The Organising Mind: Discipline and Austerity in Jackson Mac Low and Art After 1960

By | 4 May 2016

Of Austerity and Transgression

If you have persisted this far, let it be said that you too might have an austere streak in you. We are nearly there, even if the infinite Book we strive at keeps disappearing. Dan Adler, writing on Darboven’s use of materials, texts and notation in the work Cultural History (Kulchurgeschicht), 1880-1983, notes that it ‘evoke notions of the infinite, the ‘whole’ and the inexpressible’ (Adler 53). These inaccessible realms of the Book exact a flattening of perspective: no one part of an exhibition can stand for the whole, thus the whole must be considered without (always) reference to parts (6). For Adler, these are Mallarméan transgressions:

Her acts of transgression may be associated with an insatiable and profoundly irrational desire to assemble not just a book of cultural history, but the Book, recalling Mallarmé’s compulsion to compile derived from language into a single publication. The more effort expended, the more time devoted and the more material compiled, the more the author of this Book may have to face up to the obsessive and pathological reality of having submitted to a fruitless underlying; the author is left only with guilt about his or her wasted time or having indulged in solipsistic satisfaction. (Adler 53).

Wasted time or solipsistic satisfaction might be collateral for practitioners of such flat Book, or Text-work, an irrational impulse in the very best sense: here repetition is more than accumulation in the sense of cultural value (though it may become that). We encounter a practice of resistance against products in favour of a poetics of continuation, of the infinite, resistant of ends and endings. For On Kawara, this was social record as well as temporal record, which is also numerical record (just writing numbers):

Eight quintillion eight hundred two quadrillion fifty-seven trillion two
hundred one billion eight hundred and eight ten quintillionths        two
hundred - five trillion six billion seven hundred twelve million – nine
hundred ninety-five thousand one hundred eighty

(‘Code,’ in continuity/discontinuity 1963-1979)

And a way of staying alive, living in time. In Mac Low’s Forties poems, a long poem written over a period of ten years, each of the modular parts (totaling 154) is dated and documents the exact time and place the poem was written, plus its revisions. So too in his Light Poems, the exact time of composition was recorded. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, another poet who has what could be described as an organising mind, recorded dates for the modular parts of her masterwork Drafts (1985-2013). Plus grid. The last volume, Surge: Drafts 96-114 (Salt, 2013), included the full grid of the whole poem on its very last page.

In the documentarian processes of Jackson Mac Low, frameworks were intensely decentered for an ethical imperative. (Was this to ‘counter’ solipsism?) Still, continuation was able to have a larger purpose or ethos. Such a practice of time-wasting might even afford pleasure (not to equate pleasure with ethics) in inhabiting time differently. Time also means material accumulation. The ‘hoarder’s’ jouissance was shared by many an outsider artist (Darboven [semi-outsider] might go beside Darger [Henry, outsider]). Artists might respond to the curious dynamic of accumulation (one hardly notices how much one accumulates until one does notice, at which point some begin to discard: at this point, to keep is to transgress).

This is different from the kind of endurance work of, say, Tehching Hsieh, whose year-long works required physical exertion, an embodied, material austerity (staying outside all year, not going to bed for a whole year). But what both contrastive austerities do is distend the temporal function of art. Would it be possible to do to poetic time what Hsieh did to performance art?

To my mind, there is a transgressive element in austere artistic practices. That is, in times of austerity, the poetic arts can respond in kind, more than ever, with an even more organised mind. At no point in history has it been more important to take back the term ‘austerity’ for ourselves: to say self-discipline is, or can be, social, communal, ethical, radically hopeful, not an orienting condition of the State.

It’s telos: relinquish expression for ‘higher’ pleasure.

Continuation, proof, exactness, technical perfection.
The dutiful sublime: writing as austere, patient, and attentive to the complex reality
of everyday life,
improbable geometries of attention,
of living systems,
of cultural systems,
of the grid, the score, the vertical and horizontal axes of knowledge and thought.
‘Real writing’ as Darboven said.
Add to that ‘real listening.’ As Barbara Guest once wrote:

‘Untitled’ (Festschrift, 98)

In the same breaking moment that punctures time (what even is a century to work of this duration?) To Bach and Chaucer (austere also, in their own ways). It is possible, and I can say this with quiet assurance, to gain a deep sense of making, of fulfillment, of understanding, if one can forego the immediate pleasures of the confessional and write with the constructive sensibility of an organising mind.

It is was 12:28 PM, 12.3.2015, and we have been talking for some time about the organising mind.

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