There are a lot of words at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. There’s a Susan Howe poem that cuts and pastes language, then letterprints it into a progression of legible/illegible rhythms, and it’s beautiful. There’s a display of Semiotext(e) pamphlets, including Jackie Wang’s brilliant Against Innocence. And, excitingly, there’s the object-oriented writing of Travis Jeppesen.
Jeppesen’s piece, 16 Sculptures, is a series of black chairs, black sunglasses, black headphones, and black records on the wall. You sit in a chair and put on a blindfold and listen to headphones, blocking out everything else, a divide made more poignant by the installation’s placement within a room filled with one of the most hyper-colored and frenetically sprawling overloads of visual and audio information at the Biennial. Each headphone plays a reading in digitized voice of Jeppesen’s object-oriented experiment with a familiar sculpture. The Venus of Willendorf declares her worth, “My ass has a sort of mouth and a lot to say” and “My hole-iness is raw gorgeosity—fat fuck holey for the masses.” Cady Noland’s Misc. Spill announces “The electric guitar spilled all over my tits got sent there for sure cos like a real motherfucker barks like a dog as he wolfs on down the raw egofuck.” And Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is a narrative of natural time, the Spiral and “everything that gets in its way,” with adroitly weird grammar.
16 Sculptures exists as a book as well. In its preface, Jeppesen describes his experimentation with object-oriented writing (an echo of object-oriented ontology) as “a writing that positions itself within the work of art, while simultaneously including all the contradictions and impossibilities that come embedded within such an approach.” He further delineates this type of writing— “unlike criticism, which is always necessarily about an object, and unlike poetry, which is inspired by, object-oriented writing takes on the task of being.” For Jeppesen, this is a mode that allows for contradictions, truths that become untrue or maybe true in different ways, lingering possibilities, and the preclusion of conclusions.
The task of “being” instead of the task of “being about.” There is an important ethical distinction in there that resonates through the essay as genre. We cannot, as object-oriented writing acknowledges, successfully represent another thing. Our aboutness is unique to us as individuals and writers and so never purely about our topic, regardless of whether we write about music, about the live of strangers, about our own days, about the moods of weather or the history of cats. To write about something is to lay claim to a fact (emotional, physical, historical)—to write as a form of being is to lay claim to the failure of aboutness, situating the writer within the paradox that the writing can never be the sculpture, the body, the voice, the movement, and yet to write anyway.
Where can the essay take us, as readers and writers? I have never been entirely comfortable representing anything in my writing. I know that I am forever providing false ideas about boyfriends, or this land, or notions of time, or what a word means. Writing that clearly declares itself as fiction allows, as part of its project, for the writer to write herself into experiences that are not her own. It is a project with its own ethics and complications and possibilities. I do not have the skill to work in this mode. When I attempt to write outside of my experience, I stumble and fret over questions of politics and identity (questions rooted in logics with which I do not even agree). The essay has always felt more comfortable as a way to own my self-ness and to hopefully interrogate it. It says from the start that there is no one here but me while allowing me to fill it with citations and quotes from those who formed this “me,” undermining the idea that a self could ever exist alone anyway. And while the essay, on its surface, sometimes seems more restrained than other genres in this way, I also know it has the potential to reach as far and to take us to as many places as any other writing. It can even go inside a sculpture, which is impossible to do (and so it fails).
Object-oriented writing is concerned with the distance between the writer and the object, a distance it tries to disavow. Venus again: “Deep inside my rocky cove, I harbor waves,” which works because Jeppesen the individualized writer is uniquely being in rather than coolly about the sculpture. I believe my consciousness warps and garbles anything it relates itself too, but I also believe in the importance of relating, of language’s endless potential to expand what I know of the world, to bring me into new thought. Writing as being rather than being about does not solve this problem of relation, but instead embraces and works within the problem. It reminds us that the attempt of the essay is not to discover something, but to release some meanings that only we (individuals with other individuals) can find in the not-discovering.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee is writing that is while resisting being about. In drawing from the writer’s life and the life of her mother and the life of Joan of Arc and the life of Yu Guan Soon and so much else, the text creates a constancy of relation, both implicit and explicit. This is the relation of fragmentation, not the relation of cohesion. As it reads, “The present form face to face reveals the missing, the absent. Would-be-said remnant, memory. But the remnant is the whole.” When the writer’s own life is at the center of a text, as it is here, it is a topic over which she can claim the greatest authority. But in Dictee, the text is instead disrupted, fragmented, as to be inside of it is to understand it through the lives of others. By being in the life, the writing is in the blank spaces and disruptions of identity and history. I wonder if the idea of object-oriented writing can be stretched to apply here, too, to relate to a lived experience. Does even writing about our own lives also imply a false distance that could never be there, gladhanding and making insincere promises to the reader? And then, how do we move into the is, as Cha does, so beautifully that the reader is changed?
Everything exists, is whole and potent, regardless of how or if we might relate to it. Yet through relating, through writing or speaking with or handling or ignoring, we change that everything (the world). This is, again, why Jeppesen’s writing, even as it tries to inhabit a physical object and to not be “about” that object, is still Jeppesen’s writing, still wholly of him, as what else could we be of but us? Object-oriented writing and its attendant concerns, then, highlight why the essay is both impossible and exciting, both a problem and a necessary attempt. It refuses to make the individual supreme by rejecting the aboutness, and in turn both features the individuality of the writer and the unique individuality of the subject/object. It’s a way to write into the Venus and declare that “It was dykes who invented porn.”
I’m constantly wanting to celebrate the essay and then talking about its failures. Maybe this is one of the reasons Jeppesen’s budding experiment appeals to me so strongly. In a post “The Object” on his blog Disorientations, he writes “Always a failure then, every instance of writing, yet how to overcome,” which I find thrilling, the same sentence making both the “failure” and the “how” an “always.” Whatever else it is up to, I want the essay to make sure it fails. I want us to write about politics and make offensive mistakes, not to perfect a politicized language of politeness and solid understandings. I want us to lie to each other because we lied to ourselves. I want us to try to use our essays to actually go inside of an object and write its being because that is fucking impossible to do. I’m bored by the lie of about, in pretending we are not failing. I want to get inside of something and be so that I can fail.
T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty from Sarabande Books and a Nonfiction Editor at DIAGRAM. They write about books and art at a number of places, including queer literature for the Brooklyn Rail, and can be reached at email@example.com.