Reverberation: Writing as a Visual Medium and the Sight of the Avant Garde

Reverberation: Writing as a Visual Medium and the Sight of the Avant Garde

Lidia Yuknavitch

Further on Gertrude Stein, Carole Maso, and the avant garde in U.S. fiction from Lidia Yuknavitch.

To name the avant garde in our moment means to be able to see it from within the very movement of history. The woman writer today must turn back to face this motion while at the same time understanding that the past is alive in her present – something like facing a face not your own. For her, there is no writing which embodied this motion or sight more than that of Gertrude Stein. Fundamentally and radically Stein insisted on two kinds of motion: the idea of a continuous present, and the idea of an art continually in the process of being made. In Stein’s very language we learned to see. See the present and the process of being made move in perpetual motion, with echoes and repetitions and chiasmus.

The contemporary woman writer interested in radical representation both speaks to the motion of a continuous present activated by and through writers such as Stein, as well as to a blinding struggle to be seen against the forces of high capitalism.

In addition to illuminating for us how to see language and history differently, Stein pressed for a dissolution of the lines between artistic mediums - most notably between painting and writing - most strenuously in the idea that language itself always already is a visual medium.

Gertrude Stein, Americans

We must learn to see differently perpetually, before our current moment threatens to blind us. We must learn to see a thing made by being made again and again.

The following performative text is meant to create and explore affect. I am naming the movement of between past and present, between signification and sensory fields, between history and art, reverberation. My choice to move between painting and writing is partly triggered by Stein’s impulse, as well as by the hybrid forms emerging from women writers of radical representation working today. The methodological field which I would like to project has at its center a reading body. In place of citations I have cast quotes from others as reverbs within the play of the text.

Reverb Gertrude Stein: The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen.

I am reading a page written by Carole Maso. The grammar breaks down. The body of a woman comes. There is a lot of white space. The imagery is arresting. Images come in waves. I read them and then instead of continuing on to other pages I go back and read them again. Look at them again. The body of a woman in between colors and sounds. Is it the body of a woman, or is it colors and sounds? I close my eyes. Suddenly I can see her.

I open my eyes and enter the same page. Water. The woman is entering water. The reader is seeing her there.

from Chronology of Water, film still, Andy Mingo

Think of an image of the ocean in your mind’s eye. The waves beginning and ending, continuing on or coming forever. The sight filling vision, extending beyond your body, beyond seeing. Think of the ocean as a medium, a medium with an opening into a visual expanse that is above all other visual sensations, both limitless distance and nothingness, both space that goes on and on and non-space, both visual excess and the presence of a vanishing sight.

I see the shape of the sea, and beyond my sight there is a blurring. The ocean is a metaphor for the way the visual field contains both focused things and unfocused things, things which appear as a “seascape” and things which lose their boundaries.

This feeling, this experience I have is fundamentally visual - it is all that the visual can hold as well as the presence of its limits. The image nearly envelops me, since it is more than my eye can hold.

I close my eyes, and I can reason again. If the visual field can be envisioned metaphorically as oceanic, we can talk about both the visual force of that field - figure, field, vanishing point - and that which works out of sight - periphery, blind spots, what is underneath the surface, invisible, unseen. But these unseen forces are not outside of the visual field. They are what helps make the visual field apparent. Perhaps we could call these forces the non-sight within sight, or the repressed vision to the visual field. Whatever we decided to call the order underneath or to the side of the visual field, invisibility, blurring, periphery, blind spots - what is certain is that what is summoned by their existence is not distinct from vision, but operates from within it. Close your eyes and sight allows for non-sight, each a part of the other.

Reverb Jackson Pollock: What you think you see is not everything you see… think about water. You might say that it is transparent, but it is millions of moving particles shivering and bumping just like a crowd. If you close your eyes you can see what I’m talking about.

Jackson Pollack, Sea Changes

What is possible then is that underneath, or below, or to the side of, or out of sight from the visual is a kind of order which is potentially transgressive of the whole idea of a distinct difference between seen and unseen. It is this transgressive possibility which leads me to to ask, what things do I look at which give me this experience? I think of a certain painting, of standing in the Tate Museum crying in the face of the painting Sea Changes. And then I think of texts - but not just any texts. Texts which move differently. But how to say texts are as visual as abstract painting?

Reverb Anton Ehrenzweig: There is a kind of expanded vision beyond the ordinary… call it a depth vision, where the free play of symbols is uninterrupted by gestalt.

You know what I am talking about. You walk up to the abstract expressionist painting and those which followed its path and there you are, in your body differently, your eye struggling to make form where formlessness pervades, like standing at the lip of the sea. What do you look at? Picture Pollock’s Sea Changes. It is true enough that eventually your eye will resolve the free play of imagery until you sea a single wave, you will believe you see the edges of things. You might even see a bird, a fish.

Reverb Rosalind Krauss: In Jackson Pollock’s paintings we find marks that could be called neither figure nor ground … fissures that somehow operate below form… The drip paintings arrive at a place where figure has been left on the shore and painting dives down ward, not in the space of the visual field, but into the retinal movements of its blind spots.

Reverb Michael Fried: It is a break not experienced in the physical surface of the painting so much as it is felt as a lacuna - a kind of blind spot - in the viewer’s own field of vision… In the end, the relation between the field and the figure is simply not spatial at all; it is purely and wholly optical; so that the formlessness created seems to be held together somewhere within our own eyes.

I remember standing there like an idiot crying… is it possible that Pollock’s Sea Changes finds form in my eyes? Is that what makes me cry? Or is it that I resisted the tyranny of my eyes in order to see something formless? And why, in that feeling, was I drawn to Virginia Woolf’s texts again? What is a text?

Reverb Roland Barthes: The place where the seemingly endless quotations which make up writing are focused and inscribed. That place is of course the reader, that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted… beyond the limit of the rules of rationality and readability; the text goes to the edge of the field held together by a reader.

Doesn’t my eye work differently with a text than it does with the paintings? Yes. With most texts my eye is a processing machine, sending signals to my brain, working for meaning. And then, no. With some texts I am looking and reading. Some texts bring me to the visual field.

Reverb Carole Maso:

Imagine a red plea in the bright light
Asking God, one and one last - furious - answer me - one and
Only one last time - answer me.
Papier-mache Judas Diego no.
And he breaks her heart again -
Answer me and again.
And he wants her only to paint
Don’t break, don’t go, stay
9 thorns in a cup
arms and glitter flung
imagine she dares - imagine - what lies under these
clothes, broken.

Carole Maso, The Art Lover

Think of the actual pages, the words more than words, doing something visual to the reader. Aren’t they?

But why.

One story says that the painter Pollock was looking for a way out of the tyranny of the visual field, with its head on top and sight cast out forward in a line, with its logics of figure and ground covering up an entire ocean of conflicting, chaotic, indifferentiated imagery and material.

And so Pollock threw his canvas to the floor, and with that motion came an abandonment of visual fields that had been organized around the hierarchy of the human body. He looked down, he brought the painting to the floor, he went to find what was beneath the field of vision. He made a fiction that said to behold did not always mean to be vertical, and in that move he admitted into the visual field much of what had previously been out of sight.

Do I believe this reading of Pollock’s canvases? A little. A little it helps to explain my physical experience, my visual experience. But does it teach me anything about reading?

Reverb Julia Kristeva: Perhaps some languages surface what is ordinarily submerged - desire, swarms of images,

Reverb Marguerite Duras: Perhaps the body of a woman may yet yield different stories…

Those women writers who for me are breaking open into radical representation are looking for a way underneath, or to the side of, or in the blind spots of the visual - admitting the visual into the textual. Why else am I drawn to looking as reading? Words, yes, entering the visual field as well as what is behind it. Words not tied to sentences or things. Characters replaced with voices and sensory perceptions. Plot and narrative development erased and replaced with perpetual motion, repetition, gaps and silences, the absence of primary themes and scenes, the absence of climax or closure, back and forth motions, recollections, reverberation. Endless wave, perpetual echo.

Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless

Reverb Jeanette Winterson:
He held the light about him.
The light fell out of the seamed sky in halos and cloaks. Squares and circles of light that dropped through the cut clouds and made single sense of all the broken pieces of beach, cliff, man and boat. His past, his life, not fragments nor fragmented now, but a long curve of movement that he began to recognize.
Still the light.

Reverb Barthes: The text is multiple, irreducible, coming from a disconnected, heterogeneous variety of substances and perspectives, lights, colors, vegetation, heat, air, slender explosions of noises, scant cries of birds, children’s voices… passages, gestures, citations, references, echoes, waves.

Eva Hesse, Untitled

A word writes itself in my mind’s eye: Reverberation: that which moves beneath acts of writing into vision.

First I am excited, then I feel a twitch of panic.

The writer of the reverberation text is in dangerous territory. Beyond the surface of language is the possibility of free-play form or formlessness. Only the reader can hold her textual play. In order to behold her text the reader must use her eyes differently. The back and forth motion between sight and non-sight. It is almost like reading by opening and closing one’s eyes.

Reverb Anne Carson:

Water! Out from between two crouching masses of the world the word leapt.

It was raining on his face. He forgot for a moment that he was a brokenheart
Then he remembered. Sick lurch
Downward to Geryon trapped in his own bad apple. Each morning a sock
To return to the cut soul.
Pulling himself onto the edge of the bed he stared at the dull amplitude of rain.
Buckets of water sloshed from sky
To roof to eave to windowsill. He watched it hit his feet and puddle on the floor.
He could hear bits of human voice

Reverberation. It is words and texts doubling back on themselves, wrecking grammar in favor of perpetual motion. Gertrude Stein. Carole Maso.

It is the back and forth motion moving close to and pulling away from meaning. Carole Maso, Marguerite Duras.

It is silence and space, or poetics and affect brought to the center of the fictional text. Anne Carson, Carole Maso.

It is the abandonment of narrative development in favor of fragments, mixed hybrids and genres and pieces of things, sensory sequences. Carole Maso, Marguerite Duras, Anne Carson, Jeanette Winterson.

It is the text allowing for its own undoing through sensory - that is to say bodily - means. Rikki Ducornet, Gertrude Stein, Carole Maso, Marguerite Duras, Kathy Acker, Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson.

It is this looking.