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BETWEEN A CACTUS & LÉVI-STRAUSS: THE PRIMITIVIST POETICS OF VÉRONIQUE VASSILIOU

*By Louis Armand; republished from The Organ Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avant-garde (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2013)

1. “Savage thought,” in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s oft-repeated dictum, “can be defined as analogical thought.” Analogical thought: a primitive mode of reason inhering in the grammar of to, with, between – hence a predilection for, and dependence upon, tropes of similarity, parallelism, imitation, resemblance, and all forms of correspondence or, to give it its proper etymological inflection, proportion. It’s on such a basis that the complex totemic structures which fascinated Lévi-Strauss are said to have evolved: a radicalisation of analogy to the point of a direct causation between things otherwise arbitrary in their remoteness – mediated, somewhat magically, by what Lévi-Strauss called the Totemic Operator. Analogy – foundational for the operations of logic and reason – here tends to perversity, a paranoiac method that inflates and generalises itself into an un-reason (an ideology). The demon of analogy is thus to the “savage mind,” what the Cartesian theatre is to the rationalist mind, each to some extent a reflection and distortion of the other.

In her 2001 book, Le coefficient d’échec, Marseillaise poet Véronique Vassiliou exploits Lévi-Strauss’s analogy between “savage thought” and “analogical thought” by way of a system of propositions about “la pratique de la pensée sauvage.”[1] The book – in the manner of a taxonomy, is organised (according to a type of checkerboard logic) into “carnets,” “listes,” “lettres,” “images” – proceeds towards an exposition on method,[2] which in turn deconstructs itself, allowing the constituent ambiguities at work in Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology to generalise themselves into a poetics: a poetics at the limits of analogy. In so doing, Vassiliou employs the rigour of a forensic anthropologist (the book itself, as a quasi-anthropological investigation into the nature of both “la pensée sauvage” and La Pensée sauvage) is divided into “notebooks” recording observations, transcriptions, genealogies, documentary details, and so on). For the most part, the propositional form her writing adopts achieves its effect by accumulation and exhaustion, but the paradox of the situation exposes itself from the outset – in the relationship between analogy (as trope), on the one hand, and the analogical (as a mode of thinking), on the other.

If the mind of every investigator harbours a secret criminal, so too the mind of every anthropologist (or rationalist) harbours a savage (or un sauvage blessé: “Un sauvage blessé est un sauvage qui a oublié que le monde n’est pas peoplé que de sauvages” [30]). This parallelism sets in train a type of analogical spiral, from Vassiliou’s early observation that “Les sauvages pratique la collection” (10) to the formulation “Les sauvages aiment la pensée. La pensée est sauvage” (63). The work of collection, or “totemic classification,”[3] includes, as we come to see, collections of or about thought (pensée) itself (the book is everywhere punctuated by lists, above all of syllogisms) – the whole process at work in Le coefficient d’échec is reflexive. This reflexivity extends to all levels of Vassiliou’s construction, from the more schematic engagements with Lévi-Strauss and rational discourse in general, to the tropological foundations of such discourse (the taxonomies of rhetoric).

If Le coefficient d’échec bears the appearance of an orchestrated paradox, it’s no less an examination of the status and nature of paradox itself, in thought. There are numerous echoes of Bertram Russell’s attempts upon a set-theoretical exclusion of paradox – between types and classes (here, of propositions, clues, artefacts, linguistic objects). Virtually every notebook (“carnet”) begins with “Les sauvages + [verb] + [noun],” or a variation thereon. While within each notebook, initial propositions are subjected to permutational stresses by way of a battery of rhetorical manoeuvres: chiasmus, anagram, antanaclasis, etc.[4] One example, from Carnet 16:

Les sauvages s’engagent. / N’est sauvage que celui s’engage. / 
L’engagement est nécessaire à l’état sauvage. / 
Le sauvage s’engage souvent dans des voies sans issue. 
L’engagement du sauvage est aussi aveuglement. / 
Le sauvage peut s’engager sans s’engager dans une voie. 
Le sauvage s’engage seulement. 
Dans ce cas-là, le sauvage n’est qu’engagé… (50)

Elsewhere, lists of pseudo-random details accumulate (by class, by type):

les boulangers / les jardiniers / les bouchers / les maçons / les mères de famille / les pères de famille / les agriculteurs / les couturiers / les voisins / les Italiens / les Américains / les Français / les Cubans / les Espagnols / les Allemands / les poètes (plus rarement) / les bricoleurs / les pêcheurs… (39)

11 tickets de caisse / 16 coupons de transport / 1 récapitulatif / 1 Reçu passager / 6 cartes d’accès à bord / 1 billet de transport bus/bateau / 3 étiquettes pour bagages / 4 billets de bateaux / 1 pochette de transport des billets de transport / 19 cartes postales / 1 programme de la fête de la maison de la littérature / 7 prospectus publicitaires et dépliants… (41)

lien / attache / brou de noix / carrée / cubique / prolongement / carotte / salsifis / topinambour / pli couché puis étranglé / élément irréductible… (55)

It’s possible to say that Le coefficient d’échec tracks the movement of such elements, whose multiple singularity causes the totemic/taxonomic logics of Lévi-Strauss to deviate from analogy to metaphor (pensée [est] sauvage). Indeed, this tactic of enlisting éléments irréductibles is common to almost all of Vassiliou’s writings, for example Appellation Contrôlée (Marseille: Fidel Anthelme X, 2001) which includes twenty seven transcriptions of product labels, and Seuils (Corbières: Harpo &, 2000) which reproduces thirty real estate agents’ descriptions of apartment interiors, bearing corresponding titles, listed in the index, such as “Les sauvages aiment les paysage” (5), “Et la nature sauvage et cultivée” (6), “Les sauvages aiment les seuils” (16), “Les sauvages sont sauvages” (30), etc.

The irreducible element, being that which can neither be summarised nor paraphrased, exacerbates the production of linguistic simulacra in the compulsion to determine that (not what) it’s LIKE. This inflationary movement exposes a radical arbitrariness at the heart of analogy: contexts randomise, proliferate into extreme generality (Lévi-Strauss’s totemic/cosmic systems of micro-macro affiliation), spawning equations of open-ended variability, S=P, where S and P can be any two terms whatsoever. Analogy, as Roland Barthes says, “goes wild [sauvage] because it’s radically exploited, carried to the point where it destroys itself as analogy: comparison becomes metaphor.”[5] And yet, at the same time, as Vassiliou asserts “La souvenir de la pensée sauvage n’est pas la pensée sauvage.” These two orders of signification, of rememoration, remain irreconcilable, S≠P (souvenir ≠ pensée), and just as analogy destroys itself in the urge towards its own facticity – from the AS to the IS – so too metaphor, balanced upon the aporia of simultaneity or self-presence, deviates into analogy – from the IS to the AS. This process repeats by détournement (not dialectics): “the metaphor turns on itself, but according to a centrifugal movement: the backwash of meaning never stops.”[6] Ana-logos becomes poiēsis.

Gérard Gasiorowski, L’ouvreuse (1965)

Totem? Objet de rituals?… Ainsi les sauvages sont aujourd’hui une tribu 
sans limites géographiques, sans totem, avec des rituels dont l’objet 
serait une divinité qui aurait existé, qui aurait disparu et que tout 
porte à croire qu’ils cherchent. (23)

This ritual élément irréductible – perhaps it’s enough to say that it’s a word (logos) – which, according to certain universal myths, existed (singularly, as some fact), but whose truth is now lost, unattestable, remote – détourned – thereby achieving a certain exemplary status, a certain divinity, we might say, a certain omnipresence, by virtue of the fact that it is, in one sense or another, sought for. The logos of logos, for example, by which, as Barthes says, “meaning is diverted towards another meaning, somehow cast beyond itself (this is, etymologically, what the word metaphor means).”[7] Hence metaphor (too) détournes itself, becomes, as it were, the contrary of a denotation, its indeterminacy giving impetus to a type of secular transcendentalism. The trope of equivalence remains caught up in the momentum of deferral which causes it to constantly spiral back upon itself until we (the purported agents of this hermeneutics) are no longer even able to assert what it is that’s being searched for (“observer les pensées est un exercice difficile” [64]). And it’s precisely between the horns of this dilemma (one common to anthropology and philosophy) that Vassiliou situates – always playfully, always with a measure of savage humour – the defining trait of analogical thought:

Les sauvages sont seuls à mettre en pratique le penser sauvage de la pensée.
C’est le penser sauvage de la pensée. C’est la pensée sauvage en pensée.
C’est la pratique de la pensée sauvage. (65)

The remainder of Le coefficient d’échec is made up of short manifestos, notes and a “Post-propos,” containing a brief genealogy of Vassiliou’s own writings (notebooks) on the subject of “savages.” Two items are of particular interest. The first, “Notes d’Angèle en marge des carnets” (67), which contains an exposition on a certain “ELLE” (“sauvage et libre”); the second, “Transcription de l’enregistrement” (73), addressed to “G.G.,” containing a permutational series on the word “poème” (which echoes and expands from a similar series in the word “pomme” in an earlier published work-in-progress entitled N.O. le détournement).[8] Both inform specific concerns of the author in her own pursuit of a poetics of “la pensée sauvage,” mediated by the figure (and work) of the artist Gérard Gasiorowski (“G.G.”).

2

Gérard Gasiorowski, Le Village des Meuliens (1981)

2. By choice an increasingly solitary and marginal figure during his life (he died in Lyon, 19 August, 1986), Gasiorowski remains virtually unknown outside France. Abandoning an early preference for hyperrealism, his work after 1970 is described as constituting a type of pictorial suicide – an explicit rejection of any mimetic equation and, at the same time, a “critique of the Western pictorial tradition and the art market.” He founded a quasi-fictitious institution – AWK: the Académie Worosis Kiga (an anagram of “Gasiorowski”) – for the purpose of staging attacks on the culture industry at large. A series of exhibitions in the early 1980s deployed a bogus naïve primitivism in a gesture that can be read as a critique of the corporate fetishisation at that time of neo-expressionists like Georg Baselitz and Julian Schnabel. These exhibitions included groups of paintings, drawings, and sculptures compos(t)ed of excrement and organic matter, purportedly by “Kiga the Indian” (the letters K-I-G-A comprising the first and last syllables of Gasiorowski’s name), and placed within a pseudo-anthropological framework evocative of Lévi-Strauss and others in which the system of binaries predominates (civilisation / nature, rational / savage, advanced / primitive, symbolic / totemic, technē / physis, and so on and so forth).

From a level of linguistic primitivism (“Kiga” as a type of particulate substance of “Gasiorowski”) to a generalised schematic of analogical reductions (the primitivism inherent in the whole system of values underwriting the commoditisation of culture, etc.), Gasiorowski’s AWK installations appropriate a totemic logic which is already that of an anthropological system. The availability of this system to such appropriation or détournement is already implied in Lévi-Strauss’s own observations about the Totemic Operator (a quasi-autonomous agency analogous, in effect, to the situation of the field anthropologist) as a “conceptual apparatus which filters unity through multiplicity, multiplicity through unity; diversity through identity, identity through diversity.”[9] Indeed, what announces itself here as a system comes to resemble nothing so much as a methodology, in which the logic of the Totemic Operator avails itself of a certain rationalisation, or structuralism, and in which both Gasiorowski and Vassiliou recognise a critical poetics – one which détournes. Structure here is always a matrix – but not only is it generative of modes of systematisation, but of modes of signification. Its entire rationale is that of a poiēsis (of a poetics in its fullest sense).

Starting from a binary opposition, which affords the simplest possible 
example of a system, this construction proceeds by the aggregation, at 
each end of its two poles, of new terms, chosen because they stand in 
relations of opposition, correlation, or analogy to it. It does not follow, 
however, from this that the relations in question have to be homogenous. 
Each “local logic” exists in its own right. It consists in the intelligibility 
of relations between two immediately associated terms and this is not 
necessarily of the same type for every link in the semantic chain.[10]

Originally conceived as a screenplay on the life/death of Gasiorowski, Vassiliou’s long poem sequence, N.O. le détournement, develops the idea of “Kiga the Indian” into the feminised object (ELLE) of a type of poetic anthropology, exploring a number of tropes at work in Gasiorowski’s project – the exoticisation of the feminine (in a male-dominated art industry), the cult of authenticity (primitivism, expressionism), and the reification of art as a form of commodity totemism (Baudrillard’s “system of objects”).

For Vassiliou, substituting “poetry” for “painting,” the question that presents itself is what do we seek when we seek the “essence” of poetry? And as with Lévi-Strauss’s foundational distinctions in the elaboration of a structural anthropology, Vassiliou contends that any such question always points us to an underlying “pensée sauvage” – not as the primitive form of a poetics, but as the reification of poetry itself (“C’est une ENTRÉE EN MATIÈRE“ [22]). Hence the anthropological turn of Lévi-Strauss and its observation-paradox become the locus of a détournement

The first publication of N.O. in booklet-form (1998) foregrounded the problematics of the anthropological method (“ENQUÊTE”) in both its structural arrangement – as an investigatory procès and récit, commencing with a short entry (it in fact corresponds to section 40 of the final sequence): L’histoire ne peut se dénouer. / “Entrer en rupture.” / INDICE ÉNIGMATIQUE – and its treatment of “artefactual evidence,” as (at various points) énigmatique, troublé, perdu, mauvais… etc. In place of a table of contents there’s instead a list of Énigmes – which is to say “indices” (clues, items, exhibits, evidence) of the text’s missing parts, among which an “index.” An actual index, however, is included, printed on page 35, which – in addition to entries for “indice” and “indices” – provides a seemingly arbitrary list of items, many of which appear in the book only once: Arbre, Arum, Assiette, Avion, Avions, Azalée, etc.

Indeed, the enigmatic character of all indexicality is at the very heart of Vassiliou’s project. And just as the play on the meaning of “indice” doubles the function of the list (index) and the object-status of what it presumably points to, or thereby makes evident (accumulation as a means of lending weight to bare facts; as a proxy argument), so too the presumed object itself is doubled (ambiguated) in the figure of ELLE (analogue? to Gasiorowski’s Kiga). ELLE, capitalised, a reflection effect (EL-LE), stands as a type of universal signifier of the anthropo-poetic object. Like Nietzsche’s “woman,” ELLE seduces, “averts truth – the philosopher. She bestows the idea. And the idea withdraws, becomes transcendent, inaccessible, seductive. It beckons from afar. Its veils float in the distance.”[11] As Vassiliou says, “ELLE est toujours déplacée. Décalée. En marge…” (15). It’s precisely in the figure of ELLE that analogy goes astray, exceeds itself; it metaphorises itself in the figure of ELLE itself/herself. The phantasm of a “truth in nature” (the feminine primitive) shifts from being a simple object of anthropo-philosophical investigation and generalises itself/herself in the very status of the object: “INDICE (ELLE).” In short, “ELLE” invests the entire grammar of indexicality upon which the evidentiary system is founded, no longer merely as a type of enigmatic object, but as the very matrix.

ELLE toujours, l’inquête se resserre autour de cette indice. (6)

Like Gasiorowski’s “primitive” Kiga paintings, Vassiliou’s investigation into the pensée sauvage of poetic language troubles not only distinctions pertaining to facticity (to the very status of the fact), but also to those aspects of figure and ground which anthropology and philosophy are obliged to adhere to in order to maintain their particular discursive contours, at a remove from their respective objects (hence for Nietzsche, the feminine signifies a type of philosophical death; she, truth, seduces because promising oblivion, the “slumber of reason”). It also troubles the distinction between anthropo-philosophical “knowledge” and poetic “knowledge.” From the beginning, N.O. engages with the ambiguities that must arise within any form of critical discourse that seeks to locate, outside itself, a type of objective coordinate. The AS of analogy is always (and not by exception) compelled towards the IS of metaphor: the discourse of reason is thus implicated in its socalled object, which in turn is discursive (sauvage?). ELLE is thus both “indice” and “histoire” (object and [subjective; “sujet écarté”] narrative, so to speak), just as Gasiorowski’s “primitivist” paintings are themselves the “prima natura” (excrement and organic matter) in which the alchemical mindset of western metaphysics has more often than not tended to seek its truths (even if only by negation). “C’est dans la terre qu’il faut plonger les mains. Dans la terre brassée. Et s’encrasser les ongles” (21).

N.O., as Vassiliou writes, “c’est no, c’est le refus, c’est ce qui ne se résigne pas, ce qui lutte et ce qui cherche, c’est la fuite, c’est la morte et ce qui meurt, c’est la marge encore, et ce qui s’y joue” (28). Series or system of investigations, of clues, indices, no longer pointing but articulating, constituting the locus in quo; the scene of the event; the détournements and evasions of art, of language – metastasised in the figure of Gérard Gasiorowski’s death (“G.G. meurt à Lyon d’un infarctus. L’enterrement a lieu dans un petit village des A., en présence seulement de quelque intimes qui on pu être prévenues. Sa mère fera revenir le corps pour qu’il soit enterré a S.-J.-du-S.” [32]). Where does this all lead us?

I want to propose that Vassiliou’s N.O., like Gasiorowski’s paintings, is not the deduction of a text in which a concept appears or can be retrieved simply by placing one’s faith in certain conventions of reason. There’s a particular difficulty we’re required to experience, in determining, in fact, how to go about reasoning, deducing, reading. Nothing is merely critiqued, nor is any argument simply rehearsed or re-elaborated. Insofar as we can speak of artefacts, these aren’t given objects, self-evident and so forth, but things made. If there’s a rapport between poetry and philosophy, or between poetry and anthropology, it’s by means of a generalised poiēsis – in the generative tensions brought-forth by a language, a syntax, a general textual arrangement that demands thinking; that calls reason into being through a proto-typical act of writing that verges upon the impossible.

3. But what is this impossibility? Firstly, it’s the impossible distanciation of analogical thought itself, of the spiral into metaphor, of the recursivity of the “object” under inquiry. “Ou est la vérité?” “La VÉRITÉ est dans la quête” (17). But what is this quest? This inquest? This in-quest? “Movement circulaires et répétitifs…” it (the in-quest) terminates only in the inauguration of its own process. “Conclusions de l’enquête: // Je continue de chercher. Comme lui. Il n’y a qu’à travailler” (34). This work, this writing, is both open-ended (so to speak) and radically finite. The serial structure of N.O., framed in 61 parts (is it an accident that this is a prime number?) – each part divided into three, delineating the histoire of this in-quest – exaggerates the inductive character of an empiricism directed at a truth that evades inquiry, definition, summation. Such (non-) truth is thus factored into the work itself as détournement.

Insofar as Vassiliou’s writing resists the de-suturing of philosophy (or anthropology) from the poetic, it demands that we relinquish any claims to immediate intelligibility – of something subtractable from language; a “pensée sauvage” demonstrable to the point of being demonstrative. A certain primitivism is at work here, not in the embellishment of an aesthetic ideology, but in the construction of a critical poetics; the step away from an “aesthetics of the consciousness of the self,” as Althusser says in his essay on Brecht, “and its classical derivations: the rules of unity.” Neither expressionism nor formalism, the poem as such is a type of pensée sauvage.

In the final section of N.O. (1998), a certain anagrammatical play between POÈME and POMME invites analogy between the work of poiēsis and the act of rumination. ELLE, archetypal woman (ELLE mirrors the palindromic EVE), returns (through circularity and repetition) to the tree of Eden, primal scene of the fall of man, the invention of reason (and its contrary [Fr. tort]), and the birth of anthropology:

Je mange des pommes. Des pommes jaunes. J’en mange beaucoup. Je croque, je mâche, j’avale. 
Des pommes. L’une après l’autre. J’attaque leur rondeur et je les réduis avec mes dents, avec ma bouche. 
Je prépare aussi les pommes. Je les épluche et les fais cuire. Les pommes que je fais cuire sont celles des pauvres. 
Alors je les mange, informes, laminées. Les pommes deviennent ma merde. Et de ma merde, je fais des tourtes.

We have reached that point in which the raw and the cooked coincide, we mangeons des pommes, we sublimate in reverse, from poetry to materia prima; once more “the metaphor, turns on itself, but according to a centrifugal movement: the backwash of meaning never stops.”

Louis Armand

 [1]   Véronique Vassiliou, Le coefficient d’échec (Montigny: Voix éditions, 2001) 65.

  [2]   In La Pensée Sauvage (1964), Lévi-Strauss rightly observes that the “opposition between nature and culture… seems today to offer a value which is above all methodological.” (See below.)

  [3]   The particular logic of totemism reveals, for Lévi-Strauss, a pervasively analogical but also discursive relation between individual and collective epistemologies, so as to describe systems of transformation whose “classificatory schemes… allow the natural and social universe to be grasped as an organised whole.” Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1968) 135.

  [4]   Lévi-Strauss himself discusses how recursiveness and repetition describe a type of periodicity in the semantic organisation of myth (whereby the “function of repetition is to render the structure of myth apparent”). Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke G. Schoepf (New York: Doubleday, 1967) 226.

  [5]   Roland Barthes, “Arcimboldo, or Magician and Rhétoriquer,” The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1885) 131 – my italics.

  [6]   Barthes, “Arcimboldo,” 132.

  [7]   Barthes, “Arcimboldo,” 138.

  [8]   Véronique Vassiliou, N.O. le détournement (Aix-en-Provence: Contre-Pied, 1998) 11.

  [9]   Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, 152-3.

[10]   Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, 161. Cf. the “Overture” to The Raw and the Cooked, trans. John Weightman (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

[11]   Jacques Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1978) 87-89.

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