Liberature: Word, Icon, Space

BY Wojciech Kalaga

The word ‘liberature’ is a kind of an umbrella term that merges the meaning of the Latin ‘liber’ as ‘free’ with that of a book: it thus connotes both creative freedom and the sense of the book as a material object in the artistic message. The book does not contain the work – the book IS the work

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The “pictorial turn” diagnosed by W.J.T. Mitchell in his book Picture Theory brought about phenomena which have changed the relation between the graphical attire of the text and its verbal non‑materiality. There appeared authors “who do not remain indifferent to this attire. They even harness it towards the ‘production of meaning.’ They treat language, or rather writing – its perceptible incarnation – as tangible material.” (Katarzyna Bazarnik, Popsuta przestrzeń. O odpowiedzialności wydawcy [Broken Space. Of Publisher’s Responsibility ]). In constructing their sense, texts created by those authors in the previous century (yet having much earlier antecedents) utilize just as much the semantics of language as the semiotics of matter: the shape and the spacing of print, the physicality of paper, the availability of a virtual link, the spatiality and architecture of the volume, the iconic potential of the page (or the screen). One could say that such texts refuse to don their “attire”, as it has become an integral part of their bodies and thus ceased to be attire – its exteriority has been annihilated: what we see or what we touch is no longer an ornamental addition, but something that inherently belongs to the work. The book does not contain the work, it does not store it or cover it with its garments – the book (or its material equivalent) is the work.

Zenon Fajfer

A poet, creator and theoretician of liberature; practitioner of the poetic form called emanational poem and its electronic variant (kinetic poem). He publishes, among others, in Ha!art, Odra, Tygodnik Powszechny; the author of books Spoglądając przez dziurę ozonową [But Eyeing Like Ozone Whole] (2004) and dwadzieścia jeden liter [ten letters] (2005, 2009), and co-author of Oka-leczenie (2000, 2009) and (O)patrzenie (2003); also involved in theatre, his authorial productions include: Madam Eva, Ave Madam (1992), Finnegans Make (1996), Pieta (2006). He runs the Liberature Reading Room located in Cracow (ul. Karmelicka 27) and edits the “Liberature” series in Ha!art.

The word liberature is a kind of an umbrella term that merges the meaning of the Latin liber as free with that of a book: it thus connotes both creative freedom and the sense of the book as a material object in the artistic message (but also liber as scales – “writing as weighing of letters”). The term in the sense used here was introduced by Zenon Fajfer in 1999 in an article published in Dekada Literacka, entitled Liberature. An Annex to the Dictionary of Literary Terms. Initially, the author juxtaposed liberature with the three main literary genres (as illustrated by the title of one of his texts: poetry, prose, drama, liberature); it seems, however, that one should consider liberature as a kind of trans‑genre which cuts across and transgresses the boundaries of literary typologies, a statement with which the contemporary liberartists would probably agree.

Katarzyna Bazarnik

Senior lecturer in the Institute of English Philology at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, teaches courses on English literature, liberature, and theory of literature; she has edited, among others, Wokół Jamesa Joyce'a [About James Joyce] (with Finn Fordham, 1998), Od Joyce'a do liberatury [From Joyce to liberature] (2002), James Joyce and after: Writer and Time (with Bożena Kucała, 2010); her bookn Joyce and liberature is forthcoming in Litteraria Pragnesia. Together with Zenon Fajfer she founded and runs the Liberature Reading Room and edits the “Liberature” series in Ha!art; she is co-author of Oka-leczenie(O)patrzenie (2000, 2009) and (2003).

Let us add, in order to situate liberature on the map of literary evolution, that its hybridity is by no means an invention of the contemporary avant‑garde. The idea of the page, letter and icon working together has been present in our culture since antiquity. The beginnings of visual poetry go as far back as 300BC – to the works of Simias of Rhodes and Theocritus. It was present in the Middle Ages and flourished, in Poland as well, between the 16th and 18th centuries. Some of the visual poems retain the status of masterpieces even today: for instance George Herbert’s famous The Altar, or his Easter Wings, which continues the motif of wings initiated by Simias.

The twentieth century witnessed the return of the visual usage of the verbal sign: from the futurist picture poems of Martinetti, the calligrams of Apollinaire, the poesiography of Tytus Czyżewski or the innovative “semantic poetry” of Stefan Themerson to concrete poetry, whose origin goes back to the fifties, but which is still practiced today. However, these twentieth‑century efforts to harness language in the service of the eye differ from traditional visual poetry. It is not merely the matter of synchronizing the shape or contour of the poem with its content but of the exploration of the visual‑semantic potentiality of the linguistic sign.

Numerous papers, not at all marginal, have already been devoted to liberature, its origins and various forms; I will not, therefore, discuss this phenomenon in detail. To put it in a nutshell: the essence of liberature is the totality of the work, which integrates the semantic aspect of the text with its fabric into a semiotic unity. As Fajfer ingeniously observes, in a work of liberature, “thanks to the unity of text and the writing space, the representing world – a book, or in the case of shorter works, the surface of the page – ought to be considered as a part of the world that is represented.” This quasi‑aphorism is important inasmuch as it stresses the equal significance of the two worlds – liberature is not an “artistic book”, a beautiful, material artifact, but a symbiosis of textual semiosis with the semiosis of the material vehicle. This vehicle may be constituted by an appropriately shaped volume, but also, as in the case of hypertext or so‑called e‑liberature, a computer interface. Just as the autopoietic metapictures described by Mitchell constitute a “reflection over the nature of visual representation”, liberary books direct our attention primarily to their physical “bookishness” and, like metapictures, “call into question the relation of language to image as an inside‑outside structure.” Just as metafiction relates to the qualities of its plot and narration, the liberary book becomes a meta‑book that comments upon its own bodily subjectivity.

Katarzyna Bazarnik and Zenon Fajfer duoLet us then consider the interplay of the most important elements of a work of liberature. The letter, the smallest graphical element of a work, creates meaning independently, before it joins other letters in a morpheme or a word. The kind of art which makes us particularly aware of this is concrete poetry, in which the letter is not only the vehicle of sense but also the fabric of the visual text – a seme of a textimage. However, the letter can do more than just be independent; it can amplify meaning or point towards interpretive paths. In Derrida’s Glas, the font indicates the source of a reference or comment: Genet, Derrida or Hegel. In Stanisław Czycz’s Arw or in Oka‑leczenie (Eyes‑ore) by Katarzyna Bazarnik and Zenon Fajfer, the shape and the form of the letter indexically ascribe particular utterances to the participants of parallel conversations in an attempt to coalesce linearity with simultaneity. The form of a letter may also, in an indexically‑iconic manner, describe the quality of a meaning‑carrying sound – not the notation of sound forms but the quality of the voice itself. In the typographical diversity of Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice, Michel Butor notices the diversity of sound orchestration and its semantic play with silence. The size of the font corresponds to the intensity of the utterance of a word, empty spaces indicate silences, the spacing on the page the pitch of the voice, and the font type (roman or italics) the “colour” of voice transcription.

A special instance of the letter leading the reader into deeper, hidden layers of sense is exemplified by the so‑called emanational texts – a form created by Zenon Fajfer and employed in shorter poetical works (for instance in Ars Poetica and (O)patrzenie [Ga(u)ze ], the latter co‑authored with Katarzyna Bazarnik), but also in the narrative Oka-leczenie [ Eyes-ore ], in which “visible texts contain in themselves the folded structure of texts that are hidden.” From the perspective of the recipient, the initial letters of the text are the constituents of the hidden text, which by the same principle produces (or rather unveils) yet another hidden text, and so on and so forth through deeper and deeper layers, until the foundational word is revealed. One could say that from the perspective of its structure, the text emanates from its foundation‑word through consecutive levels, unrolling the folded texts until it reaches a shape that is entirely visible. This strategy goes back to the tradition of the acrostic but enriches it with “Chinese-box” spatiality and is distinguished from it in that “one should read the initials of words (all words from consecutively emerging layers) and not just of lines, while its entirety is a multidimensional structure reducible to a non‑dimensional point.” (Zenon Fajfer, W stronę liberatury [Towards liberature]).

Zenon Fajfer Spoglądając przez ozonową dziurę
[But Eyeing Like Ozone Whole], photo A. Słodownik
However, if the letter is to mean through itself, it cannot do without the surface of the page – not as a neutral substance that is no more than a writing space or even a background upon which the silhouette of a text-image surfaces, but as a partner in the spatial game: a play of black and white (sometimes colour), of spacing, of the shapes of letter configurations, geometrical arrangements, etc. “Understanding always resides beyond the words,” writes Radosław Nowakowski: “Either before. Or under. Or over. Or next to. Or between.” Such understanding is invited by the play of the letter and the page in Bazarnik and Fajfer’s Ga(u)ze – already the cover, a corner of which has been torn off and inserted into the middle of the volume, calls on us to “gauze” the wound, but also to gaze carefully at the graphical and spatial events. Inside, the surface of the pages, in different shades of white, gray and black, at times seems to dominate over faded letters, at other times constitutes a mere field for a frantic play of fonts which occasionally induces an optical illusion of movement, only later to retreat into shadow and give itself completely to the foundation‑word, a seed out of which the whole text emanates. In Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice, the page gives itself completely to the spectacle of fonts, and sometimes, under their pressure, merges with the following page, but also participates in the spectacle. Though the size and the shape of fonts determine a possible path of reading, the whiteness of the page is the stage for those aporetic choices: “The hidden sense moves and unfolds in the choir of pages.”

Unlike in A Throw of the Dice, the whiteness of a conventional page is invisible – we do not notice it in the course of reading. Attempts at functionalizing colour were already made by Laurence Sterne in his proto‑liberary Tristram Shandy, in which an utterly black page iconically refers to the death of the protagonist. This strategy, though more varied semantically, is continued by B.S. Johnson in Travelling People, where the colour of the page not only connotes the progressive physical disintegration of the characters, but also becomes a metaphor for the passage of time. The narrative strategy of the page becomes more complex in Oka-leczenie by Bazarnik and Fajfer. In the middle section of the trivolume (the book is composed of three subcodexes) the black colour – from the perspective of as yet unborn Dante – suggests temporal nothingness. At the same time, the blackness allows quasi‑letters to pulsate, shaping a rhythmical cardiographic movement which envelops a recording of intimate experiences that escape coherent syntax. This is preceded by a conception, iconically expressed on black pages through the union of a white dot with one of the many sperm‑like commas which come rushing towards it. In this part of the existential “plot” of Oka-leczenie, the verbal message gives way to the materiality and visuality of the page: “Narration through pages is most visibly exploited by Oka-leczenie in the part which depicts the development of the embryo as a development of the text: from a comma, a full stop and a semicolon, through a series of illegible texts composed of unsegmented alphabetical magma out of which there eventually emerge intelligible words, all the way to the Polish‑English palindrome composed of two figure‑texts in the shapes of the letters K and Z.”

However, the page can provide not only a field for play but also a place for cooperation or competition. The page may juxtapose various excerpts and fragments, thus exposing contrasts, oppositions and similarities. The pages of Derrida’s Glas give their surface to several texts at the same time, allowing for their dialogue but also keeping them apart. The columns of commentary devoted to Hegel neighbour the commentaries on Genet, yet the space between them and inside of them is invaded by (or perhaps invites) fragments of quotations, extracts from dictionaries, framed in white and delineated by the shape of the letter, cut off mid‑word only to be continued several pages later. In this way, the page becomes a terrain of multivocal dialogue and, at the same time, the reader’s journey. However, this coexistence of meanings created through textual passages does not only signify a journey through fragments of thought. Allowing for a variety of configurations of letters and texts, the surface of the page acquires a metaphorical dimension of space. In the overture to Arw, a “textual score”, as Piotr Marecki [Editor-in-Chief of the Ha!art quarterly magazine - ed.] dubs Czycz’s polyphonic poem, the surface of the page becomes a space where conversations, commentaries and the narrative “description of what is happening and what is being heard” happen simultaneously, accompanied by musical pieces. In the reading guide which precedes the poem, various modes of underscore (or their absence) relate indexically to particular voices. The irregular and erratic spacing of the print reinforces the impression of simultaneous reverberation, but also of the voices competing against one another.

The ideal of liberature is realized, however, only in the complete integrity of the volume, which, in the fullness of its three‑dimensionality, fulfills the dream of a total work, where meanings are constituted just as much by the fabric of the book as by its language. The space of the volume, its shape and material structure, “the representing world”, becomes a part of the message concerning external reality: “[ … ] a liberartist must enbook the world. He must place and fit into the book the multidimensional world of simultaneous events. Not in the text (the text is by nature flat and restrictive), but in the book – a multidimensional object‑thing of simultaneous events, where a text is only one of the planes of events.” (N)ondescription of the World created by Radosław Nowakowski, the author of the above words, and published in leporello format, where consecutively opened pages, through their spatial indeterminacy, remind one of the works of Escher and of the Moebius band, appears as a malleable metaphor which creates folds and loops of reality. In Sienkiewicz Street, written by the same author, the plot is delineated by a stroll taken by a casual traveller through the main street of Kielce. The book’s codex form is only apparent – to almost literally enter the text, the reader must unfold a 10.5 meter long concertinaed sheet of paper together with its side wings. There, the text traces the complex trail of the journey: of objects, graphically surfacing out of the text, and of the thoughts of the protagonist as well as of the people he passes by.

Oka-leczenieOka‑leczenie [Eyes‑ore] comes the closest to the realization of the ideal total work. In this book, the letter, the page and the volume create an integrated source of meanings. The very structure of the book, three subcodexes merged into one, forces upon the reader a sense of the circularity of the tactile experience – the opening of the book in fact never ends, since the closing of one part begins the opening of another. On a very basic level, this tactile circularity communicates the existential cycle of death, conception, birth, death, conception, and so on. The page numbering (with negative numbers in the scenes of agony and positive in the part concerning Dante’s birth) cements the trivolume not only with respect to the dimension of time, but also enriches this dimension with the space of an intangible experience of chora, a pulsating rhythm of intimacy of the mother‑to‑be (the Roman page numbering of the middle section). The emanational text (for instance, in the first volume concerning death) grants an insight into the fading consciousness of a dying man. Yet it also allows one to hear what is hidden from the participants of a banal conversation in a hospital: an intimate exchange between a couple, which leads to an erotic finale. In the second codex, on the other hand, an invisible text emerges out of conversations in the maternity ward of a hospital – “a formal analogy of the prenatal development and the growth of a child.” (Zenon Fajfer, W stronę liberatury [Towards Liberature]). At the same time, the emanational strategy submerges the reader into an additional iconosymbolic space which emerges between the grapheme (the letter), the lexicon and the syntax, which further amplifies the internal integrity of the trivolume: each level of reading is rooted in the one that precedes it. In its particular way, Oka-leczenie realizes the postulate of Mallarmé: “the book, a total expansion of the letter, ought to directly and thanks to its equivalents, extrapolate movement and spacing, and begin some game that affirms fiction.” (Stéphane Mallarmé, Poésies et autres textes [Poetry and other texts]).

One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems The integrity of the volume in the aforementioned texts is achieved through the more or less complex permeation and cooperation, on various levels, of the letter, the page, the picture, space and their structured unions. Yet, a kind of à rebours integrity of the volume can also be achieved through destruction. The volume can dominate the page, subjugate it completely and even demand its material annihilation. Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems is composed of pages cut up into strips; each strip contains one verse of a sonnet. The destruction of the page allows for the creation of a countless number of combinations of verses, each forming a separate poem. A different instance of self‑destruction – a kind of “negative disintegration” of the whole volume – is exemplified by the novel The Unfortunates published in a box which contains bindings of pages. The contingency of reading, enforced by the structure of the volume, is a mimetic index of the randomness of reality, both external and represented. This randomness is rendered by the physical makeup of the book: 27 loose bindings which, apart from the first and the last “are intended to be read in random order.” (B.S. Johnson, a note on the inside of The Unfortunates box.)

It is striking, however, that liberature, which to such an extent depends on the materiality of its fabric, is able to escape that materiality and in a rhizomatic movement relocate itself into the virtual space of the internet. Before that space became technologically available, there appeared books which intuitively sensed its advent and, still bound by the physical integrity of the codex, attempted to overcome the limitations of their own material form and space, employing – instead of rhizomatic technology – a rhizomatic technique (of narration, depiction and argument). Among such proto‑hypertexts, we find, of course, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Walter Benjamin’s nomadic The Arcades Projects, some stories by Borges, Ronald Sukenick’s non‑linear novels, devoid of cause‑effect relations (for instance, Bossa Nova), or the consciously metatextual rhizomatic Mille Plateaux by Deleuze and Guattari. More clearly formulated attempts at decentralization and de‑hierarchization of the narrative, stripping it of its “progress”, its classical core, are found governing Cortázar’s Hopscotch or Johnson’s The Unfortunates, yet there, paradoxically, the rhizomatic principle is bound by the complete freedom of choice – the rhizome is chaotic, the text does not mark the point of convergence (the link) between the paths that the reader travels. However, it is obvious that these attempts at applying “the medium of the book to the simultaneity and multiplicity of the strata of our perception ( …) within the framework of the ontology of the traditional text are possible only to a certain extent.” (Karin Wenz, Der Text im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit [The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction]). The proper element of the rhizomatic text is the virtual space of the internet; let us add – its literary embodiment is the hypertext novel, a phenomenon with over 20 years of history. Hyperfiction defeats the linearity of a codex book – not only does it allow for a non‑sequential reading, but actually enforces it.

The requirements posed by liberature shape a new kind of recipient. The experience and the behaviour of an empirical reader in the traditional mode are rather precisely programmed: he follows the footsteps of the model reader through the paths delineated by the text, and his task is to approach his virtual prototype as closely as possible. A certain variation and at the same time a disturbance in this structure of expectations and strategies was the recognition of open works (Umberto Eco) or scriptible texts (Roland Barthes) which introduce uncertainty and play into those structured expectations and modes of behaviour. But neither the open work in Eco’s understanding nor Barthes’ scriptible text negates the structures of response written into the texts – instead, they form a spectrum of parallel paths and alternatives. Certainly, however, both the open work and the scriptible text do constitute a qualitative change in “programming” the reader’s experience: his active and creative participation becomes necessary in the “production of senses” and, in a way, is written into the structure of the work by appropriately devised gaps or omissions.

Liberature or total literature,
Korporacja Ha!art, Cracow 2010
The liberary text is the crowning of this tendency: here the visuality plays a role just as important as the semantics of language. Such a text enforces a reading which is nonsequential, nonlinear, and which enforces (more or less conscious, more or less contingent) decisions. The reader, whether he likes it or not, takes over a large portion of the author’s responsibilities; the author, on the other hand, abdicates the position of an absolute creator, a final authority on meaning, and assumes the role of a “designer of the experience of response” and his position is “‘reduced’ to one of the many co‑creators of the work.” (both quotations from Liliana Bieszczad, Sztuka w epoce cybernetycznej: pomiędzy estetyzacją rzeczywistości a ontologizacją sztuki [Art in the Cybernetic Era: Between Aesthetizing Reality and Ontologizing Art]). The recipient, as Ryszard Kluszczyński has put it, “turns out to be a fragment of the same structure/process that he appeared to be ‘external to, a fragment that is decisive both of the shape that this process eventually assumes and of the sense that it realizes’.” (Ryszard W. Kluszczyński, Interaktywność – właściwość odbioru czy nowa jakość sztuki / kultury [Interactivity – a Property of Reception or a New Quality of Art/Culture]). The role of the reader described in this way exceeds the classical distinction between the Dionysian and the Apollonian reader: the reader of liberature, to a greater or lesser degree, becomes an interactive and aleatory recipient.

A multiplicity of parallel paths of the experience of reading is written into the very structure of the liberary text. The order of reception arranges the text into sequences of perception and extracts certain (rather than other) collisions of senses in the work; one cannot innocently return to another sequence. Interactivity becomes if not an aesthetic category then a behaviour of the recipient written into the text – the kind of behaviour which is unpredictable to the last and responsible for the unfolding of the text in the reading experience, and thus also for determining its final structure in a particular act of reception. The liberary text disturbs the structures of expectations founded upon the syntagmatic order and the strategies of choices particular to the traditional linear text. If there is any order inscribed in its structure, it is one based on simultaneity, coincidence and wandering. The aleatory principle and the spatial rhizome appear in place of the logocentric model; this spatiality can be constituted by physical space as in the case of “paper” liberature, or virtual space, as in the case of e‑liberature (hypertext). It is not difficult to notice that the dominant principle of the construction of the liberary text is the principle of simultaneity, adopted from the visual arts.

Simultaneity is not only the property of the most complex forms, where textual intentionality, visuality of language and the spatiality of the volume create an integrated entirety (the simultaneity of the material, iconic and verbal messages); it is also the organizing principle in texts where the iconic element is absent or reduced to the size of the font or the demarcation and placement of sub‑texts coinciding on the same page (the simultaneity of verbal messages). In each case, it is responsible for the integrity of the hybrid elements of the work.

One could presume that such simultaneity of the two ontological orders (the intentional and the material/visual) will inevitably result only in the aporetics of the reading experience. Yet it is not so: both orders can compete against one another, but they can also cooperate, creating a different reading experience. In other words, the simultaneity of the hybrid can project two vectors: it can construct a teleological union of the two aforementioned orders of semiotic media (iconic and symbolic), but it can also have a diametrically opposed effect: it can lead to the diffusion of meanings in the experience of reading. In either case, the reading experience enters realms unknown to the reception of conventional literature.

Professor Wojciech Kalaga's article was originally published in the book Liberature or total literature published by Ha!art as a part of the Liberature series.