white cubes: “American Letters” by giovanni singleton

Language builds worlds. Language builds nation-states and empires. Words constitute laws, doctrine, dogma, and penalty. Language  provides affirmation, logic, endearment, and praise.

Mathematical language builds bridges and malls, temples and spiral stairs. We named the stars, we named ourselves. Fibonacci paid attention, named the sequence.

Language builds rooms for fear. Language builds capacity for destruction.

In American Letters, giovanni singleton interrogates and subverts the assumption that language builds by erecting her 2-dimensional impressions of 3D structures: cubes. singleton also troubles the supposed legibility of perhaps the vanguard structure of academia: the library. A library is historically a standing, typically grandiose, and impressively maintained archive of knowledge. That is where the most precious authorial and philosophical endeavors are housed–according to their perceived value to society. When the apocalypse comes, it’s the shit stored away in the deepest, most inaccessible parts of the least public libraries that people are going to be losing their minds trying to preserve. singleton challenges this empirically (and imperially) imposed hierarchy of ‘letters’ by troubling the legibility of the library itself. By removing the archival signifiers from their functional context and rearranging them into crucifixes, the poet renders them illegible–almost unrecognizable– completely divesting them of their worth, also suggesting the physical displacement of the ‘signified’–the texts they represent by a coded location. The destabilization of the archival listings also pushes the strips of systematic information into new, even sinister visual interpretations. At first glance, they could appear as barcodes, suggesting corporatization and the shameless capitalist ends implicit in an archive of ‘letters’. It also brings to mind more horrific images of enforced identification, the branding of individuals by the state, and the unconscionable cruelty and violent dehumanization of renaming according to a system of economic/social value in a fundamentally unjust society. Individual dignity is destroyed once names have been reduced to an imposed system of commercial locus.

In ‘Exhibit C,’ ‘Figures 1-5,’ singleton grapples with the idea of building functional/structural identities through language. Again, she recalls the systematic categorization of the library. African-American poets are put in the ‘African-American Poet’ section. Feminists go in the “Feminist” box. I think it is most interesting to note that the “white” and “straight” word structures are rectangular prisms, while the “feminist,” “queer,” and “working class” figures are cubes. This may reflect the egalitarian measurements of a perfectly squared shape, while a rectangle has essential inequalities according to length, width, and height. All the figures function on one level to visualize the trope of “putting people (in this case poets) into boxes” according to identity, or perceived signifiers of their identity. No one can fit in just one box, we have learned, and that’s a-ok. I think it’s more interesting to think about the function of the shape itself. The “white cube” has become a critical euphemism for gallery (or museum) space. By evoking this physicality of the “white cube,” singleton creates a useful parallel (or parallelogram, whoa) between the hierarchical and exclusive violence of an archive of letters with that of the exhibition of visual art works, another form of archival practice–especially in terms of museums, which are curated according to categorized identity more often than not. To have a library section of “queer” letters or a gallery of “queer” object art is about as intellectually and heuristically useful as a 2D drawing of a 3D box. It is easily and immediately legible, but it can’t hold shit.

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