13 March 1911 by Adam Smyth
Reviewed by David Rose
I was alerted to the existence of the publisher information as material (iam) by a review in the Times Literary Supplement of a title of theirs, Catch-words, published late last year, the review appearing only in May of this year. I looked up their website, and discovered that they had published a more recent title, in March - the above, which I ordered. I also discovered, perusing that website, a cornucopia of inventive performative approaches to production of both texts and books, which I wanted to explore.
The significance of that date in 1911, including the year, is that it has no significance beyond the personal - the birth date of Smyth's maternal grandfather; in other respects, it was entirely unremarkable. Smyth set about making something of its insignificance by assembling a collage of found texts from that day, from a variety of newspapers, national and local: news items, personal advertisements, positions wanted, lost and found, in memoriam notices... It is not, perhaps, a strict collage in that these are not completely 'raw' texts, but the editorial touch in wording has been unobtrusive; the craft lies in their choice and juxtaposition. And the results are extremely moving, precisely because they are not fictional. A few known names appear - Captain Scott, Sir Edward Grey, D.H. Lawrence, Beerbohm Tree - but for the most part, they are unknown individuals looming into momentary view before disappearing back into the oubliette of time. As Smyth points out in an introduction, it is the particularity of these events that counts, but also the sense that an entirely different mosaic could have been made from the sources; indeed, an infinity of mosaics. It is this approach of selection and juxtaposition of extant texts - i.e. an interventionist approach - that qualifies the results for publication by iam.
This interventionism, using extant texts and subjecting them to a variety of procedures to produce new meanings - or liberate latent meanings - thus draws on two concerns arising in the wake of Theory: the Death of the Author and the Aesthetics of Exhaustion, using the former to remedy the latter. Under those procedures, the death - assassination - of the author becomes the resurrection of the author, as their texts, under modification, provoke new responses.
The procedures include: transcription - direct copying; rearrangement; excerpting - distillation; textual erasure - scriptoclasm; literalization of metaphor; definitional resources. iam are thus working at the confluence - in current jargon, the intersection - of textuality, bibliography, conceptual art and - that other buzzword of artspeak - materiality.
I want to clarify those procedures by means of actual examples, most of which I have now read thanks to the generosity of the publisher, Simon Morris.
Transcription, of both texts and musical scores, was historically a means of owning or perpetuating a work. Although no longer necessary for that purpose, some, such as Gertrude Stein and Walter Benjamin, have pointed to the benefits to understanding of physically copying or retyping, opening insights that can be missed in reading. However, it can also be transformative: Borges wrote a story, 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote', in which a fictional twentieth-century author rewrote passages of Cervantes, in doing so arriving at the identical wording of the original - a transcription. Yet, as the narrator points out, the text had been transformed, in and by the intervening years, to the extent that he found himself reading the whole of the Quixote as if Menard had rewritten it. Simon Morris, in Getting Inside Jack Kerouac's Head, subjects On the Road to the simpler retyping of the novel - literalizing Capote's famous remark that Kerouac's wasn't writing but typing - but in negative: retyping it a page a day on a blog, which when complete, and read in entirety as blog, then published in book form, is thus in reverse order to the original. Joe Hale, in Getting Inside Simon Morris' Head, subjected Morris' book to the same procedure, so reversing the negative back to positive. The combined effect means we now read Kerouac in a subtly different way.
We also read Freud differently after Morris' Re-Writing Freud. Using a computer program that randomly rearranges, word by word, Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, then publishing - in facsimile of the original Penguin paperback edition - one of the infinity of possible texts, Morris gives us a text that by its aleatory nature, with occasional random flashes of meaning, enacts the very nature of dreams as Freud understood it.
Pavel Büchler's Perfect Love is one of my favourites of the bunch, a slim, beautifully printed book that takes a novella by Robert Musil - The Perfecting of Love - and extracts all and only the similes, presenting them as they occurred in the text, the remainder of the pages (numbered according to the original English edition, I assume) left blank. The result is a distillation of the Musil, which I found moving in a different way from the original, a concentration of the text.
Nick Thurston's Reading the Remove of Literature is also exciting in concept and execution. Thurston carefully read, and annotated, Maurice Blanchot's The Space of Literature, then erased all of Blanchot's text except for chapter headings, leaving his marginal notes, which were then printed as a facsimile of Thurston's copy of the Blanchot. The title plays with the meanings, including technical, of the term remove; the process plays with Blanchot's own notions of the 'double absence of literature', the marginal notes both emphasising the absence of the text yet restoring it - you can partially recreate it from the responses. It thus presents a sort of palimpsest that forces us to strain toward the original, in a more concentrated effort than a usual reading.
Pigeon Reader, by Simon Morris again, is for me the wittiest approach: taking literally a simile by Georges Perec likening
musing on reading to a pigeon pecking in search of crumbs, Morris takes Perec's essay on reading from Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (in the English edition), lets loose a pigeon on a printout of the pages, photographs the results and inserts them as substitute for that essay, and republishes the whole book as exact facsimile of the Penguin Modern Classics edition, but with the penguin on spine and cover replaced by a pigeon, and the advertisements in the back by iam's. (You thus get the bonus of all the rest of Perec's essays, which I didn't have.) It's a witty intervention that Perec, famously photographed with a pigeon perched on his head, would have loved.
Perec, by way of his fellow OuLiPian Raymond Queneau, brings me to my final example - def by Craig Dworkin. Queneau suggested the idea of 'definitional literature', an idea followed up by Perec and Marcel Bénabou. Dworkin's take is to start with a single sentence by Frege, replace each of the words with its dictionary definition, in turn replacing each word of that sentence with its definition, and so on. The resulting book presents five English 'iterations' using the Oxford English Dictionary and a further five American iterations using Webster's first (1806) edition. The variants thus expand outwards - although presented in reverse order to begin with, narrowing down, then expanding out in the American variants.
It is conceptual literature, open to the objection, as with conceptual art, that the execution adds little to the concept, but there are two rejoinders to that: the fact of its having been done makes a difference - why climb Everest? Mountaineers may reject the question, but non-mountaineers grasp a vicarious satisfaction in the actual achievement; secondly, something interesting happens in the process - with the increase in degree of magnification comes a semantic flow from the general, the abstract, to the specific, with increasingly detailed local and historical information being thrown up, in a way I found fascinating.
We are dealing, as I said, with conceptual literature, not just in def but with all iam projects, but it's closer, I feel, to conceptual music than conceptual art. I have in mind Satie's work Vexations, a short theme with the appended direction - or suggestion - that it be repeated 840 times. That conceptual nature attracted John Cage, who converted the concept to actuality in a performance lasting eighteen hours, using a relay of pianists (there have been other performances since then). The actuality, the doing, makes a difference in reception.
Borges' narrator in the Menard story remarks that 'there is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless'. Ultimately, perhaps, yet not entirely - in the short term, such exercises provoke, challenge, refresh and subtly enhance our encounters with literature; to those of us jaded by the dreary Social Realism of mainstream commercial publishing, they are bracing, a breath of fresh ink. I would recommend an exploration of the iam website: www.informationasmaterial.org.
There is, by coincidence, a Mancunian connection: although published from York, all iam titles in print are stocked, and distributed, by Manchester's HOME arts centre (for mail order, www.cornerhousepublications.org). It may have implications for your bank balance, though.
13 March 1911 is published by information as material (2019).