Sisyphus Shrugged: The Poetics of Work in Eunoia

To begin talking about Christian Bök’s landmark text, Eunoia, I would like to return to a tactic I used primarily in my discussions of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low by looking primarily at the process of the work’s production. What I would like to argue here is that while Cage’s Cunningham mesostics and Mac Low’s Stein Poems were produced by a process characterized by pleasure, chance, and a relative facility, Eunoia requires that its readers pay attention to the labour—the work—of its production. A univocal reverse-lipogramatic text, Eunoia’s chapters each use only one vowel and attempt to exhaust the univocal words available in the English language. Its construction is decidedly more labourious and more difficult than the other texts in my project, and the text makes this fact overt. In the afterword, Bök argues that “[t]he text makes a Sisyphean spectacle of its labour, willfully crippling its language in order to show that, even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought” (Eunoia 103). A few pages later, Bök almost laments: “Eunoia has required seven years of daily perseverance for its consummation” (105). In an interview with Stephen Voyce for Postmodern Culture, Bök expands on this process, which I quote at length to highlight precisely how complex and difficult the process was, especially in Bök’s own eyes:

Writing Eunoia proved to be an arduous task. I read through all three volumes of the Webster’s Third International Unabridged Dictionary, doing so five times in order to extract an extensive lexicon of univocal words, each containing only one of the five vowels. I could have automated this process, but I figured that learning the software to write a program would probably take just as long as the manual labor itself–so I simply got started on the project. I arranged the words into parts of speech (noun, verb, etc.); then I arranged these lists into topical categories (creatures, foodstuff, etc.), so that I could determine what stories the vowels could tell. I then spent six years, working four or five hours every night after work, from about midnight on, piecing together a five-chapter novel, doing so until I exhausted this restricted vocabulary. I thought that the text would be minimally comprehensible, but grammatically correct, and I was surprised to discover many uncanny coincidences that induced intimations of paranoia. I began to feel that language played host to a conspiracy, almost as if these words were destined to be arranged in this manner, lending themselves to no other task, but this one, each vowel revealing an individual personality. (par 87)

By acknowledging that this process could have been automated but was not, Bök demonstrates the role that labour plays in the text, and that this labour is markedly human. If Cage’s and Mac Low’s work (and, of course, Mouré’s) were informed by the digital—were machine texts at their heart—Bök’s is handcrafted, flying in the face of a tradition of sprezzatura that positions poetic construction as born out of sublime inspiration. As Robert David Stacey notes in his article, “Toil and Trouble: On Work in Christian Bök’s Eunoia,” it is precisely this admission of the difficult of the work that has led many critics to dismiss this piece as unpoetic. Stacey writes,

it is Bök’s extraordinary effort, the ‘arduousness’ of his task, that has been the focal point in several attacks on Eunoia which deem it insufficiently poetic (its language neither ‘uncanny’ nor ‘sublime’) and which, more generally, reflect the Oulipian constraint as productive of anything worth reading. (65)

But, as the quotation from Darren Wershler used as the epigraph for the afterword contends, “the tedium is the message” (103).

All of this points to the fact that Cage’s and Mac Low’s works were more fun and easy to produce because they relied much less on authorial intention. While the Oulipian constraints used to limit the diction of the text do severely restrict authorial intention, Eunoia is, as Stacey terms it, a “voluntary” text. That is, it is “a ‘voluntary’ literature, born out of an intentionality that finds its correlate in the inevitable purposiveness (to use a Kantian term) of its form” (Stacey 67). The Oulipian constraints behind Eunoia produce a “defamiliarized language,” to be sure, but one not unlike more traditional verse forms. After all, as Stacey goes on to point out, “[w]hat else is a sonnet or a villanelle, rondeau or sestina but the willed imposition of a set of restrictive rules which skew language from its ordinary usage, which deform it, and, in doing so, extend the domain of the sayable itself” (68). But, as Bök’s decision, like Mouré’s, to maintain the dominant structures of grammar—in Bök’s prose-like lineation this is all the more apparent—attest, expanding the “domain of the sayable” in this case does not directly question the possibilities of expression or communication. Indeed, “at no point does Eunoia reject meaningful communication as a basic condition” (Stacey 69). Instead, Eunoia seems to argue that language is expressive beyond our intentionality; this would seem to be a unanimous concession amongst the poets in my project. In Bök’s own words, “Eunoia suggests that, even under duress, language finds a way to express its own compulsions” (Voyce par 91). But, what does this mean for the reader of the text?

I do not mean to suggest that the labour or work of Eunoia resides entirely with the tireless work of Christian Bök. Rather, much of the work involved in the text takes place on the part of the reader, who trudges through the prose poems and is exhausted by their repetitive nature. For Sean Braune, this work is akin to mathematics, where the reader is meant to decode the meaning of the text to the Nth degree[i]. For Stacey, the text suggests its own “epistemology,” a unique “theory of knowledge” in which “its manner of meaning [is] the key to its subject matter” (67). While I see merit in both of these readings, what I would like to argue instead is that the work of reading Eunoia, laborious as it is, is in its insistence on erasing the work of previous poetry in the mind of the reader. Essentially, the primary goal of Eunoia is, for me, to render obsolete previous and—ostensibly—more traditional forms of writing and making meaning in order to make room for the mathematical and epistemological radical possibilities of its new form. If my reader detects a grain of sarcasm here, he or she is not too far off-base. While I will save my discussions of whether or not this text is actually as radical as it positions itself to be for my next plateau, what I want to do here is look to how the text positions itself as a radical eraser of previous poetry. For evidence of this in the text, one need only to look at the first section, “Chapter A,” on its first page, wherein the second sentence of the prose poem positions Bök as “[a] Dada bard” whose work “mars all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal)” (Eunoia 12). The derisive tone of the parenthetical quip, coupled with the bombast of the repeated “all” set the tone for the text as one that simultaneously owes its existence to poetic tradition[ii] and seeks to destroy it, expressing a kind of anti-art stance that recalls Maciunas and Fluxus and the like. All of this seems reinforced by the review blurb provided by Kenneth Goldsmith and included on the text’s back cover in which Goldsmith proclaims: “Eunoia takes the lipogram and renders it obsolete.”

What is most interesting to me about the way that the text positions itself as radical is that whereas the radical experimental text is typically understood as a cop-out, the refuge for authors who want to write but cannot, Bök presents us with a rethinking of radicalism as labour in and of itself, and difficult labour. For this reason, his remarks in the Voyce interview on innovation are especially telling. He tells Voyce, for example, that “[i]nnovation in art no longer differs from the kind of manufactured obsolescence that has come to justify advertisements for ‘improved’ products,” and that “we have to find a new way to contribute by generating a ‘surprise’” (par 16). Like urban hipsters who produce their own craft beers in their basements, Bök seems to suggest that part of the new labour of radicalism is to reclaim machinic means of production and to redo them oneself (not necessarily by hand though—he’s not an anarcho-primitivist). As he goes on to say, “[t]he future of poetry may no longer reside in the standard lyricism of emotional anecdotes, but in other exploratory procedures, some of which may seem entirely unpoetic, because they work, not by expressing subjective thoughts, but by exploiting unthinking machines, by colonizing unfamiliar lexicons, or by simulating unliterary art forms” (Voyce par 16).

I don’t want to ignore the fact that he uses—unabashedly—the language of capitalism in this quotation, but what I want to focus on instead is that this all boils down to craft. After all, the first line of the text is: “Awkward grammar appalls a craftsman” (Eunoia 12, emph. mine). And, what is praised in a craft is the individual who has become its expert; examples of this praise of the individual are clear throughout Voyce’s interview as well. Throughout, Bök positions his text and its author as radicalism that is designed to make a name for itself. He tells Voyce, for example, “I became convinced late in my undergraduate career that, if I continued writing emotive, lyrical anecdotes, then I was unlikely to make any important, epistemic contributions to the history of poetry” (par 8). This positioning of the historical import of the text is perhaps not new, but what I find most fascinating is that this historical import is, for Bök, predicated on the scientific language of discovery. He tells Voye, for example, that “[t]he idea that a writer might conduct an analytical experiment with literature in order to make unprecedented discoveries about the nature of language itself seems largely foreign to most poets” (par 12), and his most recent work, namely The Xenotext Experiment, attest to his conviction to do just that.

[i] See Braune’s “The Meaning Revealed at the Nth Degree in Christian Bök’s Eunoia” for more information on his mathematical reading of the text.

[ii]For more on Eunoia’s place in cultural and historical context and tradition, see Marjorie Perloff’s “The Oulipo factor: the procedural poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall.” Textual Practice 18.1 (2004): 23-45.

4 thoughts on “Sisyphus Shrugged: The Poetics of Work in Eunoia

  1. A fittingly interesting plateau on a fascinating book. I think your overall argument is sound, but when you write that “what I want to do here is look to how the text positions itself as a radical eraser of previous poetry” I think you are incorrect. Does the text work to erase previous poetry, or does it work to efface certain kinds of poetry? One element that you don’t discuss, and it’s an element that complicates your argument for Eunoia’s effacing of earlier poetry, is its allusiveness: as you note, Bök namecheck’s Dada in its second sentence–but he also immediately approvingly compares the “bard” to Tzara. In fact, there are allusions to the history of literature (and of poetry, specifically) throughout the book (Ubu, Helen, etc.). Moreover, there are those dedications, to Arp, Crevel, Higgins, Ono, Zhu, Perec, and the acknowledgement in “The New Ennui” that the book was directly inspired by Oulipo and that Rimbaud inspired “Voile.” Bök also mentions a long list of friends, all of whom are writers, at the end. So, in that sense, the text is overflowing with literary references that provide a very large poetry community/tradition. Is Bök effacing previous poetry, or is he working to efface one community and supplant it with another (a community that almost always emphasizes the labour or artifice of literary creation)?

    1. Interesting!! And, I think, this probably helps my case rather than hurts it. You’re of course right to point out that Eunoia is a crazily intertextual book. In this way, I think “eraser” is the wrong term. True, Bok is working here to downgrade the relevance placed on certain types of literature. He’s trying to make them obsolete. I weirdly picture the text as working to black out certain names on a list — which is maybe why I get so frustrated with it at times. I would agree that his project is to “to efface one community and supplant it with another” and in a lot of ways he’s succeeded in doing just that. But to me that sounds like a dangerous project, one that ultimately seeks to represent and thus to silence other dissenting voices… which I don’t think helps a postanarchist project.

  2. Your response is reasoned. I wonder, though, if most texts don’t work to efface some voices and affirm others (intentionally or not). Might it be a matter that _Eunoia_ is more open or honest about its intentions along these lines?

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