Writing with the set

A provoacation and an approach to writing.


4/22/199817 min read

So here’s something: A rather circuitous description of the way I would like to start working on a project together, a kind of justification to take time out of the teaching schedule and web-mania and get involved with the old bastard theatre again, a validation of theatre and strange working processes, a way of thinking about moving forward into the territory of our idea with an idea about territory.

I have just finished rereading (again) the introductory chapter of Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘Thousand Plateaus’, ‘The rhizome’. This somewhat difficult and inspirational chapter contains many of the concepts (I should say, after McLuhan, ‘percepts’) that circulate in critical circles such as the Body Without Organs, Nomadology, the Abstract Machine et al. What struck me this time around though was the realisation that so much of this chapter is about (or could be about) writing, and how much of it prefigures what Ulmer calls ‘writing with the set’ and I call for my own means ‘Network Writing’ viz a viz my piece Self Intra Network (SIN).

Ulmer coins this phrase from a close reading of Derrida, and takes it to mean writing with “…the ‘set’ of possible terms collected under the heading of a given concept or category, rather than to select one part and suppress the remainder” (Ulmer 1996). This inspires an exciting approach to writing, and reinforces the feeling I get from ‘The rhizome’; that writing is a place/space that can incorporate and extend just about anything. Ulmer uses this percept, along with Derrida’s further elaboration of the Chora (a blank, uninscribed space, between the material and immaterial, the home of all creativity), to figure out his own pedagogic and creative writing technique of ‘myStory’, a kind of extended meditation on cultural icons, autobiography and techniques of transposition that result in a product text, where the text is the trace of the map of the exercise (Ulmer 1996). To critique Ulmer from the point of view of Deleuze and Guattarri seems a little arrogant, but there is a sense that Ulmer promotes writing of the trace rather than making the text a map in itself. This is, of course, a problem with all linear (and much ‘nonlinear’) writing; the product can’t escape it’s own nature as artifact, an always cooling chunk that falls to earth from the hot flight of the creative act. An Icarus reference for you.


The Spatial, the use and active conception of space, is one of the markers of a culture. Historically we can trace the development of the spatial, where it starts as a wide enacted conception of the afterlife (in Dante) and is now tending towards becoming the philosophers stone in the grand unifying ‘theories of everything’ that physicists love, as a stripping out of the emotional and imaginative aspects of spatial conception. The key moments for our culture in this de-mystifying process are the development of perspective in art and the development of physics, particularly post-Newtowian and Einsteinian physics. I say post-Newtowian because Newton was a deep believer, and wrote over one million words on theology in the course of his life. It wasn’t until after Newton that the ‘pure’ version of his thought was developed where space becomes a void which contains the world and it’s objects - a kind of billiard table and balls - where the perfection of action-reaction could play out. Einstein and other Physicists of this century have extended the conception of space to the point where gravity and matter itself are effects of the warping and twisting of space, that is space and not matter becomes the prime material of the universe. For instance recently all matter has been seen as the result of the interaction of up to eleven dimensions of space - those higher than the fourth are seen to be smaller than the smallest subatomic particle, hence we cannot directly experience them.

While they are intriguing, these highly speculative spatial systems seek the kind of closure that has always turned out to be refutable or part of the picture. Likewise with Deleuze and Guattari, where often their anti-systems seem built on a pure notion of space which can seem rather cold and esoteric. On the contrary, we can also read them in a way that leads us t believe that there are grades, degrees and qualities of space that are not reducible to absolute schemas. The first conception of theirs (from later in

It is not space that refuses emotion, but we who refuse emotion the ability to be spatial. Margaret Wertheim posits (in much simpler terms than Deleuze and Guattari it must be said) that space is going through a kind of re-deification with the population of cyberspace by a general public. When we think about it a little, this doesn’t seem too implausible - the rapid ascendency of the web and related protocols like email and newsgroups bear this out. The only hesitancy I have about the idea is that much of cyberspace is so dull, the cyburbs, and that so much of the general gold-rush to cyberspace is corporate driven and leaves embodiment behind - just when we were getting to see why embodiment is so important (another spatial arrangement after all). Still, there are spaces on the web and interactive virtual works that do manage to include the emotional and imaginative in some degree (in my mind, to about a thousandth of a degree of one good night in the theatre…), so we mustn’t give space up yet, allow it to be taken over by Physicists and Corporate concerns. Because it such a deep concept and a difficult articulation, no one really has got their head around space in the theatre yet. Let alone what cold happen when a virtual world and a theatrical world combine (Aside: Another piece in here for me, the articulation of a transtheatre analogous to the recent and exciting formulation of a transarchitecture where architecture allows itself to cross into cyberspace and explore the ideas of interactivity…)

One of the oppositions (they might call it a non-binary opposition) that D&G use is the idea of the map and the idea of the trace. The first is a corollary to the rhizome itself, and the second is like the script/artifact, that which is produced in the final instance. In a way the map is the live making and the trace is the ready-to-be-analysed, the artifice/artifact remainder:

“What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious… The map is open and connectable in all it’s dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification… The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged “competence”… [the trace] is like a photograph or X ray that begins by selecting or isolating, by artificial means such as colorations or other restrictive procedures, what it intends to reproduce. It has organised, stabilised, neutralised the multiplicities according to the axes of significance and subjectification belonging to it.” (Deleuze and Guattari. 1984)

One thing that strikes me about the map/trace conception is that we can exchange the terms ‘map and trace’ with ‘performance and text’ and get another angle on it. I hope to come back to this later, but their map inspires you to another way of working, one that may be impossible, where the work operates at a high pitch of potential without ever seeking closure (the plane of consistency). This seems closer as a promise in hypertext but - as with many hypertexts - the conception is troubled by the ultimate and paradoxical effort to produce something, to take aim at a certain point and shoot the thing so you can say it’s done. The beauty of the chapter is that it does, never the less, inspire you to have a go and do some wild abstracting, aiming to produce a map with the help of the abstract machine of a text assemblage. For Deleuze and Guattari the problem is not abstraction per se, but that the abstractions are not abstract enough: We fail when we abstract to the merely theoretical or categorical, we need to go further, elude our own complacency and slip the desire to master things. Deleuze and Guattari have a neat idea later in the book where they state they are only interested in their philosophy as a useful thing, like a brick is useful to break a window. Deleuze’s view on this comes out when he describes an early phase of his career in the following graphic terms (maybe this is just an excuse to include one of my favourite quotes?!)

“What got me through that period was conceiving of the history of philosophy as kind of arse-fuck, or, what amounts to the same thing, an immaculate conception. I imagined myself approaching an author from behind and giving him a child that would indeed be his but would nonetheless be monstrous.” (Deleuze 1990)

Here is what Deleuze is on about here in a nutshell: The elaboration of the concept - in this case of the process of philosophy - as an event rather than an essence, with the event itself existing beyond the rational (what could be less rationale than a belief in the possibility of an immaculate conception?). The event is also not a limited spectacle, but produces a hybrid being which joins two series - Deleuze and his philosopher - into a third term, the monstrous - which in this case simply means his texts. The thing I really like about this quote is the tone, one which suits bastard acts of creation, where an arse-fuck can be likened immediately to an immaculate conception. Our conceptions and abstractions have the added intensity - and demands - of being immanent on the material plane. This attitude is consistent with Ulmer’s dictum; it’s not what the theory is, it’s what you do to/with it that counts. Convenient Autobiography

In an act of retroactive autobiography of my own, I saw tonight that several key works of my own youth which I had dismissed as completely juvenille are, in fact, an indicator that I was trying to work in this way - with writing as an abstract/immanent assemblage of concepts/text that may be monstrous - well before I had any conceptual/perceptual tools to elaborate my intuitions. These intuitions also help me explain to myself (and now you) why I treasure the theatre above all forms of writing, including the experiments I have made in hyperfiction.

Arbitrary Forces

But lets go back to the Nineteen year old I was, and the several writing events that I see now (or write now) as meaningful in this context: In the first I am standing in front of my baffled writing class explaining an elaborate and completely arbitrary system of writing that I had used to construct several poems and a short story. In this system I used the Fibonacian series (the Golden Mean) as a way of controlling sentence or line length through syllable counts. The Fibonacian series is a simple mathematical series that goes like this: Start with the numbers 1 and 2 and then add them together, use the result and add it to the previous highest number… It looks like this:

1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 and so on…

The Fibonacian series is ‘meaningful’ in the context of Art History because the further the series moves on, the closer the fraction expressed by the last two in the series (ie 5/8’ths or 89/144’ths) comes to the Golden Mean, that ideal ratio that describes proportionate perfection. My foray into this technique was an attempt to find a parallel method of composition to the beloved Bach fugue. This seemed ludicrous to my fellow students as a way of generating texts, especially as the vogue then, as now, is to work from the assumption that writing is essentially an act of self revelation and/or depth psychology inspired by the various ‘daddies’ (and later ‘mummies’) of the twentieth century (Freud, Jung, Breton, Lacan, Kristeva et al). At the time I just learnt to bite my tongue, but now I would say that writing may indeed include these tropes, but in no way is restricted to them. The inclusion of arbitrary strictures, series and methodologies is no less valid than any other method - it’s all grist to the mill.

In the light of this context I was recently intrigued to be told that ‘Twin Peaks’ was the result of a generative and arbitrary strategy ( an anagrammatology if you will): various personally meaningful words were fed through a anagram generator, the results then served as a kind of set for the creation of the story. In itself the transposition of one work into another is nothing new, and we only need to remind ourselves of the various surrealist, dada and modernist practices of text generation and manipulation to see that there is a valid history of such acts.

Spatial Conceits

The second event that has retrospective significance is at the other end of that year, when I was trying to get a vast number of essays done in a week to complete the year. After doing many essays, I got to the final one; an essay on Eliott’s Waste land. Both exhausted and dismayed at having to pitifully dissect such a work, I declined the opportunity to write and instead fabricated (out of old cardboard, a few old chess pawns and some blutac) a game. I made a kind of 3d game board out of three pieces of card (x,y and z axis), and painted squares on it in two colours. The colours meant you had to ask the other players a question about the poem, if they answered to your satisfaction, you got to move on. In a gesture towards the futility of criticism and in the belief (which I still hold sometimes) that the only true response to a work of art is another work of art, there was no designated starting place and no particular goal to the game. I bundled it up with a terse note and a couple of dice and handed it in. Luckily my tutor for that course had a sense of humour…

Thirdly: One reason I was so tardy with my work was the grey box in the corner of my room, an expensive 18th birthday present from my parents: An 8086 computer with a whopping 256k of Ram, a single 360k floppy drive and a amber screen. More important than the box itself was what I was trying to do with the thing, trying to write a rudimentary CAD cum animation program that would make words move around the screen in an interactive liquid poetry. This was roughly analogous to the shift from collage to montage, from the still to the moving image. It would be quite some years before the software caught up with my conception of what that was about, and some years also before I learnt that there were many people thinking along the same lines, and better equipped (both in hardware and critical ways) to develop this kin(a)esthetic text (the work at the Visible Language Workshop of the MIT immediately springs to mind here).

Finally: Theatre. At the start of the year I realised the only way I would make it through an academic program was to do none at all, and swore it off. By the end of the year I was starving for it and had taken on some smaller roles in drama club shows. My attraction and deep immersion in acting lasted another ten years, and outstripped my desire to write for about eight of those years.

A broader percept of writing

The technological shift between my student year of 1986 and the year I stopped acting, 1996, is immense. In that time computers and interactive media got to the point where my ‘liquid poetry’ was commonplace, I surely wouldn’t have handed in a board game (because I would be paying for my education, and therefore not so free to explore crazy notions). And I started on a Uni course that had much in the way of ‘daddy’ and ‘mummie’ conceptions of literature but also the somewhat freeing subject of ‘electronic writing’ where I grabbed the ideas and the technology and ran - here was somewhere I could at least put the grey box, the liquid poetry and the literature as game things together. Also in the meantime I had stumbled across Deleuze and Guattari, and other techno-critics (Virilio, De Landa, Dery) so I was well primed to jump on the hypertext wagon and have a good go. A few years later I find myself at the whiteboard tutoring the stuff, and the theory still excites me - and that’s where I came in, rereading D&G in preparation for a tutorial. In the same context I have also come at key concepts of performance theory (as it is now called) from other angles: The dissolution of the univocal subject, the theoretical establishment of the posthuman, the multiplication of space as a metaphor and so on.

The key thing here is that I see anything as a writing tool now: I see the drama as a way of teaching form in multimedia (after Laurel) and I see any tools of information as writing tools. Lately I have started up the steep learning curve of 3d modelling and animation, and one of my primary objectives is to use it as a writing tool: how can the making and visualizing of space be a writing instrument, not just a modelling space? Likewise I have started to wonder how architecture can be a writing tool, another part of the abstract assembly of works? (Aside: how is the Eisenmann, Tschumi, Derrida creative project of the Parc De Villette writing?)

But this theatre thing, it still gets me. Not as an actor anymore but as a writer. The beauty of theatre is that the work is never finished, as a creative process (not often as an end product) it is always held in a kind of suspension, that plateau state that D&G marvel at. A script is rarely finished, merely halted in development (usually by the weariness or death of the author). The script is, like the fiction I derided above, a trace of a map. But then this other magical thing happens: someone else comes in, reads it, acts it, and makes a whole new thing from it. And then, even if this is great, this first assemblage is added to another, the audience, and the whole finally comes together in time, briefly, and then dies. It is one of the few arts with a life-cycle. A play that is not meant to be performed is no longer a play, it becomes merely literature, and a lot less fun to boot.

In praise of writing and rehearsing

Further to this are the development over the last20 years or so in the art of the devised work (where a collection of individuals make a work ‘on their feet’, exploring an idea, a percept, the merest hint of a story). The products of this way of working have often seem to be a little dull, but this may have more to do with a lack of time and understanding on behalf of the groups doing it, and partly my own fault and cultural position in that I don’t see enough of the good stuff. It may seem rather traditional of me to say that I prefer a separated process, a phase of writing without a cast and a phase of writing with. This is, of course, precisely the kind of tyranny that such groups are trying to avoid, but for me the separation allows certain qualities, tensions and contradictions to emerge. The first is vision, the second absorption and the third process - none of which are necessarily disallowed by devised theatre, it’s true. Ironically, it’s by the script/artifact that ‘great’ writers and theatre are known, seldom by the performance.

It’s my experience that it’s usually one person, even in the most democratic of arrangements, that have the motivating vision. In company theatre this person is the director, in devised companies it’s often the head figure or former of the company, sometimes it’s even the writer. Vision is a strange thing and much undervalued, an intangible and sometimes limited force, but something which has to be taken up. To extend the visual metaphor, vision is borne of insight and strives to work the contrary relationship in an audience, therefore vision must compel itself towards an audience for it to be satisfied, and come from experience to be grounded and active.

In this way the Parc de Villette project seems exemplary to me as a writing and a kind of performance: The vision is based on a firm conception of who and what the people are who might use the thing, and also an abstracted and multiplying engagement. One without the other is dull. There is a perfect example of this in our home town of Wellington: the concrete squares of that park by the seaside whose name eludes me, and the brilliance of the Athfield bridge that gets you there. For me the difference is vision, the ‘intertwingling’ of a ground or audience and an abstract, possibly arbitrary and artificial reality.

Absorption has to do with time, dwelling and opening. As a culture we often marvel at the beauty of peasant lives, or simple lives in remote villages and poor countries. We often crave the sense of connection that these people have, both to their community and their place. We fail to see our own alienating beauty because it is simply we who are living it, it is I who are absorbed in the life of I. This is a generalised problem of being and longing, and one that needs to be encouraged in the artist I feel. Things take longer than we think they should, we get impatient, we have deadlines and opening nights. Things also need more air around them than we think: I have talked to writers who fell, like I do, that the time spent writing includes the time spent either side of the act of writing, that it might take a few hours for half a scene, the inscribing of which may only take twenty minutes. The entry and exit from the act is important and vital to absorption. We unconsciously reflect this in our day to day lives by spending so much time ‘getting ready’ for our day, the ‘day’ itself may only take a few hours of the 24, the rest may seem like ‘rinse repeat’ but is always getting our feet further down into the mud. Cixious has a lot to say about this, about the difficulty of writing - she says the act of writing has all the effort of climbing up a ladder, but in fact you are trying to go down into things (Cixous, 1993). To be absorbed. At a practical level for me this means research until you can’t really bear it any more, until the ‘subject’ is second nature and no longer dominates you by a need to be expressed in itself - the trap that leads to ‘worthiness’.

The last thing is Process, a very broad category of description. In the development of theatrical texts, certain pressures and relaxations are needed. Once the research has fallen off you again, and you’re ready to climb down with the effort of going up, the whole thing becomes an extended form of breathing, where the in and the out phases can last for months, where the in can be the act of writing a draft that is tighter, more coherent, while the out can be the easing of strictures. Tension/release, with writing as with any organic or technical production: Lines on maps are released and then folded, ‘rewound’ to become other things.

Like a being though, these luxurious long-phase processes also much be mixed with intensities, flash points where everyone meets and suddenly has no respect for the work any more, where they question it relentlessly, maybe even beat it like a cheap cop, seeing what its’ accomplices are. Such workshops and meetings can be severe, even tempestuous and conflict-filled. Always though, there’s a kind of infected romanticism where egos and spirits clash, break, believe in the work again. This is why you have to choose your collaborators carefully; you must know them enough to think well of them after the event, even if you now hate them for what they have done (and they, you). I think in devised work, there is not sometimes the contrast between the long-phase and the short, and, like a person who has too easy a life (or too hard) they become monodynamic, predictable and boring. Now

But why do I bring all this up now, just as we are beginning a new project? Particularly a project that see us so geographically separated, and at a time in our lives where the theatre is so different for us both?

If the benefits of working in the same city, ‘on the floor’ as we have done before are those of proximity, the privilege of speech, and the pressure of productions, can their opposites be good for us now? Can we turn distance, writing and delay into powers for the work? This act of the slow, virtual collaboration has a different feel, almost remote and infinite, where we both sit at opposite time-zones nursing and adding to an abstract entity that we both have a picture of, but which is the result of those pictures mixing together; a series of meanings that point both to themselves and elsewhere with equal force.

It seems to me that we can work out a kind of operating methodology that plays out in space and time much as our chosen subject would: The subject of immigration/emigration is so much about the tension of holding two or more things together at once (the homeland, the new land, the dream or abstract conception, the customs, laws etc) and passing, almost like pure data, through one-way gates and the neutral smooth zones that connect the gates. Since I am in the mood to connect, I say that our situation is a part of the subject that we are writing about, both literally (since we are both immigrants at the moment) and more perceptually in that we making a journey to a writing project and space that exists only as an abstracted and virtual assemblage, where bits of writing will start to collect and become maps in a way that wouldn’t (couldn’t?) happen if we were home, together - becoming a new homeland of/for writing if you like. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in that kind of space to make new assemblages… further machines in time, more becomings-theatre to use a cliché of Deluzian scholarship.

And now I seem to be in a position where I can start a new project: having allowed myself to enjoy the arbitrary in the creative process, having jettisoned the ‘daddy/mummy’ of theatres past, and having fully embraced space - theatrical space and also the complex abstract space of the map - not as a guiding metaphor but as the material and subject plane of writing and performance itself.

Shall we begin?My post content