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Mark Rutkoski, Words of Love

By K. Silem Mohammad

5-1-13_Mohammad

There is a sense in which every “pure” conceptual writing project feels like it has already been done before: the production of the text depends upon the prior existence of the text. This is necessary to the signature aura of travesty that fuels conceptualism. The reader must begin from an awareness of having been ripped off, or at least an awareness that such an awareness is what the reader is “supposed” to possess. In fact, the reader who genuinely feels cheated in such a way is not conceptualism’s ideal or intended reader, except perhaps as a dupe whose outrage is “foiled” by the existence of the true ideal reader, the one whose satisfied understanding of the game requires the contrasting example of the reader who fails to get it. And this, of course, is exactly the accusation that many make regarding conceptual works: that they are elitist gestures whose purpose is to make an invidious distinction between two types of aesthetic consumer, one “sophisticated” and the other “dull.” To this one might reply that it is not only conceptualism that relies on such dichotomies, but an entire tradition of western bourgeois art appreciation. Conceptualism just brings the crassness of the pattern into sharper definition. Irony is thus at its base. This, however, leads to the further irony that it gets indicted for privileging exactly those “sophisticates” who are the subjects of its irony at the first level. And so on. No one wins.

A further level of recycledness marks Mark Rutkoski’s Words of Love (Les Figue Press, 2013)—a level even beyond the usual condition of appropriational recycledness. That is, his text very closely resembles the sort of concordance that literary scholars have been publishing for years. (Or do they anymore? It might be more of a pre-twenty-first-century phenomenon.) I recall seeing books that looked pretty much like Rutkoski’s in content and format while poking around my university library in grad school. The work, therefore, is doubly unoriginal: the original text (Shakespeare’s Sonnets) doesn’t “belong” to Rutkoski, and arguably, neither does the device by which that text is reconfigured.

Obviously, there is a big difference between Words of Love and the kind of academic reference book I’ve mentioned: they serve completely distinct functions. As far as I can tell, Rutkoski hasn’t scrupulously based his list on any particular edition of Shakespeare’s text (e.g., the 1609 quarto), and even if he has, he hasn’t marked any variants or otherwise significant features. There is no apparatus or other commentary. The text is minimal, clean, unfettered by any evidence of research or marks of explanation. In other words, it’s absolutely useless.

It’s a commonplace to note how conceptualist renderings highlight the materiality of text by reducing structures of meaning and aesthetic purposefulness to bare lists and static graphemic readouts. Rutkoski’s text is, in one way, a prime example of this. What I find most interesting about it, however, is how it emphasizes the ways that literary language becomes dematerialized. The historical specificity of Shakespeare’s text is utterly effaced, in an exaggerated version of the same way that same specificity has been erased and re-erased by the countless public domain reiterations of the Sonnets in both paper and digital format.

The uselessness of Rutkoski’s rearrangement, then, is highly selective. As a scholarly gloss, it is negligible, but as a poetic object, it is very instructive.

One thing it is not is porous, in the way literary works are often said to be. That is, it is not constructed so as to reflect meanings and emotions back at the reader in some generative, fluid exchange. If this happens, the reader is doing it wrong. This, at any rate, is the “message” sent by pure conceptualist compositions: that the text is impermeable, closed off, a negative image of the “empty” or “catatonic” Body without Organs. No thinking reader ever absolutely accepts this message; we go on looking for porousness, for pores. We insist on misreading. The resistant text says no, which we invariably assume means yes. The conceptualist text, in this way, sets up a system within which in order to be enjoyed it must be violated.

As an illustration of such conceptualist anti-porosity, let us engage in a reductio: what would an act of interpretative close reading look like? How might we detach a part of the text for analysis?

be
be
be
be
be
be
be
be
be
be
be
beams
bear
bear
bear
bear
bear
bear
bear
bear
bear
bear
bear
bear
beard
bearer
bearing
bearing
bearing
bears
bears
bears
bear’st
beauty
beauty
beauty
beauty
beauty

Certainly there are images here: bears, and beauty, and beards, and maybe even the homonymic specters of bees, proliferating vertically and echoically. But there are no syntagmatic hierarchies (no syntax, really), no privileged space. No matter where I begin or end the excerption, I have broken the string that is the entire text in a way that breaks the spell cast by that entirety. If I pretend this is not a problem and proceed to attach symbolic significance to the images, or to imagine semantic patterns, there is no way around admitting that this is perversity—the same perversity that is at the heart of all poetic action, true, but in cases like these I must acknowledge that it is a perversity of conscious decontextualization, not some space of free play into which the text has deliberately invited me. (I could say that the text “as a whole,” or the artist in the act of conceiving such a text, has invited me, but that’s not the same thing as a poem that uses ambiguity, metaphor, soundplay, etc. to invite particular modes of response on the local level.)

The text can only be interpreted as a whole, not part by part. And this is not really poetic interpretation as ordinarily conceived. As I’ve said, I can’t help reading as an interpreter, but I’m also constantly made aware of how specious an activity this is, and this in turn might lead me to speculation about the speciousness of other, supposedly more “legitimate” forms of interpretation that I perform habitually on other texts.

By requiring us to read statistically rather than syntactically, analytically rather than synthetically, Words of Love opens up possibilities for readerly approaches that hold up some familiar pieties of interpretation and “appreciation” for critique. By flattening Shakespeare out—reducing his careful phraseology to a unilinear inventory of lexical entries—Rutkoski directs the reader into spaces both prior and posterior to the flowering of poetic structure. In one space, Shakespeare’s language is stationed as pure potential, as a set of tantalizing possibilities; in the other, it has been demolished and is replaced by a complete set of somberly tagged specimens. Which space one occupies is not simply an aesthetic choice, but a constant ethical dilemma.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Wednesday, May 1st, 2013 by K. Silem Mohammad.