Tag Archives: reference

A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 5)

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).

 

 

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‘what history teaches,’ part 2

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].

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