Taken from a conceptual poetry standpoint, Chris Vitiello’s newest book Obedience, out from Ahsahta press, offers a strongly humanist rejoinder to the institutional dominance of uncreative writing. Conceived of as one long project in statements that ask to be read a variety of ways, Vitiello’s text turns the “conceptual” in conceptual poetry to an explicit interest in philosophy and reason. This turn is apparent in his interest in statements, meaning, and mirroring—all of which suggest a strong engagement with and response to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein’s work explores the possibility of a logically perfect language, one in which a sentence can mean something quite definite. His short treatise works in grinding detail through how such a language could operate, and develops propositionally from one statement to the next. In such a project, the boundaries of language and of logic are coterminous for Wittgenstein, and our position as rational agents is immutably at the center of these realms.
Though Vitiello also develops his project through a strong preference for statements, his conceptual structures side-step the progress/telos-driven developmental notion of logic upheld by Wittgenstein’s rationality. What emerges is a surprisingly luminous study in the limitations of language and logic for apprehending the world. In Obedience, our perceptual field is simultaneously acknowledged and enhanced through Vitiello’s re-calibrated use of statements.
Obedience extends Vitiello’s interest in the relationship between structures of knowledge and language, and how these relations impact our behavior and perceptual being in the world. Where his first book, Nouns Swarm A Verb (XUrban Books, 1999), and even aspects of his second Irresponsibility (Ahsahta, 2008), rather playfully worked through the semblance of understanding/domination over content implicit in list structures—particularly appendices, indexes, alphabetical word counts, etc.—his latest project deepens into a deconstructive analysis of how various language/rationale structures operate internally. This deepened engagement with such structures of knowledge unfolds across the duration of the text rather than through a pointed moment of critique: I found myself having cascading moments of soft insight as Vitiello’s statements washed over me, and it was often through reflecting on various aspects of the text that his overall project became more apparent.
This isn’t to suggest that Obedience is an obtuse text. Because of his previous association with Washington DC, I personally can’t help but see a bit of a DC punk-mentality at work in his antagonism—or at the very least, skepticism—toward the rational structures that shape our social world. We live in a rather declarative age, where statements are motivated by a terrifically provocative efficiency. There’s a punkishly contrarian approach to Vitiello’s statements that refuses directive efficiency. Stylistically, there’s more elegance than aggression at work here: more Ian Svenonius rather than Ian MacKaye.
Obedience is a vast collection of “facts” interspersed with some commands.
Names are what they name
Everything is outside of this
Little white lies are not lies
Reflexes are not decisions
A bud is a thing
Say your name aloud
I write “fact” because from a Wittgensteinian standpoint, a fact is a far more complex construct than we generally apprehend in our workaday world. In his introduction to Tractatus, logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell writes that for Wittgenstein, “in order that a certain sentence should assert a certain fact there must, however the language may be constructed, be something in common between the structure of the sentence and the structure of the fact” (xx). This prerequisite of mirrored resonances between syntactical and reasoning structures sets a higher bar for discerning a “fact” or “truth” than our general usage of such terms allows. But this is within a truly logically-derived language universe. Vitiello’s aims are to deconstruct such coterminous boundaries. For example, the absence of periods to create his statements makes each phrase float with a kind of aphoristic buoyancy. Their various meanings bounce softly against each other rather than build into a pointed duration or linear structure.
From a readerly perspective, such phrases invite a softened attention, and teach me to practice a sort of ambient reading habit along the lines of Tan Lin’s work towards inattentiveness in BlipSoak01 (but without the visual ruptures and jagged visual breaks/interventions that Lin employs). By working within the confines of the statement, Vitiello gently explodes the certainty of their truth-making potential and leads us to indeterminate (though still enclosed) possibilities for deriving meaning.
The contents of Vitiello’s statements also make it clear that the construction of meaning and reading practices are a central interest in Obedience. His statements move between observational comments about the natural world (“Water cannot defy gravity”) to more philosophically/metaphysically charged assertions such as “Limits are an experiential verge.” Many of his statements express a strong interest in semiotics. (The statements below were gathered from throughout the text.)
Your usage of words depletes no resource or supply
Each word is a book
A word is never alone
Language is judgment
And in another section:
Hear these words without saying them
See these words without reading them
ENTIREBEREFT SIGNALOCCUPY CIRCUMVENT
These statements encourage us to acknowledge the system of language we move in, while also drawing our attention to how actual physical practices (our eyes scanning across text, for instance) transform into different cognitive possibilities. These interests are shaped by semiotics and post-structuralist theories in a manner that I found rather elegant. Obedience quite gently reminds us that meaning is relational, contingent, springing always within a system. There’s a beautiful flowering in Vitiello’s approach, but also a structured insistence in this understanding.
Lest it seem I’m overemphasizing the conceptual aspects of Obedience, I want to take a moment to note that Vitiello dedicated Obedience to “THIS.” THIS. This tiny referent in fact opens up into a veritable cosmos of possibilities. “This” stands in for all that is abstracted and close by, yet outside of us. Close, but not us (“You don’t have this”). How utterly fascinating. Vitiello’s dedication invites me to wonder if our “obedience” isn’t simply to the perceptual means by which we attend to all of “this”? “This” possibly being the general meaning-making endeavor of being human? And through Vitiello’s conceptual turn, I find genuine affirmation in “this.” “This simply is”
Vitiello’s inclusion of the occasional command—some of which are impossible to actually obey (“Prove this,” “List the words you cannot recall in the space below this line,” and “Be a noun” being some of my favorites)—draws our attention via juxtaposition to the implicit command at work within the declarative structures of the other statements. Furthermore, the lack of page numbers and the ability to flip the book and read it in both directions also work to draw attention to the way that our reading habits are framed and enforced by material considerations. For a book titled Obedience, these material and visual disruptions are particularly interesting: they gesture at a different sort of reading practice. However, though we are invited to engage with the book differently, our engagements are still determined—or obey—the possibilities licensed by the book’s structure.
For example, there are occasional “buttons” that read “GO ON” overtop a right-facing arrow at various moments in the text. These “buttons” are given their own page, and are therefore a visually arresting feature of the book. When I encounter these pages, I’m pressed onwards. I’m invited to flip through Obedience, but I’m not necessarily invited to page through it backwards. These arrows also support a key standardized aspect of reading—of moving left to right, from front to back. The limits of my perceptual possibilities are therefore made visible to me through Vitiello’s interest in highlighting the structures of engagement in his book. And though the relative “flatness” of his text—one page is never presented as more “meaningful” or valuable than another—suggests an openness or indeterminacy of meaning, what I subtly encounter are in fact limits and boundaries.
Vitiello also draws our attention to the prevalence of dichotomies as conceptual frameworks for understanding. Though this is hardly a new insight thanks to post-structural, gender, and critical race theoreticians, Vitiello makes use of the material aspects of the book in an elegant and provocative way to draw our attention anew to this structure. The book effectually has two covers—a blue one and a pink one, and the text can be read both right side up and upside down if one flips the book over. The text always appears “right side up” recto, with a mirrored, upside down text appearing verso. The way the pages appear, with the left side upside down, and the lines balanced across the gutter makes for a sort of textual Rorschach inkblot or perhaps even a human brain, with each page suggesting a hemisphere. As one moves through the book, it is clear that Vitiello and the Ahsahta designers worked carefully to create a visual symmetry across the gutter of the page. With this presentation, I had to ask myself if Vitiello was presenting a new version of a yin/yang, a visual gambit towards implying some sort of new linguistic harmony in the writing? The yin/yang notion quickly tumbled into other questions—what’s being united or split? From a taoist perspective, is Obedience a call for us to obey the universal principle of encounter, transformation, and balance?
The book’s two “sides” mirror each other not just in their visual presentation, but also their content. The statements on one side are in some way a version or retelling or resonating pronouncement of what appears on the opposite side. I’ve had to “flip” one side of the text to present it here, but please read the // as the gutter of the page.
This takes you // Give yourself over to this
All words are things and are therefore nouns // All words are nouns
Given the differences between the sides, the term “mirroring” only works if we allow ourselves to imagine the dark side of that mirror—a space like Alice’s looking glass. A space for alternatives and transformations rather than re-statements. And what should we take as the bridge-point between these possibilities?
At one point, Vitiello writes that “A fact statement is a seesaw.” The seesaw is an intriguing image to conjure up in a text interested in balance, dichotomies, and meaning. What I felt to be a crucial (read crux) moment of Obedience was when a single “I” appears in the middle of the blue section. The “I” literally stands at the center of these mirrored texts and works as a fulcrum around which Obedience pivots. Furthermore, just under (or above, depending on one’s orientation) this “I” are statements on tautologies: “A tautology cannot be false” and “Tautology contains the only truth.” I read strong echoes between Tractatus’s project and Vitiello’s response: in a logically perfect language, everything is true that can be uttered. Intriguingly, through his poetic attention to language, Vitiello is able draw new emphasis to our location in such structures. Like Wittgenstein, Vitiello seems to assert that our engagement with the world is always perceptually bounded, and that regardless our social, geographic, or even historical locations, we always stand in the center of our cognition: “The proposition is a picture of reality. / The proposition is a model of the reality as we think it is” (Tractatus 4.01, emphasis mine).
However, Vitiello presents the single “I” opposite the statement “Any fraction of 1 is that fraction.” Is the implication here that we are not divisible, or that we are so continuously and thoroughly ourselves throughout ourselves that we are always whole? Or is “I” offered as the counterpoint to this “truth statement,” that the individual “I” is always wholly divisible and fraction-able? Through these “mirrored” statements, such little wormholes of consideration open up throughout this text. In this regard, it is a nearly infinite book, conceptually. Forget Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, Obedience might be the biggest poem ever written.
Contemporary conceptual poetry tends toward strong associations with un-creativity, appropriation, repetition, and the mechanistic potentialities of language. Such projects perhaps open up alternative or even aberrant possibilities for meaning, but are at heart terrifically anti-humanist in their effort to unseat texts from their authors and free production from interpretive engagements. The lightning rods embedded in such projects are always that, regardless of their production, they enter into and circulate within meaning-making communities. In Vitiello’s Obedience, however, I found a surprisingly humanist take on the conceptual turn through his attentiveness to how we read and make sense of texts. Yes, we are at the mercy of potentially rigidified conceptual structures. But isn’t the work of conceptual poetry to draw our attention to this? In Vitiello’s hands, this stance is surprisingly beautiful and lively. Whether one feels that beauty to be an opiate or a liberatory gesture, I’ll leave up to his readers. Regardless, Vitiello’s newest work makes a strong contribution to such conversations, and I’m excited to see what comes next.