[[there.]], a trash diary mediation by Lance Olsen, reviewed by Jeremy Behreandt


;;;; [[there.]] embarks with Lance Olsen on a five month fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. Before he leaves, he begins a “trash diary: a constellation of sense, thought, memory, observation, fast fact scraps” which will become the book the reader travels through. Constellated are quotations from philosophers, etymologies, Olsen’s meditations on displacement, curiosity, poetics.

;;;; A sample: “I sit down to […] continue working on a novel inspired by the earthwork artist Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and write this, the book you’re holding in your hands as you read the phrase write this, the book you’re holding in your hands.” The mise en abyme announces the book’s flexibility in commenting upon itself, refracting the same gesture into differing scales, and the book’s affiliation with other works (including others in Olsen’s project).

;;;; As Olsen relays factoids about Berlin, say how the city’s name might come from ‘berl’ (swamp) or ‘Bär’ (bear), he is also forwarding an extended simile: that travel is like innovative writing is like reading is like play.

;;;; A central tenet of [[there.]]: that art’s primary function is defamiliarization. In a habitual attitude, we too-swiftly and unquestioningly process experience. The travel-reading-writing-play Olsen champions is thus one set against the culture of comfortable forgetting, an art which deepens curiosity so as to open the way to wonder. Quote: “Maybe [[   ]] for what must be removed from the chronic to be experienced.” Thoroughly cosmopolitan rather than agrarian, Olsen is a poet against—or across—place.

;;;; Similar to Husserl’s phenomenology, how bracketing out certain complications or assumptions, such as the Natural Attitude (the belief in an external, material world in opposition to the cogito), opens the way to new investigations.

;;;; [[there.]] touches on other travels as well. Such as when, in Ecuador, someone dumps sewage on Olsen and his partner Andi from a balcony above. A crowd gathers, helping the travelers with their things and apologizing for their countrymen’s “bad manners.” Then Olsen and Andi find their camera has been stolen. A nearby police officer shrugs and walks away. Olsen suspects an elaborate trap. “In someone’s eyes,” he comments, “we were the rich, the bad guys. We were the marks.”

;;;; The tenet is fine until Olsen expends too many words explaining rather than enacting his poetics, especially since his poetics is not as heterodox or as innovative as he claims, and hence is little in need of explanation.

;;;; The tenet is fine until considered alongside a poetics like that of Wendell Berry, who could plausibly argue just the opposite: that by intimately tying ourself to place contra capitalism’s request for us to flit hither and thither, by instead (at)tending to the familiar, we create a literature that spans the gap between human and inhuman timeframes in contrast with a culture of cosmopolitan distraction.

;;;; The strange outcome of unequivocally praising displacement’s artistic potential is that Olsen doesn’t thoroughly conceive of how nationalism, religion, linguistic extinction, class privilege, gender, ethnic strife, etc. impinge upon travel. This even as the theft in Ecuador suggests the need to do so. In one fragment, Olsen comments upon Edward Said:

Because exile, Edward Said argued, is a permanent state. It isn’t something that can be gotten over, cannot be restored. It’s like the fall from Paradise. You can’t really go back. In that case, what is it that exile affords you that wouldn’t be the case for someone who always stayed at home, went through the daily routine? I think the essential privilege of exile is to have, not just one set of eyes, but half a dozen, each of them corresponding to the places you have been.

Hard to know when Olsen ceases summarizing Said and begins his own commentary because Olsen doesn’t use quotes or citations, but I’m annoyed that the foremost observation Olsen writes on exile is that it is an “affordance” and a “privilege.” That it may be exhausting to upkeep so many vigilances, so many performances, doesn’t occur to Olsen.

;;;; Maybe Olsen is merely writing nary a step out of Said’s own interpretation of exile. However, such is the ethical limit of Olsen’s stylistic choices. Without quotes or source, accountability slips away precisely when it is most needed: when one author’s enunciation into the literary field is not the same as another’s, when one traveler’s journey is not the same as another’s.

;;;; On grammatical usage: Olsen writes that the four colons preceding each fragment are punctuation for “not-being-at-home” or “what cannot be articulated accurately.”

;;;; We should not forget that Edward Said’s exile is not the same as another’s exile, that exiles are not a homogenous group nominating delegates to represent it among nations and national literatures.

;;;; And that when I say linguistic extinction, it happens on personal and cultural scales. Contrast Olsen—for whom interpretations, symbols, allusions seem only to proliferate—with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in Dictee. Learning French is an unlearning of mother tongue. And yet Dictee is structured by the Greek muses, is contiguous with Cha’s art practice in America, features revolutionaries Yu Guan Soon and Jeanne d’Arc.

;;;; I enjoyed, then, when Olsen, a devoted reader of Franz Kafka, summarizes “A Message from the Emperor.” In the parable, a dying emperor sends his final words to you, “the solitary, the miserable subject, the infinitesimal shadow who fled the imperial sun to far and furthest parts” (I use the Joyce Crick translation). However, so crowded is the palace that no matter how he tries, the messenger cannot get through. And even if he could, infinite courtyards, staircases, outer palaces, the imperial city, “the centre of the world, piled high with its own refuse” lay ahead. “No one will get through here—and certainly not with a message from the dead.—You, though, will sit at your window and conjure it up for yourself in your dreams,” concludes the narration.

;;;; Olsen follows this summary by saying, per Charles Jencks, that Kafka’s narrative is a “Postmodern allegory” which has “hazy, multiple, conflicted” meanings. However, it’s worthwhile to select from those many meanings and develop a few into articulation with [[there.]]. For instance, Kafka’s parable flips Olsen’s ongoing simile: you and the emperor stay put; the messenger, forsaken by his patron Hermes, travels. It is the anxiety of waiting at the periphery for what you believe to be important due to its origin to reach you which spurs your imagination. The centripetal and acquisitive desire of courtiers and citizens prevents the transmission. And yet your anxiety is generative not in extended and intensified consciousness, but in dreams. The throng is to be credited, not discredited, for its role in artistic creation through its dialectical opposition to the waiting recipient.

;;;; Wallace Stevens, “The Man on the Dump”:

The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.

The very yearning to render and share intense experiences as high art creates the trash heap of culture. Yesterday’s canonized and artificially preserved sensations make tomorrow’s sensations that much harder to find or create. “Where was it that one first heard of the truth? The the.”

;;;; Not an artist’s remembrance in contestation with a culture of forgetting, but the challenge in how to choose what to remember, and when, and what to forget. An awe for the mnemonist Sherashevsky studied by A. R. Luria.

;;;; If we read in Kafka’s Message an indebtedness to Zeno of Elea, travel is impossible. Speaking loosely, Kafka plumbs the anguish of the tortoise, who by having finished first is permanently imprisoned in waiting for Achilles.

;;;; If we emphasize the comparative speed of mediation and speed of death, Kafka’s Message touches on, given Crick’s translation at least, the impossibility of communication between the living and the dead. If we aren’t harboring an illusion that death occasions the greatest insight and urgency, and maybe we are, then perhaps the living are exiles. But from what country?

;;;; John Ashbery, in “At North Farm”: “Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you […] But will he know where to find you, / Recognize you when he sees you, / Give you the thing he has for you?” How tempting it is to give this someone too much import—Death—or too little—the mail carrier. “Is it enough / That the dish of milk is set out at night, / That we think of him sometimes, / Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?”

;;;; In its later involutions, [[there.]] dwells increasingly on human fragility and mortality. Olsen suffers minor ailments in Berlin; recounts losing family and friends to major illnesses; enumerates the deaths of various artists and public intellectuals. Syphilis takes Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Maupassant. Drowning, defenestration. Dorothy Parker’s epitaph, Edward Abbey’s. The fourth-to-last fragment: “:::: Every sentence is a kiss.” The fifth-to-last: “:::: All the Berlins.” Amazing!

;;;; [[there.]] has a few other minor annoyances, such as Olsen intermittently referring to himself in the third person, making statistical comparisons between German and American affluence without citation, cribbing passages from other of his published works. On the last: ostensively, each fragment in [[there.]] is written in concert with the other fragments, written from Olsen’s stay at the Academy. And yet Olsen’s remarks on Lolita in a 2006 interview with Rainer Hanshe come up again; a paragraph in chapter 1 of Architectures of Possibility repeats this fragment from [[there.]]

The difference between art and entertainment involves the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows and complicates reading, hearing, and/or viewing so that we are challenged to re-think and re-feel form and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so we don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all.

—An implementation of Kenneth Goldsmith’s uncreative writing. Or an application of repetition with a difference. Or an insistence on how old text in a new context is new text. Or an appropriation of the public relations echo chamber technique in which the same infobite is projected multiple several locations, reinforcing and convincing via repetition rather than via elaboration. Or a re-invigoration of Clement Greenberg’s division between high and low culture. Or a comment on how we inevitably end up quoting ourselves, performing ourselves, with or without realizing it.

;;;; A Kafka story Olsen doesn’t quote, but I wish he would’ve, seeing as how a condition of his stay in Berlin was, ahem, reporting to an academy: “A Report to an Academy.” In the story, an ape tells the academy of how he came to speak and behave as a human. Captured from the Gold Coast, the ape learns via mimesis to smoke and drink with the sailors while imprisoned in a cage on a ship. In Hamburg, the ape is trained to perform in a music hall. The ape’s success is so great that, when he comes home, as he reports, “a little half-trained chimpanzee is waiting up for me, and I take my pleasure with her after the apish fashion” (as before, Crick translates).

;;;; Jean-François Lyotard, in the introduction to The Inhuman, as translated by Bennington and Bowlby: “All education is inhuman because it does not happen without constraint and terror.”

;;;; From Olsen’s insistence on the political and philosophical dimensions of his writing, his fondness for quoting the Wittgenstein bit about showing the fly the way out of the bottle, Kafka’s story insists that we must care not only for what we are emancipating ourselves and others out of, but what we are emancipating ourselves and each other in to. Some intriguing words from the ape, whose choice was often between one cage and another, who sought upon waking “a way out” rather than “freedom”: “By the by: all too often humans deceive themselves with freedom. And just as freedom belongs among the noblest of feelings, the corresponding delusion is among the noblest.” As an illustration, the ape describes trapeze artists who’ve used self-discipline to create a circus spectacle.

;;;; Brent Cunningham, in The Orations of Trillius Patronius: “Now then, what is this ‘order’ you keep attacking, Venitius? What is this ’emancipation of form’ you praise? Do you think we will stop calling your speeches confusing and instead call them emancipating?”

;;;; GLaDOS, in Portal: “Please be advised that a noticeable taste of blood is not part of any test protocol but is an unintended side effect of the Aperture Science Material Emancipation Grill, which may, in semi-rare cases, emancipate dental fillings, crowns, tooth enamel, and teeth.”

;;;; Reading Olsen’s visitation the Berlin Wall, the Hamburger Banhof, his constellation degenerate art and book burnings and the Wannsee Conference and Hitler’s supposed vegetarianism, his idea-tourism among Freud and Jaspers and Wittgenstein and Heidegger, I was increasingly reminded of 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played with the Left Hand), wrote it down in the margin of page twenty-five with a double underline, only to discover by page one hundred four that Olsen knew of it as well.

;;;; 88 Constellations is an interactive online flash artwork that connects Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Monolith with the house Ludwig Wittgenstein designed for his sister with pianist Paul Wittgenstein with the World Trade Center towers with “Ornament and Crime” with the Nazis with Alan Turing with the Vienna of Freud with—you get the idea. Each person, work or idea is a star or node in a constellation, literalizing the Benjaminian concept. Both 88 Constellations and [[there.]] cover similar subject matter, yet the former breaks free of codex linearity in ways the latter wants to but can only gesture towards.

;;;; If escaping the bottle is as problematic as I’ve suggested above, Olsen’s takeaway from 88 Constellations is that Wittgenstein’s approach is to escape the bottle by not escaping: “not through applying a single philsophical method to all the linguistic knottinesses, but by moving from topic to topic every which in an ongoing calisthenics of inquisitiveness and alertness.”

;;;; Because when speaking on Germany, one is obliged to mention that Hitler and Wittgenstein went to the same school as children.

;;;; Because when speaking on Germany, one is obliged to mention how, in the famous first sentence of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the word ‘Ungeziefer’, often translated into English as ‘insect’ but also suggestive of ‘pest’ or ‘vermin’, is the same word Nazis used to refer to Jews.

;;;; I also wrote in the margin Susan Griffin’s “Our Secret,” from A Chorus of Stones, which focuses on Heinrich Himmler and the development of the Vergeltungswaffe, better known as the V-1 rocket.

;;;; Examining documents of Himmler’s childhood, Griffin brings up German theorists of childrearing, most notably Dr. Daniel G. M. Schreber. Dr. Schreber’s son, Daniel Paul Schreber will go crazy at age forty-two, will publish Memoirs of My Nervous Illness in 1903. Freud will write an article on the memoir without having directly psychoanalyzed the younger Schreber.

;;;; “The delusional formation, which we take to be the pathological product,” wrote Freud, speaking of the ornate system of fleeting improvised men and flights of rays and miracles, “is in reality an attempt at recovery, a process of reconstruction.” This as quoted in Rosemary Dinnage’s introduction to the Memoirs.

;;;; Stanley Kubrick admitted to his involvement in the Apollo moonlanding hoax through secret codes in The Shining.

;;;; The etymology of the word ‘hoax’ is—oh hell, if you can afford to access The Oxford English Dictionary, how about you go look it up.

;;;; When a Duke Nukem 3D modder wanted to pay homage to The Shining by making a replica of the Overlook Hotel, he discovered that he couldn’t: “the office in which Jack Torrance first meets the hotel manager has a window that—despite offering views of the countryside—must actually look out on an internal hallway.” Doors open into impossible rooms.

;;;; Insert House of Leaves reference here.

;;;; My first hope here is to construct an intensity within which the best strands of Olsen’s [[there.]] will resonate … though obviously, when it comes to writing on Berlin’s relationship to its Nazi and Communist past, the subject is pretty well-covered. Any number of intensities are possible.

;;;; My second hope here is to demonstrate in miniature—or rather to shadow—the brilliance of Olsen’s writing technique … but also to demonstrate how it can turn to a shallow brilliance. The unintended consequence of praising connection indiscriminately without attending to either different kinds of connections (a and b, a but b, a or b, if a then b, a causes b, etc.) or the way some connections nest inside other connections (a or b but not both a and b, neither a nor b, etc.) is text in which the tangential unspools interminably. Playful, maybe, but if either the author or reader at any point feel legitimately endangered by the text s/he is writing or reading, the fragment can always end and the next fragment can pick up on any incidental connection which whisks the text to comfort. It is this Alltäglichkeit—Heidegger’s term for everydayness—Olsen wants to write against.

;;;; In a harrowing narrative fragment in [[there.]], Olsen, or his fictionalized double, gets off a train in St. Petersburg and witnesses

a cop hitting a man in the back of the legs with a billy club. The man would crumple to his knees, raise his hands in supplication. The cop would order him to his feet again, then hit him in the back of the legs. Down the man would go.

This skit lasted at least for the length of time it took Andi and me to walk from one end of the platform to the other. People curved around the couple so as not to disturb their dance, pretending nothing was out of the ordinary, which in a sense was the case.

The fragment ends. It is followed by a summary of Ken Robinson’s critique of education, which is a non sequitur among non sequiturs, as education is not among [[there.]]‘s topoi. It is preceded by Olsen’s take on Lyotard’s postmodern ethics: in the absence of metanarratives, injustice is “the imposition of one set of language games on another” while ethical behavior is allowing multiple language games to continue playing. Were Olsen committed to Lyotard’s ethics, why not apply them to the cop scenario? Were Olsen committed to exploring travel’s ambiguous relationship to ethics, why would he switch in the second paragraph from what he/his character and Andi were doing to what “people” were doing? How did the scene make him/his character feel? Did he/his character consider intervening? If so, why did he/his character choose not to?

;;;; Another Kafka story Olsen doesn’t reference: “In the Penal Colony.” As translated by Willa and Edwin Muir:

The explorer thought to himself: It’s always a ticklish matter to intervene decisively in other people’s affairs. He was neither a member of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it belonged. Were he to denounce this execution or actually try to stop it, they could say to him: You are a foreigner, mind your own business. He could make no answer to that, unless he were to add that he was amazed at himself in this connection, for he traveled only as an observer, with no intention at all of altering other people’s methods of administering justice.

The explorer can neither intervene nor abstain: he discovers that the operator and present commandant have anticipated his potential reaction, and would fold any intervention back into their machinations against each other. Kafka’s story evokes a nightmare where text-law and event-act are one and the same. The apparatus strikes “Be Just” onto a prisoner’s body in script so ornate it is almost illegible. The operator explains that the former commandant’s “organization of the colony was so perfect that his successor, even with a thousand new schemes in his head, would find it impossible to alter anything.” A plan so perfect it compasses its own imperfections and breakdowns, so perfect its successful execution is irresistible and infallible.

;;;; It can serve as a cautionary tale for literary artists who want to believe, as with John 1:1, as with Anselm’s predication of God into existence, that in art the deed is the text and the text is the deed.

;;;; Reading is not writing. There is an asymmetric relationship between the reader and writer. The postmodern writer who encourages active and open interpretation is kin to the postmodern father and the postmodern boss as theorized by Slavoj Žižek: he wants you to want to enforce his text-law, on yourself so he doesn’t have to. The postmodern writer who fills his writing with quotations is hiring past enforcers as consultants.

;;;; Reading-writing is not travel. In travel we submit not only to different customs and laws, but to the same laws differently implemented. Interpreting a foreign city’s semiosis as one walks requires different postures and responses than those of reading. Crossing a street is not turning the page. The technologies of travel and of reading have a divergent history—the Gutenberg press, the combustion engine, the Internet, flight— which cannot be elided.

;;;; Reading-writing-traveling is not play. If he truly believed it were, Roland Barthes would’ve at least written one Choose Your Own Adventure. Even if you give equal weight to decisions of how to interpret the world that you give to decisions of how to act in the world, traditional texts do not offer feedback or adapt based on those decisions the way that games can. Compose with Twine or Inform 7 rather than with a word processor if you need to experience the difference for yourself.

;;;; See also Papers, Please and The Stanley Parable, Kafkaesque videogames if ever such were possible.

;;;; Griffin: “Memory can be like a long, half-lit tunnel, a tunnel where one is likely to encounter phantoms of a self, long concealed, no longer nourished with the force of consciousness, existing in a tortured state between life and death.”

;;;; Imagine reading this review on strips of paper you’ve plucked out of a hat.

;;;; [[there.]] is published without a concordance. And for good reason. Imagine reading [[there.]] not as a printed book, but as tweets whose tags could be filtered: #travel, #mortality, #Berlin, #etymologies. What would be the effect of reading all the fragments tagged as travel or Berlin in one space, in one sitting?

[[there.]], by Lance Olsen. Anti-Oedipus Press. 142 pages. $13.95, paper.

Jeremy Behreandt lives in Madison, WI.

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