BARTHES, DELEUZE, JOHN BENNETT
AND THE TOPOGRAPHIES OF MEANING
By Tom Hibbard
To satisfy ignorance is to put off writing until tomorrow
– or rather to make [writing] impossible.
Georg Trakl’s 1913 poem The Sun opens
Daily the yellow sun comes over the hill.
Lovely the forest is, the dark deer
And man: huntsman or shepherd.
In my opinion, language began as a semi-ordered perhaps somewhat authoritative system, so that sentences and phrases, symbols and perhaps numbers were born before individual words. The standard idea is that language evolved from naturalistic one-at-a-time picture images, but my feeling is the opposite—that language evolved, as portrayed in the artworks of Emil Nolde, out of the dark confusion of autonomous unrecognizable and artificial shapes and patterns, such as a deep forest, a thicket, dark clouds, a reedy pond surface, a jungle, desert, snowy wasteland or shadowy night. The visual writing of David-Baptiste Chirot takes up this idea. In distance is conceptuality. The appearance of writing is like the surface of the earth. Language and writing resolved themselves from an inscription in “nature” of meaning and presence. This is the message of the trace. Language began as an inquisitive encounter with the bewitching mystery of a striking chiaroscuro that resonated in common with humanity and Being. It sprang in its interacting geometric shapes and forms as much from the empty white spaces as the opaque and murky darkness. This is perhaps the reason that “visual writers” seem to prefer the word “asemic” to the word “semic”—referring to the absence of a sign rather than an observable guiding sign-post that appears along the way. The sense that these artists have is that absence has more power to generate discourse than what we see and give credibility in our inadequate efforts. Absence is a sign without complicity. As Roland Barthes writes
The absence of rhetorical signifiers constitutes in its turn a stylistic signifier.
…not a total absence…it is a significant absence.
Loneliness shines a radical light on self-disgust, that is, self-negation. For absence is neither a good thing or a desirable end. Rather it is the condition of existence. The city in which we dwell is Erewhon (Nowhere), and Creation itself is ex nihilo (from nothing).
Some of the recent work of long-time visual and experimental writer John Bennett leaves for a moment the idea of logos and introduces for consideration what might be described as standard textual poetic forms—such as a twelve or fourteen line sonnet-like rhyming sequence of lines with each about seven or eight words long. Of course the depiction of these types of forms in visual work is fashioned from simplification and symbolism. In Bennett’s work eaux, an interesting French plural word meaning “waters,” the lines begin and end with a decorative typographical mark called a tilde and double tilde. According to Bennett, these types of marks are, in his works, often borrowed from such sources as codices of indigenous picture languages. In this case, the single tilde means “wind” or “breath,” and the double tilde means “water.” Between the tildes are two alternating lower case words without commas “neck” and “hose.” The “lines of the poem” also alternate the order of the two words “neck” and “hose.” The first line is marked with the tilde, the second with the double tilde, the third back to a single tilde and so on. Each of the nine lines ends with the word with which it began. At what we must consider the geometric center of the Nocturnal pattern, in the middle of the fifth line, appears in upper case letters the word “BARK.” At the bottom of the poem, in mirror-like reflection of the poem title, is an italicized bold face lower case English neologism with an ellipses before and after “…llint…”
~neck hose neck hose neck~
≈hose neck hose neck hose≈
~neck hose neck hose neck~
≈hose neck hose neck hose≈
~neck hose BARK hose neck~
≈hose neck hose neck hose≈
~neck hose neck hose neck~
≈hose neck hose neck hose≈
~neck hose neck hose neck~
There are certain aesthetic qualities in this “poem,” this visual representation within a seemingly familiar form associated with poetry that we accept right away as pleasing and appropriate. For example, there is a fairly emphatic sense of symmetry in the pattern of the words and the shape of their arrangement on the page. As a visual work it is soothing and orderly, a beautiful verbal landscape. Visual symmetry implies conceptual completion. We observe the artwork’s balance, equality, equilibrium. The words “neck” and “hose,” although topically unrelated as a pair, on the other hand, do not seem to conflict in their alternating positions. They are words whose metric flow is a fresh and transcendent unlikeliness, along with a categorical neutrality that conveys a rhythmic and perhaps recovered peace. As a set, the words “neck,” “hose,” “bark,” “llint” do not align themselves under a narrow heading and, in fact, could be said to invoke just the opposite, broadness, unrelatedness, complexity or the limitlessness of conceptual totality itself. As Bennett writes, “…neck, hose, bark—put ‘em together in eaux with a little llint (or lint) and you have a complete universe.…” In a sense, you have the complete universe, complete in its all-inclusive incompleteness.
The artwork emphasizes structure, verbal structure, moral structure. The word “BARK” at its center seems to stand for the moment in textual writing of revelation, its special significance, apercu, its secret conclusion. The prominent place of this all-capitalized word—not like the bark of a tree on the poem’s surface but in contradistinction to itself at its core—suggests a location outside the work’s structure, similar to the title and one-word coda, signifying the mystery of meaning that is preserved and brought forth in opposition to structure and that escapes structure. In Derrida’s words, “The totality has its center elsewhere.” Barthes quotes Saussure as saying
A term is, like the center of a constellation, the point where other coordinate terms, the sum of which is indefinite, converge.
The sturdy structure of the artwork’s simplicity, inclusive of distinction and mystery, seems far away from deceit or disturbance in its harmonious connectivity and fully attuned interdependence. Bennett has created an exquisitely simplified visual work based on a classic rhyming poetic form.
And so it would seem that we have a meaningful textual poem successfully represented in the visual genre. In his several incarnations of this work, Bennett seems to have invented a form of his own, perhaps the “visual sonnet.” It is distinct from earlier works of “Concrete Poetry” in that, in the body of the work, rather than a repeated word forming a rudimentary structural opacity such as a wall or edifice, this form uses alternating words, a simulacrum of variation, an entirely different genre of structure, an epistemological structure, a metaphysical structure. Does the use of a computer and its digital technology from which the “writing” is produced—despite a variety of fonts employed and this symbolic variation—affect the success of the artwork? In my mind, the digital image does not reflect the originary autonomy of the mystery of inscription and logos of presence and Being—at least not at this time. The trace, which is a source of manifestation and more importantly actuality, is annihilated. Barthes writes
This binary universalism has been questioned and qualified by Martinet: binary oppositions are the majority not the totality; the universality of binarism is not certain.
Upon reflection, it would seem that there is an aesthetic quality and signification that digital technology is incapable of achieving and that is within the reach only of cruder, less precise and more risk-taking technologies of writing. As visual writer Nico Vassilakis puts it, “I am very interested in drawn letters. I am not though so interested in written letters.” Technology become artistic only in retrospect. There is no signification, no aesthetic access without difference present. Bennett has taken up the difficult task of making an artwork using a keyboard of a computer, that is, an entirely contemporaneous writing technology. If there is any criticism of the visual work titled eaux, it’s that the representation diminishes signification with a closed semic unity that could be considered repetitious. In his book Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze speaks in many ways about repetition to the extent that it becomes a concept that has a long list of attributes both positive and negative. But at the base of his text, Deleuze places repetition and difference in opposition. Repetition is associated with “the Same”; difference is associated with the Other. Repetition erases difference. Deleuze also speaks of “mechanical” repetitions that “find their raison d’etre” in “disguis[ing]” and “displac[ing]” difference. “We are right to speak of repetition when we find ourselves confronted by identical elements with exactly the same concept.” We are right to criticize repetition as destructive in this way. Though Bennett is careful in pointing out that repeated word constructions do change as they accrue so that “every time a word or phrase is repeated, it is different,” in that case, the meaning of “repetition” in Deleuze’s terms is placed on the abstract notion of duplication. Deleuze adds that “we must distinguish between these discrete elements, these repeated objects, and a secret subject, the real subject of repetition, which repeats itself through them.” “We must find the Self of repetition….” In Deleuze’s terminology, repetition obscures and obstructs.
Eventually Deleuze speaks of two forms of repetition. “…we must distinguish two forms of repetition….”
...in one case, the difference is taken to be only external to the concept; it is a difference between objects represented by the same concept, falling into the indifference of space and time. In the other case, the difference is internal to the Idea; it unfolds as pure movement, creative of a dynamic space and time which correspond to the Idea. The first repetition is repetition of the Same, explained by the identity of the concept or representation; the second includes difference, and includes itself in the alterity of the Idea, in the heterogeneity of an ‘a-presentation’ [a not-presentation]. One is negative, occurring by default in the concept; the other affirmative, occurring by excess in the Idea. One is conjectural, the other categorical. One is static, the other dynamic. One is repetition in the effect, the other in the cause. One is extensive, the other intensive. One is ordinary, the other distinctive and singular. One is horizontal, the other is vertical….
In my mind, Bennett is well aware of this problem. It isn’t that he is mocking poetry or that he has intentionally created a bad artwork but that he is posing a question of whether a digital image is capable of generating visual meaning. We know this because during this time in which he has constructed what should be considered holistic visual works such as eaux, he has given us numerous other visual works representing other types of poetic forms that, in contrast, encourage and underscore difference.
loog ccoorrnnnn ,was a sccat sharrd
glistennnninnnng foorrm tooool a
moouth oof seeds )yrr teeth(
πππ trripled stunnnn yrr ccoombed
ccheek ...launnnnderred thrroough
the woooods... yrr loost sannnnd
wicch ))rroope frried arroo
unnnnd yrr nnnnegck(( the loonnnng
last time )))saturratioonnnn oof
the liverr((( wherre the fallennnn
ccheese the ))))mist beloow the
rriverr ,eddy oof plasticc bags((((
my lapsed toorrtilla slumps be
hinnnnd the ccoompoost buccket
)))))chainnnn oof annnnts a((((( spiderr
darrts innnntoo a ))))))ccrracck((((((
locus t pro
oil coyote tracatra c
encult urd ay leng
ths ua reef differg
ence chawd the d
ata-mask ‘n windbl
owner FLIGHT EN
rift ,seinker ,lock
coyote perpledido en
la siERRa )net er
th diverticulgence my
rratttlingc inna fire
tilizer AY THE
WAISTED EROS dis
carded fog an fa
cial EGG consumpter
why my negative mol
ecule mirror my
SEA thing in the
empty is a trap
After Jim Leftwich’s
Six Months Aint No Sentence,
Book 89, 2014
plug hole ne
ck wind’s spin
al ,step a brea
d she et âge
- wear yr coil -
in’s riffled ven
t’s e’s wh
irl er glim
t able sp
searing shade the
l r oiled around
yr leg l uminous
chewing la bou
che ou ver te
“A poem always runs the risk of being
meaningless and would be nothing
without this risk.” - Derrida
From books such as Writing and Difference and Derrida and Differance, it is clear that the quantity or quality of difference is one of the most important in the Structuralist conceptualization of Being. Difference characterizes reality. Difference constitutes the indeterminacy that advances humanity in Hegel’s terms from reason to understanding. For Derrida, difference—“ontological difference”—is, among other things, “the articulation of space and time.” It is associated with interiority and ideas and the uniqueness and effectiveness of singularity. In Derrida’s words
Temporalization presupposes the possibility of symbolism, and every symbolic synthesis, even before it falls into a space “exterior” to it, includes within itself spacing as difference.
Difference is the structure of the interesting, the unpolluted, the nonlinear world. Barthes states that for Saussure “language is nothing but a system of differences.” Only the ability of language to differentiate provides the capability of taking up the subject of totality and “the unity of Being.” Barthes also associates difference with history. The erasure of difference, whether by repetition or by some other form of negation, “exiles Being from itself” and brings about the “destruction of metaphysics.” In preventing empiricism, the encounter with the Other, which is directly associated with difference but not negation, this erasure, this refusal and suppression, this turning one’s back or turning away, this antagonism toward the trace, in the improbability of the unexpected moment, from “resistance to totality” also prevents transformation and positive movement toward the future.
In terms of Bennett’s visual poems, those that emphasize diverse form, difference appears as a boisterous freedom and “play.” In the visual work “olvido,” one in a series, which refers to “forgetting,” “forgetfulness” and “the forgotten” in a way that hints at the need for remembrance, there are many exhilarating excesses of letters and other typographical symbols. There are many spontaneous disruptions and intrusions of parentheses, achieving many compositional effects and many meanings. Words are dilated with elongated prodigal clusters of letters, font sizes jump around, approaching the reader from different directions, syntax is broken and incomplete, and signification and relation are thrown to the winds. In "locus t pro,” a word construction that makes only the most remote spectral sense, many of the words ending lines are severed so that the front part ends one line and the back part begins the following line. The seemingly nomadic words are jumbled as are the letters of which they consist. Along with its rather attractive composition, the poem “e,” which might stand for “error” or “effort,” is, within its space of creation, a mostly jumble of fragments, nonsensical word combinations entwined with a multiplicity of languages.
Living form is infinitely divisible. The idea seems to be to infinitize the conceptual “poetic” form—disregarding surface consistency in order to distinguish what Emmanuel Levinas calls its significant and “absolved” totality. These nonsensical word parts and the subconscious proliferation of typographies are the very source and incarnation of difference and freedom. Though in light of the present they seem meaningless and without context, as such they project themselves out of the narrow range of poetic form and words printed on the page into the unknown equivocal prophetic cogito of future meaning, since what appears nonsensical at first will eventually fit into a larger pattern and what appears at first to make sense will eventually become nonsensical and fragmentary.
In the instance of the work titled eaux, though I think its author never directly intends this, Bennett might be aware of the possibility at least that the “success” and coherence of this artwork as a whole could ultimately reduce its significance. However, in truth, the visual work titled eaux remains in itself a beautifully transcendent and quite original artwork. One thing that needs to be emphasized about Bennett’s recent works—remembering that “eaux” and works similar are decidedly experimental—is that they point toward several ideas, and in most cases they constitute degrees of both visual and textual writing.
In quantum theory, quanta are the equivalent of difference. The excellence of quantum theory is that it looked at a world, a stereotypical picture, viewed every day by all people, that for the most part was unexamined and considered to be without specialness and revealed it to be, instead, a multi-dimensional mystery beyond imagining. In my view, the roots of quantum science began with the attempt to measure the speed of light, which some people believed was infinite and others believed instantaneous (thinking that its not being a quantity meant that it could not be measured). Like the speed of light, the sun was commonly considered a thing, an inanimate mechanical device without any need of comprehending, forever and continually emitting an infinite amount of energy. But, as with light itself, with the sun also, scientists—it seems that Planck’s special interest was heat radiation—began to discover and describe the length and breadth of its workings and accurately measure the immensity of its significance, “articulating its space and time” and in the process its majestic and “miraculous” wonder and beauty. In many cases, particularly in the case of relativity, these measurements were at times beyond belief. Yet it all began with the inclusion, rather than the exclusion or annihilation, of particles, light rays, differences, implications, temperatures, distant stars, discrepancies, invisible nuclei, the annoying and foreboding quanta that eventually reached—mostly for “our” solar system and galaxies “nearby”—totalization. It has to do with what Hegel considered the difference between a true, a structural infinity and a false or spurious infinity. In the same way, a conceptual totality, due to words, is made both more complex and, at the same time, more recognizable and comprehensible. Though it constitutes a unity, its inner workings remain significant and distinct and in motion. In a way, via “spacing,” infinity becomes finite though endless. And spacing, difference, variation, diversity have given humanity the ability to quantify and conceptualize many other astonishing entities and reversible phenomena besides—most notably the itself.
(What light through yonder window breaks
‘Tis the east and Juliette is the sun)
Ruddy the fish rises in the green pond.
Under the curved heaven
The fisherman softly moves in a blue boat.
Tom Hibbard’s most recent credits include a poem in the current issue of Cricket Online Review, contributions to an Egyptian international poetry anthology and poetry contributions to newspapers in Egypt. He also had several reviews published in issue 17 of Big Bridge, including a review of Jack Kerouac’s poetry, and he had a prose piece on the visual work of Nico Vassilakis in issue 23 of Galatea Resurrects. Hibbard’s poetry collection Sacred River of Consciousness is available at Moon Willow Press and Amazon. He’s working on a new collection of poetry, Global People, and a selection of his prose. Hibbard will also have a selection of his French Surrealist poetry translations published in the upcoming issue of Big Bridge.