Will someone go to the Guggenheim to see the Zaha Hadid show, and report back? I once sat on a red ponyskin couch she made. It was the rumpus room of some eerily wealthy Parisian collectors whose house I was writing about for Nest magazine. They had coupled it I think with a big Basquiat canvas, was it, or maybe something lumpy from the support et surface group. (In this house each furnishing seemed to be paired with a canvas to make a kind of very high end pun, and the pun had to do with the cultural rhyme of two names, such as Hadid/Basquiat, more than the desirable objects themselves.) This ponyskin couch had the coarse fur rubbed off it at many points, since the children of the house used the thing like a long, undulant but quite sturdy gymnastic horse. Is that what those things are called, those wood and leather hard contraptions in small town high school gymnasiums, all rubbed to a shine by the labours of several generations of sweating adolescents? I think I would like to have one of those in my living room. Anyways. I suspect I should be in awe of Zaha Hadid. I love her little manifesto “Randomness vs. Arbitrariness.” An incredibly important differentiation to make. “Randomness in architecture is a visual translation of pure mathematical order and thinking which is guided by logic, whereas arbitrariness has no underlying conceptual logic. . . . Arbitrariness has to do with a generation which has been brought up on shopping for ideas. A catalogue exists from which they freely copy anything and apply it with little relevance to any situation. But in architecture our responsibilities are far greater: we must create a new dynamics of architecture in which the land is partially occupied. We must understand the basic principles of liberation.” (1982) Could we differentiate like this in writing please? Could we recognize that arbitrariness is not in itself liberatory? Is arbitrariness truly attractive? How far can randomness go? How could a text partially occupy a site? By scrupulously pursuing a logic it thus transforms to an abstract symbolic apparatus? (I think here, maybe a little predictably, of Kenneth Goldsmith’s work; also of the work of Dan Farrell, Fiona Banner’s The Nam and Lytle Shaw’s Cable Factory.) It seems to me that we could climb all over this simple distinction Hadid makes, explore it and rub it shiny. I’d like that kind of exercise.

I’d like to try to think through her idea of randomness in relation to catalogues and cataloguing. Are the artists of randomness, in Hadid’s terms, the ones who are now constructing new catalogues, rather than shopping arbitrarily among the existing ones? Some seem to ask—what is a category and how is it constituted? And the indexical relationship of catalogue to culture has an elasticity that can’t be subsumed under the positivist notion of the enlightenment project. Indexical work now emits a Gothic mood. The index is the forest or the ruin where we may be lost. This is a partial occupation. Seeking a universal thoroughness, the index or catalogue must always fail. That is its huge attraction for me. It is like a textual unconscious yet it follows a scrupulous compositional principal. This tension compels me.

A letter arrives from Matthew Stadler, and he’s inviting me to an evening of conversation with old friends from Vancouver, Hadley Howes and Maxwell Stephens, at a restaurant table in Portland, part of a supper talk series he curates. Max and Hadley are conceptual artists who work as a collaborative unit, making installations, paintings and photographs in galleries and apartments, projects that have to do with redecoration, love, popular dissent, and the hokey song lyrics of the recent past. Matthew suggests we talk about community in relation to the writing and art scenes in Vancouver.

This word community is a common currency right now in poetry blogs and certain bars. Community’s presence or absence, failure, responsibility, supportiveness, etc—everyone is hovering around this word. It could be that I just feel its ubiquity since I moved to rural France from Vancouver, ostensibly away from “my community.” When I think about it from here I feel ambivalent. I don’t miss community at all. I do miss my friends. How much of this notion of community is an abstraction of the real texture of friendship, with all its complicated drives and expressions—erotic, conversational, culinary, all the bodily cultures concentrated in a twisty relation between finite, failing persons. When I try to think of what a friend is, I imagine these activities we pleasurably share with someone we love—grooming, reading, sleeping, sex perhaps but not necessarily, intellectual argument, the exchange of books, garments and kitchen implements, all these exchanges and interweavings that slowly transform to become an idea and then a culture. Or a culture first, a culture of friends, and then an idea. Or both simultaneously. Writing is an extension and expression of friendship. Maybe friendship is more dangerous to think about and talk about because of its corporal erotics, mostly not institutionalized, not abstracted into an overarching concept and structure of collective protocols. For me, the drive to talk, to be in a room with someone I want to laugh or dance or fight with, to feed, all of those things—this has more to do with how writing happens for me, and also how I receive others’ writing, than community does. I think my friends have become models and incentives for my relationships with books and writing. Certainly I primarily write to my friends and for them, seeking to please and delight them above all, and sometimes mysteriously and painfully falling out. But I don’t want to call this community. I want to preserve the dark body of friendship.

Is the idea of community in collective cultural life replacing the broader notion of a participatory public politics? Is our sense of broader collective agency being reduced to the limited scopes our most immediate productive microcosms and economies? I think that maybe the political disempowerment experienced by huge swathes of populations in the United States certainly, but everywhere, under the expansion of the global neo-liberal economy, is gradually causing us to act out our political drives within smaller and smaller circles. I have to say that for me the micro-economy of experimental writing or visual culture does not in itself constitute the polis. I can’t pretend the stakes correspond. And I don’t want to euphemize the complicated bodily texture of my specific relationships in writing and thinking.

Some other friendships I look to, with deep curiosity, sometimes even with a kind of retrospective ficto-jealousy—the one between Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Alexander Pope. (According to Edith Sitwell their friendship ended when Lady Mary borrowed bed sheets (for unexpected guests) from Pope, and returned them unlaundered.) Between Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes. Between Djuna Barnes and Samuel Beckett. Between Wordsworth and Coleridge. Between Lucy Hutchinson, the 17th C. translator of Lucretius, and her patron, Lord Anglesey. Between Montaigne and Marie le Jars de Gournay. Between Madame de Sevigne and Descartes. And then there is the intimate history of my touch on their texts. That I have a split set of Madame de Sevigne’s collected letters because Erin Moure and I bought them to share, during a car trip to San Francisco the week after I got my drivers license in 1995 or 6. One evening last week I had that strange sensation of being watched while working in my study and I turned around to face an immense green cricket sitting on the browny pink rim of volume three. And so I remembered that I want to read more of her, and I learned the French for cricket—le grillon.

Much of what writing has become for me unfolded from a chance discovery, deep in the footnotes of a scholarly biography of Lady Mary. I learned that while living in the south of France in the early 18th C., Lady Mary wrote a series of letters, in French, to Marguerite of Navarre, the Renaissance writer of the Heptameron. I burned to read these letters, which are I think in some private archive in England, and have never been published. Suddenly one morning in 1990, thinking and desiring was not limited to the era in which I happened to be born. Since then I have experienced passionate friendships with the dead, and they are not less real because of the discrepancy. This causes me to live in libraries. I have no intention of calling this community. Perhaps what we are is a cult.

All of the above has to do with Jane Birkin or doesn’t.

Originally Published: June 28th, 2006

Poet Lisa Robertson was born in Toronto in 1961. She lived for many years in Vancouver, where she studied at Simon Fraser University, ran an independent bookstore, and was a collective member of the Kootenay School of Writing, a writer-run center for writing, publishing, and scholarship. While in Vancouver, Robertson...