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Some Short Notes on OEI magazine

presented at Poets House, New York on April 21, 2010

The Swedish poetry magazine OEI (or, as we put it some years ago, a magazine devoted to “conceptual operations and aesthetic technologies”) was founded in Buffalo, New York, at the very end of the last millennium, under the influence of Charles Bernstein’s multiform activities. Since then we have published 50 issues, at an approximate rate of three physical volumes a year. Linked to the non-profit magazine is the non-commercial publisher OEI editör, which has published some 30 books of poetry, theory, and art.

Bernstein once described L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine he and Bruce Andrews created in 1978, as a project of organization, an “editorial” invention or intervention, a bricolage or a collage where different people, magazines, publishers, and texts that had never before been assembled were assembled, in order to see “what would happen.”

This could also be a way to describe OEI. A couple of years ago we even did a special issue on what we called “editorial aesthetics,” or “the aesthetics of editing,” claiming all aspects of editing and publishing also to be aesthetic operations –with the stipulation that aesthetics was understood as the construction of spaces and relations in order to materially and symbolically reconfigurate the territory of the common. Our point of departure was an interest in the editorial space as a place of reconnections, negotiations, possible reworkings of different practices, formats, and materials: re-readings, remediations, displacements, modifications, transformations… .

We called for a reflection on this editorial space, and on the always, in some sense, collective practice of editing; on the role and the position of the editor as well as on the material, conceptual, political, and economic dimensions of editing – every aspect of what Gérard Genette two decades ago called “paratexts,” those supposedly external aspects of a text that, in reality, are no paratexts at all but constitute the text itself. We called for an editorial aesthetics that would also be a wide-open heuristics, trying to articulate possible convergences between different practices in the context of an “expanded field of editing.” We stated that the work of editing – collecting, selecting, cutting, collaging, rearranging, recontextualizing, etc. – was inseparable from its own presentation, and that it could also gain force from this presentation. If the editorial work was often divided into two moments – one moment being the research, the selection and the montage, the other moment consisting in the presentation, the publication, the distribution – we wanted to think about these moments together, insisting on their potential aesthetic intensities as well as on their status as material conditions for writing. The editing operation, thus, consists in the opening of a space for dissonant reconnections where things can be disassembled and reassembled, dismounted and remounted, without the destruction of the constituting elements or singularities.

Initially also inspired by French magazines like Zuk, Revue de littérature générale, and Java, by American magazines like This, 0 to 9, and Chain, and by investigative communities like the Toronto Research Group, OEI has devoted issues to “Unidentified verbal objects,” contemporary French, American, German, Polish, and Finnish poetry, Canadian “pataphysics” (an important cornerstone in the deconstruction of the opposition between “seriousness” and “humor”…), the noise of communication, reading obstacles, idiocy and stupidity, Gertrude Stein, errors, creative misspellings and alternative orthography, electronic poetry, visual poetry, conceptual writing, sound poetry and sound art, cut-up, montage, collage, détournement, remediation, found poetry, nonsense, imaginary languages, play and games, archives, documents, prose, biopoetry and bioart, various conceptual and contextual shifts and transfers, and complexifications. We incessantly try to multiply the lenses and, while avoiding all eclecticism, to set up different types of materials and speeds against each other, looking for tensions and rifts in everything, animating lines of division and dissent.

As Swedish is a minor language, OEI has always felt the necessity to feature a lot of translations and introductions, of “theoretical” as well as more “practice-based” works (our first issue in English, on the archives of Mary Ellen Solt and edited by Sergio Bessa, will be published in September). Approaching “poetry” as an open, indeterminate field of investigation, testing, and research, OEI is constantly trying to create new scenes for and new modes of reading and writing in Sweden, and to instigate new collaborations and “borderblurring” work that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred. The magazine frequently organizes readings, seminars, and exhibitions in the Nordic countries.

On the one hand, we publish translations and publications of younger Swedish poets, artists, and critics. On the other hand, we publish re-readings of different histories of literature and art, in an attempt to recover residual energies and to restage or implement unfinished projects in new historical contexts. Initially, a substantial part of the work was devoted to the Swedish concrete poetry and sound poetry that was very lively in the beginning of the 1960s, but soon almost completely forgotten by the more official literary institutions. Today, much of this concrete poetry and sound poetry, as well as more recent forms of conceptual poetry, at least in lighter, less edgy versions, have become a part of the mainstream tradition and writing practices in Sweden. Our response has been to dig deeper into the archives, frequently transposing and recontextualizing literary as well as non-literary material from the three latest centuries: manuals, diagrams, pedagogical documents, etc., and treating these documents not as some inert pieces of material, but as what the French poet Franck Leibovici has called “poetic documents,” pieces of imagination still allowing for a certain use value.

This is not only a matter of making material available for literary manipulations and readings, but also as a part of a more general investigation of the material conditions of reading and writing. We examine not only the materiality of language, but also the materiality of the technological, the pedagogical, and the social. Less the sublime, then, than what Sianne Ngai has called the “stuplime,” where one confronts “the machine or system, the taxonomy or vast combinatory, of which one is part.” Anyway, our archival impulses and ambitions, and the attempts to construct new genealogies and alternative histories, to operate with esthetical and critical re-wirings or reconnections, has forced OEI to expand its volume and its registers, as well as to constantly reflect on and to historicize the magazine as a specific medium. The printed magazine (the design of which we try to reinvent for every new issue) has grown thicker, and our standard format is now somewhere between 300 and 624 pages (which gives us the upper weight limit for letters – 2 kilos – in the Swedish postal system). At the same time the magazine is working with other formats: CDs, DVDs, and inserts.

Always trying to oppose the “law of least resistance,” what Öyvind Fahlström called “Mimömolan,” OEI has often used poetry as a kind of “system disturbance,” as manipulations of the information organized by the contemporary databanks, attempting to momentarily reverse the order of the images and narratives projected on the screens of the contemporary… . It goes without saying that such a project will demand a lot of work and a lot of play. During the last four months we have been working full-time in order to finish a 608-page issue on different aspects of play, games, and toys. This was, of course, a lot of fun, but also an attempt to inquire into the critical potentialities of play and the philosophical dimensions of toys. Concerning critical play, Mary Flanagan writes in her book from 2009 (Critical Play): “For many game players, games exist for entertainment, for passing the time, for fun. They are a diversionary activity, meant for relaxation or distraction – a ‘not-work’ space where players are free to engage in fantasy narratives, amazing feats, and rewarding tasks. But what if certain games have become something more? What if some games, and the more general concept of ‘play’, not only provide outlets for entertainment but also function […] as instruments for conceptual thinking, or as tools to help examine or work through social issues?”

As for the notion of philosophical toys, as Daniel Tiffany has put it (in Toy Medium, 2000): “If the seventeenth century witnessed the emergence of the automaton as a device poised between science and spectacular culture, the eighteenth century was the golden age of the mechanical toy, estranged from science yet still charged with philosophical implication.” These philosophical implications of the toy still existed during the 19th century, and even today, we would insist. Baudelaire’s essay on toys from 1853, translated as “The Philosophy of Toys,” states that the toy is the child’s first initiation into art and poetry, but also that the toy is “scientific” in that it, for example in the shape of a stereoscope or a phenakistoscope, “develops in the mind of a child the taste for marvelous and unexpected effects.”

Georges Didi-Huberman has written about these and other philosophical toys in Baudelaire and Benjamin, for example the kaleidoscope, this pattern generator, which, he argues, also generates effects of knowledge. As does montage, to which he links the kaleidoscope. The material for the pattern effects in a kaleidoscope is litter and detritus, as is montage in Benjamin, the philosophical junk dealer and archaeologist of the memory in things, of an archive of singularities. With Benjamin as one of his points of departure, Didi-Huberman theorizes montage and remontage as a “paradigm” and a mode of knowledge consisting in remounting the path of the continuous, heading for its accidencies, ramifications, discontinuities. Montage and remontage would qualify the historical operation as such – much in the same way as Agamben argues that in the toy we can find historicity as such – but montage as a procedure presupposes in reality the demontage, the preceding dissociation of what it constructs, of what it remounts. To recast history in a movement “against the grain,” is to strive for a knowledge by montage after having made nonknowledge the object and the heuristic moment of its very constitution.

The Benjaminian montage-practitioner is the one who refuses to synthesize – emphasizing a myriad of, usually very small, singular documents, the ones that in general are neglected by the large historical constructions. But he or she also knows that it is necessary, between the pure empirical dispersion and the pure systematical pretension, to lend the rags and detritus their use value, by using them, that is, by restituting them in a montage that can offer them a “readability.”

This is what montage has to do, not only in a film but also in a book or in a poetry and art magazine like OEI, as the “readability” of texts and images always demands that they are put in relation to other sources, images, or testimonies; the knowledge value never being intrinsic to a single image or text, it is always necessary to set the multiple in motion, to bring out the differences and the analogies, the indeterminations and the overdeterminations that are at work. This is what Georges Bataille does in his surrealist montages in the magazine Documents, but also what Harun Farocki does, in a radically different way, in his video installation Schnittstelle, constantly examining and re-examining texts and images in relation to each other, in their simultaneity, but also in relation to what precedes them and what succeeds them. This is what Farocki calls “soft montage,” “flexible editing,” where the open relation between image and word, little by little as it configurates and recomposes itself in front of us, brings about a reading of a critical kind.

OEI website
OEI CD on PennSound