Between the Question Mark and the Comma
Kristina Lee Podesva
In thinking about how criticism operates, I stumbled upon a conceptual space lying somewhere between the question mark and the comma. It happened through simple editorial observation: I noted how many authors in Fillip 6, which took on the theme of education in response to documenta XII’s third leitmotif, tended to bracket their texts with questions and lists, suggesting that interrogation provides a convenient starting point while lists supply us not with clear, concrete answers, but rather with links in a continual chain of considerations.
Questions and interrogation, of course, are not sparkling new devices we deploy in search of greater knowledge. They have been used over and over again in writing, art, and writing about art in support of inquiry, debate, provocation, and that old, familiar Hegelian “three-step” known as the dialectic (described by Tirdad Zolghadr). Questions are not new, and, moreover, they are not neutral for they can, in many respects, act as disguises for the predetermined or as apertures masking closures. Nevertheless, they do actively begin things, directing us toward a space that we can build in conversation with a relatively more open, or at the very least, curious attitude. I wholeheartedly disagree with Gertrude Stein’s conclusion that the question mark is the “completely most uninteresting” form of punctuation, an unnecessary symbol that “pleases neither the eye nor the ear” and redundantly announces the obvious.1 Instead, the question mark occasions a productive shift, however molecular, in the mind of a reader, prompting us to think more about what is unknown rather than what is known, preparing us for uncertainty although we seek clarity.
In the best case scenario, art criticism stimulates conversations on contemporary art that proceed forward in a generative fashion, where articulations veer away from final pronouncements and lean more toward a kind of ongoing grappling, or an inductive process (à la Maria Fusco’s suggestion) that, nonetheless, may pause along the way to stake something worth wrangling over; inevitably, though, this process compels us to pick up again where someone else had left off. The underlying aporia somehow manages, in varying degrees, to position best-case scenario criticism in such a way that the forms and functions of art and of criticism simultaneously open up, rather than shrink, with every new temporal and spatial circumstance introduced. Today, more often than not, criticism appears sandwiched in between the advertorial content of glossy gallery and fashion spreads, where the occasional, engaging essay or review exists to support the business of art rather than the other way around. Here, criticism is complicit in the art-magazine-as-shopping-catalogue phenomena, or even the art-magazine-as-teen-zine, reduxing the top ten lists of yesteryear found in Bop or Tiger Beat, only now Jonathan Meese and Takashi Murakami have replaced Ricky Schroeder and Corey Haim as the idols of our moment and attention.
But, to return to the possibilities of criticism and its speculative grammar, I’d like to consider more carefully and fully the comma. It is perhaps the punctuation mark most suited to a forum in which public debate and engagement occurs, and where a non-hierarchical variety of voices and a diversity of topics take up residence. It is also, on the textual level, an abstract representation of seriality (where lists can indicate a sequence), of collectivity and inclusion (where groups of ideas and objects are linked), of contingency (where independent and dependent clauses connect and individual iterations hinge upon others), of apposition (where definitions derive from juxtapositions), and of movement (where a syncopated rhythm takes shape that both cleaves and binds adjacent parts in a forward sweep). Moreover, the comma provides a space to pause, offering a placeholder in whichever moment, expressed alternately as a series of perpetual nows that discourage or unmoor the static and the finite. It is finally the comma that initiates dialogue and ushers in the verbal address, declaring and distributing a space between speakers, listeners, givers, and receivers.2
Can we put forth a grammar for criticism that makes more translucent the opaque skin covering art and shrouding the countless ways in which our perspectives and positions are interconnected through time, geography, knowledge, taste, and so on? Can we actualize a critical engagement with art that reflects back to us what we are, or at least what we think we are, and yet contests that knowledge, and perpetually obliges us to re-tool it? Can we compose a criticism that illuminates the edges of things, of distantly related points that stretch out radially into the deep, dark space of the yet-to-be? It is, perhaps, only in a long list of things (separated by commas) that declare or plague or drone on that we find a place worth occupying.
For me, this space between the question mark and the comma is, for now, where I’d like to locate and advocate for a particular and productive brand of criticism. It’s an open and vast space with room enough for all kinds of maneuvering. Whether it is built by catalyzing discussions through the act of questioning or by making multiple small inroads connected in conversation via the comma, it does not matter because ultimately it’s the thought behind it that counts.
- See Kenneth Goldsmith, Gertrude Stein on Punctuation (Jersey City: Abaton Books, 2000).
- See Irit Rogoff, “Smuggling: An Embodied Criticality,” (2006), available at http://eipcp.net/dlfiles/rogoff-smuggling.
About the Author
Kristina Lee Podesva is Editor of Fillip.