Fillip 9 — Winter 2009

<em>Martha Rosler Library</em>, 2005. Installation view at e-flux, New York. Courtesy of Martha Rosler and e-flux.

Other Uses: Boolean Searches in the Martha Rosler Library
Shepherd Steiner

This essay was originally delivered as a lecture at Site, Liverpool, while the Martha Rosler Library was installed there. I was asked by John Byrne, curator of Site, and Paul Domela, Director of the Liverpool Biennial, to talk about close reading rather than simply interpret the Library. As someone who is committed to close reading, I found myself in an extremely delicate situation. Current fashion prescribes that such lectures focus on theory. But I could not. I had accepted an invitation that went against the founding precepts of the practice of close reading as I had come to know it explicitly through use.

Consisting of over 7,700 books drawn from the personal collection of the artist, the Library has been on an extended exhibition tour that began in New York in November 2005 and was variously installed and accessible for public use in Frankfurt, Antwerp, Berlin, Paris, and, most recently, Liverpool and Edinburgh. The problem for me was to talk about close reading and not _the Martha Rosler Library. The problem was that if one is committed to close reading, as I like to think I am, then one would have to speak about close reading _and the Martha Rosler Library_. That “and” is very important for close reading. Close reading is not a theoretical method of reading that one can extract from the practice of reading, abstract from the work at hand, or know in advance. It is a variable approach to reading dictated by the text, object, or image itself. The crucial distinction for me is using theory, rather than applying theory.1 To use theory—and I think that every work of art has a theory of interpretation built into it—one must respond to the singularity of the work confronted and let that determine what is to follow. In so doing, one can potentially perform a reading, something that exists inside interpretation—reading or theory being an event that happens within and beyond interpretation, what we can call interpretation’s constitutive act. The point here is that if we want to talk about acts of reading in all their fullness, we must talk about the Martha Rosler Library, since a general theory of textuality (let alone a distilling out of an abstracted version of theory) cannot be separated from the specific textuality of the Library. Thus my title (which shouldn’t be taken too literally), “Boolean Searches in the Martha Rosler Library,” for with that all-important “and” as well as those “ors” and “nots,” we are in the vicinity of what library insiders call the Boolean search.

For those of you unfamiliar with a Boolean search, I should note that a Boolean search is (as the dictionary on my Mac tells me) a “search characterized by a system of symbolic logic that uses combinations of such logical operators as AND, OR, and NOT to determine relationships between entities”—for instance, Rosler and her collaborator on the project, Anton Vidokle. For a “not” we could include the artist’s signature, Martha Rosler. In place of this ortho_doxy, Rosler would have us emphasize heterodoxy. As a close reader, I like the sound of this, primarily because close reading presupposes that one is inextricably tangled in the work’s system of symbolic logic—we could say part of its system of metaphoric exchange, an economy in its own right. This insideness seriously complicates the position of interpretative mastery, outsideness, or critical exteriority assumed by a majority of theoretical methods, especially those hailing from New York and, ironically, from those critics we imagine to be closest to Rosler, such as Benjamin Buchloh and Rosalind Krauss. I think that acknowledging the importance of being _in the library is crucial to fleshing out the wider stakes of the project that implicate use, the political, and the recuperation of agency, questions that are all easily lost when we simply walk into the library, look around, and just see and experience nothing more than a library—a kind of shabby, regional library at best, at least in its manifestation in Liverpool, and, thus, very different from its other manifesta- tions, say, in Paris, at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art, or at the e-flux storefront reading room on Ludlow Street in New York City, where the Martha Rosler Library was first opened to the public in 2005. I remember spending some time in a shabby library not unlike Liverpool’s Martha Rosler Library in Horsham, Australia: a skylight made it too hot, the plants seemed to need watering, the space was originally intended for something else, the library monitor was occupied otherwise, a sense of boredom made reading anything more than a dust cover an impossibility. The critical work to be done here is contained within the coordinates of such an imaginative response—obviously one of many such responses given that we all use libraries in very different ways and use or inhabit different libraries differently. Drawing on one’s own experience of everyday type places like a library is at the crux of responding to work in the avant-garde tradition; it works upon and with one’s experience, grapples with it inasmuch as it is a question of form or aestheticization, something that older notions of the critical and specifically political interpretations of Rosler’s work have little if any purchase on.

These few moves—using, inhabiting, responding, pressuring—all involve theoretical questions with huge ramifications for the practice of criticism. Beyond this, speaking about Rosler’s or Vidokle’s practice alone is not easy: one needs the help of an especially strong search engine, such as the Boolean search, to get on the right track. As is widely known, both artists are extremely articulate; Rosler, especially, is one of those artists who is more articulate about her work than her interpreters. Mainly, I would say that this is because she thinks dialectically, according to a rigourous mode of logic that the relational terms of both a Boolean search and a close reading can help sort out. I would claim, in fact, that if we are to make any sense at all of a project like the Martha Rosler Library we need to be attentive to the structural inversions, substitutions, and displacements that these ANDS, ORS, or NOTS speak to, that happen between the library as object and the viewer as subject, that complicate many of our expectations of what a work should be (for instance, self-reflexive), and finally, that mark the subject (or viewer) as the crucial arena—a post-minimalist arena—for thought and, ultimately, action to take place.

There is a second entry under Boolean in my Mac dictionary that we should mention as well, Boolean algebra: “A form of algebra concerned with the logical functions of variables that are restricted to true and false.” I like the sound of this as well, for if we were to push these true and false notions into a theory of language, we would end up close to fleshing out and securing J. L. Austin’s original reason for investigating speech acts, which is where our contemporary notion of the performative comes from. One of the things Austin did in the 1950s was to make the important distinction between constative and performative notions of language. He did so in order to isolate performatives (which he thought were nonsense) from constatives, which he defined through their factual or referential function and which he thought the high road to the serious use of language. If constative language reports on true or false things, performative language does not; it only performs an act in saying something. For instance, I uttered a performative when I responded to my hosts in Liverpool, John and Paul, saying I accepted their invitation and promised to talk about close reading. Promising doesn’t report on a true or false situation, nor does it have any bearing on a cognitive or an epistemological question. It relates only to the act of uttering the promise, one that I may or may not keep in this essay. For if my argument fails to live up to my original promise of talking about close reading, the original speech act could misfire. This is what Austin describes as an infelicitous performative. And so far it’s not looking so good. I’ve been spending my time cataloguing interpretative difficulties and rehearsing a theory of language rather than speaking about the library or close reading!

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Image: Martha Rosler Library, 2005. Installation view at e-flux, New York. Courtesy of Martha Rosler and e-flux.

About the Author

Shepherd Steiner teaches Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Florida. Recent publications include Snow Changes Everything: Unfinished Form in the Filmwork of Ibon Aranberri (Funadcio Tapies, 2009); “(Art and) Democracy | Hegemony (and Anarchy),” in Becoming Dutch (Eindhoven, 2009) and “Curatorial Formalism and Tinkering with the Political on the Far Side of the Subject at Documenta XII” (Journal of Visual Culture, 2008). His curatorial project focussing on American painting and video art, titled Acts of Non-Agression: 1960–76, opened at the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, in September 2008. He is currently finishing a book on Modernism titled Mnemotechnical Bodies: Close Readings in Modernist Painting, Sculpture, and Criticism.

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