Fillip — Folio A

Say Who I Am / Or a Broad Private Wink
Maria Fusco

Say Who I Am1

Or a Broad Private Wink2

I had two books with me, which I’d meant to read on the plane. One was Words for the Wind, by Theodore Roethke.... My other book was Erika Ostrovsky’s Céline and His Vision. Céline was a brave French soldier in the First World War—until his skull was cracked. After that he couldn’t sleep, and there were noises in his head. He became a doctor, and he treated poor people in the daytime, and he wrote grotesque novels all night. No art is possible without a dance with death, he wrote.3

Re-imagining the art object as sharing a number of basic ontological qualities with the riddle, I am interested in thinking through some ways to write about, or, again, write around the art object: to elicit, to unlock, to induce its essential obscurity with essential obscurity.

Approaching the writing of this text, I looked back at my original précis and discovered that I had used a very wrong word. In fact, the use of this wrong word was a fundamental error on my part, and thankfully, now that I’ve realized this, I can proceed with the proper word (or so I hope).

My wrong word was deduce.

In summoning this word, I had inadvertently evoked the very fixed place where I had hoped not to be; for to deduce, with the dictionary smack of reaching a conclusion or inferring something from a general principle, is far from my understanding contemporary art writing. What I’m interested in is what art writing might be, rather than what it actually is.4

What I really should have said was induce.

For to loiter near the art object, with the intention of capture through critique, should essentially be a procedure of induction rather than of deduction, in that we are creating or tracing a broader, possibly more fertile environment through close looking, rather than tracking a logical conclusion from the clues given. To concur with Maurice Blanchot, as he would have it in his 1941 novel Thomas the Obscure, “making no distinction between the figure and that which is, or believes itself to be, its centre, whenever the complete figure itself expresses no more than the search for an imagined centre.”5 It’s preferable, then, to work in the margins, to attempt to write “the inside meaning of it if you understand me.”6

We should keep in mind, after all, that the supposed ur-deducer Sherlock Holmes had but detailed knowledge of “everything” that could be applied to his inductive investigations of crime, but little to no knowledge of the material world outside of his investigations.7

I would suggest then that this intensive focus is inductive in nature, for its methodology is essentially open-ended. Sherlock Holmes’s investigation isn’t over until it is over, but he is not a typical detective. For those detectives who start from an a priori point of certainty, an assumption of who perpetrated the crime, progress along a static path of discovery is based on this “fact,” which leads them to reach the conclusion that they had already came to in the first place. On the other hand, Holmes’s approach is not one of surety. He doesn’t come to the crime knowing who has done it; rather, he induces it.

We can see Sherlock Holmes’s inductive approach (the approach of the conscientious critic, perhaps?) in Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887), in a comment made by Holmes to Watson: Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backward.8

This backwards reasoning demonstrates that Holmes has not made his mind up but proceeds with alertness and tact. And again, this backwards reasoning is temporal in nature—traversing past-production that is no longer accessible (the artwork), shot through a present of inscription (the examination), towards a future that will probably be barely dented by our observations (the marketplace); without this reasoning, however, there cannot be a full understanding of what or why (the role of the art critic).9

Critical art writing that harbours at its core an aggregate problematizes (yet also harmonizes) its subject; to borrow an observation of Marie Darrieussecq’s, “The unsaid is that which advances literature, that which it explores as a virgin or submerged land. Ghosts are born of the unsaid.... To write is to give a voice to ghosts.”10 How best to explicate this “unsaid” without resorting to a mere process of critical translation, object to text? Why, to read and write the object simultaneously: more precisely, to write as you read.

All of this, of course has direct implications not only for the validity of the judgment procedures of art criticism, but also for its direction, speed, and methods of approach.

Let’s reconsider Sherlock Holmes’s impulse to reason backward in relation to an observation from Michel Tournier in his autobiography The Wind Spirit, an observation in which we may catch strains of the faint scent of critical methodology: all good philosophy the solution always precedes the problem. The problem is nothing but the shadow cast by its solution, a fountain of clarity that spurts motu proprio into the empyrean of the intelligible.11 Whilst I would not necessary hold with, or even particularly desire the type of clarity that is generally assumed to be of use to culturally assemble (or is that re-assemble?) a “complete” art object—rendering it less leaky, and therefore more substantive or even marketable from any viewable angle—I would like to spend some more time re-imagining how backwards movement might help us to “assess” the art object more clearly, that is, to further the purposes of parlous (here meaning difficult or uncertain, rather than its homophone powerless) navigation.12

But then there’s backwards movement, and there’s backwards movement.13

A fundamental principle of Cartesian analysis suggests that when given a problem to be solved, we examine the conditions to be fulfilled, dividing them into simpler conditions that are themselves easier to solve, to go backwards, so to speak, from the given problem to the simpler and solvable constituents. This type of backwards movement presents a problem, however, in art writing, in terms of how to divide, sort, or again order the parts into a form that seems easier to inspect. The “ordering” action, by its very nature, suggests a sequential or narrative thrust toward a specific destination, the place of judgment—not, I would suggest, a very useful movement in criticism, and one that is often characterized by descriptive rather than inscriptive processes.

The kind of backwards movement that interests us here is more closely identified with the seemingly counter-intuitive dynamism of Maurice Blanchot’s “Orphic Gaze”: its power to inspect, to vaporize, to transform. Blanchot has said in his essay “The Gaze of Orpheus”: At first sight, the image does not resemble a cadaver, but it could be that the strangeness of a cadaver is also the strangeness of the image.... What is left behind is precisely this cadaver, which is not of the world either—even though it is here—which is rather behind the world...and which now affirms, on the basis of this, the possibility of a world—behind, a return to backwards.14

This “return to backwards” depicts a resistance, or perhaps more exactly, a sly challenge to comprehension, highlighting as it does the essential obscurity of the image—or here, as we are terming it, the art object—thereby suggesting that it must be approached in a different way, and, just as the cadaver itself is in a state of “infinite erosion,” so too is the art object, in terms of its physical presence, together with its cultural and economic currencies.15 Contemporary art criticism nurtured by the appearance of value may be both witness to—and witnessed to be—assembling an inauthentic absolute object or teratological corpus through rationalist grafting of interpretation from scrappy parts: criticism demanding to be read of itself, whilst simultaneously calling for a re-reading of something that is outside of itself.

We can look to less orthodox modes of criticism to examine the dissolution or dissemination of the absolute object in the same way as we look to fiction to lead us on an aporetic procedure, enacting critical judgments through question after question rather than answer after answer.

Criticism can cajole objects to speak,16 but we must be prepared to accept that these very same objects may only be able answer us in riddles. Furthermore, we must be prepared to approach art objects in a riddlic form, in order to elicit the most sophisticated or productive responses. Non-traditional, more experimental methods of critical art writing can help. This complex object, this art object, may, by speaking, shed itself of the soup stowage of deductive judgment value, encouraging us to develop the catoptric approach of being reader and writer at the same time: or again to write as we read the object critically.17

Monsieur Teste, Paul Valéry’s eponymous antihero, asserted that “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothing shows through.”18 Perhaps it is the very “nothing” of the art object that may be interrogated and indeed celebrated as half-intended discovery through the backward reasoning of more experimental modes of critical art writing, but only if that very same writing is willing to embrace, and, yes, even to embody the inherent obscurity, the delicacy, the dispersive excursion of induction.

  1. Daniel Tiffany, “Lyric Substance: On Riddles, Materialism and Poetic Obscurity,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001), 73.
  2. Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (London: Flamingo, 1993), 117.
  3. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five (St. Albans: Panther, 1972), 21.
  4. Two flights up to the gallery, Linda was greeted at the door by the gallerist John. His eyes looked very puffy, like he’d been crying for a long time, or eaten something that hadn’t quite agreed with him. Linda caught the track of a thin acrid whiff emanating from John’s threadbare overcoat; a coat that looked like it might once have been navy blue, but was now simply there.
  5. Maurice Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure (New York: David Lewis, 1973), 3.
  6. O’Brien, The Third Policeman, 167.
  7. “Now Linda. What do you want? All of it? Do you want to see all of it?” John unhooked a key from beside the door jamb where he was still wedged.
    “Yes please John. Everything you’ve got. I’d like to include a good selection in the piece. I think it’s important the readers get a sense of the range of the work.”
  8. Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (London: Penguin Classics, 2001), 123.
  9. “Yes, so vibrantthose colours” Linda was very impressed by the stark contours in the photographs; their texture and timbre wound up something tight inside her. The body seemed to be lying right on top of the page rather than sitting within it; thickly applied make-up coated the surface of the skin: a glossy rainbow. It was all surface. And what was on the surface was good.
  10. Marie Darrieussecq interviewed by Becky Miller and Martha Holmes in December 2001. See (accessed January 2, 2009).
  11. Michel Tournier, The Wind Spirit (London: Methuen, 1991), 125.
  12. Linda always shaved the top and the bottom of her legs, as she ran the razor slowly and carefully up the inside of her thigh, the soap scum dropped off the blade in heavy grey clumps, weighed down with stubble in the thin layer of water.
  13. Instead of stopping shaving at the top of her thighs, Linda kept on going, and dragged the razor up to where her legs joined her body. She paused. She paused to lather more soap in around her pubic hair. Even though the hair was thick and coarse, the hot water had softened it and the razor was new, so she shaved off the top layers without much difficulty. Linda had to keep rubbing in lots of soap, working in small patches, until all of the hair had migrated into the bath water, where it floated, suspended in spindly scum. She ran her hand over the area and when it all felt smooth, she stopped shaving. Still wet, Linda fetched her little round magnifying mirror from the bathroom cabinet. It struck Linda she had never had a really good look at her own cunt—not properly anyway. Now, with no hair the little mauve mollusc seemed more shrivelled than it had ever done before. Not too bad though. Not too tattered. But not as nice as the cunt in the photograph.
  14. Maurice Blanchot, The Stationhill Blanchot Reader (Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1999), 439.
  15. John had laid out a selection of the original spreads out on the table, but this time, he’d arranged them into a narrative sequence; one in which the model crawled across the pages, twisting and stretching her limbs into each corner. The darkness of her cunt penetrated each page like a hole bored by an impatient reader.
  16. Linda lay down on the gallery floor whilst John held the first magazine for her to see, so that she could get the position right.
  17. When John finally approached her, Linda was surprised not by its size—for that was just as she’d imagined—but by its colour, monochrome, engorged with blood yet its very surface lifeless.
  18. Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), 101.
About the Author

Maria Fusco is a Belfast-born writer and academic based in London. She recently edited Put About: A Critical Anthology on Independent Publishing produced out of a conference at Tate Modern that she organized. She is currently developing a new journal The Happy Hypocrite for and about experimental writing within visual arts.

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