I was taking a cab to a bar to play Scrabble when a friend told me that affect theory is kind of becoming passé. Not frumpy or anything, just a little tired, and now people are talking more about measurement and computation. I don’t know anything about measurement and computation. I was just starting to figure out affect theory, I thought, a little bit. When we got to the bar I cheated and looked up Scrabble words on my phone all afternoon while getting day-drunk. I keep thinking about it, these few details, all together. Like how having information makes me want to do something with it.
I’m interested in Siah Armajani’s A Number Between Zero and One because I think it has something to say about essaying. Armajani is an artist who moved from Iran to the United States decades ago, when he was 21. His sculptures are often deeply engaged with architecture, the public sphere, and literary text, celebrating democracy while in recent years taking a more outwardly critical stance toward contemporary imperialism. A Number Between Zero and One does not overtly involve the viewer with these kinds of politics. It is a stack of paper around nine feet tall on which the number 10-205,714,079 is printed. The papers are buttressed so as to not fall down.
A Number Between Zero and One is interesting because of the way it milks information for imagination. The information is made material through the paper, but the stack prevents us from actually reading the number, which is at once impossibly small and long. We do not even necessarily know which number between zero and one exists here, and even if we do, the specific of 10-205,714,079 is effectively incomprehensible anyway. So there is a very specific set of information, information that is banal like a statistic and seemingly inconsequential in its smallness (although we might also know that a number of this size can be incredibly consequential and stimulating). To approach this very small thing in this very large stack, our imagination goes into overdrive. The pages become an endlessly shifting amount of zeroes and other possible digits. The sculpture, in a clever naming of itself, gives us the same information that it conceals, and in doing so activates our own creative visions.
The essay-as-form often seems to me to have as much to do with architecture, dance, and fashion as it does with fiction and poetry (everything has a lot to do with everything). All these art forms are tied in their conception to our material and affective realities, and yet all of them allow for creative, inspirational forces with the potential to reconceive of and redirect those realities. A utopian potential. In Mourning Diary, Roland Barthes begins not with the astute clarity sometimes found in his critical writing. Instead, he begins first with a question of himself (and of his culture), “First wedding night. / But first mourning night?” He follows this slim entry with an assertion, “--You have never known a Woman’s body! // --I have known the body of my mother, sick and then dying.” In both instances, Barthes steps into the experience of this grief, an experience shaped by his home, by the expectations of his community and culture, and by love. He gestures to the loss in a way that acknowledges we cannot see it. And by engaging with this loss and refusing it on its given terms, his own imaginative and peculiar force begins to chart something new, to alter despair and its perception.
Armajani’s stack is again notable because of the degree to which paper not only describes, but also forms our world. We’re shifting, increasingly, to the screen and digital information rather than the printed page, but regardless, these sites of information perform the simultaneous tasks of description and revision, like drawing a line on a map and its endless consequences. Like the New Aesthetic. The act of writing an essay sometimes feels fusty, especially if it is an essay we conceive of in paragraphs in print. But the essay today does not elude these questions of description and revision, it meets them head-on. In the immense accumulation of affect and object in our daily lives, only the scarcest pieces of information typically find their way into a text. 10-205,714,079. The clangor of trashcans that Barthes hears in the morning. Things so small that we peer at them and imagine.
This reverie of information is the essay’s most exciting component to me. It says that even in attempting to speak of the smallest and most precise information, we must imagine. And if we are going to imagine our world and we do not imagine it toward something better, we have wasted this opportunity. Writer and performer Regrette Etcetera speaks to this more cogently than I can. Her work peers at things and she makes worlds from that peering, like the space between zero and one expands into an aperture that in turn allows us to see ourselves new. Her zine So this one time I turn up for a trick would have been one of my favorite essays of 2010 if anyone had asked me to list my favorite essays in 2010. Here, she talks of the “performative gap between wish and reality," the gap being the space where I see the essay.
There are a lot of very good essays being written today and a lot of very insightful people looking at the information of the world and thinking about it in artful ways. What matters to me as a reader is not simply that the looking and the thinking be artful, but that they push the world, that they show me its utopian potentials (its failings) and that they trouble its temporality. Armajani prints a number and creates a fancied architecture that stays firmly in unfettered, imaginative possibility. Regrette Etcetera goes into a k-hole and better explains the promise of ego-death to us. Barthes is able to approach the impossibility of loss by likening his mother’s death to heterosexual coitus. This is all very exciting, that our thirst for information is fundamental to our creativity, that the space of imagination continues to open and that in it we can make overtures to something more.
T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty (Sarabande) and a Nonfiction Editor at DIAGRAM. They live in rural Tennessee and feel self-concious about usually mentioning Barthes.