Sketches of Figures of Fact: David Antin and Georges Perec – James Sanders

James Sanders

for the past few years my poetry has become more engaged with the writing of fact, not so much with the relation of fact to truth but with “figures of fact,” that is the rhetoric of fact, the pushing around of language to take up positions about what fact is, how we know it, and what we should do about it

I’d like to sketch some basic figures of fact: (1) fact as model, (2) fact as narrative, and (3) fact as game, using the work of two important figures whose writings often focus on fact, Georges Perec and David Antin—in fact I pulled “figure of fact” from a transcription of a David Antin talk poem called “the invention of fact” [Talking at the Boundaries, 147]—figures of fact distinguish fact from what we call “raw data”—an example of a raw datum would be “7,” a scalar value that can be attached to an infinite number of referents—figures of fact are precisely about this attachment that makes a fact useful— figures of fact may touch upon the construction of the fact itself, but they aren’t merely stories of that construction—and figures of fact are not criteria by which to judge the truth or falsity of any fact: figures of fact can just as easily be created for false facts as true ones—in addition, they tend to substitute for other literary devices, such as metaphor, which tend to obscure fact in favor of the presentation itself— in the works of Antin and Perec, these figures of fact are sometimes the subject matter of the work and other times are demonstrated through the works themselves

before discussing the three figures a bit, it bears introducing Perec and Antin to those not familiar with them— Georges Perec (1936-1982) was a French novelist, filmmaker, and essayist and was a member of the Oulipo group from 1967 until his death—Perec’s two most famous works are his constraint-based novels: La Disparation (translated as A Void) written entirely without the letter “e” and Life A User’s Manual, in which a variety of stories of the inhabitants of an apartment building move from room to room as a knight moves in chess

David Antin (1927-2017) was an American poet and critic known for giving improvised or extemporaneous “talk poems” in which he explored the connections between various topics—he held a master’s degree in linguistics, founded the journal some/thing with Jerome Rothenberg, worked as an engineer, a translator and a gallery director, and for many years was a professor in the art department at the University of California at San Diego—his most famous remark is:

“if robert lowell is a poet i dont want to be a poet     if robert frost was a poet i dont want to be a poet   if socrates was a poet ill consider it”

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the first figure of fact is the fact as model— by “model” I mean simply a representation of something that is conspicuous by what omits, the way a model train necessarily leaves out certain details like working cab controls, actual coal and tiny people— I’m borrowing much of this definition from Antin’s talk piece, “Talking at Pomona” (available online from the Antin collection at the Getty Museum) – a fact is a model of experience made by omitting certain information about it—or as Antin puts it in a different talk, “how wide is the frame”:

“if you see one thing you dont see another” [i never knew what time it was, 141]

it is the economy of attention that necessitates the omissions in a model— and Antin often represents this figure of fact indirectly in his discussions of representation, such as through his discussion of the camera oscura and its relation to photography —

“art experiences are created about not seeing       about what you want to not see       in order to be able to see something else” [“remembering recording representing” in Talking at the Boundaries]

Antin states further on in “how wide is the frame?”— a fact must be a pared-down model of reality in order to work, and the quality and its efficacy is affected by the omissions

rather than forming the subject matter of his works, as is the case with Antin, the figure of fact as model is directly illustrated by many Perec’s works— Perec’s documentary work (and even his fictional work) are full of lists, collections, and indices— for example, his mini-essay “I Remember Malet & Isaac” consists of an excerpting and rearrangement of the chapter headings, keywords, captions and the like from a standard elementary school history book, boiling the fact-structure of the book down to its skeleton—this move invites the reader to then flesh out the bare-bones and imagine a different order—

likewise, Perec’s book An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris [translated by Marc Lowenthal, Wakefield Press, 2010] is good example of this figure of fact as model demonstrating how essentially all description involves this figure of fact— to write that book Perec sat at various places (cafes, shops, benches) on the Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris for three days, describing what was happening— the book is relatively short, in part because Perec expressly sets a fairly short durational frame to use Antin’s terminology and because he to leave out descriptions of the church, the municipal buildings, the statues on the square, in short all the monumental aspects of the square, in favor of “the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people,

“the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars and clouds.”[3]— the resulting work is a series of mostly brief phrases listing the

the resulting work is a series of mostly brief phrases listing the busses going by, people marked by sparse details, the movement of birds from one place to another— the brevity of the piece is also due to the fact Perec’s attention is mostly focused on his visual experience— there are no transcriptions of conversations, no explorations of the effects of sound beyond the occasional note of a dog barking or a bell ringing— furthermore, Perec is focused on what is immediately happening: he doesn’t explore historically beyond picking up the occasional trace and he doesn’t use his memory to later enhance the text

in practice the figure of fact as model is characterized by a topological mapping exercise, where phenomena are mapped to a representation— and a model’s representational value is in its operation as a prototype, in its future-facing ability— a fact is a prototype for a process of the production of more information: it is fact’s negative spaces that allow for its portability so that it can stand-in for experience, both retrospectively and prospectively

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the second figure of fact, fact as narrative, means thinking of fact as a transformative procedure— I’m again going to loosely borrow a definition from Antin and define narrative as the representation of a transformation with respect to a subject (he offers a variation of this definition in several talk pieces, including “I never knew what time it was,” “radical coherency,” and “Whitney Take”)— it’s a definition of narrative that is useful both because it avoids simply equating narrative with story or plot and it connects narrative to its subject— this figure of fact emphasizes the connected and dynamic nature of facts, that facts are not just part of a transformations but are transformations themselves

both Antin and Perec are keen to develop fact’s basis in the everyday experience of the subject— in Antin’s case many of the examinations of his talk pieces involve the examination of the way empirical information becomes fact through language— examples include not only personal stories such as the mystery of the whereabouts of his aunt in his various “Where is Sylvia?” talk pieces, but also public, political events such as the formation of the Truman Doctrine [“the invention of fact”]— however, it is not simply that information is transformed into fact, but that information is transformed through fact: that is, Antin is interested in the fact-framing process as transformation— for example, in “the invention of fact” Antin examines several fact scenarios: the creation of the Truman Doctrine by Dean Acheson and others in the Truman administration, Rousseau’s story of flashing some milkmaids, and the newspaper story of a woman from the early 19th century who was murdered— and he discusses how the desires to establish facts out of information and the circumstances of the occurrence serve to change the information, a process that is similar to an artistic process— Antin’s talk pieces actually often serve as examples of this figure of fact themselves: the narrative takes the form of the improvisational talk in which facts simultaneously drive and are driven by the unfolding of the talk

Perec’s angle is different from Antin’s but he shares figure of fact as first person transformation— often the formation of fact in his work is the transformation of subject: “since I’m describing what is on my desk I’m paying extra attention to what I’m doing with these things” [“Notes on the Objects to be Found on My Desk,” in Thoughts of Sorts, 13]— through the course of “Notes on the Objects to be Found on My Desk” Perec turns from the objects themselves toward a proposed piece he is writing on the history of some of the objects on his desk and tells how the proposed work would ultimately be about the history of his practices and habits— looking again at Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris one sees that it isn’t Perec who exhausts the Place Saint-Sulpice, but the Place Saint-Sulpice that exhausts Perec— he admits as much on page 24 in the form of a stage direction “(fatigue)”— over the course of Perec’s three day sit on the square, his mood changes, marked by turns toward his own condition (“I’m cold. I order a brandy.”) and a disinterest in the subject matter (“people people cars”)—not only that, his manner of writing changes, and he becomes more prone to meta-commentary on his project:

“since I’m describing what is on my desk I’m paying extra attention to what I’m doing with these things” [“Notes on the Objects to be Found on My Desk,” in Thoughts of Sorts, 13]— through the course of “Notes on the Objects to be Found on My Desk” Perec turns from the objects themselves toward a proposed piece he is writing on the history of some of the objects on his desk and tells how the proposed work would ultimately be about the history of his practices and habits— looking again at Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris one sees that it isn’t Perec who exhausts the Place Saint-Sulpice, but the Place Saint-Sulpice that exhausts Perec— he admits as much on page 24 in the form of a stage direction “(fatigue)”— over the course of Perec’s three day sit on the square, his mood changes, marked by turns toward his own condition (“I’m cold. I order a brandy.”) and uninterest in  subject matter (“people people cars”)—not only that, his manner of writing changes, and he becomes more prone to meta-commentary on his project:

“differences stand out: there are fewer busses, there are few or even no trucks or delivery vans, the cars are most often private; more people seem to be entering or leaving Saint-Sulpice.

more differences would be due to the rain, which is not specific to it being Sunday.”

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third is the figure of fact as game— taking game in a very plain and broad sense as an initial rule-set and corresponding play-activity, a game is a way of distributing chance in a certain situation— the figure of fact as game is where artifice and chance meet, a site where an enunciating subject confronts what is other than itself

like many Oulipo members, Perec was obsessed with puzzles, games and brain-teasers— Life A User’s Manual and A Void being prime examples of a game structures in his fictional works— in Perec’s documentary works, the constraints he employs are not usually as strict— in particular, in his “sited” works he often simply imposes a spatio-temporal frame or a set-up, where the figure of fact as game is most prominent— as mentioned previously the parameters of An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris are limited to real-time composition in a particular Parisian square over a particular three day period— likewise “The Rue Vilin,” another of his sited works, is limited to a particular street (one Perec grew up on) visited periodically over a period from 1969 to 1975 so as to produce a time lapse cityscape— the set-up allows Perec to focus attention not only on the subject matter (a place, a desk) but on the act of writing and the contingencies that impact it, including the accidents and intersections of occurrence, perception, and memory (Michael Sheringham mentions in his discussion on Perec’s sited works how even though one of Perec’s constraints is to only record things as they happen, refraining from memory, the invocation of memory is nevertheless marked—see Michael Sheringham, Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present, Oxford UP, 2006, at 259)

Antin emphasizes the figure of fact as game via his method of the improvised talk poem—Antin often describes how his improvisation before a live audience allows his line of thought to tack based on how an audience, and he himself, responds on a particular occasion:

“its mainly because I have no very precise image of what im going to say     though i have a considerable notion of the terrain       into which i tend to move and the only way im going to find out whether it was worth doing or not     is when hear what ive got     which has been my way of entrapping myself” [“tuning,” in How Long is the Present, 181]

— if the occasion is a trap, it is one that Antin finds more liberating than the trap offered by private composition, which he often equates with producing something inert (he sometimes refers to text via the metaphor of canned food that then gets merely warmed back up at a reading)— audience response is one way in which Antin plays the game— laughter may lead him to provide further information on a particular item, discussion may be extended by questions, and at one famous talk at 80 Langton Street Antin’s talk transforms into a full discussion with those in attendance, including poets Ron Silliman and Bob Perleman— additionally, the occasion of the talk itself may direct the course of the piece and how Antin responds to subject matter on different occasions may slightly change a line of thought across talk-pieces

one way Antin’s describes this interaction is his concept of “tuning,” after which he titled one of this books— it is his model for how communicative understanding works— an example of tuning that comes up often in his talks is the bubblegum wrapper machine in the Bazooka bubblegum factory where he worked as a young man— he and his German physicist mentor constantly have to adjust the machine in response to various internal and external factors so that the wrappers come out right around the pieces of gum— and in parallel Antin has to invent a new way of talking about the process to justify the machine repairs they do to others in his company— the bubblegum machine example also neatly demonstrates the interrelatedness of these figures of fact, since the tuning process includes modelling, narrative and game aspects

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I’ve tried deliberately to keep my thoughts on these three figures of fact introductory and sketchy so that they may open up further inquiries and opportunities for addition and revision— while I’ve focused on Antin and Perec, there are certainly others, both contemporaneous with or coming after, that could further flesh out the concepts here— writers as diverse as Bernadette Mayer, John Cage, Daniel Spoerri, Andy Warhol, Leslie Scalapino, Ron Silliman and Steve Benson to name a few— and there are certainly opportunities to think more thoroughly about the variety of manifestations of these figures of fact and how they operate, not to mention what if anything to make of the fact that so much of the writing of the authors working along these lines starts roughly in in the aftermath of ’68— in any case my hope is that in some way these initial thoughts on figures of fact will be useful to my writing and perhaps to yours

 

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