BooksWeekend

Reading the “Nothings that Are”: Craig Dworkin’s “No Medium”

by Michael Leong on June 8, 2013

Dworkin-cover…the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

—Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man” (1921)

“In No Medium Craig Dworkin looks at works that are blank, erased, clear, or silent … point[ing] to a new understanding of media.” So goes the back cover copy of the author’s new book, which was released in March by MIT Press. This paratextual statement, while certainly catchy, is a bit misleading regarding Dworkin’s argument as well as the actual nature of his objects of study (some of the treated works, such as John Cage’s 4 33″ and Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, are well known while many others are not); and it risks obscuring, to some extent, the host of wonderful subtleties, the wily interpretive moves and maneuvers that can be found within the book itself.

Dworkin’s overall argument, which attempts, with varying degrees of success, to bind together this uneven but fascinating collection of essays, is that “no single medium can be apprehended in isolation,” that “media (always necessarily multiple) only become legible in social contexts because they are not things, but rather activities: commercial, communicative, and, always, interpretive.” This argument doesn’t quite amount to “a new understanding of media” (although, as I will shortly make clear, this doesn’t necessarily detract from Dworkin’s scholarly contribution). Various critics, to be sure, have developed analogous lines of thinking for years. In Marxism and Literature (1977), Raymond Williams sought to reformulate a reified notion of a medium as a “material social practice” (indeed, the newfangled and pleonastic term “social media” belies the fact that media are always already social). In Picture Theory (1994), W.J.T. Mitchell, in arguing against Clement Greenberg’s famous championing of medium specificity, claimed that “all media are mixed media.” And Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin wrote in Remediation (1999) that “[n]o medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces.”

Robert Rauschenberg, "White Painting [three panel]" (1951) (image via sfmoma.org)

Robert Rauschenberg, “White Painting [three panel]” (1951) (image via sfmoma.org)

Nevertheless, in “The Logic of Substrate,” the first and strongest chapter of the book, Dworkin provides a definition that affords us a more elegant and refined, if not novel, understanding of how media operate: “Those objects that are casually referred to as ‘media,’ … are perhaps better considered as nodes of articulation along a signifying chain: the points at which one type of analysis must stop and another can begin; the thresholds between languages; the limns of perception.” In this sense, the title No Medium acts as a kind of homophonic and edifying mnemonic: to realize that there is no medium — or better yet, to put the term “medium” sous rature, that is, under erasure — is to know media in a richer and, to use Dworkin’s own phrase, “more robust” way.

Nam June Paik, "Zen for Film" (1962–64) (image via artsconnected.org)

Nam June Paik, “Zen for Film” (1962–64) (image via artsconnected.org)

We can usefully put Dworkin’s definition into motion by applying it to a key example which he discusses in a later chapter: Nam June Paik’s “Zen for Film” (1962–64), an unexposed strip of film which, when played by a projector, seems to simply display a white image on screen.

While this work, in its resolute transparency, may appear to be blank, empty of any content that could be meaningfully experienced by the viewer, Dworkin shrewdly notes that “screening the film … brings to light all of the ‘visual noise’ of cinema: any tremor of the projector; the slightest misregistration of image and screen; the barely perceptible blurring of the shutter’s flicker; the sympathetic blinks of one’s own strained eyes; all the opacities of dust and acetate. Above all, imperfections in the film or errors in optical printing — as well as any subsequent scratches — perform a magnified and animated dance.” Dworkin recommends sitting by the projectionist during a screening to enjoy the actual noise of the projector as a kind of accompanying soundtrack to the visual noise of the cinematic apparatus: “you’ll never forget the nervous clack and twitter of the shutter, blinking like a blinded Cyclops in the noonday sun .…” Part of the value of supposedly contentless works like Zen for Film is that they show with a stark clarity how media, as “nodes of articulation,” are “nested within a recursive structure”: the strained and blinking eyes of the viewer, attentive to the “unpredictable foudroyance” of the film’s flickering scratches, mimic the momentary blinking of the projector’s shutter. In Dworkin’s terms, the projector must “analyze” the film in order for our eyes to analyze the image on screen; moreover, rather than reductively isolating, say, the film strip as the true medium of cinema, it is better to understand the imbricated apparatuses of the projector, screen, and eye “as [medial] nodes of articulation along a signifying chain.”

This discussion of “Zen for Film” should amply demonstrate that works of art can only approach silence or blankness asymptotically. In other words, there is no such thing as a purely silent or blank work due to, in the case of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, the sheer haecceity of the material artifact (Cage called the White Paintings “airports for the lights, shadows and particles”) or, in the case of Cage’s 4 33″, the inherent noisiness of the performed work’s environment.

In a curious review for the Times Higher Education, David Revill, perhaps overly conditioned by the back cover copy’s insistence on the “blank, erased, clear, or silent,” characterizes Dworkin’s objects of study as “works in diverse art forms in which the focus or raw material is, literally, nothing.” The qualifier “literally” reveals the extent to which Revill is egregiously mistaken.  The focus of “Zen for Film” is not, pace Revill, nothing; it is more like what Nick Kaye calls “the threshold of the medium,” the “exchanges between the film and its environment,” which includes all the dust and scratches that Dworkin aptly describes.

Furthermore, there are many works discussed in No Medium that are only partially blank, empty, or erased, staging a confrontation between something and nothing, inscription and unwritten emptiness.  Chapter 3, entitled “Textual Prostheses,” for example, treats works that present paratexts without texts: Jennifer Martenson’s long poem “Xq281,” Jenny Boully’s essay “The Body,” and Paul Fournel’s novel Suburbia, among others. What is surprising, in the context of this book, is how much there is to see and read in these works. Page 5 of Fournel’s Suburbia, a “novel” which consists of an elaborate framing structure (including a table of contents, a foreword, footnotes, and afterword) without the body, is, from a certain perspective, far less “blank” than any given page of, say, George Oppen’s Discrete Series, which, as it is collected in the New Directions edition of New Collected Poems, gives each short poem of the series a full page to itself.

A page from from Paul Fournel’s "Suburbia," translated by Harry Mathews, in "Oulipo Laboratory: Texts from the Bibliothèque Oulipienne" (Atlas Press, 1995)

A page from from Paul Fournel’s “Suburbia,” translated by Harry Mathews, in “Oulipo Laboratory: Texts from the Bibliothèque Oulipienne” (Atlas Press, 1995)

According to Dworkin, “most” of these works “tend toward a rather sloppy, indulgent eclecticism.” Yet the presence of this chapter within No Medium constitutes an eclectic inclusion in itself. Writers such as Martenson, Boully, and Fournel seem to be set up as straw (wo)men, and their works are perhaps more interesting in the context of genre rather than media.

Dworkin, then, may be at his best when interpreting works in which there is as little expressive content as possible. This allows him, like a good detective, to make sense of the most inconspicuous detail and to present creative synchronic and diachronic contextualizations; it also allows him to make productive and surprising connections across disparate disciplines.  Tom Friedman’s “1,000 Hours of Staring” (1992–97), for example, a 32 1/2 x 32 1/2″ blank sheet of paper is “trimmed to the pattern … of an easel” and is “only marginally larger than Kazimir Malevich’s Белое на белом (White on White, 1918).” Dworkin argues that Friedman’s work “hangs … between poetry and the visual arts, between writing and drawing” in that it “seems to aspire to the monochrome canvas of modernist abstraction” while “only point[ing] … back to the paper page.”  Likewise, Rauschenberg’s White Paintings “translate the concept of the cinematic screen to the medium of paint.” Aram Saroyan’s 1968 Kulchur Press “book” — a wrapped ream of “long-grain business-bond letter-size” paper bearing only a price, a copyright notice, and the factory label — invokes “the specter of typing” thereby “underscor[ing] its affront to the expressive output of previous modernist generations.” Yet as “a monochrome four-pound block” and “a readymade consumer object,” Saroyan’s work is also in dialogue with Carl Andre’s minimalist “Bricks” and Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes.

Aram Sayoran’s untitled book (1968) (image via eclipsearchive.org)

Aram Sayoran’s untitled book (1968) (image via eclipsearchive.org)

And “ream,” as Dworkin notes, is “a tidy paragram of ‘Aram,’” giving the book a “paronomastic countersignature.” Dworkin, himself, is a prolific and pyrotechnic practitioner of paronomasia and his puns and etymological incursions peppered throughout No Medium are clever and a pleasure to read.

According to a Warhol Foundation project description, Dworkin combines “radically innovative subjects with such traditional critical methodologies as archival research, textual studies, and philology.” While “traditional critical methodologies” don’t make for particularly flashy back cover copy, they do, indeed, inform the form of Dworkin’s final chapter. In “Further Listening,” Dworkin uses a traditional scholarly subgenre, the annotated bibliography (or, in this case, discography), as a means of presenting what amounts to be a witty essay on conceptual music. The exquisitely ordered and arranged “Further Listening” discusses scores of recordings or works of “silent” or “music-less” music — from Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s “Two Minutes Silence,” an elegiac piece that immediately follows a recording of their child’s in utero heartbeat (just before its miscarriage), to Miguel Molina’s recording of the playback of an unengraved wax cylinder, which “recreates” with historical fidelity a performance of the Russian Futurist Vasilisk Gnedov’s blank poem, “Poem of the end” (1913). Here, Dworkin allows for a more casual and jocular register.  In discussing 0*’s “0.000,” a recording of “frequencies just beyond the threshold of human perception,” he recommends, “If you’ve got a good stereo, turn it up really loud and see how the neighbor’s dog reacts.”

No Medium is not only an admirable feat of painstaking research that puts into conversation an impressive range of artworks, both famous and obscure, but also a testament to the fact that for the industrious critic encountering an apparent absence there is always something interesting to say.

Craig Dworkin’s No Medium (2013) is available from The MIT Press.

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  • james woronow

    The idea of ‘nothingness’ or monochromatic pieces goes back in modern art to Kasmir Malevich and about 1915. Malevich developed a solid philosophy about such work. Those who have since followed, I feel, is more puffery than substance.

    • Michael Leong

      The term “substance” is an interesting and rather tricky one regarding this book. Dworkin takes it up when discussing Saroyan’s unbound book of blank pages: “Saroyan’s book may be without substance, in the sense of literary ‘subject matter,’ but it does indeed have substance in the sense of the stationer’s terme de metier: the weight measure of the sheets (in this case, as the manufacturer’s label states, ‘sub[stance] 16,’ indicating a sixteen-pound manufacturer’s ream, or four pounds when trimmed to the long-grain business-bond letter-size chosen for the Kulchur Press edition).” In a certain sense, many of the works under discussion here draw our attention to substance, to the physicality of the materials.

      Also–David Revill, writing for the Times Higher Education, criticizes Dworkin’s book for the heavy recourse to French theory (he singles out Dworkin’s use of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “faciality”), which, he thinks, “amounts to noise that distracts from the substance.”

  • JDBRD

    “………”

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