“This page intentionally left blank”: Further Thoughts on Craig Dworkin’s No Medium (MIT Press, 2013)
I was initially shooting for a shorter review but there was a lot to say, and I wound up going over 1,500 words.
Nevertheless, I want to reiterate two related and important points that Dworkin makes. The first is that there is no such thing as a completely “blank” page because, as he makes clear in discussing the scores of John Cage’s Music for Piano, which makes music out of paper imperfections, “any ostensibly blank surface is in fact inconsistent, variable, fluctuant, and marked” (121).
The second point is that “parerga [in the Derridean sense] take on the role of substrate, permitting what might have been a substrate–a sheet of blank paper–to signify” (25). In other words, we might say that even the blankest sheet of paper presented as an artistic or literary work always will be inscribed with contextual significations. What we might call its “intention to be left blank” always will be apparent in its material specificities.
For example, Tom Friedman’s 1,000 Hours of Staring (1992-1997), which Dworkin treats in “The Logic of Substrate,” one of the strongest essays in the book, is a 32 1/2 x 32 1/2″ blank sheet of paper “trimmed to the pattern…of an easel”; it thus not only literally hangs on a wall when on display but it immaterially “hangs…between poetry and the visual arts, between writing and drawing” in that it “seems to aspire to the monochrome canvas of modernist abstraction” while “only point[ing]…back to the paper page” (26).
In No Medium, Dworkin tends to privilege works that wordlessly proclaim “This page intentionally left blank” in the most elegant, minimalist, and meaningful way–through the very “medium” of their parergonality. In a sense, Charles Bernstein’s “This Poem Intentionally Left Blank” (2001) acts as a nice foil to many of the works Dworkin discusses, works which seem to intentionally leave out the poem’s impishly oxymoronic content.