Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Investigations: The Expanded Field of Writing in the Works of Robert Morris

 | 
Katia Schneller
, 
Noura Wedell

III. Displacing Genres

Addressing Oneself: On TELEGRAM by Robert Morris

Isabelle Alfandary

Texte intégral

  • 1 Denis Briand analyzes Telegram in its installation context, in his essay “Like Laughter in a Field (...)

1TELEGRAM: THE RATIONED YEARS hits the reader like a meteorite.1 The pages of the book, unnumbered, are covered with a continuum of phrases written in capital letters in a typography that remains unchanged from the first to the final page, an interminable succession of paragraphs almost without margins, an undifferentiated mass of black marks on white paper, scantily accentuated by dashes and a few asterisks (Fig. 52). Cast in once piece, the text seems made to be read in one sitting. It is impossible to orient oneself, to circulate in any way other than the linear and oriented will of the author. The reader of this text, following the intimation of its double title, has the right to question the status of these declarative and lapidary utterances. TELEGRAM is a pell-mell of memories, reflections, facts, and judgments. The first person singular is at first deliberately discrete, only to become more insistent. What lies in wait in this war-past revisited by the voice is actualized, liberated as the telegram is inscribed on the page, and the confession is embodied.

52. Robert Morris, Telegram: The Rationed Years (Genève: JRP Ringier, 1998).

52. Robert Morris, Telegram: The Rationed Years (Genève: JRP Ringier, 1998).

Courtesy JRP Ringier, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

2The poetic project, what Philippe Lejeune calls the autobiographical pact, is affixed in a dedication, which consists of a few words, initials and other acronyms presented on the so-called bastard title page:

TELEGRAM
THE RATIONED YEARS
FROM R MORRIS
KC MO NINETEEN FORTIES
TO R MORRIS/ NY NY NINETEEN NINETY-EIGHT

3The text that follows is constructed like a telegram that the subject addresses to himself, an express missive that R MORRIS of Kansas City, Missouri, from the forties, sends to R MORRIS of New York, New York, from 1998. The text is thus not conceived as a gift of oneself, but rather as a gift to oneself, a gift from self to self. In TELEGRAM, a subject literally addresses himself and this address has the form of a given, of a pledged, dedicated present: the entire project takes place in the interval that separates two prepositions, “FROM/TO.” The title of the book thus acquires all its meaning: TELEGRAM is this letter, understood as an alphabet letter, autograph, R MORRIS, as well as epistle, that the subject addresses to himself from a distance, in the difference between self and self, and for which time and, secondarily, distance, are the conditions of possibility. R Morris writes to R Morris from the past of his ten-year old youth, from the 1940s, from those years of war and rationing: what the narrative voice will later call “THE NINETEEN FORTIES—GROWING UP IN IT UNDER IT AGAINST IT.” The telegram is by definition difference, deferment, and alterity, what Jacques Derrida has conceptualized and spelled as “differance:” the very paradigm of the writing process, of any writing process.

  • 2 “Prosopopeia, n,” OED Online, June 2010 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, August 31, 2010), http:/ (...)

4If we pay it close attention, the dedication, which is at the same time a narrative scheme and an enunciative device, turns out to be both impossible as well as accurate. Impossible, the specular address at a distance of nearly sixty years would certainly be so, were it not written under the guise of the enunciative and altogether singular fiction, referred to as prosopopeia, which is “a rhetorical device by which an imaginary, absent, or dead person is represented as speaking or acting:”2 only in this case could the possibility be validated that R MORRIS address himself from the past. Yet it is no less accurate, for the textual apparatus seems to coincide with an undeniable subjective reality: not only does the dedication suggest the existence of a schism at the heart of the subject R MORRIS, it also considers the subject R MORRIS to be an effect of the telegram—its writing, therefore, is in no way a stylistic artifice. Only as the effect of conversation, of communication with self, even at the price of a division, can the advent of the subject R MORRIS, not as himself, but as himself as though another, take place. Identity appearing in the course of the text as a convenient and tenacious fiction. In Memoires: for Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida writes:

  • 3 Jacques Derrida, Mémoires: pour Paul de Man (Paris: Galillée, 1988), trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonath (...)

But we are never ourselves, and between us, identical to us, a “self” is never in itself or identical to itself. This specular reflection never closes on itself; it does not appear before this possibility of mourning, before and outside this structure of allegory and prosopopeia which constitutes in advance all “being-in-us,” “in-me,” between us, or between ourselves. The selbst, the soi-même, the self appears to itself only in this bereaved allegory, in this hallucinatory prosopopeia—and even before the death of the other actually happens, as we say, in “reality.”3

5TELEGRAM is an impending letter that can no longer wait. The urgency is perhaps not what one might think: “IS IT THAT I CAN’T FORGET OR THAT THE OLDEST PART OF ME LIVES ON IN THAT TIME?” TELEGRAM is a letter on involuntary memory, about the dread of the past, whose specter inhabits the text. The text proceeds therefore according to a logic that is inverse to that of the duty of memory: it answers to the need to forget. Paradoxically, Morris’ memory is anxious, full of holes: “BUT CAN MEMORY DELIVER WHAT IT WAS REALLY LIKE? REALLY LIKE WHAT?” TELEGRAM bears witness to a memory of childhood in the sense of what Freud comes to understand on the subject of Leonardo da Vinci, a small autobiographical detail whose incongruity only finds an equal in subjective truth: “AND HOW I TOOK OFFENSE AT SOMETHING JOE DID AND JUST WALKED HOME AND FOR YEARS DIDN’T WANT TO SEE THEM—AND I CAN’T REMEMBER WHAT JOE DID.” The cause of the dispute with Joe is lacking, memory defaults on this point; causality is lost, the chain of reasoning interrupted, only the offense, certain, haunting, remains. TELEGRAM is a return to the self, as it convokes the memory of a becoming: that of a consciousness in the process of developing into itself, a consciousness that returns to the historical and material conditions of its traumatic genesis.

6The penultimate page, printed in the same capitalized typography as the text of the confession, is the one traditionally assigned to the publisher, on which the conditions of the book’s fabrication are specified. Here, the legal note seems diverted in the service of poetic performance:

THIS BOOK WAS COMPLETED ON THE 21ST OF SEPTEMBER 1998. IT WAS TYPESET IN ROTATION AND PRINTED ON Z-OFFSET PAPER BY LETTERPRESS AT LA QUEUE DU TIGRE, ARTAMIS-GENEVA. THE COVER WAS SILK-SCREENED IN MILITARY GREEN. THE VIGNETTE AND FLYLEAVES WERE PRINTED AFTER THE ARTIST’S DESIGN. BINDING BY MAYER ET SOUTTER SA, RENENS. THIS BOOK IS PUBLISHED BY JRP EDITIONS, GENEVA, IN AN EDITION OF FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY COPIES. TWENTY NUMBERED COPIES INCLUDE A SIGNED ORIGINAL BOUND TOGETHER WITH THE BOOK.

7Midway between artist’s book and book by an artist, TELEGRAM: THE RATIONED YEARS deliberately inscribes itself in an interloping space, in a genre which is rendered undecidable, and remains so until the final word of the book: “A SIGNED ORIGINAL DRAWING BOUND TOGETHER WITH THE BOOK.” A graphic collage of new, superimposed ration cards, forms that have never been filled out, food ration stamps, gasoline ration stamps, provides the opening and closure of the book on the inside front and back covers, the only minimal trace of the artist’s physical intervention.

8The subtitle of the work, which comes from the context of rationing during the war years, could be interpreted as a poetic program of invitation into that economy, a prescription of measure. “A ration book” is a book of ration stamps. The reader could, however, also be tempted to hear in THE RATIONED YEARS its Latin etymon: ratio, nis, which signify reason, the rationality inseparable from the experience of privation that participates in the constitution of consciousness as an instance of refusal:

A WORLD WAS THERE MADE UP OF THE ANXIETIES THE PORCHES HUBCAPS SWEATERS BLACKBOARDS FIST FIGHTS ICE ON THE MORNING MILK BOTTLES BICYCLE FALLS GREY GRAINY PHOTOS OF THE NUREMBERG RALLIES THE BROWN AND BLACK HOCKEY SKATES WET DREAMS MR OGG FALLING ASLEEP IN THE MIDST OF FACTORING A QUADRATIC EQUATION LUMPS OF BLACK COAL IN THE SNOW—LIKE THAT—BUT ALSO A VAST HOLE IN ALL OF IT—THE “LIKE THATS” OCCUPIED THE PERIPHERY AROUND A SENSED VOID—THE NAGGING DOUBTS THE CONSTANT ANXIOUS TURNING OVER OF QUESTIONS ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE PATTERN—A SCOTOMA OF UNVOICED SKEPTICISM OCCLUDES THE CENTER FOR THE CHILD PHILOSOPHER—AN IRREPRESSIBLE SUSPICION THAT A PERVASIVE TIDE OF THE ARBITRARY PULSED BENEATH THE GIVEN FORMS—THAT THE APPARENT DENSITIES WERE SUSPECT AND THAT THIS ARBITRARY FORM OF LIFE HAD ACCRETED OUT THERE PRIOR TO ONE’S WILL—THE GRAINY MASS OF “LIKE THATS” DID NOT COHERE IN ANY CONVINCING WAY—NOT THAT THEY PARTOOK OF THE NATURE OF THE DREAM—FORMULATIONS OF COHERENT SKEINS OF SKEPTICISM OR ARGUMENTS FOR REFLEXIVE SOLIPSISM WERE BEYOND THE TEN-YEAR-OLD—WHAT NAGGED WAS THE INTENSE DESIRE FOR A CONVINCING HOLISM—JUST WHAT WAS MISSING IN THE DAILY WASH OF “LIKE THATS”—IT WAS WHEN THE TEACHERS AND PARENTS OPENED THEIR MOUTHS TO SPEAK THAT THE VOID ITSELF BECAME NEARLY VISIBLE THEIR WORDS SURROUNDING IT AND LOFTING OUT THE MADDENING GASEOUS PLATITUDES OF NOTHINGNESS—THEN THE EDGE OF WAR THE COMMON URGENCY AND NOVELTY OF IT THE VIOLENCE OF ITS IMAGES AND THE PUBLIC VOICE WITH WHICH IT SPOKE SWELLED INTO THE ABSENCE AT THE CIVIL CENTER*******

9The experience of excess, manifested by the text’s heavily paratactic syntax, is not the least of the paradoxes encountered in a period of food rationing, but excess barely hides the void from which it issues. The metaphysical inclination of the “CHILD PHILOSOPHER,” as the voice calls him, originates in the derealizing, if not psychoticizing, experience of discourses that literally do not hold up: the void, for R MORRIS, is an experience that is anything but abstract,—TELEGRAM could be read in its entirety as an account of the genesis, not of time, as one might expect from reading its subtitle, but of space—it is the almost hallucinatory vision of the yawning hole from which issue the words of authority, escaping from a void rendered perceptible by its border of words. An intuition, not merely critical, but fully phenomenological, takes place: “AN IRREPRESSIBLE SUSPICION THAT A PERVASIVE TIDE OF THE ARBITRARY PULSED BENEATH THE GIVEN FORMS.” The arbitrary in question here cannot be understood simply as the expression of a social arbitrariness in the form of an injustice done to the child-philosopher. At the origin of forms, at the source of the given, R MORRIS suspects an arbitrariness beyond phenomena, a pulsation of the thing in itself without legitimacy, which he experiences in the ritornello of “LIKE THATS.” Indeed, “THIS ARBITRARY FORM OF LIFE” bears Schopenhauerian traces of incontestable will.

10The utterances that compose the Morris TELEGRAM do not say where they come from, they are catapulted onto the page and taken up as loops detached from the act of enunciation—itself identified with a vision of horror—from which they come. Thus the first phrases in the text: “WE WERE MORAL THEY WERE IMMORAL—FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY AGAINST SLAVERY AND FACISM—THEY SAID GOD WAS ON OUR SIDE—.” What is immediately striking, from the first page of the book, is the place and the status of discourse, of reported speech in the strict sense of the term, of discourse repeated without precaution or distance: the discourse of ideologies, that of Uncle Sam as well as that of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini; appeals to authority on the part of parents, the Church, the school principal, or the burgeoning media: news, local press, magazines. War propaganda is deconstructed in the very form of Morris’ enunciation, by putting reported speech in perspective, aligned paragraphs after paragraph, with punctual analyses of great semiological rigor: “LANGUAGE WOULD WEAVE ITS OWN CURTAIN OF IMAGES AGAINST THE DREAD OF CERTAIN VISUAL ONES—NARRATIVES OF SENSE ARE HELD UP AS SHIELDS—[…] WAR IS ALWAYS A WAR OF WORDS AND IMAGES.” And yet the obscenity of the death-bringing image does not criticize itself, does not turn against itself without difficulty. R MORRIS, narrator, indeed harbors no illusions on the subject. “A FEW TRIED TO TWIST THE IMAGES INTO WHAT THEY CALL ART—HIGH ART FINE ART FIT FOR THE MUSEUM ART—BUT THE HAM-FISTED GUERNICA CAME OUT A JOKE UNINTENTIONAL OF COURSE.” What is unbearable in the image has nothing to do with its realism: “PHOTOGRAPHS AT AUSCHWITZ IN FORTY-FIVE ARRIVED WITHOUR COLOR OR THE STENCH—EVEN SO AT THIRTEEN I DISCOVERED THERE WERE ODORLESS BLACK AND WHITE IMAGES I COULDN’T LOOK AT.” Clearly, obscenity has nothing specifically sensory about it, although puritanical morality has bent over backwards in an attempt to demonstrate just this: the obscene image, it would seem, always already possesses an abstract dimension, the effect of the unbearable that sustains it.

11TELEGRAM points to an intertext that no American reader could miss: I am referring to alternation with narrative focalization of the “camera eye” and “newsreels” as developed by John Dos Passos in USA. USA contains no punctuation and no capitalization. The all-capitals in which TELEGRAM is written proceeds, for that matter, according to a similar logic. Morris’ project is to install the reader in a space without location and without relation, the space of writing, cut off from the world and ruled by its own laws. To do this, with an extreme economy of means, he resorts to two procedures for scansion: the dash and the asterisk. The dash systematically cuts and separates all of the utterances in the text; asterisks arrive like ellipses to fill the emptiness in the last line of a paragraph, supplementing nonexistent marks.

12The distinction between the discourse of ideology and the speech of the subject to come occurs progressively within the stream of consciousness of Morrissian memory. In the flow of discourses, the omnipresence of images, of the mass image, the media image par excellence that is the poster, the epiphany of consciousness takes place, a critical, minimal consciousness flowers in spite of the bludgeoning of which it is the object: “EVERYWHERE POSTERS REMINDING TO SAVE THIS OR THAT SUPPORT OUR BOYS BUY BONDS LOOK OUT FOR SPIES AND DON’T HAVE LOOSE LIPS—HOLLYWOOD DID ITS PART AND EVERYBODY WENT TO THE MOVIES.” As early as the fourth line, the name of an American painter is negatively invoked: “NOT EXACTLY THE WAY NORMAN ROCKWELL PAINTED IT—MAIN STREET QUIET HOUSES ON SHADED STREETS TURKEY THANKSGIVING WITH THE EXTENDED FAMILY.” The reference to the painter ruins the picture by introducing into it the ferment of critique. The metonymic sequence that is released in the process is worth emphasizing: ration tickets have the effect of training the imagination, of unfolding series of images, the support of images. Thus one passes from the stamp to the poster, from the poster to the screen; from the reduced model to the large scale, from the fixed image to the movement-image. The rest of the narration is, for that matter, made of vignettes of news items in the manner of Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, images pursuing the children even on their way to school: “THE CHILDREN TRUDGED TO SCHOOL CARRYING CHURCHILL ROOSEVELT AND STALIN SITTING TOGETHER AS A MONUMENT INSIDE THEIR HEADS WHILE HITLER MUSSOLINI AND TOJO MORPHED INTO GROTESQUE.”

13Images, more than discourses, are in perpetual becoming in the imagination, their more labile material in constant metamorphosis. These haunt the subjects, inhabit their interiors, in the silence of consciousness or in the noise of a group of children on their way to school. The images are not only in their heads, but also wherever they turn their heads: “EVERYBODY SAW THE PICTURES IN LIFE AND READ THE SATURDAY EVENING POST—ELSEWHERE OTHER MAGAZINES BLEW UP IN THE BOWELS OF SHIPS INCINERATING SCORES.” The whirlwind of the image masks the invisible reality that needs no subtitle: “AND THE TRAINS RAN ON TIME IN GERMANY AND ACROSS POLAND.”

14Coincidentally, the advent of the subject occurs precisely through the experience of a lack of sight:

IN THIS BASEMENT ZONE FOR WHICH THE REIGN OF THE TOTALIZING VISUAL HAS BEEN BANISHED I TURNED POROUS TO ABSENCE AND FELT ITS BLIND AGGRESSIVITY SPREADING THROUGH AND ERODING THE SITE OF THE SELF OPENING ME TO ITS FLOW—EMPTIED OF IMAGES I BECAME VAST WITH ABSENCE LOSING THE SELF AND RECOGNIZING IT BECOMING ONE WITH ABSENCE—RESTRAINT AND A SENSE OF LIMITS WERE THEN VALUES

15Morris’ relation to the world is inseparable from an inaugural gesture, his first aesthetic intervention—cutting up a local newspaper: “AT GRACELAND GRADE SCHOOL FROM FORTY ONE ON WE GOT TO KNOW PAPER—THE PROGRESS OF THE WAR A CONSTANT TOPIC TO BE DISCUSSED IN CURRENT EVENTS AND WE CLIPPED THE WAR THE WAR DISPATCHES FROM THE KANSAS CITY STAR.” The experience can be characterized as originary for the artist. Its ambiguity is foundational: “WE GOT TO KNOW PAPER” could be understood figuratively or literally. The paper, that out of which newspapers are made, is an object of fascination, of fixation: “I FOLDED THEM IN MY BIG CHIEF TABLET NEXT TO THE CRAYON DRAWINGS OF THE DIVINE STUKAS PILOTED BY GRINNING AND GOGGLED MANIACS MACHINE GUNNING MURDEROUS BLACK DASHES THROUGH THE LONG DIVISION.” The colored pencils and the color of the lines leave their indelible imprint on the indifference of memory: “THE MEMORY BANK OF UNCHANGING HOUSES THE TWO B YELLOW PENCILS THE RED BIG CHIEF TABLETS WITH BLUE-LINED PAGES MADE WAY FOR IMAGES OF MARINES FLOATING FACE DOWN OFF CORREGIDOR AND EUROPEAN CITIES BLAZING OUT OF CONTROL.”

16TELEGRAM is the account of a sensual education. What R MORRIS designates as “PROPOSITIONAL NARRATIVES,” “THESE NARRATIVES OF FAR AWAY VIOLENCE” blend with experiences of matter and materials: pencils, paper, nylons, condoms. Certain displaced synesthesias are worth noting: all of R Morris’ senses are alert and in turmoil every time he spends a Saturday afternoon at the library on Ninth Street: “A SQUAT BEAUX-ARTS PILE WITH OPEN STACKS LEADED WINDOWS MASSIVE OAK TABLES AND LADY LIBRARIANS WHO SEEMED AS OLD AS THE BUILDING […]—UP THERE IN THE STACKS THE FLOORS WERE THICK GLASS SLABS POLISHED TO TRANSLUCENCY BY DECADES OF SHUFFLING SHOE LEATHER.”

17In the library, the ten-year-old child is struck by its architecture, impressed by its material aspect, even the smell of the books. R MORRIS is constantly on alert,—arrested—in his discovery of the world through his perceptions, which assail him and hold him fast, hobbling this process of the transcendence of matter that is called knowledge. At the local museum, the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, memory is impregnated with the same sensations, this time olfactory: “INSIDE THE VERY FEW VISITORS THE SILENCE OF THE TOMB THE SMELL OF THE POLISHED FLOOR WAX THE GRAY FLOOR WAX THE GRAY-SUITED ZOMBIE GUARDS IN THEIR SIXTIES ALL COMBINED TO PRODUCE THE IMPRESSION THAT ART WAS A SOLEMN AND A DEAD BUSINESS.”

18The narrative voice recalls its excessive sensitivity, its sensorial excitability in the environment: “THE HAPPY PHYSICALITY WAS EVERYWHERE—EVEN GASOLINE SMELLED GOOD—YOU TRIED TO REMAIN UNFOCUSED WITHIN THE IMMEDIACY MOVING ACROSS THE NARROW DIMENSIONS OF TOUCH AND SMELL—‘PAY ATTENTION!’ THEY CONSTANTLY REMINDED—BUT ATTENTION WAS WHAT YOU DIDN’T WANT TO PAY.” The development of the artist is not indifferent to this impossibility of neutralizing the sources of sensorial stimulation: “YOU’VE GOT TO FEEL THE HEFT OF A BOOK SMELL IT MAYBE TEAR OFF THE CORNER OF A PAGE AND TASTE” recommends R Morris’ friend Roger. The book from the local library remains a worldly object, a bundle of stimuli and appetites that could never totally reduce itself, or become fully abstracted from its materiality. The physical sobriety that characterizes the book can be read as a resistance to this impulsive tendency. The typography and the layout, plus the framing effect produced by the narrowness of the margins function to neutralize the material dimension of the book, inhibiting all sensorial becoming of the book-object. It is a matter of circumscribing the creative act only to the process of writing, to the exclusion of any other perceptive process.

19The first act of creation commemorated by R MORRIS is an act of transgressing the law, a forfeit committed on the occasion of a shop class, an act that was repressed by a paradoxical and counter-productive injunction.

THE FIRST ASSIGNMENT WAS TO FASHION THIS PLANK INTO A CUTTING BOARD FOR MOM IN THE SHAPE OF A PIG—INSTRUCTIONS FROM THE WHITE SMUG SMOCKED STOCKY SHOP TEACHER INCLUDED REMINDERS NOT TO WASTE—THERE WAS A WAR GOING ON—ROGER AND I RETIRED TO EXPLORE THE STORAGE ROOM—THERE IN THE QUIET AND THE GLOOM WE PROCEEDED TO FASHION AN OBJECT OF OUR OWN TASTE.—FROM A RACK WE WITHDREW ONE DRAWING BOARD AFTER ANOTHER AND BEGAN TO STACK BOARD ON BOARD—UTILIZING A CAN OF THICKENING SHELLAC AND ITS FOSSILIZED BRUSH WE APPLIED A LAYER OF THE VISCOUS LIQUID BETWEEN EACH LAMINATION STANDING ON A LOW TABLE TO TOP OFF OUR EIGHT-FOOT TALL “ENDLESS COLUMN”—FOR A WHILE STANLEY HOWELL WAS BLAMED AS HE WAS BLAMED FOR EVERYTHING FOR HAVING TRANSFORMED THE TOTALITY OF THE SCHOOL’S DRAWING BOARDS INTO A BRISTLING INDIVISIBLE COLUMN—FOR THIS TERRORISTIC SCULPTURAL ACT THE PRINCIPAL OF THE KUMPF SCHOOL WITHDREW HIS INVITATION TO ANY FURTHER WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON VISITS BY THE GRACELAND GANG—EVENTUALLY WE WERE FOUND OUT—AS PUNISHMENT WE WERE REQUIRED TO STAY AFTER SCHOOL ON FRIDAY AFTERNOONS TO SAND ALL THE PICTURE FRAMES THAT COULD BE FOUND IN THE GRACELAND BASEMENT—

20The punishment being no less manual than the crime, it was doubtless no less jubilant. Here we are given to understand that the poetics of recuperation is an inheritance from the ration years; here it is confirmed that all confessions unfailingly involve an episode that could be classified under the Rousseauist category of the stolen comb, of the crime hidden in vain and ultimately discovered.

21The war years were for R MORRIS the years of an experience of space, of a constitution of space as a form of withdrawal. For example, in this episode, in which R MORRIS describes his surprise at discovering a place of withdrawal well suited to suspension, to the fading of the subject:

WAITING FOR MY FATHER I SAT BENEATH THE BROAD STAIRS OF THE HEAVY OAK CAPTAIN’S CHAIRS—SPACED OUT—ENFOLDED IN THE ATMOSPHERE ONLY VAGUELY AWARE OF THE MEN PASSING THROUGH IN BOOTS AND STETSON AWASH IN MUMBLES OF JOCULAR OBSCENITIES—THESE WERE SPACES WHERE THE ANXIETIES OF IDENTITY WERE ASSUAGED WHERE THE SELF HUNG IN SEMI-TRANSPARENCY PERMEATED BY THE PARTICULAR HUM OF THE PLACE—BETWEEN THE AGES OF EIGHT AND TWELVE I COLLECTED THESE SPACES GAVE MYSELF OVER TO THEM WHENEVER I COULD—[…] THE VOLUMINOUS PARTICULARITIES OF THE PERIPHERAL SURROUNDED ME AND MADE NO DEMANDS AND I FLOATED THERE AS IF IN A TIMELESS ZONE—THE WAR YEARS COINCIDED WITH MY YEARS AS STUDENT OF THOSE SPACES IN WHICH I COULD GO NEARLY COMATOSE.

22At the same time, the war, for Morris, is the opening of the world: “WAR WAS ANOTHER BACKGROUND SPACE THAT SWELLED OUT THE LIMITS OF THE PERIPHERAL” or again: “WAR DELIVERED ANOTHER SPACE—DIFFERENT FROM FAMILY TEDIUM AND THE LOCAL MINI-DRAMAS OF THE INDIANA STREET NEIGHBOURHOOD—DIFFERENT FROM THE GRINDING BOREDOM OF GRACELAND GRADE SCHOOL—A SECOND SPACE—EXOTIC ROMANTIC WORDLY ON THE FACE OF IT—MOVIES FULL OF EXPLOSIONS AND GOODBYES ON STATION PLATFORMS SHROUDED IN STEAM.”

23The world war opens the era of what Marshall McLuhan called the global village: “THE NEW BARBARISM MARCHING THROUGH EUROPE AT THE BEGINNING AT THE FORTIES WAS MARKING THE WORLD WITH DIFFERENT FEATURES AND ITS REVERBERATIONS EVEN CHURNED THE AIR OVER INDIANA STREET.” The war is the power of affect: it informs consciences, displaces sites, exposes the world to itself in every sense of the term. For this little American boy of ten, whom nothing had predisposed to exposure to the vast world, it literally opens horizons, not merely geographical, such as Europe, but imaginary and unexpected spaces; it allows him to experience space as form, an alternative regime of intensity and privation: “AND IN THIS NEW SPACE OF WAR WE BEGAN TO SEE A DIFFERENT PATTERN—HERACLITUS—FLUX—CONFLICT—RISK—DANGER—IT PUT AN EDGE ON US THAT IT WOULD TAKE A LIFETIME TO DULL DOWN.”

  • 4 Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book XI-15, trans. J.G. Pilkington (London: The Folio Society, 1993) (...)

24In the final paragraph of the text, which unfolds across nearly three pages, the narrative voice returns to itself, abandoning the posture of prosopopeia in order to interrogate its very process and to grasp anew the meaning of what preceded it. It is the status of memory that engages and preoccupies Morris: “IS IT THE CHILD WHO REMEMBERS OR SOMETHING OLD THAT STILL EXISTS IN THOSE LOST YEARS?” The question on which TELEGRAM ends is no longer that of memory itself, but of its subject, its origin: who is the subject to whom the past returns? Who speaks when he remembers, “THE CHILD OR SOMETHING OLD?” Knowing who is enunciating what Augustine would call “the present of the past,”4 this past that only has existence in the pure present of the analepsis, is undecidable. The device of initial address returns only to be dismantled. The subject of the enunciation confesses in order to end his dread: “I HOUSE HIM RELUCTANTLY LISTEN TO HIM RETELLING FROM HIS PLACE HIDDEN IN THE SHADOWS—I PITY HIM A LITTLE AND STILL FEEL A DREAD IN HIS PRESENCE—SOOTY AND REEKING OF THE MOST ACRID NOSTALGIA—THIS CREATURE WHO LIVES AMONG THE DEAD—THIS CREATURE OF CONSIDERABLE AGE MADE ENTIRELY OF ANCIENT CHILD.”

25The past is heavy: it has weight, it is a dead weight that the subject cannot dismantle, yet which he must dismantle. The telegram is understood then as a gesture of impossible dispatch that is nevertheless attempted and forcefully maintained. TELEGRAM puts memory to work in writing—the work of mourning. It is through the intervention of the letter—gramma—the difference that it implies—tele—that the subject seeks to free itself from the demon of the memory of a past that will not pass, of a past that is its own, but that no longer is. The device of prosopopeia is completed when it becomes flesh, incarnating itself in a final convulsion: “HIM.” The undecidable gives birth to a being, a being from the past in the present, from the present in the past, which Morris names with this fine oxymoron: “ANCIENT CHILD.” The ancient child inhabits, we might note in passing, the kind of subterranean space in which R MORRIS liked to nestle, in the manner of a deus absconditus. TELEGRAM will have consisted in pulling this in-between creature out of his hiding place, out of his cave: “I’VE PULLED HIM INTO THE PRESENT WHERE HE IS CONFUSED OBSTINATE BLINKING HIS ANGER AT THE LIGHT—HE REMAINS FOR BRIEF MOMENTS BEFORE HE SLIPS BACK TO HIS DARKENED LANDSCAPE—.”

26But the creature, in variance with the Platonic philosopher in the allegory of the cave, cannot forgive his exposure to the light of day and incessantly attempts to return whence he came. The Morrissian ontology which TELEGRAM proposes is an hauntology. The war years were years of development and germination for Morris, a kind of education unbeknownst to him, sensual and formal, in which Morris the subject is constituted secondarily to the event of an unimaginable and death-bringing violence. TELEGRAM is the account of an originary experience, psychic and aesthetic, as much a theater of the confrontation of impulses as the memory of a consciousness in the act of becoming writing.

Notes

1 Denis Briand analyzes Telegram in its installation context, in his essay “Like Laughter in a Field of Ruins: from Telegram to the Eighties” in this volume.

2 “Prosopopeia, n,” OED Online, June 2010 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, August 31, 2010), http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50190528/, consulted on November 2008.

3 Jacques Derrida, Mémoires: pour Paul de Man (Paris: Galillée, 1988), trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, Eduardo Cadava, Memoires: for Paul de Man (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 28.

4 Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book XI-15, trans. J.G. Pilkington (London: The Folio Society, 1993), pp. 218-219.

Table des illustrations

Titre 52. Robert Morris, Telegram: The Rationed Years (Genève: JRP Ringier, 1998).
Légende Courtesy JRP Ringier, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3842/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 229k

Auteur

Professor of American literature, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle.

© ENS Éditions, 2015

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540