BILL SCALIA Reviews
Absolute Elsewhere by James Davies and Simon Taylor
(Knives Forks and Spoons Press, Merseyside, UK, 2010)
Absolute Elsewhere is a small book (5 inches square, about the size of a CD booklet) of poems, individual lines, and photographs. The book is credited (in the endnotes) to “Joy as Tiresome Vandalism,” which itself is James Davies (poetry) and Simon Taylor (photography). The note also tells us that this is the second project by the group, and that the two artists did not respond directly to each other’s work, but “responded to clues, and thus responded ‘blind’.” The result is a volume (quite handsomely produced, on heavy stock paper with nicely rendered colors and images) of interspaced lines, words, phrases, and photographs.
The book is divided into sections titled as pairs of months. The first section is “April / May,” perhaps a nod to T.S. Eliot. Similar to Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” the authors have composed their own notes as commentary on the poetry (and, like “Notes on The Waste Land,” the notes often as not confuse the text rather than clarify it). The text (the poetry) of the book is, to me, so remote as to be not meaningless, but non-meaningful. Perhaps the clues to which each artist responded would have suggested some connection between the words and the images. The photography is nicely rendered in the book (the street scene in the section “February / March” is especially lovely), but the text of the book seems unmoored.
I can discern from the notes that this is one installment of a larger project, and that there is an attempt to destabilize conventional relationships between image, language, experience, and technology. Perhaps the point of the book is that sense (by which I mean a logical, or even intuited, connection between the images and the language, or even within the language itself) is illusory, and that the book attempts to reach us on the level of pre-linguistic experience. I might even understand this claim regarding the photographs, which are often accompanied by unrelated text.
Nonetheless, for all its confusion and lack of focus (which I concede may be the point of the work) the book surfaces particularly interesting questions. For example, there is no narrative in the conventional sense (not even, as far as I can tell, in any sense of tension and release); but, must we read “narratively”? That is to say, is reading narratively (in terms of syntactical connections, cause and effect, or dramatic structure) hard-wired in the brain? The capacity for language (and its essential, though separate, recognition of nouns and verbs) is a fundamental part of the human experience; one might say this capacity qualifies what it means to be “human.” The localized areas of the brain attendant upon nouns and verbs (Broca’s Area and Wernicke ’s Area) suggest, on the surface, that the brain creates language structures resonant with our experience of reality and our sense of the “flow” of time. (If humans normally perceived life at the quantum level we would have a much different language to express the ambiguous relationship between cause and effect, and thus narrativity). But Absolute Elsewhere makes me think outside of narrative, even outside of the idea of “narrative” - - time, causality, structure - - to the underlying structure (the deep structure) of relationship. Again, perhaps this is the point.
Also, the composition of Absolute Elsewhere invites the question, “what becomes of the word as material?” That is, in the book the language (as well as on the group’s website, on which computer-generated ‘poetry’ is practiced) is offered as mere material. If a word is seemingly stripped of its referent (whether this is actually possible is another matter), if a word is offered as an empty sign, then what do we, struggling for significance, make of this occurrence? (And is it the desire created by our longing - - our need - - to complete the act of linguistic signification itself under investigation?) What becomes of the word as thing? If the language in Absolute Elsewhere is stripped of referents, and in that sense rendered void, does this suggest that our experience of the world through the mediation of language is itself void? Perhaps this is, indeed, the significance of the title Absolute Elsewhere.
Bill Scalia has published essays on literature and film in the journals Religion and Literature, Literature/Film Quarterly, and in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema. He also edited the anthology Classic Critical Views: Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is currently at work on a book concerning Emersonian aesthetics, poetry, and film. Dr. Scalia teaches literature and writing at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland.