Claire Potter takes language and performs upon it its own failings of articulation. She snatches at the root of the trauma and then treats language with its movement. Trauma is not the event as it is happening, but the resistance that occurs when trying to familiarise the experience within a linear reality
Claire Potter, Mental Furniture,Very Small Kitchen, 2014.
Read a sample PDF of the opening pages here.
It follows the mental breakdown of an author-character who writes emphatically about Hollyoaks' bad-guy Brendan Brady, the possibility of punching a pigeon out of the sky, and of a snot-abused image of a rabbit on their bedroom wall. - infiniteeditions.blogspot.com/
Faced with trauma, language’s impoverishment is exposed. Other emotional experiences – love, anger, depression, hunger, or even desire, that infest the body with unfamiliarity, find explication through writing. They begin with a want, so find satiation in language, or at the very least, a sense of control. Faced with trauma, language is depleted into inarticulacy, a muted mess of choked words and insubstantial descriptions. Etymology is useful here: trauma, a physical wound, hurt or defeat, extends from its root, from *trau- to *tere, to turn, twist, pierce or throw. It suggests movement. But language, so dependent upon a stable ground, with rules, directional movement and ends, is unprepared for the sensation of free-fall, of groundlessness, that trauma enacts upon it.
Claire Potter’s Mental Furniture takes language and performs upon it its own failings of articulation. She snatches at the root of the trauma and then treats language with its movement. Trauma is not the event as it is happening, but the resistance that occurs when trying to familiarise the experience within a linear reality. As though a performance of this, the text congeals and chokes, part-wavers and then spills down the page, entire stanzas or explanations ruptured by an urgency to tell. So it makes sense that Mental Furniture was written on a French, non-qwerty typewriter with jamming keys; autonomy gets passed over to a broken machine, one with the appearance of a highly functioning word processor but that, by its own failings, will deliver this resistance between the body and its cognitive decision to articulate. We are not invited to read Mental Furniture, but instead to experience it, uncomfortable: the work is not the book, but its affect. Mental Furniture aims to disrupt the body and temperament, to impregnate familiarity with instability and unease, induce confusion at the very moment remote identification with a character appears. Because the movements are swift and many, grapplings for subjectivity disintegrate, the ground becomes fluid, and we become the puppet hanging over the precipice, suspended.
Or perhaps this is the wrong metaphor. Often there is so much going on, so much repetition, reconsideration, re-wording that you are flailing, not hovering, dragged along a current of incomplete narratives whose cultural references cannot belong to you, as much as they might be familiar. Capitalisations, exclamation marks, spacings expose the immediacy of the text’s construction, that it was written in part, in one go, unedited. Grammar becomes untrustworthy; not decorative, but resistant of traditional use, its rogue interruptions only staggering the forward motion and emphasising the absolute necessity of this deconstruction. The incongruities of form and language expose the performance of writing as a process, afford it a turbulent, emotional consistency only equivalent to the evidence of a trauma. Where memory embodies the same current moment perception does, its recording is an attempt to ground it steady, so it might be judged by another to be true.
To attend to the text is to attend to movement as though taking part in a choreography: a trifold structure, it performs in three parts or fragments. ‘Instigators’ is probably the best way to think of them, three recognisable shapes that appear in the text, that have no known trajectory or footwork, but create connections between thought. The first: a phantom memory, a prototype (?) of an uncertain setting – a description of a mother knelt “before the fire”, before a television set, unmoving, unblinking. A series of memories: the shawl, the face, the plumes of smoke; the mother’s body blocking the heat from circling the room. The second: Brendan Brady, a known character from a British TV drama; a fiction eviscerated, his abused past constructed as a cursive list. None of the confessions offer a conclusion, nor do the three knowing parties – Brendan Brady, the father, the viewer, but Brendan Brady positioned as the object of fear does. The third: A fall to the curb. The collision of two resisting surfaces – skin against body upon concrete and the confusion of limbs.
The three fragments are narrated from different angles, as though different levels of consciousness, or positions of observation. Where they read in sequence at first, stability fractures. The scenes are the memories of an action inherently volatile; they are the product of instability and so disrupt one another, unhinging clear lines of thought with the other’s residual memory. Traumatic repetition performs an almost operational structure of delirium; displacement and dissimulation never recreating memory with clarity, only developing the desire to remember. But why remember? Roland Barthes claimed that before trauma, language was suspended and signification blocked, yet found clarity through images. To render something visually makes it close to material in its proximity to the symbolic. To render something visually gives you something near-physical to destroy. If we are to believe Michel Foucault, subjectivity shares a tri-fold structure; it exists as the balance of three equivalent parts: subjectivity that categorises, distributes and manipulates; subjectivity through which we have come to understand ourselves scientifically, and subjectivity that forms ourselves as meaning. A triangle of substantiation is a precarious shape, dependent upon balance. Faced with trauma, subjectivity is at stake. Mental Furniture extracts one limb, removes ourselves as meaning, and allows the other two to fall naturally. We think we know Brendan Brady, because we are trained to want to identify with something/someone in the text. We think we know Brendan Brady because he is a celebrity, but he is also a character, and an actor, and a person in himself. Brendan Brady is a leading fiction in a late-night TV programme, but he is unknown to those characters in its day-time version. And he is also a character of Claire Potter’s making, or through the eyes of her character as author watching him. Brendan Brady is a fictional body, a vessel ‘put into action’ by a system of belief and over-identification. Brendan Brady does not exist as a symbol of his trauma, he becomes his trauma.
But I want to return to movement, the condition Potter treats language with. Trauma: *trau- to *tere, to twist or throw. To experience Mental Furniture is to be thrown by language. Patterns and recognisable phantom figures do appear as though intentional – dirty rabbit, the mother, water – but their presence is dependent upon a complex chaos of shifting time, and they rely upon this undoing. They punctuate the text like talismans, offering resistance, temporary steadying, recognition even. Then there are sections of fervent articulacy, where anger and fear crystallise and deliver something vicious, something potent. But where does that leave us, the readers? We have no place in this chronology, yet experience its effect and its destruction externalised upon the page. This is not a text without plot, but a text about movement between memories, and about that movement. It has similarities to literary mechanisms used by the Nouveau Romanciers, and especially to Nathalie Sarraute’s ‘tropisms’—“interior movements that precede and prepare words for action at the limits of our consciousness,” into which subjectivity disintegrates. Yet the objective of that technique was always directed towards the character, it did not target the reader. Mental Furniture invites us in and then swiftly removes our grounding; we are on the inside of a trauma that does not nor cannot belong to us. We are below water, our subjectivity dissolved, moving. - Emily Beber
The following Q&A about the book took place by email in October 2014.
VSK: My first experience of Mental Furniture was as a series of pages produced on a typewriter (and of a single section you read for a Maintenant Camarade event at the Arnolfini). How did those original pages come into being and was the idea of a whole book there from the beginning?
CP: The project began as three fragments: a Brendan Brady text, one about hitting the curb and I think the third one was about mother. The project began with thinking about the typewriter in relation to word processing: it’s forward motion and evidencing of mistakes. Writing with that apparatus produced texts that incorporated failures into the body of the work and allowed a kind of story telling ad lib.
If I was unhappy with what I had written, I would just break onto the next line and write it out again, if I misspelled a word I either moved on or rewrote it but I never crossed anything out. I wanted it all in. I was interested in the performance of writing and the text being a document of that. The book was there from the beginning in the sense that I knew there would need to be a fair few for the texts to set their own context.
VSK: We decided early on not to make a facsimile of the typed pages but to produce a manuscript that in some ways translated those pages into Garamond and the sense we had of how the (print on demand) paperback would look.
But in those typed pages the practicalities and stylistic features of the typewriter are deeply connected to the rhythm of your thought, the act of writing, the use of constraints and technology that enable some kind of channelling by and of an author. What do you feel happens in the shift from typed page to this sort of printed book?
CP: All I can say about the typewriter is that it is non-qwerty and prone to jamming (it has finally completely broken down this afternoon actually), which slows everything down and makes the transfer of information jerky and impactive, literally. The typewriter traces the body, the performance of writing, on the page: full of attempts.
Nietzsche used a ball mechanism typewriter towards the end of his life due mainly I think to failing eyesight but he considered there to be a connection between the rhythm of thought and the typewriter, bound together with the aphoristic form. I was interested in using the typewriter as a way of building resistance to, or pressure on the ability and desire to articulate.
As I say, the manuscript was a first draft if you like. The only changes made to the text was in handing it over to you for the production of the book. Generally I wasn’t concerned about the trace of the author, though I was interested in the text being a document of the writing performance. I came to see the standardising for print – the digitising and printing – as an exciting extension of the work in that it was a homogenisation or institutionalisation that could be seen as an attempt to silence the protagonist; another form of resistance (along with apparatus) placed on the ability to articulate.
With the author’s hand removed I could shift the ‘performance’ of the text from being a historical moment, to the performance of reading in the present moment. I consider writing to be a performance in the sense that it is a navigation in and around objects; linguistic, symbolic and ritual objects. Writing is a movement through something. Reading seems to be the mirror image of that, a synthesised performance. By the nature of how we come to be linguistic beings, we have a capability to internalise voices in texts.
In reading fiction there is perhaps a tendency towards unification with the protagonist (or the singularity of information, given to be a speaker) – more so with first person narrative. I hoped that the awkward mess of the text in my book would make that less smooth, and draw attention to the assumption.
VSK: Since finishing the book you’ve made a further translation into the series of sound recordings [the EP Mother to No Swimming Laughing Child, made in collaboration with Bridget Hayden]. They foreground the emotional, visceral difference between a book and a performance.
At least this is what I first think, but actually then I think that I find the book powerful in those ways too. But I guess it is always my personal inflection of it, and my constructing it to a degree in my own rhythm, whereas the sound recording is much more insistent, much more taking control of those things. How do you experience the difference?
CP: Mental Furniture and Mother To No Swimming Laughing Child are different works in my mind, with separate concerns and methodologies – though both are concerned with performance and they share content.
Mother To No Swimming Laughing Child is the product of an afternoon spent with Bridget trying to resist the text, or rather my familiarity with it. I’ve given performance readings from the manuscript so many times that a rhythm emerged and the text felt more and more like a score, generating remembrance of all past soundings. We worked to dislodge that by using redacted text, multiple digital and analogue channels, reverb and delaying effects, recording through the body of a piano even – anything that we could figure in a noise against this safe, recognisably spoken-word poetry vocal style. My familiarity with reading from the text was producing a secondary rhythm, a crappy musicality, where previously there has been a jerky tempo that was punctured and stalling.
The work is something I separate out from the form of the book or the recording. These are two particular end points that demonstrate a research concern: the performance of writing – of articulating; attempting (to speak) and everything that comes with that – mistakes, misspellings, misprouncements.
VSK: Both the book and the sound recordings feel very complete to me. I don’t really experience the typescript as error, mistake, mispro[no?]uncement because of how all these are intrinsic to the affect and message – the affective message? – of the book.
Maybe all these techniques are what in another sort of book would be description and character. It’s interesting to imagine someone picking up the book and complaining about typos and other mistakes because that would be to deny any sense that spelling and grammar are mutable to the rhythms of our bodyminds.
CP: Sometimes it is very useful to conceive of another book and I think here you mean in another discipline. I come at writing from a particular background in contemporary art. I am interested in where art, writing and performance meet and I began this project as I was researching the difficulty of articulating trauma, and how that might be understood in form. Of course it is very true that the reading of the book give you a sense of cohesion as you read generally with the assumption that you are dealing with a final article, that there is meaning behind textual, graphic, linguistic elements that are taken as decisions.
In some sense those elements in the published book are decisions. I wanted us to remain faithful to the typescript when we were making our type and spacing decisions for example. But I can tell you from writing it, the whole book is mistake after mistake after mistake, and in that way the material leads the way. As a cluster of examples, a certain style or sensibility emerges that matches up with the content. The content is then framed by a context. As a reader that’s the bit you have access to. For me the work is elsewhere, is not the book.
I’m not sure that’s interesting even; it’s so obvious to me. I never tried to write a book. I don’t know how you would write a book, or what one is in that sense either. A book, Mental Furniture, is a quantitative thing to my mind. The back cover appears at a certain point. Closure, resolve, etc. weren’t part of my considerations of articulation and trauma due to the nature of trauma. So how do you end the project? I just stopped. I suppose this means that I could carry on at some other point too. We could issue rogue chapters.
But to talk about the book and its relation to the recording with Bridget: in both renderings of the work I was interested in emotion and affect. Mental Furniture as a book does that by activating the material reading process in the body of the reader, and as a recording, Mother To No Swimming Laughing Child is about my voice as produced by my body under particular technical circumstance.
VSK: Can you say some more about the importance of voice for you, of what the voice reveals, of how your speaking voice, the voice of the text, your everyday voice(s)relate to one another?
I remember your reading at the Evergreen event at X Marks the Bökship for its assumption that a voice is an accent, that a text is a chorus of placed, inflected voices. An assumption that is also an assertion when it enters an event and a location where, although all voices are marked and accented, it often seems and feels more singular and standardised.
CP: I’ve come a long way in three years! I used to work a lot with accents. I grew up around lots of fine vocal boundaries in the north west, which had the consequences of total ridicule or suspicion based on where and to whom you were speaking. I can’t say I was fully conscious of why I used accents in writing other than this repetition of difference, except that I thought it was magic that a voice which I could not fully internalise – was not my voice – could be produced textually.
I don’t know what voice is necessarily. It’s not just language that separates it from animals’ noises. But that’s asking what it is to be human. In terms of pragmatics, voice certainly isn’t about linguistic information and it isn’t just about the production of voice, but also how it is received.
For example writing this interview is totally difficult. I don’t know how to balance how I speak with the text. I find essay writing particularly difficult too. I think it’s something to do with statements and accountability. I feel defensive and write flippant things and then edit them out and write them back in. It’s enjoyable to call form into account as effecting content like when an actor looks into the camera. I’m waffling. But I’m going to leave it actually.
VSK: I interrupted. You were talking about how you felt about these different incarnations of Mental Furniture.
CP: No it’s fine, I was basically saying something rubbishy like, they are the same but different. They are iterations. Siblings with the same blood but with different identities – both interested in the production of affect and the demonstration of articulation (the evidencing of the self) but using different methods.
VSK: But is there not a specific experience, place, idea that underpins all these versions, which the book, for example, is a token of, a container, maybe even a mnemonic for?
CP: I guess it is a conception or rather experience of the self as a shifting site. But that isn’t an object or thing or meaning to begin with in order for it to be translated from one system to the next. The project is tied up with the present, or the just-passing moment and the relentless, the forward procession. It’s about moments, performed moments, textually performed moments or aurally performed moments and how that sits with self, what it means in terms of fiction and writing.
VSK: These different versions also connect for me to Brecht’s alienation effect, where the performer is both fulfilling the role and commenting upon it, a doubleness that in theory prevents the actor and audience from being uncritically absorbed in the emotions of an action.
CP: I can’t comment directly on Brecht, but I think this dichotomy of emotional/critical can be misleading in the least and overtly oppressive in its worst activation. It also brings to mind the opposition of meaning and knowledge, the linguistic and the gestural, (writing and performance) and I guess ultimately pathos and logos. All I really care about is making spaces where they mingle and make monsters.
In Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art, Jennifer Doyle makes a necessary case for the benching of an art-historical critical distance when assessing the reach and implications of works, particularly works of performance, that are considered emotionally ‘difficult’ or ‘affecting’.
In a Frieze interview with Erik Morse, Doyle was asked how artists might renegotiate their relationship to what he called ‘the ‘heart’’, to which she cited Audre Lorde’s essay Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, to emphasise the nondivision between love and labour in the art works that her books are concerned with.
Using ‘the ‘heart’’ even in quotation marks is really funny in the context of Doyle’s book. It maintains the division and inferior positioning of something undefinable (and therefore useless) to that which has linguistic power. Naming is powerful because if you name it you can subjugate it and separate it off from other things.
If by ‘the ‘heart’’ Morse was referring to something which is not produced in the analytical mode then that’s not to say that it is abstract and esoteric, something to be grasped and guessed at. Audre Lorde uses ‘the erotic’ to describe the embodied non-analytic mode of knowledge. I’m thinking now of the somatic, the production of bodily knowledge and how Lorde’s concept of the erotic might relate to trauma.
VSK: And character? I also see Mental Furniture as a dramatic monologue, relating to what the narrator of Edna O’Brien’s Night calls “my winding dirging effluvias.”
Both O’Brien’s novel and your own text makes me think about the tangle of illusions and techniques that go into making and reading a text as “spontaneous,” “life like,” and “stream of consciousness.” Once you showed me a series of charts you were using to shape the book manuscript of Mental Furniture. Perhaps as a way to control all this?
CP: I have to laugh at my charts. On the one hand there was performance but I guess with the charts there was choreography too. I was trying to find a tragic form for the book, and much like composition aimed to lull and fracture the reading experience through both form and content, or ‘characters’ like you say: if Brendan Brady is here, then I need something about water here, if mother is here then dirty rabbit is here.
It’s musical in those terms. In Jacques Attali’s Noise: the political economy of music, music is described in relation to freedom, control and marginality. Attali frames music as a mechanism that controls the affect of noise. For example, the structure of a pop song introduces enough dissonance to set the conditions for its restoration to unity. That’s my understanding of it anyway.
Margeurite Duras’ The Lover was one book that showed me how the things I was interested in might be demonstrated in a book form or extended text: the dissolution and multiplication of the self, like waves.
VSK: Joanna Walsh wrote recently about how for Duras The Lover was “the third time she’d tried to trace this particular story on paper.” After an autobiography, a film script and a novel, in her late sixties, Walsh says, “she was still searching, still turning over the same material to see what was, what could be, there.”
I guess this puts on the scale of a lifetime – and an emotional or psychic life – what is involved in that shift from a book to a recording to another book.
CP: Duras is totally brilliant. I think the over identification with a fictional character – an other, a passed self, an ‘I’ – is a powerful thing to explore philosophically and in terms of performance, reading and writing. In Mental Furniture I found this happening in the Brendan Brady situation for the book’s narrator, in the authorial situation for myself and I believe it happens in the reading of the book too.
A hall of mirrors. Endless fun. One thing that scares me however, sort of immobilises me, is that there is an actor that plays Brendan Brady. I think that’s where thing start to become sticky in ways I can’t fully work out yet, where the author-me merges with the book’s narrator, where I imagine the reader might merge with the author.
On the one hand it’s funny because we’re talking about a character from Hollyoaks but on the other hand it’s really dark because all of these characters both exist and don’t exist, and may have actors that play them, and accessing them is ritualistic and therefore well, violent. A grim end note for you there…lol. - verysmallkitchen.com/2014/10/24/new-publication-mental-furniture-by-claire-potter/
Mother To No Swimming Laughing Child (audio)