Unruly Avatars and the Anarchy of Influence

Sudipto Sanyal
Techno India University

Armand, Louis. The Organ-Grinder's Monkey: Culture after the Avant-Garde.
Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2013. 286 pp.

Tofts, Darren. alephbet: essays on ghost writing, nutshells & infinite space.
Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2013. 141 pp.

Punish the monkey, let the organ grinder go

— Mark Knopfler, Kill to Get Crimson
(But, possibly, Jorge Luis Borges)

[1] "riverrun," begins Finnegans Wake, in the middle, "past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." This sentence fragment has actually begun on the very last page, the very last (but by no means final) line of the book – "A way a lone a last a loved a long the" – and it resolves itself on the first. Arch-cyclical in nature, the book "ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the same sentence."

"Begin at the beginning," the King said very gravely,
"and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

— Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
(But, probably, Jorge Luis Borges)

[2] Where does one begin Finnegans Wake, then? And where end? The beginning of the book is the middle of a sentence which will begin (has begun?) at the end of the book. When you have read the very last line, then, do you stop, or do you continue till you arrive at the beginning? What is the status of the text-to-follow when you have already finished reading the last sentence with the entire rest-of-the-book to come? Aristotelian implosions aside, is the first/last sentence a circumscribing epigraph to the rest of the book? Or is the rest of the book an extended epilogue to that riverrun-on sentence? How do we go about apperceiving this fearsome textual Ouroboros when we do not even know if we are beginning at the beginning?

"Off with his head!" she said, without even looking round.

— Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
(But, very likely, Jorge Luis Borges)

[3] Well, writes Louis Armand in the opening essay of the stimulating The Organ-Grinder's Monkey, perhaps we should think about this in terms of Godard, montage, and a new, more technologically open way of engaging with the limits of possibility. Armand sees Joyce and Godard as "the two major inventors of the modern vernacular" (17). In a sense, they both reinvent the very material contents of their respective media – Godard is concerned "not with the image as given, but as a dynamic structure, something in a constant state of coming into being" (22), an ever-becoming visual stimulant; Joyce, similarly, uses portmanteau and a montage of the word ("a montage which operates within the individual word," as Colin MacCabe points out) to evoke a sense of "verbivocovisual presentiment." "'To speak of directing,' Godard says, "is automatically to speak...of editing'" (19). In other words, off with their heads, as the Queen of Hearts is fond of saying.

[4] Having elucidated this unruly tradition of extreme experimentation at the outset and found in Godard's entire cinematic project "a continuation of Joyce's project as a writer" (22), Armand jump-cuts his way through theorizing, as the book's blurb helpfully puts it, "the 'poetic turn' in cultural discourse from the 1950s to the present." As Armand sees it, this is the time when "poetics...invades the universal problematic" (13). Text becomes event, a new way of encapsulating history and diverse forms (for Joyce, the word becomes cinematographic, a projector of its own history; for Godard, film has always been inherently literary, a way of apprehending a "mode of thought" in its image).

The time is out of joint

— Bill Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.5
(But, almost certainly, Jorge Luis Borges)

[5] Indeed, it is fitting that Armand begins his discussion of what is essentially a modern phenomenon, the 'avant-garde,' with discussions of Joyce and a certain kind of cinema (arguably the artform of the 20th century). As Tom Gunning makes clear, it was the early avant-garde that truly took to cinema as a new, popular and exhibitionist artform. Early cinema was, in Gunning's formulation (borrowed from Eisenstein), a "cinema of attraction," a non-narrative artform that highlighted spectacle, the act of viewing and the viewer's active engagement with this wondrous new invention. This is the trick picked up by avant-gardes all around, from Eisenstein to Godard and beyond, from the cinema of attraction – "exhibitionist confrontation rather than diegetic absorption." As in Hamlet, time is out of joint in these early fairground reels, and, like Hamlet, early non-narrative cinema insisted on calling attention to its non-narrativity, its quick cuts and its proto-montage. As a result, "it was precisely the exhibitionist quality of turn-of-the-century popular art that made it attractive to the avant-garde – its freedom from the creation of a diegesis, its accent on direct stimulation." This essentially hypertextual nature – montage, moments of intensity following each other ("attractions"), this fin de siècle zest in attempting to capture on film everything (and not just that worth capturing) – of early cinema connects Eisenstein, Finnegans Wake, Godard's Histoire(s) du cinema, and even Benjamin's Passagenwerk, which uses quintessentially cinematic techniques to create a failed archive of everything. Hypertext exists before the internet, therefore, and spawns strange and unruly traditions.

I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities that I have visited, all my ancestors.

— Evidently, Jorge Luis Borges (Interview, El Pais, 1981. Translation: The Guardian, 2008)

[6] Questions of such hypertextuality, where the word is displaced in time and space, preoccupy the Australian cultural critic Darren Tofts as well. In alephbet, Tofts wrestles with "the uncanny prescience" (12) of Jorge Luis Borges in our postmodern, hyperreal cyberspace age. Along the way, he stresses the need for new systems (a-systems, rather) of coming to terms with hypertextuality. "If literacy," he writes in his essay on 'epigrams, particle theory & hypertext,' "is concerned with letters as fundamental, irreducible particles of meaning, then how can we transport the idea of the particle into the digital realm, the online environment and the hypertextual web?" Such a project would entail the creation of a new vernacular, the invention of a new language beyond letters for a world "in which the letter is no longer the dominant form of media" (26). Even though he recognizes the contradiction inherent in his project, since "outlining a post-literate digital literacy is outside the hermeneutic circle of literacy itself," Tofts marches to the beat of a different drummer. Ever open to the Joycean chaosmos of plurabilities, he attempts to playfully theorize certain ways of apprehending word and world in the digital age, ways that, in their own time, Finnegans Wake and Histoire(s) du cinema also theorize and articulate. (Perhaps Tofts might agree if we were to call his book a long-awaited digestif to the smorgasbord of the Passagenwerk, a footnote to the hypertextualities elaborated by Joyce, Benjamin and Borges).

All the elements that made it up were right there before his eyes,
and nothing new could ever be expected.

— Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
(But, assumably, Jorge Luis Borges)

[7] Taking off from these related ideas, both Armand and Tofts embark on articulating an archaeology – Tofts, a la Borges, would prefer the word translation – of the new. Armand's book is more obviously polemical, politico-poetic-theoretical in nature, to employ an unwieldy descriptor; as he makes clear in the Preface to this collection of previously published essays and delivered talks, the critical imperative of our present cultural moment is "the refusal of paradigms, the maintained temper of an open investigation, an experiment in de-institutionalising thought across the generalized margin" (7). This precipitates an examination – rather, a poetic enveloping, much like swimming in molten chocolate made of bright ideas – of diverse avant-gardes and their practitioners. From the "graffiti poetica" of Cy Twombly ("As the saying goes, if shit had value the poor wouldn't have arses. Twombly does, and like some Freudian demiurge he shits pure gold, freely, which immediately gets recycled back into art historical shit. The alchemy of paradigms, backwash of the expressive fallacy") to capitalism's uneasy categorization and commodification of Jean-Michel Basquiat; from Beckett's Film to the cinema of Dusan Makavejev via Deleuzean movement-images and time-images and action-images; from incisive analyses of contemporary poets and poetic methods (the "art of traumatic realism" and John Kinsella's "poetics of distraction"; Karen Mac Cormack's Implexures and the "poetics of the unpoetic"; "the primitivist poetics" of Véronique Vassiliou; a particularly thought-provoking essay on Pierre Joris's evolution of a "nomad poetics" and his use of wordcollage (soundcollage? Soundsensecollage?) in overturning the "tyranny of paradigms") to a close look at the novels left behind by the once-budding Czech writer Lukas Tomin – Armand takes us on a dizzying and sometimes exhausting whirligig of an interrogation of the viability of the avant-garde under the conditions of postmodernity. Along the way, he gestures at the sustained import of text-as-surface for the avant-garde, primarily through two essays on the texture of text, or, as he calls it, "the resistance of medium."

[8] The first of these, 'The Resistance of Medium,' is an extended meditation on the American-born Czech-resident Vincent Farnsworth and his idea of "deep poetics," the "intonality of language-as-surface-event." For Farnsworth, it is the qualities of the medium itself that can be made to evoke great resistance to the status quo, i.e., the poet sees the very fact of poetry – not reactionary laudatory poetry, nor revolutionary poetry, but merely poetry, flat words on flat pages – as affecting a social dimension. This emphasis on the materiality of the word elevates it to an aspect of the body (this can be conceived of as both the body of the poet and the greater body politic, so to speak), and brings to mind Michael Dransfield, "emerging star of Australian poetry" (172), who died in 1973 at the age of 24. OD'd on Horse. In the artistically-titled (after a Dransfield "drug poem") 'Still Life with Hypodermic,' Dransfield's "poetry of addiction" is intimately connected to the body of the addict and the haptics of skin and syringe ("the geography of the poem, as a substitute for the poet's body" (181)). Focusing on the marginalized, the obscure object of the addict's desire (quantified by the addict into a craving for his/her choice of Substance and mode of injection), and the relationship of the inner creative life to the pale vicissitudes of living, Dransfield turns the trope of addiction into an ontological condition, all the while harking back to a 20th century tradition of doomed poetry (173). In this respect, Armand talks about Dransfield's Drug Poems (1972) and its section 'Shooting Gallery,' pointing out how the title derives from both Rilke – "the shooting-gallery's targets of petrified happiness" – and Baudelaire's 'Shooting Gallery and the Cemetery,' but misses out on its most obvious definition – a crack house, a geography of inscribed addiction and marginalia, a place to shoot up (both heroin and poetry).

Life itself is a quotation

— Jorge Luis Borges (but of course)

[9] Tofts's book, also constructed out of a selection of essays, some previously published in journals, others as catalogue pieces for museums/art galleries, while ultimately indicating many of Armand's grander theoretical preoccupations – the newness (or not) of the new, the uncomfortable but intrinsically unavoidable cohabitation of the old and the new, the dialectical co-dependence of tradition and the avant-garde, the hypertextual anarchy of influence (Tofts: "Ever since reading Labyrinths when I was sixteen Borges's formidable and infinite imagination has haunted my own" (8). Armand: "The birth and the presumed death of the avant-garde mirror one another in contemporary critical lamentations" (280)) – is a more personal, more whimsical exploration of the experience of carrying giants on our shoulders. In Tofts's case, the Baital to his Vikram is Jorge Luis Borges, that literary Daedalus, artificer, arch-fashioner of hypertextual labyrinths (or, as Pepe Carvalho, the gourmand gumshoe of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's detective stories would call him, "right-wing anarchist").

It was not I who begot you. It was the dead

— Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, The Buenos Aires Quintet
(But, supposedly, Jorge Luis Borges, 'To the Son,' in The Self and the Other)

[10] In alephbet, Tofts make the astoundingly anti-teleological claim that cyberspace existed before the internet, and can be thought of through books, movies and, most especially, the figure of Jorge Luis Borges, literary all-father to everything. This is perhaps not as far-out an idea as it seems; indeed, as Suzanne Jill Levine, translator and general editor of the Penguin Classics five-volume Borges series, says, "Borges taught us that nothing is new, that creation is recreation, that we are all one contradictory mind, connected amongst each other and through time and space, that human beings are not only fiction makers but are fictions themselves, that everything we think or perceive is fiction, that every corner of knowledge is a fiction." Tofts's title – alephbet – is an immediate signifier of the infinite perspective of J. L. Borges; the aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, becomes in Borges's eponymous story a universal point in space and time at which all other points exist simultaneously, and so an alephbet becomes, automatically, an urgent desire for a universally pertinent alphabet of expression and decoding, "an alephbet that anticipates all things before they have been written." Through playful, self-conscious essays that all anticipate each other and are filled with minor hoaxes and joke footnotes (the book even has a quotation on its back attributed to that legendary author of the Quixote, Pierre Menard), Tofts writes of Borges's ghost filtering through not only his own consciousness, but also the consciousness of the modern western imaginarium at large, from Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub (an important "avant-text in the history of electronic writing and digital literacy" (25)) to the "crystal method" and The Matrix, where the real and the virtual bleed into each other, and intervals are vigorously inhabited, crystallizing into something greater and more omnipresent (Tofts, like Armand, also invokes Deleuze and Cinemas I and II).

The ghosts of 'lectricity

— Bob Dylan, 'Visions of Johanna'
(But, hypertextually, Jorge Luis Borges)

[11] "The world wide web," adds Levine, "in which all time and space coexist simultaneously, seems as if it were invented by Borges." This idea, as it were, infects Tofts's writing throughout, letting him traverse back and forth through otherwise-discrete artefacts and people whom he finds inextricably linked to cyberculture and a notion of Borgesian (or is it Nietzschean?) eternal recurrence. The ghosts of electricity are anticipated by other ghosts, as Tofts makes clear in a delightful little essay on one Aleck, who set about making "one sense do the work of another" (52). It turns out, if you read 'ow ah oo ga ma ma' to the end, that Aleck is none other than Aleck Graham Bell, ur-inventor not only of SMS but hip-hop slang as well (54).

From time to time I read Borges again

— Horacio Salas, 1966
(But, obviously, Jorge Luis Borges)

[12] From time to time, Tofts would have it, everyone reads Borges again. Even if you've never read him in the first place ("as if one can read him for the first time" (9)). And, from time to time, it would seem, everyone writes Borges again. Ask Philip K. Dick, whose short story 'We Can Remember It for You Wholesale' (adapted later into the film Total Recall) can be seen as an allegory of Borges's 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,' "an uncanny remix that demonstrates the cabbalistic process of fabulatory world-building and its substitution of reality" (123). Indeed, for Tofts, Dick may almost be seen as "some kind of fictional amanuensis of Borges," as might Lewis Carroll, whom Tofts cites as having once written (in a shadowy prefiguring of Borges's fragment 'On Exactitude in Science,' in which a map of the world becomes as large as the world), in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded – "It has never been spread out, yet...the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country itself, and shut out the sunlight! So now we use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well." After all, in '...echolalia...,' his reader's history of JLB, Tofts sees Borges, with his "unsettling stories about the morphology of precedence, the realization that all writing is a tracing of previous inscriptions," as "the archivist of echolalia in culture" (75).

The other tiger, that which is not in verse

— J. L. Borges, 'The Other Tiger,' Dreamtigers

[13] In his poem 'The Other Tiger,' Borges indicates that other tiger that cannot be captured in art, in the words of his poem, but which haunts his created – poetic – tiger. Borges, for Tofts, haunts all inscription, casting his ghostly presence over multiform ontological meanderings, the alpha and the omega. Like Armand's notion of circularity in the avant-garde, whose conditions of birth mirror those of its death, as he mentions, beginning as it ends, not with a whimper but with a bang, Tofts, (or Borges, I forget who) finds recurrences everywhere. As does the reader. For instance, after Armand's essay on the Godard, Tofts's essay on Godard. A return to a new vernacular, via the retro-futurist detours of timetravelling future-noir private eye Lemmy Caution, from whom we have much to learn "when thinking about the way memories of things past leave traces in the present, and vice versa" (106). Caution himself, of course, is a fictitious (?) FBI agent, an American character created by a British writer (Peter Cheyney, 1896-1951) who has never appeared in an English-language film (but in numerous French films, always played by Eddie Constantine). In Godard's film Alphaville, the most important lesson Caution has for Tofts is "the prescience of the future imagined in advance of its coming" (11). By a commodious vicus, more circular ruins.


Litteraria Pragensia, the publisher of both books, has an excellent track record of publishing important and revitalizing material, much of it on the cutting edge of theoretical writing. So too with the books under review. However, one must point out the glaring typos (for instance, in alephbet Bertrand become Bertram Russell, frequently; in The Organ-Grinder's Monkey, an essay on 'New Media Poetics' is reprinted so faithfully from the collection it first appeared in that references to the original have not been deleted – so, one comes across exhortations to the editors of that original collection, for instance). This author would like to offer his services, for a small fee in unmarked bills or an apartment in Prague, as copyeditor, proofreader and general gallimaufrer, a way a lone a last a loved a long the


  1. James Joyce, Letters of James Joyce, Volume 1, edited by Stuart Gilbert (New York: Viking, 1966), 246.
  2. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York: Viking Press, 1958), 341.19. Quoted in Armand, 21.
  3. Tom Gunning, 'The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,' Wide Angle, Vol 8, Nos. 3 & 4, Fall 1986: 66.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Literacy "under erasure." In Tofts's own words, "preposterously pretentious."
  6. An example of very early Sanskrit literature, the Baital Pachisi is a collection of stories that tells of the legendary King Vikram (or Vikramaditya), who perpetually carries on his shoulders the Baital, a vampire-like being who keeps asking him riddles.
  7. Quoted in Jane Ciabattari, 'Is Borges the 20th Century's Most Important Writer?,' BBC, September 2, 2014, accessed July 2, 2015, «http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140902-the-20th-centurys-best-writer».