Wordless Acts

“I’m a failed musician. As a kid I used to punk around with pals and find objects along our riverbank to bang on, bought pawnshop guitars and drums and broken-keyed organs and made music out of our not knowing what we were doing. It was pure accident, those moments when we found ourselves in the middle of some sound spell. We knew it when we came out of it, the times that we went there, the times we were somehow taken. I can count the times on one hand, but I hold those times in my hand still like stones or fossils that somehow manage to float, have found a way to displace space and gravity and have pushed back against the failings of memory and the thinning out of time. Those moments stopped occurring, it seemed, even then, once our hands seemed to know where they ought to go, what chords they ought to be playing, and it was this sense of knowing (or thinking that we knew what we were doing) that killed the magic of our song. The same might be said about the writing that I write, that my hands sometimes travel to dead spaces, dead water so to speak, and I am at my best when I go to the page as if going there for the first time. I think it’s good to forget what you think you know about the act or the craft of writing fiction and poetry and I’m sure this might be true too of most any other art-making process. Here I’ll reach out to familiar ground and make use of a line from Jack Gilbert: ‘We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.’ I mean, why see and say what’s already been seen and said, right? To gaze up at the sky at night should be a wordless act, a moment that is only reduced by knowing or naming what the eye sees and what the mind can’t contain. Why put anything in a container? What’s the use of a beautiful frame if what is framed is the same old photograph we’ve all posed for before? In the end, if I had to say it straight up, I don’t look for meaning in much of anything that I pick up to press my face against, though I’m constantly on the make or prowl for that which will place me closer in touch with that sense of being in a state of awe which can leave us with its own kind of silence.”
Peter Markus, “Fiction as Magic, Language as Spell: Peter Markus with Lily Hoang,” The Brooklyn Rail 3 February 2015

The Telling of What is Being Told

“I can’t say that I can see any faces behind the names and the words that I am calling forth out of the alphabet. I can see and hear the words on the page but not much more than that. I don’t think too much about the who — the characters — who move in and around these landscapes. I don’t bother to think too much, either, about the what. I tend to pay closest attention to how the telling of what is being told is being shaped, the contours and textures of the sentence, and I have an unflinching level of trust that story will emerge organically by subverting character and causality and plot in favor of style and musicality and voice. Language, for me, in my hands, is raw and elemental and ornamental and if you play around with it long enough or hold it tenderly and reverently in your hands and look and listen to it close enough it’s only a matter of time before good things start to take shape around it.”
Peter Markus, “Fiction as Magic, Language as Spell: Peter Markus with Lily Hoang,” The Brooklyn Rail 3 February 2015

The Never Before

Peter Markus, “Fiction as Magic, Language as Spell: Peter Markus with Lily Hoang,” The Brooklyn Rail 3 February 2015

The hum is what I’m ultimately and unfailingly chasing after in all of this: when I bring my gaze to a painting, when I lean my ears to any acoustical sound, when I hold in my hands the pages that belong to others, when I enter into whatever kind of church or other kind of cave that I seek to climb and hide inside. Some might call this a search for the primal, or the sublime, or the spiritual, or an encounter with the otherworldly, or better yet the hunting down for that thing itself which hasn’t yet been named. For me that’s what it all boils down to: the wish to tap into the never before. That’s the best way for me to try to say it with words. I want to be transported to a place where words no longer mean what we think they mean. Maybe this is the revelation behind it all, the magic herb for us to place beneath our tongues.

The Uncontainable

Simon Critchley, “Absolutely-Too-Much,” The Brooklyn Rail July-August 2012

[W]e might say that a certain dominant strain in the history of philosophical aesthetics might be seen as trying to contain a dimension of experience that we might call the uncontainable. This is the dimension of experience that Nietzsche names the Dionysian, Hölderlin calls the monstrous, Bataille calls the formless, and Lacan calls the real.

But what might art be when it exceeds the relative comfort of the almost-too-much of the sublime or the fearful and moves toward the absolutely-too-much of the monstrous? What happens when the uncontainable can’t be contained? When art bears at its core something unbearable? At this point, art becomes anti-art and we experience discomfort—the Naumanian blow to the back of the neck. I would argue that this is what has been happening for the past century or so in various arts and media as a way of dealing with our presentiment of the unbearable pressure of reality, however we want to capture that experience — the shocking trauma of the First World War, poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism, or whatever — has been the experimentation with what we might call an art of the monstrous. Examples proliferate here, from Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, to Bataille’s holy disgust, to Hermann Nitsch’s blood orgies and the theatre of Heiner Müller, even through to that most jaded and overworked of academic tropes: the abject.

It seems to me that if we look back at much of what is most radical and interesting in the art of the last century, we can see that we are no longer dealing with the sublime or indeed with art as the possibility of aesthetic sublimation, but with an art of de-sublimation that attempts to adumbrate the monstrous, the uncontainable, the unreconciled, that which is unbearable in our experience of reality.

Here is my modest proposal: beyond endless video montages and the cold mannerist obsessionality of the taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world, the heart of any artistic response to the present should perhaps be the cultivation of the monstrous and its concomitant affect, namely disgust. Disgust here can be thought of as the visceral register of a monstrosity that can no longer be excluded from the realm of the aesthetic, as it was for Aristotle and Kant, but should be its arrhythmic heart, its hot and volatile core. It is important to keep in mind the link to aesthetic judgments of taste or gustus, which gives us the “gust” in dis-gust, the ill wind in the soft-flapping sails of revulsion. Dis-gust is an aesthetic judgement of dis-taste.

What I am calling for, then, is a new art of monstrosity which is able to occupy a certain semi-autonomous distance from the circuits of capture and commodification. Art now must fix its stare unblinkingly at the monstrous, the unbearable, the unreconciled, and the insanely troubling. The disgust that we feel might not simply repulse or repel us. It might also wake us up.

It is a question of how we think through and deploy the essential violence of art, and perhaps understand art as violence against the violence of reality, a violence that presses back against the violence of reality, which is perhaps the artistic task, thinking of Hamlet, in a state that is rotten and in a time that is out of joint.

[…] The problem here is that art, which is meant to enable or produce some kind of experience of the real in our pushing back against it, might finally be a protection against that experience and end up as a kind of decoration. Perhaps, then, art has to become the enemy of aesthetic experience. In which case, we should become the enemies of art in order to reclaim it. Here anti-art becomes true art in a constant war of position with the degeneration of art’s critical potential into the lethean waters of the contemporary.