REVIEW: Sur/Dans/Par Rature: The Quest for Media’s Vanishing Point in Craig Dworkin’s No Medium

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by Chris Mustazza

[epiphone]

The epiphone for this review is an excerpt from the leading noise at the beginning of of a 1931 recording of Vachel Lindsay reading his poetry, originally recorded on an aluminum record. The act of presenting you with a play button/link promises audio content and doubles down on the promise by beginning to deliver noise that cues the beginning of an old recording. Such a promise keys a frame before rupturing or moving the frame, in the language of Erving Goffman. In other words, the promise, or at least the promise that you may have understood, is not fulfilled in the way that you might have expected. It turns out that the “silence” at the beginning of the recording, the hiss and rumble from the early sound recording equipment is the content, not an old-timey, paratextual mise-en-scene that foregrounds the “poem proper.” At the moment of recognition that there would be no voice delivered in the recording, that the only sounds to break the silence would be the material markers of the recording’s creation, you may have heard the hiss and rumble in a new way, considering it on its own terms rather than as an aural imperfection that one must endure to consume the content one wants. But what is the medium of the sound you just heard? The aluminum record? The reel-to-reel it was dubbed to in the 1970s (which we can faintly hear in the noise)? The mp3 digitized for PennSound? The unique combination of all three, plus the particular speakers or headphones you happen to be listening with? By going down this rabbit hole, we’ve begun to interact with the fascinating topics explored by Craig Dworkin’s No Medium and his goal to show that there is no medium, but that we must always consider media plural. In pursuit of media’s ontological multiplicity, Dworkin searches for a case where media can be the seuil (threshold—allusion to Genette intentional) to nothing: blankness, silence, meaning degree zero. “The goal of this book, accordingly, has been to linger at those thresholds and to actually read, with patience, what appears at first glance to be illegibly blank” (33).

In the loosely constellated chapters of No Medium (some of which have been previously published as essays), Dworkin reads books comprised of blank pages, disembodied paratext, audio recordings of “silence,” and clear leader presented as video in search of the precise point where raw materials become inscribable substrates—media. His larger question is how to identify the medium of any work, and more precisely, where the medium begins and ends. He concludes that any use of the word “medium,” in the McLuhian sense, is reductive: “Taken together, the chapters collected here argue that contrary to the casual ways in which we use the term, there is no ‘medium.’ No single medium can be apprehended in isolation” (28). Dworkin cites John Cage’s 1952 Music for Piano, in which Cage marked all of the “imperfections and irregularities” on a piece of paper before overlaying a musical staff on the sheet, thus converting the material markers of the paper’s production process into aleatory music. The reader of No Medium here becomes acutely aware of the 12.8 ounces of paper in his or her hands.[1] Instead of looking through the materiality of the book as one is often wont to do, the reader begins to look at it, the way an early modernist might hold a book up to the light to determine which way the chain lines run. This defamiliarization of the legible highlights the positioning of No Medium in the hinterlands of the fields of bibliography, material texts, art history, poetics, and media theory. Entering this territory, readers will find themselves teetering (and tittering) at (the idea of) the limit point between the symbolic and real.

Since No Medium is about apprehending the subtlest formal signifiers, I would like to focus on a couple of the formal devices Dworkin uses in his elucidation of media. The first is the rhetorical appeal to etymology that pervades the book. In every chapter, etymology is either foregrounded as an epigraph or presented as evidence within the argument. As Dworkin explains the lexical history of words like “hard-core” (89) and “substrate” (104), he is not just attempting to show resonances of the words’ earlier meanings in their current uses. The persistent appearance of etymology renders words material, in the tradition of so-called Language Poetry (“Words are things too,” said Charles Bernstein). In other words, the etymology in No Medium is a conscious formal device, rather than just a conveyer of content. In other words, the signifier becomes a kind of substrate into which diachronically variable signifieds are inscribed, blurred, erased (as with a pencil eraser), and reinscribed palimpsestically. In other words, in other words.

Translation also plays an integral role in No Medium, both as a formal feature of Dworkin’s argument and as a topic of his content. “Tangent,” the book’s sixth chapter, offers a critique of the common view of translation as the production of an ersatz copy of a perfected original, a quest for authenticity doomed to be asymptotic (“ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from modern Latin asymptota (linea)‘(line) not meeting,’”).[2] Seemingly in dialogue with Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction,” the chapter argues that translation need not be a privative, quixotic quest for fidelity, that it can be additive and supplementary. Similar to the etymological threads that run throughout No Medium, the text consistently presents direct quotations, mostly in French, alongside Dworkin’s translations, which appear in brackets. I would argue that the presentation of both original quote and translation is not just a practical consideration, meant to aid those without the ability to read the “originals,” but rather an enactment of the aforesaid thesis of “Tangent”: translation and original are alternative lenses, individually historicized strata of meaning (thinking of Milman Parry’s “The Historical Method” here). An even more peformative enactment of this kind of diachronic accretion of meaning would be if, upon translation to another language, a future translator of No Medium included the original French quotes, Dworkin’s English translations, and his or her own translation of both, into words that figure their own historical moment and location. If this process were to be repeated over and over (and sorry for the Borgesian thought experiment here), the meaning of the translations would grow as a whole, not just pursue an unattainable original. There would be no original, just as Dworkin argues there can be no medium.

But media, more than language, is the focal point of “Tangent.” The chapter focuses mostly on transmediations of nothingness, from Cage’s inspiration to create “4’33”” by Robert Rauchenberg’s White Paintings, through Pierre Huyghe’s Partition du Silence, where he transcribes to musical notation the ambient sounds that break through the “silence” in “4’33””. Read together, the works present a poetics of synaesthetic translation, long of interest to modernist poets. Consider here James Weldon Johnson’s scoring of the speech sounds of African American preachers to paper in his seminal collection God’s Trombones (1927)—paper as recording medium and the transference of aural to visual.[3] Neither the aural nor the visual possess primacy—they are each an intermediary stratum built upon their own substrates that sum to dialogic meaning, just like the lingual translations.

No Medium always seems to anticipate a reader’s every interaction with it as physical object, demanding a sort of material paranoid reading. In the book’s third chapter, “Textual Prostheses,” which is a reprinting of Dworkin’s 2005 article of the same name, No Medium hits its apex of meta-ness, directly engaging with one of the book’s primary influences, Gerard Genette’s Seuils. Genette writes, “one may doubtless assert that a text without paratext does not exist and never has existed. Paradoxically, paratexts without texts do exist…” (Seuils 3).[4] And “Textual Prostheses” proceeds to show a number of cases where paratexts become disjoint from their texts, in an effort to trouble the distinction between note and text: “[the note] possesses an authority to trump the text that would seem to master it” (68). If there is one example I was surprised not to see in this chapter, it is Eliot’s addition of notes to “The Waste Land.” The addition of the notes follows from the material production of the poem: the book was composed of two 32-page quires and the poem ran for 48 pages—something was needed to fill the additional 16 pages. Now, of course, Eliot did not need to put notes here—he could have filled the pages with additional poems or other content. The choice to add the notes forever altered “The Waste Land” (insomuch as we can talk about any stable version of “The Waste Land,” originally titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices”). The notes are spoken about perhaps as frequently as the poem proper, and their appearance arose from the feeling of necessity to inscribe blank substrate, an aversion to the page naked.

The focus on notes and other forms of paratext in “Textual Prostheses” follows from a discussion in the second chapter, “Cenography,” on marginalia, including an examination of works where the text is erased, leaving only a reader’s marginalia. Marginalia is a form of reader interaction with the text—“the annotator always has the last word” (40)—and its focus both highlights the instability of a text (in a Barthesian, “death of the author” kind of way) and decenters the finality of pre-inscribed media. The reader can reframe the text by inscribing the substrate known as margins, in an act that brings Goffman and Genette together. While reading these chapters, the reader begins to become aware of the sea of paratext that submerges the text, that “speak[s]…from the margin: always partially excluded from the central text and always subaltern” (73). One notices the black bars that run through the epigraphs between chapters, conjuring the appearance of redaction, even in complete quotes: read between the lines! One begins to notice one’s own marginalia altering the text, taking it to get reframed. “He never said that—he’s been framed!”

As such, the book is successful in its engagement with the Russian Formalists, particularly Viktor Shklovky’s principles of estrangement/defamiliarization (otstranenie) and “laying bare” aesthetic devices. Dworkin cleverly summarizes this approach when, after discussing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography—“I know it when I see it”—he refigures the question: “But what if, instead, we saw it only when we knew it?” (93). Perhaps this is outside of the book’s purview, but I found myself wondering about a different form of estrangement, thinking about it in the Marxian sense, estrangement from the product of one’s labor. I was interested in the manufacture of the materials that form the substrates. For example, the records that are examined as substrates in chapter 7, “Signal to Noise,” are presented as being made from PVC. But just slightly before this time, records were made from shellac, an insect resin scraped from trees in Southeast Asia. The economy for shellac seems to me a parallel to people’s selling their rags/old clothes to be used in the creation of paper for books, during the period when paper was made of rag. I wonder what kind of biopolitical forces underwrite the conversion of substrate to materials, wherever that conversion may occur. And is this conversion similar to Bourdieu’s notion of reconversion, wherein economic capital can be converted to cultural capital?

In a world of progressively layered mediation (cf the epiphone), No Medium is a crucial and timely intervention. I wanted it to continue on, pushing Dworkin’s argument into inquiries of what silence or nothingness means in digital milieux, extending to meet the kind of forensics done in Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms. “Signal to Noise” comes very close to these topics, beginning to think about how a release of Zen for Record might be figured as Zen for Compact Disc, what silence means in the digital (e.g. zeroed-out disk segments within the constraints of audio CD format requirements). What does nothing look/sound/feel like in solid-state media like hard-drives in modern laptops? Can I stream silence from the cloud, or is it better to pirate it? Is it a good idea to use encryption if I’ve got Nothing to hide? The topics covered by No Medium were so captivating that I can only hope that there will be a sequel. Or maybe it’s already out, in the form of Dworkin’s Nothing: A User’s Manual. I might read this one on Kindle.

[1] Product weight from Amazon.com

[2] Apple Dictionary, built into OSX.

[3] See Mustazza, Chris. “James Weldon Johnson and the Speech Lab Recordings.” Oral Tradition. (forthcoming March 2016).

[4] Genette, Gerard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, tr. Jane E. Lewin.

Chris Mustazza is a doctoral student in English at the University of Pennsylvania and the Associate Director of the PennSound archive, the world’s largest archive of recordings of poets reading their own work. Chris has edited several collections of previously unreleased recordings of poets like Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, and James Weldon Johnson, and his writing has appeared or will appear in Oral Tradition, the Chicago Review, the Notre Dame Review, and Jacket2. He’s been awarded a creative grant, for the 2015-16 academic year, by Harvard University’s Woodberry Poetry Room, where will do research for his dissertation, tentatively titled “The Sociolinguistic Birth of the American Poetry Audio Archive.”

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