The Chinese Notebook

George Hartley: On "The Chinese Notebook"

Silliman’s work often reveals his concern with the social motivation of frames. While the form of much of his work resembles the propositional mode of the conceptualists, as we shall see, he nevertheless insistently extends the focus of those propositions to a more consciously political level than many conceptualists would have. Silliman's The Chinese Notebook . . . for instance, provides a useful counter to Sol LeWitt's "Sentences on Conceptual Art" (1968), which begins as follows:

1) Conceptual Artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.

2) Rational judgments repeat rational judgments.

3) Illogical judgments lead to new experience.

4) Formal art is essentially rational.

5) Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically,

While the matter-of-fact, axiomatic mode of statement, the self-referring content, the numbering of passages, and the sentence-by-sentence progression of LeWitt's "Sentences" all influence the format of Silliman's The Chinese Notebook, their content is quite different. Whereas Silliman will echo a statement of LeWitt's such as "17) All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art," he will counter other claims such as "24) Perception is subjective."

Silliman's first proposition reveals his attention to and expansion of conceptualist claims:

1. Wayward, we weigh words. Nouns reward objects for meaning. The chair in the air is covered with hair. No part is in touch with the planet.

His attention to the materiality of words--in that only the words on the page can help one to distinguish between "wayward" and "weigh word"--immediately complicates the conceptualist claim to have finally got beyond the material by turning to language. The sentences that follow, furthermore, bring up the question of reference (which the conceptualists tended to ignore) while also mimicking the conceptualist work which can only exist in the mind. In proposition two, however, Silliman complicates the latter point as well:

2. Each time I pass the garage of a certain yellow house, I am greeted with barking. The first time this occurred, an instinctive fear seemed to run through me. I have never been attacked. Yet I firmly believe that if I opened the door to the garage I should confront a dog.

A perfect example of the conceptualist technique--we "conceive" of the dog which not only has never been seen behind the door but also never appears in this proposition until the final word. But unlike the conceptualist declaration, this proposition carries consequences should there in fact be a dog ready to attack from behind the door. Silliman seems to imply the practical need for being able to conceive of the dog even though in other situations (as in race discrimination) the dependence on categories may be socially harmful--not all conceptions carry the same implications.

Silliman's propositions in contrast to LeWitt's carry an explicitly political charge. According to proposition five: "Language is, first of all, a political question." Silliman is not merely looking for a way to purify poetic language; even the metalanguage of the declaration carries political implications:

7. This is not philosophy, it's poetry. And if I say so, then it becomes painting, music or sculpture, judged as such. If there are variables to consider, they are at least partly economic--the question of distribution, etc. Also differing critical traditions....

No declaration, Silliman implies, exists outside of social frames such as economic structures and critical traditions; the declaration is marked by those conditions even when hoping to transcend them.

The awareness of context, in other words, takes place within a particular context. Even so, that awareness of context is indispensable, a perpetual reflexiveness to guard against the following:

32. The Manson family, the SLA. What if a group began to define the perceived world according to a complex, internally consistent, and precise (tho not accurate) language? Might not the syntax itself propel reality to such a point that to our own they could not return? Isn't that what happened to Hitler?

As a counter to Hitler's atrocities Silliman seeks a constant attention to the necessity for, yet arbitrariness of, ideological frames.

Marjorie Perloff: On "The Chinese Notebook"

In his manifesto-essay "The New Sentence," Ron Silliman envisions a paragraph that might organize sentences even as a stanza organizes lines: it would function as "a unity of quantity, not logic or argument," the sentences within its "frame" relating to one another not by normal continuity but by a complex system of polysemic and syllogistic relationships (91). In this scheme of things, individual units (at the sentence or phrase level) that seem to make no sense may take on meaning by contiguity And Silliman quotes Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations ("New Sentence" 70):

498. When I say that the orders "Bring me sugar" and "Bring me milk" make sense, but not the combination "Milk me sugar," that does not mean that the utterance of this combination has no effect. And if its effect is that the other person stares at me and gapes, I don't on that account call it the order to stare and gape, even if that was precisely the effect I wanted to produce.

499. To say "This combination of words makes no sense" excludes it from the sphere of language and thereby bounds the domain of language. But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reasons. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and that of another begins and so on. So if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what it is for.

It is not surprising that this passage appeals to Silliman, whose own poetry, whether in verse or prose, has been committed to testing the boundary between the "sense" of "Bring me sugar" and the "nonsense" of "Milk me sugar." "The Chinese Notebook," which appears in The Age of Huts (1986), is a sequence of 223 aphorisms, most of them on questions of language and poetics, that sometimes echo, sometimes gently spoof the Philosophical Investigations. For example:

29. Mallard, drake--if the words change, does the bird remain?

35. What now? What new? All these words turning in on themselves like the concentric layers of an onion.

60. Is it language that creates categories? As if each apple were a proposed definition of a certain term.

94. What makes me think that form exists?

And so on. The poet Alan Davies, who is a friend of Silliman's, recalls that "one morning . . . I received from Ron a lovely chinese notebook. . . . I read the text enthusiastically. I was impressed by the number of interrogatives in the work. My own tendency has often been to suppress questions and, where they did occur, to end them with a period. I knew that I would make my most considered response to the text by answering each of the questions in it" ("?s" 77). Here are Davies's responses, appearing in the text "?s to .s: for Ron Silliman and for The Chinese Notebook," in Signage (1987):

29. Ask the bird.

35. Unpeel the onion a layer at a time; at center, the still point.

60. Categories create categories; language gets used, again, again.

94. Having the thought that form exists, you have the fact that it does.

This operation, seeming to prove itself, supports itself.

The question-answer format (unanticipated by Silliman when he wrote "The Chinese Notebook") generates a witty homage to Wittgenstein, Davies's text depending on Silliman's even as Silliman's is most effective when read against Wittgenstein's.