for, on the one hand, Eric Trudel, and on the other, Francesca Capone
There is one activity one can always engage in: the gaze-of-such-a-sort-that-it’s-spoken, the comment upon what surrounds him and upon his own state amidst what surrounds him. Right away, this lets him recognize the importance of each thing and its mute supplication, the instances when, in their silence, they make us speak them, according to their value, and in themselves,—outside of their habitual signifying value,—with no alternative, and yet measured. By what measure?: their very own.
– Francis Ponge, “Les Façons du regard” [Ways of Seeing]i
I swear language is capable of getting in the way of my use of it.
Sometimes I can’t bear the effects of its having a mind of its own . . . !
To hold a pebble in your palm once is to understand how every pebble behaves,
how every pebble has ever behaved (since well before the flood,)
is to understand that a pebble wouldn’t move, or couldn’t move,—
that a pebble shouldn’t move,—
unless acted upon by an external force (to quote a phrase),
is to feel that a pebble has no internal force,
but has been brought by what it is not to where it has come to rest—
Ponge: “It is sometimes the case that the stone itself holds signs of having been stirred. In its final stages, as pebble, gravel, sand, dust, it is no longer able to play its role as bearer or supporter of animate things.”ii
Is this what it means to be without will:
moving only passively through the space on the side of things,
being moved, breaking down, until there is nothing left but pebble, gravel, sand, dust,
until there is not enough left of you to even house or support your suppressors, the ones who caused you to stir, to disintegrate?
And does a stone continue to possess its body as it falls away to pebble, grave, sand, dust?
And is there even such thing as totality in geology, or has all that was once integral broken into discrete bodies? A sort of incomplete whole.
And to what whole, beyond the pebble itself, could the pebble belong?
Lautréamont: “It is a horrible thing to feel what you possess slipping away. We become attached to it for no other reason than to find out if it may hold something permanent.”iii
Nothing is such a “horrible thing” to the inanimate, so we say, which is why we are drawn to lament on its behalf:
its passivity has begun to scare us into caring as nature accelerates toward entropy.
And does a hurricane feel regret as it shreds a landscape,
having been set into motion by external forces,
as it levels houses mortgaged by these external forces themselves, us,
a genie bound to the task of carrying out the suicidal third wish of its master?
Variations on an animate-inanimate relationship:
- The dominant-submissive relationship
- The dominant-unaware relationship
- The dominant-absent relationship
- The dominant- relationship
The “side of things”: where all material, even language, is an asemic body—the within and under-the-surface of things,
where all bodies are never not asemic, devoid of and yet not delimited in their meaning.
The “side of language”: where language is significant, functions via pure convention—the between human and thing, the spirit,
where all bodies always signify variously within the structures of meaning that allow, disrupt, and foreclose this meaning.
There is no way of phrasing [formuler],—
formul-ating, as Ponge liked to say,—
on the side of things:
The term attached to the inanimate ultimately falls away.
In its stead, a “phrase” of pure material:
a smudge of presence.
What would constitute an ethical relationship between the animate and inanimate?
Nature’s silences teaching language how to behave in emergent ways; the inanimate teaching the animate that it shouldn’t take a crisis for them to pay attention.
But where can this conversation take place, if only the animate can speak?
At the frontier of the side of language and the side of things, where the semantics of our language con-verse/verge with/on the pantomime of the object, where language provides us a legend to read the asemic language of the physical.
To learn lessons from the silence of body:
To establish a receptive-effusive relationship to replace the old system of the animate-inanimate relationship.
Reception & effusion.
(I can’t help it!:
“Nature is a language, can’t you read?”)
As a point on the circumference of a circle is at once the closest and most distant point to itself,
so functions the signification of the asemic and polysemic.
Instances of inanimate language in Ponge:
The candle being extinguished by the liquid of its own nourishing wax;
the breaking of the orange’s sacs,
the ease of the crate’s demolition, which reduces its life to a length shorter than that of its highly perishable contents.
Without language, a smear of bodies without end—
The conversation between the side of language and that of things does not require learning how to speak a new language,
but learning how to use the logical, syntactical, lexical potentials of our language(s) to listen to, to absorb, what does not—cannot—speak:
how to—like the pebble—be moved.
To meditate on form with the eyes, the ears, the hands:
Each sense has its syntax
to learn to respect the material,
to interpret its manner of growth,
its manner of decay.
A language that effaces itself to make way for the silence of an argument that enables its own transparency.
A language that effaces itself as it becomes a source of light,
but a language, as well, unafraid to admit the possibility of its opacity.
Ponge shines his language on the world, and it comes back a different color.
PARTI PRIS DES CHOSES [PPC] égale COMPTE TENU DES MOTS [CTM]“iv
“SIDING WITH THINGS [PPC parti pris des choses] equals TAKING WORDS INTO ACCOUNT [CTM: compte tenu des mots].”
To use one’s language as a means of receiving, and not diffusing, a pedagogy,
to prioritize language’s capacity to serve as legend to asemic material, objects.
Don’t speak to a thing: it won’t be able to speak back;
pay attention, rather, for it was already speaking.
Lip reading things with the gaze-of-such-a-sort-that-it’s-spoken—to glean from their silence;
to, after gleaning from the side of things, turn language right-side-out and make it speak again;
to relay the lessons to us on the side of language—in the language we share—,
It’s no wonder that Ponge equates writing a fresh image to having “discovered a continent.”v
As Ponge said of his own work, “Truly, this is a project conceived absolutely lightheartedly, with no deep intentions nor, to tell the truth, the least bit of seriousness.”vi
Humor does help us overcome certain unbridgeable gaps.
Ponge: “Certain texts will have stronger PPC [side taken with things] at their disposal, others stronger CTM [account taken of words] . . . That is unimportant. There must be some of one and the other. Otherwise, nothing is accomplished.vii
Neither ready nor unready and yet perfectly prepared to travel with you, a pebble is willing and unwilling to take on no journey in particular.
But heavier than water, which is, in certain small quantities, lighter than a pebble, it is without exception nothing exceptional, simply heavier than water and often a dark shade of gray.
Not lucky, uncircumscribed by a ring of white and denser stone, and not lovely, in a shape other than a caricatured heart—though arrestingly similar in shape to a beating kardia:
this is not a thing you care to hold in your hand.
So you drop it (such a forgettable thing) back among the pebbles on the beach, where, as soon as you look away, it will practice its natural ability of chameleoning itself into its surroundings.
But, wait, what’s happening . . . ?
Nestling through the crook of your thumb and index finger, it has jumped back up and nuzzled its way into your palm.
You drop it again.
Back in your hand.
You grunt, appalled.
(Or are you hissing? gasping?)
You throw it out over the water.
It skips through the surf three times on its way out, seems to pause—to hang suspended—then it skips three times coming in, and there it is, floating after you as you run away from it along the beach, screeching, like a sprinter at the shot of the starting gun.
It seems impossible to make it do what you want it to: to go away, to leave your hand, to get out of your sight.
It is yours, forever, whether you want it or not.
It has always been yours.
Looking back, when was this pebble anywhere but in your hand, making it difficult to hold your pencils, troubling your handshakes?
To draw attention to the word “pebble” by making it behave as only language could make a pebble behave,
not to the thing that is named pebble, but to the thing that is an object shaped like this: pebble.
To turn the pebble into a form on the screen:
an eminently legible Rohrschach test, a play on the fourth wall of language.
I would just as soon blot out this allegory, character by character, save p, e, b, b, l, and e:
we could call it collateral,
to further emphasize this pebble‘s presence as body.
If text is an object that behaves according to its own natural laws,
to blot a word out is to eliminate the distraction of its transparency.
3. Analysis of analysis
Toward the end of the allegory, before the “analysis” began (if we can rightfully call the previous fragment an analysis), I was suspecting that the author would note
language’s capability of transforming into certain things
among which we would have guessed he would count:
- A naughty dog
- A boomerang
In other words: things that, when sent away, return.
I thought he was going to write:
To take it one step further—and pardon me if I’m losing you here: it is not an act of transformation we are beholding. Language only seems capable of “transforming” into these things because language already is all of these things.
No, it is none of them.
It only behaves like they do:
sent away, it only comes back.
I was waiting for him to ask:
Does language learn from what it names?
Does a word, for instance, emulate the behavior of what it invokes?
I was waiting for him to conclude:
A pebble doesn’t look like a boomerang, (were I for some reason forced to make a comparison, I would say it looks more like an egg,) but, in language, it can become one if whoever is speaking wants it to.
Someone who doesn’t read French picks up an edition of Ponge.
Where, then, are the things he writes of so much?
The things are in this incapable-reader’s hand.
They have become the book, without depth, without “transparency”.
To acknowledge the objectivity of all text, of this text, of this pebble, our starting point, to which it seems we will have to return again (and again), being almost round, almost rhomboid . . .
These adjectives make no difference to this pebble, composed of pixels on this screen.
If I were simply to paste in a .jpg of a pebble and call it a day . . .
If I were simply to ask you to tape a pebble to your computer screen . . .
This pebble, which, even if it did exist as a stone outside this screen—even if it were a rock descended like all others by schizogenesis from that one fabulous ancestor—would be more indifferent than indifferent to its being held in a palm, as in our allegory.
Or would it be less indifferent than indifferent?
Or simply something other than indifferent?
There is no word for it, in that there can be no word for it without anthropomorphicizing,
without disturbing this pebble.
On the side of language is an object’s indifference.
On this side, on the side of the anthropomorphic, is projection of significance onto the asemic.
On the side of things is form:
What is our place on the side of things, beyond anthropomorphism:
the forms certain materials have taken on, having been acted upon by external forces;
where this text is wholly indifferent to its being read,
where this text is wholly indifferent to its having been written.
Ponge: Perhaps the lesson is that we must abolish values the moment we discover them… That is, so far as I can tell, the importance (and also the social importance) of poetry.”viii
How much more pleasant than watching values grow old and die, as all values do: killing them on the spot and writing their murders.
But had there been a way to get around learning language?:
Still and one, blurs of movement.
If you could tell me where to find the tangent-point of the verbal and the asemic, we would be at one end of literature.
A useful platitude:
‘It’s useless to talk about the end of language when it’s the only tool we have to do so.’
Could the asemic be a way out of this feedback loop?
An escape by deception, a smoke bomb, a slight of hand that distracts the eye just long enough for the rabbit to slip out of the magician’s tophat and make a break for it.
For his next trick, the showman goes to grab his pet by the ears, to extract it from the too-small hat. Feeling it gone, he improvises and decides to pull out a seemingly-endless rainbow-colored scarf, much to the delight of the ooh-ing-and-aah-ing crowd.
But where is the rabbit? Off stage-right, behind a curtain, nibbling on electrical wires! making its way out of the auditorium beneath the chairs of the auditorium, tickling the ankles of the spectators along the way! being mistaken for a breeze snaking along the floor!
Either way I’m afraid for what will happen to it, poor thing, when it’s found, before it gets put back into its cage with a dish of carrots that would be better situated if hanging before our faces on string.
A-semic is, etymologically, a flawed term: it it not without sign—
the asemic does signify, but in a manner outside any delineating structure.
What would be a better prefix than a– to imply a mark that is neither a-semic (without signification) nor poly-semic (many significations), but –semic in a way that does not allow for the sanctioned flourishing of signification nor its foreclosure?:
Getting warmer—almost there . . .
Pierre-Albert Jourdan: “The almost is, in fact, nothing but the refusal of the leap.”ix
Ponge: “One could almost say that water is mad, because of its hysteric need to obey nothing but its own weight, which possesses it like an idée fixe.”x
Ponge’s almost, however, is no refusal of the leap.
It is not a choice, but a condition of speech, an adverb modifying a conditonal ability (pouvoir), foreclosing the possibility of speech (dire).
The almost in the apodosis negates the need of a protasis, its very possibility: without condition, the consequence of the conditional can always only almost happen.
It is not a fear of heights, a vertigo, a turning away from the ledge, but a natural quality of speech that keeps our ideas from crossing over into the realm of things.
Almost is the guardrail, the garde-fou, between man and anthropomorphicism,
the conditionally necessary retention of speech.
So I take Jourdan and raise the ante:
Almost is, in fact, nothing but the impossibility of the leap.
And to Ponge, I ask: practically speaking, what is the difference between almost and not at all?
Are they merely attitudes toward a lack in the present that prepare us for how to act during some next time?
Forms of optimism and pessimism, respectively?
Next time will we, in good faith, be able to call the water mad?
No, for the water will never be mad;
but we will always almost be able to say it is.
Ponge: “The variety of things is, in reality, what constructs me. This is what I want to say: their variety constructs me, would even allow me to exist in silence. As the place around which they exist.”xi
Again, the protasis of Ponge’s conditional statement is missing:
Their variety would even allow me to exist in silence . . .
But under what conditions?
To exist in silence—as an unvoiced protasis—is one option.
To resist silence is another option.
In an world that is already sufficient, keeping quiet is perhaps the easier option, the less intrusive option.
In a world that hosts such a variety of things, why speak, when silence is an option amidst the abundance?
Why expend the energy?
To increase the variety of things?
To enrich their definitions and, in so doing, construct ourselves more complexly?
To acknowledge the right to silence only in order to disregard it?
Why speak, that is, when the silent world of objects is already sufficient, on the side of things?
Is speech a transgression of things?
A breaking of their trust in our willingness to listen?
Ponge: “[…] if I only consider one thing, I disappear: it annihilates me. And, if it is nothing but my premise, my raison d’être, if I must exist thus, by way of it, it will be, it will only be able to be through a certain creation on my part with regard to it./ What creation? The text.”xii
How else to appreciate the extreme tenderness of these gestures (that a single thing be Ponge’s pretext, his raison d’être, the very source from which his existence begins) than to remain silent before them?
I shouldn’t have written that . . . it should have been said in silence.
Did I just spoil the atmosphere?
You would preferred, too, that I not say a thing?
I figure Ponge’s alientation as geometric:
A single point has location, but no dimension; a line-segment has location, length, but no dimension . . . the triangle is the simplest shape to achieve dimension, to support an object.
Why didn’t Ponge write about geometry?
Would it have nauseated him?
It is a fragile stomach, after all, that ached from . . . ideas . . . !
Ponge: “I am unsure if true love bears desire, fervor, passion. I am unsure if it can: […] TO LIVE with an extreme attention paid, in every encounter, to not disturbing the object of your gazes and to letting it live on as if you had never encountered it.”xiii
Siding with things is an amorous act.
It’s a question of the deepest respect, this gesture of not disturbing the object,
this not letting it even know one is watching,
a question of the deepest receptivity.
It’s a question of measured love, of thoughtful care—of devotion—
letting the object determine its own speech through you:
“One rhetoric per object.”xiv
A translation from silence to language:
pantomimed ethics entered through the epidermis of language by a process similar to osmosis.
Lautréamont: “Put a goose feather in the hand of any moralist who is a top-notch writer. He will be greater than the poets.”xv
Is Ponge a poet?
That term which, like “poetry,” has the capacity to absorb the overflows and aborations of its genus—whatever proves to be unclassifiable . . .
Sartre: “Naming is the solid and definitive union of man and thing, because the raison d’être of the thing is to demand a name and the function of man is to speak for it and give it one.”xvi
Naming is a form of squinting to individuate objects from the smear.
Naming is unidirectional (from language, upon thing), but insofar as it individuates, also increases the variety of things, and so enables the possibility of the silent discourse between man and thing.
It renders more complex our “self-construction,” our self de-construction to make way for other things.
The cirumflex above the î in Ponge’s poem, “l’Huître (the Oyster)” is the connective tissue between text and corresponding thing, the site at which they communicate, a common ground on which their collective mythology builds and vascillates onto and off of the page—
In and out of signifying mark and asemic body:
the sole determinent of the circumflex-heavy vocabulary.
Name informs object, object informs language, object informs name, name informs language:
thus the chant of “-ître” throughout l’Huitre,
a piece that has physically nothing, and literally everything, to do with the sea creature.
The work is toward building new channels between language and referent,
to make these channels flow in both directions.
The name is one site where objects accrue language, history, myth.
What does it tell us that the thing can never name us back?
The silence of things is a universal language until we give it voice;
within it, we are indistinguishable.
To write the elements of a cosmogony, classified in the form of an endless dictionary.
To refigure classification from simple definition to catching a given object in flagrante delicto of its most essential and revealing activities: “the literary-art-object-description-definition.”
To replace the things of the world with parallel verbal-logical formulations:
to graft nature onto language, that is, and vice-versa.
To write a text in the face of silent annihilation:
To contrast oneself into existence.
Moreover, to contrast one’s ethics into existence.
All translations by author.
Le Comte de Lautréamont (Ducasse, Isidore):
SS: The Straw Sandals: Selected Prose & Poetry
EBR: Entretien avec Breton et Reverdy
EPS: Entretiens avec Phillippe Sollers
MCM: My Creative Method
PPC: Parti pris des choses
HC: L’Homme et les choses
i Ponge, Proêmes, 173
ii Ponge, PPC, “Le Galet“.
iii Lautréamont, Poèmes.
iv Ponge, MCM.
viii Ponge, EBR.
ix Jourdan, SS, “Fragments,” my italics.
x Ponge, PPC, “On Water,” my italics.
xi Ponge, MCM, my italics.
xiii Ponge, Proêmes, “The Conception of Love in 1928”.
xiv Ponge, MCM.
xv Lautréamont: Poèmes.
xvi Sartre: HC.