—Michael Palin


I download Kieran Daly’s Tentatively nullpropriated assay from Gauss PDF’s 36 (missed by two) (2011) from J. Gordon Faylor’s Gauss-PDF web site, which assembles and distributes a wide variety of contemporary text-based compositions and digital art. I’m intrigued by the Joycean word play in Daly’s title, “nullpropriated assay” suggesting “appropriated essay” run through a Wakean wrangler. 

Grrr. It comes as a ZIP file. Didn’t people stop using those ages ago, back before broadband? Ah, that’s right, my colleague Joe Milutis once told me that newer Macs have an “archive files” command that creates ZIPs. I guess they’re back from the cyber-graveyard, then, like animated GIFs.

Thank goodness, Windows 7 has an option to extract all the compressed files. I recall that, last time I dealt with a ZIP file, Windows made me go find an extractor program online, and I had to read through screens and screens of reviews on CNet before finding a decent freeware option. That might have been in the era of Windows XP though? Don’t remember.

I click “extract all.” Then the error messages start flashing up. “Path name too long.” Over and over. When they finally stop, I open a new folder with the mellifluous name GPDF036-KD-TNAFGPDF36MBT and discover further, empty folders, as well as several text documents that contain no data. There are also some video clips and images, but I’m frustrated, and I’m running late for a committee meeting. I delete everything and power down my computer.




In 1882, Ernest Fenollosa—the same Fenollosa who would later inspire Ezra Pound’s theory of the ideogram—delivered a lecture that became a “landmark in modern Japanese art history”:


Dismayed by what he perceived as the indiscriminate adoption of Western ways by early Meiji artists and educators at the expense of tradition, the American scholar urged his Japanese audience “to return to their nature and its old racial traditions, and then take, if there are any, the good points of Western painting.” In the same lecture, Fenollosa inveighed against literati painting [bunjinga], which he dismissed as fruitless rehashing of old models, utterly devoid of formal harmony. (Wong 297) 


Although bunjinga “had flourished in Japan for two centuries since the spread of Confucian education in the seventeenth century” and in 1882 was still “cherished by collectors and aesthetes,” after Fenollosa’s lecture “the popularity of literati painting plummeted” (297). “Pushed to the periphery of Japanese art” for the next three decades, “literati painting was not taught in the academies such as the Tokyo School of Fine Arts and the Japanese Art Institute,” nor was it showcased in “government-sponsored art exhibitions” (298). 

After Emperor Taisho took the throne in 1912, however, literati painting underwent a sudden renaissance. “Several factors helped to bring about this revival”:


One was the reaction against the exaggerated, overly adorned paintings produced . . . with the aim of attracting juror’s attention at public art exhibitions . . . . Another factor in the revival of literati painting was the massive influx of art works from China. . . . A third factor contributing to the revival of literati painting . . . was the growing appreciation of literati painting as the quintessential Toyo bijutsu (Eastern art). . . . Japanese proponents of literati painting frequently discussed this art form in terms of its unique attention to brush-and-ink method, poetic evocation, and subjective expression. More importantly, they contrasted these features with the realistic qualities of what they perceived as typical Western painting. (297-98)


In “The Value of Literati Painting” (1922) the art critic Chen Hengke argues that this sudden revival of interest represents an Eastern parallel to the emergence of the European avant-gardes of the early twentieth century. He sees “Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism as being driven by the same tendency . . . as was literati painting,” namely, a rejection of realism in favor of more individualized, subjective choices in how to depict the world. Although consumers in the East might be “demanding more realistic pictures because they [are] associated with the progress of the West,” in fact they misinterpret what constitutes true progress (310). “Literati painting does not strive for verisimilitude,” Chen argues, “and that is what makes it progressive” (qtd. in Wong 310-11). He maintains, in other words, that truly avant-garde art looks back to look forwards.




In 2014 you know it might be avant-garde if . . . 


• A poet responds, “It doesn’t speak to me.”

• Another poet responds, “It’s not poetry.”

• A blogger writes, “It has no vision.”

• A reviewer writes, “Oh God, not this again?”

• A poet-critic says, “The Language Poets already did that, back in the 1970s.”

• A language-centered poet says, “We already did that, back in the 1970s, but we did it better.”

• An activist poet says, “It doesn’t try to break things or skywrite, like real poets did in the 1970s.”

• A leftist melancholic says, “My Marxist reading group would never take it seriously."

• A professor says, “It doesn’t fit existing theories of the avant-garde.”

• An authority on the avant-garde says, “I never wish to see it again.” 




One of the most influential artists in Japan during the Taisho period (1912-1926) was Shitao, a seventeenth-century Chinese painter renowned for his “versatility and individualism.” His body of work was seen as providing an “antidote” to the occasional conventionality and lack of ambition to which the “orthodox tradition” of literati painting had been prone, and which had mistakenly led Fenollosa in his 1882 lecture to dismiss the genre altogether. “This perception was rooted in the myth that Shitao followed nobody’s style but his own, a myth stated by Shitao himself, who uttered this famous line: ‘the beards and eyebrows of the ancients cannot grow on my face, nor can their lungs and bowels be placed in my body’” (Wong 312). “To be modern,” Shitao’s admirers maintained, entailed “the ability to define one’s own persona, to be unconstrained by tradition, [and] to attain personal freedom,” and in these respects, the critic Liu Haisu argued in 1935, the artist excelled even the most advanced of the Post-Impressionists and Expressionists (322). As Liu points out, “Shitao’s Kugua hesang hua yu lu (Recorded sayings on painting) includ[es] the famous lines: ‘no method, that is my method’ and ‘to paint in close resemblance to other schools is to drink their left-over soup’” (322).

The mind-bending, impossible moral here: To be at the forefront of the avant-garde in 1935 required one to have displayed an arrogant “unconcern for rules and abandonment of skills” as if living a quarter millennium earlier during the transitional years between the Ming and Qing Dynasties (323). 

Shitao himself, it turns out, believed that innovation was an archaic not a contemporary virtue: “I wonder what methods [the first painters] took as their models? Yet ever since the Ancients established methods, latter-day painters have not been allowed to go beyond them. . . . Studying the traces of the Ancients but not studying the Ancients’ minds has made them unable to emerge in their own right” (qtd. in Silbergeld 238). Retreating from the present, he asserts, permits one to outpace it.

One of Shitao’s greatest or worst works is titled Ten Thousand Ugly Inkblots (1685). It appears to have started as a sumi-e landscape painting—you can make out a building and trees on the left—but subsequent aggressive blotting and spilling of ink registers as a repudiation of or attack on a genre whose essentials date back to Wang Wei (699-759 CE). Ten Thousand Ugly Inkblots goes far, far beyond the representational liberties associated with the haboku (broken ink) and hatsuboku (flung ink) styles of literati painting. You can find several blurry inadequate reproductions if you search Google Images.




This time I unzip the file from Gauss-PDF.com onto my desktop. Apparently I screwed up before by trying to unzip its contents into a folder (“E-Books”) that I keep synced across my computers and digital devices via a Dropbox account. That created all the pathing errors.

I open the unzipped file. I see two subfolders, one of them labeled “_MACOSX.” I ignore that one: no Mac here. The other is called “Tentatively nullpropriated assay from Gauss PDF’s 36 (missed by two).” Great! I don’t know what the numbers mean, beyond the fact that the Gauss-PDF web site lists this title as their thirty-sixth release. Doesn’t matter, here we go, the piece (artwork? poem? e-poem? conceptual text?) that I’ve been trying to view (read? play?) is finally accessible. I click.

I see three further subfolders with enigmatic names, as well as two JPEGs (“Picture 6” and “Picture 6’”) and three video clips (“Testutube,” “Test carpet,” “Greenhouse gas sampling process @ crop field”). What am I supposed to do? There is no “readme.txt,” no executable programs to run. Randomly, I start with the videos. “Testutube” is a back-and-forth shot of objects on a table, including a power cord, a yellow coffee mug, and a smartphone. “Test carpet” opens with a shot of a reddish Oriental rug that turns into a rapid partial survey of what appears to be a bedroom. “Greenhouse gas sampling” plays out exactly as the title suggests. A young blond man in a muddy field bends over and places a metal lid on top of a white plastic cylinder perhaps fifteen centimeters tall and fifty in diameter. He kneels on top to make sure the lid is sealed. He uses a syringe to draw air from inside the cylinder and injects it into a glass sample jar. He notes what he’s done on a clipboard. We see two other sealed cylinders behind him. There’s birdsong. That’s it.

The two JPEGs add little new information. They appear to be screen captures 

recording error messages: “The name ‘Formerly a book entitled “Texas Wild Flowers: a Field Guide”’ cannot be used” and “The name ‘Catagenics: a Title__’__’ cannot be used.”

I now try the subfolders. The first two—“Act XX Act VIII Scene IX [cardinality]” and “Laying Down Game (‘Kieran Daly’)”—contain nothing. No play extracts, no video games, no lewd selfies, nothing. The third—“Lipogram; Field Guide”—provides a bit more payoff. I find an unnamed RTF file and a PDF that is twenty megabytes in size. Finally, real content. Except the RTF file turns out to be empty, too. When I click on it, Windows simply switches back to this very document that I am currently typing. That’s unpleasant. I don’t want my note-taking while reading (viewing? playing?) this piece to become quite so obviously “the point” of the experience, as if illustrating the chestnut about a reader activating a text.

Then there’s the PDF. It has the terribly, overly long title “ebooksclub.org__Field_Guide_to_Wisconsin_Sedges__An_Introduction_to_the_Genus_Carex__Cyperaceae_.” As the subfolder’s label suggests, am I about to discover a lipogram, a work à la Georges Perec’s La disparition (1969), that deliberately avoids using one or more letters of the alphabet? No. I find a color reproduction of an entire wildflower manual that, as a quick consult of its “Scientific Name Index” shows, uses all twenty six letters in the English alphabet. Moreover, the book has nothing to do with grasses in Wisconsin. It is Campbell and Lynn Loughmiller’s Texas Wildflowers: A Field Guide, revised edition, published in 2006 by the University of Texas Press. I scroll through it, click to different sections via a hotlinked table of contents, but I see no aberrations. It is what the cover and title page say it is.

Tentatively nullpropriated assay: Kieran Daly has “appropriated” a large amount of text, but his purpose is mysterious. He has “assayed,” tried and tested, different means of (and scientific systems for) writing, recording, and capturing words and the world, but the result is strangely “null,” full of blind alleys, half-thoughts, and promises unkept. Like 

Gertrude Stein, he plays peculiar games with ordering principles (such as file directories, such as file naming protocols) and calls attention to how they (don’t) function. Again like many of Stein’s works, the end product feels more abandoned than completed.

Is it poetry? According to almost any rational or conventional argument in circulation today, probably not. But its disregard for, its indifference toward, the poetic is also a way of hitting reset. It might, therefore, be avant-garde. It might, therefore, become poetry.




Nobody really wants an avant-garde. They are inconvenient, irritating, and untimely. They don’t do what they should when you want them to. Their writings (paintings, videos, compositions, ZIP files) don’t work the way they are supposed to. Whatever the pieties of the moment might be (“social justice,” “ecocritical consciousness,” “resistance to commodification,” “mindfulness,” “coalition-building,” “inner necessity”), an avant-garde will stomp on them. Why should it drink old soup?




/ut how then Than you really Thare if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them” Improves them for what0 For death0 1hy hurry them along0 Thoo many poets aTht like a middle2aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too muThh Thooked meat, and potatoes with drippings -tears.” I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not” ForThed feeding leads to e3Thessive thinness “ #obody should e3perienThe anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need avant-garde poetry bully for them” I like the movies too” And after all, only 1hitman and 4rane and 1illiams, of the AmeriThan poets, are better than the mo



List of Works Cited


Daly, Kieran. Tentatively nullpropriated assay from Gauss PDF’s 36 (missed by two). San Francisco: Gauss-PDF, 2011. Web.

Silbergeld, Jerome. Rev. of Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China by Jonathan Hay. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 62. 1 (June 2002): 230-39.

Wong, Ada-Yuen. “A New Life for Literati Painting in the Early Twentieth Century: Eastern Art and Modernity, a Transcultural Narrative?” Artibus Asiae 60.2 (2000): 297-326.

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