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  • Eleanor Tennyson

(ESSAY) Love as a Question of Destination in Augustín Fernández Mallo’s Pixel Flesh

A copy of Pixel Flesh book lies upon pale salmon pink silky material. The cover is made up of orange and red pixels fading to dark in bottom left hand corner, and light comes in from the top right

Delving into the textural screens of Augustín Fernández Mallo's Pixel Flesh, translated from the Spanish by Zachary Rockwell Ludington (Cardboard House Press, 2020), Eleanor Tennyson explores the relationship between matter and consciousness, the relative velocities of heartache and what goes on between humans and computers.

I want to think your skin was so smooth that I didn’t feel it. Only that.

— Augustín Fernández Mallo

A pixel [picture element] is the smallest element of an image. A pixel contains all possible visual information, although on its own, meaningless. ’Pixel’ derives from the compound of pix (pictures, esp. photographs) and element (a component part of a complex whole). Pixels both shape an image but also signify an unknowability in the rest of the whole.

woman’s face.png alt=“the bottom half of a woman’s face: mainly showing the lips. The image is pixelated, blurred and formed of tiny squares

One of the epigraphs that opens Augustín Fernández Mallo’s collection Pixel Flesh is by Andy Warhol, whose use of the Ben-Day dot methodology in works like Thirteen Most Wanted Men (1964) creates pixel-like imagery: ‘Space is all one space and thought is all one thought, but my mind divides its spaces into spaces into spaces and thoughts into thoughts into thoughts into thoughts’. It is the human mind, Warhol suggests, that splits or rather rips apart and categorises the external world, what is otherwise ‘whole’. The pixel signals the human mind’s tendency to form out shapes, fuzzy ones if that, from an overall whole; shapes that as soon as they are formed indicate the absence of our knowledge regarding the rest of an image.

Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Pixel Flesh (Carne de píxel, Cardboard House Press, newly translated by Zachary Rockwell Ludington) voyages through the utterly disturbing spatio-temporal continuum of heartbreak. It expresses the remainder, the loss, the destruction, or the absence of the ‘thing’ we call love. The long poem negotiates different forms of existence (Mallo himself is a physicist and radiologist); what appears stable and 'whole' is returned to abstraction. Pixel Flesh suggests that love like the pixel infers and emphasises absence, this being perhaps the unknowability of another person or of a future. In lieu of linear storytelling, the text sojourns between two analogous narratives: new research surrounding black holes and the fraught repeating memories of a romantic relationship. The poem asks:

Who’s leaving whom if we’re all going around delayed from ourselves, leaving behind what we understand, in order not to understand what we can’t handle: that everyone is one and, … that other women will come, that other men will come, that it’s scary to think about the extent to which we’re all interchangeable.

Central to Pixel Flesh is ‘matter’ and the question of what matter ‘is’ and what ‘matters’. All substance is matter including flesh, bones, etc. Matter is by definition anything that can be physically touched, from this angle the relational ‘interchangeability’ of human beings is seemingly easy. If I lose one person, I can replace with another person: because we are all matter. Yet, this does not account for the ‘loss’, the absence, the lack of that particular energy or rather consciousness in our lives. According to the OED ‘matter’ (n) derives from the classical Latin māteria (also māteriēs ) wood, timber, building material, also ‘matter’ (in philosophical use) < māter (mother). The sense development of Latin māteria was influenced by that of ancient Greek ὕλη hyle (n): Matter, substance; the first matter of the universe. The first matter of our universe is our mothers: the first embodied, enmeshed and penetrated relationship. The first person we are ‘inside'. It is oft said by philosophers, like Lacan, that because we have been separated from our primary source of satisfaction — our mothers, all human desire stems from this lack-in-being (manqué-á-être). The big question for theoretical physicians is what matter gives consciousness, yes, what ‘matter’ does not explain is whether consciousness evolves from matter or whether matter can ever become consciousness. It is the conscious being that cannot be replaced, unique thoughts suffixed by the embodiment of a (the) person in space and time, and that is the loss we morph and latch our pain unto — what is irreplaceable. I can not love flesh, bones, fingers, etc without the story of how that beautiful set of bones came to me.

Coining the term poesía postpoética (postpoetic poetry), Mallo as quoted in Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature by Michael Mudrovic holds that:

the poet today seems to have abandoned himself to the practice of mannerisms and exercises in nostalgia... An overwhelming majority of published poetry...seems not to be aware of the change that has taken place in the rest of the arts.

Post-poetic or expanded poetry for Mallo 'encompasses a much broader and less self-absorbed compendium of the contemporary world'. Mallo merges popular culture along with scientific and mathematical concepts 'put forward by chaos theorists and complex system theorists’. The sections surrounding black holes are italicised, indented and bear the layout of a ‘poem’, whilst the romantic plot is in free prose. Championing Duchamp with a conceptual gesture, Mallo suggests that anything is susceptible of becoming art — or science for that matter. Temporalities, analogies, ontologies and epistemologies are invoked; Mallo in Pixel Flesh designs a language where nothing can appear naked before us in its own right:

Galaxies grow through processes of fusion with other galaxies, says Günter Hasinguer of the Max Planck Institute, Germany. Spiral galaxies, which exhibit abundant star formation, join and become an elliptical galaxy. But their black holes also end up fusing and become supermassive black holes that expel gases of the recently formed elliptical galaxy.

A black hole is a cosmic body of extremely intense gravity where the regions of space-time are so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. Like our deepest feelings. Rather than being ‘nothing’, as its name suggests, a black hole is a huge amount of matter packed into a small amount of space. A typical black hole is the result of the gravitational force becoming so strong that one would have to travel faster than light to escape its pull. Black holes at once constitute and threaten our galaxy, much like love. Pixel Flesh’s accumulation of form — prose, lyric, and scientific research — exposes a conflict between the terms science/art, meaning/nothing, love/loneliness, presence/absence and how such binary constructions are riddled with logical defects. Mallo’s poetry illustrates that the discourses of love, literature and science are in crisis, and must be considered with their relational messiness constantly in mind. The couple who exist in the text ‘start(ed) at the end’ (and isn’t every hello, a passage to goodbye?). Pixel Flesh reads:

The hardest thing to narrate is always the present. Its instantaneity doesn’t allow for projections, fantasies, loss of focus. I don’t know if all of that existed because I don’t know if it exists. I don’t know if your hands are true [though I do know they’re unbelievable]

After a break-up a frenzy occurs and it takes great difficulty to reconcile one’s newfound lover[less] existence, especially in grappling with the speech acts of love: I love you [I loved you]. It is time and/or traumatic events that distances the two realities, and considering the laws of human feeling, physics and relativity (in a universe where we can experience time differently depending on our location) — can’t they exist simultaneously? Whilst it is true that we read most things in a linear chronological fashion, we do not live like that. The fact is whilst we stand there brushing our teeth or hover over the unmade bed, what is in our mind is never just the present. Time is really layered, even more so considering space-time. Astronauts experience both gravitational and relative velocity time dilation. The relative velocity dilation is stronger than the gravitational one, thus astronauts experience time more slowly than us on Earth. Even further, our senses are somewhat stuck in the past. We see lightning and it is only later until we hear it, we look up to the moon and we see it as 1.3 seconds ago. Thus as the poet states ‘we’re all going around delayed from ourselves’, every speech-act is backward time travel, a period piece. The poet makes it clear too that even without a material iteration of a lover, you can possess the loved: ‘it could be that you’re still kissing me, or it could be that Tuesday [to pick a day] never existed’. In the above longer quotation, the tension between past and present ‘existed’/‘exists’ is exemplary of the temporal inconsistencies experienced by dejected lovers and the gravitational time dilation caused by general relativity. Following Roland Barthes’ account of the ‘Love Cry’ in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977, fragments d’un discours amoureux), the narrator is caught in the episode of language which stages the ‘absence’ of the loved object — it wields a mixing of the present and past tense (characteristic of the anticlockwise temporality of heartbreak: revisiting memories, going backwards into the past which gets further as the future squirms onward). Barthes writes a lover’s lament is ‘wedged between two tenses, that of reference and of the allocution: you are gone (which I lament), you are here (since I am addressing you)’. This is a temporal defect that at once conjures/erases the loved object: memory + present-moment become overly enmeshed = consigning the loverless individual to a period of nostalgia and delirium. The pixel too is a metaphor for this fragile, temporally confusing and opaque existence: a visual sign that disappears and blurs at the moment of its recollection, much like the thought of the ex-lover.

The term ‘pixel flesh’ dramatises the permeability of the membrane that separates organism and mechanism, it seeks to confirm that the line between human and computer is blurred. Yes, the title creates space for play with modern identity and embodiment but for the heartbroken narrator it implies that the virtual body has replaced a material body. Thus ‘pixel flesh’ figures as a sign of a disembodied entity (the ex-lover), void of feeling and caught in a plunder of memory. A passage reads: ‘light appeared between us…I don’t remember if we kissed. I loved you so much and so for real, I said’. Characteristically of the pixel, a memory is recollected whilst simultaneously negated by its existence in language. Whilst suggesting that memories become inseparable from their moment of recollection, the text jumps like a leap of the mind in which the speaker’s thoughts are themselves pixels, half-existing but simultaneously disappearing. The ‘light’ that appears between the two people may be the dint of exposure from a digital image, perhaps a mobile phone, which illuminates the moment but by ‘appear[ing] between us’, it severs the couple further apart. The chronological placement of ‘I said’ at the end of the sentence removes the ‘real’ from the ‘love' because instead of it being a statement ‘I loved you so for real’ it becomes ‘I said I loved you for real’, which renders the ‘realness’ mere uttered language without grounding in the real. As the narrator states: the couple roaming around some city are referred to as ‘replicants’ of a bar code that we never get to live. A replicant is a fictional bioengineered or biorobotic android in the film Blade Runner (1982). Replicants are like humans but surpass them in strength, agility, and intelligence. They, however, lack emotional responses and empathy. The couple in the book are replicants because they are devoid of real, human life and, consequently, they have not fulfilled their bar code. At the end of the relationship all that remains of the narrator is their ‘face in the blinking of the screen’ — so much of the information that makes up what we have lost is stored in old text messages, social media exchanges, private images. The machine has so much of our love-information and in-turn becomes both the object of absence and one of the main gateways to a lost lover (and a new one). As the opening image attests:

My digitised face in the blinking of the screen…t’s scary to think that the world built by lovers could be just as microscopic as it is hidden and incommunicable, but it’s the only thing that saves us from another scare just as big which is death.

The narrators ‘face’ is given its context through the pixels of virtuality, taking up the fantasy of transcendence present in cybernetic theory — for example (as discussed in Katherine N Hayles How We Became Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics and Literature (1)) Hans Moravec’s assertion that it will one day be possible to download human consciousness, or in this case the body, into a computer. The opening is close to being radically sceptical – overseeing a fearful conceptual shift that weaves between everything and nothing: the world, love, death. A conceptual trio that serves as a potential blueprint of human life, from birth to love to death. The language here is at once a thing and not-a-thing: I am using language to communicate but I am using language to tell you how I cannot communicate, which has both an effect and a sort of anti-effect. The suggestion that love is ‘the only thing that saves us from another scare just as big which is death’ implies that the only way to survive the horror of life is through a series of learned distractions – love. Immediately the entire value of life is called into question, since language is used to describe a lack of-a-thing and life only points towards death – what remains is an anxiety of essence. The narrator often visits the same familiar sites and memories, each time adding and subtracting information: sharing a cigarette, their final goodbye in the rain, a holiday to Naples, humming The Smiths. The couple live in a limited world where they ‘circle(d) the city in silence’; they roam along the city edge as if they were avoiding their disintegration into the black hole of solipsism, loneliness and abandonment: their final goodbye — 'You didn’t know the Principle of Least Action by which light [everything in general] seeks the quickest past to travel between two points. We circled the city contradicting it as much as we could'.

In this circling, to’ing and fro’ing, love and abandonment become parts of the same process: ‘there’s no centre because there’s no end, there’s no end because end is a word I don’t understand right now’. Beginnings and ending are only broken by a gravitational pull — such as the trauma of the end. The speaker demonstrates through loneliness and its parallel in the physical reality of the black hole that each part makes up the pixel: language and non meaning, life and death, love and the black-hole of loneliness. For the revolving couple there is an inherent question of destination, in which both the black hole and the couple both sit with overhead question marks:

No destination, destination was a weird word. It got in the way like how the appendix blocks the intestines, it apostrophes it (my emphasis)

The narrator is caught in a void in the texture of language, using the avoidant word ‘weird’ to describe a feeling perhaps better described as ‘fear’ or ‘anxiety’. The poem tries various mediums to connect with life and evolves on a surface where there are only onward-directions rather than ends, or a core. The power of reference is called into question, language seems more of a sound barrier than a release. The book-length address to the (now) distant lover (what is ‘now’ when I remember them so clearly, so closely?) is an extended ‘apostrophe’ — an extended think-act that brings the ‘you’ back to life:

I know that you and I never got to the bottom we never touched the slime of true contact, that untransferable complicity that’s a product of the mirage called a couple. I only know that in your arms I was a global star… what the person looking at you is missing; to put it better, who disappears in your image; or, even better, who in you has already disappeared.

An apostrophe is both a blockade and an invocation. In The Post Card (1980), Jacques Derrida writes of the apostrophe:

Thus I apostrophise. This too is a genre one can afford oneself, the apostrophe. A genre and a tone. The world - apostrophises - speaks of the words addressed to the singular one, a live interpellation (the man of discourse or writing interrupts the continuous development of the sequence, abruptly turns toward someone, that is, something, addresses himself to you) but the word also speaks of the address to be detoured.

Love is a detour of life and for the narrator, the address is detoured literally through time and space deep into the black hole. The apostrophe, for Derrida, is an interruption — as a sequence is interrupted because the writer turns to a direct address — but a direct address from one to another and another is impossible. As the ‘word speaks of the address to be detoured’ it becomes (or was always meant to be) an address to the self. Perhaps we feel and speak of a feeling about an other person only to say something of ourselves and nothing of the other, the other person being just the image in the mirror. It is like a time difference and delay in conveying meaning: one thought may be about ‘you’ but it is always a detour about ‘me’. Again, this raises the questions of love: do we love only to be loved in return? Or do we only love, in the other, what we lack in ourselves?

On this detour a poetry appears that through the nature of our intergalactic existence, exists in a region of spacetime where the gravity of human feeling is so strong and so fast that no particles or light can escape from it:

I’m going to take such good care of you, you said. Doing drugs, reading novels, fucking: the habits of mediocre people, I told you. There is something stronger than flesh, the suicidal impulse of breath when it takes in air.

Love here, is by its own passion a death sentence. It is over before it has begun because (every first is accompanied by a last) our breath punctuates each passing moment and pushes our living onward. Is every relationship condemned from the outset? Maybe. This is a hypothesis on love that considers our place in the universe and the space-time continuum: ‘each of us came with their past [which is the same as saying programmed future]’. Mallo demonstrates that relationships, like black holes, are caught in a temporal process packed with matter (matter in both senses of the word) of configuration that is simultaneously becoming undone as we move through time — what we are left with is a reminder of how much we cannot control. Ultimately, for a text which circles, it cannot swerve the final close of their relationship:

It was raining, you grabbed my hand tight, we discovered without words another certainty: that from then on we would never arrive late to each other; that any coming day could expect to be the last and, nonetheless, we had to pick this one to say goodbye.

The narrator assesses the location: ‘1 m2 of sidewalk, 2m 3 of air’ it is a scene where time [stealthy in its massless weightless abstraction] will plunder memory in order to ‘embody itself’ demonstrating the friction and conditionality of time in opposition to memory. The possibility is shown that time and memory can subsume each-other: time will loot memory to ‘embody itself’ and make memories the present. This is reflected in the architecture of the city: ‘we passed in front of a dig site [fiber-optics, cables, 21st Century communications]’ and the speaker ‘cracked a joke about the woman and the man they found holding each other in the excavation of Pompeii’. A palimpsest of meaning lies beneath them, whilst they walk around Vesuvius, they form the analogy that like the couple beneath pumice and ash, they too will be plastered in fibre-optics for eternity through the digital data they have exchanged — their frozen final frames are sustained in a pixel-like formation. Mallo’s text begs the question: what is human love in the pixel-age? Love and romance between two people is so slippery, especially in a cosmos affected by the fragile instantaneity because its expansion is always counteracted by the pervasive presence of black holes (where everything goes but nothing can be seen). This is not a hypothesis but a scientific and romantic reality in which loneliness cannot be overcome. But we persist because like black holes, love is both a herald of inevitable loss and yet a vessel teaming with matter. There is little else in this universe that feels quite as good as love.


Text: Eleanor Tennyson Published: 15/6/21


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