O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a King of infinite space…
‘On ne peut pas,’ Guillaume Apollinaire once said, ‘transporter partout avec soi le cadavre de son père’/ ‘You can’t carry your father’s corpse around everywhere you go’ (Apollinaire 2004: 93). In what may be a speculative and ironic allusion to this aphorism, Darren Tofts elegantly carries around the ghost of his symbolic father, Jorge Luis Borges, in alephbet, a book about nutshells and infinite space. The book takes its cue from ‘The aleph’, a short-story by the Argentinian writer about a point in space through which it is possible to see all other points, and from a quotation from Hamlet cited by Borges himself as the first epigraph to the story (Borges 2004: 118). A character himself in the story, Borges is introduced to the Aleph by Carlos Argentino, a poet who attempts to convey the effects of the Aleph in his work. Borges’ avatar is wary of the Aleph and, wisely, tries to avoid the ambitious and boisterous Argentino. I have reproduced Borges’ Shakespearean epigraph above to warn the reader that Tofts’ own confrontation with the infinite promises some spectral and sublime moments.
Darren Tofts is renowned as a cultural critic who writes on culture and new media, a reputation built on his fascination for the codes and discourses of cyberculture in the 1990s, but he also has more traditional antecedents in the field of literary studies as a respected Beckett and Joyce scholar. With alephbet, Tofts acknowledges his debt to Borges, an author whose works he read avidly aged sixteen and whose avatar, he admits, haunts him: ‘I am haunted by the avatar of Borges’ (12).
Alephbet is a collection of essays on ‘the uncanny prescience’ of Borges for the age of the hyperreal, cyberspace and posthumanism. As such, it is a companion piece to Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture (Tofts & McKeich 1998) where Tofts sought to define a new kind of discourse that would encompass the vocabularies of literature, art, philosophy, punk rock, cybernetics, typography and computer graphics. But the scope and tone of alephbet are quite different. In fact, the scope and tone and subject matter of each essay varies. We move from the nutshell of poems and short-stories to the infinite of the internet via sweeping vistas of the cinema, especially the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix (1999), the object of analysis in ‘The crystal method’ down to Plato’s cave and up again into the light and highrise of the hyperreal to encounter prose that is self-reflexive and increasingly reflective, only to be tricked in the last instance, when the spectre of Apollinaire returns not in Parnassus, but in Montparnasse.
Having read some of these essays earlier – many were published in journals including TEXT, 21C magazine, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art and H+ Magazine, collections such as Contemporary Poetics (ed Louis Armand) and 27/7: Time and Temporality in the Network Society (Robert Hassan & Ronald Purser), or as catalogue pieces for mainstream art galleries – I was interested to see how they would work in book format. As a book complete with preface and postscript, the reader is offered the chance to experience the full range of Toft’s versatility and to experience the essays’ interrelation. While Borges is our guide in this labyrinth about textuality, writing, and authorship, his short story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (Borges 1970a) in which, except for the signature, the novelist, Pierre Menard writes a text identical to Cervantes’ quixotic novel (1605), is the link between Borges and Tofts. At the intersection of their worlds, authorship is a casual, haphazard business and it is the reader who determines the nature of the text through, among other factors, attribution. The standard is set by Monsieur Teste (Mr Head), the avatar of the intellect who ‘ne connait que deux valeurs … le possible et l’impossible’ / ‘knows only two values … the possible and the impossible’ created by Paul Valéry in 1896 (Valéry 1999: 66). Or is it rather that the standard is set by Louis-Nicholas Ménard (1822-1901), an early Parnassian poet and author of the epic Prométhée délivré / Prometheus unbound (1844), better known as a scholar and thinker? Such is the wealth of literary citations, allusions and enticements in this book that the idea of a definite answer to these questions is impossible. Alephbet is indeed alluring precisely because Tofts constantly gestures towards new possibilities and thinks outside the cultural logic of linearity and binaries. His best essays are intertextual, intercultural and interdisciplinary.
Although primarily inflected by Borges’ artistry, Tofts’ writing is also informed by the styles and ideas of writers as diverse as James Joyce, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, William Gibson, Gregory Ulmer, Philip K Dick, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and others. Such writing resists categorisation, of course. Toft’s approach is an anti-method resembling that of Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1987). This anti-method is ‘metonymic’, by which he means it ‘dislocates and relativizes’. It ‘posits that the here is only a larger whole, the now an instant, in an ongoing process’ (Tofts, Kinnane & Haig 1994: 259). The nature of this anti-method is best described as ‘heuretic’, a Gadamerian neologism (after Hans-Georg Gadamer) sourced from Gregory Ulmer’s Heuretics: The Logic of Invention (1994). In Heuretics, Ulmer argues for a theory of invention based on Derrida’s technique of deconstruction (the act of inventive reading) toward a new pedagogy based on grammatology (inventive writing). Tofts, Kinnane and Haig define the term as follows:
This oddly resonates with creative writing research whereby the act of writing constantly entails the ‘creative’ and ‘abductive negotiation of text’, the invention of a new textual alchemy, the making of ‘a new abc’ (Tofts 2013: 10).
Alephbet is a playful book thus it is apt that the image reproduced before the preface comes from Jacques Tati’s film ‘Playtime’ (1967). It is also a serious book. It is a hybrid, oxymoronic and telescopic book. In ‘Incipit, incipience, inception’, Tofts explains how in the 1990s he turned his practice as a literary theorist towards media studies of the then emergent internet. Looking back to this transition, he is struck by the similarities between the worlds of literature and cyberspace. In particular, he is startled by those moments when Borges’ fiction anticipates ways of understanding the ambience and impact of computer networks; by the sheer power of the word:
In many respects, alephbet is a response to Borges’ comments that ‘I do not have aesthetics’ (Dutton 1977) and further that ‘I have used the philosophers’ ideas for my own literary purposes, but ... I have no personal system of philosophy’ (Dutton 1977). Invoking precepts from Plato to Baudrillard, Tofts explores modes of representation and, like Borges, suggests that language is the tenuous fabric that connects meaning and existence. Using the concept of avatar – a word that existed long before cyberspace  – he emulates a Borgesian subjectivity informed by two values that are crucial to Borges’ conception of reading, namely, the intellectual and the ethical. The reading subject is thus revealed to be a divided essence, appearing as both a product of the machinations of representation and an agent of those machinations.
‘Leanne, Borges & metaphysical perplexity’ re-introduces us to Borges’s world of textual mazes and mirrors, seeking and linking, unlinking and seeking anew across planes of perception and reception in some infinite library of the real, the unreal and the hyperreal. In some ways, it is a meditation on how metaphysics fares in the thoroughly mediated, digitised, networked, and programmed world we currently inhabit. It is informed by ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (1940) (Borges 1970b): what world is this and what am I in it?
The next essay ‘Epigrams, particle theory and hypertext’ is an examination of the visual epigrams interspersed through works by Borges, Calvino and Deleuze and Guattari. The essay enacts the circularity at the heart of their iconic books and gestures towards ‘When avatars attack!’. The link is provided by Calvino’s 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveller (Calvino 1982), which begins only to begin again, performing the impossibility of the possible, the possibility of the impossible, the anxiety of influence, confluence and recurrence.
But where is Ariadne when you need her? I must confess that I got lost in ‘Virtual curb crawling’. My excuse is that it was originally – and I am aware of the irony of using this word in the context of Toft’s work – a floor talk on Frances Stark’s My best thing, delivered at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne (April 2013). If I understand correctly, the piece highlights that the future has already arrived and that the textual and intertextual only anticipated the hypertextual. ‘Ow ah oo ga ma ma’. Yes, you could say that. I was resistant to the catalogue essay bearing that title, probably for lack of reference. Perhaps this is a comment on the fact that the forces conspiring against artistic expression are not those of tradition and its conventions, but a barrage of consumable discourses unleashed in the massive production machines of entertainment, commerce, and media.
With each passing decade the increase in the sheer scale of visual, verbal, and media culture is unprecedented. The question today is not simply how individual voices can take shape in such heteroglot ambience, but how they might register and be heard at all? ‘Echolalia’ goes some way to answering this question. ‘When avatars attack’ then answers the question by way of palimpsests. This essay reflects on the act of composition – rather than creation – as dream, borrowing, citation, allusion, pastiche, parody, plagiarism and remix enter into play. The avatar cannot theorise, let alone legitimise its own existence, except through writing. And so it does in a postscript titled to appeal to bon vivants, ‘amid the ceaseless aroma of turbot à la royale’, that may or may not have been translated by a photographer known for subterfuge or by a politician renowned for similar liberties.
Alephbet will inform, delight and entertain. It will give the reader some intimation of the origins of its alphabet. What it will not do is disclose its own code. There is no list of references, and no index. This is particularly annoying as some works – for example ‘The twilight’ – are not referenced. But perhaps this is because we are already in the future.
Consistently, Borges upheld the deep division that exists between the man and the writer. As suggested above, Darren Tofts implies that this division is at the heart of the aesthetics Borges denied having. As a man, and paraphrasing Dante, Borges also said; ‘I have committed the worst of sins… I have not been happy’ (Dutton 1977). Yet as a writer he succeeded through his writing in making each of his readers a companion and rescuer from the oblivion of death into a living presence. By conveying the anachronistic presence of Borges, alephbet emulates the Borgesian triumph that repeats the myth of Plato’s cave where the shadows return to life with blood. And Borges returns to life with our reading, even in the hyperreal. This is a wonderful homage.
Dominique Hecq is Associate Professor in Writing at Swinburne University of Technology. A French-speaker from birth, she writes in English and converses in Dutch, German and Italian. She has secretly learned Spanish so that she can read Borges in the original text. She won the inaugural AALITRA Prize for Literary Translation (poetry) from Spanish into English. Her new book of poetry will be launched in November 2014.
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Vol 18 No 2 October 2014
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews editor: Linda Weste