Lines of Relation and Sites of Refusal:Part Two: Lisa Robertson’s Nilling
Four contemporary poets writing outside the genre
I would like the work to be non-work. This means that it would find its way beyond my preconceptions.
What I want of my art I can eventually find. The work must go beyond this.
It is my main concern to go beyond what I know and what I can know.
The formal principles are understandable and understood.
It is the unknown quantity from which and where I want to go.
As a thing, an object, it accedes to its non-logical self.
It is something, it is nothing.
-Eva Hesse (1968)
Lisa Robertson’s recent collection of essays, Nilling, initiates with an epigram by Stacy Doris that’s largely concerned with form, its relationship to poetry, and the role poetry has historically and aesthetically maintained as a beacon for formal innovation.
Form means we keep changing our minds, at every velocity, due to life; poetry is that fact’s lucidity.
Doris provides ground for a balanced and indirectly subversive argument in favor of formal innovation. Suggesting that the relationship between poetry and formal innovation is not exclusively philosophical or aesthetic, but is, too, the result of the elements that organize cognitive space and influence the ways individuals think and live out their lives on a local level. Similarly, Nilling, embodies such an endeavor of inquiry and dissidence as it applies to the organization of a margin shared by poetic and philosophical discourses, bringing a number of wide ranging disciplines into relation and under mutual scrutiny and celebration.
It’s a scrupulously appropriate epigram for a book of essays so eclectic and productively self-determined that they seem outside of a customary literary tradition, one without explicit historical or ontological specificity. And yet, Nilling is most definitely a contribution within a Montaignian trajectory of writing and doing: essaying; as it’s the prototype for an atypical tradition (with many starting and stopping points and bounding with traces), forming a situation where the aesthetic arc of essaying has no dictatorial linearity to it but is more open-ended and inquiry based. Most likely the trajectory from Montaigne to Nilling is one of irruptions, interruptions, digressions, and departures that negotiate such comparison. Surely Robertson shares certain obvious concerns with Montaigne, but more to the point is a similar approach marked by non-academic artistry of intellectual inquiry, matched with a humility evidenced in a willingness to attempt unsure footing.
My conceptions and my judgments move only by groping, staggering, stumbling, and blundering; and when I have gone ahead as far as I can, still I am not at all satisfied: I can still see country beyond, but with a dim and clouded vision, so that I cannot clearly distinguish it. -MONTAIGNE
Mostly I seek the promiscuous feeling of being alive. Across a topography of tonalities, the codex amplifies an access. Within its discrete shelter, I move freely among new sensation. -from Nilling
The first essay in Nilling, “Time in the Codex,” sets course with an epigram from Deleuze’s The Fold that addresses the very subject of form. It’s a course that also announces the non-linear directionality of the essays that follow it and the internal directionality with which the writing is powered. For Deleuze, the fold was the thing, the modus of affective Form articulation, that very operative frisson that writing is capable of and that determines unique expressivity within the very familiar, perhaps even, against the very familiar. And what can be more familiar than writing? Its numerous forms (historically experimental and innovative) despite rigorous and concerted effort, inevitably familiarize themselves to a literate constituency and become readily synthesized. And so the fate of all form is synthesis, making the fold and its manifold activity crucial and doubly-inflect in its appeal to articulate and render void.
Form is active as writing is active—the articulation of form bears such burden. The crucial aspect, then, is to fold, to proliferate productively toward an end that goes through the ceiling, as Deleuze has it. But that is one thing. Another is the critical paradox that is posed by the very act of writing in this vein, for to write is in fact to purposefully obscure legibility (an endeavor which bears no end in sight). The writing hand is often thought to bring ideas to light when in fact the opposite may better describe it, the writing hand renders opaque that which is salient, so to speak, and so productively obscures ideas that may or may not be illuminated by future texts. Writing then, with its Deleuzian folds (not to belabor or overemphasize the Deleuzian contribution), makes the future of writing illegible if it is in fact successful, and so it challenges the very ontological security of the endeavor.
Fraught with theoretical and historical implications, writing in this mode, what Robertson calls “a general truncation of language – a set of avoidances dictated by history, not by a game of aesthetic affiliations,” makes a partial text of the world, fragmenting, both retroactively into the annals of legibility, and proactively, that a future might in fact be made available for writing. For what does writing require more than the possibility of a blank slate—or if only a blank space, even a margin? (Won’t even the smallest scrap from an envelope do? As was the case with Walser and Dickinson) It stands to reason that the principal activity of form is an undoing—an unwriting—and challenges certain conceptions regarding the unity and historically linear trajectory of writing, and might be considered the paradox of writing:
Pour avoir des soulers, elle a vendu son âme
In her essay on Eva Hesse and the sculpture Sans II, given as a 7.5 minute museum talk in San Francisco, Robertson hashes out the operative relationship of space as it relates to an art object and text, and how both can be encoded with an actively tense discourse between seemingly oppositional forces. Robertson observes, in a moment of particular brilliance, that both “presence and absence” are operative as it relates to these questions, making the case for absence not as an opposition to presence but more accurately, its theater. Robertson continues, “Form – it’s because there are consequences.” Presumably consequences of the exercise of a frame of appearing. In the case of Hesse, the relationship of form and consequences are the activity that might open space or create “negative space,” a mould, as associated with Hesse’s sculpture, is one such active frame, which precedes and annuls productively rather than simply working as form’s envoy and in opposition to shape. Mould, too, is an active theater.
“Uncertainty is free. I can’t predict its tangent.” –Nilling
Uncertainty indeed, and that of moulds, frames, and negative space and its possibility articulates over a textual body to include the hierarchically slippery modes of writing into and away from the textual archive’s availabilities; both absences and presences loom and unfold in manifold directions. Negative space, the many threads of which may never intersect or interface in any significant or legible way, is offered in profusion and operates as a refusal to be defined according to codes of state authority, active as a legitimate gesture of liberation. The force and impact of such gestures should not be minimized. Robertson states, again with reference to the work of Hesse, that such active gestures are refusals themselves, “this refusal opens a fantastic negative space — the not-yet, which rests beside and other than the question of an identity designation, without entirely eclipsing it.”
And perhaps that is it, or perhaps that is enough for now, to open negative spaces with the forms and moulds available that the not-yet might hatch out of seeming oblivion and provide further scope and purview not necessarily outside of or even in contradiction to but simply other than legible modes already operative. The question of otherness however is not particularly the point here, I’m more interested in Robertson’s not-yet, as it attempts to locate and articulate a form of lack. A form of lack as an absence of desire, though desire may in fact remain present and palpitating for its own sake, seeking no resolution or legible outcome. That is to say a desire that’s non-linear. “Lacan: Desire is lack.” In many ways it can rightfully be understood as a case of form’s lack of ambition that breaks down and reads as an emptiness of form, a form of emptiness that’s capable of anything or nothing as form might have it, further problematizing and enriching contemporary conceptions of form and frame.
Lisa Robertson:: Nilling:: Book Thug