The Revolt of the Perfume Recordist

She embodies an unknowable politics by deepening the shadows in places, tarrying with the anarchy of impersonal memory. Her autonomy undoes itself and disperses into a devotedly plural materiality. Her identifications are small revolutions and also the potent failures of revolutions. She is free to not appear.

—Lisa Robertson, “Time in the Codex”

“Her identifications are small revolutions.” What we know about the avant-garde is how much it likes to identify itself. In 1909, with “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” F. T. Marinetti declared, “It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting, incendiary manifesto of ours. With it, today, we establish Futurism.” In 1912, Ezra Pound scrawled “H.D. Imagiste” on the bottom of Hilda Doolittle’s Poetry submission, giving names both to the poet and a movement; he similarly identified himself through “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste.” In 1913, Guillaume Apollinaire gathered Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp, Marie Laurencin, and a handful of others together under the title The Cubist Painters. In the collection of manifestos that constitute modernism, we see again and again the same proclamation: this is what we are, and so this is our revolution.

But what if what we are, and what is ours, was posited—or, rather, acknowledged—from the onset as a necessary plurality? What if our modernist projects began with the insistence that any one person’s (let alone a group’s) identification is, in fact, identifications and that the Revolution will be revolutions?

Then, in place of the modernist manifesto, we might have a constellation of manifestations, a collective formation of a partially materialized and yet unknowable—and thus still possible—future. In the place of the modernist manifesto, we might also find a work such as Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which had its first manifestation in publication in 1913. In place of a modernist manifesto, we might take into our hands something akin to “a large trunk full of poetry, prose, plays, philosophy, criticism, translations, linguistic theory, political writings, horoscopes and assorted other texts, variously typed, handwritten or illegibly scrawled in Portuguese, English and French.”

The Book of Disquiet was pieced together, posthumously, from the unfinished and unpublished writings Pessoa left in a trunk. Although he initially wrote under his own name, Pessoa brought on one of his various personae, Bernardo Soares, to be The Book’s “ultimate fictional writer.” Editor and translator Richard Zenith writes in his introduction:

“Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist.” So claimed Alvaro de Campos, one of the characters invented by Pessoa to spare himself the trouble of living a real life. And to spare himself the trouble of organizing and publishing the richest part of his prose, Pessoa invented The Book of Disquiet, which never existed, strictly speaking, and can never exist. What we have here isn’t a book but its subversion and negation: the ingredient for a book whose recipe is to keep sifting, the mutant germ of a book and its weirdly lush ramifications, the rooms and windows to build a book but no floor plan and no floor, a compendium of many potential books and many others already in ruins. What we have in these pages is an anti-literature.

Anti-literature; text that subverts, negates, sifts itself; the “mutant germ” and “weirdly lush ramifications” of a book, without the book in between. Zenith adds, “And so Pessoa let the book go, scribbling B. of D. at the head of all sorts of texts, sometimes as an afterthought, or with a question mark indicating doubt.”

Those of us who have been concerned with identifying an avant-garde writing in the 21st Century might find this account unsettling or, at least, uncanny. The Book of Disquiet is a modernist project (written between 1913-1935) that manifested as an actual book under the sign of postmodernism (1998 in Portuguese, 2001 in English). In its trunk-form it predates conceptual art; in both its trunk and book forms it predates, or lies at the forefront of, writing’s most outspoken attempts to be “conceptual.” What if The Book of Disquiet, with all of its manifestations, was given a place as a conceptual manifesto, a manifesto of conceptualism? How would our history of “the avant-garde”—and the direction of the exchanges and influences that characteristically entwine modernist art and literature (with literature always participating too little, too late)—radically revolve?

In 2012, Les Figues Press published the anthology I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, which includes a selection from Stacy Doris and Lisa Robertson titled, “from The Perfume Recordist.” The selection begins with a letter, which, with its insistent references to the body and its envisioning of an autopsy or dissection, is also unsettling in its prescience:

Dear Kenny,

Having been under the knife, we’ve decided to address you at a cellular level, directly (oh and thanks for the pass, c.2008). Systematically, have you considered that all living tissue says “No!” to the fats foreign to the body?

The letter ends:

Kenny, you are the fastest emissary from star to star. There is nothing faster than you. You rush along with time. You live eternally. Physicists emphasize too that the photon, the quantum, the tiniest part of a sunbeam is eternal.


The Perfume Recordist

The irony here is hard to miss, and it’s an evocative caricature of how the avant-garde (or the groups claiming that identification) historically has postured itself: “There is nothing faster than you. You rush along with time. You live eternally.” The Perfume Recordist even tosses in a reference to quantum physics, which has been fetishized, long and inexhaustibly, by the vanguard and its scholars as modernist art’s scientific spur.

Given the text’s context, within an anthology of “Conceptual Writing by Women,” the reference to “Kenny” might be surmised, even without a last name, as conceptual writing’s self-anointed evangelist, Kenneth Goldsmith. But The Perfume Recordist’s employment of the nickname, the diminutive, conveys a degree of familiarity and intimacy, of being “in the know”—albeit ambiguously, with either endearment or cynicism. Here “Kenny,” in lieu of the full author name we usually see on books, indicates not an addressed personage but a personality.

And what do we make of the name “The Perfume Recordist?” What is it, actually: the collective alter ego of Doris and Robertson, a character in a literary text, the literary text itself, or a historical/living person whose materials Doris and Robertson are editing and archiving? “The Perfume Recordist,” as both the title of this work and the name signed at the letter’s end, swings from identification as a person to that of a project and back. Following the letter to “Kenny” is a section titled “The Feast.”

“The Feast” reads as a poetic declamation, beginning with “All honour to the anal cavity. / All honour to mighty pungent couplings of the rose of political imagination,” and ending with, “Oh, and thank you for your virginity.” Other lines include: “Perfume is matter out of place, aka shit: a revolt against the exorbitance of boundaries. Waves of roses flow through the sewers. We’re out in more than we can need. We’re matter out of place,” and “With perfume too the excremental juice applied to body and garments is carried across wild trajectories. We are all invasive species.”

We also discover that “The Perfume Recordist,” in its one mention in this section, “butts right up to the edge of the rose of waste to strut in the sewer of womanhood. Where the rose becomes turds and cacophony, we hurl ourselves into the putrid bouquet.” But still: what is it, actually? Following “The Feast,” the anthology’s selection from Doris and Robertson’s project returns to the epistolary form, reproducing a chain of emails, dated between September and November 2008, exchanged between Robertson and an editor (name redacted) of a literary magazine (also redacted), who commissions Robertson for a manifesto. Robertson’s work would be included in a portfolio of ten manifestos written by poets, celebrating the centennial of Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto. The emails are published in reverse chronological order, so we know from the beginning that Doris and Robertson’s manifesto—which, most likely, is “The Feast”—is ultimately rejected for publication. The editor writes, “We need something that’s more specific to poetry, vague as that sounds,” and offers to pay only half of the original fee offered with the commission. We also encounter the editor’s reservations about a collaborative text:

I love the sound of The Perfume Recordist… This idea, though, should have a separate life in relation to the manifesto. I’ll explain. We’re most interested in the driving mechanism of your poems—or the Force or the fire and perfume of Lisa Robertson—and so will our readers. The Texture of the entire portfolio will benefit from a statement by you alone.

This propels Robertson to respond, “All of the energy of what I do comes from collaborative relationships! …But apart from that, the history of manifestoes is collaborative!! It seems to me that the anarchic pleasures of manifestoes for readers is generated by the collective pleasure of movements!” This is a point lost on the organizers of a manifesto-centennial.

But apart from that, we retrieve a few tantalizing tidbits about The Perfume Recordist project through this email exchange, such as how Doris and Robertson, “as The Perfume Recordist,” previously “presented a 2 hour digital sound installation/performance, in Vancouver.” But how so? What are we missing? The selection in I’ll Drown My Book offers no indication of what this installation/performance involved or contained, nor is it evident how the material here could be adapted to such forms. We also find that The Perfume Recordist has published a “Poetics Statement online.” But where online? And what does it say?

Doris and Robertson’s selection concludes with an illustration by Djuna Barnes from her Book of Repulsive Women, which faces a “biographical” text that may or may not be (as it’s not explicitly indicated as) the previous “Poetics Statement”:

The Perfume Recordist was born from the confused and wildly charged encounter of waves and molecules, a tardive yet opulent (voir peonylike of Venusian) offshoot of early twentieth century Quantum Physics, her roots winnowing back to the great Physic of Avicenna, foundational to Well Being as one would wish to know it, yet in coyest contradiction to the contradiction of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. In other words, in a flagrant refutation of what’s commonly known as logic, the Perfume Recordist finds it her vocation to be beaten and burned until she demonstrates that to be beaten has indeed much in common with being burned, and to be burned has much in common with beating. These beatings and burnings join in layers of raptures, though the Recordist assiduously attempts to avoid both alchemy and redemption in her ecologies of (re) constitutions. The forging of senses entails forgeries? Ha!

Akin to “The Feast” and “Dear Kenny,” and in contrast to the email chain, the language here is ebullient, lush, and lavish. In “The Feast,” however, a theoretical argument about the relationship between perfume, shit, and womanhood might be traced (and we’ll get to this in a minute); but here, in this final section, there is less argument than texture—it is a shimmering swath of textural possibility in language, with the letters and page woven together through a compacted and complicated variety of techniques. Consider the sequence “a tardive yet opulent (voir peonylike or Venusian) offshoot of early twentieth century Quantum Physics”—what kind(s) of language is this? Obscure words, foreign words, archaic words, botanic words, scientific words are stitched together, performing the “confused and wildly charged encounter of waves and molecules” from which The Perfume Recordist emerges. The Perfume Recordist “finds it her vocation to be beaten and burned until she demonstrates that to be beaten has indeed much in common with being burned, and to be burned has much in common with beating. These beatings and burnings join in layers of raptures.” This section does more than express those ostensibly masochistic leanings; it takes the pleasurable alliteration of “beaten” and “burned” and uses the thread of grammar to twist the words, repeatedly, around each other. The difference between “to be beaten has indeed much in common with being burned” and “to be burned has much in common with beating” lies in the crucial shift from the expected “being beaten” to the proffered “beating.” But, ultimately, The Perfume Recordist tells us through associative logic that “to be beaten” has indeed much in common with “beating” (isn’t it easy to mistake the two?), and above all that there is pleasure—in the play between the familiar and the surprising—to be found if we engage intimately with repetition.

Further research into The Perfume Recordist reveals that no authoritative, or complete, account of the work exists in publication—neither online nor on paper. There’s not much to read by The Perfume Recordist at all. The aforementioned “biographical” text from I’ll Drown My Book can, indeed, be found online, but not in relation to the also-mentioned Vancouver installation/performance.

Instead, the text, accompanied by the same Djuna Barnes illustration, appears on the website for “The (New) Reading Series @ 21 Grand,” a now defunct art and performance venue based in Oakland, Calif. The page, posted on October 29, 2008—and thus too late to be the “Poetics Statement” in question—advertises a reading on November 16, 2008, at 6:30pm, featuring “Jaime Cortez & The Perfume Recordist (Lisa Robertson & Stacy Doris).” The same website on November 17—a day after the reading, and after The Perfume Recordist’s rejection by the manifesto-celebrating editor—published “The Feast,” under the title “Artist’s Statement: The Perfume Recordist (Lisa Robertson & Stacy Doris).”

What we do find in relation to the Vancouver installation/performance is a listing on Rob McLennan’s blog for the “Positions Colloquium,” hosted by the Kootenay School of Writing with (and at) the VIVO Media Arts Centre. Colloquium participants included Dodie Bellmany, Brian Kim Stefans, Juliana Spahr, Tyrone Williams and Sianne Ngai. According to the program, Doris and Robertson performed “The Perfume Recordist” at 1pm on Saturday, August 23, 2008. The performance is labeled “Audio Feature.”

In a write-up published three years later, on August 18, 2011, on Jacket2, Oana Avasilichioaei further fleshes out this performance:

The Perfume Recordist is created and composed in the folds of science and language, orality and sentience, and performed (perfumed) improvisationally, multiply, with interference and in a technological sound bath by Lisa Robertson and Stacy Doris. As performance, it is present and fleeting, and thus inaccessible here. The first two-hour enactment of the Perfume Recordist, which included spoken text, recorded sound and audio audience interference, was presented by Robertson and Doris at the Positions Colloquium in August 2008 (organized by the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver). Curious about the interplay of the wave patterns of sound and scent, The Perfume Recordist made ambient sound recordings of 18th century French perfumes in Oakland, San Francisco and Greece.

We finally discover, through Avasilichioaei rather than Doris and Robertson, what the original premise, or procedure, behind The Perfume Recordist was; why, in fact, Doris and Robertson call themselves “The Perfume Recordist”; and what material (“the ambient sound recordings of 18th century French perfumes” in the non-French sites of Oakland, San Francisco and Greece) they might have included in their sound installation. However, Robertson adds, in a correspondence with me from last year, “it was performed in different ways in 2 cities—the 2 hour version in Vancouver, the 25 min version in Oakland.” In her account,

KSW [Kootenay School of Writing] commissioned this work, as they commissioned the work that each poet presented at the colloquium. We were all specifically invited to work across media. Stacy and I were separately invited, and decided on our own steam to collaborate. At first the proposition of collaboration wasn’t popular to the KSW; they relented before long. Stacy and I had been close friends for about 20 years before doing this collaboration… I never did prepare a bibliography but there wasn’t a lot. We planned more, but she died. And the last 2 years of her life, after the performances, we both had cancer, so our time often was taken up with health related research and experimentation.

Doris died on January 31, 2012. While we might say that both poets’ cancers and Doris’ death caused the work to remain unfinished, I think that saying that The Perfume Recordist was left undone, unmade, still latent, open for future and further identifications is much closer to the radical and conceptualist spirit evident in the materials we have.

In other words, even though biographical circumstances seem to have intervened, Doris and Robertson wrote into their project, from the beginning, its potential for revolutions.

The original premise of The Perfume Recordist is, after all, the seemingly absurdist and impossible task of tracking 18th-century French perfumes through recording modern day noises in notably non-French cities. If this is Doris and Robertson’s investigative methodology, what can we assume about their approach toward “origins” and to “the original object” of study? The trace of perfume lies not just in the smell but the entire cityscape it has imbued and whose composition it has altered, affected. The remnant fragrance, “the excremental juice” of the female body, is as much a marker of our history as a monumental obelisk or the acoustic echoes on the Hausmannian boulevards. And if we perceive this, if we allow the fragrance, the stench, the putridity, the pungent “waves of roses,” to infiltrate the sensible composition of the world around us, doesn’t the potential for new revolutions arise, from what seemed to be just a rational and hygienic repetition?

“We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene,” Marinetti declares in his manifesto. But the last century’s attempts at violent “cleansings” show, too plainly, that neither war nor hygiene will produce a sustainable, social, collaborative life. Any revolutionary that promises such a life must rethink what the Revolution will look like—not a decisive and total moment of change, producing a new status quo, but a series of vibrations produced through a variety of deliberate and non-deliberate interactions: a series of vibrations that, in different circumstances and different moments of history, are felt more or less intensely. Instead of making promises, a revolutionary might pose these questions: how do I become more attuned to these vibrations? How might I become active, activated, in feeling them more or less intensely? How do I open myself so that what I feel, what I sense, radically shifts my constitution and, therefore, the constitution of the world feeling and sensing me?

The Perfume Recordist’s practice has its predecessors, certainly in modernism and its manifesto writers, and even their predecessors. In Pound’s translation on “‘Noh’ Plays,” he recounts the traditional Japanese practice of “listening to incense,” in which:

the company was divided into two parties, and some arbiter burns many kinds and many blended sorts of perfume, and the game was not merely to know which was which, but to give each one of them a beautiful and allusive name, to recall by the title some strange event of history or some passage of romance or legend. It was a refinement in barbarous times.

But Pound eventually employed this method of perception to produce his own monumental poem, The Cantos, a text that is indisputably both radical and oppressive. But what if a poetic work didn’t use this method to produce new tropes for new monuments, but instead dispersed itself, provoking this sensual capacity for perception in its own readers, making itself as materially elusive and ephemeral—and evocative and potent—as incense?

The Perfume Recordist invites us to read the work through its ephemera. “As performance, it is present and fleeting, and thus inaccessible here.” The work is its ephemera: the online advertisements for performances, the program notes, the emails exchanged, the various write-ups and reviews, the differing versions in publications and performances, all those “opulent offshoots.” I think we see in The Perfume Recordist a poetic work that, akin to Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, functions as an “anti-literature; text that subverts, negates, sifts itself; the ‘mutant germ’ and ‘weirdly lush ramifications’ of a book, without a book in between.” This is a work of poetry that aspires to become noise.

Robertson writes in her essay called “Disquiet,” for which she also made ambient sound recordings “at the sites of Atget’s documentary photographs of Paris”:

Noise is and isn’t composed…Noise is the unwilled surplus produced by the temporal indetermination of conditions and practices in co-movement. Noise has an inchoate shape as weather does—we may measure it, but its movements extend beyond any identifiable cause. Noise exceeds its own identity. It is the extreme of difference. Noise is the non-knowledge of meaning, the by-product of economies.

The Perfume Recordist continues to manifest. In March 2012, a group of feminist poets in the United Kingdom—including Francesca Lisette, Nat Raha, Marianne Morris, and Caitlin Doherty—organized a performance to protest Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s talk at the Cambridge Union. Robertson couldn’t attend, but she sent them “a manifesto written by The Perfume Recordist” with one instruction: “If you do decide to read it, it should be shouted. Or several people could read it, shouting parts from various places in the audience.”

“The Feast” was finally published by the editors of Paper Nautilus, who attended the protest performance. Most recently, The Perfume Recordist appeared in the Canadian art magazine C, in a special issue (#127, Autumn 2015) featuring poetry. In this publication, “The Perfume Recordist” is comprised of four sections: “I. The Feast” is followed by “II. Detached Sentences on the Theory and Practice of The Perfume Recordist,” “III. Folio: The Perfume Recordist” (a theoretical account of the project, in relations to the young Karl Marx’s sensual materiality), and “IV. A Note from Lisa Robertson:” that recounts her collaboration with Doris more biographically and personally. Interspersed between these sections is a Man Ray/Marcel Duchamp collage featuring “Belle Haleine,” their conceptual perfume, and a photograph of a 20th-century orgue du parfumeur (perfumer’s organ).

In her “Note,” Robertson frequently refers to the work of The Perfume Recordist as “research:” “we set out to research the relationship between scent and sound”; the “initial stage of research culminated in a two-hour performance”; “we continued our research, branching into sound studies of hormones, decay and the social aesthetics of healing.” This follows upon The Perfume Recordist’s claim, in the “Folio,”

We’re not attributing this or that origin to a specific thread of past change, nor proposing potential causes of future change. Instead we want to describe the changes we perceive in the present. We are training ourselves to perceive more complexity… So we have multiplied our perceiving with tools and techniques and with the technical device of friendship. Now our perception thickens up. Perfume Recordists are ultra-naturalists.

And so, in place of the modernist manifesto, we have this, their, promise: “The essential ingredients of our poetry will be revolting.”

About Mia You

Mia You is a doctoral student in English at UC Berkeley. Her first full-length poetry book, I, Too, Dislike It, is forthcoming from 1913 Press. With Chloe Garcia-Roberts, she co-edits A. BRADSTREET, a journal on poetry and motherhood.