By Nuar Alsadir
When my daughter was a toddler, she had a book about colors. There was a two-page spread for each color with images of objects in that color (a frog, waves). Each time we flipped to the pages for red, I was struck by how pink the red looked and wondered whether learning the word and category ‘red’ would stop her from seeing the nuances of the actual color before her, as ‘marriage’ can sometimes do to the perception of a relationship.
Learning the words for colors is perhaps a process of unseeing. Once we become able to connect whatever is before us to a category or set of familiar expectations, we apply what we’ve gathered from previous experiences to the present situation and use that to frame our interpretation. By the time we are adults, this process is second nature. With little perceptive input and little emotional output, our responses to the world are rarely disruptive.
The danger is that the facility we develop in moving from what is before us to attached words or meanings keeps us from using our perceptive abilities. Rather than cognizing, we re-cognize, refer the thing to a category and, in effect, see not the thing anymore but its generic image.
Expectations surrounding an encounter take us out of our bodies into the meta level and we assess the extent to which the present moment matches up to what we’d anticipated. It’s like reading a review of a film before seeing it, hearing about a city (say, Paris) before visiting it, being told what sex is like before losing your virginity. The ability to have a genuine reaction is short-circuited.
The more access we have to cultural information, the more difficult it becomes to resist mediating our experience of the world through knowledge and expectations. This is an enormous issue at the moment in relation to sex, with the prevalence of porn in particular, the way it strengthens expectations around how sex should go, what turns people on, what the goal is – not merely orgasm, for many, but a money shot.
There sometimes seems to be a money-shot quality in writing, to the endings of poems in particular. When art becomes programmatic it follows set structures that fulfill our expectations in serviceable ways. Rather than focusing on consummation, ‘getting’ the meaning or message through interpretation, Susan Sontag calls for an erotics of art, which focuses on effect. “Paint, not the thing”, Mallarmé advised, “but the effect it produces […] the line of poetry […] should be composed not of words, but of intentions, and all the words should fade away before the sensation.” How, then, can writing be red – not the word, the adjective, but the effect it produces, erotically, in the body?
. . .
“[I]n a poem,” Joseph Brodsky wrote, “you should try to reduce the number of adjectives to a minimum. So that if somebody covers your poem with a magic cloth that removes adjectives, the page will still be black enough because of nouns, adverbs, and verbs. When that cloth is little, your best friends are nouns.”
When I picture enacting that advice, I imagine unfolding a napkin and placing it over a slice of pizza to absorb the grease. Adjectives, to me, are greasy. Colors are adjectives. And, like words for colors that categorize and limit perception, I think of them as other-directed. I use fewer adjectives when perceiving the world or talking to myself than when describing my perceptions to others. If my dogs were able to communicate in words, they wouldn’t use adjectives either.
Roland Barthes calls the adjective “that poorest of linguistic categories”: “The man who provides himself or is provided with an adjective is now hurt, now pleased, but always constituted”. Adjectives constitute us because they are linked to coded expressions (“rude, austere, proud, virile, solemn, majestic, warlike, educative, noble, sumptuous, doleful, modest, dissolute, voluptuous”). We recognize how we’re supposed to take them, shift from potentially cognizing whatever is before us to recognizing a set interpretation. As with Sontag’s programmatic art, when what we perceive is linked to coded meaning – a certain chord progression eliciting happiness – we get it, know how we’re supposed to feel, understand logically without necessarily feeling much of anything at all.
Adjectives, however, are useful for the same reason they’re problematic – and, in fact, not everyone sees them in a negative light. “Adjectives,” writes Anne Carson, “these small imported mechanisms, are the latches of being.” Even as she seems to adopt a positive angle, Carson also describes adjectives as connectors, which is what Barthes objects to, the way they link up to coded expression, constitute us, latch our being.
Finding a way around the “problem of the adjective” wouldn’t mean to stop using adjectives altogether but to understand what made you reach for them in the first place, just as a psychoanalyst wouldn’t advise you to simply get rid of your defenses, but to understand why you use them when you do, how they may have worked in the past but will inevitably turn on you once they become automatic, come to constitute you, program (and calcify) your responses.
Barthes’ suggestion is to tune into what he calls the grain of the voice: “The grain is the body of the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” The grain puts your body in direct erotic relation with the body of the singer, writer, musician: “I know at once which part of the body is playing – if it is the arm, too often, alas, muscled like a dancer’s calves, the clutch of the finger-tips (despite the sweeping flourishes of the wrists), or if on the contrary it is only the erotic part of a pianist’s body, the pad of the fingers whose ‘grain’ is so rarely heard.”
A “contingent work,” which Barthes opposes to a coded one, would necessarily be embedded with elements from the specific physical context it was born out of – the environment, the singer’s emotional and physical state when singing, the situation of the specific body the voice passes through (with all its genetic, racial and desirous markings) and, of course, the voice itself.
“Can I get some of that tea?” Lauryn Hill asks, in her MTV Unplugged album between songs:
I know I sound raspy, but, that’s, hey, I used to go on tour, you know, and […] I’d be this prisoner in the hotel, you know, drinking tea and, you know, telling the children, you know, Mommy has to sleep cause I wanted to maintain this, you know, immaculate sounding voice, but that’s not realistic. You know. Reality is, sometimes I stay up late and this is what I sound like when I wake up the next day. And, you know, it’s a voice. You know. And to me, the more I, uh, I focus less on myself the more I realize I can be used to spread a message. Cause when I’m, I used to be so, you know, ‘oh my God, if I sound, you know, harsh and raspy I can’t go out there.’ And that’s a lie. You know. I just sound like a singer with a lot of stuff in her voice.
A lot of grain. And what’s transmitted through the grain is different from what the immaculate voice carries. “[T]oday,” Barthes writes, “there seems to be a flattening out of technique, which is paradoxical in that the various manners of playing are all flattened out into perfection.” Auto-tuned. There is no “space of pleasure, of thrill, a site where language works for nothing.” He mocks singing teachers’ emphasis on proper breathing: “The lung, a stupid organ (lights for cats!) swells but gets no erection; it is in the throat, place where the phonic metal hardens and is segmented, in the mask that significance explodes, bringing not the soul but jouissance.”
Jouissance is a term psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan uses for a kind of pleasure so specific it defies translation. Rather than attempting to latch it to meaning in a different tongue, English speakers stick to the French word. Within it is jouir – to enjoy (rights, things) and to come (orgasm) – but also, as Lacan explains, “the sense in which the body experiences itself […] at the level at which pain begins to appear,” where “a whole dimension of the organism, which would otherwise remain veiled, can be felt”. The felt dimension of the organism unveiled, like Heidegger’s alêtheia – “being […] stepped out into the unconcealedness of its being” – unlatched – defamiliarizes existence so that it is experienced as a sense of pleasure in being (alive, naked, for nothing) at the level of the body.
. . .
“[B]irds feel something akin to pain (and fear) just before migration,” writes Lorine Niedecker, and “nothing alleviates this feeling except flight (the rapid motion of wings).”
. . .
Years ago, I spent the day with a man I’d met at a New Year’s Eve party. We went to brunch, looked at art. I knew I was interested in him but couldn’t read his feelings towards me. Later that evening, I received an email from him. The content was mundane, offered no inkling of interest, but there was a typo that contained a world.
Freud believed you couldn’t get at the unconscious directly, only through its derivatives, but sometimes it would burst through in what he called parapraxes – a slip of the tongue, the forgetting of a word, rearranged syntax. Somewhere near the beginning of the email, where the man had meant to write, “It was great to see you, although…”, he wrote, “It was great to see you, althought.” With that “t,” he created a condensation that was loaded with meaning – It was great to see you, although all thought, which is to say, It was great to see you although it was all thought, no body. The lower-case “t,” which is also the symbol for addition, stitched his body into the message, making palpable the finger that made the slip, slipped in – erect, as Barthes would say – to transform a noncommunicative email into a titillating one, “language carpeted with skin.”
The more perfect – which is to say coded – a work, the more likely it is to inoculate pleasure. Works that preserve the grain – the fluids and funk that flow through a living body – bring you back to a moment of cognition because, as Barthes puts it, “the symbolic is thrown immediately (without mediation) before us,” you feel the stuff in the singer’s voice, the finger stick through what was meant to be two-dimensional space. This “directness,” Sontag writes, “entirely frees us from the itch to interpret.” We can feel (rapid motion of wings).
. . .
What is thrown directly, unmediated before us, is a sense of the unconscious, which we cannot willfully access but can get an inkling of by following the grain with techniques similar to those used in psychoanalysis.
Write not the idea but the effect it produces.
“When one goes at ideas directly,” John Ashbery said in an interview, “with hammer and tongs as it were, ideas tend to elude one in a poem. I think they only come back in when one pretends not to be paying any attention to them, like a cat that will rub against your leg.” Ashbery goes on in this interview conducted by Daniel Kane to explain the associative process he used in writing the poem ‘What Is Poetry’. By leaning on “one’s automatic temptation to connect something with something else”, he leapt from the town of Chester, England to foreign boy scouts to the Empire State Building (because it was a beautiful day) to school, the teachers, how they “tried to make everything simple and understandable, by combing out the snarls in one’s thinking.”
Free association, whether in writing or psychoanalysis, helps you gain access to the unconscious. It is during the session in which an analysand says, “I have no idea where I’m going with this” that revelation pokes through. By pursuing whatever arises in the mind without strategy or investment – the random thought, slip of the tongue, sensation of cat – you become able to discover meaning rather than make it. Even a snippet of overheard speech can enter into the space-time of your writing and redirect its trajectory, as was the case with the poem’s last line: “It might give us – what? – some flowers soon?” Ashbery explains that he often uses overheard speech in poems and that he “overheard a boy saying that particular line to a girl in Brentano’s bookshop where [he] was browsing.”
Incorporating the speech of others into writing makes the consciousness of the work simultaneously singular and collective. By lifting familiar phrases and recasting them (“We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives. / […] Your insurance was cancelled because we can no longer handle / your frightful claims”), Harryette Mullen, throughout her collection Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002), provokes the reader to feel the vibration between different levels of meaning, eliciting an emotional effect in the body similar to the one triggered by a singer’s vibrato. Wanda Coleman, in ‘Wanda Why Aren’t You Dead’, choregraphs the heard speech of others – whether real or imagined – so that the body of “wanda” is positioned in direct relation to the reader’s body although she only makes an implied appearance as the figure being addressed:
wanda when are you gonna wear your hair down
wanda. that’s a whore’s name
wanda why ain’t you rich
wanda you know no man in his right mind want a
why don’t you lose weight
wanda why are you so angry
how come your feet are so goddamn big
can’t you afford to move out of this hell hole
if i were you were you were you
wanda what is it like being black
i hear you don’t like black men
tell me you’re ac/dc. tell me you’re a nympho. tell me you’re into chains
wanda i don’t think you really mean that
you’re joking. girl, you crazy
wanda what makes you so angry
wanda i think you need this
wanda you have no humor in you you too serious
wanda i didn’t know i was hurting you
that was an accident
wanda i know what you’re thinking
wanda i don’t think they’ll take that off of you
wanda why are you so angry
i’m sorry i didn’t remember that that that
that that that was so important to you
wanda you’re ALWAYS on the attack
wanda wanda wanda i wonder
why ain’t you dead
Despite its having been written in multiple voices with no interior representation of wanda in language, the poem causes the reader to feel into her shape, hear these lines from within her conjured body. Even the adjectives enlisted (rich, ready-made, angry, big, black, crazy, serious, dead) highlight the forces that latch wanda’s being, chain her individual circumstances to broader social implications.
By incorporating contingent elements into your process – what passes before you visually, aurally, parapraxes, snippets of speech – you situate yourself in space and time, which situates your reader in space and time, lets you have a body, lets them have a body, and, within it, the capacity to experience erotically.
Rather than reiterating what you already know delivered from your intellect to the reader’s in language – however skilled and beautiful – writing then becomes a process of discovery – not merely of yourself, but of interpersonal relationships, the irrational parts, the world, of which you are only a small (hopefully moving) part. The idea that we are separate and enclosed is an illusion – other people’s speech, like it or not, lives inside of us, buoys us, metastasizes. We are quantumly entangled with our universe and everything in it.
That is not to say that you can’t reach for inward contingencies as well. Overheard internal speech can also be useful – what your inner voice says without your participation. I hear my mind most clearly when walking my dogs – moving through space without destination – and in sleep. A part of my process involves mining my unconscious by placing a notebook and pen beside my bed, setting my alarm for 3.15 am, and waking for less than a minute to record whatever is at the top of my mind – not dreams, or thoughts, but what I call “night fragments”: overheard interior speech in the syntax of my unconscious. Here are some examples, taken from my book Fourth Person Singular (2017):
Why the panic, Alice B. Toklas? Why the uncooked egg?
Sadness folds the chair I would have sat on.
Jeans carry the shape of the person who inhabits them. If you pick up another person’s jeans you both hold that person and erase them.
Move towards what you believe in and the person you are steps through.
When you free yourself from the goal of making meaning, presenting meaning that is interpretable to others – the money shot – you leave open the possibility of connections created with the participation of more than just the logical faculty, which hankers after meaning and themes because that is what it can digest.
“Thematicism,” writes Jacques Derrida, “necessarily leaves out of account the formal, phonic, or graphic ‘affinities’ that do not have the shape of a word, the calm unity of the verbal sign.” Because I write by hand, I often cannot read a word or phrase I’ve written, and the graphic affinity my eyes find in my illegible writing is invariably more interesting or surprising than what I’d intended. The same goes for autocorrect, which seems to tap into my unconscious (What time do you want me to lick you up?). Phonic affinities play into the music of writing but can also be taken as the basis of meaning itself, as with homophonic translation, which translates work from another language not by the meanings of words, but by sound – as Louis Zukofsky did in his translation of Catullus. He listened through the words in Latin to English words he discovered within their sounds and translated that heard meaning.
When my brother and I would wake our mother (an obstetrician who had to get up at all hours to deliver babies) while she was napping, she would yell, “Zucknaboot!” We would look at each other and say, “Suck my boot?” She was using a Kurdish phrase (my parents are both from Iraq), which we understood through our homophonic translation to mean, “You’ll get a boot in your mouth if you don’t quiet down.”
A child listening to the muzz muzz of adult conversation, regardless of language, will hear in the sounds words they know – or will understand what they see, hear or otherwise perceive based on what they can relate to it through the process of recognition. Yet without having first cognized a broad set of reference points, the child will turn to what is available – the unconscious – and refind its contents in the world around them. Discovering meaning in the sounds of words or world, and other perceptions, taps into the unconscious in the same way that a Rorschach inkblot does: what you perceive reflects your unconscious beliefs and desires, how they structure your emotional world.
. . .
The image of leaves turning to brown mulch where the gutter rises to meet the sidewalk’s edge at the corner of Dorchester and 51st in Chicago has, for years, appeared in my mind in place of a thought or emotion I can’t access. Instead of a memory, my mind produces this image, which functions as a kind of recall, though I have no idea what is being called back.
The image of the leaves, I suspect, is an example of what Freud termed a “screen memory”. Screen memories operate by a process similar to that of dreams, which have the task of keeping the dreamer asleep. In order for the dream not to become disturbing and wake the sleeper, images get split – what he calls the “latent content,” the powerful thought or emotion that stirs us, detaches from the “manifest content” (the leaves). The latent content gets repressed and encoded into the manifest content in an illegible form, so that the emotion can make its way into the dream as seemingly meaningless content that won’t rouse the dreamer.
Memory similarly screens, or censors, powerful emotion by displacing what has the potential to be distressing or threatening with a trivial image or clip from experience – often what the eyes see when looking away from what overwhelms. The trivial image – which serves as a neutral container for all that is important from the past in encrypted form – then becomes over-endowed with a vivid brightness, as with my mulching leaves. The work of psychoanalysis is to extract the meaning within the screen memory, which, again, like all content within the unconscious, can only be accessed indirectly through dreams, parapraxes, free association.
My own trail of associations led me to the realization that the street corner at which I have placed the memory of those leaves was on my walk home from school, at the end of a block where a girl in my grade lived. A sudden storm hit while she and her father were out sailing; he drowned, she survived. As I think about the image of the leaves, my mind associates to fathers and daughters, bodies of water, floating, storms, drowning, risk, loss, being engulfed.
When working as a psychoanalyst, I can sense when something is a screen memory: I feel the grain, the billowing of the veil as it is briefly lifted, the clumsy touch of something that has slipped through an opening. If free association can help get at the screened-out meaning in a memory, perhaps using the poem, as Ashbery puts it, as a “launching pad for free associations” may be a way of transmitting at the sensory level what lies beneath the associations – what has been screened out – without approaching it directly, taking it as a subject and combing through its snarls to make it appear presentable, available for interpretation.
A poem, in this sense, can be experienced as a screen memory, which, like Barthes’ contingent work, becomes encoded with meaning and emotion that is not limited to what is carried in dictionary definitions or recognizable logic. As opposed to adjectives, ideas, coded meaning and money-shot endings that defend against unlatched being, a poem has the potential to track “being […] stepped out into the unconcealedness of its being” – the effect that conjures a body, an unknown known.
. . .
“Movement is the principle element in dance,” according to dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, “its plot.” To me, movement is also the principle element in poetry – its plot neither narrative nor idea, but a tracking of the grain, the body, emotions that have been screened out but can nonetheless be perceived by non-rational faculties.
The late experimental composer John Cage described music as “purposeless play”, which is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.” His process involved using what he termed “chance operations” – rolling dice, consulting the I Ching – allowing random, irrational elements into a controlled situation, much as psychoanalysis encourages free association within a fixed frame (the set elements of a session, from time to environment to the relationship with the analyst). The “very life we’re living” encompasses everything in the space-time we occupy without weighted value or purpose.
Dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s life partner, also incorporated chance operations into his method of composition. “When I choreograph a piece by tossing pennies – by chance,” wrote Cunningham, “I am finding my resources in that play, which is not the product of my will, but which is an energy and a law which I too obey”:
Some people seem to think that it is inhuman and mechanistic to toss pennies in creating a dance instead of chewing the nails or beating the head against a wall or thumbing through old notebooks for ideas. But the feeling I have when I compose in this way is that I am in touch with a natural resource far greater than my own personal inventiveness could ever be, much more universally human than the particular habits of my own practice, and organically rising out of common pools of motor impulses.
By reaching beyond “personal inventiveness” to natural resources belonging to the universe – its energy and impulses – an artist has the potential to create works that bring us back to cognition, wake us up.
. . .
Last April, I took a masterclass on Cunningham’s use of chance procedures as a choreographic tool taught by Jean Freebury, a former Merce Cunningham company dancer, at Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn. We were told a bit about Cunningham’s use of dice, how he would ask questions about where to take his choreography that a throw of dice would answer. We were then placed in groups of three and given basic dance moves from one of Cunningham’s solos that we were to use along with dice to compose a piece.
I learned pretty quickly that matching up yes or no questions to even or odd answers was the easiest way to work: should the dance begin with the dancers on stage or off? Will the dancers all perform the same moves? Will they perform at the same time? In Motherhood (2018), Sheila Heti uses a coin toss in a similar way, seeking answers to yes or no questions that direct her thinking and writing (“Is it wrong to have an audience in mind when setting out on a work of art? / yes”). The limitation I found in my own use of this method was that, even as it involves play, it is not quite purposeless: the framing of closed-ended questions latches being in a similar way to adjectives in that both bring coded order to chaos.
The universe is rarely ordered in binary ways. Even “the terms alive and dead are ones whose meanings are wholly psychological,” according to psychoanalyst Charles Brenner, because “[p]hysiochemically […they] merge into one another.” There is “no definable point at which a living organism dies”, so, although “the terms […] have obvious meanings psychologically […] there is no such clear difference between the two for a chemist.” If the ‘no’ of a coin toss were a thing with physical existence, I imagine at the physiochemical level it would likewise merge with its psychological opposite and possess a tinge of yes. “The wrong answer,” as Bruce Mau has it, “is the right answer in search of a different question.”
I roll a single die – a four – and meditate on it.
My parents recently moved out of my childhood home. As I rifled through boxes of letters and notebooks deciding what to keep, I was stopped by a ripped sheet of paper that had on it a list of four items and a map: “1st kiss Fraine’s basement (in the fucking closet) / #2 Blues Fest / 3&4 Jimmy’s.” I knew immediately who had written it – heard the words in his low mumble – and what the map represented – the street in front of Jimmy’s, the local bar, where kiss 4 took place. The piece of paper (a placemat from Jimmy’s) had embedded within it a cross-section of time: the uncertainty of the moment, the touch of our bodies, the strip of 55th Street a block away from the house I grew up in, the foot-shaped stones in the front garden (would my feet ever get that big?), the smell of the garbage truck that provided kiss 4’s cover, the worry that I would be seen, wouldn’t be seen, miss curfew, follow the map’s road leading uphill into possibility, risk, the unknown. I placed the sheet of paper in the ‘save’ pile, where many of the more prototypic love letters that used the phrase “I love you” [sound of latch fastening] didn’t end up.
Though it wouldn’t necessarily be detected through a formal or physiochemical analysis, the map of four kisses transmits the grain, as do Lorine Niedecker’s poems written on calendar pages (“Wade all life / backward to its / source which / runs too far ahead”) and Emily Dickinson’s fragments on envelopes (“We / talked with / each other / about each / other / Though neither / of us spoke –”). When apprehending these writings, I feel the touch of a hand loop towards me, much as John Keats, in his ‘O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!’ letter, describes how hearing a “delicious voice” provokes the listener to form “the Singer’s face.”
I am continually running away from the subject, along with the I of Keats’s letter –
Yet the subject, like an idea, eludes me when I go after it with hammer and tongs. In search of an ending, I should attempt to talk without speaking, wade backward to the source – a life of sensations rather than of thoughts. But where to begin?
Begin anywhere, says Cage.