I share this writing in the spirit of writing. Much of it I wrote during graduate school, and some of it is heavy and cumbersome.
Learning how to think, write, and synthesize is a challenge, and one I enjoy. In the past, anonymous readers have posted comments like: “too many commas” or “pretentious”, which seem very narrow thinking. The idea is to unravel understandings, to make a puzzle of intellectual projects, readings, and reflection. Enjoy!
I am available for articles, catalogue essays, and currently write copy for Ocean House Gallery press kits and exhibitions. I have written copy about the works of Maine artists Rachel Eastman, Joshua Ferry, MP Landis, Larinda Meade, Rebecca Goodale, Brita Holmqvist, Diane Bowie-Zaitlin, and others.
For Susan Bickford, 2009
precarious/ balance: formless reciprocities
Susan Bickford assembles, disassembles, and reassembles space, light, sound, and time in a circuitous continuum of multidimensional permutations of existence where she exposes paradoxes and simultaneities, expands and interrogates notions of interactivity and proximity, nature and humanity, being and undoing. Bickford invites us to experience other dimensions of ourselves. Bickford’s work is sensitive to us and our being, inviting new reciprocities by examining how our own bodies, energy, neurology, warmth, touch, and sensory capacities fuel appearances and experiences, and our personal engagement, playful curiosity, or experimentation expand meanings of work and materials, and how we shape individual experiences.
We continue the work Bickford initiates. Sensory, conceptual, and autobiographical questions frame intertwining of narratives into which we can insert ourselves or become enmeshed through presence or absence. Bickford conflates humanity and nature, knowns and unknowns, creating a work that is truly expansive, malleable, and open-ended. We are seduced by, drawn into the glow of the aquatic cosmology she has created, and as we immerse ourselves in it, we enter its contemplative edge, pathos, and humor, we feel less the pressure to acknowledge its artness, and embrace its being-becoming, which is more akin to our own self and more present in the questions it raises. Harmonies and dissonances co-exist; metaphors overlap to expose contradictions, our own ambivalence and the convergences of vitality, play, longing, and loss.
Bickford establishes accessible and potentially nonlinear sequences open for others to bring personal experiences to. These interactive works arouse and make visible the pungency and viscosity of being, and the exigencies of life with poise that is gently open and firmly planted. The interrelated installations embody surrender, change, and chance, and are personalized by the public’s private physical and metaphysical encounters of material, visual metaphor, and potential spiritual awakening.
Bickford tempers the sensationalism of common aggressive polarities to surface interconnectedness, the obligation of exchange, and inevitable sacrifices we make in our everyday relationships and movements. We are invited to loosen our grip on what we think we know to reexperience ourselves through discomfort, unknowns, inconsistencies, and contradictions where we are often most fruitful and involved. Bickford pairs fear and desire without authoritative hierarchies to unearth truths where we might access our aliveness, raw and unavoidable. There is an existential folding and unfolding, concealment and revelation, doing and undoing in each piece and the room as a whole installation where divisions are as temporary as connections, and interchangeable; they work separately and together, maintaining their individual identity and erasing it all at once in a kind of spin cycle, domestic tumble, the sweetness and danger of contact. Catharsis, surrender, the embrace of that acquiescence, the pain of our unhinging.
The title piece, precarious balance, occupies a square space with a dropped center at its heart. As we move through the space, we become aware that we are both material and co-creators. We can intervene, throw our shadow, or overlay our likeness onto projected light and images that pulse and flicker on stretched fabric cocoons or sail-like-wall-to-wall-appendage-wings. We alter and become part of invented starlight and planets circling in the space, tidal waves rolling backwards; we insinuate ourselves into of shapes, waves, trees, or traveling moon, as the camera on the opposite side of the space is sensitive to our bodies, our presence, our own inner glow. Bickford’s soundworks accompany, follow, and surround us with a blistering wind that ebbs and flows, strangely soothing and alarming a the same time, tapering into celestial chirps and groanings.
Inside the space are two globes, a disco ball and a white rubber ball with small, mirrored dots around its circumference. Suspended from the ceiling, they spin slowly very near one another, glittering, sparkling, creating shapes, casting spheres as negative and positive shapes on the fabric. Spots speckle the walls, floor, and ceiling all at once; their geo-identity is divisible and multiple, accreting. One is bathed in a fictional-real, celestial light. We are one with the projection; we are projected light and a whole being at the same time. We can recognize our inability to fully penetrate or integrate with the images without the light; the light that bring us into the picture, transforms us into materials for the piece, capturing our movement, co-involvement, and desire to participate, overlap, or override what is there.
We confront our dependence on seeing, and we begin to consider how appearances and light camouflage or emphasize our blind spots, our fixed views, our limited range of vision. This light we interact with becomes a window on our limits, renders visible our deficiency while upholding our potential as physical and spiritual beings, and underscores our creativity and our need. Things are sharpened, brought into focus, and blurred, obscured, form and meaning interchange indeterminately; this is happening in the room and inside our eyes. Light, a metaphor for life, potential, and hope, is projected, reflected, directed, shaped, cast, colored, it swirls, glows, hovers, and glimmers, interspersed in fields of shadow and dark everywhere in the space. It comes in slices or great swaths, it dapples and plays with forms in shadow, it reveals what we don’t want to see, it exposes what we need to confront, and it unveils what we couldn’t imagine. Bickford composes with light and dark, the visible and the invisible.
In disturbance/equilibrium, a turquoise child’s pool glows on floor with arch curves, it counters/rounds the room’s angular corner, softens and accentuates its hidden angularity and uncompromising rigidity in relation to our human form. We can kneel on one of two matching puce shag rugs that sandwich it, and only then notice the luminous center reveals its circular mirrored lining, whose raggedy edges expose interior decay. Particles of dust and debris hover in its center, residues of daily life and movement, dirt that makes us squeamish and curious.
We are invited to activate, drag, stir, splash. A small red ball floats and hugs the edge, casting monstrous globular shadows on the stretched fabric corner, playful and ominous, sad and humorous. We imbue the water with our energy through touch and movement; we alter its molecular structure, creating ever-moving drawings, and we change its appearance and meaning, while unfolding a personal experience.
Nearby, a wooden ladder, both sturdy and rickety, leans, leading upwards to indeterminate destination with a slide projector attached to a middle rung that illuminates an indeterminate yellowish form, a kind of medusa in constant motion, a twin sphere, squashed and deformed that quivers and expands, divides and synthesizes on the stretched fabric across corner-adjacent walls. Disturbance is necessary to avoid stasis, to bring about movement and new grounding, as ecstasy can be brought by suffering as well as pleasure. It is in the exchange of one for another that we gain a truer image of ourselves, a deeper experience of life as indeterminate, fragmented, and present in the form that it is. Only humans apply judgement in an attempt to artificially alter form and meaning, to add or subtract value, to categorize and label as if a name could fix the temporal in place or displace mortality.
impulse is a set of hand-built wooden stairs whose access lives at an awkward, possibly dangerous height of about four feet from the ground and rise to mid-level section of the room. Above windows with slats cut strips of light and dark on the tiles below, the light catches the gloss. Bickford uses mirror dots in a sloped line on the brick wall to further capture the fleeting rays from the brick shaft above, which she corals and redirects to the floor. She draws an unpredictable solar map that traces the unseen, the ephemeral, the lights that alters how and what we see. This pulls at our own heartstrings, our ability to be able to access what is somewhere beyond, uncertain, unknown.
Under the stairs, Bickford suspends seven bricks from monofilament of differing lengths to create varying tension on the strings, which allow for seven pitches. The bricks dangle, sag from above, reconnect us visually to the wall behind, the building itself, and act in combination with the hollow of the stairs as an oversized guitar that can be played; its harmony and dissonances reside together.
We can tap the stairs, pluck the strings and with Frank Mauceri’s digital program patch, the sounds are altered and amplified through feedback and delay in another collaborative and interactive game of chance. One almost feels relief that sounds-notes are slowed down, their temporality is audibly present and we can experience them slowly or have two different experiences: we touch and then we hear.
One marvels at unpredictable, shifting sounds as one knocks on the wood, strokes the stairs, and plucks away with other participants; it is a community instrument and an impossible set of stairs, real and imaginary. Wood and clay remind us of and reflect common cultural and physical ties, human interdependence, while constructing a relationship of gravity and weightlessness, of harmony and danger. We can recognize infinite combinations within relationships, a kind of mathematical spirit that messes with our understanding of reason.
In this work, the utilitarian is paired with the fantastical and music is an infinite space we activate and inhabit; a paradigm of social architecture composed of harmony and discord, accessibility and impossibility. Bickford says her own understanding of music is somatic. We all have an inner music box, a desire to sing with the sounds we hear, to tune our lives to one another. For when we tune out, we are dead.
Nothing ever is is Bickford’s corner sanctuary of red and blue light, a devotional to love where one is invited to lie on one of two white covered benches and listen to the sound works to gaze above at the video of two faces in a square hovering on a starry ground. Bickford and her partner face one another and in slow motion come together, noses eclipsing until they kiss and shift their faces never leaving one another, the faces overlap and evaporate into one another so the faces and beings become one. The ceiling fan at the center creates a strobe effect, further fragmenting the faces initially, as if each person were two. In contrast, the pair of lips once in a kiss, is permanently caught on the fan’s center, a spot of white that is still and steady, a centrifugal force that is unmovable and grounded.
We lie on the benches, as if to star gaze, and stare at this languid lingering of mouth upon mouth, this silent sensuous expression of love. Words cross the heavenly speckled sky-screen; they flicker quickly so we may miss parts: phrases such as you move me, I can see myself reflected in your eyes until the phrases are reduced to the essence of their meaning as utterances: deeply, losing, completely, willing, etc. We encounter ourselves, our own longings, our own desires, our own fleeting intimacies in the couple. We experience this piece as voyeurs, watching evidence, something passing or past, something we can never be a part of, but that arouses our own great longing, ambivalence. Only our conscience curtails our gaze, for our heart wants to be the embrace they linger in. The thin membrane that separates us physically and conceptually is the same one that keeps us on the brink of death between hope and the present, and renders our body a spirit, an idea, and a mass of living breathing, sentient flesh.
Bickford interrogates core issues of humanity, existence in beautiful, complexly constructed and deconstructed multidimensional installations combining sound, light, space, time. The visceral intermingles with the spiritual, the scared with the profane, blurring the boundaries of the everyday and the esoteric, the personal and the political. Bickford deals with these themes with great passion and care, and attention to detail and reverence for the spontaneous co-exist.
We are called to feel and experience. Bickford incorporates, ambient sounds, materials, and composed works in her installations. Sounds, like light, are and are not clues; they stand on their own as participants of this labyrinth of interlocking moments. Time is fragments and whole, slowed and shifting.
Bickford’s breathtaking composition keeps us flowing in a tide of feeling and thought, sensation and contemplation, as we move from one activity to another celebrating plurality, diversity, change. Bickford evidences informe’s capacity to operate in everything everywhere, as Georges Bataille warns. That which is formless takes on the form of the things around it, and thus, it is in a constant state of flux, reformation, an unpredictable being. We accept this begrudgingly in relation to ourselves. Bickford shows the integrity and beauty of formlessness and indeterminacy, and beholds its necessity and value as integral and vital, a life force.
Our society focuses maniacally on the singular, the objective, control, and order. Its binary tendencies and hierarchies of authority dilute our humanity, elevate fear, tamper with creativity, and subjugate us. Bickford‘s works embrace the impossible as well as the possible and the gaps between extreme, which are not well defined or translatable, and so we become whole and fragmented, as we are, real and imagined, loved and despaired, hopeful and alive. We are in ourselves and out of ourselves able to experience what is there and what may be there all along. Susan Bickford returns our focus to ambiguous spaces we must revisit and revive, so we can retrieve some sense of our humanity and peace in the cacophony we call life.
Carrie Scanga: “View From High Places” by Alex Rheault, 2010
Carrie Scanga’s “View From High Places” evidences and transforms experiences of reach, proximity, and existence within longing and potential.
Scanga assembles and suspends a kind of glowing pulp-fiber home-bunker-shed with a single window; it is a quiet cloud of indigo-smudged tracing paper that hovers precariously on a grid of monofilament five feet above the ground.
The rawness of the imprints we leave, the marks we will make, and the ones we have yet to decipher are Scanga’s metaphysical building blocks and design behind the paper bricks she stacks. Permanence and impermanence dance, collide, and slip by one another. Scanga messes with being and perceptions of existence; she invites us into a kind of personal dwelling or experience of dwelling, where we confront subliminal light, the frailty of temporality, and our shifting bodies.
Each brick has multiple functions and identities working simultaneously. We are called to witness wholeness and parts, presence and absence, unity and separation as constant simultaneities and inseparable partners. Indigo marks line and smudge the surface, imposing color onto translucent white paper, carefully folded; the marks break up even planes, and evidence how Scanga layers process, form, and meaning to both build and excavate these at the same time. The labor-intensive and repetitive motion involved in such a work are reactivated in its assembly as a new being, and express the excess otherwise nestled within each brick. Time and space are hinged as complicit tricksters masquerading as tangible forms with visible edges and specific points of entry or exit.
On a wall facing this dwelling, a large five-panel image of rectangular storage buildings and trailers floats just above the floor. The image is a drypoint printed in blueprint blue, a view presumably visible from the window of the dwelling. The scale of the image in the panels identifies distance; the buildings appear small because they are far away; in the five panels, geometric structures paired with temporary shadows and trees in stage of growth and decay, are permanently fixed in a particular view and multiple perspectives. Scanga captures the silent movement of scale and proportion. Scanga flattens dimension and expands the fullness of the real and the imagined at the same time repeatedly. She unhinges any limits or contingencies perception imposes, and blurs the lens on detail, and widens its stare on the infinite. Scanga loosens the perceived, anticipated usefulness and accessibility of space, and perhaps, to address more broad or acute meanings. Exterior and interior exchange roles and are interdependent.
The dwelling and the panels are interdependent parts of a whole view and broach the limits of sight and seeing. Scanga invites us to encounter views from her own personal window on life, which blends with the one from her studio. We are asked to envision and experience the expansiveness inherent in any view, and to include the imagination as our collaborator. We become aware of how transient we are, how our proximity contributes to our experience of something sensory, psychological, or spiritual, and that we can locate more access by meeting fear and desire head on, quieting inner noise. We can awaken our primal senses and imagination to what is possible: more infinite spaces.
Scanga challenges us to reexamine intimacy, boundaries, and exposes us anew to proximity, accessibility, and possibility. In a conversation about her influences, Scanga noted, “the maps of the Shakers embody their faith; their future was their present, and their faith’s authenticity was manifested in daily contact with the materials of their labor”. Their greatest desires for hope, grace, and God’s protection provided a steady guide for a disciplined routine of work, worship, and relationship, illustrated in the drawings of their community buildings and villages. The Shaker maps and diagrams translate spiritual longing for appropriate living spaces and communities, without using clever European calculations, theories of perspective, or decorative styles of the time. Scanga’s own illustration-diagram-drawings embrace some of the dreamlike quality and awkwardness the Shakers’ drawings, and also tempt the feeling of something fleeting, unpredictable. Scanga’s other recent influence, photographer Mario Giacomelli, further pushes how we witness what has been, and see what might be at the same time; he does this by photographically recording marks farmers make on the land from above, and how the photograph becomes an upside down picture plane where land is flattened, and reduced to abstract tonal values or crude marks in black and white. These documents or inventories describe and unveil possibilities, and hope, that mighty gentleness with which we can change the world and how we live in it.
Carrie Scanga’s “View From High Places” is a layering of paradoxes; “View From High Places” is both secure and temporary, a living view. Scanga welcomes and pokes at interconnectivity, the subjectivity of space and existence, and indefinable spiral feelings we might attempt to contain in squares and rectangles and the confines of a mind. Scanga releases these as suspended play and mark making to access the inaccessible and contemplate expanses of hope, grace, and overcoming; an antidote to what ails and perplexes us.
Alex Rheault The Tidy and the Untidy
“By nature’s law every man is at once a producer and a consumer, and if he consumes, he produces.“ Laporte p131
“Freedom is untidy.” Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, United State of America
When the remnants of humanity are examined, cultural patterns of contradiction, ambiguity and denial are revealed. Sorting through political and social dung heaps in the annals of historical documentation, many scholars have sought out and contemplated the origins of law and order, and the historical reliance on processes and rituals, which dehumanize in order to humanize. The circuitous nature of consumption and waste seems to reveal the ambiguity humans feel about freedom and confinement, conformity and individuality, life and death.
Michel Foucault emphasizes our ambivalence towards unknowns, difference and individuality; Georges Bataille pairs desire and fear and relationship and ritual, while using language as a cultural, psychological and physical scapegoat to show variations in perception and meaning. Richard Misrach uses photography to expose with our discomfort, impulses and excess, while Ken Kesey sniffs out weakness and failure within society’s mechanisms.
Dominique Laporte (p 98) uses “map of the body” as a metaphor for society to describe the whole and its parts. This serves as a constant reminder of simultaneous decay and growth, great vitality, energy, and impending rot and demise humans and all living things combine simultaneously. I will examine the common themes of decay and renewal.
Foucault, Bataille, and Laporte illustrate the ritualized elimination of “waste” and excess, as prevention, as re-production and as an instrument of power. Humans’ squeamishness and fascination with shit, according to Laporte, demonstrates the division of self and society. Language is complicit and instrumental in this process. Inconsistencies, inventions and denial inherent in language enable it to confine and liberate, to tell truths and invent fictions, and to illustrate the great lengths to which humans go to flee and confront their essence, at once repulsed and attracted to the complexity of humanity. Every time one pauses to write on a potentially clean slate, memories of past triumphs, developments, and successes, as well as errors, fallibility, blindness, and wounded humanity influence the spread of that ink.
The structure of both language and society are lenses, or eyes, which society utilizes to structure and ‘hierarchize” authority (Foucault). The origins of human marks can be traced, even corrected, defaced, and erased. Evidence of waste and excess surface inevitably, and so too, the elusive and interchangeability of presence and absence.
A society’s rituals and rules are fertile archeological sites for culture, politics, ideas, values, laws and all that establishes its boundaries, identity, and ensure safety from dangers which threaten its survival. The positioning of ideas, people, language, spaces and time, is subject to change, and can enlighten or obscure.
Foucault sweeps the minefields of authority’s domain, mapping and charting his way through available documents, while combing out ideas of difference and identification through society’s institutions as punctuated evidence of fears and reliance on law and science to establish standards and rules, isolating rituals and institutions to simultaneously unravel and reweave patterns of society.
Foucault undercuts the potentially lethally dry, historically weighted nature of his scholarly detective work, and injects the potentially somniferous with unexpected doses of electrifying horror, humidifies eyes and libidos with torturous acts, titillating bondage, and many discrete levels of punishment. He panders to our basest appetite for blood and guts, forces us to witness terrifying dehumanization, examine exaggeration and corruption as schemes of law, and confront us with human failure. Bataille and Laporte also indulge in this discourse to elaborate on the natural and artificial boundaries whose “demarcation” (capacity to mark and unmark) collides, coincides, overlaps and intersects. Not always desirable, practical and is often symptomatic of human conflict.
Foucault’s aim in Discipline and Punish is to dispel the myths which mask power, the guises under which societies commit crimes, which he suggests may supercede in their hideousness and callousness, the original crime committed, cancel the credibility of the law and its potential as deterrent. Foucault is not making a case against power. Foucault uses the reader to bear witness to a mélange of historical documentation, to review and judge them, as he has selected and arranged them. The numbered, chronological order, repetition, and adherence to specific language code his assumption of the “expert”, lends credibility to the content, and assuages the reader’s guilt or trepidation. Despite his efforts, in the end, Foucault reveals all people’s undeniable complicity in society’s corruption, its displacement of individuals and groups, and untold reliance on silence and passivity to achieve its ends. Foucault poaches from a variety of sources, which suggest diversity and corrupt conformity, weakness and strengths within the society as a whole, and that mirror individual tendencies.
“discourse; legible like an open book; operating by a permanent recodification of the mind as the citizens; eliminating crime by those obstacles placed before the idea of crime; acting invisibly and uselessly on the ‘soft fibres of the brain” as Sevran put it…”Foucault p 130)
Foucault avoids the ruin of stasis in the inert histories he sets in motion, by his formal burnt offering of history, the effluent of humanity through documents (language, the great preserver of life), to simultaneously purge and contaminate readers. Foucault’s “eyes open” act illustrates his own thesis, and which conspires with those of Douglas, Bataille and Laporte; we need our remnants, our waste our excess as badly as we need to be rid of them, distanced from them.
The problem of our history, or past shit, is that it always stinks, and its sight might be ghastly, too. Waste represents disorder in our minds, yet is in the natural order of nature and “life”. Bataille and Laporte underline that the criminal is society’s effluent is that which will not conform, that which will not submit or be subjected or oppressed. It threatens society’s perceived self-image and reputation.
Society deems criminals nuisances, the sick a bother, the infirm a dirty business, but all which line pockets and keep society’s pockets well lined. The extremes of society manifest the dualistic nature and ambivalence concealed in its ideologies and judgements.
Foucault chronicles shifts in the “economy and technology” of punishment, to expose the use of “the spectacle” or visible, forms public discipline, and eventual adoption of secret, invisible punishment within prisons, reformation in asylums. Language is employed as an instrument to observe, capture, individualize and assists in the process to re-form the “prisoner” as a productive subject of the society.
Sovereignty and Nature
Foucault’s language, furnished with multiple meanings, anticipates diverse levels of literacy; he prepares his literary banquet according to a variety of palates and tastes. The reader benefits from the large appetite and calculated generosity of Foucault, and we feed off the bones and remnant cadaver of a fleshy history, the decaying waste of his ruminations.
Foucault plants seeds in our brains, colonizes the reader, fertilizing them with the remainders of his own feeding frenzy, questioning the authority of sovereignty all the while. Foucault points to the use of training, forced habits, and the requirements and objectives of penal codes and systems. He reduces the sizable ideals of these systems to bare essentials, exposing gross inadequacies, elaborate transgressions, and enormous power. Along the way, he quizzically looks to the reader for feedback concerning who is a sovereign, how a sovereign becomes a sovereign, how a subject becomes a subject, and whether the two are interchangeable.
Furthermore, Foucault slips in a controversial question. Might nature be most sovereign of all, as our bodies return to the debris and dirt of the earth, fly away as particles lost in sun and clouds? “Discipline is an art of rank, a technique for the transformation of arrangements. It individualizes bodies by a location…that distributes them and circulates them in a network of relations.” (Foucault P145-46)
Foucault suggests that power and weaknesses serve society, and that our denial of this is only a childish hesitation to acknowledge our dual nature, admit our flaws and qualities which stabilize and destabilize us. Our ignorance and knowledge also play roles in the development of ritual, and in the end, our free will is a force we can exert or deny; we are all subjects and sovereigns, and beholden to and free from society’s grip, real or imagined, fertile ground for decay’s constant renewal.
George Bataille’s Story of the Eye is a journey into obscurity to find enlightenment, a indulgence in anarchy to experience sovereignty and disclose its dual nature, a visceral inquiry into inhumanity and dehumanization to touch upon genuine humanity buried in earthly graves, enhanced by unknowns and infinity. Bataille uses language as a kind of hologram, metaphors and puns as lingual meanderings, “erotic” and deliberate. He drapes his poetically raw, cruelly explicit tale in eroticism and violence. Bataille repels and attracts the reader in an unorthodox exchange of body fluids, obscene language, x-rated behavior, disembodied orgies and murderous consequences. He intrigues with frilly elaborations, repulses with brutal inventions, and amuses with the grotesque and carnivalesque. The reader is trapped in a Fellinian nightmare replete with freaks, animal acts, sluts and clowns.
Bataille’s central characters’ masquerade disguises their identity, their acrobatics defy gravity, and their illicitness betrays society’s foundations. They are embroiled in their flights of fancy; life and death mirror each other uselessly. Bataille’s metaphoric masks, word games and maniacal minutiae keep the reader engaged and moving; relying on rules and rituals of the word to catastrophic ends in this “ride through the impossible” (Bataille p37). Bataille controls the lens, to expand and contract the larger issues of imprisonment, power ritual and excess.
Bataille, like Foucault, repeatedly exposes us to shocking events, and makes adjustments and corrections in long pauses, absences or challenges to what we read. Bataille aims to anesthetize us through words, which might blind or numb us, in such a manner as to deter or defer our resistance and escape. We are routinely impaired or shocked, aroused or paralysed, imprisoned by his promiscuous display. Disciplined repetition, sequencing, and seriality ruthlessly ravage, force pause, and augment the speed and interest with which the reader engages.
It is not so much what, when or how he unfolds what he unfolds, but why. The reader is easily caught by the high gloss of pornography, potentially demoralized by the decay of violence. Much like a sexual advance, truth is something we can refuse or accept, and Bataille must seduce the reader over and over, and avoid any extreme or excessive gestures, prolonged over stimulation or over eagerness, which would sabotage his purpose. He calculates his own illicit risk-taking, his foul language, sacrilegious and violent contamination of language, corruption of literature, and condemnation of things clean and proper, correct and polite, conforming and righteous.
Bataille risks reputation, status, credibility, morality etc to pimp language, and poses as an enticing sexual deviant, promiscuous, daring, insatiable, bound, and subjected to cruelties. Language is complicit, duplicitous in Bataille’s seduction, and he shows off its multiorgasmic potential through its endless uses and forms, translations and meanings.
Bataille is also interested in the eroticism of language, its excess, its potency, its vulnerability, its ambi-sexuality, its dangerous and devious potential. Bataille celebrates language as waste, the by-product of human activity, fluid, abundant, cyclical and at times blocked and sickening.
Bataille suggests, perhaps, that the linear style of prose, easily caught in conventions and defined by them, is really outmoded and superceded by what has been cast as a “lower”, impossible form. This “lower” form is circular, relates to nature, shifts and divides in its wholeness, renders the specificity of meaning illegitimate and has a tendency to spread rather than follow. Ha! For example, in the following passage, where he deliberately italicized the words “wide” and “white”, using printing press operations to alter and isolate words, underscoring them, making them more obvious, visible, and difficult to avoid.
“It was after such dreams that Simone would ask me to bed her down on blankets by the toilet, and she would fix her wide eyes on the white eggs.” Bataille suggests with this emphatic clue that “wide” and “white” are some how related. One notices the words both contain “w” and “e” words, “w” plus “e” equals “we”. This encrypted message, a kind of invisible ink trick, may elude some readers, distract and puzzle others, make some laugh or feel smart for having completed the grammatical exercise. Simone’s fixation becomes our fixation. We (paired with our fictitious, literary twin) are temporarily bound by a common gaze on “eggs”, some real, some unreal.
Bataille works the reader in his panoptic structure, imprisons the reader, surveilling the reader’s movements, he peeking from behind the Venetian blinds, and zigzag corridors of his words. The reader cannot help but submit to a transformation induced by sticky situations, human waste, and the tortured gravity of what Bataille has done. W e come out punished, brutalized, experienced, wasted, and thoroughly under his spell.
The Eye as Metaphor
The eye is the sole organ in the body, which receives and gives simultaneously; it “produces” and “consumes”. We are reliant on these fixed liquid orbs to see, to perceive, to seize visions in memory, enhance imagination and inform intellect. The eye’s complexity coupled with its vulnerability is an excellent metaphor for society, its circular shape representative of our world, the cyclical nature of life’s movement.
Like the eye, (i) Society gives and takes, consumes and produces, and watches itself as it watches others. In the work of Foucault, Bataille, Misrach, Kesey and others, the eye’s limits and limitlessness reflect the same qualities of a society and its culture, to unearth origins of our dual need for freedom and confinement, protection and danger. Our blindness is as important as our vision, a simultaneity that imprisons, humanizes and dehumanizes.
Bataille uses our ambivalence, fascination and disgust to corrupt and domesticate, to chastise and soothe, to contaminate and cleanse. He uses all of society’s strategies of authority and ritual, rules and preference for order. He further suggests that since humans all have free will, the roles of sovereign and subject are reversible and symbiotic. Humans mirror one another through words and deeds, implied meaning and silent thoughts.
The Camera as Eye: Misrach
Richard Misrach’s photography confronts theses issues and questions of responsibility, blame, guilt, free will, choice and the role of every human. As Bataille’s verbal gravesite exposes the truths of excess and fatality, Misrach digs into parallel human graveyards to undermine conventions, and to emphasize the dualities concealed, or robbed by opposites. His work disturbs the viewer by the lack of answers.
He uses the camera lens to survey the desert, to render visible the unavailable, the invisible, and the unimaginable, to bring them into the light. As with Bataille, Misrach takes formal and conceptual risks to colonize both the viewer and the world. In a series titled “Desert Cantos”, the photograph’s reductive and reproducible mechanisms challenge one’s preconceived notions about beauty, landscape, language, civil and environmental issues.
This coffee table sized glossy book is weighted with two scholarly essays, which dialogue with miniaturized reprints on their pages, and included the entire body of work which follows in a prescribed order, and grouped by sub themes. Misrach relies on some conventions to empower the viewer, authenticate his photographs and to bolster his integrity.
The photographer relies on the optical lens, the Cyclops eye, the “viewfinder” to “see” and capture the frames, which will speak most eloquently, accurately, metaphorically etc. The viewer relies on the photographer, a tour guide who has journeyed ahead of the viewer, and vetted the images he would like us to experience. Misrach brings us the desert’s sandy expanse to infer the American ideal of space equated with ownership and economic possibility with a simultaneous degenerate nature of abandoned, uncultivated territory where perhaps a multitude of maggots thrive on equine carcasses (perhaps as parody, dual metaphor on the term “still photography”, perhaps marking what Sontag might deem Misrach’s prowess), as well as gun-holed Playboy magazines, and skies, which challenge the color spectrum.
Misrach, like Bataille, uses metaphor, clichés, and layers of language to draw parallels, obscure the obvious, and illuminate the hidden within his images. Landscape is the obvious term for his work, yet it merely operates in subservience to this visual taskmaster’s loftier intellectual and socially charged goals, some, which may elude us as much as they enlighten. His precision and self-consciousness allow him to carefully phrase things so as not to offend or insult, though he cannot avoid perhaps initial disgust or disbelief.
The repetition, selection and separation of the groupings offer a rest stop, a detour from the road to destruction, a respite from the dangers of overexposure to the voyeuristic indulgence and morbid fascination with violence and sex.
Like Bataille, Misrach is aware he can over stimulate and paralyse a viewer, and his intentions must seem completely genuine, unfiltered, clean, unbiased, unintentionally documentarian. The essays are there as well, to assuage our fears, to salve the wounded eye, and give literal relief. “What we see in the desert are a few permanent threads which, overlaid and hidden by many patterns, run unrecognized through our more complicated loves and hold them together: so that living there for a time, we feel we are re-establishing the proportion of things in our eyes, and rediscovering them for the first time.” (Solnit p39)
The problem remains that the destruction hidden in military-owned portions of desert, the contamination by chemical plants, and the shifting of rivers paths, which cause floods or drought, still go on. The people most affected will not be saved by this work. Many citizens will not see this expensive, elite art book.
We don’t know from this book whether Misrach follows up on his commentary or vainly uses the consequences of society’s waste and excess for his own profit. Perhaps Richard Misrach is a true sovereign, who conquers, reigns over land and people, subjugating, ritualizing, institutionalizing and harvesting gold from decay, debris, dirt, disease and death.
The invisible, intolerable dust of ideology penetrates and irritates the eye, and the endless sand and sky create an unquenchable thirst for liquidity. The heat of his images is cooled by their puritanical starkness, the lack of people , and the focus on things animal, things natural, especially the four elements.
Misrcah’s purgatorial images resonate with Bataille’s anarchical prison, suspended between fear and desire, horror and bliss, where time is threaded seamlessly, and both hint at searing solar-like rays, blinding, drying, burning, damaging. But, these damaging rays also bring light to growing things, and warmth where it is cold. The grain of sand is necessary for the formation of the pearl, I heard once in a sermon. It carves, perhaps, the pearl of humanity, we so desperately seek. Human loss and sacrifice, the very elements of ritual are borrowed from nature’s own process.
The destructive is necessary for the creative and vice versa. Our denial of nature is childish and mean spirited, a gross denial of our humanity, and Misrach’s photographs are a testament to that tendency.
Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is also a host for the parasitic, where larger issues, burdensome and unsightly, burgeon, and multiply. Racism, sexism, homophobia, science and law’s grip on social truth, ecological and humanitarian concerns, civil rights, nationalism, and hierarchies of authority all underlie Kesey’s tale of dominance and subjugation.
Kesey’s literary peep hole allows us opportunity to witness systemic cruelty, reverse anarchy, institutionalized drug addiction/abuse, and surveillance as a weapon of destruction all set in a frigid, sterile, porcelain container, controlled by metallic, robotic “equipment”. This dubbed mental ward is nothing more than an oversized water closet, were human waste is contained, its malodorous, toxicity dissolved, its essence cleansed, and restored to reusable material fit for production, consumption and profit.
“Chronics, wheelers and vegetables” are the inhuman labels patients are reduced to, and they who are subjected to routine punishment, interrogation, humiliation, and segregation which Their treatment exemplifies Foucault’s thesis concerning penal systems, and their tendency to individualize treatment, and hold each accountable for his own crimes, disease or dysfunction. The “Outside” (Kesey’s capital letters) refers to sameness, requires conformity and “being in line, where as being “Inside” is an indication of individuality, difference, and the potential threat to the sameness outside. The Outside represents productivity and survival of society. The Inside contains the variables which could weaken the outside system, disrupt the codes of conduct, and upset the pattern. Subjugation is achieved through objectification.
“ “You men are in this hop…because of your proven inability to adjust to society…in the company of others…is therapeutic, while every minute spent brooding alone only increases your separation.” “ ( Kesey p158)
Kesey, like Bataille and Misrach, employs metaphors, degrees of ‘speech” and specifically designates language as witness, detective and victim in the crime and justice of humanity, to call out the human and inhuman, justice and injustice, poverty and wealth, power and weakness. It is not a search to separate opposites or declare what Foucault calls “binary or bilateral” differences, but to engage in a discourse that genuinely attempts to open “what Bataiile refers to as dyads” , and sort out myth, fiction, experience and truths. A disassembly for the purpose of reassembling.
Kesey like Foucault, Laport, and other exhibit how power and weakness are interchangeable, how the relation between subject and sovereign, power or life, immobility is weakness, or death. Kesey’s cast of mismatched men and hideous hospital personnel, reveals how hierarchies and judgements are constructed and torn down, how rituals buttress ideas which support a particular sovereignty, establishing routines and instilling habits, and finally how waste remains as our mortal dowry to spend, and our inheritance to pass on.
Kesey examines the nature of waste, that which is “de-formed”, formless, shifting in its form, indefinable. With this metaphor for all of humanity he acknowledges and recognizes the circular nature of life, and counters “man’s” attempts to straighten it out, to mask the putrid stink of flesh and excrement. This waste which may be the only remnant of our existence, as we claw our way out of graves daily, push our brooms to avoid horror and silently learn through humility our true nature.
The metaphor of “man” as mechanized is at the core of In the novel by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The patients and staff in this sinister setting are all cogs in gears that are only loosened, set in motion, by the grime and grease.
Bataille’s lusty lot in The Story of the Eye can only perpetuate erotica with contact and humid, sticky fluids, which free mobility. Beauty in Misrach’s desert pictures is moistened by gloss of color. As authors, these “sovereigns”, seem to possess an all-seeing eye, with which to dominate the subject matter, the reader, and the experience of the words and images they wish to control and possess.
Dominque Laporte ‘s History of Shit spells out specifically that garbage is gainful, trash is treasure, and shit supports our stock market. This theory seems like far flung dung, but Bataille, Misrach, Douglas, Strasser, Hoy and many others who have scavenged through society’s second hand stories, rubbish bins, junkyards, waste pits, and disposal sites to look at humanity through its waste, concur.
These authors have removed their rose colored glasses, accepted certain blind spots and visual limitations, and come to terms with their own ambivalence about mortality. They have discard popular notions which scent truth like air fresheners and other soapy solutions, to ask questions, probe and record the inconsistencies, and minutiae of the everyday dirt of life, and to peel off the old skin and present the imperfect perfection of humanity.
The excess and detritus we collect, separate, and remove from our home, life and our world cannot eliminate or expunge our impending death, nor cannot explain and expose the unknowns we fear. We need to really look at our shit to awaken our awareness, so as to confront our own return to the dung heap, and admit our inevitable return from whence we came. We can choose to regard our excess as a kind of currency, a golden opportunity to reverse our thinking, and perhaps even find some redemption there.
We owe a great deal to dirt in whatever form it comes, not only for the growing things it births, and the foundation it provides for the construction of shelter and home, but for what it tells us about ourselves.
Informe: Searching the Pockets of Georges Bataille
Alex Rheault Fall 2003
Georges Bataille experiments and plays with knowledge through his poetic excess and adaptation of the everyday, in a game of thought for thought’s sake. Bataille problematizes his own vociferous readings of human paradox through informe, his modus operandi disguised in a slippery slope of ambiguity and change, a disassembling of humanity and its tendencies, rituals, and fixations, which begin with me, myself, and I. To be or not to be is the thinking(sinking) man’s question, the question of the day, the question Joe Blo is still asking. The enigma of informe is bait, fodder, and grist still today, as it acts as and represents the self-reflexive dialogue we simultaneously crave and spit out. Embedded in it are reflected personal issues, crises d’identite, our desire-masked-as-need-to-know, and our restless dissatisfaction with the impenetrable non-answers to our endless questions of existence, of life.
Bataille reflects back to us a burning curiosity we have about self, that leads to self-absorption, an overreaching that blinds and wounds. These can be traced particularly in our responses to “things” abject and ecstatic, as well as our dependence on “objectivity”, which Bataille wrestles and caresses in his essay Erotisme. Informe un/works Bataille’s writing, doing and undoing his critique of human activity, spinning and unraveling fictitious yarns, probing mind, body, and spirit. Bataille was ahead (a head) of his time, difficult, and parasitic. The injuriousness of his work resulted in open wounds in beginning in the 1920’s and which smart even now. Deep cuts of Bataille/informe have altered art, criticism, literature, and thinking, for which he/it has been punished and praised, noticed and ignored, though mostly the former for his/its badassness. Bataille’s intentional, personal prick-liness has made it difficult for many to embrace him/it, whereas respect for men like Freud and Lacan has been kept well lit and stoked by his fiery furnace. Informe stains the work of Mike Kelley and Rosalind Krauss (with Yve-Alain Bois, who are particularly involved in similar cover-ups, expulsions and exposure of Bataille.
Many thinkers’s works (Michel Serres, Mike Kelley, Adam Phillips, Julia Kristeva) incorporate the everyday in their practice as form, content, and context for experimentation and creative processes, to weed through the messiness of life, thought, and humanity, as Bataille did. Inventiveness, spontaneity, and passion are shared essentials, though motivation and outcomes differ infinitely. Diverse uses of the everyday separate and unite Bataille and his contemporaries as they seek to undefine, redefine, or non-define the rules/non-rules of creation, generation, and culture. Bataille lives on the edge of thought, and pinches bits from the crème de la crème of Thought (Freud, Shakespeare, Hegel, Plato, Newton, are some examples); he critiques the views from his precipitous margins and obsesses on those views he holds responsible for the crisis of his own lifetime, personal and political. Exchange and activity are the arenas where the Bataille/informe duo parasitically play, prey, and meditate, rummaging around; we experience “their” activity like an impenetrable storm of human debris.
Informe is relevant now as it offers a pessimism and a healthy dose of nausea to arouse our most antagonistic nature, to turn our eyes towards a humanity we cannot stomach. It is a powerful reminder that we cannot know everything, we cannot control everything, we cannot be everything. Bataille stretches and displaces boundaries of existence through social discharge, effluent of human excess, fractured ideology and behavior on which the magnetic ink of informe morphs. It leaks and leaves residues as knowns and unknowns of existence collide.
Perhaps we should examine Bataille’s curt Documents dictionary entry on informe. He writes: “is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form.” 1 He chastises academia’s reliance on “shape”, or appearance, especially since it is true that “knowledge” comes from both spontaneous and haphazard sources as much as from well researched and tried ones. He exhibits how both knowledge and experience are critical social currency. He ruminates on why we accept some things as true, while denying others, and exposes the instability of “knowledge”; it is fickle, malleable, calculated, impossibly spontaneous all at once. Knowledge as a significant social measure possesses strengths and weaknesses that shift arguments’ weight and humans’ fate, often giving in to social need and desire.
Informe is Bataille’s simultaneous genius and (idiot)idiocy, worming its legless way through Bataille’s verbal labyrinths and intellectual landscape, transcending thought, experience, need, desire, and all manner of structure, often switching from the guise of the abject (that which horrifies), to the sacred (that which brings ecstasy). Bataille inverts the abject and sacred through informe’s unpredictable presence and absence within his texts and ideas to show our endless love/hate affair with ourselves, and with humanity, to further explode/implode the idea that self-knowledge is balm for our existential wounds.
Informe furthers his social critique through its unfamiliarity, its unrecognizibleness; he insists it will get itself squashed everywhere. 2 Bataille concludes with a paradox. He writes that the affiliation of something with “nothing” makes as much or as little sense as its opposite. In this way, Bataille uses reversions and inversions to consternate, befuddle, and challenge. Informe slips through the cracks of language, of knowledge and experience, of academia, much to his delight and others’ chagrin. Informe is an accomplice to his attacks against society’s privileging of homogeneity, evident in art, politics, and other social spheres, and the collision of those worlds.
Bataille’s simultaneous choosiness is obviated by his insistence on traditional topics of academia, which were of course hip particularly in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Bataille goes for the academic jugular vein of his era: Picasso, Fascism, sociology, and other beloved subjects. Bataille exhibits his own favoritism, and inclinations, and eccentric decline towards the polemic. Mythology, folk lore, and legends loop facts and morals into cultural noise and contextual sites for the social orchestrations Bataille critiques and invents, and which also fall prey to his handiwork and informe. It all boils down to a critique of thought. Bataille actively and passively contributed to much of the retooling of writing and art, and today the dialogue and debates continue, even thrive.
Bataille’s Jules Verne-esque dives into the depths and shallows of thought and being, vastness of travel that ends nowhere and begins everywhere, sloping sloppy worlds anxiously devoid of destiny, simultaneously hinged on multiple destinies, and schizophrenically rushing between the two, are what keep many intrigued still, and others at arm’s length or further. It depends on how seriously we take him, and ourselves. What image are we willing to relinquish, what reputation can we let slide? What is the cost of risk, Bataille rhetorically asks and pseudo-answers in his pseudo theory-theme “Erotisme.”
Bataille sacrifices personal and political drama, material with which to aggravate as much as inspire a public, one-sided dialogue-monologue about ideas, thought, belief, inspiration, process. It is the fires he sets which invite debate and dialogue. He offends with casualness that seems mean-spirited. Today, one might be tempted to psychologize Bataille and show that in his work he projects his own insecurities, comically/tragically. In his lunatic zeal he puts paradoxes of everyday beliefs and social concerns on the chopping block; he cuts everything we are, think we are, aren’t, could be, could not be, into a thousand pieces. He uses catastrophic repetition, unthinkable hyperbole, and vile details to gross us out, to keep us glued to his words (his mouth).
Bataille mocks himself under the guise of social critique, perhaps, in a self-reflexive pseudo-everything and nothing war of universes, an intergalactic drama he plays out in his head, in books, and from a podium. (Universe, the great expanse of Unknowing, the U in verse becomes “You in verse” [you in words] or you inverse (inverted), which is the “mirror” image me.) Bataille points to the unsettling, self-image shattering paradox of experience of looking at one’s reflection, the profundity, the vanity and the dumbness there in his grotesque house of mirrors. He seems to poke at the simplest of acrobats, the mime. This surrogate search for self performed by a mute entertainer and hinged on Frenchness, is dependent on the visual in its blind patting down of an invisible mirror image, silencing verbal expression, while hands fret and search in a thin air entombment, and the mime’s face only returns mind-numbing emotional exaggeration, a going-nowhere paste-on grimace/smile. Informe could penetrate and infect such a stagnant swamp.
The inebriants Bataille procures lubricate us to a point of drunken mind slur, sickened release, or a heightened mania. As we will soon see, informe negates and validates a vertical society, which Bataille insists must lie down. His liquid language is drug enough to initiate a fall, a fainting. He does not deny his own complicity in the deliverance/delivery of social anaesthetics prevalent then and now. Language and critique are the vast/limited territories he moves through, cloaked in authorship, incognito as informe, he elevates/lowers language, forces the reader up/down with verbal venom, spirited filth, brazen irony, numbing theories, a frenzied coitus intellectus. Bataille critiques the world as much as he feels critiqued by it. He bends rules; he recycles and solders them into new ones. He couples everyday rants with critical rhetoric, meandering, fixating, obsessing on a character, idea, or topic, the coals he rakes and douses for the reader. His risk-taking has its advantages and disadvantages, but he shows courage under his brazen, impetuous, maddeningly changing exterior. Plus ca change plus c’est al meme chose.
Momentary biographical and expositional scaffolds may actually destablize rather than contextually support the man, Georges Bataille, his enigmatic informe and prevailing concept of erotisme.3 I fear the piling of gossip and factoids poached from Denis Hollier and Allan Stoekl (two leading scholars of Bataille) will exacerbate the wounding nature of Bataille, and that to historicize and preface informe will do little to assuage doubt, skepticism and incredulity. Nor will the effort demystify this enigma of informe.
Born in 1897 (France), Georges Bataille completed his studies as a medievalist and worked from 1922 to 1942 as a librarian at the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris. 4 During the twenties, Bataille published articles in various art publications, and write his first novels (W.C. and Blue of Noon) before he founding the journal Documents in 1929, where Bataille fought many of his intellectual battles. (Bataille’s name means battle. His life and work are a battleground, a land of battle, a struggle for life, writing and life are food for thought. He seems committed to bring opposites together in war and love. The big toe, flowers, fascism, Gnosticism, architecture, and secret societies are among some of the everyday material and grist for his mill. Bataille brings Hegel, Nietzsche, Engels, Breton, Freud, Durkheim, and many others into his critique of the “architecture” of human existence, society, and its constructs, and exposes attempts to control time and space, its rules and its authority. In this year (some say 1928) he published his first and most recognized novel, Histoire de l’oeil, in which we experience break downs of society’s hierarchies, of the human mind and body, of identity in an unabashedly grotesque and carnivalesque tale of an adventure that goes everywhere and nowhere. “I” tells the story of passive aggressive encounters with a pseudo-sexual partner, Simone, and discloses details of their illicit/permissive, unifying/isolating, satisfyingly dissatisfactory activity. Bataille unfurls attraction and repulsion between men and women through compression and distension in his torturous tale.
The thirties were a time of prolific intellectual activity for Bataille. In 1935 Bataille created Contra-Attaque with Andre Breton (a simultaneous friend and foe of Bataille’s), and in 1936 he established Acephale, a “secret society”, that published some of Bataille’s essays like “The Practice of Joy Before Death”, which blurs of boundaries between the personal and political, (a prevailing context in contemporary work as well, which many feminist thinkers are linked with). Bataille demystified of humanity as he feverishly as he planted the seeds for new mythologies, and grew new views on politics, art, science and religion. 5
In 1937, he established the “Le College de Sociologie” with Roger Callois and Michel Leiris. Sarte, Benjamin, Levis-Strauss were a few of the guest speakers amongst a group of regulars discussing issues of power, war, social behavior, ritual and so on. “Attraction and Repulsion” (I and II), “The Structure of Democracies”, and “Sacred Sociology of a Contemporary World” are a few of Bataille’s titles. Bataille and his colleagues debated topics, which still burn our TV screens, brains, and society today. These men publicly challenged the status quo, bringing in some new methods of inquiry forward through their intellectual rigors, but often trailing dingleberries of the past, which dangle from the butts of their arguments. Bataille and the others disbanded as the participants began to find disagreement disagreeable. Differences of opinion and method split the group and closed the College. Individual dogma and anti-dogma-dogma were not able to co-exist or give each other room, so failure resulted in wounds, endless open sores.
Erotisme is Bataille’s most acclaimed essay, and in it he tidies and untidies society, deodorizes its stinky, cadaverous history, contrasts and expands the circle of existence as we know it. Bataille looks at “us” through his discourse on the now hip term identity, by investigating human experts’s observations of rituals and the everyday rummaged from history, sociology, the supernatural, science, law, and religion. He recycles voyeuristic peeks into social rhythms to support/break down his pseudo-theory, erotisme. 6 His theory, according to his translators, Hollier and Stoekl, suggests that human existence is contingent on human exchange and necessitates excess for its circuitous continuity.
Our activity, our exchanges, whether physical, emotional, spiritual, or other, require substitutions, sacrifices, movement, and particularly, excesses, which inherently abound in nature and life. The cycling of expenditure simultaneously makes life possible and eliminates it, making room for future existence. Bataille brings together and takes apart many aspects of activity where exchange and expenditure are most visible, and yet where social devices such as religion and law attempt to mask differences and create artificial ones. Social constructs and systems, Bataille asserts, mirror the glossy differences between needs and wants, the blinding paradoxes there, and their voluntarily and involuntarily exchanges, misreading, and misdirection.
Bataille serves up academia, complete with apple in the mouth, seasoned with things piquant. For example, Bataille’s ruminations on inhibitions demand inclusion of the sexual, as well, Bataille offers a begrudged mention of Freud (who seems to have stolen the limelight for the idea of inhibitions). Bataille’s sense of obligation to his readers is evident in the supply of facts or information, sourced from those who he vehemently opposes yet continues to quote and discuss, such as Durkheim, Freud and Hegel. Bataille wants to have a free and untethered exchange, yet is bound by his academic yearnings, ambiguous criteria, controlling behavior, and the splits within his own mind. He is torn by his need to write, to think to talk, to express himself, and the limits of scholarship, books, words, and acquired knowledge. He avails himself of all of the tools he can, but is often his own worst enemy in an exchange with himself, stingy, abrupt, short-sheeting. He circles in his personal demonstration of exchange and life.
Bataille frequently repositions himself in his writing, his affiliation and relationship with others, a strategy, and spontaneous source of his discourse and dilemma. He introduces boundaries as limiting and limitless, useful and useless. Informe is his model for the self-contradictory nature needs and wants and how society builds itself around a shifting balance, changing exchange. Coded activity and social modality are the irksome “formlessness” of society Bataille counters, smothers and rescues from his own brand of informe. Bataille spells out what it is to “be”, as part of a non-negotiable/negotioable existence.
Bataille’s conundrum perhaps is experienced in his own shifting malcontent and total dependence on the cerebral, the intellectual and particularly aspects and effects of form-ality; he seems perpetually addicted to and repelled by these. Like many modernists of his time, inquisition is both a coercive and experimental experience. Curiosity bridges and creates gaps. We learn to unlearn; we unlearn to learn. His fluctuation between extremes is inherently reflective of Bataille’s own patterns, his order and chaos.
Informe’s place in all of this is seen most obviously in the transgressive nature of his work, the unseemly pairings (remnants and couplings) of licentious debauchery and sacrilegious absurdity present in his fiction, particularly Madame Edwarda (underground and limited edition novel published first in 1941 and 1945), as well as his most gfamous work, Histoire de l’oeil. 7 The animal and social, the abject and absurd, science and fiction, erotics and philiosophy, even Bataille and Hegel, are all married in shotgun weddings, to shock our intelligence into stupidity, to counter deny ambivalence, to breathe the new/old life of informe into every corner of the mind, heart, and soul. Bataille likens a prostitute to God, which surfaces the abundance of flagrant contradictions protected and processed under the guise of the sacreligious.
The sacred, like law, has unbending rules, but changes its mind when convenient. Therefore, contingency limits its ultimate authority or range of motion, and Bataille is more than pleased to point that out.
“I say of Madame Edwarda that she is GOD. But GOD figured as a public whore and gone crazy —that, viewed through the optic of ‘philosophy’, makes no sense at all.” (p155)
In this piece, Bataille combines the risks he is willing to take with language, meaning, and public response. He aggressively attacks the “foundation” of many people’s existence, raison d’etre or purpose. He has gendered and maternalized GOD, a loaded gesture to evidence the inevitable exchange of labels, which displace and install “meaning”, motivation and context. For example, Bataille’s choice to feminize God could be viewed by some as his own projection of maternal issues and further reveal his rejection of, devotion to, and abandonment of Catholicism. He could be seen as a sensational literary agent, feminist-misogynist, blasphemous pervert; perhaps Bataille wants to show that some recognition or attention is better than none, and who are we to judge? (Another wink at the way we “see” and don’t “see”.) Bataille reconfigures GOD as woman and prostitute; he destabilizes and attacks on thousands of years of wisdom, to show Christianity’s instability, its monumental architectural facades and he subverts its reliance on what it rules Divine. Bataille rudely pokes fun at religious belief to bring out its carnivalesque nature, it illogical, unscientific, pseudo-spirituality, its ambiguities and anthropocentrism. Of course, he offends many average believers in his piece, and countless followers worldwide who will probably never hear his side of the story. This attack on religion seemed timely then, and even more timely now, as religion continues to divide, conquer and torture people, diminishing trust rather than instilling it in people, serving up cruelty and lopsided judgement rather than generosity of spirit. Bataille’s mad worlds only reiterates what exists, but the representations are too bold, too real. Bataille’s pseudo-feminist side becomes visible and emerges when he points to our ambivalence towards women, their role in society, their presence in our lives, and the undeniable biological necessity they represent. Inversions of this sort are Bataille’s trademark (or Hawthornian birthmark, you cannot bear its sight but cannot stop staring at it), informe at work, buried under the grotesque mask of the abject, the sensuous, and the absurd. Once again, Bataille asserts that we betray ourselves with our rules, our stories, our inhibitions, our notions, our language, our judgement. We project our inner most fears in the form of complaints, protests, and prejudices. It is a working formula, which will eventually root out needs and desires, personal and political. What you “see” is what you didn’t want to get.
Bataille eugologizes and insults ecclesiology, sociology, psychology, theory, even art. But he is also defining his great love, admiration, and need for them. Bataille insists that we need not look at remote tribes for information about how and why we think and do, and he traces the rituals of daily life to achieve the same goal, and set a precedence for authors and artists to follow. He generates theory from theory, art from art, writing from writing. He influenced decades of writers, artists, theorists to follow, but as I mentioned, he scorched himself in the process, burning bridges, he created gaps, which others filled in. In Erotisme, his essay “The Object of Desire: Prostitution” follows one titled “Christianity”, where he writes, “But the most constant characteristic of the impulse I have called transgression is to make order out of what is essentially chaos. By introducing transcendence into an organized world, transgression becomes a principle of an organized disorder.” 8 Bataille implies that what we use to eliminate, label or modify our exchanges, our lives, actually strengthen the experience of opposites, heighten our awareness of otherness. In Erotisme, Bataille illustrates how dividing things between sacred and profane creates artificial contingencies or boundaries. We believe that somehow we can overcome death, violence, disease, and malice by associating ourselves with purity and God, by adhering to strict codes of behavior, and thereby removing ourselves from danger. Bataille suggests we only worsen our condition and deepen the complications of our lives through our avoidance and denials. We cannot prolong or prevent our inevitable demise or brush with illness, evil or the other.9
In his essay on prostitution Bataille writes, “Prostitution seems to have been simply a complement to marriage…her whole life was dedicated to violating the taboo.” 10 There is detectible misogyny within Bataille’s pseudo-feminist rhetoric; he blurs edges. His own ambivalence is evident.11 We experience women’s convenience or inconvenience factor through their occupation, or co-occupation of time and space, Bataille seems to attest their presence in his yea/nea subversion of the arguments for and against rights. Bataille loads his female characters with extrasexual power/impotence illustrated though clichés of nymphomania, or hysteria, ”secondary or lesser sex” status, the horror and fascination with pussies, and other prejudiced stereotypical complaints/devices/arguments. Bataille’s introduction of the personal as political and visa versa must have had some impact on feminist art, theory, and practices, though he has not been explicitly cited for his misogyny.
It is obvious to point out that women are still demonized and objectified, oversexualized/undersexualized in grotesque portrayals. Bataille is perhaps rejected as having contributed anything, because he “behaved” so badly in the eyes of others, and people cannot get past his crimes. Bataille’s work seems more appropriate than ever in the current climate where pornography is a multimillion, if not billion dollar industry, which has infected the Internet and caused debates about freedom of speech. Why scapegoat him, when we are insulted daily by talking heads on the news and in advertising? We are scapegoats, too. (There are no ads for male “hygiene” products, but women are reminded daily to wash and “freshen up” to get that “clean feeling”.). As cliché as it is to say, there are always individual and collective scapegoats used to repel and cover personal horror of the abject, and those scapegoats are pawns in a Darwinian game of survival, proving that our efforts towards democracy and fairness are overruled by needs and wants.
Informe acts as the catalyst for Bataille to slip in and out of binary ruts in stories such as Madame Edwarda and Histoire De L’Oeil. He scapegoats everyone including himself. Informe is scumbled into concoctions of drippy sex, botched violence, stupid sentimentality and rained on dirt-soiled portraits. For example, in Histoire de l’oeil, when “I” and Simone go to rescue Marcelle from a psychatric hospital, “I” notices Marcelle’s bed sheet hanging, blowing in the wind from out of her open window with a huge stain that glistens in the light. The image of the bed sheet is informe, but so are its cacophonous representations: its sirening of pleasure idolized, a childish giggle about masturbation being fatally wounding, blinding joined with religious rhetoric against self-maintenance, self-gratification. The bed sheet becomes emblematic, an enormous banner of bed-wetting, masturbation taboo, a poster about airing dirty laundry and many other social and linguistic cliché’s and layered meaning. Its meaning is performance, that is informe. Bataille stitches the meanings and uses together onto a simple white cloth, billowing in the dark, a beacon of moving white light, chaotic, wet and dry, stained and white, pure and impure, symbolic of excess and survival, need and want, this white woven cotton fabric suddenly has a life of its own, limited and limitless. Informe!
Bataille’s theories and writings, especially informe, have not only survived decades of rejection, some acceptance and tons of debate, but even managed to survive. Most recently, Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois collaborated on an exhibit and catalogue they title Formless: A User’s Guide.12 In this book-show, they combine many aspects of Bataille’s informe while critiquing it and highlighting artists, they have matched/unmatched with informe. From well-known Surrealists and Futurists, who loosely represent Bataille’s era to contemporary artists like Mike Kelley, who has sourced Bataille in his work, Formless, according to the dynamic duo, is an attempt to sift the past and right any wrongs, correct misleading information and readings of art, and invite informe to share in the present and advance to the future. Bataille’s intertwining of sex and death is clichéd here as much as he is accredited for informe, discussion of the abject, and his social critiques, which inform and influence not only the way Bois and Krauss think and write, but many others since Bataille. Formless is a theoretical pas-par-tout, a social registry/art catalogue/who’s who organized in a non-A to Zed linear/non-linear progression. It fakes chronology, touts criticism with a large capital “C”, as it waters down Bataille’s sensational flavour, reducing its spice, by adding saccharine idealism, and cloyingly coy gestures to prod and taunt informe. “Formless” is a “job”, they assert, using Hollier’s translation.
Bois-Krauss commingle Bataille’s Documents entry “Abattoir” and unpublished “Jeu Legubre” with new kicky titles like “X Marks the Spot’ and “Yo-Yo”, and intersperse these with academic-poetic sounding ones like “Qualities (Without)” and “Destiny of The Informe”. (Notice that informe is reduced or relegated to a “subject”; though perhaps its potential has not been diminished by this dynamic duo, but rather increased, it is also an adjective or “task”.) Sight is as good as the person using it, visibility is as good as the person’s sight, and the view will also be contingent on the person and the sight. Bois-Krauss give Bataille a sideways glance and ask, ”Are we really willing to accept all of informe’s definitions and non-definitions, undefinablity or unwillingness to be trapped by the dictionary. Are we only willing to accept a fraction of its potential and discard the rest as bunk, stupidity? Are we willing to buy their version since they are well educated, well known, well heeled, well versed?”
The catalogue “reads” on many levels, as with Bataille’s work: here as dry, impenetrable highbrow academic work of two aesthetes, using, continuing, and competing with Bataille. What would an earnest continuation of informe and Bataille’s discourses look like, and would anyone know the difference? These art specialists are giving Bataille, especially informe, a make-over (a hard time), and introduce an imposter, formless, which poses as informe. In this way, Krauss-Bois legitimize the expense and labor required to make an exhibit and publish a gussied up paperback. Bois-Krauss collect and show old and new work in this paper gallery, bringing artists together, who have been “denied” their rightful affiliation with Bataille and informe. Bois-Krauss’s pseudo-generous gesture is more of an elitist, old school gathering of mostly white European and American male heavyweights (Picasso, Duchamp, Twombly, Warhol, Morris, etc) predominantly loaded in paint. Lygia Clark and Cindy Sherman (the only women whose work is photographically reproduced) are thrown in with mentions of a few others to add the minimum obligatory female presence.(Were there no other women who might have made the grade, or are they following Bataille’s tendency to ignore-use them?) Bataille would roll in his grave at the thought of having to keep company with the likes of Dali, and yet it keeps his name and informe working overtime. Bois-Krauss make use of the catalogue to their take on Bataille’s movements, thoughts and writing with an accounting of the movements, thoughts and writing which followed his time. At times Bois-Krauss seem genuinely interested in discussing Bataille, at others Bataille gets squashed all over the place. Is “Formless” a museum-ready registry, cataloguing of “lost” theory, the deformation of poetic and witty appropriation of a mad genius, or a sadistic poke in Bataille’s eye with a sharp stick? Who’s to say? So Bataille is buried and exhumed simultaneously in their riotous-not event.
The work of Mike Kelley also incorporates, explores, and spews informe. It is redundant to point out that supposedly Bataille and Kelley “share” conflicts with Catholicism, childhoods shrouded in doubt and unsavory characters, joy of the pseudo, the stand-in, the pacifier-shaker-up-er: the intellectual, emotional, and physical realms, pluralism, the similarity in their boisterous creativity, intellectual rigor, use of systems and non-systems, social critique, fascination with the phenomenological, poetic prowess etc. Kelley’s plurality, obsessions, use/misuse of the everyday, and inclusion of informe are some of an endless litany of what Kelley include and excludes in his many practices. Kelley’s diagrammatical sketching, lists and doodles function as process and products, part of Kelley’s system/non-system. Pseudo-structures and pseudo-constructions, which seem integral to both Bataille and Kelley’s work, are the substitutes which aren’t substitutes, but things in and of themselves, defying identification, also compromise hegemonies of literature, art criticism, and theory. Kelley asserts that the function of things changes within context, but forced into new uses, expand and contract meaning, commodfiying the uncommodifiable, inverting our experience of objects and our perceptions of our exchange. Our categories become powerless to play. When Kelley builds structures, they serve to knock down others. For example, the re-construction of a school basement, the amassing of plush toys, the postering of infantile preoccupations, punk music, and scatological performances all point to a multi-layering of everything and nothing, the personal and the political, Bataille and trash, art, and theory. Kelley neither absconds the labels, which critics have already pasted over his name and his work, nor dematerializes the influence of those “readings” or misreadings. He continues to challenge them and himself by reinventing “Mike Kelley’s” work. He takes off his “painter’s” hat and puts on his “art critic” bowler. He substitutes “I” for “we” and vice versa. Collaborations counter the “idea” of Mike Kelley, artist. Inversions are useful to toy with time and space as much as with attitudes and perceptions.
Kelley beguiles and deeply wounds very much in the spirit of Bataille. Books on Kelley until now have either avoided this connection, ignored it or didn’t know of Bataille (even though this seems impossible). Kelley is painfully aware that critics “psychologize” him, and he subverts their links to Freud by brushing them off as mere intellectual masturbation on their part, that his work is not so simply explained, and yet is simpler than what they think or write. He overwrites their writing, graffiti style, by publishing his own theory, his self-theory. In the variety of exchanges with ”themselves”, others, and even one another (who says the dead don’t talk, or talk back) Bataille and Kelley expend energy to simultaneously cancel and demonstrate evidence of it. This is informe, it insinuates itself into every opportunity, every body, every thought, every deed.
Language, particularly labels and names, the words “for” things/”against” things), are unable to satisfy the insecurity we suffer, logic we crave, what could be a salve (salvation) for an impossible, impenetrable world. Kelley’s interest in the intellectual and the material, the sensual and the spiritual, the available and the unknowable obviate how Bataille has influenced not only Kelley but a whole generation of artists, poets, musicians, filmmakers etc. Bataille generally goes unnoticed, or unnamed. But perhaps this is a preferable position, for in the end there is more debate, more words exchanged, more energeries used to include and exclude informe, Bataille, and Kelley, among theorists and makers, who have already been given medals and recognition. Bataille and Kelley have the appeal and charisma of snake charmers and vaudevillian barkers, more fun and easier to celebratize than a stodgy and stern patriarchal Freud. It is always interesting to see who society wishes to remember and who it wishes to forget or ignore. Once acceptance has put her mark, the coffin is closed, until re-exhumed (resumed) again. Freud may remain society’s analyst for a while longer, but will he ever be able to escape that intellectual prison that history has built? To add insult to injury, someone like Freud has become less employable in a society of people who prefer sensational reality TV, juicy tabloid tidbits, gooey fast food, and cheesy porn to analysis. These cost less, don’t carry the stigma of illness (yet), and are easily available at the corner store.
The desacralizing/deboning/despining of culture, the de-psychologizing of emotion, the de-intellectualizing of thought, the de-socializing of society, the de-activating of activity are all informe, ways Bataille, Kelley, and others have put the human back into humanity. Call it like it is, not. The exigency of calling, of vocation, is not rational nor can it be rationalized. Therefore, it works outside of the common systems of exchange we rely on, which makes it difficult to grasp, impossible to hold on to, and cannot meet our neediness or dependence. These thinkers ask us to clear out the cobwebs in our toy chests, or dust off the polished exterior of history, and sniff the scent of our own sweat, the fruits of labor, and the essence of a body alive and decaying simultaneously. We must join the impenetrable storm of human debris, which is us; we must join and divide the “I” and the “we”, experience continuously discontinuously, that is informe.
Barthes and Newman by Alex Rheault Fall 2002
Barthes writes,” it is extremely difficult to vanquish myth from the inside…” and suggests “the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth…Since myth robs something of language, why not rob myth/” (p135 Barthes)
Some of the greatest myths can be found in the so-called art world. It is interesting to ponder how we have come to believe what we do about art, artists, the history of art and the volumes of accepted theory, and art criticism.
What are the origins of the myths of art and art practice, and who perpetuates these myths? If an artist makes something unfamiliar, surprising, how will we be able to read this work? How do we evaluate how and what the artist is saying, expressing? And who invents the guidelines that will translate the work ?
Often artists have not made their thoughts about their own work available, were not asked, or died too soon. If artists don’t articulate about their work, they leave themselves and their work vulnerable, exposed. If artists choose not to speak about their work in order to “leave things open”, a writer may contribute “inaccuracies” in his critique.
General and personal perception can be challenged, altered and “mythified.” The reasons are many. Perhaps the fear or concern is that the work will be “lost” if not catalogued and inaccessible to others if not translated. So, the language of words, the perceptual replaces or overlays that of the visual, the conceptual.
Writers will address the work using their own artspeak to express their theories and comments about art, but to whom are they speaking? The public vetting will shape the future of such work. The judgements are colored by preconditioned belief systems.
Our conscious thoughts are not immune and are influenced if not informed by myths and values culturally held. The artist’s Language, iconography, conceptual and formal properties may reference other art or other elements personal or universal. The art world will read the symbols and determine its validity based on its own standards. They will promote the work accordingly.
Newman and Richter put Language to work both visually and verbally, to engage viewers, to experience something themselves. It was necessary for them to verbally defend their visual texts, to prevent the narrow standards from eradicating their intent.These valiant efforts challenge and temporarily succeed at thwarting the efforts of critics to name and catalogue their work, and these two, though separated by twenty-seven years, Gerhard Richter and Barnett Newman guard their autonomy, defend their freedoms.
Newman doesn’t “consider himself in terms of labels” (p248 Newman) and Richter is “against movements and terminology”, claiming “all these categories are basically just restrictions placed on art-it’s a way of domesticating it, making it accessible.” (p72 Richter).
These two painters struggle to unhinge at every turn the aesthetic machine, uncover the veils of perception woven by critics, and divest themselves of the verbal straight-jackets forced on them by ideologically insatiable art world. Richter attempts to placate or anesthetize some with his clearly contradictory statements and posturing: “my art is Informel” or “I am a Surrealist” (p37 Richter). A kind of –finger-in-the ears response, tongue out. Na, na.
Newman hopes that his contradictions will fend off the nagging questions and confining labeling for a while. “I said “I’ll paint something so I’ll have something to look at” and sometimes I said “I write so I’ll have something to read.” (p257 Newman)
I think Richter knows what he is saying and writing; he says” Language can only express what language enables it to express. Language is the only language of consciousness. ‘What one cannot say, one does not know.’ That is why all theory is absolutely circumscribed, almost unusable, but always dangerous.” (p182 Richter)
Newman insists that “one must say what one means, and mean what one says”. So it depends on who’s“talking” and why. What is the “agenda”.
If language is so malleable, volatile and up to interpretation, how can anyone be sure of what one is “hearing”, thus how do we gauge what we perceive as ‘right”. I think that Richter and Newman are champions of the think for yourself-school, disengaging Critics, and they reinforce the idea that maybe one mustn’t rely only on what others say or write, they may be making things up as they go along. Richter does at times.
Newman and Richter are intolerant of the judgemnts and ill-advised statements made about them. They respond to judgement with their own brand of judgement and commentary, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. They are both passionate, determined, stubborn and steadfast. They are very capable and address the issues they feel they want to address, nothing more nothing less.
Richter and Newman give the interviewer what the interviewer gives them. It relates in a circular fashion to what they are doing with paint. Newman and Richter maintain an ethereal quality, keeping a safe distance from the strategies the critics are digging for, and staying close to remain vigilant.
Richter, for example, answers that money is the motivation to go on painting (p239 Richter). Newman claims that the first man was an artist. Their riddles, ambiguities and contradictions play themselves out, and even though both Richter and Newman denude themselves as much as the artist who says nothing, they continue to respond.
Newman and Richter will not rest when it comes to their autonomy, freedom and defiantly maintain a personal sense of justice. They are artists after all! Newman likens art to a “miracle” and Richter believes art is not “visible nor definable”, both almost cryptic, and sublime.
Yve-Alain Bois, who writes about Newman’s work, exemplifies the result of myth upon myth by a writer, not in defense of the art, but perhaps for something more sinister, as I see it. Yve-Alain Bois’s impressive volume of essays on artists positions Newman after Mondrian. Interesting since Newman was loathe to speak well of Mondrian, insisting that his work was based on pragmatic ideology and specific methods, geometry.
Newman is determined to resist the attachment of these to his work, which he denies as “abstract”. How then did Bois label the section where “perceiving Newman” falls as “Abstraction II”?
Furthermore, Bois and his colleagues publish miniaturized black and white images of Newman’s work, mudding the color, fragmenting the fields, reducing “human sense of scale” (p190 Newman) to a postage stamp, and diminishing Newman’s giant contributions. Bois furthers his derobing of Newman by analysing the work in terms of color (Newman is contradictory about color in the discussion of his work, I think he does not want to be referred to as a ‘colorist”), symmetry and geometry, and even compares him to Mondrian. Bois omits the word “human” when he discusses Newman’s “sense of scale”(p203 Bois), restructuring Newman’s meaning. He refers to Newman’s “attempts” and delegates them as “’failures” (Bois p196).
Newman was no fool. “”My work they charge is empty of content, when what they mean is that it is empty of familiar forms and shapes. My work, they say is antiart, when what they really mean is that it is antidogma, that is the kind of stereotyped picture they expect.” (p 179 Newman) What is Bois’s purpose then in writing his piece? I think Bois is showing us the inconsistencies and “flaws” he thinks are found in Newman’s written and visual Language, to expose the weak points about it, and turnNewman’s self-defense into his own worst enemy. Bois demeanor is stiff, unrelenting and not really sensitive to Newman, or is it a disguise? It is like wearing a difficult garment inside out.
“Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”, the more it changes the more it stays the same would be is a good metaphor for the artworld.Adjust and readjust is Newman and Richter’s “still-moving” position, a solution Barthes might agree with.