In his review of Broken Theory by new media artist and theorist Alan Sondheim, Aden Evens traces Sondheim's eclectic and stylistic meditations on the limits of philosophy, language, and code, expressed through the author's experimental art and research projects. Sondheim's fragmentary monograph and Evens' review by extension explore the inevitability of failure as an 'ontological guarantee' and suggest writing as a necessary—albeit inadequate and unfulfilling—response.
It isn’t really a book that submits to review. For one thing, it has no patience for binaries, the emperor gesturing judgement with his thumb; when it encounters a binary, as in its frequent considerations of the digital, that binary is immediately punctured or submerged or eroded or exploded by exposure to its outside. But only the crudest reviews orient toward a binary, anyway. Even a scale, ostensibly endowed with greater nuance, is regarded in this book with suspicion. It’s a book filled with pain—“Suffering is ontology” (137)—because writing pain most readily calls forth the specter of the body, approaches most closely the real that always withdraws from representation. But this is not doctor’s office pain that scales from 1 to 10. Indeed, in one section, Sondheim attempts to culture a mathematics that rejects (as cheating!) the stability of integers, instead queasily building elements based on the transcendental number, e, to found a jagged and imperfect arithmetic that would dance about the sterile regularity of the natural numbers. But like all the other sections of the book, that project is soon left to founder, incomplete, abandoned in a mildly abashed parentheses: “(I know nothing about mathematics)” (83).
Alan Sondheim’s Broken Theory further precludes review by doing all the work itself. It levies its own reflexive judgement—a hard pan—but that only makes it more self-aware than most of what gets published. In the land of the blind, and so on. Acknowledging its own failure up front, it fails too to exorcise that failure, resorting to confession, lamentation, self-recrimination, a recurrent rhetoric of disappointment and shortfall, though even these expressions of inadequacy—(the book’s key term)—hint at a degree of pride, and for all its profession of failure, this book never stoops to apology.
So it can’t be reviewed but I’m reviewing it anyway, which might as well be the book’s formula, or maybe just its tactic: it starts (again and again) from the premise that failure is the only option, that inadequacy awaits any possible development, and that to succeed would be an even greater failure, for there would then be nothing left (to say); and then the book, and we the readers, get to see what happens, what issues from this non-original origin of inevitable (“future anterior”) inadequacy. It must be understood that the book does not contrive to fail, does not perform its inadequacy for the reader, for Sondheim abhors performativity. Rather it aims for authenticity, a genuineness that is both personally and metaphysically unreachable, and if this and every one of the book’s aims are doomed to fall short, nevertheless it does not stop reaching, does not hide behind glib poststructuralist double-entendre or peel back its confessional tone to reveal yet another mask behind the mask. This is not a cosmic joke, it doesn’t fuck with the reader: Sondheim means every word (and group of characters and string of typographic symbols) from the bottom of his soul, an impressive feat in itself, for how does one mean a semicolon?
Starting with the inevitability of failure, where does one go from there? This question, the book’s (or Sondheim’s) compulsion, inaugurates an experiment, writing “improvised in real time” (220). Which is to say, Sondheim is just as curious, just as uncertain about where to go as are we readers, and can answer this compulsive question only by writing. (He has written every day, the “Internet Text,” at least since 1994. Camus’ Sisyphus is too much of a fixed point, too pat of a response to the why question, which is why it is not invoked in Broken Theory.) In the face of this ontologically guaranteed failure, why write anything? But isn’t that precisely the neurotic fixation, the question as fetish, that drives this book from one word to the next?
Actually the book’s formula—the inadequacy of inadequacy—can be more precisely described, allowing that that formula asserts itself more and less from section to section. Pondering language and its relationship to truth in the opening sections of the book, Sondheim hints at the desire, inherently unfulfillable, to say what is outside of or beyond language, to confront the “muteness of the real” (15), to make that theory or poem or gesture or sound or artwork or codework that would finally enunciate the origin (and so also the end) of language, meaning, value, life, etcetera. He thereby establishes a topology of “this side” and “that side,” or inside and outside. “I like to believe I’m working on a frontier,” but “beyond the Pale there’s nothing but the agony of shadows” (123). And the book then becomes an expression of the horrifying, impossible wish to travel to the other side, and also a journal of the repeated failures to do so.
On page 42, Sondheim recounts an early exposure to (academic) philosophy, when in 1962 he was given a copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He emphasizes his particular fascination with Wittgenstein’s discussion of the Sheffer stroke, a single binary logic operator, usually called NAND or not-both, from which all the operations of binary logic can be constructed. Broken Theory deploys the Sheffer stroke at a few different points, but Wittgenstein’s influence is still more pervasive: Sondheim’s project might perpetuate Wittgenstein’s closing gesture in the Tractatus, where Wittgenstein, having ascended many steps of careful reasoning to achieve a perspicuous vantage point, kicks away his ladder, its rungs, from that lofty overlook, now appearing flimsy and without substance. (Even more germane, perhaps, is Wittgenstein’s late-career metaphor from Philosophical Investigations (§119), running his head up against the limits of language. Sondheim’s book inspects the contusions and swellings that result from this quixotic undertaking.)
So, yes, the theory of this book is broken, by design and of necessity; it is fragmentary, incomplete, undisciplined, both under-edited and overwrought, more earnest than calculated, easily distracted and obsessively focused. But, as broken theory, it also theorizes the break (between this side and that, for instance), approaching it along one path and then another. Philosophical analysis only gets you so far, so why not try some pastoral poetry, which might itself break down into automatic writing, concrete poetry, memoir, rants, lists, outlines, and other formal schema, typos left standing, extemporaneous speech-to-text software dictation, artificially intelligent dialog, prose that’s bent (and broken?) by computer code, littered with the syntactic markers and delineations of a formal language. Perhaps this praise is too faint, but I was repeatedly even continually amazed at the remarkable diversity of styles, subject matters, ideas, vocabularies, forms, the sheer number of authors of this work, a fecundity that exists in a paradoxical tension with the repetition compulsion that also drives this book forward and unites its many authors under one name. Bracing, then, is the relative clarity of the last few sections of the book, which offer some guidance about how to understand what one has just read, and even more incongruous the almost thetic quality of the brief but revealing interview with Sondheim, conducted by Ryan Whyte in the monograph’s closing pages.
For it is more typical of Broken Theory to incorporate the brittle syntax of formal discourse via an act of miscegenation, wherein mathematics, computer languages, even structuring punctuation are stripped of their austerity and invited to mingle with “ordinary” philosophical or poetic or maybe neurotic language. “When I write a text on mathematics, it is not an exercise, but through 0 and 1, a penetration among analogic and digital discourses, an entanglement refusing an unraveling” (196). The result is not just that mathematics and digital code blur at the edges, begin to vibrate and circulate well outside of their traditional domains, but also that the philosophy and poetry leverage the rigidity of this borrowed formality, setting in relief a linguistic logic that usually remains tacit or at most implicit in speech and writing. Sondheim insists that a closed system is a dead system, and so he refuses to respect the rules that sustain the hermetic perfection of formal language, preferring, in mathematical terms, “open sets and the dimensions of thought always ragged at the edges” (35). (In differential topology, a closed set is one that includes all of its own edges, whereas an open set feathers into nothingness at its borders, suggesting a “ragged” indeterminacy.)
In that regard, Sondheim refers throughout the book to his enduring avatars, often named Alan Dojoji and Julu Twine, which serve as alter egos, as interlocutors, as experimental superficies, as ideal bodies, as dance partners, as objets d’art, and as monkey wrenches to scramble (or break open) the spatial, corporeal, textual, and logical codes of three-dimensional virtual environments. He describes a family of techniques in which he distorts data intended to represent the reticulated motions of a virtual body; in some cases it’s motion capture (MOCAP) data recorded from actual human bodies moving in space. Those eroded and malformed data then instruct Sondheim’s avatars, generating inhuman, disturbing, erotic, and uncanny deformations of a virtual human form, heads involuting into pelvises, bodies turning inside-out to ingest the sky, jerky displacements of limbs that cross a threshold and lose their recognizable orientation to the trunk. These experiments, described elliptically or simply presumed in some sections of the book, typify Sondheim’s method, challenging virtual and actual by opening passages between them, so that both become broken and must be reinvented within an intolerable alliance. As is evident throughout the book, there is no claim to mastery here, Sondheim is not in charge; he establishes the conditions of the experiment and then hopes that something happens. It usually does.
So it goes with Sondheim’s many forays into music and sound art. “I also am a musician and that I confine myself to acoustic instruments, with an emphasis on bowed or plucked strings, but also including various woodwinds etc. […] I want to see what I can do, what comes close to teetering in my improvisations, almost falling into error, clumsiness, awkwardness, noise. I play super-fast as if I follow the sound instead of generate it” (213). No surprise the preference for analog continuity and the tactility of strings and woodwinds; a keyboard instrument would be too rational, harder to “mess up,” favoring the discrete and the orderly. Here again it’s a matter of pushing to the limit, playing so quickly that instrument and fingers both exceed the controlling will of the musician, who observes but does not determine, following rather than generating the sound. Music has been a prominent and productive mode of art practice throughout Sondheim’s career, but it receives relatively little attention in Broken Theory. He avers that truth is mediated by language (18) but also writes of “the resonance of truth in sound” (17). Is it sound’s extra-linguistic, possibly unmediated relationship to truth that leaves Sondheim wary? Might music and sound risk a transport to “that side” of the threshold, a contact with the real, whereas Sondheim wishes to remain “teetering” at the limit, falling into and always falling short of the break?
Maria Damon’s succinct preface admirably captures as much as one can of this book designed to thwart any summary treatment, emphasizing the contrariety of the logical alongside the affective, the raucous creative diversity of discourses figured as islands disguising an intuitive but unseen underwater connection. It’s a passing mention but still a miscalculation, however, to choose the word “madness” as exemplary of Sondheim’s compulsive stuttering. Madness for Sondheim would be the easy way out, a blanket excuse that would disburden him of the heavy responsibility to which this book and really his whole life are the response. That is, the need to write, the repeated, frustrated, futile attempts to get to that other side, the inadequacy and the deliberate, painful embrace of the inadequacy, all stem from an imperative that is ultimately ethical and political but not capricious or arbitrary. And as Damon’s own deft description of the book makes clear, it is not madness that explains how this book works but careful and close attention to the consistencies amidst its diversity.
No doubt there are multiple ways to read Broken Theory. (Sondheim suggests on page 14 that “The texts might be entered anywhere, left anywhere,” but this deferential invitation seems to be offered under duress, as the previous page, which opens Sondheim’s text, has already signaled some sort of appeasement: “I needed an introduction.”) In one section, titled “My ‘Innovations’” (113ff.), Sondheim lists many of the remarkable art-science-research projects that he has undertaken over the last half-century or so, most of which involve pushing technologies (and sometimes bodies) to and past their normative limits, to see what happens beyond the threshold, maybe to instigate a break. Examining that impressive and exciting list, one wonders whether the embrace of (or resignation to) failure is, after all, a kind of extended posturing, whether Sondheim has in this book steeped himself in failure, only to emerge, suppressing his triumph, on the other (purportedly unreachable) side. But inasmuch as success, for Sondheim, equals death, for then the thing would be truly finished, I suppose that emerging on the other side is just one more shortfall, the success of failure, the failure of success, the failure of failure, inadequacy.