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

Katia Schneller
Noura Wedell

Robert Morris1

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  • 1 When we solicited Robert Morris for unpublished texts to include in this collection, he very graci (...)

1Isn’t the question usually asked of Bartleby the Scrivener: why he wouldn’t and didn’t? But maybe it’s better to ask why the others around him would and did. Would a shift in the question locate Melville’s conceit? Didn’t Bartleby know what the others did not? Hadn’t he seen through the sham of the working world, of the very idea of participating in the life form of getting along? Hadn’t he seen the entire enterprise of existing as a certain identity in a certain class at a certain time as a sham? These thoughts came to him as he found himself less and less able to keep up with his own social conventions and the expected political reciprocities. And then he had had the dream in which he had sloughed off a thick animal hide from his body. It just dropped away. He recognized it as a thick “elephant skin.” In the dream it seemed to be necessary to rub up against the elephant hides of others. And then it just fell off his body. This elephant skin. More like scales from the eyes, although this was not in the dream. Not so much people as lumps rubbing blindly against one another. It was necessary to have the elephant skin to negotiate the world. Desire was lodged in the gray wrinkled covering and had to be carried around on the body. Why elephant? That it coded the need for memory seems too obvious for a dream. Although in the dream it seemed especially important to remember to have it, the elephant hide over the head blocking vision. Presumably such a heavy hide provided warmth as well as protection. That reassuring animal warmth of living, of knowing one was alive amongst fellow elephant hiders, knowing one was not alone, knowing one understood the rules and expectations, knowing one did not forget and could perform the little jerky motions, those signals and signs of understanding and sympathy, aid and suggestions for improvement, all of which passed for communication between those rubbing hides. It was not so much that the shedding of the elephant skin had made him vulnerable as it had removed him from the species, from belonging to the same kind, to being another of the kind, of the elephant-hided kind, of those who rubbed and waddled along with their eyes hooded by the layer of translucent blubber, of those who involuntarily smiled at the sensed rub of another hide and automatically responded by moving in that little jerky way beneath the thick covering, which expressed nobody knew what but was universally regarded as communication.

New Drug

2The exhibitions in the museums were thickened with stupidity. Either entertaining in obvious ways, infantile six-year-old ways, or else sticky with narcissistic, flesh-crawling indignation. The crowds moved in unison to the voices in their headsets. Like silent moo-cows. Doe-eyed, slack-jawed. They needed something. But what? Had today’s life attained such levels of overload that it had numbed their capacity for affect. Chocolate did not do it any more. Or sex. Or TV reality shows. Or movie explosions. Art was the easy new fun drug. One liner, get it quick, quasi-conceptual, brittle little numbers. Enough to scratch their itch. It did not take much. And the small focus was the limit. The big, old, loud spectacle installations were out in these days of no budgets. Less is more again. Cool. Very cool. Their adjective, as they look askance at one another. What lifestyles those artists lived over there in Brooklyn, and then telling about the times, these hurried, relentless, crushing times.


3They told him he no longer had to worry about skepticism because now we all know so much. And they said this with a straight face. Besides, they told him, nobody bothers about epistemological questions anymore. Not after the “linguistic turn,” after Frege and Wittgenstein, which was already about a century ago. They admonished him to get with it. Now we only have to worry about meaning, or say we do, even if we don’t all that much. And intentionality can be naturalized after all, so they told him. Even though he secretly thought Descartes’ corpse still twitched now and then. No, no, forget it. No more mind-body problem. Mind is supervenient on the brain and consciousness is just a natural emergent higher-order systemic function. Nothing to it really. They kept telling him. Anyway language is not what it has been cranked up to be. Chomsky and his minimalist program? All thought dependent on language? Forget it. You just have to get more down and dirty, they kept telling him. Get a little more biological, down there with perception and action and belief and desire. That’s where it’s at, they said. That’s where language bubbles up. Somehow. They really didn’t say much about the how. But they led him to believe that biological intentionality is where it’s at. They said he worried too much. He even worried about free will in a world of mindless, meaningless particles in fields of force. Well, they laughed, didn’t he remember old Kant saying that your denial of free will could only be intelligible as an exercise of it? But he wasn’t denying it; just worrying about it. Oh, it is so easy they told him. Just reach for quantum indeterminacy racketing around down there in those sub-sub-sub-brain particles. Itsy-bitsy little glitches we can’t at the moment see, but someday… There’s your free will. End of discussion. Lighten up. Get on the sunny side of the street. Dump the moldy dualism. Stop worrying.


4Six men were in black formal attire. But their movements were spastic and frantic and seemed out of control. Some inhibition of the body had short-circuited and the normal repressions were misfiring and outlandish gestures were given free rein. Was this some sort of group Tourette’s syndrome? They did not speak and no sound escaped their lips, yet they seemed to exert considerable effort. Was this some kind of dancing? If so, where was the music? Silence. The harsh, bright light gave their black and white clothes too much contrast and made them hard to look at. Was this perhaps some kind of mime performance? But miming what? Did the tuxedos somehow bring out the thrashing, the falling down, and the undulating bodies writhing on the floor? Each man was doing something different, yet all were moving in a similar jerky, high-energy way. In fact it seemed quite demanding of the body. Perhaps these were athletes in the midst of attending a serious high-award ceremony when the drug (whatever it was) hit them all at once. But no explanation seemed convincing. This combination of solemn stiff dress and out-of-control motion. But was it out of control? Perhaps great skill was required to move so fast and with so many parts of the body. Perhaps intense pain was animating these men and such movement was all that could relieve their distress. But didn’t this happen all the time in slightly different ways? Those solemn high meetings of the powerful in their steely, formal dress. Hardly moving in their secret rooms. And their whispered words and the barely audible strokes of their pens writing in their secure spaces and resulting in far away bodies being animated into sudden, uncontrollable motion. Or anyway parts of bodies.


1 When we solicited Robert Morris for unpublished texts to include in this collection, he very graciously offered these short prose pieces. Despite our prodding, he did not provide any information concerning the dates these texts were written, and the context in which they are inscribed.

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