By Andy Fitch
This conversation focuses on Susan Gevirtz’s hybrid critical collection Coming Events. From her childhood experiences on the Universal Studios set, to her graduate-school assignment TA-ing for Norman O. Brown in UC-Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness program, to her incisive editorial trajectory at HOW(ever), her pedagogical engagements at California College of the Arts, and her current residency at Headlands Center for the Arts, Gevirtz has participated within and helped to shape some of California’s most influential interdisciplinary institutions. As a result, it seemed only fitting for our discussion to track philosophical, scholarly, cinematic, novelistic, poetic, performative, and architectural concerns often within a single exchange. Gevirtz’s publications include Nightboat’s Hotel abc, as well as the poetry books Aerodrome Orion & Starry Messenger (Kelsey Street, 2010); Broadcast (Trafficker, 2009); Thrall (Post-Apollo, 2007); and Hourglass Transcripts (Burning Deck, 2001); and the critical study Narrative’s Journey: The Fiction and Film Writing of Dorothy Richardson (Peter Lang, 1996). Amid these ongoing omnivorous explorations, Coming Events’s deft assemblage of a wide-ranging inquiry, combined with Gevirtz’s lucid, generous, engaging live presence, couldn’t help but prompt constructive conversation.
ANDY FITCH: Your quiet build-up probably works much better, but since, quite late in the book, we come across what I considered a crystallizing scene, could we start with that? I don’t mean to make Coming Events sound essentially autobiographical, but this particular description opens with you wandering the Universal Studios set with your grandfather, the head of Universal’s music department. You pass a real rowboat floating on painted water, and hint at your subsequent lifelong attentions to “The function of the page as a screen, and the function of reference as an effect to be investigated and dismantled as one might take apart a movie set.” Could we begin to contextualize how Coming Events might address those ongoing concerns, perhaps through its swift movement among collected elegies, dedications, reviews, self-portraits, recollected installations? What gets screened, referenced, investigated, dismantled by assembling sometime occasional, sometimes self-sufficient pieces in the fashion that this book does?
SUSAN GEVIRTZ: It is true that this book is in part an assemblage in the way you might think of a stage set as an assemblage. There’s a way also in which it is a cumulative making of the set or the sets. The book’s first scene is that scene of the three desks, one of which has the writing of the PhD dissertation, another of which has something that falls in between that kind of academic discourse and poetry, and the third desk has poetry on it.
The question that arrives when I’m a child looking at the real rowboat on the painted water is definitely a through-line, even or especially given that beginning scene of different kinds of writing happening simultaneously on three desks. There’s a question of or an inability to believe in any one frame as the true or only one. So the discursive academic writing just won’t stay put as only that. Neither will the fallout from this fact, which is a combination of some sort of critical rumination and poetry.
The poetry also has all kinds of ricochets outside and beyond itself. So it is a kind of model for what has happened for many years, what’s going to happen in the writing, and what’s going to happen in the assembly of the rest of the book. That is: no single kind of discourse will be believable by itself. Everything will be like a real rowboat on painted water, and everything will bleed also. So that passage that you point to is autobiographical. It serves as a kind of origin story, but my hope is that there are many origin stories that are and aren’t autobiographical throughout. I guess I mean “are and aren’t autobiographical” in the sense that Paul de Man talks about autobiography as defacement — that one can’t really write anything that isn’t autobiographical. But that in this writing, one is not necessarily revealing oneself.
In terms of that opening scene with the three desks, I also recall George Albon’s introductory description of an “erotics of study” at play in your poetics. I’d wanted to problematize any definitive autobiographical point of entry to our discussion, just because Coming Events offers so many possible points of entry. But I’d love to hear more about this lived history of multiple planes of writing coexisting for you, and of this hybridized approach emerging out of your early scholarly work. You just positioned autobiography as a form of effacement/defacement, and Coming Events asks “Does, can, a wounded and double-faced, doubt-filled, unfaithful to orders, faceless, full frontal critical writing exist?” You presumably pursued such questions in your own critical and literary practice. You presumably encountered some fraught discussions with disciplinarily focused professors and mentors. So could you describe that pivot from a more strained dissertation experience to an acquired comfortability with this Janus-faced critical mode, and could you point to some specific people who helped get you there?
Yes, fraught indeed. A fraught relationship with the dissertation writing, deeply fraught and deeply difficult. When I was in graduate school, the first person I TA-ed for was Norman O. Brown. I was one of three people who were his last TAs before he retired. His work really does occupy that kind of bled place derived from scholarly imagination, research and poetry. His work is very alive in all kinds of different ways. I became very close to him. I remember having a picnic with him and the two other TAs, and he gave each of us Susan Howe’s Pythagorean Silence as a present at the end of the semester. He had hand-pasted long quotes from My Emily Dickinson into each of our copies, such as:
DUALISM: Under the good the Pythagoreans ranged light, unity
Understanding, rest, the straight, male, right, definite, even, and square; and under
evil as contraries, darkness, plurality, opinion, movement, the curved,
female, left, indefinite, odd, irregular.
Brown was close to Robert Duncan, and I had been that year going from Santa Cruz where I was in graduate school up to San Francisco to sit and listen to Robert Duncan hold forth. So this was really a cauldron of a lot of generative chaos. Not chaos: generative fire. I’m not sure what to call it but it was very exciting. To offer a little more context, I decided in my second year of graduate school that I would like to do an independent study on something that I had never heard coined before, called “feminist poetics.”
All of these things are now even problematically part of our regular vocabularies, but there was nothing around like that then. My advisors, Donna Haraway, Jim Clifford and Hayden White, were all already subscribers to HOW(ever), Kathleen Fraser, Frances Jaffer, and Beverly Dahlen’s journal. These advisors told me that they knew nothing about something called “feminist poetics,” but that I should look into HOW(ever). This was phenomenal, that people who were solidly in the academy were directing me to poetry. It was also confusing, because I thought this meant that they might be open to a kind of writing that was not conventionally academic, but that wasn’t true at all. Norman O. Brown might have been, but they were not. History of Consciousness, the program I was in, was not and is not interested in any kind of bleeding of genres.
So, long story short, I was a big user of information (411) at the time. I got Kathleen Fraser’s number and called her. We instantly became very close. I became her TA in a Feminist Poetics class in which students were doing research on modernist women writers and also doing poetry projects in response. So Norman O. Brown and all of these people I just mentioned were part of the crucible in which this thinking was happening. Also I think I first encountered right around then Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ “For the Etruscans.” Oh, and of course we were reading the French feminists. We were reading their work translated by Carolyn Burke, who was also teaching this work at Santa Cruz. That was fantastic. It was so confusing to be reading work that was questioning (and formally enacting those questions about) the politics of all kinds of forms of writing, but also to be required to write in a very conventional academic prose.
So, fraught indeed. I can’t believe I remember this, but I wrote something my first year of graduate school about Odysseus, something called “The Principle of the Precarious,” way before “the precarious” became Judith Butler’s phase. A different precarious in many ways, but still related. I was told, I don’t remember by whom, that this is great but it’s not what we want you to be doing at History of Consciousness, so stop. I was experiencing very first-hand and viscerally the politics of who is in power over whom in terms of form. Like who gets a job or not — these very literal things. Who can get a job for performing this kind of formal behavior on the page, etcetera. So what you (nicely) call “this Janus-faced critical mode” become more than a comfort, more of a necessity to violate and question the disciplinarian tactics of the academy and the power relations reigning over any kind of writing.
At one point, Coming Events characterizes academic writing as potentially a form of “revenge, inheritance, heritage of bloodletting.” But I feel that your book avoids the trap of complicity here. It doesn’t seem to take overt revenge for the experiences you’ve just described. How did and do you navigate your way through that tricky triangulation?
It’s so funny. I can’t fully criticize this inheritance, because I am complicit: I have also inherited, and that is something that I hope to convey. I’m complicit in the sense that for many years I’ve taught rigorous academic-thesis writing, and I’ve bludgeoned many people with the same kind of blunt weapons that I was bludgeoned with. The only difference, I would say, is that when I’ve been in the position of disciplining, I have vehemently acknowledged and called students’ attention to the fact that this is only one kind of writing. It is one kind of making of knowledge, and there are many others. It is the fetishized kind of knowledge in our culture, meaning that it has the most authority. But there are other kinds and it might be possible, let’s say, to spin out a thesis in a poem or in some other kind of writing. But it’s not going to have the respect that legal or academic discourse has.
So yeah, I mean I’m complicit in that kind of way in teaching it. Or “complicit” might not be the right word, but I have huge respect for people who can do fabulous analytic writing. I don’t think it’s a bad form by itself. I hope not to have implied that anywhere, but I think that whatever form of writing a person is engaging in has social, situational consequences. Not everybody wants to or can do that kind of rigorous academic writing, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t very analytic and don’t have sharp critical minds. I think it’s those kinds of distinctions that get lost.
Still on this possibility for different types of complicity, specifically institution-building complicities, could we bring in your role as editor? In the “Doctor Editor” piece, we arrive at the shameful scene of Robert Peters giving his dismissive review of HOW(ever). But I don’t want to linger on that much. I’d just love to hear more about your own negotiations amid the always gendered, never neutral, inevitably selective listening of the editor — and also about the lived legacy of that broader HOW(ever) community, and how it continues to shape your prose.
It’s interesting, because over time one stays with something that maybe had been very important when you were younger, and it remains relevant but the nature of its relevance changes. Or I should say it remains relevant for me and Kathleen Fraser and Beverly Dahlen and some of the others around HOW(ever), but maybe the way of talking about it changes and morphs. Also it becomes…it gets normalized. It’s now not unusual to think about things like how many women have been published in such-and-such anthology. These are topics that many of “us,” whoever I mean by us, pay attention to now. Whereas we were thought of as rabid for calling attention to this question in the 80s. Let’s just say there weren’t a lot of people doing that.
Editing is such a strange…there is editing which is recognizable as editing: editing an anthology, an interview, a journal — keeping in, leaving out various kinds of work by various kinds of people, probably creating a population trend without necessarily intending to. Then there’s the editing which I think is actually a kind of writing, an internalized relation to one’s own sense of what belongs and what doesn’t. Then also in the poetry symposium that I’ve co-run in Greece for years, there’s been the kind of editing where sometimes there have been people who need to not be included or need to no longer be included. That’s another kind of editing. And then parsing these different kinds of editing, I think one of the most interesting things about them (and you bring this up by evoking the HOW(ever) community) is that none of the editing I’ve done except that which is writing is done alone. Or I guess a lot of editing is done alone, but it has always felt like part of a conversation and community. There are people who are younger and weren’t involved in that initial conversation or community with whom I can still have a continuation of that conversation. The poet Eleni Stecopoulos and I can participate in this conversation, or Stacy Doris and I did. Susan Thackrey, Norma Cole. I’m sure there are many others. Of course I’m also assuming Kathleen Fraser, Beverly Dahlen, and Myung Mi Kim, as editors of HOW(ever). And Kathleen introduced me to Barbara Guest, with whom I was lucky to have this kind of conversation over many years.
One feels crazy enough doing this kind of work alone in a room, so having a sense of being somehow not alone in a room, or being part of a bigger conversation (which of course one is, whether you like it or not) even when you are alone in a room, is galvanizing. One doesn’t feel as, how shall I put it, as worried for one’s sanity or something like that. That’s maybe again too reductive. Maybe the bigger thing is just that there’s this conversation that is ongoing, whether it’s out loud or not, and that’s part of what I hope to be calling for at the end of the book, and what I would like to have more of on and off paper. Part of what I wish to invoke as an event is this recognition of what can happen when someone enters a room, which can also happen on a page.
On the topic of ongoing conversations, and of potentially feeling isolated even when participating in a broader collective engagement, could we bring in Dorothy Richardson? From early on in Coming Events, we encounter a distrust of story, but also a reliance on story — on an acutely analytic response perhaps, but one that doesn’t engage in systematized analysis. And soon after Coming Events articulates this distrust/reliance on story (maybe even on the same page), we encounter a Virginia Woolf passage, a hypothetical scenario in which the writer, who for once can write about whatever she chooses, perhaps skips over plot, comedy, tragedy, love interest or “catastrophe in the accepted style.” Then soon after that, we reach Richardson’s ideal novel in which nothing happens. Here for me a series of compelling ideas begins to cluster: in terms of your reflections “about about”; your textual or embodied/performed enactments of what we think we know thinking looks and sounds like; your “labor of a reflective and reflexive discourse.” It interests me that, in each such case, interruption seems to play an important part in Coming Events’s Richardson-infused formulations of a Victorian-era “feminine” literary subject dislodged from any stable status, subsequently directed towards the “being at the heart of all becoming” (rather than towards male preoccupation with becoming some or other fixed identity). Coming Events borrows its title from Richardson, but could you also discuss this book’s structural affinities with how Richardson’s own writing operates?
I’ll start at the end and move backwards. Yes, there are aspects of Richardson’s relation to form and her way of writing that are reflected in this book. I see her epic pilgrimage as recursive. There’s a lot of returning — returning to revisited characters, places, kinds of narrative. And then in my book about her work, and in my relationship to her work, I’m very interested in and involved in her writing on film. The writing on film is fascinating for many reasons, but one is that she doesn’t talk about specific films almost ever (maybe two or three times in the span from 1927-33 of her “Continuous Performance” columns).
In her column in the journal Close Up, instead of films she talks more about things like the shape of the theatre, who is in the audience in the afternoon in London when films are first being shown in theatres. It’s mothers with children. She talks about the light in the theatre, what happens when the projector gets going, what kind of light there is and what people look like in that kind of light, what they look like to themselves and to one another, and on and on. I guess this would now be called a discussion of spectatorship. In Chantal Akerman’s work you see a similar focus on quotidian detail over story, and a confounding of often unacknowledged conventions and affects of specatatorship. I feel a great affinity and fascination for this kind of focus in Ackerman’s work, Richardson’s, Cixous’, Irigaray’s, Clément’s and much other “feminist” work that was coming into U.S. awareness in the 80’s. What comes first, the affinity or the impact? It’s hard to say, but these formative writers, alongside many filmmakers, continue to impact my way of working and thinking about work.
So one of the reasons that I was interested enough in Richardson’s work to immerse myself within it was that she is equally interested in (this takes us back to the beginning of our conversation) the stage set, and in what makes an atmosphere that is palpable and impactful, and how that making of the atmosphere is a kind of making that people often don’t notice because story and the making of story eclipses seeing the making of the atmosphere.
If I’m remembering correctly, she might even use that word “atmosphere” in the “Continuous Performance” columns to talk about what happens in various movie theatres. You also see, in her 13-volume epic novel Pilgrimage, that she’s interested in the light in the room, the weather outside, the details of the tea — things that one notices and that make experience (especially thinking of Heidegger now).
In both the film writing and in Pilgrimage, she’s enacting an attention to a kind of story in which what happens is nothing, and it’s the nothing which becomes illuminated. There are many passages in Pilgrimage where you’ll find an illumination by a lamp of something on a table, and that will be the story — that will be what’s being illuminated. So yeah, to get back to that part of your question that has to do with interruption playing an important part: interruption can be when Orson Welles (Hypo in Pilgrimage) interrupts Richardson (Miriam in Pilgrimage, though this autobiographical collapse should also not be made or assumed) and she doesn’t get to finish her thought. There’s that kind of interruption that I’m concerned with, and this of course also refers us back to the whole academic context and discourse, because it has to do with a power relation. Then there’s a kind of interruption where one interrupts oneself and it’s a pleasure. It can be a kind of associative interruption. One might even hope for it. Then there’s a kind of interruption which the mother experiences from either the child or the necessities of the child, from practical circumstances.
Then there’s a kind of interruption that I experienced and probably many people experience where the mother doesn’t understand that the child is playing and that this play is work. The mother comes and interrupts the child, because the mother needs to have the attention of the child. That’s a fierce and…I want to say that’s a violence of interruption, because especially with girls I think it trains us to pay attention to other people’s needs before our own. I’m sure there are many, many, many other kinds of scenes of play or concentration in which that happens (please do not ever let my mother read this interview). So I haven’t exactly addressed the distrust of story yet reliance on story, or what it means for nothing to happen within a performance, but I sort of sideways did.
Well, we’re kind of enacting distrust of story yet reliance on story — by introducing topics but not necessarily filling them in, by collaging them. Though it would interest me here to parse a little further. I wonder, for instance, if we could put interruption alongside introjection. In Coming Events, interruption (both its positive and negative aspects) often appears alongside the concepts or perhaps even the presence of shock and of trauma. Or even when you describe shock as dependent upon a proceeding sense of mechanized complacency, I’ll sense some line of inquiry getting interrupted. I’ll think of vertiginous moves that your book will make, where these passages inflected by Language poetics arrive amid the broader intellectual scrutiny. And then Coming Event’s reflections on the place of print text within a cinematic experience will further confound our sense of inside and outside, like are we inside this written narrative or not? For me, such sequences pull us out of any complacent mode of reading. But I’ll also recall Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s descriptions of shock’s physical affect as both immediate and remote. And I’ll wonder how a self-reflexive performative text like Coming Events, with its transcriptions of live events, likewise constructs affects both immediate and remote. For me, that’s where Abraham and Török’s introjection concept comes in — with an animating fusion of past, present, and future considerations and identifications all occurring at once (perhaps, in some ways, reenacting Dorothy Richardson’s cinematic experience). In the most constructive possible way, I begin to lose my footing on assigning positive or negative valences to interruption, shock, and trauma as I read through your book.
First of all, it is my hope that one can’t settle down and read the book, that these kinds of interruptions where one goes from maybe a more predictable kind of prose into some other kind of language are, if not shocking, maybe irritating, maybe disturbing, maybe at least keeping one from deciding whether interruption is a positive or a negative thing. So I’m glad to hear that you couldn’t settle with any sense of that, of it being one way or the other. I like that you brought up Maria Török’s sense of introjection. While the book is in some ways consecutive (in that it starts with the three-desk scene), there are many ways that I wanted to interrupt that sense of time being linear, or the book having to be linear. When I first assembled Coming Events, I had dates on all of the pieces, and then I decided that the dates needed to be somewhere, but they made the pieces too rooted, more anchored to a kind of historical reading than I wanted.
Maybe also there’s a way in which the shock and trauma of interruption is…I hesitate to make a big sweeping statement here, but it’s what I think writing is. Like you were saying that mechanized complacency is interrupted by another kind of language. Again, I hesitate to make a big sweeping statement, but I think that when done in such a way that this engages the reader to question an always confounding sense of inside and outside, or consecutive narrative and other kinds of narrative, then it can be a generative material, a generative way to make something. Again, it’s maybe kind of obvious to say, but we live in a world now where it is not clear what is inside or outside. The whole idea of a subject…we don’t know where we’re linked to others, but I think that we are everywhere linked. I think part of the shock and trauma of interruption is when this fact becomes evident, whereas it may have been true before, but wasn’t evident before.
Of course that’s all very linked to cinematic experience. You know, cinematic experience is kind of a quaint thing to talk about now, because I have for example three screens on my desk at the moment. There are so many kinds of experience where it’s confounding to know what is inside and outside.
Yes, cinematic experience may seem quaint on a historical trajectory of media interfaces, but it remains such a useful comparative mode throughout this book. Again, for instance, in relation to shock, doesn’t Schivelbusch compare film to speeding on a train? With a train’s motion and the disjunctive nature of cinematic mise-en-scène somehow providing parallel historical traumas in the form of technological shock? And amid the social flux that you’ve described, cinema showcases that fluidity of temporal experience and perspectival vantage in a way that audiences can find meaningful. And here I also love the Margaret Tedesco cameo that appears, with you again performing your own role as witness/listener to a cinematic performance, and suggesting how both these enacted and experiential scenes might embody modes of introjection akin to Dorothy Richardson studying the scopophilic fixations of those seated beside her. What else have you not yet discussed about growing up amid cinema, and how it still informs the rhetorical elasticities within your own work?
There’s always more to say about cinema. By “quaint,” I don’t mean to discount the importance of talking about it, but just to say that it doesn’t exist as much maybe on its own as it once did, since we are now constantly living in or on screens. The Schivelbusch railway brain idea (that such shock and trauma registers a kind of impact and velocity that maybe bodies, historically, had not experienced before) does offer a parallel to the kind of shock and trauma that cinema can produce in our bodies, and I don’t know if we ever get used to that. We might become inured in a way, but…it’s like airplane travel: you might think that you’re used to it, but even if you’re used to it and think that nothing has happened to you, it has its own life. It has its own impact on us that maybe we can’t consciously articulate, but it articulates us in all kinds of ways.
So confounding the sense of inside and outside, or evoking the trauma of breaking into or being broken in on, is, I hope, a fundamental kind of vacillation in the book, and probably in many of the individual pieces themselves. I mean, why should a book be all occasional pieces? Why should a book be all essays? Why should a book be all poetry? What do we mean when we’re talking about all “poetry” or all “essays” anyway? These questions about genre are now not so new or surprising, but they remain essential not only to ask, but to operate out of in my work and in this book especially.
Here I also recall the play “Motion Picture Home,” with its Benjamin-inflected investigations concerning the place of the living person in theatre (here again as a form of transcribed event/inquiry that readers of Coming Events encounter):
It performs a refusal, or rehearsal, or inability to perform — An interrogation also of the notion of performance — where does it take place? Where is the stage and what can an audience expect to witness there? What is the use of the living person on stage? — Of living in theatre? If almost nothing “happens” on the stage, where might that nothing propose that living happening does occur? What is happening?…Is this what happening is?
I’d love if you felt like answering some of these fascinating questions, however provisionally. But also could you speak to the particular types of experience that you see our reading of this transcribed theatrical text providing? How does a reader’s role as audience member here overlap with and/or depart from a theatre-goer’s experience? Does this literary piece mean to bring forth a live body for us and, if so, whose? Does the prefatory note foreground your own body, our own identifications or projections of whom this narrator might be? And could we connect these “Motion Picture Home” questions to one of my favorite lines from the book, concerning “the erotic desire to get as close as possible to the screen (which isn’t actually anywhere) in order to see oneself, to become a self, to die together”?
I think this is connected to the idea of distrust of story and what it means for nothing to happen. So I like your use of the phrase “transcribed event/inquiry.” That’s a lot of what’s going on here, because transcription implies that one isn’t necessarily the maker or inventor of the story that’s being transcribed, but one is more like a scribe. That’s what I would like the reader or the person in the audience to experience: the many- (or few-) times removed sense of events being transcribed and enacted without one being able to trace the origins of the transcription. I think that’s something that cinema hypnotizes us into — to forget and even maybe not be able to trace the origin of the transcription. And while I may not directly answer those “Motion Picture Home” questions right now out loud, I think I ask them so that they will undergird any kind of sense there is: that straight-up autobiography isn’t even possible; that a person on a stage can’t have any kind of one-to-one correspondence with the same person off a stage, and can’t fully “represent” or be a character either. So the hope is to disrupt, as one would with language, the sense of there being a referent.
In terms of bodies, it’s really kind of tricky, because I don’t want to talk about bodies in such a general way that we’re in some sort of weird humanist realm of “anybody,” because I do think we have to think about specific bodies all the time, and specifically embodied experience. So I hope not to bleed into that kind of enlightenment humanism, but at the same time I hope that there is a disturbed, even traumatized relation between any kind of representation of a body on a stage or in writing, and some sort of specific actual situated subject. In her Troubling the Line essay, Dawn Lundy Martin has written about this in a beautiful way, about this kind of slippage and disjunction between the body and the body and the body and the body, when she talks about her love of Tilda Swinton because of Swinton’s androgyny. It’s not that I think it desirable or possible to elide race, gender, class, etcetera. It’s that I also want to point to, to insist on the constructedness of these markers. They are believable and have all kinds of consequences, and are made up by bigger social nets that make us believe in them, act on them. Of course Martin’s enchantment with Swinton is complicated for all kinds of reasons (isn’t all enchantment with one’s own body or the body of someone else?). Addressing this, Martin says:
The poetics at work here are of unspeakability or impossibility — what cannot in the first place be said, what is already foreclosed by the thing that seeks to be spoken, what the body cannot hold. Who can say which gender? Is what? When gender is present it comes in the form of the standing alongside, the figure alongside the figure (the shadow of the figure), the moving outside of what has been pre-determined. Who can say what race is? The I is a hateful subject carrying its flesh bag.
One question about specific bodies and performative bodies, and maybe this is a non-useful pivot, but in terms of the living body’s place in productions of yours, across various media (with this book as one example), or in terms of how you’ll present normative discursive practice, let’s say, as the enactment of a coherent public face (you twice, for instance, quote Foucault’s statement, “I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face”), I thought about contemporary norms regarding poetic performance — not only academic argument, which we discussed earlier. I wondered about how the cultivation of charismatic poetic performance, even in a contemporary disjunctive mode, in some sort of post-coherent mode of textual production, often leads nonetheless to a vitalizing presence. So within that context, I wonder where you might position yourself alongside Foucault’s statement. Part of this comes up for me because of vicarious pleasures I had editing a carefully sequenced performative script that you and Ben Hollander constructed — actually for a reading from this book, a couple years back. So could you describe how the public face that you have cultivated across a wide variety of media overlaps with public poetic performance? Was that choreographed exchange with Ben an anomaly? Or was that emblematic of how you wish to present yourself live?
First of all, yes. That was an anomaly, because Ben really drove that. He wanted to choreograph our reading. I was not against it. I thought it could be interesting. On the one hand I thought: This is irritating because it’s so micro-managerial. But on the other hand, I thought: Well what if everybody who read together looked at one another’s work in this much detail, responded to one another’s work, and considered the point of the reading performance to be a performance of an actual reading of one another’s work? I think that would be fantastic. That might even be one manifestation of the sort of event that I’m interested in in this book.
So I really loved it, even though my own proclivity is not towards the choreographed in that way. Ben is a performer and I’m really not a performer. I’m not that interested in it actually.
That’s what I meant to ask. Your energies do not go to performance?
It’s not where my energies or my proclivities go, and I love the fact that you asked what I thought of contemporary “charismatic” performance, because I see a lot of it around here. I really can’t stand it.
I don’t know if a lot of this happens because people don’t read anymore, so that authors seek to get their texts disseminated some other way.
I’m with you on that bewilderment exactly. I find it to be some sort of weird, courtly, social affectation. So I feel kind of like Well OK, I’m just going to let myself go with this, because it probably won’t be a part of the record or whatever. I don’t see that kind of charismatic performance as having much to do with the work, although sometimes it might. Usually it has the effect on me of saying to myself: I wonder what this would be like on the page? And then I think: Well maybe it’s not meant to be on the page. Maybe this is what it’s meant for. In which case, it seems like the opposite of defacement. It’s facement. It’s putting a face, a brand, a style on one’s work.
I am interested in getting out of the way as much as possible. Part of this is just how I came into the world and who I am. But it’s also how I teach. I always tell my students, in the beginning of a course, that this will be a successful course if I have become dispensable and unimportant. The class should not pivot around me. It should gain more and more momentum with student conversation. It should go on the weight of that, the increased momentum of that. I have practiced tai chi for about 30 years. There’s no real goal, but the hope in doing the tai-chi form is to erase all personality, so that all you have are the movements. It’s very opposite in a way from dance, where one tries to infuse the movements with something. When I give a reading, I hope to get out of the way.
You’ve mentioned “events” a couple times. Could we close, in terms of event, on the smaller “Third Apprehension” section, within the greater sequence “Outer Event”? The commonplace-book structure of “Third Apprehension” evokes for me tensions among the real and the written, discourse, acting, representation, ventriloquism. The initial OED entry places this third apprehension between discursive runnings right and left, so that I think of Roland Barthes for example, and his figure of the gymnast, or Nietzsche’s of the dancer. Barthes’s third-meaning project also comes to mind, especially how he too will pull the camera-still from the celluloid sequence. And then I love when you describe the child at play as “in the play.” I also hear Gertrude Stein’s play and play and play. So all of these giddy possibilities open up for me. Then we reach the lovely prose-poem page, which I won’t get into here, but then comes a blank page. Then your Luc Deleu & T.O.P. Office cover image gets reproduced, but reversed, as if we the embodied readers have walked around to some other side of the structure. So for me that’s where event takes place most fluidly in this book. But could you offer your own logic to this sequence, all of which precedes of course Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet declaring “It is not easy to think in terms of the event”? In what ways that we haven’t discussed does this book think in terms of the event?
Again, beginning at your question’s end, with the design elements: Margaret Tedesco is fantastic. She’s obviously a close friend. She had a sense of the book that was very strong, intuitive and visual, as well as in terms of content or intention. She’s the one who came up with this image appearing here. It felt exactly right to me, like a performance of one thing that an event could be, as you say. I don’t want to call it “trauma.” That’s too extreme. But it suggests a recalling as a breaking with, like a moment of recursivity, in the same way that the recursive is addressed in this “Third Apprehension” section, which states “Here the reflective, recursive appears as the chorus that provides another side to conception, even another kind of conception.” If that’s an element of what counts as event, then this sequence, stretching from the prose part which begins “When the angel of death passed over,” and into this image, is hopefully almost like another side to conception, even another kind of conception. Maybe it’s experienced as compressed sound. I loved the fact that “Bell” happens to be written on these…
Yeah, for sure. On the photographed containers.
I like that you brought up Barthes’s idea of the “third meaning.” Three has always been my magic number — maybe because it seems generative, as in dialectic? Or as in a counter to the dual? My sense of event includes what Barthes suggests: yes, it is “a representation that cannot be represented,” and it is also “where the filmic begins because it is where language and meta-language ends.” These words partly explain the function and power of the filmic (actual or imagined) in my work. And the event is, as Deleuze and Parnet say in the quote you cited, something that also happens in time and space (when someone or something enters the room, or the book), and that changes the atmosphere (that word again). It’s a combination of a wake-up call and an invocation or a reminder to listen. It is not necessarily gentle. It can be a violence in its surprise appearance. When I began putting this book together, “When the angel of death passed over” was on the first page. But as often happens, it became clear that this sort of invocation belonged in the end, because I wanted it to make something happen there and beyond the edge of the book. The book is just a three-dimensional object unless it can be begun anywhere and unless any place in it might be that encounter, the flint of event. The Deleuze and Parnet quote captures what I mean by “event” more fully than I can say or would attempt to paraphrase. Unavoidably it includes love, and, as they put it:
Making an event — however small — is the most delicate thing in the world: the opposite of making a drama or making a story. Loving those who are like this: when they enter a room they are not persons, characters or subjects, but an atmospheric variation…. Everything has really changed…. It is not easy to think in terms of the event. All the harder since thought itself then becomes an event…. ENTITY = EVENT, it is terror but also great joy.