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Monday, September 6, 2010

Eclipse Archives Bruce Andrews & John M. Bennett Collaboration

In 1979, Bruce Andrews and John M. Bennett produced a concretist poetry text called Joint Words, and Bennett published it under his Luna Bisonte Prods imprint in Columbus, Ohio. The text consists of fourteen one-line, two-word poems rubber-stamped onto white, index-sized cards and held loose in a small, white gum-sealed envelope.

Cover/Container Envelope

Title Page

At the end of last year, Craig Dworkin (and his editorial assistants at the University of Utah) produced a digital facsimile of Joint Words and added it to Dworkin's Eclipse online archive. Without commenting too extensively on the Eclipse archive itself, let me just say that I consider it to be the most elegant and methodologically rigorous literary/visual art resource of its kind on the web. Where Kenneth Goldsmith's Ubuweb archive astounds us with the breadth and depth of its collection, Dworkin's Eclipse shows us the potential for simplicity of organization and beauty of presentation in digital archiving. You can read about Dworkin's methodology for Eclipse in the essay he published in the Fall 2009 issue of boundary 2 here. (If you don't have access to boundary 2 online, send me a note and I'll email you a pdf of Dworkin's essay.)

Just as Joint Words should be read next to Robert Grenier's seminal Sentences, published one year before, the digital facsimile of Andrews's and Bennett's project contrasts significantly with Whale Cloth Press's recent digital remediation of Grenier's work. The Whale Cloth applet is extremely important for every student of late American modernism or late twentieth-century experimental poetry who will never have the chance to see Grenier's work within its current museal contexts. Now that this digital version is available, it's hard to imagine life without it. But the remediation reproduces very little of the tactile experience that Grenier's original work is meant to induce; the purpose of this outlet, as Dworkin would be quick to note, is precisely not to reproduce the materiality of the original work but to expand its field of distribution.


Unlike Whale Cloth, Dworkin has scanned rather than retyped the text of Joint Words, but I suppose we're still left with an open question as to what extent a mosaic of pixels captures the materiality of rubber-stamped ink. For what a personal, impressionistic testimonial is worth, I find the Joint Words facsimile to be the richest appeal to the senses available on Eclipse.

But what if we shift the criterion of judgment here from the senses to the sensorium? That is, what new sense of the project do we get if we focus less narrowly on the look and feel of the images on the screen and ask how the digital reproduction/remediation of Joint Words affects the overall experience of reading the text?

If we read Joint Words and Sentences online, in neither case do we experience the time of reading that we might say the authors built into the structures (that is, the manual apparatuses of reading) of their texts. Like turning pages, working through a stack of cards courts a slow, deliberate rhythm of readerly attention. Unless the reader of Joint Words or Sentences in their original formats levels the stack of cards and arranges them individually on a flat surface, this reader will not experience the same forward momentum and propulsion from one card to the next that "clicking through" the online work allows. (In any event, "spreading the cards" would create its own unique reading experience, something akin to "reading by field.")

If reading Joint Words is like reading a book with re-arrangeable pages, then reading the Eclipse facsimile of the work is like watching a text turned into a movie. Because the rubber-stamped cards constituting the text have been literally turned into frames, the experience of reading the digital text has become fundamentally cinematic. Clicking each frame to access the next one in the series, the reader controls the rhythm of this digital text/image montage.

Page 5

Page 6

As digital readers, moving quickly through each frame, we get a deeper impression of how the Andrews/Bennett collaboration recycles and riffs on its own language, recombining two-word syntactical units with repeated/reconfigured terms like "kak/kaak." While we see a minimal but meaningful juxtaposition on each card ("word kak" code-switches between English and Afrikaans to signify "word shit"), we also deduce a third term produced by juxtapositions or chains of signification among cards ("word kak" apparently generates "kaak stunt," either an absurdist "cake stunt" or a perversion of "kayak stunt"). Some of the chance symmetries among the "join[ed] words" have a less reflexive meaning than they would have for "analog readers." The phrase "white pulp" connects readers of printed matter to their medium of communication or display differently than it does for digital viewers. Looking at this phrase on the screen, we become acutely aware of our remoteness from the original document, the "white pulp."

But if the "cinematic" version of Joint Words deepens our understanding of the text's semiotics, it may limit our understanding of the rules of Andrews's and Bennett's game. Looking at this next three-frame series, I'm struck by how the digital reproduction of the text makes me feel like I can intuit less about the nature of the Andrews/Bennett collaboration.

Page 9

Page 10

Page 11

If we assume that Andrews and Bennett were individually responsible for one-half of each two-word unit, can we conclude that they both "marked" each card, i.e., that they each used a rubber stamp, i.e., that they each had a hand in the material production of the text? The facsimile of "boom boom" does not reveal (to me, anyway) any definitive differences in the physical marks on the card, and the close juxtaposition of two instances of the same word makes this frame seem like a good test case for this kind of judgment. But are there senses that I'm not using as I look at the screen that might indicate otherwise if I were holding the cards in front of me? And how incidental, how fortuitous was the "boom boom" coincidence, anyway? If Andrews and Bennett collaborated by "send[ing] links" through the mail to one another, how did they time their posts? Did Bennett send Andrews an initial word (or vice versa), and wait for a response before stamping card one and sending the next word? Or did Bennett and Andrews "stiff each" other, "send[ing] links" before they had received any word in the mail, before the other had had a chance to be seen and heard?

These may seem like trivial uncertainties given the simplicity of the text and its material production, and in some sense they are. I mention them only to suggest that on the web even a facsimile can suffer from some of the same drawbacks that we usually only associate with total remediations; they may make texts somewhat less than legible when readers are counting on the smallest, most minuscule, and (yes) most trivial marks on the page or screen to indicate such complex conditions of production as the dynamics of collaboration. Joint Words certainly is beautiful on the screen, perhaps because it has become slightly elusive.

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