Without Words, What Are Facts?: Looking at Susan Howe Looking at Marker
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Without Words, What Are Facts?:
Looking at Susan Howe Looking at Marker

In 1996, poet1 Susan Howe's sizeable essay, "Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker,"2 was commissioned by Charles Warren for a book on nonfiction film called Beyond Document. This was a result of Harvard University's annual documentary film symposium (also titled "Beyond Document"), begun in 1989. Warren chose representative lectures from the series because they came from, as Stanley Cavell noted in his introduction, "outside the conventions and discourses of professional study of film." It was their "ways of addressing" the "epistemological and political and artistic issues" of "film as document" that Warren was seeking.3

Though Howe saw herself, in entering this subject, as someone who'd "agreed to meddle in a foreign discipline,"4 she was an obvious choice. Her writing's most dominant themes circulate around the nature of documentation, of documents themselves and how history is configured in our imaginations by documents (or lack of them). She is interested in what is recorded in or, as important, what is left out of the record. Her writing is, in many ways, visually oriented, and as such shares image-making with cinema. Her instantly recognizable texts, described by one critic as "transparently matted palimpsests,"5 are composed of iconographic formations on the page and odd sentences. Her text is profuse with unusual syntax and cryptic wordings that feature in otherwise thoroughly researched academic discourses.6

Marker is virtually stripped of Howe's signature iconographic style, and was the beginning of a new look in her writing, but her almost surreal sentences and diaphoric7 couplings remain. Marker can be a difficult essay to read. Critiques of Howe's work get caught up in her unreadability or unapproachabilty, and she has [End Page 429] heard "so often" how "inaccessible" her work is.8 It certainly cannot be approached without wondering how. But that question implicitly is part of the work and as such is represented by it. Howe's work cannot discard unreadability. It is a crucial part of her take on the world. It's not a preface through which the reader battles to arrive at "readable," but rather it is an ever-present, companionable unknown. Howe "hope[s]" that her "sense of limit is never fixed."9 She aims to conflate the divides of reader-writer as she has done in herself—"I am my ideal reader."10 Howe's writing is focused on reorganizing rather than simply destabilizing. An overall coherence exists in her surreality that is not so much mysterious as it is practical. Howe's language twists shake the reader's apprehension and are more radically demanding than the complex visual page so evident in her work before 1996. Howe's goal is even more radical. "Freedom"11 is what she wants for the reader.

In Marker, as in all her writing, she redefines how to inhabit that reader space. The writer writes, the reader reads. Reading is shown as a synchronic interaction of past and present. In virtually every work, Howe uses textual clusters from a given historical period and looks at how they have been (or continue to be) used to interpret the past as a have and have-not "record written by winners."12 She forces the reader to reexamine literally what it is to derive information from a page. By mixing original source clusters such as memoirs, treatises, biographies, commentaries, and the like with her own writing, she abolishes categories to reconstruct the either/or perspective of seen/not seen into one of both/and, where reality is not solely defined by the tangible, linear, or visibly powerful.

In an interview, Howe was asked, "[W]hat is left in words themselves? What is in the words?" She answered, "It's the singularity. It's a catastrophe of bifurcation. There is a sudden leap into another situation . . . the entrance point of a singularity . . . is the only thing we have."13 Howe calls this energized, interconnecting singularity the "ghost under the helmet,"14 a phrase so persistent that it becomes a personal trope. It is a major image in Marker. Howe...