Inside some stones one finds streaks which seem even more saturated than the bloody red of their background. They proclaim the circuits of planets or electrons around invisible centers or nuclei: an image of the radical law of gravity that links physical bodies together at every level of the universe. Like the curved brass rings of armillary spheres, etched with zodiacs and ecliptics and equinoctial zones, they scry jeweled bracelets for cosmographers or nuclear physicists. They reflect every phantom revolution, from the cosmic to the microscopic scale, from the vast on down, each relentlessly repeating the very same pattern. Here, in their turning, we can see the blueprint of nature itself, simultaneously hidden and revealed in a kernel of silica, announcing the blazon of the universe, revealing the persistent geometric figure that governs the entirety of creation. But in order to be moved by this pattern thus inscribed, ironically, in the heart of a stone, one needs to already know the secret it unveils or recalls; one needs to have already studied myriad scientific tomes, and learned from them the thousands of patterns which this one single figure brings together, and without which it would remain what it really is: chance curves providentially assembled by another chance and randomly colored by metallic deposits.
– Roger Caillois in the epigraph to Helicography
Part art history essay, part experimental fiction, part theoretical manifesto on the politics of equivalence, Helicography examines questions of scale in relation to Robert Smithson’s iconic 1970 artwork Spiral Jetty. In an essay and film made to accompany the earthwork, Smithson invites us to imagine the stone helix of his structure at various orders of magnitude, from microscopic molecules to entire galaxies.
Taking up this invitation with an unrelenting and literal enthusiasm, Helicography pursues the implications of such transformations all the way to the limits of logic. If other spirals, from the natural to the man-made, were expanded or condensed to the size of Spiral Jetty, what are the consequences of their physical metamorphoses? What other equivalences follow in turn, and where do their surprising historical, cultural, and mechanical connections lead? This book considers a number of forms in order to find out: the fluid vortices of whirlpools, hurricanes, and galaxies; the delicate shells of snails and the threatening pose of rattlesnakes; prehistoric ferns and the turns of the inner ear; the monstrous jaws of ancient sharks; a baroque finial scroll on a bass viol; a 19th-century watch spring; phonograph discs and spooled film; the largest open-pit mine on the planet.
The result is a narrative laboratory for the “science of imaginary solutions” proposed by Alfred Jarry (whose King Ubu also plays a central role in the story told here), a work of fictocriticism blurring form and content, and the story of a single instant in time lost in the deserts of the intermountain west.
Craig Dworkin is the author of four scholarly monographs – Reading the Illegible (Northwestern University Press), No Medium (MIT Press), Dictionary Poetics: Toward a Radical Lexicography (Fordham University Press), and Radium of the Word: a Poetics of Materiality (Chicago University Press) – as well as a half-dozen edited collections and a dozen books of experimental writing, including, most recently, The Pine-Woods Notebook (Kenning Editions). He teaches literary history and theory at the University of Utah.
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