- Liquid Chaos
Wagner once wrote that music begins where words end, but I don't buy it (Wagner 1871, 174). To my ears and my eyes, Western music history is filled with language's attempt to colonize sound, to stuff acoustic energy into rigid shapes and orderly syntaxes that can be mapped, charted, permutated, and justified with logic.
In counterpose, I want to talk here about not talking. I want to articulate the ways in which my work intentionally attempts to frustrate language and resist objectification in words. I want to situate my work in a context of thinkers and makers focused on extra-linguistic intensity. I'll move through three reference points before winding my way back to my own work: from art theory, through cultural theory, through music theory, to me. When I get to me, I'll talk about two things: chaos and liquidity. Or, perhaps more succinctly: liquid chaos.
In 1996, the art critics Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois curated an exhibit at the Pompidou center in Paris entitled Formlessness: Modernism against [End Page 135] the Grain, which took as its point of departure the writings of Georges Bataille. In their exhibition catalogue, Formless: A User's Guide, Krauss and Bois discuss a series of paintings by Edward Ruscha entitled Liquid Words. In his 1969 painting eye, for example, Ruscha scribbles the letters e-y-e in a viscous, oily scrawl that slowly bleeds toward a state of fused indifferentiation. Bois argues that Ruscha's paintings expose a short circuit between language and liquidity: "In order for language to function, signs must be isolable one from the other," he writes "(otherwise they would not be repeatable). At every level (phonetic, semantic, syntactic, and so on) language has its own laws of combination and continuity, but its primary material is constructed of irreducible atoms. Language is a hierarchical combination of bits" (Bois and Kraus 1997, 124).
Ruscha's painting invites entropy and gravity to break down the boundaries between language's isolable bits. Doing so he unleashes what Krauss and Bois describe as "the repressed materiality of an idealized code." Though they use words, Rushcha's paintings resist representation and accentuate all that exceeds speech's communicative function—that is, "everything that makes it into matter, everything that escapes idealization" (1997, 127). "The material of inscription," Bois writes, "ink or pigment, which is, in principle, perfectly indifferent to the communicative function, irrupts in a grotesque and tempestuous manner in his works on paper (he uses everything from axle grease and caviar to those liquids whose permutation Bataille discussed in his Story of the Eye: egg yolk, milk, sperm, urine, and so on)" (1997, 127).
In sum: Ruscha attacks language through liquid. He breaks down the boundaries between bits by using visceral, vital materials that tug the attention away from an abstract, external, referent toward a messy, provocative present.
In his 2002 book Parables for the Virtual, philosopher Brian Massumi attempts to break down another combinatorial, permutational system: the grid of oppositional terms undergirding much early cultural theory. Drawing from a linguistic model, this classic cultural theoretical view sees subject formation as a type of coding. Massumi writes: "Coding came to be thought of in terms of [End Page 136] positioning on a grid. The grid was conceived as an oppositional framework of culturally constructed significations: male versus female, black versus white, gay versus straight, and so on. A body corresponded to a 'site' on the grid defined by an overlapping of one term from each pair. The body came to be defined by its pinning to the grid" (2002, 2). Subjects were formed as combinatorial permutations of an overarching definitional framework.
Massumi critiques this model on a few grounds. First, it presumes a body is stable and static, denying its material reality as a sensing, changing form that is constantly in motion. Two, this model allows no notion of movement as qualitative transformation. One can jump from a certain point on the grid to another, when he or she shifts from child to adult, for example, but the gaps between grid points fall into a theoretical no-body's land...