3.30.2006

Illegibility

I've been writing what I think are the last few pages of what I've been calling my Facebook article this week, a take on Facebook as composition webware and Facebook composition as template composition, and yesterday, while writing about how the template gets detourned (if only slightly), I found myself writing about Craig Dworkin's Reading the Illegible once again. Of the books I've read in the last year, without a doubt Dworkin's has made the biggest impression on me.

So though I've posted a similar version of this elsewhere, here are my thoughts on Reading the Illegible as I typed them up for my reading.database the evening I finished the book:

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In this exquisitely legible foray into the poetics of illegibility, Dworkin takes on such forms of confusion.text, and effacement.text, and complex.text as overwritten poetry, overprinted poetry, lined-out passages in poems, and an entirely censored poem by Man Ray, and then moves into land art by Smithson and others—all in order to finally explore the poetics of illegibility more broadly.

Dworkin is unflaggingly obsessed with the avant-garde, and in talking about marginally comprehensible texts, he summons his full array of critical.linguistic.textual.analytic tools to do the job. Each lengthly passage of analysis signifies new ways to read easily dismissable texts. He has no one reductive argument, no simple insistence that "this stuff represents our postmodern, muddled lives" or anything so cheap as that. Instead, Dworkin moves through the various texts he looks at finding them variably meaningful, as clearly their mechanics are quite different.

In the middle of the book lives what I suspect is one of Dworkin's favorite forms, the diastic poetry of Cage and Jackson Mac Low. In those poems, the poets "write through" the cantos of Pound (and others) to produce mechanistic, rule-governed renderings of the larger text. I say that I think Dworkin likes this strategy more than others because it works with the available, the flood of existing text (Humumanent works this way too, of course, as Hayles has discussed) while doing so within rule-governed methods for creation. He likes it, too, because of the Wakean jingles that result, the random playful bits of language that come out if by chance.

This is a book, then, about how to read graffiti on passing trains, about how to read half-effaced ancient signage, about reading overwritten scribbles and notes and all of the text that hangs on the bulletin boards or blows through the streets of our lives. It is a text, too, about not overlooking the illegible, the opaque, the odd and apparently unsignifying. By employing poetics, what does not clearly produce semantic meaning suddenly does, as the activity of social and political artists (see the later discussion of Smithson, for instance) is the activity of such opaque and hard to parse texts. This is poetry as social, political, engaged, and pushing the envelop of meaning. In a constellation of relation, there is Drucker, Pound, Joyce, Cage, Smithson, all the other overwriting and illegible.fetishizing poets, and then there is Dworkin pulling it all together, keeping it all separate, and ultimately currating a fiasco of textual innovation.

This is a map of the innovative, the poetic, the academic, and the original. So, this is the map (to cite Saner).

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