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  • Literary Agnotology
  • Anahid Nersessian

Sometime during the morning of 4 March 1969, Robert Barry, a semi-reluctant member of what Jörg Heiser calls "the New York anti-sensuality squad" of conceptual artists, walked into the Mojave desert.1 It was cold, around 35 degrees. Barry had with him a camera and large tank of helium gas. He opened the tank and let the helium rise and expand into the dry air. There wasn't much to see, because helium is odorless, invisible, and, as one of the seven noble gases, non-reactive or, as the chemists say, inert. He took a picture: of the tank stuck at an angle into the sand, of the clear blue sky, the mountains in the distance and the desert sage. Barry would repeat this process four times over, with measured volumes of neon, argon, krypton, and xenon, all released into space within driving distance of Los Angeles. "What I was trying to do, really," he would say, a few months later, "was create something which really existed, and which had its own characteristics and its own nature, but which we couldn't really perceive."2 The posters advertising an exhibition of Barry's Inert Gas Series were almost blank, with some text at the bottom listing the address of a gallery and a phone number (Figure 1). The address belonged to a Hollywood P.O. box, and the phone number connected callers to an answering service. If you called in, you heard a taped message that described what Barry had done with his gases in the desert—a paraphrase given both in lieu and as an element of the artwork itself.

Paraphrase—summary, synopsis, restatement, translation, the gist—could be the wicked stepchild of figuration. We know what Cleanth Brooks says: paraphrase assumes that "the poem constitutes a 'statement' of some sort," to be judged on the basis of its fidelity to some "political or scientific or philosophical truth."3 But this is all wrong, for a poem rather appears to us, in Brooks's words, "like the stick immersed in the pool of water, warped and bent … deflected away from a positive, straightforward formulation" ("HP," 211). "When Donne uses logic, he regularly uses it to justify illogical propositions" ("HP," 211); to ask, "does [Pope] assert that Belinda is a goddess? Or does he say that she is a brainless chit?" is to pose a question the poem cannot answer, in terms it cannot grasp ("HP," 197). The [End Page 339]

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Figure 1.

Robert Barry, Inert Gas Series/Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon/From a Measured Volume to Indefinite Expansion (1969). Letterpress, 35 3/16 x 23 1/8" (89.3 x 58.8 cm). ©Robert Barry. Digital image ©The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

[End Page 340] argument is familiar, so familiar that Andrew Piper even identifies it as "the one orthodoxy left in today's critical environment."4 If that remark papers over somewhat the gap between scholarly ideals and pedagogical habit—who among us hasn't profaned a Holy Sonnet by asking students, "so, what is this poem about?"—the point is well-taken. It is especially well-taken when Piper goes on to observe that the anti-paraphrastic prejudice is, like any orthodoxy, historical. It was, he submits, only after "the turn of the nineteenth century" that "paraphrase was thought no longer possible," a bit of carbon-dating that joins paraphrase-phobia to other Romantic innovations, literary formalism and a certain disposition regarding lyric poetry being most conspicuous among them.5

Piper has a convincingly upbeat reading of paraphrase as a "communicative framework" primed, in this age of "extraordinary critical and theoretical fragmentation," to offer "new models of literary sociability."6 Egalitarian, transformational, a Deleuzian volley of "enfolding and unfolding," his model of paraphrase paraphrases its virtues so generously that it seems uncivil to reject such radical promise.7 Nonetheless, I want to stick with Brooks's claim that "the 'prose-sense' of the poem is not a rack on which the stuff of the poem is hung," because it seems right and because it accounts just...


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