Reviews Issue 10

   Issue # 10: July-December 2008

Adam David

You Are A Joke. You Are Not A Joke.

The Oppresive Obfuscations of Shock-&-Awe Poetics in Angelo Suarez’ Dissonant Umbrellas

      In talking about his selections for The Best American Essays 2007, David Foster Wallace—my own eternal beacon of literary illumination and incredulousness—goes at length about how his “decidering process” as editor was more dictated not by the essays being the best-written or most beautiful of the year, but by how those essays literally sifted through the surfeit of data that contributed to what he called “Total Noise,” how those essays served as “... models and guides for how large and complex sets of facts can be sifted, culled, and arranged in meaningful ways—ways that yield and illuminate truth instead of just adding more noise to the overall roar,” which are great words to live a reading and writing life by, especially here in our Postironic Early 21st Interweb Century of Wiki-talky, Photoshop-tinkery, and blog democracy where everything can be found, anything can be manufactured, and everyone has a say, so the demand for even more clarity and complexity for both writer and reader should ideally be at an all time high, now more than ever, so in the process of the oscillation of reading from reader to page to reader to page—the ideal it being an infinite process, a butterfly loop perpetual motion machine of renewal—the reader and the page neverendingly give up new processes and experience everytime they interact, which, at surface level, seems like what Angelo Suarez’ Dissonant Umbrellas (UST Publishing House, 2007) has going for it, with all the schizophrenic typography and the lo-fi/hi-fi art and photography all in synaesthetic aid of its goal to be absolute Gesamtkunstwerk.

      I love this book. It is thoroughly beautiful, very smart and well-read, at times genuinely witty, occasionally very funny, definitely a very fun book, that has to be said, especially with the arrythmiatic dadaist quips like “Slippery when puwet,” although most of the fun in it is had at the expense of the reader, as constantly there is this feeling that the book is talking above you with all its Baudrillardian Warholian Tzaran whoever-else-counterculture-postmodern-theorist-ian undigested appropriations and at the same time talking down to you with the world-weary tones of a goateed college junior to a fresh-faced freshman excited about his first ever Humanities class, which, as anyone who regularly reads my reviews, probably knows can be quite irritating.

      The book constantly thoroughly invokes dada as its proper kin and peer, although it thoughtfully labels itself as “faux dada” before it revs up its chugging engine Johnny Cash beat of patent Suarez patter in quick-cut MTV Brakhagey imagery: “multicolored/cloudburst of screws/across lavender skyscape/in circular thought. Solar/arcade token:/A VIDEO GAME SUN.//Nuts & bolts in massive machinery of purple./In sleep a splatter of dead sheep unfortunate roadkill/c/o the faux dada locomotive, derailed like a brain.//Patch of violet blood//like a framed bruise on canvas: a big bruise penetrating skin:/(PAINFUL LIKE THE BIG SHEBANG).” And that’s just in the first page.

      And the second section the pit-pat-putterings continue “as you take/note of the dull swishing of fish in the washing machine/in whose complexity the sleeves of a pair of bright/purple underpants get lost like fascinated foreigners/in the whirlpool of Cubao,” in four-point Arial type as across the pages in much bigger font it actually calls you an idiot and then asks you, “is the enlarged text the poem or just a simulation of a poem?” which gets the Baudrillardian ball rolling, really, as this sort of double-representational double-talk is played and replayed again and again across the book, “Paulit-ulit and simulacra,” mixed in with Paolo Manaloish cutesy linguistic double-dribbling

      “Ano ang proof na may telepono na sa panahon ni Papa Jesus? Kasi si Peter, may tatlong dinayal.”

      and Warholian closed-circuit repetition of mass culture consumption

      “the smoke doesn’t know where to go. warhol, watching tv, gets out & gets shot; he watches this on tv too. the smoke watches warhol watch himself get shot warhol watches the smoke watch him watch himself get shot. the smoke watches warhol watch the smoke watch warhol watch himself get shot. ad nauseam where will the smoke proceed?”

      all absolutely uniformly beautifully rendered in faux point-&-shoot digicam-crazy Quark Express-quirky Photoshop-loopy imagery by Suarez’ nine artist/photographer/designer collaborators very effectively recreating Suarez’ onstage presence when doing his performance poetry, also effectively sugaring the pill of the book’s bountiful seven-isms-a-second trajectory of words words words bent on blowing your mind to wherever but eventually when the smoke clears and the debris settle, it’s all just dry ice and styrofoam—all special effect, all Shock-&-Awe—when your adrenaline dilutes and then you start to get to thinking somewhat clearly, you ask yourself What’s all this cleverness in aid of, anyway?

      Despite Suarez’ pedigree as a prize-winning poet, I don’t read Dissonant Umbrellas as a book of poems as its format and tenor and even its subtitle—“Notes Toward a Gesamtkunstwerk”—all point towards it being a guide, a manual of sorts, an overtly intellectual pseudo-academic bible of babble manual a la Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, or Jean Baudrillard’s America, or (maybe much more aptly) Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, but a manual for what exactly? Barthes and Baudrillard, despite being written in fluent postmodernese, were actually rather clear and thus forthcoming about what they wanted to say—McLuhan even more so—the lofty lingual loopiness were working towards coherence, or at the very least as close to coherence as they can muster, working towards a discourse: Eros for Barthes, the simulacrum for Baudrillard, the media for McLuhan. They weren’t written merely for Art’s—not even for Cleverness’—sake. They were out to change the world, to shift our perception of reality as we knew it, of how things work, offering us endless packages of intellectual updates and upgrades, and honestly, after reading them, we are actually changed by them, to the point that we can’t even imagine a life—a world—of these things not existing, while Dissonant Umbrellas reads more like a fairly exceptional comparative literature undergrad thesis with its shamelessly enthusiastic gamey quoting of quips from Bautista to Whitman to Warhol to Baudrillard, its endless dropping of literary theory, its incessant repetitions of artsy Magrittey pronouncements, it’s all just stuff we already know retold to us in fancy fonts and photography and excitable postmodernese double-talk that is more inclined to obfuscate—rather than elucidate—the reader into—rather than from—misunderstanding.

      And I read Dissonant Umbrellas—and Suarez—against Barthes and Baudrillard and McLuhan—and Tristan Tzara and Guy Debord and Georges Perec and John Berger, et al—because it is in that sort of literature, the overtly intellectual pseudo-academic bible of babble manual sort of literature, that this book is firmly entrenching itself in. These books were not written by minds just barely gasping and grasping at the veritable fonts of ideas their respective bouts of mental tae kwon do had dealt them. Instead they themselves—the books, the writers—were the very fonts of those very ideas. And Dissonant Umbrellas pales in comparison not because Barthes, Baudrillard, McLuhan, et al are the Big Boys and Suarez is not; Dissonant Umbrellas pales in comparison because it is not offering us anything new or different or timeless—these are not time-release tablets about the future. They’re more like time-capsules from an idealized past. And if you plan to talk the walk, you should also be able to walk the talk.

      There are books that are resistant to paraphrase because of their inherent complexity and gravitas, and there are books that are resistant to paraphrase because they’re just plain confused and confusing, and sad to say that Dissonant Umbrellas leans more towards the latter. It’s very much a performance on the page, an extravagant exuberant performance, but one that has seemingly lost the plot—or poetry—and replaced it with surface smarts and calculated cleverness—it already did all the thinking for you—very much like Paolo Manalo’s Jolography in that sense, all posturing and postulating and peer pressuring as this sort of writing—Oppressive Obfuscation—is wont to do, gangpressing the reader into submission via being apparently seemingly smarter than them, and Dissonant Umbrellas even adds coatings of dada which comes off for me as a metaphorical bulletproofing, or maybe more accurately as an emergency exit from possible literary critique as whatever critical colour and kin you try to barrage it with—and I think it’s only right that we do so as Dissonant Umbrellas itself barrages us readers with its own critical colour and kin—it always has the convenience of invoking that it’s all dada nonsense—faux dada nonsense, at that—quite possibly even ignoring the actual history of the non-movement in question, dada being primarily an anti-war reaction via contradicting haughty high art and lit through performance nonsense—cutups and collages and readymades—but it was nonsense that was aimed towards something bigger than what it was, something closer to anti-Gesamtkunstwerk than anything else, I’d assume. Even in its most debauched state, it was not merely for its own sake. Reading Dissonant Umbrellas, it’s apparent that it’s fighting something, specifically the current mode of production and consumption of literature, and the enemy here is quite clear—the Fogeys!—although its motivations and methods—basically theory-mongering—are both suspect because what it seems to be offering as replacement for the old fogey myopic practices of our lolos are just as constricting and oppressive and dated. It seems to be asking us What is Art and Lit? What is Poetry? And his answer is still Art and Lit and Poetry. Maybe it’s the really most logical reaction to the current climate of cover song mentality common in the other arts (i.e., music)? Like Itchyworms covering an APO song, which will be very good seeing as it’s Itchyworms doing it, and it’s an APO song, but really it’s still an APO song, it’s not an Itchyworms song. It is not a real concrete contribution to the overall progress of art.

      Dissonant Umbrellas is definitely a book looking for an audience if not waving its multi-coloured-sleeved arms jumping-jacking shouting through a bullhorn stomping its feet for attention in its purple underpants in Cubao although it’ll be an audience who already knows and quite possibly even already believes what it is saying—pretty much everything between covers are more clearly succinctly put in other books (i.e., the source books themselves) although admittedly not as ecstatically beautifully put—and probably a majority of the readers the book can potentially turn on to its thesis—and that is where this book’s true power lies, that’s how it’ll win the war—will be put off by the overwhelming incoherence displayed and promoted by the actual writing of the thing. The process of the oscillation of reading is only going one way, and it’s the author’s way. It is very insular and very alienating. For all its effort, the book is still playing towards the favours of the practices it is fighting against: it is not really changing anyone’s minds as they will be too impressed by it as it’s beautifully rendered, and they will possibly idolize and lionize Suarez for being such a smart clever writer, but the book’s actual reason for being will be glossed over and reduced to mere play, even art prank, something that the book seems to be too comfortable about despite its efforts to rise above that and revolve around actual intellectual discourse.

      All the theory-mongering is not all Suarez’ fault, of course, but more because intellectual discourse as how it’s taught in our colleges is more about validation—of the self, of long-held beliefs—than confrontation—of the self, of long-held beliefs—and Dissonant Umbrellas, at the very least, is an attempt to find a middleground between the two, it is a sort of validation by way of confrontation, a negatory confirmation, a confrontation by way of validation, but it’s a very shaky middleground as it is, in short, seeking validation from the very system it is confronting, which begs the questions Why bother with the validation? Who is it for?

      To affect effective changes on to these outdated systems of thought (i.e., the production and consumption of art and lit), we must first exorcise these very same things from ourselves, and replace them with things that are if not new then at least unfamiliar, but almost always they should be clear, if only so more people will listen and learn and know more about what exactly we are trying to do, what exactly we are trying to say, if only so as not to add further noise to an already monotonously chatterously noisy claustrophobic room.

      (Originally appeared in Philippine Free Press and used by permission of the author.)