Bret Schneider

Notes on Dilation, Radiance


ISSUE 15 | THE ELEMENTS | APR 2012

Valéry described Mallarmé’s poetics as one of “radiant dispersion.” Almost a century later, Jeffrey Weiss adopts this phrase to describe the affect of Robert Ryman’s Philadelphia Prototype: paint presented in an apparently unprecedentedly raw ‘dispersion’, via minute differences in white pigment density that dynamically refracts light into the atmosphere of the room—and into the eye of the viewer—in novel ways; in his history of literary development, Mimesis, Erich Auerbach describes the effect of Montaigne’s iterative essays as “radiating in all directions” due to the multiple perspectives reflected onto and from the same idea / Montaigne ‘mimics’ his own thought process as it comes into being through painstaking reflection on a specific object; Robert Motherwell once described his ‘open’ paintings as a dilation of space; Adorno thought of artworks as radiant insofar as they were the material of ephemeral apparitions, comparing art to fireworks, not so much appearing as promising to appear / appearing not to appear. Is there a connection between radiance and dilation?


Open 130 by Robert Motherwell

Beckett’s exemplary later fictions, or ‘shorts’ as he called them—Lessness, Ill Seen Ill Said, Ping—are comprised of pointed, staccato utterances intensively foregrounded against a broad and amorphous background of history, society, literary form that had dwindled from trace to groundless hypothesis. Individual thought sharpened to a diamond / whittled over time by antithetical social ambiguity, brilliantly foregrounded against this background become hypothetical and problematic / a social order made, unmade, and dissipated, which may crystallize again, maybe not, but for the moment categorically orderless and without contour ... and yet generating highly articulated utterances. The reduction of language to an implacably subjective syntax—a forme toute sienne—as unprecedented formal innovation, a singular thought model that elicits radiance through hermetic iteration / the iteration of traces that never seem to appear until after their death, like radioactive decay, refracting thought from out of itself into an ambiguous world.

Radiance differs from dilation insofar as radiance emanates, once emanated, and was expected to emanate from the singular autonomous artwork that has reduced truck today. Dilation results from the new friction between an artless subject and an artless art. Negative charge polarizes. One gap blinking at another / one preserve blinking at another.

A metaphor for dilation as a mimetic phenomenon can be found in acoustics: when two tones come as close together as possible — mimic each other / approach identity with each other—they create a very discreet ‘difference tone’ as their artifact. This tone is very far away in pitch from either of them, and so the frequency spectrum is expanded, or ‘dilated’. In Beckett the words and syntax only seem to approach one another, but they don’t, not really / they radiate differences that fall far afield.

Syntax in Beckett’s later fiction functions not as language but as an object in the world / a shield or an enclosure sealed off from the natural world in which contemporary subjectivity is often cloaked in / a ‘social hieroglyph’ (Marx). Beckett’s syntax is implacably difficult because it mimics its differentiation from a second natural world whose grip is only apparently pervasive / Beckett’s ‘shorts’ are heroic because they distinguish themselves from the natural world. Beckett once described Joyce’s work as seeming like it shouldn’t even be read / that it wasn’t designed to be reflected upon / it cannot impart meaning so much as point to its impossibility due to language’s hieroglyphic existence in a bureaucratic world that does not yet realize how senseless and internal it is (my interpretation). Adorno, too, spoke of Joyce in this way, invoking the non-communicative aspects of his diction. Communication means bureaucracy / the exploitation of meaning as a social or ideological function.

The existence of ‘literature’ or thought through words resides in its continued crystallization into an object or thing that is not propaganda for ideas. While it seems obvious that writers would look to Beckett for this radiant object-ness, much the way modern painters looked to Cézanne, this realization looks bleak. Why?

Beckett’s subjects could ostensibly be the resurrected dead from Dante’s purgatorial tombs, uttering intonations of their surroundings as a form of transformative chant: “scattered ruins same grey as the sand ash grey true refuge ... Figment light never was but grey air timeless no sound....” J.M Coetzee’s analysis of Lessness—a ‘short’ that appears symmetrical because its lexicon announces its finitude, every word from the first half being iterated in the second with variation—indicates that the text has a rational symmetry but is not mathematical or rationalized.


Robert Ryman’s Philadelphia Prototype

Though it comes from hermetic, autonomous unity, radiance is a matter of outward reflection / a type of construction that rationally mimics its own intuitions and builds a structure of itself that has real substance in the world. It radiates the way glass or diamonds do: though they appear transparent and empty, their contents are dense and articulate prisms of thought.

The dead, ‘skulking’ barbarians of the 20th century in Beckett’s world are given redemption in what Hegel called a “changeless” and eternal idea. Mistakes of the lived world are atoned for when the still living come into friction with the dead who are, by way of tension, radically dislodged from the social positions they were once condemned to. Idiosyncratic syntactical constructions result from solitary confinement and at the same time point the way out of it. Possibility is tickled through tension, time slips away, one becomes absorbed in a newly constructed cosmic situation which is not circumscribed, social conditions are seen to be as fleeting as they truly are, transient and pregnant, because they expand and come into contact with the palpable apparition of a rational world. One senses a dilation, a historical exhalation; each moment is perceived in the image of its possibility. Changelessness as counterposed to futuristic change; changelessness implied by constant flux; futurism and progress begs to be illuminated by an antithetical “changeless round”, as Beckett weirdly called it; a quiescent or dormant sphere of changelessness as an apparition that illuminates progress gone awry; material life shown as damned, by an ideal that exceeds and engulfs it.

The emptying of punctuation in Beckett’s shorts is an attempt to zero the slate of trafficking/directing reading / a necessarily failed attempt to remove the curse of the social hieroglyph.

Dilation is active through a loosening of syntax that also appears as a tightening within the reflective subject / one can’t tell the difference and so one has to read and actively interpret from every available angle to assess this furling, ‘dwindling point of subjectivity‘ / reflection becomes an activity of increased rotation around a decreasing axis. E.g. Robert Ryman’s Philadelphia Prototype Requires a subjective reduction of all available and expanding aesthetic material to white pure and simple, reiterated from panel to panel, in order to develop a new means of painterly reflection for the viewer, who literally sees some aspect of light revealed anew. Robert Motherwell’s art demanded that its paint minimally gravitate towards the edges of the canvas in order to expand the viewing field. The apparent dwindling of what is seen implies activity that can scarcely be conceptualized, much less seen, though there is something real which is sensed and not merely imagined.

Dilation is always the natural expansion of the material in the contorted impressions of its nefarious beholders. Dilation is a better term than radiance—the latter seems too centered around the creative subject, while the former fully reconciles this creativity with its societal antithesis.

Iteration is a key component of radiance or dilation as a cognitive relation to the world: we do not ‘grasp’ ideas / we do not ‘have’ ideas, so much as sense it as something other, impregnable, an alien. Ideas do not exist as coherent unity’s in discreet sentences, but add up or dilate to illuminate an idea too broad to be experienced in our historical moment. The iterated projections have the quality of a light shimmering onto a series of waves—two different phenomena ephemerally united / iteration is a continuous physical effort as in Beckett’s word finitude or Ryman’s repetitive brushstrokes that illuminate an otherwise dark and oppressive stream with occasional glimpses upon it / iteration prolongs the viewing of what is otherwise unseeable.

Beckett’s no-men have no need for grammar because grammar is a bureaucratic function. What people despise in the grammarless experience is freedom of thought / those who despise idiosyncratic syntax can’t imagine the world without its current traffic signals and hieroglyphs of unfreedom, which language as we know it models, and vice versa. This is undoubtedly horrifying, but only from the perspective of the barbaric; what is terrifying to the barbaric implies the paradisiacal to a redeemed humanity on its own horizon.

Erich Auerbach brought attention to the ascetic cadence of Dante’s damned: the solemn, resonant tone of the ‘O‘ that often begins their lament from static tombs. Its affected exhalation is the recurring origin of discourse, suffering as a problem now resolvable through an exposition of repeated utterance. Beckett, too, uses this cadence, but with the pronounced ‘Oh‘, as in, ‘Oh, I don’t say I do this all the time’, or similar dawdling colloquialisms. Statements like these are familiar: the damned are the dawdling, the damned that look back on life not lived, a life not capable of being lived, a distorted and necessarily incomplete form of reflection itself.


Robert Ryman installing the Philadelphia Prototype

Syntactical innovation in Beckett, the slackening of grammar into childlike utterance, is intensively foregrounded against the background of a perceived static and dead social order, the complete “changeless round” (The Unnameable). There is a tension between infantile utterance and linguistic reduction to monosyllabic fairy-tale language on one hand, and a requiem on the other. Beckett’s later fiction takes on the tone of a requiem of birth, a death lament for the origins of a second nature furtively peeking out the bowels of prehistory; non-bureaucratic syntax signals the beginning of linguistic thought. The proliferation of minima of Beckett’s language is highly active and charged, as if it is a metabolism, reminiscent of the light and effervescent brushstrokes in many of Robert Ryman’s (best) canvases. There is something in the child’s utterance and linguistic play that already senses its immanent development, that seems fully conscious of adulthood and at the same time reconciled to babble as a temporary condition—phonemes compound to be burned through, they are negatives of communicative language. The thinking through babble (analogous to the babbling of brushstrokes with the thinking hand) is non-communicative thinking, a manner of exhausting all phonemic arrangements in a way analogous to a bachelor sowing his wild oats before he settles. He knows what lies ahead, and aesthetic play of this kind is necessarily non-finito.

There is something in the Cézannian non-finito—by which Beckett and all abstract painting was captivated—that secretly knows something about the terrible side of progress as it is normally formulated. This is why Benjamin defended the dawdling of the flaneur as a “bulwark against progress,” and why Adorno says that artworks know us better than we know ourselves.

The ‘plus/minus’ paintings by both Mondrian and Philip Guston have a dilating effect on their viewer. The viewer’s eyeballs, as mental feelers and constructors, are required to imagine extreme radiance in all contradicting directions from the nexus of the picture plane, in order to comprehend that empirical plane in front of them. Mimicking what is lucidly implied and not yet existent, the mimesis of an ideal as intimated through material shortcoming. The plane is suspended on a infinite lattice of a highly charged composition that has yet to be rendered material. Only a fraction of it has escaped into the fabric of the viewer’s immediate field.

Concerning the elasticity of dilation: philistines can’t understand that the painful tearing and thinning is like the tedious working of pizza dough, which has a final product. But that they feel violated or ripped in their reflection means that that reflection is somehow implicated in the process / that they can’t see the final product also indicates something radical.

The whittling away of the subject to a point has not only reinforced its atomic structure, but has dilated its extrinsic field proportionally. Something shrinking perceives everything else as expanding, dilating. This effect demands reflection in the viewer or reader. Something slowing into a static syrup perceives the world as highly active. Each is shown to be malleable, controllable, not as out of control as they appear, but held in an almost counteractive and static tension that also seems unendurable or insufferable.


Opus 148 by Robert Motherwell

In the literature of the psychological, interior monologue, readers experience the furling of subjectivity around itself. Reading mimics the furling, through mood, through empathy, and makes of extrinsic conditions something which recedes into an observable distance. The ever expanding chaos of cultural production, without apparent meaning, driveling obsolete statements into the atmosphere, reproducing bygone culture at a frenzied pace, shrinks the reader with its weight, who consequently curls into a tighter and tighter little ball in a petit monadic vestibule. The reader is the rational product of a discontented social order that wants to be changed, and so he or she develops a form of subjectivity that can perceive it, to change it, by bringing it before a more dilated ideal, which that subject is suspended in and penetrated by.

Radiance is a demand grown from the recognition that, hm, thought radiates outward in certain models, and implicates the thoughtless. Radiance is a model of implication.

Tension was constituted and worked as the dissonance between discontented subject and a fixed social order. Auerbach observes the elicited effect in Don Quixote, the arbitrary subject without a place who rubs up against a static social structure, alighting everything he comes in contact with. What happens to tension when comprehension of the social order is jeopardized, when its character seems ambiguous, when its understanding is unquestionably slack? What happens when the Quixotes become reconciled to a bad second nature, and so the illuminating radiance sown from the subject’s curious difference with the world grows dim through complacency?

Tension was the taught antagonism between social order and its marginal subject, its modulator. Dilation is a result of this slackening relationship, of increased misunderstanding between a natural social order and an increasingly marginal subject within that order. Slackening as a form of distancing from something which is undoubtedly flat and homogenous. The unspooling of a string that lays limp at one’s feet implies a tautness from a distance greater than what was once imaginable.

Dilation is always the expansion of material, but not in the natural productive way. In an unfree world the expansion of material and the liberation of form from history, say, in the development of objective stream-of-consciousness, is often perceived as just another yoke because it is not natural or immediate enough. Material expansion and formal innovation continues to advance because it has to, because it has a developmental rationale that necessarily overwrites the subjects for whom it is made, and who rationalize these formal innovations away because it reminds them of their arbitrary and random place in a broader stream of universal events that occurs, not despite them, not in any relation to them.

Suffering arouses bloodthirst. All discontent, ranging from a rational quixotic homelessness, to spleen, to isolated withdrawal, piques the anger of the status quo, the character of which is embodied in American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, who is so disgusted at helplessness that he is moved towards eliminating helplessness altogether, as a dietary necessity. When there is no expressible discontent there is no antagonistic dissonance, decreased tension results, while artworks have become socially profligate, lawfully continuing muted radiance, tension, temporal and spatial expansion, a new form of tenseless tension emerges that may be called dilation, but maybe not.

Discontent, isolation, etc., are construed as self-imposed. But isolation is no more self-imposed than Prometheus realizing the incontestable truth that he is not a god, that he is something different in every atom of his material constitution. It is the recognition of material that has been muted by fire worship and ideology over the epochs.

Just as Györgi Ligeti, the spectral music which soon followed after him, and some ambient or drone music today construct not a lattice of tension but an inchoate atmosphere of it, the literary achievements of Beckett’s later ‘shorts‘ is in its atmosphere of chanting, reiterating, radiating pathos, a pervasive mood that one feels compelled to crawl into but cannot.

No matter how vague, dilation is compelling to a subject who has been browbeaten into believing that nothing is possible, who has been intellectually pigeonholed into defending impossibility with all its smarted and clenched might. The compelling and almost undebatable beauty of a tone that lasts longer than the human who made it, that exceeds it and seems to engulf the world, is critically rationalized as escapist by those who would like to snuff out helplessness but cannot. In the everyday critic’s rationalization that seeks to rob the listener, reader, or viewer of the pleasurable and necessarily hypothetical atmosphere of possibility that exceeds their own arbitrary part is perhaps the most articulate truth about that part’s constrained grip on itself. Rationalized and resigned discontent trying to hold onto itself, like a clenched sphincter, when there is material that drags it elsewhere, like a pet slug.

The static, redeemed afterlife, the ideal, is acutely polarized with everyday unfulfilled reality in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, too. Like Lessness, the film is split into two halves with an irregular and enigmatic symmetry between them. Reality and ideal coexist as counter-images, symmetry that is a problem perhaps irresolvable. In the static dreamworld, Betty finds all her acting and sexual potential fulfilled, potential that is wasted in real life; the history of ‘lived life’ is also the history of wasted potential, after all. We are familiarized with how things ought to be by experiencing the dream first, in Mulholland Drive, so that when Betty wakes up, we are shown the cruel realism of how things really are, which is finally illuminated to be as savage as it was always suspected—instead of spritely and benevolent, Betty’s entire body sags with exhaustion, while her intense pain from social pressure drives her to madness and murderous conniving. Instead of love she has self-mutilation. Without the conscious dilation of experience that extends into the dreamworld, without the antithesis and image of the dreamworld, material life is mute, dark, and emptied of any possible redemption. In the dreamworld there is calculating and fixed social order, a bureaucracy, so to speak, the rationale of which is necessarily concealed, ambiguous, and hypothetical—there are strings being pulled, phone calls being made, events put into action by an unknown and almost mystical order that perhaps constructs Betty’s happiness. It is perhaps ordered around the maintenance of an illusion, or more aptly, the function of a social order around the ideal world for Betty, an ideal image as possibility. In contrast, worlds apart, de-tensed, Betty’s reality is an orderless and irrational stream of events, in which haunting characters drift in and out, and which twitters like an evil machine. Mulholland Drive illuminates the repressed tragedies of the everyday, made possible only by its measurement against a distant and receding ideal.

In contrast to Mulholland Drive, Lessness’ textual polarity is more local. The mirrors which are smaller and smaller are placed closer and closer, collecting and harnessing light from the chaotic outside which knows so little what to do with it. The vast and comprehensive image is reduced to an observable and finite point, and this point, so small and so marginal, seems to open up more because of this smallness, strangely.

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