a replica of language
[Review of The Wayward, Alan Sondheim, Salt (2004)]

Thomas Zummer


The abject is edged with the sublime.
—Julia Kristeva

[1] Alan Sondheim's works are often astonishingly beautiful and moving; just as often they are irritating and disturbing. This is an important configuration. Sondheim introduces terms for rejection or dismissal within the work itself, sometimes as a direct confrontation, or an invitation, at other times through a maddening and asymptotic illegibility, and even, at times, through sheer magnitude, the threat of an irredeemable and inconsumable mass. This is not a trivial point: Sondheim reflexively tampers with notions of authorship, spectatorship, authority, consumption, and coherence by problematizing the text, soliciting conditions for abeyance or dismissal within the text itself, contaminating the text, so that what is unconsumable in his work is repressed or rejected, returning to haunt it from the outside. [1] Sondheim's fondness for poetic and theoretical eclecticism produces a close playing on the margins of sense and the senseless, producing some profound and startling effects, wherein the (repressed) abject returns as a dangerous familiar.

[2] In a short work called simply "text," Sondheim constructs a performative "machine" that explores the relation between abjection and the uncanny by tampering with the reader's apprehension of a simple repetitive text. While the logical progression of this text is apparent, the process of reading, silently or sub-vocally, produces a feeling of uncanniness, shaping a word over and over, the same figure within the shifting grounds marked by the successive displacement of words (utter, utter, white, abject white, abject grey, grey, abject black, black, despondent). It is worth citing in extenso:

Utterly brilliant utterly blindingly white
Utterly brilliantly blindingly white
Amazingly brilliant utterly white
Brilliantly amazingly white
Utterly white
Bright bright white
Very bright white
Bright white
Very white
Very off-white
Abject white
White with the slightest shade of grey
White with grey in it
Very light grey
Very grey white
Light grey
Utterly extremely white-grey
Grey with white in it
Grey with the slightest shade of white
Abject grey
Very off-grey
Very grey
Utterly grey
Extremely greyish
Grey with the slightest shade of black
Grey with black in it
Dark grey
Blackish grey
Utterly extremely grey-black
Very grey black
Very dark grey
Black grey
Very grey blackish
Black with grey in it
Black with the slightest shade of grey
Abject black
Very off-black
Very black
Dark black
Very dark black
Dark dark black
Utterly dark black
Utterly dark dark black
Despondently amazingly black
Amazingly despondent utterly black
Utterly despondent utterly darkest black

when it is so black, so unutterably black, then I see my eyes'
          blood and
when it is so silent so unutterably silent, then I hear my heart's
and when I read you here, so unutterably absent, then I see my
bone, here, and mysteries [2]

[3] Sondheim's deployment of the word abject in this text is an interesting enunciative and rhetorical tactic, a strange species of performative, using a word to describe the very effect that its repetition produces. In the contemporary philosophical register, the term "abjection" has been developed by Julia Kristeva, who couples anthropological notions of defilement with psychoanalysis. [3] Defilement is defined and ritualized in order to protect the borders of the body and the social (which are often coextensive). For Kristeva, the abject is precisely that which is excluded in order to set up the proper bounds of the body, the subject, society, or nation. It is an ambiguity that must be prohibited or excluded in order for identity to be stabilized. Drawing upon Freud's analysis of the prohibition of incest as well as the anthropological works of Mary Douglas and Claude Levi-Strauss, Kristeva suggests that the threatening ambiguity of the abject always returns to the (maternal) body, which must therefore be excluded in order to preserve and strengthen both individual and social identity. But, like all repression, the abject maternal that Kristeva proposes is bound to return, although the manner of its return may be transformative or even revolutionary. [4] For Sondheim, an adept reader of Kristeva, the embodied voice is not necessarily gendered, but in a constant state of becoming-gendered, and, in the repetitions and returns within which it circulates, familiarity erupts as uncanny. In Sondheim's textual improprieties the voice is dispelled (by the reader's refusal or inability to pronounce or make it present), only to have it return as uncanny. Uncanniness (unheimlich/unfamiliar) is due to a saturation of the familiar—the overly familiar as unfamiliar—relative to the body, as in the case of vocalizations—and therefore phantasmatic.

[4] But what might be meant here by "phantasmatic"? Against a critical protocol that presumes that the text—the book—is the negation of the voice—the body—, Sondheim reasserts the presence of the vocal and the return of the corporeal as repetition or citation. 'It' returns, as a subvocalization, or a ventriloquism—our own—to haunt the text, as an indissoluable supplement. A spectre, neither here nor there. The notorious statement concerning the hors-texte—"there is nothing outside the text"— [5] may also be interpreted as meaning that the text has no 'outside,' making it a more rare and intricate, and problematic, figure. Such a figure suspends the determinations of interior/exterior, or origin/effect, by revealing that what is presumed to originate from within has an exotic/ecstatic origin. This supplement is 'undecideable' in the sense that it addresses the ways in which a system of significations or structural arrangements cannot satisfactorily complete or enclose itself. Supplementarity in this sense is less an accident or a failure of a system than it is its very possibility, something which purports to originate from a controlling center—of the text, for example—but which arises from without, at the margin or limit of what it is added to. The words, and even the doggerel that Sondheim at times inflicts upon the readers of his texts, operate as this sort of 'dangerous' supplement. It is only within the shape of their constant and unremitting deferral, the sing-song repetitions and puns that lie latent within the text, only to be taken up—by reflex—by the voice, that Sondheim makes reference to a lost origin.

[5] At the same time, the phantasmatic may take up residence in an artifact, in a word or a mere trace, partially, entirely, multiply, and Sondheim's incessant—one might fairly say obsessive and compulsive—tampering with one precise register of mediated subjectivity—the corporeal—is both disturbing and remarkably fertile. In his work the wondrous strangeness of writing is rendered palpable and sensate. It may be that it is via the proximate gap, the distance between creativity and repetition, that these works are most unsettling. For one thing, there is a vast amount of material, so much that one might be tempted to discount it as mere fetish were it not for an inescapable, and deep, poetics that is also at work throughout. Even if one considers it at the level of a symptomatology, an embodied idée fixe, its effect is not compromised. Neither is it constrained, remaining plural and unstable, fragmentary and incomplete:

The fragment always appears broken, in need of a body. . . (v)ision completes contours, constructs the full bandwidth of color when spectrography tells us otherwise. The ear gestures towards the singer, toward the bass end of abbreviated bandwidths. Oozing language names, renames, occludes itself in the process. [6]

Abjection, linked to melancholy, to sadness and to despair, is always marginal, always an index of loss, haunting the edges of things, a shadow, or a glance, a reflection, or a reproduction.


Writing is communication with the absent.
—Augustine of Hippo

[6] In Sondheim's writing poetic allusions are reflected and mediated by the tacit reflexes of the performative act of reading. Sometimes it is in the simplest details that the most touching allusions come to the fore, with an appearance of simplicity or finality, in a confession:

i carry the subnotebook computer everywhere these days
inside it are organized worlds, i write into them
outside, my mother is dying within the next several hours
outside, we hear things, breathing crashing through dying lungs
          tidal waves, tsunami
inside, the nurse can't find the pulse, the breathing crashes
          and continues to crash, crash, crash

a verse or paragraph which occupies the same non-places as other bits of language, where time and tense are undecideable, adrift, paratactic, where the links and attachments between parts of speech are interrogated and found wanting, and so double back, recursively collapsing in on themselves, a replica of language. There is a doubling—an echo, and return, which is, in a sense, a reply, but also a replication, a replica, or copy, (pli, the French 'fold'), a reflection—which folds itself back into the 'original' such that it 'takes place' again (comes into being, occupies, displaces) and stands in for what is re-presented by marking, and remarking, a complicity between identity and difference. Remember that repetition takes the place of remembering. It is the very compulsion to repeat (says Freud) that protects us from memory; it is an "ungrounding repetition" ("une répétition d'effondrement" says Deleuze), the iterability, supplementarity, (or différance, says Derrida) that takes up—occupies—the place of remembering, even giving way to an originary givenness (says Plato: "an appearance deriving from the true form of essence"), or in a more contemporary sense, a figure of thought, appearance, or perception of the absent (one that is perhaps counterfeit, false or illusory).

[7] Every instance of writing is caught, arrested in a language, a tradition, a discipline, a discourse, a voice. Writing translates itself into, and is translated by, the "place" it occupies. [8] What, one might ask, is the 'place' of Alan Sondheim's writing? A writing which intervenes in other writing, a viral-machine of writing, writing which infects/inflects/reflects other writing? A writing of citation and allusion, composed of things that indicate—by apostrophe—their origin as 'elsewhere.' A writing which transports itself, which discharges itself, which writes outside itself, writing at a distance. [9]

[8] But at the same time that the text is rendered dissolute, sense is unbound. The paratactic display of writing that Sondheim accomplishes by suspending clauses, adding noise, making lists, or implying aphorisms, provides new pathways, new conduits and deferrals of the body's sensoria. Laughter and sadness, shock and ennui are unimpeded, and in some cases are amplified, by Sondheim's tampering. His texts, written through other texts, like theater or dance, sometimes mask their reflection by a series of deferrals, as when one speaks, on screen, through a mask, the words, in a replicated voice, of another. Or when one reads, in a personal mode, a voice, the words of others that have suddenly, inexplicably, become one's own.


. . . . reproducibility has always reproduced itself, but never in an identical manner.
—Eduardo Cadava

[9] The subject is always bound to figurative systems; media's commutative principles distinguish, but do not abnegate, prosthetic perceptions, cognitions, and pleasures. In the perpetual motion of the cinematic mise-en-scene, in the spectator's oscillating points of identification, and in the endless chain of cultural associations that are brought to bear on elaborating corporeal engagements, there is no arrival at a point of origin either in the "world" or in the "subject." The subject emerges in the negotiation of the realm of representations—a symbolic order whose form, function, and authority are at least partially organized and reproduced through the operation of a supplementary, and historical, phantasm. It is the case, and perhaps most intimately so, with writing, where textual artifacts interact with technical substrates of unconscious memory in the construction of a psychic reality bearing the imprint of configurations that are historically modified and linked to specific contexts, communities, and habits. All the same, as Jean-François Lyotard suggests, the "world" remains an ungraspability to which we only bear witness.

[10] Alan Sondheim presents this most forcefully in those 'texts' which one might organize under a proper name, one of Sondheim's invention: "codework." While the relation of codework to other forms of writing may be of just such a supplemental nature that it traces the contours and limits of definition, and therefore remains opaque and unreadable (that is to say, unconsumable in any familiar sense), there are still certain things that might be said about it, at a distance. Perhaps with a question? What happens when you read something that is unfamiliar and resistant to sense, even as it rolls oddly on your tongue (or its subvocal ghost rides your palate)? If you are caught up in a narrative, for example, and suddenly encounter something in characters you do not recognize (random alphanumerics, or Greek or Arabic, Russian or Sanskrit, perhaps), what happens? There is a reflex, like catching your balance when you have stumbled, that tries to redirect your orientation. A simple analogy, perhaps, but a complex phenomenology. Where do you go? What do you do? What happens? These are not at all simple questions. How do you resolve the ambiguity that has been presented here? Certain elements of the text may be abjected (used as a verb, this means cast to the outside) marginalized 'within' the text—since you can't get rid of them entirely: they always come back. Here is an example:

moc.regniz.loopsliam@toor:2 toor
2 toor 2 tooreet, tooreert:tsil-tooreert!!!
eert/sevael/lfd/sresu/:educalcni: :eert_gro.sevael_dowf!!!

While there are perceptible repetitions and patternings, it is unclear what to do with this fragment, or how to determine whether it is indeed a fragment, or an entire bit of code, or a recoded code, an algorithm, or noise, the random effect of one system set willy-nilly against another. One notices onscreen, in digital form, that there is an address [moc.regniz.loopsliam@toor:2] embedded here, and that the digital spectre of 'touching' will activate Outlook Express™ but this performativity is lost on the printed page (110), and can only return when linked to an appropriate infrastructure.

[11] Codeworks are performative, and not necessarily legible, which is to say that they modify the terms of apprehension of writing by, for example, demanding a very different index of labor in their domestication/interpretation. In a sense, codeworks may be measured by this effect—by what they do—as much as by any exegetical practice that recuperates their sense by translating it into a familiar idiom, whether linguistic, visual, or technical. Translation may not be the point; the point may lie elsewhere, outside.

[12] Alan Sondheim explores the liminal devices and conventions within and outside the text that form part of the complex field of mediations between writing, community, body and self, author, producer and reader. Sondheim is a cartographer—one of our best—of the private and public exfoliations of writing, one of the few who has noticed that, of all of the writing that goes on, relatively little becomes arrested, 'fixed' as an artifact—a book, an essay, a poem, an artwork, or a letter—and he has opened the space of writing to questions of the alterity and excess, technicity and prosthetics of writing. Sondheim's speculations, on topics as varied as the ethics of artificial languages, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, HTML, digital erotics, writing (as such) and the body (as other), are as brilliant as they are difficult, and his exemplary forays to the very limits of writing constitute an unprecedented mapping of the unsuspected territorialities of language. Sondheim's practice seeks out what Hélène Cixous has described as

The obliteration of any separation, the realization of the desire which in itself obliterates a limit . . .

What you have in The Wayward is a sampling, a small one, of an undomesticated and exhilarating engagement with the very limits of writing.

. . . a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. The skin of a living organism cuts off an outside from an inside. So does the circumference of a circle in a plane. By tracing the way we represent such a severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny, the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical, physical, and biological science, and can begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow from the original act of severance. The act is itself already remembered, even if unconsciously, as our first attempt to distinguish different things in a world where, in the first place, the boundaries can be drawn anywhere we please. At this stage the universe cannot be distinguished from how we act upon it, and the world may seem like shifting sand beneath our feet.
—G. Spencer-Brown (11)


[1] Sondheim's notion of "abject" is, as he readily acknowledges, much indebted to the work of Julia Kristeva. It is a perennial tropological reference for him in his visual and media work as well as in his poetic and other texts. Whereas Georges Bataille's notion of the abject is intimately bound up with the notion of depense (expenditure, evacuation), Kristeva's notion is less purely negative, having to do more with contamination (supplementarity) and return, making it a relatively more dynamic conception. In Sondheim's oeuvre this term is often linked, or shares affinities, with other forms of philosophical/theoretical nomenclature having to do with boundaries, limits, permeability, differentiation, identity, and undecideability.

[2] Sondheim, Alan, "text" in The Wayward [Cambridge: Salt Publishing] 2004, pp. 81-82.

[3] See: Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, [New York: Columbia University Press] 1981.

[4] Ibid. See also: A Dictionary of Continental Philosophy, John Protevi, ed., [New Haven: Yale University Press] 2005.

[5] The phrase is "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" (literally "there is no outside-text"), from Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press] 1970.

There is nothing outside of the text. And that is neither because Jean-Jacques' life, or the existence of Mamma or Therese themselves, is not of prime interest to us, nor because we have access to their so-called "real" existence only in the text and we have neither any means of altering this, nor any right to neglect this limitation. All reasons of this type would already be sufficient, to be sure, but there are more radical reasons. What we have tried to show by following the guiding line of the "dangerous supplement," is that in what one calls the real life of these existences "of flesh and bone" beyond and behind what one believes can be circumscribed as Rousseau's text, there have never been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references, the "real" supervening, and being added only while taking on meaning from a trace and from an invocation of the supplement. (Of Grammatology, pp.158-159)

In one sense, the point is quite simple: we have access to nothing but the text. The presumed immanence or substance of names or descriptions, if it is to be the case, has taken place elsewhere, and we have no direct engagement with one, so that what "returns," immediately, is of a spectral order. See also: Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," in The Structuralist Controversy, R. Mackesy, E. Donatio, eds., [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press] 1977. Derrida problematizes the concept of a centre as the "point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible...where the permutation or the transformation of elements...is forbidden... interdicted." This point exists outside language, necessary to it but not a part of it. As such it is transcendental and cannot exist as a fixed point, but as a "function, a sort of non-locus." Derrida explains that if "the centre is not the centre," then the centre does not exist, the centre is itself a "no-thing." The descriptions given here of the (nonexistent) centre seem suited toward understanding the "nothing" that we seek to investigate. This "nothing" is the space where all substitutions, all exchanges, are precluded, where play ceases and all signification collapses in on itself. A related argument is taken up in depth in The Truth in Painting, in the section entitled "Parergon," for example, where the possibility of determining what belongs to the centre, or to the periphery (of an artwork), remains undecideable. Sondheim's understanding of the abject as just such a necessary and ineradicable supplement is closely related to the "no-thing" that Derrida supposes.

[6] Sondheim, Alan, "shape-rider," in The Wayward [Cambridge: Salt Publishing] 2004, p. 36.

[7] Sondheim, Alan, "phenomenology of cancer," in The Wayward [Cambridge: Salt Publishing] 2004, p. 171.

[8] See: "A Proximate Writing," Thomas Zummer, introduction to Disorders of the Real, Alan Sondheim, [Barrytown: Station Hill Press] 1988. This section is excerpted and paraphrased by the author from an earlier published text on Sondheim.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Sondheim, Alan, "The toor of babel:" in The Wayward [Cambridge: Salt Publishing] 2004, p. 110.

(11) G. Spencer-Brown, "A Note on the Mathematical Approach," in Laws of Form, [London: George Allen and Unwin] 1969, p. xxix.