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“We experience the content of ourself emerging by making shapes around it.”
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Lewis Freedman is the author of Residual Synonyms for the Names of God (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016) and a writer whose investigation of what might be called biblio-cognitive aporetic states is perched somewhere on the ledge of Mallarméan-cum-Jabesian trickster engagements with the very fundament of language. Freedman’s works—which include a DIY program for the autopoesis of solitaire, Solitude: The Complete Games (with Kevin Ryberg, Troll Thread, 2013); a notebook on notebooking, Hold the Blue Orb, Baby (Well Greased Press, 2013); and a record of loss in language, Pretend to Think—all bend the ear of thought, constantly seeking that place just beyond the act of naming. I spent an afternoon with Lewis discussing divination, food science, taxidermy, rabbinic literature, and the act of discussion itself on the banks of Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin.
Judah Rubin Last night I was reading your Residual Synonyms for the Name of God, where you write: “Great wealth passively corrects its crime by making pubic hair iridescently visible through cloth as a metaphor for the negation of the said.” Can you maybe speak to that? What is the divine character of iridescently visible pubic hair?
Lewis Freedman Let me not pretend to know precisely what I’ve made, but just jump off from it instead. So there’s something about compensatory gestures here—for example, about wealth and sexual shame, about compensation for wealth in art-making. There is still a sense that poverty is somehow a romantic tool, that not having, not owning, will somehow enable art-making and that wealth should necessarily disable the possibility of making radically transformative art. Josef Kaplan’s work has, in recent years, usefully raised and critiqued this particular logic by positioning it as precisely a neoliberal thing. While there are certainly correlations and causations between material conditions and art-making, they’re like claims about the relation between politics and form. The relation isn’t of itself clear and necessary, and claiming and living so creates all this compensatory displacement. So the notion that wealth would correct its crime by making pubic hair iridescently visible through cloth appears to me now, I think, as something one publicly hides about oneself that becomes visible in order to compensate, to try and make invisible or pay penance for one’s complicity in violent inequalities that are just everywhere in this culture and language.
But as I’m saying this, I’m thinking also of the not-seeing that this compensatory motion is part of, and how necessarily present a kind of not-seeing seems to be for me, even when I see what I’m doing so clearly in continuing to write. And perhaps this is part of that pubic hair passage’s relation to the framework of this book, that it’s a book of residual synonyms for the divine name. Because the name of God in rabbinic literature is both an unsayable name and a central force within religious life there’s a constant elaboration of its naming. And I imagine this is the case whenever there is anything unsayable, as there always seems to be. So perhaps we could even say that this movement of a structure is active in this conversation, right? Or maybe this is the case for all self-identification and its transfers, in which the very act gestures to something unsayable or unlocatable, and therefore is, around the desire to locate the unlocatable, a constant proliferation of things that stand in for that thing. And I guess I do think about this as the structure of the self, the structure of the subject—that it’s actually a structure only indicated by the repetition of its borders, that it doesn’t have content in and of itself, but rather conjures a content, a shape, by this incessant repetition, which produces a kind of not-seeing where the subject becomes both itself and not itself all the time. And my experience of this has been as the residue of a religious structure.
When I was writing this book of residual synonyms I remember thinking, repeatedly, that the key to the index is that anything can be in there, that I can only say things around the thing that cannot be said, which include anything I would articulate.
JR So do you see the indexical residue as a kind of binding agent of indefinite thought, a stickiness?
LF Well, it denies the possibility of nonsense, in that language doesn’t produce anything else but sense because there is already this contentless thing it is accreting around, which it is indicating. So anything you put down is going to be the event of indicating the content of that shape and is going to stick in that basic sense. But that stickiness doesn’t mean a singular authorial subject and their compensatory displacements are the only thing that can be repeated, and I don’t imagine the contentlessness of the subject as a static thing or an absence at all. It’s more like the transferences of a conversation. Sometimes I think a conversation between two people really consists of one person saying something about themself and the other person saying something about themself, and there’s a sort of exchange of the borders of these subject shapes, and so friendship or a really good conversation would be when these shapes are interestingly shifted, affirmed, challenged. And it can be accompanied by this wonderful feeling that you are speaking somebody else as yourself beyond yourself, while somebody else speaks you as themself. We could say that even in an interview, like now, this shape exchange is unavoidable, and maybe it’s not even desirable to attempt to avoid it, and there’s a stickiness to the surface of this.
JR Does it always happen in an interrogative exchange that one person is attempting to produce the nonsense that is denied by the subject of the conversation? Is the interviewer’s role to act, here, as the non-space of nonsense?
LF Yeah, maybe, when you read interviews that’s often how it works. You can feel the interviewer feeling out the thing not yet said, trying to make space for it, and then there’s another displacement in that movement. That’s one of the reasons I love fake interviews so much, like Ted Berrigan’s interview with John Cage, because those displacements get screwed with in the simulation; when the interview is actual these movements are so often a thing dictated by someone’s ego being honored to be the subject of itself.
JR So, are you describing a sort of spectral ventriloquism? How does this play out in divination, which is contingent on ritual?
LF So I fear I have a very particular and maybe narrowed imagination of how this happens because of my own obsessions. For me, this has a lot to do with the idea that surfaces can be inscribed, can hold a simulation of interiority, can hold a scene in which the person or force that is inscribing itself upon the surface simulates themself as an exterior force whose record can inhere in the interior time of the surface. And I suppose I imagine—and I’m not saying this is truth, but I am saying this is one of the old dramas of the technology of the inscribable surface—that one of the things that can happen when we begin to write is we experience the forms of our own subjectivity emerging. We experience the content of ourself emerging by making shapes around it. We are repeating a drama where we imagine that the technology of inscription itself—the capacity of a surface to hold a record and replay it, as well as our capacity to recognize a surface as potentially inscribable—is already a replay of the event in which the interior space of our subjectivities emerged. It’s like we have an origin myth attached to the inscribable surface in which our interiority emerges through a break with something outside of it that wasn’t previously outside of it, so that suddenly there’s this recording of the outside that is our interiority while the outside goes on without it. And so we’re involved in this kind of drama in which inscription replays the original emergence of our own subjectivity, and in which we feel we can start at the beginning and access an outside. I think about this drama in relation to divination rituals, like in ancient Mesopotamian extispicy, where they imagine the gods have written on the liver of a sheep, and they’ll splay that liver out—
JR Sure, or Romans with chickens.
LF Is that true? They did that, too—with chickens?
JR I think so.
LF They read the liver as an inscribable surface, but as a surface that, because of its deep interiority—it being inside of a sheep and all—only a divine outside can inscribe. And in order to read this divine inscription they go through a complex set of prescribed rituals until they can say, for example, that because such and such a figure on this liver looks like this cuneiform sign, therefore such and such a thing will happen.
JR I wonder then what that might have to do with early cinematography, with someone like Muybridge?
LF The nineteenth-century recording technology stuff is really interesting because there’s all this imagining of the outside writing.
One thing I’ve looked a little at is the development of the sphygmograph, an early machine for measuring blood pressure, for writing arterial pulse. This, and its precursors, are the first machines, to my knowledge, that mobilize the writing surface by making it into a cylinder. They basically wrap a kind of charcoal paper around a rotating cylinder, turning it so the surface will have a duration and positioning a stylus over it. And so this, like with the extispicy stuff, is an imagination of an outside writing—though here it’s an inside previously imagined as so unwritable that it’s an outside force. In fact, that same rotating mechanism gets used for the earliest forms of sound recording in the 1850s with Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, who invents the phonautograph. He applies this same motion of the moving cylindrical inscribable surface with the vibrating stylus, but he doesn’t motorize it. He insists on hand cranking it—ridiculously, he keeps on writing things with the sentiment of “Oh, you’ll be able to just pick up its regularity.”
Actually, now that these amazing folks in California have figured out how to replay a number of his phonautographic recordings, we can hear that it’s all over the place because he can’t hand crank at a constant speed. So this produces an imprecise handwriting in sound, which maybe articulates less about Scott’s voice than it does about his arm, right? And I think this has to do with his imagination of what kind of writing phonautography was, because he didn’t imagine it as sound replaying at all. Scott famously scoffs at Edison’s phonograph because it doesn’t write sound, it only replays it! Scott has an alternate dream of a pure stenography emerging from sound recording and overtaking our phonetic alphabet, so that we’ll be able to just write the vibration of sound and read all the full tonal range of the human voice from this writing. I think this is all because Scott’s so deeply invested in this drama of the subject emerging in writing, and so he wants to keep his hand in the game so to speak, to keep his own subject emerging, to keep it in the game of writing as he dramatizes it, where the hand writes and the eye reads.
JR Eventually, if this had worked out as a language form or as a writing form, would we have no more need of speaking? Could you be doing other things with your mouth?
LF Are you suggesting that if we had a totally natural stenography, where we can just write out sound waves and read sound waves and get the total range of human tonality, that we could just do that in our brains and then do away with sound recording and speaking?
JR Maybe so, but what will we do instead of speak?
LF I don’t think about voice very much in a lot of the poetry I write. I get so focused on the surface of the page and how it’s moving that a lot of what I’ve been doing is writing “per se,” concentrating on forming letters, for example. Even though those letters have a relation to phonetic representation and I’m definitely sounding them, I’m just not distributing my attention there. But I’m curious now to try and think of a moment where I’m writing something and eating at the same time. I mean, how does having my mouth full and moving change the thing I’m writing? Do you remember what it feels like if you’re writing something and hearing it in your interior ear and eating at the same time? Is there interference? Is your mouth usually doing a little something that attends to writing that it can’t do now because you’re eating?
JR I don’t see those two things as being connected with one another. I see my body as being segmented into all these different departments—really a highly bureaucratic body in which excess is tied to procedural obscurity. Do you believe that if writing is infinitely mutable in terms of its readability that it’s constantly making exterior some impossible interiority?
LF I’d say the drama seems to be pretty unstoppable, this drama of the literary impulse to point the technology of writing back toward the event of subject emergence or the space where subjectivity emerged from. It’s a pretty ridiculous fiction, this drama, in the way its imagination of origin often poses as a kind of purity. But I’d also say that I can’t stop repeating it, and so I have a lot of writing that performs failed purity. I’ve been practicing three techniques of writing that, working with the letter, perform this way. So one is where I’ll take a phrase, like let’s say… What was that thing you said earlier?
JR What thing?
LF Okay, let’s say I’ll take that phrase: “What thing?” In my performance of writing it on the page, I’ll try to go back to a space where I can’t remember how to spell words without just moving through the letter, to a space where I have to write at the speed of the letter. I’ll treat it as an energy unit, like “What thing?” “What thing?” as though I were making the letters from scratch, as though I were discovering the letters in their shaping. I’ll go really really slow, y’know, with the most intense and sincere faux-purity of concentration, and there’ll be all these swerves in my attempt to write the phrase. I’ll really try to write it, and I’ll follow through on it as an energy unit, but I’ll fail to be able to write the phrase in a standard recognizable spelling. But I won’t give up, no, I’ll try to repeat this, to feel the myth of the beginning again, and I’ll fail again and again. These days I think of this as a drama in which writing would promise to be the emergence of the event of the subject, of language, of experience per se in the world, yet it would constantly fail as a direct performance of the unstoppable ridiculousness of that drama.
JR Yeah, or it would produce the wastelands of the letter. It’s at the threshold of what that energy is. But if that’s true, let’s say that we think of energy units usually in terms of their potential combustion, in terms of their potential reactivity; if you’re thinking of the unit of the letter, if language is going to either decompose or combust, where does that happen?
LF In this case it happens somewhere between the surface and the language. I catch myself repeating often (also now) the perhaps too obvious point that the phonetic alphabet could only have been realized through an interaction with the inscribable surface. We couldn’t work out a phonetic alphabet in speech alone.
There’s a discussion in Midrash Bereishit Rabbah in which one Rabbi imagines the creation of the fabric of the world as a weaving together of two polar strands, of fire and snow, while another Rabbi disagrees and imagines it’s the weaving together of four strands (North, East, South, and West). And this becomes part of a larger argument of whether God is situated as an unseen center of the world from which the world is woven, that the world is created from the inside-out, or whether, on the contrary, the world is created from the outside-in, from its perimeter boundaries, and God remains outside in the process. And this discussion is wrapped into the question of how we might understand the final act of the creation of the world, of when the world became complete, and one Rabbi says that God’s final act in the creation of the world was to remove the anarchic formlessness of the world—the Tohu v’Vohu—so that its form can become aesthetically apparent.
JR Another origin of the inscribable surface.
LF Yeah, and it’s actually allegorized as a bathtub in which, along the inside, are frescos or carvings. You can’t see these while the bath is full of water. But when the water is withdrawn, drained out, suddenly you can see these wonderful forms. If our aesthetics have to do with the differences in the repetitions of the emerging space of human subjectivity, then where is the anarchic outside in this? Is it always present as some absent center, the possibility of accessing it always present in the spaces between the letters and the spaces within the letters, or is it always beyond access, or to be accessed somehow through the forms of subjectivity itself or through some sort of transcendent ritual?
JR So along those lines: chips. Well, they make these potato chips, and the idea is that they can insert any flavor they want into them. They have cappuccino flavor and mac and cheese flavor. The idea is a perfected two-dimensional form, with an inscription that constitutes sense.
LF You know that Slim Gaillard song? [singing] “Potato chips / how my mouth just drips / potato chips / drip drip drip / crunch crunch / I don’t want no lunch / all I want is potato chips.” Their role as a portable, available food is perhaps connected to what you’re saying about them being given any flavor. When I was living in Belfast the popular flavors were prawn cocktail, and beef and onion.
JR It’s not the everyday. But the fantasy of the inscribable, the potato chip, as a suppressor, as a rerouting…
LF …can restructure the whole day. (laughter) Let me ask you a question: Would you rather have the texture you least desire with the flavor you most desire, or the flavor you least desire with the texture you most desire?
JR I think I would rather consume a large quantity of what I find most abject.
LF Do you believe in the contemporary truism in which maturity can be boiled down to learning how to stop right before you feel nauseous?
JR I think it’s learning how to deal with being nauseated.
LF I don’t believe in maturity at all. I see no evidence of anything but a fiction of maturity, in myself at least. The authority of maturity is really about contexts of dependence—and dependence, of course, can be very actual and we are all variously transformed by its responsibilities. But I want to resist mistaking the roles we inhabit in our various dramas of dependence for maturity, because the suppression of another’s desire as unhealthy to them can render them as immature, and these roles seem inevitably reversible.
JR People seem to place the idea of maturity with the idea of being able to name.
LF I guess this returns us to the framework of Residual Synonyms again, but I imagine no word is immune from naming, from becoming a name. I can’t think of any phrase of word that wouldn’t be a band name, and any phrase said can be immediately turned into the name of what was said. This happens a lot to me in writing, where I write something and then it turns in the syntax to make it feel as if it were a name. Am I trying to say that if having a subjectivity is to be in a drama in which we continuously repeat its borders, then one of my great sufferings and problems is my inability to consistently repeat the borders of my own self? Am I trying to name myself in this way? Is what I’m saying already a name? So, anything you put along the borders to indicate the shape of a self, all of that marking, all of that inscription, which I think is a drama at work in the recording technology we call writing, is naming. Or, at least, I don’t think any of it is outside naming.
Lewis Freedman’s Residual Synonyms for the Names of God will be available October 1, 2016, from Ugly Duckling Presse.
Judah Rubin lives in Queens, NY. He is a readings coordinator at the Poetry Project, the editor of Well Greased Press, and the author of various chapbooks.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.