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Tom Jenks

"Table of Contents I" by Bruno Neiva, pub. Timglaset Editions.

At first glance, the index appears to be an uncontroversial mechanism, simply a means of setting matters in order. But any index encodes an implicit as well as an explicit ordering. By including some things and excluding others, by covertly conceptualising via classification, categorisation and description, an index embodies a worldview and a value system. The notions of ranking, hierarchy and sequence underpinned the enlightenment. Think, for instance, of the vast taxonomies of Carl Linnaeus and his system of binomial nomenclature, developed for the naming of organisms. It was also a key component of colonisation, the enlightenment’s shady sibling, with ownership being asserted and ostensibly legitimised though documentation. Considered in this way, the index emerges not a merely a functional adjunct to the text but as part of the text, or even a text in itself. It is this last notion of the index, as a discrete entity which can be read independently, that informs bruno neiva’s "Table of Contents I".

It would be reductive, given the range of his textual and visual practice, to describe neiva as a conceptual writer. We can, however describe "Table of Contents I" as a conceptual work. The term ‘conceptual writing’ has become somewhat pejorative, even toxic of late, a brand damaged by the controversial actions of some of its high-profile exponents. A less confrontational term, perhaps, is allegorical writing. All texts involve an idea, even if that idea is just to say, for example, what happened on 8th June or how to make an omelette. With allegorical works, however, what the text represents is as, or perhaps more, important than the text itself. When reading such works, we are experiencing both the text itself and the sensory pleasure that this brings, and the idea of the text. This is particularly so with "Table of Contents I" which is an index without a text. Weighing in at a slim nine pages, this is the map, not the territory. Each line is an entry referring us to a page number, but without any indication where those page numbers might be found. Do they refer to a single text, a number of texts, a non-existent text or some Borgesian conglomeration of all three? The publisher, the excellent Timglaset, based in Malm√∂, informs us that "Table of Contents I" ‘is the first part of a series of indexes to unwritten books on social constructs’, which technically answers the question, but we cannot obtain this definitively from the text itself. The uncertainty, where we don’t know exactly what we are reading, is part of the experience.

Throughout, neiva evades definition and frustrates expectations, refusing a smooth path, placing a sheet of glass at the top of the escalator. Roland Barthes speaks of writerly texts, works which resist transparency, easy absorption and unidirectional transmission, instead throwing the reader back on their own resources to participate in the text’s creation. Steve McCaffery draws an analogy between these different modes of textual encounter and Georges Bataille’s theory of the limited and general economy. The former is characterised by simple exchange. Just as, under capitalism, we purchase goods, so we purchase pre-determined, shrink-wrapped meaning. General economies, by contrast, are characterised by more open modes of exchange: lending, gifting, paying in kind etc. Transposed to literature, we have texts that are volatile and debatable, open to multiple meanings. These are, to use Espen J. Aarseth’s term, ergodic texts, works that require active rather than passive readership and demand intellectual and imaginative effort.

So it is with "Table of Contents I". By denying access to a source text (which is anyway non-existent) neiva requires us to ourselves create that text. Closer inspection reveals that a further Barthesian spanner has been thrown into the conceptual works, for this is not a conventional index: each entry contains the word ‘gender’. Sometimes, it appears at the end of the table entry, maintaining the integrity of the index. The first two entries, for example, ‘Achilles’ gender’ and ‘Affiliate gender’ proceed alphabetically. The third entry, however, ‘Gender alias’, sees the system disrupted and detourned, beginning to deconstruct. Some of these alterations appear to be substitutions. Others are additions to either the beginning of the end of the ‘original’ string. Russian theorist Viktor Shklovsky, in his essay ‘Art as Device’, discusses the technique of ‘ostranie’, which can be translated as ‘defamiliarization’ or ‘making strange’. In "Table of Contents I", neiva, through constant repetition, makes gender ‘strange’, cutting the word free of its customary linguistic moorings and placing it in contexts that do not make conventional sense. What biological or sociological category is ‘Helpdesk gender’? What is a ‘Gender monolith’ made of? And what sort of interdisciplinary practice is ‘Peer-reviewed gender?’ What, we are being asked again and again, does the term ‘gender’ actually mean? neiva seems to suggest that it means something, but what that is remains undetermined. We must perform that etymological and philosophical labour for ourselves.

It would be remiss of me, however, to only discuss "Table of Contents I" in terms of ideas. There is real pleasure to be found here in the language itself, in neiva’s deftly absurdist disjunctions: ‘Gender karaoke’; ‘Pop-up gender’; ‘House-to-house gender’. This is a book that delivers both as conceptual commentary and as a book in its own right, the archly subversive work of a subtle, artful artist.

Copyright © Tom Jenks, 2019