Roy Scranton

Roy Scranton is the author of the novel War Porn (Soho Press, 2016) and the philosophical essay Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (City Lights, 2015). His journalism, essays, fiction, poetry, and reviews have been published in The Nation, Rolling Stone, the New York Times, LIT, Boston Review, Prairie Schooner, Los Angeles Review of Books, Contemporary Literature, The Appendix, and elsewhere. He is also one of the editors of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, 2013). He holds a Ph.D. in English from Princeton and an M.A. from the New School for Social Research, and teaches creative writing in the Department of English at the University of Notre Dame.


27 April 2013

Lament of the Makers: Opening Remarks

My opening remarks for the symposium "Lament of the Makers: Conceptualism and Poetic Freedom," held at Princeton University, April 26, 2013.

I write, or some thing called an I writes I, or some thing--some animal--I call an I performs a series of internal locutions and external gestures to produce language both imagined--aurally, that is, through the activated echo of my own voice played back without external vocalization, in between errant guitar licks and phenomenological noise--I mean, trying out phrases to ring them, to test their imagined sound and immanent logic, then typing them--some thing called an I performs an act of signification in relation to imagined others, say you, so something is happening now, these opening remarks--language both imagined and now concrete, a thing in the world, first a google doc on a screen at a research station in a university library (and at once a google doc in the cloud, data on a server somewhere in The Dalles, Oregon, Council Bluffs, Iowa, or Hamina, Finland, pulses flickering on and off, ones and zeros, light, energy, all over), then and now again (although now as I write this, the now to which I refer is of course strictly imaginary, a premonition plummeting toward me out of the future, and the now when I speak now of course is not the same now that I’d written) now concrete in the passage of air through vents of flesh in my neck, vibrations striking the eardrums of many language-hungry humans in a room, maybe even some interested and attentive ones.

I’ll try to be brief.

Some thing called an I will attempt to perform its intersubjective responsibility to our collective expectations, which is to say both understanding and will, both convention and potential, both institutional being and a congeries of monads, by promising an effort on my part to take no more time than is necessary to complete these opening remarks. I made a choice to read these remarks--to write these remarks--rather than others. This is a later draft. There was a prior. Some thing called an I performed some act subjectively experienced as a choice.  

Each word, ostensibly.

Atrium. Mud. Collagen. North Korean missile technology. Prolegomena. Zumba. Dell. Untitled document. I would eat the air. I would pluck semiotic condensations from a lifetime of tics, bad TV, and silent reading. I function subjectively as an object, intersubjectively, interpellated, my very words--my particular, concrete manifestations of “beautiful unique me” puked up to be reconsumed by myself or sundry others--provided for me by the inescapable always-already of social cohesion.

All my words are your words. All our words are their words.

You already know my dilemma. I am an animal that writes. I write. We write. We write each other, we write our selves, we write our collectivizations and our resistances to collectivizations. At the same time, language writes us. Our collectivizations write us. Our resistances write us. Our repetitions write us. Ok. We make things out of language. Language makes things out of us.

So what does it mean today, then, in relation to an imagined critical collective self-awareness (that is, y’all), to make things out of language? And not just any things, not advertisements or instruction manuals, not explications or opinions, but things that exist primarily and primordially as speculative interventions into our collective self-representation? If, as Kant argues in the third critique, aesthetics and teleology are united at a very deep level of what it means to be human, what is the end of an art that insists art must die?

The horns of this dilemma are explicit in the subtitle of this symposium, Conceptualism and Poetic Freedom. On the one side, “against expression,” an avowed effort to reduce the act of poiesis to the manufacture or reproduction of ostensibly empty textual objects. Conceptualist makers such as Vanessa Place polemically abjure the temporal experience of reading, the depth of intersubjective relations, the latent manifestation of content, and even the act of making itself, in favor of a set of practices seeking to produce or reproduce autonomous language-objects divorced even from their own production. On the other side, the trace of agency in the feeling of power we like to call freedom.

I choose these words, not those.   

I write, or some thing called an I writes I, or some animal I call an I performs a series of internal locutions and external gestures to produce language both imagined and now concrete, a thing in the world. And things in the world, as are we all, are things passing from the world. As William Dunbar wrote around about five hundred years ago, in his great danse macabre from which the title of this symposium is taken, "The Lament of the Makaris":

I se that makaris amang the laif
Playis heir ther pageant, syne gois to graif;
Sparit is nocht ther faculte;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The fear of death troubles me. Conceptualism, in its insistence on the thingliness of that most human of things, language, forces us to confront our existence as things, as both subject and object (or “sobject,” in Place’s coinage), and as well the fact that such existence only has meaning in context. “And that,” Place writes, “is the only remaining place of poetry. Authorship doesn’t matter. Content doesn’t matter. Form doesn’t matter. Meter doesn’t matter. All that matters is the trace of poetry. The Echo-effect...” Or, as Rilke put it in the ninth Duino Elegy, (Poulin’s translation) “Maybe we’re only here to say: house, bridge, well, gate, jug, olive tree, window--at most, pillar, tower...” Which is not at all to imply that conceptualism is secretly romantic, but rather to suggest that the radical mimesis of conceptualism might have roots in the even more radical poiesis of naming.