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5 | Clouds, Collage & the Aesthetics of Ripping, Mixing, & Burning


A Rip-and-Mix mindset has not only worked its way into our music, architecture, and visual art, but into our very bodies: “collage” tomatoes carry the genes of a fish; “collage” cows the genes of a human. We find it increasingly natural to think of the entire world as rearrange-able, collage-able: composers, deejays, or anyone with a laptop, has all musical history in their hands, for our world is increasingly open to reorganization and therefore open-ended. Is it a coincidence that as we increasingly depend on mixable bytes to communicate, mixable bytes work their way into our politics? Our commerce? Our values? Our culture? Our… literature?


Indeed, collage has been called the dominant organizing principle of the 20th century. Moving deeper into the 21st century, it seems even more suited as an expression of the common culture from which it comes: one that takes for granted a democracy of cutting, and pasting, sampling, quoting, recycling, appropriation, recirculation, reworking. Collage seems to be the glove that fits the fingers of other contemporary markers: the dissipation of origins, the death of the author, the writerly text…. The kidnapper composing a ransom note by cutting and pasting words from a variety of magazines understands how a collage style dissipates authorship. As do Gary Sullivan, K. Silem Mohammad, and other authors of Flarf poetry, with its blender approach to the language found in spam, blogs, and Google searches. Though their techniques might be essentially the same as those of earlier cutup and collage artists, the use of collage today, its reading, and especially the ease of creation and proliferation allowed by new technologies, seem completely contemporary: a sense of radical changeups, or tempo cuts. They reflect a contemporary sense of narrative in an era that is not so concerned with aesthetic wholes as it is in differences of all kinds: racial, economic, political, gender, but especially ways of speaking.

Collage today doesn’t seem to be about harmonizing opera with rap, or the speech habits of the many voices found in Gordon Lish’s story composed completely of the first lines of other stories. Rather, collage more commonly puts differing voices in tension. A juxtaposition that heightens their differences and in so doing makes each more itself. Anne Carson’s Nox collages Roman poetry, translations, dictionaries, letters from her dead brother, photos, and other artifacts partly to explore how life, and so death, are too large, too complex, to ever be understood. That any view is at most a partial view. Collage today—as in the cutups of William S. Burroughs or Brion Gysin—often emphasizes the disjunction between its pieces to foreground the fact that the pieces themselves are constructions arising from a viewpoint, not parts of some “Natural” way to speak. Collage can be the literary equivalent of Photoshop putting the lie to the commonsensical idea that the camera doesn’t lie, as Niels Plenge does in his self-reflexive video poem “The Answer,” remixing with a rap rhythm Charles Bernstein telling the camera that his words could be edited— and in so doing critiques media society as entertainment (while entertaining), presents news as constructed versions of truth (while allowing viewers to witness the construction of its own truth).

Rather than providing a simulacrum of reality, collage writing often incorporates actual pieces of reality—snippets of historical texts as in Susan Howe—or law texts, as well as joking; the ritual language of administration; the language practices of The Onion and the New York Times; of the two-party political system, and of the third and fourth party politician; the language of scientific writing; philology and apology; the text of the travelogue; and of the catalog…. When hiding their seams, they can be textual versions of deepfakes in which video of a speaker can be given the voice or face of another. That is, through cutting and pasting, by AI or algorithmic generation, sampling, and recycling, collage texts underscore the discursive nature of “Truths” and “Beauty” and other habits of mind that are normally absorbed as givens. This re-patterning of knowledge is obviously dear to a number of authors and readers today. And visual artists. And activists. And just plain folks daily transgressing boundaries that collage artists like Stein and Apollinaire would have taken for granted: man/machine, history/fiction, high art/popular art, public/private, politics/image making, art/ entertainment....


Due to its hybrid nature, every literary work born of collage is at least partially about discourse, about viewpoints. These works often work against binary divisions and hierarchy; they call attention to the materials themselves and/ or the embodiment of thought. Just as viewpoint is always at least part of the subject of a cubist painting, collage writing is always, at least partially, about ways of speaking. The more consciously this attention to discourse is placed center stage, the more the work emphasizes critical thinking, language awareness, or historical consciousness, the more conceptual the writing itself can be.

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