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Contradicta: Aphorisms

By Nick Piombino
Illustrated by Toni Simon

Green Intenger #159 (Green Integer Press, Kobenhaven and Los Angeles)

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Deconstructive Words to Live By

Review by Jerome Sala

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Though known primarily as a poet/literary theorist (whose work helped break ground for the movement that came to be known as “language writing”), Nick Piombino has never been bothered much by generic considerations.  In addition to his poems/essays, he’s flourished in everything from visual art (he’s exhibited his collages at galleries and has published of book of them), to diaristic writings and manifestos (and parodies of them), to pioneering the use of blogging and even tweeting as forms of literary expression.  Now, in Contradicta, we get to know him as an aphorist.  And as a collaborator – as the book is done in conjunction with his spouse, the visual artis.t Toni Simon

It’s fitting, then, that the title of this book itself leads to a multiplicity of interpretations, each itself calling to mind a different genre.  On the most literal level, Contradicta refers to the fact that the aphorisms are paired on the page (sometimes in double pairings), and that some of them disagree with each other (or are contradicted at times by the artwork) – or more often, as Ron Silliman has noted, play off against each other in more complex and mysterious ways. This brings to mind philosophical writing, not only because many of our most acerbic, anti-philosophical philosophers (Pascal, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Cioran, to name a few) specialized in the form, but also because the very act of taking on contradiction as a theme can’t help but bring to mind the great dialecticians.  (Piombino previously published a chapbook of haiku-like poems titled Hegelian Honeymoon.)

But Contradicta also points to one of last century’s finest satiric journalists: Karl Krauss (who once published a book of aphorisms titled Dicta and Contradicta).  The Austrian Krauss was particularly courageous in the positions he took as a public intellectual.  He condemned WWI, for example, during what must have been an overwhelmingly nationalist moment.  (We certainly could have used more of his type around during the run-up to Gulf War II!)  Like Krauss’s, Piombino’s aphorisms offer, at times, micro (but biting) media critiques – and also puncture holes in our more inflated cultural attitudes and modes of feeling. Like Krauss, as well, Piombino is an equal opportunity critic, sparing neither elite nor popular pieties.  In the process, seemingly universal doctrines, such as the idea that adopting competitive attitudes is our Darwinian duty, are revealed, at times, to be a mask for plain old meanness.

All of which is to say that Contradicta is more pointed than a simple collection of witticisms might be; its maxims seem created to help us contradict and resist the inertial social pressure to go along with the flow of our general thoughtlessness.  Piombino’s aphorisms make you stop – and urge a moment of contemplation.  Though short in form, they’re strong in force, offering a sort of antidote to social infections such as distraction and impatience.

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The illustrations by Toni Simon join this refusal to fall in line with the tendencies of the times. They remind one of the allegorical woodcuts that once illustrated the moral tales and fables of another era – though they’re also seasoned with a dash of surrealism and satiric wit themselves.  And, as Walter Pater wrote of Botticelli’s illustrations of Dante, they are “no mere translation” but take off from the words to offer “true visions of their own.”

But enough of this foreshadowing.  Let me give you a taste of the aphorisms themselves, and how they interact with each other and the artwork.  I’ll start with one of Piombino’s observations about elite culture, and then move on to his comments about more common realms. Here is an aphorism he offers on the status of modern-era philosophical thinking:

One by one the finest philosophers concluded
they should no longer try to tell us how to live.
Imperceptibly, yet gradually, an immense sadness fell
upon the world and the sadists took over. (116)

I think what caught my attention about this comment was how perfectly its almost parable-like tone (calling to my mind all sorts of scriptural literatures) rhymed nicely with its message. It could be argued that during the second half of the 20th century, at least in the U.S., philosophers seemed less and less involved with public discourse. The analytical philosophy, for example, which dominated the U.S. scene before the more recent influx of continental thought and the rebirth of pragmatism, seemed, at least to a layman like myself, to be more about technical than social or experiential problems. What Piombino implies here might be seen as anathema to all that.  He seems to suggest that we need to replace philosophy-for-philosophy’s sake with something a little more practical – and even didactic – at least if we are interested in interrupting the reign of mean-spiritedness in our public speech. After all, if thoughtful forms of philosophical thinking remain absent from the public sphere, it certainly doesn’t mean that philosophy itself will.  As we have seen, there’s plenty of bad philosophical preaching out there – not the least of which amounts to leaner, meaner— and even more boring — versions of that saint of selfishness, Ayn Rand.  Oddly, though, despite its empirical accuracy, Piombino himself doesn’t allow us to take this quip at face value. For he pairs it with a second one — that makes you think twice.  After the noble, somewhat elevated tone of the first statement, we get a quick commentary on it, which simply reads, “Think for yourself or go mad with everyone.”

You could read this statement as simply a translation into conversational language of its mate.  But the bluntness of the tone, to my ear, deflates the high-and-mighty rhetoric of what came before, nearly throwing it into doubt – and the interaction between the statements makes even the second, simpler one, ambiguous.  Is the text warning me that, in the absence of “good thinking” out there, I better just rely on my own resources? Or, is it suggesting that even “good” philosophical thought, in the end, is to be distrusted? The pairing brings to mind those moments in Brecht’s plays, where after noble speeches by the protagonists, captions are carried across the stage that make it impossible to wholly buy into what had just been spoken.

This sort of deconstructive didacticism can be seen throughout the book.  Here is another example, this time dealing with more popular attitudes.  Piombino writes:

Celebrities who are prolific and talk freely inspire
affection because they give the impression that at
any moment they might blurt out the secrets of their
success. (134)

When I read about devotion to celebrity, it’s impossible not to think of that ambiguous social character called “the fan.” This figure is usually portrayed as someone taken over by emotion, for better (when, say, this results in endearing, eccentricities as with Trekkies or Dead Heads) – or worse (as in the demented, stalker fan).  By contrast, Piombino’s comment reveals an almost rational, calculating side to the “innocent” fan: he or she becomes obsessed with a star as a model of success, i.e., a way to get over.  Again, I appreciate Piombino’s accuracy here.  Does not the phenomenon of Reality TV reveal that one of the main motivations for aping a celebrity is to become one? And in this light, is not even the maddest devotion just another form of ambition?  But before we can buy into this insight, it too is thrown into question by the rather mysterious aphorism it is paired with.  It reads:

What has eroded in time is not so much the
pleasure in discovering the truth but awareness of the
pleasure in confronting its nemesis. (135)

Of course, this statement lends itself to a number of interpretations.  But paired as it is with the previous one, I cannot help but focus on the word “pleasure.”  One of the aspects of celebrity culture that make it difficult to criticize with authority is the very fact that it is the site of an intense degree of sexuality, excess, outrageousness – and even rebellion.  How many media critics, certainly on the right but also on the left, come away as sounding merely prudish?  Can there be pleasure in saying the pleasurable is bad? Seeing these two aphorisms together, then, suggests, I think, that before one adopts a dismissive attitude toward feelings associated with popular culture – or, writes off critiques of it as mere snobbery, for that matter – one needs, as a thinker, to try harder.  Perhaps what’s required for starters is a type of critical thinking that transcends the old modernist dualisms of pleasurable/meaningful, popular/intelligent.

Contradicta takes an important step in this direction in a number of ways.  First, despite the obvious erudition embedded in its maxims, there’s a lot of wit and humor here. The aphorisms themselves are entertaining – some verging on being one (or rather two) liners.  “Everybody’s pushing my buttons today – except the one that says on,” one pairing begins, followed by its somewhat incongruous, echo: “Peace and quiet, there goes the diet.” (140) And then, to add another dimension to the wit, Toni Simon offers a drawing in which a mysterious hand appears out of the emptiness of the page, pressing the button of an antique keyboard (on some weird machine reminiscent of the contraptions you’d see in a film like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil).

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The decision to include the drawings themselves, for that matter, is another way this book works to dissolve the barrier between the “autonomous work of literature” and the world at large.  It’s a way of inviting “the other” in – to help create the book by adding new dimensions its meanings.  One aphorism reads, for example, “Solve global cooling global warming will follow.” (121) It’s followed by Simon’s visual translation of one of Dante’s Circles of Hell into contemporary life: a vaguely professional-looking character stares out, dejectedly, from a block of ice in a freezing black river of despondency.

But perhaps the most radical way of all that Contradicta flirts with erasing the borderline between art and everyday life is in the very fact that, as complex as the interplay of the writing with itself and the drawings can be, if one opens the book at random and reads a line or two, you don’t necessarily have to approach it as “art” at all.  That is, it’s possible to use it for utilitarian, therapeutic reasons.  If you need a break from the anxiety and banality of the daily grind, you can consult it, like a friend (or a brainy “thought for the day” book), for a bit of relief.  In this sense, Contradicta is the latest, and furthest step, Piombino has taken so far, along a trajectory his work seems bound and determined to follow.

What I have in mind here is a notion I came across through the writings of Jacques Ranciere,  on the implied politics of aesthetics. According to Ranciere, since the advent of modernism, the fine arts have often been a site of resistance to mainstream, market society.  He portrays their refusal to “get with the game plan” as a spectrum, organized around two poles.  The first, the pole of autonomy, is sometimes the home of the disjunctive, abstract and opaque writing – signifying a refusal to communicate along commercial lines.  The other pole is that of engagement; it is one whose works speak out more directly (at times confrontationally) against commercial, competitive values.   Each side, of course, finds the source of its excitement in its own risks.  Radically autonomous art may end up with a devoted, “specialist” audience who are primarily artists and critics themselves (and therefore is conventionally criticized for its lack of social impact).  Engaged art, aiming as it does for a wider appeal, is often, by contrast, accused of losing its identity as art altogether (and becoming something else: propaganda or therapy, for example).  This is because, as Ranciere characterizes this impulse, it offers “a project for an aesthetic revolution in which art, by effacing itself as art, becomes a form of life.” (36)

Piombino’s work, since his early days as austere poetic theorist, to works like Contradicta, offers a nearly iconic example of a writer negotiating his way along the spectrum I mentioned.  Drawing on free associative techniques, his early poems, to my mind, pursue the route of autonomy as a way of resistance.  But as his concepts and writing projects evolve, they seem to become increasingly interested in forms of more directly public intervention.  As a fan of his blog fait accompli over the years, I’ve seen it incorporate both his theory (from earlier notebooks) – and direct reports “from the front” on, for example, protests against the second Gulf War.   I read Contradicta as the latest in his experiments with engagement.  A psychoanalyst himself, the book seems geared toward not only addressing common contemporary social pathologies, but providing practical examples of the kind of deconstructive thinking necessary to side step them. No wonder that these writings, appropriating the popular genre of “the sound bite” in the service of critical,  philosophical thought, first found a home – and built up followings – in relatively public media spaces such as the blogosphere and Twitter.  After all, despite all the very obvious pitfalls of such media, don’t they sometimes function as the descendents of the critical, satiric press of Krauss’ time?

This is also why I think his writing offers a fascinating example of how the struggles of the arts with their own options and ideologies can manifest themselves over a career.  I think one of the factors that has made Piombino’s own work assume an increasingly more engaged, social face, is the pressure (which they register) from political traumas such as war and terror.  It’s as if these intrusive realities have made it impossible for him to pursue any exclusively hermetic mode.   I look forward to observing what effect our current, economically-based crises will have upon his work. I’m staying tuned to see what the Piombino channel has in store for us next.