Academic journal article Spatial Practices

Just Looking

Academic journal article Spatial Practices

Just Looking

Article excerpt


This chapter concerns "the notion of the poem itself as a place of work that implicitly critiques processes of mimesis or representation, the role of language as material in visual and site-specific work" (quoted from the invitation to contribute). It analyses a series of three juxtapositions of a modernist avant-garde "text" with an historical analogue "text" that seems to work in a similar way. The juxtapositions seek to throw light on the distinction between "reading" and "looking" - a classicallyunequal dyadic pairing which privileges the former term. The "thesis", provocatively expressed, is that there is no such thing as reading, no mental activity which is (almost entirely) distinct from all others - rather, there is "just looking". The distinction between the two is often blurred in avant-garde poetic practice, and such blurring has deep historical roots, reinforcing the impression that it is fundamental. The piece begins with a brief summary of what is now understood to happen "behind the eyes" when we read.

Key names and concepts: Gwyneth Lewis, Merz, Álvaro de Sá, Kurt Schwitters; asemic writing, poemics, visual poetry and poetics.

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

Words, like faces, are recognized immediately or not at all. When we see a line of print, and begin to see what it means, there is no continuous linear scansion of the words by the eye. If there were, we would see a blur, or, at least, a moving image, like the scene we observe when looking out of the window of a moving train. The closer the object seen in those circumstances - the fence next to the track, say, rather than the cooling towers in the distance - the greater the blur of movement appears to be. To remove the blur (perhaps in order to see the name on the station sign as the train slows at the platform), the eye has to lock onto the sign and move with it, making it relatively stable in relation to the gaze. Then we can see what the sign says. The same need for stability rather than mobility obtains when the eye encounters a line of print. If the gaze moved continuously (the line of print being so close to the eye) then we would only see a blur. The current consensus is that in reading the eyes make a series of "saccades" (pronounced say-cards), which are short, rapid movements of both eyes in the same direction. Nothing is seen while these movements are taking place. In between the saccades are "fixations", when the eye is stopped on a point in the line, and only a penumbra of four or five characters on either side of the fixation point is seen with one hundred per cent accuracy. On average, there are four or five fixations per line of print, but the eye also makes broader-sweep regressions, up to about fifteen per cent of the time.1 Arguably, a series of successive acts of recognition of a couple of words by the stationary eye is all there is in reading. Hence, reading is not a separate and distinct mental process - there is "just looking". Of course, there is more to it than that, but we are no more conscious of decoding words when we read than of encoding them when we speak. So reading is looking and looking is reading - we "see" an argument and we "read" a gesture, and the interchangeability of these two terms in many common idioms points to the deep connection between them. This brief discussion is designedly reductive, reducing reading to its absolute conceptual minimum, and that is (I hope to show) a helpful frame of mind in which to consider how we apprehend a series of avant-garde texts and their more ancient analogues.

Panel Games: Alvaro de Sá and a Flemish Altarpiece

The first text is an item of "visual poetry" from the 1970s by the Brazilian Alvaro de Sá (Fig. I).2 It is wordless, but requires "readerly" behaviour. The title is 'Thaloc, No. 21' (1969), and the presence of "panels" and "speech bubbles" of the kind found in comic-strip stories (frequent motifs for de Sá) cues the left-to-right, top-to-bottom linear sequencing which is typical (in western culture) of reading. …

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