Diagonal Semantics and the Lacine: On Erica Baum’s Dog Ear

Andrew David King
December 10, 2012
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The first thing I noticed about Eric Baum’s Dog Ear—a series of cropped, close-up photographs of dog-eared pages of unidentified books—was not the texts in the almost-too-sharp images but the texturesof the pages. Each is a synesthesia of surface and color (and even smell, maybe even taste); the abstractness of the book as an object is made impossible to ignore, for here it is in all its idiosyncratic, special (as in species) glory. Typographical imperfections, blemishes, smudges, and shadows: all of these are made apparent. One can even see the specific roughness of the folded-over edge, the paper resisting its deformation, the impossibility of a straight crease. From clinical off-greys to rich, late-afternoon yellows, the pages Baum photographs strike first with their troves of sensory inputs and secondly with the amputated sentences of their texts; at this level of focus, the recognizable approaches foreignness and familiarity in turn, and when it approaches familiarity, it is less a welcome return than an intrusion. These are books from which we want no stories; these are heretic books, faithful to their materials before their means.

A selection of excerpts from Dog Ear

My discussion of Dog Earwould be incomplete, however, if it didn’t take into account the agent behind the dog-earing of pages: the human being. Though they may exist without and beyond humans—thankfully, they do, lest so much writing and the persons behind it disappear—their genesis depends on them, as does their usage. Without readers there are no books in a meaningful sense; there are objects that have not yet entered the realm of the recognized. In order for books to mean, to express the meanings they hold or to hold any meanings at all, they must leave the perfection that the realm of untouched and unseen objects affords and enter the world of hands: hands that bend, hands that tear, hands that mark (and claim), hands that fold pages over to damage and thereby remember them. But this means that the book can never really ever be a book as such, but always an effaced object, always an owned one, one marked with the presence of another. The phenomena of dog-earing is only one proof of this—an incessant fetish with the physicality of the thing itself. Even Baum’s cover acknowledges this: a golden, multi-toned field of aged paper, aged and wrinkled and riveted with lines that demonstrate nothing other than human interference with material form.

Plate XVI, Differently, by Erica Baum

Of course, there’s more in Dog Ear or in any book that just material: something other, something given rise to by the characters printed on the page. This is story or narrative, word or sound—what unfurls in the mind and matches, sometimes, the marks on the paper. But whether or not this quantity or quality is—or if it’s anything, if it’s a mirage—it can still be affected or even governed by the facticity of the book. Baum’s pages showcase a robust junkyard of linguistic and literary scraps, ranging from the sentence and segment of speech to the word, half-word, letter, punctuation mark, unidentifiable remnant. As Kenneth Goldsmith points out in “Wish Me Well and I’ll Love You Still: The Dog Ears of Erica Baum,” his introduction to Dog Ears, some of these make haphazard but beautiful poems, premonitions of what a reader might encounter should his or her eye stray from the dictate of the single line, the up-to-down and left-to-right methodology of English literary digestion (something I’ve written about before with regard to Tom Phillips’s A Humument). Goldsmith cites the poetic form known as the leonine to discuss the mechanics of the apparatus Baum realizes in her pieces (a reference which, John Pluecker points out, was most likely plagiarized from Dick Higgins’s 1987 Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature), a tripartite staging of lines in which the middle line is subject to inclusion in, or communication with, either the line above it or below it; a sort of diagonal semantics takes place, where readers are tempted into disobeying the laws of linear processing. Adjacency begets a multiplicity of readings; the line as such, a technology that moves through time and space arrow-like and directionally, belies the unfixedness of direction. Reading Dog Ear is to partake of radial reading: not the act of doing away with lines, necessarily, but of tracing those invisible lines that might as well be made visible, presenting the possible as coextensive with the actual.

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