:: Article

Lugubrious Complexity: Braxton | Sollers | Smithson

By Louis Armand.

Robert Smithson, A Heap of Language (1966)


C’est un espace-temps, un son-sens, un écrit-vu-calculé-nié qui se signifie dans son frayage et, simultanément, signifie ses bords infinis, neuve de l’histoire, rives éparses de l’inconscient. Le vieux Joyce a fait parvenir son Anna Livia jusqu’à l’océan. H, voilà, c’est un peu d’hydrogène pour le monde futur : pas une recherche du temps perdu, une irrigation-vibration de milliers de « temps », chantés, chuchotés, criés, nettement et distinctement, une foule de fugues, j’ai envie de dire le feu du repos, l’en-trop.

—Philippe Sollers[1]

Recorded in February 1969 and released as a double album the following year, Chicago jazzman Anthony Braxton’s debut, For Alto, represented a landmark in the development of free jazz, distinguished by Braxton’s minimalist choice of unaccompanied alto sax with no studio overdubbing. Braxton’s alignment with the contemporary musical avant-garde was clearly signalled by his dedication of one of the album’s tracks to John Cage, whose advocacy of chance compositional procedures and his close association with artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns indicates the kind of aesthetic-critical continuum in which Braxton sought to situate his own work (he would, for example, later record pieces for two pianos, five tubas, four amplified shovels, an orchestra and four slide projectors, even music for four orchestras).

Along with Steve Lacy, Ornette Coleman, John Zorn and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Braxton’s early recordings had a decisive impact on the postmodernist wave of 1970s jazz. The reach of Braxton’s compositions was eclectic, to say the least, embracing both European and African-American traditions, incorporating influences from Cage, Stockhausen, Reich, Glass and Webern, alongside Coltrane, Brubeck, Monk and Albert Ayler. It was an approach geared to generating almost universal antipathy from within the contemporary jazz establishment: they didn’t like the style of his music, his hair, his sweater, or the pipe he smoked. He looked more like a philosopher than a musician, a musicologist more than a jazzman. And when at the end of the sixties he moved to Paris, it was perhaps for these same reasons that Braxton attracted the attention of the bête noir of the French intelligentsia – a controversial writer still little known at that time in the English-speaking world, but whose interventions (as editor of the highly influential journal Tel Quel) would soon have a decisive impact on cultural criticism in the US and elsewhere.

Art Ensemble of Chicago with Anthony Braxton & Frank Lowe (New York, 1975)


Philippe Sollers, the writer in question, responded to Braxton’s determined effort at abolishing the artificial distinctions that surrounded musical “genres.” In an interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Gerard Bourgadier in December 1978,[2] Sollers identified Braxton’s “subversive encyclopaedism” as the key to his attraction, in particular the breadth of Braxton’s preoccupation with “completely new forms… which pose the problem of a kind of subjectivity that hasn’t existed before.” This, Sollers argued, placed Braxton in a relationship not only with composers such as Stockhausen, but also writers such as Joyce, since Braxton’s experimentations brought to light “other forms of thought” that are both rigorous and highly elaborated without adhering to an epistemology, articulating instead “a violent desire of a BEING THERE” of a body at the moment it expresses itself. A body, as Julia Kristeva will have written, that is also a text. [3]

Braxton’s time in Paris happened to overlap with a hiatus in the publication of Sollers’s loose “trilogy” of experimental novels written in the aftermath of the 1968 student uprising – Nombres, Lois and H. The latter, arguably the most radical of the three, was composed during Braxton’s first two Paris sojourns, between 1969 and 1971.[4] In September ’69, Braxton recorded This Time with Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins at the Paris studios of BYG/Actuel: the album’s “imploding categories” were regarded by no less than the Situationists as “the most accurate – most direct, least theoretic – expression of May ’68”[5] – a counter-punch to the already banal “spectacle” of capitalist normalisation, as Guy Debord saw it, in which “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation.”[6] The recording had an important impact on Sollers, too (who at times has aired his affinities with Debord and the Situationists), perhaps even a decisive one with regard to the form his work-in-progress, H, would eventually take. In Sollers’s interview with Houdebine and Bourgadier the question of “influence” somewhat inevitably arises. Bourgadier notes, “re-reading Lois, H, Paradis one can find correspondences between the evolution of your writing and that of free jazz.” To which Sollers’s replies, “C’est ça…”

The correspondence Bourgadier has in mind is the effect produced by the absence of punctuation in H (it’s still present in Lois). A comparison is made to Coltrane, whose playing is described by Bourgadier as a “continuous flux, without pause…” before going on to note a direct reference to Braxton in Paradis (which was being serialised in Tel Quel at the time). The idea that an unpunctuated “flow” of text somehow approximates the “flux” of Coltrane’s saxophone solos, or the free form of Braxton’s, is of course trivial – the absence of punctuation in H is only the book’s most obvious characteristic. Sollers himself points to a more syntactical and schematic relationship: the way in which, for example, Braxton’s phrasing represents a certain “immediacy” whereby different modes of repetition are used to produce effects of cumulative intensity and drama, out of which some sort of “code” emerges – an “absolutely singular code,” as Sollers says – like the emissions of an electro-cardio-encephalogram. It’s no accident, either, that H begins with an invocation to “the machine” (but not to any ordinary machine – for Sollers’s “electro-cardio-encephalogram” is a subject machine, a writing machine[7]: like jazz it produces a “direct interpellation, a DIRECT appeal” to the necessity of dealing with “what can be done symbolically with one’s body” – by means, we might say, of a certain instrumentation).

This echoes a view expressed by Roland Barthes in his 1973 review of H, entitled “Over Your Shoulder” – the fourth of six articles he would eventually publish on Sollers’s work.[8] “Writing,” Barthes suggests, “(in total contrast here to ‘literature’) is the tension of the body trying to produce language which cannot be situated (it is the dream of a degree zero of discourse).”[9] For Barthes, Sollers’s dispensing with punctuation is not a simple mimesis of the modernist cliché of the “stream of consciousness,” rather it marks an insistence upon a non-situated status of language. The text, like the body, is articulated by movements, torsions, tensions, moods, rhythms, cadences – it functions in a kind of symbiosis with its own coming apart. And by consequence, it causes a reading that on the one hand constantly intercedes in itself, constantly adjusts, rectifies itself like homoeostatic device; and on the other, accedes in itself to what Barthes calls “different rhythms of intelligence.”[10]

Soller’s notations on Webern for H; Braxton’s notations for improvisers, from Composition #108B (1984)


Articulated rather than “structured.” It’s not so much that H lacks punctuation, as that what “punctuates” is both intransitive (in the sense of being a textual agency) and in a state of constant genesis. This punctuation or its perceived absence becomes a figure of “comprehending” the text, by experiencing it, rather than directing and pre-empting understanding through merely observing it; it dis-objectifies itself. It’s in this respect that Sollers’s text most bears comparison to Braxton’s “phrasing,” for example, or what Barthes calls “syntactic movements, scraps of intelligibility, stains of language.” But while Barthes draws a further comparison, to the “calligraphy” of Jackson Pollock – perhaps due to the “all-over” character of Pollock’s drip paintings and Sollers’s “undifferentiated” textual fields – a more convincing analogy might be made to Rauschenberg’s combines or Roberts Smithson’s sites, non-sites, displacements and “monuments.” In any case, the point Barthes seeks to make is that structure, too, is a kind of rhetorical edifice, and that what we call punctuation is a grammatic formalization of what is in fact a generalized poetics. For Sollers, as for Braxton, the punctual is a trope – a mode of articulation: the accumulation, looping, bifurcating, permutation, and “all-over” arrangement of phrasing. In contrast to which, “the aim of all structure,” as Barthes puts it, “is to constitute a fiction… a ‘theoretical ghost.’”[11] This fiction sustains the composite fiction of “readability,” “comprehension,” “understanding” – whereas in fact, readability is always a matter of potentiality, of the possibility of the text, which must, as it were, be “realised,” just as comprehending and understanding, too, remain first and foremost experiential, which is to say experimental, and not something foreclosed by the promise of a certain “lucidity” simply by way of grammatical rectitude.

“Structure,” in this sense, is for Barthes “a little bit like hysteria. If you pay attention to it, it becomes a reality. If you pretend to ignore it, it goes away.” The distinction can be likened to the signifying logic of the Freudian dream work, which is above all “poetic” (metaphor, metonymy), as opposed to literal/symbolic. “There are,” Barthes writes, “in fact two sorts of phenomenon: those which stand up to being looked at (the realm of ‘what is secret’) and those which are produced by being looked at (the realm of ‘what is for show’).”[12] The “image” represented by H’s typography is thus a kind of non-image, an image caught in its own genesis as representation: “a whirlwind of language… organised into a splendid series of irrelevancies.” Or, to return to Sollers’s metaphor of the electro-cardio-encephalogram, it is “a moving, electrified screen, on which no representation stands out…”[13]

If H is a type of subject machine this is precisely because it is a machine that produces a generalised objectlessness. (It writes in the intransitive sense Barthes fixes upon in his well-known essay.) It isn’t so much a question of the ontological status of the “text” (viz André Bazin’s ontology of the photographic image, from a decade previous),[14] as of its genesis, its articulation – what Donald Judd referred to laconically as “one thing after another” emptied of “rationalism” and resistant to the impulse to organise “what seems on the surface merely an incoherent array of phenomena.”[15] Obvious analogies can again be made the work of Rauschenberg, as well as to Duchamp and the sculptor Jean Tingely, whose self-constructing, self-destroying machines (such as “Homage to New York” [7 March 1960]) seem to parallel Sollers’s sardonic, sarcastic, satirical “machines” in that they “produce” nothing other than their own non-production (they do not contribute work to the maintenance of “the spectacle”). Anti-allegorical, they “communicate” nothing. Or more precisely, they display a radically entropic orientation. Here is Sollers in the opening passage of H:


‘who says hello the machine with its bandy legs its deformed side cata bases its stiff press buttons tonic accents outside the stanza she dreamed tonight that I was throwing a ball very high and very far it’s never gonna stop it lights up passing the hoops meridians arranged rounder when it traverses them and here’s the bomb that tumbles back’


Twelve pages further we find:


‘my idea of control by spontaneous repression it only takes the state to gobble itself up in the viscera that it be here patient at the time triangle of the stacked pyramid the block machine works shit that’s not gonna happen any time soon that we’ll be able to twist our mess acutely ourselves year by year it’s like the return of jesus’


Sollers’s “idea of control by spontaneous repression” (an echo of the Freudian “return of the [sainted] repressed”), introduces into writing an elemental constraint that does not emanate from an “abstract model through which to depict the organisation of matter.”[16] Its subversion of Cartesian “subjectivity” is likewise a subversion of what, to paraphrase Duchamp, we might call “retinal” prose: H is not a vehicle of expression – its syntax interferes with what Barthes calls the hierarchical systems at work in sentence-formation which might otherwise restore the consensual hallucination of “subjective expression” or “communicated sense”[17]: “force them,” it incites, “to spit the bite on the well-known relations language machine.”[18] This is what Barthes means, vis-à-vis Sollers, by “the radical non-expressivity of textual writing.” Sollers:


‘the shiny negative beginning of the division let’s go the night’ll be long the lights’re going out we break the terror the machinery type you’ll splash about in the bidet they’ve done you in ama ama fuck quod vis the only forbidden thing is to consume the sexual difference raw and without knowing anything smash the glass one touches at the source at the engulfing of the rowers you understand it’s there the contradiction becomes the engine species’[19]

A page from the manuscript of Lois (1972)


Sollers’s “engine species” is what we might call this subject in writing, this constellated ensemble of readymades that Todorov, already in 1966, described as a “pattern of events” as against a “psychology.” (And it is perhaps in this sense, after all, that we should understand Harold Rosenberg’s frequently misconstrued appeal to painting [for which we may substitute “writing”] as event, as an inscription of “subjectivity,” as an action.) What we encounter in Sollers’s text, then, is the very contrary of an organisation scheme; instead we are presented with what, in an obvious provocation to Structuralism, could be called an “organisational tropism.”


‘life wraps death death hatches life I’m a picture i’m a rug i’m a machine and the picture of the machine and the machination of the picture’[20]


H is a text that, like Duchamp, like Cage and Rauschenberg, like Braxton, stakes everything, in a manner of speaking, on the severance of “meaning” from the “legitimising claims” both of the ideology of form (art/music/literature) and of a “private self.”[21] The “work” represents a nexus of contingencies, significations that, as Merleau-Ponty says, are “parallel in depth.”[22] Its readymade “terms” arise tropically from “differences” (Sollers’s “contradictions”) which are “like” machines set into motion, the generators of forms not despite but because of their constitutive entropy. Sollers:


‘if assemblage is fortuitous the exit doesn’t end up the same depending on the context depending on whether the machine-operator is close enough to natural elements depending on whether he’s on the contrary in industrial commercial entanglement…’


In his 1966 article for Artforum, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Robert Smithson wrote:


‘Questions about form seem as hopelessly inadequate as questions about content. Problems are unnecessary because problems represent values that create the illusion of purpose. The problem of “form vs. content,” for example, leads to illusionistic dialectics that become, at best, formalist reactions against content. Reaction follows action, till finally the artist gets “tired” and settles for a monumental inaction.’[23]


Smithson – responding to the new minimalist sculpture being produced at that time by Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Sol Le Witt and Dan Flavin – points to what he calls a “hyper-prosaism” rooted in the materiality of the work itself and not in any object or mode of depiction. These “primary structures” throw into heightened contrast the “lugubrious complexity” of Debord’s society of the spectacle, with its all-encompassing “consumer oblivion,” giving rise, for Smithson, to a “new consciousness of the vapid and the dull.” As Warhol had earlier pointed out, the artefacts of consumerism, while designed to convey the message of their own uniqueness, are ostensibly the same thing repeated over and over. This dictum applies to all such artefacts, including literary artefacts, which are no less a product of “spectacularism” than anything else. For Warhol, the response was to pursue an aesthetics and a mode of production not ostensibly the same, but exactly the same (while still incorporating chance deviations, etc.).

Robert Smithson, Monuments of Passaic (1967)


Smithson’s hyper-prosaism – likewise focused on the hidden, entropic mechanics of spectacle – explored the monumentality of “decay.” Arguing that entropy was the true defining characteristic of modernity, Smithson reversed the conventional notion of “decay” as a deviation from “structure,” advancing the contrary view that entropy is in fact the sole constant generative condition of whatever can be called “form.” The “new monuments,” exemplified for Smithson by the industrial “ruins” of Passaic, New Jersey, are “the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’” because they don’t fall into ruin after they are built, but rather rise into ruin before they are built. Echoes of this deconstructed Romanticism find their way into H, which itself operates as a kind of monument to linguistic entropy. Sollers:


‘to make a corolla for the smoking chimney stifle the screams of the workers the noise of the ovens cisterns milling machines balers turning machines chains trolleys guns hammers all in all a poetic thought bourgeoisie dreaming in acid cut fingers laughter sobbing and the women near the greenhouses stretched-out from the other side of proletarian cloakrooms doubtless excited idle by the boring voices last days of the empire waste of sleep we take the coffee on the background of machines in the shade of young blooming girls along the mountain ranges’[24]


For Sollers, the apparent depletion of meaning is likewise refigured in the “hyper-prosaism” of socalled expressive (e.g. novelistic) forms. H “exemplifies” not the decay of meaning, sense, readability, but precisely the contrary – that, as cyberneticists had revealed already in the 1940s, “the information in any fact is in inverse proportion to its probability…” Vast swathes of socalled realism were, in effect, redundant, empty, products of a “spectacular” lugubriosity shoring up its ruin. Like Smithson, Sollers’s “retrieval of obsolescence,”[25] so to speak, hinges on an “entropy made visible.” The novelistic “form” becomes a type of “anarchitecture”[26] – a compound, in fact, an agglutination at the limits of signifiability, like Roquintin’s pebble on the beach, lathed by an impelling senselessness. Against the oceanic sublime of the Romantics, such “monuments” appear to us as paradoxical incidents – the attestations of a contingent being that is both punctual and radically anachronistic. Nothing, we realise, has been summed up and yet everything remains at stake and in play. It is as if, in the work of Braxton, Sollers, Smithson, what is to be arrived at is not some horizon of recuperated sense, but “merely” the next wavefall. Or as Smithson writes: “Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future.”


[1] Philippe Sollers, “A propos de l’avant-garde,” Interview with Marc Devade in Peinture, cahiers théoriques 6/7 (Spring 1973).

[2] Published in Tel Quel 80 (Summer, 1979): 10-37.

[3] Julia Kristeva, “Novel as Polylogue,” Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. L.S. Roudiez, trans. T. Gora, A. Jardine and L.S. Roudiez (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980) 163: “This heterogeneous object is of course a body that invites me to identify with it […] and immediately forbids any identification; it is not me, it is a non-me in me, beside me, outside of me, where the me becomes lost. This heterogeneous object is a body, because it is a text.”

[4] In 1970 Braxton, perhaps emulating Marcel Duchamp, briefly gave up music upon returning to the US and worked as a chess hustler in New York’s Washington Square Park while living in the apartment of Ornette Coleman.

[5] Ben Watson, Honesty is Explosive: Selected Music Journalism, ed. W.C. Bamberger (London: Borgo, 2010) 105 (on Kevin Norton, For Guy Debord (In Nine Events), Barking Hoop BKH001 CD).

[6] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, [1967] 1995).

[7] Philippe Sollers, H, trans. Veronika Stankiovanská and David Vichnar (London: Equus, 2014) 56.

[8] First published in Critique 318 (November 1973); rpr. in Roland Barthes, Sollers Ecrivain (Paris: Seuil, 1979); English translation by Philip Thody in Writer Sollers (London: Athlone, 1987).

[9] Barthes, “Over Your Shoulder,” Writer Sollers, 82.

[10] Barthes, “Over Your Shoulder,” 89.

[11] Barthes, “Over Your Shoulder,” 89 – my emphasis.

[12] Barthes, “Over Your Shoulder,” 89 – my emphasis.

[13] Barthes, “Over Your Shoulder,” 81; 75.

[14] André Bazin, “Ontologie de L’Image Photographique,” Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? vol 1: Ontologie et langage (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1958).

[15] Rosalind Krauss, “The Double Negative: A New Syntax for Sculpture,” Passages in Modern Sculpture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977) 245.

[16] Krauss, “The Double Negative,” 245.

[17] That “infinite weaving of narcissisms” – Philippe Sollers, Femmes (Paris: Gallimard, 1983), loosely quoting from Julia Kristeva’s essay “Novel as Polylogue” (originally published in Tel Quel 57 [1974]).

[18] Sollers, H, 106.

[19] Sollers, H, 29.

[20] Sollers, H, 35.

[21] Krauss, “The Double Negative,” 226.

[22] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962) xii.

[23] Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Artforum (June 1966): 26.

[24] Sollers, H, 127.

[25] See Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin Buchloh, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004) 509.

[26] A term used by Gordon Matta-Clarke.


Louis Armand is the author of eight novels, including The Combinations (2016), Cairo (2014), and Breakfast at Midnight (2012). In addition, he has published ten collections of poetry – most recently, East Broadway Rundown (2015) & The Rube Goldberg Variations (2015) – & is the author of Videology (2015) & The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avantgarde (2013). He lives in Prague.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 14th, 2018.