Real Zippers and Virtual Frames: A Digital Remediation of “Wooden Clouds”
“In the infancy of society,” writes Percy Shelley, “every author is necessarily a poet because language itself is poetry” (Shelley 433). To compose a poem, from this perspective, is to be in contact with the very essence of language, to open up the hood of the language machine and work directly with the intricate gears and pulleys that move inside unseen. However, what is this essence? How does this machine work? Encompassing these questions is the greater one: What is language?
“Language itself is language,” argues Martin Heiddegger, and perhaps he is correct, but perhaps we can also reverse-engineer the machine of language more precisely than this tautology allows (Heidegger 188). In his artist’s book Wooden Clouds, Werner Pfeiffer presents a playful poem that is no less meaningful for its mutability—by examining his “ZiPo,” we can approach fundamental truths about language as a whole. Specifically, through its focus on the slippery, divisible nature of signifiers, Pfeiffer’s book makes tangible the abstract concepts of language proposed by philosophers ranging from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Ferdinand de Saussure. Moreover, by looking at Pfeiffer’s text remediated through digital video, we can observe how language and books function in an increasingly virtualized world.
Primarily, Wooden Clouds is an artist’s book, in that the “book” is not only its medium but also the focus of its art—as opposed to, for example, a novel, in which the story is the focus, its pages serving merely as vehicles to deliver that story. That being said, there is a poetic text within Pfeiffer’s book that deserves to be approached on its own terms. In this way, there is a balance to be struck between examining Pfeiffer’s experiments with the medium of his zipper poem and analyzing the meaning of the poem itself. In general, my focus will be on the ZiPo’s medium, though both approaches are deeply interconnected.
But what is a “ZiPo” anyway? To understand the fundamentals of this unique book, you can read my earlier posts about the ZiPo and watch the following video which serves mainly to contextualize, examine, and reproduce the text:
I will explore the significance of using a video to reproduce the book digitally later on; for now I would like to examine the philosophical significance of the book itself. One way that the ZiPo can be understood philosophically is through the concept of the “language-game” as outlined by Wittgenstein in his book Philosophical Investigations. The concept of the language-game has many related definitions, but could be essentially described as a system in which people interact through symbols and rules. It is a rudimentary form of language. Wittgenstein gives this as one example of a language-game:
The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones … in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’. A calls them out; B brings the stone which he has learned to bring at such and such a call. Conceive this as a complete primitive language.
This exemplary language-game is a system in which a finite number of words can be used for specific purpose: grabbing the right objects. For this reason, it is difficult to imagine the ZiPo, or any poem for that matter, as a language-game; what would be their utility? Wittgenstein, however extends his concept of the language-game to include such actions as “Guessing riddles” and “Making up a story; and reading it” (Wittgenstein 12). In this way, the purpose of a language-game can be abstract; it is the system and pattern of its play that makes it a language-game. Through this lens, the ZiPo as a language-game is simple: The reader has ten panels, each containing at least one word. The reader can unzip and re-zip as many or as few of these panels as the reader desires. The resulting string of panels can be read and shared with others. Language games like this, according to Wittgenstein, can provide insight into the fundamental nature of all language through their refined simplicity. This specific language-game, the ZiPo, gives insight into the fundamental mechanics of poetry; to play the language-game of the ZiPo is to take a given set of words and order them so as to modify their collective appearance, meaning, and sound. Is this not what all poetry is, in a nutshell?
Furthermore, to understand how new juxtapositions of panels can create entirely new meanings in Wooden Clouds, it will be useful to examine the text through the lens of the language philosophy of Ferdinand de Saussure. In his book Course in General Linguistics, Saussure presents a detailed and complex theory of how language functions. Primarily, he discusses the arbitrary relationship between the “signal” and the “signification”—generally, words and what they represent—which together constitute “signs” (Saussure 67). For Saussure, a sign does not only have a meaning, but “above all—a value” (Saussure 114). These values are negative in that they are differential; by choosing a specific word, a decision is made against every other word that could have been chosen (Saussure 118). In this way, Saussure argues that language functions through a system of values, in which signs are not only exchanged for that which they represent, but also for other related words. He writes, “No word has a value that can be identified independently of what else there is in its vicinity” (Saussure 114). The significance of this argument for Wooden Clouds is clear; the meaning of each word in the ZiPo changes drastically when unzipped and re-zipped with new ones. The juxtaposition “tears spill” for example, means something very different from “clouds spill.” Although the individual units in the ZiPo remain unchanged in recombination, their meaning changes drastically because, as Saussure maintains, meaning is defined through difference and exchange.
However, in Wooden Clouds, there are also meaningful relationships within each individual panel, within each individual word. To reveal the smaller units that constitute each word, Pfeiffer has divided them through color and typography into their morphemes, many of which stand alone as complete words. For example, here is the panel which contains at least the word “because”:
On panels like this, how do we know where one word begins or ends? Saussure gives a name to this relationship between adjacent units: “syntagmatic relations” (Saussure 122). In discussing this problem, of where to define the boundaries of a word, he writes, “It is not sufficient to consider merely the relation between the parts of a syntagma, e.g. between… contre (‘over’) and maître (‘master’) in contremaître (‘overseer’). Account must also be taken of the relation between the whole and the parts…” (Saussure 122). In this way, one could look at the “because” panel of the ZiPo and examine the units “be,” “ca” and “use” in relation to each other, but would quickly realize that they have a distinct, more complete meaning as a whole. That being said, Saussure himself admits that “Where syntagmas are concerned, however, one must recognize the fact that there is no clear boundary separating the language, as confirmed by communal usage, from speech, marked by freedom of the individual” (Saussure 123). In other words, despite what others may think, if you prefer to read the “because” panel as the two separate words “be” and “cause,” that choice is ultimately up to you. However, in converting the book to digital video, much of this semiotic flexibility is inevitably reduced.
In John Berger’s first essay from his book Ways of Seeing, he describes the way that the camera narrows meaning in reproduction:
In a painting all its elements are there to be seen simultaneously. The spectator may need time to examine each element of the painting but whenever he reaches a conclusion, the simultaneity of the whole painting is there to reverse or qualify his conclusion. The painting maintains its own authority… A film which reproduces images of a painting leads the spectator, through the painting, to the film-maker’s own conclusions.
The same, of course, could be argued about the reproduction of the syntagmas on each panel of Wooden Clouds. At first, in my video, I show the book in its entirety, making my own reconfigurations but leaving the interpretation of how to read the ZiPo up to the audience. However, in the next segment, I cut between close-up shots of individual sections of each panel, pulling out units such as “loud” from “cloud.” For the “because” panel, I have cropped away everything except for “use.” Without the whole unit in view, as described by Saussure, each “part” is rendered a complete unit in and of itself. In this way, through shooting and editing the book, I have crafted my own text from the one available. As the complexity of the ZiPo is narrowed, potential interpretations are inevitably lost.
In other words, there is an inverse relationship between textual authorship and textual fluidity, so in taking an authorial role within this digital reproduction, I largely solidified in virtuality what is, in reality, a fluid text. Although the way in which the text is adjustable may be demonstrated in the video, the actual ability to make new ZiPos and discover new meanings is not made available to the audience. Because of this, the ZiPo loses its playability, and so it largely ceases to be a Wittgensteinian language-game. At most, it remains a language “Let’s Play.”
Moreover, in his relevant essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” (from which Berger got his inspiration) Walter Benjamin writes: “In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place” (Benjamin 21). As seen in the video, the copy of Wooden Clouds I filmed is held by the Special Collections department of Northwestern University in Deering Library. This copy can only be read by those with access to the library—students, faculty, etc—and only in the Special Collections reading room. In an attempt to mitigate the losses of digital mediation, I began my video with a journey into Deering Library, starting outside in a snowstorm and moving incrementally closer to the reading room, the book’s “particular place.” Although one cannot, for example, smell the reading room, it is my hope that some of the books’ spatial context is preserved. Moreover, by unpacking and reconfiguring the book in a single take, the video conveys the “now” of the work, the quality of its temporal existence. I did make time adjustments to keep this segment “watchable,” but the sense of passing time, even if not felt at a one-to-one ratio, should still be conveyed. It is also worth noting that reason I had to speed up the video is that reconfiguring the ZiPo is surprisingly difficult. The zippers are frustrating; this is another element of the text’s materiality that is hopefully conveyed in the video’s unboxing and reconfiguration segments.
For the video’s second reproduction, in which close-ups are cut together with zipper sound effects, the wider context of the text is diminished—the time it takes to zip between panels for example, is made invisible—but physicality is maintained through image and sound. We still see the panels, and get a sense of the zippers through their distinctive noise. This “zippable” aspect of the book does feel essential to me; it expresses succinctly the fluid nature of words that allows for their infinite reconfiguration. Without the presence of the zippers, this embodied metaphor of the book is lost—at least in this segment of the video, their presence and function is suggested through the manipulation of sound.
In the final reproduction of the video, however, we detach almost entirely from the physicality of the book; a single iteration of the ZiPo is spoken as visualized wooden clouds float across the screen. But what is lost in this departure from Wooden Clouds is, in fact, traded for a new context; music, voice, and visualization lend a virtual “here and now” to the poem, a new texture to its text. The drifting clouds and panels of wood, for example, lend a surrealistic atmosphere to the recitation. The materiality is no longer tangible, but a new aura is constructed in virtuality.
Moreover, there are ways in which the video, in its own way, connects to concepts of language philosophy that the original book did not. The theories of Jacques Derrida, for example, have deep significance for video reproduction. In his book Of Grammatology, Derrida examines closely the nature of language, and argues that the essence of language is not speech, as Saussure maintains, but writing (Derrida 9). As part of his argument, Derrida notes how we use the concept of writing to understand many different forms of communication, such as film. He states, “And thus we say ‘writing’ for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural ‘writing’” (Derrida 9). In other words, the suffix “-graphy” refers to writing, and so these forms of expression are understood conceptually through writing, and not speech. Thus, by reproducing Wooden Clouds through cinematography, the video underlines the essential nature of writing in language as outlined by Derrida.
But why does Derrida claim that writing is more fundamental than speech? The answer to this question is rather complicated, of course, but one element of his argument has intriguing relevance for the language of cinema. Precisely, Derrida argues that a necessary element of writing, and thus language, is difference, because “the phonic element, the term, the plenitude that is called sensible, would not appear as such without the difference or opposition which gives them form” (Derrida 62). According to Derrida, this difference manifests itself primarily in the spacing between words, whether they be written or spoken, creating their meaning; he writes, “This signification is formed only within the hollow of differance: of discontinuity and of discreteness, of the diversion and the reserve of what does not appear” (Derrida 68-69). This concept of differance is literally true for cinema—it is the discontinuity of cinematic images that ultimately allows for their synthesis.
Specifically, film exposure happens through “intermittent movement,” in which individual still images are registered in the camera as separate frames with black spaces in between them (Brown 6). However, when frames captured intermittently are projected to a human observer in order at the same speed they were captured, the black spaces disappear as the brain only registers the exposed images—this process is called “flicker fusion” (Brown 13). Without these spaces in between each exposed image, the film would come out as a blur. You have probably seen something like this before; here is one of a highway:
These long-exposure videos certainly have an aesthetic appeal, but in this representation of a busy highway, the cars have essentially disappeared. More importantly, the constant lines of light appear almost motionless in their incessant motion. Here is an early experiment in cinematography by Étienne-Jules Marey in which exposure is intermittent, but registered on the same frame:
In this image, there is no division between exposures; the photograph is certainly beautiful in its own way, and has preserved much of its subject’s form, but it is entirely immobile. However, when intermittent still frames are projected and juxtaposed through flicker fusion, those still images merge into a steady, continuous moving picture through a neuro-physiological process called the “illusion of apparent motion”(Brown 14). No actual movement happens in cinema; when perceiving a film or video, the human brain “connects the dots and fills in the gaps. It turns still images into moving images. In a real sense, a movie is all in your head” (Brown 15). In this way, cinema functions through the same principles outlined by Derrida as fundamental to the form of writing, and thus essential to all of language. It is the differance found in the spaces between the frames—which are the individual units of cinema—that allow for their successful integration, for them to signify to the unconscious mind that movement has occurred.
Thus, the video reproduction of Wooden Clouds maintains an essential connection to the nature of language that was present in the original text: the panels are made separate units by the divisions of the zippers, words are divided into subunits by spacing and color; meaning is communicated by letters in new combinations. In each of these examples, and in film, signification is constructed through difference.
But, of course, the film we have been discussing is not a film at all; it is a digital video hosted on an external site, linked into this essay through HTML code. What does this additional mediation mean for a textual reproduction? According to philosopher N. Katherine Hayles in her book How We Became Posthuman, the ramifications are profound; Hayles argues that when a text is instantiated in virtuality, it opens up the language for manipulation on a much greater scale. She writes:
The computer restores and heightens the sense of word as image—an image drawn in a medium as fluid and changeable as water. Interacting with electronic images rather than with a materially resistant text, I absorb through my fingers as well as my mind a model of signification in which no simple one-to-one correspondence exists between signifier and signified. I know kinesthetically as well as conceptually that the text can be manipulated in ways that would be impossible if it existed as a material object rather than a visual display.
According to Hayles, words in virtual mediums become “flickering signifiers,” in that they are based in fluid, changeable patterns of information (Hayles 30). The same is true of the images in a digital video; every frame is a unique pattern of coded pixels, easily alterable, glitchy and corruptible. In this way, through its instantiation in virtuality, the video reproduction of Wooden Clouds maintains an element of the original text’s mutability.
Ultimately, Wooden Clouds is a book that defies easy classification or reproduction. Like language as a whole, the ZiPo is an intricate system with many meanings and moving parts. As Werner Pfeiffer writes in the book’s description:
Words and sentences, like mechanical zippers, are chains formed by individual links, letters in this case. As building blocks of our language, they are easily reassembled to create new structures. But they are always the same 26 symbols or ‘links’ which we cobble together. It is a process of continuously re-zipping our existing vocabulary to surprise us with new insights.
For such a complex tool, language is, for the most part, surprisingly easy to use. For such a conceptual book, Wooden Clouds is surprisingly fun to read. If anything, this is the most fundamental connection between the two: they encourage us to play.
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