Design Time, or Wabi Sabi and the Long Now

Posted by Stuart on April 17, 2014
culture, design, ecology, sustainability, talks / Comments Off

This is a talk I gave at the Stanford Design Loft on 4.4.2014.

DESIGN-TIME
or, Wabi-Sabi and the Long Now

The topic is time in Design
The way that beings exist in time.
What is it to exist in time?
And what is time in design?
How does our understanding of time, of what time is, impact the way we design?
How does it impact the specific kinds of the things we design?
What changes, when we change the way that we think about time, the way that we orient ourselves within and toward time?

By way of introduction, I’ll situate what I have to say about time and design in relation to three referents:

Tony Fry’s Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics, and New Practice (2009).
Design futuring? Creating futures through design. Fry proposes developing a “new practice” of design oriented toward what he calls “the Sustainment … a moment in time that unfolds as a continuous process.” [15]
Thinking about a steady-state, no growth economy obviously challenges language. What kind of moment is a continuous process?

The Clock of the Long Now (1993~)
The project of the Long Now Foundation – Stewart Brand, Daniel Hillis, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno, et alia – to build an iconic, giant clock in the mountains of Texas (and Nevada) to “reframe the way people think” with an eye toward long-term thinking [3]. The idea is to inform, encourage, and inspire people to take responsibility for the future. Responsibility is key.

Wabi Sabi
Wabi Sabi is an aesthetic sensibility evidenced in many forms of Japanese life and art – from scroll paintings to ceramics, gardens, and, most thoroughly, the tea ceremony. It is notoriously difficult to summarize. For my purposes, wabi sabi is relevant as indicative of an appreciation for familiarity, continuity, and history, alongside an awareness of the passage of time and loss, loneliness, and melancholy understood within a religious frame. Wabi sabi valorizes an awareness of impermanence and fragility in objects, environments, and experiences.

Beyond these three frames, I’d like to try to consider time in design from the perspectives of its producers as well as its consumers or users.

A philosophy of design is a philosophy of time
and vice versa

The way we think of our relationship to time impacts the way we design
The objects we design as well as the processes through which we design them
Objects here in the largest sense: products but also buildings, cities, everything
Our relationship to wilderness is a problem in time – how long does it take to get there?

This is a matter of some paradox
The word design all but dictates a specific relationship to time, a philosophy of time.
Design is the timely art.
How could it be timeless?
Design cannot but be of its time.
Design addresses the problems of a specific time – a moment in history – with the tools and technologies of that moment.
When the technologies change, design changes.
When the problems change, design changes.
When the times change, design changes.

Design doesn’t age well.
It’s physical: Materials degrade, colors fade.
It’s physiological: A typeface loses effectiveness, starts to look stale, after a certain amount of time.
It’s psychological: We don’t feel quite right in clothes that have gone too far out of style.
This has to do with fashion, with being of the moment, just now in the modern sense.

The word modern
From the latin root modo
Meaning just now
Entered the English language in 1585
When Shakespeare was beginning his career

But even retro styling has been, at times, fashionable, of the moment.
Time impacts design, requiring new design.

Design is also time consuming. It takes time to design.
A design idea might come in an instant but that instant might take a long time and a lot of preparation to arrive. And then you have to make it, build it, get it out into the world.

Design is slow. In our fast world, design is often too slow.
By the time that we get permission to develop a project, initiate that project, research it, develop it, get buy-in and sign off, then actually do the job, the social context has changed.

Rem Koolhaas described the birth of AMO – the mirror of OMA from a situation in which “architecture was too slow to capture mutating organizations”:
“If we could not build a building for an organization that was in an absolute state of flux from a share value to the permanent buying and selling of its components and the constant imminence of mergers and acquisitions, we could at least imagine a conceptual model of a ‘structure’ that could, if not anticipate, at least accommodate almost any eventuality and actually exploit the given instability to define a new territory for architecture…” [Rem Koolhaas, Content 118]

The context of design – technologies and tastes – is changing so fast today that design can’t keep up, even though design itself is driving the change.

There is an existential dilemma proposed to the designer by the pace of change.
Time appears before the designer like a black hole sucking in content.

The economic category of durable goods is all but indistinguishable from its opposite: consumables.

All design seems like ephemera racing toward the dump.

[…]

But let’s turn this around. I’ve been talking about the way that time impacts objects.

Objects – things – also impact time.

Objects create time.
They structure our experience of time.
They take time, make time, save time
Think: labor saving devices
Time is money

The time of objects includes many different kinds of time.
Time spent waiting
A computer to start, files to compact or save, etc.
Coffee to brew

The time of a building
Time spent walking from the garage to the office or classroom, up the stairs, down the halls
The time saved by putting the washing machine close to the things that need to be washed

Organizational management strategies in interior design in the home and at work
The arrangement of space is time

Large scale this is the time of our cities, our civilization
Time spent in traffic, trains, airports, waiting rooms
Waiting for a stoplight to change

When time is money, time is speed: Speed is money
In business, we want to do things efficiently, but also quickly, more quickly than our competitors
We want the fastest possible means of communication to transmit our messages to our colleagues, clients and consumers.
Here I’m thinking of those fiber-optic cables that run to Wall Street to facilitate High Frequency Trading with a speed advantage of milli- and microseconds.

The point obviously is to arrange objects in space for our maximum benefit
To give us the most time – To make the most money
To help us enjoy the things we want to enjoy
Ivan Illich calls this conviviality
Tools for conviviality – objects and structures that help us live well

[…]

The time we’ve been talking about is the time of moments, of shorter or longer duration – microseconds in High Frequency Trading, hours spent in traffic.

Moments are moments we experience. We call moments of heightened experience events.

But time isn’t just moments. It’s also history, a sequence of moments.

When time is history, it’s less tangible, less obviously tangible anyway.

Objects embody history in several ways. Some of these ways are more visible than others.

Objects embody history superficially in styling, as in retro styling, attempting to look like a product from another era.

Even objects that pass for timeless end up bound to time. Here I’m thinking of suburban houses that have been designed to “look like a house”: copies of an imaginary English country bungalow from the 1830s. But there are other “classic” styles or stylings of just about everything.

The paradox of timeless design: that it is simultaneously bound to a time but also uprooted from specific temporal reference. It no longer refers to that time though it carries traces of it.

Modernism in design held out the hope that there might be one right answer, one ideal form for any given design problem: in other words that design might be timeless.

But is the other choice? What happens when we admit that objects embody histories?

How do we design objects so that they may be aware of or broadcast their histories or their place in history?
Charles Olson said, leave the roots on.

Museums and history books attempt to make history manifest, palpable, meaningful. But is that something that design should do?

There are of course many different kinds of history, different frameworks for the historical.
History might be personal, familial, cultural, environmental, geological even.

Stewart Brand observed that we live in several types or systems of time simultaneously, each embedded in another:

Fashion
Commerce
Infrastructure
Governance
Culture
Nature

Fashion is art, design, popular music. It’s fast.

Commerce is business: it’s got to be fast; delays are bad for business. But if change happens too fast, business suffers: goods don’t get a chance to reach the market.

Infrastructure: Civic works, roads and bridges, buildings.
How long do buildings live?
Office buildings: 73 years
Homes: 50 years
Bridges: Golden Gate 75 and counting; Bay Bridge projected for 150 years
Governance – Political structures
Culture
Nature – Ecology, geology, cosmology – the time or pace of evolutionary change

What is it to begin to think in terms of natural, ecological, even cosmological time scales?
What is it to design in those terms?

Gary Snyder’s poem “Old Woodrat’s Stinky House” from Mountains and Rivers Without End [121-3]
A human life – 80 years
The life of a language – 500 years
Religion – 2,500 years [Hinduism: 3,500 years]
Bristlecone pine – 5,000 years

Some of these temporal frameworks or referents are themselves profoundly new.

Only a few weeks ago, cosmologists found evidence to date the Big Bang to 13.8 Billion years ago [Denis Overbye, “Space Ripples Reveal Big Bang’s Smoking Gun” The New York Times (March 17, 2014)]

Less recently, during the 19th century, advances in modern science and technology profoundly changed conceptions of time and space.

In the natural sciences books like:
Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830)
Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859)

Simultaneously cultural, anthropological, and archeological discoveries:
Epic of Gilgamesh (1855 / 1872)
Painted caves at Altamira (1879)

Technological innovations:
Steamship 1787
Railroad 1814
Telegraph 1832
Telephone 1875

When Hamlet said, “time is out of joint” in 1603, he was speaking from within a completely different orientation toward time than ours today.

In 1650 Irish Archibishop James Ussher calculated the age of the earth based on the number of generations listed in the Bible, giving the moment of creation as the night before Sunday October 23rd, 4004 BC.

Set this against the scientific, cultural, and technological changes of the 19th century and you have period of radical contrast and convulsive change.

It is unsurprising that Stephen Dedalus should have proclaimed, in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

F.T. Marinetti was saying much the same thing in the Futurist Manifesto (1909) when he declared museums to be cemeteries. “Admiring an old picture is the same as pouring our sensibility into a funerary urn.” “We stand on the promontory of the centuries! … Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.”

One hundred years later, it is hard to be quite so enthusiastic about the speed of life and of change in our times.

Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock observed the “death of permanence” in 1970.
Paul Virilio invented the science of speed, Dromology, in Speed and Politics [1977]
James Glick’s Faster is now old: it’s from 1999

These are catalogs of dread.

Global transportation and telecommunications networks have fundamentally altered our experience of speed, pace, and time.

Yet we can sit in a high-speed train reading newspapers from around the globe on our mobile devices about religious fundamentalists denying the fundamentals of history as modern science describes it.

The times of modern times are conflicted times, opposed senses of time.

Even with all of this speed – or rather because of it – time itself has become the most valuable thing of all: leisure time, down time, free time.

We’re caught between two economies of time

One Fast and Furious, the other slow
Slow as in slow food or, more recently, slow fashion

The slow food movement proposes that we eat at the pace of good, clean, fair food
Eat locally and seasonally – without the speed of transportation
Eat at the speed of cooking
The time of slow food includes time growing, cooking, and eating

The subtitle of Peter Reinhart’s Brother Juniper’s Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor.
Slow rise is a method of making bread, letting yeast develop favor without chemical inducement or preservation
It’s also a metaphor that carries outside the kitchen into life

But how?

However appealing, the idea of slowness does not offer a fully compelling alternative to the speed of contemporary life. It’s an unworkable or at least incomplete philosophy of time for design.

And this is the core question. Modern science, social science, and applied science – i.e. technology – effectively shattered previous conceptions of time.

How can we conceive of a new conception of time and of our relationship to time and history, of the relationship of our objects and things to time and history?

[…]

For all of the changes of the last one hundred and fifty or more years, our ideas about time are thousands of years old. They derive from the philosophical and theological notions of the Axial age – an historical moment caught between intensified urbanism and simultaneous mass mobility. The ideals invented in the Axial age were ideals that could travel.

The great book on the problem of history is Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History (1949). The book is a comparative history of ideas of history, particularly in the ancient world. It documents the beginning of the idea of history, of time as we know it. The movement proceeds from a mythic Great Year through cycles of Great Years or Ages to the invention of linear history progressing from a beginning toward an (potentially redemptive) end. The drama of history is a spiritual or religious drama, a story of god, though god or the gods are increasingly absent as the story unfolds. In the mythic Great Year the gods are reborn with each year. In linear history, god was present at the beginning and will be present again at the end.

In between – nothing – a material world devoid of spiritual content that human beings must work in order to survive.

The Greek philosophers had a similar idea. For Socrates, the things of the world are second-rate material copies of the abstract forms or ideas of those things. Material copies pass away, ideal forms endure forever.

The ephemeral and the durable are concepts with their roots in ancient religions and philosophy. Their roots might be so deep as to have been all but hard-wired into our biology through evolution. In a natural world of constant change, frail beings favor persistence, reliability, durability. We want things to last because we know that nothing does.

It’s a bit of bad faith that infects the best of intentions.

As in the subtitle of Bill McKidden’s Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007)

Whatever a sustainable future may be, it won’t be durable.

It won’t be ephemeral either. As always, the binary opposition is a false opposition. Depending on the scale of measurement, all things can be seen as either ephemeral or durable.

The fantasy of the ephemeral may have been pushed to its limits in the throwaway culture of the 1950s, valorized by Reyner Banham, when the idea of “planned obsolescence” was popularized for the automotive industry by industrial designer Brooks Stevens.

In Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart admit that “throwing something away can be fun”[109]. But they change the terms of waste from simply throwing things into landfills to throwing them back into the nutrient cycles from which they were originally extracted, whether natural or technological. Waste in their model equals food.

“Industry need not design what it makes to be durable beyond a certain amount of time, any more than nature does. The durability of many current products could even be seen as a kind of intergenerational tyranny. Maybe we want our things to live forever, but what do future generations want?” [114]

“Intergenerational remote tyranny [is] our tyranny over future generations through the effects of our actions today.” [43]

In Cradle to Cradle, the ephemeral and the durable are both relative terms that designers can use as heuristics. Designers should ask, among other questions, how long should it last? And what happens after the end?

Considered in this frame, we begin to discern a pre-history and a kind of post-history to the life of objects, particularly considered as materials:
-the geological eras that passed in the formation of a stone used in a fence or the formation of a metal
- the human eras that passed in the invention of a technology of manufacture
- the eras of cultural life that determined the necessity for a type of object and the shaped its form
- the time embodied in this particular iteration of a “timeless” form
- the time the object spends with me or my family
- and its future, in the family or beyond it

The form of an object functions as a kind of vortex of material energy gathered and given shape but ultimately destined to dissipate, to disseminate outwards, in entropy.

This is all well and good. I’m in complete agreement.

My concern is that Cradle to Cradle doesn’t quite go far enough. It gives designers some useful guidelines but those guidelines are difficult for consumers to see. As a consumer I like the idea of goods that can be returned to a nutrient cycle without undue degradation or expense but I’m not inspired by many of the goods themselves.

In place of the process of change, and the trauma of history, Cradle to Cradle proposes a smooth continuum of utility.

[…]

If Cradle to Cradle fails to inspire some designers, we can look to the Long Now Foundation for a range of activities specifically intended to inspire long term thinking, and thereby environmental responsibility in diverse forms, including design.

Animated by Stewart Brand, Daniel Hillis, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno, Alexander Rose, Peter Schwartz, Esther Dyson, Mitchell Kapoor, Paul Saffo and others, Long Now is obviously focused on and by the problem of time and time consciousness.

The central project is the clock of the Long Now – a clock projected to chime daily for 10,000 years.

“If a clock can keep going to ten millennia, shouldn’t we make sure our civilization does as well?” [Kevin Kelly, “Clock in the Mountain” Longnow.org]

If the modern moment was a moment just now, the long now aspires to extend its moment from 10,000 years in the past to 10,000 years into the future.

What is the life of an object measured against the 10,000 year scale?

I think about this when buying cheap furniture: do I want this lamp to be in the family for the next 10,000 years? (Only partly a joke: temporary stuff tends to stick around longer than you think it will.)

The clock and affiliated activities offer a kind of forum for long-term thinking. Different projects within the forum explore different aspects of long-term responsibility in different ways. The project raises a lot of questions, only some of which generate productive technical results.

The clock itself is intended as an icon, a durable good that marks time.

For Brand, the project grew out of his earlier work as an environmentalist and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolution Quarterly among other publications. It’s also more or less directly related to his thinking about time and architecture in How Buildings Learn.

The point of that book and the associated television series was to observe that buildings live in time, they change through adaptation, renovation and maintenance, or rather that they can. Prestige architects too often design buildings as if they were timeless, often to disastrous effect.

How Buildings Learn asks how do you design building that can last and answers – design it so that it can change.

Some prescriptions:
Start small
Leave room for growth (i.e. leave it unfinished both in details and in total structure)
Make the structure sturdy (durable)
But flexible and easy to repair and maintain

This is all good advice. But what does it look like? Or, put differently: “What would an aesthetic based on the inevitability of transience actually look like?” [71]

The book includes a lot of pictures that help answer that question.

[…]

Partly this is a question of designing things so that they can show time.

On this point, Roland Barthes’ marvelous essay on toys from Mythologies. It was written in the mid-1950s but still resonates, and in new ways.

Barthes begins with the observation that French toys are “essentially a microcosm of the adult world… reduced copies of human objects … [that] prefigure the world of the adult.”

French children – like children around the world – spend the time of their lives – childhood – pretending to be little adults, beings from a different time and from a different time of life. It’s adulthood now but smaller.

Barthes is critical of the practice. Why not let children shape the activities of their own world?

The last paragraph of the piece (it’s only four paragraphs) looks at the materials. “Current toys,” he says, “are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature.” He’s talking about plastic and metal, which he says, “destroy all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.”

Wood, on the other hand, is “an ideal material, because of its firmness and its softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. … it is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor.”

“Wood does not wound or break down; it does not shatter, it wears out, it can last a long time, live with the child, alter little by little the relations between the object and the hand. If it dies, it is in dwindling, not in swindling out like those mechanical toys which disappear behind the hernia of a broken spring. Wood makes essential objects, objects for all time.”

It’s a Romantic view of wooden toys, to be sure, but pertinent here. It might be called the paradox of wooden toys, the paradox being that wooden toys are both “objects for all time” precisely because they dwindle with age rather than break or fail catastrophically. Through play a child alters “little by little the relations between the object and the hand.”

The timeless object turns out to be closely bound to time, to wear and tear, to the minor alterations of daily use.

The design challenge is to make an object that carries the transformation of ages on its surface and within it, that shows where it’s been and suggests where it might be going.

This is where the wabi sabi aesthetic comes in.

As noted, wabi sabi is an aesthetic sensibility evidenced in many forms of Japanese life and art – from scroll paintings to ceramics, gardens, and the tea ceremony. And it is notoriously difficult to summarize.

Leonard Koren’s Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994, 2008) is a condensed and useful primer. Allen S. Weiss’s Zen Landscapes (2013) digs deeper.

Wabi sabi is relevant here in particular for the way it venerates impermanence, incompletion, and imperfection. These are its core attributes.

Wabi sabi bears some similarity to Modernism – notably through the notion of truth in materials – but it is in more and more meaningful ways distinct.

Koren summarizes some of these distinctions on pages 26 to 29.

In contrast to the values of Modernism, Wabi sabi is:
Private, intimate
Intuitive
Relative
Personal, idiosyncratic
Variable and unique
Without progress
Present oriented
Respectful of the uncontrollability of nature
Nature over technology
Organic form
Natural materials – local
Crude
Accommodates degradation and loss
Enriched through corrosion or contamination
Thrives on the expansion of sensation
Ambiguity and contradiction
Warmth
Shadows
Function and utility are deemphasized
Points beyond materiality
Rooted in recognition of time passing
[Koren 26-29]

Wabi sabi objects show where they came from materially and physically, they show traces of the hands that made them, and the hands that have used them.

The objects become more valuable, more venerated the more they have been used and collected signs of wear.

At a certain threshold of such signs, in recognition of their fragility, tea cups may be placed in a special box, the box affixed with labels marking dates of use and users with indications of appreciation. As time passes the boxes themselves may become valuable and placed in their own boxes.

This practice is opposed to that of a Western style museum, which sets objects behind glass.

In its highest form, the tea ceremony proposes a unique moment, the creation of a situation unique to its participants, orchestrated for their appreciation by their host. The moment is unique but it is saturated with history, saturated with time.

Objects in wabi sabi do not deny time, they carry it, manifest it, bring it to light in its passing.

Significantly, to the extent that wabi sabi and the tea ceremony become codified forms of practice and appreciation, the depth and meaning of the aesthetic are lost.

The aesthetic resists that loss through its forms, which show their values and purposes directly.

Wabi sabi is mysterious because the passage of time is mysterious but it is not esoteric.

More problematic is our evolutionary imperative to denigrate impermanence, to deny time.

Vilém Flusser claims that a new culture may be possible through design. My suggestion is that wabi sabi might be helpful as a heuristic for guiding the emergent values of that culture.

Select References

Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Noonday, 1972).
Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn (Penguin, 1994).
–, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (Basic Books, 1999).
Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History (Princton University Press, 1949).
Tony Fry, Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics, and New Practice (Berg, 2009).
James Glick, Faster (Vintage, 2000).
Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (Harper & Row, 1973).
Rem Koolhaas, Content (Taschen, 2004).
Leonard Koren, Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994, 2008).
William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002).
Bill McKidden, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Times Books, 2007).
Peter Reinhart, Brother Juniper’s Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphorrr (Running Press, 2005).
Gary Snyder, “Old Woodrat’s Stinky House” in Mountains and Rivers Without End (Counterpoint, 1996).
Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (Random Houes, 1970).
Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics (Semiotext(e), 2006).
Allen S. Weiss, Zen Landscapes (Reaktion, 2013).

State of the Object

Posted by Stuart on September 04, 2013
culture, design, talks / Comments Off

Piero Scaruffi invited me to participate in this panel discussion with Maria McVarish, Meredith Tromble, and Hunter Whitney on the UC Berkeley Extension campus in San Francisco on August 14, 2013.

Here is a link to the video: State of the Object

This is how Piero described the panel:

“Design is purpose-driven artistic creativity that links artistic and technological innovation. It is an integral component of how a society represents itself. It is particularly interesting to explore how designers relate to the left-brain knowledge worker of the Internet age. Moderated by author Piero Scaruffi—with individual presentations and a panel discussion by distinguished Bay Area practitioners in art and design—this event ranges across the contemporary art and design field to underscore the importance of creativity for business, technology and the way that people live.”

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Louis XXX is out from Equus

Posted by Stuart on June 26, 2013
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Available here: Equus

Louis XXX presents two little known hybrid texts by French novelist and philosopher Georges Bataille: The Little One and The Tomb of Louis XXX. Written alongside Bataille’s major work, Guilty, and only loosely narrative in any conventional sense, these audaciously experimental pieces of pornographic chamber music commingle prose and poetry, fiction and autobiography, philosophical and theological meditations, abstract artifice and intimate confession, bound together by the mysterious pseudonym at their center. Jean-Jacques Pauvert claimed that The Little One was the most “shattering” text that Bataille ever wrote and André Breton remarked that The Little One “offers the most hungering, most moving aspect of [Bataille’s] thought and attests to the importance that that thought will have in the near future.” The future is now as these texts appear in English for the first time. An extended postface by the translator places the works in biographical, historical, and critical perspective as assemblages constellated around the disappearance of the discursive real.

ISBN 978-0-9571213-5-5.

Robert Kelly on Gilgamesh courtesy of Nomadics

Posted by Stuart on January 11, 2013
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Distinguished American poet Robert Kelly has this to say about Gilgamesh. Courtesy of Pierre Joris’ blog Nomadics.

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Boom – California Design

Posted by Stuart on December 10, 2012
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I co-edited the Spring 2012 issue of the new UC Press journal Boom: A Journal of California around topics in contemporary California design. Look here: Boom

Not Peace But the Sword

Posted by Stuart on December 10, 2012
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David Rutledge recently interviewed me for an episode of Encounter, his radio show on religion in contemporary culture, broadcast by Radio National in Australia.

“Many see religion as an intrinsically violent phenomenon, with secular rationalism the preferred alternative. But the relationship between violence and the sacred is more complicated – and more interesting – than this view admits.”

The show streams here.

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Gilgamesh is available through Contra Mundum

Posted by Stuart on March 02, 2012
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Contra Mundum

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Biblioklept interview on Gilgamesh

Posted by Stuart on March 02, 2012
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Biblioklept interview

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Anatomies in Action: Artaud’s Self-Portraits

Posted by Stuart on March 06, 2011
talks / No Comments

Anatomies in Action

Who am I?

Where do I come from?

I am Antonin Artaud

and if I say it

as I know how to say it

immediately

you will see my present body

fly into pieces

and under ten thousand

notorious aspects

a new body

will be assembled

in which you will never again be able

to forget me.

- Artaud, The Theater of Cruelty

My drawings are anatomies in action.

- Artaud, Letter to Marc Barbezat, 21 August 1947

How are we to see Antonin Artaud’s self-portraits? How do the drawings of this actor, director, poet, visionary function? Within what tradition should we locate these works? What images precede them in Artaud’s eyes – how did Artaud learn to see – what tradition(s) shaped his hand and vision? And what is their legacy? What is it to see after Artaud’s drawings?

None of these questions can be answered definitively; they each open onto a speculative field, the space of the visionary. To narrow this field, my own speculation will focus on Artaud’s self-portraits rather than on his graphic work as a totality. In a moment of impossible reciprocity, hopefully my gaze will begin to reflect his own.

Across the variety of graphic works he produced – a variety that challenges any developmental or evolutionary interpretive strategy – Artaud’s style and subject matter(s) remain consistently fluid. Though he concentrates on abstract or conceptual images while confined at the asylum at Rodez and on portraits while at Ivry – and while one must admit that the drawings from each of these periods are undoubtedly consistent in their general style and effect – Artaud never permitted his graphic work to settle into a consistent format.

This is particularly remarkable given the stylistics of Artaud’s later – Rodez and post-Rodez – prose. In that writing, whether it be labeled poetry or prose, whether it be a letter or an essay on theater, literature (like his “Lettre sur Lautréamont” (1946)) or on visual art (like his essay on Van Gogh), Artaud’s literary style and general method remained markedly consistent rather than inconsistent. The lines of his prose came to be punctuated, or not, for rhythmic, rather than grammatical, effect; his language, often interrupted with passages of necessarily idiosyncratic glossolalia and studded with neologistic barbs, adopted the form of pure rhythmic force: The ideational content of words was ground to elemental bits through Artaud’s incessant mastication of language. The style Artaud invented in these late writings permitted him the widest of latitudes in subject-matter and rhythmic effect. Perhaps this very freedom explains his adoption of a consistent style of writing.

His graphic works however fail to settle into any equivalent mode. Passing from image to image in a catalogue of Artaud’s drawings, one searches in vain for any trajectory of development within the various periods. General statements can be made, developmental trends loosely identified, but the overall impression remains one of radical heterogeneity, stylelessness, discomfort.

This interpretation however is not shared by everyone. In her introduction to the selection of Artaud’s portraits from Ivry gathered in the catalogue from the Museum of Modern Art show of Artaud’s work, Agnès de la Beaumelle notices a mastery of craft in these late drawings: “Artaud,” she observes, “possessed, after leaving Rodez, a total mastery of his means of expression, oral and graphic.” Following Artaud’s description of his work, she notes that this mastery expressed itself through a “pitiful awkwardness of forms” (Artaud’s words), which was nonetheless “effective” (her word) (Rowell 90). The paradox at the center of this reading is striking: How are “mastery” and “awkwardness” related? And how can “awkwardness” be effective?

Within the context of the museum, the discourse of mastery and the master-work has been well-established. De la Beaumelle supports her use of this discourse in this case by observing compelling details of skill apparent in Artaud’s drawings. And indeed, such details are there to be observed. Particularly in the portraits drawn at Ivry, Artaud’s handling of his materials can be highly proficient and professional. His use of shading and the careful yet assured articulation of his strokes do indicate something like a “mastery” of this medium.

Yet the drawings themselves remain inconsistent. The portraits drawn in late 1946 – those of Sima Feder, of Florence Loeb, and the self-portrait from December 17, 1946, in particular –  stand out as highly accomplished, realistically drawn portraits. They are signed and dated in keeping with the demands of the art establishment and present themselves as finished “works”. And yet, one hesitates over even these images: the faces are not centered on the page, the heads include no necks or necks that seem to drift off, or dangle as threads of viscera hanging from the seemingly severed objects.

Nor does the œuvre as a whole suggest a developmental trend based on an increasing mastery of means. The standard art historical model suggests a period of juvenilia, in which an artist has yet to master their medium, followed by a period of maturity, during which the artist has gained control or their medium to a degree which permits them to develop and deploy a unique or “signature” style. While Artaud’s early graphic works – from the 1910s and 1920s – certainly qualify as juvenilia, his later works, as I have suggested, hardly reveal themselves as characterized by anything like a consistent style or even range of aesthetic concerns. The drawings from Rodez share almost nothing with those from Ivry. And, significantly, those of Ivry, while obviously related to one another, and obviously born of similar aesthetic concerns, remain radically discontinuous. Artaud’s styles and devices multiply rather than becoming more refined as his work progresses. The later drawings from Ivry seem no more self-assured than the earlier drawings.

Many factors might explain this phenomenon. Most obviously, Artaud undoubtedly executed drawings, early and late, with greater and lesser degrees of attentiveness. The minimalist, sketch-like quality evidenced by the single lines that articulate the portrait of Rolande Prevel from August 20, 1946 might be compared to the single lines which constitute the self-portrait of December 1947. Similarly, the self-assured portraits of late 1946 might be compared with the rather accomplished portrait of Georges Pastier from December 1947. We might understand the sketch-like portraits as having been dashed off as it were, while the others benefited from a more extended attention to points of detail and nuances of shading. Yet, for all the obviousness of this observation, this too strikes me as unsatisfactory. The self-portrait of December 1947 includes non-realistic scratches and lines of force that are absent from the portrait of Rolande Prevel as well as from the other drawings of late 1946. These deep lines give this image a decidedly abstract, iconic power. This self-portrait is drawn from the front rather than the customary three-quarter view as is the case in the other portraits; and this full frontal view only adds to the flattened, abstract quality of the image. Here the minimalist power of the image follows not from its quality as a quick sketch, as is the case in the works of Constantin Guys so famously celebrated by Baudelaire, but rather from a kind of iconic reduction performed on the self here portrayed. This is not a timeless moment torn from the present, as in Guys, but rather the eradication of time from the sense of the image. But does the work depict an abstraction of the self or is something else at work in these images? And why does Artaud fail to settle into a consistent style?

Artaud is absolutely clear on this point. In the catalogue essay he wrote for his show at the Galerie Pierre he tells us: “I’ve deliberately broken with art, style or skill in the drawings that one will see here. I mean there’ll be trouble for those who consider them works of art, works of aesthetic simulation of reality. Not one properly speaking is a work, all are sketches, I mean soundings or gropes in all the directions of accident, of possibility, of chance or of destiny.”[i] Elsewhere he claims: “My drawings are not drawings but documents. You must look at them and understand what’s inside.”[ii]

One way to understand Artaud’s appeal to the practice of “soundings or grop[ings]” in his art is to remember that, for Artaud, – speaking in terms of theatrical language in Le Théâtre et son Double – “an expression does not have the same value twice […] all words once spoken are read and function only at the moment when they are uttered, that a form, once it has served, cannot be used again and ask only to be replaced by another” (75). In order to be effective, then, images, like words, and the stylistic gestures that create images, must be singular, they cannot be perfected through trial and error.

Extending this notion, one can say that Artaud goes so far as to deny himself the cultivation of mastery. The mastery of one’s means requires repetition, it requires the artist to practice a particular gesture or trope – the use of a word, the motion of the body, the fixity of an expression – over and over again until that gesture or trope has been solidified as in some ideal state. Think of a soldier: soldiers are trained so that they do not have to think, every action and expression has become “second nature.” For Artaud, this type of training toward mastery, this carefully cultivated repetition only illustrates the emptiness of this world: our bodies do not belong to us, but rather we are animated by images and ideas which seem to be beyond our control; we are motivated from without.

Leaving aside the above-mentioned notion of “what’s inside” a drawing for the moment: Note that Artaud, in his catalogue essay, claims to have “deliberately broken with art, style, or skill”. This is to say, once again, that his drawings respond, however negatively, to the tradition of Western art. Taking Artaud’s assertion that he has “broken with art, style, or skill” as a concept, one may posit the notion of a “breaking-with” (my phrase) traditional forms and styles of representation. This notion is significant, and can be extended beyond the problems of art history. In that same catalogue essay, Artaud claims: “In the portraits I have drawn I have above all avoided forgetting the nose the mouth the eyes the ears or the hair, but I’ve sought to force the face that was talking to me to reveal the secret.”[iii] In other words, “breaking-with”, for Artaud, means making art in response to the tradition, which is to say, against the tradition, and it also means making representations – what Artaud would call “doubles” –  in response to or against the actual physical body of his sitter. On this point Artaud claims: “I had made up my mind to coax out those forms, lines, outlines, shadows, colors, features that […] would represent nothing and would moreover not claim to be integrated in accordance with whatsoever visual and material law, but would create, as it were, above the paper a kind of counter-figure which would be an on-going protest against the laws of the created object”[iv] Artaud’s portraits should not be taken as mere images, or simulations of the reality of his sitters, but rather as counter-figures, doubles, of his sitters, images made against the image of the sitter.

In this way one can understand the tremendous violence of Artaud’s portrait art: Artaud’s portraits are portraits of violation as well as being the violation of portraits. His sitter’s images are crushed, the faces are flattened and bent, noses are extended and given lumps, heads are misshapen, features are under-emphasized or even erased, sometimes half of the head is missing, skins are scorched with cigarette burns, or with the graphite knots of plague buboes, cheeks are bloated, colors engulf the images in fire and the sky-blue of pure energy, setting them off against themselves and against the page. These are images of cruelty in the sense Artaud gives to this word because “it is cruelty that cements matter together, cruelty that molds the features of the created world. Good is always upon the outer face, but the face within is evil. Evil which will eventually be reduced, but at the supreme instant when everything that was form will be on the point of returning to chaos.”[v] Artaud’s drawings, both his drawings from Rodez and his portraits, require conflict for the articulation of their meanings.

Cruelty, for Artaud, is a function of the meeting place of meaning and form. It is the embodiment of sense as both idea and affect. Yet embodiment, or rather the body, is itself the problem. For Artaud, the body is always the body in pain. It is always already a body at odds with itself, seemingly occupied or animated from without. It is a mutilated body suffering incessantly from a certain lack, a lack caused the violent split between mind and body, between idea and affect. Salvation entails a making whole of this damaged body. For Artaud, “the mutilated body is this stomach of misery that is always seeking to reassemble itself.”[vi] The project of reassembling the human body is the project of remaking the human body. Artaud deploys his art, in all its manifestations, toward this singular purpose. “True theater,” he writes in his poem-essay Theater and Science, “has always seemed to me the exercise of a dangerous and terrible act. […] The act I’m talking about aims for a true organic and physical transformation of the human body. […] Theater is this crucible of fire and real meat where by an anatomical trampling of bone, limbs and syllables bodies are renewed and the mythical act of making a body presents itself physically and plainly.”[vii] Here again one can see the notion of cruelty at work: the “anatomical trampling of bone, limbs and syllables” which “makes the body” is a cruel act of embodiment, of giving form to matter. Note too that Artaud’s practice of cruelty incorporates images, sounds and the body, and that this body is, significantly, a shattered body of separated limbs, like the body of Osiris, torn to pieces and reassembled. Artaud’s art is an art of the body and of the voice: “There is in my drawings a sort of musical morality that I have made by living my strokes, not only with the hand but with the rasping of the breath of my trachea and the teeth of my mastication.”[viii] The images are chewed over, spit on the page. In a letter to Dr. Ferdière, Artaud described his process still more precisely: “The sentences I wrote on the drawing I gave you I sought out syllable by syllable, out loud while working, to see if the verbal sonorities capable of aiding the comprehension of the one looking at my drawing had been found.”[ix] Artaud had already expressed this notion and goal in another media altogether : theater. In Le Théâtre et son Double, he wrote: “The overlapping of images and movements will culminate, through the collision of objects, silences, shouts, and rhythms, or in a genuine physical language with signs, not words, as its root”( 124). The conflicts of text and image, of images and ideas, ultimately collapse in the realm of force. Images convey not form but force.

Artaud’s drawings, like his theater and his poetry, tend toward the eradication of aesthetic boundaries. His drawings include texts not in a supplementary fashion: the texts do not complete the drawing, they compete with it, they disrupt its sense: sounds and images collide, the meaning of the image cannot be confined to the page. “The drawings of which I am speaking to you are full of larval forms, in the stumbling itself of the pencil’s line, and I wanted them to work in concert with each other so that with the colors, the shadows, and their emphases the whole would become valid and singular.”[x] The singularity of Artaud’s images remains a consistent and constant goal.

Related to this one must understand Artaud’s drawings not as sketches made toward the later execution of some master-image or some final “complete” drawing of some subject. Artaud’s drawings are always sketches: not sketches like those made by Constantin Guys, but rather cruel gropings, gestures, or jabs at his subject. He says: “I haven’t sought to take great pains with my lines or their effects but rather to inventory the kinds of patent linear truths which are as valid through words, through written phrases, as through the graphism and perspective of lines. It is in this way that several drawings are a mixture of poems and portraits, of written interjections and plastic evocations of fundamental materials of human beings or animals.”[xi] The lines and points of the drawings do not converge but overlap, conflict. They remain “interstitial” and in the interstices the emotion that generated the drawing appears. This is what Artaud means by the “inside” of the drawing. The viewer “must superadd [surajouter] this primal emotion subordinated by nature on pain of becoming no more than an incompetent illiterate.”[xii] Artaud’s drawings draw their viewer in, they require the participation of the viewer, not merely through the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, as is required in tromp l’oeil imagery, but through the viewer’s bodily response to the material forces of the images, sounds, and ideas of the art. This is a question not only of imagination but of affect. It is a question of form, meaning the materiality of the images, sounds, and ideational content, as force.

This affective participation characterizes not only Artaud’s drawings but his theater of cruelty as well. In Le Théâtre et son Double, he writes: “The theater, far from copying life, puts itself whenever possible in communication with pure forces. And whether you accept or deny them, there is nevertheless a way of speaking which gives the name of ‘forces’ to whatever brings to birth images of energy in the unconscious, and gratuitous crime on the surface. […] A violent and concentrated action is a kind of lyricism: it summons up supernatural images, a bloodstream of images, a bleeding spurt of images in the poet’s head and in the spectator’s as well” (82). “A gesture,” he says, “carries its energy with it” (81).

Artaud’s art offers a study in conflicts and contradictions, the paper or page becomes a field for the infinite play of forces. The incompleteness of his images, the tears and ruptures on the surface of the sheets, the violence and defacement which characterizes these faces, all of these features open a space of testimony – meaning a space into which the viewer must insert themselves, as both affect and imagination – to the human condition.

The images and texts, the ideas and physical forms on the page, the sounds of the words and syllables conflict with and disrupt one another in an intertextual  delirium. Speaking of his drawing “La maladresse sexuelle de dieu” (The Sexual awkwardness of god), Artaud says: “This drawing is intentionally spoiled, thrown on the page in contempt of forms and lines, in order to show contempt for the original idea and to succeed in neutralizing it.”[xiii] The awkwardness of the drawing, its stylessness – whether conceived as a refusal of or revolt against style – does mirror the subject-matter of the drawing as this subject is stated in the title the sexual awkwardness of god. But this modernist mimetic doubling – in which the form of the work repeats the content of the work – opens onto an even more troubling agon. Here, and in Artaud’s art in general, text and image at once cohere and do not cohere, the heterogeneity of the word and the image remains irreducible. The caption at once extends and undermines the sense of the image. Meaning, as idea, collapses into meaning as infinite struggle.

The cruelty of Artaud’s art consists in its relentless reduction of consciousness as idea to consciousness as force. Speaking of Lucas van den Leyden’s “The Daughter’s of Lot” in Le Théâtre et son Double, Artaud tells us how a painting should work: “It seems as if the painter possessed certain secrets of linear harmony, certain means of making that harmony affect the brain directly, like a physical agent” (35). One is reminded of Francis Bacon’s famous question as to why “some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe with the brain.”[xiv] Artaud’s art represents a search for an answer to that same question. His art making is a search for texts and images, for sounds and ideas that work directly on the nervous system, and through this direct intervention in forms and forces of the human body, to reassemble or heal the shattered or broken body – the body broken by spirits, by ideas – that characterizes the human condition. “The goal of all these drawn and colored figures was to exorcise the curse, to vituperate bodily against the exigencies of spatial form, of perspective, of measure, of equilibrium, of dimension and, via this vituperative act of protest, to condemn, the psychic world which, like a crab louse, digs its way into the physical, and, like an incubus or succubus, claims to have formed it.”[xv]

How is this strategy visible in his self-portraits?

Controversy surrounds Artaud’s turn to self-portraiture. Following Thévenin’s catalogue raisonnée in his article “The Art of the Crack-Up”, Sylvère Lotringer observes that “Artaud’s portraits started with his self-portrait, but it is significant that other faces or bodies are present as well at the bottom of his, poked by the same marks, repulsive and deadly like his own with one eye looking blankly and the other wide open in the direction of the viewer.”[xvi] Lotringer is referring to Artaud’s composite portrait of May 11, 1946 (Thévenin cat. no. 69, Rowell cat. no. 32). The image presents an uneven triangular grouping of heads: Artaud’s self-portrait, seen directly from the front, occupies the high center of the paper while four smaller heads are grouped below. To the left on this lower rank an older woman or man’s face is presented in three-quarter view. Two smaller, almost comically abstract faces occupy the center, while a smaller version of what may be Artaud’s face, again seen from the front, is placed on the right. All of the faces on this page are covered in circular “knots” of concentrated graphite, as though Artaud were trying to rub his way through the image. These “knots”, already present in other drawings, may represent the famous buboes which characterize the flesh of the plague victim, celebrated by Artaud in his Sorbonne lecture, “Le Théâtre et la peste” (1933). The features of the two self-portraits here demarcated by forcefully dark lines, cross-hatched and re-drawn in over-emphasis. Drawn in this way the facial features – the lines of the forehead, of the brow, the bridge of the nose – appear as wounds or scars, as openings in the skin rather than as finely sculpted features. Yet other features, and the entire portrait at the bottom left, are left as only light sketches, barely articulated. The self-portrait on the bottom right includes what appear to be two large pins or needles like those used in acupuncture, one inserted in the nose from below the face to our left, the other into the chin from directly below. The eyes of each of the five images are over-emphasized, the pupils ringed in black.

In the catalogue, this image appears between “Les Corps de terre” (Earth’s bodies) dated may 3, 1946, and the portrait now widely known as “La Tête bleue” (The Blue Head) dated with only the month of May, 1946. “Les Corps de terre” continues many of the motifs common in the drawings from Rodez: stick figures or merely crooked lines are set-off among anatomical features – in this case more or less realistically drawn hands, feet and a skull – vague symbols, and a short dedicatory text. “La Tête bleue” presents a highly abstract female face in three-quarter view. The elongated face seems drawn on the brink of dissolution: the left side of the image includes shadings and lines of shadow drawn to such an excess that, along with the other elements of motion characterizing the drawing, the face seems as though it were drawn in sand, hovering on the edge of the wind, waiting to be torn away from itself into the collapse of all form. The images prior to “Les Corps de terre” include no portraits, only drawings done in the style Artaud developed at Rodez. After “La Tête bleue”, Artaud, released to Ivry, would concentrate his graphic work on portraiture almost entirely.

In light of these remarks, the composite self-portrait of 11 May 1946 does seem to mark a significant turning point in Artaud’s graphic oeuvre, as Lotringer suggests. Leaving aside the possibility, indeed the high likelihood, that this drawing represents the only surviving drawing from that moment rather than the singular product of that moment – I have already discussed reasons why we should believe this to be the case –, several observations may nonetheless be made. One may note the continuity of this image with Artaud’s other drawings: the “knots” studding the faces were present in previous drawings of human anatomical parts, the composite nature of this image anticipates the composite images that Artaud would execute in the final months of his life, etc. Thus while the image fits neatly into the continuum of Artaud’s graphic works, it also marks a turning point between the earlier abstract studies and the later portraits. For Lotringer, as noted, it is highly significant that this drawing be a self-portrait. It is as though, in his reading, the step or turn between the abstract drawings and the later portraits of himself and others, could only be made by means of this moment of self-appraisal. This reading tempts one to interpret the abstractions from Rodez as representing some form of “inner” realm, while the later portraits clearly refer to the world around him in highly specific ways. It is as though the abstractions represent some inner “self” constituted through the imaging of some ideational content, however idiosyncratic, while the later portraits shift the focus from images of this “self” to images of others. This interpretation is of course satisfied with the knowledge that Artaud rejoined society, as it were, through his release from Rodez during the very month of May 1946 when he executed this drawing.

Yet this interpretation remains unsatisfying to some. While the features of the principle figure and of the smaller image on the bottom right strongly resemble Artaud’s features, it has been suggested that only convention determines this portrait as a self-portrait. Now in a private collection, Dr. Gaston Ferdière reportedly obtained this image directly from Artaud’s hands immediately following its execution by the artist at Rodez. Dr. Ferdière, the story goes, asked Artaud to sign and date this self-portrait in keeping with the practices of the art market, and Artaud did so. Significantly however, Artaud did not title the image himself. It is only the strong resemblance of the principle figures features to Artaud’s features and Dr. Ferdière’s word that designate this image as a self-portrait.

The curator Florence de Mérédieu, for her part, in Portraits et gris-gris, writes of this portrait: “Always designated until now as a self-portrait of Antonin Artaud, the drawing seems to us rather to represent Dr. Ferdière surrounded by his medical team. Questioned exactly on this point, Gaston Ferdière does not entirely rule out this possibility, even specifying that the person on the bottom left is no other than Madame Rouquette in charge of the pharmacy at Rodez.”[xvii] Paule Thévenin, for her part, denies this possibility in “The Search for a Lost World.” In support of her view, Thévenin appeals to the testimony of Dr. Jean Dequeker as well as Dr. Ferdière’s previous testimony and, further, to the clear resemblance of these features of these faces not only to Artaud’s actual features, as she remembers them, as they may be seen in photographs, and as they are depicted by Artaud in other images that are clearly and distinctly self-portraits (51).

Yet another dissenting view can be found in Stephen Barber’s Artaud: The Screaming Body. For Barber “it becomes evident from viewing photographs taken in the same month of Artaud and Ferdière sitting together in the asylum grounds that the drawing is a vehement struggle of the identities of Artaud and Ferdière within the image. The face in the drawing distinctly resembles both that of Artaud and of his psychiatrist. […] Artaud compacts his identity and that of Ferdière together, in order to dissolve and finally negate the noxious presence of Ferdière and his power over Artaud’s life. Through the drawing, Artaud’s own identity visually and materially resurges.”[xviii] Barber cites the same text by Jean Dequeker that Thévenin cites, this time in support of the argument that the portrait represents neither only Dr. Ferdière, as Florence de Mérédieu suggests, nor only Artaud, as Thévenin suggests, but rather both of them. In Barber’s view, the execution of the drawing itself stages a conflict of identities from which, again in Barber’s view, Artaud’s identity “resurges”. This compromise position is compelling. But it remains unclear. How does such a struggle take place? And why should we assume that Artaud’s identity “resurges”, whatever that means, when the only evidence we have in support of such a notion is the fact that Dr. Ferdière claims this drawing represents a self-portrait of Artaud? In other words, if our interpretation of the drawing was initially complicated by the notion that this was not a portrait of Artaud at all, how can we simply correct this view by claiming that the drawing is a conflict of identities from which Artaud’s identity ultimately “resurges” victorious? The only evidence we have for such a claim is that the portrait has been labeled a self-portrait.

Without rejecting Barber’s reading tout court, it would seem that another, very similar, compromise position is possible. Sylvère Lotringer observes, speaking of Artaud’s portraits in general rather than of the particular portrait now under consideration: “Virtually all the portraits Artaud made, those of people he knew well or loved, those he hardly knew, are as much his own doubles as those of the people themselves. […] Artaud had become aware that the Other of the self is his worst enemy because it imposes a mask of sociality over the face. Artaud’s portraits are an attempt to tear down the mask”(199). In this reading, applied to the portrait currently under consideration, Artaud’s drawings are structured as doubles of both self and other, in which the image is deployed in such a way as to disrupt any pre-existing, stable image of self as well as any stable image of the other. The portrait represents an image – a double – sent out from self so as to occupy and transform, or rather collapse, one may even say crucify, the image of other. Artaud’s portraits, including his self-portraits can be understood, according to this view, as enacting Rimbaud’s famous dictum “I is an other.” Identification ultimately becomes impossible. In such images one is always and necessarily a stranger to oneself. These ideas can be developed more precisely through reference to Artaud’s own comments on the visual arts.

Artaud himself advances a similar interpretation in regard to a painting by Balthus of the actress Iya Abdy: “This is Iya Abdy’s face,” he writes, “these are her hands that the light devours, but another being, who is Balthus, seems to be behind this face, and in this body, like a sorcerer who seduces a woman with his soul.” This is not strange he claims because : “All painters bring their anatomy, their physiology, their saliva, their flesh, their blood, their sperm, their vices, their sexual diseases, their pathology, their prudishness, their health, their character, their personality or their madness into their works.”[xix] The painter takes their body with them into the world; the painter sees with the entirety of their body. The image is a meeting point, a point of reversibility, between the painter’s own body of affects and the senses and sensations provoked by the reality of the image in question. [xx] For Artaud, this is not a question of spiritual disembodiment, but rather of a war on the possibility of disembodiment. Artaud does not seek to formulate images or ideas of the world; his art is not a “simulation of reality”. Rather, it is a quest for an impossible embodiment: the meeting, via an image or combination of image and text, of at least two material bodies, those of Artaud and of the spectator. Here again the notion of cruelty returns. It should be remembered that the practice of cruelty, for Artaud, leaves no one on the side of innocence: “In the practice of cruelty there is a kind of higher determinism, to which the executioner-tormenter himself is subjected and which he must be determined to endure when the time comes. Cruelty is above all lucid, a kind of rigid control and submission to necessity. There is no cruelty without consciousness and without the application of consciousness.”[xxi]

Artaud outlines the portraitist’s task in “Le Visage humain…” : “The human face in effect carries a kind of perpetual death with it from which it’s really up to the painter to save it by giving it back its [ses] own particular features.”[xxii] Later in the same text, Artaud shifts his emphasis slightly but significantly: “Only Van Gogh was able to draw out of a human head a portrait which was the explosive rocket of the beating of a buried heart. / His own.” A confirmation of this interpretation, if such confirmation is needed, may be found in a statement Artaud wrote on one of his portraits. He wrote: “I am still terribly romantic like this drawing which represents me, in fact, too well, and I am weak, a weakness”. What is interesting about this statement is that it appears not on a self-portrait, as would seem to be indicated, but on Artaud’s Portrait of Jany de Ruy (See Rowell cat. no. 56[xxiii]).[xxiv] Whether or not one reads the first quote as referring to the artist’s own self-portrait, the second quote obviously places the burden of proof and the power of the image on a self-portrait. This is not to prioritize the self-portrait within Artaud’s oeuvre or thought – given the relative lack of attention Artaud showed this type of portraiture such an assertion would be absurd[xxv] – but it does shift our vision slightly in regard to all of Artaud’s other drawings. Every drawing must be seen as retaining or maintaining the trace of the artist’s hand and body, the artist’s vision.

But where should this assertion stop? If all painters bring their anatomy into their work, where does this anatomy end? Artaud himself speaks to his problem. He claims to have included inanimate objects, trees and animals in his drawings as a limit point for human projection and identification. Such things are necessary for him because, as he says, “I’m still not sure of the limits at which the body of the human self can stop”[xxvi] At stake here is the risk of total identification with the world, a risk entailing the collapse of the autonomous ego and a schizophrenic breakdown of delirious misrecognition. As one descends into madness, and identification through (mis)recognition increases the material horizon expands, the very horizon of our landscape becomes infinitely meaningful.

Of his portraits, and as we have already seen, Artaud wrote: “I had made up my mind to coax out those forms, lines, outlines, shadows, colors, features that […] would represent nothing and would moreover not claim to be integrated in accordance with whatsoever visual and material law, but would create, as it were, above the paper a kind of counter-figure which would be an on-going protest against the laws of the created object”[xxvii] Artaud’s portraits should not be taken as mere images, or simulations of the reality of his sitters, but rather as counter-figures, doubles, of his sitters, images made against the image of the sitter. In reading this quote now, at the end of my attempt to understand these drawings, I am struck by his insistence that these drawings represent “nothing”. These doubles ultimately seem to dissolve on the page before us.

Artaud’s goal is to remake the human body. His drawings are weapons in that task. He says: “I have the idea of putting into operation a new gathering together of the activity of the human world: the idea of a new anatomy./ My drawings are anatomies in action.”[xxviii] Anatomies here must be understood in the plural. At least three figures are at stake: Artaud himself, extending his consciousness as material force into the space of his sitter, the material force of the sitter, whether that sitter is Artaud or someone else, and our own material affect as viewers encountering the work. Anatomies here includes Artaud and us, forceful connected by means of an image.

Yet this structure itself betrays its own premises. The world still remains at one remove from us, the direct contact with our nerves Artaud sought remains confounded in an image. Our life is still not lived directly. The human face still has not found its form.

Notes


[i] Jack Hirschman, ed Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 233.

[ii] Antonin Artaud “Mes dessins ne sont pas des dessins…” (1946) in Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XXI, op. cited, pg. 266.

[iii] Jack Hirschman, ed Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 232.

[iv] Antonin Artaud “Les Figures sur la page inerte” in Rowell, ed. Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper, op. cited, pg. 42.

[v] Antonin Artaud The Theater and Its Double trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958) pg. 104.

[vi] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XIV *, op. cited, pg. 26.

[vii] Jack Hirschman, ed. Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 169.

[viii] Antonin Artaud “Mes Dessins ne sont pas des dessins…” op. cited, pg. 266.

[ix] Letter to Dr. Ferdière, 28 February 1946. Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XI, op. cited.

[x] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XIV *, op. cited, pg. 77.

[xi] Jack Hirschman, ed. Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 233.

[xii] Antonin Artaud “Mes Dessins ne sont pas des dessins…” op. cited.

[xiii] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XX, op. cited, pg. 173.

[xiv] David Sylvester The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995) pg. 18.

[xv] Antonin Artaud “Les Figures sur la page inerte …” in Rowell, ed. Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper, op. cited., pg. 42.

[xvi] Sylvère Lotringer “The Art of the Crack-Up” in Edward Scheer, ed. 100 Years of Cruelty: Essays on Artaud (Sydney: Power Publications and Artspace, 2000) pg. 198.

[xvii] Florence de Mérédieu Portraits et gris-gris (Paris: Editions Blusson, 1984) pg 69. Quoted in Paule Thévenin “The Search for a Lost World” in Derrida and Thévenin The Secret Art of Antonin Artaud, op. cited., pg 50.

[xviii] Stephen Barber Artaud: The Screaming Body (London: Creation Books, 1999) pgs. 57-59.

[xix] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. V, op. cited, pgs. 43-44.

[xx] These sentences rely on language and ideas developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his essay “Eye and Mind”. See Maurice Merleau-Ponty The Primacy of Perception ed and trans. James M. Edie et alia (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964) pgs. 159-190.

[xxi] Antonin Artaud The Theater and Its Double, op. cited, pg. 102.

[xxii] This text has been translated three times by three different people. The full passage in French reads: “Le visage humain porte en effet une espèce de mort perpétuelle sur son visage dont c’est au peintre justement à la sauver en lui rendant ses propres traits” (in Rowell, op. cited, pg 95). Jack Hirschman renders the final phrase of this passage “It’s up to the painter to save it by giving it back his own peculiar features” (Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 230), while Clayton Eshleman renders the conclusion of that phrase “to save it in giving its own features back to it” (Watchfiends and Rack Screams pg. 277). Roger McKeon, for his part, renders the phrase “to save it from by restoring its own features” (in Rowell pg. 95). Each version of the phrase includes significant errors and awkwardnesses, yet Eshleman and McKeon agree, against Hirschman, that “ses” should be rendered as “its” rather than “his”. In their versions, the face is rendered with “its features” rather than with the features of the artist. This confusion is possible through the ambiguity of the French original. For this reason I have confined these remarks to a note rather than including them in the body of my text.

[xxiii] Agnès de la Beaumelle discusses this image on page 92.

[xxiv] An alternate reading of this same text and image combination might suggest that Artaud is merely recognizing himself or identifying with Jany de Ruy’s “weakness” as represented in the image. The structure of the sentence and the rest of his aesthetic philosophy, as I have attempted to reconstruct it here, hopefully place a stronger burden on the interpretation I advance in the body of my text.

[xxv] Of the 116 drawings include in Antonin Artaud: Dessins et Portraits, ten self-portraits may be classed as juvenilia while nine may be classed as mature drawings, which is to say these nine have come down to us from the work produced between 1946 and 1948.

[xxvi] Jack Hirschman, ed. Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 232.

[xxvii] Antonin Artaud “Les Figures sur la page inerte” in Rowell, ed. Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper, op. cited, pg. 42.

[xxviii] Antonin Artaud, L’Arve et L’Aume Suivi de 24 Lettres à Marc Barbezat (letter of 21 August 1947) (Décines: L’Arbalète Éditeur, 1989) pg. 82.

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The Unsaid: The Flesh of Babel

Posted by Stuart on January 17, 2011
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The lecture was delivered as part of the panel “Babel-on: Cinema and the Poetics of Silence,” at the Midwest Modern Language Association Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on November 11, 2007.

Babel presents itself as a film about communication. This makes it something of a privileged film through which to evaluate the nature of filmic communication.

The Biblical parable of the tower of Babel proposes the confusion of tongues as punishment for the hubris of humans aspiring to godlike power. The people of Babel worked together in perfect communication until god struck down the tower they had built. The story is a castration story: the confusion of tongues follows from castration. Roland Barthes inverts this notion in The Pleasure of the Text when he observes that “The subject gains access to ecstasy by the cohabitation of languages working side by side: the text of pleasure is sanctioned Babel”(4).

What of the cinema of pleasure? Cinema functions as an analogue to Babel before the fall. It presents the unity of heterogeneous discourses – formal, indexical, cultural; an art of fact and fantasy; languages of sight and of sound; images of time and movement. Narrative cinema is thus a hybrid form.

The facts of cinema are first and foremost indexical. Cinema has the power to show what is – old films are often poignant in their ability to show what was – the living breathing past. But films are also fantasies. They can tell new kinds of stories or repeat stories made familiar by other means (novels or plays for example). Cinema is an art for actors, captured in images, clothed in sound.

It is a formal art but one that is always and inescapably grounded in particular cultural contexts. These contexts transcend the medium itself. They are ideological. The institutions of human life – family, religion, nation – remain constant across cultures, though their forms remain heterogeneous. Fathers and daughters can be found all around the world, for example, but the family structures that form and regulate this relationship change from culture to culture. Cinema may seem universal through its evocation of these institutions yet reveal itself as culture bound and unique through the particular facets of the institutions it describes. But how are these features of cinema – its formal, indexical and cultural levels – its universality and its uniqueness – related to one another? How do they interact with, support, or displace one another? As Baudrillard observed: “Languages are so beautiful – all of them without exception – only because they are incomparable, irreducible one to another.”[i] The incommensurability of languages prevents the reduction of the world – and of cinema – to an integral system of communication. What can Babel tell us about these aspects of cinematic language?

With stories set in Morocco, along the US-Mexico border, and in Japan, Babel obviously and ambitiously presents itself as an international film. Each story is set in a discrete and distinctly “international” locale: the Americas, Asia, and North Africa for the Middle East.

The Moroccan story is a story of ugly Americans, tourists in a foreign land. One might be tempted to compare it to a tale by Paul Bowles or Graham Greene, in whose works Americans suffer and die due to their naive encounters with the “foreign”. In this story however, the shooting is an accident and help ultimately does arrive. Medical help was never more than four hours away and the tiny village where the tourists stopped did in fact have a working phone. The friendly and helpful translator never left the Joneses who are not after all bad people.

The Japanese story is the story of an adolescent girl and her widowed father: it could be set in any major urban area anywhere in the world. Very little of the story is distinctly Japanese. One feels that the setting was chosen – as it was in Lost in Translation – as an Orientalist stand-in for “the most foreign” country, the most distant, the one presenting the most profound challenge to communication. As such one feels that the setting for this story bears the distinct stamp of the Western imagination, of the exotic trend within that imagination. It is not surprising that this exotic story is also the most erotic story of the ones presented here. (Another erotic moment in the film occurs when the young Moroccan girl strips for her adoptive brother. Here again the exoticism fuels the eroticism and here again the erotic object is an adolescent girl who does not seem to understand the social meaning or implications of her actions. We will come back to this point.)

As an international film, Babel might be compared to another international film that spoke directly to the problem of cinematic communication: Godard’s Contempt. In Contempt, Godard fashioned a cinematic object that brought together – in a film within the film, a backstage drama – a French screenwriter, a German filmmaker, and an American producer, working together on a film version of Homer’s Odyssey. Godard’s contempt was the contempt of the screenwriter’s wife for her husband; the contempt of the American money man for the screenwriter, his wife, and for the director; the contempt of the film industry for its sources, talents, realities, and potential. By realities I mean the indexical value of the film’s most potent element, its star, Brigit Bardot, whose flesh the producers (as well as the producer in the film) wanted to see. Godard famously showed his own contempt for the producers’ demands by filming Bardot lounging pointlessly in bed at the very beginning of the film. The images stand out from the rest of the film; they do not add to the narrative in any way. (But does Godard’s meta-comment on the exploitation of the female form avoid the problem it illustrates? Not really.)

Godard made a film which illustrated and exemplified contempt. As a tri-lingual work, the film would have to be subtitled – and hence betrayed through reductive translation – in each of its main markets. Godard wasn’t afraid to bite the hand that feeds. Contempt held direct communication in contempt but in that contempt created great cinematic communication.

Babel seems at first to explore similar terrain. Though the international locations challenge communication, communication ultimately occurs. Brad Pitt may effectively be lost in Morocco but he is accompanied by a friendly and helpful translator. The Mexican nanny speaks English and Spanish, as do her young charges, more or less. The nanny is denied speech not by a language barrier but by an institutional and cultural one: the border police. The Japanese girl does not experience the clash of cultures – though there certainly is a clash of cultures between the culture of the deaf and that of the hearing. Her communication problem is blandly literal: she simply cannot speak. Each of the stories is thus pregnant with potential alterity, but this alterity never overwhelms either the film or the characters. Communication does not break down, it is simply frustrated. The film does not break the mold, as Burroughs would say.

This is particularly clear in the film’s gender politics. In Babel, the gender roles fulfill distinctly Western stereotypes.

Though each of the three main stories is centered on a female character, each of these female characters is disrespected and degraded in some manner. Cate Blanchett – coded as a bad mother, who let her child die, and as a shrewish bad wife, who will not forgive her husband for faults that are in fact her own – is shot and effectively speechless throughout the film. The nanny – who left her real son to take care of someone else’s – is denied speech and determined to be a terrible nanny despite her vain best efforts. The Japanese girl is literally speechless and she spends the film baring her most intimate flesh to strangers in a fruitless attempt at communication. At the end, she stands naked in her fathers arms, an utterly abject figure, as the camera pulls back into the infinite distances of the urban milieu that has contributed to her destruction.

None of these women fulfill the function of a tragic heroine. Their characters undergo no tragic reversal of fate: they are never beloved of anyone, established as figures worthy of any respect. They do nothing that endures in any success. Rather they each represent distinct types of failure and abjection. They are the victims of a spectacle of degradation without being its sacrificial victims. To be sacrificial victims they must willfully bear the burden of their fate. But none of these women can even speak. Their lives are determined entirely by others. Cate Blanchett is shot by an unknown assailant and cared for by her husband and doctors. The nanny lives at the whim of her employer, her nephew (Bernal), and the border police. The Japanese girl follows social pressure to offer her body to any stranger who will have her.

The men in the film fair much better. Brad Pitt plays the hero – he took his wife on a trip in a loving attempt to save their marriage. When she is shot, he struggles valiantly – not vainly – to save her. Gael Garcia Bernal’s character neither fails nor succeeds. He plays the clown but he disappears before we can judge him. And he disappears in a moment of action rather than powerlessness. The Japanese father struggles to communicate with his daughter through the film. At the end, the viewer would like to believe they have reached some understanding, though the father did nothing to bring that understanding about. The viewer is nevertheless satisfied that the father has been part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Even the children in the nanny’s care fall into this pattern. When she must abandon them in the desert, the girl is sleeping – the suggestion is that she is too ill to move – and the young boy must take care of his sister.

These are simple gender stereotypes: the active males, the passive females.

Perhaps the largest oversight and misunderstanding about culture and about the nature, potential and limits of cinema, occurs when the Japanese girl goes dancing. She has had some alcohol and taken some drugs. She is in a euphoric daze. When she enters the dance club, the film is silent, showing us the world as she would experience it, as a world of pure darkness and light. The sound returns in fits and starts, carrying the viewer between the worlds of sight and sound, while she continues dancing. Thereafter the technique – which stands out as such, as a technical gimmick – never returns. The scene is striking in its falsehood.

The world of the hearing impaired is not a world entirely deprived of sensation as this technique would have us believe. Sounds penetrate the hearing impaired body as sensations. This would be most acutely true in a dance club, where the throbbing beat of the music almost literally beats the dancers across the floor. Such a sensation cannot be represented in cinema, it can only be replicated. The abstract and ideological nature of her disability – as the ultimate challenge to communication – in the filmmaker’s imagination stands revealed. The Japanese girl is not a body, she is an idea about communication.

This is of course deeply ironic in her case. Her story is the story of communication reduced to its most schematic, abstract and yet most literal terms. In her character, desire for communication has become desire for sex. This is a socially constructed and imposed desire – we see her friends mock her for her adolescent virginity – but her story explores no alternative to it.

In a bar, she removes her panties and flashes a group of boys that she does not know. The display recalls Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, but here the boys laugh at her vagina dentata rather than desiring or fearing it. Her inability to communicate has taken the teeth out of her sexuality.

As in pornography, explicit sexuality is psychologically permissible only when it is utterly devoid of meaning, deprived of communication. In this case, the young girl’s inability to communicate is the abstraction that defines her character. Here the naked female body is not a body at all: it is a symbol of emotional nudity, of psychological bareness. In passing we might observe that these categories are distinctly Western. Does Japanese culture contain a repository of images and ideas about the relationship between nudity and intimate communication? I do not believe that it does.

Later, the girl strips herself completely before another total stranger, a police officer who is looking for her father. She lies to him about her mother’s death and he feels sorry for her. He is gentle and seems understanding: he does not have sex with her. The moment they share is tender but it is based on a falsehood she told in pursuit of his affection. Based on lies, this is not a moment of communication nor is it an evocation of alterity.

At end of the film, she again stands naked, now in her father’s arms on a balcony overlooking the city. Her nakedness is a symbol of her emotional vulnerability and of her openness to communication. The camera pulls away from the couple, rendering them, and her in particular, smaller, even more vulnerable. Viewing the couple through the lens of desire we see an incestuous couple. But this does not seem to be the filmmaker’s intent. The camera does not linger over her flesh. It takes it for granted. It has transformed her flesh into a symbol.

Yet her flesh nevertheless persists as flesh. This is the power of the index. And the filmmakers present her flesh as a fetish for our gaze. Are we here being permitted to gaze upon young female flesh without fear of social retribution, fear of castration? This is Babel after all. Again, I don’t think so, or at least I don’t want to think so. I would rather see her flesh as a symbol than cast a desiring gaze on an exotic adolescent.

In the end, I think we would like to believe that the girl will now be able to communicate with her father though we have no reason to hold this belief. Nothing encourages it other than the extent of her degradation, her bareness, and availability.

Godard’s use of the female body in Contempt was a betrayal of that body, but it was a betrayal effected ironically, critically, in an attempt to reveal the contempt of the film industry for the female body and as a means of revealing Godard’s own contempt for the film industry.

In Babel the body is again a female body and it is again the focus of filmic communication. But in Babel, the naked female body is not a body at all: it is a (Western) symbol of emotional nudity, of psychological bareness, of the absolute need for communication. Transformed into a symbol, denuded of its flesh, the body as index has been denied, the heterogeneity of the film mitigated. The bare flesh in short communicates as a symbol rather than as flesh and as such fails to communicate the heterogeneity of cinematic language. Babel ultimately isn’t cinematic.


[i] Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1996) pg. 90.

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