530), second (c. 1400-1450), and third (c. 1300) — are sourced from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Margaret Simon is an Assistant Professor in English at North Carolina State University.

Poetical FugitivesMargaret Simon

In remixthebrand, Mark Amerika experiments with glitching, sampling, and remixing his own authorial identity. The result is a kaleidoscopic visual field of disorder and play, where competing iterations of Mark Amerika™ migrate back and forth across the threshold to interface with temporary assemblages of self|persona|brand.

How might an experimental, “glitchy” aesthetic help reveal the cracks in the source code of capitalism? This is the question animating Nathan Jones’s reading of Keston Sutherland’s poetry in Notes Towards a Glitch Poetics. Here, the underlying markup language that produces Jones’s piece is laid bare on the left hand side of the screen. By altering it and clicking RUN, readers can change the essay on the right, dismantling Jones’s (and thresholds’ ) authority in their wake.

For Charles Bernstein and Ted Greenwald, the threshold is a distortive lens through which their collaboratively written poem Extraneous passes, darkly. What emerges on the other side is a diffracted echo of the original, where language, newly daubed in hot swaths of color, take on the acoustic materiality of a riotous chorus.

In Autobiography of a Practice, Rachel Blau DuPlessis reflects upon her twenty-six year long poem project, Drafts. Scaffolded by handwritten fragments taken from her notebooks, DuPlessis’s essay asks us to conceive of writing as a necessarily collaborative encounter that occurs in the fecund space between author and text.

Paul D. Miller aka. DJ Spooky | Rhythm Science | 2004



An assemblage of GLITCH VIDEO ARTISTS,  SOCIAL MEDIA MARKETERSTRANSMEDIA PRODUCERSMFA CREATIVE WRITING STUDENTS, and ABD DIGITAL HUMANITIES SCHOLARS are powwowing as the barista on-duty is throwing down some serious COLUMBIA FIGUEROA espresso beans roasted by the pros over at COAVA while engaging in at least four simultaneous conversations with whoever happens to be standing around him as he extracts the subtlest flavors from the brand new LA MARZOCCO LINEA PB 3 AUTO-VOLUMETRIC ESPRESSO MACHINE that he has now become one with.


What’s this new trip he’s been on lately?

It’s all about branding.

Yeah, he’s pretty sinister about it.

But is he? I wonder if maybe his riffs on building brand name identity in the reputation economy are not a none-too-subtle reference to his own career, especially those early and heady days back in the mid-90s.

You mean his success as a net artist and new media theorist?

Exactly. I mean, at what point did he just wake up one day and think, you know, my real art form, the thing that drove my creativity when I first got started, was the way I used the Internet as my primary artistic medium to brand myself before anyone really knew what the World Wide Web was.

Or before there was a Google let alone a Facebook.

If you look at his early work, though, the stuff that got all the attention, it was really about the way he mocked what he imagined would become the networked condition.

Yeah, he was anticipating the present. I thought it was interesting the way he used his own web presence, what he was then calling his “digital flux persona,” as a model of self-satirical branding.

That’s what all of the net artists did in those days, though some are less inclined to admit it now that they have achieved success as artists and professors.

That whole approach to digital art is what got me into the digital humanities.

I could go on (I can’t go on) (I go on).

Really? How so?

I just saw an opening there, the way the digitally inclined scholar could market themselves in a networked environment and use their social media acumen to position themselves as a new kind of humanities scholar, someone who gets it.

Yeah, but that’s the point I was just trying to make about Walt. He was mocking the whole thing. The problem with the digital humanists is that they take themselves too seriously.

Like they’re going to save the profession from oblivion.

I think what made his own version of becoming a net artist so unique was the way he wrapped it into his ongoing investigations into narrative and how he remixed his persona into — what did he call it?

Narrative mythology.

Something about The Novel as Performance and the architectonic dimensions of a practice-based research methodology modeled after hypermediated forms of fiction writing would be worth revisiting here – but why not let the rhetorical repartee do the work for me?

Exactly. Turning his brand into mythopoeic fiction. You know he started out as a postmodern novelist before getting heavy into the whole net art thing.

Oh yeah, and he still writes novels, though they read more like a cross between long narrative poems and new media theory slash performance. I think he’s now calling them theoretical fictions.

But that historical moment, the 90s, has totally passed him by. I mean who wants to read novel works of hypertext fiction, even with enticing animated GIFS and streaming soundtracks, on the Web?

It’s really asking too much of the viewer.

Yeah, really. Fuck the reader. Long live, the viewer!

But in the early days, back when text was the predominant element being transmitted over the Net, the cultural sophisticates who were making their way online were totally open to the idea of at least trying to navigate through a multilinear storyspace. Nowadays, you’re lucky to get someone to just look at your animated GIF, period.

Unless you live in Bushwick, in which case you can get a gallery show featuring nothing but your animated GIFS.

I’m writing a paper about that.

A paper? How very 20th century of you. About what?

The Return of the GIF. It’s the web art version of vinyl. It’s experiencing its trendy hipster comeback in the retro-futurist Post-Internet scene.

Not that any of this will stop Walt from trying to drag more complex narrative on to the Web, kicking and screaming...

Well, have you heard the latest?


He’s creating a MOOC.

Get out.

The idea of a MOOC that doubles as a work of performance video art, something that would never sell in an official university capacity, but could certainly exist both online and in the contemporary art market is not necessarily out of the question. This is not-fiction.

Seriously, he’s been scripting it as part of a series of courses being taught in a new degree program, something called the Professional Masters degree in Creative Entrepreneurialism.

No way.

Way. And get this: it’s being taught in Arts and Sciences, as part of a new track in the Digital Humanities.

Whoa! Did you really just say a “Professional Masters degree in Creative Entrepreneurialism in the Humanities”?


That’s some seriously fucked up shit.

Not really, at least not if you talk to him about how he’s going to do it.

What’s he doing?

He sees it as a performance art project.

Now that doesn’t surprise me.

He’s working in the motion capture lab.

That’s cool.

Yeah, I know, he said he wants this new artwork to embody theory as performance capture, something about the “unquantifiable self,” and that he’ll use the technology, the motion capture sensor suit and HD helmet, to record his every move, his every facial gesture, as an attempt to create what he calls a new body language.

Well, he’s been talking about a new body language for decades now.

I know. He used to hang out with Kathy Acker who wrote about that.

What would an art historical language look like if it came from the body, if it read like a body coming?

Acker lived it. Same with him too, I suppose.

Have you read her piece on ordinary language versus the language of the body?

Sure, he assigned that last year, don’t you remember?

Oh, right. Sorry. But that’s something he’s still into apparently, except now he wants to take her whole idea of inventing a new body language, the kind where meaning only occurs at the edge of its becoming lost, and remix it into a form of video performance art that literally interfaces with the whole MOOC phenomenon.

I love Acker’s idea of locating meaning at the edge of language becoming lost. Once you let the language speak itself and it starts losing track of where it would otherwise be expected to go, that’s when the story can start tapping into its mythopoeic potential.

Totally. I know exactly what she means too. It happens to me all of the time when I’m fully lost in the writing process. It’s that moment when whatever we call the “ordinary” escapes from us while we’re writing, and we’re left with nothing but this adjacent possibility of being becoming something else, that space of mind where language itself becomes something else, something strange, and instead of self-correcting, we run with it, operate on auto-compose, and see where it takes us next.

One can also auto-compose a digital flux persona this way. What better way to ME-morialize identity?

Yeah, I really think this is another way of building a personal narrative trajectory and that this is exactly the process Walt talks about every time he tries to subtly critique what he perceives as stilted academic writing, the kind that depends on scholarly reportage and that suppresses the more spontaneous acts of creativity that inform whatever emergent poetics your imagination may want access to.

He quotes that mainstream writer, Doctorow, who once said -

I think it was on the Charlie Rose show, “you write to see what you’re writing about.” How else to compose a new body language that captures your stylistic tendencies?

Well, that’s something that Walt is really good at and he attributes a lot of his own formation as an artist to Acker who, by the way, has her archives at Duke now. He just went there.

If I remember correctly, in that essay about “ordinary” versus “body” language, she was basically talking about bodybuilding, about breaking things down, like bodybuilders break down muscle, to build new muscle, and she thought it was similar to the kinds of things she was doing with her own body language. She thought that she too was always breaking language down to see if she could make it stronger, build it up into something much more powerful, even hallucinatory in a sexual and politically potent way, but in order to get there, she had to take it, take language, to the edge, constantly take it to the edge where it eventually fractures and disperses.

Yeah, the edge of forever, where some new form of meaning might be found, if at all.

She used to masturbate while writing. One hand on the computer keyboard while the other was fingering her clit.

The coming of writing.

She was like that. Very devoted to her practice in an almost religious way.

Yes, I am a fan-boy of Cixous.

It’s what she lived for.

I read where she said that writing is like meditation and that the best way to operate, as a writer, as a novelist, was to get into the same kind of zone that you achieved through meditation, something she thought that weightlifters got into, and from there you would see what your body language wanted to say. But first you would really have to get into that headspace.

So why not push that as far it will go and literally try to bring herself to orgasm while writing? That was a brilliant parameter she set up for herself, a very Kathy Acker thing to try and pull off, a physiological form of rhetoric, very sculptural, you might even say isometric yet very open to revealing a new form of measure, one that would depend on the unconscious readiness potential of the writer to shape it all into an architectonic performance, where the novel becomes a kind of stimulation object.

Walt says that he imagines this MOOC performance he’s developing as a cross between electronic literature, movement art, and video performance. He’s, like, scripting his words, honing in on the gestural articulations, and planning out the different video effects he plans on using in postproduction. He’s even going to design a unique avatar that looks like a future version of himself, an animated 3-D puppet, so that after he dies the avatar will take on all of his idiosyncratic twitches and facial glitches.

He’s just fucking with you. What’s the MOOC about?

It’s called Introduction to Digital Art but it’s not really about that at all, or at least the way he describes it it’s not going to be what it appears to be.

OK, but then what will it be?

Ask her.


How’s it going?

Good. Are you talking about Walt?

Yeah, I guess we are. What are you having?

I’ll have an iced soy chai with a shot of iced coffee.

We call that a dirty chai.

OK, then I’ll have a dirty chai.

So what’s Walt’s new MOOC about?

Well, it’s definitely a performance art piece. In fact, he was saying in class yesterday that the performance capture aspect of the work is just the first layer, a way of outlining what a body does when it wants to spontaneously trigger new source material.

So it’s not scripted.

The movement is not scripted but he has a teleprompter with scrolling text he can read whenever he wants to. I think he’ll just let the text flow on the teleprompter and riff off of it.

And, knowing his theories on remixology, on inhabiting the source material as a stylistic gesture compounded by the postproduction of presence, I could see him riffing on his usual subjects.

Such as?

I’m thinking, given the motion capture environment, he’ll start riffing on muscle memory and writing as a gesture toward the Other.

Oh yeah, he already went there yesterday, saying to the class that whatever source material he happens to be embodying into his muscle memory while performing the piece will be captured in the motion capture lab as pure data that he can then remix into — what does he call it?

His theoretically charged language art.

No, not that, or at least that’s not how he put it in class.

His cut-and-paste “on the go” digital flow in auto-affect mode?

Maybe, but I think he put it differently. I don’t think it has anything to do with that whole “mobile” thing he was on to a few years ago.

He thinks it’s like the most natural thing in the world.


His whole spiel about mashing up narrative and rhetoric, practice and theory —

Art and life.

The Total Work of Art.

The language of the body.

Operating in asynchronous real-time.

Now you sound like a fan boy.

Let’s not forget us fan girls too.

Boy, girl, indifferent — does it matter? I say, “break the binary”...

I’m not a biological essentialist.

Never said you were.

They did and they had every right to do so. They are the new it. They’re the ones oscillating transitional forms of presence all along the gender spectrum and I’m jealous.

So say we all.

But I’m still not sure what the MOOC is about. You said something about an intro course focused on digital art and research but also something about branding?

Right, so it’s for this new Masters, you know these Professional Masters programs that they railroad students through so the institution can scoop up a lot of cash while getting them out the door in record time?

Out the door and into the job market.

Degree mills, they’re a dime a dozen, except now they’re all the top research universities talk about.


A way to pay for everything else since the state governments have reneged on that responsibility.

It’s wicked sick shit.

Yeah, so his MOOC will play off all of that.


Yeah, and he’s going to pitch it as an extension course focused on what a critical making practice in the digital humanities ought to be. He wants to hack into what’s fast becoming a canned pedagogical practice that basically translates into another brand of creative conformity, something he thinks the digital humanities are inclined to embrace.

He always was a reality hacker, you know.

The motion capture lab sounds perfect for him.

Yeah, so he figures he’ll don the motion tracking suits as well as the new HD Headcam they just got in the lab especially for facial expressions.

Sounds cool.

Living in the Post like it’s a preexisting condition.

Yeah, this way he can sample both his body movement — his body language — and his facial gestures at thousands of times per second as a way to investigate how the performance itself, as source material, can be remixed into what he calls performance art pedagogy.

But his rap will be more poetic and political in nature.

As always, and philosophical too. I’m sure he’ll bring in Bergson and the relationship between matter and memory. I mean, if you think about it, how does one capture muscle memory as a form of material speculation? Impossible, right? But he sees this new work as continuous with his other projects that sync his serrated satirical edges with whatever his subject happens to be, in this case what’s happening with higher education.

And I imagine not just higher ed, but really all aspects of social media culture, especially the so-called attention economy that’s become so indebted to the — what do they call it, the wealth of networks?

Yeah, well, he calls it the wealth of rigged networks.

That’s very Bernie Sanders of him.

Ha! Well, that’s just it, his 3-D avatar looks just like Sanders.

You’re kidding me.

No, and his persona, the vocal intonations, everything, is modeled after a standard Sanders stump speech but the content is all biting satire about what’s happening to art, education, the economy, interpersonal relationships, social media culture, and whatever else comes into view.

Remix or postproduction art is about so much more than taking two existing works and mashing them up. We can remix whatever we want: forms, syntax, imaginary muscle memory, you name it.

Such as?


So what is his angle on branding and how it relates to art, or education?

He’s been really digressing into this a lot lately in class.

For instance?

He says the goal of the emerging digital artist or humanist should be to develop a new form of rhetoric that’s really an ongoing net art project, one that gets distributed to ones cleverly curated networked milieu and that whatever mythopoeic reality you distribute has to keep your audience of followers totally psyched about your particular brand of innovation.

That’s what he did, albeit in a primitive html form.

Right, so now he’s coming out, so to say, he’s fessing up to his having made a concerted attempt to develop a fictitious mythology around his artist-self by having cranked out new works of digital or net art as well as his fictional versions of new media theory on a regular basis and doing it with whatever technological genres were hot at the time of release.

It sounds like he’s trying to the turn the MOOC into a playful take on his life story and then turn that performance art capture, so to say, into a model of creative entrepreneurialism for others to sample from and remix into their own campaigns for intellectual and creative relevance.

Yes, it’s probably something like that, but you know Walt, he never reveals his true motivations.

The unquantifiable self.

Can’t say that I blame him. My whole life is TMI and there’s no way out.

He says that revealing too much about himself, or at least his supposed self but that he still views as a digital flux persona, would feel like he’s chipping away at some of the mythical aspects of his practice, and wants others to discover their own path, whatever path it is, for themselves...

He’s a wannabe guru, that’s for sure.

The Aesthetic Fit-Bit in Auto-Compose Mode.

Absolutely. But then out of nowhere he’ll surprise you and ask everyone to look under the hood, the hood of his psychic mechanism, and see what you can find there — take what you need. He reveals too much as if succumbing to a spasm of self-demystification.

Yesterday he said something like, wait — here it is: “If you can sustain this always-online auto-generative positive feedback loop with your followers, this will keep your growing Networked Milieu forever tuned in to you, and it will also give you every opportunity to aggregate them into your own cleverly cultivated community of shared interest. This is crucial because these peeps are your optimally positioned brand advocates, and every neo-aesthetic avant-garde entrepreneurial artist needs brand advocates.”

He said that?

Well, it was in the video.

The video? Wait, I guess I missed something here. You mean he’s already in production on the MOOC thing? You’ve seen it?

Totally. He played an excerpt.

Wait a second! You never said this was in production.

No, I said I saw the 3-D Bernie Sanders version of his avatar puppet. Maybe you need a dirty chai.

Funny. Is any of it online?

Not yet, but I secretly recorded the sound on my Voice Memo app. How do you think I was able to transcribe it all verbatim?

Oh. That makes sense. Can I hear it?



I’d feel like I’m leaking it without his permission.

He’ll just end up giving it away for free on the Internet like he always does.

That’s true. But actually, he’s serious about it being a MOOC, so he wants to wait until he releases it as a DIY exhibition, on YouTube.

Ah, that’s perfect. He wants it to be a MOOC, or to play with the form of a MOOC, but doesn’t want to locate it in any preformatted institutional context because that would kill it, or kill its potential as art, or at least as part his own trajectory as an artist inventing his own body language as a kind of field composition or performance capture.


Do you remember anything else he said, in the video?

Oh, I have been transcribing it. Here, I’ll read you some, but it may not be 100% accurate. The recording is for shit.

That’s OK.

It’s kind of funny, he’ll say things like, “Now, let me be clear,” that’s the Bernie Sanders impersonation, “we talk a lot, I talk a lot, about how as an artist,” — he pronounces it “ought-ist” — “your greatest challenge is to figure out how to build a brand-name identity in the reputation economy which, by the way, is intimately linked to the attention economy. Because if your brand-name identity is taking the reputation economy by storm, then believe-you-me, you'll have a lock on the attention economy and you'll be well positioned to monetize all of those sticky eyeballs that watch everything you do into some Serious Bit Coin.”

Money in the bank.

He then asks, “And what 21st century artist doesn’t want to cash in on some Serious Bit Coin?”


“Because let’s face it, if you want to conform to the contemporary art scene and roll the dice with the blue chip hedge fund environment, then you have to figure out ways to blockchain your canonized provenance all the way to the bank.”

One in a million, and even if you’re the one, you’re still stuck in that upmarket paradigm that determines your value for you.

“So you're probably asking, how do I build this so-called brand name identity so that I can then create a serious value proposition in the art world’s very quirky reputation economy?”

That’s exactly what I was about to ask.

“The first thing you have to do is strategize a series of unpredictable information behaviors that will attract attention to your mischievous nature, to your willingness to disrupt the institutional context your work will end up circulating in.”


“This playful antagonism to the institutions that drive the contemporary art world economy will create what we call brand awareness because people will see you for being the clever little manipulator that you are and besides, this is a very good way to measure how well people in your target audience are aware of your brand and what it’s all about. But there's more to this than making a ruckus in your particular art world milieu and consequently building brand name awareness.”

Such as?

“You also need what I call BRAND ESSENCE.” And this is when the words BRAND ESSENCE, in all caps, come on the screen.

I thought you were going to say this is when the words BERNIE SANDERS came on the screen. What’s brand essence again?

Sounds like you need to take the course.

Maybe I do.

“It’s as though a coup had been staged in the heart of art school culture by an insurgent troupe of management theorists.”

“Brand essence is the fundamental nature or character of a brand and reflects the very unique footprint your artistic style brings to the contemporary market and, not only that, it also reflects the way you brand your art work in relation to the culture you find yourself doing business in. Now, let me be

clear — ”

He’s really pushing this Bernie Sanders thing.

Yes, but only as a voice. The whole thing is mock revolutionary in that it folds back in on itself so that it can come out even darker on the other end, a counterrevolutionary counterrevolution.

Like two negatives making a positive?

Something like that, I guess. I was never good at math or political science.

But I think I see what he’s getting at, though not so sure about the “fuck it, I’m going down with neoliberal capitalism aesthetic,” but I get it, it’s an act. Go on —

“This is not something that you can accomplish in your sleep.”


Building brand essence.

Oh, right, I forgot.

“This is going to require all of your time and energy, in fact, so much time and energy you may have to start paying other people to make your artwork for you.”

As well as pay them to help articulate your brand essence for whatever audience you happen to be speaking to.

“Believe me, it’s worth it, every penny, because, if you haven’t figured this out already, who has time to make art anyway and, besides, why make art when you can focus on making money?”

You can say that again. What am I doing in Grad school working part time as a barista when I could be out there making the big bucks as a contemporary digital artist building brand essence?

Well, he goes out of his way to make a difference between a contemporary artist and a digital artist ands what he calls a temporary artist.

Really? But we’re all working with digital processes these days.

Right, as are so-called humanities professors, who are really digital humanities professors, they just don’t know it.

Or media studies professors.

Same thing, different source material.

At least it should be that way.

I guess it all depends on how you brand yourself.

How you build brand essence.

The Reconfigured Artist: Media Landscape with Brand-Name Identity (Ongoing, dimensions vary)

Exactly! So he says, “In essence, brand essence is about the experiential encounter you know your artwork will present when it gets exposed to the right audience, something that will make them all feel like they can get something from you that they can't get from anyone else.”

That’s digital humanities in nutshell.



But as he goes on to suggest, how you go about doing this depends on your BRAND STRATEGY — and when he says the words BRAND STRATEGY they also appear on the screen for a few seconds as his wild avatar head suddenly disappears.

Oh right, we’re not even seeing him really, or not what we imagine him to be, but some performance captured 3-D version of himself, a designer avatar who’s, what, uploaded his consciousness?

No. It’s still him. He’s still alive for now. But once he’s gone I guess the avatar will live on.

As will the MOOC.

Yeah, whatever institution contracts the work from him is going to make shitloads of money in the future.

They can collect him.

Yeah, his later video works, so to say.


Embodying theory as a kind of “performance making” without having to paper over the difference.

Of course, the popularity of the course as artwork depends on how viral the videos become and he talks about that too, about becoming an avatar-meme.


Yeah, right? “Everything,” he says, “everything should flow from the brand strategy and this will require you to focus on what some of us like to refer to as differentiation.”

The differentiation engine.

Something like that. He says, “differentiation is an important part of branding, and the differentiation strategy should consider how the brand is positioned compared to its competitors.”

Now this totally sounds like the academic job market to me.

“What we're really talking about here,” he goes on, “is your VALUE PROPOSITION” and then the words VALUE PROPOSITION appear on the screen for like five seconds.

I’ve heard the phrase before.

What does it mean for a digital flux persona to circulate in a contagious media environment?

“A value proposition,” he tells the viewer, the student, the collector, whatever, “is what someone is going to get for their investment.”

I’ve got your value proposition right here.

Hush. “The term is used to describe some unique value that a brand, a product, or even an artist or scholar brings to the table. One of the things I want to be very clear about here is that once you continuously generate brand name identity in the high-brow culture’s reputation economy while simultaneously maintaining brand awareness over the course of a career, then everything you touch has the potential to turn into gold and your value proposition, or differentiation value, will be automatically generated just by the art historical circumstance you have created for yourself — and by this time you will also be taught in universities all around the world which will then enable the canonization and historicization process to feed on itself indefinitely.”

Sounds about right to me.

“Essentially, your brand essence will transform into one helluva marketing tool and, in so doing, you'll eventually find yourself populating both the art world and the academic markets with a network of influential brand advocates who will be so invested in you, so satisfied with your ongoing product line, that they will literally go out of their way to help you market it and, if you're really clever, this networked branding and marketing will never come to end and, instead, your long trajectory of creative outputs will simply be automatically fed into the engine of canonization that converts your value proposition as an art historical figure into some Serious Bit Coin.” And then the words SERIOUS BIT COIN, all caps, come on to the screen for like five seconds.

This is what he’s teaching now?

Kind of. It’s like performance art so it becomes something a bit different than teaching per se. I think of it as modeling. It’s like when you read a novel or see a foreign film or immerse yourself in an interactive installation and you actually learn something about yourself after having experienced the work as a model of artistic composition, right? I guess you could say it’s all about transmitting affective agency as a semblance of learning. It’s like that, but a seminar. It gets transmitted to you as a kind of experientially enriched event. I think he sees it like that.

I can totally see how it relates to all of his other work.

Me too. It’s like, how can you can transfigure thought processes, which are not academic in nature, into emergent forms of digital rhetoric that appear more fractured, digressive, fractal, discontinuous, interactive and most especially improvisational — and do it in a way that reveals a unique body language?

And that conveys information on a subatomic or neural level.

It’s like when you engage in a dialogue with someone who you can totally relate to, the neurons are clicking, it’s a collaborative process generating this other thing, this third thing, this third mind or externalized yet shared flow-object, as if drifting through a hastily composed environment of auto-affective gestures you didn’t know were possible but now all of a sudden you’re responsible for having co-created.

Exactly, and how do you bring that into a work of art that just reeks of networked forms of social interrelatedness?

Yeah, I want to mirror neurons virtually too, with a like-minded flow-object on the other side of oblivion.

And how can you even teach someone how to develop something like that?

Impossible. I don’t think you can teach someone how to compose in auto-affect mode. The best you can hope for is to model an embodied praxis, but even then who knows what’s being transmitted? The signals can easily be misread.

So why take the chance? Which ends up leading to a more conservative professoriate, one that’s always leaning toward the safe learning environment, something that can have negative effects down the line for the student whose world view is never contested and who wants to live in a bubble of entitlement and emotionally driven self-esteem.

You should have given me a trigger warning before you even thought that thought.

My bad. The problem is that I just can’t teach in that kind of an environment. It feels like I’m being censored and, besides, we live in America, the land of the first amendment and so-called academic freedom, right?

Absolutely. I have this conversation almost every day. You would think the best environment to exhibit ones freedom of speech in would be in the academic classroom and that you could really push thinking into the untapped outer boundaries of the unimaginable even at the risk of making people feel uncomfortable. I mean do you want to sound like you’re just running a simple routine, fitting the mold of an old school lecturer who wants the student to take notes and reproduce safe and censored knowledge so they can indicate their ability, their willingness, to memorize facts and/or role-play sanctimonious social justice warriors however important and useful that may truly be, or would you rather align yourself with the artistic pursuit of freedom and pleasure and do this by openly exhibiting the way you tap into your own experiential momentum as a pedagogical performance artist discovering their on-the-fly praxis-in-the-making?

Exactly, and that’s what you mean by modeling.

What does it mean to be a First Amendment Patriot?

So how am I supposed to do this? I don’t want to be this split personality who on the one hand is a totally unencumbered artist and writer letting the language speak itself and, on the other hand, a guarded academic drone who has to watch what she says.

I think you should bring this up in class. I’m sure he’ll want to talk about it too. It seems to be on his mind.

A long silence, final gulps of coffee, and a quick check of iPhones before the party splits the scene.

Maybe being a digital artist is more about cross-fertilizing avant-garde research methodologies with an expanded concept of the digital humanities, one that comes across as a kind of R&D arm of the culture industry, especially academia itself.

Wait. Is that you or him talking there?

Isn’t it all of us?

I wonder when the online MOOC exhibition opens.

I’m sure he’ll tweet about it.



All photographs and artwork in “remixthebrand” are the author’s own, bar the GIF from Captain America: Civil War (dir. Joe and Anthony Russo, 2016), which was sourced from GIPHY.

More information about Mark Amerika’s artwork can be found at his website.







Tapping a keyboard. How can it not also be about branding?

He probably didn’t wake up one day and come to some conclusion. He probably improvised what one of his characters once referred to as “Lifestyle Practice” and found it irresistible to investigate the way networks build aura or, what in 1995, was marketed as value-added.

True, he wasn’t a professor then. Is he a professor now? Walt surely is.

It’s not just a job; it’s an adventure!

Gets what?

Yes, but how does this compute?

Eleanor Antin:
I had a marvelous art-making machine—my personas. I never knew where it would go.

Persona as shareware,

No doubt a reference to GRAMMATRON but, again, the professor character being referred to here is not-me (said the author who never recognizes himself in the mirror).

Before literary hypertext on the WWW, there was, purveyors of the software program Storyspace. Does anyone but media archaeologists really care any more?

Who wrote that? Me? The absent-minded cryptomnesiac?

Spontaneous sketching. Approaching writing as a structured improvisation. Improvise and revise. But not giving in to “craft” per se. More like tuning ones instrument to transmit what Kerouac once referred to as Deep Form.

But how deep is Deep?

Tapping into one's unconscious readiness potential on the edge of forever while circulating in the networked space of flows, always the Total Field of Action, another roll of the dice that never abolishes chance. Simple, right?

I’m not a big fan of Kerouac’s actual fiction but have somehow become enamored of his insights into the essentials of spontaneous prose, the idea of writing “without consciousness” in a semi-trance state (in a nod to Yeats’ “trance writing”).

Forever troubleshooting the false appearance of a present.

And monetizing différance all along the way...

There is no perception without remix. Being on the go in auto-affect mode depends on our capacity to unconsciously / intuitively assemble data into an image (even if the image itself no longer has time to become an image, in which case, nothing will have taken place but duration itself).

Why work? Unfortunately for poets, prophets, psychic revolutionaries, and dreamers of all stripes, an immersive ludic lifestyle practice is totally at odds with existing reality. So now one must work to transform existing reality at all costs.

Being-innovative is a clever way of positioning the practice-based researcher as both fevered archivist and information DJ. When applied to professional identity, this is when we enter the realm of the digital flux persona.

I often write about him/he. But “I” who? And He, who? The author is both corrupting and corruptible and this leads to all kinds of intellectual dys-function. And yet it feels oddly healthy. A tonic for the psychic dismemberment that one feels while experiencing negative hallucinations (not seeing what’s right in front of you).

But will we ever see his memoir? Every time he starts to write it he gets caught up in a never-ending flow of fictional sex scenes. Maybe he should write about that.

What I really need to do is to invent a previously unimaginable experiential mark-up language that transmits intangible value to all those receive its signals and, in the process, create an aesthetic currency that simpatico others can readily convert into unconsciously produced wisdom.

It’s much easier to transcribe philosophical ideas within a fictional script for performance art video than preconceived scholarly essays that adhere to a best practices model of discovery...even though the structural parameters of the artwork framed by the writer are actually pedagogical in nature. Why?

Many members of the professoriate act as if they are self-employed freelancers even though they operate in a technocratic institutional context.  The cool thing about being a (nonacademic) multimedia artist and theorist who just happens to be a tenured professor is that it’s actually your job, as a practice-based researcher, to challenge the operational behaviors associated with these professional-managerial environments by using your avant-garde skills-set to become an interventionist reality hacker who disrupts what neoliberalism has normalized as acceptable conduct.

The therapeutic effects of writing it out, of breaking free from the flow of canned information behaviors that incarcerate the artist inside the networked economy’s conceptual machinery is best measured in how much freedom they have to pursue non-ideological erotic pleasure with likeminded humans who strive to realize their mutual desires as a communal form of meat joy performance art.

AS IF there could ever be such a thing as a PERMALINK.

All artistic activity occurs, first of all, in the field of distribution.

Mirroring neurons, anyone? I can imagine a near-term future where all reading transforms into mind reading.

Those who can teach, do. Those who can’t, succumb to other media markets.

remixthebrand (a theoretical fiction)Mark Amerika

Notes Towards a Glitch PoeticsNathan Jones

Put my head in the grinder but no thought 
came out.

Better grieve

than be aggrieved, lest the

wait of mystery crush

the tangible impermanence of the present.

Kisses paint corners

Hole array of


Almost a tie an exact


a lot

These issue Pivot tone

Skies not cloudy

All day allatime

Yes it is

Buddy battery

West tear on legend

Get together

Sno globe friendlies

In love by umbras

1. Sent from ignobility
2. Stratosphere
3. Get grapes
4. It’s extraneous only insofar as I want it to be
5. Make it look more messy
4. Relevance is determined by genre
7. A ring around a rosy is just a fall guy.

“I’m thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?”

Odor air cool

Saw out of sight seeing

See ya ingot

The illustration of the two men that you see at the top of this poem is an image from an article by Alexander Graham Bell titled “Production of Sound by Radiant Energy,” which was first published in Popular Science Monthly in 1881. The entire issue is digitized and available at The audio clips were generated by Charles Bernstein and are hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound.

Put my head in the grinder
but no thought came out.

Better grieve

than be aggrieved, lest the

wait of mystery crush

the tangible impermanence of the

Kisses paint corners

Hole array of


Almost a tie an exact

     Using a


These issue Pivot tone

     Skies not cloudy

All day allatime


Buddy battery

West tear on legend

----------------------------Get together

--------------------Sno globe friendlies

     In love by umbras

1. Sent from ignobility


3. GET grapes

4. It's extraneous only insofar as I want it to be

5. Make it look more messy

4. Relevance is determined by genre


7. A ring around a rosy is just a fall guy

"I'm thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?"

Odor air cool


See ya ingot


ExtraneousCharles Bernstein | Ted Greenwald

What is and what was my encounter with this long poem, my long poem, Drafts? And, borrowing the manner of novels — then what happened? What’s the plot? It is actually a number of encounters, along different lines of desire, drives, dérives. These encounters would have a history of my life and events that irrupted from politics and historical memory. I’d have to detail a sense of collaboration with a mode — all the long poems that I stumbled upon, or studied without even knowing I was “preparing” for this work, and then that I deliberately read and entered as a parallel pilgrimage with their authors.

Drafts exists both as a whole unmonumental monument and in autonomous canto-like sections as a large field into which a reader may enter anywhere. For various reasons and in a process of discovery that occurred over seven years, I designated a projected total of 114 separate but related works along with an unnumbered (115th) “center” made of 57 sonnet-like objects. Drafts is not one single personal or historical story, nor does it offer an expressivist narrative of realizations across the whole work. The largest unifying emotions are probably double and conflicting: wonder, bedazzlement at the world and amazement — sometimes grief — of what we have made of it. Drafts has no trajectory as a totality or whole (mainly because it is an open-ended grid), although each poem definitely does have a trajectory, sometimes a forensic argument, sometimes findings by dérive and indirection, sometimes making a collection of materials that have to be together to collaborate in a finding and a feeling. So in terms of seriality (building a semi-linear, semi-vectored, pensive, forensic, self-quarrelling argument inferentially, by leaps and movement) — many individual poems are internally organized as serial works, but the whole of Drafts is in (or of) that mode in only the most general way. It manifests its commitment to seriality on a very large scale — you might say that the sections all point outward and inward as a series of explorations into the world and thus into IT. Into the two oddities of all oddities: IT and IS. These words indicate being itself (thus Drafts is an ontological poem). They also express being itself, within this cosmological and ecological poem, at times meditating on actual scientific findings as told by journalism, at times speculating on the universe. The continuous changes of scale from the little dot of “I” to the magnitude of “it” are addressed constantly. Thus it is a social poem and a political poem about being here and what we have made of that place and time.

The poem (Drafts as a whole) is a site, almost like a territory or a country; anyway, it’s somewhere I explored for a very long time, living a parallel life inside the work. Almost every poem is in a different genre, although the fundamental bases are both midrash (intellectually) — I mean permanent gloss — and the serial poem (formally). Line length (a kind of metrics) varies enormously in the work overall and often within individual works. The sound or tone ranges from an effusion of sublimity to the starkest aphorism. Rhyme is used at times (including in several poems completely rhyme-based) and is meant seriously and lovingly.

What is shape? How does it happen? where does the authority of declaring shape come from? It is informed heuristics. You let yourself go into that space and you are informed enough to know when something found is interesting and provocative. You are informed enough not to be too self-deceived.

The inhabiting of the long poem as a place in time — is not an answer given beforehand. I did not know what writing Drafts would entail when I began in 1986. I did not have a plan or a program, although to others it might appear as if I did. This is because of the rectangle of the grid that evolved or developed for me to keep charting the sections and (very loosely) track their relationships. But the open boxes of the grid were there to keep me open! The contained void is an invitation. Drafts itself declares an openness to itself.

I projected a shape — it came from necessity. I said
that things would recur, but they would recur differently,
that verses of the poem are similar, but also different.
That there is no recurrence in exact terms, but things repeat
or there is no repetition, but some part of things recurs.
All that is the reason for the grid shape of the rectangle, 19 x 6.
Numbers occurred to me and I chose to follow them.
This establishment of the grid occurred in 1993, seven years after Drafts began.

Anyway, a (long-sought) act of declaration gave me a number: 114. That number seemed — it was — enormous!
A challenge to myself.
I said 114. Six times 19.

And then, resisting and expanding my own goal, I did an outrigger (Draft unnumbered: Précis) after poem 57 and before poem 58. Hence there will always be one more than planned. Further, half of the poem (this is amusing) is “summed up” in Précis — and half will never be. It's as if the first three sets of 19 poems were capped by an “ending” in the middle of the work — the unnumbered “Précis,” wee quasi-sonnets “summarizing” the 57 poems that went before. This is a tremendous joy to me as an idea; I loved having thought of it. Why? First because you’re not supposed to have an ending in the middle (actually, of course, you can. You can do whatever you damn please.). And second because you can’t “summarize” any poem with an “abstract.” And third because this move produces an open-ended and uneven form — creating double numbers for the length — one even and one odd.

The grid I drew at seven years into the project, had open spaces, “drawers” or slots, the zones for poems, the boxes:
The grid was a “logic” that did not determine anything at all.
It did not determine any title or any content.

It might suggest a motif (“work” — a recurrence in every nineteenth poem) which doesn’t mean that “work” cannot appear elsewhere, so there was no forbidding; it was all permission.
That is the story of the open spaces on the grid.

There will be a poem in this place!
It was joyous! it was futurity! That’s what the grid declared.
The empty spaces were waves and pulses carrying me forward precisely because of being a contained void, and then pleasure when they each poem emerged as such.
The rule was simply: there is some structure —
which simply means connection:
there is a weaving among the works
and the words weave in any one poem; the works weave over all.

Aura is a word I would now use — the scheme, the grid had a kind of magic for me. It was never rigid, but suggestive. It was geometric and topological. It came about; it was not imposed. And one result — temporality goes several ways, one-to-one (poems in a sequence, loosely, one was written, then another). And poems cross-temporally, read through their own space, a space they create by coexisting. Because of the grid, (up and down & horizontal, as well, sometimes, as cross-wise with allusions), the poem has constructed itself in a dimension neither space nor time.

Any individual poem got generated by the mystery of a title. Often the title came first, but sometimes the poem wouldn’t settle until the right title was found.

The titles were like probes, but in no single intellectual, image-laden or logical way.

They were suggestive words. They were never “pre-thought”

but the whole poem was the thing through which each of the titles was exemplified.

In the grid, I developed two directions of following. The first direction — from poem to poem chronologically/numerically — the downward y-axis, shifted as an absolute goal. The poems are not necessarily “linked” end to end, although they are, loosely speaking, in a clear sequence. Once the sense of one to one to one (the Steinean move, the Creeleyesque move) was not enough, the fold became central. This is a way of reading across the x-axis. The poems relate across the grid on a periodicity of nineteen “lines” — the designation of these lines simply based on the number of the poem first in the series, like “line of six” whose first poem is “Midrush.” The poems are imagined to pleat over themselves, as if reading down through an arrangement of textile, or a metaphoric palimpsest. (Metaphoric, because all the writing was visible, layer by layer; in a palimpsest, the writing is partly effaced.) Amazing to have this conform to (and confirm) my original vision of a work made of see-through plastic sheets, written on, with words sliding over each other, like a constructivist sculpture. It was only then (after the pleating, the fold) that enough potential pattern was set up, between poems 2 and 21 to trouble any easy relation between 20 and 21, and then 21 to 22. Any formal schemata to which one becomes committed is an act of epistemology and as an existential act of poesis — choosing and making.

With a y-axis, sheer sequence (this poem comes after that poem) is central. This is the order in which they were written. With the addition of the x-axis (across the units of nineteen), the longer space created across the poems became the main space of potentiality. I signaled the articulation of the fold by citing from prior poems (“donor drafts”) and by sometimes “writing between the lines” or “writing off” the donors when I was constructing or composing any individual new poem. But I also know that — gratifyingly — a magnetism has been set up among the poems that are said and made to be related. Their relationships will exceed what I have built into them. Readers will construct relationships from what I have constructed.

It seems very clear that this work is written from multiple subjectivities all of which are mine. My main citation strategy is unmarked self-citation. This is a texture of repetition, with which I will put lines from prior Drafts in a new context. It’s

  • a crocheting-texture picking stitches up to extend the poem
  • a midrashic goal of self-commentary and gloss by extension
  • a study of how the same statement can mean different things, or lead to different ruminations, exposing the mystery of words, of context and of genre/convention cues
  • a proposal that words and statements are the “muses” for future poems. This means not male or female figures but words and texts are the muse. This is an extension of feminist thinking into poetic procedures — a critique of single-point muse as it’s been used throughout poetic tradition.

The poem had to be flexible to itself, while, at the same time, it had to be alert to when it needed to bend or affirm its own “rules.” So as the poem invented its own history, it became an entity that needed to be reckoned with. That is the poem almost manifested a kind of agency, by weight of accumulated texts and by playing out its own history with itself — and, of course, with me. Agency in writing is so peculiar — you really are you-the-author and you are, after all, making the poem (because who else is doing it?) — but many people writing have testified to the will of the materials, the pressures that concepts and choices exert back onto you. The feedback loops of self-evaluation, self-reading have a lot of reverberation. I once cited Rautavaara’s statement when he was commissioned to write a string quartet: “the work demanded a second cello.” It therefore became a quintet. The work is “your voice[s]” speaking. How does it “demand” anything? Yet it does.

Mobility, open curiosity, responsibility, wit about its own demands became important to the poet and thereby to the poem. I began to develop a sense of the whole poem (Drafts) as an entity — it did not break down under its own weight. Even as the work changed, some core sense kept going. The poem became adequate to its own implications. It is also true that part of the heuristic bargain was that the individual cantos all have a different shape. Sometimes different textures. Certainly different genre allusions. Definitely different materials. That is, I not only didn’t want each of the drafts to resemble each other —but that self-difference was a positive value, a sought-after feature.

To explain the sense of agency to the thing you are, after all, making, here’s a currently favorite citation about this process from the artist Helen Frankenthaler: “You tell it, then it tells you.” For succinctness and accuracy, that can’t be beat.

So now what? Well, as I indicated rather clearly in my debates over “ending” staged both in the final poem (“Draft 114: Exergue and Volta”) and in the Preface to Surge: Drafts 96 -114, I distinguish between finishing/completing, and ending/stopping, or even folding up. The poem has stopped, folded up. Is it complete? No. The very premise (and promise) of Drafts precludes this idea. No work is definitive. No work has one final answer even if every poem has an articulated form or shape. Every closing somehow implies an opening, however small and attenuated, however painful this pinhole is. In Drafts as a whole, I depend a good deal on the Steinian invitation: beginning again and again. And on H.D.’s paradoxical remark — pivoting constantly between the same and different, different but the same as before. These principles in poetics have been true throughout the writing of the poem and are true as well at its terminus, which is only a stopping place, a pause after a period of intense fabrication.

Was the stopping organic to the project? yes in certain numerological ways — (I had reached the even-odd poise), but also no in certain other ways. Why, then, did I stop? First, because of the number scheme I wanted to fulfill and did. Second, because I didn’t want to become too taxing and ridiculously long that I would never be read. (Yet who knows? Others can seek what they want from the poem, or not.) And third, because after 26 years of inhabiting the creation of “cantos” of varying genres but a kind of sound — certain moves became both satisfying and habituated. The question is distinguishing between habituated (a mode of practice) and habitual (a bad habit or just an obsessive habit). So I wanted to stop in order to try beginning again over all, to see “what would happen.” This proved — I am writing about the years 2012 to mid-2016 — to be very high-risk behavior. At first I was more capricious and gleeful about this moment. I am less so now. I think of the dilemmas I deliberately set up as the dilemmas of late work.

I was leaving Drafts now in the shape it had come to, and in the achieved process that it represented. That shore receded as I embarked — no, not really embarked, but pulled the same little boat of me-and-poetry elsewhere. I was, I felt, still on the same vast ocean.

It’s now early 2017, about four and a half years since I decided not to use the title Drafts for new work, and thus to shift away from the project that had consumed all my poetry — its time, force, production and interests — since I began this work in 1986. It was (looking from the outside) a stark decision, but, looking from the inside, a good one. I was curious what I would do now; I was curious to put myself in a position of not knowing, of being unsure, even of being sorrowful and destabilized. All of which happened, as foreseen.

I see that the imagination of form and mode that I present here offers a strong sense of a potential shape — a large conceptual shape — but then allows a lot of chance and happenstance — literally “hap” — to move into the works themselves. And thus despite the illusion of Knowing Fully that this essay narrative (or any such narrative) offers, with its distinctly ex postfacto descriptions of “deciding,” I maintain a strong posture of unknowing, curiosity and attentiveness in all these choices. Further, if you are driven to do something, you need to stop making up reasons why you shouldn’t. Or even reasons why you should. If you do it, you will find out — find out, in any event, something. Maybe not what you set out to find. Who knows? Writing, even thinking about structures, is a giving over into desire and risk and deep friskiness.

Anyway, over the past three-four years (2012-early 2016), I have written seven distinctly and differently fashioned works, works I called “interstitial.” That word means existing between one thing and another. And this implies that there would be an “another.” But I had no idea, at first, what that “other” would be.

What was the genesis of the interstitial works? It became clear from a signature poem, “Draft 104: The Book,” that making books, constructing books within books, and negotiating with ideas of the book in poetry and culture were preoccupying concerns. Hence, during this period, I chose to make specific and individual books of poetry in part to examine the book as a single thematic item, and in part as a way of following through, in each book, on the themes and propulsions from Drafts as a totality. These seven interstitial books/chapbooks constitute a dis-unified un-totalized array. These works also seem to grow out of or be connected to Drafts, as if Drafts were a gigantic piece of fabric art or tapestry with related works tied on to it or emerging from it.

The interstitial works include five books and two chapbooks. Interstices (Subpress, 2014) is a book of epistles written as if “to” letters of the alphabet and to amalgams of people. These twenty-six Letters are paired with twenty-six Ledgers — soundings in our time. This follows on the motif of friendship and of political suspicion in Drafts as a whole.

Graphic Novella (Xexoxial Editions, 2015) is a work of collage and rumination stating that we don’t need the “new” as an avant-garde act so much as we need the “news.” Black and white collages with topics from Voter ID to ecological fears, from questions of responsibility and the fate of humanity are raised in a wondering scrapbook/trashbook format with a world scope.

Then in a mythopoetic return via Eurydice to a motif of women as cultural producers that I (and other people) worked on in the 1970s, I made a book of sonnets and meditations called Eurydics (starting from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus), which will appear from Further Other Book Works in 2018. I wanted to investigate the clumsiness and ungainliness of the word “eurydic” in comparison with the word we adore as indicating the highest poetic aspiration: orphic.

Numbers is also a collage-based work with poems, cosmological and bemused, about zero through five with a significant treatment of pi (π) as a bizarre number indicating a perfect form (the circle), but being infinitely expandable, since it has never yet generated a repeating element among its millions of digits. This work will appear with Materialist Press in 2018 — with its collages in full color.

Of the two shorter works, one is a chapbook called ‘Churning the Ocean of Milk’ a cosmological poem with collage inspired by a trip to Cambodia (site of one of the recent major crimes against humanity) (2014). The other is a response to Mallarme’s famous work about something and nothing (the mystery and the void). POESIS (Little Red Leaves, 2016) was an experiment (well, everything is!) of writing a poem visually/physically based on the page space of Un Coup de Dés but very different in thematic emphasis.

Days and Works, published in 2017 (by Ahsahta Press), one work among of the constellation of these works, maximizes the themes and modes of the interstitial books: personal, political, feminist, eco-poetical, visual, ruminative, hybrid, mixing prose and poetry, and both witty and empathetic about daily life and the everyday, all with a sense of yearning that is spiritual in force. Days and Works is a lyrical documentary in which everyday life, dreams, death, a skeptical spirituality, amusement and conflicts are all set together. News reports — tragic, weird, touching, enraging and constantly irrupting into our “days,” are collaged into my text as real clippings. The book resonates with the oddity of being in the world and in time.

As all this was happening, over the past years, I was searching for a word. What (I asked myself) is the word that would be like the word Drafts — was there such a word — there was no word as good — Drafts was such a great word — why did I stop Drafts — it was a perfect impulse, and now it’s gone (sob, boohoo) and so on...

I had written “It’s true that this book might finish; it’s true it might go on.”  It became clear that the scale and dynamic of the long poem still compelled me. A long poem project, I found, is constitutionally metamorphic and endless. The word that emerged was Traces. Drafts and Traces have related titles — “drafts” alluding to the permanently unfinished and “traces” to the almost-effaced inscription and mark. Both modes concern creation and reading, re-creation and re-reading; both are endlessly searching and rearticulating signs and findings. Drafts look to a future — these poems are “drafts” of one perpetually unfinished poem — but it cannot be completed. The concept and the poem Drafts only lead (and have led) to more drafts. There is no finality, only making and changing and making again. The poem is somehow perpetually prospective.

The title Traces looks (very loosely) (does it? I am asking myself) to the past and to reading the past: what happened? what was all that? It’s as if the Poem never “happened” — although poems continue to be explored. Marks were made — now they are traces. How to read them becomes one question. And all the poems I write depend on making marks and then reading them.

Interstices and the other interstitial works may constitute a between, between two long poems.

But actually all the poems I write emerge from this between.

The background image used here is from the author’s Tapa notebook (2008-2009), which is held at the University of Auckland Special Collections in New Zealand as part of a project of collecting intentional notebooks, curated by Michele Leggott. The entirety of DuPlessis’s Tapa notebook is hosted by and can be read online at Journal of Poetics Research, which is edited by John Tranter. All “floating” handwritten fragments that pass over the Tapa notebook image were produced by the author for this essay.

Autobiography of a PracticeRachel Blau Duplessis

Ernest Pignon-Ernest | “Illustration #2” | Veils | 2001

Lauren Berlant’s experimental piece, Poem|Fault, delicately positions itself at the horizon of a blasted landscape designed by Pinar Yoldas. Digging a finger into their seeping leg wound, Yoldas’s figure pinions the reader with their raw eye, daring us to sink into the portal of Berlant’s poem. Carved into slabs, the poem too is a wound that must remain open if we are to move through and be moved by it.


  • The lake is infused with alien fish. A smuggler dumped into the water unseeable things and soon bacteria were taking massive shits there, sending to the way of decay our sloppily arranged infrastructures. We are fucked from building haywire on ecologies like that, choosing, choosing, barely chewing, confusing desire for survival. Inattentive when bored, eating while driving, singing in the car, fiddling absentmindedly with this and that, and refusing to let go, hoping the dying takes place later, or over there.

  • Empires end like that, you know, dissolving slowly while grammars stand dry eyed on the shore waving, grinning and making up new ways to be inconvenient. Now the shore shocks, reappearing as the edge of a cliff, the ground washed out while the bright light shines blindingly, all yellow-spiked and hopeful. Imagine a cartoon of the fish and the sudden cliff and subtract the promise of immortality that makes cartoons comical.

  • Harder’s not always the same thing as worse. In the chronicles of lukewarm touch there’s a lifetime of accommodation, and the throat wedges trying not to suffer from the wrong wants again. Against that wind the question asks itself: what is it to be naked among men?

  • In a crisis people flail. If x is like this, we can treat x the way we treated this. The state wants people flattened: not like the Shoah, like the slow death of slavery, not like blue-collar exhaustion, like the life-loss in migration, not like the banality of meat but the peeling that’s leather. The nots are randomly placed. But look at all the ways x is like this. Will a sick analogy respond to treatment? What’s the relay between treatment and repair? And justice, let us not go there.

  • Just now, another analogy went bad. That is the story of this, and many stories. In other ones, an analogy goes good.

  • After disaster, more love. After disaster, more democracy. After disaster, there is no after, but a newly congested tableau of the present that motivates people toward cushions. “What is it to be "naked" among men?” Foucault asks. The quotation marks force a hole in the world that sucks disparate moments into vulnerable co-presence. What is it to be naked among men? The italics are a resource for rebooting resonance. What is it to be “naked”: where are you now? The literal, the figural, along with staying alive.

Poem | FaultLauren Berlant (poem) | (art) Pinar Yoldas