T H O M A S B A S B Ø L L
THE INTERACTION OF CHEESE
Explaining colour words by pointing to coloured pieces of paper
does not touch the concept of transparency.
In 1963, Josef Albers published his “record of an experimental way of studying color and teaching color” (1), Interaction of Color. The method he applied depended almost exclusively on the arrangement of strips of paper, which he called “interaction studies”. By their means he sought to make his students more sensitive to color, which he believed was the “the most relative medium in art” (1).
In order to construct his studies, Albers looked for color samples among a heterogeneous array of materials.
Sources easily accessible for many kinds of color paper are waste strips found at printers and bookbinders; collections of samples of packing papers, of wrapping and bag papers, of cover and decoration papers. Also, instead of full sheets of paper, just cutouts from magazines, from advertisements and illustrations, from posters, wallpapers, paint samples, and from catalogues with color reproductions of various materials will do. (9)
Albers' advised his students to stay away from prepared paper sets that go along with the various color systems (6). Our improved sensitivity or preparedness for color was to be achieved by the arrangement of materials which were unprepared for study. This is analogous to the use of Google searches to make poems: they provide the poet with materials that are unprepared for art. It is the analogy between Albers' interaction studies and Google-sculpted works of Flarf that I want to pursue here.
Art itself, and not just classroom study, should of course develop our sensitivity for media. Albers' teaching was an art in itself, and his art works proper had much of the simplicity of his classroom ‘studies'. It is around Albers' ‘modern art' that we find objects that resemble “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “In a Station of the Metro”—textbook cases.
Begin with three colored patches.
This arrangement is ambivalent about the opacity of the patches of color. They may either be three strips of colored paper through which no light shines or they may transparent, colored gels backlit with white light. The ambivalence may be removed by bringing the patches variously into contact with each other.
Here we are again presented with three strips of paper, apparently of the same size. (Much of the effect is derived from the fact that we can see enough of each ‘strip' to conclude that if they are regular shapes (rectangles) then they are the same size. We ‘appreciate' the simplest possible construction.) This an ‘interpretation', to be sure, a ‘reading' of the arrangement, but a very natural one and one that the arrangement seems to suggest as its ‘intention'.
It is an interpretation that imbues the whole presentation with a kind of depth. While it is not as sophisticated as a perspective drawing, the interpretation only holds if we assume a three-dimensional situation. The blue strip is lying on top of the green and yellow strips; the yellow strip is underneath the blue and the green strips.
Next consider a different arrangement of the same colors.
This arrangement suggests that there are not three strips, but two, and that they are not strips of paper, but transparent gels, through which a single white light shines.
Wittgenstein said that nothing of importance to philosophy is hidden. That is, we must assume that the solutions to philosophical problems are available on the surface and in the appearance of things . Now, surfaces are inherently superficial. They are two-dimensional; they lack depth.
In a two-dimensional world, nothing overlaps. There is nothing ‘behind' anything else. While Albers worked with strips of paper that sometimes overlapped for practical reasons, it is important to keep in mind that the effects he produced were always surface effects. It was always the colored areas beside each other that mattered, not the layers of paper on top of each other.
The examples presented above were constructed with Microsoft Paint, which underscores this point nicely because it does not allow for layered images. That is, when the work is finished, there is only a distribution of color in two dimensions. You can take it apart, but only in those two dimensions. This physical fact about the image is what makes it a useful model for understanding Flarf.
A poem is two-dimensional.
Flarf puts the problem of poetry into focus, allowing us to dispense with a number of uninteresting excuses for poor craftsmanship (like the limits of language, which are simply obvious in Flarf). Albers emphasized that
Because of the laboratory character of these studies
there is no opportunity to decorate, to illustrate, to represent anything,
or to express something – or one's self. (9)
Like these interaction studies, we are in no position to care what the poet meant ; we must look at what the poet made.
Before we look at some Flarf directly, consider two additional arrangements which are, I want to argue, possible but less apt illustrations of the effects already presented.
This arrangement does allow the interpretation of two gels, one blue and one yellow, overlapping to produce a green area. But nothing forces this interpretation; nothing specifically suggests it as Fig. 3 does.
By a similar token, the following arrangement does not suggest the green patch as the result of the interaction of the yellow and the blue patch, but nor does it do anything to suggest the opacity of these patches as Fig. 2 does.
In the spirit of Fig. 1, above, consider now the following patches of prose.
Lear seems to me not so much to deny God in favor of gods, or atheism, as to expose institutionalized religion as a dressing-up of deity in quite changeable fashions...whatever fashion suits the politics of the time or individual desires...but that's the stuff of the paper I'm supposed to be writing as I sit here playing on the Internet instead!)
This is a critical analysis of Shakespeare's major tragedies and the theatrical tradition to which they belong. Considerable attention is given to the nature of tragedy as a literary genre and to the role it plays in the Shakespearean canon. 3 credit hours. Offered as needed.
"doesn't anybody get it?! i'm not a lesbian, i don't wanna move to new jersey and where's the cheese on these god damn fucking fries?!"
All of them have been found in Googles' cache. Arranged like this, they very clearly indicate that they are not cut from the same cloth. Let us try to arrange them as in fig. 5, that is, in an obviously intentional manner.
“Lear seems to me not so much to deny God in favor of gods, or atheism, as to expose institutionalized religion as a dressing-up of deity in quite changeable fashions.”
This is a critical analysis of Shakespeare's major tragedies and the theatrical tradition to which they belong.
“Doesn't anybody get it?! I'm not a lesbian, I don't want to move to New Jersey and Where's the Cheese on these God damn fucking fries?!”
Beginning with what were obviously three independently derived and ‘unprepared' pieces of prose and making only superficial adjustments, we have now trimmed and polished them to look like a fragment of a more or less coherent rhetorical analysis. (We imagine that the next paragraph will say something like, “This is an expression of anger and consternation over being misunderstood.”)
Next, consider the following arrangement, which is intended to be comparable to Fig. 4.
Lear seems to me not so much to deny God in favor of gods, or atheism, as to expose institutionalized religion as a dressing-up of deity in quite changeable fashions—whatever fashion suits the politics of the time or individual desires—but that's the stuff of the paper I'm supposed to be writing.
This is a critical analysis of Shakespeare's major tragedies and the theatrical tradition to which they belong. Considerable attention is given to the nature of tragedy as a literary genre and to the role it plays in the Shakespearean canon.
Doesn't anybody get it? I'm not a lesbian, I don't want to move to New Jersey . . .
While the ‘changes of color' are sharp, their assignment to separate paragraphs presents a (vaguely) coherent argument in a single voice. That is, the “I” and “me” are the same person. It must still be construed as a fragment in order to make sense of the conclusion but, with a little good will, everything is orderly and prosaic throughout.
Let us now try to produce something corresponding to Fig. 2, that is, the overlapping of elements to suggest opacity.
but that's the stuff of the paper I'm supposed to be writing as I sit here playing on the Considerable attention is given to the nature of tragedy as a literary genre and to the role it plays in the Shakespeare move to New Jersey and where's the cheese on these God damn fucking fries?
Here the joints around “Considerable” and “Shakespeare” turn out to be dysfunctional, i.e., inarticulate, indicating that the arrangement is obscuring something, that something is being hidden or covered up.
Here, finally, is K. Silem Mohammad's solution, as it appears in “Devil Boy” and which is, I want to say, is comparable to Fig. 3. That is, it is an arrangement of three pieces of prose establishing one of them, very precisely, as an overlapping region of the other two, and suggestion the 'mixing' of the light that shines through them.
the paper I'm supposed to be writing
is a critical analysis of Shakespeare's
I Don't Wanna Move to New Jersey and Where's the Cheese
Now it is, of course, a joke. But it is obviously a joke. The poet is in control of the punchline. It is clear.
“Precision and clean execution are required for all finished studies,” said Albers (10). In a poem, as in a painting, one may want to produce many different interaction effects. I have here tried to isolate only one and to do so precisely.
“Only emotion endures,” said Ezra Pound. If there is anything thus ‘durable' in Mohammad's lines it is the anxiety of being “supposed to” do something; it is the seriousness of “critical analysis”; and it is the humor of the absurd attribution of authorship. The strophe builds up the tension and releases it.
But as in Albers' work, it is not the sentiment itself that is under study; it is the relative medium of its interaction. Indeed, no one has ever or will ever feel this exact sentiment. They may, however, feel like this every now and then; and the emotion is nothing other than this likeness. It has here been duly noted as a surface interaction of sentiments.
Didn't John Berryman propose that modernism began with “like a patient etherised upon a table” coming off the perfectly victorian sentiment of “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky”? Flarf, by a similar logic, begins here. On the surface of the cheese.
back to issue one
[ see also ]
Tony Tost: K. Silem Mohammad and the Sub-Poetics of Flarf
Four Poems by K. Silem Mohammad
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