The most memorable pages in Steve McCaffery’s experimental “novel” Panopticon — originally published in 1984, neglected for decades, and recently reissued by BookThug — are those crossed by a band of typographical “static,” a strip of homogeneous gray pixelation. Three independent strands of prose run across each page, one inside the gray band and two others above or below it: architectural notes cribbed from Bentham’s infamous plans for a panoptic prison, instructions for neural surgery, a description of a machine that seems to allegorize an ejaculating penis, an account of insect (or perhaps human) sex, and a cryptic meditation on reading, writing, and thinking. In starting to come to terms with Panopticon, however (a task destined to remain incomplete within the narrow parameters of a review), it is worthwhile to pause on the on the static itself. This enigmatic typographical fuzz is explicitly meant to represent a filmic image (or non-image), and the image obscured by the distortion is that of a human face:
Now there is the close up of a small hand camera held in front of a face. The image is blurred and granular and might be compared to the stereophonic text of a voice recorded in the worst possible acoustic conditions and in a language the woman cannot understand. To the authentic reader’s eyes this might appear as a horizontal band dividing two areas of discourse extended out across the top and bottom of a page.
The viewer of the close-up, and perhaps also its object, is a figure who recurs again and again in Panopticon: a woman who has just emerged from a bath and, before preparing to go see a movie, reaches for a book from her bookshelf. Almost the only object of recognizably mimetic narration in the book, this woman (occasionally substituted for by a man) is the object of interminable surveillance (through video cameras, tape recorders, and an ominously clacking typewriter) that always seems to presage an impending scene of horrific, sexualized violence. The narration of this recurring scene is continually being routed and rerouted through different media: the woman both appears in and watches a film variously titled Summer Alibi, Panopticon, The Mark, Toallitas and The Mind of Pauline Brain, a film which at certain points inexplicably changes into a novel, in fact, the very novel that the woman reaches for in her bookshelf after stepping out of the bath. The narrative hurtles through different media in this way until they collapse into one another: in the sentences quoted above, for example, the blurry image of the face disintegrates into stereophonic white noise and then into the “horizontal band” of grey pixels on the page itself; the filmic, the acoustic, and the graphic approach a point of absolute indistinction. (BookThug has shrewdly decided to extend the work’s implicit multimediality by releasing it with an audio companion, a reading of the entire book by McCaffery, Karen Mac Cormack, and Lise Downe that clocks in at over eighty minutes.) And on the next page, the “blurred and granular” chaos of this intermedial noise has become the substrate of the narrative, underlying a description of the infamous prison from which McCaffery’s book takes its name.
The thematic concerns that motivate Panopticon (surveillance and spectatorship, mediation and remediation, sex and violence, writing and violence, language and textuality) all tend toward the granular static that obscures the face. McCaffery otherwise seems happy to let these themes float freely in relation to one another, never staging any kind of overt synthesis — like the multiple threads of narrative partitioned by the grey band of static, Panopticon‘s themes run in parallel without harmonizing. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Charles Bernstein, in his extraordinary volume of critical/theoretical verse (A Poetics), described Panopticon as “perhaps the exemplary antiabsorptive book.” That is, exemplary of a class of poetry committed to rendering letters on a page radically opaque, to crafting utterances that unequivocally refuse to serve as couriers of meaning. The experiments (narrative, typographical, generic) that McCaffery carries out in Panopticon do not work toward any summation or unification that would make itself available for readerly “absorption”; rather, the work finds its logical outcome in unabsorbable noise. Noise, it bears remembering, that is also a human face, a filmic close-up buried beneath the opaque granular surface of static.
Unless, that is, the face itself is an opaque, antiabsorptive surface. For Deleuze and Guattari, “the face is a horror story”: not a radiant expression of human divinity, as it is for William Blake, but a superimposition of scripts and codes onto the human body, the place in which the body is made to signify according to the languages of power. The face is not part of the head, it is an imaginary canvas stretched over it: “The face is a surface…the face is a map, even when it applies to and wraps a volume, even when it surrounds and borders cavities that are now no more than holes. The head, even the human head, is not necessarily a face.” Attached to the head but not integral to it, the face is a product of the “abstract faciality machine” that assigns meanings to bodies (happy, sad, angry, in love, bored, white, black, man, woman) and lends the beings residing in bodies an unredeemable otherness. The “white-wall/black-hole structure” of the Deleuzian face doubly alienates us from our interlocutors, first by transforming their bodies into surfaces of inscription and second by trapping them in the hidden space behind their eyes. To get close to a face is to shut oneself off from, and even to do violence to, its owner, and faces accordingly produce forms of action and feeling (racism, rage, sensual passion) motivated by the terrible strangeness of the other. The filmic close-up, then, has nothing intimate about it; the close-up is an apex of brutality and inhumanity, marks the disappearance of the human behind the grotesque mask of the face.
One does not necessarily have to believe that all face-to-face encounters are horror stories (in fact, Deleuze and Guattari themselves are well aware that not all faces have faciality) to be compelled by their conceit as a way of understanding, for example, the uncanniness of certain photographic portraits and filmic close-ups or the inexplicable sense of alienation that can set in during the most intimate of face-to-face encounters. Furthermore, faciality seems to describe perfectly the nightmarish atmosphere of Panopticon, produced by the omnipresence of surveillance technologies: a camera held in front of a face, a tape-recorder, an infernally clacking typewriter. Oblique reference to an impending murder, perhaps that of the woman preparing to go to the movies, surfaces again and again, but the omnipresence of machines that watch, monitor, record, and describe (Panopticon itself being one such technology) is itself sufficient to induce a sense of immanent violence. The link between description and violence is actualized in a passage that provides instructions for the writing/filming of the book/film Toallitas/The Mind of Pauline Brain(/Panopticon?). (Again, the title and genre of the work that occupies a central place in, and perhaps corresponds to, McCaffery’s novel is constantly metamorphosing.) With the piecemeal, sing-song rhythm of a recipe, the narrative instructs the reader to lock a character (a man who might be a substitute for the woman, the woman’s killer, or the author of the book/film) in a room and
Change the focus of the lens. Turn the lights up to their brightest and shine them directly in his eyes. Repeat the phrase NOTHING NEW WILL OCCUR. Pull back his head by his hair. Keep the curtains closed. Show him the knife. Remove the coffee. Don’t let him smoke…Now describe the room.
As the lens focuses in on the man for his close-up, his face is confronted with a facialized “white wall” of light, and the mere gesture of looking and recording becomes indistinguishable from a horrifying act of violence. The filmic genre of the close-up, which “facializes” and thus brutalizes its subject, extends to literary narration: narrative description corresponds directly to physical brutality, acts of aggression (“Show him the knife”) blend imperceptibly into banal writing exercises (“describe the room”).
Panopticon is thus unable to wake up from a nightmare in which to see the other is to do violence to the other, a nightmare that culminates with the granular static of the distorted close-up. The distortion of the close-up doesn’t hide the face so much as convert it into pure faciality — the white wall and black holes of the face bleed together to form a seething, impenetrable surface, and the face in the close-up shows itself for what it really is: a horror story. The over-writing of the static with the description of Bentham’s prison, furthermore, is the violent projection of meaning onto the facialized other, the rendering of the face as a screen. The band of static, partitioning the page and visually organizing its parallel narratives, is apparently reduced to a role of pure mediation, mere support for textual content. But it always also seems to retain a certain sinister reserve, an ominous hidden plenitude; the blankness of the static/face conceals (and discloses by concealing) the horror story of an indeterminate scene of violence.
At the end of Panopticon, the band of static returns, this time in the middle of the page instead of at the bottom. It suspends a recurring phrase, repeated several times with slight adjustments to the modifiers and pronouns: “HER BODY REMAINED MOTIONLESS AND A COLD LUMP CAME IN HIS THROAT.” The body of a friend or lover, or the dead body resulting from the apparently immanent violence at the beginning of the book? Above and below the gray band, meanwhile, a Beckett-esque, blithely meaningless meditation on reading, writing, and thinking chatters away:
The writing of the word word. The repetition of the writing of the word word. The substitution of the word write. The quotation of the writing of the word write. The removal of the quotation of the writing of the word write. The writing of the word description.
Permuting and re-permuting its formulations, this procedural narrative is nearly as opaque as the ominously clacking typewriter from the beginning of the book, registering the mere technical act of writing, the filling up of pages with words. But it is somehow not quite so oppressive: there is something unaccountably cheerful, even precocious, about the prattle of writing writing itself. “HER BODY REMAINED MOTIONLESS AND A COLD LUMP CAME IN HIS THROAT” likewise undergoes a series of permutational transformations only to be cut short: “SHE OPENED HER EYES AND SAW HIS FACE.” The horror-story face of the too-close close-up, or the face glimpsed after awaking up from the bad dream of faciality? The gray band then goes blank for several pages (one can almost hear the soft swish of the static on an old TV) while the “reading writing thinking” strand continues to spin itself out, growing more and more telegraphic:
Writing. Thinking. Thinking thought. Reading writing. Writing thought. Reading writing thinking. Reading thought. Writing the word writing. Thinking reading. Thinking the thought of reading. Writing reading.
With this last inversion of logical sequence (one generally reads writing, rather than the other way around), McCaffery’s book ends. Within the formal logic of Panopticon, it seems, writing somehow has the power to make the gray vacuity of the static-face go silent — writing considered in the most literal sense, as the purely technical exercise of putting one word after another to fill up space on the page. At the level of content, the ending of Panopticon is an ambivalent one: there is no way to determine if the face to which the woman opens her eyes is a way out of the nightmarish visual economy that dominates the poem (within which acts of looking are always acts of violence and faces are always masks) or simply the renewal of the nightmare. At a purely formal level, however, the chatter of writing writing itself drowns out the brutal monotony of the horror story that is the face, propels the narrative into a space not held hostage by the unbearable intimacy of the close-up.
Literature for McCaffery, as for Deleuze, is not an act of imaginative creation but a procedure, a machine for estranging us from our own language — estranging and thereby recuperating (see the latter’s essay on Bartleby). McCaffery attempts another such a procedural recuperation of language early in Panopticon when he fills a page and a half with a simple formula: “and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on . . .” There is a certain wry lyricism in the bare fact that there is writing being written and that it continues to be written; the formula spills across the page in its exuberant rush to say nothing. Or more precisely, to say nothing beyond an expression of wonder at the fact of its own continued existence and at the austere fecundity of the formula, which says and does nothing beyond reproducing itself on and on and on. Writing writing itself on and on and on is the insane war whoop that ruptures the equally insane scene of faciality, the “glum encounter between signifying subjectivities,” the camera held too close to the face. In this way, Panopticon is ultimately a profoundly optimistic work, a leap of faith that chooses to revel in the opacity of language because — well, just because. It must be admitted that McCaffery’s novel, read without proper care, would invite dismissal as a mere historical document of the darkest days of anxiety about postmodernity, anxiety that seems far less apt now than it did in the mid-80s. This temptation ought to be avoided, in part because the notion that works that are mere “products of their time” have nothing to offer us is, when one comes down to it, a bit unimaginative. But more importantly, because the spark of inspiration that leads McCaffery to end his novel with interminable permutations of the words reading, writing, and thinking is as robust a statement of belief in the power of literature as any other. I, for one, am grateful that BookThug has had the perspicacity to resurrect McCaffery’s hypnotizing work.