Friday, April 3, 2020

TtD supplement #158 : six questions for Mark Cunningham

Mark Cunningham has two chapbooks out recently: Fail Lure (Otoliths issue 52 and print) and multizon(e) (Right Hand Pointing, text combined with a video by Dale Wisely).

Four poems from his “[future word]” appear in the twenty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “[future word].”

A: (about Future Words)

Each piece or entry in the Future Words series is an entry in a dictionary of future words, or rather a gathering of meanings that have started to draw together, but whose word has not yet formed. As such, it differs from other dictionaries—perhaps most importantly in that what will be the exact level of connotation or denotation of the elements of each future word hasn’t been settled. As in a real dictionary, I’ve listed the various means in most-common to least-common order, but this is provisional, and you can re-arrange the order if you sense things differently.

(how the series got started)

The series started by accident. I was in an office supply store, and by whim I picked up paperback dictionary that was on sale for a dollar or so. I looked up a word at random, then another, and it struck me that the definitions of the words fit together in ways that neither of their “real” words covered. So now, at random, from a dictionary at hand—"POLARISCOPE: an instrument for measuring or exhibiting the polarization of light or for examining substances in polarized light” followed by “RUNNING MATE: a candidate for office linked with another and more important office, as for the vice-presidency.” I tried various combinations while still in the store: looking up a word, taking its first meaning, and combining that first meaning with the second meaning of the nearest following word that had two meanings. Sometimes the results were interesting, sometimes not. But it was fun, like learning a secret code, and I like doing things that incorporate chance procedures and unexpected results, so I kept at it for a while.

(how the series turned into Future Words)

This experimental diversion turned into the Future Words series when I reread some material on the psychological and bureaucratic structure(s) of Stalinism, “Stalinism” here indicating not the belief in or acceptance of the ideology strictly of Stalin the person, but that combination of psychological, bureaucratic, and legal functions and structures that reach their clearest (so far) formulation in Stalinist Russia (a large, ponderous state bureaucracy, for example, was characteristic form of the French government following Napoleon and before the 1848 revolution, as Marx points out, long before Stalin, and such bureaucracies are still with us—more so—after Stalin the person is gone). In other words, a content-neutral structure: the chosen group carrying the message of nature or history can be a group of young Russians or middle-aged Frenchmen and the truth not to be questioned can be almost anything, but a bureaucracy can be created to handle it. The idea of manipulating “reality” by manipulating definitions—whether it be planting negative code words in what is supposed to be a positive letter of recommendation (“John is a careful, steady worker” indicating to those who read the letters that “John is a plodder”) or more obviously ideological moves such as coming up with various denotations and connotations of “multi-culturalism” or “racism”—is something people of any ideological position do relentlessly. This, and the memory of every administrator I’ve ever come in contact with, whether apparently “right wing” or “left wing” or “conservative” or “liberal,” started to give a direction to and a use for the definitions I was coming up with (or finding).

More technically, then, to paraphrase terms used by Sidney I. Landau in Dictionaries: the Art and Craft of Lexicography, my dictionary is more synchronic (it deals with a narrow band of time and attempts to represent the lexicon as it exists at a particular point in time—or, in this case, will exist) than diachronic (the attempt to trace the development of meanings over a period of time), but one can piece together etymologies from the entries. The entries also try to reach a balance between descriptive and prescriptive definitions. And, finally, the dictionary is broadly a subject-field dictionary, designed for use by computer technicians, advertisers, psychologists, genetic engineers, human resource directors, and administrators in general—the type of people we’ll only be seeing more of in the near future.

(other works forming a field for Future Words)

The writing that really set the ground for me for an attempt at a dictionary (or some sort of reference book) are the Encyclopedia Acephalica that Georges Bataille and others did in association with the journal Documents, and An Anecdoted Typology of Chance by Daniel Spoerri and others (thank you Atlas Press for publishing translations of both of those). And I’ve admired Rosmarie Waldrop’s Key to the Language of America ever since I read it. The pieces themselves seem to me to be a variation on the mode I use in 71 Leaves (an e-book from BlazeVox) and 80 Beetles (Otoliths). Once the series got started, I didn’t want to read any other reference-work-type writing. I did check other works to make sure I wasn’t just duplicating something already done. I also should mention Bénédicte Vilgrain’s Tibetan Grammar (Burning Deck) and, of course, Flaubert’s “Dictionary of Received Ideas” and Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, as works I’ve enjoyed.

Q: How does work compare to the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I think everything I’ve written might be considered an attempt to achieve what I’ll call for the moment a valid non-authority. Valid, in that the piece provides a coherent view of whatever I’m writing about; non-authority, in the piece has no pretension to being definitive (even in a definition: the word hasn’t completely formed yet) or the only view possible.

Over the years, this goal has come to focus on the question of how do you avoid becoming an authoritarian and ideolog yourself when writing about authoritarianism and ideology? You (meaning anybody, including me) probably don’t, entirely—once you step into that area, you have to speak the language of that area to a degree, to paraphrase Foucault and the Situationists. If you start with the idea that “all people’s opinions or interpretations are important, including my own,” it’s easy to narrow down to “my opinion or interpretation is important” if you run into an opinion or interpretation differing from yours. And then to, “my opinion or interpretation is based on my experience, which is important.” And then to “My opinion or interpretation of my experience is not only important, it is more valid than other peoples’ opinion of my experience, because it is my experience, not theirs, so I understand it better,” while forgetting or ignoring that you are now also interpreting other peoples’ interpretations or actions based on how they line up with yours. And then to, “My opinion or interpretation is right and other peoples’ are wrong.”

So, my first book, Body Language (Tarpaulin Sky Press), is a collection of pieces on parts of the body. But I don’t own the topic—anybody can write a poem on the index finger or the collar bone—and I don’t think my piece on the index finger is THE piece on the index finger. In fact, I’d find it interesting to read an anthology of pieces on the fourth toe—what do other people think or have to say about it?

In other books such as specimens (BlazeVox), 71 Leaves (BlazeVox e-book), or 80 Beetles (Otoliths), all of which are made of pieces with simple sentences usually spoken by someone who reveals unintended tangles and contradictions in his or her statement, I try to get one sentence spoken by an “I.” The speaker of the piece is not outside of or immune to the twists and trip-ups that the “he” or “she” runs into. This comes to its sharpest focus, I think, in a forthcoming collection, probably to be titled sort, from Knives Forks and Spoons Press. Here’s a sample from that book:

“The hair on your arms forms patterns that are A) you or B) not you. The committee told him it didn’t count if he gave himself the nickname. I keep confusing mean and median, so I must be average after all. Identity Crisis Doesn’t Change Who You Are. Usually only other people can see the image on your retina.”

(not in quotation marks in the original; here, used just to set the piece off more.)

Going along with Future Words in the book coming out from if p then q is a sequence titled “Strategy and Tactics,” based on two books by Konrad Becker (Strategic Reality Dictionary and Tactical Reality Dictionary). Becker tries to define ways governments, corporations, and other agencies manipulate the world (in the broadest sense, I think: everything in the environment)—techniques to which Becker gives names such as “Multiple Avatars” and “Attentive Relevance.” Reading the books, I realized that huge agencies weren’t the only ones to use such techniques: I use some of them, or some process similar to some of them, to get through the day, too, and I wrote pieces to exemplify my doing so.

Q: Would you say, then, that all of your work-to-date exists as a singular, ongoing project? How do you see such a project continuing to unfold?

A: It’s tempting to put some developmental order into the past, but that would downplay the overriding elements of chance that have prompted most of what I end up working on—as the example of how the “future words” series got started shows. Of course, one could say that those “chance” events only brought into play an interest that was searching for a usable spur. But I wouldn’t want to have only a singular, ongoing project, at least not consciously. That sounds way too limiting.

Projects I’ve been working on lately, though, do seem to share a common direction: an interest in words as objects or areas of faltering (stumbling, wavering, hesitating) meanings. The very short pieces that make up multizon(e), a sequence that goes along with a video by Dale Wisely on the Right Hand Pointing site (www.issues.righthandpointing.net/multizone) and f(l)ights, a 110-piece sequence that is part of a larger sequence “about” the emergence and development of one-celled life and the transition to multi-celled forms on the Otoliths site (www.the-otolith.blogspot.com/2020/01/mark-cunningham.html) go in that direction. A sample piece from f(l)ights: “it(ch).” The whole sequence could be a 110-page book or it could print out in 8 pages, as it does from the Otoliths site.

Q: I like the term “faltering”: could you expand on what you mean by this?

A: Faltering—

I don’t (I do) mean anything earthshaking by “faltering.” It’s been clear since at least the Deconstructionists (and, really, for centuries before them—as long as there has been puns, for instance) that most words have more than one meaning, and that all those meanings are present at once when you use a word, though you ignore or downplay most of them in favor of the meaning you want the word to have in the context of its use. But the downplayed meanings are still there, and it’s impossible to get the word to settle down to just the meaning you want it to have. There are fault lines ready to shift at any moment and leave you or the word with no stable ground underneath.

In the “future word” pieces, the various strands of meaning are just coming together to form a word, so it’s not obvious what the main meaning of the word will be, though a tone is forming. In pieces such as those in multizon(e) and f(l)ights, the strands of meaning in a word are breaking apart as much as coming together, as in the word “strayt” that I use in multizon(e). Easy enough to find both “straight” and “not straight” there.

I think it was Barbara Johnson who said “meaning is fascist” or something close to that—that to try to control discussion or thought by limiting a word to only one of its meanings while trying to erase all other meanings is authoritarian (a word with varying meanings, of course). That idea is in the background of the “future word” pieces rather obviously. It’s also in multizon(e) and f(l)ights, in the sense that one way of considering an organism is to view it as an attempt to form a locus of control over its environment, which it can never accomplish completely.

Q: With a handful of published books and chapbooks over the past few years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: How has work developed? I don't have anything to add, really, than what I put in the previous answers, especially the last one.

Where is it headed? I have no idea. But I will add one of my favorite anecdotes. This is how I remember it: Ray Bradbury tells that when he was just starting out, he would go to get-togethers and tell whoever would listen about the story he was working on. Then when he went to work on the story again, he found he couldn’t write it. All the energy had evaporated when he told people about it: the story had already been told. Finally another excellent short story writer, Henry Kuttner, heard Bradbury talking about a story, and Kuttner told Bradbury to be quiet. Don’t talk about the story, write it. Bradbury followed that advice and became, well, Ray Bradbury. The few times I’ve slipped up and told about what I was working on, the same thing has happened to me: all the energy is drained from the project. So while I really have no idea of what lies ahead, even if I knew, I wouldn’t risk saying it.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Among poets: Louis Zukofsky (especially 80 Flowers; the title of one of my books—80 Beetles—is nod in that direction); Clayton Eshleman (especially his pieces on painting and paleolithic culture); Will Alexander (do I even really read him? I get halfway through one of his poems and start taking notes on images that are coming to me through the medium--in the supernatural sense—of his poem); and Robert Bly (the prose poems in particular; Bly is one of the first poets I liked when I found poetry years ago). Those came to mind first, but I shouldn’t leave out Maggie O’Sullivan, P. Inman, Jonathan Williams, Susan Howe, Ron Silliman, and Rae Armantrout. And that’s only the English-language poets—but in the last few years translated works, though important, have given way to works doing interesting things with the English language as a specific language rather than a conveyor of images that can be caught more or less in any language.

Also over the last few years, there’s been an increased spur from philosophers (for want of a better word) such as Timothy Morton and Graham Harman. And I’ve always paid attention to studies of visual artists, mostly painters, with Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Joseph Cornell, and Max Ernst leading the pack.

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