Stephanie Taylor: Pork Shank Stew
Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé is most famous as the author of Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (“A roll of the dice will never abolish chance”), a play of puns in space, notoriously difficult to translate. Precursor of everything from Dada to hypertext, Mallarmé wanted to write Le Livre (The Book). This book-of-books was to be a working text object, in the manner of a textual device. Composed of five interchangeable volumes, each volume composed of three groups of eight pages, each page containing eighteen lines of twelve words each, each component—words, lines, pages, groups, and volumes—was to be capable of being recombined, sequentially and spatially, towards a multiplicity of meaning, which in turn would be, if not endless, exhaustive.1 The project was aborted. Contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou regularly relies on Mallarmé as exemplar of his “art-as-event site”; that is to say, each poem by Mallarmé was an aleatory event, “an event to be interpreted on the basis of the traces it leaves behind.”2 Mallarmé, according to Badiou, instantiates the literature of the possible, which is the literature of that which is, but more importantly, that which is being that which is to be and is not to be.3 Emphasis is on the “to be,” in other words, a literature of that which includes the future as presently instantiated, and therefore includes both potential futures of existing and not existing. “To Mallarmé I owe a sharper understanding of what a subjective ontology is, namely an ontology in which eventual excess summons lack, so as to bring forth the Idea.”4 For Badiou, the event is that which produces truth. Truth, tautologically, is that which is true. On another arguable end of the spectrum, Derrida posits the true as also the not-true, where chance meets making, and if there is truth to be had, it lies in the idiom between the two.5 Mallarmé, again, reigns in this rupture.6 In classic cartoon fashion, Stephanie Taylor takes the Derridian wire in one hand, the Badiouian in the other, and gleefully puts them together. The ensuing shock is one not of recognition or even reconciliation, but rather the vertiginous feeling that all that keeps one going is the battery of heart and thought—the silly chains of cognitive and physical reactions that we stubbornly forge into worlds. And so, Taylor proves both Badiou and Derrida true, and not true.
As described in the gallery press release, the exhibition’s title, “Pork Shank Stew,” is Taylor’s “phonetic extrapolation of ‘Marc Jancou,’” if the name of the gallery were pronounced with “a heavy Boston accent.” Thus we are now in Boston, where our story involves a street vendor, “who rises at dawn with his dog, Wiffles, and sells Boston’s traditional street food, pork shank stew.” The stew is sweetened with honey, also sold, and includes Hawaiian poi and fawn; the vendor consumes gin and legumes, a stone fruit “on a good day,” and shad row [sic] “on wedding days only.” The material forms of this story include cast bronze, aluminum, papier-mâché, sketches, prints, and video. Curators and critics frequently set Taylor’s work in the realm of word play as art, or the art of word play. (Though, as will be seen, this is just the beginning of both the art and its reading.) Her process often involves taking found text objects—a song, a story, a poem—and, through a rhyming procedure, creating new text objects—a different story, another kind of song—then generating artifacts (object-objects, what the law would refer to as res ipsa loquitur, “the thing that speaks for itself”) that prove the existence of the new text object. As with the text object, the object-object is also a sound object, i.e., a rhyme (a stray made of papiermâché). While appellations such as “witty” are not inappropriate, to call the work absurd is to miss the sheer rigor that drives each part of the machine. Like Lewis Carroll, there is a whip within Taylor’s whimsy. More, there is that same call and response between logic and literality (“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked; “because they lessen from day to day”) that, like Carroll, proves that nonsense makes the most sense (“Sentence first, verdict afterwards”).7
I can identify at least three areas of aesthetic and philosophic upset in “Pork Shank Stew”: a site-super-specificity that includes time as part of space; a treatment of language as object that includes the chiasmic production of language as object and object as language; and the betrayal of being, noted above, as meaning something that merely “is.” To have the name (appellation) of the gallery serve as the primary call (appeal) to the construction of the exhibit tethers the project in time and space in a way that counterpoints the romance of a spiral jetty set on a salt flat, given that the latter is still semi-solid ground. By comparison, “Pork Shank Stew” is more akin to site-directed mutagenesis, in which a mutation is artificially generated at a defined location in the DNA molecule. Taylor takes a location, the Marc Jancou gallery, which is the potential site or host of many formal recombinations; she defines the site by its linguistic referent, the name of the gallery. Then she dissects and reconstitutes this linguistic referent into another linguistic referent, a meat stew,8 that creates a new site, one entirely dependent on the contingency of the mutation set in motion via sound.9 Badiou writes: “a site is a multiple that happens to behave in the world with regard to itself as with regard to its elements, in such a way as to be the support of being of its own appearance.… [A] site is a singularity, because it convokes its being in the appearing of its own multiple composition. It makes itself, in the world, the being-there of its being. Among other consequences, the site gives itself an intensity of existence.”10 The site is the place where an event occurs: its transcendence—in the sense of something that may go beyond itself—lies paradoxically in its radical immanence—the fact that a truth is thereby exposed. “Pork Shank Stew” is a site, then, but it is a site that betrays the site of the site, because, while it meets all the qualifications for a site, the only transcendence is the prosaic transcendence of those conjoined quadruplets, words and their things, things and their words. It’s an event on its own say-so.
Derrida says communication must be iterable to count, which means readable and repeatable, which means mostly language, which is provisional and has nothing to do with anything but people, that is to say, bodies.11 Badiou says that his philosophy differs from the postmodern kind because they say all that exists is bodies and language, and he says there are bodies and language and truth.12 Taylor says there’s no difference between ’em, i.e. as John Keats writes in Ode on a Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Though you also know that truth and beauty are abstract nouns, and thus, by definition, incapable of phenomenological existence except via representation, and representation itself is understood as a conflation of object (thing) and object referent (word), looping us back to the impossible imperative of being all-knowing, though we try by way of being all-naming. As neatly put by Mary Kelly: “Language is culture, right?”13
Ergo, a gin bottle made of tin, a plum of aluminum, and a shadow made of shad row.14 I.e. the pork shank stew hawker tipples a bit and eats stone fruit, and caviar is always a delicious side dish. And a delicacy to boot. (Like art itself.) Contra and pace Lawrence Weiner, Taylor does not caption the world but worlds her caption, caption being the head of the thing, but also, etymologically, its capture, seizure, arrest. Where Weiner wrote on walls, Taylor writes the wall into being. And once written into being, the wall has both an ontology and phylogeny—it participates in and generates not just Wittgensteinian rules of language, but also rules of narrativity, such as sequence, which is often uniform. In one of Taylor’s many small, brilliant gestures, Pork Shank Stew (2010), a video that plays in almost-but-not-quite slideshow fashion does not, upon closer examination, consist of pure white space plus images, but images against a white space that is scored in a minute grid. Grids are progressive, grids are proof. Grids are narrative.15 Meaning will come to a point, even if the point is just a period. Gertrude Stein said, “Do you always have the same kind of feeling in relation to the sounds as the words come out of you or do you not.”16 This period is the point: Taylor does not use language or objects randomly, but according to the rules that determine their use, including substantively, to name names, to tell tales.17 Why we care more about one appellation (brother) over another (other) is another issue of site-specificity, and mutagenesis. Which is, again, the if-then truth of real being, where fate falls not like dominoes, but like the floor underneath one’s feet.
Which is where Derrida is defeated: there is still this unknowable and known thing, represented most efficiently by Taylor’s sound work. While it must be noted that all Taylor’s work is sound-based, here she goes directly to the source by providing an audio track. The sounds are canny, the vocals high, the words distorted so they bend back into pure sound. The music is some combination of bits and pieces of music that becomes not so much music as musical: it sounds like music. Like the story is like a story. There is also a Stephanie Taylor Songbook,18 which perversely provides the visual pleasure of seeing musical notes played as punctuation and punctum— the duh-duh-duh-duh of anybody’s pulse, the cluster-chords of everybody’s autobiography. For what always reaches its destination is not the letter—the letter, as we have seen, can litter and loiter, and end up altogether elsewhere—but sound.19 Remember that Taylor’s art begins with the word. What words do and art does is allow us to do what Taylor does via the sense of sound: pole-vault over the Real into the Imaginary, or alongside it, trailing our fingertips in the soothing Symbolic. Because the Real here is unreal save by its imaged realization, the Symbolic is nothing but the narrative itch that Taylor peremptorily scratches. The temptation to see the story as nonsense belies the seriousness of fabrication itself: Is it stretching a point to note that storytelling, with object-evidence, is the way wars are often begun, and always end, at least in the way that the story will be told?
Bringing back being. According to that other contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière, the task of the poet is to “write poetry that alludes to the conditions of appearance and language already at work, which remain latent and contain the possibility of another kind of politics and another humanity.”20 According to Badiou, “nothing places a truth but the succession, point by point, of the choices that perpetuate it.”21 According to Mallarmé, “Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre.”22 According to Taylor, citation is representation, point by point. According to Place, this is the point of happy helplessness, where there is no citation without castration, no anxiety without rich influence. (No dog without fog.) Inasmuch as the world exists to end up as art, art exists to end up as a world. When Badiou writes, “Truths exist as exceptions to what there is,”23 I don’t think he knows about Marc Jancou, which could also be said, with a thick Boston accent, “mock can coup.” Coup as in un coup de dés, or as in a little car that can take you very far. For chance, as Marcel Duchamp showed us, comes in cans. Like pork shank stew.24
Vanessa Place is a writer, lawyer, and co-director of Les Figues Press.
- Jacques Polieri, “Le Livre de Mallarmé: A Mise en Scène,” Drama Review, 12.3 (1968): 179–82.↵
- Alain Badiou, Being and Event (New York: Continuum, 2006), 191. Events, according to Badiou, are points at which truth occurs to a subject: truth interrupts or destroys the prior order of things. Events can only be determined retrospectively, and only via four conditions or procedures (art, love, politics, and science). Events are new, or at least named and believed in as such. Bear in mind that subjects don’t make events, events make subjects. Badiou, Infinite Thought (New York: Continuum, 2008). It could be noted that Lady Gaga is in this exact sense our Mallarmé. See Vanessa Place, “Wat is Gaga,” Gaga Stigmata (September 20, 2010), http://gagajournal.blogspot.com/2010/09/wat-is-gaga.html.↵
- Badiou, Logic of Worlds (New York: Continuum, 2009), 548.↵
- For Badiou, multiplicity of being is the primary thesis of art. In his “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art,” Badiou fashions a trajectory from the “production of an infinite subjective series through the finite means of material subtraction” and the “impersonal production of a truth that is addressed to everyone” (theses one and two) to a form of formal self-censorship in service of a “non-imperial” art dedicated to rendering visible “that which for Empire (and so by extension for everyone, though from a different point of view) doesn’t exist” (theses thirteen and fourteen). Badiou, “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art,” Lacanian Ink 23 (New York: Wooster Press, 2004), excerpt available at http:// www.lacan.com/frameXXII7.htm. The trick is thus existence in non-existence. Because for Badiou, truth (like liberation) is not something that exists apart from its procedure. Thus, there is always the not-there in what is there—like liberation, which is largely defined by where it isn’t. Thus, Badiou champions the procedure (making truths) of a universal procedure (truth-making), which would be philosophy. This is to be contrasted with “anti-philosophy,” which concerns itself with either specific (and thus contingent) substantive truths, such as Nietzsche and Lacan, or with the ineffable or intuitive, whether based on a primary substantive mystery, such as St. Paul, or a linguistic predicate, such as Wittgenstein. Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 20–23.↵
- Derrida’s use of “idiom” is very direct here in the sense of idiom as a literal combination of style and substance. Idioms are structures of language and grammar where the whole is never equal to the sum of its parts, and the parts cannot be deduced from the whole. And the whole can only be known within another context of meaning. There is nothing about the constituent parts of “a rolling stone gathers no moss” that suggests productivity, and, conversely, it is not really a statement about flora. So that a painting, for Derrida, is separate yet not-separate from its idiom or mode as painting, as well as its representational idiom—thus “the idiom of truth in painting” refers to (a) truth in itself; (b) “adequate representation”; (c) “picturality;” and (d) knowledge of the subject. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 5–7. “Picturality” retains “that which is proper to an art, the art of the signatory” (6). “The truth is painting is signed Cézanne. It is a saying of Cézanne’s” (2). This is not to say that there is a gap for Derrida between object and idiom, as there is never a gap, though there is often a Venn diagram. In other words, Derrida tacks somewhat close to Badiou in the pinging between material and medium, though Badiou’s truth is ever new, outside knowledge, and Derrida’s is very much in. Thus, although one might argue that the signatory is no longer proper to art, or that much contemporary art has been directed toward undoing the signatory, the Derridian point would be that even the undoing of something is an idiomatic gesture—it has significance only because of the participants’ a priori knowledge of the idiom at hand.↵
- “Or tout le texte de Mallarmé est organisé pour qu’en ses points les plus forts, le sens reste indécidable.” (“All of Mallarmé’s text is organized so that at its strongest points, the meaning remains undecideable.”) Derrida, “Mallarmé,” ed. Robert Leggewie, Tableau de la littérature française, tome 3: De Madame de Staël à Rimbaud (Paris: Editions Gaillimard, 1974), 371; also found in Derrida, “Mallarmé,” Acts of Literature (New York: Routledge, 1992), 114.↵
- Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; the Gryphon appears in Chapter 9, the “sentence first” proclamation by the Red Queen in Chapter 12. Shortly thereafter, Alice states: “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” Which destroys the dreamworld, and wakens Alice from the dream.↵
- There is a nice equivalency as well here in the stews found in a gallery, and those made in a galley.↵
- As misspeaking, as in the Freudian slip, is the classic psychoanalytic tactic for divining the unconscious “truth,” mishearing would reveal the same message on the part of the receiver. This is the gist of Lacan’s seminar on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter, in which Lacan states that the sender of a letter always receives from the receiver “his own message in an inverted form. This is why what the ‘purloined letter,’ nay, the ‘letter en souffrance,’ means is that a letter always arrives at its destination.” Jacques Lacan, trans. Bruce Fink, Écrits (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 30. Like the game of telephone, in which a word is whispered around a circle of friends, Taylor’s work proves sound capable of all sorts of surprising revelations—as well as the pleasures of mutation/perversion.↵
- Badiou, “Logic of the Site,” diacritics 33.3/4 (2003): 141–50.↵
- Derrida, Limited Inc. (Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press, 1995), 6.↵
- Badiou, Logic of Worlds, 3–4.↵
- “Matilde Digmann” talks to Mary Kelly,” NY Arts (January–February 2008). Available online: http://www.nyartsmagazine.com/index.phpItemid=714&id=66807&option=com_content&task=view” (accessed May 11, 2010).↵
- “Shad row” is a pun on “shad roe”: the piece is partially composed of the shadow of the sculpture on the gallery wall. “Row” also conjures up an address, situating the piece as a place, or site.↵
- Though grids are perceived as non-narrative or anti-narrative, as in Rosalind Krauss’s claim that “the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art” (“Grids,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985], 9), which is an argument for pure space over time, grids can’t avoid the narrative fact of their receipt. After all, pages in a book are also grids, which can be read like time tables, and part of the difference in repetition is the narrative that unfolds in the viewer about difference, and repetition, and the folly of the Kantian idea of space as being somehow unhinged from time.↵
- Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” Lectures in America (New York: Random House, 1935), 209.↵
- “The word is the thing.” William Carlos Williams, “The Great American Novel,” Imaginations (New York: New Directions, 1971), 171.↵
- The Stephanie Taylor Songbook is a collection of sheet music and other scores, with an introductory essay by Geoff Tuck (Rio de Janeiro,Brazil: Ood Press, 2010).↵
- Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge,MA: MIT Press, 2006), 98. I am contrasting this, of course, with Lacan’s Purloined Letter seminar previously noted. My disagreement with Lacan has to do with the way that, to paraphrase another of his observations, the ear is the only orifice we cannot close. Jacques Lacan, ed. Jacques-Alain Millar, trans. Alan Sheridan, The Seminars of Jacques Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 195.↵
- Patrick Greaney, “Mallarmé: La Politique de la Sirene,” MLN: Modern Language Notes 113.5 (December 1998), 1191.↵
- Badiou, Logic of Worlds, 401.↵
- “The world exists to end up in a book.” Which is one way of reading the Bible. Mallarmé also put it another way: Le monde est fait pour aboutir a un beau livre. (“The world is made in order to result in a beautiful book.”) Remark made by Mallarmé to Jules Huret, who published it in his Enquête sur l’évolution littéraire (1891). Translated by Frederic Chase St. Aubyn in Stéphane Mallarmé (New York: Twayne Pub., 1969),23.↵
- Badiou, Logic of Worlds, 4.↵
- “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice. “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Chapter 6). As when Duchamp referred to 3 Standard Stoppages as “canned chance” (du hasard en conserve), art submitted to both science and accident. Pierre Cabanne, trans. Ron Padgett, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (New York: Da Capo Press, 1987), 47.↵