On Thursday, 26 February, Guest Objectivists Christopher Alexander & Kristen Gallagher led the Next Objectivists in a workshop & writing exercise beginning with passages from Georges Perec.
The exercise was one that Kristen & Chris frequently teach to students at the City University of New York. We read aloud from the section entitled “The Street” in Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. The section begins:
The buildings stand one beside the other. They form a straight line. they are expected to form a line, and it’s a serious defect in them when they don’t do so. They are then said to be ‘subject to alignment’, meaning that they cay by rights be demolished, so as to be rebuilt in a straight line with the others.
This parallel alignment of two series of buildings defines what is known as a street. The street is a space bordered, generally on its two longest sides, by houses; the street is what separates houses from each other, and also what enables us to get from one house to another, by going either along or across the street.
One feels immediately the grip of Perec’s abstraction. Crucial to his project is a shift in attention which involves the disintegration of ordinary scripts of seeing & the reintegration of new visual patterns that are less obvious as one goes about one’s daily business. Each day we go up and down streets, with little regard for the structures that organize the world in this particular way.
Perec, in his cool tone—offhand, hip to practicalities—suggests that it is possible for us to observe systems as he does. We, too, can write like this if we wish: we need simply “Observe the street, from time to time, with some concern for system perhaps.” “You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colorless,” he tells us. “Detect a thrythm: the passing of the cars. . . . Look at the number plates. Distinguish between cars registered in Paris and the rest.” Simple & clear passages that suggest how one might generate this abstraction from person to system.
He doesn’t offer us a view of how things ‘really are.’ Only the world that coalesces around these abstractions. In other words, a negative dialectics: the ‘real’ of ordinary life is not there for Perec. There is no representation of the street beyond what is written. That other street lives in its steadfast flux, unorganized, ordinary. We begin the passage with the big abstractions because there is only the writing.
For Perec, it seems that the inevitable transformation of the world that happens when an objectivist poetic exercise is engaged begins with prepositions. Writing inevitably transforms the world into prepositions: when one stops and writes about the street, the temporal, spatial & otherwise causational relations between events calls out for attention. Hence the move toward systems: in language the things that we see have relations, and in ordering those relations, Perec orders the world. His effort is to order it in favor of objective abstraction:
Decipher a bit of the town. Its circuits: why do the buses go from this place to that? Who chooses the routes, and by what criteria?
In this straight-forward sense, Perec’s work nicely exemplifies an effort to produce an objectivist ‘factory of the sensible.’ By trying to write what he sees in the most objective manner possible—in this case, figure out how to record systems, rather than merely moving along one of them—Perec supplies models for a simple & powerful strategy of writing outside the self. He writes fully within the imagination, reworlding the world\ in a radically democratic fashion.
The move away from the first-person un-seeing ordinariness that is absent from Perec’s text toward the abstraction that results from sitting and observing for long periods of time (a disruption at the level of visual & aural rhythms produced by the act of writing for no reason but that of objective observation) is typical of the poetry of the outside. One of its most prominent origins—no doubt an influential one on Perec & the Situationist & Oulipian writers with whom he affiliated—is Edgar Allan Poe’s fascination with what Henri Lefebvre would eventually dub “everyday life in the modern world.” A much celebrated early conceptualization of how to relatievto the imagination that makes reading the world in this manner possible can be found in the opening pages of Poe’s “Man of the Crowd”:
At first my observations took an abstract and generalizing turn. I looked at the passengers in masses, and thought of them in their aggregate relations. Soon, however, I descended to details, and regarded with minute interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance.
In his laconic manner, Perec advises us to attempt the very practice that Poe articulates:
The people in the streets: where are they coming from? Where are they going to? Who are they?
People in a hurry. People going slowly. Parcels. Prudent people who’ve taken their macs. Dogs: they’re the only animals to be seen. You can’t see any birds—you you know there are birds—and can’t hear them either. You might see a cat slip underneath a car, but it doesn’t happen.
Nothing is happening, in fact.
Here a predominantly objectivist attention to details described in the ordinary relations produced between them when one simply sits and contemplates (“You must write about it more slowly, almost stupidly,” he tells us “Time passes. Drink your beer. Wait.”) produces new knowledge. The world transforms itself in our gaze. It suffers a decent into language, in order to arise again as the aesthetic reorganization of itself. The imagination envelopes us & the dignities & endless possibilities of the collective self replace the pissed-off, errand running, nervous, on-the-way-to-work I-self that has prevented the whole world from erupting into poetry.
Slow your mind & your ass will follow.
Or is there something else going on?
In their conversation, the Next Objectivists soon discovered that something else was going on in Perec’s text. Another kind of world was possible—a world saturated with sentiment & alive to the endless possibilities that emerge all the more vividly for being operative in the immediate flux of experience. Regarded with this figuration in the driver’ seat, another voice manifested itself—a slightly tweaked first-person lyric suffering the street in on-going trauma. Stephen Dedalus as a Parisian hustler, juggling Oxycodone & amphetamines & strung out to the point of mentally bopping out. A comic book reality: the story of Raskolnikov as told by Guy Ritchie. Try reading these lines aloud in the stressed-out voice of a hophead gangster who can’t act—like Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas if it had been played by Leonardo DeCaprio:
The street: try to describe the street, what it’s made of, what it’s used for. The people in the street. The cars. What sort of cars? The buildings: note that they’re on the comfortable, well-heeled side. Distinguish residential from official buildings.
The shops. What do they sell in the shops? There are no food shops. Oh yes, there’s a baker’s. Ask yourself where the locals do their shopping.
This is the more sentimental Perec—the limits of the program. The subjective emerges as a fascinating remainder, a ghost that shimmers across the surface of the words. There is much more that should be said about the shift that occurs in Perec’s writing when read with collective attention.
Led by Chris & Kristen, the Next Objectivists participated in a group writing practice. We brought our chairs to the large plate glass window of the Mess Hall and turned off the lights. We sat in several rows looking out at the dark, rainy street, notebooks on our laps, writing what we saw. After a half-hour or so of writing in silence, we returned to the table and each person cut & pasted into a sequence some of the most interesting passages we had produced. We read the passages aloud together, then ate & drank collectively before parting ways.
Here is our poem:
Attributes of the frame—
two bars, and a pane
between, lightening towards
1. Glass 2. Water 3. Concrete and water 4. Pavement & water 5. Cement and water 6. Gravel and water 7. Branches and water 8. Brick and water 9. Sky and water
The wild—disobedient lines have stopped
movement, as if lines can be shy—
you can only assume 2 or more eyes
you changed its speed of motion
I forgot to mention the power lines.
raised margin of unformed vegetation
in the plans the zone labeled “unplanned”
For all its art, the wall depends on the street. The wall wants to demean the street—its plain black flatness but behind its screaming mouth and bulging eyes and red lips
it depends on the street.
the wall wants more than art, it
street you are a nostril
matched past CTA by
your other nostril, northbound
as alleys, hiding green-apple trees
A red & white sign supported by
slender metal posts among the
e e p O u t
c tric c ent
it tells us.
The trees live on our embankment of dirt held up by the mural’s wall.
There are rectangles of yellowish light, pieces, rooms of a building where someone is away inside.
“Arts for all” says the mural. I am terrifically
bored. Some engineers have raised
the earth about 25 feet above the street.
Half the height is a retaining wall
of concrete. Then tress and shrubs
anchoring the steeply sloped earth
upon which, smeared like cream frosting
sit twelve inches of white gravel.
The train cuts right across
the center of the image
5 minutes must have passed
since I began this piece
b/c the train has come again
& blocks out the dust and yellow light of those house windows
street cleaning scheduled
for something to avoid we could attend
come see the street cleaning
An exit sign is reflecting onto the window (as is my pen, hand & notebook The exit sign looks like it was planted,
glowing into the earth.
10 feet away, wild lines, resting on
circles, 4 in all, with a 5 on its side with
letters J E E P
Trees and other brush approach
the very edge—some ominous
others possessed of a slight lethargy
The street is sincere. Dark and straight. It asks nothing from the buildings that stand facing it—staring at it relentlessly. The street has no demands.
How much can you cherish
a person as much as their