Motion Studies

Jena Osman
Ugly Duckling Presse ($20)

by Joseph Houlihan

Motion Studies is the most recent installment in Jena Osman’s ongoing interrogation of the intersections between human bodies and our technology-obsessed culture. Osman has engaged themes exploring the edges of individual and social organisms for years, both in the experimental poetry magazine Chain she co-edited between 1994 and 2005, and in her poetry collections such as The Network (Fence Books, 2010) and Public Figures (Wesleyan University Press, 2012).

Motion Studies hones in again on these edges between our embodied selves and the technologies that inform and amplify our understandings of those selves and others. In this collection, Osman focuses on mechanical devices that have been used in science and medicine: “The noise of her pulse. Of his. // 'The hellish tattoo of the heart' recorded in a line. // They draw a breath and it’s made visible, / They have a thought and that’s visible as well. // Shallow breath and stealth. Holding breath—” Osman pairs such strange histories with a dreamlike narrative of a woman resisting the surveillance state:

The road continues to convey forward, with its deadly drop-off tail at the back. They begin to understand that the bottleneck is not so much due to congestion, as it is to hesitation and then a small group of resisters. They decide to join the scanner resistance, while most don’t recognize the choice and plod forward toward the inexorable. The resistance strategy is simple: slow down. There’s a thin red thread unraveling from hand to hand—if they hold onto it, they can hold themselves back. They do this, knowing that eventually the end of the road will catch up with them.

The line between a body in the world and our logocentric, technocratic society blurs. Osman’s collection Corporate Relations (Burning Deck, 2014) was a response to the 2010 Citizens United decision which infamously gave corporations the first amendment rights of free speech, deluging our politics with unlimited corporate spending. Like that collection, Motion Studies describes a series of relations between machines and bodies, and the circumstances under which bodies become machines. Surveillance especially seeks to incorporate bodies into explicitly legible, disciplined, and consumerist schemes; the poetry in this collection reacts against this tendency. It has the sense of many voices commenting on technological artifacts, alongside an almost caper-like description of a body seeking to disassociate from the ubiquity of surveillance.

As Osman skirts the fuzzy edge between the human body and the technical object, her gorgeous and fascinating examinations of diagrams and schemata recall an archaeology of language. Just as poets like Douglas Kearney excavate the sinister history of American discourse, Osman uncovers the history of scientism in language, and the relationship between this history and biopolitics today. While some of the work is heady, there are humorous and fascinating anecdotes too, including Walt Whitman submitting himself to a phrenological exam. A compelling collection, Motion Studies is a machine worth loving and sharing.

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