Saturday, March 24, 2007

cards, stencils & decompositions

— notes from emails


i haven't made any effort to associate these particular works with deconstruction.

i started making the cards two years ago, while i was still in charlottesville. i've posted a lot of them at textimagepoem. the decompositions are a more recent development, but many of them are also at the blog.

among the precursors i recognize as influences in my decision to take the letter as the primary unit of composition are the futurists (both russian and italian), the dadaists (schwitters, ball, and tzara), and the kabbalist abulafia. even if we omit abulafia we have to acknowledge this practice in poetry as preceding deconstruction by 50 years or more. the two practices aren't attempting to do the same things. they aren't asking the same questions or attempting to solve the same problems.


i don't think of the decompositions as a negation of composition. i think of them a destabilized, or perhaps deteriorated compositions - or, maybe, as damaged compositions. but not as negations of composition.


a lot of what i have made over the past couple of years
the decompositions, for example
the cards in general
has been a kind of meditative silence
not meant to be arty or poetic
but a reduction of the poem
through the syllable to the letter
and then to the arbitrary arrangement of letters on a stencil
a kind of defiant silence in the face of all this overwhelming shit
sort of like cage's
i have nothing to say and i am saying it


an alchemy designed to quiet the mind
and facilitate a specific flow or aggregate
of thoughts

from a very strong sense of having been
defeated, defeated at the base of the psyche

taking that as a starting point for a kind of
defiant productivity, serial variations on the
facticity of being here and now, not so much
empty as directionless, point blank

these cards don't require exegesis, but they do
invite a certain kind of thinking


“a semiotic poem is a visual poem which can make use of non-letteral means of communication.”

the idea here of the semiotic poem is very familiar, though i don't think i'd seen the term before. my dilemma in investigating the asemic has been to locate the unreadable, in whatever form, and to attempt a fresh beginning from there. i haven't been able to locate the unreadable anywhere. one of the things i've been exploring is the stencil. most poetry is composed using the syllable as the primary unit of composition. a lot of so- called experimental writing is composed using the letter as the primary unit. using stencils is an extreme reductionist strategy for presenting the letter in opposition to itself. these shapes are letters. we are conditioned to read them. but the process of reading is thwarted by the arbitrary, conventional construct of the stencil. my decomposition series came out of this kind of thinking.


some ballpark stuff
(to draw a wobbly line around an approximate context)

Jonathan Culler - "The sign is the union of a form which signifies, which Saussure calls the signifiant (signifier), and an idea signified, the signifié (signified). Though we may speak of signifier and signified as if they were separate entities, they exist only as components of the sign."

Jonathan Culler - "Semiotics is based on the assumption that insofar as human actions or repoductions convey meaning, insofar as they function as signs, there must be an underlying system of conventions and distinctions which makes this meaning possible. Where there are signs there is system. This is what various signifying activities have in common, and if one is to determine their essential nature, one must treat them not in isolation but as examples of semiotic systems. In this way, aspects that are often hidden or neglected will become apparent, especially when nonlinguistic signifying practices are considered as ‘languages’."

Jonathan Culler - "The most interesting semiotic objects are those which insistently intimate their relation to sign systems but are hard to place and resist easy interpretation. They don’t quite fit the system’s categories; they seem to escape it, to violate what one takes to be its rules. But since we are governed by the semiological imperative, Try to make sense of things, we struggle with the refractory or evasive object, straining and extending our notions of significance, modifying and extrapolating from the rules of our system, or bringing two codes into juxtaposition to set off an interpretative interplay."

James Elkins - "Art history lacks a persuasive account of the nature of graphic marks, and that limits what can be said about pictures. If a sign, as Charles Sanders Pierce said, is ‘something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity’ — a formula as vague as it is compact — then every mark in a picture is also a sign: every brushstroke, pencil line, smudge, and erasue must function as a sign and have meaning."

James Elkins - "Marks exfoliate by drawing attention to their boundaries so that the boundaries become outlines in their own right; when that happens the boundaries themselves can be perceived as marks, turning both the original mark and the original surface into surfaces."

James Elkins
"In the end there is no such thing as a mark — there are only surfaces.

The act of making a mark also turns the surface into a mark, so that it is perceived not as an infinite or undifferentiated surface, but as a region with definite boundaries, and therefore ultimately a mark.

In effect, markmaking turns surfaces into marks."

James Elkins - "Graphic traces are unruly, as ‘subsemiotic’ elements might be expected to be, but they are unruly in a different way from written marks, and their instability does not fade when they combine into larger units."

James Elkins - "The ontological instability of the mark is a double and conflicting condition. On the one hand, each mark exfoliates into fields and endlessly generates new marks out of its edges; on the other hand, each mark coalesces its surrounding surface into fields and finally into other marks, so that the surface is fugitive and hardens everywhere into a landscape of marks. Unlike written signs, drawn and painted marks are insecurely linked to their grounds, and the same is true at the level of the figure — a fact that has to be suspended in order to get on with art-historical interpretations that treat figures as if they were signs detachable from their grounds."


poem as sequence, series and/or aggregate of signs, a specific kind of system of signs.

for my purposes, the stencil facilitates a specific kind of foregrounding of the visuality of the letters.

decomposition as i use the term is meant to refer to a specific type of composition, one in which the structural deterioration of its primary units is emphasized.

composition is a conventional title for works of art. my use of decomposition derives from that usage.

the cards, stencils, and decompositions are a kind of narrative, in the sense of being an ongoing discourse concerning some of the choices one might attend to while writing poetry.


jim leftwich
march 2007