The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Translation:
The Materiality of Anne Carson’s Nox
The poetry of Anne Carson’s Nox is at once textual, visual, and – most significantly for the purposes of this essay – material. Nox does not adhere to a traditional textual or formal book structure; with its diversion from our expectations, it immediately calls our attention to its physicality. This attention to the work’s physical form invites an analysis of Nox‘s materiality. To read Nox, a reader must first remove the work from the hinged, book-like box that encases it. This will reveal that it consists of a single page, which is folded, accordion-style, to mimic and alter the form of a book. This single page has the appearance of a hand-made scrapbook that has been scanned and reproduced onto it. Nox can then be read by turning one folded “leaf” to the next, much like turning traditional pages, or by unfolding the single page, revealing its continuous and unbroken nature. These two types of physical interactions with the text offer very different reading experiences, and Nox invites readers to try both, once again calling their attention to the physicality of the text in their hands. On one side of the unfolding page, a reader encounters a collection of photographs, scraps of paper, handwritten notes, typed translations of Latin words, and other art objects. The back side is left blank. Through these words, images, and the blankness behind them, Carson builds a narrative that asks questions about translation and authenticity.
As this essay reveals, the material production of the physical container of Carson’s narrative both corroborates and extends these questions. Through Nox‘s contents and its materiality, Carson depicts her quest to understand her estranged brother and his unexpected death, and it reveals her need to explore and express her own grief over his loss and her inability to truly know him. She interrogates grief, knowability, and authenticity through the process of translation. Not only does she weave a translation of the Latin poem of Catullus 101 throughout Nox, the material text itself is a translated object, translating a private expression of grief into a publically disseminated art commodity. With Nox, the translator’s incessant striving for authentically rendered expression is augmented by the material production of the physical book-object itself – a process that employs the technological translation of a text from a private, handmade work to a public and reproducible one.
This emphasis on technological production brings Nox into direct dialogue with Walter Benjamin’s 1936 discussion of art’s increasingly public dissemination in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Benjamin’s treatise, “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” According to his argument, Carson’s use of technology to make her private experience into a publicly accessible, reproduced commodity calls into question its authenticity. However, as this analysis of Nox‘s material production will elucidate, the deconstruction of authenticity is exactly what Carson’s Nox ultimately expresses, in both its form and its content. Admittedly, Nox‘s defiance of genre categorization can confuse our analysis of it as book, as art, or as some combination of both, but much of this anxiety can be assuaged by applying Johanna Drucker’s theoretical principles of artists’ books to Nox. Drucker defines an artist’s book as “a book created as an original work of art, rather than a reproduction of a preexisting work…it is a book which integrates the formal means of its realization and production with its thematic or aesthetic issues” (2). With its artistic attention to its own physicality, and its thematic dependence upon its own form, Nox clearly participates in this genre, and Drucker’s principles give us a context in which to analyze Carson’s work in dialogue with Benjamin’s ideas. This type of form-based analysis not only allows us to engage with Nox on the basis of its materiality, but also reveals how it re-imagines Benjamin’s criticisms of mechanical reproduction as a method of artistic production, revealing that Carson is transposing a private experience into a public art commodity that actualizes its content through an inauthentic reproduction of an unknowable original.
Before beginning an explication of Nox‘s material form, it is important to understand the text’s process of physical construction. In an interview with Will Aitken published six years before Nox‘s publication, Carson discuses a handmade book she created after her brother’s death, which Nox obviously reproduces. She reveals that she “wrote the book because when my brother died I hadn’t seen him for twenty-two years. He was a mystery to me. He died suddenly in another country, and I had a need to gather up the shards of his story and make it into something containable” (Carson, Interview 201). As a translator of classic texts, Carson is familiar with the process of reimagining experience and expression in a new form – whether that form is lexical or material. Therefore, it is unsurprising that she uses the translation process to grapple with an intensely private grief. She does this by translating a Catullus poem about the loss of his brother into her own words throughout this private memoir. She explains her lexical and material translation process in crafting the original elegy:
It’s based on a poem of Catullus…whose brother died in Troy when Catullus was living in Italy…In my book I printed out the text of the poem, and then took it apart…I dismantled the Catullus poem, one word per page, and I put the Latin word and its lexical definition on the left-hand side, and then on the right-hand side a fragment of a memory of my brother’s life that related to the left-hand side of the page. Where the lexical entry didn’t relate, 1 changed it. So I smuggled in stuff that is somewhat inauthentic. But it makes the left and the right cohere, so that the whole thing tells the story of the translation of the poem, and also dismantles my memory of my brother’s life” (Carson, Interview 201).
Carson is describing a handmade, private text, and does not indicate any intention to publish it in this interview. However, its description is easily recognizable as the precursor to the 2012 publication of Nox, which in many ways, is very different from the handmade book Carson describes making. The book that is available for the public is a scanned, technologically reproduced, materially altered copy of the original elegy, but in Nox‘s process of technological reproduction, Carson has inevitably hidden and obscured aspects of the represented original memoir from the public consumer. The unknowability of the text’s original form emphasizes Carson’s explorations of reproducing and translating the grieving process and personal experience.
Toward the end of Nox, the author reveals “I have tried to translate it [the Catullus poem] a number of times. Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy” (Carson, Nox). Throughout the work, Carson alters her lexical translations of the Catullus poem in a way that brings our attention to the tension of the translation process – both its failings in comprehensive authenticity and its opportunities for new creations. At the same time, she calls attention to the material alterations that undercurrent the work’s translation from private to public, by deliberately, yet subtly, modifying the “original” private text of Nox in its technologically reproduced form. By making her private experience into an art piece available for public consumption, Carson illustrates the unknowability of another’s authentic private experience and, conversely, the impossibility of an authentic expression of private grief. If, as Benjamin states, “the whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical…reproducibility,” by passing the light of a scanner over her Nox, Carson explores the power of technology to make private experience public, to re-imagine and reconstitute grief and personal experience, and thereby to call into question art’s ability to express an authentic self (1169).
An examination of Nox‘s title page solidifies an interpretation of the work’s interest in translation if we read it as a microcosm of the text’s overall thematic content. The text begins with a page that has the words “Nox / Frater / Nox” printed on a semi-transparent strip of paper which is laid over the handwritten words “Michael, Michael, Michael, Michael, Michael, Michael,” inscribed in bold script down the page. The words “Nox / Frater / Nox” are the Latin for “Night / Brother / Night,” and, as the text later reveals, Carson’s brother was named Michael. Therefore, this page represents three key aspects that are further explored throughout Nox and solidified in its material form. These concepts are: (1) the struggle to express private experience, (2) the inevitable inauthenticity of translation, (3) and the ultimate unknowability of the other. In this opening page, we encounter Carson’s personal, private experience of writing Michael’s name over and over in an almost incessant quest for understanding or remembering. Secondly, she overlays the Latin words for “Night / Brother / Night” as an introduction into the theme of translation that pervades the text, forcing readers to either look up or mentally translate the words for themselves, which invites them into the translation process from the beginning of the text. This quest for translation – for the true articulation of words, ideas, and self – recurs throughout the text. However, Carson has already given us a glimpse into the impossibility of authentic translation on this same page by placing the semi-transparent paper containing the typed Latin words on top of the handwritten name of her brother. In doing this, she is tweaking our translation of the Latin. We instantly read “frater” as “Michael” and are aware that “frater” is referring to a specific brother – her brother. Thus, we are introduced to the personal bias inherent in translation. This bias and the problems it entails are emphasized by the transparency of the paper on which “Nox / Frater / Nox” is written – the scrap of paper both allows Michael’s name to show through and behind the Latin words while simultaneously obscuring the handwritten name. With this, Carson emphasizes the impossibility of true expression, showing that translation, in the process of elucidating private experience, will always obscure, alter, and mask authentic personal expression in some way.
The text continues to further these themes of inauthenticity, private experience, and unknowability through visual and textual content and through technological translation of the text itself, as demonstrated in its reproduction and reconstitution. The specific technology at work behind Nox‘s production can only be speculated at, but it is clear that some sort of scanner or copying machine has been employed in the text’s production. This technological process is revealed through the presence of obviously handwritten notes and film-developed photographs, and, perhaps most tellingly, by the strips of shadow and light at the center fold of each spread, which reveal that the once book-bound images have been laid flat across a scanner’s or copier’s light table. Carson begins her first personal narrative in Nox with the statement “I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds,” solidifying the appropriateness of the scanner’s presence in this text’s production and the ability of this technology to expose and transform the shadows and remnants of a private grief.
The technological reproduction of Nox is also significant because it blurs the line between private and public experience. Nox obviously recreates a personal scrapbook of Carson’s memories, mementos, and musings, and our reading of these highly personal fragments is somewhat voyeuristic. With Nox, Carson creates a space in which readers feel as if they are looking through the private collection of someone else’s experiences; therefore, the fragmented nature of the text places the construction of narrative in the reader’s hands. In other words, the reader enters the private space of Nox and excavates a story from the fragments Carson has left copied there. Nox‘s public dissemination allows multiple readers to experience Carson’s privately created artistic experience, enacting Drucker’s principle of the artist’s book as a mobile “democratic multiple,” which Drucker praises because it allows a work to realize an artistic vision which “bypasses the restraints on precious objects” (Drucker 88). As a publicly available and mobile text, Nox allows the public access to Carson’s personal experience, but at the same time, this accessibility also supplants the uniqueness of that experience. In this vein, Nox also enacts Walter Benjamin’s admonition that the ability to mechanically reproduce a work of art may destroy its artistic authenticity. He explains: “The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated…In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with” (1169). Thus, Nox‘s mobility as a “democratic multiple” brings it into situations where the authenticity of Carson’s experience is diminished.
However, Carson embraces and intends this depreciation of authenticity, which is made clear in her obvious reconstitution of her original, handmade memoir. The fact that she has made the text’s technological reproduction and modification so apparent changes our sense of the private nature of the work. This reproduction obfuscates the intention behind its creation; Nox negotiates Benjamin’s prediction that in the age of mechanical reproduction, “the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproduction” (1172). Whether or not the original book Carson crafted for her brother was created with the intention for public dissemination, its technological reproduction cannot be separated from its intention for publication, making tangible Benjamin’s conclusion that “by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions” (1173). First and foremost among these functions is Nox‘s ability to acknowledge its own inauthenticity, which corroborates its expression of the ultimate unknowability of another’s experience. By making the text’s technological reproduction apparent, Carson forces her readers to ask these questions of the private and public nature of the text. This leads to broader questions about the interaction between private experience and public expression.
Carson emphasizes the interaction of private experience and public expression in order to convey the incapacity to genuinely know the “authentic” other. In Nox, she explores the impossibility of truly knowing the “original” self of another by discussing ancient constructions of history. A passage in Nox explains the way historians collect fragments of memories; she says “the word “mute”…is regarded by linguists as an onomatopoeic formation referring…to a certain fundamental opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.” Carson follows this with a more personal explanation: “I am looking a long time into the muteness of my brother. It resists me.” This passage conveys the idea of a vacancy that occurs in the attempt to understand, express, or replicate an original, which, as in the case of her brother, may not materially still exist. In the aforementioned interview, Carson says that her book is “a lament in the sense of an attempt to contain a person after he is no longer reachable” (Interview 201). Carson’s attempt to see into this vacancy is chronicled throughout the text’s content and is supported by Carson’s own admission of her intention in creating the original book that Nox reproduces. Once again, Drucker’s views on book arts clarify the import of Carson’s articulating her attempt to see into this private muteness through the material form of a book. According to Drucker, a book functions as “an inhabitable universe of image and thought and language, a mute space of unrealizable dreams and manifest desire for form” (363). Drucker’s coincidental use of the word mute scaffolds our understanding of Carson’s concept of muteness in Nox, once again conflating the muteness that Carson associates with her brother and the muteness that accompanies the publicly inhabitable and inauthentically personal space of a reproduced book.
Like the process of a lexical translation of a textual passage, the technological translation of Nox not only reproduces the “original” text, but also reconstitutes it in many ways. The reconstitution of Nox into a single page works as a foil to the text’s fragmented narrative structure. In its technologically reproduced form, the disparate pages of scraps and mementos are reprinted onto a single sheet of paper, leading us to examine, like Drucker, how Noxfunctions as “a self-conscious record of its own production – one laden with specific ideas about the ways a book can embody an idea through its material forms” (Drucker 161). On one hand, this unbroken page represents the connectedness of the fragments that Carson uses to construct an understanding of her brother’s life; on the other hand, this connection is obviously technologically induced and not the original or “natural” state of the text, which reinforces the inauthenticity of private expression. Carson’s decision to reconstitute her elegy in this way is indicative of both the way we construct memory and understanding and of the artificiality of these constructed connections. Her decision to reconstitute the traditional book form makes her work both reflective on what book form can and cannot accomplish in its traditional page-by-page structure, but its size, which is comparable to that of any other traditional book, and the nature of its book-like folded pages make it simultaneously inextricable from notions of bookness. In this way, it calls us to both question and appreciate the formal and material concept of a book, which Drucker describes as “an expandable space, a fluid sequence of elements whose discrete identity becomes absorbed into the reality of a seamless experience” (363). In its single-page reproduction, Nox performs this “seamless experience” quite literally.
The obviously inauthentic seamlessness of Nox‘s page restates the struggle for accurate translation and representations of history that appears throughout Nox. Carson introduces this theme near the beginning of Nox when she describes the multiplicity of ways in which cultures have constructed historical accounts, such as “the Skythians who, when Herodotus endeavours to find out from them the size of the Skythian population, point to a bowl that stands at Exampaios. It is made of the melted down arrowheads required of each Skythian by their king.” The Skythians’ method of constructing a quantitative record takes on an unexpected material form, just as Carson’s method of constructing a memory and expression of her brother’s death assumes an unconventional form as well. In other words, the fact that this elegy is technologically translated onto one piece of paper re-enforces Carson’s exploration of alternative constructions of historical representation. The heterodox construction of Nox positions the text itself as an alternative way of constructing a history – one that converts a collection of individual pieces into a singular, unified form, much like the bowl at Exampaios. Later in Nox, Carson alludes to this facet of the text when she posits, “what if you made a collection of lexical entries, as someone who is asked to come up with a number for the population of the Skythians might point to the bowl at Exampaios,” which shows that she clearly aligns the text of Nox with historical reconstitutions of artifacts. In this way, the material text of Nox points to an alternative version of her brother and of her personal experience, which is clearly mediated through her own technological construction of the text.
In another discussion of the constructed nature of history in Nox, Carson quotes a passage she has translated from Herodotus, which begins: “Of Herodotus of Halikarnassos’ history this [is] the showing forth.” Following the translated passage, she muses, “He says he wants to lock deeds to showing and prohibit all of it flowing away into nothing. But the relation of the parts of this sentence, of this project, to one another is obscure: [is] at the start is added by me.” Once again, Carson is reflecting on the process of translation, and the inevitable presence of the translator in the translated text. The physical construction of Nox materializes this point. Nox is elegiac in nature, and its photographs and notes are stapled or taped down in a representative attempt to “lock deeds to showing.” However, the obviously reconstituted nature of the text is Carson’s acknowledgment of her own place in the representation. She exposes her role as the connecter of parts and the arbitrator of their relation. Just as she admits her participation in the construction of the Herodotus translation, her obvious technological manipulation of the text of Nox effectively admits her participation in the process of making sense of her brother’s history. Thus, Carson’s manipulation of the text’s materiality emphasizes the idea of a fragmented understanding of another’s life, and it reinforces the inherent inauthenticity of any attempt to piece together a comprehensive understanding of another.
Another example of Carson’s modification of the original text occurs in the way she reproduces irreplaceable personal artifacts, such as notes from her late brother. For example, at the end of the text Carson shares a handwritten note from her brother, which we can be relatively sure of the authenticity of because of Carson’s explanation in her interview that she “used bits of text from Michael’s letters, actual pieces of the letters” (Interview 202). In Nox, she reproduces this note three times and adds to the note a scrap of paper containing a typed passage, translated from Herodotus. In this reproductive process, Carson realizes Benjamin’s claim that “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway” (Benjamin 1169). In Nox, she has placed this scanned-in note on the facing page from her lexical entry for “atque,” translated as: “and, as well as, together with…” This specific translation sets up the juxtaposition that subsequently occurs between Carson’s translation of Herodotus and her brother’s handwritten note. By placing this particular entry on the facing page from her brother’s note, Carson reinforces the inseparability, the atque, that ties her brother’s private expressions to her own interpretations or translations of their intertwining histories, which are both lexical and technical. She also positions a scrap of paper containing the word “Or:” on top of the folded note, indicating that our experience with her juxtaposition of Herodotus’s and Michael’s words is simply another way to translate atque, which once again re-imagines orthodox constructions of history or narrative.
Carson reproduces this note for the reader two more times on the subsequent spreads, unfolding it more with each reproduced copy. With this material action, she also reproduces her own process of physically interacting with Michael’s note, and displays her own experience with this personal artifact by adding the aforementioned typed-on scraps of paper The note is obviously a unique artifact of her brother, but Carson’s reproduction changes it from a single, irreplaceable, private object to part of a mass-produced public text, in which the object itself has been reproduced multiple times. This multiplicity alters the original significance of the text. It calls into question its ability to be a unique private artifact, which is a key component of its meaning. Nox also reproduces the singularity of Carson’s experience with the note. By opening the folded note for us, Carson forces us to experience the process on her terms, which include her additions. She invites the public into her own personal, material interaction with the note, allowing readers to reproduce the unfolding of the note countless times for themselves, thus negating the singularity of the experience while participating in its reproduction. With this action, Nox navigates Benjamin’s tenet that the process of material reproduction “substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced” (1169). Carson’s reproduction of her brother’s personal note in Nox allows the reader to have an active and material experience with the original object, an experience mediated by the reader’s individual “situation;” however, it also forces the reader to question what is lost in the substitution of plurality for uniqueness. By technologically “translating” her experience of unfolding Michael’s note, Carson loses aspects of the original text’s meaning in the process – implying that the nature of reproduction renders it impossible to reproduce the singular originality of the note and her material experience with it.
Carson uses Nox to portray this impossibility by both acknowledging and then reclaiming its failings to construct authentic understanding, perhaps in an attempt to rectify what her handmade book for Michael could not do. When asked if the original book she made after Michael’s death helped her to understand her brother, Carson admits
No. I don’t think it had any effect whatsoever on my understanding…I finally decided that understanding isn’t what grief is about. Or laments. They’re just about making something beautiful out of the ugly chaos you’re left with when someone dies. You want to make that good. And for me, making it good means making it into an object that’s exciting and beautiful to look at. (Carson, Interview 203)
This sentiment is re-articulated within Nox when Carson includes a photograph of her brother followed by the statement “No one knew him.” Toward the end of Nox, Carson also admits her failings in translation with “I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101.” As readers, we are allowed to publicly participate in the intensely private frustration of translation, yet we are simultaneously made aware of our inability to authentically understand this frustration. By also bringing our attention to the tension of translation through its physically altered and reproduced form, Nox effectively and materially translates the ways in which Carson is acutely aware of her inability to authentically understand her brother, or authentically translate her private grief at his absence. Foregrounding this impossibility, the material, public text of Nox mythologizes our concept of the original book that it replicates. This leaves a vacancy, a muteness, where we imagine the original, private text of Nox to exist. As we unfold Carson’s Nox, the materiality of the work brings our attention to the inauthenticities and unkowabilities produced by technological translation, inviting us to join the author in looking into the muteness they leave behind.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2001. 1166-1186. Print.
Carson, Anne. Interview with Clay Aitken. Paris Review 46.171 (2004): 191-226. JSTOR. PDF file.
Carson, Anne. Nox. New York: New Directions Press, 2010. Print.
Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books, 2004. Print.
Bethany Bradshaw is a graduate student in English at North Carolina State University, where she studies poetry, digital media, and the materiality of both.