Improvisational Readership

I have spent 2018 so far in transit, in flux. Even at the waning edge of last year I made near-constant traversals along the same spit of I-95 between Philadelphia and New Haven: once by train, twice by bus, twice driving. During one of these trips I was accompanied by a friend, but for the most part they were solitary experiences. Then came two different moving days, a week in Los Angeles, and a month of daily commuting between my house in West Philadelphia and my new job in lower Manhattan. Now that I have mostly stopped moving, I am tempted to gather these disparate moments into a cohesive whole that provides some sort of ameliorative scaffolding to the randomness of moving. But really, molding oneself to the flows of people and traffic and urban transport systems, fighting against the weather, the stop-and-start of attempting to make it places on time—all of these day-in-and-day-out experiences are as frustratingly arbitrary, and arbitrarily frustrating, as they come.

Over the past few months, I have attempted to develop tactics of reading, looking, and listening that can adapt to constant transit, flowing into and out of various public spaces and varying capacities for attention and stillness, that do not compromise the so-called quality of experience. The soundtrack to much of my travel in late December and early January was the audiobook of Inferno: A Poet's Novel  by Eileen Myles. I don't generally read audiobooks for several reasons. One is that they tend to lull me to sleep, and as a friend recently said to me about reading books before bed, "I don't want to associate reading with sleeping." Another is a practical matter of having burned through my Audible credits and preferring not to pay for more if I can just take the same book out of the library. But the main reason seems to be a more deeply engrained hangup I suppose I have about consuming books aurally, which is that I don't think I'll have an experience as in-depth or "rich" as that of reading text; I'm convinced I'll forget what I've heard shortly after reading it.

I'm troubled by this, the implicit correlation I've made between a work's tactility and my own comprehension or memory skills. I've never considered myself a tactile learner, and as a viewer of art, I certainly know that I—for the most part—cannot touch what I see or bring it home with me to mull over later. But in Myles's language, there are keys to these questions, small darts of language that offer inroads if not solutions. In "That Rat's Death," a poem in I Must Be Living Twice: New & Selected Poems 1975-2014,  Myles writes, "I'm given real information / and the most difficult part / is blindly creating the space / where the parts I can't / see or even hear spread out." Myles's difficult spatializations perhaps have a parallel in Amelia Jones's helpful and excellent "'Presence' in Absentia: Experiencing Performance Art as Documentation," a 1997 essay that attempts to deconstruct flesh-based hierarchies of experience. "Although I am respectful of the specificity of knowledges gained from participating in a live performance situation," Jones writes, "I will argue here that this specificity should not be privileged over the specificity of knowledges that develop in relation to the documentary traces of such an event."

It is funny—absurd, really—to think of an experience like listening to the Inferno  audiobook as representative of a kind of absence. Everything about it, from Myles's sharp-edged Boston accent to their descriptive irreverence, fills a space (overfills it, even: I'd emerge from my car at a rest stop on the Jersey turnpike after three hours of their voice on my car stereo, exhausted and grateful for cold air and silence).

This gut reaction to listening to books rather than reading them reveals much more about my own limited sensory awareness than about the medium itself. Perhaps this is obvious, but for me, it came to the fore as an audience member in a recent panel discussion at the 2018 CAA Conference called "The Art of the Image Description." In it, four presenters read aloud four different image descriptions of paintings from various art-historical canons; at the end of each description, the painting was projected onto a screen. In part, the panel was a testimony to the difficulty of writing image descriptions for visually-impaired or blind audiences: even the rich language the presenters used did not, for me, conjure a mental image even similar to what was revealed at the end of their presentation, to say nothing of the host of intractable issues concerning what is and isn't made visible and what is politically neutralized via the power the image-descriptor yields. In a more pressing sense, though, observing my own restlessness and itchiness during the presentation of these imageless images made me (more) aware of my own embodied ability. I am sighted, able-bodied, not hard-of-hearing or deaf; I desire to make use of all available sensory realms as an unquestioning and unquestioned default.

What if it were different? Amelia Jones crucially resists the notion that embodied presence in the space of live performance provides the viewer privileged access to the meaning or truth  of these acts; I have work to do in order to practice a more critical stance toward the primacy of sight or touch in the acts of looking and reading. Absorbing without seeing, thus far, has taken on a less-than role borne of need, like listening to an audiobook while driving or approximating what a photograph might look like based on a friend's verbal description. I find myself excited by the possibilities that arise when we chip away at the status quo of the physical object's primacy, and the improvisational modes of reading and listening—as well as the potential intimacies, collaborations, and experimentations that may arise in their wake—that come with interfering with the straightforward object-viewer relationship. It is telling that Myles uses the phrase "blindly creating the space" in the poem above. Coming from a place of ability, anything less than immediate visual comprehension can feel like lack. Carefully examining this knee-jerk reaction, as well as finding ways to be social and collaborative amidst these challenges, is the least we can do.


Of note:

More on image descriptions and their function here. Another very helpful and detailed resource is here on Tumblr, including tips on how to write image descriptions.