Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
At the DC Book Fair I was pleasantly surprised to see a small collection of books about the Beats huddled together at a book dealer’s stall. Interesting Beat books are few and far between in the nation’s capital. So what if they were mostly biographies and bibliographic books? A thirsty man will drink anything in the desert. The book that caught my eye was George Dowden’s Bibliography of Allen Ginsberg published by City Lights in 1971. A valuable resource, but what really blew me away was the fact that the copyright page lists Jan Herman as the book’s typographer.
I should not have been surprised. Herman has been intimately involved in all aspects of book production while working with City Lights, his own Nova Broadcast Press, and Something Else Press. Typographer, editor, publisher, author — Herman has done it all in the world of alternative publishing. In his association with Fluxus, Herman was also sensitive to the materiality of print — the book as glue, ink, paper. The book as tangible, tactile, sensual. This is what I think of when I hear about the body of the text.
Maybe I have to be reminded of print’s physical qualities because I read an unhealthy amount of literary criticism and theory. “Unhealthy” because heavy doses of literary theory can make you immune to the simple physical pleasures of the reading experience. Just as a porn addict becomes incapable of experiencing the physical and emotional intimacies of sex in favor of an obsession with mechanics and gymnastics, those immersed in lit crit become fascinated by dissecting, categorizing, and deconstructing texts — always bodiless texts and never physical books. The book, the magazine, the newspaper as object to be caressed, to be smelled, to be gazed at, to be listened to, and to be savored proves too much of an embarrassing reminder of the messy body of the text, not the purity of its mind.
That said, I read a piece of theory recently that got me thinking about the publications of William Burroughs and Jan Herman in a new way. The essay in question was by Gilles Deleuze, as much as I hate to admit it. I have read more bad literary criticism that cites Deleuze and Félix Guattari — with their signature concepts, such as rhizomes, the Body without Organs, anti-Oedipus — than seemingly any other theorist. Thus it was a pleasant surprise to read Deleuze’s essay on the fold. Peter Eisenman in his essay “Unfolding Event” summarizes Deleuze’s thoughts on the fold: “In the idea of the fold, form is seen as continuous even as it articulates new relationships between vertical and horizontal, figure and ground, breaking up the existing Cartesian order of space.”
By no means do I feel I understand all the nuances of Deleuze’s argument, but the essay immediately made me think of Jan Herman. If the work of Jeff Nuttall is dominated by the physical act of cutting, it seems to me that the publications of Jan Herman are defined by the act of folding. Nowhere is this clearer than in Nova Broadcast Number 5: William Burroughs’ The Dead Star. Interestingly Nuttall published “The Dead Star” in My Own Mag 13: The Dutch Schultz Special. In that issue, “The Dead Star” is presented as a facsimile of a Burroughs scrapbook. Simple 8.5 X 11 sheets stapled together. The element of collage (cut and paste) is highlighted. Similarly the text has a fragmented, stitched-together feel.
On the other hand, Herman’s publication can be “seen as continuous” as it unfolds as a broadside out of the pamphlet. Like Kerouac’s scroll version of On the Road, this version of The Dead Star flows and is fluid, not segmented as in the Dutch Schultz Special. The fold gives Herman’s The Dead Star a different sense of space than Nuttall’s version. Despite being enclosed in wrappers, the text seems to have no inside or outside, no front or back. Deleuze writes of Leibniz, “a flexible or elastic body still has coherent parts which form a fold, with the result that they do not separate into parts of parts, but rather divide infinitely into smaller and smaller folds that always retain a certain cohesion.” The Nova Broadcast Dead Star multiplies itself and seems to continue endlessly, like a film loop, which makes one think of another Herman publication: Carl Weissner‘s The Braille Film.
Burroughs’ first “fade-in” to Braille Film contains the line: “In the folds of memory fragments of cracked mirrors meet your friend the echos of flesh vast sky.” I love the linking of the fold to remembrance, perception and repetition as these are primary concepts associated with the fold. Weissner incorporates the fold-in technique in Braille Film and views the book as a composite text (more on the fold-in and composite text in relation to Burroughs below). The perfect-bound codex form seems a little conservative for as open and radical a text as Braille Film. It serves as a straitjacket of sorts. Having handled a copy or two, I can attest that the book is difficult to open — the binding has little give and threatens to crack if opened too far. Herman also felt the binding turned out too restrictive. His publications tend to view the book as an opportunity to explore the opening as a field of play not as a constrictive container.
For example, in San Francisco Earthquake Number 5, also known as VDRSVP, three newspaper broadsides are folded separately and then folded into a pamphlet. The newspaper texts and their packaging form a labyrinth that create a myriad of options for the reader. There are numerous areas of entry and exit. In The Dead Star one’s gaze does not move in right angles from left to right, up to down across the page but instead can read up, down, and across columns in a snake-like fashion. Yet The Dead Star and VDRSVP represent two different aspects of the infinite nature of the fold. The Dead Star is closed, involute, infinite in an inward way (like the infinitesimal space between two numbers). VDRSVP, like a map, is open, flat, potentially infinite in an outward way. As shown by The Dead Star and VDRSVP (as well as his good friend Carl Weissner’s Klacto 23 International or Burroughs’ earlier The Moving Times: Sigma Project No. 1), Herman in his various publications exploits both aspects of the infinite nature of the fold.
Though the cut-up gets all the press, Burroughs also produced his non-linear texts through a procedure he called the fold-in. In the fold-in, “[a] page of text — my own or somebody else’s — is folded down the middle and placed on another page. The composite text is then read across one half text and half the other.” There are other variations but what is interesting is that Burroughs equates the fold-in with the composite text, which relates to the Composite City described in The Yage Letters and in Naked Lunch.
Not a locked door in the City. . . All houses in the City are joined. Houses of sod — high mountain Mongols blink in smokey doorways — house of bamboo and teak, houses of adobe, stone and red brick, South Pacific and Maori houses, houses in trees and river boats, wood houses one hundred feet long sheltering entire tribes, houses of boxes and corrugated iron where old men sit in rotten rags cooking down canned heat, great rusty racks rising two hundred feet in air from swamps and rubbish with perilous partitions built on multi-levelled platforms, and hammocks swinging over the void.
The composite text and the Composite City have the same fluidity of perspective and lack of boundaries. Burroughs viewed the fold-in as a means to map this terrain and its fantastic architecture.
In 1971 a book with just that title — Fantastic Architecture by Wolf Vostell and Dick Higgins — was published at Something Else Press. Herman joined Something Else Press as its editor shortly after the appearance of Fantastic Architecture and had already published the work of Vostell in his Nova Broadcast series. Perhaps this was symbolic. To me, Herman’s books were always created with an eye towards architecture, the book as structure to be entered and navigated like the Composite City.
In 1967, Alison Knowles constructed a walk-in installation called The Big Book. In 1968 Bill Wilson described the project as follows in Art in America:
The Big Book is an eight foot tall construction by Alison Knowles which has a front cover and several pages, and contains a stove, telephone, chemical toilet, art gallery, electric fan, books and other necessities of life. Alison Knowles has built the Book as a work of art to be lived in, physically and mentally, a place to contemplate useful and changing relationships.
I have described the beginning of The Big Book, but I cannot describe the end, because it is a potentially endless structure. When a story keeps possibilities open and relationships changing, there is no conclusion, and the hero who survives such a story must be supple, resourceful and durable. The reader can participate in these qualities by using their massive book of chance.
Herman was surrounded by these ideas in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971, he published Knowles’ Identical Lunch, another genre-defying work, as well as Ferdinand Kriwet’s Publit, and these notions of the book as landscape, architecture, and environment are visible in The Dead Star, VDRSVP, and General Municipal Election (a fold-out poster that detourns the election ballot form and includes a 7″ lp). Norman Ogue Mustill’s Mess Kit, published by the Nova Broadcast Press in 1971, is a book of nothing but poster foldouts — one of which is an accordion pullout attached to the inside front cover, and much longer and larger than that of The Dead Star, although it was printed on only one side. Another foldout makes use of an actual map (of Vietnam) to satirize the misadventure of U.S. military strategy with reference to Warhol’s Dance Step diagrams of the early 1960s.
The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, a touchstone in Deleuze’s essay, also conceived of the book as an endless landscape dominated by folds. Mallarmé was one of the first poets to consider the pages of a book as a field upon which poetry unfolded. He crossed the boundary between verso and recto and spread across the gutter. Perhaps this helps to explain his curious statement that “[t]here is no explosion but a book.” I take this to mean that any book can only be read or written through its own destruction. A simple way of looking at this is to consider that the sanctity of the book must be violated (i.e, unfolded or opened) in order to be read. Once upon a time this was even more apparent when books had to be cut with a knife in order to separate the pages for reading. The act of unfolding a book explodes it, makes what was once inside, outside. The Dead Star and Nova Broadcast with their reference to an exploding star suggest the explosion of the book.
This is also apparent in the naming of Herman’s little magazine, San Francisco Earthquake. The title’s most obvious reference is the devastating natural disaster of 1906 that leveled the city. An earthquake is itself the result of a fold. This shift of tectonic plates parallels the shift of perception and meaning enacted by the fold-in technique. The fold-in shifts sentence structure and disrupts word association blocks thus shaking the foundations of the language. In addition, the title refers to the psychedelic revolution that was again threatening to topple the established structures of urban life. Yet the title also brings to mind Mallarmé’s explosion. The recto and the verso of the page meet in the gutter which forms a fault line that explodes or unfolds into the opening of the book.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Herman and many others believed they were living through a state of disaster. In the Cold War era, the threat of nuclear annihilation was real. The images of the Holocaust were still very fresh, particularly when the mass media televised the slaughter occurring in Southeast Asia on a daily basis. Assassinations, racial tension and riots, mind-expanding drugs and sexual freedom. The very fabric of society was not folding but tearing. San Francisco Earthquake and the other publications of Jan Herman are writings of this disaster. Herman, along with Carl Weissner, Jürgen Ploog, and Claude Pélieu, responded to the disaster around them by fighting back with Burroughs’ techniques: cutting, splicing, folding, and otherwise manipulating the texts of the established order in an attempt to feed them back into the system and thus disrupt it. For example, Cut up or Shut Up contains an unattributed fold-in introduced as follows:
Recap. The assistant editor of The San Francisco Earthquake addresses the participants of his ‘Creative Writing’ Seminar at the N. Y. Free University: “Now as to what really went down at My Lai, I think that maybe a less uh conventional approach is indicated. I have here 2 pages of typed extracts from articles by Michael Herr and William Burroughs that appeared in the August 68 issue of ESQUIRE — and I might note in passing that you people could have written up this story right then and there if you’d just kept your eyes and ears open — so we take these 2 pages and fold them in together and see what happens…”
The idea of the magazine as the site of disaster was much in the air in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Landslide and Avalanche are two other examples. The earthworks in Avalanche responded to the damage being done to the environment, and self-mutilating performance art commented on the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Landslide sought to bring about a revolution in the art world by parodying performance art, minimialism, and conceptualism. Like San Francisco Earthquake No. 5, Avalanche and, especially, Landslide challenged the form and content of the traditional magazine and brought this mass market format into the realm of art object. Such serial publications by artists, as described in the recent book In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955, should be considered the peers of the Nova Broadcast publications and, to a lesser extent, San Franscisco Earthquake.
To San Francisco Earthquake #1 Burroughs contributed, “Word Authority More Habit Forming Than Heroin.” This is one of Burroughs’ more radical cut-ups and indicative of the kind of challenging material Herman generally published. For the most part, Burroughs stressed the communicative aspect of the cut-up; he rarely felt the cut-up to be illegible. Yet in “Word Authority,” the cut-up devolves into typographical signs. Here Burroughs builds on the work of avant-garde pioneers such as F.T. Marinetti (featured in Issue 4 of San Francisco Earthquake) and contributes to the work of concrete and visual poets of the time. It was Burroughs’ most radical cut-ups, like “Word Authority” and the trilogy, which inspired the experimental writers of the next decade and beyond. Burroughs the experimenter of language drew the attention of Herman, not the Burroughs soon to come, the Burroughs of The Wild Boys and beyond.
From the work from Liam O’Gallagher (Planet Noise) to Edward Ruscha (“Three Parking Lots” in San Francisco Earthquake #4) to Wolf Vostell (Miss Vietnam) and Norman Ogue Mustill (Twinpak) to say nothing of the publications mentioned above, Herman concerned himself with the performative, typographic, artistic, and architectural aspects of the book and literature. To my mind, Herman is not only one of the select few who took up Burroughs’ literary practice, but is also without a doubt the most important and innovative publisher of the cut-up. Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag and Mary Beach and Claude Pélieu’s Beach Books lack the depth and range of Herman’s exploration of the cut-up and the book itself as a form.