Wednesday Investigation Intermission: An interlude, and an update

Some important personal business has kept me away from the computer this week, so I didn't have time to undertake a proper "investigation" from the notecard index. But I wanted to send a brief edition nevertheless, in part because I felt inspired by a bit of fortuitous timing.

I am writing this on July 1st, 2020. 49 years ago today, poet Bernadette Mayer began work on a project called Memory.

The project has recently been commemorated in a lovely book released by Siglio Press (who are, incidentally, one of my absolute favorite presses at the moment--dedicated to "the uncategorizable, the innovative, the spaces in between," "the small and the contrary," every single book they've released represents some startling new idea or perspective.) Here's the Siglio description of Memory:

In July 1971, Bernadette Mayer embarked on an experiment: For one month she exposed a roll of 35mm film and kept a daily journal. The result was a conceptual work that investigates the nature of memory, its surfaces, textures and material. Memory is both monumental in scope (over 1100 photographs, two hundred pages of text and six hours of audio recording) and a groundbreaking work by a poet who is widely regarded as one of the most innovative writers of her generation. Presaging Mayer’s durational and constraint-based diaristic works of poetry, it also evinces her extraordinary—and unheralded—contribution to conceptual art.

Mayer has called Memory “an emotional science project,” but it is far from confessional. Rather, this boldly experimental record follows the poet’s eye as she traverses early morning into night, as quotidian minutiae metamorphose into the lyrical, as her stream of consciousness becomes incantatory. [...] In both text and image, Mayer constructs the mercurial, fleeting consciousness of the present moment from which memory is—as she says—“always there, to be entered, like the world of dreams or an ongoing TV show.”

As an artwork, Memory could be viewed as another entrant in the list of works that are also vast archives of data, of the sort I was writing about last week.



Naturally, then, some of the aesthetic questions we asked last week recur. For instance, we discussed the question of "what gets included," which remains vexing: in her foreword to the Siglio edition, Mayer writes "there is so much in Memory, yet so much is left out [...] I thought that by using both [language] and image, I could include everything, but so far, that is not so." (Her list of what is "left out" includes "sex, the relationship between poetry and light, storytelling, walking, and voyaging to name a few.")

Other questions, though, do perhaps find a decisive answer. Memory is more rigorously focused on time than either the Richter or Darboven pieces I discussed--it has been described, rightly, as a work of "durational aesthetics"--which presents one solution to questions about how to juxtapose the material or arrange the work. The images--1000 snapshots--are placed where they are placed because they happened when they happened. They follow the order of an unfolding July.

Thinking of the way things unfold, it occurred to me, sometime in June, that reading the 200 pages of text that comprise the "journal" portion of Memory could itself be performed in a "time-factored" way (I am borrowing a phrase, here, from the Paleolithic archaeologist Alexander Marshack). Put simply, if you began the book on July 1st, and read one entry each day, you would emulate Mayer's durational practice and experience the book in "real time." It seemed that there might be something to be gained from the experience, so I'm doing it.

And I wasn't the only person to have the idea of experiencing this work across the span of the next month. Under the heading "Language is a Temptation," the New York literary center Poets House has helped to organize 31 readings of Memory, each performed by a different poet, one a day for each day in July. (The first one, featuring poet Anselm Berrigan, will be posted at 3 pm today; the sequence will culminate at the end of the month with a reading by Mayer herself.) As for me, I'll be posting snippets from my reading of the book over at Twitter, using #languageisatemptation and #july1971 as hashtags.



One additional note. In the sixth installment of this newsletter, I wrote about "cultural beings" in RPGs, and we took a look at the racist undertones of stating that entire cultures--even cultures of imaginary monsters--might be "unable to overcome the inherent animal nature of their bloodline." We zeroed in on Dungeons and Dragons, and I criticized its choice to slot sentient beings into a moral alignment system, especially regarding orcs (we didn't get into the question of "drow," the game's evil "dark elves.") Anyway, just as a little update, I thought that you all might be interested to learn that, as part of the ongoing national reckoning with racism inspired by this summer's protests, D&D has elected to retire the notion of "evil" races, stating that "orcs and drow are just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples" and claiming that they will reflect this in the game's rulebooks going forward.

It's not exactly abolishing the police, but I think it represents one more step, taken in concert with many, many others this summer, that serves to move us in the right direction.

-JPB, writing from Turners Falls, MA, Wednesday, July 1


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