Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bernadette Mayer and the Capitalization of Everyday Life

Talk for National Poetry Foundation Conference “Poetry of the 1970s,” June 11-15, Orono, ME

John Ashbery’s famous aesthetic opposition in the first lines of Three Poems, balancing a desire to “put it all down” against another desire to “leave all out,” gets taken up, not incidentally, in the penultimate sentence of Bernadette Mayer’s loosely contemporaneous Memory: “what’s there,” she writes, “as a piece, to mesmerize, to suck you in to leave all out to include all” (Mayer, 195). [1] There is no punctuation in Mayer’s version, just the run-together infinitives, waiting to be conjugated. If Ashbery’s formulation is a dilemma, an either/or, then Mayer’s is an inclusive synthesis, a both/and. Arguably, such a synthesis is what Ashbery, that virtuoso of vacillation, eventually manages in Three Poems. By tracking back and forth between the two alternatives, the solution Ashbery devises is a rather Stevensian one: he decides by refusing to decide. Ultimately, we might think the same of the synthesis that Mayer improvises. Along the way, though, she adumbrates a way to leave all out and, at the same time, include all. Timing is everything here. If you do it at different moments, it isn’t quite the same.

“To put it all down” or “to leave all out.” Ashbery’s dilemma involves in many respects a distinction between modernism (totalizing, world-building, encylopediac), and the avant-garde (relentlessly negative, anti-traditional, ironizing). As the inheritor of both Stein and Stevens, Roussel and Williams, Ashbery felt this a choice not worth making. The upshot has been that Ashbery is one of few figures able to speak, seemingly, across the fissures in the landscape of American poetry. But there is also another divide to which this phrase attends, a temporal divide. It is significant that these two highly significant writers pose this question at this time because the early 1970s are a time when economic, social and cultural fortunes were very much up for grabs. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, the 1973 oil embargo, the collapse of the Bretton Woods currency exchange markets and the resulting recession and high inflation in the US meant a precipitous shift away from monopoly capitalism, Fordism and the Keynesian welfare state, and toward the new, highly variable economic structures which David Harvey calls “flexible accumulation,” the result of which has been forty years of deindustrialization, wage stagnation for the working class, and a financial sector that operates with increasing autonomy from real economy of production. Whatever the precise relationship of determination, these powerful transformations in the way that people work and live occur, in the last instance, alongside momentous changes in the arts, in popular culture, and in the very way that the world is understood and represented. The 1970s are, arguably, the moment in which modernism becomes residual and the formerly incipient forms of postmodernism come to dominate. To put it bluntly, postmodernism in the largest sense (and not merely the slick, cynical products of the 1980s) attempted to mediate between the avant-garde and modernism in a historical moment in which neither really seemed like a viable possibility. Essentially, the crisis in representation that the changing social ground of the 1970s engendered meant that neither modernist totalization nor avant-garde futurism seemed sufficient. Something else was needed: “To leave all out to include all.”

The Apparatus

By memory, I mean less the retentive, the fact-storage faculty than the associative faculty. From the arts we are learning to make connections, jumps, through cues and clues that come to us in fragments.

—Lucy Lippard, from the Index for Information (MoMA, 1970)

Reflecting on Memory in the first pages of its sequel, Studying Hunger, Mayer counters A.D. Coleman’s description of it in The Village Voice as “an enormous accumulation of data” by writing that she considered it, rather, “an emotional science project.” In fact, her goal in Studying Hunger, and implicitly in Memory, was “to do the opposite of accumulate data, oppose MEMORIES, DIARIES, find structures.” One of the chief conflicts in Memory, then, is that between mechanical remembrance (data, information) and human remembrance (emotional science). Memory attempts to humanize the technological apparatus of film and audio tape, to modify or even undo the social relations that these technologies support. Because Memory was first a work of conceptual art and an installation, and only later a book, the text we have is, really, a memory of Memory, the documentation of a project of documentation that is—and here is where we truly lose ourselves in the hall of mirrors—itself documenting documentation. The details are as follows: for the entire month of July, Mayer documented her experiences with photographs and audio recordings. She then made a seven-hour taped narration, “which took the pictures as points of focus, one by one & as taking-off points for digression, filling in the spaces between” (Studying Hunger, 4). Both the 1200 photographs and taped narration were part of an installation at 98 Greene St. But because the print version references events that occur after August, 1971 (e.g. the Attica prison riot of September, 1971), she must have been revising the work through the fall of 1971.

Memory is thus memory thrice removed, memory made to spool through various types of technology and language—it is “experience . . . increased by addition of observations which were future, down the road & reflections to infinity.” The writing in this sense is a form of “double exposure,” a term that occurs frequently in the book. While the addition of the technological apparatus allows for an enlarged experience, a redoubling of experience, such mechanically recorded experience must be made to come alive once again, lest it become not memory but forgetting: “we seek,” as she writes, “once more to order in the same manner our increased volume of experience.” The apparatus threatens to consume the poetic work, the open present of writerly performance, and to suck the writer and her associates into the quicksand of entropic data from which she can’t escape. There is thus a double articulation of memory—rememberer and remembered—with the result that Mayer stands both inside and outside the work, both inside and outside of memory. For instance, on the first page, Ed Bowes, her boyfriend and assistant, “leans against the machine” (presumably, the Nagra recording device) but he is also inside the machine: “He leans against the machine, reels, & while it’s on I’ve turned we are now in an image sound . . .” Given these problems, her strategy in Memory is to use the technology without being captured by it, to give order to experience without fixing that experience. As she says later in Studying Hunger: “It’s not the whole story, I’ve left out the motives, the history & the memory, the parts that have direction, I’ve left them out because in that way I could be pinned down, possibly tortured.” In Memory, though, what is left out seems to inhere within the data itself—as a possible relation within it. It is left out because of the inclusion of everything. Like Poe’s purloined letter, it is hiding in plain view. And this totality threatens, I think, the bad eventuality of the machine itself including everything and leaving out Mayer.


Memory includes a foreword from Mayer’s psychoanalyst, David Rubinfine, whom she later describes as “perhaps the only person in the world who ever did know how much I want to eat every thing & one up” (Mayer-Berkson, 162). Rubinfine identifies the writing of Memory with the primary process of the unconscious; in his words, “she has somehow found the means to recreate archaic modes of representation, of inner and outer sensory data” and to bring this into language without the censorious effect of “present day ego structure, defenses, interests, needs and moral values” (5). Like the unconscious, then, Memory frequently observes neither negation nor chronology.

In the Interpretation of Dreams, which Mayer cites as one of the “novels” that have changed her life, Sigmund Freud uses the photographic apparatus as a metaphor for the psyche and as a way to think the complex interrelation of memory, perception and the unconscious. In the final section of the book, Freud, attempting to synthesize his dream researches, describes the unconscious as follows: “we shall . . . accept the invitation to think of the instrument which serves the psychic activities much as we think of a compound miscroscope, a photographic camera, or other apparatus” (Freud, 456). As if through the aperture of a complex camera, perceptions enter consciousness and leave a permanent memory-trace in a “location” within the psyche. These traces accumulate such that new perceptions, passing through this location on their way to the conscious mind, set off processes of association. These associations are purely qualitative, sensory, pre-verbal and do not demonstrate the logical relations—subordination, negation—of the conscious mind. All new perceptions must traverse the unconscious but there is also a vector that operates in the opposite direction, where consciousness exerts pressure on the associations (and, as we’ll see later, the drives) in the unconscious. This creates what Freud calls the secondary process, which does include verbal and logical relations.

Mayer’s installation thus seems to me an ingenious attempt to literalize and model Freud’s psychic system. The 1200 photographs represent the preverbal sensory contents of the memory-system, atop which, or among the traces of which, the tapes (as verbal representations of the preverbal) model the associations and interrelationships of primary process. Finally, the transformation of these tapes into the codex form effects the transition from primary to secondary process. Undoubtedly, the tapes, by virtue of their being language, must exhibit some of the censoring, criticizing backpressure Freud associates with secondary process. “We’ll think of talking backwards,” she writes, “I’m talking backwards, I’m working more the way students in a science are working in a lab.” Indeed, the final words of the work, “can I say that,” both statement and question, seem to foreground the presence of a criticizing superegoic voice, the stakes of which criticizing are often, in fact, the distinction between totality and negation with which we started:

what would you do? create laws? discuss the purpose of them? disorder the order that has already been established? Order the increased volume of experience? or reject it altogether leaving nothing to be ordered & everything lax in a mess in chaos in a muddle out of place cluttered in a maze. . .

In this, we see the double bind that faces Mayer. Leaving the totality of memory-traces as they are means, especially if this work is to occur at the behest of the superegoic injunction, annihilating them, “leaving nothing to be ordered.” But, of course, laws and orders are also a form of destruction.

Access to the unconscious comes, then, as the result of a transgression, a negation rather than a leaving be. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that the unconscious is characterized as a bank (a financial bank, but also a memory-bank) which she fantasizes robbing:

written fast, an emergence at the bank: something was accepted there & now I cant remember if I had the car with me at all, K must have had the Cadillac & they say no pictures here, I might have been planning to rob that bank that beautiful old bank at bowery & grand street I'll tell you one thing I photographed the windows with just a little thought to the builtin alarm system, like the antennas built in to the window of your car, if you happen to own a buick electra, mourns: death, for which reason I deny autobiography, or that the life of a man matters more or less & someone said we are all one man & someone said I count the failure of these men, whether they are jews or chinese or whether they are me or my sister, R., I count the failure of these people as proof of their election, they are all divine because they die, screaming, like the first universal jew the gentiles will tell you had some special deal: the end, not by a long shot: one chinese boy holds out his hand to one chinese girl about seven or eight years old in a short dress in the bank.

The logic of association is, I think, rather clear. Her photographic and writerly project is an attempt to rob the memory-bank, to gain access to its fund of unmediated sensation and association. But the thought of such transgression immediately produces another thought about alarm systems, and even more transparently a “buick electra,” and then, subsequently, the thought of death. Her father’s passing while she was a teenager figures prominently in the book, and so we can assume, perhaps, that the connotations of “electra” is meaningful. The autobiography, and with it the self-identical speaker, also means death. Consciousness, too, means leaving some memories behind.

There is thus a constitutive tension in the Memory, one present throughout her writing of the 70s. She wants a writing, a technique of documentation, adequate to the whole of experience, leaving nothing out and including all, agile enough to catch every nuance of experience. But because her writing is not a neutral prosthesis, not a passive reflection of experience but an intervention within that experience, there is always some remainder: the time spent writing down experience comes at the expense of experience itself. (Not incidentally, this is a key feature of the pathos of representation in Ashbery as well). These two problems—the problem of the censor and the problem of time—crystallize in the figure of Ed, Mayer’s lover and assistant. Mayer delights in punning on his name, so that he represents, as suffix, a kind of pure participle, a participle without substance, the very pastness of the past: “I feel sick & am not interested I'm arrested, ed, we waterproofed till dawn & K came bravely through the trail to see us doing it with tom still with us with him with us what does that mean he loves us too much.” At the same time, he stands in for the editorial interventions which transform that past: “& the head headed with leader edit a magazine I'll tell show see it & say it, Ed.”


On the first page of the coda to Memory, a section entitled Dreaming which recounts some of her dreams from the month of August, Mayer writes that “memory stifles dream it shuts dream up,” drawing a distinction that should already be familiar and to which she adds: “What’s in sight, it was there, it’s over, dream makes memory present, hidden memory the secret dream, it’s not allowed . . .” This echoes, in general, a depressive and anxious tone that has progressively risen in the book since the halfway mark. By the time of the July 30th entry, there is the sense that the work is a form of prostitution—“a trick”—that the writing renders the speaker a commodity, and that the dissipation of the poetic materials is near-total. In other words, things fall apart. Such a mood is well-conveyed by Mayer’s punning use of the word over in the long entry for July 31st:

& she spread the frosting over the cake & he cast a spell over our group & he will preside over the lake & the city’s over the border. . .& you make your property over to her & the game is over & how I got over & he is three hours over for the week & that shot hit over & that bomb explodes over & we were over against them from end to end. . .

In the two passage from the July 31st in which over plays a strong role, Mayer employs every possible meaning of the word (as preposition, as adverb), creating networks of clauses held together by the relationality of prepositions and the agglomeration of conjunctions: more than, above, beyond, in excess of, during the course of, and finally, the adverbial sense, as said of an action, finished. The main opposition in these passages devolves upon the difference between excess, a sense of more, and delimitation or termination.

If there is a sense, by the end of the book, that the project has failed, its meaning is this: that the experiment has bifurcated into, on the one hand, a series of techniques (which stand over, which delimit) and, on the other hand, a neutral, intractable material (excessive, surpassing):

Apology in rest: research isn’t festive, looking for names, burning down piers & papers & scoring the time I’m translated to shore on the back of a whale. . .a knife for the course that ends like this not like that & they’ll all come to orbit, arbit, exhibit in the courts by force, we’ll make exchange & to count, continue to embrace, forgetting parts important to ‘in concurrence.’

Failure is not the only way to read the ending, and it isn’t even right way, but it is an important part of the work’s self-consciousness, and a measure of the risks it skirts.

For many reasons, and not least because Dan Graham appears, in the Dreaming section, as an amalgam of musical conductor and torturer, experimenting on Mayer and her friend Grace, I want to suggest—and this is, alas, a rather abbreviated form of a larger argument—that this final movement of Memory is a reflection on the troubled fortunes of conceptualism in art and writing: that is, a reflection on the aesthetic movement to which the magazine O To 9, edited by Mayer and her brother-in-law Vito Acconci, was central. Even if, because of its writerly emphasis on sensuous language, Memory must be seen as anomalous within the typically arid and deadpan language-use common to conceptual art, as with much of the work that falls under this rubric, Memory does ask us to consider its own techniques and processes, its ideas, as more important, in some senses, than the products thereof. It participates in the reduction of the aesthetic object to a transportable idea or technique—loosely, the idea that a combination of writing and image could offer an expanded life—which can then be easily shared, taken up by others. Conceptualism and, more broadly, much of the art that follows after minimalism, proceeds by leaving all out, by reducing art to a typescript, map or operation, hoping thereby to escape the commodification of art objects—that is, the exchange value which inheres in sensuous artifacts—and make art a pure appropriation of uses by individual participants, a pure use-value that can’t be traded on the market because its predicates are so abundant as to be, essentially, free. The result, though, is the bifurcation discussed above; art in this time becomes on the one hand, a series of dematerialized techniques or concepts, and on the other, deformed, entropic ‘piles’ of materials, whether social, linguistic or physical. Conceptualism requires a leaving all out that has, as its other, an included/excluded everything. And because so often the material is unable to exert any kind of counter-pressure on the techniques themselves, conceptual art, in its formalization, diagrammatization and reduction of art experience to a series of protocols often ends up mimicking, as both Jeff Wall and Benjamin Buchloh indicate in their critical histories of the movement, the bureaucratic and technocratic culture of art publicity and art administration which it would, ostensibly, transcend. Lastly, as it turns out, and as Lucy Lippard indicates in her Postface to her annotated bibliography of the flood years of conceptualism, exchange-value is a far more tenacious social form than many of these artists could have expected. Because, as the growing turn to financialization in the US economy makes clear, surplus-value need not always route through the dialectic of capital and labor but can be had by enclosure, seizure or direct appropriation of socially abundant materials, collectors, as it turned out, would, as Lippard writes, “pay money. . . for a xerox sheet referring to an event past or never directly perceived, a group of photographs documenting an ephemeral situation or condition, a project for work never to be completed.” Conceptual art, in attempting to escape the commodity form and the gallery system ends up participating in that commodification and rationalization of previously free processes, services and cognitive functions which is, as I see it, the hallmark of capitalism over the last thirty years. Conceptualism carried the germ of exchange value into the social field at large. There is a clear line of development from conceptual art and writing to what the writers associated with the French journal Multitudes call “cognitive capitalism.”

The final pages of Memory dramatize this bifurcation into signal and noise, those two senses of “over.” On the one hand, the acknowledgment that “research isn’t festive, looking for names” and on the other the exclamation “far fucking out what a gas explosion that was, the crowd’s still steaming all energy is loose. . .” But as with the system that Freud elaborates, there is a third element in Mayer’s poem, and it is what separates Mayer’s work from much of the conceptualism of the period. We might call it drive—that latent and primordial force, dwelling amidst the primary process, which is neither the product of conscious thought or new perceptions but instead continuously re-activated by them. In Memory, such a drive is marked not only by the obsessional motif of fire but, at the broadest level, by the relentless, headlong impulsion of the poem, its continual tracing of the surfaces of embodiment and sensual experience. It is this which, in Mayer, opposes the mere “accumulation” of data, and it is this which distinguishes her work in the 1970s from the gray aridity of some of the work in, say, 0 to 9. It is this, also, to which she will more fully attend in the other long works of the 70s. As embodiment, drive allows her to include all and leave everything out—not as two opposed alternatives, but as the same thing. Rather than a pregiven formula, it is a force which, from below, from within materials themselves, arranges and synthesizes.

[1] Mayer’s book, based upon an conceptual project executed during the month of July, 1971, and exhibited as an installation in 1972, wasn’t published until 1975. Three Poems was published in 1972, but “The New Spirit,” the poem from which quote derives, was released as a chapbook in 1970 by Adventures in Poetry. I am assuming, therefore, that Mayer knew the work, and that her variant is a citation and not an accident


Providence said...


Great to see this online, as I had a conflict and couldn't attend the Mayer panel. It'd be great if you could post it to Thought Mesh too. That way it links to all the others in various ways. Nice seeing you up north.


sandrasimonds said...

Thanks for posting this, Jasper. Good to see your face again!

brian salchert said...

Was here too late last night, but
have just read through this cogent
talk, and have taken notes. Not
knowing much about Bernadette Mayer/
I am grateful for this piece for
too many reasons to express here
at this time; but, these:

1. My first post-MFA book,
Rooted Sky, was published
in November of 1972. The two
longest poems in it are variants
of the include all or exclude all

2. Was reading poems by John Ashbery
before, during, and after 1972.
That reading moved me to write
a poem for him. I have been
seeing Ashbery as a poet who found
the interstices where other poets
were not going/ and therefore went
there; but I like your thought
regarding him and the dilemma:
". . . , Ashbery felt this a
choice not worth making. The
upshot has been that Ashbery is
one of the few figures able to
speak, seemingly, across the
fissures in the landscape of
American poetry."

I intend to compose a self-related
post at my Rhodingeedaddee. I,
similar to Bill Knott, have placed
most of my poems online, but in my
AOL blog.

As to Bernadette Mayer: from my
smidgen knowledge about her, I
concluded she is a special case,
and I did not mean this in any
negative way, nor do I now.

Thank you.