“Art exists because life is not enough” –Ferreira Gullar
“I am a fervent admirer of Ferreira Gullar’s scandalously beautiful Dirty Poem. It makes me feel like a child before a tropical forest or a soaring monument.” –Clarice Lispector
“In the concrete object each piece is not merely a thing designed by its maker to perform a determined function; rather it is part of a system in which a multitude of forces are exercised and in which effects are produced that are independent of the design plan.” –Gilbert Simondon
In 1959, Brazillian poet Fernando Gullar put forward an aesthetic theory highlighting the activist effect of art objects in systems of social exchange. Alongside the Brazilian artists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, he launched a Neo-Concretism, drawing on the aesthetics of the Concretists, the Suprematists, the Vorticists, and the Abstractionists, while deriding notions of latent meaning or rationalist “scientistic” tendencies in those movements.
Neo-Concretism emphasized the inherently transcendental aspect of art and language as signification operating within multiple systems. Gullar wrote about art objects, what he called “non-objects,” in system: “The spectator is solicited to use the ‘non-object’… mere contemplation is not enough to reveal the sense of the work… the spectator goes from contemplation to action… what his action produces is the work itself, because that use, foreseen in the structure of the work, is absorbed by it, revealed and incorporated into its signification.”
Gullar highlighted the way art objects or “non-objects” exist within multiple systems of signification and are always being interpreted, making new meanings. This is crucial because the social affects of human discourse magnify and clarify human experiences and make up a large part of humanness. Simply put, art cannot be appreciated in isolation or as something purely “aesthetic,” because of its important role in helping us to understand ourselves and our world.
In his writing on transindivualism, French philosopher Gilbert Simondon outlines the human experience as a constant exchange of social affects among individuals, a system in a state of meta-stability. The transindividual human experience, playing out across systems of social exchange, incorporates and interacts with technical objects.
In his writing on machines, “On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects,” Simondon highlights the way technical objects are extensions of human bodies and human discourses without quite being human. One key aspect of man-made “technical objects” is the way they represent a higher level of concretization than human bodies. While human bodies are constants exchanging social affects, technical objects remain more concrete. A VCR can only play videocassettes. Technical objects represent a snapshot of function within a certain system of signification. And as technical objects “evolve” through time, it’s as discontinuous snapshots of an object or machine in relation to a certain system of signification. While they do represent a kind of historical record, machines are most functional and meaningful in the context of signification from which they emerge.
In “On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects” (translated by Ninian Mellamphy), Simondon writes “The actual evolution of technical objects does not happen in an absolutely continuous manner; it does not happen in an absolutely discontinuous manner either: it involves stages that are definable by the fact that they bring into being successive systems of coherence.”
According to Simondon and according to Gullar, a poem is not quite a technical object or machine, and not quite a human. It falls somewhere in between, because the art object is a social technical object that is exchanged between humans, thereby influencing and changing human experience, but not a completely concrete level of signification. This is to say, compared to a videocassette, which has a set meaning within its specific system of signification, a poem is much more mutable—its meaning is created and changes through social interaction.
Art objects as complex social affects (social machines) operate at multiple levels of signification and sometimes traverse systems, and constantly change in relation to the “spectator,” thereby changing that spectator as well. So poems are less concrete than other machines, while more concrete than the constantly changing human individual. They are man-made, and man-making. In his “Neo-Concrete Manifesto,” Gullar writes: “A work of art surpasses the material on which mechanism rests, not by some unearthly reason: it surpasses it by transcending these mechanical relationships…and creates for itself a tacit meaning… it emerges for the first time.”
By the time Gullar wrote Dirty Poem in 1975, Brazil had been under military dictatorship for almost a decade.
This dictatorship, brutal and repressive, targeted dissidents and engaged in torture and abduction.
Gullar’s aesthetic project only becomes more important against this context. As an exile in Buenos Aires, he released an important and expansive text. Dirty Poem is an epic of mundane life, celebrating bawdy pleasures and daily anxieties and Gullar’s memories of his childhood home in the French Portuguese city of São Luís Maranhão in northeastern Brazil.
Translator Leland Guyer has done phenomenal work creating a clear lyric through the dirt, “muddy muddy/ the muddy/ hand of the wind/against the wall.” It’s a soaring work, vibrant in bawd, screaming humanity against the language of prude fascism.
d Oh, my dirty city
you suffer deeply and in silence
d from the shame the family smothers
d in its deepest drawers
d of faded dresses
d of tattered shirts
d of legions of degraded people
d barely eating
yet embroidering flowers on
d their tablecloths on
d their table centerpieces
with water jars
An eerie echo of the Neo-Concretist project emerges in the way the Brazilian government, and authoritarian governments in general, use censorship of complex social messages as a core for control. And persons operating outside of the language of consensus are broken down through methodical interventions against language culture.
We see this as recently as in the 2014 “Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Torture,” and in the way authoritarian governments interfere with the social affects and with technical objects that align to create a sense of humanity in individuals.
The “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) used under Brazil’s dictatorship and in America’s Guantanamo Bay rely on the undermining of a person’s sense of reality. Therefore, it is common for torturers to deconstruct language conventions, babbling, lying, and creating a general sense of the uncanny. Torturers destroy the technical objects that create meaning in human systems of signification, like chairs and beds.
One of the most damning and revealing details that emerged from this the 2014 Senate report was the way interrogators broke down detainees by creating a sense of “learned helplessness.” This was a sort of existential break in sense of self, when detainees no longer trusted the conventions of language. It wasn’t achieved through water boarding, but through denigrating social signifiers, creating a sense of uncanny and mistrust in language, ultimately rupturing the detainees’ belief in their own human experience.
Dirty Poem is a vital denunciation of these tendencies. And Gullar is a powerful voice in the celebration of our shared experience.