Tan Lin

Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking

Wesleyan University Press

reviewed by Jeff T. Johnson

How many books is Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking? And what date shall we affix to it? The cover seems to reference 2004, 2009, 2007 and 1995—though we must decide how to read “11.07 / 22.95” which could reference an archival system or denuded price points just as well (or in an equally unstable manner) as dates. We also might think about how Laura Riding Jackson, who died in 1991, is responsible for the foreword, as the back cover and title page suggest. Later, we might think about how the foreword that finally arrives in the third quarter relates to this particular book (suggestion, via William Carlos Williams’ “The Desert Music”: because it’s there).

More questions arrive. How do we read a book that insists “It should never be necessary to turn a page when reading”? Or: “Reading is the most pleasing of surfaces and no text shall be designed to please”?

An answer: Tan Lin presents a text that not only describes itself, but asserts that all texts operate as it does. A text is a surface, which can be read. Language or images may appear on or near this surface. Images may be read; language may be viewed. Every text is an assembly. Genius is spirit, not originality. We are not what we write, though as Charles Bernstein has observed (in “The Lives of the Toll Takers”), our writing tends to become us:

The things I
write are
not about me
though they
become me

The distinction makes all the difference, just as we understand that the reader affects the text without necessarily changing it. Or, as American Architecture Meta Data Containers, one of Seven Controlled Vocabularies’ books, has it:

As the mathematician Hermann Weyl noted: “A thing is symmetrical if there is something that you can do to it so that after you have finished doing it, it looks the same as it did before.” Reading, unlike writing, should be like that.

And, of course, just because it looks the same doesn’t mean it’s the same. As what?

Yes, we must decide how to read. But we must acknowledge also that we look before we read, and that looking is reading, and that the looking doesn’t stop when the “reading” starts. Reading is a conversation, but it’s also an observation. With whom, and of what? Yes. With whom and of what.

Seven Controlled Vocabularies is self-presentation in that the book presents itself [the books present themselves]. If we want to call the book Tan Lin, we are welcome to do so, but the book will not necessarily participate in that agency [and if it does, should we trust it?]. In any case, the text is a set of instructions for reading the instructions, but it is also a [meta data] container for the instruction sheet.

The surface of the book is powder blue, and textured [texted]. Inside: more surface, more texture. However, the book is not only an object. An object is not an argument, though in a Shandian (or Harpo Marxist) sense, it can be argued—an object may be employed as language gesture, to wave it around. Just so, the description of a thing is a thing, but not the same thing. Same goes for history and event. This is a now-old argument about truth, which can only be re-presented. Or, as Laura (Riding) Jackson offers, in the interpolated forward:

What is proclaimed to be truth is only what is proclaimed to be truth. Words rightly spoken are true, but not because of a purpose to speak truth, only because of a purpose to speak rightly.

Now that we can publish ourselves in an instant, and at least pretend to disappear in another instant, we needn’t fret over the “truth”-iness of truth. Why lament when we can explore? Let’s put a fine point on it: We have many chances to say what we mean, and there is no face value to any assertion [though there is endless surface to exploit]. The limitless world of limits makes no statement (or work) definitive.

Perhaps we need, if not a new way of reading, a new understanding of reading (and writing). Any conclusion that we read less than we did in a previous era is contingent upon outmoded notions of literacy. Tan Lin’s achievement, in Seven Controlled Vocabularies, is to present surface-as-surface, and inscribe argument(s) within it. That is: within the surface. Like Lisa Robertson (see Debbie: An Epic) and Severo Sarduy (see Cobra), he insists that surface has depth, and that depth is a surface. The cover is the book; the font is the text. We read into as we read upon.

The argument that such writing is not meant to be read, or means only to mock close reading, is disingenuous, and misses a point that has not been made. Reading is never passive, even when what is read is a list of instructions. The mind is too free to merely follow; the mind leads. A text, then, may represent a mind, but it is not the mind, which must be applied to make the text function.

Refrain: Seven Controlled Vocabularies is a set of instructions (side b, page 20) for reading it. “Poems to be looked at vs. poems to be read vs. paintings to be sequenced vs. paintings to be sampled” does work. It is schematic and argument and formy form. It means what it says and shows what it means, sort of. It needs the reader. It is breezy and hyper-articulate. It says: fuck off and fuck it and yes.

The first plate (page 15) is not plate 1 (page 17). The former stands in for “Laura Riding” (not anymore/yet Jackson, or Laura Riding Jackson). It stands also for “Anarchism Is Not Enough,” which The University of California Press website calls “a manifesto against systematic thinking, a difficult book.” Back in the book ‘by’ Tan Lin, the only other thing on the page besides the above is a “15.” Two pages later, “plate 1” carries only [also] a “17.” Nor does one page know the other, sitting as it does in a different spread. (first plate has its own; plate 1 shares a spread with a section that poses [as] a hypothesis, a rhetorical construct: “What are the forms of non-reading and what are the non-forms a reading might take? Poetry = wallpaper. Novel = design object.”)

Elsewhere, we are treated to shifting address and semi-aware text. “It is now spring or it is now autumn when you read this.” How does this make 'you' 'feel'? Here is, as Bruno Schulz has it, “a spring that took its text seriously.” It gets to you, wherever you are.

Back to this book, which says, “How to incite the idea of reading without reading?” Indeed.

Tan Lin, page 84

Form can be read. 84/☆☆#@- sits at the left foot of page 84 (aka mold / /☆☆#@+). Excess in the footer answers lack at the end of the body—the final sentence that does not conclude with a period. This page is also the entire book, and the Book in which the book appears. Furthermore, we can read the subtitle (/☆☆#@+) in relation to the footer (84/☆☆#@- ). Both clumps of punctuation are mold (or Mold, as page 84 usually has it)—so the subtitle re-presents and enacts the title, and the footer mold grows on the automatically-generated page number. The subtitle (or title mold) informs a reading of the penultimate character of the footer mold: the + makes the - a minus, rather than, say, a hyphen. The final character of the footer mold commits an inversion that is also a loop: It is a footnote in the bottom-most quadrant, a descent from the typographic underworld that scrolls through the (empty) core, passes the title, and recalls (recaptures) the subtitle. The minus, or negative, is an imbalance, especially weighted as it is with the false positive of the asterisk, which returns (us) to the plus side. Mold to mold. An unstable system approximates perpetual motion—as much as entropy will allow—where imbalance falls and rises on its own momentum.

The most persistent mode of the book is paradox, if not irony, as the text continually does the opposite of what it says [it does]. “One should never know one is reading a book when one is reading it” appears to pick an argument with Charles Bernstein (“Artifice of Absorption”), except that we can’t forget we’re in a book, or some other device. We certainly aren’t transported in story, except for brief passages that seem illustrative (or gnomic—we expect gnomes are more straight-faced than cloying). Perhaps, though, the operative word is “reading”—it’s even repeated, so we can look it off. We read without knowing we read; again, this is a general condition to which Seven Controlled Vocabularies alerts us.

By page 130, the stock thickens: Tan Lin [we might also say “the text”] compares the names of sports complexes—which append and shed names of corporations—to books, returning to a notion contained in a header on page 78: BOOKS That Function As BUILDINGS. He [/it] says (on page 130) that stadiums, or the names of stadiums denuded from their economic sponsors, are “outmoded pictorial concepts”: Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, &c. “In this way they resemble the book, which is the exemplary product of an age when information was proprietary, hygienic, and stable.” For all of his formal elision and rhetoric as rhetoric, Tan Lin has an argument. [Here we succumb to assumptions about agency and allow ourselves to project a Tan Lin (who writes for us).] “A book should be the weakest information pattern that is visible to the eye.” One might say he’s out to destroy the book. Or this is a reviving elegy [just as we have revived the speaker on page 9, the ‘beginning’ of the book: “I wrote this book while I was…” knowing full well page 10’s buffer: “My collaborative aim in the production of this work…”].

Meanwhile, moss grows over the passage, as “MOSS” on page 135 ushers in a rash of book moss: not just blurby, ‘formulaic’ poetics, but revised and dated prefaces, dedications, epigraphs, indexes, forewords, conclusions, acknowledgements, appendices, permissions…. We must decide how (and whether) to read these differently than we might if they sat differently in the binding, or we trusted them to stay put.

To spite itself, Seven Controlled Vocabularies is an exercise in the pleasures of textuality. Unstable, it fails to fall apart. Perhaps, as the exported metadata on the front cover suggests, literary form is code for data processing. Perhaps, like poetry—which Tan Lin is guilty of producing, even here—the book is an impossible cultural artifact, incapable of holding value, or of ceasing to circulate as object after it is remaindered from/as capital. The book shelf, after all, is an architectural unit, just as each book compiled there is itself a compilation, an architecture. To remove a book from its shelf, and to open that book, is an act of deconstruction. To make another book is an absurd act, pure excess, same as it ever was. Which brings us back to pleasure, the sublime surplus.