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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Thoughts on Rochelle Owens: Patterns of Animus, Part 3, The Ludwig Skulls

Rochelle Owens's latest work, Part 3: The Ludwig Skulls, is a part of a larger work, Patterns of Animus, which has been published online in Poems and Poetics edited by Jerome Rothenberg, and Jacket. The overall work, Patterns of Animus, can be said to constitute a neural network of patterns related to the creative process, which is also a practice of intentional destruction on signifiers and the meaning-making mechanisms in all their manifestations. In "Part 3, The Ludwig Skulls," the incantation-like repetitions and the horror that the Patterns of Animus images evoke suddenly takes a dark turn into deep sadness, loss, and a sense of shock on contemplating what happens after death. She focuses on the skulls of Ludwig von Beethoven and Ludwig Wittgenstein, pulling them together as revolutionary geniuses, the first whose skull was studied after his death in order to posit a connection between nature (the skull you were born with) and genius.

Male Skull, Male Genius

Owens's primary emphasis is on the deep questioning of society’s tendency to place male genius on a pedestal and then make the criterion of excellence something that only highly charismatic and hyperbolically dramatic males can achieve.

The act of disarticulating a skeleton in order to study the skull is a metonymy for fragmentation. In this case it is a systematic dismantling that gives rise to the existence of multiple meanings, multiple interpretations. The process constitutes a persistent and grotesque “memento mori,” and, like the memento mori of Renaissance art, it serves as a reminder of death that is supposed to make one’s appreciation of life the most keen. Nevertheless, such a memento mori also posits a kind of living horror, a waking nightmare of life in which the haunting presence of death is inescapable and even joy can only be maximized by smashing it together with death.

It’s very much a Renaissance motif, which one sees not only in paintings but also in poetry and drama. “Alas, poor Yorick” is perhaps the most famous reference, when Hamlet gazes onto the skull of the famous actor, Yorick, whose reputation has faded, and all that is left is the skull.   The idea is expressed in the line from “The Ludwig Skulls” --“only death gives life meaning.”

Technologies of Revelation

When a body is dissected, it is taken apart to explore and uncover what lies hidden. In "The Ludwig Skulls," there is more than method used in this process of revealing patterns and other phenomena. Owens explores the technologies of revelation; namely cameras, projection, and light. She repeats the following passage:

      Camera zooming and panning

      projection screen

      solar light slashes (“Patterns of Animus” part 3)


The juxtapositions of the frantic camera, the fragmentation of language via letters (as Wittgenstein broke apart language to expose the ultimate futility of using it to convey universal meaning), with the routine support work of a lab tech, and the energizing qualities of hot, black coffee, combine to shred and break apart the elitist carapace of knowledge and culture.

The process of disaggregation is more important to the process of revelation than one might think. The disarticulation of a skeleton is clearly a dismantling of the bodies (of authority, of knowledge) of the past. As one contemplates the fragmentations, one might think of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto from 1909. However, Marinetti was in large part simply reacting against aristocratic or bourgeois sensibilities. Owens, however, introduces a subversive humor. The memento mori of a Ludwigian skull  a response to the continued lionizing of the “great male skulls” that make it impossible to break free from old paradigms because both the beliefs and the countering subversions are held in the skulls of the Ludwigs, who represent dead, white European males and the mainstream European intellectual tradition.

The central irony that a deaf man can write some of the world’s most stirring music has been a paradox that haunts people who learn the history of Beethoven’s life. They do not realize what an iconoclast he was, and they forget the context of Romanticism and some of its most important terms: the ineffable and the sublime to express almost mystical or transcendental awareness.  He embraced revolution in the sense that it disrupted the order, and in the chaos seethed a cauldron of potential.

Wittgenstein writes about the ultimate impossibility of language to communicate meaning. How different is what Wittgenstein saying about language than what Beethoven did with music?  The musical notes he cannot hear are the words that float around, unmoored from their meanings.

Skulls and Puzzle Bones

Owens suggests that to truly create a work that breaks free from the strictures of dominant culture paradigms, it is necessary to identify the underpinnings (the “skulls”) and to interject light, nature, and natural processes (life as well as rot) and then to reconfigure both language (“cursing / howling / screaming”) and the essential order (the “puzzle bones”), and then to juxtapose decay with the vital fluids of life (spit, blood, gore).

As pointed out before, Wittgenstein stated, among other things, that language has a certain irreducibility, and that it is not capable of expressing the ineffable (“about which we cannot speak we must consign to silence”), or if it is, it is only by creating language that is the equivalent of silence, a kind of white noise of random juxtapositions.

Owens contends that to overcome the embedded patriarchy and hegemonic strictures of language, one must move to the visual (the “camera zooming and panning”) that triggers the parts of the brain that can admit new patterns and are not trapped in the pattern-recognition / meaning construction of language or music built within “old skulls.”

When construction and subversion (or deconstruction) are all constructed of the same materials and when the builders and the subversives are of the same group, there is no subversion at all. All that happens is a transfer of power, and the King accedes to a cousin, the Duke. In the end, the bastions of power are reinforced. The ten percent become the one percent. All they have done is create a smaller, and tighter elite by keeping the masses busy by going to war with themselves.

In the end, it is the essence of the human body itself that offers a pathway to illumination and the production of the kind of art that exposes the mysteries of life itself.

---Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

    Norman, Oklahoma




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