:: Article

No thing

By Richard Marshall.

No Medium, Craig Dworkin, MIT Press 2013.

Something has been fixed in. Something about nothingness, about unreadability and unwriterbility, about silence and absence, abjection and a special kind of boredom. Craig Dworkin’s book is about an aspect of this fix. He looks at “works that are blank, erased, clear, or silent.” He argues that “we should understand media not as blank, base things but as social events, and that there is no medium, understood in isolation, but always a plurality of media: interpretive activities taking place in socially inscribed places.” The last chapter gives a list of key examples of more than 100 scores and readings of ‘silent’ music.

Blanchot’s ‘gigantic’ de Sade impressed Beckett as being “jealous of Satan and of his eternal torments, and confronting nature more than human-kind.” Satan’s torments were in darkness, alone and in an eternity of ice. Jealousy is a feisty off-shoot of ambition. So why is de Sade jealous? De Sade is jealous of the perturbality of Satan. 120 days of Sodom reads like an accountant’s log. What disturbed Beckett when he read Kafka was the imperturbability. “I am wary of disasters that allow themselves to be recorded like a statement of accounts.” De Sade fails in his gigantic quest to be disturbed and so is jealous of Satan’s achievement. This links to the modern fix. In the modern fix there is a crucial disturbance freaking in blankness. There is an instinct in this stuff to not tone down what is mistakenly taken to be superfluous. Oddly, complexity and the amorphous can seem abstract. But they are correspondences of a desperate tormented plenum wriggling at the abyss. Torment in this mode stands time still, skips lives, makes space hard to cross. This is the liveliness of a “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

“You would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.” That’s Sam Beckett. Carl Andre says, “A thing is a hole in a thing it is not.” Dworkin starts to work out what he calls the logic of the substrate by examining the blank-paged poetry book Nudism in Jean Cocteau’s film Orphee of 1950. It is considered a pretentious joke in the film by Orpheus. Dworkin suggests that a sophisticated reading would get that it was a joke, but that a more sophisticated reading would refuse to get the joke. It depends on “how closely one reads a work that seems to ask only that it not be read.” At more or less the same time John Cage was delivering his ‘Lecture on Nothing’ where he said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

The title Nudism avoided Sartre’s ‘nothing’ of Being and Nothingness, as well as tinctures of any Dadaist nihilism, reified aestheticism, psychologism, or mystic Buddhism. For Dworkin its blankness is the metaphor of metaphor itself. Its name carries a ‘double-punch’ both suggesting and then denying its lubricious hint. It is a way in which everything is exposed, and as such is a moment of obscenity. Baudrillard writes: “The obscene is what puts an end to every look, to every image, to every representation … It is no longer the obscenity of what is hidden, repressed, or obscure; it is the obscenity of the visible, of the too visible, of the more visible than visible; it is the obscenity of that which has no more secrets, of that which is miscible in information and communication.” Dworkin thinks the internet and its technology has delivered universal obscenity.

Because there is “no outside vantage from which they can be perceived” everything is revealed and everything is nude. Dworkin says that “erasures obliterate, but they also reveal.” He suggests that by erasing words attention then is drawn to the paper and the dimensions of the book, the room in which its placed and so forth. Why does Dworkin refuse to consider the possibility of total erasure, where attention doesn’t stray? This is never discussed and the question is never raised. Roy Sorensen has noted a bias in thinking towards positive reality. But there are objects that are not reducable to positive reality. The concrete materialism of any media is irrelevent to these objects. The attention to the plurality of media of erased objects may be a failure of nerve before the absolute silence or blank space. Or perhaps it’s a reaction against classical exasperation. Given that life is pretty much unbearable except for millionaires these days, there’s something affectionate in the resourcefulness mobilising existence out of the very least.

Dworkin allows John Cage to be correct about silence. John Cage says that absolute silence is impossible. This is an error but not an offense. Nevertheless, silence, like shadows and holes, are absences of material objects. How to grasp their ontology is a challenge. Attempts to reduce talk of absence in terms of what it is an absence of fail. The hole in a donut is not part of the material substance of the donut. Nor is it another kind of material substance. Similarly with silence. Silence is just an absence of noise. It can be heard, just as a hole can be touched and seen, just as a shadow can be seen. But these are non-concrete objects. We can see that they are not subjective because we know they existed before minds evolved. They will out-live minds. So Cage is wrong to deny silence. Because modern artists, musicians, writers and philosophers have been repulsed by negative reality much of Dworkin’s thesis is based on Cage’s error. Philosophers talking about negative existence have been wooly like Heidegger on Holderlin, and can be accused of false advertising. They have refused to give full dues to negative existence. Silence, erasure, blankness have all been sites for discussing something less than absolute lessness, in that their silence is not really silent, their erasure not wholly erased, their blankness not absolutely blank. Dworkin is not wooly though, but detailed and immediate and economic. Jed Rasula has called him “the Barnum of a peculiar new circus called No Medium.” So his poetic imagination turns what I have pedantically called an error into an enchantment. The approach is the equivalent of camping in a fenestrated villa, on charcoal and the debris of period furniture.

The imaginary Cegeste’s Nudism book is merely a prop in a film (although designers Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin have realised an edition) but it serves as a starting point for Dworkin to discuss real life versions of unmarked pages submitted as literature and understood through the lens of Cage’s error. Lita Hornick’s Kulture imprint published a series of New American Poetry titles followed by a book by Aram Soroyan, “a five hundred page book bearing only a price ($2.00) and a copyright notice stamped under its cover.” Hornick was unconvinced even though she went ahead with the enterprise and most of them were pulped resulting in a big financial loss. Dworkin discusses the paper involved and invoked in this. Soroyan references Warhol pop art and minimalist sculpture when talking of the project. “What I was doing in writing a one-word poem during the sixties has long seemed to me to be the equivalent in language to the work of Andy Warhol in painting (his instant, simultaneous, and multiple images of Marylin Monroe) and Donald Judd in sculpture (his instant, simultaneous, and multiple metal boxes).” This seems like a commendable lust for learning rearing up amongst the ruins.

Marcel Duchamp discusses ‘the infrathing’, which is understood as “that point at which one can just barely begin to perceive a threshold between two states.” For Duchamp the state couldn’t be directly defined but could be “elaborated through examples.” He writes, “It’s something that always escapes precise definition. I have consciously chosen the word ‘thing’ because it is human emotional word and not a precise laboratory measure. The noise or music made by corduroy pants like these when one moves is tied to the concept of infrithin. The impression formed between two sides of a thin sheet of paper … something to be studied!” Duchamp tries to understand the issue in terms of moving from two to three dimensionality. This is obscure but since Duchamp philosophy has a better understanding of thresholds now.

Vagueness is the term of art philosophers have used for this subject. Roy Sorensen and Timothy Williamson have argued that thresholds are sharp but unknowable. The issue of the escaped precision that Duchamp mentions is therefore an issue of ignorance. Sorensen argues the ignorance is absolute because of the peculiarities of language that set up thresholds as false tautologies. As such, any initially identified precision brings with it a priori obligations to self destruct. There is an attitude of incredulity and futility that is overwhelming, and Duchamp intuited it.

An example makes it easier to see what he has in mind. His essay about ‘surface layer’ is helpful. “Attempting to place one planar surface precisely on another planar surface, you pass through some infrathin moments,” he says. Examples of pages being stuck together so that “all three edges line up edge to edge and have them conform to the registration of the other pages in the book” are discussed. The discussion of the display of opened journal pages is the focus of all this. Dimensions of the centerfold are important, as are supposed functions of positioning. An erased Playboy centerfold pinned to the wall by Friedman is discussed in terms of “the hands-free position of a masturbatory aid” and linked to Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing and the blank pages of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman. The link is nailed with quotation from Chapter XXXVIII of Book 6: “To conceive this right – call for pen and ink, here’s paper ready for your hand.” Sterne prompts us to “paint her to your own mind – as like your mistress as you can – as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you.” Dworkin wants to draw the conclusion that “.. the blank page is culturally inscribed with an indelible text.” He says that the blank page is about copulation, and participation with the ‘virgin page’ is really all about masturbation. Derrida went on about this in an essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as if we needed its pedigree. But Dworkin reminds us to accept ignorance and pure weakness, where self devouring thought might not have to exist.

Friedman is contrasted with Sterne: “Sterne refrains so the reader may indulge; Friedman physically removes so that the viewer may mentally impose.” The Little Review blanked out all but one contribution. 1000 Hours of Staring (1992-1997) the blank is a relic. What provokes mental responses are ‘paratexts’ – “the gallery wall labels, catalogue essays, artist interviews, et etcetera.” The tenth number of the journal Gorgona of 1966 all the pages are blank. In a founding manifesto the neo-dadist group pronounced, “Gorgona does not speak of anything.” Dworkin refuses to address the paradoxical self-contradiction at the heart of any of this. Instead he refutes the declaration by insisting that there is an exception that rescues it from the paradox; he claims that it does speak to paratexts. He claims that “the contextual situation that permits it to speak at all is also the subject of its recursive, monotonous discourse.” What this offers is a victory for disorder over the pettiness of mind and soul.

The end of this is to produce the ‘anti-retinal’ art Duchamps dreamed of creating, a conceptual art that substituted the prolonged look with the knowing wink. Christine Kozlov’s 271 Blank Sheets of Paper Corresponding to 271 Days of Concepts Rejected. February – October 1968 may be the precursor of thousands of hours staring undertaken by Frank Uwe Laysiepen and Marina Abromovic in the 1980’s and Ian Wilson who refused to produce an artifact but sat in galleries discussing the works with visitors instead. The blank pages of Wilson were reminders of his position, in contrast with blanks functioning in iconic or metaphoric ways. The link between the blank page of literature and the blank canvas of art is explicit in Thierry de Duve: “the painter’s virgin canvas shares its whiteness with the writer’s blank page more than it does with other artifacts belonging to its own tradition, linen fabric included.”

Modernism included the readymade canvas as a picture but the readymade blank page prefigured modernism and so existed before aesthetic judgments could be produced. As early as 1913 Vasilisk Gnedov produced Poem Without End which was just a title with no subsequent text. It occurred in his collection Death to Art as the final poem as a “radical conceptual reductio of minimalist poetry.” Dworkin thinks poetry, unlike art, has forgotten its own history and refuses to continue with modernism. He writes, “Painting’s prolepsis meets its equivalent in poetry’s belatedness.” There’s a St Sebastian by Antonello de Messina that is a similar invasion into the human.

Dworkin thinks blank pages “tell the story not just about the development of modern art and literature, but about media themselves.” So for Dworkin we understand our times through examining “clear film, smooth phonograph discs, erased texts, blank compact discs, white canvases, silent music.” Media are activities in a social space rather than things. A robust materialism is countered by practices “that need not be discursive, representational, or even communicative at all.” What the media of media are is part of the question posed by blankness. The paper of a blank poem records the blankness of the poem but is not the medium of the poem. Dworkin suggests that the very notion of a medium is “caught between impossible chronologies” in this situation. If this is the very base of modernity then Dworkin is suggesting this as its resulting condition.

Dworkin takes two lessons from this. One is that the medium of art and literature require rigorous definitions, and the other is that media are not concrete objects. He cites with approval Robert Morris who says “from the subjective point of view there is no such thing as nothing.” This is a version of artistic nominalism whereby calling a thing art will make it art. It is conservative. By which is meant stable. The extremity of the gesture of blankness relies on well understood and stable conventions of social meaning. We are required to know that a painting hangs on a wall, a poem is transcribed in a book and so on, or else the gesture won’t work and the meanings of blankness disappear. De Duve says, of painting, “To call it a picture… means to acknowledge the presence of that historical convention in an otherwise mundane commodity.” Abby Smith says that “there is no object that exists outside the act of retrieval.” Kenneth Grahame asks, “When shall that true poet arise who, disdaining the trivialities of text, shall give the world a book of verse consisting entirely of margins.” Melville writes: “In essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning?” All this comes out of turmoil, and the attempt to find a motive to blow up all the previous dismal mixtures.

Nick Thurston published an edition of Blanchot’s L’Espace Litteraire in 2006 without Blanchot’s text but with his own marginalia as The Remove of Literature. Dworkin suggests the notes gesture towards more than just Blanchot’s erased text but to a ‘space of literature in general.’ This begins the second chapter looking at margins. The history of literary marginalia is long: they were known as adversaria scripta in the renaissance, and Coleridge, Horace Walpole, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Charles Darwin and E.A. Poe all created famous examples. William Blake annotated Joshua Reynold’s ‘Discourses’ and Swedenborg’s ‘Divine Love’ and ‘Divine Providence’, publishing his notes separate from their original sources. Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing is analogous to Thurston’s book, which in turn followed a Dadaist moment where Andre Breton erased lines of Picabia as soon as they were drawn. Nothing of this act was retained.

Rauschenberg’s work has been preserved; a surface of ink, crayon, with a shadow of the original drawing still visible. Schoenberg once said to John cage of an eraser at the end of his pencil, “This end is more important than the other.” Cage’s 4’33” was inspired by Rauschenberg’s ‘White Paintings’. But Cage thinks there is no such thing as silence. According to Cage, “even if we could listen in a vacuum, free from the imperceptible white noise of molecular space, we would still be awash in sound. As long as we are alive we never escape the systolic waves of the hermetic ocean tiding in the nautilus turns of the ear.” This is the enchantment of seeking the impossibility of ever being wrong enough, of being ridiculous and defenseless enough.

Foucault says Blanchot’s writing “lays bare what precedes all speech, what underlies all silence: the continuous streaming of language … A language not resolved by any silence: any interruption is only a white stain on its seamless sheet.” Blanchot, in his novel Le Tres-Haut, writes that “a relation is always a displacement.” Silence then is denied, and becomes instead merely “a series of shunted noises.” He writes: “Hard against me, an intermittent noise, of sand shifting and flowing over itself, a panting in extreme slow motion, as if someone had been there, breathing, preventing himself from breathing, hidden right there next to me.” Blanchot writes that “silence [endless resifting of words without content] … is precisely the profound nature of a silence that talks even in its dumbness, a silence that is speech empty of words, an echo speaking on and on in the midst of silence.” Dworkin hopes that through erasure writing can be recovered by attending to its essential detritus, its material media and its event. He suggests this retrieval comes by a palimpsest enacting a “double play of concealment and revelation”, a way of obstructing to make something visible. Andrew Gallix writes that “Words become visible; the bloody things keep getting in the way. From this perspective, the literary is what can never be taken as read.”

Blanchot plays with the etymology of palimpsest: it comes from the classical Latin meaning a parchment that has been written on again, which in turn comes from the Greek that means a parchment from which writing has been erased which again derives from Greek meaning ‘sand.’ Blanchot is talking about the literary equivalent of the silence that reveals the sound. In English ‘sand’ derives from old Teutonic ‘sandjan’ meaning ‘to send.’ So we have the removing and delivering of a message. Sand also denotes the bank of a river or the seashore, the marge or margin. Dworkin cites Keats’ ‘Hyperion’ here: “Along the margin- sand large footprints went.” Rauschenberg is left with similar marginalia; a label by Jasper Johns and the abraded gold leaf frame.

These margins are read in terms of Blanchot’s literature: “Literature does not confine itself to rediscovering in the interior what it tried to leave behind on the threshold. Because what it finds, as the interior, is the outside which has been changed from the outlet it once was into the impossibility of going out – and what it finds as the darkness of existence is the being of day which has been changed from explicatory light, creative of meaning, into the aggrevation of what one cannot prevent oneself from understanding, and the shifting obsession of a reason without principle, without any beginning, which one cannot account for.” This is an enclosed infinitely regressive dynamic. Stripped of an overbearing paradox, it is the temptation to be courageously imperfect and larval beneath some remorseless sky.

“In the solitude of work – the work of art, the literary work – we recover a more essential solitude … the person who is writing the work is thrust to one side, the person who has written the work is dismissed.” Thurston’s work, removing Blanchot’s text so that just Thurstone’s marginalia remain, is understood as an erasure of a work that has already announced its own disappearence. It is the “revelation of what revelation destroys.” It becomes a hole. It avoids being satire or farce because it presupposes the actual erased text. It is not marginalia as such – in the abstract – but relates to the main text and so maintains indexical force. That the main text is not there gives the enactment its contradictory strength: How can marginalia be marginalia without the presence of the original text? It matters therefore that Blanchot’s erased text says of itself that it seeks a condition of “indeterminate, elusive existence in which nothing appears, the heart of depth without appearance … meaning detached from its conditions, separated from its movements, wandering like an empty power, the simple inability to cease to be.” As a consequence the removal of this text makes the printed text of The Remove of Literature both marginalia and not. Dworkin calls this a condition of Neuter. The marginalia becomes an activity not a category. Foucault talks about “the movement of attraction and the withdrawal of the companion. .. opening into a neutral space.” It is to be dazed by the avalanche of one’s impossibility, of ones life spreading out and diluting into other lives, into failures and attempts. It is a harkening to the weariness, of seeking out the narrow bed to live out the failure of nerve passing and coming, of perturbations of every fragment of hell.

Blanchot seeks to identify this with “a relation of non-identification with themselves.” The paradoxical self-contradiction is in full flight here. Iago’s “I am not who I am” makes good on Blanchot’s promise to lose a text merely by trying to follow it. The potent word ‘being’ is defined by Blanchot thus: “a word the language protects by hiding it or that the language causes to appear by disapprearing into the silent void of a work.” This is the territory of Barthes writing at degree zero where he talks of writing in a colourless language, bleached. Dworkin puns with Blanchot’s name. The Remove of Literature becomes a sort of tomb for the Blanchot erased text. “When we speak we are leaning on a tomb, and the void of that tomb is what makes language true, but at the same time void is reality and death becomes being” says Blanchot. The paradox in question is analysed as a spandrel of language, a revenge effect of communication. It is a condition of communication that self-reference traps us.

A chapter on footnotes introduces the idea of literary prosthesis. Heriberto Yepezis is cited: “Nobody is going to believe that footnotes changed writing and reading. But they did.” Santayana wrote: “There are books in which the footnotes … are more interesting than the text.” Dworkin notes Gerard Genette who in turn noted the genres “on the threshold of literature” – dedications and insciptions, epigraphs and titles, prefaces, notes, bibliographic accoutrements and quotes approvingly Genette saying that “a text without a paratext does not exist.” For Dworkin, these are examples of paratexts that “seek to supplement, support and displace the body of the text” as marginalia do.

He traces the growth of notes to a mapping exercise by Daniel Spoerri in a work called Topographie. The growth becomes an hallucinatory enactment, of perverse amplitude, of the personally expressive and an objective impersonality. These twin elements have been competing since the beginning of modernism, and we can ask; are the paratexts “a vehicle for displaying the critic’s taste and breeding” or “a quasiscientific system for displaying the vicissitudes of textual transmission?” Edmund Spencer used such apparatus in his ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’. Pope, Swift, Fielding, Sterne, Eliot, Joyce, Beckett, Nabakov, Puig, Nicholson Baker, Danielewski, Perec, Pynchon all expand into this affray.

The accumulation of trash and these exercises in excess are bound up. In 1960 Armand Fernandez filled up the Galerie Iris Clert entirely with detritus. Robert Watt’s Table For A Suicide Event was a dark version of this type of sculptural collage. The Topologie book put the idea of the book in dialogue with style. The book was a kind of anecdote, a secret history. At the same time Warhol was doing his painting by numbers simulations. Historically the footnote – at first ‘bottom notes’ – was coeval with the development of book design that emerged from the Enlightenment. Typographical style conventions are inextricable from how these became used and what they could mean.

Simon Morris’s art book Interpretation erases all but the footnotes of academic writings and the call-out numbers are scattered. The academics try and reconstruct the original essays from the notes. Walter Abish writes a short story uses superscript notes pointing to empty references and changes the status of a pretty conventional story. The idea is to understand notes in terms of mention rather than use. Another idea is that structure becomes a theme. Artistic books play on dynamics between the material object and its metaphorical associations. Ballards’ The Index is an example of how these ideas have been used in a part sci-fi, part picaresque, part burlesque manner. Dworkin notes that “part of the fun of such a work … comes from trying … to imaginatively reconstruct the single coherent narrative to which the fragmented references might possibly obtain.” Peter Greenaway’s novel The Falls pretends to be a volume of a sequence of volumes recording a ‘violent unknown event’ working with structural coincidences of the German word ‘Fallen’. Dworkin writes that “Greenaway constructs a mirrored hallway of fictions and conspiracies engulfing one another so that every ground is at risk of being found out to be illusory.” The attraction of all these footnotes, indices and bibliographies suggest undivulged stories, indictments and disclosures. I am attached to dubious interpretation. I have no interest whatsoever in conquest.

Paul Fournel’s Banlieue, hints at suppressed violent incendiary narratives somewhere between Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distant Runner and Burgess’ Clockwork Orange. The theme is of gloss suspended, in the spirit of Wittgenstein’s “Any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support.” A chapter discusses ways in which visual works might have structures analogous to Western writing’s system of alphabet letters and words. The pixel is seen as a solution.

Why is photography art? It always enters into a dialogue (with its page or wall or portfolio) and a series. They were supposed, from the very start, to be haunted by buried histories. They contain a blur of aura. The copyright issue raises all this: are photographs found scenes or made objects? Zidlicky’s photographs permit materials to become substrates. Areas of erasure disrupt the representation. These areas are blacked out or blanched. Under their 3D imagery produced in a 2D picture lies unranked materials – salts, cellulose, halides, water molecules Dworkin thinks they “enact and figure the depthlessness of a figure without a face, without any primary or outward aspect, and they illustrate the false faciality of depth.” The face is given special focus for Dworkin because it is a system by which “sheer materials are legible as media.” In a discussion about Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the face Dworkin quotes them as saying, “the face has a great future but only if it is destroyed, dismantled. Why? Because the face is a conceptual map. Levinas sees the face as the irreducible other. It can’t be mapped onto a totalizing system attempting to comprehend the self and the other. On the road to the asignifying and asubjective.” I made this a paraphrase of Rimbaud’s “a child full of sadness / squatting, looses a boat as frail / as a moth into the fragrant evening.”

Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion is linked to another discussion about the paintings of Francis Bacon: “painting has two possible paths of escaping the figurative: towards pure form, through abstraction, or towards the pure figural, through extraction or isolation.” Bacon is an abstracter and isolator. “The face has lost its form by being subjected to the techniques of rubbing and brushing that disorganise it and make a head emerge in its place.” Whether the stars have floored him or not quite yet is a subterranean issue.

Levinas’ face is only understood in terms of the infinite responsibility we have towards the other. “For the presence before the face, my orientation toward the Other can lose the avidity of the gaze only by turning into generosity, incapable of approaching the other with empty hands. This relationship, established over the things hereafter possibly common, that is, susceptible of being said, is the relationship of discourse. The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we name the fact. This mode does not consist in figuring as a theme under my gaze, in spreading itself forth as a set of qualities forming an image. The face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me.” The face for Levinas seems like a trapdoor opening to the theatrical underworld and its whirring mechanisms and costume storehouse. And its darkness.

We read into the face, and we read into photography. They are duplicitous but not insincere, like Jastrow duck/rabbits and Rorschach tests. They are a litmus test for the viewer. This links to translation. Translation is a kind of elegy. Robert Frost wrote that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Dworkin is interested in translations that are recognised as equals or improvements to the originals. Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 series ‘White Paintings’ used commercial white house paint laid in using a roller. They were futuristic, linking with minimalism and conceptual art of the next decade. And backward-looking, linking with monochrome paintings such as Rodchenko’s 1921 Pure Colours: Red, Yellow, Blue and Malevitch’s Black Quadrilateral, Red Quatrilateral and White on White. Dworkin reads him as offering a “rebuke to his own contemporaries, casting a quiet, cold stare at the psychologised gestures and overwrought facture of abstract expressionism and offering an unheeded warning to the imminent egomaniacal spiritualism of Yves Klein’s self-branded blue.” John Cage saw them as “airports for shadows and dust.” Rauschenberg said ‘they had to do with shadows and the projection of things in a room onto the blank canvass.’

Cage sees the Rauschenberg paintings as prefiguring his own 4’33”. He ends a discussion paraphrasing William Carlos Williams: “Say it, no ideas but in things.” Dreyfus thinks that “the closer one approaches the conceptual the more the material presses in.” Rauschenberg said that “What interests me is a contact. It is not to express a message.” Dreyfus links this to Walter Benjamin: “Just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at but one point – establishing , with this touch rather than with the point, the law according to which it is to continue on its straight path to infinity – translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux.”

In this way Rauschenberg is being translated by Cage. Translation is an enactment of touching. The danger of translation for Benjamin is that “the gates of language thus expanded and modified may slam shut and enclose the translator in silence.” At the end of this section Dreyfus reroutes translation: instead of elegy it now more an act of absorption and reverie, “in the way one might be lost in thought. Which is precisely the way thought can be found in materials, ideas lodged in things.” In discussing Zen for Record Dreyfus finds a dialectic between the promise of silence and the reality. On a vinyl record, silence is impossible. It is a record that only delivers an illusion of the illusion that we can get beyond facts. If anything, it helps us see what can be done a little better. It is a boundary work in the Duchampean sense, some activity done whilst dying is going on that is heavily involved in finding expression even if never actually finding it.

Dworkin returns to Cage. The 4’33’ is an experiment designed to show the audience that silence is impossible. Cage had heard his own heartbeat in an anechoic chamber in Harvard in an apocryphal segment of autobiography. This leads to the conclusion that the media are always legible in the message. Adorno’s theory of music is based on assuming “slight, continuous and constant noise.” Zen For Film accumulates more noise each time it is played. Viewing the film brings it closer to destruction. Hegel discusses Aufhebung which is a simultaneous preservation and cancellation. A different technology of record – eg a CD – would measure decay differently from that of a record. A lesson drawn by Dworkin is that pure medium is as unrealisable as pure silence. Webs of overlapping technological support “fatally complicate any account of a single, pure, essential medium. There are only ever media.” Another lesson is that Zen for Record shows that conceptual art is inextricably link to materiality.

This is a conclusion that has nowhere to be. It cannot be in front of nothingness, for if it were, it would cancel nothingness. No Medium is an exercise of visionary exile that doesn’t live anywhere. Apart from extreme perturbation I have not the faintest idea whether my preferences are vindicated by these samples. Bear in mind that I don’t think we can ever go too far, and that we need agitation and turmoil to get through to being ridiculous. Play-acting – both the pernicious kitsch competitive plethora type and the caricatured arterial-bursting existential type – is here substituted for acts without hope done in calm repose facing the turmoil of damnedness.

‘Damnedness’ spooks up too many theologies. So substitute it for a contrary, a Hebraic antithesis and chiasmus left hanging in a forlorn hope that the contradiction cancels expressiveness. I sound like someone mumbling from a protestant rest home. Dworkin’s book reminds us that even ideas of poverty and bareness are superlatives. It will be relevant for as long as we’re in turmoil, we want to be happy and all we’re good for on paper is going on into Beckett’s “silliness, ignorance, impotence and silence.” The last chapter is a trove for which Dworkin deserves our deepest gratitude.

A few days after reading this book I wondered how blank art could be erased. In the spirit of Dworkin I reckon a sophisticated reader will get the joke. Then a more sophisticated reader will refuse to.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 29th, 2013.