Tony Lopez: Darwin
by Michael Peverett
Darwin, which will form part of a larger work called Only More So, consists of a photograph of Icelandic mountainside, a dirty snowstreak below and a whiter skystreak above, and of ten sections each containing 55 sentences. The sections are convincingly paragraphed and, seen from a distance without reading them, have the same appearance as any other bit of discursive prose that you might catch sight of without knowing what it's discursing about. But when you settle down to read, it becomes clear that the text is a collage of found sentences from numerous sources. Here is a fairly randomly-chosen extract:
A regular series of lists and brochures will keep you in touch with the latest finds and best deals of the moment. He came from California and his father was an inventor. This test would satisfy most philosophers but not all people. On August 12, 1992, John Cage died. Paintings are not spread all over the entire surface of the cave walls. There is a Michelin map of the railway route at the top left, balancing the title information. I called on the secretary to show my passport. Standing alone in another cavity is an indeterminate figure that could be either an unfinished animal or human. The tubes, as I have already remarked, enter the sand nearby in a vertical direction. Plate 15 is a very similar shot to Brassaï's plate 54: trees in bloom, for example. The Turing Test was the first serious proposal in the philosophy of artificial intelligence. Skinny whales arrived in Mexico after swimming from the far reaches of the Arctic Ocean. This vase was deliberately deformed by carving and incising, giving it a rough appearance. The manifesto version is both longer (three pages opposed to two) and more typographically daring. More than 50 still visible imprints indicate that prehistoric people walked over the cave floor. This curriculum kept alive the memory of other avant-garde artists. We had never realised what mudguards were for but by the time we arrived in Nancy we knew.
Lopez could, if he'd wanted, have annotated the sources of all these sentences; as Giles Goodland did in Capital, where the annotations become part of the form. Both books draw attention to a certain transparency in the manufacture, but the transparencies are of different sorts. The nature of Lopez's sentences in Darwin is overwhelmingly discursive: written, formal, serious, informative. Reading a paragraph such as this, one is not shocked by drastic changes of voice or social context: on the contrary, a certain uniformity in the voice and the nature of the writing being essayed is apparent. This is the kind of thing that educated people, academics, literary authors, broadsheet journalists, produce in huge quantity.
The sources, though not given, do not present any particular difficulty. Though there are a handful of wilder sentences in Darwin, one or two of which I like to imagine were composed or deranged by Lopez himself, the others easily betray the kind of source from which they come, and since Lopez tends to work the same source repeatedly we soon become aware of chains of sentences, now separated from each other, that clearly originated in the same ur-text.
In the extract above, for example, we have what might be the first and last sentences of a short bio of John Cage, a couple of sentences by Darwin himself (a pervasive presence throughout) , and several sentences from an account of the cave paintings at Lascaux. The Lascaux piece is a recurrent source of Darwin's material; other recurrent sources that show up here include the history of artificial intelligence, the article about polar ice-melt and its impact on whales, a lightweight introduction to philosophy (of the Anglo-Saxon variety), and Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which contributes the final sentence.
Darwin, most lovable and readable of scientists, is the primary source and by some distance the oldest. You might understand the book as a portrait of intellectual endeavour in a post-Darwinian world. Not only are the other sentences more recent than Darwin in fact, but arguably not one of them could have been written without the influx of comprehension that we associate with his name - and this is no less true of the art history and the journalism than of the science: whatever the topic, our thoughts are inflected by concepts of evolution, growth, animal, plant and planet that are entirely different from what could have been thought before Darwin.
The scale of that influx is difficult to grasp, because earlier writers naturally write about what they know, not about what they don't know. But sometimes the chasm opens at our feet. It usually requires an original and lively mind - such as the engraver Thomas Bewick writing a footnote to his memoir in 1822 - to reveal it:
Ants. The history and œconomy of these very curious insects are (I think) not well known - they appear to manage all their affairs, with as much forethought and greater industry than mankind; but to what degree their reasoning and instructive powers extend is yet a mistery. After they have spent a certain time toiling on earth, they then change this abode, get wings, and soar aloft into the atmosphere. It is not well known what state they undergo, before they assume this new character, nor what becomes of them after.
It's not much of an exaggeration to claim that a general (though doubtless not very exact) knowledge of flying ants has now reached every person in western society: they are understood to be, at the least, something known to someone else (e.g. to the people on the TV), a commonplace of August. In contrast, the "boggles, ghosts and apparitions" who terrified the young Bewick's Northumberland mates (in other respects so madly courageous) into keeping the house at night, have faded into nothing.
The material of which Darwin is largely composed is scrupulously high-minded and very properly concerned with the environmental problems that must have seemed so distant on the Beagle yet were already in an unseen way being brought into existence by trade, industry, affluence, health and civilization. The wonderment and observation of Darwin's consciousness, and of others like him, made perception of those environmental problems possible. Yet the scientific consciousness is not without stain itself. In Darwin animal testing comes before us with notable frequency. Though no academic now protests against what used to be called vivisection (unlike those otherwise opposed spirits of the 1950s, C.S. Lewis and Brigid Brophy), still, it leaves the effect of a question mark. If our damage of the planet's ecosystems has often been ignorant, yet exploitation is the fruit of knowledge: science, which sees the effects of our behaviour, also enables it.
Darwin, composed out of bits of discursive prose - itself a highly artificial production, though consensually accepted as normal - is also an examination of it. Isn't there a lurking incongruity between the dry serenity of tone and the earth-shaking nature of the subjects discussed that is, maybe, something less than human? Here the notable absence of spoken sentences in Darwin, of language in its principal use, can begin to affect us as a kind of claustrophobia. There is an absence of the domestic - so far so good, you may think. Yet along with this absence, there is paradoxically a vein of infantilism, for example in that philosophy primer ("There is no hippopotamus in this room at present"), in the material about AI, in Darwin's own charming humility and in the quirky childishness of Stein's prose. As if intellectuals are somehow not quite grown up. "We get more done by not doing what someone else is doing", as one of the sentences fatuously (yet questionably) remarks.
It is possible to admire Darwin as an aesthetic pattern built out of the materials of discursive prose. Ron Silliman has written about this, and I too have felt that unfathomable depth, which Ron characterizes as "more lush than Proust". You could explain this effect as a sort of double-plus realistic fiction in which the prose goes beyond evoking real events by actually containing the events: because a sentence once used in sober earnest by another writer is among other things a historical event. (By contrast, consider the mere muddiness produced by only referring - not quoting - as frequently evinced by the discursers themselves, e.g. "Dickens refers to the industrial coal-produced pollution that shrouded and choked nineteenth-century London".)
But Ron's approach poses, for me, the central question about Darwin. Is it best understood as an independent artwork that merely seizes on the abundantly rich materials of discursive prose and makes its own use of them, or does it succeed in making a direct contribution to the universal debates instantiated by the quoted sources? It's really only the latter view that deeply interests me.
Darwin becomes an enquiry into discursive prose itself because of the remarkable properties of decontextualized sentences. Or rather, the properties of our readings of those sentences, which eagerly seek clues to the missing context, and thus super-sensitize us to sociolinguistic and other markers, that is, to precisely the aspects of language that the conventions of discursive prose seek to play down as embarrassing distractions. The decontextualized view is pitiless.
An easy example is this: "Two women, one of them blind, were walking the footpath on the edge of Sandy Bay Caravan park." I suppose everyone will recognize this as the opening sentence of some piece of popular fiction - it's just too obvious what kind of writing this is: the intriguing detail intended to draw us in, combined with the anxiety to get a few names established as quickly as possible. Or, equally suggestive of its source: "Do you get anxious if you can't drink your cups of tea at the same time each day?" Just because it is so easy to identify the character of their source-texts, the decontextualized view exposes these sentences as profoundly artificial, only passing muster within a framework of social conventions. It's surprising how many of the sentences in Darwin, in its pitiless light of decontextualization, reveal themselves as quite badly put together, as if the kind of thing they are attempting is after all rather difficult to achieve. Misspellings and stylistic mishaps glow blandly at us. But it's not only style and syntax that are exposed. Facts reveal themselves as questionable: "Autobiography is notoriously a charter for dissemblance and rationalisation." One becomes pedantic: certainly, autobiography may sometimes dissemble and sometimes rationalize, just as a street may contain a crime, but is the street a charter for crime? Don't we discern behind the tough pose of "notoriously" the timid recognition that "I know some of you people are going to think what I'm saying isn't terribly original"? Vague generalizations, bluffly appropriated assertions, come rolling into view, display a terrible chasm of lost thought, and then disperse into the shallows: "The nature of whole landscapes has been transformed by human-induced vegetation change"; "In these cantos, vast spaces intervene between ruler and subject, giving the relationship an almost iconic quality"; "The medieval artist was a craftsman with no desire for personal expression (the concept would have been meaningless)..."
But would any of these unnaturally magnified flounderings have amounted to anything when the sentences were locked into their original contexts? It's like when you turn the sound down on the box and watch the news: we've all done it, and have all been struck by how mad the whole performance then appears. Are these real insights, or just tactical sniping? Isn't discursive prose, with all of its chasms, nevertheless the only way in which a global community can discourse on science and art and politics at all? So you'd be mad to turn the sound down?
And really, we are talking about only a few of the sentences in Darwin. I don't have, nor do you, any slighting remark to make about, for example, "The strong force is carried by eight particles known as gluons". But the small betrayals mentioned above are nonetheless indicative. While the conventions of discursive prose seek to eliminate gender-markings, class-markings, ethnicity-markings, all the irrelevant particularities of the author, yet we know that the author is so marked and is, in other words, a mere human being. It does not seem simply a good thing that this human provenance is obscured: when the reader's awareness of it is lost, we end up with holy books; with marvellous things like "Homer" and the Bible. But scientific writing, especially, should never thicken into holiness. Darwin, as angry and humane as any of Lopez' writings - as, say, "When You Wish. . ." - compels us to see all discursive prose as thin, hopeful, problematic, heuristic, and uncontrolled: and to see its problems as ours.
The relevance of Lascaux to Darwin, as a paradigm case of the interwoven threads of discovery, admiration and ruin, was well outlined recently in a piece by Clayton Eshleman that I read on Pierre Joris' Nomadics.
Darwin by Tony Lopez was published by Acts of Language, 2009 (ISBN: 978-0-9561844-0-5).