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Book Review: Eunoia

Brian Kim Stefans

Eunoia
Christian Bök
Coach House Books, $16.95 (paper)

8 In the introduction to Information Arts, Stephen Wilson's copious catalogue of people who work on the borders of science and the humanities, Wilson gives readers a pop-quiz about which projects belong to people who call themselves "artists" and which belong to those who describe themselves as "scientists":

Researcher J.T. developed a method of using genetic engineering to encode messages in bacteria.
Researchers C.E. and U.W. bred a line of mice with a special proclivity for eating computer cables.
Researcher J.M. developed a computer display that could visualize the underlying intellectual structure of a group of articles and books.
Researcher H.S. developed a "fertility bra" that used the pheromone receptors to flash indicators when the woman wearing it was in a fertile period.
Researchers at M.R. developed a device that is sensitive to hugs and can react to things it hears on the television.

The first two projects on this list, both in genetics, might appear to be concerned with some aspect of military technology—spy messages in the first instance, infrastructural subterfuge in the second. The "fertility bra" resonates with the television bra of Nam Jun Paik and the free love vibe of the sixties; the device "sensitive to hugs" sounds like some advancement on Sony's Aibo dog; and the artificial intelligence project that translates texts into visual images—imagine a Pollackesque mural that represents the informational strands of Joyce's Ulysses or The Whole Earth Catalog. But only the first two projects are being pursued by "artists"; the last three are the work of "scientists." As Wilson goes on to argue in this huge book—which covers so many artists that he can barely expend more than a few pages on even the most accomplished—the border between "science" and the "arts" is breaking down, something that has been said before, of course, but never with such credible and voluminous evidence. A movement seems afoot.

* * *

Christian Bök belongs to this new breed of artist-scientists, not because he employs machines to do his writing or creates poetic devices that "respond to hugs" or chew through cables, but because he has, probably more than any other contemporary poet, attempted to set up strict procedural guidelines for his poetic practice. These guidelines are informed by post-structuralist theories of "recombinant" linguistics (in which letters and words are analyzed as molecules that behave differently in variable environments) and what Bök calls "robot aesthetics" (an imagining of how an artificial intelligence program might complete a poem in accordance with a complex algorithm).

Bök hails from Toronto, which is also the home of the "Toronto Research Group," a project that Steve McCaffery and bpNichol pursued in the seventies to investigate, with Tel Quel-ish intensity, the many varieties of book arts, visual and sound poetics, and even cartoons. (McCaffery introduced Derrida to the North American avant-garde.) Bök is probably best known in the States as a sound poet; his speed-metal version of Schwitters's normally forty-two-minute "Ursonate" clocks in at just under twenty, and his own "Cyborg Opera" has both wowed and occasionally distressed audiences with its unsettling interpretations of electric razors and atom bombs. He's created entire books out of Lego blocks—one recently sold in New York for several thousand dollars—and invented a language for a race of Star Trek spin-off creatures called the "Taelons." (Several web sites, none of his creation, are already devoted to the language, which, among other things, has no past or future tense, but relies entirely on moods of hope and nostalgia to express these specificities.)

Bök has published one previous collection of poetry, Crystallography, which was heavily influenced by Christopher Dewdney, a relatively obscure poet (at least in the States) who wrote books of poetry with such titles as A Paleozoic Geology of London, Ontario. Crystallography also has a scientific slant, drawing beautiful analogies between the structure of language and that of crystalline molecules like amethyst and diamond. It even has a section called "A Hagiography of Snow," in which the poet scolds scientists for trying to name the stars since—like naming snowflakes—it is a practice that "stems in part from the unfulfillable desire to perform a mathematical paradox: the attribution of cardinality to every element in an infinite set." Clearly, Bök views language as a field of infinite possibility, of numberless configurations that can create their own meanings (as syntactic shapes or societal echoes) regardless of their standard usage in spontaneous expressions (such as "speech"). Faced with the limitless options posed by this aesthetic model, the writer required a sturdy plan, and he executes it most successfully in "Eunoia," (which comprises the first five "chapters" of the book that shares its name).

"Eunoia" means "beautiful thought" and is the shortest word in English to employ all of the vowels. Written over seven years—the same period of time it took Joyce to write Ulysses—"Eunoia" is a "universal lipogram," in that it restricts itself to the use of only one vowel per chapter: the "a" chapter can only use words like "banana" and "and," the "u" chapter only words like "pluck" and "but." Each chapter is dedicated to an artist whose name fits the parameters—Hans Arp, Rene Crevel, Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, and the Chinese performance artist Zhu Yu are the honored dedicatees. As he writes in his afterword, there are other "subsidiary rules":

All chapters must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage. All sentences must accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism. The text must exhaust the lexicon for each vowel,citing at least 98% of the available repertoire (although a few words do go unused, despite efforts to include them: parallax, belvedere, gingivitis, monochord, and tumulus). The text must minimize repetition of substantive vocabulary (so that, ideally, no word appears more than once). The letter Y is suppressed.

He writes that "the text makes a Sisyphean spectacle of its labor, willfully crippling its language in order to show that, even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought." Like a physicist sending an electron into a sheet of lead to see what sparks fly, Bök manhandles his material and scrupulously documents its behavior under pressure.

The first paragraph of "Chapter I"—of course, there can be no "you" in this work—contains one of Bök's more eloquent treatises on the art of writing:

Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks—impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn't it glib? Isn't it chic? I fit childish insights within rigid limits, writing schtick which might instill priggish misgivings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nit-picking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I bitch; I kibitz—griping while criticizing dimwits, sniping while indicting nitwits, dismissing simplistic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit.

The reader discovers one thing quickly: that it strains the eye to read so much type that hugs against itself, as the "stick sigil" of the letter "i" compresses the text block, making it possible to pack more words on each line. The use of the "i" gives Bök a stage to enact a lyrical self-creation—a persona part Goethe's Faust, part Jim Carrey's Grinch. One of the pleasures of this poem is how it approaches the aforementioned themes from the angle of each letter, such that in "Chapter A" we see the art of writing—absent the "i"—linked to a series of esteemed predecessors:

Awkward grammar appalls a craftsman. A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an alpha (a slapdash arc and a backwardzag) that mars all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh—a handstamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a mar that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and Kafka, Marx and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.

The same "subject matter" is approached here from several different perspectives. Bök's desire to find the most perfect use of all of the "a" words also gives us—this is no joke—the a's distinct perspective on the art of writing. Perhaps more obviously, Bök learns as much about himself as the letters do, as if the word-lists that he constructed to write "Eunoia" were Rorschach inkblots that mirrored his own subconscious. In the "i" chapter, he is the smug and sarcastic mad scientist while in the "a" chapter, absent the "i" but having access to a welter of nouns, he adopts an omniscient, allusive approach, cleverly dismissing both Kant (for his transcendental ego) and Marx (for his materialist dialectics) in the process.

Indeed, Bök was very careful to make "Eunoia" a work of literary quality in a conventional sense; he denies himself a plethora of avant-garde tactics such as parataxis, fragmentation, and visual poetics, that would have made his pursuit easier. Every sentence is complete and they all tell a story or explain an idea. One of the more clever sections is the retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of Helen:

Bells knell when the keep gets levelled; then Greek rebels cheer when Helen enters her Greek temple (the steepled glebe where jewelled steeples shelter her ephebes); there, the reverends bless the freed empress. The Greek sects revere her gentleness, her tenderness; hence, these prefects help her seek self-betterment. The zen seers tell her: 'greed begets greed—never be self-centred: be selfless'. She defers. Her deference seems reverent. The empress kneels, then keens her vespers. The pewter censer spews the sweetest peppered scent. She feels refreshed; she feels perfected.

The cultural anachronism of the "zen seer"—one is reminded of Pound's "frigidaire patent" in the "Homage to Sextus Propertius"—contributes to an engaging portrait of a woman who has a peculiarly contemporary brand of self-motivation. There is something significant in the switch to a female perspective in this seven-year effort that resulted in a few thousand words. It is as if the chapter of Modernist epics—many of which devolved into sets of internal codes—were being closed.

Eunoia, the book, has several poems outside of "Eunoia" itself, including one that exhausts all the words that have no vowels but the letter "y" (it starts "syzygy pyx / gyp / gypsy / pygmy gyms") and an homage to the letter "w" dedicated to George Perec, the Oulipian master whom Bök seems determined to excel. But it is "Eunoia," with its readability and extreme method, that poses the largest questions for poetry, both of the "avant-garde" and more lyrical variety. Namely, why poets haven't responded to the development of the "information aesthetics" that has occupied much of the art world? Does this research-oriented stance bridge the gap between the "avant-garde" and the "mainstream"?

Bök's poem, which was intended to suggest the output of an selfless algorithm, actually resembles a computer program; the strictness of its guidelines approach that of a low-level, "forgiving" language (like Javascript), and its recycling of themes is not unlike the recycled functions of object-oriented languages like Java and C++, in which the same code can be used for different ends. It is also one of our most passionate, inventive, and counter-intuitive responses to the cultural shifts that digital technology have set in motion. Whereas many artists are moving toward randomization, variability, collaboration, and the cult of infinite possibility, Bök spent seven years pursuing an elegant solution to a simple linguistic problem. He has produced a work that occupies a freakish yet masterful position in the development of twenty-first century literature. <


Brian Kim Stefans's most recent books are Angry Penguins (poems) and the forthcoming Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics. He is editor of arras.net, a site of poetry and criticism.

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review



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