Tan Lin by Katherine Elaine Sanders

Tan Lin is interested in non-print forms of reading—potted plants, traffic lights, spoken words, strip malls, WD50—and approaches the book as a repository of dispersed ambient textuality.

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I met Tan Lin while participating in his performance art piece LitTwitChalk during PERFORMA 09 in November here in New York. Lin gave participants pieces of chalk and instructed us by giving no instruction. We walked and chalked on sidewalks, streets, and parks. We drew pictures, copied the work of other writers, and doodled whatever came to mind. The performance was filmed, recorded, and distributed in real time via Twitter. We concluded at PS2, a playground on the Lower East Side, where we continued to chalk until it rained.

What impresses me about Lin’s creations as poet, novelist, filmmaker, and artist is how the work—whatever form it takes—is always immersive. Rather than explaining his views on the unbroken parallels between reading, writing, cooking, watching a film, or walking through an architectural space, Lin creates an environment where the reader encounters multiple texts, montages, and appropriations, while experiencing the ease of movement between genres that his texts suggests. Lin is a professor of English and Creative Writing at New Jersey City University. He has published three books of poetry: Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe, BlipSoak01, and Heath: plagiarism/outsource. Additionally, he has just completed a novel, Our Feelings Were Made By Hand.

Just as the rain morphed and erased our chalk art during LitTwitChalk, Lin leads his audiences in exploring the temporary ephemera that fills our daily interactions: emails, Twitter feeds, Facebook messages, blogs, movies, magazines, advertisements, indexes, photographs, and recipes. His book Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking was released on Lulu.com in April of 2004 and is being published in print by Wesleyan University Press in April. In discussing SCV and Lin’s idea of unifying text with the material that contains it, we decided to leave the track changes feature in MS Word on as we were editing this email interview. Predictably, this option didn’t translate into HTML.

As part of the EDIT events series curated by Danny Snelson at the Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, on April 21 Tan Lin will produce an online distribution of Seven Controlled Vocabularies and various ancillary products entitled: “Handmade book, PDF, lulu.com, Appendix, Powerpoint, Dual Language (Chinese/English), Selectric II, and a film.” An Appendix to Seven Controlled Vocabularies can be found here.

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Katherine Elaine Sanders The first thing I noticed about Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking was that the title appears on the back cover instead of the front. In the section of the book titled “American Architecture Meta Data Containers,” you write, “The front of a book is always less interesting than the back of a book.” Obviously you are interested in bringing the paratext, or material surrounding the text, to the fore, especially since the back of a book reveals the bar code and other labels of classification discussed within the book itself. Can you talk about this decision, and what interests you about the backs of books?

Tan Lin The titling matter is the most visible element of the book’s packaging as well as its metrics: marketing strategy, production/layout/publishing decisions, dissemination in catalogues and bookstores, and its reception. Not much of this was controlled by me. Different formats induce markedly different kinds of reading. I am interested in that moment when reading begins, and the different kinds of reading that take place in, around, on the back of, and inside of a book—in particular a poetry book published by a university press.

Reading is a kind of integrated software. Some of its functions are textual, some paratextual, some visual, although the line between these does not really exist in my mind. SCV is fundamentally an examination of that blurring. Some of the reading is clearly authored by me, some is machine algorithms or library systems, some is by others, as with the Barthes index or the Laura Riding foreword. The Object ID system, also in place, is Getty Institute software. Numerals are closely linked to the publishing industry and the origins of (alphanumeric) writing. The front cover reflects this, although the two numerals are also in code. A title was “drawn” by Clare Churchouse using MS Word’s line function and a mouse. So it became interesting for me to think of the robin’s-egg blue cover as equivalent to the inattentive, unformatted, partially handwritten, generic moments before one reads the book. A lot of the book has already been read long before we got to it. Context is more important than content.

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All images except the book covers for Joy of Cooking appear in Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking.

There is a lot of personal and extra-personal communal history (errors of attribution: death, tragedy) beyond a book’s covers. In this sense, one can think of the book as a cancelled project or pre-marital life disappearing into what the scholar Rachel Malik has termed “publication studies.” A book is connected to things, many of which are not spoken or are non-printed languages. How accidental, or to rephrase Rem Koolhaas, unprogrammatic, can a book be with its reader? SCV is really just one long preface to a novel; it’s the cataloging or indexical system to a novel I “just finished” and is “now” called Our Feelings Were Made By Hand.

KES Like you mentioned, a title is a deliberate decision that involves many people. Part of what makes the title Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking interesting is that it contains multiple titles in one, and even an appropriated one: The Joy of Cooking.

TL A good portion of the title and thus the book “belongs” to a titling apparatus and a brand: Irma S. Rombauer, her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker, and Marion’s husband John, with whom she jointly authored The Joy of Cooking. The co-authoring of this book—not unusual, especially for a cross-generational book—is an utterly unkempt set of trajectories. The 1963 edition was the first paperback edition and the first that Marion revised without consulting her mother, who had suffered a series of strokes beginning in 1955. When the book went to press (in 1962, I believe), it went without the family knowing it and without a contract. According to the cookbook’s website, the publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, had “instructed Alice Richardson ‘to edit the Becker’s edited galleys, but the Beckers are not to know about this.’” Marion did not learn that it was in stores until she was told by someone attending her mother’s wake. The book was filled with typos that made it impossible to execute, though not to imagine, a number of the recipes, which transpired both indoors and out and offered instructions as if no difference existed between amateurs and professional chefs. Thus Joy is notable for its detailed physical instructions. “Anyone” can learn to “grind their own peanut butter, purify drinking water, build and cook on a campfire, roll out a pie crust with a Coke bottle, use vinegar as a bleaching agent, and clean a whole octopus.” This corrupt edition is an imaginative how-to exercise and a collector’s item, an experiential and experimental text.

Marion unofficially disowned the 1962 edition. A book that goes through multiple and garbled editions has all sorts of unfulfilled lives in it and attached to it. The most beautiful books come to resemble the inaccurate recipes, unacknowledged rhubarb stains, and foliage pressed between the pages that a reader is forced, by the historical circumstances of cooking in America, to read. Many of the unfinished dishes in Joy are simply unimaginable. The noun “Chinese” is followed by seven adjectives: celery, chestnuts, dressing, egg rolls, meatballs, rice (fried), and sauce (sweet-and-sour). Every book I have come to read since Joy bears a family resemblance to the 1963, 1975, and 1987 versions, whose endlessly interchangeable modular arrangements and rearrangements of recipes, like so many leafs on a tree or rooms in a house, are held together by something like the false appearance of sunlight through a window.

KES These details about Marion Rombauer Becker are so interesting. And The Joy of Cooking is a compelling text for you, as you point out in autobiographical passages of SCV. How does Marion’s story intersect with your own?

TL Joy has what marketers might call “extreme relevance” for me. I grew up Chinese American in southeast Ohio. It was one of two cookbooks in our house, and thus a culinary bible of things that are eaten in America. My mother did not know how to cook at all when she first got to America from Shanghai. My father cooked very well, but only Chinese food from Fuzhou. But we were American, and to be American, well, you have to eat American, and to eat American you have to cook it from time to time.

Any food we did not eat from a box came from the Joy of Cooking, so it was an extremely important manual for our family in terms of reverse engineering. Like an appliance such as the kitchen hood my father installed to take the smells of (mostly Chinese) cooking and put them outside our house, Joy was technologically limited because my mother and father did not really know what American food was. And what was it, really, in 1965? It was mainly my sister and I who ended up with our hands on the cookbook, and now find ourselves reading ourselves in a protracted and desultory love affair with the book. We used the cookbook to make popovers, muffins, and brandied cakes—mainly because Chinese cuisine does not have an extensive repertoire of desserts or alcohol. Joy of Cooking is and remains a very important household document that shows our split between Eastern first course and Western dessert, wet steam and dry heat, olives and tea leaves, and English breakfast and Oriental dinner. The book that I have photographed below is, I think, exactly the book in our house circa 1975. I made my first apple pie with that book. For some unknown reason, every time I look at the book I think of daylight savings time in Athens, Ohio, where I grew up.

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So SCV is a cross-pollinated ecosystem, an agrarian system with a very beautiful table of contents and pen and ink drawings of foods and the hands that make those foods. It reminds me of pots my father used to make in his studio. It is a classic example of a book that gets revised by the lives that are, in turn, revised around and by it. Like all books, it is beautiful only in regard the decompressions it has been put to. I have told this story at greater length and probably with somewhat more remorse in Our Feelings Were Made by Hand, but it might just as easily been included as the postface! There is no real distinction between what I am writing now and what I will be writing next. This interview is the apparatus of a novel which will appear “shortly.” It’s the clock part of the novel.

Blurbs for SCV will appear this summer in a separate Lulu publication. There are numerous mistakes (one might call this increasing market liquidity) on the two covers and in the front matter, which will presumably be corrected in “editions.” Why did Chinese stuff from Google Translate fall in? Shall I remove that from the next edition? The poems and quasi-poems at the back of the book are clearly the product of a computer and its erase/read functions. Can reading be like the moment before one reads an airline boarding pass or a rental car agreement or a permissions letter? My feeling is that yes, fundamentally, it can. So Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking is three prospective titles, possibly dreamed up by the marketing folks at Wesleyan University Press, of a poetry book that is not quite there except in some controlled vocabulary (micro-niche) system. Or else it is a series of book titles divided or displaced by a specific publication history, distribution format, a death, classification system, meta-data container, a bit of domestic tranquility, and a bar code—in other words a system of inferences or actions or recipes or typos or captions or cataloging systems directed to the heterogeneity that is a “book” before it becomes a book.

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KES I am interested in your ideas about boredom, especially considering your work in an ambient avant-garde that goes against shock aesthetic. In your interview with Chris Alexander, Kristen Gallagher, and Gordon Tapper you discuss your interest in middle-brow reading, especially material like an index and a forward, both of which appear as appropriations from other books in your book. Do you see boredom as a byproduct of reproducibility, as a vacuum space created by cultural institutions, a frame of mind that enables pleasure and creativity, a combination of these, or something different altogether?

TL I thought of SCV as the slightly bored mood of reading distractedly, while cooking, waiting for a subway, or watching TV. I am supposed to be a very close reader of texts because I am a professor, but I mostly skim books and read synopses of important articles. I focus on forewords, appendixes (they are like pictures), and footnotes (they tell me the things I actually have to go out and read). Thus the title’s citation of 2004 in the near but not too distant past and where the book was published six rather relaxed years later, as you note, on April 1. So SCV is blogged writing, too, where the writing is additive and incremental but not necessarily in any teleological way. Blogging is sideways dilatory writing and the organization of SCV is similar. There is a lot of fetishism attached to the book as object , so I was interested in the book as dispersed ambient textuality, meta-data, or maybe just the allusiveness of the bibliographic that is referenced by a title, which I suppose is the book itself and its ecosystems of reading. So I was interested in non-print forms of reading: architecture, paintings, strip malls, potted plants, spoken words, the back stitching on a Margiela blouse, traffic lights, WD50, reality TV.

Reading is a system of highly commodified moods, but like individual blog sites, these are variable. I do a lot of reading while doing other things, like cooking or watching Olympic alpine skiing or the Weather Channel or whatever. So SCV emulates the ambient textuality or generalized medium (the term is Niklas Luhmann’s) of reading as it is structurally coupled to other things. I’m interested in the formats and micro-formats of reading, and their coupling to other things in the world, like restaurants, yoga mats, poems, former boyfriends or girlfriends, wives and husbands (and their photographs), and of course other books (and their photographs and the photographs they contain within them). So I would say boredom is a very loose medium in which the heterogeneity of the world can be gathered without coalescing into something meaningful—like a book. What do the stories “mean” in SCV? Not very much. Are they boring? Well, yes, sort of. Do they limit meanings? Of course. Do they prevent violence from being registered? Yes, and this is particularly true of the last section, which describes the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.

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KES When you say your stories “prevent violence from being registered,” what do you mean? A lot of writing that we classify as avant-garde is argumentative or aggressively defending its position. The writing is used as a tool of violence against schemas and social constructions. Do you feel that preventing violence is a feature of just your work specifically, or is it that controlled vocabularies like literature, film, architecture, or painting make violence impossible to register?

TL In SCV the violence is symbolic; it is never registered as “violence” per se (what is that anyway?) but as something that yields specific symbolic meaning in, for example, a legal system. Violence is not merely something that is inconceivable outside certain systems, it is the meaning holding such systems together, and thus is hard to visualize. It is tied to the reproduction of the system itself as a kind of “meaning.” There are different kinds of violence in SCV but none are registered as physical “acts” or as taking place between individuals: the bombing of the WTC, jealousies born of being childless, beating or bruising, racism, petty theft, follicle stimulating hormone injections, etc. All this (bodily) violence is processed seamlessly as a single whole by the system at work, so I was interested in visualizing (in language) what might be regarded as an undifferentiated violence or perhaps violence as a meta-system. This is, I suppose, what happens in the cinema section: a specific set of visualizations or codes for violence are activated, but very bluntly and with very little “meaning.” This is in keeping with monolithic apprehensions of terrorism post-9/11 and connects directly to use of the ’93 event. The pictures don’t depict connectiveness or causality in a “literal” sense (pictures are stupid this way) because this already exists in the system of representation. All photos in part II are black-and-white photos from a flea market, repeatedly sampled. They don’t describe violence in racial or other terms, though one might be able to read some of this into the photos, peripherally, as one would in a painting.

KES You often talk and write about creating ambient text, meaning that “literature should be an elaboration of relaxation formats, sensory deprivation, and disordered or arbitrary input that has been channeled or reduced to non-stimuli.” While providing a relaxing environment, it also deprives readers of traditional narrative structure, traditional form, and other comforts of familiarity, which, in some ways, is uncomfortable. How do you reconcile this? Along with that idea, even the cultural critique within the book has certain friendliness to it. For example, though we read a detailed description of WalMart, the text refrains from imposing direct value judgments upon that symbolic space, making the book feel more inclusive than exclusive. Given this approachability, who is the main audience for SCV? Is it only those who are interested in the avant-garde, or does the work attempt to open up to a wider audience?

TL That is complicated. SCV involves softening the avant-garde or, at least, exploring underlying conditions of avant-garde poetic practice, suggesting how certain things—for me, mostly technologies, social networking platforms, lean production, pre- and post-war developments in systems theory, etc.—might be seen to alter what Peter Burger has termed neo–avant-garde practices, or, at least allow different modes of self-reflexivity. This is not something performed by only experimental writers; it marks the culture at large, so I do not think of SCV as isolated from the writing sphere, but as part of a mediatory apparatus. Lev Manovich talks about how avant-garde principles have become integrated in computer software. So, on the one hand the book is neo–avant-garde: a speaking subject is displaced across a series of minor narratives, the book lacks a coherent narrative, authors are aligned with specific discursive practices. Moreover, the book, as a modality of software, is not about gut-wrenching emotions but minor feelings or moods that are not quite our own. This is consonant with a culture of distraction today, but also with modes of cognitive or pre-cognitive processing and affective attunement. I mean, the book is kind of about growing up Chinese in Ohio and moving to New York City and trying to become a writer! So the book is about integrating certain neo–avant-garde principles with contemporary life, whatever that may be. It is modular and easy to digest. It’s a collage but it is nonetheless structured or mildly de-activated like a card catalog. What activates a life? There is a mild return to an English-speaking subject, who recounts anecdotes about life with a Mercedes 280SE, a father, and Chinese cookbooks. Some passages are translated back into Chinese by a computer and software program cued to the scanning of UN documents. There are a few pictures to help the reader “visualize,” but what exactly? The subjectivity feels standardized and normal and informal in the way that information theory developer Claude Shannon’s paper on printed English approximates English from time to time. Likewise, SCV periodically “approximates” a novel or a poem. It has a lifespan. Style is what is statistically likely to induce a reading. The majority of readers will read this and not think it difficult. That was not true of BlipSoak01, though I tried to make it hypnotic and relaxing, like yoga. It was too “intelligent dance music” to be avant-garde, too trance to be mainstream.

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KES Also it seems like “mainstream” is an overly simplified concept; like you bring to the surface in SCV, mainstream is about beauty versus ugliness, where beauty means repetition, reproducibility, something that fits well into a controlled vocabulary and can make copies of itself. Ugliness is something we have never (en)countered before or cannot register. How does beauty function in this book?

TL SCV is inseparable from the commodification of the beautiful, where the image is a commodity. The book is a field guide to de-differentiated cultural production, and it’s a controlled vocabulary system. Of course, the move from beautiful/ugly to interesting/ boring has been detailed convincingly by Language poetry, the historical avant-garde, and conceptual art. Much Language poetry simply cannot be labeled ugly. Within Language poetry, “boring” becomes “interesting” in an inverted sphere dominated by cultural capital. There is a shift from imagery/image to texts/discursive practices. In that sense, SCV emerges from and tries to make avant-garde practices and discursive tactics visible (there are a lot of photos in SCV to make things easier) and specific as regards the neo–avant-garde’s institutionalization as well as the technological shifts mentioned above. Like avant-garde writing, I’m not interested in the sublime emerging “in the wrong place” or the sublime as a mode of the Absolute/Failed Beauty. But, on the other hand—and here there are differences with Language poetry—I have no problem with the beautiful as décor, as “culinary” image. I am interested in how one might self-reflexively reflect upon how a de-differentiated condition is produced culturally. Even in experimental poetry.

Foucault’s bureaucratization of the beautiful leads to a social space where everything is acculturated and the category of the aesthetic terminated. Yet anecdotal details in SCV evade bureaucratization; their dissociativeness and off-handedness offers a toehold for the perceptual, even sensual and historical. The Macy’s smart mob directive led me to meet my future wife! Marriage is accidental, pluralistic, socially scripted, date-specific, institutionalized, and visibly orchestrated with a hand-typed text! Maybe that’s what poetry (or marriage) is: some kind of mediated technological note linked to commodification, leisure, and (not) going shopping at Macy’s.

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KES How does this fit into the idea of montage or collage? Of juxtaposing beautiful with ugly, interesting with boring? Aren’t the logical leaps caused by these pairings anti-boring?

TL Montage meant something different to Adorno than it did to Benjamin, and it means something different in contemporary practice. BlipSoak01 is all montage or sampling, putting Laura Riding right next to George Oppen, but I wanted those transitions to be seamless, not shocking, so the models were disco, sampling, remixing.

The orientations of SCV are utterly away from live music, phoneme, polyphony, spoken voice, and into another register involving the seamlessness of language/reading systems, the generation of imagery via text, the parsing of all language as statistical/cybernetic systems, and the time-stamping of bodies with the technological systems of reading. So in this sense, one could say that SCV is about historical avant-garde and neo–avant-garde practices as they integrate with postwar information science and contemporary textual practices. Guy Debord remarked that the image is the final form of commodity reification, but I feel like today, text or code activates how we are dominated by languages and reading/writing practices cued not to the deconstruction of signifiers but to technological shifts involving scripting languages: SMS texting, RSS feeds, page-ranking systems, and Markov chains.

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KES SCV asserts itself as intertextual. Not only does the text refer to itself, but there are even contradictory statements within it. What is the role of this contradiction? Are these multiple voices? One voice changing in time? One voice deliberately contradicting itself? Or are we dealing with a text that is self-editing?

TL Reading, like voices after the phonograph, is mediated in platform-specific, materially-dependent ways: books, grocery lists, indexes, subject headers, photos, captions, genres. Another way to think of this involves visualizing what a reading experience actually is. We normally think of books as containing something inside, but of course indexes, forewords, a library classification system, and images are, properly speaking, outside the text, as is an RSS feed or an endnote. So I was interested in what Jonathan Sterne terms the exterior constructs of texts rather than their interiority. The index and the foreword are exported in SCV from other books; they exist as digital images, rather than scans. They float around the text a bit, untethered, and that untethering derives from specific material sources that are, in their flea market origins, non-digital. So the book puts printed reading material in a context of (more ephemeral) printed non-reading material, and vice versa, and treats all textual material as visual material, and vice versa. So in this sense, its organizational structure and reading systems are highly self-reflexive and self-mirroring—they are in a state of non-fixity.

The book thinks for, or as you say, edits itself. There are so many intersecting blank areas, time frames, publication and editing phases in reading. Reading is a mode of visual skimming—a historically forgetful procedure, and I wanted a text that made blankness (ambience) appear sporadically as material and historically-specific parts of the text: its printing, composition, plagiarism, distributional practices, organizational structure, subject headings, and its reception history as something read by me and later by you. We’ve left the track changes on for this interview, and we’ve attempted to transfer it to BOMB’s website as a kind of mirroring. Why? It is a visual distraction in the reading, but reading is by nature distracted as a historical activity, and the text was composed between these two registers and three individuals (interviewer, interviewee, and editor). The interview is a textual environment preserved as an “interior” landscape organized by software codes, attendant textual interfaces, and the format known as the interview, which is about talking and reading in some vaguely public or open or exteriorized space vis a vis the book “proper.”

KES Controlled vocabularies and what you call “management systems” impose a set of limits on our consciousness. Some of these limits are artificial, such as the vocabulary we use to talk about a book—plot, voice, or character. But then you also refer to George Miller’s number seven theory, the supposed natural limit to how many objects most people can retain in their short-term memory. What is the interplay between these artificial and natural limitations?

For me, reading is a machine, an artificial system. When the mind reads, it is part of this artificial system. It is impossible for me to think of any limitations that are natural, except those that are specific to particular reading systems. In other words, there is no distinction between a natural and an artificial limitation.

KES I like this idea of strobe-light consciousness, or a reader understanding things in timed intervals. Can you elaborate on how this is a feature of your writing?

TL Writing takes place in time; that is one of its material constraints, like it was for The Joy of Cooking. It has numerous genealogies working through it, punctuating it, sometimes literally. The book in turn reproduces those punctuations visually, graphically, ideationally, abstractly: that process you very sharply term self-editing. Of course, at the proofreading level, I wanted to eliminate most punctuation, especially commas. I wanted to work against temporal elements not in the sense of making someone forget the time they were reading in (suspension of disbelief) but rather to make the time of reading approximate a stopwatch, so that the reading is only believable when a stopwatch is ticking next to it. Commas slow down reading artificially, just like the line break or medial caesura. Poetry in which commas are used as a graphic or visual device slows down language in order to make it appear inexpressible, ineffable—the typical domain of poetry. But this is not really the case; it’s a hallucination that most poetry creates quite deliberately. Instead of slowing a reading down, SCV aims to speed it along its way. There is nothing ineffable or inexpressible in reading, especially the time it was read in. Therein lies a bit of historical materialism, as it returns to text.

WATCH Tan Lin’s Dub Version, a full screen demonstration of slow-form ambient poetry, 2002. (84’12”)

Katherine Elaine Sanders is writer based in New York City and a nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia University.