"THE INVISIBLE BY VARIOUS NAME":
AN ANATOMY OF ERASURES
Reviewed by Will Cordeiro
Many ancient texts have become fragments; many modern ones begin that way.
In Schlegel's aphorism we have an implicit fulcrum of history: a before and after wherein the modern is forever a redaction of some unseen source, a reduction of the Ur-text, a redirection of the past's supposedly unblemished space of aboriginal significance. And yet, nowhere is that codex—that enravishing whole—entirely present. The ancient and the modern ironically collapse: both are fragmentary. Instead of any originary, unblemished space, we make-do with a blank. Whereas the classics have been ruined in advance, our new texts arrive unfinished. The past has devoured itself; the present awaits for the future to complete it.
Even so, such a wished-for future will never manifest since the present, of course, becomes the past and is ruined in its turn. Thereby, the lacuna must stand-in for an editorial reverie, an evasion of the text-as-is. It can be filled with whatever conjecture most delights us, signifying our own fallen nature at the same time that it gestures toward untold (that is, ultimately empty) possibilities. We hang suspended between a vanishing point of yesterdays and every tomorrow remaining to be written.
This reading of the classics as an aperture for projection is perhaps best exemplified by such recent books as Anne Carson's translation If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho and The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's "Envelope Poems," as well as Randall McLeod's efforts to use hypertexts to "un-edit" Renaissance poems by restoring a simultaneity of manuscript options. One might also consider the emerging centrality of authors such as Gertrude Stein, Paul Celan, and Fernando Pessoa in the modernist canon, all writers for whom the fragmentary and uncertain nature of language is highlighted. We reconstruct the ancient texts in our own image. Our classics are again experimental, alive precisely because they have been scattered, moth-eaten, stitched up, wrinkled, and rubbished.
A poet usually finds his poetry in another poet.... inevitably, it was long ago discovered that emulation was one of the most revolutionary forms of originality.
In his afterword, Davenport argues that Ronald Johnson's RADI OS (1977), an erasure of the first four books of Milton's Paradise Lost, is modernist in the same way that Ulysses co-opted Homer's archetypal patterns, Pound reworked Chinese translations, or Wordsworth previously copied Milton's cadences in The Prelude. Paradoxically, at times, Johnson's erasure makes Milton sound more like Milton—take the crackling title, for instance. "RADI" reveals its Latin root, radii (spoke of a wheel, ray of light) while "OS," also Latin, means bone. Johnson resurrects the etymology so that the bones of Milton's text shine forth; he evokes the gadgetry of broadcast towers and reception boxes—with all the interference and feedback such communication suggests—as well as an apocalyptic image of skeletons radiating outward like a wheel of flaming light, or inward to judgment.
The blank in the electrified title leaps a missing chasm like a synapse in the brain. The broken signal is essential to the message itself.
Furthermore, Johnson's work can be considered an elaboration of Milton's Protestant will-to-interpret, affirming one's personal relationship with the divine as revealed not through authority but rather through one's individual struggle with the book. Just as Milton's poem remade its Biblical myth on a psychological scale, picking off the tarnish of Catholic dogma, Johnson scrapes away Milton's tale to depict the agon of demiurgic elements—light and time, death and energy—which underwrites what has become for many of us an equally dogmatic myth of Satan defying God.
Yet Johnson is using Milton as a literal pretext; with Milton in the background, Charles Olson's projective verse might be considered the poem's foreground. The blank spaces on the page surge and spangle in an outburst of words. Johnson produces an act of revelation: atomistic matter, vanishing, emits wavelengths of reckoning force: "The Universe, to each inward part/ The place / informed/ with fire."
We are left with a situation in which the material specifics of the paper... are integral to the meaning of the work, but where the specific material (the sheet of paper) is not the work's medium.
In examining erasures, I became struck by the sheer variety of different means to represent the missing text. While many erasures stick with Ronald Johnson's strategy of blank spaces on the page, others employ a reproduction of blackouts from a Sharpie, perhaps in imitation of doctoring classified documents. Jen Bervin's Nets adopts bold and grayscale font to distinguish Shakespeare's Sonnets from her redaction. Mary Ruefle's A Little White Shadow replicates the whiteout she applied to the original book of the same title, though the matte pages lack impasto. Matthea Harvey's collaboration with visual artist Amy Jean Porter, Of Lamb, removes any trace of the source text and, had it not been for a note at the end which detailed the process of composition, would resemble any other psychedelic children's book about quasi-incestuous, polyamorous bestiality. Srikanth Reddy's Voyager uses several methods, everything from cross-outs to faded letters, from brackets to eliding texts into tidy paragraph blocks.
What, I began wondering, do such various strategies imply? All of these methods seemed somehow ersatz, tendentious, ad hoc. Just as the erasure itself was a trace of its source text, the materiality of the space that the erasure elided was also a trace—not the fully embodied gouge or cut, smear or gouache, which the artist used, but only something at a further remove: a Xerox, a sign, an imitation. An absence of an absence. What had been erased in the process of publishing these erasures by means of mechanical reproduction was the materiality of the procedure, the etched and bleeding scribbles, the marginal scabs, the impress and stickiness and smutch and frittering half-translucency of the palimpsest.
In this regard, my most astonishing experience came while reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes (2010), the pages of which are beribboned with physical holes, filigreed like a ribcage. Blocky yet delicate, the perforations in the paper caused me to handle the book with extra care, slowing down my reading experience. The punctums in the text call to mind binary code—a trelliswork of absence and presence—while also resisting the affective numbing of so much web-based literature, which (as you, dear reader, might be doing now) frequently causes us to speed up as we scan down the screen. Foer's book, by contrast, became digital in the sense of tactile, something to finger and fondle.
Foer claims he knows his source text like the proverbial back of his hand:
At times I felt that I was making a gravestone rubbing of The Street of Crocodiles and at times that I was transcribing a dream The Street of Crocodiles might have had. I have never read another book so intensely and so many times. I've never memorized so many phrases, or, as the act of erasure progressed, forgotten so many phrases.
Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles—also called Cinnamon Shops—is about coming-of-age in a fog-bound atmosphere of autumnal soot that is at once an ordinary small town in Poland and the magical realm of adolescence, in which an overbearing Father can transform into a vulture after retreating too long in the attic's fetid rookery or a "human being [can be] changed into the rubber tube of an enema." Witold Gombrowicz describes Schulz as "small, strange, chimerical, focused, intense, almost feverish," and the same could certainly be said of Schulz's work—to the point that Gombrowicz, whom Schulz looked to as a kindred spirit, once derided him, "What would your form be worth if its only application were at a height of two thousands meters above ground level?"
Foer's erasure brings Schulz down to earth and up to date. He excises Schulz's fluttering, precarious, dreamlike excesses, and yet the result is an even more hallucinatory prose that unveils the primal darkness within the family romance: the physical absence on the page emblematizes everything that silence could mean and everything it fails to mean between fathers and their progeny. Schulz speaks in prismatic metaphors of immeasurable rapture. He once described The Book in which "a shudder ran through the columns of its text, releasing flocks of swallows and skylarks from among its letters... like a cabbage rose, its leaves parting, sheet after sheet, eyelid after eyelid, each of them blind, velvety, and lulled to sleep, concealing deep within its azure pupil, its peacock core, a screeching nest of hummingbirds."
In Foer's book, too, the matrix of paper comes to life, winking and shuddering, shot through like an illuminated manuscript, the words taking flight, estranging the simple act of turning a page, remaking the leaves into a lament written on the lines of one's palm. Indeed, the pages framed the whorls, arches, and loops of my skin underneath, resolving my fingerprints into the identity of the book itself, translating my actual body into a character in its unfolding narrative. One of Foer's redactions reads, "We openly admit: our creations will be temporary. We shall have this as our aim: a gesture." The gesture of my hand beneath the page waved and spiraled; the fluttering book had wings.
Schulz still outdoes Foer, though, in terms of erasure. Schulz's last, mythical book, The Messiah, is only a myth of a book; the manuscript has been lost, if it ever really existed. It remains not even remains, only speculation and pure fancy, an evasive mystery, a masterpiece of which we have not even one scrap. The Messiah is only desire itself spun like a confection around the airy threads of nothing.
Or has the Professor his own deeper intention; and laughs in his sleeve at our own strictures and glosses, which indeed are a part thereof?
Reddy's Voyager (2011) deletes portions of Kurt Waldheim's memoir three times, each time offering a different sightline onto the panoptic theater of Waldheim's—and Reddy's own—place in history. Waldheim was the Secretary General of the UN, who, it was later discovered, had been a Nazi SS officer. Reddy's book interrogates the tenuous distinctions between censorship and self-fashioning, between excavating truths and inventing them. If Waldheim left out aspects of his past to censor and absolve his image, then Reddy's white spaces leave out aspects of Waldheim's memoir in an attempt to cleanse and censure himself.
My copy of Voyager includes a url address where the reader is directed to learn more about Reddy's procedure. At the website, Reddy claims he "deleted language from the book, like a government censor blacking out words in a letter from an internal dissident" and admits that he "cover[ed] [his] tracks, closing up the spaces between Waldheim's unerased words... and introducing both punctuation and lineation to make the poetry legible." Of the various strategies employed by Reddy, nowhere do they resemble blacking out. Moreover, his professed motive to make legible appears at odds with his project, a meditation on the illegibility of events. He positions himself as culpable—as if he admitted to perpetrating a kind of violence on a historical document. Reddy's language of "censoring" and "covering his tracks" makes him implicated in the very violence he critiques.
On the website, too, are pdfs of Reddy's handwritten annotations, offering the reader yet more versions—further destabilizing Reddy's already deconstructed work which operates by repetition and difference. It reminds me of Walter Benjamin's sarcastic "Principles of the Weighty Tome, Or How to Write Fat Books," one of which is "conceptual distinctions laboriously arrived at in the text are to be obliterated again in the relevant notes." But maybe the website's an Easter Egg, an inside joke? Such obliteration is another form of erasure, after all. Or perhaps our professor's laughing in his sleeve? But I doubt it; the tone of the book is altogether too sincere—if sincerity were possible when one is co-opting another's words.
To me this web-based paratext is the most curious part of the book. Gérard Genette claims that the paratext—a threshold that is neither text nor commentary—conditions the reception of the work and "although we do not always know whether these productions are to be regarded as belonging to the text, in any case they surround it and extend it, precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text's presence in the world... its consumption in the form... of a book." What do we make, then, of a paratext that is a flickering artifact in some cloud, that is an afterthought to the book's consumption, that proliferates more contradictions and gray areas, especially in a work that foregrounds the vagaries of effacement?
The inscriptions contained on eponymous Voyager spacecraft are messages from earth addressed to alien worlds that most humans themselves would be hopeless to decipher. Sometimes reading the book, I felt the same about Reddy's Voyager.
Meaning is neither here nor there. Each space one passes through is threshold to the next. Given such a voided state of things, of things which are not even things but signs, and thus wavering and various, meaning seems lost in its own iterations.
We are, as it were, trapped in a burning library filled with indecipherable maps, blueprints for one escape route or another, yet each one blocking off the exit it indicates, their pages mere tinder for the blaze, readable only in the moment the flames render them useless. Reddy's alter ego confronts affairs that offer themselves as a critique of Enlightenment: a self that is left to twist in its own dialectic—a cyclone of the mind's turning on itself, each dizzying step of logic negating the very possibility of reason until one is running over empty air.
Though Reddy is versed in critical theory's exegetical sleights-of-hand, Waldheim faced a very real aporia: to passively obey orders, ignoring the horrors of the concentration camps, or to actively rebel and be guilty of mutiny. Either side, the walls close in; one is guilty. Waldheim's dead end is transposed onto Reddy's persona. Reddy is anxious that any political commitment is compromised; he is paralyzed with no way to outthink the problem because thinking is the problem. He must act.
In one of Reddy's multiple epilogues he declares the work "was built of desire / experience taught me that in the final analysis nothing ends / the first steps must follow... I am a believer in silent prayers relinquished." Every interpretation must be subject to further interpretation, each cultural edifice erodes, the past relentlessly unravels; and yet, the undoing of history produces only another history.
I looked at film consisting of amateur footage shot in Dallas on the day of the assassination, crude powerful footage that included the Zapruder film. And there were times when I felt an eerie excitement, coming across an item that seemed to bear out my own theories. Anyone who enters this maze knows you have to become part scientist, novelist, biographer, historian and existential detective. The landscape was crawling with secrets, and this novel-in-progress was my own precious secret—I told very few people what I was doing... There are acres of FBI reports I barely touched. But for me the boring and meaningless stretches are part of the experience. This is what a life resembles in its starkest form—school records, lists of possessions, photographs of knotted string found in a kitchen drawer. It took seven seconds to kill the president, and we're still collecting evidence and sifting documents and finding people to talk to and working through the trivia. The trivia is exceptional... I had to be practical about this, and so I resisted the urge to read everything.
DeLillo's novel Libra focuses on the Kennedy assassination, another book about the strange contingencies of the historical record. There's always too much evidence and not enough. We have ocular proof of that tragic day in Dallas; the whole damn thing is caught on tape. But that's almost the problem, DeLillo implies. His central metaphor is the Zapruder film, which shimmers and glistens, a shadowy vortex down which the detective rabbit holes. Each time the protagonist views a clip, spooling it on the projector, the film scours; the figures diminish. Seeing the record is, at the same time, its erasure. The more we examine a document, the more it's reduced to uncertainty.
We like books that have a lot of dreck in them, matter which presents itself as not wholly relevant (or indeed, relevant at all) but which, carefully attended to, can supply a kind of "sense" of what is going on. This "sense" is not to be obtained by reading between the lines (for there is nothing there, in those white spaces) but by reading the lines themselves—looking at them and so arriving at a feeling not of satisfaction exactly, that is too much to expect, but of having read them, of having "completed" them.
Any technology—even an old-fangled stylus and tablet—is subject to loss. In the Phaedrus, Plato retells an Egyptian myth in which Thamus admonishes Thoth for his invention of writing: "you have an elixir not of memory but of reminding," he says, the artificial memory of marks collected on a sheaf more fragile, more fleeting than the soul's anamnesis, that recollection of eternal forms. Once written down and propagated, myths become ever-changing: omissions and embellishments, errata and scholia inevitably wriggle in once a story is inscribed in the unreal shadow-play of our material realm. To entrust thought to words and words to a page is to induce forgetting.
Levi-Strauss goes further. An illiterate tribal chief "half taken in by his own make-believe" scribbled on a notepad after he saw the anthropologist do so, in order to appear more important. This incident inspires Levi-Strauss's reflection that "knowledge is accompanied by power, with the result that the same individual is often both scribe and money-lender." Writing evolved from ledgers and accounts; as such activity helped organize empires, writing "seems to have favored the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment... the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery." Writing fosters deceit, treachery, dissimulation; more often than its use for aesthetic or scientific purposes, it's a means to transmit oppression.
For many, writing itself has become oppressive, mere paperwork in a self-replicating bureaucracy where documents are doctored, redacted, foldered, surfed, skimmed, swiped, quoted, queried, copied, pasted, parsed, plagiarized, notarized, attached, and forwarded—but rarely read. Fleetingly eyeballed, infrequently sounded. Seldom studied.
Kenneth Goldsmith argues that we don't need writers anymore, we need information processors (whether people or machines) who can navigate, rearrange, and index the overflowing cache of digital bits that already exists. For Goldsmith, there's a surfeit in the textual economy, with clickbait and automated systems generating hordes of new gobbledygook on auto-pilot. His solution is for us literati to switch focus from content to context. What matters isn't what a piece says but what we can say about it, he claims. The process of composition is more important than its results. Documents don't need to be glossed and interpreted; they need only to be interpolated and glazed. Better yet, I wonder, why bother rolling our eyes over words, when we can simply roll our eyes?
Goldsmith advocates for works that are entirely dreck, long and boring, self-consciously unreadable, often as repetitive as they are illegible: a new empire of letters where files circulate free of authorship and disconnected of their need for any audience, spit out and chewed up by the gristmill of calculating engines, playlists and mash-ups and upcycled listicles ad infinitum: a viral churn of bit-torrent snippets, clips, and soundbites.
Even fellow conceptualists Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman note that, "Pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense—one does not need to 'read' the work as much as think about the idea of the work. In this sense, pure conceptualism's readymade properties capitulate to and mirror the easy consumption/generation of text and the devaluation of reading in our larger culture." They go on to say that this analogy to the machine is "increasingly for conceptual writers...literally a machine—both construction and constraint are informed by market needs." We might deem these writing machines Rube Goldsmith devices, manufactories of self-promoting memes without any meaning other than their ever-diminishing marginal utility in self-replicating marketplaces.
Goldsmith views erasures per se as a small subspecies in the genus of Uncreative Writing, one mode among many—including plagiarism, procedural algorithms, and repackaging. Though he would have us appropriate and redistribute readymade materials, his methods don't cull, sift, and cut down the texts we have; rather, such methods result in a combinatory explosion. Ironically, we don't junkbox Milton just because we now have Ronald Johnson. Pierre Menard molders alongside Cervantes on our squalling cybernetic bookshelf, leaving us less time to read either in the morass of pixelated blather.
Admittedly, Goldsmith himself is modestly well read—hip, for example, to the Scribblerians' concern about textual corruption and the precarious material basis of meaning. He cites Swift's satire on a writing machine which would crank out whole libraries of new philosophy—an idea that Swift clearly sees as only fit for cranks and dunderheads, but which Goldsmith reinterprets with a straight face. In any case, Swift may have picked up his idea from the late medieval polymath Raymond Lully who proposed a computational art of discovering truth which involved rotating wheels with esoteric symbols on them, a tool Lully in turn derived from Arabic astrologers' zairja. But maybe Goldsmith is swifter than I'm giving him credit for, a wry provocateur smiling beneath his mask, goading us to rethink outmoded assumptions about the means of textual production. After all, I just regurgitated these facts about Lully from a quick Google search that redirected me to Wikipedia and now you, mon semblable—mon frère, are ingesting them on your screen.
Or perhaps Plato was right all along—writing is an elixir of forgetting, and only the rapidity and sheer range of the Internet now enables us to behold this Socratic conclusion in its full eviscerating splendor? Data streams through the ether, glitchy twinkling clouds disseminating malware through great cosmic gloryholes. Indeed, such feckless circulation collapses the distinction between production and consumption; writing on is also writing over. All writing is erasure.
I wish to blur the boundaries which we self-certain people tend to delineate around all we can achieve.
Mary Ruefle's A Little White Shadow dances with the puppets in Plato's cave. While a typical shadow obscures, a white shadow illuminates the very thing it darkens. Her whiteouts have a translucency, a blur. They produce a lacey striptease of alluring veils. The white spaces flirt, splotch, ripple, scotch, or flurry. They invoke the Stevenisan "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Despite the diminutive, ironic nature of her whiteness, it retains something of that sublime engulfing fog of nameless mystic oneness, which Melville deemed lurks as an "elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue." We glimpse the terrifying vacuua of which matter is mostly composed; the ghostly passages of the mind's unbounded blank.
Though Ruefle whittles down her Victorian source text of the same name to produce a mere pocket-sized chapbook, she's nonetheless altered the last page to read: "the 'Little White Shadow' End on end." Absence becomes an infinite wheel, a tumbling gyre, the very stress and pivot of a headlong universe still and ever in motion. She applies a coat of finish; but she demonstrates the world itself is forever unfinished.
If Plato worried that writing—a mere shadow—might corrupt reality, Ruefle sees an enlivening potential in the gaps of memory: the gaps and runs and pits and pauses, the whole perforated overlay of silent imposition. An erratum might improve a text; or, as William James once said, "the art of being wise is knowing what to overlook."
Ruefle has produced forty-five erasure books, many of which she gives away to friends. She rarely reads the original texts; rather, "the words rise above the page, by say an eighth of an inch, and hover there in space, singly and unconnected, and they form a kind of field, and from this field I pick my words as if they were flowers." Ruefle raids the meadow, mesmerizing it into tiny winking skulls of baby's breath: "seven centuries of sobbing gathered in the twilight;" "the number blue encircled herself;" "it was my duty to keep the piano filled with roses." The pages are fertile with playful aperçus: "artists and their quarrels—a barbarity worthy of the Goths themselves;" "autumn had no particular talents but genius;" "my ignorance was a refining influence." Her cuts produce an anthology of witticism.
There's a painterly quality to the brushwork. The whiteout daubed and dripping on the ecru paper recalls the collages of Hannah Höch, the abstract stylizations of color field painters, and synthetic cubism's pasted-on newspapers clippings. Texture, shape, color, and fluidity emphasize the homemade condition of the work, suggesting that each of us must get our hands dirty—smudge and spackle—to make any book a home.
The whiteout performs a disappearing act, the "sorrows of a little Quietist." And yet, like epigrams or haiku, by saying less Ruefle allows each word to echo outward in a rippling void. Miniaturization and elision are only means to force us to bend in closer, to relax the visual cortex, to Magic Eye the field until we, too, see the hovering penumbras of the floating world.
[Phillips's] second copy of A Human Document... had been bought in 1902 by a woman who underlined whole passages and added marginalia, an act he loved and wholly welcomed because he realized that over time, when we underline a passage in a book or add marginalia, we ourselves are "treating" the book we are reading.
Tom Phillips's A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel began "around noon on the 5th of November in 1966" when he chanced upon W. H. Mallock's A Human Document at a discount store, started doodling on its pages, and never looked back. The project continues to this day. Though Phillips completed "treating" the pages of that first copy by 1973, he has since bought several more copies of the novel to rework, constantly "mining and undermining" this singular text with painting, collages, and cut-ups as the task of his lifetime. It has recently taken on a new incarnation as an iPhone app.
Back in 1996 William Gass declared it one of the greatest artworks of the 20th century: "the result as you initially leaf, skip, and bound through the book is pure exhilaration. It is a joyful thing to be in the presence of such a rich variety of form and idea... paradox and puzzle" wherein each page is an encounter with a "bravura'd new'd world." A braided denuded world, as well, in which text and image are both woven together and continually unraveled. Phillips deconstructs Mallock's serious narrative into a series of spurious asides, surrealist squibs, and ticklish philosophic quips.
Yet, amidst all that musty Victoriana and amongst Phillips's own mongering of bon mots, he somehow manages to carve out a novel within the novel. Proceeding by snippets and jump cuts, the reader—as if rummaging for a prize in crackerjacks—can discern the story of Bill Toge, a nebbishy Everyman doleful with artful pretensions, erotic escapades, and a generalized failure of meaning. More than a few sentences have shades of Beckett or Stein, and yet an improvident sense of balderdash, a delicious blush of improvisation, aerates the whole work. A jazzy scat, a scattered bliss, it's a vade mecum for the wandering mind of our graphic age, a sortes Virgilianea ripe for divination.
One of the few comparable books to A Humument, in either scale or scope, is Henry Darger's Story of the Vivian Girls. Like Darger's book, Phillips's text is an inexhaustible trove of whimsically outlandish world-making, a luminous and illimitable manuscript. Unlike Darger, however, Phillips is a living and much-celebrated doyen of the art world, with work ranging from opera, film, translation, sculpture, photography, and portraiture. A Humument combines all of these talents in a visual, a visceral aria of pyrotechnic synesthesia. The staid decorum of the original novel is exploded, and the text itself visually explodes like shrapnel. Words cascade and hairpin down the page in blorps, wibbles, speech-bubbles, blast shards, and dribbly spermatozoons. Patterns dissolve and re-emerge against a backdrop of hallucinogenic pop art or eye-popping wallpaper, a vast parade of collages and parodies from art history.
The text at times grows squinty with misprints or squiggly with negative space. The writing has a lateral relationship to the images, neither wholly illustrative nor abstract. Instead, the pictures offer a refractory mummery and fracturing hum alongside the purgative splurge of purfling verbiage.
The title, Phillips says, is "an earthy word with echoes of humanity and monument as well as a sense of something hewn; or exhumed to end up in muniment rooms of the archived world. I even like the effortful sound of it." I might add that the title seems redolent of humus, too, as if referencing a tree—or giant book or epic tower—arising from the slag, detritus, and manure of its roots only to inevitably succumb to an earthward pull back into decomposition. The process of decomposition, of course, is the point. Phillips expurgates the novel as an inversion of Victorian bowdlerization. Rather than cutting out the sexual or untoward innuendo, he's more interested in cutting up—clowning around, playfully extracting more subtext, abrading his source into pure adumbration.
The actions Phillips performs on his source are kissing cousins to things many of us routinely do, as Ruefle suggests—scribbling glosses, fribbles, highlights, lowlights, obiter dicta, and arabesques over a document. Making the document more human. In fact, such marginalia may be viewed as a complement to the process of interpretation: we prune the book in memory even as we add our own annotations to the page. Worm-holed and serpentine, the ensuing pattern is no longer the merely lisable text, in Barthesian terms, but one wherein the agency of the reader acts as adjutant to the author, bringing some unexpected significance into being. A novel is treated, in other words, so that we can be treated to its novelty. We unearth humor and aurum from what was meant.
God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through.
There's more in heaven and earth than merely poets dream of. That holds true for erasures, as well. Erasures exist in different forms, across media, beyond art. Erasures are a mode of experience.
Robert Rauschenberg once convinced Wilhem de Kooning to give him a drawing, which Rauschenberg then almost completely erased, a laborious process since de Kooning worked in charcoal. Because De Kooning himself also incorporated erasure into some of his own works, it is not altogether clear what erasure marks are Rauschenberg's and which might in fact be de Kooning's. Once Rauschenberg had finished, Jasper Johns added a caption "Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953." The whole thing is mounted in a gold-leaf frame that has been roughened and chipped in spots with dark red paint showing through. An accession sticker on the back declares, "DO NOT REMOVE DRAWING FROM FRAME. FRAME IS PART OF DRAWING."
P.T. Barnum once put up a sign declaring "This Way to the Egress." Patrons were overstaying their visit at his museum, and, because the museum was so popular, they prevented new visitors from entering. Barnum needed to hustle his visitors along so he could make another fast buck. Many patrons followed Barnum's sign expecting an exhibit—and then finding themselves rudely locked out the exit door.
In 1960 Jean Tinguely created a sprawling assemblage of scrap metal and oddments entitled "Homage to New York" for a performance in MOMA's sculpture garden. The self-destroying contraption, during a 27-minute performance, juddered and beat itself, broke down, uncoiled, and burst into flame. The fire department stepped in, ending the show. Once the sputtering mechanism ground to a halt and the fire was put out, spectators scavenged for remnants, though most pieces were thrown away. The museum kept one large section that survived, a wobbly hunk of bicycle wheels, motors, a piano, an addressograph, a go-cart, a bathtub, and other cast-off objects.
Gary Sullivan, cartoonist and Flarf poet, composed a series of erasure poems based on his rejection slips. Perhaps even more effective, in terms of institutional critique, were the untouched acceptance letters he used as found poems: one acceptance praised Sullivan's mocking, bathetic, and intentionally offensive "poem" because it "sparks the imagination and provides the reader with a unique perspective on life." The dubious publisher encouraged the selected poet to buy a copy of the leather-covered, gold-embossed anthology for "only $49.95 plus $8.00 postage and handling."
Composer William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops is an album of ambient music where each track plays the same recording on loop until the fragments disintegrate by the process of passing over the tape head, adding feedback, crackles, static. At the time, Basinski had been attempting to preserve earlier recording sessions by transferring them to an updated format. However, in doing so, he realized the possibilities of the new sounds emerging even as the originals were irretrievably lost. His project concluded on September 11, 2001.
Those days following the attacks on the World Trade Center, I would go up to the rooftop of my apartment building in Williamsburg to gaze across the river at the Manhattan skyline. At first, a faint wisp of smoke could be seen ascending from the empty space where the Towers once stood. When the wind blew east, the acrid scent tinged the air. Later, giant blue beams shot up from 88 xenon spotlights to recreate ghostly columns dissolving upwards into the night. Then years of absence, when the skyline felt vacant, jagged silhouettes and fairy-dust dominated by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings of Midtown. Now, when I visit, the needle of One World Trade projects from the Financial District, acutely stabbing into the mirrored clouds warped in its glass. Many of us have a personal site of erasure, a palimpsest marked by the changes wrought by architecture and that architecture has wrought on our psyches. Cities of desire, cities of vanishing, the places we inhabit are like sieves, spectral and punctured, nebulous and sifted, built anew over memory's landscapes, composed from fragments of a usable past. We walk through revenants down the streets of our narrowing days.
It can even be said that the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power. In this sense, biopolitics is at least as old as the sovereign exception.
The widespread phenomena of erasures have given birth to texts that merely appear to have been erased—a simulacrum of erasure with no source. Armand Schwerner's late modernist epic The Tablets, for instance, offers original poetry in the guise of a translation from Sumerian-Akkadian tablets, including lacunae, missing texts, variant readings, and untranslatable passages. The erasure functions as a means of reifying the historicity of the text, demonstrating that reading itself is an act of recovery and provisional translation, bridging gaps between syntax as well as cultures.
Similarly, Jenny Boully's The Body (2007) would seem to be a sequence of footnotes commenting on a missing text. Nothing at all remains of the body of the text, and the empty signified can only be retrospectively inferred from what is written around it and about it. The physical body, too, is a product and a site of discourse at least as much as it is a thing of material primacy. Language constructs the body and the body constructs language.
Solmaz Sharif's Look (2016) also includes fictional missing text. In the poem "Reaching Guantánamo" the letters the speaker sends to her husband, Salim Hamden, who is held captive at the prison, arrive to him, and to us as readers, redacted by intervening authorities into an almost illegible format. Sharif's poem seems eerily close to life, considering such a work as Mohamedou Ould Slahi's Guantánamo Diaries (2015), a nonfiction memoir that includes similarly redacted material. In the poem, both mundane details of domestic life and brutal descriptions of torture have been excised. The resultant jumpy grammar produces jarring, caustic, or serendipitous conjunctures while the absence of violence renders the specter of it more fundamentally obscene, in the root sense that the violence of classical tragedy takes place offstage to render it more impactful. Spectators cannot look—they must imagine such violence in their mental theatres, thereby playing the dual roles of victim and torturer. Again, the simulacrum of erasure has overtones of biopolitics: the body is whatever the state would make of it.
It's the worst kind of cycle, the one accessible only in dreams. The one you can see but not name, or name but not see. The indefatigable past consuming all texture of the present.
In the last decade or so, the tendency in works of erasure has been to take a decidedly more political turn. As Sharif notes elsewhere, "the proliferation of erasure as a poetic tactic in the United States is happening alongside a proliferation of our awareness of it as a state tactic. And, it seems, many erasure projects today hold these things as unrelated." Many recent erasure projects, however, do see these two things as related, and literary erasure acts as an overt critique of state-sponsored censorship.
Partly this might be a side-effect of the tendency in literature generally to emphasize the political, the micro-political nature of just about everything—especially those realms that had been conventionally cast as private and aesthetic, problems of the individual consciousness rather than the social manifold. Notably, this newfound politicization has taken place not within self-styled avant-garde movements, which have always been political, but as a pervasive shift across many mainstream communities of writing. From the Arts and Crafts movement to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the animating impetus behind avant-garde literature has been to create art that would act as a revolutionary force, reshaping social structures. Indeed, the demise of any truly avant-garde movement, I would argue, can be traced to a widespread political awakening among the literary public: not all writers or readers by any means, but a significant number. At least as many are socially conscious today as previously had participated in the experimental fringe. The need for a vanguard that promotes an experimental style, against the anodyne rhetoric du jour, is perhaps no longer necessary since numerous readers across political and aesthetic spectrums are discontent with the status quo; a sense of urgency about social justice issues and even a craving for revolution has been fomented—not by art, but rather by a cascade of unfortunate current events.
The contrapositive of this claim is demonstrated by the so-called avant-garde movement of conceptual writing, pace Goldsmith, which often masquerades with an avowed apolitical stance, though one that often forwards an insidiously conservative agenda, buying into the supposedly free market—often emblematized by the internet, the literal "machine"—while flouting art-for-art's-sake assumptions. This is probably not the forum to rehash the controversies involving Goldsmith's misappropriated autopsy report of Michael Brown or Vanessa Place's retweeting of the racist Gone with the Wind. Suffice to say, such stunts confirm the sense that much conceptual writing is not radical—it's retrograde in its underlying overtures to neoliberal capitalism and its embrace of a whitewashed aesthetic. Not so all erasure texts.
The more common use of the term "erasure" in contemporary critical discussions is in regards to silencing racial and other cultural markers in works that take a middle-class, white, hetero-normative perspective while purporting to represent a universalized humanity or, at least, a nationalized character. The erasure of race is viewed as a tool of white supremacy; the erasure of other identities, a tool of other authoritarian regimes. In contemporary parlance, talk of "erasure" arises when a work has failed to address the implicit political stakes of the topic under discussion. No wonder, then, that one type of erasure often becomes a metaphor for the other.
M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong! (2011), for instance, uses the legal documents of Gregson v. Gilbert, a case in which 150 Africans were thrown overboard by the captain of the titular slave ship. Through erasure techniques she fragments and recovers the story of the slaves that had been subjected to obliteration by overlapping institutions of power. Likewise, texts such as Travis MacDonald's The O Mission Repo (2008), Janet Holmes's THE MS OF MY KIN (2009), Austin Kleon's Newspaper Blackout (2010), and Philip Metres's Abu Ghraib Arias (2011) highlight their own redacted versions of texts as a critique of state violence. Even recent pages from A Humument emphasize political themes—depictions of the Twin Towers, references to the Holocaust—where earlier pages had been saturated with campy, kaleidoscopic patterns. In such works poetic erasure is employed against the authorities who use erasure as a political tactic of censorship; these poets hope to use the tools of the master to dismantle his house.
The ambiguities of the technique are more vexing, however, in Renee Gladman's The Activist (2003). In this dystopian fictional work written after 9/11, any act of writing appears complicit as a potential censoring agent. Within the tense and fractious atmosphere of the millennial "white city," terrorists may or may not have blown up a bridge. A group of activists protesting the event encounter tortured confessions, mutating maps, fading memories, blacked-out documents, media accusations, police denials, doppelgängers, counter-espionage, secret alliances, morphing allegiances, changing plans, decoys, plants, bugs, barricades, tampered evidence, widespread paranoia, conspiracy theories, folie à deux, conflicting reports, and photo-shopped pictures. Clouds, viruses, whirlwinds proliferate. Readers themselves are given few clues about who they can trust in such a recriminating epistemological nightmare, as not only are all the narrators unreliable but the text also refuses to indicate who's speaking. At the climax, when one of the activist's speeches promises to reveal her as a hero or traitor, activist or terrorist, the speech is elided. Again, we are forced to rely on subjective opinions and scripted pronouncements. Nobody can take the high ground because the ground itself is vanishing beneath one's feet. A tour of the city shows every position, every landmark vertiginously turning into something else. And yet, the state appears to succeed in its machinations by riddling everything with holes.
Although objectively greater demands are placed on [public opinion], it operates less as a public opinion giving a rational foundation to the exercise of political and social authority, the more it is generated for the purpose of an abstract vote that amounts to no more than an act of acclamation within a public sphere temporarily manufactured for show or manipulation.
The supposedly postmodern technique of erasure is conceivably quite a bit older. An assortment of Enlightenment and Romantic-era novels play with the idea of fragmentation and the materiality of the text. The Man of Feeling, Tristram Shandy, and Melmoth the Wanderer are just a few of the countless works of this age that foreground the text as physical object. While the printing press made publication easier, it also disseminated accidents and errata. As Roger Chartier writes in his book on erasure from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries, "The publication process, regardless of its modality, is always a collective process involving numerous actors in which there is no sharp distinction between the materiality of the text and the textuality of the book." During the eighteenth century when newly globalized infrastructure and technology allowed the public sphere to emerge, anxiety developed that bad copies might drown out genuine ideas. Pope's The Dunciad depicts this oncoming tidal wave of printed matter, and the Variorum edition takes the satire one step further by surrounding the poem with a flood of commentary, footnotes, and textual emendations—veritably erasing the text through its apparatus. By emphasizing the physical object of the book over its platonic idea, authors evinced fears that they could no longer constrain the meanings and circulation of their works; rather, they saw their texts subject to the corruptions of both matter and the marketplace.
Today we may be witnessing another historical transition, another fraught and anxious moment. The public sphere is eroding; the commons fractures into separate fields of discourse each of which has incommensurable values and distinct criteria of truth. We, too, may be drowning in words. We, too, may be uncertain how these words match up with the world. We, too, may feel that our language, our thoughts, our very bodies are under erasure.