Beauty is defined by indeterminacy and the absence of expressivity.
— Jacques Ranciere, Aisthesis
I have always been greatly affected by works of literature that lean toward restriction, negation, and what Ranciere calls an absence of expressivity. The public conception of art is more or less one of expression. Lifestyle and art are easily confused, even more so the conversion of culture by capital into a consumable commodity. Culture is self-identifying and communal, but it is also a zombie. It falls dead in the world and comes back animated as what living life should look like. Culture closely resembles life, but it is mimicry, facsimile, a reproduction of an origin never experienced in the first place. What is left are zombie forms, mechanically driven animations of death. The best works of art begin where the terrain of the commodity starts to break up and the map of known space comes to an end. Culture needs art, but art doesn’t need culture.
Reading Ranciere led me to evaluate the culture I take in on a daily basis—fiction, film, and music, mostly—and ask whether or not it was sustaining. I have been writing all winter. After reading dozens of phenomenal books published this past year, the more entrenched I became in my new work, the less I could stand to read anything at all, no matter how bad, or more often how good, any of it was. So, I went back to old favorites, contemplating why I found them so trustworthy and refreshing and why, even though I had read them all multiple times over the years, they still generated new meaning and beauty each time I picked them up.
The characters of Marguerite Duras, for instance, languish in their sovereign hells. Whether the comings and goings of a small café, the rain-beaten world outside a boudoir, or the carnage of a nuclear blasted city, world events hang like secondary appendages to the becoming and negation of her characters. They are locked in a purgatory of excruciating sensation and logical fallacy by the outside world which is busy destroying itself with every form of violence on hand, from mediocrity to genocide. It is arguable the characters are so anemic they aren’t even alive. If they are at all, it could be the innervating spark of the reader coming forth from that larger exterior wasteland that surrounds them, and disarmingly entering the interiority of their dilemmas.
Other authors, such as John Hawkes, Thomas Bernard, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Clarice Lispector, Don DeLillo, Italo Calvino, Robert Walser, and Albert Camus all created worlds that accurately depicted everything interior as hell, and possibly not even real, with flashes of relief or knowledge often unattainable, just visible for a moment, and everything exterior proceeding away from us like the cold outer dark of space.
Long, slow, nearly silent films have been confounding companions. I found myself up at 4:30 a.m., Seattle numb with rain and sleep, a Tarkovsky film repeating in the background as I wrote. In the past couple months I have watched Stalker, Nostalghia, and The Sacrifice in their entirety eight or ten times each. The Master by PT Anderson as well, over and over again. The long dialogues of these films are fraught with build-ups of emotion and surgically document the inevitable breakdown of most human faculties. Desolate, slow moving landscapes deteriorate into the nothing they are, isolating all movement, and letting anything found on such a hostile plane emerge into the ill-fated realm of life, or, for Tarkovsky, that which has not yet died.
In music, punk relics, more outliers than old classics, slapped me away from sleep as I trudged toward deadline. These bands, and wildly different types of music, all had noise and ambient progression in common. Assfort, Nation of Ulysses, and the Butthole Surfers’ album Independent Worm Saloon, which opened with a singular distorted riff that, matched with the blown out rambling of Gibby Haynes, reduced into the background fabric of reality itself, offering more the less I tried to get out of it. The guitars of John Fahey and Leo Kottke were virtuosic, the drumming of Antonio Sanchez and Benny Greb, elemental. Mono and Isis were late night supplements for lithium, Syd Barret and Spacemen 3 enough to flatten four hours into a grainy photograph I had to peel myself out of to go back to the world. Basinski’s disintegrating loops and the Japanese Gagaku suites hovered mysteriously close to not existing at all.
“The less learnedly expression is produced, the more beauty there is,” Ranciere says later in Aiesthesis. I don’t think he means to simply say it is beautiful to be naïve, perhaps more that there is beauty in “not knowing.” In Barthelme’s book of the same name, he said “we are looking for the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.” The unknowable is the most clear and effective place to begin. I have always been more interested in what is not more than an accumulated list of all that is.
At the beginning of a story, we know nothing. Beginning our lives, we know nothing. We are not in a place where the pearl lays unguarded. Truths are so rare and valuable they lie hidden away, concealed. This should not only be brought into our art, it forms the base of all the art I find beautiful. Nature uses trickery, deception, and death so well, we of course take naturally to it. If we would like to come away with any wisdom, we have to start by willfully forfeiting what we have learned in hopes of it returning intelligible and greater still. Expression is not a mode of truth, it is a scattering of details across the surface that hides all the movements underneath. It leads us in the opposite direction of where we want to be heading. It makes learning and our subsequent development more difficult.
Returning to so many early influences has again reminded me to thrive in partiality. As though by a good mentor, I have been prompted not to be a vampire, to not be a tourist, to make the first maneuver toward originality by looping back around and returning to where I departed, reexamining the point of origin and all the detritus that litters and hides it from me. Not to relearn what has been forgotten, but to forget what has been learned. To search deteriorated notions and oppressed positions. These microscopic transgressions form the phenomenal ground of varied arts that help me live. The message has been a relief: adhere to the indeterminate in all of us. Go small, go slow, go weird and unknown, and you won’t have to worry about being interesting.