I’m Seeing What We Call Normal Life as Being a Vision: Visionary Scrutiny in the Work of Leslie Scalapino

Alicia Cohen


Kokoro koso kokoro
kokoro nare
Kokoro ni kokoro
kokoro yurusuna

 Mind deludes mind:
Such is mind;
Let not the mind be
Unmindful toward the

—Takuan Osh[o] zensh[u]
in The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan (1969)


We want to be abreast of everything that takes place at the very instant that it passes and comes to pass. Not only are the images of events and the words that transmit them instantaneously inscribed on our screens and in our ears, but, finally, there is no event other than this movement of universal transmission: “the reign of an enormous tautology” [Lefebvre]. [. . .] The means of communication (language, culture, imaginative output), in never being taken as more than means, are wearing out and losing their meaning potential. We believe we know things, immediately, without images and without words; in reality we are dealing with no more than an insistent prolixity that says and shows nothing [ . . . ] Why take part in a street demonstration if at the same moment, secure and at rest, we are at the demonstration itself thanks to a television set? [ . . . ] Substituted for practice is the pseudo-acquaintance of an irresponsible gaze; substituted for the movement of the concept—a task and a work—is the diversion of a superficial, uncaring, and satisfied contemplation. Well protected within the four walls of his familial existence, man allows the world to come to him without peril, certain of being in no way changed by what he sees and hears. ‘Depoliticization' is tied to this movement.


—Maurice Blanchot, ‘Everyday Speech' in The Infinite Conversation


It is striking to me that while Leslie Scalapino specifically is attempting to write her/our way out of the suffocating semiotic loop described here by Blanchot, it is by these very same terms that her poetry and critical writing often are derided: it doesn't seem to be saying anything; it seems to use words and phrases pointlessly, without ever getting anywhere; it seems a useless, self-involved tautology. Indeed how many times has the work of experimental or radical 1 poets like Scalapino been condemned for being self-involved and solipsistic, a poetry that no one else can really understand, a poetry whose main point is nothing more than some formal tactic, an attempt to upset readers' expectations? Scalapino's work by this view is a vacuum of communication, an “insistent prolixity that says and shows nothing.” ( The Infinite Conversation 240)

Even readers who admire Scalapino's work suffer a real resistance to it as they read. It is important to recognize that the struggle, the difficulty one feels reading her poetry, is not superfluous to it — and not a short-coming of the work — but, rather, is integral to it. Although I find the more I read Scalapino over the years the more spacious and wonderful the reading experience becomes, I have struggled very much with her work and have always found it both profound and, concomitantly, recalcitrant and trying. I think my response to her work is not unusual. It is important to look at this resistance and examine how it might be related to the project of her work. Scalapino's work is doing more than arguing that media is manipulative, as Blanchot does in the quote above. Scalapino is creating a work through which we may come to recognize the manipulation happening at the moment of its construction in consciousness. Why might this cause us readerly unease?

Scalapino writes in How Phenomena Appear to Unfold : “The actual media is completely artificial. We are not it. Yet we are trained to regard it as the manifestation of the polis.” (93) According to Scalapino, all media is inherently artificial; however, she here calls it completely artificial because we are “trained” to identify with it. The media's deception of the polis occurs not by way of the artificiality of its content and form, but in that it attempts to disguise its artificiality. We are “trained” to identify with it when in fact “we are not it.” Scalapino's work seeks to create a disjunct in this process of identification. Her work brings to the surface of reading the role we ourselves play in making the “real” we see. Scalapino's critique of media must be understood as secondary to her scrutiny of unmediated “reality.” Her work seeks first and foremost to reveal the sleight of hand repressed in conventional or natural pictures of the real. In such picture, what is fictional is figured as the opposite of what is real, or at least is a fabrication of that real. For Scalapino, however, to think about anything at all is to fictionalize. She writes: “so fiction (I mean all conceptualizing) occurs where the real event isn't — isn't seen…. One's mind makes fictions as its function.” ( Defoe 363) What we think of as the “real” is a fiction of the mind trying to represent what Scalapino often calls “present-time.” Her work seeks to illumine this fiction-making as part and parcel of the “real,” rather than suppress it. She writes in Green and Black : “Actual is fictional” (10). It is only by way of a double-seeing, made possible by writing/reading, that we can intervene in the sweeping cultural illusion of “natural” vision. As readings such as this one I am engaged in make clear, the terms (real, actual, illusion, world, fiction, etc.) are so slippery that discussion of the machinations of representation quickly begins to feel labyrinthine — and perhaps this is no accident. Scalapino quotes Philip Whalen: “[a]ccording to Whalen in his introduction, ‘By strict attention to (and application of) a version of logic and empiricism and the experimental method,' we have created a luxurious life for a few who control the money machine. Whalen's process is a form of reverse empiricism.” ( How Phenomena Appear to Unfold 112) According to both Scalapino and Whalen, much rides on the illusion of an uncreated real. To reverse the light western empiricism is always shedding on the world is no mean task.

Reading Scalapino doesn't simply deliver us a new and different picture of the real that we can “see” and consume. Her work requires a practice. Her work is exhausting and troubling because, as it works upon us, it challenges the very foundations of our relationship to the world. It proposes not only that our various communication media misrepresent the world, but that the very nature of our minds is this media — is language — so not only do we see a distorted picture of reality when we watch, say, the evening news, but we may well be seeing a distorted picture of reality even when we look out the kitchen window.

Scalapino's work recognizes the same cultural situation Blanchot does in the above passage, and her body of work is committed to opening up a cultural discourse about the “real” that extends out from literature into a public domain. Manipulation of a polis occurs most easily when the imaginative and creative aspect of all seeing is invisible to the looking subject herself. Scalapino's work attempts to mark vision and intervene in the very picture of “normal life” that mass media not only “presents” or “represents,” but that it assumes as the ground of any (re)presentation of what is happening. In this essay I examine how Scalapino achieves this intervention by focusing on two books: Front Matter, Deal Souls, parts of which she submitted to newspapers as accounts of the Gulf War; and Defoe, a novel in the realist mode that seeks to re-imagine the real by focusing particularly on representations of the visible world in various media. In both works the visible world is a key site of intervention into cultural discourse. By that I mean, in these works Scalapino seeks as much to transform sight — actual physiological vision — as to transform, reveal, and undermine the hierarchies undergirding discourse (and to reveal how these two projects are interrelated). She is not saying that the world “out there” — the world visible to the naked eye — does not exist, but rather that this most fundamental ground of political and social agreement is, in fact, an extraordinarily elaborate construct of the imagination, both personal and cultural. Reading Scalapino we begin to see how the fantastical is itself part of the real . What we see when we look out the window partakes of the visionary in the literary or mystical sense. This visionary quality of our seeing is not inherently “bad,” to be got rid of, or expelled; but rather, to be seen as part of what we call “seeing.”

Above, Blanchot writes of a condition in which our desire to know “everything” is answered incessantly — in which we can “be abreast of everything that takes place at the very instant that it comes to pass” (240). However, caught up in the frenzy of important, “breaking” news, we lose the point of being informed: engagement, action, and transformation of the world of which we are a part. According to Blanchot, depoliticization of democratic populations occurs not in the streets but, rather, in our very relationship to language and communication technologies. We are incapacitated not by the policeman's baton, but by the promise offered us by our modes of knowing — by our substitution of consumption of information for an active relation with and in our various communication medias and, consequently, with and in the world. In an interview with Elizabeth Frost, Scalapino discusses in terms similar to Blanchot the disempowering poetics of television news:

It's the idea that you're watching history in the form of an action taking place that is in some way connected to you, though you feel completely isolated from it, and which is also totally fabricated as an action. [Television news] is the form in which action on a worldwide level is being presented to you. You are totally isolated from it, watching this thing that is deliberately, completely separated from you as if it were not happening, or as if you were not happening. It proposes that dichotomy. (Interview, not paginated)


For Scalapino, the news represents ‘what-is-happening' in a way that incapacitates and isolates the viewer. The news is not media of a different order than poetry — in fact, in both Defoe and Front Matter, Deal Souls , Scalapino seeks to challenge and undermine cultural reading practices that increase our susceptibility to manipulative media as a way of “reporting” what is “really” going on. Indeed, her work seeks to revivify our relationship to the means of communication and recalibrate our epistemologies to explore how we know what we know.

Scalapino's poetics does not begin with an attempt to represent the real. Rather her work takes place before the act of representation and is radically skeptical of a world that appears self-evident to the human eye. For Scalapino, the relationship of writing and representation to the world of which we are a part is complex. The world that appears to our sight as un-written is, like literature, an elaborate artistic construct. To see accurately, we must begin to see vision itself as a visionary process. As Scalapino writes in her novel Defoe :

      It is creating a surface of custom which is imagination: viewing this internally as oneself [. . .]
      This is what they say is normal life here. So we can see it. I'm seeing what we call normal life as being a vision.
       So this is making another vision of their vision; but then one is not in either, walking. (160)

It is only by making a “vision” out of a cultural vision (a “vision of their vision”) that we can see the custom of imagination that is “normal life.” This doubling of the seeing process allows a de-identification to arise, allows the reader to disconnect from the seen. For Scalapino, sight is always a visionary or imaginative act — the physiological act of seeing and the visionary creativity of imagination are inseparable. In Defoe, commentary on the text occurs alongside the narrative's radical images. The narrative is dreamlike, yet vivid and intense. Scalapino writes in a chapter titled “So Long, Iago” from Part One: “The red desert has cracks in it. Swans are in the cracks not moving. There isn't minute movement. She's walking in the midst of this where there are spirals ochre in color in the sky. Billowing with here and there the starved stick boys lying. Billows from the firing of the car, since this is after an air strike.” (94) This striking image is un-resolvable or paradoxical. To watch the image we have to let go of narrative reading and float along as if listening to music — not that we pay attention only to the sound of the words, but we attend to the fluidity of the images' transformation and movement. Scalapino calls to the surface of writing the act of seeing, enabling us to watch our own minds making a vision in language. In Scalapino's radical practice, the experience of reading is impossible for readers to overlook. Reading Scalapino's work, we read ourselves reading. Her writing insists upon itself as an experience in the present moment of reading. Seeing is not “of” something else, but rather “is” the thing seen: “perception itself is phenomena” ( How Phenomena Appear to Unfold 118). The visible world here includes not only the viewer: its very visibility is made by the viewer's imagination. In Scalapino's work we are watching the movement of the imagination. Its movement both marks and elides a distinction between what is seen and the act of seeing. The imagination is not a compromised space; it has the same ontological reality as anything else. As Scalapino writes, “living in the imagination is as real an event as anything else.” ( How Phenomena Appear to Unfold 119) We cannot not participate in the creation of phenomena we see.

Scalapino's work may in a certain sense seem very esoteric; but she is in fact responding to deep and important cultural anxieties about disjunctions in the fabric of knowing and world. Our cultural environment is formed in a linguistic ecology drenched in information. Certainly we are obsessed with communicating: cell phones, beepers, websites, and email are ubiquitous. However, culturally privileged information is directed at us by one-way media: television, movies, magazines, billboards, and newspapers. With the postindustrial explosion of information, the mapping of the world and outer space, we should be more knowledgeable than ever before; yet everywhere there is evidence that, as a culture, we feel this information may in fact be robbing us of real knowing. Much work has been done to demonstrate the degree of sophistication children and teenagers show in reading (and rejecting) hidden messages from various “sponsors.” The process of reading media for most people involves some method of deciphering information for the real content they seek. A simple example of this is using a remote control to avoid watching commercials; a more complex example involves learning the political or ideological bent of a given news station's owners and filtering or “correcting” information according to their biases. While watching media, most people are asking themselves, is this friend or foe? Is this information I can trust, or a corporate deception playing with my Kodak memories? We can see in the proliferation and popularity of movies like The Matrix , Pleasantville, Minority Report, Blade Runner, The Truman Show, Total Recall, The Thirteenth Floor, The Spanish Prisoner , and eXistenZ that the rift between the real and representation is a broad-based cultural anxiety. Each of these films registers angst about the epistemological and phenomenological condition of individuals, particularly in relation to media. The revelation that what the characters understand to be the “real” is not actually a fixed point in a stable system of representation is, in all of these films, read as disastrous and a “dupe.”

The science-fiction blockbuster The Matrix was one of the most successful films of 1999 (made just a few years after publication of both Defoe and Front Matter, Dead Souls ). The film had — and continues five years later to have — a huge fan base. There are action dolls, websites, and sequels. The Matrix responded well to deep anxieties about (Western) epistemological and political conditions. The entire visible world is nothing more, in the film, than an empty, fantastic projection of a world that looks a lot like our own. An early scene takes place in an office space filled with cubicles. The protagonist, “Neo,” is working at his computer. He receives a package in which he finds a cell-phone that immediately rings. A stranger on the other end tells Neo he is being chased, and begins to instruct him how to escape the office and avoid capture. After a short chase scene, Neo finds himself on the ledge of his office building, about thirty stories up. The voice on the phone urges Neo not to be afraid, but he is terrified of falling. The voice assures him what he is doing is safe; and soon Neo will discover that what he had taken all his life to be the real, everyday world is merely a computer projection of a virtual reality. In fact, in real reality, his body is kept in a pod-like cell with the rest of humanity — all of whom are plugged into the same virtual-reality projection of a world. A group of renegades (who've escaped their battery-like enslavement and are the ones who helped Neo escape) tell him the “real story”: many years before, computers took over the world and enslaved humans, placing their bodies in cells in order to use their energy to run themselves. It is only when Neo, through much physical and mental training, can plug back into the virtual world and see it as merely an image that he can begin to help free humanity from the alien force.

Though the film follows standard formulas for seamless narrative storytelling, it is similar to Scalapino's work because it also forces the viewer to doubt what she sees — not so much in the process of watching the film, but after she leaves the theatre. Like Scalapino's writing, the film poses the question: how can you know that what you see is actually there? A viewer walks out of the theatre or turns off the video machine and as she looks around at the world she wonders, “how can we be sure the world isn't a projection like the world in the film?”

While The Matrix demands we ask if our own world, like the world we see in the movie, is a projection of a limited and manipulative power, does it offer us any tools by which we might scrutinize our “real” situation, beyond this brief nagging sense of doubt? I would argue it does not. The Matrix may be a film about the attempt to fight an exploitative imperialist power and make it back to the real world; but it promises there is a real world to return to, and insists that a handsome, physically strong man is needed to do it for us. Oh dear.

Buddhist ontology, like The Matrix, proposes that the world is indeed merely an illusion, an elaborate projection of an image. However, as in The Matrix, the image persists and remains seductive regardless of one's “seeing” it. In Buddhist practice, to respond to one's condition, once one recognizes the vacuity of the real, requires great labor and has complex ethical implications. Buddhism, to generalize, locates human suffering in our grasping after “things,” and suggests that reality as we know it, whether a billboard or a tree, is to some degree illusory. Whether we're in a forest, in front of the television or on a freeway, we can't think ourselves into understanding how it is we know what we know. We can't wrap our minds around political, ethical and existential dilemmas. Rather, it is through practice — through an active working with awareness — that one can come into an articulate and engaged “real.” And this is why Scalapino's work is so important compared to an allegory like The Matrix: her work demands a reading practice , or what Blanchot calls “a task and a work.”

Scalapino's work owes much to avant-garde practices of other literary artists such as Gertrude Stein; however, her primary influence comes out of Buddhist thought. As she remarks in an interview:

Stein's view of the continuous present and her view of perception have some similarity to views of perception and phenomena in Tibetan and Zen Buddhist philosophy (such as that of the early Indian philosopher Nãgãrjuna), which writings seem to me far more radical than Stein's, and which had already influenced me before I came to read her. (Interview, n.pag.)

Zen Buddhism specifically rejects the idea that phenomena have any substantiality. Takuan Sõho (1573-1645, Japan) writes: “[a]ll phenomena are like phantoms or dreams; when one perceives that they are essentially non-existent, one sees no particular mark of individuation in them ( Buddhist Tradition 380). Everything, in this view, is ephemeral; the nature of being is not substantiality but change and ephemerality. When we turn our focus away from what writing “envisions” or refers to, toward the experience of reading and being with language as it occurs, we are immersed only in the constant flux and movement of the mind, engaged with what is right before us. Scalapino's engagement with vision as a focus on the present is an attempt to see that the world indubitably right before us, seen with our physical eyes, is not a passive view but an extraordinarily highly-crafted landscape, arising out of illusion and ignorance. Scalapino discusses this interruption of the surface of a projection in terms of Buddhist ontology in the same interview:

Nãgãrjuna's propositions, for example… are a logic of phenomenal emptiness. A phenomenon hasn't inherent existence — as it is not based on a single moment of a mind, nor on successive moments of a mind, as such moments arise dependently (don't exist inherently, not being that phenomenon itself — though appearing to be). In other words, the apprehension of the “moment” of the mind appears to be the phenomenon itself which the mind itself is seeing. As nothing has inherent existence, in that it is dependent on other factors, it can't begin or have an ending as an inherent object; nor can a view of its nonexistence be accurate either. Poetically, this implies change/transformation being the principle or “structure” itself (as from all points or perspectives) of the writing. Regarding influence on the process of writing, one is engaging “the present” in the act of writing, more than one is “conveying” themes. Granted all writing is exchange, and exchange is active in finding out what the present is. (Interview, n.pag.)

According to Nãgãrjuna (first to second centuries C. E, India), because “nothing in the phenomenal world has full being,” static metaphysical models cannot be imposed upon it. Even arguments “in favor of the ultimate reality of Emptiness are unreal” (Buddhist Tradition 78). Any analytic ideations of reality — such as time, space, motion, causality, entities and existence — finally are illusions. So, too, in Scalapino's work there is no attempt to construct alternative or more accurate models of being; only to draw attention to the structure of change/transformation itself. Her work is itself the moving strategy of awakening to oneself reading oneself reading . Nãgãrjuna shows by rigorous analysis that even the most basic concepts of philosophy — motion , time , space , causality , and so on — are untenable. Nãgãrjuna's body of work is entirely negative, a rejection of any speculative metaphysical construct. (Warder 377-87) Though logical proofs of Emptiness may be untenable, the experience of Emptiness is not. According to Nãgãrjuna: “[t]he ultimate Emptiness [is] everywhere and all-embracing, and there was in fact no difference between the great Void and the phenomenal world. Thus all beings were already participants of the Emptiness which was Nirvãna.” ( Buddhist Tradition 78)

In Scalapino's work, this negative or retreating vision of all phenomena, time and space similarly is enacted , not argued. Scalapino's work implicitly acknowledges that we can hardly “decide” that conceptual constructs are false and leave them behind. We are caught in our vision of the world. Like vision itself, epistemology in this sense is not a spectator sport, but an active participation in, and concomitant transformation of, the world.

To transform the world is an accurate form of historical reflection in Defoe . To write history may be to replicate; but that replication itself is something new, rather than a replication of something that “happened.” Scalapino says: “I like Richard Tuttle's description of his aim ‘to make something that looks like itself' — that is, his interest lies not in representing something, but in creating new ‘things' that have never existed before. This is akin in Defoe to ‘making' historical actions.” (Frost 1996) In Defoe, Scalapino is invested in making historical actions rather than representing them. Defoe is a novel, titled after the author of Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and A Journal of the Plague Year . Daniel Defoe's writing was famous for its “realism” and vivid detail. For many readers, Scalapino's novel Defoe will stand in stark contrast to their sense of realism as epitomized in Robinson Crusoe. In Defoe Scalapino seeks to intervene in the “real” by re-imagining “realism” as a genre. To do this she doubles her authorial voice, matching it to the voice of Daniel Defoe in much the same way Cindy Sherman figures herself as both disguised and marked in her restaging of famous paintings in her self portraits. Defoe is not merely a great writer in the realism genre, but specifically an author who wrote many of his works pretending to be an eyewitness reporter to events he is, in fact, inventing. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is widely considered one of the best accounts of the bubonic plague that swept England in 1664-65, despite being fictionalized and based on secondary documentation, as noted in the preface to the Dover edition: “ Journal of the Plague Year purported to be a true tale but was also fiction. Yet, many critics over the years have judged it to be a more insightful account… than the eyewitness account written by Samuel Pepys.” ( Journal iii) In fact, all of Defoe's major fictional novels were published as though genuine memoirs, using the name of the novel's fictional narrator as the name of the author. In the Preface to Volume III of Robinson Crusoe , Defoe writes:

I have heard, that the envious and ill-disposed Part of the World have rais'd some Objections against the two first Volumes, on the Pretense, for want of a better Reason; That ( as they say ) the Story is feign'd, that the Names are borrow'd, and that it is all a Romance; that there never were any such Man or Place, or Circumstances in any Mans Life; that it is all form'd and embellish'd by Invention to impose upon the World.

I Robinson Crusoe being at this Time in perfect and sound Mind and Memory, Thanks be to God therefore; do hereby declare, their Objection is an Invention scandalous in Design, and false in Fact; and do affirm, that the Story, though Allegorical, is also Historical; and that it is the beautiful representation of a Life of unexampled Misfortunes, and of a Variety not to be met with in the World, sincerely adapted to, and intended for the common Good of Mankind, and designed at first, as it is now farther apply'd, to the most serious Uses possible. (259)

Defoe's insistence that the author of the work is indeed Robinson Crusoe and that he is Robinson Crusoe may certainly be seen as a commercially motivated plea (his popular novels sold very well as accounts of the real). Scalapino's novel, however, suggests that adopting this other “I” that is the narrator is essential to the work of realism. This double authorship, this other “I”, is “making another vision of their vision” and seeing oneself seeing. It is only by becoming other than oneself — by being an “outside” version of oneself rather than an “inside” — that one can hold in the foreground the imaginary construction of an authorial subjectivity. 2

Titling the book after another author (Defoe) suggests not only that the subject of the novel is authorship itself; but that the reader of Defoe must indeed participate as an author. In this novel, images are not produced by the author but are an activity required of the reader. For example, in the following passage, Scalapino moves disjunctively through a narrative scape: “He doesn't want them to retreat won't let them withdraw wanting a ground war and is slaughtering them as they retreat. how could loving the lover expressed as convention as only himself (that exterior) change the inside? Information can be given to one which does not make sense but in that form is understood as experience.” (154) The first sentence refers to the 1991 U.S. war against Iraq. The second sentence engages very awkward phrasing that disallows a straightforward reading, but is (enacts) a meditation on being a “lover.” Here, as is often the case in Scalapino's writing, the reader is liable to lose her train of though due to narrative disjunction — in this case, between the first and second sentence — and to become caught up in the knotted phrasing (of the second sentence) where she might stumble, reread, go back, stop and start, and so on. The disjunctions and phrasing mimic the movements of the human mind, which doesn't observe a straightforward narrative coherence. The third sentence, however, is fairly straightforward and functions as a comment on reading generally: reading can be an experience in itself, not merely a project of making “sense” of text. In this passage, writing/reading is not separate from what writing/reading can know, but constitutes and creates the known — writing/reading and reality are an interrelated process.

Scalapino writes in her autobiography Zither that in Front Matter, Deal Souls she is trying to write a “visual text” — which, by being “eyesight only, as if existing apart from any ‘event' that is written-meaning,” opens up a possibility in reading where “one is seeing constructing” because the text does not connect its images to meaning-events. The text by being “total [imaginative] imposition” allows us to see both “constructing, and seeing ‘not seeing constructing' by ‘seeing' being ‘visual' which is actually only-language…. This can only be done as poetic writing.” (36) To see one's own mind construct the real is very taxing. That this is happening cannot merely be argued; it can only be recognized as a result of practice, and Scalapino's work offers us such a reading practice. As Blanchot argues, one cannot substitute “knowing” for “the movement of the concept — a task and a work.” By laboring in the particular way demanded and allowed by poetic language, we avoid the kind of knowing that “in no way change[s] what [we] see and hear.” Just as “depoliticization” is tied to the relationship to media described by Blanchot, so too a “politicization” or “repoliticization” is tied to the movement, the labor demanded by Scalapino's work.

So how is the following passage from Front Matter Dead Souls an example of realism? “Hole of sumo floating on wave is not it. Not wavering sags on the thin surf.” (19) Scalapino in fact submitted these “accounts” of the Gulf War to the newspaper, though her accounts were rejected. She writes, “ Front Matter, Deal Souls is a serial novel for publication in the newspaper…. Parts of it were submitted to various newspapers during the election campaign, though not accepted…. The writing is to be as close as possible to nature itself not actually occurring. I'm trying to write the modern world, which requires rewriting it.” (1) These are accounts because they are vividly real in themselves as artificial fictions with “their own movement and a dual balance in an impermanence of the structure.” (1) The newspaper is a literary context that takes for granted that you can write about events, but sees writing that foregrounds the writing as itself an event as fundamentally illegitimate. Scalapino describes the project of Front Matter Dead Souls : “it was the idea of doing a political cartoon in a sense, a cartoon in language, taking images as wild as possible, as extreme as possible, to be totally an expression of the actual event of the present time.” ( Interview 12) The events of the Gulf War, being extreme and wild, are enacted by extreme and wild images. The experience of radical images here is key. The writing/reading is an experience of the representation of radical phenomena, not a commentary on it; Scalapino says: “any form one is using has a shape and a sound to it that is a way of seeing what something's actual movement is. That's different from a political theory that has a particular polemics and imposes that view on phenomena…. I want the writing simply to be finding out. I want to get to the inner relation of events.” ( Interview 5) Here Scalapino describes her project as one which recalibrates the “referential” function of language. The referential function of language becomes here a function of relation internal to the text. Where in something like a newspaper context the words point outside the text to the absent “real,” her words point to each others' presence and the present time of the reader reading

For Scalapino, words have something like a nimbus that can be observed. This is somewhat like the “nimbus” Jack Spicer describes in his Vancouver lectures: “The fact that this chair has a chairness, a nimbus around it, a kind of an electrical thing which gives energy enough so that it can be transformed almost directly — it, the thing that the chair in its chairness radiates — into poetry.” (Spicer 10). If we focus very intently on language we can, Spicer tells us, begin to see it as shape and sound; we can see what its “actual movement” is. Compare this activity to watching a narrative film backwards and upside down, or watching people interact without listening to their conversation, attending only to the “energy” they exchange as shape and sound.

Just as the words used in a conversation affect the people conversing, so each speaker is participating in (even defining) the other's “reality,” so too Scalapino does not describe what is “out there” but participates in what is : “one's minute movements in the writing don't mimic reality but rather appear with reality, as part of it.” ( Objects 4) Such a relation to knowledge and “what is” incites an inquiry into the visible world that begins not with the eye, nor with a definition of what is “the case.” Scalapino's poetic project is essentially a form of epistemology: the study not of what we know but of how we know. In Scalapino's work, the study of how we know begins not by arguing “what is” the case , but with the warps, bubbles, music, patterns, and lit reflections upon the window of language from which we view what we call the world. Her inquiry begins by reading what we are not meant to read, and by noticing what we normally do not notice. In her work, we attend to the sounds of words, the feeling of pronunciation, the look of the letters, and the experience of thinking within a physical body that stays put, moves around, changes, and experiences conceptual wandering in and out of dimensions virtually every second of every day. In her novel Defoe, Scalapino performs a reading of the act and origins of vision construction; a reading that brings into recognition surfaces of a “window” that we habitually use to view the world, surfaces that “normally” seem transparent but are constitutive of our seeing on both a physiological and psychological level. For Scalapino, an understanding of political justice is tied to an understanding of fiction and our relationship to literature. Scalapino does not separate poetry and politics. For her, poetry is inherently political. In an interview, she states this unequivocally:

      Q. Would you consider your own formal choices, particularly those that alter traditional language, as expressions of a sociopolitical vision?
       A. Yes, everything expresses a social or political vision. My writing is fabrication of self, of subjectivity (which itself is seen to be “cultural abstraction”), yet in it the “self “is not separable from its own illusion. I want to get the writing to come to that point where you perceive people's motions as not separate from occurrence itself. (1996)

Because of our condition as social beings, our concepts of self and subjectivity (though fictional) participate in reality, and have implications that cannot ethically be ignored. Scalapino's work is concerned deeply with how the “I” stands in relation to other subjectivities. The problem for Scalapino is the complex relationship between “cultural abstraction,” which is ultimately illusory, and what that illusion interacting with itself looks like before being resolved into a larger conceptual (illusory) framework. What it looks like, because to see that enacts a visionary poetics: “my focus here is literally perspective (how one sees locationally and spatially within the work). Seeing spatially within a written work is actively ordering reality. The reader is composing an order in a work.” ( How Phenomena 105) Though she identifies a radical illusory world as constructed and fundamentally fictional, she does not “escape” into a reality beyond the difficult social negotiation of being (as if that were possible). Rather, her poetics gives flower to a writing we might say “refuses” fiction-making by refusing to repress the fictional, illusory, and fantastic particular nature of language that is part of our real experience, and is concerned with being in the present.

If we accept that genre distinctions of “fiction” and “nonfiction” reveal deeply held cultural assumptions about the real world, then uses of language that are most repressive of the “real” are not myths and fairy tales, but such invisible fictions as official “news” and scientific discourse. Science and news are problematic not because they are as much fictions as they are “documentary,” but because they propose themselves as authoritative and uniquely positioned to test and relate the real — and, furthermore, because our day-to-day life is saturated unavoidably with this “real” communication.


Blanchot, Maurice. The Infinite Conversation . Trans. Susan Hanson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

De Bary, William Theodore (editor). The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.

Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. 1722. New York: Dover Publications, 2001.

___________. Robinson Crusoe. 1719 Ed. Michael Shinagel. New York: Norton & Company, 1975.

Scalapino, Leslie. “An Interview with Leslie Scalapino.” Cond. Frost, Elisabeth A. Contemporary Literature 37 (Spring 1996).

________. “Secret Occurance” Jacket 7 (April 1999) www.jacketmagazine.com/07/scal-talk.html .

________. Defoe. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994.

________. The Front Matter Dead Souls. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.

________. Green and Black: Selected Writings. Jersey City: Talisman House, 1996.

________. How Phenomena Appear To Unfold. Elmwood, Connecticut: Potes & Poets Press, 1989.

________. Orchid Jetsam.. Tuumba Press, 2001.

________. The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999.

________. Zither & Autobiography. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.

Spicer, Jack. The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer. Ed. Peter Gizzi. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1998.

Warder, A. K. Indian Buddhism. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970.


1. Scalapino's work — like the work of many difficult-to-categorize writers—is often called “experimental,” and rightly so because, as she says, all writing is experimental insofar as “[w]riting is [. . .] an experiment of reality” ( Public World 8). That is, writing always effects readers in the present-time and is, therefore, participant in the making of the present-time reality. However, a more appropriate designation for Scalapino's work than experimental might be “radical.” The double sense of the word radical enables us to hold simultaneously both a sense of being at an extreme frontier and the sense of being tied to a root or core problematic, which is a useful sketch of a key tension in Scalapino's work. That which is “radical” is what affects the basic nature of something — a “radical” medical treatment is intended to remove the source of a disease rather than treat the symptoms. Root numbers, word roots, even the part of a plant growing from the base or root, are all called “radicals.” Inversely, that which is politically “radical” is at a far remove from center, at the far fringes, in the margins of political power. Scalapino's work is radical in both senses: her work is radical in its insistence that the act of writing per se has an inherent political efficacy, which empowers the politically disenfranchised, and it is radical in the sense that it achieves this political end by attempting to get at the fundamental root or issue of our being in the world.

2. After publication of Defoe, Scalapino published at least one book under a pseudonym, Orchid Jetsam by Dee Goda.


BIO: Alicia Cohen is an artist, poet, and teacher. She lives in Portland, Oregon where she runs the gallery and performance space Pacific Switchboard and teaches literature at Reed College.

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