June/July/Aug 2013

White Noise

Barry Schwabsky

Unheard melodies are sweeter, proposed John Keats, and Craig Dworkin, it seems, can only agree. In his new book, No Medium, Dworkin, a poet and critic who has been among the most active proponents of “conceptual poetry,” treats silent scores and mute records, books with blank pages, white canvases, erased drawings, and other such “foster-children of Silence and slow Time.” He considers, among many other works, Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” of 1951, Aram Saroyan’s untitled 1968 publication of a ream of blank typing paper, and Tom Friedman’s 1,000 Hours of Staring, 1992–97, an unmarked sheet of paper whose title, as Dworkin says, “both raises its viewers’ doubts and asks for their credulity.” Especially because the first object of his analysis is an imaginary book, a prop in Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orpheus, I couldn’t help wondering if some of the many works he mentions are fictions, at least among the catalogue of silent music with which the book concludes: a seven-inch of The 1 Minute Silence from the Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (2001), maybe, or a double CD, Denoising Noise Music (2007), made, yes, by applying noise-reduction technology to existing recordings of noise music.

But why has the book been saddled with its Naomi Klein–ish title? “Medium” has been the bedrock of every formalism worth its salt at least since Clement Greenberg described the great modernists as those who “derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in,” and went on to specify that “purity in art consists in the acceptance . . . of the limitations of the medium of the specific art.” The decadence of any art is at hand when artists “have reached such a degree of technical facility as to enable them to pretend to conceal their mediums” (the italics are Greenberg’s). In 1964, Marshall McLuhan proclaimed that “the medium is the message,” though it was not always so simple; he also cautioned that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.” Fredric Jameson, in 1991, highlighted “a word that has tended to displace the older language of genres and forms—and this is, of course, the word medium.” And writing in 2000, Rosalind Krauss contended “that in the ’60s, ‘opticality’ was . . . serving as more than just a feature of art; it had become a medium of art.” Again, the author’s italics signal the crucial nature of the word medium but also the crucial anxiety that its significance might be overlooked.

This anxiety was not without reason; the basis for so much art theory, the notion of medium was itself always strangely untheorized, unexamined. It was never one of the basic concepts of aesthetics; you won’t find it used in Greenberg’s sense in Lessing, Kant, or any other of his precursors. It doesn’t become important until Dewey, writing only shortly before Greenberg, and in whom the latter had no explicit interest. The term, popularized by Greenberg and then again by McLuhan, has been forced to bear more weight than it was ever built to sustain; a sort of totem, the concept gets repeated with great emphasis but not examined. So one can only applaud Dworkin’s effort to knock down the totem. The problem is that his kicks and shoves don’t seem very effectual; it’s harder to get rid of medium (or rather, medium) than one would have thought. After all, to point out, for instance, how books without writing “insist on the sculptural possibilities of paper” and therefore “on its weight and thickness, however slight and negligible”—isn’t this to refer back again to what any reader of Greenberg might have understood as a medium? It just adds the simple proviso that here the medium is not literary but sculptural—not words but paper. This sounds like nothing other than the modernist reassertion of the medium. “A specific, inescapable materiality obtains in even the most ideational works,” as Dworkin says; or, according to Mel Bochner’s motto, “Language is not transparent”—an assertion verified by a blank book that Dworkin strangely doesn’t mention, Piero Manzoni’s Life and Works (1963), a posthumously published work, wordless but for its title page, made of Mylar pages. While each page may be transparent, the book as a whole can hardly be seen through—the superimposition of so many transparent pages creates something merely translucent. Even transparent things really aren’t completely transparent.

But of course, Dworkin isn’t arguing for transparency or, despite his title, against the importance of medium. Rather, his point is that media are always plural, that “one can never locate a medium in isolation.” In this sense, medium is like context. That’s why silent music and blank books can never be entirely silent or blank. “Take away one sound,” he writes, “and there are always others—fainter, or more nuanced and neutral, or simply so regular that they have merged into the background.” The beauty of such works lies in their magical ability to bring this background to the foreground, as John Cage’s 4’33” famously sought to do. But interpretations of them have to be more than clever or even correct; they should also be sensitive, one might even say humble—interpretive dexterity should not outshine the quiet neutrality it is there to highlight. And that’s where Dworkin lets me down. As a reader and writer, he’s too much of a show-off, always adding more, to the point of arbitrariness, to his chosen texts, rather than clearing away to find the essential. The works he’s discussing fade into the background again, mere stage setting for his juggling of concepts and breeding of etymologies. We could hear what he lyricizes as “the ambient hums that inhabit rooms even before we do” more easily if he’d stop talking over them all the time.

Barry Schwabsky's forthcoming books are a collection of poems, Trembling Hand Equilibrium (Black Square Editions), and two works of criticism, The Most Beautiful Perhaps: On Poetry, Mainly (Black Square Editions) and Words for Art: Criticism, History, Theory, Practice (Sternberg Press).