In Laudem Authoris Must Non-sence fill up every Page? Is it to save th'expence Of wit? or will not this dull Age Be at the Charge of sence? But […] though Fortune play the Whore, Let not the Vulgar know it; Perhaps if you had not been poor, You had not been a Poet.'1
In 2011, Out To Lunch (the alter ego of author and polemicist Ben Watson, though currently indistinguishable from the primo ego himself) issued to a handful of cohorts and fellow travellers a homemade CD of his recently completed illuminated poem, BLAKE. The extraordinarily visual poem consists of seven sections based around specific body parts, running the course of 217 full-colour massive plates. These plates were composed in Windows 95 MS Paint, a program practically obsolete for close to a decade by the time of composition and pushed far beyond the anticipated limits of the first-PC-generation software by the inclusion of hand- and mouse-drawn figures, colour washes, scans of photos and mass-produced detritus, manually and digitally manipulated and combined into undeconstructible admixtures. The vast majority of BLAKE’s text is not differentiated from its visual surroundings, but rather hand drawn within the program, making for a uniquely coagulated visual poetry.2
Written during the same period as Watson’s critical essay Blake in Cambridge (Unkant: London, 2012), the poem draws inspiration from William Blake’s simultaneously revolutionary and visionary illuminated manuscripts without imitating the style or tone of Blake himself. Rather, OTL reads in Blake an ecstatically subjective materialism wherein the individual imagination actively intersects with an active world. Lunch shares with Blake an apprehension of the interconnectedness of all things, and as in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or Frank Zappa’s Project/Object, this philosophy takes as its basis the universalism of sexuality and everyday particularity. Indeed, the handful of recipient-cohorts for Out To Lunch’s BLAKE share this beginning-from-the-body Weltanschauung, collectively deemed as they are (by OTL) the ‘Esemplasm’, a term derived from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and one denoting an imaginative faculty actively shaping and shaped by one’s physical reality.3 Aesthetic, political, and psychic life in this approach are not viewed as separable, exclusive entities, but rather as integral material manifestations of lived experience.
The philosophical basis for the desire to destroy imposed societal separations – between art and life, dream and reality, manual and mental labour, individuality and collectivity – has formed a primary motivation for radical activists, thinkers and artists for centuries.4 It is expressed in BLAKE through not only the inseparable art/text and its throw-everything-into-the-mix aesthetic/political poiesis, but also in its polymorphous perversity, each section’s body part magnified to the scale of a sensate cosmos, shaping and being shaped by desire. While the type of radical subjectivity practiced by OTL is often criticised as self-indulgent (to which Watson in the past has capably responded, ‘If you can’t indulge yourself, who can you indulge?’5), this bodily philosophy does not narcissistically deny the validity of other people, or objectify them as concretions of ideas or structures devoid of agency (indeed, such concepts are far more characteristic of philosophies amenable to capitalism) – rather, through the validation of one’s own body, and with critical attention to its desires, needs and imaginative associations, the individual has a material basis for empathetic communion, coming to know as he or she does the nigh-cosmic forces potentially contained within every body. Like a hologram, within each body is contained in outline the entire universe, both figuratively (as in OTL’s space drawings of drifting viscera and other universalised body parts) and literally (as our bodies are made of the same materials as the cosmos6). Each body contains the blueprint for all bodies, via ‘our common spectrum, sex …’ – and each body is inclusive of different potential sexes, ‘because’, Out To Lunch writes, quoting Catherine Harper’s Intersex alongside William Blake’s Milton, a Poem, ‘WE ARE ALL INTERSEX’.7
Political and social liberation, then, coming from such a view of the world, does not arise as a result of ideas but out of necessity for the fulfilment of material needs and desires. If, in a Marxist-Humanist spirit, the human body is taken as the basis of the body politic, the society cannot support hierarchy or external authority without the repression of parts essential to the healthy functioning of the whole. This body-centred philosophy is at the heart of all of Ben Watson’s work, having been read through practically every artist and thinker he’s discussed,8 with BLAKE to date the fullest culmination of his desire to eliminate all imposed and repressive separations.
BLAKE does not proceed as a linear narrative, but as a linked series of riffs loosely clustered in and around the body, its sensations, actions and desires. HAND, HEART, STOMACH, HEAD, COCK, BUM, and FEET comprise its seven parts like the ground of its dérive through a visual and semantic sensory overload. The text itself, already difficult to read given its drawn, relatively tiny fonts, often variously coloured across formidably long lines, and sometimes placed within or directly over detailed, fluid images, is further semantically complicated by a penchant for puns and portmanteaus, similar to both Finnegans Wake and the lyrics of Captain Beefheart (both also alluded to or quoted in-text). Though written in mostly recognisably prose syntax, the poetry tends towards non sequitur, in-jokes, surreal pronouncements and exhortations – what might justifiably be deemed nonsense (e.g. ‘like unto a jack ninny pulverise an oyster / oblivious to what they meant for me to buy – hi! / you too can react this way, pitching new pressures into the garbage’ (Plate 002-003); ‘The necessity of Penis wiring / like some antarticulated / moon’ (Plate 024-025); ‘No paws in the formic angst pact.’ (Plate 152-153).
To the suggestible reader, the overload of unparse-able information, combined with a lack of semantic cues to follow (short of intimate familiarity with Watson’s wide-ranging hyperpersonalised vocabulary), seems to contribute to the stimulation of outlying senses rarely engaged in poetic and visual arts. The profusion of fingerprint-like patterns, for instance, with the constant implied myriad surface textures of intimate extreme close-up evoke analogous sensations of tactility, and the text seems to invite such stimulation: ‘a common surge in the vein, infinite and sensual // a surge only denied by the drear individual dignity of money making / a tidal tremour which devours each boredom and spikes each finitude / shewing a limitless chain of meiotic tactility / dancing like tin tacks on the roof of your mouth’ (Plate 014-015). Almost all the plates, in fact, feature extremely descriptive words evoking distinctly tactile sensations, even if the objects thus engaged are unfamiliar or hard to discern: ‘my hand like a lunar landscape / everything pitted’ (Plate 006-007); ‘stony relief was the best of tines’ (Plate 022-023); ‘the necessity of anal clench’ (Plate 026-027); ‘To be trammelled in eyelash rainbows, fairyweb redscience’ (Plate 134-135).
- John Taylor, opening lines from ‘The Essence of Nonsence upon Sence’ (London, 1653), in Noel Malcolm (ed.), The Origins of English Nonsense (HarperCollins Publishers: London, 1997): pp. 186-210 (187). ↩
- It also, partly, exists in aural form: an early draft of BLAKE was recited by Out To Lunch on his weekly Resonance FM radio show, Late Lunch with Out To Lunch, on 9 June 2010. Since this essay’s composition, Watson has become inspired to share the book publicly as a series of online jpgs. Throughout this essay, however, the book will still be considered unpublished, rather than quasi-published, as the scale and layout are designed to fit an oversize book format, and material pages are a crucial component of its materialist vision. ↩
- cf. Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Chapter 10, where he notes, ‘I constructed it myself from the Greek words, eis en plattein, to shape into one’ – also, not incidentally, one definition of ‘dialectics’. The story of the Esemplasm’s agglutination is told in Watson’s 2005 Sonic Arts Network CD Frankfurter Ahnung, which marks the public inauguration of this group. The CD can be heard online, though without the essential 28 page liner notes. ↩
- cf. particularly the myriad discussions by Ben Watson and his partner Esther Leslie on various Freudo-Marxist strands running through the Frankfurt School, Wilhelm Reich, Norman O. Brown, Surrealism, the Situationist International and the Johnson-Forest Tendency, on their shared website, Militant Esthetix. ↩
- Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, ‘Postfix to the Fourth Edition’. Note also OTL’s unabashed celebration of masturbation, deriding the taboo against that ‘self-indulgence’ as a repressive block on physical and imaginal pleasures otherwise accessible to all the world’s creatures. In BLAKE, Plate 016-017) he writes ‘my heart swollen at what my hand can do / on an ever-twisting database / Onan Saturday afternoon / snip snap’, unconsciously echoing the Surrealist definition proffered by Mimi Parent: ‘Masturbation – hand serving the imagination’ (Catalogue for Surrealist exhibition EROS (Paris, 1959-1960), quoted in Jan Švankmajer, Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art, tr. Stanley Dalby, ed. Cathryn Vasseleu (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014 (Czech original published 1983)). ↩
- cf. Captain Beefheart: ‘The stars are matter. We’re matter. But it doesn’t matter.’ ↩
- Plate 112x-113x – a mostly crayon-drawn collage which seems to have been particularly important to Out To Lunch, coming as it does at the centre of the book, and as on the CD it’s the only file name different from the others, with x’s following a repeated plate number. Perhaps in print OTL intended the plate to be an insert, or to be printed as a transparency. ↩
- most notably Frank Zappa (Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play (Quartet Books: London, 1994, with a subsequent expanded edition); and the visual essay ‘In Respect of Rubbish’, in The Frank Zappa Companion, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Schirmer Books: New York, 1997)), Derek Bailey (Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation (Verso: London, 2004, with a subsequent expanded edition)), J.H. Prynne, Leon Trotsky, James Joyce (all (& thensome) in Art, Class & Cleavage: Quantulumcunque Concerning Materialist Esthetix (Quartet Books: London, 1998, without any edition still in print, though write outtolunch00 (cat) gmail for a copy), Wyndham Lewis, Raya Dunayevskaya, Theodor Adorno (Adorno for Revolutionaries (Unkant: London, 2011)), and Blake himself (Blake in Cambridge (Unkant: London, 2012)). ↩