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Steve McCaffery's Visual Errata
In this article, I analyze the links among repressed affective and political elements that circulate throughout Steve McCaffery's two part visual poem Carnival (1967-76). I begin by reading McCaffery "against the grain" through theories formulated by Jacques Lacan. Following this perspective, I read McCaffery sympathetically by underlining his construction of a positive, productive desire which does not centre on lack, but which actively celebrates multiplicity and affirmation, an approach that stems from ideas proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. I juxtapose these heterogeneous interpretive strategies in order to engage with the politics of desire in Carnival: following Fredric Jameson's conception of Marxism as an "untranscendable horizon" that sublates seemingly antagonistic and incommensurable critical operations, in order to delegitimate the illusion that these operations are complete and self-sufficient, these contradictory readings illustrate the extent to which McCaffery's early visual poetry engages with politically radical thought, as well as the extent to which it unconsciously re-enforces the bourgeois ideologies that so often are the object of his critique.
Carnival The First Panel: 1967-70 (1973) is a mechanical device that comes complete with its own instruction manual. The texts asks readers to destroy the book by tearing out its pages "carefully along the perforation" near its spine, and then to assemble the "panel" by laying out the pages in a square of four. Ironically, one must destroy the book in order to read it.
Carnival offers readers a productive role not only because it asks them to physically manipulate the book, but also because the text's instructions do not indicate the precise manner in which the panels are to be re-assembled. There are sixteen pages of "typestract" or abstract typewriter art in the first panel, (not including the covers, introduction, errata sheet, and postcard with instructions for reading), however, the order of combining the "sixteen square feet of concrete" panels is left up to the reader / operator of the text. As McCaffery and bpNichol point out in their 1973 collaborative article "Thee Book as Machine" (written as the Toronto Research Group, or TRG): "Carnival is an anti-book: perforated pages must be physically released, torn from sequence and viewed simultaneously in the larger composite whole. The work demands that language be engaged non-sequentially rather than in sequence" (Rational 65).
However, the TRG's erection of a binary opposite between non-sequentiality and sequentiality is problematic, for this opposition assumes that the signifier is autonomous, and does not function as part of the signifying chain. McCaffery's modification of individual letters does not necessarily mean that they escape the constraints of the symbolic, for even if the alteration of an individual letter is intended to block or cancel the action of reference--i.e. if the letter does not assume the symbolic agreement--the existence of the letter as an element in a linguistic chain situates it in a symbolic constraint foreign to that intention. Carnival remains a part of the conventions of textuality, because a reader's personal configuration of the panels merely substitutes another sequence for the author's absent sequence; in both cases language precedes the subject.
Much like the letter in Lacan's "Seminar on the Purloined Letter" (1956), the "content" of McCaffery's visual letters are never revealed. Both texts present the signified as insignificant; in Lacan's text the content of the letter is irrelevant compared to its capacity to constitute intersubjective relations among characters, while in McCaffery's text the signified is immaterial to the visual surface of the signifier. To read the letter as non-representational is to illustrate its role as *objet petit a*--the object small other, which Lacan claims: "serves as a symbol of the lack, that is to say, of the phallus, not as such, but in so far as it is lacking" (Four 103). Unlike the big O Other, which refers to the differential structure of language and social relations that produce the subject, the small o other (objet a) is a dream of fulfilment, an empty surface for the projection of desire. Carnival dispenses with a signified in order to foreground the signifer as full presence, yet its decontextualized letters are not empty in the sense that they do not signify at all: they signify vacancy, the concept of absence. The letters thus function as objet a, fantasy substitutes for the missing phallus of full and complete presence. Carnival is symptomatic of lack, because it offers readers a text on which they might, in Lacan's words, "model their very being on the moment of the signifying chain which traverses them" ("Purloined" 60).
Carnival's gaze thus reinforces a social text that is always already in existence by "picturin g" the subject in its own image. Lacan combines Freud's theory of scopophilia1 with the Hegelian master / slave relationship, in order to illustrate the dialectical association between subject and Other that he claims constitutes subjectivity: "the gaze is outside, I am looked at, that is to say, I am a picture. . . . This is the function that is found at the heart of the institution of the subject in the visible. What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside" (Four 106). Since the subject can never see itself from where the Other is looking at it--i.e., since the gaze is invisible, but "imagined in the field of the Other" (Four 84), the Lacanian subject is externally constituted. When McCaffery imagines the reader constructing a new sequence for Carnival, he misrecognizes himself and his readers as unified subjects, for both reader and writer are subject to the gaze and the cultural coordinates that define subjectivity; in effect, Carnival looks at the reader / writer, thereby stimulating their unconscious desire.
Carnival's instruction sheet claims that the first panel is "sixteen square feet of concrete," but this claim is false advertising. Since each of the sixteen pages actually measures only eleven inches by eight and a half inches, the actual contents of the package are less than the number advertised on the label. By blatantly calling into question the truth claims of advertising through this contradiction, Carnival provides an early example of McCaffery's criticism of commercial mediaspeak. As Marjorie Perloff argues in Radical Artifice (1991), McCaffery's later texts, such as The Black Debt (1989), offers a critique of commercial advertising discourses through the ironic evocation of signboards, tickertape, and electronic mail (104-11). The theme of ironic deception is played out in Carnival's errata sheet, where one non-semantic signifier is exchanged for another. But because both of these signifiers have no conventional signified, the deception occurs by feigning deception, by pretending that there is a truth behind the error. McCaffery's errata sheet operates like one of the various forms of the joke told by Lacan to illustrate the paradoxical relationship between truth and deception in the symbolic. In the 1964 version of the joke, one character tells another he is catching a train for Lemberg: "why are you telling me you are going to Lemberg, the other replies, since you really are going there, and that, if you are telling me this, it is so that I shall think you are going to Cracow?" (Four 139). In the 1957 version, however, Lemberg is labelled Cracow, while Cracow is labelled Luov (Ecrits 173). The shifting city names emphasize the point of this short narrative--that meaning lies not in a single signified but in intersubjective difference. Only one of the characters in the joke knows his destination, but in his attempt to communicate through language, his knowledge is perceived by the other as deception. McCaffery's substitution of one non-semantic destination for another similarl presents us with the paradoxical proposition "I am lying." Since neither of the sets of signifiers on the errata sheet are attached to a signified, the truth of the error is that there is a deception, which in turn is a truth. The only "truth" claim of this text is an ironic Nietzschean foregrounding of art as the site of true lies: "art treats illusion as illusion; therefore it does not wish to deceive; it is true" (96). If we get the joke we become conscious that the Other evokes our unconscious desire through its capacity to defer a destination as full and present meaning. The joke lets us in on a piece of the real, because it reveals how the anchoring points of truth and error are mythical constructs. And because the text presents both truth and error as autonomous to the signified, it questions the imaginary relationship attached to the signifier by the subject. As Kaja Silverman notes, the non-representational status of language theorized by Lacan means that the signified is always provisional, and can never be "resolved back into a pure indication of the real" (165). Carnival's refusal to resolve the signified into the real makes it a machine for short-circuiting the imaginary / symbolic complex. Like the unfinalizable destination of the letter in Lacan's story, McCaffery's joke illustrates that the Other has no punch-line, no terminal point of arrival.
What would happen if we were to re-interpret the TRG's book-machine and McCaffery's Carnival in relation to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's critique of Lacan? Opposed to the (negative) Lacanian dialectic of lack and desire, Deleuze and Guattari propose a theory of "desiring-production," which they define as a "pure multiplicity, that is to say, an affirmation that is irreducible to any sort of unity" (46). Desiring-production's multiplicities differ from Lacan's unifying and totalizing theory of the subject as lack; for Deleuze and Guattari, desire is a positive and pluralistic force that conditions the relations between humans, industry, and nature. "Everything is a machine," they write, [t]here is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together" (Anti 2). With this model in mind, we could expand the TRG's claim that readers of book-machines "must adopt the role of operators, workers, and machine hands" (Rational 182-83) to situate readers not just as machine hands, but as productive desiring-machines that are intimately linked with other machines in an unceasing continuum: "one machine is always coupled with another" (Anti 5). If we re-consider Carnival as a desiring-machine that is connected to other desiring-machines, we deterritorialize the perspective which constructs lack as the centre of subjectivity, thereby reterritorializing subjectivity as a network of multiplicities. The relationship between the reading-machine and the book-machine could thus be characterized as a "rhizome." In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980: trans. 1987) Deleuze and Guattari describe how a "rhizomatic book" differs from a "root-book": the latter imitates the world through reflection (the "One that becomes two" ), while the former occurs through "[p]rinciples of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (6). Carnival is rhizomatic to theextent that it is an assemblage of heterogenous typographies, colours, and rubber stamp marks, which can be dis-assembled and re-assembled by a desiring-machine who is always already part of a multiplicity. The text exhibits the rhizomatic features found by Deleuze and Guattari in an assemblage: "[t]he book as assemblage with the outside, against the book as image of the world" (23).
According to the TRG, readers of book-machines are no longer simply consumers of text, but instead "must adopt the role of operators, workers and machine hands" (Rational 182-183). By inviting readers to produce their own meaning, Nichol and McCaffery offer a political critique of the author / reader relationship, which is analogous to the producer / consumer relationship in capitalism. The theory appears to be consistent with Charles Bernstein's insistence that stylistic innovation is recognizable not only as an alternative to aesthetic convention, but also as an alternative type of social formation (*Poetics* 227). Yet the anti-oedipal body-machine and book-machine connection throws suspicion on to the structuralist notion that the author / reader relationship is analogous to the producer / consumer relationship, because the structuralist position subjugates the multiplicity of desiring-production to a binary opposition between antithetical terms, instead of a flow and flux of consumptions, productions, distributions, points of reference. For this reason, the TRG's construction of a binary opposite between producer and consumer is problematic; upholding the binary structure merely reproduces the historical condition of capitalist economics in another form. By reading the book-machine's operator as a desiring-machine in connection with a potentially infinite series of other desiring-machines, on the other hand, we deteritorialize the binary structure's social coding (reader : consumer : lack :: writer : producer : fulfilment) and re-situate it as a type of schizophrenic anti-logic that is simultaneously inside and outside of the social order. As Michel Foucault comments in the introduction to Anti-Oedipus, any desiring machine is "always a combination of various elements and forces of all types" (xxiii). For this reason, the Lacanian scheme that opens this study could be re-visited (rather than avoided) as only one of many interpretative destinations. To follow this route is to read Lacanian theory gainst its own grain by re-situating it within a multiplicity as a non-totalizing machine of productive desire, a rhizome which interacts with the flow of other desiring-machines (such as Carnival) even when they invite contradictory interpretations.
1. In Three Essays on Sexuality (1905), Freud discusses the notion of scopophilia, in which the act of looking, as well as the experience of being looked at, is associated with pleasure. For Freud, the childhood gaze is motivated by an inquisitive desire towards looking at forbidden bodily functions, and this desire foreshadows later fantasies about phallic (masculine) power (Moi 180). Freud's narrative follows a typical pattern: scopophilia begins in the pre-oedipal phase, when the child blurs the important distinction between the active pleasure of looking (voyeurism) and the passive pleasure of being looked at (exhibitionism). The child at this stage looks at its own body as if it were an object. However, Freud claims that the active and passive types of scopophilia gradually become distinct, and are codified as masculine and feminine at the Oedipal phase. Following the Oedipal correlation of activity with masculinity and the phallic, and passivity with femininity and castration, voyeurism becomes associated with masculinity, and exhibitionism with femininity (Wright 448).
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---. "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'." 1956. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. Yale French Studies 48 (1972): 38-72.
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