A funny little video that is, like most of the posts on this blog, about reading and time.
Tag Archives: Jacques Derrida
As I wind down the project of making most of the manuscript of The Brevity of Life public in the form of a series of blog posts, in preparation for some research and writing in a different vein, I feel compelled to add to the chapters already reproduced a final postscript of sorts, which is arguably the most valuable part of the book in its historiographic function. It takes the form of an e-mail exchange that took place between July and September of 2002, initiated by me and made possible by Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas, who generously agreed to take part. I will record it in this and the next several posts, under the title “Cc…: CCC.” The “Cc” is self-evidently grounded in the structure and operation of a group e-mail exchange. “CCC” is an acronym for “complex continuing care,” the parlance commonly used in North American tertiary care centers to designate a relative level of medical intervention (relative to “acute care,” for example, or “sub-acute care”). The process of designating such levels of care involves “RIW,” short for “relative intensity weighting,” and is intimately associated with resource allocation. In the Canadian public health care system, level-of-care designations derive from an assessment of the clinical and medical supports required to treat a particular “case mix.”
The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future.
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, 1995, 18
Chiefly on the basis of the five exemplary instances they analyze [Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Derek Jarman, Herve Guibert, Aaron Shurin and Stephen Andrews], the foregoing posts make the case that in order to read what HIV/AIDS makes legible we must first of all and among other things recognize the differential temporalities inscribed in the virus and the epidemic-turned-pandemic, and likewise in their artifactual remains. The wager that underwrites The Brevity of Life is that only a labour of reading attentive to the multiple specific structures and operations of time enables a responsible reconsideration, now and henceforth, of the grave challenges with which the global crisis persists in confronting us.
In making public the exchange transcribed in the following posts, the participants ask the reader to take account of the complex temporalities that traverse it. Derek Jarman’s reflections on the difficulty of translating HIV/AIDS, whether in autobiographical or more broadly historiographical terms, onto film may help make legible here a fundamental incommensurability between the multiple temporalities of a pandemic that continues to outstrip our best efforts to make sense of what is occurring today (and what it may portend for the future) and a mode of production – in this case, electronic mail – whose impact over time remains, for us, an open question. As Derrida observes in Archive Fever,
Electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and the public or the phenomenal. It is not only a technique, in the ordinary and limited sense of the term: at an unprecedented rhythm, in quasi-instantaneous fashion, this instrumental possibility of production, of printing, of conservation, and of destruction of the archive must inevitably be accompanied by juridical and thus political transformations. 
With much at stake – psychically, socially, politically – the participants in this exchange accepted the risks entailed in the terms of a tacit contract struck first of all among themselves, but in effect with their eventual readers as well. The willingness of Gregg Bordowitz, John Greyson, Jack Lewis and Kendall Thomas to take part, in the knowledge that these virtual communications circulated initially among a handful of trusted friends and comrades in the spirit of a conversation would be transcribed and subsequently consigned to the public sphere bespeaks an extraordinary generosity, a readiness to assume the attendant burdens (among them, perhaps,a sense of vulnerability, an unaccustomed hesitancy, an unanticipated resistance to the format) for the sake of the matter at hand.
“I wonder if any of this will be remembered; probably not.” Jarman’s musing in the journal entry that serves as the epigraph to “Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s Blue, Part 1), brought to bear on e-mail communications, might translate as a kind of optimism according to which we typically assume that the electronic script on which we are increasingly reliant is invariably ephemeral, short-lived, impermanent, never fully realized – indeed, that it is bound to disappear, sooner rather than later, that it is in the process of disappearing even as we hit “Send.” Our utilization of a postal technology that seems to court oblivion opens up a certain freedom to muse, to hypothesize, to risk the kinds of formulations that may or may not stand the test of time, and do not pretend otherwise.
The participants can only hope, then, that readers of their exchange will respect the terms of the contract on which it rests, however uneasily: that the latter will assume responsibility for discerning and seeking to negotiate the variable temporalities and rhythms involved, and honour the spirit in which this joint venture was undertaken.
This partial, elliptical restoration of what remains inaudible and illegible in the lines scratched in the margins of “The First Part of the Second Half” yields the formidable task of reading Andrews reading Carson reading the scriptural account of Lazarus. At every turn, the event in question – which is not represented but figured – is a resurrection, among whose incalculable effects is an unsettling in the order and the measure of time. What Carson’s director of photography, translating and paraphrasing Rilke, terms “the flip-over moment” relegates chronological time – “Before and after” – to virtual irrelevance; hence this impossible documentary (“Our sequence”) purports to open and close with the time (“that moment”) of a singular upheaval.
The radical disordering of the time of lived experience as well as that of narrative succession leaves us with discontinuous, heterogeneous moments, each exerting a certain “pressure,” each with an again incalculable bearing on us, now.
We know the difference now
(life or death).
For an instant it parts our hearts. [Carson, 95]
The poem’s first-person plural here inscribes the reader in a claim to “know the difference” (the interposed parentheses that demarcate “life or death” signal an interruption in the unfolding of the utterance itself), a claim tied to a moment (“now”) that is of necessity itself different with every reading. And because it is impossible to determine in strictly grammatical terms whether to assign “now” to “know” or to “difference,” the difference in question may also differ from one reading to the next. For another “instant,” a time with no measurable duration, the difference “parts our hearts,” engendering a further difference, not between but within us, each of us. The effect here is perhaps akin to the disturbance that Derrida locates in Maurice Blanchot’s The Instant of My Death, which is also a remarkable (autobiographical, autothanatographical) reinscription of the Lazarus narrative.
A disturbance in the measure of time and a paradox of these instants, which are so many heterogeneous times. Neither synchrony nor diachrony, an anachrony of all instants…. There is not a single time, and since there is not a single time, since one instant has no common measure with any other because of death, by reason of death interposed, in the interruption of reason by death, so to speak, because of the cause of the death there can be no chronology or chronometry. One cannot, even when one has recovered a sense of the real, measure time. And thus the question returns, how many times: how much time? how much time? how much time? [Derrida, Demeure, 94]
The pressing question posed (how many times?), though not answered, in and through the story of Lazarus and its allegorical reinscription (Blanchot’s, Carson’s, Andrews’) is quantitative, a matter of duration: How much time? How long a reprieve from a death that will be – when it comes to stay, as it surely will – premature? In each instance, the uncertain response is figured and refigured as “a sort of tomorrow, a sort of postscript,” for “this remainder that remains…will have been but a short sequel of sorts, a fallout, a consequence” (Derrida, Demeure, 94).
Ah! Wherefore with infection should he live,
And with his presence grace impiety,
That sin by him advantage should achieve,
And lace itself with his society?
Why should false painting imitate his cheek,
And steal dead seeing from his living hue?
Why should poor beauty indirectly seek
Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?
Still readable under the artist’s painstaking whitewash, these lines from the sixty-seventh of Shakespeare’s sonnets afford a point of entry into a body of work that borrows them, with respect, for purposes of its own. Their consecutive rhetorical questions begin insistently to develop – like a photograph, perhaps – some of the whys and wherefores of the work that inscribes them: matters of invention and imitation, truth and falsehood, blindness and insight, life and death. Not reducible to themes, these concerns operate rather as the pivotal topoi around which each component of Andrews’ Sonnets, positioned in a complex constellation with the others, turns. Each work in this series, while retaining a singular and idiomatic status, offers itself to the viewer as exemplary: irreplaceable in its form and effects, but addressing (as Shakespeare’s sonnets address, even as they are addressed) broader concerns of a theoretical as well as a practical order.
For brevity’s sake, then, one image (if it is one) may serve as example: the 1994 diptych that Andrews calls “Picture This,” a composite gouache portrait layered over partially whitewashed photocopies of sonnets forty-eight through sixty-nine. For the viewer who is of necessity also the reader of this characteristically palimpsestic text, the title’s imperative translates as a pressing question that is not rhetorical: Picture what? For the digitalization of the photographic “original” that preceded its systematic manual reduplication in a subtle palette of greys and yellows renders the question of what appears – the who, what, when and where of reference – indeterminate. In fact, what we see (or think we see, for even at first glance one’s perception of this work depends to an extraordinary extent on one’s relative proximity to or distance from it, fostering a distinct skepsis or doubt) is an effect of the artist’s superimposition of two images, an act that collapses space as well as time in the diptych’s two dimensions. A photograph of director Jonathan Demme on the set of the 1993 AIDS-themed film Philadelphia, reproduced in the New York Times, is projected, as in a dream or a hallucination, onto a Polaroid portrait of Andrews’ late lover and muse that was staged in the artist’s studio. The hands, then, do not properly belong to the head, or with it. They do not reach out in advance of the unseeing eyes, feeling their way forward through space, anticipating some possible contact to come. [I am indebted here to Derrida’s analysis in Memoirs of the Blind of the function of the hand in a range of drawings of the blind: “These blind men explore – and seek to foresee there where they do not see, no longer see, or do not yet see. The space of the blind always conjugates these tenses and times of memory – but simultaneously” (5-6).] Rather, they frame the gaze of an absent other. What may first appear as a portrait that, however mediated and manipulated, retains a mimetic relation to its model, emerges instead as an invented tableau.
Most notoriously and explicitly debated in the second preface to Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, the relation between portrait and tableau has generally been presumed, in the western aesthetic tradition at least, to be antithetical, mutually exclusive. According to this conventional wisdom, an image or a text may imitate a particular referent – a person, place, object or event – and so constitute itself as a portrait of sorts. The tableau, on the other hand, can lay claim to no specific extra-textual referent and hence is fictive, primarily self-signifying. Underlying the terms of the distinction is the largely uninterrogated faith of the reader in the possibility of determining the referential status of the work at hand. When we read an image or a written text, seek to understand it, we assume knowledge of and control over its referential and rhetorical modes (as we do when we read the question in Shakespeare’s sixty-seventh sonnet as rhetorical, rather than as real, and possibly urgent). As Paul de Man argues in his analysis of the prefatory debate over whether Rousseau’s novel is a portrait or a tableau,
The innumerable writings [and images – Ed.] that dominate our lives are made intelligible by a preordained agreement as to their referential authority; this agreement is merely contractual, never constitutive. It can be broken at all times and every piece of writing [and every image – Ed.] can be questioned as to its rhetorical mode. Whenever this happens, what originally appeared to be a document or instrument becomes a text and, as a consequence, its readability is put in question. The questioning points back to earlier texts and engenders, in its turn, other texts which claim (and fail) to close off the textual field. [Allegories of Reading, 204].
“Picture This,” like the other components of the Sonnets sequence as well as the portraits in Facsimile, unsettles not only the question of its own referential status (in a way that does not allow for the closure of a final reading), but the very logic of mutual exclusion, the either/or that has long governed our understanding of the distinction between portrait and tableau. No less than Rousseau’s novel, “Such a work can be read as the ‘portrait’ of its own negative gesture. It follows that, if the work indeed represents objects qui ne sont point, then it is the ‘portrait’ of the subject’s initiation to this knowledge…the portrait of an impossible tableau” (de Man, Allegories of Reading, 199).
It may be that Andrews’ own initiation to this knowledge is legible in the allegorical self-portrait incorporated in the series under the title “W.”, the cryptic initial that serves as his self-inscription and signature. It is allegorical in that it “portrays” a certain blindness on the part of the artist to the predicament figured in the work. Like the beloved in “Picture This,” the bereaved lover depicted here is unseeing, whether wittingly or not. In this instance, it is a question of neither the “dead seeing” nor the “false painting” cited in Shakespeare’s verses. Rather, the work is rigorously true to the terms of The Draughtsman’s Contract, enunciated by the draughtsman himself in a memorable speech that draws upon the “ambiguous evidence of an obscure allegory” in Peter Greenaway’s film to situate the figure for the artist “in the space between knowing and seeing.” It is a contract that proves binding for the viewer as well: “Painting,” like drawing, “requires a certain blindness…. Perhaps you have taken a great deal on trust” (London, BFI, 1982).
Unbound‘s project, however, is not strictly bound by the laws and limits that the designation “reflexive poetics” would appear to institute. For one thing, as “a book of AIDS,” with all the force of the partative, it does not simply thematize; it also refers. Its language lays claim to factual and undeniable referents in countless human bodies (it is of course in and on these bodies that HIV/AIDS first offers itself for reading, and first demands to be read), and to a host of others in the material events that constitute the history of the epidemic-turned-pandemic.
But it is not only the all too obvious referential function of Shurin’s language that opens his “reflexive poetics” onto a historiographical dimension. It is also the rhetorical function of a text that, again in its own terms, is “weighted toward witness” – structured, that is, as testimony addressed out of and as of a certain date. And it derives what authority it may claim from prior testimony: “Authority? – not mine, but an urge toward the integration of fear and immutable fact, and a heart for consequence. Who could have moved me to this end but the men whose names are mentioned here, who were my informants and guides, and whose natural affectional alliances made an epidemic based on love and desire possible? It soon became clear that for me writing about AIDS was weighted toward witness. Such participation’s cursed rare privilege is offered to you” (8). Here as elsewhere, Unbound apostrophizes the reader, willing or unwilling recipient of its uncompromising address (an address on the order of the paradigmatic apostrophe in the chilling final line of Keats’ “This living hand, now warm and capable”: “See, here it is, I hold it towards you”). More fundamentally, the grammar here signals that this testimony is offered, delivered, or at any rate promised to one who remains indeterminate, unnamed in the text: it is perhaps the lover, perhaps the stranger, for with the other, as with AIDS, it comes to the same. [Cf. Jacques Derrida, “Shibboleth” in Midrash and Literature, ed. Hartman and Budick, 344].