Forthcoming in Vestiges_00: Ex-Stasis
In the early 1900’s, a small collective of avant-garde Russian poets began experimenting with a form they called “transrational language,” or “trans-sense language,” or zaum. It posited that poetry needn’t be governed by the arbitrary tyranny of syntax (in suprematist painting, Kazimir Malevich said something similar about the “tyranny of objects”) nor be subordinate to the oppressive logic of the semantic field. Instead, a poetic language should come about as a free and unrestrained vocal performance of words, or something like words, dismembered from their order of exchangeability. Of course, this made their verse completely nonsensical, and the movement was a considerable failure. Even so, thinking about zaum can still be fruitful. In Contemporary Russian Literature, 1881-1925, zaum is described rather nicely as ‘Russian as it might have been.’ Their most radical poems were a fluid concatenation of unrelated and degenerative phonemes and the composite noises they produced were like the hidden language of a certain libidinal energy, a sort of primitive, alchemic speech act of boundless potential (ironically, zaum was so rich in hermeneutic potential that in the 1930’s some poets were directly accused by Russian authorities of composing encrypted anti-Soviet propaganda, rather than unintelligible gibberish). Anticipating what Aleksei Kruchenykh, one of pioneers of zaum, described as the impetuous future, this (utterly formless) form could be thought of as modern Russia’s first naked articulation, the blind spasms of a century still learning to talk.
In a tiny collection of poems entitled Pomada (1913), Kruchenykh penned this tiny verse (the following is the English transliteration):
Dyr bul shchyl
r l ez
Echoing the supreme confidence with which Russia’s urban cubo-futurists dumped the canonical giants of Russian literature overboard in their 1912 manifesto, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, Kruchenykh later asserted that those lines alone had in them more of the Russian spirit than all of Pushkin, preempting Ezra Pound’s well-known formulation of the ‘Image’ in his infamously self-aggrandising literary essay A Few Don’ts. Pound writes:
An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time […] It is the presentation of such a ‘complex’ instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits […] It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.1
Old Russia was sick, and the future would indeed be impetuous. The time was out of joint. What the poets knew and understood as language had to become estranged again in a process of defamiliarisation, or ‘making strange’ (in Russian, ostranenie). If in modern visual art the aim is to communicate and represent that which nature is not, then zaum and its later modernist cousins aimed to communicate and express what ordinary language is not, or, perhaps, cannot. It was not so much to simply rearrange language, like bricks, from within the existing linguistic framework: the zaum poets “got through to the clay” as the Russian painter Nicholas Gorlov once put it, right down to the organic core, and pulled up the roots. Their work can be seen as an ecstatic breakdown, or a disruptive perturbation, in the smooth order of communication through a type of glossolalia, which is not the shadow of language but a performative gesture or articulation at its most raw and elemental, an Image, of which ordinary language is the true shadow. By dissolving the crazed symbolic arrangement tenuously binding signs to signifiers, and by dressing the vast unspeakable chaos of the universe with the precarious semblance of order, the zaum poets disclosed an authentic unity between language and experience: language as experience, poetry as pure sensation, as true dislocation. The pre-revolutionary Russian avant-garde was a challenge to a life of habitual expectation; that is to say, an aesthetic, and an existence, of automatic and prescribed experiences; the zaum poets believed that only a fanatical sense of abandonment, only a point of real aimless departure, had the power to emancipate and intensify the perceptive process. Underneath the smooth surface of ordinary language (the stuff of realist fiction or letter writing, for example) they unearthed language’s hidden excess: a precious resource squirming behind every shackled and degraded word in that madhouse that calls itself The Dictionary. It is an abundant, self-sufficient and non-codified poetic language, whereby the form is the content.
However, this radical ideal is often misread as a sort of wild goose chase in pursuit of that conspicuous paradigmatic breakout in which the “new” explodes and flourishes. Whilst the art of the avant-garde suggests a crucial opening of sorts in the status quo, it is, importantly, a special, inverted kind of opening up. Rather than directly opening up the other (the “new”) and cultivating it, the aesthetic of the avant-garde voraciously metastasizes in its own image: it opens up into itself, it becomes the space it opens. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, the radical challenge of the zaum poets, for example, implied a powerful critique of our mood and state of permanent change (change, Boris Groys asserts, is our status quo2)—history’s inexorable and violent renewal and our energetic and obsessive redrawing of the circles. What’s radically important, then, about this challenge is not the conspicuous objective act of change or substitution—striving directly to go from a negative reality to a positive one, or that selfsame “progressive” pursuit—but an endless destruction, a sort of boundless and divine violence. A radical aesthetic is that which stands alone; it sees nothing but ruins, the obscene chaos of the Real. The zaum poets saw language in shreds. What made the art of pre-revolutionary Russia radical, in contrast to the affirmative art of the ostensibly “revolutionary” Soviet avant-garde of the 1920’s, was precisely this aggressive and perhaps pessimistic encounter with the permanence and the potential of the abyss. In his essay Becoming Revolutionary, Groys puts it nicely: “revolutionary art abandons all goals—and enters the non-teleological, potentially infinite process, which the artist cannot and does not want to bring to an end.”3 If the artistic form—in this case “transrational language”—is a base, zero-level, then its content is a frenzy of pure subjectivity in the same way that, say, a black square is.
Notions of habitual expectation and the automation of language are still crucial today, even if zaum is not. The zaum poets believed that by rediscovering (by way of letting go) these primal forces hidden within all of us and in language’s fertile excess, they might in fact inaugurate the disalienation of the subjective body in its acting relation to art and beauty; not in any utilitarian sense but, rather, in its savage and primordial aspect alone. If in visual art Malevich’s Black Square was the image of a kind of unconscious, prehistoric sleep—the original form that precedes all forms, out of which and into which everything else proceeds—then a sound poem can be understood as an expression of, and maybe even an unconscious regression to, a pre-linguistic state of being whereby amorphous, spontaneous and often uncontrollable emotional interjections and exclamations are the originary basis (at least, according to some schools of historicism) for abstract human interaction and self-expression. The zaum poets weren’t creating a new language in their sound poems; they were eradicating it. The fundamental question was not what can we do with language, as it exists, but what can we do and where can we go without it…What if we kill it?
Currently, as Franco Berardi points out, a “process of desensitisation is underway.”4 By this Berardi means that we are confronted daily with the ostensibly infinite potential of technology performing within the irrational sphere of free market economics, which together function as the pseudo-religious conduits to a sort of neo-positivist pursuit of a horizon of perfection. It’s knackering. In late capitalism this exhaustive pursuit works much like grammar, ever determining the habits and rules of our daily lives. In The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (which argues persuasively that our contemporary crisis is fundamentally a crisis of and in language, a crisis that an act of essential poetic revitalisation can resolve) Berardi writes: “the economy is the universal grammar traversing the different levels of human activity.”5 We are overwhelmed by stimuli and information that demands our attention, and our social body is quickly becoming inert and docile (of course, at its most extreme, the more connected we become, the more alone we are); it’s stressed out and doesn’t know what to do with itself; it doesn’t even recognize itself as a thing. It’s this type of schizophrenic malaise symptomatic of late capitalism that has spawned curious horrors like the ghastly, clawing, Internet listicle (it wants to imprison your soul in list form) and terrifying oversized babies like Damien Hirst. It’s not laziness or cheap, gaudy populism that’s the real problem (although that comes into it); it is rather the abnormal and obsessive attempts to appropriate and mimic the zeitgeist (to be change) which produces a vacuous, unresponsive aesthetic and a paralysed and anaesthetized discourse totally removed from a true subjective reality. Its only function is a kind of misplaced and infantilised distraction. And so, with the onset of this frightening cut and paste schism quite literal Berardi goes on to write: “We are forced to acknowledge that we do have a body, a social and a physical body.”6 We are fragmenting; we need filling in. A return to poetics, according to Berardi, would breathe new life into the social body.
He has a point, but at risk of being too utopian in his conception of poetics, which he elevates impossibly, albeit very elegantly, to the status of the miracle cure. The best poetry is, invariably, sick. Its Truth is not its magic power to cure us but its inherent failure to do so, its irrevocable baseness, its vying for Truth in the face of inevitable human oblivion. We must acknowledge, crucially, that this body Berardi talks of is weak, finite and imperfect—even if the abstract lives of our very real Internet avatars aren’t (they’re doing just fine; they’ll outlive us all). Think about it on the level of the individual; if you’re at all human, your life, if you’re at all lucky, has probably been a jaded succession of eye-splitting hangovers, prolonged comedowns, hopelessness, depression, anxiety, fear, flu, cold and irregular bowel movements. Even the highs in life are rudely abbreviated. A budding flower may look pretty but it’s really just a flaccid external organ, flapping in the wind and bristling in a state of fecund excess, soon to lose its colour and die, before returning to the shit and rot it was born out of. There is quite simply not enough time. But this is OK. Art, if it wants any efficacy, must begin to re-embrace what Groys calls a “dialectics of imperfection.” Speaking on Malevich’s suprematist aesthetics in his essay “The Weak Universalism,” Groys describes it this way:
It is our failure to achieve perfection that opens an infinite horizon of human and transhuman material existence. Priests and engineers […] are not capable of opening this horizon because they cannot abandon their pursuit of perfection—cannot relax, cannot accept imperfection and failure as their true fate. However, artists can do this.7
Art should not try to heal us or patch us up, nor rescue us heroically from the terrifying monotony of a damaged existence; it should, however, disclose to us our wounds, our desires, our extraordinary futility. Groys understands the art of the avant-garde as that which, rather than effectively predisposed to build the shimmering utopian worlds of the future, would destroy the old world and absolve the conditions of the existing one. However, they would do this by producing art “so weak, so empty” that it could crumble the walls of habit and expectation and confront, or allow itself to be overwhelmed by, our state of permanent change by recognising (by piercing the veil) its own inherently destructive potential, its elemental human defect.
While I agree with Groys, I think his insistence on specifically weak images is exaggerated. Weak doesn’t necessarily have to imply the aesthetic antithesis of strong; it is rather a metaphysical weakness that surrounds, infects or confuses the artwork, a dull weakness that comes into the artwork from outside of it, not a physical weakness located in its material or technical composition or its structure. A radical aesthetics cannot be a spiritual compass guiding us gently towards a tranquil Eden of eternal psychic security. It cannot because it is by design inherently corrupted. The most beautiful art is invariably the most terrifying because it is both weak and empty at its core. We exist at the core of this terrible weakness and emptiness. The relationship is reciprocal.
Is this not the same devastating logic behind Hamlet’s final utterance in the climax of the play, turning to the audience for the last time to remind us “the rest is silence?” Hamlet’s gone over the lip of the edge, armed with mere “words, words, words,” and knows only nothing (“How stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!”). Nothingness consumes this infamously imperfect play and its melancholic and apparently suicidal protagonist, around which orbits the mute presence of an uncontainable something. Hamlet knows too much about what he can seemingly do nothing; he is his own obstacle, he cannot act because he understands the nature of what Nietzsche calls the “eternal essence of things” (ewigen Wesen). Hamlet knows the absurd truth and is sick because of it. Hamlet doesn’t enact the changes required of him because he knows his actions will ultimately prove to have been futile. Perhaps, then, it’s not that Hamlet procrastinates or dithers, but that he’s let be. In fact, as Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster distill in their book, The Hamlet Doctrine, the entire play—which ends, of course, in a heap of dead bodies—seems to wheel towards what can only ever be an indeterminate space of ‘skeptical openness.’ However, it is a doubt that disintegrates its own structural limits, its own circular logic, so that it becomes, effectively, a negative, inverted type of certainty—a certainty in Nothing: a Black Square—that immobilises and stunts Prince Hamlet. Critchley and Webster write: “If we can cure ourselves of our longing for some sort of god-like conspectus of what it means to be human, or the construction of ourselves as some new prosthetic God through technology, bound by the self-satisfied myth of unlimited human progress, then we might, let be.”8
To let be doesn’t mean to “give up,” it means to give oneself over to—to work through—the violence of the uncontainable. Morton Feldman’s music, which is scarred by an aspect of fragility and violence, does this too. In his compositions, Feldman said he wanted to translate the tones of decay, which of course implies its own destructive element. But it is a destructive quality that repeats and replenishes itself in a violent cycle. There is always a microscopic sense of feeding and growth underneath the bleak surface of Feldman’s music, in pieces that can stretch up to a glacial four hours. It’s creation as destruction or destruction as the only viable means of creation; art composed specifically to survive its own acute sense of oblivion. Feldman’s pieces are repetitive in the sense that they follow a vaguely recurring pattern, but they are never systematic, never symmetric and never habitual, despite at all times giving the outward appearance of straining to bend that way. It is, primarily, weak. There is no map to follow, no symbolic order, and yet you know exactly where you’re going. Except you never quite get there, because there is no end goal—or no future end—in Feldman’s music, only the vague, inchoate possibility of an end. It’s like putting your ear up to a Rothko canvas; you’re right on the threshold, on the deathly still precipice of the abyss.
The blunt sense of abandonment and sheer indirection in Feldman’s music is total, its weakness is agonisingly pervasive; it’s leaking viscerally through the cracks: a thin rain lashes down on the ruins, a sickly grey tide in a fog smashes against the cliffs, a crab scuttles silently across an empty bay, the vista melts away and what once were formal brushstrokes run languidly into the sea, before the solution starts to inexorably congeal into something like the faint, frozen outline of one’s own tormented profile. In this base landscape the artist disengages for good his or her pursuit of the perfect image, the perfect form—the illusion of the new. A radical aesthetic—viewed in and of itself—is not that which aspires to carve out the new frontiers of artistic production and discourse, but rather that which does not try to circumnavigate, alleviate, substitute or bury the inevitable, inexorable flow of violence. Art should give itself over to a destruction that is simultaneously both boundless and aimless, towards—in a final nod to The Hamlet Doctrine—“a violence against the violence of reality,” which might even induce an effect of disgust.9 A radical aesthetic derails time itself within its image. In 1915, in an essay entitled From Cubism to Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting, Malevich bounds it in a nutshell: “I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things, from the horizon-ring which confines the artist and the forms of nature. This accursed ring, which opens up newer and newer prospects, leads the artist away, from the target of destruction.”10
1 Ezra Pound, Literary Essays, (New York: New Directions, 1968), 4.
2 Boris Groys, “Becoming Revolutionary: On Kazimir Malevich,” http://www.e-flux.com/journal/becoming-revolutionary-on-kazimir-malevich, 2013.
4 Franco Berardi, “Cognitarian Subjectivation,” http://www.e-flux.com/journal/cognitarian-subjectivation 2010.
5 Franco Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry And Finance, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e): intervention, series 14, 2012).
6 Berardi, “Cognitarian Subjectivation.”
7 Groys, “The Weak Universalism,” http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-weak-universalism/, 2010.
8 Simon Critchley & Jamieson Webster, The Hamlet Doctrine, (London: Verso, 2013), 12.
9 Ibid. 218 Cf. “The disgust that we feel might not simply repulse or repel us. It might also wake us up. This is the force of the uncontainable that we find in tragedy, whether ancient or modern. The disgust that we feel might not just destroy us. We don’t have to follow Ophelia into a watery grave. We think 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 task of tragic poetry in a state that is rotten and in a time that is out of joint.” 218.
10 Kazimir Malevich, From Cubism to Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting, 1915, (http://www.mariabuszek.com/kcai/ConstrBau/Readings/MlevchSupr.pdf), 2.
Tom Regel is a writer from Nottingham, England. He graduated from Goldsmiths College and currently resides in South London.