GLEAMING THE CUBE: Part 8, Epilogue

So here we establish a provisional end [1] to this series of posts. What exactly has been going on here?

On a basic level, the “Gleaming the Cube” posts were a series of responses to Daniel Scott Snelson’s essay “Simultaneously Agitated in All Directions,” published in Mimeo Mimeo 3. The responses were more creative than critical, focusing on elaborating on ideas constructed or described in the essay.

The posts were an exploration of what it can mean to, and one way a reader can, engage creatively with any given text. The original essay was entered at various points, cut apart, re-presented, recombined, and placed in juxtaposition to new images and texts. I would not call it a “critique” or “deconstruction.” Perhaps the neutral word “response” is the most fitting. Perhaps. But the most important thing (to me, as I built those posts) was to elaborate on the source essay productively, to make that essay do more work. This is, after all, a blog focused on and of production, not reproduction.

What is reproduction in this sense? Are there two (or more) types of reproduction—one type that copies the object in question simply and transparently, and one type that re-produces or re-constructs the object in order to position it critically?

1. A “provisional” end because we will inevitably come back to it. The kind of engagement undertaken in the “Gleaming the Cube” posts provides a weird ownership of the source text, albeit in a distorted and personalized form. Although those texts have distorted “me’ as well, have changed the shape of this blog. Every time we enter or use an object it does the same to us.



The following poem is from one of Jack Spicer’s notebooks, written around 1964. It is reprinted as the epigraph to Robin Blaser’s essay “The Practice of Outside,” which is a part of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, published by Black Sparrow Press in Santa Rosa, CA (I have the 1999 version). (One of my most prized, most weathered and beat-up books).

With fifteen cents and that I could get a
subway ride in New York. My heart
Is completely broken. Only an enemy
Could pick up the pieces.
“Fragments of what,” the man asked, “what?”
A disordered devotion towards the real
A death note. With fifteen cents and real
Estate I could ride a subway in New York. No
Poet starved. They died of it.



Several months ago I had the good fortune to see Jim Sherraden of Hatch Show Print (see video above) give a lecture in San Francisco. It was a really great lecture. Jim said that Hatch’s success (they have a Smithsonian show traveling right now, they are probably the most well-known letterpress shop in the country) came down to one simple thing: they are nice to people. Supporting that niceness is, of course, years and years of very hard work. But those two things in tandem are exactly what the world needs.

As time goes on and I meet more and more great people that are involved in the same weird little world as me, I am constantly reminded of how much community means. So to all the nice people out there, a few things: a) thank you, b) I hope I have the presence of mind and grace to do the same, and c) I’m looking forward to meeting you if I have not already.

Posts will be sporadic from here until Jan. 4th. I hope All is Well.



So we decide to listen to Brecht and begin building from the assumption that form and content are not mutually exclusive, that when they are held in tension they can activate a critical awareness in the author and/or reader.

Arranged below are a series of diagrams that represent the ways in which and artwork’s relationship to form and content can be viewed. The diagrams do not so much represent “stages” that are moved through progressively as they do “available modes” that can be navigated at will by a viewing subject (author and/or reader), depending on the nature of their dialogue with any given artwork.

Figure 12.09.09
Form and content locked in binary opposition.

The first diagram represents the idea of a form/content relationship that is the most basic; that is, there is only form and content, and an artwork is either a divisive screen between the two, breaking them both into mutually exclusive areas, or the artwork is an anchor, holding them both in tension.

Figure 12.09.10
The fixed or stable artwork in the expanded field. The space of the field eats away at the work’s edges.

The second diagram shows “the expanded field,” where an artwork is seen to exist in a larger field of practices, simultaneously mediated by both the author and the reader (and their ideas of each other). This diagram is a specific elaboration that comes out of working with books, where issues of process/production and display/reception come to the fore (when they are considered against conventional forms of visual art).

Figure 12.09.11
The work expanded, making it spatial, like the field itself.

The crucial difference between Figs 12.09.10 and 12.09.11 is the imagining of the artwork in each. In Fig. 12.09.10 the artwork is a fixed point in the field, holding the different poles in tension. In Fig. 12.09.11 the artwork is not a fixed point but a mutable zone that changes as the author/reader navigates the various channels or lines of meaning of the artwork. The artwork, then, literally is a kind of work or movement, as opposed to a fixed object for contemplation, and for sale.

Figure 12.09.12
The work exceeds the field. The field exceeds the work. These are moments where discourse is shaped and channeled.

And when we really get them going they start to exceed their or our own frame, and we find ourselves radically reoriented to the discursive parameters that allow the functioning of the work.

(Notice how in Fig. 12.09.12 the artwork still is bounded by another invisible frame on one side. It is possible for multiple frames to be exceeded simultaneously, but that’s when they really take us apart, when we have those experiences of sublimity, standing before the turbulent oceans of language and structures.)



Figure 12.09.07
El Lissitzky, page from Pro Dva Kvadrata, Skythen-Verlag, Berlin, 1922.

Part 7b, where we continue yesterday’s questioning of formalism—the “restricted” formalism of shape and the “expanded” formalism of structure, of structuralism. [Thought: what happens when all this attention to structuralism runs into its post?]

The second main complaint against “formalism” that one often hears (and this is the criticism that I am most sympathetic to) is that it is apolitical and anti-social—that it does not look beyond the artwork, that it retreats into the old “ivory tower” of aestheticism, that to concentrate on an artwork’s form is to concede it its autonomy and cut off art from life.

And art-cut-off-from-life is something for rich people to buy and professors to argue about.

Figure 12.09.08
El Lissitzky, Propaganda Board in Street, photograph, 1920.

There are some of us who refuse that state of affairs. And there are some of us that believe, as part of a deep commitment to making art relevant and useful, that work on form is always necessary.

Our friend Brecht was one of them:
alienation-effect A translation of the German Verfremdungseffekt, coined by the dramatist BRECHT (1949, 1962) to describe the effect produced by his EPIC theatre and the style of acting appropriate to it.

Brecht’s dramaturgy breaks with the traditional values and conventions of naturalism and psychological realism, rejecting empathy, suspension of disbelief and unity of action on the grounds that they are expressions of a bourgeois IDEOLOGY that has no place in a scientific modern society. In order to create a revolutionary socialist theatre, a new style of writing and acting is essential. Brecht’s objective is encourage the audience to take a detached and critical attitude towards what they see on stage. The audience must be made aware that they are watching a reproduction of incidents drawn from real life, but must not be allowed to forget that they are in a theatre. The spectator’s attention is drawn to the artificial theatricality of the play by the songs that interrupt the action, by the slogan-painted placards that are brought on stage, and by the actors who step out of character to address the audience directly. The audience [is] thus encouraged to think about what has caused the incidents they are watching.

[…] To the extent that it involves an ALIENATION from theatrical conventions that are so familiar as to appear natural, Brecht’s theory has something in common with RUSSIAN FORMALISM’s concept of OSTRANENIE or defamiliarization. Written at a time when he was actively promoting Brecht’s theories as a model for popular theatre (1956), BARTHES’s demystifying studies of the MYTHOLOGIES of everyday life (1957) are intended to produce a cultural alienation-effect. [1]

This appears to be going around in circles. TO BE CONTINUED, as always, as we try to break these linkages and get to a larger picture…. [I think I see the aforementioned POST up ahead.]

1. David Macey, Dictionary of Critical Theory, (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 8.



And speaking of primary information, there is also another amazing archive of mimeo era publications at the Eclipse archive. The description from the site:

Eclipse is a free on-line archive focusing on digital facsimiles of the most radical small-press writing from the last quarter century. Eclipse also publishes carefully selected new works of book-length conceptual unity.



Figure 12.09.04
Frank Stella, installation shot of Aluminum Paintings, at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, 1960.

From Daniel Scott Snelson’s “Simultaneously Agitated in All Directions:”
[…] Importantly, for Brecht, Barthes, and many writers and artists to follow, the anti-neutrality of language led to an emphasis of artifice (for Brecht, the lights, set, and material of the theatre, for later Barthes, the Text) always charged with political significations (against the woozy seamless instrumentality of Nazi rhetoric, for example). From this Brechtian formalism, we can derive Barthes’s famous dictum: “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot brings one back to it.” Bois correctly points out that this distinction of the two “formalisms”—Lukacs's “restricted” morphological formalism, versus Brecht’s formalism of historical-structural signification—is “essential to a retrieval of formalism (as structuralism).” […]
The work of the NewLights Press could be labeled “formal” or “formalist.” And indeed it has. Some would apply that label negatively. But let’s be clear about which kind of formalism we’re talking about here (and so into Danny’s source text for the above passage):
[…] Thus the term “formalist” was an insult that Lukacs and Brecht tossed at each other, but the word did not have the same sense for each. For Brecht, a formalist was anyone who could not see that form was inseparable from content, who believed that form was a mere carrier; for Lukacs, it was anyone who believed that form even affected content. […] The antiformalism that was prevalent in the discourse of art criticism in the seventies can thus be explained in great part by a confusion between the two kinds of formalism, one that concerns itself essentially with morphology (which I call “restricted” formalism) [Lukacs], and one that envisions form as structural—the kind embraced by Brecht when he sorted out the “continuity” of Goering’s and Hess’s speeches as an essential part of their ideological machine. […] [1]
[More on the political agency that attention to form allows later.]

There are two main complaints about formalism in day-to-day art discourse. The first is that if a work is formal, or pays attention to form, then the work must be devoid or scant on “concept” or “content” (these two terms are often used interchangeably, but do not in fact mean the same thing). And if a work is devoid of “concept” or “content” then it must be devoid of thought, it must be merely pretty, it must be decorative. (“The decorative” has always been the evil twin of abstraction.) This complaint rests on two (false) presuppositions: 1) that a formal artwork, if decorative, is not and can not be theoretically rigorous; and 2) that form and content are mutually exclusive areas that an artwork can engage, that paying attention to one necessarily excludes the other (and now we’re back to Brecht). I have two answers, and both can be used for both of those presuppositions:

Figure 12.09.05
Pablo Picasso, Bowl with Fruit, Violin, and Wineglass, mixed media, 1912-13.

Figure 12.09.06
Frank Stella, Die Fahne Hoch!, enamel on canvas, 1959.

1. Yves-Alain Bois, “Formalism and Structuralism,” Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, ed. Hal Foster, Yves-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, and Rosalind Krauss (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 33.

TO BE CONTINUED: the second complaint to formalism, that of political agency



There are so many books to design, signify, de-signify.



This, the 200th post of the IDE(A/O)(B)LOG(Y/UE), marks the one year anniversary of the IDE(A/O)(B)LOG(Y/UE).

I don’t know about you, but I am still having a lot of fun.

Thanks for reading.



One of the resources cited in Daniel Scott Snelson’s “Simultaneously Agitated in All Directions” is an organization/project called Primary Information. The description from their site:
Primary Information is a non-profit organization devoted to printing artists books, artist writings, out of print publications and editions. Primary Information was founded by James Hoff and Miriam Katzeff, who met while working at Printed Matter, a non-profit artist bookstore in New York. United by their mutual interest in artist publications, they formed Primary Information to foster intergenerational dialogue as well as to aid in the creation of new publications and editions.
They have some really interesting projects up there. Check them out by clicking here.



Figure 12.09.03
Pablo Picasso, Glass and Bottle of Suze, pasted papers, gouache, and charcoal, after 11/18/1912

Danny Snelson’s essay, “Simultaneously Agitated in All Directions,” focuses on publications from the 1960s and 70s, publications that are 30-40 years old. But is the essay a work of literary history, an attempt to describe and contextualize these publications in the larger temporal flow? Or is the essay something else?

The essay does, beyond a doubt, describe the contents of the publications, bringing them to light for new generations of readers. It places them in context. The essay explains, describes. But it also does something much more compelling, much more urgent—it reopens the discourse that was being developed in those publications. And such a reopening makes that discourse available again, makes it available to critique, challenge, and change the way we work in the present, making room for new work.

Figure 12.09.04
Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass, pasted paper, gouache, and charcoal, after 11/18/1912.

This function is vital.

Figure 12.09.05
Pablo Picasso, Maquette for Guitar, construction of cardboard, string and wire (restored), 1912

And that is what has been fueling these “Gleaming the Cube” posts. They are an attempt to activate the ideas and critiques that “Simultaneously Agitated…” has culled from history. At what point is theoretical or scholarly production actualized? As text? Or in its reconstitution in objects and practices of production and reception? These posts are a link in the chain of production and reception, in the chain of signifiers and signifieds. The meaning of our history is determined by the work we do in the present. And so our perpetual labor.



Form Letter/Letter Form
Letterpress printed from photopolymer plates
8.5” x 11”
Unlimited edition (first printing: 402)

Image shows front and back.

This is a form that is used for correspondence of the NewLights Press. It can be filled out by hand, with a typewriter, or with a computer. The original version was entirely digital, typed and printed on a computer. But we decided to add a more personal touch to our communication.


GLEAMING THE CUBE: Part 5 (The Personal Touch, or Form Letter/Letter Form)

Another overlapping reading:
[…] Bois recalls Barthes’s distinction between two formalisms. Focusing on Brecht’s “extreme attention to the form of Nazi texts, [the seamless flow of their rhetoric]

Figure 12.09.01
Bruce Nauman, Pay Attention, Lithograph, 1973. One of the best prints ever made.
which he followed word for word in order to elaborate a counterdiscourse,” up against Lukacs’s “fetishization” of realist novels, that more “restricted” formalism that “remains at the superficial level of form-as-shape,” much like the autotelic texts written by New Critics like Clive Bell, Roger Fry, and Clement Greenburg. [1]
More on that tomorrow, but to continue this fissure:
Brecht’s formalism—hand in hand with the self-reflexivity and anti-illusionism of modernism—demonstrated that “language was not a neutral vehicle…but had a materiality of its own and that this materiality was always charged with significations.” [1] […]

Figures 12.09.02a and 12.09.02b
Form Letter/Letter Form
This is as real as it gets. Structures do penetrate, regulate, and administer the world. It is time to let the institutions of the world embrace us with their paperwork, blandly.

[…] Bois correctly points out that this distinction of the two “formalisms”—Lukacs’s “restricted” morphological formalism, versus Brecht’s formalism of historical-structural signification—is “essential to a retrieval of formalism (as structuralism).” [2] […]

1. Yves-Alain Bois, “Formalism and Structuralism,” Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, ed. Hal Foster, Yves-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, and Rosalind Krauss (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 33.

2. Ibid. “The parentheses belong to Bois.”