On things and The Squeakquel

Death holding a sun parasol
a strong man
a panda
a tortoiseshell cat with a food bowl
a white tiger, an orange tyrannosaurus rex, three little matroyshkas, some puppies, a cowboy, a fake lotus, an army-green triceratops, a bunny smoking a a cigarette, a tiny ambulance with a miniature doctor’s kit inside, a meercat, a Kwan Yin, hear/see/speak-no evil monkeys, a mini-snowglobe with a leprechaun inside, tiny mini-cartons of mini vegetables, a tiny metal lantern, wee groceries like bread and orange juice and onigiri, miniscule zaru-soba set, tiny blender with bananas, strawberries, ice, koi, a woodchuck, a metal lantern, a zebra, a relatively large wooden giraffe with gumby hanging from his ear and a tiny pink human infant in his horns, a brass genie lamp, some kind of African antelope with striped legs, a branch, fake poppies and irises in a red plastic faux red-crystal vase, ETCETERA

This is what I see from my desk.

Even a little exposure to me will confirm the extent to which I am (maybe notoriously) entwined in, with, and by objects.  I can’t help myself, I search them out and they come to me.  I find them on the street, I buy them online and in the real world. I arrange them and rearrange them and discard them and give them away and make them and pet and covet and alter them.  I suppose I do mind the clutter but I can’t help it.

On a recent visit to Alli Warren’s Arts & Crafts-style bungalow-studio in Oakland, I was so impressed by the crisp sparsity of her living quarters:  a small pile of library books, a shelf of chapbooks, a shelf of lovingly curated LPs.  With few arrangements of objects to gather dust and stagnant memory-energy, there was an air of freshness.  Konrad Steiner’s little house was only slightly more thingified, although in the garden grew quite baroquely some radicchio that could have been painted by Caravaggio as well as cascades of nasturtiums, some of which I happily munched on. My mom’s house is full of crystals, faux-lotuses, and Kwan Yin statues, but still there is a general air of spaciousness that I don’t think I could cultivate even if I wanted to.

I mention all this as a way to bring myself to begin to write about what I have been wanting for weeks to write about:  Dana Ward’s twin chapbooks, The Squeakquel, pts. 1 and 2, recently out from The Song Cave.  He writes in part 1 that

…I never had much of a feeling for ‘things’. On Easter Sunday last year I was visiting New York & David & Sara were there from San Francisco. After lunch we got onto the subjct of the object (haha), & I admitted to David I never spent a whole lot of time on the topic, & how, with respect to Walter Benjamin (& Proust) this often made me feel insufficiently bathed in melancholia & thus somewhat detached from the haunted modernity I loved as emotional color & theory but never appreciated as viscera. David, a curl of mild shock in his voice, said, “You don’t think of our lives as it’s lived amid things?!.”

Two points.  No… three points, really:

1) David and Sara’s apartment is filled with things.  Books, mainly.  Hundreds of books in piles.  I don’t remember a whole lot of other things, but the books are there with a kind of radiant, possibly sinister, seductive energy, because that is what books are:  radiant and sinister and seductive.

2) Dana goes on in these chapbooks to sort of disprove this statement and notice mindfully that in fact he is as intertwined with objects as anyone, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding: “I was so happy to get the scarf back I can barely tell you how happy I was! It provided me not only with a feeling of narrative completeness but also it perpetuated the seditious upending of my own bland coolness toward objects…” (pt. 2) Plus I remember the time before last when I saw him he was wearing these amazing blue suede boots; no one who was truly indifferent toward objects could choose and wear such footwear.

3) I’m in love with his “prose style.”  “A curl of mild shock in his voice” is just the right amount of mannered and inventive, and it’s just exactly right.

But it’s not prose like, you know, prose.   It’s got poems in it (by which I mean verse poems as “part of” the narrative” as well as poetry woven into the non-verse paragraphs):

“dense machinic excess”

“horrifically licentious little algebras”

“bewildering opacity figured through poetry”

“oh, poetic time”

I’ve written before somewhere that I sensed a whiff of Kerouac in Dana’s tone-constructions, and that statement holds.  Two more observations:

1) He fondles his pop culture references just as lovingly as everything else, but not in such a way that one feels, oh, the obligatory pop culture references.  They are key.

2) There is a moment that feels like Sartre to me.  Do you remember that famous “tree” passage in Nausea?  Let me see if I can find it online… yes, here it is:

So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things,their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was  sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of”existence.” I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, “The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,” but I didn’t feel that it existed or that the seagull was an “existing seagull”; usually existence hides itself. It is there,around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word “to be.” Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, 1 foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface. If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form which was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness. I kept myself from making the slightest movement, but I didn’t need to move in order to see,behind the trees, the blue columns and the lamp posts of the bandstand and the Velleda, in the midst of a mountain of laurel. All these objects… how can I explain? They inconvenienced me; I would have liked them to exist less strongly, more dryly, in a more abstract way, with more reserve. The chestnut tree pressed itself against my eyes. Green rust covered it half-way up; the bark, black and swollen, looked like boiled leather.

There is a passage like this in The Squeakquel Part 1, a kind of sister to Sartre’s:

I remember one night as a kid sitting in an over-lit Subway, nursing an enormous Dr. Pepper, being 14, in love with my solemn isolation & considering, lost in a trance of new thoughts, the fact, or the meaning of the hard yellow both [sic] I was sunk in. I was trying to picture its origins & sources, who’d made it & where,, & under what conditions.  Until then there’d been a fuzzy kind of magic that governed my relations to things & their appearance in the world, but the table seemed to quit this spell, suddenly breaking through clouds.  Deprived of my immature chains of causation through which to substantiate the facts of its existence, the table seemed to seek not the breakdown of a magic bet a better brand of sorcery to compliment the absence of a theory I was wholly conditioned to persist in. The table grew tired of feeling my eyes boring into its surface with mute incomprehension, & so, as if to satisfy my mystical impatience leapt up & started dancing there, not possessed, come true.  When it danced it was like a Swiss army knife dancing with each step revealing more lacerating plumage that cut through the tender & tactile air above my head (which had something like the dampness of a sapling), & when it was done with its volleys & cuts a dewy light-bulb had been carved and stationed in the orbit of my skull. It burned warm, & would multiply too; I would find it screwed into the socket of every single lamp, fastened under the cradles of glass-hooded streetlights, & fixed into heaven – the sun.

In both instances, the objects melt with the viewing subjects into a kind of busy revelatory space, but where Sartre gets nauseated, Dana sees kinetics and light.  I think they are tied for “vision” and “imagination” – what do you think?

The worst thing about Dana’s Squeakquel books is that they are too short.  I want to stay ensconced in them for a much longer time and/but I am glad and grateful that they have become part of the objects that surround me in my universe and into which I can project my own bouncy and visionary [?] perceptions.

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6 thoughts on “On things and The Squeakquel

  1. You write: “In both instances, the objects melt with the viewing subjects into a kind of busy revelatory space, but where Sartre gets nauseated, Dana sees kinetics and light. I think they are tied for “vision” and “imagination” – what do you think?” I think they are definitely tied.

    But what I want to mention is that there's a whole new way of looking at objects, a philosophy called speculative realism or object-oriented ontology, which you might find interesting:

    Jane Bennett's VIbrant Objects, Reza Negerastani's Cyclonopedia, practically anything by Graham Harman, perhaps especially his Quadruple Object, Levi Bryant's blog Larval Subjects … etc. What's most interesting, I think, is that it gives objects their own life, and isn't at all anthropomorphic.

    Which is in a way why I find DW's passage so much more evocative thatn Sartre's. Sartre cared less about the tree qua tree; his vision, it was all about him. The objects themselves got in the way of his vision. Hence the loneliness of existentialism.

    Whereas in Ward's the booth starts dancing, not in relation to him, but in relation to its own self, its own suchness. I think that the “as if” and “come true” in his “as if to satisfy my mystical impatience leapt up & started dancing there, not possessed, come true” are really important, and place him among the true democracy of the object oriented.

    I hope this isn't an intrusion.

  2. Quite the opposite of an intrusion, John. I especially appreciate the pointers toward new philosophical texts!

    I do, think, though, that Dana anthropomorphizes…in (as Mary Poppins sang) “the most delightful way,” in the way that one's toys come alive in the night bedroom of one's childhood:

    “The table grew tired of feeling my eyes boring into its surface with mute incomprehension, & so, as if to satisfy my mystical impatience leapt up & started dancing there”

    The table moves not so much in relation to itself I think as in RESPONSE to Dana's being and thinking. There is a kind of reciprocal relationship there that is different from Sartre's to the tree and also different, I think, from what you describe. But I do think there is indeed a kind of democracy that is different from Sartre-aghast-at-otherness.

  3. Nada, upon further thought, you're right, Dana does anthropomorphize. Yet I think the key still is as you note, the table responds, in its own most delightful way. It still has its own existence, it's not merely a projection of his own ego. The relationship is indeed reciprocal, not one-sided a la Sartre.

    It's still worth pointing out that the major breakthrough, I should say breakout, of object-oriented philosophy is to out of Kant's (and Sartre's) human-centered universe (everything exists because I perceive it) into a universe in which objects exist whether or not humans perceive them.

    This is why I suggested that the “as if” in Dana's “”The table grew tired of feeling my eyes boring into its surface with mute incomprehension, & so, as if to satisfy my mystical impatience leapt up & started dancing there” is so important. Sure, the table is anthropomorphized inasmuch as it “grew tired”, but the “as if” suggests, to me at least, the possibility that the table did not dance to satisfy him. It *may* simply danced because at that moment it was given to dancing.

    Thanks,

    Cheers,

    John

  4. is that kant? i don't think it is. what about the noumenon? and the whole thing for kant was that there is non-sensory knowledge. which is not empiricism (of berkeley, hume, or john's kant)…

    john says (for kant)

    “everything exists because I perceive it)” but that this everything moves contra kant “into a universe in which objects exist whether or not humans perceive them”

    which is hume, berkeley, et al. but not kant… not “perceive” at least…

    'apperceive' or cognize maybe

    i suppose if john responds to this and gives a lengthy patchwork to this i'll respond (*sigh)… but kant definietly had the noumenon and didn't endorse the empiricism john says he did. that is inarguable.

    -m. chuzzlewit

  5. Dear M Chuzzlewit, no argument from me re: the noumenon, etc. But outside his critiques Kant tells a slightly less balanced story. And it's certain that many of those who came after him read him as I've described. I will gladly agree that it would have been more accurate had I said, post- or neo-Kantian instead of Kant, who, as the object-oriented philosophers would have it, it a weak rather than strong proponent of anthropocentrism.

    No need to fear some lengthy cobbled-together defence; you can take your sigh back: thanks for keeping me honest!

  6. One last comment: I realize now, rereading my comment, that m. chuzzlewit is completely correct. My mistake lay in sliding Kant's position into Sartres in the passage in question. My bad.Entirely my bad.

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