:: Article

Images, Text and Modern Feints: Dongyoung Lee’s I can’t and the Material of Meaning

By Albe Harlow.

“For its part, the image presents itself in a general rather than a discontinuous way and it is, to that extent, quite difficult to determine its context. Even in the case of contiguous iconic or temporal iconic sequences (such as photographs placed side by side in the former case or cinema or television, for example, in the latter), we don’t clearly understand the associative syntax that pertains between images…”

– Roland Barthes, Signs and Images, 1966

And yet images, so-called, continue to purport such a syntax. One might even mark that images, namely, photography and genres that aver to be of the seen, are, to modify a phrasing of Margorie Perloff, “imaging in an environment of hyperinformation.” Dongyoung Lee’s photopoetic collection, I can’t give you an answer as matters stand (2017, Ediciones Popolet; hereafter, I can’t) would apparently have much to say on all this. The poems work to correct an internet-supercharged fixation on and credulity about, not only the image, but the stories and states (the “iconic sequences”) of material that images serve to ratify, report on, nail down. I can’t is a flappy, tape-bound volume. Its photos and texts partake of ye olde high-modernist derring-do, situated in the legacy of post-Punk despondency and anti-art snark. As these images become more textual, one does suspect Lee’s work contributes to the would-be terra nullius of “anarcho-scholasticism,” a word Stephen Collis borrowed from Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever to ascertain Susan Howe’s work, understood here as a rigorous and bibliophilic unsettledness about history and its material dispositions. Yet where Howe cites an archive of textual sources, Lee cites material pressed into image—indeed, material confounded by a kind of vaudeville.

At any given place within I can’t, one is addressed by a set of two grody dot print photographs. They sit as though to sleep, centered in a widely-margined page, washed over with an anemic grey flatness. The photographs mark an antiqued digitalism: one photo on the left page, the other on the right, with a line of text snaking below the left photo: a tripartite riddle? Prima facie, one wonders again, in this ever-late epoch, just what sort of poetry is this? The calligrams of René Magritte jet forth, those too of Apollinaire au di Chirico? Even more, Lee’s I can’t reminds of the freakish photographic displacements of Man Ray. Rather than Ray’s Facile, composed with Paul Eluard, one recalls his rayograms, whereby objects were placed immediately upon photosensitive paper and, as one might say in this case, “solarized,” or exposed to light, inducing a visual frisson somehow akin to singeing one’s hand upon a sheet of ice.

The antecedents of Lee’s I can’t are of course far more numerous than this cursory list would indicate. Notably, I can’t is not asemic, for it is quite directive in its suggestion of meanings. It does not merely present two situations ad profundum and relish in some Mallarméan acknowledgment that chance is the final will of space or phenomenal intentionality. Rather, I can’t gestures toward constrained narrativity and situational brisures marked by material doing material things. One might even assess that I can’t flattens and compounds material into greyscale topologies or logograms, much in the way cartoons make tableaux, farces and discrete analyses of situations that present otherwise as tortuously convoluted. Allowing that these sets of two-page topologies depict various found and manipulated materials, how they are linked, as Barthes predicts, becomes a matter of ethereal concern.

The linked objects often appear to exhibit a would-be sameness, one that has been jostled or interrupted by the material circumstances of iteration. One object is, say, bulked into a spheroid, the other smashed-up and given to amorphously negative impressions. On another two pages, a lit lightbulb, saturated in white light, is iconographically invisible, while a mere binding away, what may very well be the same bulb remains unlit and iconographically perceptible, identifiable. The textual strands beneath are occasionally cheeky, as in the case of the two pinch bowls of salt, one levelled off with salt, the other reduced, a campily symmetrical crater at its center. The unpunctual text reads, “Luckily, they hardly seemed to notice what happened.” On p. 10, a viscous paint-like material is seized by the photography as it drips down a mute surface; to the right, on p. 11, another substance, apparently indistinguishable, is at a drip too but has not yet dripped so far down. Below the photo on p. 10, the text reads, “The romantic figure.” To these three elements—photo, photo and text—may be added the billowy censure of the white page, observantly superintending what could be otherwise a rather glib affair. The lines of text look marginally illegal, nearly vandalizing a space beyond what would be the left-photo’s proportionally matted enclosure. Moreover, the binding of the book, this material circumstance of representation, instantiates the brisure. While this, by one way or another, may be said of any book, I can’t’s observations make this feature immanent. Here, objects and material situations, as depicted by photography, have a story to tell, may even have logorrhea. The binding is thus an icon of difference, a symbol of apartness and an index of discursivity as it pertains to materiality, always already fashioned by technologies, by markets.

One is of course tempted to suggest that Lee’s work constitutes a rigorous update of those Surrealist precedents that presciently if hastily staked-out the subterranean tell of structuralist intuitions. Lee’s work must surely be wondering what these supposedly old parlor tricks can do to the plausible differences between language, semiotics, art, philosophy, etc., after the dubiously permitted “language turn” redux of the 1960s. I can’t’s conceit about scientificity and textual hermeneutics is something of a send up, though it is meanwhile aboundingly rich. Material will not stop writing about itself; indeed, strictly, it will not stop writing itself. While this spooky actio in distans is something about which Derrida seemed unwilling to assert in On Grammatology, it is a possibility that haunts Lee’s I can’t. In this sense, permitting the Cartesian problematic, Lee’s work desolates the subject, strips it of its titles and offers something in favor of the autonomy of objects away from subjectivities. This photopoetic act, I can’t, oscillates beyond what Lee makes to convey merely as “the dual nature of the open book.”[i] Material, as I can’t often rather wryly insists, is indeed always-too-late-discursive. That is, if one closes down space, if one reads carefully, she will find that the very patterns pretending necessity, pretending a factical relation between things, are pulp hinges borne of, say, care, being-toward-death, worries about oblivion. The things in the photographs live their own lives, according to non-Platonic principles.

The painted pipe will not be denied its own reality à la déclaration, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” any more than one of Lee’s photos will isometrically determine or frame, in its prosaic way and as by a formal reciprocity, a similar and adjacent photo. What Roland Barthes, in a 1963 review, “The Civilization of the Image,” cited as the “differential morphology” between related figures or images is entirely splashed open in Lee’s account. Firstly, the party-line: economy, symmetry, opposition, equation, antinomy, Cartesianism, Newtonianism—that’s burlesque; that’s madness. And, secondly, more urgently, digital atomicities do not provide the answers or correct a Sorites’ Paradox relating substance to essence. Dot print photos merely divulge that images are, if pointular, pointular in variable ways, again and a’ nonce. The digital technologist speaking through I can’t insists that the syntaxes of photography do not lie only and exactly where one may have thought they do.

If material qua materiality (a schema, admittedly, one scarcely would have to mark without a horizon of intellectual sloth still brimming drunkenly in the distance) remains unnetted by foundationalist doctrine, if material and its grammars (e.g., photography) are always-too-late-beyond mathematics and logic, beyond the solving of riddles, one may wonder for what reason Lee includes alphabetic text. Whither the words? Were hushed photos of material doing material things not enough to demonstrate how material—textiles, metal nuts, glass bowls, architectural corners, envelopes, juniper or cassis berries, pliable clay, smashable pills, cardboard, plastic cups, pages of books—is not particularly distinguishable from interpretations associated with that material? Does material not bear out its own immanent poetics, without the subvention of wordy textures and graphemic tinctures?

It would certainly be the case that I can’t is capable of doing this critical work without such phrases as “‘For me, however, the original is enough’” (68) and “Luckily, they hardly seemed to notice what happened” (74) and “A permanent scar” (44). Antonymical material situations are already stultified by the photographs; Aristotle’s Law of Excluded Middle is, in its would-be ideality, already and of course apoetical and impossible; and, markedly, time is often vividly out-of-joint.

Consider the dwelt-upon example, the paint-like material, captured dripping: the run-away drip is on the left; the composed drip is on the right. Thus, insofar as one is reading from left to right (here one exempts the peripatetic gallery-wanderer and recalls that Lee’s work is bound as a 96-page book, however unrecognizably so, what with the wandering exterior parentheses and faceted fore-edge that makes of the book’s center a flippable beginning) the drip is retracted back to the source of its application. Here, one’s ordering of space misreads an indexical relation between time and material. Perhaps readerly conventions are tested by axioms about gravity; perhaps it is the other way around. Next-ness is un-dripped into doubt. Might this here be “The romantic figure,” trapped by space but refiguring what happens to material in time, insisting, “Forward to antiquity?”

It is not strictly time and material that are here and there shorn from one another. On p. 56 is a rubber banded chain of matches; on p. 57, a fagot of sticks, banded together like fried shoestring potatoes, ostensibly the same matches but without their phosphoric flame-buds. Beneath the former reads, “The contrary is rather to be supposed,” eliciting the ordeal of contrariety as such, “The contrary” qua “The contrary.” What trustworthiness, what meaningful grammar does such a stagey word exude or make to oversee? Lee’s work is wondering sardonically, Ought the latter photo have depicted—instead of headless matches—burnt matches?—unbanded matches?—no matches?—halved matches?—a conflagration?—a bucket of water?

Lee has desolated text, pinning it as referentially flat, teeming with cliché, belted with little-explored joinery, joinery that itself erodes and shifts according to discursive heteronomies and tyrannotextual expediencies. Here, instead of the text, with its traditions of authorial death and openness, the image plays for discursivity. And, yet, the image re-potentializes the text. That is, the photographic situation suffuses and rubs off on the text. The wordy phrases in Lee’s work are pictorially charged, are actually vested with the force of a material going under the name of “language.” The grapheme, the violative line, stews amidst material as material, material that is itself always-too-late given to be flattened into immediately knowable things by way of pictorial and representational art.

Admirably, Lee is able to imbue text with this imagistic syntax without toying with the texture of the glyph—that is, without traumatizing text with an asemic paint brush, employing some Rauschenbergian technique or the sort of supposedly-ferrous but finally applique gestures of, say, Vasily Kamensky in Tango With Cows [sic]. Moreover, Lee’s words do not beg tidy theses about the sign in the manner a Magritte calligraph seems to: I can’t doesn’t wind up little dualisms and recommend, Ah, a paradox, Magritte himself perhaps having complacently trapped his critical gest in one such structuralist enigma. Still more, I can’t’s text does not ponder visual poetry with iconographic and formal mimicry, as may be observed in Facile.

This inquiry could readily have been written about such photopoetry alone. Though, once more, whither the words? Besides or, perhaps, through its communion with calligraphs and photopoetry, Lee seeks to move in excess of Modernist critical tropes, beyond a doting but consolidated T. S. Eliot when he marks: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past. / If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.” The line below the dripping paint, “The romantic figure,” may as well have been alluding to that poet, Eliot, who had stopped reading from left to right, had felled temporality in the blistering heat of “presence.”

Eliot is a metonym for the predicament of modernism and what modernism can do to aging poets. The “romantic” (inexorably loaded with the “Romantic”) looks back. He, Eliot, the finally amnesic Modernist, keeps all reference frames frozen in iconostatic reverence for eternalizing and extemporaneous notions. Instead of continuing to locate and elaborate brisures in the immanences of history, he became misty-eyed, opting for some of the sillier readings of those to whom many modernists were looking, such as, say, Heraclitus of Ephesus, who himself often transformed something-like-presence with the hot combustion of fire. Lee’s work takes this nostalgia and recapitulates it with copies of copies, always already under revision, retelling, auto-narrativization. Thus, instead of “Forward to antiquity!,” Lee’s work indicates a disjunction within the oeuvres of his poetic predecessors, a certain recursive failure to keep a conversation going between what are often perversely affirmed as separate discourses, not only those of poetry and photography, text and image, but of material and materiality, history and historicity.

I can’t is another case study in the usurpation of bourgeois Modernism, of what Modernism became, what it did with such words as polysemy, image, language. Barthes, a tempered romantic, speaking of “entering upon the true history of language,” perhaps caught between a science and a poetics, writes in 1966:

“An image gives out different meanings and we don’t always know how to handle them. Moreover, this phenomenon of polysemy also exists in articulated language, and is one of the main themes of current linguistic research. But the fact remains that, in the case of language, polysemy is considerably reduced by context, by the presence of other signs which direct to the choice and the intellection of the reader or hearer.”

In Lee’s work, however, words—what Barthes names language—are exposed and are not necessarily any less polysemic than images. Indeed, I can’t’s fizzing dot print photos cast an invisible netting about the text, recalling the discursivity of all graphemic circumstances; and I can’t does this without ostentatiously scrambling words or composing syntactic chimeras and thus cannily alienating meaning. Lee’s work suggests that the distinction between the seen and the read does not easily obtain. What is phenomenally “give[n] out” in I can’t is not “a world of speculation,” as Eliot marks in his senescent poem, but the world, the difficult governance of meaning, the shriek that portends analysis.

[i] https://www.printedmatter.org/catalog/52529/


Albe Harlow is a 2019 graduate of Columbia University’s MFA Writing Program and a reader for Harvard Review. His disciplinary interests span literature, architecture, modernism, gastronomy, poetics, narrativity, and philosophy, often seeking the ways in which these discourses mingle or become one another. Other work of his can be found in Contrary MagazineRHINO 2020, Charge Magazine, and Princeton University’s Inventory. He lives in NYC

Images from I can’t give you an answer as matters stand taken by Albe Harlow and used with Dongyoung Lee’s permission.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 1st, 2020.