thoughts on Johanna Drucker’s Stochastic Poetics
Text as a gas. Clouds of letters in Brownian motion. The pages of Johanna Drucker’s Stochastic Poetics (2012) may look computer-generated at first glance, but they are the result of two years of typesetting and letterpress printing. Out of the entropic noise of overprinted letters, legible texts begin to emerge. Passages from Aristotle’s Poetics. Fragmentary and altered texts from probability theory, describing stochastic processes—systems of random events that evolve in a non-linear, unpredictable fashion over time. Alongside these texts, Drucker includes her own personal observations from poetry events at L.A.C.E. (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) and Modern Language Association. Reflecting the stochastic processes that the texts on probability describe, Drucker’s printing process involves elements of controlled chance, and every copy represents a different outcome of events. Encased in etched aluminum covers, this complex and open-ended artist’s book represents the response of an indeterminate, material, process-oriented textual practice to the question: “How does the figure of poetic language emerge from the general field of language?” Although she has explored many different modes of textual production over the years, from the hand-made to the ‘born digital’, Drucker has made particularly innovative use of letterpress printing in her artist’s books since 1972. Stochastic Poetics is to be her last book done in letterpress, and it is a remarkable feat of printing and design, as well as an engaging hybrid work of creative theory. Using the same, now outmoded technology as the artists who experimented with visual poetics in the early 20th century, Drucker reopens some unanswered questions from the avant-garde history she invokes while exploring new possibilities of visual, diagrammatic writing.
In her classic 1977 artist’s book From A to Z, Drucker produced a text that demonstrates her theoretical claim that “the material fact of history is always part of any written text.” Working out of the West Coast Print Center with 48 drawers of assorted type at her disposal, Drucker’s self-imposed restraint in composing From A to Z was that she must use every piece of type in all of the drawers once and only once so as to arrive at a text that “made sense”. In addition, she drew up an alphabetical cast of characters, assigning roles and identities to the letters, turning our attention to the play of the grapheme and turning the entire text into a kind of visual drama of letters and their spatial relationships (and non-relationships), or perhaps into a curious kind of code with an infinite plaintext. From A to Z is many things—an eccentric bibliography ‘of sorts’, an encrypted confession of an unrequited crush, a feminist critique of a poetry scene, an excursion into the inner life of letters—but it is also, importantly, a precise and complete record of its own means of production. It is a text in which the artist-printer displays the full contents of her type drawers, a text which is its own visible trace of the material conditions under which it came into being.
Drucker’s work, in her artists’ books as in her theoretical writings, continues to investigate the materiality of language, following her insight that “writing’s visual forms possess an irresolvably dual identity in their material existence as images and their dual function as elements of language.” Drucker’s theory of visual language, developed extensively in The Visible Word, resists the intellectual efforts of High Modernism and New Criticism to separate the poetry and visual art of modernism by ignoring or downplaying the gestural trace of written language and/or the signifying capacity of the image. Drucker borrows from Derrida’s post-Saussurean grammatology but she goes beyond his critique of logocentrism to insist on the semantic value of the visual qualities of writing, and that “the inherent physical properties of stuff function in the process of signification in intertwined but not determined or subordinate relation to their place within the cultural codes of difference where they also function.”
Drucker writes that “one way of thinking about ‘performing’ the visual text is as an analog to voice[.]” We can, of course, locate the poetic and performative materiality of the voice in many places, but I recently watched a fantastic short film of Samuel Beckett’s Not I directed by Neil Jordan for the Beckett on Film project, with Julianne Moore as ‘Mouth’. Not I is a monologue delivered by an actor on a darkened stage with a small spotlight illuminating her mouth. In the theater, the audience could expect to see little more than a speaking speck, a disembodied voice crying in the void, but Jordan films Moore’s mouth in an extreme close-up, so that it fills the entire frame. The resulting image is at once undeniably bodily (all flesh and teeth and spit) and also distinctly disembodied (a mouth without a face, perhaps without a subject); we are face to face with the meat of speech. We continue to watch the very physical workings of annunciation at close range and the swift movements of lip and tongue become hypnotic, and the image begins to appear almost abstract—a composition of bobbing pinks—just as the repetitive speech begins to slowly verge away from signification and towards ‘pure sound’. Perhaps for the skilled lip-reader the film presents as perfectly legible a text as if it were subtitled, but for me there is a point at which it becomes difficult to follow even when my emotional engagement is most intense. And it is at these moments when signification falters, even ever so slightly, where we most directly encounter the gendered, embodied, speaking subject behind the Mouth. Julianne Moore as Mouth vacillates between the generically human, the Everymouth, and an emerging subjectivity that bends the words to her will.
A notoriously demanding piece, Not I asks its actor to dramatize a painful and reluctant entry into the signifying order of language, to enact a kind of self-constitution of the subject even as that subject is incessantly disavowed (“What?…Who?…No!…She!”). Alberto Toscano quotes from a 1937 letter Beckett wrote to Axel Kaun: “Is there any reason why that terrible materiality of the word surface should not be capable of being dissolved, like for example the sound surface, torn by enormous pauses, of Beethoven’s seventh Symphony, so that through whole pages we can perceive nothing but a path of sounds suspended in giddy heights, linking unfathomable abysses of silence?” One way of reading Beckett’s distinctly subtractive art is as a conscious resistance to the “terrible materiality of the word surface”, and there is also something of this resistance in his bilingual practice of self-translation. The Irish writer writes in a French he learned at school so that his retranslated texts (no longer ‘in the original’) become one step removed from the words that constitute them.
Drucker has also grappled with the materiality of the word surface, but does not, on the whole, seem to find it so very terrible. For she values Julia Kristeva’s conception of a semiotics that considers extralinguistic elements in the process of signification and that provides a framework for a speaking subject posed as a positionality within “the relation of elements—speaker, system, ideology, desire, power.” In this consideration of the forces at work beyond the symbolic, Drucker finds “the possibility of subversive intervention through exercise of those forces.” In Manuel Portela’s insightful essay on Drucker’s work, he draws our attention to the recursiveness of her artist’s books, which “draw the reader’s attention to the performance of reading as a particular embodiment of a given codex-typography-narrative dynamic.” Reading Drucker often feels like entering into a ‘strange loop’ wherein the linguistically-constituted subject explores what she can do with words.
Returning to the text of Stochastic Poetics, we can see that Drucker, in the process of her printing-through Aristotle’s Poetics, has staged her “subversive intervention” at the very genesis of literary theory. The quotations from Aristotle, at first reproduced with fidelity and then gradually slipping into delightful corruptions, focus primarily on the issue of mimesis, the imitative function of poetic language. The mimetic is called into question rather playfully, for the quotations themselves constitute a form of the strictest imitation (perhaps in the manner of “Pierre Menard’s” Quixote), and yet the relations introduced to the text on the page—the proximity to other texts, other typefaces, the swerve and dip of the jagged lines—utterly transform the text, even where ‘fidelity to the original’ is most closely observed. This brings us to the question of the supposedly mimetic function of writing, as image of the word, and to the question of the artwork in the rhetoric of representation.
In Jacques Derrida’s reading of Mallarmé’s prose-poem “Mimique”, positioned as a kind of commentary on a passage from Plato’s Philebus in which it has been graphically embedded, Derrida pursues Mallarmé’s Pierrot through the winding passages of the labyrinth of writing and arrives at the idea of a mimetic image that precedes its model, or the “double that doubles no simple[.]” “The Mime mimes reference. He is not an imitator; he mimes imitation.” What does it mean to mime reference? This is the situation that Jacques Rancière refers to as Mallarmé’s “circle of mimesis”—the poem may dismiss all referentiality and representation and yet still retain its mimetic status by tracing the movement of the Idea—which, for Rancière, is what leads Mallarmé to explore the materiality of the book as the site of such movement.
In a recent essay on Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés (A Throw of Dice) conceived as relational diagram, Drucker wonders what the history of modernist poetics might have looked like if it would have followed from Mallarmé’s diagram instead of Pound’s ideogram. For Drucker, this isn’t merely an idle speculation about what might have been, but it poses vital questions for poets and thinkers in the 21st century. For Drucker, Mallarmé is our contemporary, and Un Coup de Dés still provides the major point of reference for visual poetics in the digital era.
For Mallarmé, music and letters share the same ambition, a “mental quest carried out as a discourse, so as to define or to evince, with respect to oneself, proof that the spectacle corresponds to an imaginative comprehension, true, in the hope of mirroring oneself in it.” Music and letters, with respect to the Idea, constitute two sides of the same coin. Call it in the air.
As a way of getting at stochastic poetics from the other side of the coin, let’s listen, for a moment, to the stochastic music of the composer Iannis Xenakis. Xenakis defined his practice as “the effort to materialize movements of thought through sounds” and he used stochastic processes in his compositions to shape plastic aural fields, what he called “sonic events”, out of large aggregations of probabilistic sounds—out of stacked glissandi in Metastaseis or a barrage of pizzicati in Pithoprakta. Nouritza Matossian, writing about Xenakis’ music, reminds us that the “individual sounds are not separately perceptible. Reunite them again and a new sound is formed which may be perceived in its entirety.” Like Alain Badiou’s concept of the pure multiple, developed out of ideas from set theory, the sonic event in Xenakis cannot be resolved into individual notes—for all intents and purposes the individual note does not even properly exist here—and so it is not composed at all, and the sonic quanta have always already joined the Markov chain that carries the event to its unforeseen conclusion. When Xenakis writes about this process he compares it to the music of cicadas, to hailstorms, or to a political demonstration.
Analyzing his own composition, Pithoprakta, Xenakis writes: “I recall the Greek sophism about baldness. How many hairs must one remove from a hairy skull in order to make it bald?” This rather morbid invocation of the old ‘paradox’ of the continuum provides a fitting image for the swarm of plucked strings that Pithoprakta releases. We can play the role of Figarohamlet and contemplate the Death’s head as well as the time it might take to barber it, but the pate-denuding event has already evaded the logic of the count, and has left us bald in its wake. The tortoise pursues Achilles up the down-escalator.
Xenakis’ primary concern lies in the quantity of information in a sonic event, the level of entropy (although his term is ‘ataxy’ or sometimes ‘quantity of intelligence’). This has brought his music to the temple of Tyche in search of the never-before-heard, complex sounds that non-linear probabilistic processes can produce. This also explains his preference for the total serialism of Messiaen over the tone rows of the Vienna school, for the electroacoustic over the electronic, and his decision to keep writing music for the traditional, acoustic instruments of the orchestra even after having mastered the latest in electronic music-making and computer-assisted composition. Impure, organic sounds carry more information and for this reason Xenakis was not drawn to the ‘purity’ that attracted the Cologne school of electronic pioneers. He writes that “one single pure sound emitted at regular intervals of time” would have a mean entropy of zero, and he is quick to point out that this is as true of a dodecaphonic series as it is of an ordinary tune like the Marseillaise. (It would take Karlheinz Stockhausen to revive the revolutionary, entropic spirit of the Marseillaise by having it quacked by ducks in his Hymnen!)
The scores for Xenakis’ works are strikingly visual. He and Le Corbusier famously designed the Philips Pavilion based on forms from the score for Metastaseis. Wasn’t it Goethe who called architecture frozen music? But I wonder, what happens when it melts? Xenakis’ conception of music is material, plastic, spatial, even as his compositional practice is unusually and quite rigorously mathematical, conceptual, algorithmic, dealing with matrices, cells, sets, and vector spaces. In order to connect the conceptual with the material, even visual, content of his music, Xenakis would experiment with a variety of unconventional systems of notation, and one of his most interesting solutions to the problem of notation returns the physical sound event to the space of the book—to a screen of grids in “lexicographical order” (time-based and noncommutative) which carry the traces, the “grains” of their sonic material as markings. Xenakis was convinced that “any sound and its history” can be recorded in this way, given “a sufficiently large number of sheets of paper.” We have circled back to Mallarmé and the conviction that everything in the world, including now the world of sound, exists in order to end up as a book.
Stochastic Poetics has a sister text in Drucker’s Diagrammatic Writing (Onomatopee, 2013) which investigates the capacity of form to produce meaning through extremely recursive linguistic strategies. Drucker collapses form and content by writing “a book that is as close as possible to being entirely about itself.” This procedure is announced in the text’s opening chiasmus: “The semantic system of graphical relations / The graphical expression of semantic relations”. The layout of parts of Diagrammatic Writing may appear graphically conservative compared to the erratic typographic flourishes of Stochastic Poetics, but the former text enacts one of Drucker’s more radical theoretical claims—namely, that the visual form of writing carries semantic value not only in the ‘marked’ text that draws attention to its materiality (e.g. the concrete poem, the advertisement) but also in the ‘unmarked’ and conventional text that seeks transparency. She is basically attempting to make the invisible of reading visible and she succeeds by a linguistic play of mirrors. You see, when I read Diagrammatic Writing I feel as though I am reading myself reading. Observe the movement of your own eyes and the shifting focus of your attention when you read the pages that deal with columns! Drucker borrows from Martin Gardner the idea of the diagram as a drawing that does work and Diagrammatic Writing is a text that continually exposes the semantic and rhetorical workings of its own formal features as it transforms itself from a seemingly traditional text block into a complicated, bifurcating textual system.
But Diagrammatic Writing’s performance of the almost-closed system, almost-entirely about itself, never fully believes in the self-sufficient, self-identical text it performs. It is continually interrupted by doubts, by the not-quite-repressed mutterings of its own sneering footnotes. Drucker’s conviction that “no boundedness can sustain itself” is voiced in Diagrammatic Writing and brought to full flower in the radically unbounded Stochastic Poetics.
I suspect that part of my fascination with the visual features of Stochastic Poetics stems from how closely they resemble certain visual sensations that accompany my ever-more-frequent-these-days migraines. In fact, the first time I ever had a migraine, I was a little schoolboy with a book in hand. The visual aura began to saturate the page I was reading—if I remember correctly, it was in a chapter of American history—at first with a sensation of experiencing the center of my focus as periphery, as if things had become inverted and I could no longer clearly see what was in front of my face. The letter forms became unmoored from the page, drifting out of sequence, borne by little entoptic bubbles and staircases. The text block was an illegible mess. I was very afraid that I had lost the thread forever. That first time, I didn’t know it would pass.
As it happens, I am writing this in a room above a liquor mart. Underneath my writing desk, sad, dispossessed people are lining up to buy booze and lottery tickets. Here in California we have an $8 million ad campaign for the Powerball lottery that carries the imperative to “believe in something bigger.” One of its commercials even pairs this message with images of the fall of the Berlin wall. After the ‘end of history’, after the death of God, what is there left to believe in but the probabilistic motion of the quantum powerball?
(Just a random walk with thee)
“After the three words ‘in the event’ the probability for ‘that’ as the next word is fairly high, and for ‘elephant’ as the next word is very low.”
Shannon and Weaver
IN THE EVENT ELEPHANT
Coming out of a background in cryptography, Claude Shannon would develop many of the principles of information theory through stochastic analysis, employing many of the same techniques of assessing letter frequencies and the probability of letter combinations that are used in decrypting secret codes. “Printed English” was his concept of language as a statistical system with a finite number of possible states (26 letters and the 27th of space), in which word formation follows in accordance with the probabilities of a transition from one state to another. Lydia Liu writes that “despite its name, which can be misleading, Printed English does not have much in common with the mechanical reproduction of the written English word or any visible printed marks we usually associate with the printing press […] [T]he twenty-seven letters of Printed English belong to an altogether different metaphysics than that targeted by Derrida’s critique because the binary opposition of speech and writing does not obtain here.” Drucker’s writings on text in electronic media have often sought to inquire “what is being filtered out of language when it enters the systemic logic of the electronic environment.” In the move from mark to markup what is lost is precisely the specific materiality of writing, which must be sacrificed if writing is to become computable.
The stochastic analysis of language has played a central role in the development of cybernetics. Teaching a machine to write means making it sensitive to what is expected of it. More philosophical discussions of probability (inevitably) enter into some consideration of fate versus free will. Interestingly, for the physicist, it seems the probabilistic nature of matter is generally interpreted as a freedom from the deterministic model of the mechanical universe, but for the information theorist, probability means that our every utterance is in some sense controlled by the statistical structure of language.
Craig Dworkin, the adventurous reader of the illegible, has discussed heavily overprinted texts like Charles Bernstein’s Veil which incorporate noise into their message to disrupt the transparency of vision and the established patterns of reading. He writes that “the materiality of written language […] opens up […] possibilities for formally encoded signification which would generate meaning by radically different protocols.” Johanna Drucker’s stochastic language borrows something from information theory, but it delights in noise in the system and in the stammering materiality of words, returning Printed English to the printing press. Her text vacillates between legibility and illegibility, between form and chaos and strange attractors, in its quest to find out where a poem comes from.
In December, I attended one of Alain Badiou’s public lectures in Los Angeles. The topic was “On the Real”, and the first thing he did was to pass out print-outs of some passages from Pasolini’s poem “The Ashes of Gramsci”. Our pathway through the impossible of language would require poetry. I was very impressed. Despite the many differences in their thought, Badiou and Drucker are both children of Mallarmé. They could be said to share a certain fidelity to the event. For Badiou, the event is always the unprecedented, unpredictable result of chance, the undecidable occasion which reveals some novelty in being, the multiple at the edge of the empty set where nothing takes place but the place. Badiou writes that “poetry is the stellar assumption of that pure undecidable, against a background of nothingness, that is an action of which one can only know whether it has taken place inasmuch as one bets upon its truth.” This is how poetry attains its Axiom of Choice, its continuing relevance to ethics, in its requirement that the subject “decide from the standpoint of the undecidable.”
Despite its flirtations with the illegible, Stochastic Poetics seems still to adhere to Drucker’s belief in “preserving communication as the fundamental function of linguistic texts.” The communicating function of the poetic utterance is its ultimate theme and central question. In her account of the poetry readings at L.A.C.E., Drucker describes poetic language competing with the linguistic street noise of a carnivalesque Hollywood Blvd. How can such language be heard and understood? This question reminds me of Laura Riding’s renunciation of poetry over her serious concerns and doubts about the potential for the communication of truth. “The telling travels round and round the tellers in standstill coils, a bemusement in which tellers and listeners are lost.” Drucker seems to acknowledge this possibility of the telling merely travelling round and round the tellers. The event, after all, is ruled by chance. But there is a note of affirmation in Stochastic Poetics. The poetic telling can sometimes take place. Against all odds.
View Johanna Drucker’s Stochastic Poetics here.
 Drucker, Johanna. The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art. University of Chicago Press, 1994. p.44
 Drucker, Johanna. Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics. Granary Books, 1998. p.57
 Drucker. The Visible Word. p.45
 Drucker. Figuring the Word. p.104
 Quoted in Toscano’s preface to Badiou, Alain. The Century. Polity, 2007.
 Drucker. The Visible Word. p.41 See also Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language and Desire in Language.
 Portela, Manuel “Embodying Bookness: Reading as Material Act” Journal of Artists’ Books 30. 2011. p.7
 Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. trans. Barbara Johnson. University of Chicago Press, 1981 p.206
 see Rancière, Jacques. Mallarmé: The Politics of the Siren. Continuum, 2011.
 Drucker, Johanna. “Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés and the Poem/Book as Diagram” Journal of Philosophy 7(16) 2011. p.1-13.
 Mallarmé, Stéphane. Divagations. trans. Barbara Johnson. Harvard University Press, 2007. p.188
 Xenakis, Iannis. Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Music. Pendragon Press, 1992. p.ix
 Matossian, Nouritza. Xenakis. Taplinger, 1986. p.59
 Liu, Lydia H. The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious. University of Chicago Press, 2010. p.46-59
 Drucker. Figuring the Word. p.218
 As an aside, all of the musical representations of Fate that I am familiar with, from the opening theme of Beethoven’s Fifth to the figure of destiny in Verdi’s La forza del destino to the recurring B-flat material in Stravinsky’s Oedipus, involve an incessantly repeating motif, marked by its redundancy, i.e. its low level of entropy.
 Dworkin, Craig. Reading the Illegible. Northwestern University Press, 2003. p.76
 Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. trans. Oliver Feltham. Continuum, 2005. p.192
 Drucker. Figuring the Word. p.20
 (Riding) Jackson, Laura. The Telling. Athlone Press, 1972. p.11