Monday, October 15, 2012

Splintergraphia: Some thinking about the unit of visual poetry and potential for feminist expression

There's some ongoing discussion about what the unit of poetry is—a sentence, phrase, word, letter, sound, etc. But what is the unit of visual poetry? It could be the letter, but probably not. A lot of visual poetry uses chunks of letters, punctuation, or other writing-type glyphs. On the other hand, a lot of visual poetry uses big swaths of text—sometimes cut up and made into sculptures, sometimes used as a background, etc. Then there’s visual poetry that has no language or letters in it at all. It’s difficult, of course, to say what characterizes the genre. How you define visual poetry’s unit depends, of course, on what you classify as visual poetry.

Very very broadly, visual poetry can be divided into three categories—the first, in which language is used and is meant to be read and understood in the conventional usage of written language, the second, where language is used but isn’t meant to be ‘read,’ so to speak, and the third, in which no language is used but the work is still somehow related to or engaging with writing and reading. Vispo of the first category can be put into two very broad sub-categories—the first, where the word or words are imbued with extra meaning through the use of, say, art, graphic design, etc. The presentation of the language is enhanced beyond black letters on a page to enhance the meaning of the writing. Work in the second sub-category uses language to imbue the art in which it is placed with meaning—the language is at the service of the work of art rather than the other way around, yet the language used is still readable and communicatory. Anyway, put that all to one side. I’m also not really going to discuss the third category, for now, anyway, though I think it ties back in 3 paragraphs from now.

The visual poetry I’m interested in discussing here is the non-communicative kind—the kind that uses language yet is not meant to be, or cannot be, ‘read,’ i.e., read the phrase, understand the meaning, complete the action you were getting information about properly, ‘read’ kind of way. So, what is the unit of this kind of vispo? Again, I don’t think it’s the letter, since a lot of visual poetry uses a lot of text with a lot of complete letters, words, sentences, paragraphs. At the same time, a lot of visual poetry only hints at complete letters. For this type of vispo, the unit could very well be the fragment. In this kind of vispo, text is fractured, somehow. A shard of a letraset letter is pressed on to the page, cracking around the edge where the sheet was pulled away. A page of printed text is cut up into squares, stacked, and tied with a ribbon. Letters are stencilled onto a page, arranged according to their shape. A text heavy page of newspaper is used as a canvas for a collage, stained with translucent red paint, and partially covered with other things pasted on top. These types of work are all very different in the amount of text they use, yet they are all doing something similar to language—they are screwing with it so that you can not read it. It both destroys language, and refuses to be language in the first place. It resists—either aggressively or passively, it rejects conventional reading.

So, if the fragment is what characterized non-communicative vispo that employs language, then what? At its best, this type of writing is not simply about aesthetics, even when the language used in a piece is used purely for its aesthetic quality. Either crumpling language up or refusing to fully be language is a forceful political stance. The refusal to engage with meaning as it exists challenges the groundwork of well, anyything. This type of vispo has the potential to shake the foundations of any ‘topic’ it engages with, whether that topic is how we use language and how language is conceptualized, or any other specific, language-related subject that the work is engaging with. This type of vispo refuses to meet any subject on its own terms. This vispo approaches a subject and deals with it, while at the same time absolutely refusing to engage with that subject’s language and discourse.

Non-communicative vispo that employs language holds an incredible potential for feminist expression as a result of this type of vispo’s ability to engage with a subject while refusing to discuss it with the existing vocabulary of that subject. This kind of vispo demands that you forget everything about how you look at language. This kind of feminist vispo demands that you change everything about how you look at, talk about, and think about me (me, as in, whoever is employing the writing or whoever the writing is ‘about’).

For example, when you find yourself trapped in an infuriating discussion about feminism where the other person employs familiar tropes and arguments to dismiss feminism when they have all the potential and exposure to feminist theory not to adopt a knee-jerk oppositional stance to feminism and you’d really just rather not have to explain again about sex positivism or media representations in order to make them comfortable with the idea that individuals who are not middle-class-young-white-well-educated-western-heterosexual-cis-males also deserve legal rights and space in society? When you’re thinking that you can’t believe you have to talk about this the same way again because you know the other person isn’t listening and doesn’t care anyway and will keep pulling the discussion back to the preset clichéd discourse about all this?

This kind of vispo is one artistic answer to this frustration. It’s a kind of writing that says no, completely and fundamentally, can reference the subject’s established discourse without being part of the discourse, and forms its own discourse on the subject. Vispo based on the fragment fundamentally screws up the line, the letter of how language classifies and traps me, you, whoever uses this vispo. First it says no to what’s being said, and then it says something else.

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