Presented at a conference on “Dimensions of Authorship“, University of Jyväskylä, Finland, 1-3 September 2005
“Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person’s mental map. It has contours and coherence, and for all I know, rules of operation as well.” (Thomas Pynchon)
“Poetry is a simple art where everything resides in the execution.” (François Le Lionnais)
I will approach the concepts of authority and intention by discussing so called experimental writing and one recent example of it, Leevi Lehto’s book Päivä (“A Day”), 2004. Its 234 pages contain all the sentences distributed by STT, The Finnish News Agency, during one day, the 20th of August 2003, set in alphabetical order.
Päivä could be called a verbal collage that is constructed and constrained by one particular rule that dominates the whole work and the possibilities to read and interpret it. This rule – alphabetical order – is quite simple lexical rule. It’s a rule that dominates the praxis of our language and entire culture. Although this book seems to be quite a peculiar work, or worse, may at first glance look like a literary joke, it is a part of a long tradition in poetry and writing.
Päivä is an addition to the procedural tradition in literature. In this tradition lexical or structural constraints or rules are made either control or dominate the expression, or, like in this case, produce writing by some specified algorithm. In Päivä pre-existing textual corpus – all the material of one day from news agency sentence by sentence – is raw material for generating new writing according to the structural, generative principle, a procedure. Writer’s authorial, productive power, or part of it is vacated or granted to a rule or a set of rules.
Writers who have enforced different variations of the method include Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, and Kenneth Goldsmith in poetry; and Raymond Roussell, Georges Perec, Walter Abish or William Burroughs in prose. Its most renowned trademark is the French group OuLiPo. The tradition has been also been called methodical or mechanical writing. Brian McHale calls chance or procedure-operated texts prosthetic. Amusingly, Kenneth Goldsmith has called some of his own collage-converging works “uncreative writings”.
Like Brian McHale points out, procedural or rule-based writing is not “automatic writing” in the surrealist sense, but rather mechanical writing, since part(s) of the author’s creative process is given over to a machine – in many cases merely a metaphorical machine: a set of rules or strictly defined productive procedures. William Carlos Williams said that every poem is machine made of words. This metaphor makes us think a poem as a functional, operational and dynamic signifying unit. Procedural or methodical texts yield undoubtedly greater feel of poetic machine than “average”, non-procedural texts, and when reading Päivä, the feeling is even more pervading. After setting the parameters and default values, the author, the authority, seems to step aside and let the language go on. Reader may feel to be exposed to a verbal generator that is left alone to speak – or some sort of conductor of polyphonic flow from odd wavelengths. Its stupefying juxtapositions and abrupt transitions are sometimes hilarious, sometimes it gets jammed like a real machine.
It’s kind of obvious what sort of questions on author, authority, expressive freedom or constraint, originality, or intention this kind of work may arise. On his website, Lehto himself has commented, with plausible theoretical comprehension, his work. He foregrounds four points Päivä throws at the authorship. These are questions of copy and originality; reading and literature as communication; book as a material medium and the format of literature; and finally art and artist in society. I comment the three first mentioned briefly.
1) Originality: writing vs. copying. A phrase says that the oldest of all is yesterday’s news. As yesterday’s news – a paradox – are the material of Päivä, the same logic of novelty might make us ask the grounds of literary novelty. Originality has been the first poetical value since Romanticism. Same way we think that art is the area of expressive freedom. Instead of spontaneous and personal creation of originality by a free spirit, we seem to have in hand a deliberately constructed artefact, based entirely on formal rule, whose maker is not only a copyist, but shamelessly a copy-pasteist. We know from collage tradition in art that copying and re-setting in a new context is a creative act. Somehow this kind of copying, where combinations of the meaningful units are based on the rule, not on the free vision of the artist like usually in visual collages, seems to mock the concept of originality. At the same time, paradoxically, it’s obvious that Päivä is rather original literary work.
We can anyway ask, how copying is defined. Where are the limits or the lowest denominators of reproduction or duplication? William Burroughs said, defending his cut-up method to Samuel Beckett, that there are no word-thieves. No one can rob words. Words are no cattle. Keeping this in mind, Päivä contains no writing of its author. He has not written a single line or word in the book. Maybe this will make a new addition to Andrew Bennett’s ‘Author Lexicon’ – a literary author who unequates the writer?
Päivä unquestionably has an author. His name is on the cover. Like Lehto himself puts it in his commentary, we may even think that indirectly this work has multiple authors. There can not be literary work without the author. Still, Päivä is a move to that direction. This is one of the limits Päivä is flirting with. How long can we go?
2) Writing vs. reading, literature as communication. Usually literary text is thought to communicate or manifest, at least at some level, writer’s pre-existent thoughts and ideas. I think it’s evident that writer can not escape the intention, in the broad sense. In the traditionally conceived intention the writer is thought to “echo” something in the reader’s consciousness with the signs produced. In Päivä there is only chance, the rule (alphabetical order) applied to a certain mass of text. The author has no mastery on what the text will say, there’s only the clashing of the fixed rule, the formula, on the other hand and the variable on the other. Meanings are results in the outcome of the text. It can be said that the invention of the rule is the poetic act, the authorial deed.
If we think of the communication model of Roman Jakobson that implicated also the literary texts (with the sender, the message, the contact, the code, the context, and the recipient) it would seem that here the sender is multiplied to the extent the s/he is missing. Narratologically speaking, it also springs to mind that Päivä has possibly infinite amount of narrators or speakers.
3) Writing vs. book – book as a medium. Lehto’s work is also available on his website, but I feel that putting it in traditional book format is meaningful. For few hundred years there has been substantial connection between authorship and print technology. Printed book has been the evidence or guarantee of authorship. According to Walter Ong, print is characterized by feel of closure, as is printed book as a material form of literary expression. Päivä enhances this closure – or maybe makes fun of it? – by collecting all there is to say in one day in a totality. The shaping to paragraphs makes the book and the text visually look like a novel, and perhaps connects it parodically also to one-day-novels, like Ulysses. (Isn’t it weird that all the news material from one day equate to little more than 230 pages, which is quite the size of average novel?)
Even if it’s printed book, Päivä can be thought as a semi-digital text. It’s a brainchild of digital technology and software used to operate and organize data. Operating purely by the conditions of print technology would perhaps lead to less megalomanic experiments, like aforementioned Burroughs’ cut-up method, which added a pair of scissors to writer’s equipment.
Some thematic aspects can not be ignored. Thematically, Päivä is about news, mass media and information. We are all information addicts. The flow of news never stops. Also, with its structure, Päivä exposes us in a provoking way with the fact that order is based solely on agreement, and is, in the end, random.