(Image Text Ithaca Press, 2019)
Millennia before Jacques Rancière asked if history is a form of fiction, Aristotle understood the necessary interconnections between the organization of events and the imitation of experience. Lucy Ives’s and Matthew Connors’s multimedia collaboration, The Poetics (Image Text Ithaca Press, 2019), not to be confused with Charles Bernstein’s 1992 book, A Poetics, or Aristotle’s aforementioned groundwork, “Poetics” (c. 335 BC), wants to once again trouble the extant binary between origin and replica or reality and its mimesis in our current “post-truth” simulacracy. The organization of life’s incidents is never just an imitation of experience; rather, this organizing principle—poetics as the continuation of poetry by other means—produces a break that is capable of altering our very relationship to space: a mobility predicated on the breakdown of the lines separating the logic of life and the logic of its recording.
The Poetics is interested in exactly this conjunction, and Ives questions both the narrative of history and the history of narrative as a form in elaborate, strident observations that are illuminating and speculative. She writes in an early sequence of the book:
Also, there aren’t really any secrets in this world. But there are kinds of information about history that we are not, strictly speaking, supposed to have. It has long been my goal to think about these kinds of information. To put this a little differently, I wonder: How can poetics, fictional, or experimental—literary—modes give us new ways of reading and writing history?
The Poetics shifts into the productive realm of the tenuous and hypothetical in such moments, when Ives’s critique on literary theory and literary method moves beyond an observation of asynchronicity (“The problem was, narrative, as such, did not exist in life, as such.”), or an explanation of the difference between narrative event and narrated event (“In narrative, we do not know what will happen, until later. Part of what occurs is withheld, and then it is constructed, before our very eyes.”), or a description of the inescapable division between self-presence and the imagined substance of language (“The reason that this is the case is that the time of speaking about experience is not identical to the time of living.”), and toward an investigation that implicates institutional knowledge. What I’m trying to say is that Ives is at her most compelling when she is unsure of her own argument, because she is able to call attention to her position while showing how thought is always destabilized by its many mediations. Likewise, the narrative-I itself seems most engaged, not when rehearsing an education on the subject but on the contrary, when the speaker troubles the reproduction of scholarship under a faulty rubric. Here, The Poetics serves as a response to Heidegger’s “The Age of the World Picture” (1938) for an age that has been both multiplied and reduced to the width of our screens. “What is research now,” Ives asks, “in an era of apparently infinite storage?” A page later, her response to this question provides useful instructions for artists and academics alike, while circulating another set of meaningful inquiries:
In scholarly histories, there would seem to be no place for the plausible, the nearly actual, as opposed to the measured, the studied, the true. But is it not also the case that the scholarly text suffers for its decorous refusal of the fictive? Could, at any rate, a history engage fiction without itself becoming incorrect, untrue, or otherwise worthless? Could there be any use in taking such an antithetical status on?
In its examination into “the way in which reading is distributed in our present,” The Poetics is most inspiring when the text attempts to perform its own theoretical inquiries. Connors’s photographs perform here as a series of high-resolution feedback, a visual rejoinder to the prose that pushes the analysis by testing it out. These 130 images, each one blown up at a consistent ratio to fill three-quarters of the page (the remaining space: a bar of white, which serves as both caption and scroll-stroke), re-present the materials of capitalism’s waste, a zoomed-in record (restaurant receipts, parking meter tickets, used napkins) of spending and use, or alternatively, of future services to be rendered (a Sichuan restaurant ad, an oil change appointment): propped up against the corner of a white wall (a bathtub? a sink?) to be reconsidered, and at times—as when a two-page receipt is unfurled to resemble a floating bowtie—defamiliarized. In the narrative’s task of accounting for time, and its residue, readers are also tasked with asking themselves when—or how—does a thing aspire to the status of object. Within our sensorium of junkspace, Connors’s magic trick is to redeploy the artifactual aesthetic of the museum alongside the melodramatic minimalism and self-conscious staging of Instagram while subverting the anesthesia prevalent in both arenas.
Indeed, if The Poetics is about loss and the trauma of the unrecoverable, it is also about what one finds through collaboration and a certain form of surrender, as when Connors invites Ives to remove everything not bolted down to his car; what does The Poetics find if not the redemptive desire, that through citing and reciting loss, through the generosity and permission required to tell one’s story and to listen, we might achieve something greater than just recovery of the event or object, but an experience akin to metamorphosis: a perception that provokes us to “see through one another.”
Walter Benjamin understood that the means for a novel conception of historical time could be brought about by bringing together images of the past: the flash that provides for the now-time of historical retrieval on the personal and collective levels. Ives wants to remind us, in the book’s very last sentence, that the two artists did find something in the car, something that can’t be proved, something that can only be hypothesized into the actualization of experience. What are Connors’s photographs here but a moment when now and then come together to render a newly legible narrative: the “now-time” enacted through the consensual act of reading.
I want to live in that discomposition; I want to relish its discontinuous pathways and indeterminant markers. When Ives asks: “Is what Matt did a way of saying, ‘I trust you to imagine that you could have lived this, too?’ Or, is it a way of saying, ‘Even I am not entirely sure what it will have meant to have owned/touched/manipulated/forgotten these things’?” I want to respond by asking whether the two scenarios are incompatible or whether they are, on the contrary, mutually constitutive; I want to consider how empathy—you could have lived this, too—requires not only recognition, but in fact, the impossibility of total apprehension: the permission to imagine.
Whereas a list of 97 “barely objects” takes up almost four and a half pages of the book’s alphabetized text, The Poetics is predominantly organized into paragraphs, and observations finessed into the longhand of narrative. These are not so much field notes as notes about the notes taken, a summary of sorts that recalls Ives’s past work, and her continuing project on investigating narrative. As I read The Poetics, I thought often of Ives’s earlier book, The Hermit (The Song Cave, 2016), a liminal text organized as a series of items, all but one of which fit on the length of a single page, so that page nine for example, is entry nine. Whereas The Poetics asks whether there are “any good novels about this yet”—this being our contemporary moment of networked affect, transmedia distribution, and the elevation of the minimal—The Hermit expresses these conditions through its very makeup: a composition that encompasses notebook extracts, scattered verse, writing prompts, conversations as dialogue, lines from magazines, dream sequences, texts read, and texts to read—and which moves, violently, thrillingly, without distinguishing between these frequencies. The Hermit, in harnessing the “relentlessness of representation” through montage—a stage set for omission and obsession—practices a theorem Ives lays out three years later, in The Poetics, her alluring supposition that narrative “turns around glances.”
Can the future ghost the past? It’s almost as if, in the style of Benjamin’s beloved Angelus Novus (Paul Klee’s 1920 monoprint), The Hermit offers a response to The Poetics as a preemptive call from the past, conditioned but also conditional, a past which we know is not static but multiple and heterogenous.
I thought also, last night, as I resolved to stop reading and get back to work, that I have always done one thing, which is to think to myself, “There is another world, and when at last we are in this other world, all the parts that currently do not touch, in this world, will touch, in that one, and all the ways that I feel, in this world, either will have reality or will have been resolved, in that one.”
Elsewhere, The Hermit lavishes the imagination by muddling the reality of dreams and the reality of our consciousness, which includes what passes through us via second-hand interactions, the comparative nature of every project. “I wanted to write the story of a metamorphosis,” she writes, in item 56. “The story is at least partly based on a dream I recall from the diary of another writer.” Ives eventually calls into question the dream, or the very act of dreaming, and also the story itself, the one she is telling. “[A] story,” Ives writes, “which I have almost certainly partially invented.” This is the game of the text, I think, and the only condition to play is allowing one’s self the pleasure of attending to the secret language of coincidence, or: of staging it.