Dexter Sinister presents ``Scratching the Form to Reveal the Content,'' tomorrow WEDNESDAY JANUARY 27, 7 PM at Artspeak, 233 Carrall Street, as part of the exhibition An Invitation to An Infiltration at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver. We will be screening Erik van Zuylen's film ``Stefan Themerson and Language.'' This is the second of five consecutive evening events. Details for each will be announced the night before together with a brief preparatory text:

Calvino is describing (and promoting) the process of making a form strange in order to resist both one's own preconceptions and the weight of others opinions. (``Make it new,'' as Ezra Pound famously translated Copernicus.) A usefully exaggerated example of this is Semantic Translation, a poetic technique conceived by Polish writer, film-maker and publisher Stefan Themerson, which manages to be at once ferociously ironic and straight-facedly hilarious. According to its inventor, Semantic Poetry Translation, is ``a machine made using certain parts of my brain'' which was demonstrated most prominently in a novella, Bayamus. In essence, SPT takes a grey area of meaning and attempts to pinpoint it, to clarify it. Themerson introduces the process as an attempt to reclaim poetry from the mouths of ``political demagogues,'' who in the twentieth century began to adopt the tools of poets --- repetition, alliteration, etc. towards their own dubious ends. The idea is to restore emptied-out words, cliches and platitudes with their fullest, specific meanings by supplanting them with their precise, verbose dictionary definitions. The method is usually demonstrated by comparing existing poems or songs with a semantically translated version, although the technique extends to prose, and Themerson generally writes with the same deadpan scientific demeanour.

But Semantic Translation is more double-edged than this brief description suggests. Although it is ostensibly an attempt to reclaim the ``truth'' behind words, the proposition is essentially ironic, not proselytizing. It's more accurate to say that Themerson is after the truth about ``truth,'' that at best ``truth'' is more accurately ``belief,'' and that beliefs should be treated with the utmost suspicion. One of the great benefits of the technique is to be reminded that ``the world is more complicated than the language we use to talk about it.'' The nature of reading through the pedantic extent of a piece of Semantic Translation is to experience language made strange, to perceive both its technical depth and its limitations. Themerson referred to the process as ``scratching the form to reveal the content.''


Posted 26 January 2010 17:16:33


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