Lucy Ives

, a ... writer, ... .

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Forthcoming: Cosmogony, Stories

List Price: $16.95
Paperback | 5 1/2 x 8 1/4, 240 pages | ISBN 9781593765996
On Sale 03/09/2021

An energetic, witty collection of stories in which supernatural events meet the anomalies of everyday life: deception, infidelity, lost cats, cute memes, amateur pornography, and more.

A woman walks onto a tennis court. A woman has a conversation with a friend’s husband in a supermarket. A woman sees a painting at the home of an art collector. A woman goes on a run. A woman takes videos of a cat in a bodega. A woman answers a Craigslist ad to write erotic diaries for money.

Cosmogony takes accounts of so-called normal life and mines them for inconsistencies, cruelties, and delights. Incorporating a virtuosic range of styles and genres (Wikipedia entry, phone call, math equation, encounters with the supernatural, philosophies of time travel), these stories reveal how the narratives we tell ourselves and believe are inevitably constructed, offering a glimpse of the structures that underlie and apparently determine human existence–and which we ignore at our own peril.


ARC cover.



NYTBR Recommends Loudermilk
The Georgia Review on Loudermilk
June–August 2019 Frieze Magazine

Issue 204 cover.

The New Yorker on MFA Novels

What Does It Mean to Be a “Real” Writer?

Two satirical novels, set in M.F.A. programs, challenge our ideas of literary authenticity and achievement.
By Hermione Hoby

Talent is like obscenity: you know it when you see it. It’s something that can’t be defined, only recognized—an irreducible and unteachable entity, like charisma or humor, and its confirmation all the more coveted for being so. In his fundamental study, “The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing,” Mark McGurl detailed how, in postwar America, anointing and cultivating literary talent became the purview of creative-writing programs and how, in turn, certain modes of writing came to be privileged above others. With this professionalization—indeed, institutionalization—of a nation’s art form, three injunctions popularized by the M.F.A. became holy writ. Write what you know; show, don’t tell; find your voice. Of this trinity, only the second speaks explicitly to craft and seems readily practicable. It’s the first and last dicta, however, that have proved the most influential, not through their utility but through their confounding simplicity. The question isn’t whether you should cultivate knowledge or voice. The question instead is a screamed “Yes, but how?”

When we identify talent, we say that we’ve found “the real deal,” a flimsy idiom for a solid belief—that, although talent as an entity may be undefinable, it’s still provable. It’s on this putative objectivity, in all its insidious allure, that M.F.A. programs are predicated, offering themselves as arbiters of talent who are able to alchemize literary promise into achievement. Many have found these claims at once irresistible and dubious. One year after graduating from the University of Arizona’s creative-writing program, David Foster Wallace wrote, “The only thing a Master of Fine Arts degree actually qualifies one to do, is teach . . . Fine Arts.” Wallace’s essay, “The Fictional Future” was one of several collected, in 2014, in “MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction,” a book that reanimated and enshrined questions both existential (Can writing be taught?) and practical (How does a writer pay rent?). The bathos of the latter tends to casts an absurd light on the former.

So it is that two new satirical novels set in creative-writing programs, Lucy Ives’s “Loudermilk: Or, the Real Poet; or, the Origin of the World” and Mona Awad’s “Bunny,” engage with the chimera of “the real deal.” They are set, respectively, in a version of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a version of Brown University and are authored by graduates of those institutions. These books constitute a kind of institutional critique, to borrow a term from the art world, or an institutional autofiction, to adapt an existing literary term. On the one hand, the satirical tone of these novels tips us off that the institutions being portrayed are fundamentally defective. And yet the pages in our hands are tangible counterfactuals! Because isn’t the published novel—the material proof every candidate longs for—evidence of these institutions’ success? Here is the M.F.A. program becoming self-conscious, displaying both impatience with and anxiety over the criterion of authenticity.

The centerpiece of the program is the workshop, or rather, excuse me, the Workshop; in David O. Dowling’s recently published history of America’s most famous creative-writing program, “A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,” the word is reverentially capitalized. For anyone unfamiliar with insular world of the M.F.A., the term might conjure scenes of elvin ingenuity—merry workers laboring at their craft. Instead, this mainstay of the creative-writing program has more often been understood as a process of destruction, of tough love that tears you down to build you up. Dowling writes admiringly about the “volatile cocktail of ego and competition”—the “blood sport” of peers ripping each other’s work to shreds—that pervaded the Iowa workshop in the decades after its founding, in 1936.

His book opens with the boozing, brawling John Berryman—he of the “blow-torch approach” to teaching—receiving a punch from a student. Lucy Ives’s funny, cerebral “Loudermilk,” which takes its epigraph (“Rilke was a jerk”) from Berryman himself, lampoons this kind of masculine swagger. Its prime object of satire, however, is the very bedrock of the workshop’s pedagogy, the identification of artistic achievement. The novel’s titular handsome idiot, Troy Augustus Loudermilk, is a fraud in the most incontrovertible sense; it’s only by passing off the poems of his nebbishy friend Harry Rego as his own that he’s gained entry to the prestigious Seminars for Writing. These plagiarized poems go down well, but what Loudermilk is truly rewarded for is not his artistic achievement on the page but his charismatic performance in the workshop, including cracking jokes and insulting his professor’s sexual prowess. When you’re a fraud and don’t care, you have nothing to lose.

It’s not just the students who don’t care: Loudermilk’s professors include the dyspeptic (and, in his belligerence and drunkenness, rather Berryman-esque) Don Hillary, who welcomes his young poets with a showily profane speech, assuring them that he does not give “one donkey fuck what you do while you’re here.” One student, Clare, overhearing this speech as she walks by his classroom, wonders, “Could one imagine that his pronouncements herald a really excellent form of meritocracy, somehow? That his is, paradoxically, the most sublime of metrics—since incomprehensible, profane, and therefore absolute?” In a field where the “metrics” are so hard to define, much less achieve, you can stop caring at all—like Loudermilk and Hillary—or, like Harry, you can care too much.

As Harry, whom we understand to be a “real” talent, becomes more invested in his poems, he writes himself a long list of questions that include “Am I the one who is writing these words?” and “Who is the one who is writing?” Eventually, he concludes that “the only way to get to the poem is to drop into a perfectly Harry-shaped shadow.” In other words, he must vacate himself to find himself, must fake himself into authenticity. We sense that his private litany of questions, though painful, are far more conducive to his literary growth than the public jousting of the workshop.

Ives’s hyperbolic satire—her outsized, loquacious characters, her stylistic brio—lays bare the central fallacy of “write what you know.” In one sense, we believe Ives is drawing from her own, all-too-real experience. And yet, with its ludic meta-fictionality and the self-conscious construction of characters, the novel cleverly dodges knowable reality, circumventing the question of authenticity altogether.

In “Bunny,” a work of toothsome and fanged intelligence, the agons of ego and machismo are replaced by the sly and saccharine maneuvers of a femme-y clique who call themselves “Bunnies.” Our narrator, the studiedly uneffusive Samantha, joins these women in the first all-female fiction cohort at the prestigious Warren College. “Workshop is an integral part of the Process,” pontificates Ursula, a professor whose self-regard is sustained by the idolatry of her students. (Here, the capitalization of the word “workshop” is scathing.) “Workshop never ‘confuses us,’ rather it opens us up, helps us grow, leads us in new and difficult and exciting directions. My Workshop in particular, I think you’ll find.”

My Workshop: the proprietorial claim is key. The tenor of the workshop proceeds from the leader, which is to say, the particularities and prejudices of one person—one ego. At some point taste, like talent, becomes an irreducible entity. The Bunnies engage in frothy pieties and hyperbolic niceties, telling each other things like, “Can I just say I loved living in your lines and that’s where I want to live now forever?” Within a rhetoric of universal approbation, every writer turns craven; all talent withers.

Though Awad plays knowingly with the tropes of eighties movies (the book’s hot-pink jacket copy mentions the cult classic “Heathers”; like Winona Ryder in that movie, Samantha has an air of quiet mutiny), we recognize these Bunnies as the apotheosis of that most contemporary archetype, the basic bitch. They love froyo from Pinkberry. They binge-watch “The Bachelorette.” Their Instagram captions are littered with the self-evidently false hashtag #amwriting. “Basic” in this sense is a synonym of sorts for “inauthentic”; we recognize the type, or at least we think we do. These Bunnies, so very bloodless seeming, are in fact quite bloodthirsty. Because, in addition to writing fiction, they’re engaged in an extracurricular workshop of their own devising, where, unlike in the simpering diplomacy of the classroom, their creativity is literally visceral. They conjure dream boys, real flesh-and-blood creations that they call “drafts,” “hybrids,” “darlings,” from rabbits. Unfortunately, these characters can get unruly, and the girls keep an axe close at hand. “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings, you know?” coos one Bunny. Just as Ives has constructed a postmodern playhouse to deflate the notion of authenticity, Awad has winkingly deployed the great ruse of the supernatural.

Are these Bunnies for real? The answer to this question is a twofold no. They are false in their friendships, and, worse, they have no true talent. Even in their own workshop, they never quite manage to pull things off. Their “darlings” always fall just a bit short of the intended reality, lacking fully operational hands or penises. In other words, the Bunnies fail both literally, within their necromancy, and metaphorically, within their writing, to bring their characters to life.

Like rabbits, bad writers are everywhere, bred by M.F.A. programs across the country, turning out banal, interchangeable stories. When Samantha finally conjures her own piece of literature, it’s from a lone and noble creature—a stag. Her creation, Max, is the workshop’s first fully functioning boy. In the wickedly hilarious climax of the novel, the Bunnies show up to their last class bruised, bleeding, and ready, finally, to get real. With sweet feminist irony, it’s this dream boy made flesh who finally liberates them from that feminine yoke, extreme faux niceness. One classmate passes a simple and supremely unsayable verdict of another’s work: “I hated it.”

Max, Samantha’s triumph of extracurricular creativity, is also the agent of institutional destruction. In true Frankensteinien fashion, the proof of the author’s brilliance is her character’s apparent autonomy. No one proves this more starkly than Ava—Samantha’s lodestar and world center, her beloved best friend, whose contempt for the Bunnies (“that little-girl cult”) and Warren is spectacular. She is the one character who seems to radiate pure, unassailable selfhood—tango-dancing, white-haired Ava, to whom Max says, rapturously, “being with you is like being in literature.” It turns out that Ava really is too good to be true; she, like Max and the other bloody boys, is a fictional invention come to life. How is it, then, that she feels more real than anyone else, both to the reader and to Samantha, her unwitting “author”? The question is unanswerable, or, rather, the answer is that unanswerable thing, talent realized. For Samantha, it’s the possibility of companionship with her characters (no less real for being, technically, fictional), not the praise or censure of peers or professors, that galvanizes her to write more, and to write better.

In the final chapters of “Loudermilk,” a “poetry showdown” finally reveals Loudermilk as a fraud and his proxy as the real poet. But, as with an unshameable wind sock of a politician whose lies and blunders do nothing to unseat them, this is by no means Loudermilk’s undoing. Workshop, which we understand to be a sort of microcosm for what Ives later denounces as the “banal hypocrisy” of institutional American life at large, has worked well for Loudermilk. He skips town for New York and gets an agent. Of course he does. “I feel like I couldn’t even have planned this, like how amazing things worked out,” he writes in an e-mail to Harry. “But, hey when you’ve got extreme talent haha ;).” He does not, however, have the last word. At the end of the novel, his author seeks to make explicit her intent in a startling afterword:

If the institution wants to render Loudermilk’s self-expression false, a gesture accomplished merely in order to obtain a fellowship, then so be it! Loudermilk will go one step further: he will be already false, already a pastiche, already a construction.

Loudermilk, c’est moi.

This confounding, fourth-wall breaking address is a spectacularly brazen announcement of inauthenticity. Ives seems to be reminding us that she has fabricated Loudermilk, just as he has fabricated himself. Our “hollow hero” is a fiction who knows himself to be a fiction. Might authenticity itself be an equally fragile myth?

Master’s degrees, agents, and advances can make a difference: talent thrives on recognition, and bills need to be paid. There is, however, no great and infallible arbiter of literary merit. The longing to be anointed, once and for all, as “the real deal” is a fundamentally hopeless desire. Moreover, such longing for external approbation might be the very thing stymieing a young writer from becoming what they need to be, since, as Harry and Samantha realize, both “knowledge” and “voice” can only be discovered for oneself, not bestowed from beyond. What is required is a sort of faith in uncertainty—an acceptance that one’s capacity to conjure authentic new realities will have to be tested again and again, that the writer must be in a constant state of becoming. (In this sense, Harry’s self-interrogation, born of self-doubt, is essential, if exhausting.) And, since thinking must precede (good) writing, it follows that a question might be a more generative tool for a writer than an injunction. Kant famously posed a heuristic in three questions. The first serves as a useful counterpart to the M.F.A.’s first dictum. Not “Write what you know” but, with its honest combination of curiosity and humility, “What can I know?”

It's Nice That on This Site

Becca Abbe:

Lucy Ives is a writer whose particularly unique website was designed by New York-based web designer Becca Abbe. Featuring a lo-fi aesthetic, the site is comprised of six horizontally-scrollable panels which display the different facets of Lucy’s work (news, books, prose, interviews, poems, information). Within these panels, individual articles, when clicked, expand to fill the whole page; the design in its entirety feels like a piece of software itself. “Lucy’s site comes from a series of discussions we had about research-based work and the amorphous nature of writing,” Becca tells us. Becca often references physical objects, or uses them as guiding models when designing websites and in this case, it was archaic reading machines and early graphical user interfaces.

“The index draws from the Renaissance-era concept of the bookwheel and the interior projects pages are based on a Victorian furniture piece called the Holloway Reading Stand,” Becca further explains. “Lucy’s own work relies heavily on Scrivener which is a writing software that also manages all the ephemeral data: research, citations, images, etc. that go into a written piece. Its split-screen design was a big influence on the final site.” When it comes to how viewers digest Lucy’s work, several options are available including the raw text, a link to an online publication, a downloadable PDF, or simply rendered as the file size in bytes.

For those who do a little digging, Becca’s embedded several Easter eggs within the design. Readers can enter “kindle mode” for a distraction-free view. Once fullscreen, a reading tool (AKA pixel line) tracks your cursor and helps keep your place in the text. An option to output the texts with print-only CSS styles is also available via the printer button. Even without these features, what Becca has succeeded in doing, is creating a site which is memorable, and that keeps users exploring. While she designed and built the site herself, she does give a special shoutout to her “genius father Eli Abbe for workshopping the horizontal scroll animation script on the index page with me. Without him, it would not stop at each end.”


On site.


On site.

The Nation on Loudermilk

Scamming the Scene: Lucy Ives and the Fiction of the Cultural Industry
Ives’ second novel, Loudermilk, lampoons MFA writing programs and the inherited wealth that props them up.
By Charlie Markbreiter

Lucy Ives’s Loudermilk is an aughts period piece: It takes place between 2003 and 2004, during the start of the Iraq War. Troy Loudermilk—rich kid, Abercrombie hot—has enrolled at the Seminars, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop–like MFA program. But he doesn’t write. That gig belongs to Harry Rego, his debilitatingly anxious working-class friend from undergrad. In a present-day version, Harry might write Loudermilk’s application to USC as an independent subcontractor for Varsity Blue. Harry’s nascent poetry skills are derived from a Writing Poetry for Dummies–like guide, which directs him to use language that “[means] more than one thing” and phrases he finds in the local newspaper. The poems, written by Ives, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop poetry MFA program, are inserted throughout the book.

The dudes could have picked other lines of work to scam, but poetry seemed easy to sneak into. “Do you have any idea how many people are into this?” Loudermilk asks Harry. “Somebody could totally run this scene.” In exchange for writing poems in secret, which Troy passes off as his own, Harry gets a split of the program’s stipend while Loudermilk cruises female undergrads. After the Sessions, Loudermilk plans to ping-pong between free bags of poem money: “There was significantly more lucre than you would think in terms of fellowships and grants waived fees…. It would be stupid easy to get in and get out.”

Loudermilk just isn’t rich, though; he’s an heir, which makes Loudermilk what you might call inherited wealth lit—a modern-day version of the 19th century bourgeois novel’s dramas of inheritance. Loudermilk’s father, an “ex-military man” known as the Cleaner, had “made good in the 1960s and early ’70s providing infrastructural triage in locales the United States had not explicitly invaded” and became “alarmingly wealthy during Bill Clinton’s second term.” What does “triage” mean here? The line reads like a child asking an arms-dealing parent, “What do you do?” The parent lies, and the child swims in the results, a boorish aggregate of surplus value and other people’s blood. But Loudermilk isn’t stressed that his trust fund will end; he’s scared that it won’t. Is Loudermilk ashamed of being rich? Does he think that making his own money is the only way to be his own person? We don’t know; in October of his senior year, after Loudermilk proclaims that the Cleaner “had really crossed a line” and falls into an uncharacteristically deep depression, Harry infers that “the Cleaner had probably offered to pay for the rest of Loudermilk’s life.”

With the first round of stipend money, Loudermilk moves them into an apartment smashed next to an undergrad frat house where initiates are shot with BB guns. It’s a raw deal, but it saves Harry from doing the thing he hates most: speaking. Harry’s hatred for his voice borders on dysphoria. “The voice is ugly and sometimes shrill and sometimes bass and otherwise ludicrous, but the major thing about it is that it is not even his.” Loudermilk is obsessed with talking, and if they are together—always—then Loudermilk can speak for Harry. This engenders another dissociative relation: Harry hates Loudermilk’s voice; he just hates it less, despite knowing that the voice is an excuse. The larger problem is that he “dislikes and fears” other people and wants to avoid them. Loudermilk tracks Harry’s quest to find his voice by learning to write, speak, and assert himself. But it’s also a narrative in defense of narrative.

As with Ives’s debut novel, 2017’s Impossible Views of the World, Loudermilk satirizes a particular creative industry: While Views was set at a pseudo–Metropolitan Museum of Art, Loudermilk looks at poetry and academic creative writing. In both books, the markets judge a cultural product’s financial value, but its real (historical, cultural) value is always uncertain, necessitating an informal economy of gossip, jealousy, and clout. Members of the scene trade takes on a cultural product’s worth, and Ives excels at tracking the market-accelerated narcissism of small differences.

Ives’s protagonists—Harry in Loudermilk and Views’ Stella, a lower-level curator at Manhattan’s Central Museum of Art—are shy and observant, repulsed by the social climbing around them and harangued by a clout-chasing inverse. For Stella, it is senior curator Frederick Lu, who wants the museum to collaborate with WANSEE, a multinational seeking to privatize the global water supply and establish WANSEE-sponsored satellite museums. In Loudermilk, the nemesis is Anton Beans, who likes poetry but isn’t sure what it is for; he fills this void of uncertainty by humping up the career ladder, a caricature of the preprofessional MFA candidate.

In the afterword to Loudermilk, Ives writes that the novel is neither satire nor realist fiction; it is a libertine novel. “The libertine,” according to her, “hates society’s laws and loves the roiling dynamics of nature.” This archetype “transgresses in the service of freedom—a freedom the libertine believes is perfectly natural and therefore good.” Loudermilk is less interested in binge-drinking, group sex with corn-fed undergrads, and the Seminar stipend than in unmitigated freedom. He doesn’t know what he wants but wants to keep wanting without restraint.

Ives is invested in the sociological detail characteristic of a social novel, although Loudermilk isn’t a social novel. It isn’t a fully libertine novel either. In a literary critical flourish, she combines elements of libertine novels, realist novels, social novels, inherited wealth lit, postmodern novels, period pieces, poetry, satire, and revenge plots. Why does this book have so many genres? An answer can be found in two of Ives’s recent critical essays, the first on French theory’s American reception, the second on the social novel. Both pieces examine a disconnect between these genres of writing and their intended audiences. Loudermilk—and Loudermilk—result from this disconnect.

In a 2018 Baffler essay, “After the Afterlife of Theory,” Ives gives an intellectual history of French critical theory’s American reception, ending with its co-option by segments of the alt-right, as MAGA stans use postmodernist claims about the constructed nature of truth to peddle fake news. She is not anti-theory; she is against theory that doesn’t serve its pedagogical function, namely, to give readers “the tools…they need to see connections between their studies and the world.” Theory—and genres of writing that employ it, such as Beans’s poetry—that fails to do this is remiss, especially considering how much undergraduates pay to learn it, anyway. Ives ends her essay with this declarative: “The cost of a B.A. is more distracting and enervating to the citizenry than any form of relativism.” Her critiques of theory production are essential to Loudermilk. That Harry, who has no background in poetry, hacks his way into the country’s most prestigious poetry MFA program is both scandalous—if he got in, then can’t anyone?—and appropriate—people without the academic credentials to do poetry should be able to get in. More often, however, they don’t.

A year later, Ives wrote another essay for The Baffler, “Orphans of Dickens.” Similarly concerned about a genre of writing and its pedagogical function, the piece asks why nonfiction literature has dramatically superseded fiction sales since Donald Trump’s election. “Information’s stock rose; artifice suffered.” People want to understand why the world is so bad, so they turn to nonfiction, plump with data. She gets why, but if people want to understand “what’s going on,” she argues, they should read fiction, too. Narrative is, after all, a sense-making device whose ability to string events into meaningful progressions feels especially necessary in an increasingly non-narrative world. (“So much of the media we consume is non-narrative, in spite of the existence of presumably linear ‘timelines.’”) Fiction is already reshuffling to meet this rising need for social context plus narrative, hence the resurgence of the social novel, a genre invented by Charles Dickens out of “an ambition to move between world-historical events and the mundane dramas of intimate life,” as Ava Kofman put it in a recent review of Olivia Laing’s Crudo, a novel that is supposed to feel like reading tweets.

Like Kofman, Ives points out that when fiction simply mimics nonfiction, hoping to absorb its truth value via osmosis, the results are unsuccessful. She critiques Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success—about a hedge fund bro who flees his New York City life on a cross-country Greyhound—for the novel’s failure to examine the power structures behind its sociological detailing, as if the details themselves made the work automatically good. Fiction with a misapplied nonfiction-y style makes the same error as the tweet format in which the same declarative statement is repeated in a grave tone: assuming that adopting a specific genre form automatically endows your words with reality. For Kofman, shafting narrative for non-narrative because the latter is supposedly always more realistic “bodes ill for the readers and critics who still look to the novel as a respite from, and not simply an extension of, the relentless stream of social media.”

Loudermilk, in contrast, is a defense of narrative contra nonfiction’s and theory’s claims as the only good forms of writing—claims that have escalated under Trump. Loudermilk’s plot wraps up neatly because the point of narrative is to make points. Loudermilk and Harry’s agreement is broken, although Loudermilk, with his scammy charisma and trust fund, will be just fine, even when the Great Recession hits five years later. (The tax loopholes that generated his trust fund are not unrelated to the financial crash.) Harry finds his voice, but becoming “the real poet” doesn’t resolve the problems of the market-driven poetry world he is about to willingly enter.

While Loudermilk succeeds in making good on the arguments outlined in her Baffler essays, it does not totally succeed as a novel, although—unlike Crudo or Lake Success—it falters for more conventional reasons. Harry and Loudermilk can feel like tropes. Each is mostly defined by a single desire (for freedom and isolation, respectively), which makes their dynamic and relationships with other characters feel predictable. Her combinations of genre tropes never fully cohere. Each narrative flourish is so anxious to prove its right to exist as a narrative flourish in a narrative work that the book is always pulling the reader out to point at what’s going on.

Still, Loudermilk is worth reading. It’s a funny and cutting novel whose critiques of inherited wealth and its effects on culture in the aughts will keep being true until a full redistribution of wealth, beginning with reparations, occurs. Until then, Harry will fester with avoidance, Loudermilk will be horny, and Beans will continue his lifelong plot for empty career success, while the rich, like the Walton family of Walmart, for example, pour their money into trusts ($9 billion as of 2011) to avoid having to pay an estate tax. They’re thieves but also quite charitable. They support the arts. In 2011, Walmart heiress Alice Walton founded a museum, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas. Maybe next time, she will found a poetry MFA program—or just send her child to one.

The New Yorker on Loudermilk

What We’re Reading This Summer
June 4, 2019

“Loudermilk,” by Lucy Ives

“Loudermilk,” a new novel by Lucy Ives, is set at a lightly fictionalized Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Ives is either puncturing a myth about Iowa or advancing it; either option makes her book an indulgence. I loved the character of Anton Beans, a “conceptual lyricist” with a baby-bald head and a lush, Abrahamic beard. I loved Don Hillary, the requisite alcoholic professor, who once wrote cowboy poetry and now appears to be “slowly embalming himself as a source of perverse patrician fun.” The book’s title refers to Troy Augustus Loudermilk, who scams his way into the program with the help of his friend Harry. Their division of labor is as follows: Troy, a glorious idiot, goes to class, flaunts his loutish good looks, and tries to sleep with as many coeds as possible; Harry, who is painfully shy, sits in their crumbling apartment—the toilet’s in the center of the floor—and completes Troy’s assignments. The pair’s comic adventures interweave with the more melancholy account of Clare, a first-year fiction writer who can no longer write. Clare, who speaks with a clipped, mysterious precision, is an early indication that Ives’s interests point toward the philosophical, even the mystical. “Loudermilk” is not just funny; it becomes a layered exploration of the creative process, from the “tension that once indicated to [Clare] a beginning” to Harry’s feeling, as he plans a poem, that “he wants to walk backward … The challenge is to get himself to fall.” Ives approaches the students themselves with canny tenderness, and their work (which the novel excerpts, delightfully) with grave respect. Her own language is prickly and odd, with a distracted quality, as if she were trying to narrate while another voice is murmuring in her ear.—Katy Waldman

Loudermilk Reviewed in The Believer

A Review of: Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World, by Lucy Ives
by Jameson Fitzpatrick
May 28th, 2019

Format: 304 pp., paperback; Size: 5.5 x 8.25 in.; Price: $16.95; Publisher: Soft Skull Press; Number of dramatis personae: seven; Number of scenes in which A character is in the process of writing: six-ish; Number of metafictional stories and poems appearing within: eleven; Number of fonts used: three; Number of uncomfortable moments of recognition writers are likely to experience while reading: countless.

Central Question: How does a person write (about writing)?

On December 3, 1961, Susan Sontag wrote the following in her journal:

The writer must be four people:

1) The nut, the obsédé

2) The moron

3) The stylist

40 The critic

1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence.

A great writer has all 4—but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.

I thought of Sontag’s formulation often while reading Lucy Ives’s new novel Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World, as the titular character is a writer who is quite literally more than one person. Loudermilk centers on two friends conning their way through the 2003–2004 academic year at “the Seminars,” a prestigious Midwestern MFA program very transparently modelled on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (Ives is an alumna). The charismatic Troy Loudermilk attends classes and is the one officially matriculated, while his extraordinarily shy sidekick Harry Rego ghostwrites the poems. As Loudermilk/Harry’s work arouses the admiration—and suspicion—of those around them, the teenaged daughter of two poetry faculty vies for Loudermilk’s affection, and a fiction student removed from the rest of the action struggles to write. Though Ives’s portrait of the Seminars/Workshop is more farcical than flattering, readers expecting yet another referendum on the MFA will be pleasantly surprised to discover a much stranger and more ambitious book. In Loudermilk, Ives has taken a subject notoriously difficult to make interesting—the difficulty of writing itself—and narrativized it into an elaborate plot peopled by avatars of the types Sontag enumerated decades ago.

Loudermilk, who plays chicken with a semi-truck in the novel’s opening scene and sends emails from, is Ives’s moron (2), or fool (a substitution I’ll be making given “moron”’s eugenicist history). Importantly, he is quite wealthy, the sole heir of a former military contractor turned disaster profiteer, and quite hot: “He is six foot three and built like a water polo champion. His face is hard to look away from.” He is also (if this were not already obvious) white, straight, cis, and able-bodied, biographical details frequently correlated with an assumed (if unearned) sense of authority—Loudermilk doesn’t have to write a word to feel right at home at the Seminars. In her afterword, Ives refers to him as a libertine, and indeed, Loudermilk is so free of shame he seems incapable of the emotion, a handy lack for a would-be writer to have. If, per Sontag, one must be a fool in order to muster the confidence necessary for self-expression, Loudermilk’s superlative confidence reflects a profound foolishness.

Only it isn’t his self that Loudermilk is expressing—at least not in the poems that quickly distinguish him as one of the Seminars’ star students. Those are secretly written by Harry, the Cyrano de Bergerac to Loudermilk’s Christian de Neuvillette (whose classic tale of literary impersonation Ives cites as an inspiration in the afterword). The two unlikely pals are collaborators on a hare-brained scheme that began on a whim: during their senior year at SUNY Oswego, Loudermilk discovered the existence of funded graduate programs in poetry and decided it would be a fun and easy way to spend two years. Harry, a former child genius who started college at fifteen, is more than happy to play along, particularly since their arrangement requires him to interact with no one but his trusted symbiont (he has an aversion to his own voice so pronounced that it renders him unable to speak in most situations).

It’s not just Harry’s prodigious intelligence that makes him the critic (4) in Ives’s story, but also his approach to writing poetry. Harry writes because he has to provide Loudermilk’s lines, not because because he has something to say—at least not at first—and so his entrée to poetry comes through analysis rather than inspiration. Like any good counterfeiter, he first has to understand how the thing is made:

Harry knows, based on his limited poetical reading, but whatever, that he’s supposed to be using language that might “mean more than one thing” when he’s creating a poem. But it’s confusing to him how exactly this should work, from the point of view of production. For this reason, he’s developing a work-around. He’s decided to find language that definitely means one thing and then try his best to use it in another way, so that it definitely cannot mean the very thing it usually means—which is to say, exclusively.

As he collages appropriated language into poems that parody the vernacular of American empire in the early aughts, Harry’s first subject becomes doublespeak; or, language itself.

The true nut or obsédé (1) here—the personality who, according to Sontag, provides a writer’s material—is Lizzie Hillary, the precocious fifteen-year-old daughter of two members of the Seminars’ poetry faculty. The undeserving object of her affection is (of course) Loudermilk, who, much to her mounting frustration but certain benefit, she fails to woo. Does anyone have a greater capacity for obsession than a teenager in love? Yet Ives is careful not to reduce Lizzie to a caricature; she is not frivolous (Harry recognizes her at once as “a worthy fucking competitor”). In fact, Lizzie is the first to see—almost immediately—through Loudermilk’s act, and even her infatuation with him belies another, more nebulous desire: to grow up and into an artist. Once again, Loudermilk is just a stand-in.

Finally, there is Clare Elwil, a first-year student in fiction and our resident stylist (3) (Ives declares this outright on page 10). The daughter of a minor but notable expat poet from whom she has long been estranged, and blessed with the kind of C.V. you might expect from an Iowa grad announcing their six-figure first book deal, Clare shares some of Loudermilk’s material advantages, though hers come along with significantly more baggage. Having deferred admission after a serious car accident, she is arriving to the Seminars a year late and with a bad case of trauma-induced writer’s block. Clare’s struggle to write constitutes her entire subplot (her story barely intersects with the other characters’) and the question of style—how to say what she has to say—is both her primary obstacle and ultimate salvation.

We are introduced to Clare via “two terse sentences [she] has been writing for the past ten weeks” Here, and in Clare’s scenes throughout the novel, Ives captures with painfully vivid detail how it feels when words fail you, or, worse, when you fail words:

It is in description now that Clare has a tendency to become most mired. No, now it is in description that Clare has a tendency to become the most mired. The tendency? Is that the word? Mired? The? She slides back and forth, on wheels, mobile yet unable to pass over the hump that stands between her and poised, proper articulation.

Over the course of the novel, Clare reflects on her past success (a prize-winning short story she remembers as “an exercise in style”), struggles with two unfinished drafts, and, at long last, writes a new story, tricking herself into success by “[telling] herself she is not the one writing.” Her classmates highlight “her unique style” in their praise.

Through these characters and their respective fates, Loudermilk posits that all artistic creation requires the use of a proxy. Harry needs to use Loudermilk’s voice to find his own. Lizzie needs to use Loudermilk as a receptacle for her ambition until it can take another form—a work of guerilla art she titles The Origin of the World, after Clare’s story of the same title, which is itself titled after Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde. Clare has to pretend to be someone else in order to write like herself. It is only in their proxies that they are finally able to recognize themselves.

Sontag says a good writer must be a fool and an obsessive, that the critic and the stylist are bonuses (so, inessential). But Ives—not just for her own erudition and syntactical artistry, remarkable as they are—counters that it is the critic and the stylist who are indispensable, for they are the ones who interface thought with language. Obsessions can be substituted, replaced, and tend to descend on us whether our nature is obsessive or not. Likewise, a fool’s confidence can be adopted when necessary; it’s no coincidence “bravado” so often collocates with “false” (or that Loudermilk is the only one of these characters without any apparent artistic promise of his own). Taste and intelligence can be faked, too, of course, but a good writer nevertheless must develop them sometime. Perhaps it is, after all, through the faking that the making happens.

Loudermilk Reviewed in Bookforum

May 16, 2019 • Sylvia Gindick

In Lucy Ives’s second novel, Loudermilk, a charismatic dumbass scams his way into a prestigious MFA poetry program by submitting the work of his antisocial companion. The real writer, who hates the sound of his own voice, follows the oversexed, symmetrically featured dumbass to school and continues to write for him. It’s a fun setup, but the book aims for more than just comedy. Ives, who once described herself as “the author of some kind of thinking about writing,” examines the conditions that produce authors and their work while never losing a sense of wonder at the sheer mystery of the written word.

Through canny third-person narration, Ives cycles through the perspectives of five characters as the book progresses: Harry, the “real poet” (whose voice tends to break into an “unintelligible croak”); Loudermilk, the charming but “hollow hero” (whose speech is littered with creative iterations of “dude,” “dick,” and “fuck”); Clare, the brooding early-success who fears she can no longer write (“What I’ve lost is so easy to name as to make it impossible to speak about.”); Anton, the pompous try-hard who always thinks he’s the best writer in the room (“heir apparent to the poem-based sector of the American humanities multiverse”); and Lizzie, the precocious daughter of poetry professors (“I’m just curious, so sue me!”). Their artmaking involves varying degrees of creativity and mimicry, and it’s often unclear whether we should laugh at their marginal successes—or grudgingly respect them. The fiction and poetry that the characters write, many pieces of which are included in the text, are rendered in a tone that balances sarcasm with tenderness.

Unlike Ives’s previous novel, Impossible Views of the World, which was largely focused on the protagonist's glossy, external world, Loudermilk dives into the characters’ inner lives. This is a chaotic place. They feel shadowed, almost overpowered, by fantasies and visions. Harry’s imagination feels so alive that he envisions it as another person walking alongside him. Clare sees her her dead father everywhere. Both feel constrained by these doubles, which also, paradoxically, give them license to create. As Ives describes the condition in which Harry writes, “He needs to sink back into that greenish-reddish veil through which he can see the gently pulsing backs of words, the frilled edges of sentences. The only way to get to the poem is to drop into a perfectly Harry-shaped shadow.” Clare writes of one of her characters, “She was alone. Sort of. No, she was not alone. She could feel it waiting in the wings, as it were, there, ready to take a word from her, take it to say it again, back, back, back again, as you,” followed by four pages of nothing but “SSSSS$S.”

The novel concludes with a curious afterword in which Ives explains that Loudermilk is a libertine, a symptom of democracy, a lover of freedom who has little capacity for self-restraint. “The libertine transgresses in the service of freedom,” she writes, “a freedom the libertine believes is perfectly natural and therefore good.” Loudermilk continuously does what he does just because he can, embodying Harry’s voice until Harry is ready to claim it as his own. The book’s postscript is another kind of writerly transgression, as Ives emphatically tells rather than shows. In a novel full of doubles, veils, and proxies, it makes sense that Ives concludes with yet another layer.

2018 Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant

New York, NY (December 3, 2018) — The Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program is pleased to announce the recipients of its 2018 grants. The program supports writing about contemporary art and aims to ensure that critical writing remains a valued mode of engaging the visual arts.

Joel Wachs, President of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, explains that “the Foundation’s commitment to arts writing is a natural extension of the grants the Foundation makes to artist-centered organizations and museums, which often include funds for the publication of exhibition catalogues, brochures, and other outlets for scholarly perspectives. Critical writing on contemporary art connects artists to audiences, increases dialogue around their work, and is vital to a dynamic and engaged visual art community in this country.”

In its 2018 cycle, the Arts Writers Grant Program has awarded a total of $725,000 to 21 writers. Ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 in four categories—articles, blogs, books and short-form writing—these grants support projects addressing both general and specialized art audiences, from scholarly studies to critical reviews, and self-published blogs.

“Since 2006, the program has funded 272 writers,” said Program Director Pradeep Dalal. “A valuable reminder of the rich possibilities of arts writing today, the 21 grantees this year address a remarkable breadth of topics in nuanced and often interdisciplinary ways. Rahel Aima will write on the persistence of techno-optimism and relate it to race and the global south, while Dawn Chan will address Asian-futurism and media art's relationship to the formation of identity. Several projects address the urgent themes of ecology and environment, including Jessica Horton's book on indigenous American art which the jurors felt would reset the parameters of discourse in eco-criticism and anthropocene studies. Wendy Vogel will write on the art world's response to the #metoo movement and will discuss practices like Ana Mendieta's within the framework of sexual violence. Lucy Ives's critical biography of the radical and visionary practice of Madeline Gins calls greater attention to an artist primarily known for her partnership with her husband, Arakawa. Yxta Murray will write on the critique of property redistribution, post-Katrina, by the art collective Blights Out New Orleans. And several writers address public art, ranging from Claire Tancons’s book on processional performance, and Malik Gaines's research, which deploys arguments from art history, performance studies, black studies, and queer theory to sharply articulate the stakes of public art in present day America.”

The 21 grantees are listed by category as follows:

Ashley Hunt, The Political Economy of the Prison in Contemporary Art Exhibitions
Yxta Murray, Blights Out and Property Rights in New Orleans Post-Katrina
Erin Thompson, Art after Guantánamo

Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz, Disparate Minds
Essence Harden and Olivia K. Young, Speculative: Black Art Practices of the West
Bradford Nordeen, Memorabilia: Queer Countercultures and Moving Image Art
Susan Snodgrass, In/Site: Reflections on the Art of Place

Malik Gaines, Future Ruins: The Art of Abstractive Democracy
Elena Gorfinkel, Aesthetic Strike: Cinemas of Exhaustion
Jessica Horton, Earth Diplomacy: Indigenous American Art and Reciprocity, 1953–1973
Lucy Ives, She is Raining: The Work and Life of Madeline Gins
Eric Golo Stone, Artist Contracts in the Political Economy
Michael Stone-Richards, Care of the City: Ruination, Abandonment, and Hospitality in Contemporary Practice
Claire Tancons, Roadworks: Processional Performance in the New Millennium

Short-Form Writing
Rahel Aima
Siobhan Burke
Dawn Chan
Darren Jones
Christina Catherine Martinez
Wendy Vogel
Chloe Wyma

Impossible Views Reviewed in Art in America

MAGAZINE JAN. 01, 2018

by Jameson Fitzpatrick

That Lucy Ives's Impossible Views of the World (published in August by Penguin Press) and Andrew Durbin's MacArthur Park (published in September by Nightboat Books) are both debut novels written by poets who are also art critics might explain the two books' further similarities. Each centers on a neurotic art worker—Ives's Stella Krakus is a curator and Durbin's Nick Fowler, a writer—in the midst, simultaneously, of an affair with a wealthy, insufferable man; a research project with no clear end; and an ensuing existential crisis. Stella and Nick are both erudite, hypercritical narrators prone to exacting description and essayistic digressions about art, urban life, and the familiar archetypes that populate arts professions. Most significantly, the two protagonists share a fascination with utopias—and a troubling readiness to accept their impossibility as an excuse to stick to the status quo.

This is not to say the books are not distinct. Stella, to a greater degree than Nick, dwells in the particular, as does her story: Impossible Views of the World takes place in the course of one eventful week. An awkward thirtysomething "termed a cartographic specialist in the art history world" but "a dilettante in the world of cartographers," Stella works as a curator in the American Objects department at New York City's Central Museum of Art. (Called CeMArt for short, the museum is a barely veiled send-up of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though the administration's immoderate coziness with a corporate sponsor smacks of the Guggenheim.) Her unfulfilling routine is upended by the disappearance of her colleague Paul, who is "almost a friend" and an obscure but respected poet. Tasked with completing Paul's work on the checklist for an upcoming exhibition, Stella discovers in his desk a photocopy of a fantastical early-nineteenth-century map of a utopian community called Elysia. Determined to figure out the map's significance, she steals the document, along with copies of Paul's files. What follows is an art historical caper that Vogue aptly dubbed "something of a From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for grown-ups."

As Stella gets closer to determining the map's provenance, she may (or may not) be uncovering a conspiracy connecting Paul's disappearance, several generations of a wealthy but disgraced New York family of artists and patrons, possible forgeries, and CeMArt's latest exhibition of American portraiture. That exhibition is organized by the impossibly handsome Fred Lu, a senior curator in American Objects and scion of two wealthy New York families, with whom Stella has been conducting a (mostly) emotional affair while going through a bitter divorce. Stella seems to loathe Fred almost as much as she loves him, particularly for his willingness to collaborate with WANSEE, a multinational corporation seeking to privatize the world's water supply and partner with CeMArt to open satellite museums around the globe.

Where Impossible Views finds its subject matter (and critique) in the institution, Durbin's MacArthur Park looks to what Ives, in her blurb for the novel, calls "the precarious margins of the art world." And where the focus of Views is small, concerned with inconspicuous but meaningful detail, MacArthur Park is big and sprawling, in both its settings and its questions. Nick, a twentysomething poet and budding art critic, begins his travel narrative in New York, where the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy catalyzes a preoccupying anxiety about climate change and the impending end of the world. He then sets out on a nebulous book project "about the weather"-and on trips to Miami, upstate New York, Fire Island, Los Angeles (because he has been commissioned to write about the Tom of Finland Foundation), London, and Vienna.

While in Los Angeles, Nick's book about the weather (which, in a reflexive turn, is what we understand ourselves to be reading) also becomes a book about utopia. This section opens with a history of intentional communities and cults in Southern California, beginning at the start of the twentieth century and concluding with Scientology; at the Tom of Finland Foundation, Nick's guides frame Touko Laaksonen's erotic gay drawings as a "utopian project." But Nick suspects that "a utopia of men is no utopia"—and that all utopias, however appealing, are illusory. In Impossible Views, Stella comes to a similar realization about the Elysia of her map. Though she never believes the town depicted is real, when she finally solves its tantalizing mystery—her own idealized project—she is not quite satisfied. Every utopia fails on its own terms.

TOGETHER, Impossible Views and MacArthur Park suggest that art itself might be such a failed project. Or that the art world is, at least, as Nick implies while considering the 2014 Pierre Huyghe retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:

The art world is an unregulated economy that borrows from other economies . . . to continually update its relationship to the world and, in acting as a conduit for other (and all) disciplines, strives to become the clearest image of the world in which we may better see ourselves. . . . Art tries to be everything for everyone at once, all of it contained within salable products that can be exchanged between artists, galleries, individuals and institutions, across media, in a ‘conversation' about what now means, and what that now once meant and will someday come to mean. . . . Everyone wants to be an artist because everyone wants to speak about the now.

An impossible aim, to be sure, "to be everything for everyone at once." But it is not its ambition that dooms the project of art so much as its constraints, "contained" as it is. Consider, in Impossible Views, CeMArt's partnership with an evil corporate sponsor that wants to include affiliates of the museum in each of its planned "smart cities"—"‘technology responsive' communities" around the world in which people will "take refuge not just from everyday inconvenience and security issues posed by fundamentalists but from approaching environmental collapse." (It's worth nothing that WANSEE echoes Wannsee, the Berlin suburb where Nazi officials planned the Final Solution.) The proposed sites include Nevada and Abu Dhabi, evoking international expansions undertaken by the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and others.

Art's complicity in capitalism and its exploitation of natural and human resources is not news, nor is this the most meaningful insight offered by these novels. "Everyone" might want to be an artist not only because they want "to speak about the now" but also because they wish to be a part of the noble project of crafting an "image of the world in which we may better see ourselves." Who doesn't? Who in the art world, anyway? But reflection is not action, nor is this the only way to imagine art's function. As Trotsky wrote, "Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes."

In their accounts of the flawed contexts in which they live and work, both Stella and Nick position themselves as outsiders. Though they blend in well enough, they go to great lengths to make it clear they see through the fictions that others around them happily accept. Disgusted by the scene of the swanky party where Fred announces CeMArt's partnership with WANSEE, Stella wonders: "How could I possibly be a curator if Fred was a curator?" Of the partygoers at a club vying with feigned nonchalance to be photographed by Wolfgang Tillmans, Nick says: "I watched them and did not once allow myself [to] slip into their time." Both fixate on the class differences between them and their more affluent lovers (Nick hates his boyfriend Simon's "moneyed affect"), though both protagonists are white and middle-class, hardly outliers.

Stella and Nick's desire to see themselves as exceptions to the rules of their lives is paired with a sense that they are powerless to change those rules. Stella laments that the circumstances of her life—her career, her relationships—feel beyond her control, even as she recognizes that she must bear some responsibility for them. Nick speaks of history grabbing and shoving us forward as if our role in it were passive. This echoes Stella's description of the "invisible hand" she feels guiding her during her boldest moments. Ultimately, Stella's most profound discovery in Impossible Views is not the origin of the map, but of that hand. Drunk at a friend's party, she cracks it: "When it feels like there is that weird hand. . . . That's you encountering yourself."

How Stella and Nick imagine themselves in their own communities is how many in the art world seem to imagine themselves in the world at large: as outsiders who know better, exceptions to the ugliest aspects of their time and country, but powerless to do anything but study works of art. Through these characters and their delusions, Ives and Durbin reveal the flaw, and danger, of such thinking: it's precisely at the moment we feel most helpless that we are exposed to our own potential power. Helplessness, as Nick says, is a mask. What that mask obscures is not our complicity—it helps us feel that, in fact—but our ability to hammer a better reality into existence. Knowing the mask is there opens the possibility of taking it off, which makes the difference between the meek administration of American objects and the self-determination of American subjects.


Knowing the mask is there.


Both erudite, hypercritical narrators prone to exacting description and essayistic digressions.


As Trotsky wrote, "Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes."

NYT 10 New Books We Recommend 8-24-17

10 New Books We Recommend This Week

The year of the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution has seen a number of new works published on Russian history, and our list this week includes two of them: Yuri Slezkine’s “The House of Government,” about an apartment complex in Moscow built for the Bolshevik elite; and the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War,” about the Russian women who served in World War II, new in translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Laurent Binet remembers a time when literary theory was all the rage, in his fictional take on the death of Roland Barthes; Lucy Ives sets a smart mystery amid the office politics of an art museum; and the pioneering programmer Ellen Ullman offers some much-needed perspective on the tech world.

Radhika Jones
Editorial Director, Books

NEW PEOPLE, by Danzy Senna. (Riverhead Books, $26.) Senna’s sinister and charming new novel, about a married couple who are both biracial, riffs on themes she’s made her own — about what happens when races and cultures mingle in the home, and under the skin. “Senna’s aim is precise and devastating. She conjures up ’90s-era campus politics with pitiless accuracy,” our critic Parul Sehgal wrote. “It’s a novel that reads us. It anticipates, and sidesteps, lazy reading and sentimental expectations.”

THE HOUSE OF GOVERNMENT: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine. (Princeton University, $39.95.) This panoramic history plotted as an epic family tragedy describes the lives of Bolshevik revolutionaries who were swallowed up by the cause they believed in. The story is as intricate as any Russian novel, and the chapters on the Stalinist Terror are the most vivid.

THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR: An Oral History of Women in World War II, by Svetlana Alexievich. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Random House, $30.) This oral history, the first of a series that won Alexievich the literature Nobel in 2015, charts World War II as seen by the Russian women who experienced it, and disproves the assumption that war is “unwomanly.” Distilling her interviews into immersive monologues, Alexievich presents less a straightforward history than a literary excavation of memory itself.

A LIFE OF ADVENTURE AND DELIGHT: Stories, by Akhil Sharma. (Norton, $24.95.) In eight haunting, revelatory stories about Indian characters, both in Delhi and in metropolitan New York, Sharma, the author of “Family Life” and “An Obedient Father,” offers a cultural exposé and a lacerating critique of a certain type of male ego.

FREUD: The Making of an Illusion, by Frederick Crews. (Metropolitan/Holt, $40.) Crews opens his study with the question of how Freud, whose scientific reputation has plummeted over the past decades, could retain so much cultural capital in the 21st century. In a single volume, he draws a portrait of Freud the liar, cheat, incestuous child molester and all-around nasty nut job, bringing a new level of detail to these accounts.

THE SEVENTH FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE, by Laurent Binet. Translated by Sam Taylor. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Binet’s playful buddy-cop detective novel reimagines the historical event of the literary theorist Roland Barthes’s death. It’s a burlesque set in a time when literary theory was at its cultural zenith; knowing, antic, amusingly disrespectful and increasingly zany.

TO SIRI WITH LOVE: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines, by Judith Newman. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) Newman’s tender, boisterous memoir strips the usual zone of privacy to edge into the world her autistic son occupies. In freely speaking her mind, she raises provocative questions about the intersection of autism and the neurotypical.

IMPOSSIBLE VIEWS OF THE WORLD, by Lucy Ives. (Penguin Press, $25.) In this dark and funny first novel about a mystery in a museum, a young woman is stuck in an entry-level job as her private life unravels. Read it as the story of a young woman coming unglued, an art-world mystery or a museum-based episode of “The Office,” complete with a colleague in persistent search of a staple remover.

LIFE IN CODE: A Personal History of Technology, by Ellen Ullman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Twenty years after the publication of her classic of 20th-century digital-culture literature, “Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents,” Ullman discusses her career in programming and the dangers the internet poses to privacy and civility. She knows how to decode her tech-world adventures for word people, and her essays explore gender relations and misogyny in the office, among other enduring issues.

THE DESTROYERS, by Christopher Bollen. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) The heir to a construction empire goes missing on the Greek island of Patmos in Bollen’s third novel, a seductive and richly atmospheric literary thriller with a sleek Patricia Highsmith surface. In this world of remote coves and beaches, wealth and luxury are inherent, but also inherently unstable.


Complete with a colleague in persistent search of a staple remover.

  • A version of this list appears in print on August 27, 2017, on Page BR31 of the Sunday Book Review.

Impossible Views Reviewed in NYT Book Review

Read this book on whichever level you choose.

Impossible Views in Sept 17 Vogue

An ultracharming debut.

Impossible Views in Sept 17 Cosmopolitan

Da Vinci Code fans die hard.

Impossible Views Reviewed in Kirkus (starred)

Kirkus Star

An art historical mystery that will interest fans of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, with a narrator equal parts intellectual, ironic, and cool.

In Ives’ scintillating debut novel, an up-and-coming young New York museum curator named Stella Krakus must solve the mystery of a co-worker’s disappearance, fend off her soon-to-be ex-husband, and retrieve her heart from an ill-conceived office dalliance. Stella, who is a 19th-century cartographic specialist, finds a photocopy of a meticulously detailed and illustrated old map titled “Elysia” folded up in her missing colleague’s pencil drawer. Her largely scholarly detective work on the matter also entails a bit of breaking and entering and lunch with her glamorous, secretive art-dealer mother. Ives’ writing derives much of its humor from a combination of high and low—arch formulations and mini-disquisitions studded with cussing, sex, and jokes about Reddit. Its delights include a description of Stella’s Williamsburg neighbors—“proofreaders dressed as majorettes, anorexics in suspenders, rich women in artisanal clogs propping up sobbing toddlers”—and this account of love: “the feeling…of it being spring for the first time, the face of a tiny kitten who is speaking fluent Spanish and is also a genie who can grant your wish, of being truly implied as the person I really was when another person spoke my name. My heart was a piece of paper. It was a paper fan. It was a dove.” Also delectable are an excoriating direct address to the cheaters of the world and a definition of charm in art that seems to have much wider applicability—it's “what happens when nothing works in a given painting. But what you get when nothing works is everything.” Yes!

A diversion and a pleasure, this novel leaves you feeling smarter and hipper than you were before.


Also delectable are an excoriating direct address to the cheaters of the world and a definition of charm in art that seems to have much wider applicability—it's “what happens when nothing works in a given painting. But what you get when nothing works is everything.” Yes!

  • Review Posted Online: May 15th, 2017

  • Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2017

Impossible Views Reviewed in Publisher's Wkly

Ives’s smart and singular debut novel chronicles what turns out to be a big week in the life of Stella Kraus, a petite and observant map expert for a Manhattan museum resembling the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Over the course of seven days, Stella works through the one-sided residual effects of an affair with an inscrutable colleague being groomed to run the museum. Stella also copes with her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s inappropriate appearances at her work and work functions, eventually taking the matter into her own hands, so to speak. And what about the disappearance of a male colleague? The illustrated map Stella discovers while snooping in his office quickly becomes an obsession as she attempts to determine its provenance by embarking on a sort of scavenger hunt. Ives maximizes her story’s humor with subtlety; a line here and there is enough to call attention to the absurdity of, for instance, the museum’s corporate benefactor’s attempt to secure the world’s water rights. She also isn’t afraid to make her heroine unlikable, which works in the novel’s favor. Ives’s prose and storytelling feel deliberately obtuse at times, requiring readers to slow down to fully immerse themselves in the narrative’s nuances, but the result is an odd and thoroughly satisfying novel. (Aug.)


Odd and thoroughly satisfying.

The Hermit Reviewed in Publisher's Wkly

In her newest book of poetry, Ives (The Worldkillers), an editor and writer of many stripes, condenses what she calls “some kind of thinking about writing” into a cerebral collection replete with meditations on the writing process, dialogues concerning phenomenology, micro-stories, anxieties around a failed novel, lists, quotes, games, and notes to the self. Readers are invited to an inner conversation as the poet grapples with the idea of writing, the history of it, the creative act itself, and also the text as an object, asking permission to be seen (much as Ives permits herself to feel), to exist in the eyes of others, and to participate in the canon. What saves the book from being merely being a treatise or a personal journal is that the reader is taken along on the creative journey; Ives muses about another author or a technique, such as the idea of description, and the page transforms into an experimental playground where she produces gorgeous passages of lush imagery. There is some appeal in the variety of texts and in Ives’s insights into her life as a writer, and she succeeds most when she allows readers passage into this potential space: “One must possess only the ability to tolerate a given position long enough to make it intelligible to others.” (July)


Gorgeous passages of lush imagery.

A Madeline Gins Reader



Poet, philosopher, architect and transdisciplinary artist, Madeline Gins (1941–2014) is well known for her collaborations with her husband, the artist Arakawa, on the experimental architectural project Reversible Destiny, via which they sought to arrest mortality by transforming the built environment. Yet, her own writings—in the form of poetry, essays, experimental prose, and philosophical inquiries—represent her most visionary and transformative work. Expansive and playful, Gins’s vigorous and often ecstatic exploration of the physicality of language challenges us to sense more acutely the ways in which we can—and could—write and read. Like Gertrude Stein before her, Gins transfigures grammar and liberates words. Like her contemporaries in conceptual art, her writing is attuned to the energized, collaborative space between reader and page. She invites the reader into a field of infinite, ever-multiplying possibility.

This revelatory anthology, edited and with an introduction by the writer and critic Lucy Ives, brings never-before-published poems and essays together with a complete facsimile reproduction of Gins’s 1969 masterpiece, WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), along with substantial excerpts from her two later books What the President Will Say and Do!! (1984) and Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994). Long out of print or unpublished, Gins’s poems and prose form a powerful corpus of experimental literature, one which is sure to upend existing narratives of American poetics at the close of the twentieth century.


Poems by Gins at the Poetry Foundation, with a short introduction.

Interview in Bookforum.

Interview in The Believer

Chapter 2 of WORD RAIN at Design Observer.

Introduction excerpt at Art in America.


LA Review of Books Radio Hour


Reading and Conversation at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research

Reading at Poet's House


Sigilo’s Reader provides access to Gins’s major texts, all of which would be currently unavailable otherwise. Lucky for readers, Ives selects a comprehensive array of works: from the 1960s and ’70s, 27 pages of unpublished poems as well as two essays; a complete facsimile reproduction of Gins’s 1969 experimental novel WORD RAIN; and selections from her two other notable book-length works, What the President Will Say and Do!! (1984) and Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994). Ives terms WORD RAIN a “carefully calibrated and constructed artist’s book, as well as a comment on the novel form,” and asserts that it is “Gins’s most brilliant endeavor and among the most significant works of experimental prose of the second half of the twentieth century.” This is not a hyperbolic assessment — the Reader ought to provoke a revision not only of Gins’s legacy as Arakawa’s collaborator, but of the wherefores and why’s of experimental writing — of its capacity to say and do what other forms of writing or art-making cannot.


In these uncertain times of social isolation, when many of us will spend more time with a book, Gins’s writing captures what we crave from that experience—one that is physically and mentally all-encompassing. While The Reversible Destiny Project may not have succeeded in giving Gins or her partner eternal life, The Madeline Gins Reader does. With each reading we embody her words and write Gins anew, giving her life within the pages of the book and ourselves.

The Brooklyn Rail

The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, a startling collection of essays, novels, artist books, and poems, edited by Lucy Ives, makes clear that Gins didn’t go for rote lyrical (or anti-lyrical) celebrations of language or comforting social narratives, but had more pressing goals. Employing a language equal parts phenomenology and microbiology, domestic-architectural intimacy and linguistic voracity, Gins’s literary ambition was nothing short of immunity.


This wide-ranging, energetic anthology of poetry and experimental fiction, with an authoritative introduction by Ives shows how Gins (1941–2014) explored the possibilities of literary form and its relationship to content. ... Stimulating and consistently surprising, this is a treat for those interested in interdisciplinary artists.

Publisher's Weekly

The Saddest Thing Is that I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, edited by the novelist and critic Lucy Ives, is a gift. ... One of the real surprises and delights of The Saddest Thing Is that I Have Had to Use Words is the inclusion of early poems from the 1960s and ’70s, which have not been previously published. ... This generous selection of texts is an opportunity to engage with the full scope of [Gins's] thinking.


For Gins, words are nothing if not physical. It’s their physicality that protects them from perfect comprehension — in the scanned pages making up WORD RAIN, stray digits appear to block out words; in poems, words and lists are emphatically crossed out, smudged, erased. The inherent confusion of language is of course her tactic, for to reach full clarity is to resume gravity. And that’s why experiencing Gins’s writing in print — at long last — is so necessary. The Madeline Gins Reader feels like how I imagine living in a Reversible Destiny house feels — like floating, like hovering, really, in a cloud of mist. While stuck inside your familiar four walls, lockdown is the perfect time to dive in.


Gins was a master of wordplay; humorous images are built up into piles, with groups of phrases building into networks of meaning flowing in gradients down the page.

The Architect's Newspaper, Editor's Pick for July 2020

For anyone who wants to experience directly the uncharted regions of inner and outer space in which language, perception, thought, and image play freely with our cramped expectations of them, the Madeline Gins Reader is an indispensable guide and a startling discovery. Her explorations of the interstices between words as symbols, as images, as sounds, as drawings are sure, steady, and entirely original. There are pleasant surprises on every page, in which narratives open up to encompass your experience as reader; fold over on one another to include and picture her activity as author; break open to scatter into lists, logical formulae, diagrams; reconfigure our grasp of what a page is for and what it can do. It is a dizzying and deeply exhilarating ride. Madeline Gins was a pioneer of language, poetry, and Conceptual art. It seems incredible that her work received so little attention during her lifetime. This volume performs an invaluable service in recalling her to our attention.

— Adrian Piper

Madeline Gins was marooned here, on Earth, and made the best of it, using what was available to her, like words. This book is a splendid testament to how far she pushed them, and us, to realize what she already knew. That this, all this, is not it. Not. Even. Close.

— Paul Chan

Gins was a foundational figure. Her work was original and yet also deeply indicative of the transformative activities of conceptualism that performed a tectonic shift in art-making beginning in the late 1960s. These brilliant essays, the incredible novel/artist’s book WORD RAIN, the poems, projects, and thoughts have all been scattered, unavailable, or out of print. Ives frames the collection articulately, giving us a vivid sense of the period in which Gins began and developed her remarkable body of work. This is a welcome publication that will renew our appreciation of Gins’s intellect and wit.

— Johanna Drucker


MADELINE GINS was an American poet and novelist, artist, philosopher, and speculative architect. Born in the Bronx, NY in 1941, she grew up on Long Island and graduated from Barnard College in 1962, having studied physics and philosophy. Gins was the author of three full-length collections: the artist’s novel WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), What The President Will Say and Do!!, and Helen Keller or Arakawa. Alongside her own writing practice, Gins also collaborated with her husband Arakawa on a theory of “procedural architecture,” an endeavor to create buildings and environments that would prevent human death. Arakawa + Gins’s Reversible Destiny project realized five built works in the United States and Japan, and before her death in 2014, Gins independently designed a staircase in the Dover Street Market in New York City for Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Long a resident of New York City, Gins participated in experimental artistic and literary movements of the 1960s and ’70s before developing a collaborative practice as a philosopher and architect. She leaves a rich and complex legacy of interdisciplinary thought, action, and writing: although much of her work was unpublished or went out of print in her own lifetime, her prescient efforts in poetics, aesthetics, and environmental studies are central to contemporary debates about how to form communities and create collaboratively and sustainably.


Date: April 21, 2020

Publisher: Siglio Press

Format: Print

Genre: Interdisciplinary
Purchase here.







The Poetics


Text by Lucy Ives. Photographs by Matthew Connors.

A superbly made hybrid photobook on the stories that objects invite us to tell.

In July of 2017, photographer Matthew Connors (born 1976) and novelist and critic Lucy Ives (born 1980) embarked on a strange project: to remove and catalog all the contents of Connors's car, a 1992 Volvo 240 station wagon.

Although the New York–based duo began the endeavor without knowing where it would lead, their investigation—of parts, tools, ephemera, litter, personal items, unidentifiable disjecta, among other objects—lasted more than two years and resulted in a series of photographs by Connors and an essay by Ives on narrative forms and temporalities inherent to contemporary media.

This collaborative publication, designed by Elana Schlenker, poses questions about where narrative originates and how we establish our stories in relation to the objects and timescales that carry, ground, and surround us.


"As an integrated artistic statement, this book is a sophisticated exercise in collaboration, trust, and creativity. The audience for The Poetics is definitely those who indulge in active reading, and who are intrigued by unconventional narrative structures – the book brings photographs and writing together in a clever way, making them interdependent. The book is also exciting in its mission of taking a simple, and somewhat amusing idea, and turning it into layered project with many more possibilities and discoveries than we might have guessed. It requires both reading and seeing, and rewards that combined effort with pleasing intricacy."

Collector Daily


Date: November 22, 2019

Publisher: Image Text Ithaca

Format: Print

Genre: Mixed; theory, memoir

Purchase here.


The Poetics.


From the car.


From the car.


LOUDERMILK: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World


A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A May 2019 Indie Next Great Read
A June 2019 MIBA Midwest Connections Pick
Los Angeles Times, 1 of 7 Novels Coming Out This Month That You Won't Want to Miss
Nylon's One of the Best New Books to Read This Month
Frieze, What We're Reading This Summer

It’s the end of summer, 2003. George W. Bush has recently declared the mission in Iraq accomplished, the unemployment rate is at its highest in years, and Martha Stewart has just been indicted for insider trading. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Midwest, Troy Augustus Loudermilk (fair-haired, statuesque, charismatic) and his companion Harry Rego (definitely none of those things) step out of a silver Land Cruiser and onto the campus of The Seminars, America’s most prestigious creative writing program, to which Loudermilk has recently been accepted for his excellence in poetry.

Loudermilk, however, has never written a poem in his life.

Wickedly entertaining, beguiling, layered, and sly, Loudermilk is a social novel for our time: a comedy of errors that deftly examines class, gender, and inheritance, and subverts our pieties about literature, authorship, art-making, and the institutions that sustain them.


Excerpt in Granta.

Excerpt at Lit Hub.


This clever satire of writing programs exhibits, with persuasive bitterness, the damage wreaked by the idea that literature is competition.

The New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

Ives is either puncturing a myth about Iowa or advancing it; either option makes her book an indulgence . . . Ives’s interests point toward the philosophical, even the mystical. Loudermilk is not just funny; it becomes a layered exploration of the creative process . . . Ives approaches the students themselves with canny tenderness, and their work (which the novel excerpts, delightfully) with grave respect. Her own language is prickly and odd, with a distracted quality, as if she were trying to narrate while another voice is murmuring in her ear.

The New Yorker

The nuanced subversion of tropes and full-throttle self-indulgence of Ives’s writing lend a manic glee to this slyly funny and deeply intelligent novel.

Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

Ives’ satirical masterpiece follows poet Troy Augustus Loudermilk, a shallow Adonis recently admitted to the nation’s premiere creative-writing graduate program, located in the heart of America’s starchy middle . . . Laugh-out-loud funny and rife with keen cultural observations, Ives’ tale is a gloriously satisfying critique of education and creativity.

Booklist (starred review)

A book where profound poststructuralist meditations on language, chance and creativity are deftly spun through with a myriad of jokes about farting, sex and male anatomy . . . With the Bush presidency and invasion of Iraq playing out ambiently and calamitously in the background, Loudermilk perfectly captures the strange cultural ethos of the early 2000s . . . With razor-sharp prose and a plenitude of linguistic strangeness, Ives has written a novel about American college life that is both philosophically gripping and exceptionally hilarious.

Shelf Awareness (starred review)

Lucy Ives has created something special in Loudermilk. The early 2000s setting is unmistakable, and while all the characters are both familiar (in all the right ways) and written with at least some degree of love, none are spared by Ives’ razor-sharp satire. Unlike so many other satirical novels, Loudermilk is nuanced and feels like it has something to say.

— May 2019 Indie Next List

Hilarious, pointed, perfectly executed . . . Ives manages to subvert all expectations, and offers up one of the slyest, smartest looks at what it means to be a writer I've read; her every sentence sings, and they're songs I'll return to again and again.


Ives, who once described herself as "the author of some kind of thinking about writing," examines the conditions that produce authors and their work while never losing a sense of wonder at the sheer mystery of the written word . . . The book’s postscript is another kind of writerly transgression, as Ives emphatically tells rather than shows. In a novel full of doubles, veils, and proxies, it makes sense that Ives concludes with yet another layer.


In a literary critical flourish, [Ives] combines elements of libertine novels, realist novels, social novels, inherited wealth lit, postmodern novels, period pieces, poetry, satire, and revenge plots . . . A funny and cutting novel whose critiques of inherited wealth and its effects on culture in the aughts will keep being true until a full redistribution of wealth, beginning with reparations, occurs.

The Nation

Readers expecting yet another referendum on the MFA will be pleasantly surprised to discover a much stranger and more ambitious book. In Loudermilk, Ives has taken a subject notoriously difficult to make interesting—the difficulty of writing itself—and narrativized it into an elaborate plot peopled by avatars of the types Sontag enumerated decades ago . . . Sontag says a good writer must be a fool and an obsessive, that the critic and the stylist are bonuses (so, inessential). But Ives—not just for her own erudition and syntactical artistry, remarkable as they are—counters that it is the critic and the stylist who are indispensable, for they are the ones who interface thought with language.

The Believer

Hilarious . . . A riotous success. Equal parts campus novel, buddy comedy and meditation on art-making under late capitalism, the novel is a hugely funny portrait of an egomaniac and his nebbish best friend.

The Washington Post

Loudermilk, a satire, explores a complex web of plot and episodes, thick descriptions, biting character arcs, poetic and philosophical precision, stylistically different stories/poems within stories, the nature of time, and the mirage of power (or the possibility of unveiling politics, and cracking open agency). By employing a classical theatrical technique of dramatis personae, rather than 'realistic' novel characters, perhaps Ives is able to move between so many registers that enable her unusual 'mash-up' to excel as at once philosophical and planted in the mud . . . Ives’s style of satire shatters the dichotomy between meta-narrative and human empathy. Breaking such a distinction requires rare observational skill, patience, and multi-genre flexibility and curiosity.

The Brooklyn Rail

Ives’s new novel is one of the funniest in recent memory, stuffed with jabs at writers and toxic masculinity, bluntly yonic allusions, and feuilleton-esque prose that prances on page . . . What Ives is playing with here is not just beautiful sentences and humorous situations, it’s the disharmony felt at the core of our experiences . . . Though the empirical distinctions between prose and poetry are often illusory, Ives finds a way to make her prose both a kind of communication—as is expected—as well as a construction of satire. Her words linger longer than normal trade, and find ways to avoid their disintegration, as if the must of a punchline is more lasting, more fragrant; words this eloquently framed and humorous imprint, and, often enough, hold us in their absurdity.

The Adroit Journal

Loudermilk may best be read as a contribution to a growing body of literature that both historicizes and critiques the MFA program . . . Loudermilk suggests that MFA programs are only incidentally committed to the production of great writing, that their true purpose is the cultivation and maintenance of power. In this, they have been perversely successful—as successful as Loudermilk himself. And yet, paradoxically, their very success in cultivating such power has led the MFA into crisis.

The Georgia Review

This send-up of contemporary graduate writing programs and the characters they attract and create is sure to highly amuse any reader, especially those with a penchant for academia-set hijinks. Reminiscent of Michael Chabon, this highly original satiric novel is sharp-witted and adroit. Brava.

Addison County Independent

Lucy Ives mixes genres with unusual abandon in her second novel, Loudermilk. The narrative could be regarded as a campus novel, a portrait of the artist, a scam story, a retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, or a farce . . . Loudermilk is a novel about the tension between art and life, and the conflict between labor and power.

On the Seawall

Lucy Ives is as deeply funny and ferocious a writer as they come. She's also humane and philosophical when it matters most. I love Loudermilk.

— Sam Lipsyte

With Loudermilk, Lucy Ives tears down the curtain to unveil the wizard—and here all of the characters are implicated in operating the clunky machinery that creates then lionizes the concept of merit or talent in the academic/literary world. The result is this wildly smart novel that hilariously exposes its characters as they try to vault or cement themselves into some literary canon and/or ivory tower, unaware that the canon/tower is an ever-vanishing mausoleum wherein living writers go to get stuck, or lost, or to scrawl their names and draw butts and boobs on the walls.

— Jen George


Date: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Soft Skull Press

Format: Print

Genre: Fiction
Purchase here.


Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World


Reasons to go to school for writing.

Impossible Views Of The World


A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

A witty, urbane, and sometimes shocking debut novel, set in a hallowed New York museum, in which a co-worker’s disappearance and a mysterious map change a life forever.

Stella Krakus, a curator at Manhattan’s renowned Central Museum of Art, is having the roughest week in approximately ever. Her soon-to-be ex-husband (the perfectly awful Whit Ghiscolmbe) is stalking her, a workplace romance with “a fascinating, hyper-rational narcissist” is in freefall, and a beloved colleague, Paul, has gone missing. Strange things are afoot: CeMArt’s current exhibit is sponsored by a Belgian multinational that wants to take over the world’s water supply, she unwittingly stars in a viral video that’s making the rounds, and her mother—the imperious, impossibly glamorous Caro—wants to have lunch. It’s almost more than she can overanalyze.

But the appearance of a mysterious map, depicting a 19th-century utopian settlement, sends Stella—a dogged expert in American graphics and fluidomanie (don’t ask)—on an all-consuming research mission. As she teases out the links between a haunting poem, several unusual novels, a counterfeiting scheme, and one of the museum’s colorful early benefactors, she discovers the unbearable secret that Paul’s been keeping, and charts a course out of the chaos of her own life. Pulsing with neurotic humor and dagger-sharp prose, Impossible Views of the World is a dazzling debut novel about how to make it through your early thirties with your brain and heart intact.


Excerpt in Granta.

Book page at Penguin Random House.

Recording of reading from the novel.


“[An] intricate, darkly funny debut…There is so much going on in this novel, so many sharp observations packed into sentences as sensual and jarring as a Mardi Gras parade, that it bears a second look…Ives, an accomplished poet, infuses even mundane actions with startling imagery…Read this book on whichever level you choose: young woman coming unglued, art world mystery or museum-based episode of ‘The Office,’ replete with petty workplace drama, aged PCs and the occasional colleague marching ‘up and down the hall, loudly, in quest of a staple remover.’ It’s a smart novel brimming with ideas about love, art, personal agency, a lack thereof.”

The New York Times Book Review

“An archival treasure hunt yields riches for the heart-worn young curator in Lucy Ives’s ultracharming fiction debut, Impossible Views of the World, though it’s the author’s tart observations of present-day social pretensions that sparkle brightest.”


“Cool and bracing…a perfect summer pleasure…An accomplished poet, Ives also knows how to delight sentence by sentence, with turns of phrase that cry to be underlined or Tweeted…Part send-up of the Manhattan art world, part elaborate literary mystery, the novel is bound together by a voice that is at turns deadpan and warm, shot through with a crisp irony that makes it tempting to declare it the literary equivalent of an Alex Katz painting…It’s a singular work, worthy of a place in any world-class collection.”


“Diehard Da Vinci Code fans will find a new heroine in Stella, the code-cracking art curator at the center of this clever mystery.”


“An art historical mystery that will interest fans of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, with a narrator equal parts intellectual, ironic, and cool…Scintillating…A diversion and a pleasure, this novel leaves you feeling smarter and hipper than you were before.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“An original debut ringing with smart prose, engaging humor and cultivated taste…Ives’ genius is apparent in the intricate way she weaves ironic confession, romantic comedy and artful treatise with explorations into the historic art world…Full of intelligence and imagination, this relatable literary mystery will charm even the most apprentice art devotee.”


“Stella is like Hannah Horvath from Girls—smart, with an equal tendency toward snark and introspection—living in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The novel sends up the museum world, with pretentious art folks courting corporate dollars and the usual office politics, but maintains a sense of something larger, even magical, working in the background.”


“The charm and energy of Impossible Views of the World rest in Ives’s uncanny eye for the subtle tells of romance, the idiosyncrasies of the NYC young, and the details of 19th-century furniture and art…A clever curatorial mystery, a love-gone-wrong rom-com or a sharp-witted story of a young New York woman, Impossible Views of the World is way more fun than a rainy afternoon in the American Objects wing of a cavernous museum.”

Shelf Awareness

“[A] smart and singular debut novel…Ives maximizes her story’s humor with subtlety; a line here and there is enough to call attention to the absurdity of, for instance, the museum’s corporate benefactor’s attempt to secure the world’s water rights. She also isn’t afraid to make her heroine unlikable, which works in the novel’s favor…odd and thoroughly satisfying.”

Publishers Weekly

“I first knew Lucy Ives’s work as a poet, and to have her prose is a gift, too. The detailed novel she’s built with such authenticity, wit, and feeling is remarkable for its vitality, insights, and lyrical view of a changing world.”

— Hilton Als

“This book was written by a rampaging, mirthful genius. It stands before me like a runestone, magical, mysterious—an esoteric juggernaut masquerading as a ‘debut novel.’ During the days I spent reading it, I said goodbye to all else.”

— Elizabeth McKenzie

“There are abundant pleasures to be found in Lucy Ives’s debut novel about art curation, corporate control, and utopia (among many other subjects and digressions), but the best is the poetic, elegant intelligence of its narration, vocalized by Stella Krakus, whose every sentence wryly climbs from the ridiculous to the sublime.”

— Teddy Wayne

“Lucy Ives, a deeply smart and painstakingly elegant writer, wins the prize with this intricate, droll, stylish book—at once a mystery novel, a romantic comedy, a tricky essay on aesthetics, an exposé of art-world foibles, and a diary of emotional distress. With sharp phrases, uncanny plot-turns, and mise-en-abymes galore, this mesmerizing tale radiates the haute irreality of Last Year at Marienbad and the dreamy claustrophobia of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, this time for adults only.”

— Wayne Koestenbaum


Date: August 1, 2017

Publisher: Penguin Press

Format: Print

Genre: Fiction

Purchase here.


In hardcover.

The Hermit


The Hermit is a catalog of thoughts concerning art and experience. Layering fragments of dreams, lists, games, conversations, poems, and notebooks, Lucy Ives offers an intimate look into one writer's practice—"The worst is my imagination: lushly underscoring everything."


Excerpt at BOMB.

Excerpts at The Poetry Foundation.


"Readers are invited to an inner conversation as the poet grapples with the idea of writing, the history of it, the creative act itself, and also the text as an object, asking permission to be seen (much as Ives permits herself to feel), to exist in the eyes of others, and to participate in the canon. What saves the book from being merely being a treatise or a personal journal is that the reader is taken along on the creative journey; Ives muses about another author or a technique, such as the idea of description, and the page transforms into an experimental playground where she produces gorgeous passages of lush imagery."

Publisher's Weekly

"'This is a poem about trying to write a novel,' Ives writes, daring us to read her poem The Hermit like a novel, or at least as a poet’s desire to write a novel. 'When I was 13 I swore to myself that I would become a novelist,' she continues. In fact she already has: Her impressive publications credits include both poetry (including her excellent collection Orange Roses) and even a novel, nineties, a bildungsroman focused on a young woman coming of age during that decade. She is an editor for Triple Canopy, a magazine and arts organization committed to 'resisting the atomization of culture' and who assembled an installation as part of the 2015 Whitney Biennial. Earlier this year it was announced she’d sold her second novel to Penguin, titled Impossible Views of the World. Ives hasn’t just fulfilled the promise to made by her 13-year-old self, she has documented what it took to get her there. In clumsier hands, this would come off as diaristic. In Ives’s, it’s art."

The Culture Trip

"Like the paintings of Agnes Martin or the films of Nathaniel Dorsky, the most important character in Ives’s prose is its reader. In the white space underneath these notes my own mind’s wanderings take on what is not exactly an importance, but a space for reading and thinking. I move around in this writing, and become aware of my moving around within it, and consider not only the shape of the writing, but my own shape as its reader. In other words, Ives’s writing encourages its readers to consider their own power and form among the reality they encounter."

MAKE Magazine

"Throughout The Hermit recur images of dwellings, both simple and extravagant, and they take on the weight of allegory from the outset. The first of these appear in '3,' where Ives’s author notes: 'I write, inconclusively, ‘All culminating in the image of a dwelling: It indicates a secret life…’' This secret life, for the poet-critic, comes into existence only where the mystery of desired knowledge can be apprehended, where she can sit down by the hearth and be with it. She dreams this is where her path will lead her."

Full Stop

"Imagine if all you had was phenomenology, and then that faded, making every legibility left behind look like scare quotes around the word "thought." Lucy Ives is smart in that heart-breaking way that can make a spare, suspicious, elegant work of anti-poetry out of the silent treatment between ideas and those who have them. 'You cannot win,' says The Hermit, in that cognitive territory unoccupied by ease."

— Anne Boyer

"Stray thoughts are the protagonists of The Hermit—they might be the after effects of intense focus, yet come across as decidedly eccentric in their resistance to systems (i.e. genre) that might dull their prismatic luminescence. Here they deliver proof of parataxis's poiesis. Ives's exquisite take on ellipsis as realism is a dream, as both vision and something that fully satisfies a wish."

— Mónica de la Torre


Date: July 1, 2016

Publisher: The Song Cave

Format: Print

Genre: Mixed; prose poetry, aphorisms, games, memoir

Purchase here.


The Hermit.




Reading from The Hermit in fall 2015.

Human Events


Human Events is an essay pamphlet, published by Flying Object in 2016.

The essay concerns human events and how to write about them. It was composed during an iteration of Flying Object's ResidencyX, from January 2nd to January 18th, 2015. The title of the residency was "Real Allegory." The focus of the residency was described in the following way:

What can research contribute to writing not based in fact? How, more specifically, might we imagine the potential of historical documents and artifacts to teach us about what is not the case, what cannot be, what is excluded or merely (and perhaps eternally and enticingly) possible? And how does a literary construction such as narrative or a trope such as metonymy find its place in the writing of history?

Treating historiography as a poetics—as a discipline concerned with fabrication, contingent meaning, and aesthetic power, as much as objective analysis and proof—this iteration of ResidencyX will include a lecture, workshop, and exhibition. These events will address the question of how the writing of history can serve as a model for other kinds of writing, depiction, and creation, around and beyond the discipline of history. Also explored: the relationship between historical modes of American art making and artistic collaboration, and contemporary practice.

Installation views of the related exhibition.

View of related library.

Related workshop.

Related interview in The Believer.


Date: March 1, 2016

Publisher: Flying Object

Format: Print

Genre: Literary theory

Currently sold out.


The cover.


Reading from Human Events at The Poetry Project in winter 2017.



nineties is an unforgettable novella about credit-card fraud, the end of the 20th century, and the lives of young girls. A deceptively simple and clear-eyed look at adolescence at the dawn of American hypercapitalism, nineties is a cautionary tale, rendered in riveting, lucid prose; a narrative of innocence and experience and the intoxicating nature of first friendships.


Excerpt at Triple Canopy.


"Alien, canny, and alert... . So precise as to sometimes feel punishing, nineties is a brief, formal, forceful book. In it, Ives employs an economy of language that undoes the extreme fecundity of the material culture she describes. As a work of literature, it asks: How can writing be a motor for social revaluation?"


"I couldn’t help thinking of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers while reading nineties. The adolescent shenanigans of the girls in that movie are definitely higher-stakes. They involve sticking up a restaurant (with fake guns) for money to go on spring break, ending up in jail, then falling in with a local thug, sticking up other spring breakers with him, and climatically using actual guns to take out an entire rival gang. These girls are older than the characters in nineties, but it’s a similar pattern of behavior in that there is no forethought or concern about potential repercussions. They are 'playing with fate' and are turned on by it. I think this is true of every generation, nineties or otherwise. Perhaps it’s just true of youth. The scary thing about this playing with fate is that said fate can be accessed in further and more nuanced ways aside from just credit fraud. The Internet and social media can inspire such cruel, desperate, and depressing behavior (think of all the stories of kids who kill themselves because they are bullied online, because of their sexuality or otherwise), and we are still learning how this behavior will be understood through the eyes of a generation of humans who have never experienced life without it."

The Rumpus


Date: June 1, 2013

Publisher: Tea Party Republicans (Little A, 2015 republication)

Format: Print

Genre: Fiction

Currently out of print.


The original cover design.


Second edition cover.


Reading from nineties in fall 2013.

The Worldkillers


The Worldkillers is a book including poems, a novella, and an essay.


"Ives ... is quickly developing into a poet of sentences on par with the poem-essays of Lisa Roberston and Phil Hall for their sharp blend of lyric, thought and wit."

— Rob McLennan

Poem. Novel. Essay. Here is a literary triptych whose panels swing from one another unfettered by geometry in wide and wild arcs. But there are hinges. Think of the upkeep of the minotaur at the center of what can only be the labyrinthine mind of Lucy Ives. This particular creature feeds on its own enclosure. Who said time is eternity turned into a moving image? How does this work on the page? As soon as Ives allows things focus, she pulls back, revealing a small component of a larger construct, but never anything objective and irreducibly whole. Thus, effectively her subject and obsession is not the demarcation of time, but the inability of time to be properly or comparatively enacted. What if Stein and Paul Éluard were a single poet? What if Wittgenstein, Elaine Scarry, and Charles and Ray Eames collaborated on a novelization of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits? What if Robbe-Grillet and Hélène Cixous were to re-write The Duino Elegies as an essay? Daedalus never built anything quite like this. Good luck getting out.

— Noah Eli Gordon

The Worldkillers is a strange and beautiful novel of numerology written in the course of a day; it is also a brilliant essay on description. But it begins with singing. Lucy Ives ushers us into her newest book via a series of mediations on repetition and transformation. “I saw” unfurls down the page, eventually becoming “I was,” but not before so many things turn in on, and thus into, themselves. This is not some simple reconfiguration of Decartes’ “cogito ergo sum” whereby vision replaces thinking. Neither thinking nor seeing are proof of being. Ives reminds us that language, image, and description are merely operations we perform, beautiful and useful as they may be. Nothing overrides “the physical world[’s]…indomitable reality,” try as we might to kill it. In the face of our love and disregard for this world, Ives gives us a book so unsettling and so stunning that we “either say no words or weep into” the worlds she so generously offers. These are worlds I gratefully receive.

— Sasha Steensen

Lucy Ives's The Worldkillers is so much fun. Like a sick-and-gorgeous dollhouse not-meant-for-kids and come-to-life. Or like a series of Daguerre's Dioramas with lights flickering in windows and pale blue smoke lifting out the chimneys. Anything might happen! Yet only one thing can, because this is a book. But will it be horrible? Gruesome? Grand?

— Danielle Dutton


Date: September 1, 2015

Publisher: SplitLevel Texts

Format: Print

Genre: Mixed

Purchase here.


From the book's interior.

Orange Roses


A The Believer Reader Survey Book of the Year for 2013.

An Entropy Magazine Best Poetry Book of 2014.

One of Flavorwire's 50 Best American Poetry Books of the Decade So Far.

Written over a 10-year timeframe, Orange Roses enacts a poet’s development: the process of her discovering what a poem might be. In this work, there is hardly a difference between dream and reality—the line between that which exists and that which is merely a construction of perspective is blurred in any attempt to portray a given experience. Ives questions not only what we can get away with, in attempting to add to or alter whatever “poetry” or “literature” might officially be—but, too, what will we be able to take away? Writing is less about choosing between worlds, she suggests in this exploratory book, than it is about existing in one where life and our perceptions thereof are complementary.


"Orange Roses" at Conjunctions.

"Beastgardens" at The Poetry Foundation.

"Early Poem" at The Poetry Foundation.

"On Imitation" at Triple Canopy.


“Though lyric in its form, Orange Roses is a coming-of-age narrative that unfolds against the backdrops of college, California, cityscapes, and an American art conference. Explicitly influenced by the work of George Oppen, Ives takes accretion as her lodestar, moving fluidly from analysis to aphorism, concept to sonnet, and paragraph to fragment. . . . Ives is a poet of aporia or lack, seeking to discover what exists by examining what is absent: poetry ‘is not a question of relating language to a person one is but rather of relating it to the exact person one is not.’ Orange Roses is autobiography composed of its omissions.”

Boston Review

"'Mind-blowing' is an overused phrase when describing books, but with Orange Roses, it fits the bill. 'Thought-provoking' would be an understatement."

Coe Review

"Ives’s raw material is the refreshing stuff of life, the mind and the body. The genuine is trickier territory, but I think for all her concerns with imitation and transference, this is a book about the wonder of discovering yourself as writer in language."

Constant Critic

"In which a maturing writer look[s] back on her younger self with a kind of wild surmise, amazing herself by where she has been, and amazing us by where she might go."


“Lucy Ives’s Orange Roses is a thrilling book. It is also brilliant, hard-earned and honest. In the acute materiality of its poems—part diary/travelogue, part theatrical event, part philosophy—fervently anti-chronological—it is an urgent (albeit always witty and wry) inquiry into the aesthetic set of mind and the act of making. One could say it is an undressing of the readerly act, of the eye itself and its habit of ‘tugging incessantly forward.’ In fact, Ives’ work contests that forwardness and, in its numerous sequences (most vividly in the stunning ‘Early Poem’ and ‘Orange Roses’) she undertakes to imagine alternatives to the no-longer-apparently-natural forces of progress and growth. In this it is also an urgently political book—but without a trace of polemic. Its politics are where they do the most work—in its form and in its poetics. Ives’ work is certain in its undoing of certainty; it has an unforgettable voice as it strips itself of voiced identity; it summons a deeply trusted narrator in a work which cunningly challenges that trust. What illusions are to be left standing? That you cannot improvise the truth. That you can go backwards. That you cannot start over. That you must. The erasures and reappearances of figure and ground—that hard drama—have rarely been so movingly undertaken. A heartbreakingly beautiful work.”

— Jorie Graham

“I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Orange Roses. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. Especially do I marvel at ‘Early Poem,’ the prose poem sonnet sequence that counts its one hundred sentences with great delicacy, freshness, wit, surprise, and wisdom. Original in form and expression, it brings us to attention, thereby to the real, and the leap mid-sentence from one page to another is dazzling. I’m serious. Here we have objectivist vivacity and accuracy near the U-Haul headquarters in Emerson’s America. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the poems ‘Orange Roses’ and ‘On Imitation,’ is a sober certainty—read the latter as a prospectus for the new poetry. To quote an earlier work, ‘If one follows one’s understanding rather / than resisting: pleasure.’”

— Paul Hoover


Date: October 15, 2013

Publisher: Ahsahta Press, Boise State University

Format: Print

Genre: Poetry, essay

Purchase here.


The cover.


On the vine.



Novel is a poetry chapbook.


"I wonder at times what a genuinely philosophical poetry might look like; I know it wouldnt look like philosophy. I suspect it might bear real resemblance to the poems that Lucy Ives is writing in Novel. Such poems accept confusion without reveling in it. Such poems trouble themselves by working toward song in the very realm where thought and perception divide and grow quarrelsome. They forsake Truth with its capital T for truthfulness: an attention to consequence, a willingness to become complicated without false reverence thereof, 'the knot so language would have / mention // of what it later did.' These are poems remarkably without idols; and by that I simply mean that these poems seek to 'follow one's understanding rather / than resisting.' It just happens to be the truthful case that one doesn't always understand ones understanding, and the pleasure of the poem is inextricable from its necessity: an accompaniment into the world that refuses to be domesticated by thought, the very world in which one loves what she loves, the very world in which one makes her home."

— Dan Beachy-Quick


Date: February 1, 2012

Publisher: Projective Industries

Format: Print

Genre: Poetry

Out of print.


The cover.



Anamnesis is a long poem. It was the winner of the 2008 Slope Editions Book Prize.

It was also recorded and released as a 12" by Flying Object/Unicorn Evil, in 2011.

"The word 'anamnesis' relates to how a person arrives at knowledge. In the Platonic sense, it suggests the recollection of ideas which the soul knew in a previous life. In a clinical sense, it is the full medical history as told by a patient; in the Christian sense, it is a Eucharistic prayer; and in immunology, it is a strong immune response. All of these meanings relate to the central concept of this fine collection, how a writer 'finds' and/or 'makes' meaning and deals with the temporary nature of the act, how even our most vital life stories are provisional at best, and how erasure becomes part of the process itself. We are asked to reflect on what previous life brought these sentences to the page, what history of illness or wellness caused the words to form this way, what invisible prayer was erased even before meaning was posited."

— Maxine Chernoff, from the Introduction


Excerpt in Typo.

An excerpt included in UPD's 6x6 lent that particular issue of the periodical its title.

Audio at Triple Canopy.


"Powered by the refrain-directive 'write,' and 'cross out,' the content of Lucy Ives’ most recent work, Anamnesis, remains under active, sustained deliberation throughout. In this single long poem, her first book, Ives stalls writing at its inception so that a central question—what can be acceptably written here?—hovers over the poem and induces it."


"This is an important book: I’ll come back to it."

With Hidden Noise

"The simple concept Ives has chosen for her collection of poems is ingenious. Anamnesis belongs not among stacks of experimental poetry, but with the ambitions of conceptual visual artists who sought to replace the object with the assumptions and intentions behind it: Rauschenberg’s erasures of de Kooning or Ceci n’est pas une pipe are closer to the kind of infinite aesthetics of Anamnesis than those of contemporary poetry. Ives has replaced the book with the act of reading and response. The book does not become the book, does not become itself, until we engage with it. For the elegance of its iteration alone, it merits our attention."

Tarpaulin Sky

"By not holding to one thought, Ives triggers many; we become the writer and the reader of multiple poems. Anamnesis is a new reminder of the fluidity of our roles and our memories. The reader’s experience is not passive, and the stylistic choice to expose poems and the writing of them for what they truly are—decisions and regrets and half-truths—is refreshing."

The Colorado Review

"Ives highlights the poetic occupation of establishing comparative structures only to torment the linguistic foundations on which they are based. The text occludes the making of a manageable recollection, since the thing remembered is at once mutable and disposable. This effect both carries and calcifies content: the afterimages of words and meanings appear and disappear in real time, and are reminiscent of the erasures and alterations found in William Kentridge’s animated films. Like Kentridge, Ives performs a kind of mental trickery as the medium allows for the appearance of progressions. Kentridge’s drawings—when captured in succession—create the illusion of movement, much as Ives’ constructions collect meaning—jerking through affirmations and negations, reflecting the false starts and reboots of living."

Lana Turner


Date: December 30, 2009

Publisher: Slope Editions

Format: Print

Genre: Poetry

Purchase here.


The book cover.


The 12" album cover.

My Thousand Novel

My Thousand Novel is a poetry chapbook.

You can download it as a PDF at right.


Date: January 1, 2009

Publisher: Cosa Nostra Editions

Format: Print

Genre: Poetry

Out of print.

On Adrian Piper

What can we learn from Adrian Piper's search for ethical ways of being?

THE VIDEO CONCLUDED “A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016,” Adrian Piper’s recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.[1] Two friends had recommended it in high terms, and so I went, on a Tuesday in late May of 2018, and was treating it—the video, that is—incorrectly, as the beginning of the show.

In Adrian Moves to Berlin, Piper dances to “selected Berlin house music of the early 2000s.”[2] She’s in Alexanderplatz, Berlin’s storied central pedestrian zone, site of a weird, squat world time clock and the Brunnen der Völkerfreundschaft (Fountain of Friendship among Peoples), along with the former GDR’s prize television tower. The square’s Stalinist desolation has been updated since reunification—notably with a shopping mall. However, save for the clock, the shot is too tight for us to make out these monuments to globalized space and time. We hear house music and see Piper in motion in jeans, blazer, pink scarf, sunglasses. It’s possible that Piper, dancing, is not listening to a recording—though from time to time we see her touch her ear, as if adjusting small headphones. She may have memorized the composition, as she did for her 1971–72 performance, Aretha Franklin Catalysis, in which she danced to Franklin’s “Respect” without playing a (publicly) audible track.

Adrian Moves to Berlin, as I later learned by reading a text on Piper’s website, was shot on a Monday in late March 2007 at lunchtime. The video’s title points up a related logistical matter: Piper has relocated to Berlin from the United States, and Piper is “moving to the beat of Berlin,” if we can suffer that expression. She’s at once displaced and attentive to location and time. Piper’s lack of constraint regarding passersby, some of whom seem to shift to acknowledge and even stiffly celebrate her, is a demonstration of autonomy—in particular, freedom of movement—even as we understand that this is an artwork about interpersonal relations in public space.

On MoMA’s sixth floor, meanwhile, in spring of 2018, there were at least two popular ways of engaging with the video, which was projected onto a wall beside the exhibition’s exit. Some people would come up to it and begin dancing along, sometimes so that their friends could photograph them or make a video. Others would assume an attitude similar to those passing through Alexanderplatz on March 26, 2007: they drifted by, commenting on the anomaly of the spectacle. Look at her, they said, sometimes appreciatively, sometimes with an air of confusion. I studied these responses, enjoying them as if they were works of art in themselves—an echo that seemed part of the point. I wanted to dance too, and maybe I did, shyly, standing off to the side. I began to be subject to fantasies about personal agency and started walking through the exhibition in reverse.

“A Synthesis of Intuitions” (now at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as “Concepts and Intuitions”) is a comprehensive show, painstakingly organized in strict chronological order. It was also, as size-conscious individuals noted at the time, the largest exhibition of work by a living artist held at MoMA, filling the entire floor. Traveling backward thus had consequences. I experienced trepidation before The Humming Room (2012), a small room I had to pass through in order to access the rest of the exhibition. Above the entrance was a sign: in order to enter the room, you must hum a tune. any tune will do. OK, I thought. Within the room stood a security guard, who, although currently distracted, was probably empowered to enforce the imperative. I wasn’t sure if I knew how to hum recognizably in public and was concerned, however ridiculously, that if I did not manifest the correct behavior I would be asked to leave. Some of my disorientation probably had to do with the fact that I was coming early, as far as the show’s narrative was concerned, to The Humming Room. Piper explains in an interview, quoted in the exhibition catalogue, that this space is intended as a “kind of pressure valve that allows viewers to let off steam, to release [their] anger and tension and anxiety” after they have passed through the “Corridor of Pain,” her works of the 1990s treating racism and misogyny, trauma, and America’s history of violence and police brutality.[3] But the “Corridor of Pain” was still on the other side of the room for me. I procrastinated, hovering at what was properly the exit of The Humming Room, studying Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment, a self-portrait from September 2012 that combines text in white typewriter font with a photographic image of Piper’s smiling face that has been printed in an artificial gray. The text announces her decision to “change my racial and nationality designations” to “6.25% grey, honoring my 1/16th African heritage” and “Anglo-German American, reflecting my preponderantly English and German ancestry.” I lingered on the exclamation point at the end of the declaration: “Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile institutional control!” Nearby was a photolithograph, Imagine [Trayvon Martin] (2013), with Martin’s face on a white field printed in an extremely faint, pale gray overlaid with prominent red crosshairs. Beneath Martin’s chin, a sentence rendered in purple typewriter font reads, “Imagine what it was like to be me.” There is no punctuation. With this ellipsis in mind, I ducked into The Humming Room. My humming was literal. It went, “Hum, hum, hum.” The guard had a non-reaction and I stepped to the other side.

I reflected that before entering The Humming Room, speaking of “institutional control,” I had failed, in an important sense. I had been so focused on the directive (you must hum a tune) and, relatedly, on the task of acquitting myself faultlessly as a normal museumgoer, that I had lost track of what was at stake. I had perceived the letter of the law (you must hum) without intuiting its spirit, its ironies, its will to distinguish. I’d striven, ludicrously, to behave correctly, to enter into the law’s good graces, even as Piper’s recent works had already impressed upon me the incontrovertible historical and contemporary fact that the letter of American law is infernal and subtle, its clarity a dissimulation.

Though I had focused on Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment and Imagine [Trayvon Martin], there were other works—and other words—to read on the subject of institutional control. howdy says an unapologetic no-entry symbol Piper projects onto a locked door, for example, in her 2015 Howdy #6 [Second Series]. And Never Forget (2016) appropriates the nationalist slogan of September 11, 2001, as the title of a graphic exploration of Piper’s family tree. The genealogical diagram at the lower left of the print montage reveals that her white, formerly slave-holding great-great-grandfather became “colored” in his legal death record, through his marriage to Piper’s great-great-grandmother, who, “[paid him] a thousand dollars in order to obtain her freedom and the freedom of her four children.” Piper couples this detailed elaboration of the administrative workings of America’s racial caste system with another archival revelation and appropriation, an image of the official 2008 letter she received, summarily revoking her appointment as a professor of philosophy and dismissing her from Wellesley College.

Piper’s 2015 Golden Lion–winning Venice Biennale installation, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, on the other hand, allows visitors entrée into an apparently more livable bureaucratically managed community, under the auspices of which, at a series of three reception desks staffed by attentive young people, they may pledge always to “be too expensive to buy,” “say what I mean,” and “do what I say I am going to do.” The plain language associated with these and other artworks gave me opportunity to contemplate my own decision-making process, along with the sorts of prompts I was most receptive to. I noted that sometimes I wanted to be independent and sometimes to imitate or join. Sometimes I was thrown back into the problem of not knowing what to do or how to understand the environment, and sometimes problems beyond my own individual actions or experience loomed larger, pointing me out as a subject of history. Overall, I found that the present—present time, present action, present thought—was getting thicker, more specific, more challenging in its detail.

As I continued my walk backward, back into Piper’s work of the 1990s, ’80s, ’70s, and late ’60s, I considered her recent imperatives (“Please join,” “Imagine,” “Never forget,” etc.), along with my own inability to trust either the contract offered by The Humming Room or my own actions within that room, though I had decided to enter. I reflected that—no great epiphany this—contracts, social and otherwise, are tricky. Subject to spontaneous revision, reinterpretation, and disintegration, among other forms of unwanted variance, they tend to function one way in theory and another in practice. I reflected, too, that the author of these works was a professor of meta-ethics and, therefore, in some non-negligible sense, an expert on trust.

BEING AN ANALYTIC philosopher isn’t easy. I know because I made brief attempts at the close of the last century, as an eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-old. Most memorable was a course on Kant’s ethics taught by Christine Korsgaard. The Harvard University lecture hall was packed, largely with young men who wore shorts in winter and claimed math courses were a leisure activity. It provoked in me a feeling of extreme discomfort. Though I was at the time unaware that anything related to my identity could determine which disciplines I could and could not pursue, and though Korsgaard herself was female, there was a definite chill. I chose to believe that the chill was mostly due to the way in which the discipline treated language. The notion that a paragraph could be converted—clarified—into a formal grammar, a raft of specific propositions, felt artificial and alien, at least to me, who was unused to words being valued for the stability of their meanings. I was otherwise spending most of my time being a comparative literature major who had just discovered German poetry (Celan, Novalis) and, in a stroke of genius and desperation, had convinced my teaching assistant to let me write a final paper for Korsgaard on a single word in The Metaphysics of Morals. I said nothing all semester, save in the T.A.’s office hours, where I struggled to put in a relevant (to the field, at least) thought.

Thus, it may not be specific enough, particularly in the context of contemporary visual art, to say that Adrian Piper is “a philosopher.” The everyday valence of this term, given the existence, for example, of Slavoj Žižek, who is also, yes, “a philosopher,” can obscure the rigor and technical specificity of what those who work in the analytic tradition do, particularly since it is a method that embraces not just conceptual clarity but empiricism. Given the tendency on the part of art institutions to casually solicit the tidings of adjacent disciplines, particularly those concerned with language, we are accustomed to encountering professional philosophers in galleries and museums. Usually these philosophers, phenomenologists and ideologues (I use the latter term without pejorative intent), offer broad humanistic themes, not unambiguous logical forms. Piper, in her role as an analytic philosopher, works with logic, deploying specific techniques to address discrete problems with identifiable results, though more popular notions such as value(s) and history also come in for consideration.

Piper has taken care to explain that her work in philosophy, her “day job,” as she writes, is not a mirror image, in another guise, of her work in visual art—or, for that matter, an uncomplicated extension of her study and practice of yoga—and vice versa.[4] Though there was a craze among Conceptual artists and others for the analytic tradition’s linguistic turn during the heyday of the so-called dematerialization of the art object, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (“All philosophy is a ‘critique of language.’”) has persisted as a figure of fascination in the American humanities, there has been little cross-pollination between the fields of visual art and analytic philosophy, generally speaking.[5]

I am not proposing to initiate the process of cross-pollination here.[6] I don’t have the skills necessary to the task; moreover, I’m not sure that one career need be deployed to interpret another. But it does seem worth clarifying that Piper is a distinguished philosopher. She is the first woman of African descent to receive academic tenure in a field notoriously lacking in diversity in the United States, and among her many achievements is the inclusion of her 1984 paper, “Two Conceptions of the Self,” in the Philosophers’ Annual, a selection of the top ten papers from a given year, among the highest honors a paper can receive. This paper in turn forms the basis for Rationality and the Structure of the Self, Piper’s two-volume magnum opus, a work some three decades in the making, which Piper describes as the fullest expression of her engagement with Kant, ongoing since the 1960s.

As a philosopher, Piper points up her interest in employing means and ends that are congruent. As she writes in the first chapter of Rationality and the Structure of the Self, philosophers do philosophy in no small part because philosophy requires the exercise of the “buoyant device” of reason, and exercising reason suggests a respect for the rational capacity of others, as well as the existence of something called “transpersonal rationality,” i.e., “principled rational dispositions—to consistency, coherence, impartiality, impersonality, intellectual discrimination, foresight, deliberation, self-reflection, and self-control—that enable us to transcend the overwhelming attractions of comfort, convenience, profit, gratification . . . and self-deception.”[7] Most if not all of Rationality and the Structure of the Self is about showing how this account of the self, a Kantian account, is not only superior to David Hume’s account of the self as primarily egocentric, but in fact the account of the self that already undergirds Humean descriptions. According to Piper, it’s essentially a revision of the entire contemporary analytic field, which she suggests is necessary on practical as well as empirical grounds, as:

When teachers fail to impart a love of philosophy to their undergraduate students, or drive graduate students, traumatized, out of their classes and out of the field, it is often because these elemental guidelines for conducting the enterprise—guidelines that express the simple truth that a love of philosophy is incompatible with feeling humiliated or trounced or arrogant or self-congratulatory for one’s contributions to it—have been ignored.[8]

I can’t judge whether Piper is entirely successful in her enterprise in this book, but I was interested enough to read its thousand-plus pages in PDF form, having downloaded it from her website. A technical work to be sure, it is also beautifully written, full of humor and broadly applicable wisdom. I found, in reading it, that I wished that as a graduate student I had had such a professor. Indeed, my reaction and Piper’s own references to the state of the academy in this text and elsewhere, along with her accounts of her professional and personal experiences there, indicate another wrinkle in the circulation and reception of her work: She repeatedly maintains that the field of analytic philosophy is beset by unethical, prejudicial practices; that it can no longer reproduce itself with integrity. Rationality and the Structure of the Self is launched as a theoretical and practical corrective.

If I go to, I can view a video and other materials that explain why Piper elected to publish her masterwork with her own nonprofit, the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation (APRA) in Berlin, even though it was accepted by Cambridge University Press.[9] Piper rejected the prestigious press’s offer, in part because its publicity department asked for cuts to her text. Her refusal to alter her work in any way in order that it might appear with a certifying imprint is an example of a decision to think of images and texts as more than “mere” representations of reality, to reconcile ends and means. Piper has taken care to treat Rationality and the Structure of the Self as an act with practical and ethical consequences, as well as an object or series of messages.

WE MIGHT SAY something similar of the publications that accompany “A Synthesis of Intuitions.” Though we have the predictable oversize catalogue, with its luscious full-color reproductions, there are two additional hefty tomes, Adrian Piper: A Reader, published by MoMA, and Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir, published by the APRA Foundation. These two publications serve, if differently, as useful gestures in relation to the show. Cornelia Butler and David Platzker write, in their introductory “Adrian Piper: Reading the Work,” in the MoMA reader, that they “encourage readers to consider this book as a kind of communal interpretive mural project.”[10] Though the collection has the standard exegetical function of a grouping of catalogue essays, it also functions like a Festschrift and consolidates, deepens, and expands previous accounts of Piper’s career; it likely replaces earlier tomes as the definitive critical compendium, given the various writers’ wide-ranging research interests and areas of expertise. Escape to Berlin, meanwhile, is at once a more and less complex story.

Readers of Piper’s writings in what she has termed “meta-art,” know that she is capable of trenchant analysis and rigorous style.[11] But Escape to Berlin is a different sort of writing, tonally distinct: it is concerned with autobiography, and although Piper repeatedly states that she cannot be concerned with what the reader thinks, the book sounds and feels intimate. It is a first-person narrative about Piper’s childhood, her experiences with family, and her professional life as a philosopher. The book mentions Piper’s career as an artist, but it is not primarily about this aspect of her work. Rather, the memoir focuses on Piper’s loving relationship with her parents and extended family, how she came to have awareness of the world, the ways in which “the American caste system, based on the imagined binary opposition between ‘black’ and ‘white’ ‘races’” affected Piper’s family and Piper herself—particularly through her father’s abandonment by his own white father—and the ways in which Piper’s experience of familial love and societal corruption played out in her work as a professor of analytic philosophy, a field from which she would eventually need, as the title suggests, to escape.[12]

Piper describes a dangerous “dissociation of theory from practice” in contemporary analytic philosophy and throughout the academy, the reign of the “popular rule derived from Socrates’ [sic] execution.”[13] Her adviser, the moral and political philosopher John Rawls, was supportive only when it was convenient for him to be so and, as Piper maintains, effectively wrote her out of the canon by neglecting to cite her work in his own. Others were devious and competitive, when not openly racist and sexist: There is, and this is a beautiful string of descriptors, the “most subterranean, efficient, and easily angered among [Piper’s] colleagues,” who at her first job contrived to create a climate that made it impossible for Piper to receive tenure.[14] I’m giving just one example, but what is clear in this account is the hostility of the academy in general to those who are not male and white and who speak their minds, as well as the particularly closed and conformist nature of the field of philosophy. These are not new complaints, but what is unusual is to see someone lay out the sequence of events in such detail, how it is possible to progress from the happy moment at which one is a desirable prospective graduate student, courted by faculty, to the state of being a threat and serious inconvenience, in spite of, or perhaps because of, one’s achievements. As we have recently seen powerful tenured academics publicly attribute “malicious” intent to a student, it is quite illuminating to see an individual with tenure—who was in theory in a protected position in the academy—describe an environment in which viciousness and paranoia reign, to the detriment of thoughtful pedagogy.[15] And, in this case, it is Piper’s description—which is to say, a description offered by someone whose embrace of the Socratic imperative to align theory and practice, word and deed, means and ends, has given her not just a logical rationale to protest but a professional obligation to do so.

A metaphorical image appears throughout the account, of “a sprout, a tiny sapling slowly and laboriously pushing its way above ground and emerging into the air.” For Piper, this sprout is an analogy for “the self you really are.”[16] Now a doctor of comparative literature and definitely not an analytic philosopher, I find it striking, for literary reasons, that this sounds a lot like a central metaphor of Platonic and Aristotelian poetics, in which personal action (including artistic creation) is thought through using the coming-into-being of nature as a model. Presumably, this sprout also has to do with Kant’s epigenetic conception of pure reason, in which innate mental capacities, Erkenntnisvermögen, or “faculties of cognition,” synthesize external experiential data, along with representational processes that are fundamentally prior to experience. However, and perhaps most importantly, the image of this sprout is a place in Piper’s writing in which her “three hats” come together for a moment, and we can understand the larger project; the kind of self and cultivation of self that is at stake.

Commentators have been perplexed by Piper’s narrative of her clashes with philosophy departments and with Wellesley College, in particular.[17] Can it be true that a smallish women’s liberal arts institution aggressively attacked an artist and scholar of Piper’s standing, who—and this is perhaps the kicker—stands for the sorts of values of inclusion, reasoned critique, and historical reflection that the college is presumably desirous of fostering? Can it be accurate that Piper’s complaints feel only vaguely substantiated (as Piper maintains, she was able to fully identify and address many harmful actions only years after the fact)? Is it reasonable for Piper to have left the United States, to have claimed she did so under mortal threat?[18] And, why didn’t she come to the opening of her own show? Is there not something missing here, some part of the story withheld from us, some simple written fact or other piece of evidence that might drop from the sky to clarify what has gone on? Yet it is also the case that Piper’s protest does not begin with Escape to Berlin or the opening of “A Synthesis of Intuitions.” Piper has been writing about these matters for years.[19] The renewed exploration of the truth status of her claims in Escape to Berlin feels like an extension of considerations that have long been a feature of critics’ and others’ responses: We are not analytic philosophers; can we “trust” Piper’s philosophical texts? We are not appreciators of art (in fact, we are analytic philosophers); can we “trust” Piper’s celebrated art? And there is the matter of art criticism itself: can critics be trusted not to misrepresent Piper’s work? And, conversely, can critics trust Piper not to dismantle their assertions in public, or, rather, trust that she will do exactly that?[20]

TO RETURN TO THAT past version of me, the one who was walking backward through “A Synthesis of Intuitions” on a Tuesday afternoon in May of 2018, I reflected that the present now frequently takes the form of an online survey or option to “like” or re-blog some chad of content, and Piper’s long-standing practice of employing, altering, and criticizing news media in her work feels particularly compelling and relevant. I considered the “Vanilla Nightmares” series of the late 1980s, in which Piper annotated the New York Times with muscular dark-skinned figures, some of whom are equipped with sleek erect penises, along with the ambiguous Mythic Being’s meme-like iteration in the early 1970s as a series of ads in the Village Voice. These works speak to the state of media in our time, and, notably, to the isolating condition of digitally born “bubbles” of sentiment and resentment, under the discursive regime of which we now suffer. Piper’s works from her 1990s “Corridor of Pain” identify a hunger for sameness, depicting how the insecurity of white identity expresses itself through a combination of spectacular pity and fear, alongside tacit acquiescence to the ongoing reproduction of a discriminatory system. The “Vanilla Nightmares” series, just previous to this period, suggests that blank passages in newspaper advertisements and fields of article text are surfaces onto which readers project illusory images generated by racist anxiety and desire. Piper’s illustrations make these fantasies visible—revealing the New York Times as a locus of violent, divisive, and irrational feeling, in spite of its ambition to deal in fairness and trustworthy information. Meanwhile, the Mythic Being is a means of inserting a complex persona—a face and accompanying speech bubble that inspire sustained and careful examination—into the everyday circulatory space of an advertising section. Rescuing text and images of the public sphere of the news from a fate as mere representations, Piper turns them into sites for action, discursively “reflective” surfaces that can’t be fully stabilized, stilled, or assimilated to preexisting categories.

“A Synthesis of Intuitions” asks what role the faculty of reason has to play in an increasingly, if you will forgive the clichés, mediated and automated world: what are we doing with our capacity to represent, and what is it that our representations do? If soon it will be possible to employ artificial intelligence to counterfeit a unique voice, appearance, movement, email style, and so forth, what will it mean for us to consistently or believably “be ourselves,” and what sorts of expressions of identity will come to challenge algorithmic sorting and machine learning, among other increasingly pervasive acts of choice and mimicry accomplished on our behalf by software?

One answer to these questions is to be found in Piper’s emphasis in her philosophy on the crucial importance of transpersonal rationality, the exercise of reason with the presupposition of the rational capacity of others, along with the conviction that the flourishing of others’ reason, their logical perspicacity and ability to argue, is fundamental to one’s own flourishing. Transpersonal rationality renders disingenuous manipulation of others undesirable, from both objective and subjective points of view, as one’s own ability to exercise reason is dependent on the existence of undeceived others who seek to do the same.

Yet what are we to make of the apparently disingenuous Mythic Being, a male version of Piper in Afro wig and mustache, accessorized with mirrored sunglasses and cigarillo, who appeared as both a performance persona and in a series of images? The Mythic Being was, on the one hand, a disguise and, on the other, a tool for exploring interpersonal perception and behavior, along with the functioning of categories related to identity. Though a work of mimicry, the perfection of the Mythic Being’s drag/counterfeit was curiously limited by Piper’s use of passages from her childhood diary to supply much of his language, which appears most often as speech bubbles drawn on photographs. In one filmed performance from 1973, the Mythic Being strolls down a Manhattan street while reciting a fastidious mantra: “No matter how much I ask my mother to stop buying crackers, cookies, and things, she does anyway and says they’re for her, even if I always eat them, so I’ve decided to fast.”[21] Though it’s not clear to me what phrases would be properly congruent with the Mythic Being’s appearance, this sentence about aggressive self-control in relation to a solicitous mother seems stereotypically girlish to me. Thus, I don’t think that the point of the Mythic Being was to fool people into thinking that they were seeing a man, at least, not exclusively—I think that the point was to create an entity that did not physically resemble Piper but had Piper’s history, “an alternative of myself,” as Piper explains in her preparatory notes for the project. “A mythic being is timeless with reference to the actual history of the world. His own narrated personal history is either prior to the history of the world or unspecified in relation to that history,” she writes.[22]

In another image series, of 1974, The Mythic Being: I/You (Her), his characteristics progressively take over a photograph of Piper with a female friend from school who had betrayed Piper by secretly dating Piper’s boyfriend. Here the Mythic Being delivers an account of Piper’s pain at her friend’s deception and offers a warning: not to expect emotional closeness or mutual acknowledgment, that Piper will no longer be subject to this young woman’s predations. By 1975, the Mythic Being had become “a static emblem of alien confrontation . . . the personification of our subliminal hatreds and dissatisfactions,” present not just in Manhattan or in print, but also making embodied appearances in Harvard Square, sometimes to cruise white women and sometimes to mug Piper’s white male friend.[23] “I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear” reads his speech bubble in The Mythic Being: I Embody (1975).

THE VERSION OF me who was walking backward through the MoMA show in May 2018, and who therefore saw the 1975 Mythic Being image before the images from 1974 or 1973, had the experience of gazing at the full metamorphosis before the early stages. However, even before this, I saw the Mythic Being’s farewell tour, the vestiges of his visage in the form of a pencil mustache and sunglasses on Piper’s face made up in white makeup, 1975–76, when she performed Some Reflective Surfaces at the Whitney Museum. Some Reflective Surfaces was an exploration of her work as a go-go dancer and seems to have been the Mythic Being’s last public appearance, although by this time he was already a shadow of his former self. The Mythic Being was shifting, contingent; in other words, he was not the static image of a man, not a counterfeit person or false identity, but rather (“being”) a real verb.


Date: December 1, 2018

Publisher: Art in America

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Art in America, December 2018.


Cover image.


Video still.


Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment, 2012, digital image, dimensions variable.


The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear, 1975, oil crayon on gelatin silver print, 8 by 10 inches.

    1. The title of this essay refers to Facebook’s multiple-choice “Trust Survey,” released in January 2018, which consists of just two questions: “Do you recognize the following websites?” (Yes, No) and “How much do you trust each of these domains?” (Entirely, A lot, Somewhat, Barely, Not at all). This poll used respondents’ reactions to determine newsfeed rankings for publishers, effectively reducing traffic from Facebook to news publishers, overall, given the tendency of all news publishers to be untrustworthy in the eyes of some readers.
    1. Adrian Piper’s website features descriptive texts about most of her artworks, including Adrian Moves to Berlin,
    1. Adrian Piper quoted in Christophe Cherix, “Who Calls the Tune?,” in Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2018, p. 16.
    1. See Adrian Piper, “On Wearing Three Hats,” 1996, In this essay/interview she gives an account of the reception of her work in philosophy by her colleagues in the visual arts, many of whom reason that “since they are generally well-read and intelligent individuals, and since philosophy is a discursive discipline (rather than technical and symbolic like mathematics or physics), they should be able to grasp a specialized philosophical argument or text simply by reading it carefully. Given the turgid impenetrability of the deconstructionist texts in art theory they are expected to master, this is not an unrealistic expectation. But when they approach my work in philosophy with this attitude and discover that it is not that easy, they often react antagonistically or disparagingly, or simply withdraw.”
    1. The paradigmatic quotation of Wittgenstein is taken from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, proposition 4.0031. For one example of this philosopher as fantasy object for later twentieth-century art, see the telling title of David Markson’s 1988, Wittgenstein’s Mistress. An exception to the trend of bifurcation of analytic work and visual art are neo-Kantian efforts in the UK, in part influenced by the work of Art and Language, a Conceptual art collective in turn influenced by the natural language philosophy of Wittgenstein and other British practitioners.
    1. For a convincing account of links between Piper’s work as a philosopher and as a visual artist, see Diarmuid Costello’s “Xenophobia, Stereotypes and Empirical Acculturation: Neo-Kantianism in Adrian Piper’s Performative Conceptual Art,” in Adrian Piper: A Reader, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2018, pp. 166–215.
    1. Adrian Piper, Rationality and the Structure of the Self. Volume 1: The Humean Conception, Berlin, APRA Foundation, 2013, p. 1.
    1. Ibid., p. 9.
    1. For an account of the development and self-publication of this book, see Robert Del Principe, Adrian Piper Interview: Rationality and the Structure of Self, 2007–10, video interview, See also Lauren O’Neill-Butler, “Adrian Piper Speaks! (for Herself),” New York Times, July 5, 2018. Here Piper maintains that after she was asked to cut one hundred pages from the text, she withdrew it from consideration by Cambridge University Press.
    1. Cornelia Butler and David Platzker, “Adrian Piper: Reading the Work,” in Adrian Piper: A Reader, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2018, p. 7.
    1. Piper says that her writings on meta-art “focus on the presuppositions and conditions of particular works I did that I needed to explicate in order to clarify what I was doing and why, at times when the preoccupations of contemporary art criticism offered no fertile insights.” Adrian Piper, “Introduction: Some Very FORWARD Remarks,” Out of Order, Out of Sight, Selected Writings in Meta-Art, 1968–1992, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1999, p. xxix.
    1. Adrian Piper, Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir, Berlin, APRA Foundation, 2018, p. 233.
    1. Ibid., pp. 127, 99.
    1. Ibid., p. 115.
    1. I cite a now infamous letter written in support of Avital Ronell, a professor of comparative literature, in May 2018. When Ronell was accused of sexual harassment, a number of colleagues came to her defense, claiming privileged knowledge that “malicious intention has animated and sustained this legal nightmare,” in spite of the fact that “we have no access to the confidential dossier,” which described the charges. See:
    1. Piper, Escape to Berlin, p. 9.
    1. Thomas Chatterton Williams meditates on Piper’s accounts in “Adrian Piper’s Show at MoMA Is the Largest Ever for a Living Artist. Why Hasn’t She Seen It?,” New York Times Magazine, June 27, 2018.
    1. Piper writes in Escape to Berlin, “I knew in my gut (The College) wanted me dead. . . . I still think The College wants me dead; that it will want this even more once this memoir is published; and that, with its powerful international political and corporate connections, it will find a way to make this happen. I believe it will feel once again compelled to make an example of me, as a warning to others to keep their mouths shut,” pp. 223–225.
    1. See, for example, “On Wearing Three Hats,” which includes a detailed account of harassment she experienced in academia.
    1. See, for example, Adrian Piper, “Art Criticism Essay Suggested Guidelines,” 2016,
    1. Piper writes that she was never revealed to be a woman during the course of her performance as the Mythic Being. It was also a scenario in which she was, as she maintains, unable to pass as white. Thus, she experienced constraints related to racism but the liberty of being male. See Piper, “Notes on the Mythic Being I–III,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, pp. 116–139.
    1. Adrian Piper, “Preparatory Notes for The Mythic Being,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, p. 109.
    1. Piper, “Notes on the Mythic Being I–III,” in Out of Order, Out of Sight, p. 138.
On Raymond Roussel

Galerie Buchholz

Difficult author; reclusive aesthete; visionary fabricator of fantastic objects literary, conceptual, and material: The reputation of Raymond Roussel (1877–1933) often precedes him. In photographs he is a pale, impeccably groomed man with a resplendent moustache. A shy smile pairs oddly with the wild energy in his gaze. His writings, allegedly incomprehensible to all but the most committed appreciators of his day still receive less attention than his biography or, what is perhaps more accurate, legend.

Galerie Buchholz’s recent exhibition is the latest view into the Roussel annals. It also functions as a housewarming: Previously exclusively a Berlin concern, Buchholz now has a foothold near the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Behind the robust façade of a townhouse of the sort normally occupied by foreign embassies, Buchholz’s three-room offering of Rousseliana is an extremely welcome addition to the neighborhood and feels, more generally, like a happy return to a fan favorite. Roussel’s work never gets old—partly because of how strange it is, and partly because so few people have actually read it.

Roussel wrote long, formally and conceptually complex poems, as well as novels. He is best known for 1910’s Impressions of Africa, a novel that he published at his own expense and later mounted as an elaborately costumed play. The structure of the novel is famously based on the punning difference between two otherwise identical, seemingly insignificant phrases: les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard (white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table) and les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard (letters of a white man about the bands of the old pillager). Beginning with the first of these two arbitrary images, Roussel concludes 26 chapters later with the second; in the pages between, he describes the court of an imaginary African king at which, in a fantasy of colonialism reversed, a troupe of European entertainers are detained, forced to enact various impossible tableaux.

Like the prose of Marcel Proust, Roussel’s oeuvre marks the encounter of Victorian representational styles and ideas about time with those that come to characterize modernism. Unlike the prose of Marcel Proust, Roussel’s writings are not concerned with phenomenal reality. Instead, Roussel wants his readers to consider unreal visions already mediated by writing or other technologies, not experiences but rather images of experience; Roussel is a practitioner of the trope of ekphrasis, or description of another work of art in writing, par excellence. In Impressions of Africa, in what amounts to a displacement of lived time by performances and scientific experiments, unusual devices give rise to new images and texts. There are light-projecting plants; a glass-enclosed mechanical orchestra powered by the thermal sensitivity of bexium, an imaginary metal; a photo-mechanical painting machine. These “machines correspondantes,” as Gilles Deleuze called them, have the additional effect of rendering ornament essential rather than “removable,” as in Walter Pater’s formulation. For Pater—whose stylistic economy was influential for modernists from Proust to Ezra Pound—the “surplusage” of decorative language diminishes meaning. Pater’s rules are passionately flouted by Roussel, whose nearly nonsensical ekphrastic delays, or stoppages, produce exciting excursions into speculative artistic and scientific practice.

Galerie Buchholz helpfully parses Roussel’s relationship to Proust by means of the inclusion of two editions of Proust’s prose-poem collection, Les Plaisirs et les jours, published in 1896, the year before the appearance of Roussel’s first novel-in-verse, La Doublure. This juxtaposition is characteristic of what is most exciting about the show’s display of numerous books, which allows us to draw our own conclusions about the milieu in which one might have encountered these publications for the first time. Even more startling and immediate are enlargements of a series of Roussel family snapshots, some taken by Raymond, including a close-up of Madame Roussel and a pet dog with eyes that appear to be made of glass. Here we glimpse a largely unknown corner of the archive.

Yet far more space in this modest gallery is devoted to the better-known reception history: Roussel’s influence on artists from Marcel Duchamp (who attended a performance of Impressions of Africa) to Joseph Cornell to Marcel Broodthaers; the connection to Surrealism; the American poet John Ashbery’s oft-cited importation of Roussel’s work into American English; Michel Foucault’s early monograph. Such diverse adulation for the show’s subject is reassuring, but upon coming to the fourth vitrine stocked with untouchable publications, one begins to wonder what, in the age of, when bibliographies of obscure texts can be instantly formulated, one is looking at. The sheer quantity of materials included in the show, along with recent works by Cameron Rowland and Henrik Olesen, among others, feels a bit like a missed opportunity. Though for Roussel more was always more, he always advanced via carefully designed procedures. More and more we want narrative and arrangement, space to think about the overwhelming amounts of information we receive; it might have been nice to consider the ways in which Roussel’s miraculous inventions anticipate our desire.


Date: November 1, 2015

Publisher: Artforum

Format: Print

Genre: Nonfiction
Full text of review available as PDF, below at right.


November 2015 AF cover.



On Shane Carruth & Primer

Primer (2004) asks what happens when history is always hanging in the balance

Primer is a film by US director, actor and writer Shane Carruth. Shot independently on a US$7,000 budget in 2004, it was released in cinemas in 2007 and has since garnered a cult following. It concerns the accidental invention of a time machine by two entrepreneurial engineers who labour away at a box-like contraption in a garage start-up (that mythic American site) on the anonymous outskirts of Dallas. Although the plausibility of the science at stake is not crucial to the viewer’s immersion in the situation, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan)’s device at first seems to be a means of countering gravity; its ability to transport them back in time is a secondary discovery. For Carruth, on the other hand, the film’s science is crucial. So devoted is Primer to impenetrable engineer-speak and avoidance of plot-related exposition that it has spawned a mini-subgenre of explanatory videos and other dissections online. And, although it is ostensibly an exploration of what might happen if you had the ability to go back in time, it also serves as a perfect time capsule of the malaise of US President George W. Bush’s second term.

In Primer, Aaron and Abe tell each other that they want to use the time machine to game the stock market. Their main source of solidarity in this scheme is that neither can pinpoint what exactly makes the device work, although each privately comprehends that, in order to avoid catastrophe, he must control the/a past in which there is a ‘fail-safe’ machine that can be used to destroy all future machines and, therefore, prevent the very discovery of time travel. Abe believes that he is in command of the one and only fail-safe; however, it eventually becomes clear that Aaron is one step ahead of – and behind – him.

The infinitely regressive narrative arms race to control the fail-safe is hard to perceive in the film itself, given that it proceeds according to a standard linear plot. By the time the viewer realizes what is going on, Aaron and Abe have replicated themselves multiple times and exist in a universe in which it is possible not only to change the past but to kill oneself and carry on living. This strenuously unsimplified depiction of the effects of unfettered recursion is about more than just best buddies under late capitalism and weird science. Rather, it allegorizes a negative fantasy about historical consciousness that was endemic to the early 2000s, during the time of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – an era which presages the current age of fake news, as well as the combatting of manufactured narrative through public protests, the making-real through collective presence.

Primer trades in narrative spleen. The characters develop extraordinarily pessimistic relationships – not just with each other, but with the notion of life lived on a unique, unrepeatable timeline. For the two time travellers, all events become mutable and suspect, losing their intrinsic value. Here story, too, is unimportant: the only thing that matters is strategy. Existence becomes as non-narrative as it is agonistic, with time serving the most meagre of purposes – as the passive substrate in which Aaron and Abe are at war. Aaron and Abe’s existential battle concerns origins. Each wants to be in possession of the determining fail-safe. The time traveller who controls this device can render his partner entirely unaware of the disruptive Pandora’s box to which the garage has given rise and, therefore, prevent time travel from being invented. He who emerges from the fail-safe has the power to create a plot and a future in which he can claim, borrowing the all-too-familiar trope: ‘It was only a dream!’ The question is: who will have the privilege of determining what shall have become real? It’s not writing history that I’m talking about here, metaphorically speaking, but the invention of the very media and language that allow someone to write it. What would the present look and feel like, the film asks, if such radical forms of control over history were, in fact, hanging in the balance?


Date: September 1, 2020

Publisher: frieze

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the article.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, September 2020, issue 213, with the title "Reverse Forecast."


frieze September 2020.


On site.


Shane Carruth, Primer, 2004. Courtesy: StudioCanal.

On Aby Warburg


I suppose I am something of an Aby Warburg agnostic. Or, I vacillate. The German-Jewish art historian (1866–1929) is known for his “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne” project, a compendium of photographs of artworks as well as other print items from across time and cultures categorized and mounted on cloth, by means of which Warburg sought to illustrate his theory of collective memory. Warburg is, to me, a figure of a certain mystery: he is now beloved by thinkers in every corner of the humanities for his innovative, comparative approach to the analysis of images, but during his lifetime his work was poorly understood. He, in turn, maintained a certain distance from academia and its tendency to privilege rote diachronic accounts of the development of art. Hailing from an immensely wealthy banking family, Warburg was able to act as an independent scholar, gathering a library of books and tens of thousands of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs and other images documenting artworks that became the basis for the prestigious Warburg Institute, located in Hamburg until 1933 and subsequently in London. In a biography, eminent art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote that he sometimes felt as though Warburg “had no method, but he had a message.”[1] His characterization gets at a major difficulty: by what criteria does one assess the work of a scholar who occasionally acted like an artist—who sought to undo what he termed the grenzpolizeiliche Befangenheit (border-police-style close-mindedness) of disciplinary practice?

Warburg began his art historical studies in a fairly standard way, completing his doctoral thesis at the Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence, in 1892. Yet, even as he absorbed more staid philological material, he was a super-fan of two interdisciplinary works, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laokoön (1766), a reflection on the representational capacities of painting and poetry, and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1834), a satirical novel ostensibly about the history of fashion. The latter was the apex of critical prose, as far as Warburg was concerned. Warburg was a scholar of the Italian Renaissance, yet he was also interested the art of Greece, Rome, and Northern Europe, and was most of all invested in wide-ranging questions regarding the meaning and evolution of images. His early exploration of excessive quantities of what he termed bewegtes Beiwerk, wittily translated by Gombrich as “accessories in motion”[2]—an inspired way of thinking about the pleats in garments worn by Botticelli’s female figures—later became a series of semi-scientific convictions about the literal inscription of memory images in the human nervous system.

At the center of Warburg’s theory were visual forms he termed Pathosformeln, or repeating, historically traceable figurative gestures and expressions. An 1895 trip to the United States led to an obsession with Hopi religious practices and dance, which Warburg saw as confirming his beliefs about cultural evolution, in which Western art represented a later stage of development in a universal process of working through violent and fearful impulses to arrive at reasoned responses to the world. He concluded, in one instance via a study of children’s drawings, that the Hopi used a symbolic snake form to represent lightning, a potentially threatening meteorological phenomenon. Warburg’s continually developing theory was profoundly influenced by Charles Darwin’s 1872 The Expression of Emotion in Animals and Men (“At last,” Warburg remarked in his diary, “a book that helps me!”[3]), as well as evolutionary biologist Richard Semon’s Mneme, a 1908 tract from which Warburg borrowed much of his theory of collective memory wholesale.

But even as Warburg flirted with broad, sometimes simplistic assumptions and supernatural syntheses, he was devoted to detailed work on the Western canon. He had the obsessive, acquisitive eye of a collector but, unlike many individuals of his class, preferred to acquire books and photographs rather than paintings and sculpture. Warburg had forsaken his birthright at the helm of the Warburg banking enterprise in exchange for a generous budget to be used for acquiring the texts and media necessary to his research. Beginning in the 1880s, photographs were reproducible as paper prints, and Warburg took advantage of this development in his research, commissioning a small number of photographic reproductions of Renaissance artworks for his dissertation. But it was not until the 1920s that he began arranging numerous documentary photographs of paintings and other works in the set of displays that were to become his Typenatlas (character atlas) or Bilderatlas (image atlas), the compendium of types he named “Mnemosyne,” after the Ancient Greek goddess of memory, who was also the mother of the muses. At this time, Warburg was in later middle age and had already suffered a catastrophic mental breakdown that put him in a sanatorium for three years, from 1921 to ’24. When he died suddenly from a heart attack in October of 1929, a book version of the “Atlas” was still in early stages.

A description of what the “Atlas” was—and now is, given a newly published catalogue, Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne: The Original, and the delayed exhibition of the same title, currently scheduled for September 12–November 30 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin—can help to explain Warburg’s recent rehabilitation, which began in the 1980s. To illustrate his theory of how “Western man” individually and collectively used visual representations to overcome “primitive” phobic instincts, he and other members of the Institute staff began grouping photographs of historical artworks around 1926. Starting in 1928, these groups were mounted on vertical panels of stretched black Hessian (i.e., burlap) of approximately 60 by 50 inches and displayed in the Warburg Institute’s library in Hamburg, sometimes accompanying Warburg’s lectures. Warburg collaborated closely with Gertrud Bing (1892–1964), a former doctoral student of philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s and a scholar of German Neo-Classicism who was to become the director of the Warburg Institute from 1954 to ’64. After Warburg’s abrupt death, Bing was the individual most knowledgeable about the panels and their intended destiny, as plates in a book to be titled Mnemosyne. Warburg had planned to explicate the image series in two additional volumes of text but was unable to do so; only his preface survives. Glass negatives had already been made from some of the image-arrangements, but the metal plates to be used in the printing of the book were never created. Although Bing was able to provide her own captions based on her conversations with Warburg for a number of the panels—“Superlatives of gestural language. Haughtiness of self-confidence,” for example—the images were separated from the panels, the original frames and fabric lost. During the 1930s, staff sorted these images back into the immense pictorial archive, and a subsequent re-indexing further muddled matters. The “Atlas” was considered largely lost, if not a bit crackpot.

It was only in the second volume of Warburg’s Gesammelte Schriften (Collected Writings), published in 2000, that the glass negatives created in 1929 were used to publish fragmentary pictorial evidence of the “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne.” Editors Martin Warnke and Claudia Brink produced black-and-white images from the negatives, printing them at a reduced size that tended to obscure their details. They also left off additional commentary, given the lack of extant captioning by Warburg himself. This publication was in no small part encouraged by the resurgence of interest in the works of Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), whose theories of media and history had come to seem prescient, particularly in the Anglophone world, with the 1969 publication of Illuminations, edited and introduced by Hannah Arendt and subsequently popularized by John Berger in his 1972 TV series and book, Ways of Seeing. (While Warburg was only peripherally aware of Benjamin during his lifetime, Benjamin sent Warburg a copy of his thesis on Baroque Trauerspiel, or tragic drama, which cited Warburg.) Like Benjamin, who often engaged in leaps of thought and argument by way of metaphorical image rather than logical deduction, Warburg was concerned with Zwischenräume, the spaces in between, as well as something he termed Denkraum, or room for thought.

If the “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne” shows more than it tells, this is by design. Warburg hoped to create a visual tool that would foster what he saw as art’s innate ability to generate reflective, dialectical distance for the viewer, a key to the civilizing process: by means of this Distanz, states of rational detachment can co-exist with animalistic frenzy, the sober philosopher meets the rampaging maenad, over and over through the ages. This seems like an odd intellectual goal now, but the panels hold an aesthetic fascination that either exceeds this magic theory or, paradoxically, proves it. I find them strange and hard to look away from—whether they combine depictions of “Ascent to the sun,” “The cosmic system as a dice board,” or “Monumentalizing and dissociation,” to name but a few of the trans-historical motifs studied.

The panels are particularly fascinating in the new book, published by Hatje Cantz. At approximately 17 1/2 by 24 inches and 184 pages, the volume is massive enough that I had to strain to get it up my front steps after the UPS guy deposited it there from a safe social distance (speaking of Zwischenraum). The book requires its own desk (luckily I have two in my office) or, preferably, a free-standing support of some sort, which one may discover by googling “nineteenth-century book furniture.” It is the result of a Herculean, or perhaps Cinderellan, feat on the part of historian Roberto Ohrt and artist Axel Heil, who rediscovered the 971 original images by meticulously combing through the some 400,000 now included in the Warburg Institute archive. The book is probably best handled slowly and with gloves, as the large pages crease easily and pick up fingerprints. It’s a dramatic art object in itself, one requiring a kind of physical care to which most of us, myself included, are unused, except in the context of religious practice or visits to institutional archives. Upon receiving the tome, I experienced successive waves of elation and annoyance. What an amazing achievement! I thought. Then, but why do I have to read it standing up?!

The book offers a series of eighty-three full-page color photographs[4] of painstaking reproductions of the original “Atlas Mnemosyne” (as it is called in English), expanding on the work accomplished by the collected writings volume in 2000. It also includes black-and-white prints from the available glass negatives. On the page facing each panel image, captions parse the montages, and sometimes there are close-ups of selected images. A feeling of detective work comes with extended study of these arrangements and glosses. One believes oneself to be re-seeing long-familiar images of Poseidon or Hermes, for example, as fresh figures un-dulled by repetition in Neo-Classical marble or recent appropriation in the US for sugar-free gum branding or flower-delivery logos. In particular, the violence endemic to some Classical imagery and the repetition of this violence in the Renaissance is made, if you will pardon the pun, striking by Warburg’s constellations. There was for me an equal puzzlement at what I experienced as Warburg’s obsession with Western origins and his sometimes paranoid logic of analogy, which in panel seventy-seven, for example, brings together female figures from twentieth-century advertising for anti-aging cream with the mythical person of Medea, murderer of her own children. Here I thought of the repetitious imagery later deployed to more subversive, anti-philological ends by Pop and Conceptual artists, in particular the installations of Hanne Darboven (1941–2009), although many artists have been influenced by Warburg. The panels are hypnotic; with their clear details, they inspire hunts for correspondences that may or may not have been intended by Warburg himself. Yet I kept wondering if there might not have been another way to design the book. Its dedication to the pre-twentieth-century Bilderatlas format means that it must function like a reference volume. Priced at two hundred euros (about $222), it will be unaffordable to many.

RETURNING TO MY earlier question reimagining scholarly disciplines from the inside: the philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman has described Warburg as a ghost who haunts the discipline of art history. Certainly, Warburg worked to call many of its tenets into question, not least of all its elitism. His “Atlas” was intended to be reproducible as a book, to circulate widely; it also aimed to accomplish a kind of deskilling in relation to so-called visual literacy, suggesting that the most important aspects of art cannot be grasped through philological expertise and complex terminology. Some have solved the puzzle of Warburg’s simultaneous critique of his discipline and extreme insider-ness by thinking of him as an eccentric philosopher of typologies with a serious collecting habit, an erudite hoarder. But this is to overlook Warburg’s interest in technologies related to mechanical reproduction. Photography, among other technical means of reproducing images, became part of his intellectual practice and affected his theories and method. Although he himself did not use a camera to reproduce artworks, Warburg was in no small part a photographer. His elaborate hypothesis regarding the trans-historical transmission of images served to justify his working not primarily with painted surfaces and marbles (as many other historians of the Renaissance might) but with photographs and techniques of montage. And because he had to create his own teaching materials, he also acted as a designer. Although the “Atlas” functions imperfectly as a work of art, its multifarious author is by no means exclusively scholarly in his pursuits.

Yet, it is surprising that a scholar of the Italian Renaissance would forsake the “artist’s hand,” not to mention the original, authentic object, in favor of the reproducible photographic image. Even among more recent commentators on the history of art, it is common to hear of loss and forgetfulness associated with the proliferation of photographs. Critic Benjamin Buchloh, for one, has considered “whether, under the universal reign of photographic reproduction, mnemonic experience could even continue to be constructed.”[5] Warburg seems to have taken a different view—one analogous to that of his contemporary Walter Benjamin. In a 1931 essay, “Little History of Photography,” Benjamin discusses the photograph’s tendency to reveal “material physiognomic aspects, image worlds, which dwell in the smallest things.” This is particularly true of early, metal-plate photography techniques such as daguerreotype, which can record minute particulars at a resolution many present-day digital cameras cannot match; as Benjamin writes, “It is through photography that we first discover the existence of [an] optical unconscious.”[6] It is in the spirit of such an optical unconscious—a collectively authored archive of unintended and often-unrecognized visual detail—that Warburg’s “Atlas” is best viewed. This should be done in the spirit of Warburg’s embrace of photography and pursuant embrace of a “technological concept of art,” also a notion I derive (somewhat circuitously) from Benjamin.[7] Far from despairing that the new regime of infinitely reproducible photographic images would, as Buchloh puts it, prevent the construction of “mnemonic experience,” Warburg seems to have wagered that the proliferation of images would permit us to see new, unconsciously created mnemonic worlds, ever multiplying and coalescing dialectically within images. As the existence of a related neologism, “meme,” suggests, on this point at least Warburg was right.


Date: June 8, 2020

Publisher: Art in America

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.


On site.


A re-creation of panel 39 from Aby Warburg’s “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne,” 1925–1929/2020, gelatin silver prints on burlap. COURTESY THE WARBURG INSTITUTE, LONDON.


Aby Warburg, 1929 in Naples, Italy. COURTESY THE WARBURG INSTITUTE.

    1. E.H. Gombrich, Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, with a Memoir on the History of the Library by F. Saxl, London, Warburg Institute and University of London, 1970, p. ix. It is worth noting that throughout this book Gombrich makes frequent reference to Warburg’s “method” and “methodology,” and that therefore this assertion seems metaphorical rather than literal.
    1. Ibid., p. 58.
    1. Ibid., p. 72.
    1. This is to say that the current reproduction is printed in color rather than grayscale, even though many of the original photographs are black and white.
    1. Benjamin Buchloh, “Richter’s ‘Atlas’: The Anomic Archive,” October, Vol. 88, Spring, 1999, p. 124.
    1. Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1934, translated by Rodney Livingstone and others, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, Cambridge, Mass., and London, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 510–12.
    1. Ibid., p. 508. Benjamin’s original phrase is “anti-technological concept of art.”
On Moyra Davey


Moyra Davey repeats herself. Or, as she puts it, she “cannibaliz[es].” She reframes beloved references across her repertoire of media. In various interviews, in one of her essay-films (Les Goddesses, 2011), and in her writing in her new collection—Index Cards, out today from New Directions—I find a sentence attributed to German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder: “The more honestly you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.” In Index Cards, it appears twice: in the essay-script for Les Goddesses and as an epigraph for “One Year,” the brief contents of a notebook that she kept in 2012–13. In the second instance, the quote is slightly expanded and, one assumes, more accurate to Fassbinder’s original statement, as if it’s been verified, rather than casually remembered: “I’d say the more you put yourself into the stories, that is, the more ‘honestly’ you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.” This is not the only statement attributed to another author that comes in for such treatment in Davey’s work. Throughout her writing and filmmaking, she iterates the words of artists and writers she admires. Their phrases and sentences repeat, much like the serial motifs and formats one sees in her work in photography: images of empty liquor bottles, images of books, images of newspaper kiosks, images of pennies, images of dust, images of people writing on the New York City subway, images folded and mailed, images created by filming photographs made earlier in Davey’s career—to name but a few of her categories and strategies.

For me, Davey, who is sometimes described as a “conceptual artist using photography,” or someone who “works across photography, video, and writing,” fosters a space in which discourse on the arts (photographic and literary histories, in particular), fiction, critical theory, and autobiography flow together, frequently taking the form of pictures rather than sentences or paragraphs. As we learn in Index Cards, which contains fifteen prose pieces dating from 2006 to 2019, as well as a number of small black-and-white reproductions of images by Davey, there is a certain “magic circle” drawn around the authors Davey prefers. “Magic circle” is a phrase that the critic Walter Benjamin applied to the act of creating a collection, and with it he implies at once the synthetic quality of collections and the collector’s selectivity, according these a mildly occult valence via his chosen metaphor.[1] The collector is a creator not just of piles of stuff, but of categories, genres. And with new genres come new aesthetic possibilities. Davey’s “magic circle” encompasses those writers who form the grounds from which her photographs, as she says, “take seed.” Her canon includes (but seems not to be limited to) James Baldwin, Roland Barthes, Benjamin himself, Jane Bowles, Jean Genet, Hervé Guibert, Violette Leduc, Janet Malcolm, Susan Sontag, Robert Walser, Simone Weil, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf. Along the edges of this circle, figures such as Freud, Goethe, Kafka, and Muriel Spark crop up. These sources may seem disparate, but as one reads Davey’s reflections on reading and writing—co-implicated activities—it becomes apparent that all are assembled for a reason. Each has a distinct relationship to detail and clarity in prose, as well as a unique affection for mixing firsthand, reportorial, or autobiographical writing with the fictive or speculative. And while some existed (Wollstonecraft, Goethe) before photography was, strictly speaking, a thing, there is nonetheless something of a photographic impulse in all this writing: a drive to describe and to render as image, a boundless hunger for vividness and particularity that would seem to threaten to exceed the limited capacity of words.

In one of the most beautiful texts in Index Cards, “Les Goddesses,” (The Goddesses), which also serves, as I note above, as a script for Davey’s film of the same name, Davey reflects on the heroic, peripatetic existence of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), feminist, historian, novelist, and philosopher. Davey derives the piece’s title from the superlative nickname given to Wollstonecraft’s two daughters, Fanny Imlay and Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), as well as Shelley’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Upon meeting these three accomplished and desirable women, American politician (and Alexander Hamilton antagonist) Aaron Burr bestowed the sobriquet. Davey writes, “The real story concerning the lives of these extraordinary women is filled with many paradoxes, and without a doubt it is more fantastic than any fiction.” “Les Goddesses” is additionally an account of Davey’s fascination with travelogues—with Goethe’s report of his voyage to Italy, Louis Malle’s documentary Phantom India (1969), Wollstonecraft’s descriptions of her time in Scandinavia, Mary Shelley’s collaboration with Percy Bysshe Shelley on History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni—and it is also a study of family dynamics, of how, in particular, sisters imitate and reflect one another. It is, thus, an essay about how images circulate within families, how family members create images of themselves, identify with one another or elect not to. To this series of themes Davey adds one further: the difficult-to-narrate history of her own relationship with alcohol, what she terms “the Wet.” It is a testament to the capaciousness of Davey’s thought that she is able to weave personal memory and literary and political history together in a series of extended and interconnected gazes—or, better, breaths. Near the end of “Les Goddesses,” Davey quotes Benjamin: “There is a delicate empiricism which so intimately involves itself with the object that it becomes true theory.” It seems to me that much of Davey’s writing goes in search of such a theory, an innovative genre that discovers its remarkable combinatory capacity through engagement with minor, fugitive qualities, as well as an openness to discovering intimate facts in sometimes impersonal and distant places.

In the film versions of her essays, Davey reads from a stack of pages or repeats words from a recording she listens to on an iPhone, one earbud in, the other hanging from its cord. This documented repetition, the recirculation of language already written and, then, in many cases existing as quotations from other sources within that very writing, heightens our sense that, wherever we are in relation to Davey’s language, we are already well within the province of something that has come before, with text standing as a preexisting item or object that is here merely recycled, reshown, lived through once more. With Davey, we are always in medias res. There are no beginnings in her accounts; narrative origins are refused, because they aren’t really good for anything. Worse than this, they are often chimeras. And I think this brilliant capacity on Davey’s part to transport her reader or viewer or listener into the very midst, the heart, of a given text, is what most distinguishes her practice. Davey says of her engagement with scripts and words, “One of the ways I’d kept photography alive for myself was through writing.” We might expand this statement to see writing as a more general practice for artistic and personal survival, in which repetition, far from dulling experience, richly complicates and supports life.


Date: May 27, 2020

Publisher: Art in America

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.


On site.


Index Cards.

    1. Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt, New York, Schocken Books, 1969, p. 60.
On Buck Ellison


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I pertained to a household that received several general-interest glossy magazines, along with the J.Crew catalog. While there were many items to fascinate a young person (who was only partially literate at this time) between the covers of the magazines, a certain set of advertisements held my attention in a way that little else did: images that celebrated the brand Ralph Lauren were not merely narrative but mysterious, somehow subterranean in their intent; they portrayed (usually, although not exclusively) white Americans in opulent settings, richly dressed. The models, whose symmetrical faces shone with terrifying perfect health, were the focus of every ad. They evinced the specific yet distant psychology of characters in a novel one means to read but has not yet read, heroines of unwatched films. I studied these portraits of anonymous pert beauties (occasionally of a certain age) and glowering hunks in cashmeres, silks, furs, cottons, cotton flannels, and wools. I sniffed the pages, nearly drank them. There was a lesson here about the past, and about how people understood one another now, in the present. The men and women had priceless vintage cars, touched one another’s arms, were accompanied by schnauzers, skied with a child, sat on sand or lawns. These images formed a story about family, at once whispered and loudly proclaimed, for those who grasped its codes. It was a story about nation and inheritance, too. I strove to know whatever the person who had created the images knew. I turned to the pages of J.Crew’s seasonal offerings as if I might discover the further elaboration of a plot. Here, however, the models were less obsessed by an ancient familial saga; they merely disported themselves at a rented beach house. I assumed that they were probably the liberal cousins of the Lauren figures, yuppies or something, individuals I might today peg as better-adjusted prototypes for HBO’s Cousin Greg, of the network’s latest sociological study, Succession. They lived less well and their garments were thinner, yet these J.Crew people seemed the more likely to survive.

I did not understand, then, that Ralph Lauren was (additionally) a person, since the two terms merely connoted “boy’s first name plus girl’s first name” as far as I was concerned, and did not quite add up to a human. Lauren was an assimilated version of the founder and designer’s family name, which had at one time been Lifshitz, Belarusian and Ashkenazi; of course, I did not know this. Nor did I know that Lauren hailed from a modest household in the Bronx, the same borough where my own father—who also had an assimilated last name, Iranian and Assyrian—had been born just a year before Ralph Lifshitz.

Although I believed myself to be encountering a drama about important adults, in looking at Ralph Lauren’s ads I was also absorbing a sort of structuralist approach to American social hierarchy, one pioneered by the golden age of Hollywood cinema, if not the mythical Jay Gatsby himself, that was now being leveraged by Ralph Lauren into an empire of something that would soon be termed lifestyle. It was a generalized picture language about taste, affluence, and comfort, even as it was also a series—a “line”—of real things one could buy.[1] It is perhaps no accident it was in 1977, the year when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sported head-to-toe Ralph Lauren in the comedic film Annie Hall, that the art critic Douglas Crimp composed his now-famous essay for a late-September show at Artists Space, Pictures.

Crimp discusses the regime of pictures, “signifying structure[s] of their own accord,” how the removal of syntagmatic context permitted the exhibiting artists to “isolate, distill, alter, and augment” certain appropriated images, such that “representation [is] freed from the tyranny of the represented.”[2] In these pictures, the viewer is alleged to see the very mechanism of representation, which Crimp associates, above all else, with memory. Or, as Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer winsomely demands of Diane Keaton’s Hall when she insists on telling him the family story behind her mannish tie, “What’d you do, grow up in a Norman Rockwell painting?” Although the audience understands Singer and Hall as engaged in a struggle to understand their respective identities and origins and to love each other across various divides (above all, gender) they are also (and I am unsure about Allen’s intentions here) acting as Ralph Lauren models. Whatever the other messages of the film, the garments the two wear in every scene present a sort of unified front of floating signifiers by means of which the audience may aspire to a finance-driven America to come, one in which anyone can experience the good life—which is now merely superficially coded as white and Protestant—provided he or she has the means and perspicuity to buy it.[3] It isn’t cheap, this drag, but soon it will be everywhere. And when it is everywhere (i.e., now), it will be cheap, too.[4]

The uncanny thing about picture languages is their simultaneous vulnerability (to abrupt recoding) and impenetrability (to historical interpretation). Crimp associated the pared-down aesthetic of the so-called Pictures Generation with the way in which paradigmatic linguistic concepts combine image and word into a sort of mnemonic bundle; it is, to his mind, a crucial, critical gesture for visual art of the late 1970s to point up this underlying mechanism within representation and, therefore, sensemaking. Reporters and fashion critics of the period, meanwhile, were also concerned with memory, although for different reasons. Discussing Ralph Lauren’s meteoric ascent, the press would frequently add a “né Lifshitz” tag of some sort to the first mention of his name. In this way they at once indicated his, to them, unforgettable origins, even as they pointed out the miraculous, world-historical artifice Lauren was so busy confecting.[5] I, on the third hand, since not yet reading with any sort of ease in the late 1980s, only encountered an opaque string of pictures, forms. In a sense, I had to take these ads as they were. I would never, for example, have been able to draw particular distinctions between a patrician domestic scene as captured, for example, by Tina Barney and the latest Lauren spread—except perhaps to say that people in Lauren’s world looked cleaner and more certain. And I could easily have been guilty, had anyone bothered to demand some art criticism from my prepubescent self, of the naive offense Peter Galassi indicates in a short essay on Barney’s photography: “One dispiriting measure of the writing about Barney’s work is that the figure most often mentioned (other than Barney herself) is not another artist but the clothing purveyor Ralph Lauren”.[6] Indeed, here I’m partly repeating, although for good reason, this very error.

Thus, while the images Buck Ellison creates follow in a tradition of large-scale color portraiture developed by the likes of Barney, along with photographers such as Catherine Opie and Thomas Struth, they also partake, in no small measure, of the critical innovations of second- and third-wave conceptualisms, which tend to identify and play explicitly upon discursive structures located in media and behavior, as in Crimp’s description of the work in Pictures, indicating larger systems and economies, some of which are historical in nature. I see Ellison’s work as at once concerned with the traditional purviews of portraiture—likeness, sentiment, and, yes, beauty—even as it is committed to ends we are more likely to associate with criticism: analyzing the ways in which conventions of image making and image reception structure the world, as well as revealing not just particular lifestyles, but inequalities and assumptions about normality and the status quo.

But how exactly does one deploy likeness, sentiment, and, yes, beauty to critical ends? Ellison’s portraits are staged, and extraordinarily so: he does not merely arrange his figures but casts models to play parts in, for example, his Christmas Card series, depictions of a family that substitutes, visually at least, for Ellison’s own. Ellison tells me that he does not instruct the models as to how they should arrange their faces or bodies, but rather takes a large quantity of digital photographs, which he edits together afterwards to achieve an ex post facto collaboration among his stand-ins that constitutes a “yearly” photo. When I look at these images, which are certainly “pictures,” in Crimp’s sense, I find myself struggling to determine who is who within the artificial family. Ellison’s casting at once heightens the significance of roles within the group—such that one says, “OK, he is the father; she’s the mom,” and so on—and removes context to such an extent that there is very little left to see within the picture, save one’s own attempt to parse it. And, as I remark to Ellison in conversation, it’s also true that these people are not actually related to one another. In this sense, the image shows a “family” to which the prohibition against incest does not pertain. While they’ve clearly been dressed (Ellison tells me he works with the stylist Charlotte Collet, a fact I love) to typify a mid- to late-aughts upper- or upper-middle-class Californian aesthetic, there’s also something unavoidably general about the clothes, even slightly unattractive. One person has on a garment I can only describe as semiformal shorts. These are puffy, paired with a childish genre of Adidas sneakers, no socks; if the wearer were not strikingly beautiful, she would look ridiculous. However, instead of looking ridiculous she looks “casual.” In fact, she looks like the paradigmatic expression of that category, a sort of Kantian daughter-in-law or older sister, just the sort of person one needs: to make a simple salad for the holiday repast, clean up wrapping paper without being asked, or linger artfully in the kitchen, nursing a glass of prosecco. Meanwhile, the individual I take to be the patriarch sports a hideous patterned shirt indicating an interest in safaris. One is uncertain as to whether he picked this item up on his latest NGO-related excursion or simply got it at the mall, hoping, misguidedly, to broadcast whimsical masculinity. In either case, the colonialism quietly implied is enough to recast the entire scene in a glance: Indeed, what is a family without the prohibition against incest, we have to ask ourselves; a team, cult, or corporation? What can their intentions toward one another be, and what sort of system of beliefs regarding history does a family of this sort entail? How is it that they “stay” (I qualify the verb because we know they left the set long ago) together?

In a certain way, it is terrifying to me that Ellison can succeed in posing all these questions just by replacing individuals related to him with professional proxies—terrifying, much like the terrifying, unreal health of those Ralph Lauren models. Although perhaps I should not write just. I have been meaning to specify that these photographs were not taken in 1988 or 1994, years we might associate with Barney and Opie’s portraits. Ellison is working within a different image economy, with different technological affordances. However, it is not merely the overwhelming proliferation of photography in our time through digital media that sets Ellison’s work apart from other practitioners I mention here; it is also the changing relationship of public and private spheres in the present that renders Ellison’s techniques pertinent and necessary. As a contemporary philosopher writes, “An age that has lost its gestures is, for this reason, obsessed with them. For human beings who have lost every sense of naturalness, each single gesture becomes a destiny.”[7]

We live in a time when videos posted to YouTube, among other platforms, allow us to explore others’ domestic spaces and practices ad nauseam, to question the ways in which they orient their beds, scrub their vegetables, steam their salmon filets. Obviously, this—along with the elephant in the room, social media—is not the only style of permeation of the private sphere endemic to the present: each of us is all but constantly being made public via information processed by software and shared back to the creators of this software. One is not, of course, particularly public in the old-fashioned sense, since the predictive tools our behavior informs are created by corporations and sold to other corporations and governments (entities with proprietary, secretive interiors). Yet there is a sense in which this processing of data is much of what constitutes the so-called public sphere. This is what publicness is: a transformation of what was formerly the private into a species of inscription. My movements between and among various websites, my use of an email platform provided by the same corporation that makes my browser, my manipulations of the applications on my phone, are tracked, taken in. They are anonymized and accrue to massive data caches. In 2012 the law scholar Paul Ohm presciently wrote, “We are embarking on the age of the impossible-to-understand reason, when marketers will know which style of shoe to advertise to us online based on the type of fruit we most often eat for breakfast, or when the police know which group in a public park is most likely to do mischief based on the way they do their hair or how far from one another they walk.” Ohm’s paper was titled (more terror here), “The Fourth Amendment in a World Without Privacy.”[8]

But in spite of these seismic shifts in how we understand the relationships between and among individuality, behavior, and taste—shifts Ellison mimics by documenting the form of the individual rather than their instantiation as indexical, documentary, candid, or true visually presenting selves[9]—privacy remains. Privacy is a luxury; it can be expensive to get and maintain, but we know it’s out there. One of the ways we know this is on account of the photographic images that we know we do not have. Among these, as Ellison argues via a series of stunning staged portraits narrating the story of the DeVos-Prince family, are personal images related to the wealthy and powerful. There are “gaps in our society where there is no imagery,” as Ellison told me, noting that when he searched online for childhood and family images of the 45th president’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, the daughter and daughter-in-law of of Republican megadonors and multibillionaires, he found that this material was mostly private, locating only a pair of yearbook photos.[10] After this discovery, and after seeing that an article about the family in the magazine Vanity Fair made use of muddy commissioned paintings rather than photographs for the purpose of illustration, Ellison determined to illuminate this American dynasty. He cast young actors to portray Betsy DeVos (née Prince) as a teen, along with her younger brother, Erik, who would later found the embattled Blackwater USA security corporation; in The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, 1975 (2019) they lounge with siblings in an imagined 1970s-era living room, in what would have been their hometown: Holland, Michigan (local truism: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”). Ellison’s staging, while essentially historically accurate with its colonial-revival decor and wool knee socks, is not slavishly so; the relative modesty of the room, particularly given the actual wealth in question, speaks to the family’s strict Calvinism as well as this interior’s distinctness from the sort of fantastical display Ralph Lauren might envision. Here, as in other works in the series, color and poses recall the somber and expensive portraiture of the Northern Renaissance, with its reds and greens, even as the viewer is teased into inventing psychology for those depicted, in spite (or because) of the unavoidable fact that everyone is an actor. Ellison weaves in small, precise clues regarding the family’s past and future. Erik, as befits a warrior-to-be, clutches a toy soldier. Ellison informs me that Erik and his father would cast lead soldiers using a saucepan and molds, painting them by hand. According to Prince’s own autobiographical writing, this craft activity is his first memory. Of course, lead is poisonous, and heavy lead exposure is linked to aggression and mania, among other developmental difficulties. In Dick and Betsy, The Ritz Carlton, Dallas, Texas, 1984 (2019), meanwhile, a pregnant DeVos in an approximation of loudly patterned 1980s workwear, barks into a hotel telephone, as her (uxorious?) loafer-sporting partner attempts to distract himself. DeVos is already a political insider here, even as she is busy having it all, procreating to continue the dynasty. In Erik with Kitty, Blackwater Training Center, Moyock, North Carolina, 1998 (2019), a mature Erik sprawls in a fenced-in field with a kitten and bulletproof vest; he’s clearly stumbled into an amusing allegorical representation of the following sentences from his Wikipedia page:

Prince moved to Virginia Beach and personally financed the formation of Blackwater Worldwide in 1997. He bought 6,000 acres (24 km2) of the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and set up a school for special operations. The name “Blackwater” comes from the peat-colored bogs in which the school is located.[11]

Some things, as Americans have begun saying with increasing intensity and irony since the presidency of George W. Bush, you just can’t make up.

Like the satirical social and historical paintings of such millennial masters as John Currin and Karen Kilimnik, these photographs do not so much represent events as show us how much we do not know, how dependent we are on received ideas, assumptions, and clichés, when it comes to visualizing the lives of the elite.[12] Yet Ellison’s images also, and conversely, serve a function that reminds me of the large-scale schematic drawings of the artist Mark Lombardi, depicting the movement of late twentieth-century capital between and among corporations, families, and heads of state: they show history, not as a collection of lived experiences and details, or even heroic events, but rather as a kind of formal data or code, a quantifiable pattern we would do well to familiarize ourselves with and confront.

As you gaze at the Christmas Card series and DeVos allegories, along with the other pictures gathered in this volume—pictures that explain what it looks like when two models consider a four-hundred- dollar “cheeseboard” at the Heath Ceramics store north of San Francisco, for example, or demonstrate the aggressive flexibility of the axles on the Range Rover, a six-figure car—follow the ironies that become visible. These are strategic images. Ellison’s photographs demonstrate the expensive and increasingly fugitive privacy that attends contemporary democratic society. And they show that the display of luxury, far from being a dead giveaway of the location and machinations of power, is a bluff .


Date: May 1, 2020

Publisher: Loose Joints

Format: Print (book)

NB: This essay appears in print in Living Trust, by Buck Ellison. It was unfortunately published with a number of typos and formatting errors. Please find a more correct version of the essay here. A PDF of the text is available for download via the floppy disk icon at lower right.


Essay in print.


Buck Ellison, The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, 1975 (2019)

    1. Ralph Lauren was the first American clothing designer to create a completeist line for the home (i.e., Ralph Lauren Home). This product series, along with the Ralph Lauren flagship store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—opened in 1986 in a formerly private domestic setting, the Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo mansion—made it theoretically possible to live in a house (and world) outfitted in the Lauren vision.
    1. Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” reprinted in X-TRA 8 no. 1 (fall 2005): 17–30. The artists in the show were Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith.
    1. Annie Hall, with its Marshall McLuhan cameo and brief animated interlude, presents itself as very knowing where media is concerned. Yet its claustrophobic view of social life—as Joan Didion wrote in 1979 in the New York Review of Books, its obsession with “a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker”—and history give it a promotional air that is difficult to diagnose, at least visually speaking, until one notices the extensive
      Lauren product placement. Didion has a point, yet I think she is rather shortsighted, because she ignores or feels unable to discuss the fi lm’s subtext (i.e., its status as a guide to assimilation). The awkward name-dropping and conspicuous consumption do not occur in a historical vacuum; rather, these are enacted by individuals who are “learning”—to comedic effect, in Allen’s coding of these shifts—how to behave and speak as privileged members of society would/must behave and speak. Singer’s parents live in a cramped apartment under a roller-coaster at Coney Island, but Singer himself is a successful comic who resides in what appears to be a bright three-bedroom in Manhattan and is mostly concerned with pleasure.
    1. Here I indicate the massive proliferation of sportswear brands and so-called fast fashion in the past three decades. The polo shirt, at one time presumably a technical garment, is now so widely reproduced as to have no particular use-based identity. I mention this not to mourn something or other, but rather to underline how the visual realm of fashion has become more “democratic” in the US, even as actual conditions have become less so (i.e., beyond other political and governmental problems, income inequality has increased and personal debt has become a necessity for many, with many of these changes and effects dating from President Carter’s massive deregulation of the corporate sphere in 1976 and therefore following a similar timeline as fashion in more than one sense).
    1. The tag né(e) has historically served as an anti-Semitic dog whistle. See T. S. Eliot’s lines in “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” for example: “The silent vertebrate in brown / Contracts and concentrates, withdraws; / Rachel née Rabinovitch / Tears at the grapes with murderous paws.” With thanks to writer and artist Abraham Adams for recollecting this passage.
    1. Peter Galassi, “Afterword,” in Tina Barney by Tina Barney (New York: Rizzoli, 2017), 221.
    1. Giorgio Agamben, Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 52.
    1. Quoted in Andrew D. Selbst and Solon Barocas, “The Intuitive Appeal of Explainable Machines,” Fordham Law Review 87, no. 3 (2018): 1087. In a slightly more current and synthetic account of for-profit behaviorism in the digital realm, scholar Shoshana Zuboff writes, “The typical complaint is that privacy is eroded, but that is misleading. In the larger societal pattern, privacy is not eroded but redistributed, as decision rights over privacy are claimed for surveillance capital. Instead of people having the rights to decide how and what they will disclose, these rights are concentrated within the domain of surveillance capitalism. Google discovered this necessary element of the new logic of accumulation: it must assert the rights to take the information upon which its success depends,” emphasis mine. See Zuboff’s magisterial The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: PublicAff airs, 2019), 90.
    1. To be clear, this is not merely the case because of the use of models as subjects, but also because Ellison composes his images digitally, combining and manipulating numerous photographs to arrive at a final scene.
    1. My own searches confirm that this is largely the case. I was interested to see that upon DeVos’s nomination, the Detroit Free Press published a slideshow of its print archive related to DeVos, some of which showed candid shots of her including a picture of her walking with one of her children. DeVos, of course, has a long and infamous history in Michigan politics. The quote from Ellison comes from a phone call with the author, December 19, 2019.
    1. See
    1. It is worth noting that Ellison’s photograph Pasta Night, of 2016, is a versioning of Currin’s 1999 painting Homemade Pasta, which, I would also like to note, sold at Christie’s in 2004 for nearly $900,000, this exorbitant price being part of what Ellison is depicting in his own semi-painterly work.
On Ecstatic Home Décor

For John Boskovich, Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Florine Stettheimer and Niki de Saint Phalle, obsessive decor served as ‘preparation for a voyage to another plane’

In a letter penned in 1782, the Marquis de Sade claimed that he knew ‘enough about architecture […] to decide if an idea is beautiful or not’. Indeed, De Sade constructed at least two complex literary edifices. The torture-sex rituals of 120 Days of Sodom (1785) are convened by a clique of libertines in the Château de Silling – an inescapable fortress with rooms dedicated to specific activities, such as desecration of the cross or narration of tales of past debauchery (to be violently re-enacted upon victims). The monastery of Sainte-Marie-des-Bois, imagined for De Sade’s 1791 novel Justine – which, unlike 120 Days of Sodom, was published during the author’s lifetime – is less infamous than the Château but somewhat more cruel. The only means of entry or exit is through a winding underground passage, and the complex is further secured by a series of thorn-encrusted hedges, an additional wall and a moat. Overgrown with vegetation, the structure is indistinct, if not invisible, from the exterior. Everyone inside can hear you scream; those outside perceive a thicket or a bosky hill. There’s a nod to the notion of the folly – that thrill of Enlightenment gardens – but Sainte-Marie-des-Bois is not a private building; it is a communal retreat for libertine monks, who maintain stable-like dorms for the objects of their interests, whom they segregate by gender. Precise order reigns throughout this corporate seraglio. Like the Château, Sainte-Marie-des-Bois evinces a fascination on De Sade’s part with, as architectural historian Anthony Vidler has written, the impossible ‘coincidence between imprisonment and liberty’.[1] Certainly, it unites De Sade with the utopian social philosopher Charles Fourier, who similarly proposed, as Roland Barthes notes in Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1976), a communitarian lifestyle in which all functions necessary for life, including coitus, are as communal as they are minutely regulated.

Although De Sade’s interiors precede the technological transformations of the industrial revolution, which transferred the means of manufacture from the home to industrial spaces during the 19th century, they do offer a vision of production that pre-empts the Victorian model. Like the meticulous, fanciful architectural drawings of his contemporary Jean-Jacques Lequeu, which concern themselves with elaborate monuments to classical spirits and genital-shaped grottos sown with smelly flowering plants, De Sade represents spaces so total, so awesome and so expansive that, once we are inside them, there really is no other place to go. In De Sade’s world, there is nothing but fantasy and ceremony, no way to wake up from the dream and absolutely no privacy – not even for the apparently empowered libertine. As for De Sade and Fourier, so for Lequeu: his structures would be impossible to realize in real life but, in the artist’s projections, currently on view in the exhibition ‘Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect’ at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum, bodies are effortlessly conveyed through space, combined, created and destroyed, in a sensuous narrative that – seemingly for no reason beyond personal preference – partakes synthetically of logics borrowed from the church, the abattoir, the bedroom, the classroom, the theatre, the kitchen and the prison, both past and future.

A different kind of sensuousness took hold in the Victorian era that followed. According to design historian Peter Thornton, the mid-1800s marked:

the ‘age of the crapaud’ – of the ‘toad’, the disrespectful but apt nickname given by the French to the standard, mid-19th-century, heavily stuffed, deeply buttoned and elaborately trimmed easy chair. This object, together with its sisters the sofas, confidantes, ottomans, pouffes and so forth, were the subject of derision […] but such seat-furniture embodied the true spirit of the period and was to be seen everywhere, modified ad infinitum.[2]

This was a period of ‘seat-furniture’, structures designed for sinking, fainting, zoning out, lingering, posing, pining and attending the inevitable: death. Dense massing of decorative objects and upholstery – fashionable in Europe and the US between the 1860s and the 1890s – added clutter and clashing to rooms duly padded, as if to soften the blow. A craze for drapes and fringing seems to have celebrated the increasingly extreme feminization of the private sphere with symbolic labia: indications of mysterious concealment and delicate sensations to be found only within the vessel of the home.

It was an era of the blossoming of a certain social format: the so-called separate spheres, which had emerged at the beginning of the 19th century, after the revolutions and early stirrings of industrialization. In this organization of society, domestic space pertains to the woman of the house, while the man enters into public in order to work and make known his name. The domestic arena is the site of childrearing, decor, material culture, religion and sentiment, while the public realm is a locus of action, reason, money, politics and history. Alexis de Tocqueville, who travelled to the US from France to observe the relations between men and women there, writes in a chapter on ‘How the Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes’ in Democracy in America (1835), that ‘although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is in some respects one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen women occupying a loftier position’. If our contemporary conception of privacy was popularized, if not exactly invented, during the 19th century, then it fell to women to groom and nourish this valuable civic substance. They hung it with drapes, planted it with ferns and, in the process, became enclosed and obscured along with it.

The modern object or room, by contrast, seems to partake, at its most strenuous, of an ideology of limitation: form follows function and function itself is exhaustively knowable. Thus, there can be no need for the chicory of rococo, with its folds and undulations, nor the drips, points and bead-like embellishments of the gothic, nor Victoriana’s endless tufts and patterning. The industrial aesthetic moves indoors. The ‘new woman’ has dispensed with frills, wears trousers, cuts her hair short, practises photography, smokes. The visibility promoted by modernism is remarkable: surfaces are free of encumbrance and, where not strictly administrative, work is intellectual and creative (since, in theory, much physical labour is done by machines), meaning it can take place, once again, within the home.

This said, the ideology of the separate spheres has proved stubborn, if not invincible; even as we have drifted far beyond a historical moment that can reasonably be termed modern, it remains with us. Perhaps this has something to do with the style of privacy that began to emerge in the 20th century along with the advent of mass media. As architectural historian Beatriz Colomina puts it in her book Privacy and Publicity (1994): ‘Privacy is now what exceeds the eyes.’ In Colomina’s reading of modernist design, interior space is often exposed to the exterior in what amounts not to a revelation of the private but, rather, a re-invention of public space on what were apparently private grounds. ‘Modernity’, she notes, ‘coincides with the publicity of the private.’ We need only think of the floor-to-ceiling windows, so prevalent in contemporary architecture, which provide an unobstructed view of a pristinely curated (and pointedly crapaud-free) interior.

Such was the historical trajectory of interior design. Yet, as a spate of current and recent exhibitions attests, there have always been exceptions. A number of 20th-century artists resisted the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres even as they did not fit within the massively influential paradigms proposed by the utopian era of republican revolutions or high modernism’s rejection of the purely decorative. These artists perform a sort of ambiguous installation work, designing interiors that are neither solely for aesthetic contemplation nor for autonomous living but that engage moods of monumentality, esoteric ritual and even entombment, just as they give place to ecstatic forms of daily life that cannot be reduced to work or leisure.

Two artists who lived on opposite coasts of the US during two different halves of the 20th century, Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) and John Boskovich (1956–2006), developed a deeply weird decorative grammar that not only escapes the logics of work and privacy entailed by the ideology of the separate spheres, but also manages to differentiate itself from libertinage as well as modernism. Stettheimer, who wrote poetry and painted elaborate encrusted scenes, usually of flowers and wispy figures and fauns, was also an extraordinary decorator, favouring copious quantities of lace and doilies alongside a new translucent material: cellophane. As a mature artist, Stettheimer painted in her apartment, layering the space with various crystalline textiles in the midst of which she displayed her works, along with her collection of George Washington figurines and images. Similarly, Boskovich altered a rented Los Angeles house, presumably at significant expense, to house artworks that were also furnishings. His custom Prada-themed fridge, his use of koan-like excerpts of poems on objects and walls, along with his inclusion of religious iconography as well as medical and industrial items, gave the space, which he termed his ‘Psycho Salon’, the quality of a large mausoleum or period room for a time in history that had not yet fully come to pass. The relative obscurity of his practice at the time of his death further contributes to a masonic air of hidden ritual about the place, even as its growing fame in art-world circles contributes to its ongoing public-ness.

In his catalogue essay ‘Playing with the Truth’ (1988), Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe sees a ‘narrative of both accessibility and arcane reference’ in Boskovich’s pristine framed juxtapositions of image and text, in which he culls language from such poets as e.e. cummings, John Keats and Octavio Paz and sets it alongside found and altered photographic imagery. Boskovich, according to Gilbert-Rolfe, is at once emphatic about ‘transparency and the idea of its opposite, or presentation and therefore the possibility of what is not present’. In his work, one category does not succeed in transforming or overwhelming the other; rather, they open up to each other in a relation not of exclusion but of addition.

If there is too much in Boskovich and Stettheimer’s rooms, it is not because there are too many things. Rather, all the items have been so obsessively placed, fixed, altered, caressed and framed that their esoteric natures, far from being domesticated, have been exactingly preserved intact and are, therefore, liberated to act upon the eyes and emotions of the resident or guest. Stettheimer was, like Boskovich, a connoisseur of the frame and had a number of lace-like frames constructed for her paintings that also matched her frothy custom furniture designs. Walking into her apartment must have been like entering an amusement park’s rendition of an ice palace, with the difference being that Stettheimer’s glittering false ice (lace, cellophane, painted wood) was not intended for public consumption and reflected her highly rarefied personal taste. Her decor pointed toward a monumental elsewhere that, in spite of her adoration for George Washington, was not exactly or uniquely nationalistic, institutional or religious in nature – even if it was devotional. Rather she, like Boskovich, seemed to be preparing for a voyage to another plane, an alternate universe or an eternal party in her honour.

Both Stettheimer and Boskovich appeared to aspire to a sort of celebratory translation of surface, an extension of reflection that shone or sparkled or glowed dimly without exactly being mirror-like, which served to externalize a complex series of moods and affinities that were not merely or purely personal in nature. Like the winding and uneven mosaic encrustations of the artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden (1998), the surfaces they created were often engaged in plays of light and shade, as much as with material substance itself: Boskovich’s remarkable combinations of citric hues with powdery reds and ingenious recessed lighting being a particularly memorable manifestation of this shared tendency. In contemplating these maximalist practices of decor – the grammars of darkness and light, the hyper-precise framing, the obsessive strategizing of every surface – I am struck by their reliance on qualia, geometric form and what we might term, punning on architectural historian Lisa Heschong’s beautifully titled book Thermal Delight in Architecture (1979), ‘photic delight’. The resonances with the miniaturized landscapes and figures of amusement parks (which often allegorize fantastical worlds), as well as the sparkling gloom we might associate with chapels and shrines, suggest that we would do well to view these homes less as enclosures than as portals. These rooms indicate possibility: here and now and soon; also, elsewhere.


Date: March 19, 2020

Publisher: frieze

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the article.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, April 2020, issue 210, with the title "The Ecstatic Home."


Cover image.


Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Temple of Divination, from Civil Architecture, undated, pen, black ink, grey wash and watercolour on paper. Courtesy: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, and The Morgan Library & Museum, New York


Florine Stettheimer’s studio at Beaux-Arts Building, New York, 1944. Courtesy: © Estate of Florine Stettheimer and Peter A. Juley and Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.


Psycho Salon, Boskostudio, Los Angeles, 1997. Courtesy: Estate of John Boskovich and O-Town House, Los Angeles

    1. Anthony Vidler, The Writing of the Walls: Architectural Theory in the Late Enlightenment, 1987, Princeton Architectural Press, p. 105.
    1. Peter Thornton, Authentic Décor: The Domestic Interior 1620–1920, 1984, Crescent Books, New York and Avenel, p. 216.
On Hanne Darboven & Madeline Gins

For both Hanne Darboven and Madeline Gins, a kind of personal mathematics became a method of reading and writing their art

The math occurs because of the page—because the page is a grid, a map of coordinates. The message is also a number, a quantity of character spaces. There is no message without a container, no container without limits, no limits without quantification. It’s a realization that occurs over and over in the intertwined histories of visual art and poetry in modernity: writing not as expression but as confrontation with a limited schema or net, that site (cf. Mallarmé) of the writer’s shipwreck.

But I am not really interested in generalizations about media. Of greater interest to me are individuals, specifically their obsessions and solutions. How is it, for example, that two female artists, both born in 1941, one in Northern Germany, one on the east coast of the United States, both living in Manhattan in the late 1960s and participating in adjacent if not identical visual art communities, came to use sums and equations to manipulate the space of the page? Why did each determine that a style of quantification was a necessary component of her poetics? What can we learn from these sometimes inscrutable, personal mathematics, this mathematical prose?

Hanne Darboven, the German artist, was born in Rönneburg, outside of Hamburg, second daughter of three, to Cäsar Darboven, heir to and owner of the J.W. Darboven coffee roaster and general store (not to be confused with the J.J. Darboven coffee company, a better-known firm that has since expanded across Northern Europe). Hanne’s mother, Kirsten, was Danish. Her father was a successful contractor for the German military, supplying coffee to the army of the Third Reich. Later, there was an adolescence involving boarding schools and social dysfunction. Although Darboven had originally trained as a concert pianist, she entered art school, the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg, as a young adult. She was thin, yellow blond, conventionally pretty, yet with a kind of sacred circle around her: unteachable. A suggestion from a teacher, Almir Mavignier, was enough to send her packing her bags for New York. In Manhattan, after two years of relative isolation, Darboven met Sol LeWitt in 1968, along with, among others, the artists Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. Darboven’s father’s illness and eventual death brought her back to her childhood home; here she set up a sort of studio, along with a daily writing routine. This was how she made her way to the math, in which 1 + 1 = 1, 2, even as 3 = three three three: a methodology that privileged the act of counting. This was to be a key aspect of Darboven’s all-comprehending practice of time registration and would be expressed through the pages of checksum calculations the artist incorporated into her wall- and room-size installations of writing.

But I need to double back for a moment: in the summer of 1943, when Darboven was two, the Allies bombed Hamburg, at that time a centre of industrial production. The operation, code-named “Gomorrah,” began on July 24, 1943, a time of unusually arid weather, and lasted for eight days, creating at one point a 460-metre-high tornado of flames, with winds of up to 240 kilometres per hour and temperatures of 800 degrees Celsius. Asphalt burst into flame and fuel spilled into the river, causing the surface of the water to ignite. The attack is thought to have killed some 42,600 people, wounding another 37,000 and decimating the city. It was made possible by a radar-jamming technique known as “chaff” (code-named “Window”): clouds of tinfoil strips dropped into the air. The foil interrupted radar imaging, creating false echoes, a fuzzy array; it is an information technology, even in its obvious nature. The results were stupendous. The nearly 800 American and British bombers were effectively invisible.

Although the Allies did not target Rönneburg, where the Darbovens lived, they did haphazardly detonate excess armaments in the suburban landscape. In early July, just before the bombing, the Darbovens’ neighbours’ farm was one such site. Shortly after this event, the Darboven women fled to Lower Saxony, thus avoiding Operation Gomorrah by a matter of days, although their home was still standing when they returned two years later.

I mention these events less in an attempt to inspire pity for this wealthy family headed by a man who did profitable business with the Nazi Party than to point out a series of historical events for which Hanne Darboven was effectively present without the capacity for conscious memory or comprehension. Whatever else she lived before she began to make her “writing”—which was, by the way, the term she used for all her art—echolocations and bombings, the repeated hollowing out of vast architectural spaces, consumed her early youth.

In 1971, Darboven wrote to LeWitt from Germany:

Sol, am completely absorbed in - it - / - it - i wrote about although there / is nothing to write about — / - it - thinking and looking - it - and / - it - and doing - it -, writing - it - / and Oh Sol, i feel like 1968 when / i went to your place with my pages / of “68” again i would like to walk / to your place [a holy place] with / pages of : - it - no title no more, / words words words, oh, if you could / come here, to my place, oh — this / this time, good night my master love… / Hanne

On returning home, Darboven had in some sense taken up her ailing father’s place, becoming a manager of accounts. With her distinctive writing, she investigated the unintelligible side of information flows. She transformed information back into lines, into material. No more words, instead - it -. No more years, instead - it -. - it - was sometimes a loop, resembling a letter but not a letter; sometimes it was a number, treated not as a quantity but as a graphic image, something like a name (3 = three three three) but not a name, either. - it - was when a number was not itself and yet most itself at the same time, turned inward toward its own condition. “Numbers are the most neutral way of talking about things; no names, no objects, just the counting of numbers and the use of dates,” she said in an interview in 1994. Darboven placed herself in the midst of whatever - it - was.

When I look at the drawings Darboven produced during her time in New York, I see her exploring the uses and pleasures of the grid in various ways, using graph-paper boxes as a series of slots to be filled in, organizing and reorganizing. On one page, a series of numbers appears, apparently sourced from a late-summer date, August 30, 1968. When she wrote to LeWitt concerning her “pages of ‘68’” did she mean this very series, Kleine Konstruktion (Small Construction) of 1968, with four sequences of repeating numerals, 30868, 86830, 68308, 83086, day/month/year, month/year/day, year/day/month, month/day/[inverted year]? What might it mean for her to be fondly recalling this earlier page of work in the year 1971, when she began producing more ambitious sums, as in 1933/8K = No. 1, a large-scale numerical permutation on 42 sheets of paper in which Darboven renders three as “3 3 3” and five as “5 5 5 5 5,” for example, elaborating a series that permits her to produce “K” sums through different combinations of added numerals? Although Darboven’s checksums are synthetic, they also defamiliarize numbers, treating them as non-repeating, unique identities to be discovered within one another, rather than as quantities or points in a cyclical calendric sequence. As historian Zdenek Felix points out, it is less that Darboven wants to manipulate the calendar in her calculations, than that the calendar functions as the ideal ready-made matrix, “a system within which unfolding and regression would follow their own laws.”

It is nearly a secondary result of her work with these numbers, the infinite supply in the calendar, that time is pressed together into the characteristic Darbovian event, a seemingly gratuitous value labelled “K.” “there / is nothing to write about,” Darboven joyfully informs LeWitt, who may have been her lover; she is ecstatic, having discovered how to “[do] - it -,” and possibly where to get “- it -,” how to immerse herself in a practice in which there is always more to write, more to manipulate, more loops and checksums, but no longer anything to discuss, “no more, / words, words, words.” As she would later say in an interview, “I wrote things down again by hand so that the mediated experience might impart something to me.”

In the year of the holy walk(s) to Sol LeWitt’s place, another artist and writer, Madeline Gins, an American, lived and worked in Manhattan. Gins, like Darboven, was in her late twenties in the late 1960s, but unlike Darboven she was born in New York and raised on Long Island. She studied philosophy and physics at Barnard College, painting at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, and in the early 1960s she met, collaborated with and, in 1965, married Nagoya-born artist Shūsaku Arakawa, who, along with his mentor Marcel Duchamp, exhibited work in the Dwan Gallery’s 1967 show “Language to Be Looked at and/or Things to Be Read.” Perhaps it is the recent entry of language into visual art that moves Gins to do so much work on her typewriter. Perhaps she sees herself as typing up not just pages but images of a kind. Maybe she, like Darboven, understands the space of the page as not just an opportunity for establishing semantic meaning, but also a site for immersing oneself in an experience of mediation. When, in 1969, Gins publishes her experimental novel and artist’s book, WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), it contains a story about mediation, perhaps of the kind Gins herself experienced during the course of the novel’s composition. The dust jacket offers the following summary:

In WORD RAIN, an unnamed narrator sits at a desk in a friend’s apartment reading a manuscript. Surrounding the undefined character is a birthday party taking place in the next room, a glass of pineapple-grapefruit juice that is supposed to be pure grapefruit juice, the loose leaves of the manuscript, and the variable weather conditions. The pages of the manuscript slide to the floor. The weather turns misty and cold. Dishes rattle in the kitchen nearby. A package is delivered. It feels like rain. As each of these distractions occur playing against themselves in almost musical variation, the reader either opposes or flows with them as she reads. Sitting at the desk, she sometimes skims pages day-dreaming or catches the rhythms and reads in word blocks while the text fills itself in…

The reader of WORD RAIN, at once a character in Gins’s novel and an individual independent of the prose, finds numerous textual strategies at play: citations and appropriations of material from other books, as well as a detailed accounting of the by turns elating and distressing phenomenology of reading. The narrator’s (fictional) reading has peculiar results—special effects, one might say. At times she seems to encounter a version of herself in the text, whom she attempts to instruct or salute as from a distance; these moments feel elegiac, suggesting that reading can be an act of reconciliation with, or loss of, the self. At other times, the effects felt by the protagonist-reader are directly physical, synesthetic, as in a passage in which, instead of functioning to deliver semantic sense, words ossify: “The word face was a stone. The word guess was a flint. The words a, the, in, by, up, it, were pebbles. The word laughter was marble.” At the conclusion of this passage, the protagonist-reader seems to become one with these textured, surfaced words: “The word read was mica and I was granite.” It’s a phrase in which the “I” mentioned is at once a term in the manuscript the protagonist reads and also a possible name for the reader, herself. In either case—in either reading—reading is alchemical and transporting.

WORD RAIN also makes use of an eccentric form of mathematical notation (what Gins calls “oiled geometry, liniment algebra and creamed mathematics”) to quantify the text, an imaginary math. Gins’s math is designed to account for the number of words and letters used in a page; it allows for an alternate method of representing a page of writing, that is, by means other than semantic paraphrase, and therefore seems related to Gins’s understanding of writing and reading as having quantifiable, material qualities. Gins summarizes algebraically, such that sentences can be compressed into variables and arranged into formulae (“A = 13W + M1,” where “A = the first sentence,” “W = word” and “M = meaning”) explaining relationships between meaning and energy expended in the reading process across a paragraph or page. In this math, a given passage occurs again, for a second time—and differently. Semantically represented events are lost, but the events of the words themselves and the event of semantic meaning are rendered more prominent by means of mathematical generalization.

“am completely absorbed in - it -,” Darboven wrote in 1971. Gins, meanwhile, describes an experience of “tak[ing] up inside” of letters and words, where the self is a sort of membrane reading renders permeable. The choice not to differentiate between personhood and the activities of writing (Darboven) or reading (Gins) perhaps seems more familiar to us today, given our movement toward an increasingly scriptural society. Yet, moving beyond “words, words, words” into spaces and states of extreme mediation does not come without loss—and what exactly goes missing here is difficult to quantify. If I attempt, instead, to qualify this loss, I might suggest, necessarily engaging in speculation, that it has to do with the historical moment in which both Darboven and Gins were coming to consciousness and early maturity as artists, not to mention the shared year of their respective births. Language, although distinct from information in some contexts, is often treated as, or transformed into, data. By the middle of the 20th century, data had ceased, if ever it had been, to be a raw or mere tool—having become instead a weapon, an instrument of politics, a commodity. The theatres of the Second World War, with their various demands, could only hasten this process, and the civil societies that succeeded the conflict inherited new technologies, beliefs, fashions, drugs and foods from the business of making war. I sometimes think that one major thrust of Conceptualism, as a broad artistic movement, is to aid people in confronting the cybernetic transformation of everyday life in the postwar period, in which a word is no longer word but data; in which movements are data; in which persons, places and things have all become information. Darboven and Gins, paradoxically, deployed their math as a sort of antidote, transforming information back into things.


Date: February 6, 2020

Publisher: Canadian Art

Format: Print

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Canadian Art, "Antimatter," Winter 2020.


Cover image.


Madeline Gins, page from WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), 1969. Originally published by Grossman Publishers, New York © 1969 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins.


Installation view of Hanne Darboven’s “ERDKUNDE UND (SÜD-) KOREANISCHER KALENDER,” 2019. Courtesy Sprüth Magers, Berlin. Photo: Timo Ohler.

On Rachel Harrison

How Rachel Harrison’s Sculptures Reframe Art History

One of the earliest sculptures by the artist Rachel Harrison I have seen is 20 × 24″ (for CDL), created in 1999. It is not easy to describe this work, so bear with me for a moment, as this will take some doing. It is a wall-hung structure composed of wood, polystyrene, cement, acrylic, and a color photograph. The photo, in a cherry-red frame, shows Gustave Courbet’s 1866 The Origin of the World, along with some people who are standing nearby. It appears to be a view of Courbet’s well-known vulva painting as exhibited in the Musée d’Orsay in the late 1990s (the work has since been rehung in a different gallery there). Affixed to the front of Harrison’s assemblage is a board that reads, in a white scrawl atop a violet field, $50.00 bet. It is not particularly easy to see the photograph—or the Courbet itself, therefore. The framed picture is nestled into the polystyrene construction, shielded by the frontal announcement of the low-stakes wager; the photograph sits on a sort of shelf that seems to have been designed for it. In this sense, the photograph is about as framed as something can be, without being entirely hidden. There’s so much going on here—white acrylic mixed with cement slathered everywhere in a way that recalls the uneven texture of insulation, odd rectangular planes, a small painting that is also a weird hand-drawn sign with a narrative about a gamble (between or among whom, and what for?)—that one might even miss the photograph of the masterpiece.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we don’t. Rather, we home in, intrigued and attentive, and walk around to the left side of 20 × 24″ (for CDL) to have a closer look. In the snapshot three individuals huddle before a neighboring Courbet canvas, possibly Nude Woman with a Dog (1868). Nude Woman is not Courbet’s highest achievement, and anyway these people are less important. What we fixate on in Harrison’s photograph is a male figure, his back to us, who stands transfixed before The Origin of the World. He wears a black leather jacket, dark hair closely cropped. We cannot see his face, but we have the impression that his gaze is directed right into the cleft of Courbet’s subject. One could imagine his jaw slack, mouth arranged in a silent “Wow.” He’s like an arrow, pointing, and we don’t quite know whether to stare at the back of his head or to look at (into?) the infamous work of art.

What was that fifty-dollar bet about, again—and who is “CDL”? Is this some sort of “made you look” situation? A different sort of in-joke? Or, are we meant to recognize ourselves in the midst of a multigenerational act of transmission of styles of looking, i.e., tradition? And is there a critical message related to the “male gaze”? It occurs to us, too, that with its frame, the Courbet is almost the right size to be the referent of the title of the sculpture. We’re sure for a moment that we’ve solved the matter of the title, if not the elaborate framing/enwombing of the photograph. But not quite—the measurements are slightly off—that’s not it, either.

The disorientation 20 × 24″ (for CDL) engenders is thus spatial, material, linguistic, and also temporal, given the involvement of the history of Western art. Made three years after Harrison’s first solo exhibition, this sculpture has many of the hallmarks of her later practice, from the materials selected to the strategies deployed: use of polystyrene slabs and a liberal application of paint roughened with cement; a construction whose multiple sides invite multiple viewing positions, along with possibly contradictory readings; plays on language and history that keep the viewer guessing; the inclusion of manufactured objects the sculpture seems to grip, shelter, proffer, embrace; a title that feels autonomous from the object and thus like a work in itself; a joke about human posture and/or sex, which is to say, a universal style of humor.

By including the anonymous snapshot of a young man whose fashion choices are easy to mock and who seems, himself, to have been transformed into a sculpture by the power of Courbet’s realism, before becoming Harrison’s own gawking readymade, the artist also indicates a series of conventions for the viewing and display of art, after the advent of postmodernism. 1. Stand before painting. 2. Obtain photographic reproduction. 3. Insert awe somewhere. But the young man Harrison’s photograph captures is in fact an exception to this theory of the floating signifier: Whereas he would seem to have come to the museum with the expectation of viewing “high art,” here, with The Origin of the World, he has landed on a realist painting that offers him an image that interests him differently, I think it’s fair to say. All he has to do is look, no elaborate rationale or hushed discourse (see trio next door at Nude Woman with a Dog) necessary. Thus, too, the odd compliance of this viewer’s body. The museum has surprised him by permitting him to stare at something he genuinely wants to see.

Harrison has a point. A funny one, at that. And no doubt Harrison wouldn’t mind if the viewer of 20 × 24″ (for CDL) thought a little, too, about the strange history of that particular nineteenth-century canvas, which, conceived as bespoke porn and probably itself painted from a photograph, originally hung in an opulent bathroom and was concealed by a velvet curtain, making its way, as it changed hands, into a series of display boxes with false fronts showing other paintings; to be owned, after the Second World War, by a famous psychoanalyst, before being quietly donated to the Musée d’Orsay by the famous psychoanalyst’s widow, who had at one time been a movie star.[1]

The multiple stagings and framings of The Origin by its commissioner and later owners underscore both the frank obscenity of the painting and the need for props (including its grandiose title) to make it into an acceptable work of art. The painting’s concealment and, one assumes, performative unveiling among cronies, must have accorded it additional value, such that it transcended its possible status as a gynecological artifact. Harrison’s staging, on the other hand, takes the painting right back to this basic function, in part by showing how Courbet’s mercenary realism is of a part (pun intended) with contemporary commercial images. Her readymade guy knows well how to look at this shot, I mean, canvas.

In light of the above, it is not unusual for critics and scholars to emphasize the postmodern aspects of Harrison’s sculpture. Her work is ambiguous, multi-planar, and comprises objects and references that bounce from high to low, that require some technical prowess for their execution or that require none at all (i.e., are readymade), that are conceptually rigorous (require “reading”) or that address popular culture plainly and directly (“entertain”). There are some carnival beads or a photograph of Leonardo DiCaprio. There is a reference to Jeff Koons or Hanne Darboven. There is a trail of Styrofoam peanuts leading from the feet of a mannequin as well as ropes, garbage bags, food, taxidermied chickens, and accomplished drawings of Amy Winehouse that manage to eulogize the singer even as, in one fell colored-pencil swoop, they mock the economies of line favored by Willem de Kooning, along with two of de Kooning’s best-compensated imitators, Richard Prince and George Condo. As John Kelsey, one of Harrison’s most eloquent interpreters, puts it: “There is a point beyond which sculptural properties of material, form, and structure disperse into more hysterical outbreaks of style and vernacular reference, and this is the very point around which the best Harrisons tend to both blossom and congeal.”[2] There’s also Harrison’s tendency to establish her constructions (what Kelsey calls her “complexes”) using polystyrene, best known for its use in buoyant disposable items: coffee cups, take-out containers. It’s the plastic we have liked to expand into foam, and also to condense into a high-impact variety as well as the sparkling cases that once contained everybody’s compact discs. While not as ubiquitous as polyethylene (grocery bags), polystyrene is a shape-shifter. Its refusal to degrade is matched by its receptivity, in its foam state, to carving, cutting, pressure.

I have never attempted to knock over a statue by Rachel Harrison, but given that polystyrene is almost always included in her materials lists—along with wild cards like “plastic pastry,” “latex Dick Cheney mask,” “La Morena salsa can,” and “Slim Jim display rack”—I’ve wondered if there would be a crash or, perhaps, a bounce. Maybe a soft tapping sound, a click or rustle. There would, of course, be a lot of other sounds after this, and I wouldn’t recommend the experiment. Yet, for all their incorporation of disparate materials, some of which originate in the 99-cent store, the Halloween center, the supermarket, Goodwill, Home Depot, and, one assumes, on Craigslist and eBay, Harrison’s works—even as they twist away from the viewer, sheltering a peculiar thing—do not seem dense. Their volume, in other words, does not connote or entail mass.

But Harrison’s refusal of monumentality and even wholeness has another effect. If we follow various semantic trails around and into the surfaces and planes of a Rachel Harrison like 20 × 24″ (for CDL) we discover that our inability to land on a single reading feels, paradoxically, not like the “correct” reading of the piece, not something verifiable, but rather a process that actually and unavoidably occurs. The title is specific, yet it’s baggy, seemingly intentionally so. The frontal sign and various white facades distract us further. This is to say that Harrison’s material and discursive frames get in the way, they compete and jostle; they threaten to become representational. They want to be figures, too. But at the same time, at the center of this flurry of formal and semantic elements threatening to become near-figures, is a clear and direct reflection on spectatorship and the role of realist representational styles, a nicely staged understatement: A guy sees something he likes. It’s this cutting and clever element of Harrison’s work, her focus on vernacular realism and pursuant ways of looking—an interest somewhat poorly acknowledged in previous writing on her sculpture and one I find to be a key element in her strategies of construction—that I would like to focus on for the remainder of my essay.

Harrison’s work is often compared with that of Robert Rauschenberg, whose Combines offer a visual if not methodological analogy. Harrison does not shy away from this association and even seems to encourage it,[3] while, at the same time cultivating other conversations and confrontations: with the art of Henry Moore, for example, whose public sculpture Three Forms Vertebrae (Dallas Piece), 1978–79, she boldly augmented in 2013 in a not-entirely-complimentary fashion, with a gigantic hot-pink arrow pointing down at Moore’s work in front of Dallas City Hall (Moore to the Point). There is also the inevitable tie to Duchamp, due to the many manufactured objects she employs. We might see Louise Nevelson in Harrison’s slabs, as well.

I’m limiting myself to earlier twentieth-century references here—avoiding nods to relevant contemporary artists like Isa Genzken and the late Mike Kelley, or to Harrison’s New York–based contemporaries like Nicole Eisenman and Darren Bader—because although it can be difficult to pin down the meaning of single pieces by Harrison, there is a larger gambit at stake, one related, it seems to me, to the shifting fate of figuration in American art after the Second World War. The tension of the pre- and early postwar scene centered on the expression of political commitments in representational art, particularly through figuration and caricature in a social realist mode. Although Clement Greenberg’s canonical “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” dates from 1939, its effects reverberated on the other side of the international conflagration, as a confluence of wealth and need for visual symbols of the US’s newfound soft (as well as hard) power prevailed upon a generation of artists, mostly based in New York. The short version of this story, always a risky version to tell, is that the notion of representing “social issues” by means of a direct, figurative depiction, as in the socially engaged figurative styles of Thomas Hart Benton, Jacob Lawrence, and Ben Shahn, was outpaced by an elite leftism, what Greenberg had hinted at in his essay as formally pure “Athene,” the aesthetic heights of complex, imperial, urbane civilization—that which was diametrically opposed to kitsch, or pandering art for the masses.[4] Abstract Expressionism was the alleged savior. Although it was perhaps difficult to see the anthropomorphic face of god in a painting by Jackson Pollock, one could (and was encouraged by the contemporary press to) see the face of some sort of conceptual deity, perhaps one corresponding to the dreadful instrumentalization of quantum mechanics.[5]

I often consider this early Cold War period of transition in relation to Rachel Harrison’s work. Her use of artfully scrubbed-on fields of paint on her polystyrene sculptures recalls the gradations of Mark Rothko, Pollock’s early semi-figurative canvases, or gestures made by a lesser-known contemporary, Byron Browne, in their variety. We see this in the sculptures featured in her exhibitions “If I Did It” (2007) and “The Help” (2012), both at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York, and with even more pronounced clarity in the particolored mass that supports a prepubescent mannequin, nude save for a cape and an Abraham Lincoln mask worn on the back of their head with sunglasses, in Alexander the Great (2007). Alexander’s boulder is at once as slight as a kernel of popcorn and as symbolically loaded as Venus’s foam or a sun-burnished cloud rendered by Caspar David Friedrich, propping up as it does a two-faced imperial figure. Harrison’s application of paint here is a citation of a moment when artists on the left seemed to reject authoritarianism in the same breath as Communism, the depiction of presidents along with the depiction of heroic workers and immigrants. Although the rejection of figurative realism was far from universal and was in short order interrupted by the arrival of Pop, the fields of color and drops of paint the abstractionists favored made a bid for visceral excitements beyond language, even as they were blandly internationalist, covertly nationalistic, and, eventually, very selling. In spite of what Greenberg argued, they were a new mass ornament. What, after all, as Harrison’s Alexander seems to argue, looks kitschier today than a canvas by Pollock?

Harrison’s painting practice—for we should probably call it that, as she is a painter as well as a sculptor in many of her works—recalls this demise of social realist figurative styles, one that was apparently necessary for Americans to become world-class artists. Yet Harrison also resuscitates figuration in a social mode, often by way of photographs, drawings, and readymades. The immature figure in Alexander the Great, rising all too gamely out of its massive harlequin packing-peanut—as if in tribute to Amazon Prime (b. 2005)—is not an answer to any sort of question about the failure of figuration. Rather, the work is a series of store-bought (thrifted? stolen?) commercial readymades. It is a testament to the actual overwhelming and, let’s face it, uninterrupted success of figuration as a representational mode in the US: it is a stand-in for a stripped Barbie or Spiderman figurine, combined with a countenance on our money. Nothing, nothing at all has been worked out over the past seventy years by artists, and there isn’t really any “art world” of any significance, just proxy wars and manufacturing. Labor’s power ends at the feet of this plastic adolescent. Still, given the idiotic symmetry of its face and charming, guileless offer of a Jeff Gordon–themed bucket of paint rollers (?), it is hard not to laugh.[6]

Sliding into this storm of references and points of view (themselves frequently readymade) are the directness and vividness of many of Harrison’s titles, which frequently cite contemporary events, neologisms, public figures. I have already mentioned the O.J. Simpson autobiography citation (If I Did It), which does double duty as a counterfactual disavowal of authorship (“What, me, make art?”). The sculptures in “If I Did It” are in turn named for male celebrities: Fats Domino, Al Gore, Johnny Depp. They incorporate slightly unkind pieces of humor—a can of “Slim Fast,” a mercury-filled thermostat, an oversize pirate hoop earring (respectively)—such that each pillar or stack of blocks wears its designated readymade like an epithet. The oddly shaped constructions are handily roped into portraiture through the addition of names and accessories. Indeed, “If I Did It” seems to mock the very notion of pure abstraction. Although I like to think of Harrison coming upon the “identities” of the sculptures accidentally—via some fun pareidolic coincidence, a fortuitous squint of the eye—it seems more likely that she is deliberately recoding Ab Ex as Pop drag.

Harrison’s first solo show, in 1996 at Arena Gallery in Brooklyn, had a memorable, if nearly un-memorizable, name: “Should home windows or shutters be required to withstand a direct hit from an eight-foot-long two-by-four shot from a cannon at 34 miles an hour, without creating a hole big enough to let through a three-inch sphere?” This question was appropriated from an article in the New York Times on housing codes. Later, in 2004, Harrison culled another exhibition title from the press, “Posh Floored as Ali G Tackles Becks.” The former points up the bizarre results of objectivity as a rhetorical mode, while the latter calls our attention to an odd pun (“floored”) that springs to life in the midst of several assumed identities. And it’s not just these linguistic oddities from the recycling bin or browser history: Harrison likes literature, too. For a 2007 group of photographs, she made use of the title of Charles Darwin’s diary, The Voyage of the Beagle; a 2009 survey at Bard College’s Hessel Museum of Art was titled “Consider the Lobster,” after the essay by novelist David Foster Wallace. While I personally prefer the 1996 and 2004 titles, I’m not beyond seeing that the name of Darwin’s boat was fairly strange, while the name of Wallace’s essay was pretty normal (for someone reputed to be a genius). This language is decontextualized, pushed to a point of abstraction, then reconfigured, tied to new images and forms; as a result of this process it does, I have to say, become more insistent.

The title of the 1999 work that I mentioned at the outset of this essay acts as an unpredictable frame, one that both encloses the sculpture and gets in the way of its interpretation. I think of Harrison’s titles as shoring up the ambivalent space of figuration in her works and, by turns, getting stuck in it. They remind me of Marcel Duchamp’s explanation of what he learned from the poet, playwright, and novelist Raymond Roussel, i.e., that “everything can be done, especially when you describe it in words, and anything can be invented.”[7] Duchamp credited the poet with the novel conceptual turn in his work, circa 1911 and 1912, a discovery of language’s own hermetic realities and worlds. Harrison’s titles can function in this way, as semiautonomous processes of signification, sometimes pointing back to phenomenal reality, culture, and history, sometimes glossing the object or installation they name, but never fully relinquishing their status as independent figures. If they are frames, they are competitive ones. They seem, however humorously or intelligently, to acknowledge a prohibition on what Duchamp called “Cartesianism,” a method of reasoning from innate ideas and first principles, leading to real truths about the real world.[8] But unlike Duchamp’s spectacular leveraging of language as space and time, Harrison’s titling (along with her appropriation) is more casual, more familiar, more willing to be demoralized by contemporary reality and/or direct about it, and therefore more social, if not overtly political. It may even be that her versioning of the category of kitsch aims at solving Greenberg’s quandary, reactivating the “and” in the title of his 1939 essay to read not “versus” but “as.”

If Harrison is a painter, a shopper (or collector), and, as I would argue, a skillful writer, then she is a photographer, too. Given the ubiquity of images online and the pursuant erasure of medial distinctions, along with the variety of strategies used by those who now identify as photographers, perhaps it is less important to emphasize the act of “taking” a photo than it is to note the act of situating—framing or, as Harrison’s structures can seem to do, enfolding, grasping—and circulating one. In any case, Harrison is sometimes the active camerawoman, as, possibly, for 20 × 24″ (for CDL) and as for her 2001 installation, Perth Amboy, for which she photographed individuals who had come to view an image of the Virgin Mary that had appeared on the glass of a window in a private home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Harrison often hangs framed images of celebrities on her polystyrene steles or builds pictures and video into a given piece. Perth Amboy, however, sets photograph and sculpture apart, in part by means of a cardboard maze. The twenty-one photographs in Perth Amboy, many taken from outside the house to capture views of hands on the blessed window, hang on the gallery walls. At the center of the room, tall pieces of cardboard are arranged and folded in such a way that they stand freely, swaying sometimes. They might well be knocked over by visitors. (“Don’t worry,” the artist seems to be saying, “it’s not like it’s going shatter.”) In the maze, Harrison sets up encounters between essentializing toys, tchotchkes, and figurines—Barbie’s “friend” Becky, who uses a wheelchair; a ceramic “Asian” figure; a “Native American” head—and tiny works of art. The anthropomorphic items are arranged in such a way that they seem to gaze appreciatively and obediently at their assigned objects of contemplation, miniature sculptures and paintings. Thus, Harrison, as an artist who is often engaged in staging occasions for looking at photographs, calls our attention to the fact that photographs can be framed by objects and elaborate physical structures, and can frame those objects and structures, in turn. Her use of photography, much like her use of other figurative modes, is ambivalent, a switching station for the currents of meaning that flow through her constructions, reversing direction and colliding from time to time—avoiding realism’s one-way street, while at the same time addressing the fact that viewers are often conditioned to seek realist representation.[9]

Perth Amboy has appeared in a number of institutional settings; like many of Harrison’s installations, it is intended to be meaningfully iterated, changing form depending on its context.[10] It is among the most generous of Harrison’s creations. When Perth Amboy was installed at the Museum of Modern Art in 2016, I took a group of undergraduate writing students to see it, and I have seldom experienced such a strong collective response to a museum visit: the students were enthralled by the photographs of pilgrims’ hands and faces. They also lingered in the cardboard maze, making notes on the various readymades staged there. The students considered these scenes of fake absorption intently. They weighed the feeling of the looking described here against the looking they themselves were doing in relation to the miraculous site of Perth Amboy, where, as they understood, devout people had congregated to touch a holy image. They told me that they enjoyed the way in which the cardboard kept some parts of the room hidden, such that one could not grasp its contents in a single glance. The installation seemed, in some way, to liberate them to be completely focused on their own thoughts and observations. It was also acting, therefore, as a consideration of a possible relationship between privacy and collectivity, two concepts that are usually opposed. The installation seemed to pose a question about the location of the so-called mass ornament: Is it with “them” (the visitors to a miraculous image of the Virgin), or with “us,” we who ponder unpleasant miniatures that in turn ponder bad art? In other words, is the face of Mary kitsch or is the image of museum spectatorship kitsch—or, are these two images and the behaviors they entail actually more allied than we might think?

Given that, as of the writing of this essay, I have not yet seen “Life Hack,” Harrison’s fall 2019 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and as the uncorrected proof of the accompanying catalogue contains no clear exhibition checklist nor any installation shots—focusing instead on images of past shows and mostly literary essays about Harrison—I cannot offer a sense of what the experience of moving through this exhibition will be like. I do, however, find it interesting that the Whitney is the site of this major consolidation of Harrison’s efforts.

Visitors to the museum’s home in Chelsea may be forgiven for not recognizing in this deluxe incarnation the institution’s scrappy beginnings, in the late nineteen-teens, as the Whitney Studio Club, an experimental downtown exhibition space that encouraged collaboration among American artists. The Club was overseen by Juliana Force, then personal assistant to heiress and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a somewhat distant patron whose greatest previous achievement was to have backed the 1913 Armory Show. When, in 1931, the Whitney became a full-fledged museum, Force lived above its West Eighth Street entrance in an apartment whose bizarrely eclectic appointments (folk art, Victoriana, contemporary American paintings, a red lacquered elevator, fur carpeting, “a white rubber floor with brass inlay, black furniture inlaid with mother of pearl engravings, a large Bakelite table, opalescent wallpaper, blue satin draperies with pearl fringe, doors decorated with trompe l’oeil designs and rococo patterns offset by lace paper appliqué jambs, gilded eagle lamps that hung from the ceiling on silk cords, and an alabaster cat perched on a sofa”[11]) might have been to Harrison’s own liking. The Whitney Museum, carrying on the work of the Studio Club, did not draw a sharp distinction between decoration and artwork, craft and fine art, kitsch and sublimity, artist and curator. The intended experience was of a multifarious aesthetic space, rather than, as in Greenberg’s conception of the modern art gallery, of recessive surrounds for formal canvases discussing their own display. Force treated art in a familiar fashion and was generally more concerned with inviting living artists and other visitors to the spaces she maintained than with maintaining Neo-Classical or modernist ideals.[12]

The Whitney has since changed quite a lot, deaccessioning, after Force’s death in 1948 and over the intervening seventy-plus years, a number of no doubt excessively kitschy American artworks acquired before the Second World War along with any and all pre-1900 objects, to become an impeccable modern and now postmodern institution. But Harrison has never been the sort of artist to miss an opportunity to point out the strange conditions (historical, social, material) under which we view art, and this makes me wonder. The current catalogue concludes with a “Curators’ Acknowledgements” section by Elisabeth Sussman and David Joselit, which names without describing an “ambitious, unique, and incisive plan for this exhibition,” calling it additionally “utterly reflective of Rachel’s vision.”[13] Reading that gnomic sentence, I begin imagining for a moment another pink arrow, à la Moore to the Point, this one some twelve stories tall, perhaps aimed at Hudson Yards, the Vessel, or the museum itself. But I feel unsatisfied by this fantasy intervention, which could only be titled More of the Same, and would have little of the capacity to astonish that I associate with Harrison’s work, save in its monumentality, which, again, would not be very Harrison at all. But what if there is a way in which hosting Harrison brings back some of the emphasis on so-called minor styles that are in fact key to the Whitney’s original reason for being? Or, what if the show simply calls greater attention to our habits of moving around and looking while we are in the current Whitney? Indeed, this second option feels quite possible to me. As most of us know, one of the most disorienting experiences one can have in a museum is to make a ground-figure category error, in other words to mistake infrastructure or trash—say a directional sign or stray packing peanut—for art.


Date: October 28, 2019

Publisher: Art in America

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Art in America, November 2019.


November 2019 cover.


Rachel Harrison: 20 × 24" (for CDL), 1999, wood, polystyrene, cement, acrylic, and chromogenic print, 22 by 19 by 18 inches. Photo Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART. Courtesy Greene Naftali Gallery, New York.


Rachel Harrison: Moore to the Point, 2013, powder-coated steel, 288 by 117 3/8 by 50 inches; at Dallas City Hall Plaza. Courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas. Photo Allison Smith.


View of Harrison’s exhibition “The Help,” 2012, at Greene Naftali Gallery, New York. Photo John Berens.

    1. For a full account of the painting’s provenance, including its time in the collection of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and Sylvia Bataille, see Thierry Savatier, L’Origine du monde: histoire d’un tableau de Gustave Courbet, Paris, Bartillat, 2007.
    1. John Kelsey, “Sculpture in an Abandoned Field,” in Rachel Harrison: If I Did It, Zurich, JRP Ringier Kunstverlag, 2007, p. 121.
    1. Several works in the “If I Did It” series include taxidermied chickens on top of polystyrene pillars, a direct reference to Rauschenberg’s Odalisk (1955/58).
    1. In the final footnote of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg argues for the irrelevance of “art for the masses as folk art.” Greenberg maintains that folk art, even if it is “on a high level,” is yet “not Athene, and it’s Athene whom we want.” Besides, Greenberg continues, there is no original art of the common people, whom he takes, historically, to be “serfs or slaves” preoccupied by forced labor. Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Partisan Review 6, fall 1939, p. 49.
    1. See Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1983. Guilbaut traces relationships between and among the US government’s imperialist ambitions after the Second World War, the nation’s artistic movements, art criticism, and the art market.
    1. I have not been able to find a satisfying description of the two objects in the bucket. They are unnamed in other catalogues, while in the current catalogue for the Whitney show they are described as “unidentified objects,” Elizabeth Sussman and David Joselit, eds., Rachel Harrison Life Hack, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, and New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2019, p. 122.
    1. In an interview published in Audio Arts magazine in 1974 (recorded in 1959), Duchamp explains: “The subconscious never interested me very much as a basis for an art expression of any kind. It’s true that I really was very much of a—if you could use the word—défroqué, or unfrocked, Cartesian, because I was very pleased by the so-called pleasure of using Cartesianism as a form of logic and very close mathematical thinking, but I was also very pleased by the idea of getting away from it. It happened also in several places in the works of Raymond Roussel, a writer who wrote these completely fantastic descriptions of the same order, where everything can be done, especially when you describe it in words, and anything can be invented—in Locus Solus and in Impressions d’Afrique. That’s where, really, I found the source of my new activity in 1911 or 1912.” Duchamp quoted in Speaking of Art: Four Decades of Art in Conversation, ed. William Furlong, London, Phaidon, 2010, p. 21.
    1. Ibid.
    1. The term “switching station” is John Kelsey’s. See If I Did It, p. 122.
    1. For example, at Greene Naftali in New York in 2001, Perth Amboy’s cardboard maze was in a much taller room than MoMA’s galleries and was accordingly scaled.
    1. Evelyn C. Hankins, “Engendering the Whitney’s Collection of American Art,” in Acts of Possession: Collecting in America, ed. Leah Dilworth, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2003, pp. 174–75.
    1. A main tenet of the Whitney’s first biennials and other group exhibitions was that prizes should not be awarded to the few but that funds should be used to purchase a variety of artists’ works for the collection.
    1. David Joselit and Elisabeth Sussman, “Curatorial Acknowledgements,” in Rachel Harrison Life Hack, p. 272.
On Florine Stettheimer


NEITHER FRANZ KAFKA nor Louis-Ferdinand Céline had extensive experience in the United States, yet both wrote novels set wholly or in part in the land of opportunity. In 1932’s Journey to the End of the Night, Céline limns New York’s “gold district,” aka Manhattan, which the narrator-hero, Bardamu, fancifully maintains can be entered only on foot, “like a church.” “It’s a district filled with gold, a miracle, and through the doors you can actually hear the miracle, the sound of dollars being crumpled, for the Dollar is always too light, a genuine Holy Ghost, more precious than blood.”[1] This eerie concatenation of capitalism, architecture, and human ambition resembles the earlier surreal landscapes of Kafka’s Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), written 1911–14 and published posthumously in 1927. Yet, there is a haunted and perhaps more vicious mood circulating in Amerika’s bizarro USA: The Statue of Liberty, for example, holds a sword instead of a torch, and “unchained winds” blow around her. “One couldn’t look for pity here,” the protagonist, Karl Rossmann, reflects of this port city of “haste, precision, clarity of representation.”[2]

While hyperbolic and rife with allegory, these portrayals of pre-World War II New York are weirdly accurate. Or, rather, it is their use of hyperbole and allegory that makes them accurate. Modern New York is a place one can see even without seeing it with one’s own two eyes, given the long-range power of media. The city really is the dream of skyscrapers, big bucks, and mobility dangled before the exploitable immigrant, which also makes it something of a nightmare. And these novelizations, dreamed and fantasized and pasted together from others’ accounts, resemble, tonally and rhetorically, nothing in the visual arts of their time so much as the paintings of Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944), who, as a Jazz Age socialite and actual resident of the US, would seem to have little in common with either the clerklike Kafka or war veteran and later anti-Semite Céline. Yet both authors are uncharacteristically comic, even zany, when it comes to American tableaux. It is, for example, possible to compare Amerika’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a massive imaginary entertainment operation that ostensibly hires all comers, to Stettheimer’s canvases, which are likewise anomalous sites of performance, often depicting large casts of figures. In their detail, excess, and carefully deployed allegorical systems, Stettheimer’s paintings depict an era of conservative nationalism and roaring decadence, a contradictory cultural and political amalgam that looks ever more familiar.

STETTHEIMER BECAME an American late. Though she was born in Rochester, New York, she lived somewhat less than half her life within her country of origin. In an early instance of the mix of extreme privilege and social uncertainty that would define her life, Florine, along with her four siblings, was whisked off to Germany as a young child after her father abandoned the family. It is not known whether her mother, Rosetta Walter Stettheimer, was aiming to save face or cash, or both.[3] The result was a childhood like an extended vacation. Florine briefly returned to the US in the 1890s, to study at the Art Students League, the first school in New York to permit female students to make drawings from nude models. She was otherwise in Vienna and Paris and other places European, often in the company of her chic sisters, Ettie and Carrie. There were performances of the Ballets Russes, discussions of the vitalism of Henri Bergson, careful examinations of canonical Continental paintings. Then, with the outbreak of the Great War, the Stettheimers decamped to New York, which became a permanent home. Florine Stettheimer would leave the US only once thereafter, to vacation in Canada. In 1914 she was forty-three, with an impressive education but no career.

Most critics of Stettheimer’s multiform body of work—which includes poetry, furniture, and stage sets, along with her complex paintings—have a tendency to cast their essays as close readings of the artist’s social calendar.[4] These treatments have mainly taken the paintings as portrayals of, and decorative backdrops for, Stettheimer’s interactions with Marcel Duchamp (who may have modeled Rrose Sélavy on her), Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Elie Nadelman, Gertrude Stein, and Carl Van Vechten, among other celebrities, some of whom, like best-selling author Joseph Hergesheimer, were more renowned in their own day than they are now. With recourse to her archives at Columbia and Yale, Stettheimer’s careful readers have disclosed her uptown avant-garde coterie. She is understood to have led a life of comfort and leisure, if of questionable romantic and professional fulfillment. The contradictions were many, but increasing quantities of family money seem to have made them more interesting than tragic. (By the time Florine, Ettie, Carrie, and Rosetta Stettheimer resettled in New York, they were apparently quite financially secure.)

Starting around 1918, Stettheimer entered her mature period. She stopped painting post-Impressionist mediocrities and got weird. She festooned her studio with cellophane and Victorian lace. She gilded liberally, filling her canvases with lithe little bodies en pointe. She was at once a consummate Continental decadent and a patriotic American modern—a hyper-feminine late bloomer and visionary, the ultimate outsider-insider. She became a satirist of artistically inclined upper classes, as well as a depicter of nationalist pageantry. She was not a bad poet. She showed infrequently and was nearly forgotten after her death.[5] Andy Warhol got a private viewing of her work in 1961 from a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though professing his “love” in his memoir POPism, Warhol was not above dubbing his forebear a “wealthy primitive painter.”[6]

There is, to be frank, often something of a letdown when it comes to Stettheimer’s reception. Wanda Corn and Michael Leja—two art historians who have, to their credit, shown a greater tolerance than most for the minutiae of the interwar period in the US—have little to say about her. Yet, as New York Times art critic Roberta Smith observes in her review of the current one-woman show at the Jewish Museum, “Every 20 years or so an exhibition devoted to Florine Stettheimer . . . shakes up modernism’s orderly hierarchies.”[7] This latest survey, “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry,” suffers somewhat from a cramped, windowless setting. Stettheimer’s four late masterpieces, her “Cathedrals” series of 1929–42, in the permanent collection of the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, are not included, meaning that it is all but impossible to comprehend Stettheimer’s enormous achievement as a painter by way of the show. Without the “Cathedrals” as zenith, the exhibition culminates uncertainly in maquettes, publicity headshots, and barely legible snippets of film related to Four Saints in Three Acts, a 1934 avant-garde opera, featuring an entirely African American cast, with libretto by Gertrude Stein and score by Virgil Thomson. Stettheimer designed iridescent cellophane scenery and feathered and sequined costumes for the show, making something of a splash.[8]

The catalogue for “Painting Poetry” hardly mitigates the disappointment. Even given the dearth of popular writing on Stettheimer that is not a rehashing of Linda Nochlin’s 1980 tour de force in this magazine, the two workmanlike essays by Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik are lamentable. (Uhlyarik, for example, resorts to such platitudes as, “Stettheimer painted herself into an art history of her own making, informed by a long classical tradition and activated by a vanguard attitude.”[9]) A subsequent coda-like transcript of a roundtable discussion among contemporary painters rehearses the usual terms in which Stettheimer is praised.[10] Overall, this lackluster if jauntily packaged retrospective, with its anodyne title and incomplete trajectory, deviates little from the boom-bust cycle Smith describes.

IF WE WANT TO grapple more seriously with Florine Stettheimer, it is worth returning to Kafka and Céline’s unreal depictions of the US. We could well think of Stettheimer on similar terms: as an artist who treated America as an exotic, largely unknowable locale and who used the space of fantasy and escapism this orientation opened up as a source of inspiration, improvising at will. This way of looking at Stettheimer may not endear her to contemporary American audiences, who seem to enjoy her work mainly for its flowers, stars, large-eyed maidens, and ubiquitous crystalline frills. However, highlighting Stettheimer’s interest in allegory and appropriation helps to explain such apparently contradictory impulses as her life-long fascination with the figure of the faun as portrayed by Vaslav Nijinsky in his famous choreography for L’Après-midi d’un faune, a ballet based on a Stéphane Mallarmé poem with a score by Claude Debussy, and her equally powerful obsession with the far less sensuous George Washington, to whom she dedicated an entire shrinelike room in her Bryant Park studio and who repeatedly appears in her paintings.[11] From the intently researched exoticism of contemporary designers Léon Bakst, who created sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, and Paul Poiret, the celebrity couturier who in 1911 held a “Thousand and Second Night” fancy-dress soirée, Stettheimer learned the power of orientalist pastiche.

Critics often note the impact Nijinsky’s June 8, 1912, Paris performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune made on Stettheimer. She immediately began sketching costumes and scenery for her own ballet, the story of a well-heeled father-daughter duo who are accosted by art students and compelled to don Bakstian/Poiretian garb and begin dancing. Though the ballet, L’Orphée des Quat-z-arts, whose title cites an annual Parisian ball, was never staged, Stettheimer’s mock-ups evidence rapt work, including collaged fabric and beading. This early undertaking is usually seen as a sign of the talent that would be more concretely manifested in Stettheimer’s designs for Four Saints in Three Acts. L’Orphée might also be read as an indication of Stettheimer’s fashionable equation of personal liberation with the assumption of non-European dress; the clothing of the art students points to a generalized East, in which the constraints of Western society are imagined not to apply. Indeed, in one of the very few extant photographs of Stettheimer, taken ca. 1917–20 in her Bryant Park garden, she wears a matching set of billowing pantaloons and embroidered white tunic. Stettheimer’s garments are even more loosely cut than Poiret’s iconic “lampshade” tunic ensemble, but the association is unmistakable and incorporates another trend in which Poiret also participated: deliverance from the corset.

Stettheimer thus favored an eccentric exoticism—one in which fauns, George Washingtons, and other stock figures were caricatured and fetishized—over related contemporaneous avant-garde movements, even as she maintained a rather straightforward relationship to the sensuality of paint. The academically trained and always elaborately decorative Stettheimer was, for example, never fully taken with Dada’s sardonic anti-art. The Stettheimer sisters’ liking for puckish Duchamp, aka “Duche,” their sometime French teacher, occasionally took a turn for the patronizing, as when Ettie Stettheimer referred to him as a “charming garçon” or the “queer but charming French boy who painted ‘Nude Descending the Stairs’ and other cubistic creations.”[12] Meanwhile, the uncanny imagery and narrative ruptures of Surrealism never caught on with Florine, nor did the movement engage the materiality of paint as much as she might have liked, though comparisons to Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo are hardly out of place. For Stettheimer did not just daub, she built her faux-naive pictures with an artfully wielded palette knife (which is why it is remarkable that her substantial canvases sometimes look like finely delineated New Yorker covers in reproduction). Stettheimer has also been said to have roots in the European Symbolist tradition, and there are clear parallels between her work and the oneiric images of Odilon Redon, for example. However, to the synthesis of the symbol she clearly preferred the ambivalence and deferral associated with allegory, the effect produced when a thing in a picture does not represent that thing, purely or exclusively, but rather points to something else.[13] This current runs so strongly through her work that the very fact that it has not been clearly elaborated by Stettheimer’s critics suggests that the artist’s failure to fully “appear” within either the canon or major American museums may be due as much to this omission as to the artist’s gender. For it is difficult to understand or, for that matter, see Florine Stettheimer, without examining her allegorical depictions of America.

An important political fact of the era during which Stettheimer resettled in New York was the increasing prevalence of attempts to define American identity, as well as domestic policy, with recourse to types and categorization. The use of statistics by the government during the Progressive Era, while ostensibly indicative of a turn to objectivity, was also linked to attempts to limit access to US citizenship and the protections it entails, as well as to jobs, reproductive rights, freedom of movement, and so on. The rise of “race science” in mainstream academia in the teens drove a wave of popular white supremacist publications that claimed empiricist authority, including books like amateur anthropologist and anti-immigration activist Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race of 1916. While the US had maintained a policy of relatively open borders until the late nineteenth century, in 1917 the Asiatic Barred Zone Act expanded California’s anti-Chinese restrictions of the 1870s and national anti-Chinese restrictions of 1882, identifying a large portion of Asia as the source of unwanted immigrants, who were to be banned along with idiots, illiterates, anarchists, et al. This was followed by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which restricted immigration from most parts of the world. Though Stettheimer was born in America, she was raised a European. Her status as a native daughter who had to become American in middle age was, in itself, a challenge to the essentialism of nativist views. However, Stettheimer brought with her a European eye for Asian and Middle Eastern art and design. Painted in the midst of the developments enumerated above, her first mature works recognize the racial and ethnic divisions of American society with an outsider’s clarity, even as they participate in the reduction of nonwhites to stock types. At times her use of cliché and stereotypes can appear merely fey or decorative, since these types are obviously not intended to be realistic; yet it is worth examining how her work both resists and conforms to conservative currents of her day.

STETTHEIMER'S New York/Liberty (1918–19) is an early example of the technique for superimposing diverse historical and personal events that Duchamp later termed multiplication virtuelle, a technique that inscribes multiple, discrete meanings into a single image.[14] Depicting battleships in New York harbor, New York/Liberty layers manifold times, tacitly commemorating Stettheimer’s 1914 repatriation into the port of New York, even as it more overtly indicates America’s late May 1917 entry into WWI and President Wilson’s subsequent voyage to the 1919 the International Peace Conference.[15] Though ostensibly about victory and American exceptionalism, Stettheimer’s composition seems designed to be read as an allegory for immigration and assimilation under the American flag (clearly pivotal processes for Stettheimer) as its vantage point is from on board a ship that, as indicated by a thickly gilded Statue of Liberty, is located near Ellis Island.

The Manhattan cityscape that dominates the top half of the canvas functions as a painting within a painting. A bit like a birthday cake, parade float, or theatrical backdrop, this seductively vulnerable skyline justifies the guns mustered to protect it. Like the red, white, and blue banners employed throughout the scene, it signifies both power and peace. Despite its consummate charm, the city appears secondary to the enlarged seal of New York City occupying the bottom margin. Featuring a pair of allegorical figures, this doubly significant seal is a supposedly collective image, an icon for the municipality. But it has been personalized and privately “stamped” by Citizen Stettheimer, who as a woman did not have the right to vote in 1918. The Dutchman, no hardened colonist, possibly an early twentieth-century Dutch naval officer, is jaunty with ribbons. Meanwhile, the Native American employs a union shield as a bizarre breechcloth, while wearing a flag-themed headdress. Stettheimer’s revision of New York City’s social compact suggests, in a strange softening of the US’s new 1917 exclusivity, that Lady Liberty lifts her lamp for all those who resemble Broadway extras. As do Kafka and Céline’s novels, New York/Liberty complicates the utopian fantasy of a newly arrived immigrant. It presents an Oz-like America seen, gleefully and somewhat ignorantly, from the exterior, an advertisement for a theatrical production full of esoteric, and perhaps ultimately inaccessible, cheer.

In the late 1910s and early ’20s, Stettheimer’s paintings become increasingly social, and the miniaturization of compositional elements explored in New York/Liberty and other paintings like Picnic at Bedford Hills (1918) predominates. Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum (1924) shows a more complex and less ambivalent response to the question of American identity, filtering its visible forms through a beauty contest reimagined as a hybrid event incorporating a circus. Stettheimer presents a pageant of human types watched over by recognizable individuals, including herself at upper left, smiling and well made up, next to writer Edna Kenton and photographer Edward Steichen. At lower right, an impresario who may or may not be a slenderized Barnum oversees bathing beauties tanned and pale, as well as, at center, children in feathered headdresses, a Rudolph Valentino–like figure leading a horse that may or may not be a Lipizzaner, and, at left, an all-black band in elaborate uniforms over which the painter has obviously lingered.

The beauty contest is a pretext for various kinds of showmanship, which Stettheimer organizes according to genre, race, and gender. A seemingly endless supply of palm fronds and dripping red, white, and blue crystals mediate the carefully divided scene, in which everyone stays in his or her corner, as the show goes on. With the exception of Stettheimer and her artist friends, who are legible as themselves, everyone plays (and represents) a role, a mere type, suggesting that their identities within this convocation are at least partly performative. Identity’s fungibility is additionally figured, for example, by the labels (“Miss Atlantic City,” etc.) held by the beauties. Read allegorically, the painting offers a retort to American nativism, since it implies that much national belonging is merely “put on,” contingent and assumed for public occasions. Yet, here Stettheimer also limited herself to satirically depicting contemporary norms rather than upending or abandoning these norms for something else. Though the painting presents a quasi-democratic social sphere in which Americans ostensibly gather to have fun, there remain real divisions and inequalities within the collective setting. Indeed, so many shows go on simultaneously that it is difficult to determine the actual nature of the contest or what is at stake, and for which participants. The scene is, additionally, unrelentingly festive and self-congratulatory, though there is something unsettling about the many knowing smiles exchanged: some smile because they observe an amusing scene, others because they are on display. The painting’s commentary on these dynamics is uneven, whimsical, never quite attaining irony or critique.

Stettheimer’s unusual semi-realist, semi-allegorical mode in her mature paintings, combining both stylized stock figures and portraits of individuals known to her, of which Asbury Park South (1920), depicting a segregated New Jersey beach, is also an example, reaches its zenith with the late “Cathedrals” series, four large-scale compositions devoted to Broadway (1929), Fifth Avenue (1931), Wall Street (1939), and Art (1942). Though Stettheimer’s work was not commercially successful during her lifetime, in the “Cathedrals” series she explicitly appropriates commercial styles only hinted at elsewhere, exploring billboards, industrial lighting, illustration, entertainment industry publicity, and contemporary fashion. The costumes and sets she designed to great acclaim for Four Saints in Three Acts clearly influenced these late paintings, which are setlike in their composition and contain lacy elements recalling the cellophane she used in these designs.

There is a certain seamlessness between this light and purposely vapid work and actual advertising, as one clipping in Stettheimer’s papers at Yale indicates: an East Coast department store advertised its latest cellophane raincoat collection, imitating Stein’s prose style in the copy and including illustrations of Stettheimer’s scenery, an image of one cellophane lion plus palm tree. Like Kafka’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, where “angels” on ladders play trumpets all day to publicize the performances, Stettheimer’s late works devote themselves strenuously to the American cult of celebrity, perhaps reveling in the emptiness of this endeavor. Even their satirical elements feel resigned to the vapidity of glamor, and recognition of a certain emptiness in New York social life may be as close as Stettheimer came to openly acknowledging the divisions of her new-old homeland.

AT THE END of her life, Stettheimer was working on a ballet about the life of Pocahontas, which, like her 1912 effort, was never to be staged. This patriotic work—celebrating the foundational myth in which Pocahontas rescues John Smith—had a number of strange features: Stettheimer and her collaborator, Virgil Thomson, had decided that Smith and his countrymen would wear Scottish highland garb rather than the expected British costume, and the ballet’s Native American characters were to be dressed in cellophane, gold foil, and feathers. The curators of the Jewish Museum show chose not to include the twenty-two maquettes Stettheimer produced, instead devoting space only to the two earlier stage design projects.[16] Yet the designs for this unfinished epic are worth mentioning because they demonstrate Stettheimer’s enthusiasm for styles of appropriation germane to period popular culture, along with her use of the trope of the noble savage, a stock character embodying the concept of the uncorrupted outsider and therefore allegorizing humanity’s innate goodness, a figure not unlike the faun. This choice of subject additionally implies Stettheimer’s acquiescence to increasingly fervent nationalism leading up to the US’s 1941 entry into WWII, suggesting not only that she viewed indigenous identity as yet another performance, available to a modern update via musical theater, but that she believed, or was willing to pretend that she believed, in an excessively cheerful national origin story.

It is possible that Stettheimer, an unmarried and childless Jewish woman, played down her own anomalousness in mainstream Protestant America, while also answering her family’s polite rejection of her ambitions to be an artist, by exoticizing and feminizing nearly everyone and everything in turn. However, such speculation verges on armchair psychology and almost certainly misses the point, which is that Stettheimer struggled with questions regarding power and assimilation throughout her American career. Oil painting, an economically and culturally dominant art form, became reconciled to minor decorative styles in Stettheimer’s hands, even as she took on major themes, including the nature of American identity. Stettheimer’s ever-changing signatures reflect the fact that she deliberated a great deal about her own authority as an artist. Until about 1920, while she still painted in a derivative European style, she favored her initials, “FS,” superimposed in such a way that the “F” appears to be impaling the “S,” transforming the first letter of Stettheimer’s surname into a certifying dollar sign, as if to say, “Look at me, I am a rich American!”[17] But in later paintings she more confidently offers her full name, often trompe l’oeil-style, trickily “written” on a depicted object. She additionally abbreviated, sometimes becoming the saintly “Florine St.,” a moniker that may have had something to do with Stein’s opera.

Wealth allowed Stettheimer to be at once candid, utopian, hermetic, escapist, appropriative, and in violation of good taste, and she grew into this fact from 1914 on. She assumed an American identity of a kind, as a woman who could, at least in theory, buy whatever she desired. Whereas staunchly middle-class William Carlos Williams in a 1923 poem railed against the lack of “peasant traditions to give them / character,” which made average Americans fools for “gauds,” Stettheimer embraced artificial forms of pleasure and liberty, for she could afford them.[18] The mature Stettheimer made no secret of her affection for luxury. No longer using the hermetically crest-like “F$,” she proudly provided, usually in white, a full, or nearly full, name on her decadent, gilded, and frosted canvases—at least until The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931), where her old “F$” does double duty as the mark on a luxury car. Yet, in spite of her wealth, Stettheimer depicts herself in her final, unfinished painting of 1942, The Cathedrals of Art, standing on the side of folk culture. In the painting, icons of modernism such as MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. and a painting by Picasso appear on one side of a templelike structure, while signifiers of vernacular aesthetics, a stylized bald eagle and Juliana Force of the Whitney Museum, occupy the other. Stettheimer is standing on the side of folk-influenced American Art, as the right-hand column reads, rather than on that of the more lucrative high-modernist Art in America, on the left. Florine Stettheimer, formerly F$, had become extraordinarily, surreally American, as only someone who adopts her nationality as a decorative style can.


Date: September 1, 2017

Publisher: Art in America

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Art in America, September 2017.


Cover image.

    1. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, trans. Ralph Manheim, New York, New Directions, 2006, p. 166.
    1. Franz Kafka, Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), trans. Michael Hoffman, New York, New Directions, 2002, pp. 3, 28, and 13.
    1. Rosetta Walter Stettheimer possessed “an inheritance,” according to a wall label at the current Jewish Museum show, that permitted her to support her five children. In her 1994 dissertation, Florine Stettheimer: Alternative Modernist, Barbara J. Bloemink speculates that the move to Europe might have allowed Rosetta to escape the censure of her even wealthier relatives in the US while also living more cheaply.
    1. Such works follow in the footsteps of Barbara J. Bloemink’s Friends and Family: Portraiture in the World of Florine Strttheimer, Katonah, N.Y., Katonah Museum of Art, 1993.
    1. Stettheimer’s first and only solo show during her lifetime, which opened in October 1916 at M. Knoedler & Co., “Exhibition of Paintings by Miss Florine Stettheimer,” was not a success, in that no paintings sold. As others have indicated, though Stettheimer never again consented to a solo exhibition, in spite of pleading invitations from Alfred Stieglitz among others, she contributed individual works to group shows. Stettheimer asked that her paintings be destroyed upon her death, and though her wish was not carried out by her survivors, her legacy was somewhat loosely managed, leading to further obscurity for an artist who had in fact established herself as a major painter with those who knew her work, including such critics as Henry McBride and Paul Rosenfeld.
    1. The Met curator in question was Henry Geldzahler. After a visit to Warhol’s studio, during which, as Warhol writes, Geldzahler “scanned all the things I collected—from the American folk pieces to the Carmen Miranda platform shoe,” the curator extended an invitation to view Stettheimer’s “Cathedrals” series, then in storage. Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, New York, Harcourt, 1980, p. 16.
    1. Roberta Smith, “A Case for the Greatness of Florine Stettheimer,” New York Times, May 18, 2017,
    1. “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” supplies sparse interpretive text regarding Four Saints in Three Acts. For more analysis, see Judith Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 2009, p. 168. Brown writes: “The cast members, in all the ontological presence accorded the African American, appeared in relief against the modern and deeply compelling absence of the set (and against the disembodied absence of the ‘civilized’ and thus white modern subject who did not appear at all on the Four Saints stage). The modern script that accepted the civilized/primitive binary held true, then, even on the avant-garde stage. Modernity, represented by the manufactured plastic sky, is here aligned with death or stasis, in contradistinction to the life force of the African American cast on stage.”
    1. Georgiana Uhlyarik, “4 St.s Seen by Florine: A Case Study,” in Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, ed. Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik, New York and New Haven, Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, 2017, p. 56.
    1. The roundtable, with Cecily Brown, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Jutta Koether, Ella Kruglyanskaya, Valentina Liernur, Silke Otto-Knapp, and Katharina Wulff in conversation with Jens Hoffmann, praises Stettheimer’s use of color, her style of figuration, and her feminism, noting the queer and/or “trans” aspects of her work. Painter and installation artist Karen Kilimnik, one of Stettheimer’s most obvious living artistic heirs, is not included; see Florine Stettheimer, pp. 143–159.
    1. In a letter to Carl Van Vechten, as Bloemink notes in several publications, Stettheimer quipped of Washington, “He is the only man I collect.” Her 1939 painting The Cathedrals of Wall Street contains the dedication, written along two flowing ribbons securing a red, white, and blue bouquet offered to a massive gilded statue of the first president, TO GEORGE WASHINGTON FROM FLORINE ST 1939.
    1. Letters of 1916 and 1917 from Ettie Stettheimer to her friend “Gans.” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven.
    1. To clarify: A symbol is combinatory and imprecise, bringing together many meanings and suggesting that they coexist, also in the object’s real instantiation. Allegory, by contrast, severs the allegorical object from the context in which it occurs, deploying it as the representative of some hidden or secondary meaning. This is why allegorical depictions are more strongly associated with religious encoding, as well as conspiracy theories and other forms of paranoid reading.
    1. The painting’s point of view is that of an individual aboard a ship approaching Ellis Island. It would seem to include Stettheimer’s own return to the city along with larger, distinct events related to WWI. New York/Liberty is thus a history painting imbued with Proust’s modern, synthetic sense of time.
    1. Included in the current Jewish Museum show, this painting also had the interesting distinction of being the only artwork borrowed from a private collection for the Whitney’s 2015 reopening exhibition, “America Is Hard to See,” which was otherwise drawn entirely from the museum’s permanent collection.
    1. Another reason for not including the Pocahontas ballet maquettes may be their fragility.
    1. The “$” created by Stettheimer’s early initialing of her paintings was pointed out by scholar Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen in a talk at the Jewish Museum on May 11, 2017. Butterfield-Rosen did not speculate on the meaning of this visual pun; the interpretation offered here (for better or for worse) is the author’s own.
    1. Williams’s poem “The pure products of America / go crazy,” later titled “For Elsie,” was included in his 1923 collection, Spring and All, reprinted in Imaginations, New York, New Directions, 1971, p. 131
On Nick Mauss


Il est surnaturel d’arrêter le temps.
– Simone Weil, Notes for Venise sauvée

At her 1943 death, the philosopher Simone Weil left unfinished a ‘tragedy in three acts’, Venise sauvée, or Venice Saved. This play about an averted coup is gorgeously, strangely formal and slow—a dramatic rendition of an actual early seventeenth-century incursion. Short on dialogue, Weil’s draft is studded throughout with plans for future writing, including description of the exact number of syllables of blank verse to be assigned to various characters. At the play’s close—one relatively complete section—the naïve heroine Violetta declaims a poem. Ignorant of the plot to destroy Venice as well as the role of her own beauty in the collapse of this nefarious design, she murmurs, ‘Qu’il sont beaux sur la mer, / Les rayons du jour!’ (How beautiful they are on the sea, / These bands of daylight!) Offstage, revenge killings ensue, but neither Violetta nor the vast majority of the Venetians know anything of this. The denouement of Venise sauvée envisions a mostly static and unreal scene in which nothing happens save that some light travels. Venice is unaware that it has been saved. And any appreciation of light at the end of this drama does not come with added symbolism. The light is simply present. As critic Anne-Lise François wryly describes this moment, ‘Venice awakens to a beauty it has not lost the power to take for granted’.

In François’s reading of Venise sauvée, Simone Weil has created a play that fails to conform to the rules of Aristotelian tragedy, lacking a convulsive final moment of reversal and recognition. Weil’s play is ‘the (non)record of events that failed to transpire’. In other words, it records non-existent events of a plot that does not unfold. It displays the trace of a transformative will that in fact recedes curiously from the stage, rather than setting narrative in motion. The tragic hero Jaffier, who might have ruined Venice, hesitates to enact Venice’s destruction for no particular reason other than that the city actually exists—and he notices this. After he is betrayed by those to whom he has confessed, Jaffier makes a desperate petition to the sun, sky, ocean, Venetian canals, and blocks of marble. He describes these inanimate things, calls their names and curses them, but to no avail. The historical event collapses inexorably, quietly and mechanically, on his head.

If not strictly speaking a play in which nothing happens, Venise sauvée is a play in which the mystery of the physical existence of the world—one’s surprise, for example, that there is a world at all—has the power to interrupt the history of mankind. Lest this be understood as some form of primal ontological surprise, Weil uses the term ‘surnaturel’ to describe Jaffier’s decision not to act; his choice to instead, as she puts it, ‘stop time’. ‘Il est surnaturel d’arrêter le temps’, Weil writes in a contemporary notebook, regarding Jaffier’s retreat. And she repeats the term, instructing herself, ‘Faire sentir que le recul de Jaffier est surnaturel’. (Give the impression that Jaffier’s retreat is supernatural.) This, according to Weil, is a moment at which eternity enters human time.

Begun in 1940, Venise sauvée is also a complex comment on Paris’s fate under the Vichy state. The play is now infrequently staged, not least because of its incompleteness. And it is indeed difficult to think of a proper theatre and audience for its arabesques of meditative avoidance of action, leading to a non-event including lovely light. Yet, if there is such a theatre and such a setting, it might well be the Serralves Villa, as reimagined in the 2017 exhibition of artist Nick Mauss. With long bands of daylight striping the walls and floors, accompanied by equally expressive passages of shadow, the Villa lushly affirms its own existence. Its citations of classical architecture, along with its modern styling, suggest a complex and highly civilized relationship to the notion of history. Mauss’s sculptural and pictorial arrangements in the space at once reflect the aesthetic lineages in which the Villa’s design participates and challenge its claims to orthodoxy. Mauss’s work—like the sight of Venice imagined in Venice sauvée—and like the tragic hero’s miraculous recognition of the bare and actual existence of the great city—is a supernatural incision in everyday time and space. It permits the visitor access, if not to eternity, then to other planes of vision. Additional pictures, patterns, and outlines now appear within the Serralves Villa. These might underlie or be implicit within the Villa’s rooms. They may be excavations of form dormant in the Villa’s design. They may also simply be possible.

Mauss’s work plays with our expectations regarding surface. The image of what appears to be a pencil sketch has been enlarged in steel. It rests solidly against a wall. One feels a foolish urge to rush over and attempt to fold it in half. Surely it will resist. And yet one now feels an identical urge, with respect to the immaterial shadow cast by this sculptural form. The act in question is equally impossible.

Elsewhere, Mauss’s lines skitter across the speckled surface of a mirror. Intimate figures form. We must place ourselves conscientiously, depending on our willingness or unwillingness to be included, to have our own bodies potentially interrupt (or join) this scene.

The use of printed fabric, too, is a way of disrupting commonplace relationships to the surface on which a picture rests. Patterning, repetition; these gestures trouble the primacy of a single image. Indeed, the print on fabric threatens to become merely decorative, a drape or unrealized garment. It refuses the high seriousness of portraiture. It will not ‘look back’ at the viewer.

Everywhere there is a tension with, if not outright opposition to, lyrical treatment of history. Indeed, this is a tension Weil herself certainly felt. The various rooms and passageways are not explained with recourse to personal histories of the Villa’s creators or owners; no masterful design history stuns us into awed attention with its authoritative detail. Rather, the Villa is engaged as a varied surface, a permeable given. (How beautiful they are…, / These bands of daylight!) Everything we notice here, we are asked to notice as if we have already been looking at it. Everything is new, because we had not yet recognized that we had already been seeing it. The power to take this extraordinary home for granted (a power we never knew we possessed) is returned to us. The question that remains is, what will we do with this weightless liberty?

I do not pose the above question idly. For of course this art making is also occurring in the present of 2017, a historical moment of so outlandish a form that it begs for reconciliation with some era or event of the past. But my citation of Simone Weil’s citation of a 1618 intrigue in Venice as a citation of 1940s occupied France is not intended to serve as a complex analogue for the contemporary. Rather, I cite Weil because she seems to have observed something about the nature of the claims we make about the meaning of history, and I find her observation not merely relevant in a general contemporary sense, but relevant to Nick Mauss’s work, in particular.

The Serralves Villa contains numerous images of itself, numerous reflections, within it. These change with the changing time of day and the passage of visitors. These images are visual and kinetic, created by the elaborations of the sun, moon, and other external and internal sources of light; they are sonic, as when the Villa’s rooms reverberate with voices and footfalls. Clearly there are numerous examples of the way in which the Villa multiplies itself internally, by way of images produced by the coincidence of society and the physical world. (How beautiful they are…!)

Mauss’s response to these images is to admit their existence. But he does not reproduce them, holding them up so that we may step into a romantic dioramic recreation of the scene we already inhabit. He does not elaborate images in such a way that we are shocked or amazed by the accuracy of his gesture. Rather, his drawing—for much of his work, even the work that is not explicitly drawing, is drawing, and he is a person who can draw anything—favours a recessive articulation. To the viewer he offers a line that takes the form of a beautiful event that the viewer does not know he or she has not lost the power to take for granted.

One example of this mode of articulation are the dance figures Mauss has also included in the exhibition. What could be more artificial than these representations, with their unusual, typographically performative arrangements of text? And yet they are participatory images; they show and tell us what will happen, should we dance. They are not representations of dances, they are dances. In this sense, they recede from the eye as drawings and come to seem more like speech or gestures, i.e., the dances that they are. Of course, these dance figures are not original drawings by Mauss; they are reproductions. Their status as reproductions of historical texts intensifies our experience of Mauss’s line as one in retreat. He has not quite written these words, although he has also not quite not written them.

Similarly, the shifting locations and material statuses of the surfaces on which Mauss writes and draws contribute to our sense of his mode of drawing as a deliberate retreat from a kind of drawing that could be claimed or exploited, as such. In spite of this retreat, his drawings hardly cease to appear. They become ever more durable, more multiple, more fascinating, and more ubiquitous. The non-existent white ground of the so-called pencil sketch enlarged in steel I whimsically pretended to wish to bend earlier causes the viewer to attempt to compose a picture using a support that flickers in and out of view. One focuses, erroneously and even a little hilariously, on a white “page” that is in fact a wall. The act of perceiving the steel sketch itself may even become lost in this flickering deliberation.

To return to my earlier contentions regarding Weil’s treatment of history, her personal dedication to participation and empathy, along with her extraordinary capacity for study, suggest that the recessive action of Venise sauvée stands in deliberate contrast to hasty heroic and/or violent solutions to political crisis. Yet, this does not mean that the play ignores the existence of political crises or their seriousness and insolubility. Without idealizing human nature, the play imagines a place and a role in the material world for human nature—and ties this place and role to human politics. The play imagines that one way human consciousness and creativity can function is as a labour of ensuring that the ongoing human appreciation of beauty—a sometimes unconscious appreciation we all hope to have the luck of not needing to be reminded of by way of crushing deprivation, harm, or disaster—can merely continue.

I imagine that a staging of Venise sauvée among the rooms and passageways of the Serralves Villa in which Nick Mauss has staged his various modes of drawing (and withdrawing) would be an echoing, choral affair. I wonder if Mauss would consider contributing a setting for the play’s final poem. Perhaps there is some way of indicating what Weil has conceived of as nearly un-representable events: those sunbeams on water that turn out not to be anything more or less than sunbeams on water. Or perhaps the entire play could be revised to consist in the enactment of that single sentence of appreciative pleasure. I should say that this, at any rate, is what I think of Nick Mauss’s work as already accomplishing.


NB: Discussion of Simone Weil’s unfinished play, Venise sauvée, in this essay is deeply indebted to Anne-Lise François’s brilliant writing in Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience.


Date: June 22, 2017

Publisher: Museu de Arte Contemporâneo de Serralves

Format: Print

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the catalogue.


Intricate Others.


Intricate Others.

On Period Rooms & Erasure

The unsettling history behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American period rooms.

There are two ways to access the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American period rooms, situated behind the 1823 Branch Bank facade in the Charles Englehard Court, a space bright with winsome marbles and burbling with fountain sounds. One may enter via either medieval Europe or the patio of another of the museum’s great indoor edifices, the Temple of Dendur. On a recent visit, I took the latter route and, upon entering the American sector, immediately mistook a framed reproduction in the gift shop for “real” art. My prolonged respectful gazing was, mercifully, unnoticed. As I moved awkwardly on, I happened to glance at another item of nonart, a nearby plaque explaining the American Wing’s “Campaign for the 21st Century.” The sign announces:

The American Wing offers the Metropolitan Museum’s principal display of American art made before 1920. Originally opened in 1924, the American Wing has recently undergone a comprehensive renovation to best present its collections for twenty-first century audiences. Conducted in three phases over a decade, the Wing has been modernized and re-conceived to provide a more logical and aesthetically pleasing path along which to travel through American art and history.

Beside this notice is a list of generous donors of “Gifts of $1 million and above as of May 15, 2015.” By my count, there are approximately thirty names on the list, including the City of New York.

The phrases “to best present its collections for twenty-first century audiences” and “modernized and re-conceived” stick with me. The period rooms—a sort of hybrid, heteroclite house within the larger house of the museum—are the center of the American Wing, and the plaque recommends their recent modernization and new orderliness in particular. There is, for example, a newish glass elevator ready to whisk visitors between floors. Numerous touch screens offer animations and informative text. The “house” itself, last redone in 2009, now combines twenty-odd historical rooms, from 1680 to 1915, with parlors harvested from Southern plantations alongside paneled rooms from ancient New England homesteads, not to mention a swank Frank Lloyd Wright parlor. It is an exceedingly complex document, the creation of various unusually prosperous American ancestors working in unknowing collaboration with the museum’s staff and trustees, a ship of Theseus if ever there was one. It also seems to be one of the least popular parts of the museum. Often, one or more of the floors is closed to public view due to, as a guard told me, lack of foot traffic, persistent ceiling leaks, or perhaps a combination of the two. One hopes the wing’s benefactors may help out with ceiling continence soon.

The Met’s American period rooms first opened to the public in 1924. According to Robert W. de Forest, then the museum’s president, the purpose of this chronologically tidy feat of spatial reproduction—a massive diorama into which the public could stroll from century to century, moving backward through time from a decadent nineteenth-century ground floor to a seventeenth-century attic outfitted with low ceilings and heavy wood—was “to test out the question of whether American domestic art was worthy of a place in an art museum, and to test it out not theoretically but visually.” Though an experiment, it was intended to be permanent: the first major installation of decorative arts and furniture of Colonial and early Federal America in an urban museum, in a purpose-built wing containing rooms complete with original paneling, ceilings, beams, staged lighting, and painted skies visible beyond built-in windows. (In Europe, period rooms had been a curatorial modus operandi since at least 1873, when Stockholm’s Nordiska Museet opened a number of them.) The Met’s period rooms were, in one sense, a response to the seductive Continental dawning of Art Deco in the 1910s from the matrix of Cubist and Fauvist art. Deco forms were bright, internationalist, mechanically reproducible, and potentially highly commercial. The 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris proved the movement’s success, though it was not attended by a delegation from the U.S. The rooms of the new 1924 American Wing, meanwhile, expressed the tastes of a tightly knit upper class and increasingly nativist milieu, advertising these interests to a broader public as didactic content. Concerned with a selective history that links moneyed Dutch and Anglophone ancestors of Protestant faith, the rooms detail a conservative, anti-modern vision of the U.S., with a pursuant aristocracy. The rooms elided the influence of late nineteenth-century waves of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and the Middle East, along with the increasing importance of German, Jewish, and Catholic culture within the U.S., as well as Victorian innovations in design. They presented American culture as an early nineteenth-century fait accompli, in which rococo revival and neoclassical styles reigned supreme and home decor was all but exclusively authored by males. At the time of the 1924 opening, the Met’s period-room galleries seemed to proclaim that great innovation and beauty in American furnishings commenced just before 1700 and ceased around 1811. The museum would not begin to install later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rooms until 1982.

The wing was the personal project of three men: de Forest; Henry Watson Kent, an influential librarian and administrator; and R.T.H. Halsey, an Anglophile stockbroker, collector, chairman of the museum’s Committee on Decorative Arts, and trustee. The three gentlemen worked autonomously, bypassing bureaucracy. De Forest personally purchased the 1823 facade of the former Assay Office building from Wall Street in 1915, and other acquisitions arrived through familiar channels, such as de Forest’s wife, Emily, who gave the Met its first period-room element, a Long Island fireplace, in 1910. It was by no means a foregone conclusion that American decorative arts were canonically significant, despite the nation’s growing wealth and World War I victory. This afforded the undertaking a certain interventionist quality, even as the results now appear elite in the extreme. These rooms also had the function—perhaps not even secondarily—of increasing the value of the objects they contained. Many of the people affiliated with the Met were themselves Colonial-revival enthusiasts who stood to gain from the boom in antiques and Americana during the 1910s and 1920s.

The value and rarity of these objects cut both ways: the narrowness of the interests of the engineers of the American Wing made their task all the more difficult. Even during the war, it was no simple matter to obtain desirable Colonial and early republican interiors. New England, for example, did not relinquish its wood paneling cheaply. In 1916 and 1917, one young curator, Durr Friedley, was dispatched below the Mason-Dixon to investigate estates facing foreclosure. (Friedley later turned down a more permanent job with the Met and pursued a career as a painter, hanging out with Gertrude Stein and other luminaries.) Historian Jeffrey Trask writes that the Old Dominion “ultimately served as the Metropolitan’s best resource for elite period rooms.” One is the painted Marmion Room, circa 1756, from the formerly slaveholding Marmion Plantation in Fredericksburg, Virginia, obtained in 1916 (presumably by Friedley). Found on the second floor of the Met’s American period-room section, this disconcerting and very yellow space sports dim wall paintings of garlanded vases, Romantic vistas replete with windmills and ruins, impish disembodied heads, and trompe l’oeil marble. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith described the room as “incalculably sweet” in a 2000 piece, but I find it drippy and weird. One 1916 description by architectural historian Frank Conger Baldwin claims that the paintings were a gift of gratitude from a Hessian mercenary who had been nursed back to health at the plantation. An elaborate gilded mirror with soggy rococo curlicues and a sunken central folly hangs over the otherwise empty room’s fireplace. The room was also apparently far more luxurious than the exterior of the original manor would have let on—for reasons that remain mysterious—lending it an additional air of unease that is difficult to diagnose. In her 1930 book Virginia Ghosts, Marguerite du Pont Lee records the legend of a “white lady,” a young girl who haunts the Marmion grounds, protecting the place and even attempting to shake hands with some astonished visitors.

But this is approaching a folk tale, and the Met’s rooms were created with far more rational, if not social engineering, ends in mind. Architect, professional home restorer, and Met curator Charles Over Cornelius had touted the “vitalizing influence of period group displays” in his article “The Museum and the Collector” in the inaugural issue of Antiques magazine from 1922. Cornelius’ dry prose unpacks the relationship between selection, arrangement, and connoisseurship of decorative works in a museum. It also provides a sociological anatomy of the collector.

Most collecting is done from one of three points of view—the aesthetic, the historical, or the utilitarian. The aesthetic point of view emphasizes the art content and quality of an object whatever its material or period; the historical attitude allows its historic import or interest to outweigh the measure of its artistic quality, while a utilitarian collector assembles objects of a decorative art for actual use, however carefully he chooses with discriminating care as to their artistic quality. All these viewpoints may be satisfied in the museum by a certain amount of period grouping.

In Cornelius’ account, the visitor to period arrangements is already a consumer of goods, taste, and history. The museum provides visual material that, while not itself available for sale, stimulates the broader market. Elsewhere in the magazine, an unsigned editorial describes “an intensified interest in places and objects of historical and antiquarian value” either connected to “stimulated national self-consciousness resulting from participation in the World War, or somehow a by-product of the Americanization movement”—that is, the initiatives designed to convert immigrants into Americans. This new interest resulted in art exhibits “in which relics, some valuable, some merely curious, some, perhaps, absurd, are coming to be a recognized part of community gatherings of all kinds.” Given the barely concealed venality of Cornelius’ imagined collector, the jump to imagining a chummy, tag-sale-loving “community” of collectors is startling. The anonymous editor’s use of the dog-whistle phrase “Americanization movement” suggests this community would be composed of individuals who, as late as 1922, believed that the rigorous assimilation of immigrants into so-called American culture was not merely important but dangerously incomplete. Enthusiasm for antiques was apparently thought to be a bulwark against degenerate hordes. Among those professing such views were the creators of the Met’s period rooms.

The two catalogues published by the museum to coincide with the opening of the American Wing did more overt ideological work. A Handbook of the American Wing was coauthored by Cornelius and Halsey; the latter was “nativist and anti-immigrant in affiliation and antimodern in his sympathies,” historian Neil Harris writes, adding a further wrinkle to the meaning of the period rooms. The second publication was also coauthored by Halsey, this time with his third wife, Elizabeth Tower: The Homes of Our Ancestors, as Shown in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York from the Beginnings of New England through the Early Days of the Republic, Exhibiting the Development of the Arts of Interior Architecture and House Decoration, the Arts of Cabinetmaking, Silversmithing, etc., Especial Emphasis Being Laid upon the Point That Our Early Craftsmen Evolved from the Fashions of the Old World a Style of Their Own; with an Account of the Social Conditions Surrounding the Life of the Original Owners of the Various Rooms. The interminable title matches the book’s bombastic insistence on the greatness of “the spirit in which those men who made the colonies and those who founded the republic lived their lives at home and superimposed urbanity upon the site of the primeval wilderness.”

Halsey’s image of the past was reactionary, to say the least. As he confided to de Forest in a personal letter, “We should endeavor to show in the rooms things which have class. The furnishings should be restrained and no semblance of crowding permitted”—the assumption being that those who might crowd in would bring with them the worst traits of unwanted, unfit, “un-American” groups. This celebration of ancestral homes took place less than half a year after the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, signed into law on May 24 by President Calvin Coolidge (whose White House Halsey would decorate in 1925) in order to “limit the immigration of aliens into the United States, and for other purposes” by means of annual quotas of “two per centum of the number of foreign-born individuals of such nationality resident in continental United States as determined by the United States Census of 1890.” Much as the American Wing institutionalized an ideological experiment around American domestic culture and history, so this law made permanent those quotas set in place temporarily two years earlier. The restrictions of the 1924 act unpleasantly echo the aesthetic logic of the antiques collector, returning the nation by means of “informed” selection to a bygone time of supposed greater order and homogeneity. As recent books like Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck and Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era have shown, the federal government’s decision to turn to 1890 census data to create immigration legislation in the 1920s emerged from discriminatory eugenicist theories that emphasized the hereditary dangers of miscegenation as well as problems caused by “weak minded” members of the working class, who were bound to reproduce in excessive numbers. There was also the perceived danger of the spread of Communism. The ethnic and multinational makeup of the United States depicted in the 1890 census gave license to dramatic restrictions on immigration—helpfully for nativists, as the census all but neglected to admit the existence (and populations) of the continents of Africa and Asia, even as it closed the door to Southern and Eastern Europeans. So while Germany was given a quota of 51,227 and Great Britain was given a quota of 34,007, Italy received a quota of just 3,845. A colonial construct called “South West Africa (proposed mandate of Union of South Africa)” received the minimum quota of 100 persons—African Americans who came to the United States as slaves were considered irrelevant to the act. Other large nations receiving the minimum designation included India, China, and Persia.

The nativist shift that culminated in the 1924 act wasn’t limited to the hushed discourse of collectors of decorative things, of course. “Nordic Victory Is Seen in Drastic Restrictions” read a Los Angeles Times headline on April 13, 1924, citing the coming act as well as Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race, first published in 1916, with new editions in 1921 and 1923. Grant’s book outlined a three-tiered system by which whites might identify as “Mediterraneans,” “Alpines,” and “Nordics,” with the final category being the purest and superior designation. Grant warned against the corruption of American society by immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as from the growing economic empowerment of African Americans, whose migration north to industrialized cities disturbed his sense of natural order. He predicted a dissolution of the U.S. into a fragmented, corrupt nation of mongrels if absolute power were not maintained by Nordic whites, whom he somewhat creatively equated with individuals of English, Scottish, and Dutch descent. Grant’s theory of eugenics seemed to condone ethnically and economically motivated violence, such as the West Frankfort, Illinois, mob beating and arson attack carried out on August 5, 1920 against Italian immigrants, who were perceived by local members of the white working class to be colluding with the Mafia. The July 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City, aka the “Klanbake,” saw an almost successful insurgency when Klan sympathizers rejected both an anti-Klan plank in the party’s platform and the nomination of Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, a second-generation Irish American and Catholic. A year later, in August 1925, 25,000 Klansmen marched on Washington, DC, to demonstrate their white-robed numbers and fundamentalist determination.

Beyond serving as an inflammatory ideology, whiteness was a legal concept, as some regarded nation and race as synonyms. In 1925 an Oregon court heard testimony from anthropologist Franz Boas that “it would be utterly impossible to classify” Tatos O. Cartozian and other Armenians “as not belonging to the white race” and ruled in U.S. v. Cartozian that they were European “Alpines.” That same year, the state of Michigan successfully sued to revoke the U.S. citizenship of John Mohammad Ali, a traveling lecturer and wholesale importer born in India, arguing that race and nationality were inextricable. When Ali had become a naturalized citizen in 1921, “high caste” Hindus were considered “white” and therefore eligible for naturalization. But the 1923 case U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind created new precedent that Indians were not white. Ali attempted to defend himself by arguing that he was in fact of Arabian descent, even employing testimony from a University of Michigan eugenicist who argued that Ali was white due to his Middle Eastern ancestry as well as due to the shape and size of his head. The judge ruled against Ali, stating that Ali’s skin was not light enough for naturalized citizenship under current law.

Ultimately, the Met’s American period rooms reflect the eugenicist theory that swept American culture in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Halsey and de Forest’s message was not one of tolerance or collaboration, but rather of required improvement. They wanted to correct newcomers, and in 1924 they set in place a vision of elite homes of America previous to Western expansion, when the United States had not yet fully colonized the Louisiana Territory. Theirs was, additionally, a vision of East Coast gentility at a time of stark disparities, before the emergence of an American middle class in the 1820s and in the midst of an ever-expanding domestic slave economy. This intensely selective vision has been only nominally revised by the museum over time, though the physical space itself has been much reordered and improved. Electricity was added in 1974. In 1980 the bank facade courtyard became an interior space. Starting in 1982 a handful of rooms of the later nineteenth century and beyond were added at the back of the wing. A more spectacular renovation in 2009 brought the elevator and touch-screen displays, improvements for historical accuracy to some period rooms, and a ribbon-cutting speech by First Lady Michelle Obama, who used the occasion to stress the importance of access to the arts for all.

I have no way of knowing what the American Wing’s curators have said to one another over the years regarding the ways in which the period rooms should be labeled, of course. Searching through the numerous touch-screen displays (some of which have a tendency to freeze), I found little mention of the labor, whether paid or not, that created the historical American edifices and furnishings, though there is lengthy discussion of various period styles, master architects, and the curatorial exertions that have resulted in these remarkably atypical “typical” luxe rooms. Nor could I find good intel regarding the original curators’ vision of how contemporary audiences were meant to understand this reconstruction of American life. Yet, in the depths of one of the touch screens, I did finally discover a single digital card on Halsey’s goals in “Educating New Americans.” It is seemingly randomly placed at the end of the series in Gallery 9, the Powel Room, 1765–66. As the card explains, Halsey apparently hoped that the 1924 displays would “teach newly arrived immigrants about American history and values, so that they might assimilate more easily.” I am not sure why current curators have chosen to locate this important information at the bottom of the electronic pot. The year 1924 should be urgently on our minds. And the period rooms are as much, if not far more, a portrait of that time than of any previous era. They should be described as such.


Date: February 6, 2017

Publisher: Lapham's Quarterly

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the article.


On site.


Paneling from Marmion, the Fitzhugh family house, Tidewater, Virginia, c. 1756. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1916.

A Note on Vanitas


The driver exited his vehicle to take a selfie with the animals.
—Wikipedia, “List of selfie-related injuries and deaths"

Is all still vanity? Four hundred years ago, Dutch and Flemish painters produced hyperrealist still lifes of flowers, food, and luxury goods, seemingly fixing these gauds beyond time. So-called Vanitas images symbolize the brevity of human life, as well as the ephemerality and essential emptiness of earthly pursuits. Paradoxically, the Vanitas image also boastfully advertises the artist’s “ability to give permanence to the ephemeral and thereby overcome death,” according to historian Sybille Ebert-Schifferer. This tantalizing tension between human mortality and human ambition maintains today: High-net-worth individuals spend ever more in hopes of liberating their physical selves from senescence and death, while the rest of us obsessively save our memories to the cloud, convinced that the digital records that compose us will act as viable substitutes after we are dead. Meanwhile, the online graveyard grows. For example, the number of deceased individuals with Facebook profiles increases by an estimated 8,000 “users” per day, suggesting that our attempts to memorialize everyone and everything may mainly recall the fragility and brevity of life. Just as the Vanitas—also known as the pronkstilleven, or luxury still life, for its shiny and expensive contents—reminded wealthy patrons of their own earthly impermanence, we now negotiate a world of images that confusingly express our time’s extreme finitude (global warming, resource wars, economic stratification) even as they promise escape and immortality (life extension, quantum computing, planetary colonization).

In its earliest appearances in the English language, “vanity” flags the transitory nature of the human body, as well as the essential bootlessness of corporeal whim. Derived from a Latin root meaning “empty, void,” vanity is a paradoxical and sometimes dangerous way of relating to the self: To be vain is to mistake the changeable for the permanent, to love an image in the place of embodied presence, as the drowning victim Narcissus did in myth. Vanity is a conceptual error at once semantic and ontological, in which an item belonging to one category (the body) is presented as if it belongs to another (the numinous). Vanity may be the category mistake to end all category mistakes, a tragic misapprehension that is, all the same, associated with a non-negligible supply of pleasure and fun. Indeed, vanity often assists in crucial ways in our identification and interpretation of value, particularly when it comes to those endlessly seductive, sometimes troubling, sometimes anodyne items: art objects and luxury goods. Though we should perhaps know better, we hope that new purchases and proximity to beautiful, costly things will bring us increased vitality.

In this sense, little has changed since the 1600s, when opulent still-life paintings repurposed the failure to fully recognize our mortality as subject matter. Roland Barthes remarks on the seductive “sheen” of these meticulous and costly renderings of tables piled with wet grapes, split peaches, and shimmering oysters, which symbolize pleasures of fleshly existence; and the occasional leering skull or recently snuffed candle, which symbolize frailty and death. He reads the precise detail of these images as not merely allegorical, but expressive of a drive on the part of the artist to imprint one’s mark “upon the inert by shaping and manipulating it.” The art historian Svetlana Alpers, meanwhile, observes the remarkable “attentiveness” shown to the things of the pronkstilleven, whose astonishing realism suggests that they may also be visual documents of a new and modern style of looking, proofs of an emerging empiricism; soon artists might not merely paint nature but influence it.

As Barthes and Alpers note, the author of the Vanitas painting always seems just about to step into the image, to seize an oyster or disturb a precarious table setting. In Jacques de Gheyn II’s 1603 Vanitas Still Life, a massive hovering bubble threatens either to burst, ruining the composition, or to reflect the curved image of the artist himself, thereby interrupting the illusion of this apparently perfectly impersonal representation. The skill necessary to convey this opposition—between the ephemerality of experience and the overwhelming sensual presence of the physical world—ups the ante: The effort lavished on the delicate, shining surfaces implies that the painter may not believe in his own fleeting nature so much as his vicarious immortality, as guaranteed by the liveliness of the very work he was engaged in painting. The eternal present of the Vanitas image is animated not merely by the voluptuous objects it contains but by the illusion of an eternally living artist, who forever seems to hover just beyond the frame.

What is vanity now, and does it equate with mere selfishness or indicate a more complex balance of rational belief and carnal experience? Cryogenics labs offer to reanimate us into a future of improved technology. Luxury spas promise the approximation of youth. Google’s (a.k.a. Alphabet’s) Calico biotechnology arm will leverage the power of nature to extend life. These endeavors—often described in terms of service, even obligation, to the entire life-loving species—are buttressed by antiaging researchers who seem driven to prove that the more privileged among us are in fact no longer absolutely mortal. At the same time, we must reckon with the fact that, for the foreseeable future, we’ll all age and eventually pass away, particularly since senescence and death are not just emotionally but monetarily involved processes. The populations of many countries are disproportionately aged and aging, which poses challenges to the configuration of cities and economies (as well as questions about representation and inclusion); collective resources are already being strained, even as wealth is distributed with an unevenness that rivals the early nineteenth century—a statistic that becomes more disturbing the longer one ponders it.

The ways in which we recognize and deny death are embodied in the material things with which we surround ourselves. The drive to collect, categorize, and archive is one response to the uncertainty of mortality, and today’s ever-expanding capacities for digital storage encourage the endless memorialization of oneself and loved ones. The permanence or impermanence of such traces, which depend on the viability of servers and compatibility of files, software, and hardware, is debatable; indeed, the update could be the double-edged sword upon which our digital identities fall. Yet perhaps posterity is of lesser consequence to us than it once was. We are able to document our lives with unprecedented speed and medial diversity and produce endless streams of selfies and video testimonies for the “here” and “now.” If most of our content is addressed exclusively to the immediate present, perhaps we have begun to dispense with the notion of posterity at the very moment at which we are, at least in theory, able to save everything. In this case, it is not merely our conception of mortality that has been destabilized, but also our sense of time, in that we have begun to favor ephemerality and inhabit the present—on Snapchat and beyond—in new ways.

This issue of Triple Canopy features artists, writers, and critics who are thinking and working in the midst of these paradoxes. They reflect on a wide range of topics, from the unstable glamour of K-pop to the collective process of aging in naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), from the deadly force deployed by the American police to the consolations of the recovery of one Los Angeles artist’s cenotaph-like home, from the antideath architecture of Arakawa and Gins to multiple contemporary interpretations of the Vanitas image tradition, from the much-heralded “end of death” to the pursuit of impossible—or nearly impossible—forms of beauty. The futility of human striving meets the plenitude of digital memory, and acts of self-representation contrast with attempts to comprehend the situation of the human species, prompting us to ask: Does death still define life as the “vanity of all vanities,” as Ecclesiastes has it, if death is also a highly remunerative field of scientific research and product development? How will solutions to the perceived problem of mortality be shared out, fairly or otherwise? What framing device will replace the all-comprehending selfie stick?


Date: September 15, 2016

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


Otto Marseus Van Schrieck, detail of Still-Life with Insects and Amphibians, 1662, oil on canvas.


On site.


The Image of Genre


IT WOULD BE a very long list indeed if I were to name all of the visual artists dead and living whom I know to have written novels, commissioned novels to be written, or published other literary works. And such acts of publication have not been limited to the bound book. Artists have hung framed pages in galleries, installed (therefore unreadable) books and pamphlets in vitrines, photographed poems and novels and plays, performed poems and novels and plays, printed poems and other unclassifiable though apparently literary texts in vinyl on gallery walls, fabricated and displayed objects described in canonical poems and novels and plays, and even stopped being artists in order to become full-time writers. (Although, I personally know of no one who has done this last thing.) This is to say, it would be a very long and likely incomplete list! The phenomenon to which I refer, that of literary production for not just gallery space but also specific audiences of contemporary art, as opposed to concertedly “literary” audiences, is so broadly, variously, and at times ingeniously undertaken that I am doing no one a major intellectual favor by pointing out its existence.

But, having thought this phenomenon over a bit, and being a writer, it occurred to me that it might be worth discussing the persistence of not just the category of literature — in these intensely mediated days — but also and more significantly the categories of literature, especially by way of the appropriation of literary styles of authorship by visual artists. I should note that I am not angry at visual artists for becoming, or already being, literary authors. I would only like to offer a few observations about how this appropriation of certain semi-professional roles seems to occur, with these observations grouped under a title that indicates, by way of preview for those with limited time, what I am about to argue.

Since the turn of the century before last, literary experimentation has been good for creating readers fluent in the ways of literary experiment. Whether or not exclusively due to such efforts, we are now familiar enough with the diversity of literary genres, their conventions and interpenetrations, that we no longer require written works to adhere to particular laws of form or content in order to be able to read them. The progressive pastiche of various literary heroes, both modernist and post-, has greatly expanded our conception of what and where a poem might be. Even so, radio and moving images quickly overtook (or, had already overtaken) our experimenting heroes, indicating new levels of fungibility of content. These media simultaneously overtook, in publicness and popularity, a genre-agnostic entity of even longer standing than modernism itself: the novel.

It is worth pausing a moment on the novel. I have called it a “genre-agnostic entity,” but it is, of course, also a literary genre. As its name suggests, the novel is a new or novel kind of work, and since its earliest appearances in various parts of the world previous even to the 11th century, with varying degrees of fictiveness and interest in something called a plot, it has been a kind of long-form commemorative and speculative writing that is also quite willing to absorb and depict other kinds of writing and styles of speech and thought, both literary and nonliterary. Fast-forward to the 19th century in France and the novel has become a multifariously designated space for the writing of history, of journalism and critique of journalism, of sociological and economic analysis, gossip, sex tips, table manners, poetry and song, political debate, satire, travelogue, fashion reporting, not to mention dictionary entries. (It is also worth noting that most of this mix can as easily be found in novels of the Renaissance and before.) The novel has survived on the merits of its engaging narrative structure and closeness to everyday life, but these qualities are possibly less significant than its willingness, even eagerness, to be other kinds of writing and forms of expression. As we have seen of late (with Cole, Heti, Knausgaard, Lerner, et al.), the novel, fiction’s grand unit, is also quite often documentary and/or true.

The brilliant omnivorousness — or content-agnostic composting, depending on how you understand literary evolution — of the novel has additionally meant that its diversion into an array of predictable subcategories or strictly defined, sometimes concertedly commercial types known as “genre fiction” is yet another opportunity for appropriation; here of a more fixed version of the novel by some less fixed one, or the other way around. The novel alters, specializes, divides, recombines. It plays on cultural and aesthetic dichotomy, portraying division as well as synthesis. The existence of so-called “genre” novels proves that a major part of the appeal of the novel is its ability to be other than itself: the quick read of the formulaic thriller or bodice-ripper is diametrically opposed to the slow-burning reveal of the literary masterpiece — or, at least, I think so.

I only think so, or know I only think so, because of what I know of the state of genre. I am familiar enough with the diversity of genres, their conventions and interpenetrations, that I no longer require literary works to adhere to particular laws, in order to know how to read them. When I come to a lengthy insurance contract included verbatim in a novel, I know, for example, that I have permission to skim or skip this text and don’t need to read closely in order to discover key plot points and character motivations. It’s present merely for verisimilitude. I mean, I may believe this. On the other hand, I may believe that this insurance document is a painstakingly constructed scrim behind which lurks a secret architecture determining the course of all events occurring within the world of the novel. It’s up to me, the reader, to administrate the reading, to decide. The insurance document is a decorative accessory to the novel, or, in another scenario, the novel is a decorative, possibly interpretive accessory to the insurance document; either I am reading a novel with an insurance document attached or it’s an insurance document with a dependent novel. This is a plausible present of genre, genre as conventions of reading, as a series of decisions about which kinds of reading go where. (In the past, genre had been a succession of rules for composition, later it indicated different species of texts, and even later the kinds of textual patterns one saw in a given text.) Now genre may be in the eye of the beholder. Or, as an acquaintance recently remarked, the public sphere is built from genre. I think that what this acquaintance meant is that the public sphere is built from conventions of looking and reading, from publicly or mutually recognizable conventions for determining what kind of a thing something is and what we might be able to do with this thing.

This becomes clearer with a (mostly) literary example: I think that we are interested in the recent publication by Badlands Unlimited — a publishing concern run by artists Paul Chan, Ian Cheng, Micaela Durand, and Matthew So — of a trio of romance novels because here a high-art brand is publishing a low, popular form, several works of literal “genre” writing. In its adherence to genre convention, this series, “New Lovers,” enacts a kind of image. And in this image is included our amusement at cheerful fulfillment, as well as gentle flouting, of conventions. These books, probably fun to read (I have not read them, though I have discussed them with friends who claim to have done so), are also designed to have a valid conceptual existence, even without being read or requiring our reading. (I don’t, for example, feel pressure to read them, though I like knowing about them.) Though books have been for some time trading on this fact about their existence — that it does not always matter whether or not we read them, that they look nice on a table and so on — here it seems that the physical container, the trim size, cover design (very generic!), etc., is less important than the very genre. It is not that the books are images of books — though they have circulated widely online as JPEGs — but that they are an image of genre, an image of a series of conventions for reading as well as for discussing books, an attitude toward what they may or may not contain.

Reviewers and critics hoping to demonstrate an earnest relationship to “New Lovers”’s first installment of three publications helpfully perform our reading for us, summarizing plots, treating the writers like literary authors in interviews, adding exquisite detail to the image of genre. Indeed, here there may even be a kind of good-natured pun on the very term, as applied to painting (“genre painting”), in that scenes from art-centric everyday life, and perhaps less sex itself than the consumption of porn and images in general, are reproduced for us as the species of these novels. (For example, God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name, by Andrea McGinty, tells the tale of an “art career” as it devolves and/or improves into a series of sexual exploits.) Our ongoing interest in the image is reflected via the genre of these novels; in this sense, they represent a kind of catachrestic portrait of everyday life, documenting nobody’s — which is to say, everybody’s — actual activities and reflecting an improved, possibly “tasteful” version of our (conventional, everyday) looking habits, tastes.

Anyway, artists write novels all the time. I think immediately of AA Bronson’s Lena, or Lana, and Andy Warhol’s a: A Novel, and there is even a recent anthological publication devoted to artist’s novels to tell us more. Of course, I am not sure that the fictions of artists are inherently interesting. I am not sure if the fictions of novelists are inherently interesting! But there seems to be a special license associated with the literary enterprise when undertaken by a visual artist. The artist knows how to organize visual information. The artist manages the informational architecture of the novel, too. The artist makes available aspects of the novel that have to do with this work of management, questions of material format, discursive truth and artifice, means of distribution, intellectual property. The artist’s novel seems to celebrate the tactics of the studio, unsurprisingly, rather than the dynamics of nuclear families or other human genealogies. In this sense, the artist’s novel also seems linked with poetics, where this term refers to a set of strategies for making, especially in or with language. This is, then, not quite the private literature of the living room, bedroom, airplane, or poolside lounge. Reading an artist’s novel is often a kind of aesthetic or intellectual work rather than a leisure activity. And this is yet another perfect deployment of the novel, generically speaking: As we have already seen, the novel does not care which type of everyday life or habit or profession or other nonliterary thought or activity you want it to absorb. The novel is already (and always was) something other than, and in addition to, fiction. It is only too happy to become the discourse of art.

Institutions and businesses displaying visual art, which are related or adjacent though not identical to the public sphere, could also be built from genre. Certainly they have a tendency to cultivate particular conventions of looking. If they do not already enact certain generic conventions, they seem like plausible sites for human encounters with genre. A gallery wall becomes peculiarly useful when we think about it like a page. This wall, like the page of a book, is more or less public, though often only theoretically so. Like print and digital books, the wall of the gallery has a mixed relationship to privacy and propriety. Like print and digital books, the gallery show is usually a mix of singular authorship and shared, collective, and/or industrial production. The analogy is broad and not particularly compelling in itself, and it would probably not be worth drawing this comparison were it not already being drawn for me.

Recently, wandering the cubicles of a large art fair, I came upon some pieces of text by the artist Darren Bader. These were printed on a wall. I turned them over in my mind. In a space of constant potential social encounter, one needs a place to direct one’s eyes, so I read the text with care. I wondered if I should consider the text poetry. It was fragmentary, divided into smaller units. One unit mentioned Emily Apter, a professor of French and American literature with whom I had once studied. I felt a weird kind of gratitude. I also considered the fact — these “poems” were often about reading — that I should be reading more, more frequently, and also in larger quantities. I was spending, I mused, too much time in public.

A few months later, at MoMA’s show of Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series,” multiple rooms displayed books, ca. 1912–1948, behind glass. Cover art and design by Charles Alston, Margaret Bourke-White, E. Simms Campbell, Aaron Douglas, and Winold Reiss stood in metonymically for what I could not read inside. Elsewhere, books were displayed fastened open to a single spread. I photographed titles by Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Scott Nearing, Emmett J. Scott, Jean Toomer, Walter White, Carter Godwin Woodson, and Richard Wright, among others, creating a visual bibliography I later found for some reason to be more complete than the online checklist for the exhibition. I wasn’t sure what my impulse to collect or “read” these titles and authors in this way meant. In so doing, it is likely that I was mostly considering exhibition strategies and not really reading much at all. Yet, reading was being mentioned. The unit of the book — evidence of cultural production — was being mentioned. With my iPhone I dutifully (and privately) repeated this mentioning gesture.

There is a strange promise of privacy in many public displays of books. “You’ll read this later,” such displays seem to say. And when one is alone or, at least, at home, if one is not reading something else, one might indeed read. But the promise might also remain just that: a promise, and a kind of fantasy. Sometimes displays of books or book-like displays are also an image of a kind of reading, a kind of reading worth describing as an image precisely because it is so difficult to obtain in a time of ubiquity of text. The limits of the book are, perhaps, more porous than ever; sometimes, particularly if the book in question is a PDF, I find these limits nonsensically breeched by my email. The book could, in the context of an exhibition, be a metonym for a kind of historical knowledge or cultural production, but it might also be a metonym for a kind of attention, style of reading, or even a mode of consciousness. And in standing in for a kind or convention of reading, the book-as-image is a vague image of genre. (Such images become increasingly precise and focused when they bring us closer to acts, rather than fantasies, of reading — though fantasies of reading are also pretty interesting.) There is really a great deal of exhibition of reading these days. Reading is variously and frequently — via reading rooms, performances, and installed printed objects — purveyed as a notable and attractive habit of everyday life, which it also, to be clear, is; in this sense, displays of reading are a lot like genre paintings.

Not one to be left out of a market in which it is so clearly implied, the Bibliographical Society of America at last arrived at the party with the recent publication of an article addressing the strong showing by books in current visual art. This article, “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as a Medium in Contemporary Art” by Michael Thompson, provides an exhaustive 50-page description of the 2014 Whitney Biennial’s book-related contents. For all the nerdy delight this extremely precise and engaging account of bookish stuff in the Biennial inspired in me, it let me down a bit by concluding with a sort of non-conclusion, that “books as an aggregated medium comprising many component parts, present few constraints for contemporary artists.” Thompson further observes:

The one component that all conceptual art needs is an idea, and a book, which can take the form of scroll, codex, score, patterned broadside, leporello, audio recording, manuscript sketchbook, and most recently electronic file, and which has long been viewed as the primary means by which to transmit ideas of any kind, whether scientific, philosophical, literary, or artistic, may therefore be the final irreducible essence of conceptual art: an idea without a fixed physical object. [i]

It is inevitably true that books and ideas go well together. However, it is a little odd to find a bibliographer turning to a canonical summary moment in the history of art, something called “the final irreducible essence of conceptual art,” in order to explain the invocation and discussion of the everyday activity of reading that the many displays in the Biennial including books undertook. Displays asked visitors not just to recognize the possibility of reading but to do it, with various necessary time commitments, levels of concentration, and access (many books were behind glass). I much prefer Thompson’s earlier claim that books have a lot of “parts,” and therefore artists like them. I’d go even broader and speculate that in addition to “parts,” books have a lot of kinds, and therefore artists know that people like books (that people even resemble books) — and that people like books so much that people want to experience their liking of them and experiencing of them, over and over again. And people want to talk about books and hear more and more, as Gertrude Stein might say, about how everyone likes them. Do people like books more than paintings? It’s a tough and perhaps silly call, but if you think about it: likely, yes.

What the final, irreducible essence of conceptual art, in all its majesty, may allow artists to do — as it broadcasts its expensive maxims into the present, out of the pit of the past — is to put things in galleries that are not works of art. Though context may do its darndest to turn these non-art things into art, it remains possible to say that what is being displayed, and therefore via visitors’ eyeballs as well as gallerists’ and curators’ efforts valued, isn’t art. I do not mean to suggest that such things aren’t valuable. Rather, their value is imperfectly symmetrical with, and imperfectly assimilable to, structures and conventions of value associated with artworks. What also becomes clear, which is to say, noticeable, is a plurality of modes of authorship; that professional artists aren’t the only individuals who make things and that everyone who makes things isn’t an artist (this last point being meant more as an economic and professional fact than an insult). Thus, if we come to look at a poem, or an essay, or a novella in a gallery — if we see a framed page from a novel by Jill Magid, for example, or a page photographed by Erica Baum —we are reminded of one of visual art’s closest outsides, the outside of reading-not-looking, even as we remain within the context of visual art. And this moment of exteriorization, this appearance of the anomalous if commonplace activity of reading along with the conventions of literary genre in the space of visual art, by way of a certain kind of image, reminds me of another moment in history, one that has little enough to do with conceptualism.

Classicist Gregory Nagy’s “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: From Lesbos to Alexandria” gives an account of the professionalization and inscription of lyric poetry — in other words, the way lyric poems came to be treated, once they were actually written down. According to Nagy, a “reenacting I” in written lyric poems reenacts an archaic form of public address that would at one time have occurred before a live audience, at a symposium. Here the written text represents a reality that, according to Nagy, is already generic; the live performance was in itself “a fictional occasion,” with pursuant compositional rules and necessity of adoption of a persona corresponding to group expectations. [ii] In this sense, once we get to the written lyric poem, what we are reading is a fiction of a fiction, a mise en abyme, as Jacques Derrida (with apologies for the name drop) might put it, a “thinking about its own possibility.” What is real or historical in the archaic, live format, in the expectations of a certain group of listeners, must be somehow reenacted in the written environment. Nagy reads anticipation usefully: Whoever fictionally “speaks” in the written lyric poem, formerly a singer, is the product of the interaction of a group and a conventional role, which interaction, in being written down, is also being reread at some historical distance. The lyric genre, even in its earliest written forms, is according to Nagy already historical, complexly fictive, and dramatically opposed to the private, whether or not we might read such poems privately.

I have to say that I think literature that occurs in art galleries is more interesting when it has done a bit of thinking about its own possibility, and when this thinking has included consideration not just of format and some broad idea of interdisciplinarity, but also consideration of readers — readers both past and present, many of whom may also be writers. (I am thinking about the inclusion, for example, of social histories.) A mention of genre that expresses various kinds of fictionalizing of social forms, and which even socializes fiction, is also a way to think about habit. In this sense, we get to keep our pun: images of genre are paintings of everyday life in which a day lasts a long, long time.


[i] Michael Thompson, “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as a Medium in Contemporary Art,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 109, no. 2 (June 2015): 183. With thanks to Stuart Comer for bringing this important article to my attention.

[ii] Gregory Nagy, “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: From Lesbos to Alexandria,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 1 (2004): 46.


Date: September 13, 2015

Publisher: The Los Angeles Review of Books

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


On site.


Hanne Darboven, Detail from Quartett >88<, 1988, 1989, Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2000.

On David Wojnarowicz

An introduction to the journals of David Wojnarowicz

Artist David Wojnarowicz’s thirty or so journals are stored in a pair of boxes in New York University’s Fales Library. Folders of loose photographs, tickets, and postcards are also included, as is an oversize wall calendar, sparsely annotated by Wojnarowicz, of the type one might find in the gift shop of the American Museum of Natural History (triceratops rooting in lush surrounds). “Series 1,” as this lot of the David Wojnarowicz Collection is designated, feels like a grouping of keepsakes: These are items in and by means of which Wojnarowicz marked, from 1970 to 1991, time’s passing. In 1992, he died at the age of thirty-seven.

The journals were also meant for publication and display. Composition books predominate, though there are larger spiral-bound notebooks and one three-ring binder. The covers are occasionally embellished with collage or a holographic sticker. Wojnarowicz interleaves clippings, print ads, band flyers. Pages are pasted over with typescript, newsprint, photocopies of photographs, handwritten notes, redacted poems. The journals were a location in which Wojnarowicz prepared—by means of plans, lists, sketches—work he would later execute in other media, and they were also a site for work. As they themselves self-consciously narrate, these books were a constant in the practice of a peripatetic artist who painted out of doors, who traveled, who regarded homelessness as inherent to humanity (what in one entry he refers to as “the matter of having no home”).

Wojnarowicz made extensive use of the text of his journals, excerpting and reworking sections to create essayistic pieces that appear in Close to the Knives and Memories That Smell like Gasoline. He wrote with his body as witness, vehicle, and recording device: For The Waterfront Journals, for instance, he conducted interviews with people he met on the streets of American cities before “transcribing” monologues from memory, perhaps fictionalizing. In this sense, the kinds of experience with which Wojnarowicz was concerned could not be rendered untrue by the embroidery of art; as the artist once said in an interview with Nan Goldin, “I grew up realizing and believing there’s no difference between fantasy and reality. I always believed that my fantasies were stored pieces of information.”[1]

This belief in fantasy as “stored … information” might inform our reading of the journals, for the writing here seems searingly honest and committed to the actual even as it is devoted to its own language and to the unreal concerns of literature—to symbolism, imagery, dream, erotic transport, and even a kind of lyric thought or philosophy of the self.

Of his diary accounts of sex at the West Side piers and elsewhere, Wojnarowicz told Sylvère Lotringer:

When I wrote them I was so excited to write them, to document them. I thought they were the most amazing things that I had ever seen. They were like films or they reminded me of Burroughs’s Wild Boys. I loved it. I loved the fact that it was outdoors, that it was by the river and in the wind. They were moments of incredible beauty to me.

I remember when I first started becoming more and more aware of AIDS. And here I am sitting with all these journals, looking at them in total disgust. … And now, years later, I realize I shifted again and want these things.[2]

It is with this in mind that one reads Wojnarowicz’s accounts of anonymous sex, his cinematic reflection of the encounter. Many of the selections I have made here, then, are graphic—perhaps more so than other previously published excerpts from the journals. There are also mundane episodes. We see a Manhattan that barely resembles our own. And we see Wojnarowicz at work, taking photos of hell in an alley (homelessness, refuse) or visiting an editor at the Soho Weekly News, the paper that would first publish his “Rimbaud in New York” series. I have wanted to show both the explicitness and the everydayness of Wojnarowicz’s writing practice, as it is in this meeting of the extraordinary and the routine that one finds the crucible of the artist’s personal myth.

I have also included “Dateline for Retrospective Catalog.” This sketch, written in list form, is a draft of a text that appeared in a catalogue of Wojnarowicz’s work from 1979 to 1990, Tongues of Flame. The published work, in paragraphs, is titled “Biographical Dateline,” and it expands the outline’s pithy notes. For example, what in the preparatory document is “Stabbed Steven: lizard tail in hand in police station” becomes, in “Biographical Dateline,”

Stabbed my brother in a fight back in n.y.c.—while waiting for the police to arrive at the apartment to take me away I played with my lizards. One of them dropped the tail off in a self-defense move. The tail continues wiggling for twenty minutes or so to confuse the predator. In the police station a cop asked me what I had in my hand. I replied, a lizard tail. Cops thought I’d gone over the edge.

If the draft “Dateline for Retrospective Catalog” lacks detail and standard syntax, it makes up for this in economy of expression, as a sort of episodic poem.

There is much that has been left out. Without mentioning the mass of writing and illustration that remains unpublished in the journals, it has also not been possible to preserve all of Wojnarowicz’s handwritten punctuation, his use of ellipses, spaces, and dashes of varying length. For this reason, one may look forward to Fales’s completion of a digitization project of the journals, at which time these will be viewable in their entirety online. (Additionally, from November 18 of this year until February 12, 2012, the Brooklyn Museum will host the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” formerly presented at the National Portrait Gallery, here emphatically including Wojnarowicz’s 1985–87 film A Fire in My Belly.)


Date: September 23, 2011

Publisher: Triple Canopy

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction, biography
Link to the introduction.

This piece includes transcriptions and images from the journals of David Wojnarowicz, housed at Fales Library at NYU. The text at left serves as an introduction to the selection, made in summer of 2011 for issue 14 of Triple Canopy, "Counterfactuals."


Journal image.


Journal image.


Journal image.

    1. “Nan Goldin/David Wojnarowicz,” in David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side, ed. Giancarlo Ambrosino (New York: Semiotext[e], 2006), 202.
    1. “Sylvère Lotringer/David Wojnarowicz,” in Ambrosino, 194.
My Mother, the Metropolitan Museum, and I


I recall, as a girl of eight or nine, discovering a photograph of my mother taken a few years before I was born. In the image, my mother stands in a white room. She is laughing as I had never seen her laugh in life, completely taken by elation. Surrounding her are large-format photographs, presumably waiting to be hung on the walls. Some are still wrapped in paper, but two—showing beautiful women—are visible. One of the women is also laughing, almost as much as my mother. I later learned that this long-haired, gently disheveled, smoking and ring-wearing figure was the singer Janis Joplin—although for now she was just an anonymous subject who reminded me a little of myself. When I brought the picture to my mom, she told me that the photographs were by a man named Richard Avedon. In 1978 Avedon, a.k.a.“Dick,” had a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where my mother worked as a curator.

This was a standard mother-daughter conversation. There were many unusual objects in our Upper East Side apartment, and I was a wily sleuth. I was even beginning to believe—knowing nothing of the cost of child care—that my mother’s reason for sometimes bringing me with her to her office after school was that she wanted my assistance. We traveled, hand in hand, from the neighborhood’s upper reaches to Fifth Avenue and the Met’s imposing neoclassical façade. As we ascended the steps together, I believed that the building belonged to us. Only we knew about the unfinished blocks at the tops of the grand columns—meant to become figures personifying the four great periods of art, from Ancient to Modern, but never carved. This was the power of the museum: It could hide a flaw in plain sight and look magnificent while doing so.

My mother and I proudly entered, making our way to my mother’s department. She was a specialist in European drawings and prints, and her office was accessible via a secret door in the wall of one of the galleries, which she opened using a key, often in full sight of gawking tourists. We’d pass through a study room, into the haven of my mother’s private work space.

The smell was of ancient papers, leather, inks, and resins. I did homework or looked through my mother’s collection of antique doorknobs, keys, and keyhole covers. She liked to purchase these odds and ends at European flea markets. I had no idea what they meant to her.

Later, museum closed and workday done, we exited the departmental warren and descended through the empty, darkened building. We passed shadowy busts and portraits, obscure arms and armor, sacred objects visible only in outline. These walks, sometimes up or down staircases inaccessible to the public, would reappear in my dreams. Sometimes it would be impossible to find my way out of the museum; or a work of art might come, disconcertingly and messily, to life. In reality, we always reached an exit without incident. In one subterranean storage hall, passing a giant two-dimensional reproduction of a blue hippopotamus sculpture from ancient Egypt nicknamed “William” by the staff, we’d even salute. My mother’s heels clicked reassuringly. This was her place.

These are my most vivid childhood memories. Of course, there were privileges: an early viewing of the immense Christmas tree along with the intricate, miniature crèche, put out every year without fail in the medieval hall; my mother’s ability to give the occasional tour to my grade-school class, an event that filled me with pride. However, it was the incidental things I cherished: eating lunch in the staff cafeteria, looking through my mother’s suitcase after she’d come home from a business trip. These moments impressed upon me the dignity and solace of work. The institution encompassed my mother; it seemed to support her at every turn.

Dinner conversation with my father revealed a different side of the job: other people. There was the macho curator who always had to get his way, flaunting the economic superiority of his specialty and mocking my mother’s lowly prints and illustrated books. There were also regular updates on Brooke Astor, the late heiress, with whom my mother lunched from time to time—and here the tone of the report shifted. Mrs. Astor was extraordinary; the chauvinist was forgotten amid reflections about Mrs. Astor’s palatial apartment, the pleasantness of her conversation. Sometimes celebrities appeared, requesting tours. There was the week of Brad Pitt. Despite repeated entreaties, all my mother would say was that he seemed “attentive.”

I knew from the Avedon installation picture that my mother’s life at the museum had been different before my time, maybe more surprising. It was, after all, her first big job. She’d fled a difficult family situation in San Diego and taken a master’s in art history at Columbia. Here she’d met my father, who was studying law and had previously worked construction on the side. They’d made a go of it. My mother changed her first name as well as her last in marriage, and my father left behind Yonkers and his working-class roots. My mother had the physical gifts that permit self-transformation: She was slender, with sweet, symmetrical features and beguiling brown eyes. She made powerful friends, including the philanthropist Lincoln Kir­stein, and rose quickly through the ranks at the Met, becoming the director of her department. She met Andy Warhol.

“But what was Andy like?” I demanded to know. I was a teenager now, and the 1990s had brought renewed hunger for Warhol’s commodified irony. Even Kurt Cobain seemed to be modeling himself on the Factory magus.

“Weird,” my mother said. “Quiet.”

By this time, my mother and I disagreed on many topics. Not least among these was my appearance. All my clothing was deemed too tight. My eye makeup was eternally inappropriate, what my mother termed “your Cleopatra eyes,” a mild dig I tried to take as a compliment, given the Met’s spectacular Egyptian collection. Meanwhile, I was athletic, verging on Amazonian, or so I felt. By age twelve, I was already passing my mother in height. I played three sports. My face came from my father. His Assyrian-Iranian and Polish features—dark hair, broad face, pronounced nose—had won out over Mom’s German-WASP blend. In spite of my apparently British last name—in fact an Ellis Island corruption of my paternal grandfather’s Ivas—everyone assumed I was of Eastern European descent and Jewish. Among friends’ families I usually smoothed over any confusion by preemptively proclaiming that I had no religious education at all, which was true.

Only later did I understand how fully one can reinvent oneself in New York City, particularly with a good partner in metamorphosis, as it were. In my mother’s case, I was never entirely sure if that partner was my father or the museum itself, which during certain periods seemed to consume her whole each morning, spitting her out again, mysteriously transformed, at nightfall. I continued to grow away from her, at first physically, then creatively. I became obsessed with drawing, a pursuit my mother discouraged vehemently when a high school teacher suggested I apply to art school. I would go often to the museum on Friday afternoons to work on my sketches. I no longer bothered to venture up to my mother’s office; I came alone and sat alone and left without her.

After I was accepted at Harvard, the polar opposite of art school, my mother began taking me with her on research trips, perhaps because I was a good sounding board or perhaps to keep an eye on me. We went to London, Paris, Australia, and French Polynesia. Our last trip, an inquiry into Paul Gauguin’s final days on the remote island of Hiva Oa, was challenging. I was tailed by wild dogs when I foolishly attempted to visit the artist’s grave alone, and my mother came close to drowning. This episode took place on a volcanic beach, where we were walking. I don’t know why my mother decided to swim, but swim she did, and was caught in a rip current. Our host, Monsieur Gaby, and I stood on the shore, watching with mounting horror. “Swim to the side!” Gaby yelled, probably in French. Eventually all was well, but in that petrifying moment I saw clearly and for the first time the distance between my mother and me. It wasn’t just the fast-moving ocean.

Later, after my mother had staggered back to land, we all stood staring at one another. I felt as if I was meeting her for the first time. Gaby, meanwhile, seemed ready to depart. We piled into his SUV. As the vehicle bounded up the lush mountainside, I reflected on what an odd couple we must appear: the brooding daughter wandering off into an overgrown cemetery; the sociable mother nearly swept out to sea. Or perhaps we were not so much “odd” as inverses, I thought, mirror images.

But what a strange and difficult mirror it was.


Date: June 1, 2017

Publisher: Vogue

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.
This essay appears in the print edition of Vogue, June 2017, with the title "Her Brilliant Career."
See PDF below.


Cover image.


Model Ingrid Boulting in Grès, photographed by Richard Avedon for Vogue, 1970.

Mammal: Fisher Cat

Mammal: Fisher Cat

Length: up to four feet
Mass: up to fifteen pounds
Nighttime caterwauler
Porcupine killer

The beast was previously unknown to me. It was small yet large. It was cute yet hideous. It was shy yet it took what it wanted and attacked without provocation (see: Reddit). No one had ever seen one, but it was everywhere, this beast, nesting in forests, stalking rows of corn, circling homes and gardens, feasting on everyone’s pets. It seemed to be composed of parts appropriated from other animals: a toylike head with round ears, a snout stuffed haphazardly full of hook-like teeth, a pointlessly long and supple body, anodyne peg-like limbs nevertheless festooned with claws. It was solitary and, according to legend, at night let out a keening wail—an apoplectic demon-child in search of blood. I knew it lived near me.

I do not remember how I first learned its name: fisher cat. Or, more properly, fisher, as it is not a cat. Or: pékané (Abenaki), Pekania pennanti (classification), Pennant’s marten (English, after Thomas Pennant, a Welsh naturalist), otchoek (Cree), tha cho (Chipewyan), otochilik (Ojibwa), uskool (Wabanaki). Fishers do not fish, and it is thought that early American immigrants mistook them for polecats, a.k.a. fitches or fitcheau, in Old French, terms allegedly related to the Dutch visse, meaning “nasty,” and the Middle English fulmard, a “foul marten.” The French word for the pelt of a polecat is fiche, another possible source for the word, given the North American fur trade.

Perhaps someone said, You’ve got a lot of fishers up there, meaning where I lived: that is, in the woods, two hours south of the Canadian Border. Maybe it was a whole table of people speculating about this, about them, the fishers. I don’t know if the fascination was first someone else’s or if it was always my own; I don’t know which happened first: the googling and the YouTube-ing, or the live appearance, which occurred shortly thereafter, and which, I was later informed, perhaps by the same tableful of people, and thus, perhaps erroneously, is extremely rare.

Here are a few things I do know.

● The adult female fisher is almost always pregnant. She mates in the spring (females are the instigators of this activity). Over the next eleven months, the fertilized embryos remain dormant in the blastocyst phase until the following February, when the increase in daylight hours is believed to trigger implantation, leading to a brief, six-week gestation. Then the female gives birth and breeds again in short order.

● Edwin Eugène LaBeree, author of a 1941 guide, Breeding and Reproduction in Fur Bearing Animals, describes sex between two fishers in the following way: “Such noise! Such yowls! Such howling! No thousand cats caterwauling on a backyard fence at midnight ever could make such a noise…. Once the pair mated there was not a sound. And the moment the mating was over, the female insisted on getting back to her pen immediately.”

● Both male and female fishers have round patches of fur on the central pads of their paws. These patches enlarge during the breeding season and are thought to be involved in mating negotiations.

● Cats and dogs walk only on their toes. Fishers, by contrast, step onto their entire foot. To get a sense of what this looks like, shorten your cat’s legs by half in your mind’s eye. Now imagine your cat (with its new, shorter legs) wearing a set of slippers about the length of the amount by which its legs have been shortened. This is the fisher’s setup. Its feet look like those of a cartoon character, when it is seen strolling across the snow on all fours, from the side. It remains above the snow, its weight well dispersed.

● Fishers famously consume porcupines, although they are not the only predators to do so: wolves, coyotes, sizable felids (bobcats, lynxes, mountain lions), wolverines, and great horned owls partake of porcupines, but with far less enthusiasm. Only the fisher seems to have been designed with this meal in mind. Fishers do well in trees, the porcupine’s preferred locale, and are skilled at delivering wounds to the face, the porcupine’s Achilles heel. Once a porcupine is dead, the fisher delves into the carcass through the chest, creating a hole by means of which it has access to tasty organs like the heart and lungs, as well as the meat of the porcupine’s legs.

● Prices for fisher pelts peaked in 1920, at $100 per pelt (over $1,000 today), and in the late 1970s, at up to $410 per pelt. The fur trade in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries significantly lowered the fisher population in the US. As the animal became rare or extinct, states closed their open hunting seasons, with California being the last to do so, in 1946. Habitat destruction further threatened the animal, and porcupine populations rose. Perhaps because porcupines were perceived to damage valuable timber, fishers were reintroduced in Canada and some American states beginning in the 1950s. Fishers are currently listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as one of the animals of “least concern.”

It is also the case that before I saw the fishers, I seem to have felt them. This was a little more than a year ago. August was getting late. As I walked back from the mailbox one afternoon, there was a twitching around the side of the house, a glimmer. I was on the porch when a fisher threw itself out of the arbor, just as another emerged from behind a lily. The emerging one froze, head rotating to watch as I retired, hastily, indoors.

Safely enclosed, I went for my iPhone. In the grass, the fishers shrugged. They posed and departed, and I have not seen them again.

One day my neighbor—let us call him M—comes by. He is both the builder of my house and a former resident. He tells a story about a (feline) cat named Effie he thought was falling off the roof one afternoon, but who was, in fact, in the process of being unzipped by a fisher. M emerged to find the remains of the cat and a feasting victor. Attempting to scare the predator off, M himself, as he tells it, became a body of interest. He rapidly bid farewell to Effie’s corpse.

There was another cat too: Marty. Marty was wise; he’d go on missions alone for days. M tells me about Effie’s fate and then about the wonders of Marty.

A month passes. I see M again. He’s giving me vegetables in advance of a long trip, and I say, “By the way, whatever happened to Marty?”

“Oh,” M says, “they got him too.”

Who? I ask, unnecessarily. I don’t know why it is so important to wait to tell me this, to break the news slowly, as M is clearly doing. A wobbling instant later, I realize: This isn’t for my benefit. M knows I keep my cat indoors.


Date: January 31, 2020

Publisher: The Believer

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of The Believer, February–March, 2020, Issue One Hundred Twenty-Nine.


Cover image.


Illustration by Kristen Radtke.


Martes pennanti.

On 1969

The novelist Lucy Ives considers guilt and fiction-making, and what it meant to survive a year – and a decade – of such dashed promise

During an elective stay at a psychiatric hospital, Billy Pilgrim, protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, meets a science-fiction fan. Eliot Rosewater – the fan – likes a certain (fictional) writer very much. This writer, one Kilgore Trout, has become obscure. No one reads Trout’s books anymore. Even Rosewater maintains that they aren’t very well written. The only thing is, they’re full of interesting ideas.

Pilgrim’s madness, his tendency to come ‘unstuck’ in time, to claim to have travelled to an extraterrestrial zone inhabited by five-dimensional beings and to have been compelled to mate with a beautiful former porn star, is variously chalked up to his readings in Trout’s oeuvre. The effects of near-deaths suffered during his service in World War II, including Pilgrim’s experience of the fire-bombing of Dresden, are seen as negligible. It’s not the trauma, it’s the science fiction, the fantasy, that’s keeping Pilgrim from grounding himself reliably in postwar reality. Rosewater, Pilgrim’s guide to the Troutian universe, is, in his own way, reluctant to diagnose the latter’s temporal homelessness, but he does offer a clue. Having informed Pilgrim that ‘everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Feodor Dostoevsky’, Rosewater concludes, ‘But that isn’t enough any more.’

That isn’t enough any more. There hardly seems a more apt sentence to describe the state of the US during the year Vonnegut’s book was published. ‘That’ – by which we must assume Rosewater means a story about inheritance that privileges national history in its interaction with parental pressures, money and god – is no longer enough. It can’t tell us everything and/or knowing ‘everything there [is] to know about life’ is no longer all that useful. What you need to know in order to survive now – and specifically in 1969 – is something more.

Whether you think novels can reliably act as guides for living (and perhaps that’s an outmoded, 19th-century notion in itself), Vonnegut is pointing to a certain gap that has inserted itself into narrative, by which he seems to intend humanity’s narrative. He indicates this gap through his fiction, but we might also consider it by way of the actual experience of Michael Collins, the somewhat lesser-known third astronaut who participated in the Apollo 11 mission that put Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin on the lunar surface on 20 July 1969. Collins, who remained behind in the Columbia command module, spent a day orbiting the Moon while Armstrong and Aldrin cowboyed down. For 48 minutes of each rotation, the Moon’s mass blocked all radio contact between the Columbia and Earth. Although Collins has always maintained that he enjoyed these moments of unprecedented isolation from all humans, he wrote a series of notes during this time in which he described his ‘terror’ that Armstrong and Aldrin might not be able to ascend: ‘If they fail to rise from the surface, or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life and I know it.’

Everyone made it back, mostly in one piece, and thus there was no marked man, no guilty survivor singled out by history, no one with cause to wonder why he had lived while others hadn’t. It was apparently enough. Here we might think, too, of the strange pronouncement Armstrong made – ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ – as he shuffled onto a landscape he and Aldrin compared to the North American ‘high desert’, as if they had been transported to a particularly desolate scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Wild Bunch. (Both films were, incidentally, extended narrative descriptions, also from 1969, of chummy suicide missions.) Later, no one mentioned the redundancy in the explorer’s valiant words. When I consider his language now, I’m only able to make sense of Armstrong’s sentence if I define ‘mankind’ not merely as a category of greater magnitude than ‘man’, but also as a category that exists in the future of ‘man’. Mankind is what man becomes, perhaps, through radical spatial and temporal re- and/or dis-location. In fact, a transmission glitch had removed an indefinite article from Armstrong’s sentence, so no one heard: ‘That’s one small step for a man …’ In other words, abetted by a minor telecommunicative failure, the astronaut produced a mysterious posthumanist aphorism instead of an obvious analogy. There was no solitary, marked man; mankind would go vastly, gigantically forward, together. Everyone stared up into the sky, which is to say, into their televisions and newspapers. They wore the latest sunglasses, which had recently proliferated in myriad space-age silhouettes and candy colours. Everyone, that is, who didn’t think the whole thing was a hoax enacted on a soundstage.

But that wasn’t enough.

Mick Jagger, lead singer of The Rolling Stones, would say, with unwitting irony, during a press conference held to announce the Altamont Speedway Free Festival of December 1969, at which a young man named Meredith Hunter would be stabbed to death: ‘It’s creating a sort of microcosmic society which sets an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings.’ There was a hope inherent to such ill-fated and unavoidably commercial visions of mass presence – as witnessed earlier that year at the muddy, trippy music festival outside the small town of Woodstock in upstate New York – that through ecstatic gathering, through the shedding of temporal and spatial constraints associated with a repressive national history plus norms of nuclear family, via emancipatory chemical and rhythmic means, etc. (we have been told the story many times), something resembling ‘coming together’ might take place. The Brothers Karamazov wasn’t enough and, although the Altamont Speedway was just outside of San Francisco, the Summer of Love had been over for two years, the Haight’s narcotic well increasingly stocked with methamphetamines. This was the autumn when Jagger, a dropout of the London School of Economics, frequently appeared on stage dressed as Uncle Sam. He and his band were solidifying their share of the US market. Altamont was a scheme thrown together by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Rock Scully, the manager of the Grateful Dead. At Altamont, Jagger, at first flirtatious, complained about the state of his fly: ‘You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do you?’ And, later, with greater gravity, as the front rows of concertgoers brawled with a Hells Angels biker gang, he demanded: ‘Who’s fighting and what for?’ It was hardly the sort of rhetorical question on which a politics might be built and, in truth, attendees were about to witness the violent breakdown of the microcosmic society Jagger had heralded. The lifecycle of such utopias was becoming distressingly short and attendance, as in wider society, was safer for some than others. For those who disliked camping, mud and crowds, there was always the newly opened Gap store on San Francisco’s Ocean Avenue, purveyor of ‘nitty-gritty blue jeans’ and ‘rugged cords’.

Charles Manson was a great fan of popular music and always a casual dresser in spite of his grandiose pretensions. He and his ‘Family’ came together around an eschatological myth of a race war derived from demented exegeses of the New Testament and The Beatles’ White Album (1968). A rock’n’roll visionary in his own mind, Manson devised a method for surviving the end of the 1960s that required the violent deaths of people tangentially related to individuals in the Los Angeles music scene whom Manson felt had snubbed him. If Manson’s music seemed not to give rise to the historically predetermined slaughter his messianic pastiche of British invasion plus Book of Revelation had disclosed, then surely these killings would be a catalyst. Having brutally done away with seven people on 8 and 9 August 1969 (Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Leno LaBianca, Rosemary LaBianca, Steven Parent, Jay Sebring, Sharon Tate), the Family retired to Death Valley. There, they believed that they were to discover a subterranean city where they would live out the apocalypse, during the course of which white people would be decimated. They would subsequently, marked men (and women), return to rule over the confused non-white victors, whom they would mercilessly exploit for profit, forming a new world-historical hegemony: a giant leap.

Thus, it really meant something to be a survivor in 1969; it meant something more than made sense. It felt like a species of space madness, a hope to become unstuck from all previously accepted narratives, which was at once terrifying and, allegedly, the only way out. It meant so much that it was enough for Senator Ted Kennedy to do just that. It didn’t matter that Democratic campaign specialist Mary Jo Kopechne had died on the evening of 18 July 1969, two days after the morning of the day when the three Apollo 11 astronauts had been launched overhead by means of a cone-like combination of skyscraper and bomb. Kennedy could not, in truth, have selected a better night to be the most prominent presidential hopeful in America committing vehicular manslaughter – if, of course, that is indeed what happened – so distracted was everyone on Earth. The Chappaquiddick Incident would dash this last surviving Kennedy brother’s ambitions to be the presumptive nominee in 1972 (George McGovern received the nod), but it did not fully incapacitate him. His continued liberty was, in no small part, due to a convincing performance involving a neck brace and other therapeutic props, along with a compliant local police force in Massachusetts, who ensured that there was no autopsy of Kopechne’s body. Indeed, Kennedy’s explanation of what did occur was so strange and obviously dependent on popular conceptions of the time-bending effects of compounded physical and psychological trauma – resulting from tragedies of both a personal and historical nature – as to resemble Pilgrim’s accounts of alien abduction to planet Tralfamadore: the world of beings who exist in all times at once, and who are thus always already privy to the form of future events. ‘My conduct and conversations during the next several hours, to the extent that I can remember them, make no sense to me at all,’ Kennedy explained, reading from a script into a television camera. His face was weirdly flushed, but his voice was even and flawlessly authoritative. The account of the incident featured a nimble leap between a valiant watery rescue attempt that left the senator panting, concussed, thrown from the confines of standard space and time onto his back on a nighttime lawn. (The viewer could only imagine the stars he saw.) ‘Although my doctors informed me that I suffered a cerebral concussion, as well as shock, I do not seek to escape responsibility for my actions by placing the blame either on the physical and emotional trauma brought on by the accident,’ he said, dropping the ‘T’ word in what was surely one of its highest-profile outings to date. Of course, this, ‘escap[ing] responsibility’, was exactly what he proceeded to do, just a few paragraphs later:

All kinds of scrambled thoughts – all of them confused, some of them irrational, many of them which I cannot recall, and some of which I would not have seriously entertained under normal circumstances – went through my mind during this period. They were reflected in the various inexplicable, inconsistent and inconclusive things I said and did, including such questions as whether the girl might still be alive somewhere out of that immediate area, whether some awful curse did actually hang over all the Kennedys, whether there was some justifiable reason for me to doubt what had happened and to delay my report, whether somehow the awful weight of this incredible incident might in some way pass from my shoulders.

Kennedy time-travelled. He careened into a future in which he might, at last, become an unmarked man and then swam back again. In the present, he inquired about things that could not possibly be true. His delusion was offered up as proof of his status as a victim. His speechwriter had obviously read Slaughterhouse-Five when it had been released a few months earlier in March – and with a preternatural comprehension of the novel’s symbolic solution to the intertwined problems of guilt and inheritance. The Brothers Karamazov wasn’t enough these days; after all, you couldn’t escape to America, as Dostoevsky’s Dmitri plans to do at the novel’s close, if you were already living in it.

Kennedy’s survivor’s guilt could have come from any number of places and, in this sense, it was easy to believe him. All of his male siblings were dead and his father, Joe, had ordered his eldest sister, Rosemary, to be lobotomized in 1941, when she was just 23 years old. In 1972, National Lampoon printed a fake advert featuring a white Volkswagen Beetle buoyant in dark water to make the awful joke that, if only Ted Kennedy had been driving such a car – famously so non-dense that it would float – at the time of the Chappaquiddick Incident, he would have become president in that year’s election. It is not clear whether The National Lampoon knew that, while alive, Kopechne had driven an identical Volkswagen model. In any case, it was a strange, speculative repetition. Kopechne had been professionally successful, was unmarried at 28 and upwardly mobile. Her careful work strategy, connections and sobriety had not been enough to save her. What you needed to survive in 1969 was, apparently, not the straight and narrow. What you needed was fiction. And guilt.


Date: June 3, 2019

Publisher: frieze

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the article.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, June–August 2019, issue 204, with the title "Marked Men."


Cover image.


In The National Lampoon.


1969 advertisement.

On Pseudo-Teen Scammers

Keywords: Artists of the teenage con, Bald spots, Grifting, Shoplifting, Soft-focus selfies, Unconditional love

AT THE END OF the twentieth century, American culture figured the knowledge of its teenage population in curious ways. What teenagers knew – ‘You think you know everything!’ their mothers said – was interesting and even profitable, because it was knowledge without agency. The teenager knew, in that she understood the economies, family, schools, institutions, and other systems in which she had appeared, as a result of having been born on planet Earth, in the United States, and, after this, having been subject to the whims of others. The teenager knew, because she had observed the adults. She was attempting to become them. Meanwhile, things were being sold. And the things being sold to her, the teenager, were offered for sale with the knowledge that the teenager did not have a salaried job, nor did she possess other mobilities and freedoms. Again, the teenager knew – perhaps, even, everything – but she could not do much about it. She was a boy or a girl and a minor; possibly she was chattel.

American teenagers of the 1990s were renowned for shoplifting, for working service industry jobs, for purchasing (and sometimes shoplifting) CDs, for dealing and consuming drugs (some of which were prescribed to them by psychiatrists), and for having a poor work ethic, which they allegedly broadcast to the world by wearing clothing they had purchased second-hand or discovered in the trash. These tendencies were all but instantly sold back to them in the form of additional CDs, magazines, movies, and inexpensive clothing that was designed to resemble the even more inexpensive clothing they had been buying second-hand or finding in the trash. Some teenagers had the means to buy these things. Others only observed, wondering if there was such a thing as ‘the authentic.’ But everyone knew.

All the teenagers in America knew everything. I know; I was one of them.

Of course, times have changed. We are in the late – senescent, even – period of the notion of the teen, a moment at which the competing category of ‘tween’ has already long since had its day as a neologism, and the havoc wreaked by the internet on the boundary between public and private life is affecting our ability to comprehend all sorts of narratives. I’m not even sure if you can be a teenager, anymore. Or, for that matter, if there’s anything so special about being a teen. I mean, certainly, you can be fifteen. But it is not clear that it is so very unusual to be an individual who knows everything, but/and can do nothing about/with that knowledge. This particular cultural position seems to be increasingly – and perhaps even disturbingly – well shared out. Now everyone is always on the phone.

In a recent article in The Atlantic proclaiming the end of the teen, as such, Jean M. Twenge describes the lives of teenagers in the following way: ‘… the lure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. The shift is stunning: twelfth-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.’[1] Twenge, a psychologist who studies intergenerational differences, blames smartphones, along with the unremitting access to social media these devices provide. Contemporary teens are not rebelling or experimenting; they lie around in bed all day screenshotting Snapchat. In the past, American teens had sex and drove; now, according to Twenge, they are more likely to blackmail each other with vaguely illicit, or maybe merely dorky, digital images. Safe in their bedrooms, teens know more and more (they study affect and interpersonal discourse in obsessive detail) and do less and less. One might ask: If they do not become influencers and/or entrepreneurs, are contemporary teens accorded any place in the popular imagination at all?

While I find Twenge’s description of the habits of young Americans plausible, I am myself drawn to different sorts of questions, regarding generation- al shifts. If the ‘old’ teenager, the teen of the twentieth century and perhaps the aughts, was not just a risk-taker or rebel but someone who tried on various adult identities without having to adopt a single one, the end of the teenager could also imply the end of the adult – or, rather, the end of the adult as someone who has chosen a fixed identity for him- or herself. Lives are more reconfigurable – and later on – than perhaps ever they have been. Those who lose spouses go online and find new ones. Those who lose jobs obtain new educations. We comment on articles and videos online as people we are not. As a reticent user of social media, I sometimes fantasize about creating a pseudonymous account or two, via which I might (safely, from the comfort of my bedroom) post and comment as someone other than myself – vociferously, meaninglessly, endlessly. None of it’s malicious, I promise you…

I am a teenager?

But, by the same token, who wants to be a teenager? Who really wants to be that old teen, a minor, in permanence? Someone who has bows in her hair, favours Hello Kitty and Minnie Mouse accessories, dots ‘i’’s with a star, clutching her books to her chest. Someone who wears oversized clothing, speaking softly, with his head bowed, recoiling if anyone tries to touch him. Someone with a certain warmth in her demeanour, a hopefulness, who appears to be in distress. Whose skin is without wrinkles, whose hair shows no traces of gray, who looks like a lost girl needing help. Who is indistinguishable from the teenage mob, waif-like, an androgynous figure hiding behind sunglasses, with a girlish, whispery voice?

The language in the previous five sentences isn’t even my own. It’s taken from reporters’ accounts of adult men and women who have pretended to be teenagers,[2] a confidence maneuver that’s surprisingly common – and perhaps most surprising, in that it occurs at all, for, as noted above, who really wants to be a teen? Among these artists of the teenage con, these ‘old teens,’ are Treva J. Throneberry, Charity Johnson, and Frédéric Bourdin, all of whom were eventually arrested for activities related to their charades and who are richly represented online. Throneberry pretended for over a decade to be fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen. She presented herself as a fresh-faced, pigtailed runaway in need of shelter and schooling in communities all over the U.S. and was largely successful in her act, even as a twenty-eight-year-old. Johnson found many of her marks, women looking for girls in need of a substitute parent, on Facebook. She used Instagram to post adorably captioned soft-focus selfies (‘honey bee love’), and at age thirty-four she successfully enrolled in the tenth grade. The protean Bourdin lived for many years in and out of foster care in Western Europe, speaking multiple languages, hiding his bald spot beneath various forms of teen-appropriate headgear.

Aside from the obvious reasons to be interested in people who engage in these sorts of ‘cons,’ I am interested in them because teenagers are minors; to pretend to be a teenager is to pretend to be a minor. Minors cannot engage in consensual sex with non-minors. Minors must go to school. They may not legally consume alcohol. They cannot vote. To pretend to be a minor when one is not a minor is to in fact possess agency under the law but lie in order to give that agency up, at least superficially. As an old teen, you must establish relationships with proxies, guardians, schools, and other caretakers in order to survive, to have the basic necessities of life. Your relationships with other adults are further circumscribed by the role you are playing. In return, you get to start over, to be too young to know better, to be continually vulnerable and perhaps confused and just beginning – for as long as you can keep the con up. In at least two of the cases mentioned above, even obvious physical signs of maturity like baldness or dry, aging skin were not enough to unmask the old teen. Many marks seem to have been blinded to such obvious contradictory physical evidence by pity, a fact that makes more sense the longer one ponders it.

Old teens are playing both sides of the political gambit. They inhabit the position of deceiver and victim simultaneously, through the form of their chosen con. If earnest and naive, they are ironically, falsely so. If they seem emotionally open, they are engaged in a complex fiction. If they seek affection, it is on duplicitous terms. Yet, old teens, either by reputation or admission, are seldom grifting for money or power. What they want, they say, is authentic, unconditional love. The search for love is a strange knot, for in this quest the old teen is bound to fail. Old teens ask their marks to love someone who does not exist, to raise someone who is already grown. Thus, it’s not just the cunning of the old teen that must puzzle us but also this: Why engage in so elaborate a plot that must, inevitably, fail? Why take such risks for such seemingly minor (please excuse the pun) material rewards?

As I was researching the ‘old teen’ – reading, for example, about Treva Throneberry’s high school romance, or Charity Johnson’s search for surrogate mothers on social media – I had a strange experience: I started to believe I was one. Maybe this was just an instance of the same weird mimetic logic that attends WebMD self-diagnoses, but it might be something more. In particular, Frédéric Bourdin’s bizarre masquerade as a missing American teen he did not even resemble struck me weirdly familiar. (Had I not somehow lived this sort of life, too? I found myself asking.) To escape difficulties created by his confidence ploys as an old teen, Bourdin fled France by pretending to be Nicholas Barclay, a thirteen-year-old Texan who had disappeared three years earlier. Bourdin was ‘repatriated’ to the U.S. and entered the Barclay family drama as a more or less prodigal son. The reason this deception worked for a time, was that some members of the family in fact knew what had happened to Nicholas (he had not disappeared but had rather died).[3] There were at least two cons running at once, and these were even mutually reinforcing. Thinking this through, I began to see the charade of the old teen as more and more recognisable. It wasn’t just that I remembered being a teen and what that felt like, but that I began to see the old teen as a figure for our times, in which the meaning of biological age is so strangely fungible. Now, there is such a thing as a teen only if anyone can be one. There are no more teens, and yet teens are everywhere.


Date: August 1, 2017

Publisher: Vestoj

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.
This essay appears in print in Issue 8 of Vestoj, "On Authenticity."


Cover image.


Ed Templeton, ‘Teenage Smokers,’ 1999.

    1. J M Twenge, ‘Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?’ The Atlantic, September 2017.
    1. K J M. Baker, ‘Forever Young,’ Buzzfeed, September 18, 2014; Y Desta, ‘Whatever Happened to JT Leroy?’ Vanity Fair, August 22, 2016; J Gerstein, ‘8 Cases of Adults Impersonating Teenagers, The Frisky, June 12, 2012; D Grann, ‘The Chameleon,’ The New Yorker, August 11, 2008; E White, ‘Forever Young,’ The New York Times, March 10, 2002.
    1. D Grann, ‘The Chameleon,’ The New Yorker, August 11, 2008.
On Relativism & Theory


WHEN IT COMES TO THEORY, my own reading habits might encompass something as specific as “literary theory,” or “critical theory,” or, perhaps, to make things awkward through excessive specificity, “French theory,” but usually I just say (and think) I like to read theory. “I’m reading theory.” I also think: I am reading this for pleasure and in order to attempt to understand the world. I’m reading this to have better ideas, to be more alert, to—and this part is key—comprehend the invisible machinations of the system—a paranoid thought, but one which I’m not too proud to admit I’ve, more than once, had.

I learned about theory in college, where I also met someone whose parents had explained Lacanian psychoanalysis to him when he was thirteen, a fact that impressed me no end. For me, however, there was a clear demarcation, a dividing line. There was the time before theory, and there was the time after it. In high school, I had read Hannah Arendt; now I read all the names: the two D’s, the two L’s, gentle B, obtuse K, worrisome A, their predecessors H and N, and, above all, F—F with his masterful sentences. Indeed, these names were like swear words, like drugs, like magnetized tokens in a game played by mildly sadistic immortals. This had nothing to do with literature (which I studied). This was where all of the secrets concerning human culture lay. Once I began to read I couldn’t stop, for the simple reason that I had to find out—by which I mean, what had happened.

Part of me also assumed, because I was nineteen and a college sophomore, that this was a sophomoric phase. I would soon get over theory, and so would everyone else. In this I was, as everyone knows, wrong. Anyway, I’m talking about the early aughts here, by which time (and by all rights) theory should have been, and even was, definitively over. Except that it wasn’t. I could barely wrap my mind around the notion that I hadn’t even been alive during theory’s American heyday, the 1970s, so relevant and necessary did theory seem to me.

Theory was becoming then what it is now. Or, it already was what it now is: something that people write and read, and also a kind of ectoplasm or mood, revelatory and/or offensive and/or self-indulgent. Some have gone so far as to characterize Bill Clinton’s 1998 musings on the significance of the copula (“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”) as directly derived from the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. There is the longstanding charge of pernicious cultural and moral relativism, probably more correctly understood as narrative relativism—in other words, the practice of treating any form of discourse, knowledge, or information as a kind of constructed narrative. We’re familiar enough with this line of complaint that I won’t rehearse it here.

What I do think is worth adding to the list of theory’s cultural effects is a general deskilling related to the task of criticism, literary criticism in particular. In the extended afterlife of theory, in and around the American academy, it has become common to favor accessibility in critical thought, along with conceptual keywords, whose valence is either usefully transdisciplinary or a little vague, depending on whom you ask and, sometimes, when. In the United States, theory has become a utopian experiment and experience: it exists alongside increasingly historicist literary studies as a site of mixture and reprieve; it promises, for example, to help literary scholars moonlight as media theorists and art historians, while reminding them to consider the horrors of colonialism and the errors of the Enlightenment. Meanwhile, it makes the rounds online, on social media, in popular music, in art world press releases, and in the New York Times, decontextualized and meme-like, sometimes the stuff of conspiracy and outrage and at others the balm of empathy.

Through theory we seem to tarry briefly with the notion of history; at least, this is my opinion. I happen to think that part of the reason for theory’s dramatic success in America is its ability to confirm the existence of history, particularly as a construction that is also, and significantly, real. Theory is not, as some have suggested, post-historical; it expressly addresses the existence of past times and events, though it is not always concerned with historiographic gestures, such as naming and narrating. A more interesting kind of question to ask about theory might be, “How is theory historiographic, i.e., a form for writing history?” Related is another common “how” question: How is theory political?

Given that remarks regarding the post-political nature of the contemporary era—as a time so epistemologically balkanized that debate and compromise are impossible (a style of description itself derived from dear F)—are increasingly widespread, one might well be curious about what aspects of theory tend to accord with a movement away from the possibility of politics, and which tend to resist the shrinking of the public sphere. I can’t, for reasons of time as well as ability, describe all of these tensions, important though they are. Instead, I’ve decided to focus on a certain potted history, which even in its limited scope has something to offer. I think it’s worth thinking about the relationship between institutions and criticism. Or, to refashion my earlier phrase about politics, the possibility of a generative relationship between academic institutions and public conversation.

The Micro Durée

Anyway, everyone knows where theory comes from. It comes from France. It traveled to the United States at some point in the mid 1960s, metamorphosing into something called postmodernism, which might or might not have already begun coming into being directly after the war, even before theory got here.

I joke, but my serious explanation is not much better. The intellectual historian François Cusset has written a fantastic book about this, and most of my knowledge comes from him, along with gleanings derived from the classwork I did as a part of my doctorate. There’s something about the high school-college divide that allegorizes this process of importation, too. So, Camus and Sartre are the starter texts; the world-weary teen absorbs existentialist disillusionment before moving on to purer anti-humanist heights with an excerpt from The Order of Things in a freshman survey of the history of the West.

Or, as it went with the French intellectuals, 1940–45 saw the arrival of surrealists, existentialists, and the work of Annales School historians on American shores. This varied avant-garde, with its taste for rich general interest writing and weird art, may have given some signal of what was to come. Then, in fall of 1966, at a Ford Foundation-funded conference at Johns Hopkins titled “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Paul de Man met in person for the first time; Roland Barthes delivered a superb talk, “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?”; and Derrida described “a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin.” Some American Marxists found the affair decadent and apolitical, while local literary critics, who largely ignored the English translation of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist apotheosis, La pensée sauvage, which had appeared that very year, fast-forwarded into poststructuralism without so much as a backward glance at Ferdinand de Saussure.

If the enthusiastic Americans, with their grants and soft power, had read Lévi-Strauss’s book, originally published in 1962, they would have seen his then-unusual claim within the context of the humanities that “the final goal of the human sciences is not to constitute man, but to dissolve him.” This might have given a different political valence to the language of criticism disseminated at Johns Hopkins, for the thoroughgoing dependence on the linguistic theory of Saussure—a nineteenth-century Swiss linguist who maintained that regularities exist in language only by reference to internal, structural differences in the language itself—might have been more readily apparent. Saussure sought not laws but relations of differences; his descriptions were influential not only for Lévi-Strauss but for Lacan’s revolutionary description of the unconscious, as well as Derrida’s discussion of the instability of meaning. I don’t mean to imply that there was some naïve adoption of infernal, anti-humanist values here, just a year after Ken Kesey’s first Acid Test, but rather that America was home to many formalist critics, who rapidly became structuralists and poststructuralists, particularly once the 1970s rolled around and the early days of neoliberalism in the university got under way.

Indeed, the difference between formalism and structuralism is worth pausing on for a moment, because the former had become the pride of modernist literary studies in the United States and was only somewhat awkwardly supplanted by the latter (a graft that haunts English departments to this day). New Criticism privileged knowledge of language and its function, but not to dismantle the assumptions held by elites. Rather, after the G.I. Bill of Rights, the New Critics had explicitly designed their poetics to be both accessible and constructive. They offered a literary history and a system of values stripped of classical allusion and baroque allegory in the service of transmission to all. New Criticism had little to say about history, but not because its adherents suspected the constructed-ness of fact and philology. John Crowe Ransom, et al. seemed to have doubted historical memory and political thought as inherently divisive and held high hopes for the redemptive power literature’s special formal affordances might bring to their nation. However, the innovative political speech found on 1960s campuses revealed the New Criticism’s excessively mannered indifference to the politics of reading and writing, which began to seem a toolkit of idealist devices for the repression of history.

In the liberal academy, theory could do something more: it could critique disciplinary boundaries and propose new terms for dialogue. Having borrowed from the spirit of the Annales School, a movement that had coalesced around the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale and which considered long-term social histories as well as nonacademic information, theory reflected on everyday life and questioned hierarchies of knowledge. The articles published by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, though serious works of historical analysis, were at the same time pithy, relatively free of footnotes, and legible to non-specialists. It was in this singular journal, for example, that Lucie Varga published her 1937 ethnography of National Socialism, a prescient document that was also unusual for its combination of rigorous method and elucidation of contemporary politics. Systematic philosophical reflection on the role of history and the humanities in general, as distinct from the sciences, had been underway since the polymathic Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) strove to describe the division of the faculties of the German university, and it was to these questions that a thinker like Michel Foucault, partly influenced by his teacher Georges Canguilhem, turned his attention.

If the Annales had demonstrated the political worth of a literary approach to history that validated all possible sources, Foucault expanded this initiative, treating not just the historical text but also the scientific text as a text like any other, in a supreme act of narrative relativism that sought to show how scientific knowledge might be contingent upon conceptual elaboration. This sort of critical cross-research is of course also relevant to Roland Barthes’s intermedial readings—which propose a transdisciplinary rhetoric permitting images and other apparently non-linguistic items and processes to be systematically interpreted as text—along with the work of many other poststructuralist thinkers, who rejected philological approaches along with other forms of disciplinary silo-ing in favor of methodologies claiming forms of critical authority applicable beyond the halls of academe. These methodological choices are related to an ongoing turn from from rhetoric and philology in contemporary literary studies—what might be termed either a long process of deskilling or a search for new units of analysis and keywords, or, more complexly, both at once.

Thus, for all we have heard of theory’s much-alleged impenetrability, it seems always to have been involved with the category of the everyday, if not with popular culture itself. Thus it could permit American adopters to gesture toward the context of the society of which they were members without speaking about history or politics in so many words, and this quality of its critical voice proved extremely powerful. It was made for the American campus of the 1970s, which, while still galvanized by the insurgent rhetoric of the 1960s, was at the same time rapidly becoming a space of bureaucratic commerce, as graduate studies grew at a faster rate than the rest of the university and the humanities began to falter and lose funding. Literature departments, activated in progressive quarters by an ongoing golden age of experimental writing (Beats et al.) and elsewhere hoping to make good on the New Critical promise of a pure and universalist literary value, seized the moment—and the moment was Deconstruction.

In 1976 Gayatri Spivak’s translation of Of Grammatology appeared; it gradually defined the moment and, according to Cusset, went on to sell some eighty thousand copies. In the text, Derrida proposes studying the ideological underpinnings of Western society through what he identifies as philosophers’ systematic denigration of knowledge’s articulation as embodied writing—rather than simply as idealized speech. This was a challenging science to grasp but, once you got it, broadly useful and a lot of fun. This critical approach permitted a playful relationship to power; it represented an entry into an adventure, a detective story. Though it spawned a million imitators, adherents, and cottage industries, and was perhaps destined to seem ridiculous due to its ornate performativity, theory went everywhere. In a post–Civil Rights Movement era, it seemed to offer the possibility of education without indoctrination, displacing political struggles onto the terrain of discourse and increasing the prestige and relevance of the literary text. It laughed silently in the face of the American “simple man” and patriot; it circulated freely in the social bubbles of prestigious campuses, in seminars, and even got into the sciences and the art world.

As time went on, it was lampooned by detractors like Alan Sokal, who in 1996 successfully published a dummy article in Social Text lampooning what he saw as deconstructive jargon, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” (A professor of mathematics and physics, Sokal boasted serious hard-science cred that made the stunt hard to ignore.) The New York Times reported on “Postmodern Gravity Deconstructed, Slyly,” somewhat glibly terming Social Text a “journal that helped invent the trendy, sometimes baffling field of cultural studies.” NPR did an interview. There were numerous rancorous transatlantic exchanges.

But theory went on. And on. And on and on.

They Go Low, You Go High Twaddle

And now, approaching the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are here. We still have theory. We also have the Internet, as well as various entities on the right who, perhaps taking inspiration from Benito Mussolini as much as Michel Foucault, have explored narrative relativism as well. (“From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fiction, the modern relativism infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable,” maintained Il Duce.) Though I don’t want to bore anyone with elaborate parsings of supposed instrumentalization of the writings of Foucault by members of Steve Bannon’s staff, or libertarian tech mogul Peter Thiel’s affection for René Girard’s theory of mimesis, one has to admit that there is an interesting relationship between postmodern apocalypticism and managerial rationality.

While I don’t necessarily believe that the relativism that pervades contemporary discourse, from Poe’s Law down (or up, depending on where you stand), has a causal relationship with the series of figures and writings that constitute theory, as such, there is cause to examine the correlation here. Certainly, given the things that get into movies, you’ve probably at least once or twice imagined a technocratic dictator reverse-engineering Discipline and Punish, but have you imagined an online retailer reverse-engineering Foucault’s late theory of biopolitics? If not, you may not have to! By way of which cryptic joke I want to mention that the French have long been aware of the possibility of a good reader of theory making reactionary administrative moves. See the case of Foucault’s mentee and literary executor, François Ewald, whose entrepreneurial interpretations of his master’s teachings led him to write a dissertation on social risk and the welfare state, which was followed by a successful career in the insurance industry and then various interventions into politics with the ends of reforming the French system by getting rid of cradle-to-grave entitlements. I doubt that, though Ewald credits Foucault with having introduced him to the notion that we are living in a “postrevolutionary” age, Ewald’s politics are entirely entailed by those of his teacher.

Indeed, this is my point. Theory has begun, more and more, to look like an allegedly value-agnostic way of thinking through the circulation of power and the formation of value—which is to say that it looks vaguely formal and vaguely cybernetic and like a lot of other contemporary communication styles in their relationship to contemporary bureaucracy. Certainly, the art gallery press release, one of the prime sites at which the keywords of theory are offered up to contemporary readers anew, epitomizes this trend: a given artist explores and reveals our preconceptions, suggesting that what we thought was the case, a veritable truth, is in fact a context-dependent construction designed to shelter us from an inconvenient view into history and the horrors and disparities of contemporary social life. I mean, I don’t believe that this sort of description is inaccurate. It’s fair to make such claims. This is indeed what a lot of contemporary art does, and I myself have from time to time described it in exactly these sorts of terms and without irony.

But popular culture’s lack of resistance to the circulation of theory tends to publicly obscure something that is happening to the humanities in general, and to literary studies, in particular. These entities are, I’m afraid, failing again. If there is a forty-year cycle on which American academic literary criticism tends to renew itself, we were due for a new installment in the first decade of the twenty-first century, when Sianne Ngai’s glorious work of Marxian affect-theory, Ugly Feelings, a description of neoliberalism’s cruel shaping of contemporary emotion and social experience, might have changed the debate had just a few more members of the old guard gotten onboard. Or, perhaps we would have been successfully carried away by Franco Moretti’s quantification of the novel (alas, everyone has remained quite unconvinced!). Thus, we are left in a situation in which questions like “What is literature for?” and “How do we read literature?” are being most aggressively answered by recent works of autofiction and the lyric essay—not a bad thing in itself, but, then, people are still getting undergraduate educations, and this, I fear, is where the problem lies.

Until recently, I had a contingent position at a private college where a number of my undergraduate students had either been homeless or faced homelessness, and almost all were going into staggering amounts of debt. Many were involved in gig work; some were sex workers. While no one found this particularly sensational, it being New York City, I was confronted by my inability to do anything other than reassure these teenagers (for this is what they were) that they would persevere in spite of the enormous setbacks they were accruing by choosing to get college educations in literary studies at a private institution in the nation’s most expensive city.

I was participating in this doubtful project as recently as November of 2017, at which time the novelist and retired professor of writing, Marilynne Robinson, published two strange articles in The New York Review of Books: “What Are We Doing Here?” and “Year One: Rhetoric and Responsibility.” (The former furnishes the title for her recent essay collection). I’m still not entirely sure what she was getting at in these two wide-ranging essays on writing and American pedagogy, but I was particularly struck by what she had to say about why individuals should get educations in the humanities and why, pursuantly, people should continue to provide said education. Robinson writes, “If I seem to have conceded an important point in saying that the humanities do not prepare ideal helots, economically speaking, I do not at all mean to imply that they are less than ideal for preparing capable citizens, imaginative . . . and largely unmonetizable.” I think, without indulging in a deeper exploration of the metaphorical “helots” (i.e. an enslaved caste in ancient Sparta), the general sentiment here is that an education in the humanities makes one independent and that is good for the nation. So, for Robinson, the humanities are good, but something she refers to as “higher twaddle” or “post-deconstructionism” (another name for the contemporary era, I think) is bad. High-twaddling post-deconstructionism is particularly bad, as Robinson contends, because “we have grave public issues to debate.” I think I almost stood up and cheered with sardonic glee when I first read this.

Robinson is, of course, far from the first to use these late mid-century trends in continental theory to explain why American undergraduates aren’t getting the inexpensive pragmatic educations in the humanities they deserve. Indeed, she’s pretty late to this party. But it is telling to see this notion arise again here, around the question of what is due to an undergraduate who wants to study art rather than, as Sokal wisely framed it, what is due in a peer-reviewed journal. It suggests someone deeply out of touch with the state of contemporary discourse in general and upsettingly in the humanities particularly, in that she has no idea where theory currently makes its living—which is hardly in undergraduate curricula.

To test that theory out, I decided to ask my students at the private college (some seniors) if they knew who Jacques Derrida was.

They, to a person, did not.

The thoughts that have accrued here, about the joys and strangeness of theory, are, therefore, dedicated to them. For they are, as students have always been, the ones who will determine whether academic institutions can contribute anything to the public conversation. This has nothing to do with whether students are “well educated,” meeting standards, or acing tests (or whether they know anything about Derrida, for that matter). Rather, it is about whether they have the tools and material support they need to see connections between their studies and the world, a cliché but not less true for that. Theory clearly continues to play a role in various political and intellectual networks outside the university; perhaps it’s useful for undergrads, too. While I remain a bit agnostic on the “Theory, Ruining Everything or Not?” issue, there are two points on which I am clear: 1., it is a mistake to think that you can replace theory’s strong descriptions of colonialism and late capitalism with vague allusions to said descriptions; and 2., the cost of a B.A. is more distracting and enervating to the citizenry than any form of relativism, narrative or otherwise.


Date: May 1, 2018

Publisher: The Baffler

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.
This essay appears in the print edition of The Baffler, May 2018, issue 39, "The Organization of Hatreds."


Cover image.


© Brandon Celi.


© Brandon Celi.

On the Marquis de Sade

The Marquis de Sade and the office novel.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the term bureaucracy entered the world by way of French literature. The neologism was originally forged as a nonsense term to describe what its creator, political economist Vincent de Gournay, considered the ridiculous possibility of “rule by office,” or, more literally, “rule by a desk.” Gournay’s model followed the form of more serious governmental terms indicating “rule by the best” (aristocracy) and “rule by the people” (democracy). Yet bureaucracy quickly developed a nonsatirical life of its own once the French Revolution got under way. The Terror was, of course, infamously bureaucratic, with dossiers the way to denunciation, condemnation, and execution.

On July 2, 1789, as legend has it, a voice rang out from the interior of the Bastille into the street below: “They are killing prisoners in here!” Two weeks later, citizens stormed the Bastille, inaugurating the long and complex series of events that would constitute the French Revolution. The alleged yeller, one Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade, had been removed to the insane asylum at Charenton ten days before the siege, thus having miraculously galvanized his potential liberators or murderers and evaded them. It is a singular piece of luck that Sade was not present for the storming, for it is likely that, descending upon the marquis’ luxuriously appointed cell, the sansculottes would have had some difficulty differentiating Sade from his oppressors, much less from their own.

As this series of apocryphal events intimates, the Marquis de Sade occupies an unusual place in French letters. He is at once the paradigmatic aesthete to end all aesthetes, a supreme materialist and spendthrift, an aristocrat determined to organize his life around complexly choreographed orgies (and the eccentrically appointed locations necessary for these performances), and an iconoclast, if not a revolutionary. Though the paper trail that emerges from his early life includes at least three accusations of flaying, stabbing, poisoning, and other unusual forms of physical and emotional abuse—leveled by prostitutes and other women poorly protected by the law—Sade has been held up as a beacon of sexual liberation during an era benighted by Christian repression and hypocrisy. Susan Sontag and Julia Kristeva have praised the freedom of his writing and thought. As the myth of his cry to action from within the Bastille indicates, Sade’s readers are willing, in spite of his title, to receive him as an anarchist hell-bent on upending the feudal order of his day.

But for all Sade’s aristocratic indulgence of peculiar whims and profligate spending on whips and whores, he is also one of the first major authors of what we might term modern bureaucratic literature. His writings are extraordinarily, pruriently concerned with acts that can be accomplished only by people working in groups who follow, in an orderly fashion, arbitrary rules and regulations. These secular constraints not only defy common sense but fly in the face of what we usually think of as basic respect for the sensations and lives of others. Thus another neologism: sadism. The writings of the Marquis de Sade describe dispassionate intimacy in the plural. In this sense, they foreshadow the social world of the contemporary office.

Like the word bureaucracy, sadism is a neologism that has taken on a life of its own. Today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, sadism is an “enthusiasm for inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.” Yet Sade’s notion of dispassionate intimacy is quite particular. His sadism is less concerned with pleasure in the pain of others than with a lack of feeling regarding the pain of others. Though many of Sade’s writings describe characters who engage in cruel and murderous acts of sexual congress, few if any seem to enjoy the pain of others, no matter how necessary the mutilation of flesh to the act in question. Sade’s embodied economic processes, his sometimes rather less than mutually consenting coworkers, labor to produce orgasm—which is really just a route to apathy. After orgasm, Sade’s libertines are briefly freed from the confusing sensation of need. The libertine looks dispassionately down upon the flayed corpse in which he has just succeeded in ejaculating and experiences clarity. The corpse cannot, reasonably, be the object of affections or emotion; it holds no spell of either generosity or dependency over the Sadean character who has just made use of it. A corpse, even if nominally endowed with life, can inspire nothing other than apathy in the libertine. And apathy is the aesthetic mode that, for Sade, correlates with the best forms of agency, since it demonstrates the libertine’s freedom from Christian sympathy and its attendant hypocrisies. An absolutely liberated, absolutely impersonal pleasure testifies to the libertine’s refusal of insincere social bonds. “Virtue suffers the punishment of crime,” wrote Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet in 1771, “even as crime enjoys with impunity the pleasures that should be the rewards of virtue.” Sadean sex is, to inject a contemporary term, the fuck of the spreadsheet, in which all markers of identity and sentimentality are like the footlong dildo the eponymous libertine heroine of The History of Juliette uses to impale a nine-year-old girl: detachable, iterable, and sortable by size. Anyone can be a libertine, provided she or he is willing to be systematic.

The most famous of Sade’s narratives, 120 Days of Sodom, is also the most explicit about the Sadean protagonist or sadist. Here again liberation through apathy, rather than through cruelty or enjoyment, is key. The four friends who convene at Château de Silling for a four-month debauch are not so much interested in harming others as they are in orchestrating an experience that will be beyond anything they have previously enacted. This experience will, therefore, culminate in their absolute liberation from moral order. Drafted during Sade’s incarceration at the Bastille in microscript on a forty-foot roll of paper pieced together from smuggled scraps, 120 Days was a physical labor of desperation, passion, and personal and political rage, the composition of which was apparently accompanied by elaborate masturbation rituals. Sade never completed the manuscript, so we do not know what will happen to the libertines on day 120—but it seems to be a matter of little difference if they were to walk away from their fortress of horrors with plans to reconvene the following year or if the secluded castle were spontaneously engulfed in flames, taking all occupants to their deaths. (Manuscript notes suggest that sixteen people will survive the events at Silling and return to Paris, but who knows what, in a final draft, might have occurred.) Our own ambivalence regarding the book’s actual ending, which Sade sketches out in his notes as a series of coordinated imprisonments and executions, is not accidental. It results from Sade’s skillful cultivation of simultaneous prurient interest and utter apathy in the reader of 120 Days of Sodom. We are fascinated by the four libertine friends’ stats, by their personal deterioration or fortitude, by their ability to orgasm repeatedly or not at all, by the revolting details of body hair and the shapes of their buttocks. But beyond their appetites, appearances, and aristocratic titles, we know little of the friends save what they do in the fortress. And because what they do in the fortress is determined by a set of laws drawn up at the outset of their macabre vacation, plus narratives supplied by ancient procuresses invited expressly to narrate acts of debauchery, our psychological understanding of the four friends remains limited. We know that they are very rich, highly sexed, extraordinarily well organized, and thoroughly apathetic. Of the victims we know significantly less: they are young, beautiful, soft-skinned.

Within this desert of spiritual detail, one piece of familial backstory is supplied. At the opening of 120 Days, we learn that each of the friends has raped his own daughter and that each has married the unfortunate daughter of another one of the four friends. This arrangement guarantees that Christian marriage has been reimagined as an enterprise of debauchery. Yet this brief peek at a previous arrangement among the four provides a key to the meaning of other relentlessly formal coital permutations set up later on: 120 Days of Sodom is not a novel about the apathy of institutions and how they dehumanize and anonymize their members. It is not about marriage, unless we understand the four friends’ relationship as a kind of marriage. It is, rather, a novel about the apathy of coworking, a description of how individuals collaboratively create codes for behavior and imagine actionable scenarios in an enclosed space—i.e., office, another relative neologism derived from the Latin word for “obligation”—all the while guaranteeing that their actions will be impersonal. This is the sense in which 120 Days of Sodom can be considered an “office novel.” It is also, bizarrely, a comedy; it is the story of a highly successful office and how it works.

If, as in Tolstoy’s formulation, all successful offices are the same, what are the universal qualities of Sodom, LLC? What does this happy office have that other offices also share?

Hierarchy. The four friends form an executive committee, which is overseen by the four procuresses, four duennas, and four storytellers, who operate like a toothless board of directors. Beneath the four friends and their advisers are eight individuals titled “fuckers” whose professional function is not mysterious. Forming the ranks of junior staff are the four friends’ four unlucky daughter-wives and a group of sixteen children who are essentially sacrificial victims, aka interns—or, in a more perverse reading, the very 8½-x-11 multiuse acid-free paper on which the workplace discourse is pitilessly inscribed. There is no mobility within this hierarchy. A kitchen staff of three is exempt from the orgies so that it may concentrate on preparing food. There is also a scullery staff of three, all apparently murdered at the novel’s close according to Sade’s final notes.

Accounting. Sade’s own hand appears throughout the manuscript to count characters, particularly if any have been killed off, and to tally activities. At the close of the manuscript, he instructs himself to keep an account of the particular passions of his four central protagonists, “as, for example, the hell libertine,” though what he means by this is not entirely clear; it appears that he was separated from the manuscript before he was able to make good on this plan. This dispassionate accounting seems to require that the author catalogue the preferences of the four libertines so that each friend is scientifically differentiated. Elsewhere in his notes, Sade complains of his own tendency toward confusion and repetition, an imperfection he planned to correct with a more stringent accounting.

Purpose-built office space. The Château de Silling has numerous chambers with diverse designated functions. For example, everyone is required to defecate in the castle’s chapel. There are bedrooms for sleeping, a dungeon for torturing and murdering, a stage for communicating tales of debauchery. There are no exits; these have been walled off at the novel’s start, accessibility being a liability rather than an asset as far as the libertines’ place of business is concerned.

Production schedule. Each day at the Château de Silling unspools in a regular way. All present arise at ten AM, and debauchery and dining occur at fixed intervals until two AM. There are designated months for certain activities, as well as designated apparel. All present are made aware of their hourly tasks, but only the libertines know of the torture and slaughter with which the four-month fiscal year will end.

Catering. Delicious meals are provided in a timely fashion by dedicated cooks.

Bonuses. There is an unusual amount of eating of shit. In some psychoanalytic readings of the practice of coprophilia, excrement represents money. Certainly scat functions as a rarity in everyday sexual economies. At Château de Silling it is plentiful.

Dispassionate intimacy. All sex acts are preordained and coordinated by statutory schedule. The victims of the libertines cannot choose whether or not to have sex, but even the libertines are not free to choose when, whom, or how they fuck. The only emotional reaction manifested by the libertines is that of impatience, inspired by delays in sexual activity worked into the schedule set at the beginning of the novel. These delays have a speculative function. They increase the libertines’ passion through denial, which increases the yield on passion’s principal, as it were. Such delays are not directed at any particular libertine. They are impersonal, general, and purely pragmatic.

Office work sets into tension, in close quarters, the ambitions of the individual and the destiny of the group. Office workers rub elbows with one another and gather at the water (or kombucha) cooler, rolling chairs collide and become entangled, sweaty softball tournaments are organized. It is possible that the success of the individual can become the success of the group, but it is more likely that in order for an office to succeed, individuality must be undermined, in that it must always directly serve the plural. Here is a rationale for the current vogue for open-plan work spaces, in which one has little privacy unless urinating, defecating, or making coffee. The open-plan-office worker must progress from a state of hyperconsciousness of the effect of her fleshly presence on her coworkers to total numbness in order to get any work done. In such work spaces, the sensitive are likely to spend their days endeavoring to stop unconsciously fidgeting or touching their faces or hair. Open-plan offices also stymie the unusually creative and independent, reducing them into collaborators. Management likes this. Accountability and credit can circulate in offices and even temporarily land, but there should be no authors in offices, only positions. Meanwhile, offices are not just places. Offices are not merely locations, nor are they particularly egalitarian. There are “office politics.” The office has a will of its own, yet, paradoxically, it is not exactly collective.

Setting aside for a moment the annoying behavior to which we must become inured if we are to survive the office (inane chats, baffling email communications, multipage budgets), we must also learn to cherish less our personal specificity. This soft injunction to conform often has a funny way of meaning that we must also become inured to our colleagues’ specific personalities. We do not fully choose or even desire our coworkers, no matter how intentional or progressive the workplace. At the office, we need one another to fulfill certain tasks by means of certain skills. We have less need, inevitably, of our coworkers’ personal histories, the deep reasons why they are the way they are or need whatever is needed. Nor do we have much use for our coworkers’ bodies, in all their ample particularity. We must, with our coworkers, develop forms of dependency and attachment that are risible and fungible, but not too risible and not too fungible. The legend emblazoned above most office doors should be “Try Not to Harm One Another When Convenient but, Above All, Don’t Love One Another.” Far worse than insulting one’s office mate or stepping on a colleague’s toe would be to recognize her or him as one’s soul mate. In such a scenario, all work would cease. We, like Sade’s libertines, require a modicum of impersonality, if not an actual series of statutes or rotating cast of narrating hags, in order to interact effectively with our coworkers. We tersely sign our emails “Best,” but what does this really mean? How can we wish for the best on behalf of someone we—purposefully—barely know? And yet there is no more appropriate or versatile send-off. The polite, efficient apathy implied by “Best” is one of the greatest office supplies known to the contemporary world; it should be bottled and sold in bulk at Staples—which, perhaps, in some sense it already is.

Did Sade know he was writing about office life? Did he intuit that the neoclassic return of republican forms of government to the West would also bring new administrative cultures, new ways of dispersing agency within groups, new levels of mediation and organization of bodies by form and file not even imagined by the church? For Sade, the project of “being with” is a notion not as fraught as it is aggressively simplified. His erotic project, like Kant’s ethical project, is a reasonable means of removing hypocrisy and contingency from social interactions—or, perhaps, of removing hypocrisy by way of removing contingency. (Jacques Lacan, for one, was so taken by the marquis’ infallible logic that he placed Sade’s texts in dialogue with Kant’s writings on reason and ethics to contextualize modernity’s path to Freud.) Sade seems to dream of a sexual relationship in which choice, chance, personal dependency, and the existence of a consenting other have been removed. As things stand, there is too much contingency and complexity in sex for Sade’s taste. Indeed, according to Sade, sex can never be too orderly or too public. It is this valence of his thought that seems overwhelmingly applicable to the contemporary office, if not to contemporary social life overall. We suffer still from an excess of contingency when it comes to others. Too much is possible, particularly in light of the “death” of the Catholic god against whom Sade railed. In major metropolitan areas—hives of office life—everything is permitted, and too many bodies are way too near to hand.

The German systems theorist Niklas Luhmann wrote a lecture on love in the summer of 1969 in which he argues that love is an important form of mediation, a solution to the problem of excessive contingency in republican social life. According to Luhmann, love allows us to simplify our social lives in a way that is, counterintuitively, not reductionist, since love depends on our individuality in order to function. Luhmann argues for the exceptionality of love, maintaining that “other media of communication can take the place of love to only a very limited extent, just as love can not take the place of truth or power or money without limitations.” Compare Luhmann’s solution to Sade’s: the latter removes love altogether while the former describes love as a logical necessity. Perhaps this is why Sade’s descriptions of human interactions seem so much more applicable to office work than to personal life. While the personal continues to dominate contemporary culture, it is difficult for those of us who cherish our individuality, as well as our privacy, to take Sade entirely seriously. We should also be just a bit afraid of him.

It is crucial to mention that 120 Days of Sodom is, in spite of the copious violence and elaborate intercourse, one of the most boring novels of all time, particularly if read from beginning to end. One might, at some point in its pages, prefer to take up with an ATM receipt or an end-user license agreement. The novel expresses apathetic joys that are less reminiscent of the aesthetics of the snuff film—a genre that, pace ISIS, is almost always determined to have been faked—than the horrors of petty administrative perfections, callous email exchanges, and endless insurance forms. The faint pleasure of office culture is merely the anodyne pleasure of any coworker, scrolling through email before she heads out to the next meeting. It might seem like perversity to describe it as such, but take a closer look: herein lies your pleasure. For today, everyone is a libertine.


Date: September 1, 2016

Publisher: Lapham's Quarterly

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.

This article appears in the print edition of Lapham's Quarterly, fall 2016, "Flesh."


Cover image.



On Lisa Robertson

Lisa Robertson, The Baudelaire Fractal, Coach House Books, 2020

I suppose it did not matter to John Updike or Tom Wolfe—to select two figures somewhat at random—that the author died during their lifetimes. Essays proclaiming the fictional, constructed and highly mediated nature of the figure of the author appeared in the late 1960s (Roland Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author” in late 1967 and Michel Foucault’s lecture “What Is an Author?” in early 1969), heralding a new critical way of thinking about authorship that favoured texts, discourse, media, history, and the social and aesthetic workings of power over the notion of a god-like maker who was capable of foreseeing all possible meanings of His unique and irreplaceable literary masterpiece. Although I’m not sure many people would still refer to Updike and Wolfe as geniuses, the invocation of their names does provide a quick and ready example of what it might have meant to be an author at the dawning of postmodernity: the author’s name was a token in the marketplace, the author a concept (if not a lifestyle) that sold. Perhaps this is still the case today. Barthes and Foucault, since French and therefore forged in an education system that fetishized and, in my own limited experience, still fetishizes canonical works with a level of detail and myopia that few Americans past or present would be likely to relate to, were aiming at something other than Updike or Wolfe. They were less concerned with the bestsellers of their day than with a longstanding cultural practice: that of eliding the feeling and social conditions of the present to promote a fantasy about timeless omnipotence and capital-T truth. Barthes had a specific recommendation regarding what should be done. Classical literature, he writes, has never paid much attention to the reader; now, he says, let’s—let’s make way for the birth of the reader.

There’s a sense in which Barthes’s exhortation appears to have been taken up by culture and technology at large (here I refer to the existence of the World Wide Web, where end users, a.k.a. readers, abound). However, it is my intuition that we remain within a paradigm in which authors have by and large retained a certain cachet. Questions are posed in various media outfits about the author’s mysterious process, which is to say, about the author’s desk setup as well as how biography plays into the author’s creations. The contemporary author is generally relatable, but, like the actor or celebrity athlete, with a slightly inhuman twist: The author is a “true” artist, not a hobbyist or aspirant. The author has been confirmed as “the,” not “a,” writer. It’s an apparently minor difference of articles that still seems, these days, to make all the difference. Often entire books are devoted to the task of establishing—with what the writer appears to hope will be adamantine and immortal permanence—this difference.

Lisa Robertson’s new novel, The Baudelaire Fractal, could be taken to be such a book. It follows in the tradition of autofictions I have liked a lot (Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus), as well as some that I have not preferred, providing an account of a Canadian writer’s expatriate youth in Paris in the mid-1980s. It is not easy to summarize The Baudelaire Fractal, so please forgive my slightly awkward try: After a reading in Vancouver, a poet named Hazel Brown wakes up in a hotel room to discover that she has been transformed, perhaps overnight, into the author of the works of the French Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire. At this point, Brown might be in her forties. She remembers this event, this metamorphosis, from the vantage of her late fifties and then also recalls her much younger days, previous to the change (the aforementioned Parisian period). This complex anamnesis is interspersed with reflections on: the life of Charles Baudelaire; the life of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s lover; the painter Gustave Courbet, among other painters and artists of the Third Republic; and tailored jackets. At the novel’s conclusion, Hazel Brown thinks about Édouard Manet’s portrait of Duval, pondering from the vantage of 2019 its depiction of “the immense, silent legend of any girl’s life.” It becomes apparent that the preceding episodes concerning Brown’s life have been intended as a similar, if somewhat less silent, myth. And, if I am understanding matters correctly, it would appear that Brown’s legend is somehow certified or rendered more distinct by its brush with Baudelaire’s weird, disembodied authority.

A note on that floating authority: The transformation is introduced on page 16 of my edition, in the second chapter. The novel does not begin with this incident, and the metamorphosis remains largely unaddressed for the remainder of Robertson’s narrative, until page 135, when it makes a brief second appearance, only to slip from view once more. Brown, who speaks in the first person throughout the book, is specific: It is not that she became Baudelaire himself (“This is obviously very different from being Baudelaire, which was not the case, nor my experience”); rather, that she is now the author of his writing. Brown possesses the spiritual, if not the legal, copyright to all of Baudelaire’s graphic output, “Even the unwritten texts, the notes and sketches contemplated and set aside, and also all of the correspondence, the fizzles and false starts and abandoned verses, the diaristic notes: I wrote them.” Brown did not live Baudelaire’s life, does not look like him, is neither a time traveller nor a historical reenactor, and yet: all that he wrote, she has in fact written.

This is an interesting proposition, one that inspires a series of questions concerning, as Foucault put it, “What is an author?” Is receiving the credit and/or responsibility for Baudelaire’s writing like having a superpower, or is it a curse? Does it mean that Hazel Brown now possesses the magic diction, rapturous rhetorical talent, mastery of prosody and unfailing eye for detail that animate Baudelaire’s verse and prose? Does it mean that Hazel Brown is now due the same celebrity that has, historically speaking, been accorded Baudelaire? Does Brown experience Baudelaire’s hatreds, fears and resentments—the unease that rumbles beneath his sinuous turns of phrase and infernal mastery of form? In other words, we want to know if Baudelaire’s authorship is not merely or exactly a gift, but also an imposition, if it might not in some way interrupt Hazel Brown’s attempt to become the author of the works of Hazel Brown. It is inconvenient, to be sure, that Baudelaire (“not as socially expansive as his own construction of erotic beauty”) was frequently a jerk.

It would be nice if The Baudelaire Fractal addressed these questions. However, unlike other transformation tales—in which the protagonist receives a more visible othering, into, say, a cockroach (Kafka’s well-known story), a giant mammary gland (Philip Roth’s The Breast), a donkey (Apuleius’s The Golden Ass), a pig (Marie Darrieussecq’s Truismes), a woman (Virginia Woolf’s Orlando) or many, many other entities (Ovid)—we never find out how the transformation affects Brown. In part, this is due to Robertson’s choice to have most of Brown’s account take place before the authorial switch, when she is still an unknown poet working odd jobs in Paris and, presumably, still the author known as Hazel Brown, unenhanced by vintage spleen. In later life, Brown seems to spend most of her time taking meditative walks with her dog and savouring the agricultural offerings of the French countryside, distinctly un-Baudelairean activities, if Brown’s descriptions of the life and times of Baudelaire are accurate. Thus, Brown’s metamorphosis remains local to the moments where it occurs, on the page. In this sense, it is less a metamorphosis than a claim.

The other difficulty with The Baudelaire Fractal is that Brown’s/Robertson’s research into Baudelaire’s life and circle, research which is deployed as proof of Brown’s (and possibly Robertson’s own) authority, mainly serves to support the notion that Baudelaire was an exceptional individual who, although flawed, was possessed of remarkable taste and aesthetic insight—he, for example, “poured drops of musk oil from a small glass vial onto his red carpets when he entertained his friends in his baroque apartment.” If the novel seems to position itself to explore Baudelaire’s authorship as a historical, social or literary phenomenon, particularly as regards the politics of gender, race and even the legacies of France’s colonialism, it struggles to make good on that ambition, with questionable assertions about Baudelaire’s life with Duval such as, “They were together, loving and fighting and talking, for twenty-one years.” Every few pages a parade of additional luminaries appears, and near the close of the novel we are fielding anecdotes about Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I, along with news of an essay on rhythm by the linguist Émile Benveniste, among other miscellaneous items. These are interesting citations, drawn from the canon of comparative literature as imagined in the Anglophone world via the criticism of Erich Auerbach, among others. However, these glimpses into graduate curricula of the 1990s and early 2000s do little, in their current form, to illuminate Hazel Brown’s situation.

For me, the best scenes in The Baudelaire Fractal belong to the Brown of the ’80s, who takes up residence in a series of chambres de bonne after having obtained British citizenship via a technicality (her father’s birth and brief infant stay in the UK). Among these, the most dramatic illustration of Brown’s status as a “girl” is neither an incident when her young lover batters and chokes her, nor when he asks her if she would “care to be prostituted.” Rather, it is a job she acquires by way of an encounter with a random middle-aged bourgeois in a bookshop. Brown is assigned the task of collecting the man’s daughter at school, conveying her home and then ironing and dusting while the child eats her lunch. This intimacy with elaborate, moneyed domesticity gives rise to a series of realizations about gender and labour, as well as the styles of private property traditional marriage entails, with the upper-middle-class wife’s role “so vast, so specialized, thorough, complex, and ornate all at once, that no single woman could perform the entire task.” Brown is briefly “one small component” of this juggernaut of “erotic catastrophes…family histories and political damages.” I found myself rapt as Brown describes a moment when Brown’s employer shows her his key ring, hung with keys to his multiple mistresses’ homes. What Brown doesn’t spell out is that this gesture is at once a proposition and a threat; I imagine there are few among us who haven’t met such a Bluebeard, in one workplace or another. Brown, who notes that she is incapable of smiling and going pleasantly about her work, is inevitably let go. Useless as a servant, in no small part because she would be impossible to add to Bluebeard’s collection, Brown cleverly fails the grooming period. Yet fresher material like this struggles against the novel’s many lugubrious commonplaces: Paris itself, the “artist’s studio” and the notion of The Great Poet, not to mention the much-rehashed histories of Baudelaire’s circle, Courbet, Manet, et al.

A final difficulty, the most significant one, to my mind, is that while Robertson writes sublime prose, with The Baudelaire Fractal she has done little to engage the form or history of the novel—an unusual sort of oversight for her, given her poems and essays are so intimately involved with interrogation of genre and form. Decorative, exhortatory writing that works well in poems crops up here from time to time and seems out of place. There are a number of hyperbolic calls to the reader—“The sexuality of sentences: Reader, I weep in it”—that fall flat, along with asides that seem designed to extract the reader from a sometimes bewildering temporality. The Baudelaire Fractal could have been a fantastic essay or prose series. It does not really work as a novel or narrative, not because it lacks “arc,” whatever that is (and I despise this sort of stale critique of experimental writing), but because its fragments and spirals of thought have been relentlessly assimilated via pastiche—with everything held together, apparently, by the mysterious connection to Baudelaire. I was disappointed by this choice, what seemed to me a deliberate decision to de-emphasize the significant and even beautiful discontinuity present in this writing.

But even given my disappointment with The Baudelaire Fractal, I have struggled to write this review. I deeply admire Robertson and the conversation she and others have cultivated around her writing. Indeed, openly critical remarks about art and literature often feel like a losing battle, and I’m always reminded of Joan Didion’s curt response to one supercilious critic, “Oh, wow.” Over her 30-year career, Robertson has done much to shape contemporary Anglophone poetics. She has written a style of poetry and prose that is not precisely “anti-lyric,” that is, unquestioningly opposed to the conventions of first-person speech and the arabesques that emerge out of attempts to imitate or cite Romantic, neo-classical and classical contexts—which have tended for several centuries now to cannibalize themselves in cute dreams of authenticity (lyres, urns, shepherds with flutes, landscaped estates with fainting mistresses). Robertson’s project is instead a form of “research” into the lyric, its effects, conventions and underpinnings, “work that change[s] the rhetorical conditions of I-saying.” The authority—and authorship—that Robertson has seemed to imagine for herself in past books has been plural as opposed to monolithic; complex, engaged and seductive, rather than given to tropes and filler.

The late art critic Maurice Berger, who passed away in our current health crisis at the age of 63, was a fantastic reader of Roland Barthes, and I think some of Berger’s observations about Barthes’s own relationship to authorship are à propos here. Berger writes, in an essay on Barthes and love published in Artforum in 1994, “[Barthes] was the ultimate flaneur: the ‘I’ that he uttered seemed always to evaporate, to blend into the space around him.” Berger also notes that Barthes was not always the best student of Roland Barthes, that Barthes sometimes lost sight of his own critical goals, “indulging in the very bourgeois delusions he sought to demythologize.” Something similar seems to have transpired here, in that in composing The Baudelaire Fractal, Lisa Robertson has slid into a major blind spot, becoming the very sort of (pre-canonized) author she had seemed, in the past, to write in ingenious distinction, if not direct opposition, to. This leaves me, the reader, with a dilemma. On the one hand, I want to applaud Robertson’s assumption, via Hazel Brown, of a mantle that so many male writers have taken up with casual entitlement; on the other, I feel somewhat betrayed. Even Robertson seems uncertain as to the meaning of the Baudelairean switcheroo, perhaps the reason that her novel barely mentions the transformation the jacket copy claims is at the centre of the work. I find myself coming to a conclusion that seems strangely absent from The Baudelaire Fractal, for reasons that I am still unable to divine. My thought is this: if, as for Hazel Brown and by this narrator’s own account, “all [our] predecessors [are] erased,” then we must actively choose and create what we become—and struggle against mere philology, by which I mean, unconsidered inheritance and repetition.


Date: June 30, 2020

Publisher: Canadian Art

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


On site.

On Pamela Lee

An Art Historian Reads Silicon Valley

One of the things Pamela M. Lee accomplishes in her new publication, The Glen Park Library: A Fairy Tale of Disruption (no place press, 2019), is to write in so many different ways that I will have difficulty here analyzing the book as criticism, as descriptive writing on contemporary art and technology, as an interrogation of the internet’s relationship to the law, as historiography, as a sort of beautifully irascible autofiction. The book is an experiment, and that mixing of genres and disciplines—that un-analyze-ability—is a central strategy. It is also something that I, as a reviewer, need to indicate, in no small part because Lee is a distinguished art historian and critic who maintains a position at Yale. Some might say this is the sort of book you write only after you get tenure. I say: more people should write books like this!

Here is why I like this book: it allows me to explore (i.e., to feel, to be in slowed-down contact with) forms of subjectivity that Lee has selected as exemplary of current discourse in the United States, while also providing a convincing critical reading of said habits of speech and mind. Normally, this sort of thing, the curating of contemporary subjectivities and organizing of them after a pleasing narrative fashion, is the purview of realist novels. However, The Glen Park Library, as its subtitle suggests, is a fairy tale—it’s a historically and critically minded fairy tale, but a fairy tale nonetheless, which means that it deals in fixed concepts and forms, which act a bit like magical talismans, tasks, or quests. Lee takes care to situate today’s foremost spell, “disruption,” in its awful origin text, Clayton Christensen’s 1997 business how-to bestseller, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Disruption, we discover, has lately transcended from localized metaphor to all-governing trope. In the globalized, algorithmically sorted teens, disruption is not just a business model; it’s also a sort of hero-myth, an eerie hyper-ubiquitous period style. It’s what Vladimir Propp might have termed a “function” in his 1928 proto-Structuralist classic, Morphology of the Folktale. In other words, The Glen Park Library is a book that will tell you how you are already reading, whether you like it or not, since you are reading (and living) in a space and time of discursive and technological disruption. Indeed, perhaps these two types of disruption amount to the same thing, for one will have difficulty composing a historical text in a time that has all but rejected public records and public space in favor of mountains of privately hoarded behavioral data. Lee calls this, our time, “an age of disrupted history.”

Yet Lee’s ostensible subject is, significantly, a historical event, the 2013 arrest of Ross Ulbricht at a sleepy San Francisco Public Library. Lee describes Ulbricht, who used the pseudonym the “Dread Pirate Roberts,” as the “protagonist of a dark fairy tale come true.” Ulbricht is currently serving two consecutive life sentences for his alleged role in the creation and maintenance of Silk Road, a now-defunct website that Wikipedia terms, in a flourish I can’t help repeating, “the first modern darknet market.” The controlled substances and murders your bitcoins could obtain on this Tor-enabled message board may or may not have jibed with Ulbricht’s libertarian philosophy; what truly mattered to Ulbricht, as he informed his sentencing judge in a letter, was the disruptive and liberating form of it all, “giving people the freedom to make their own choices.” “As you wish!” was the famous tagline of Westley, a.k.a. the Dread Pirate Roberts, as fans of the classic 1987 film The Princess Bride will recall.

The terms of Ulbricht’s arrest and conviction are murky, in no small part because Ulbricht maintains that he was not the one and only Dread Pirate Roberts. It was just an interchangeable name and role; Ulbricht hadn’t acted alone and wasn’t “DPR” in perpetuity. Lee makes hay with this weird fungibility, which she sees as a vacuous form of privilege (read: authority) that pervades start-up culture and contemporary society at large. The disruptor has the life cycle of a video game avatar: “Fail, die, disrupt, innovate, get born again, and repeat.” A disruptor can probably pass through the eye of a needle—unless, of course, the disruptor’s chosen live-action role-playing begins to surpass (and therefore disrupt) the traditional role of the nation state.

Still, this is a fairy tale, and Lee is not ultimately concerned with global hegemony. What she wants to get at, much like those who dealt in fairy stories in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe, is the experiential side of the civilizing process. As Johanna Burton cogently points out in a reading of Lee’s 2013 book New Games: Postmodernism After Contemporary Art, one of Lee’s primary concerns as an art historian (and, I would argue, as a critic) is the consideration of “when certain events are able to occur and, further, when those events can be recorded, registered, or revised.” Thus, at various points in The Glen Park Library Lee clicks into strategies employed by artists Gretchen Bender, Cécile B. Evans, Josephine Pryde, Carissa Rodriguez, and Martine Syms, each of whom is seen to provide a kind of public access to forms of social life that are threatened by disruption: forms of personal affect, self-possession, and communion. Lee sees Rodriguez’s installation I’m normal. I have a garden. I’m a person (2015), with materials and photographic still lifes taken around Silicon Valley, as an ethnographic exploration the framing of daily life amid the “platformization” of everything. Can one be normal in the face of massive automated goods and labor exchanges like Airbnb and Uber? Bender, meanwhile, is the author of “librar[ies]” of earlier media hyper-saturation. Her “electronic theaters,” massive multichannel video installations of the 1980s and ’90s, offer a grammar for reading contemporary images in all their speed and variability. In these passages, the book becomes art criticism, but the description of the artworks is always in service of a larger system of resonances Lee is developing in relation to contemporary history and experience. Note that I do not write “argument”!

I should also say that one of the most interesting things about Lee as a writer, something that is present everywhere in her scholarship, is a particular persuasive tone. Even when the art object in question is immaterial or located in disparate places, it is as if the reader is turning it over directly in their hands, so carefully calibrated is Lee’s address to her putative reader. Lee is incredibly convincing and does not let up. But this is not just a matter of making a totalizing argument, one that accounts, in detailed fashion, for the interrelated activities of vast numbers of actors and markets, located across broad swaths of space and historical time. Nor is it solely a matter of understanding an artwork or artist in an exhaustive historical and material sense. Rather, Lee’s persuasiveness seems born of a far rarer tendency: a refusal to take her own position as reader/viewer/critic—and yes, expert—for granted. Many academics, steeped in poststructuralist strategies for the careful framing of institutional noblesse oblige and excessive idealism, could do well to take a page from Lee’s book. She does not merely frame her assertions as ultimately contingent but asks why this contingency matters now, how it could even be the animus behind her decision to take up a given critical concern at all.

One has the sense that Lee needs the fleetness of phrase that her new, small, green-foil-printed volume affords—and that she has also thought a bit about the format and the temporalities and audiences it entails. She’s not working with the lumbering timeframe of a university press, nor is she building a complex argument out of painstakingly researched discrete examples. What she’s doing instead is making various worlds bump up against one another. The resulting book feels internet-y and magpie-quick, yes, but it also delineates a set of correspondences between and among various artists, practices, contexts, and actors. And it makes the case for a fresh style of critical reading—one that includes writing in the (hilarious fictional) voice of someone named the “Dread Pirate Roberts,” as well as exchanging emails with a really awesome retired librarian. What I mean is, here the critic astonishes us with a simple act: She acknowledges that she, too, is a writer.


Date: August 5, 2019

Publisher: Art in America

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the review.


On site.

Carissa Rodriguez, I'm normal. I have a garden. I'm a person (2015)

On the Social Novel

The social novel at the end of society

AFTER THE ELECTION of the forty-fifth president of the United States, something happened to fiction. Here I don’t mean, thank goodness and for once, the concept of fiction, as opposed to or distinguished from fact. While newspapers benefited (mildly) from a so-called Trump bump of new subscribers urgently wishing to be better informed about just what the hell was going on, the sales of novels—the once profitable form of fiction—continued to decrease in 2017. Information’s stock rose; artifice suffered. Or maybe artifice was taking on a new role in American public life—which is to say, a new old role, one it had for a while been playing in a none-too-fresh milieu, what we might have been inclined to think of as the already-outmoded narrative style of reality television. Artifice, fantasy, fiction, allegory, whatever you want to call it, was edited within an inch of its life, blown up to hysterical proportions, broadcast on an inane loop and unceasingly. This inauguration was the best attended of all time! This statement follows logically in no way from images you have seen and other narratives you have come to accept! You’ll believe me when I tell you because I (can) say it!

It’s now two years since. I have almost no ambition to rehash the disasters and debacles, but I do want to point out a little slip that will have some bearing on what I have to say here—which is, overall, about the state of American fiction, rather than the state of electoral politics. Here, in my opinion, is the slip: we tend to speak of the current executive’s maneuvers as “irrational,” claiming they emerge out of a lack of epistemic if not instrumental “rationality,” which is to say, a lack of respect for the efficacy of reason, but we speak less about their status in relation to narrative forms. Indeed, so much of the media we consume is non-narrative, in spite of the existence of presumably linear “timelines,” that it probably does not occur to us to note that what we mean by “rationality”—a concept that seems only vaguely word-like to me and might well be replaced by “reason”—is almost the same thing as narrative, the following-on of one event by another in an illuminating, usually causal way. His pronouncements are non-narrative, but then again, so is much of mediated social life these days. What journalists and other commentators frequently call “the narrative” (of politics, of values, of daily life, etc.) is a slot at the top of a recently refreshed feed, an instance of disjunction.

I mention these categorical slips—of reason for narrative, of narrative for widely read non-sequitur—because I think it has something to do with the rise of nonfiction as a category of profitable literary writing, a rise that began long before the 2016 election. There is, I would argue, a notable hunger in American society for the comforts of narrative. It’s a hunger for a species of meaning-making that is not specifically logical (though it may be that too) but which rather provides an account of how things, sometimes sentient, sometimes material, get organized across space and time and in relation to one another and sequentially, such that they become the way things are, after having been the way things were. Sure, narrative can be revelatory and informative, but it can also be reassuring, grounding. To attempt to understand and maintain one’s personal narrative is to be healthy, as the popular wisdom goes. Narrative can be incremental; it offers itself up to analysis. It promises to explain something about what human intention and agency are. It is attractively historical. The problem for the contemporary novelist—a problem less pressing for the author of a text on the history of codfish or the business practices of Uber—is that daily life, that classic subject and location of the novel, is, much like everyday consciousness, no longer narrative. I mean, it’s quite possible that human consciousness was never narrative (Thucydides for one seems to think so, particularly in his writings on pirates), but more and more people want narrative, a) because they want to know how we got here and, b) because they want to know what to do next. As the philosopher Galen Strawson has argued, a preference for diachronic, narrative description of human life predominates in contemporary culture, supported by “a vast chorus of assent . . . from the humanities—literary studies, psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, political theory, religious studies, echoed back by psychotherapy, medicine, law, marketing, design.” As for Strawson, he’s happily “transient,” as he puts it, with a fundamentally shifting, episodic self. This position does not, I assume, automatically entail enthusiasm for social media, but there’s a sort of formal rhyme I can’t help pointing up.

In a way, I wish I lived in a time in which algorithms weren’t sowing chaos with respect to democracy and the public sphere, but given what I know of human history (another cherished narrative!), it’s likely there’d be some other largely invisible mechanism with a similar function. Meanwhile, as the idea that there is some counterintuitive explanation for the results of the 2016 election burns off and more and more narrativizing reports appear, it’s been interesting to observe fiction’s attempt to self-correct, to return to its former, if ambiguous, place of cultural relevance. It’s scrambling, but in a recognizable direction. This isn’t just a matter of markets, of course; it’s also personal, creative. Writers are citizens, too, and accordingly hold themselves accountable after the fashion of their times—sometimes presciently. Enter, therefore, what looks to be a resurgence of the social novel.

A Sentimental Education

We know a little of what the social novel was. At the very least, we know of Charles Dickens and what the literary historian Louis Cazamian calls that author’s “philosophy of Christmas.” I hope you will laugh a little here, as I think Cazamian is attempting to be at once ironic and precise. Dickens was arguably the first author to bring the urban lower middle class into the European novel as more than scenic decor; reflecting in various ways on his father’s time in debtor’s prison as well as his own stint as a factory laborer during that parent’s absence, Dickens described the precariousness produced by industrialization in generally moving detail—even if Americans are more apt to remember the amusing eccentricities of Tiny Tim and Miss Havisham than the sociological achievement of a work like 1854’s Hard Times, which stands as a sort of anatomy of the imaginary mill town of Coketown. Changes in the British political system and economy during the earlier part of the nineteenth century (expanded suffrage after 1832 and increasing readership of the press) meant that there was an eager audience for fiction that touched upon the organization of society. In the early 1830s, Harriet Martineau, a young, unmarried woman, became the author of a series of bestselling serial parables that explained basic economic concepts such as free trade, via “The Loom and the Lugger,” and unions, via “A Manchester Strike.” Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–34) emerged out of her conviction that the economic and the personal were not separate spheres, and her more than slightly didactic bent was surely influential for the style of serialized novel Dickens would first produce in 1836 with the Pickwick Papers. Dickens’s work built on Romanticism’s convictions regarding the importance of national history to contemporary identity, with the difference that the influence of modern (i.e., mechanized) systems on the individual were explored. In addition, unlike Sir Walter Scott, he of the sweeping national-historical romance, Dickens dealt unabashedly in coincidence, cuteness, and sentimentality—apparently hoping to motivate readers to philanthropic attitudes and works through minor styles of depiction designed to inspire pity.

It is worth underlining the strategies Dickens used to depict the social world, because even as his novels are among the most familiar to us out of the nineteenth-century Anglophone pantheon (try Googling “Scrooge McDuck merchandise”), their style seems, the contemporary American liberal maintains, anathema to what is valuable and appropriate in politicized art. The cool methods of the French realist novel have somehow won out, and we are inclined to side with Gustave Flaubert when he criticizes the pious deaths of children in that problematic American novel of persuasion, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, itself surely a Dickensian attempt and also notable as the best-selling novel of its century. Americans have learned, perhaps through the rise of documentary technique in the interwar period, that vaguely objective points of view can be not only manufactured but also popularized—via imitation of the action of the camera or the hardboiled tone of the press. Such ambitions to objectivity dovetail nicely with the lessons of modernism, in that both suggest that all representation is inevitably mediated. And, according to the tenets of the New Journalism, which sees its forebears in James Agee and perhaps the George Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier, those desirous of socially relevant narrative can agree that the author is a mediator, a collector, a sociologist, a recording device well aware that “we tell ourselves [constructed] stories.” The culture, a collective invention, is out there to be absorbed. The culture is way more interesting than literature, as Tom Wolfe, for one, many times maintained.

I want to linger for a moment on the bizarre figure that is Tom Wolfe, who wrote so many interesting nonfiction books and then went on to write some of the worst novels of the late twentieth century. In November 1989, in a promotional push for the paperback edition of Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe published a modest summation of the state of affairs in Harper’s: “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A literary manifesto for the new social novel.” Here Wolfe establishes a position at once reactionary and revolutionary (his specialty, it seems). He argues that Philip Roth, standing in for general elitist aversion, steered the ship of the American novel away from realism, such that, “By the mid-1960s the conviction was not merely that the realistic novel was no longer possible but that American life itself no longer deserved the term real. American life was chaotic, fragmented, random, discontinuous; in a word, absurd.” Fair enough, but what was the solution? A: Read Bonfire of the Vanities.

I wanted to fulfill a prediction I had made in the introduction to The New Journalism in 1973; namely, that the future of the fictional novel would be in a highly detailed realism based on reporting, a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him.

Wolfe goes on to excuse his rather unsympathetic attitude toward black Americans in Bonfire as prescient reporting and to saw endlessly away at that well-carved chestnut, POSTMODERNISM: RUINING EVERYTHING. But Wolfe would never wax so sentimental as to claim that he is an inheritor of the god-fearing orphans of Dickens. Don’t take him for some sort of Cold War puritan! Instead, he cites an earlier vein of the British novel: Richardson, Fielding, Smollett. These are Enlightenment coffeehouse thinkers, polite anthropologists of the figure of Modern Woman, pre-industrial wits. What Wolfe wants is detail, endless detail. And guess what, would-be novelists? All the complexity and detail of contemporary America is free. You just have to be prepared to go out and take it.

Mr. Contract

Wolfe’s Harper’s apologia of the awful late eighties would be more forgettable if it hadn’t been followed by Jonathan Franzen’s endlessly cited and diametrically opposed essay of the mid-nineties (1996, to be precise), published, of course, in the same magazine. Franzen’s splenetic “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels” blames the information overload on television and the early internet rather than Philip Roth—overall, not a bad move—and concludes that if you want Americans to read your socially engaged books you will need to get maudlin. Although but a brief seven years had elapsed since Wolfe’s sales pitch, the takeaway is that white men are probably as irrelevant to American culture as, say, novels themselves. All the same, Franzen has much to say about both.

Franzen’s exemplars of social-novel success are less antique than Wolfe’s. He goes on a moderate tear about Paula Fox’s 1970 study of the vacuity and instability of white liberals, Desperate Characters. Fox wasn’t culturally successful, of course, according to Franzen. However, hers is the book to read. Culturally successful American social novelists—William Dean Howells, Upton Sinclair, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—are all dead and anyway wrote in a differently mediated age. Their research into the country’s social ills was universalizable. And if Franzen seems to flirt with the notion that novelists might not be omniscient, he eventually concludes that “a black lesbian from New York” and [insert default non-black person, not a lesbian] are cosmically united by their shared “guilty crush on Uma Thurman.” Part of me wants this to be some sort of shy three-way proposition, but I don’t think it is. Reading this now, it feels like an elaborate diversionary tactic—by which I mean, the whole essay. And although, like Wolfe, Franzen keeps his distance from Dickens (C.D. merits but a name-check), it seems safe to say that Dickens’s adaptation by Disney is at the embarrassing Midwestern heart of this matter. If you really want universal plus contemporary plus novel, Disney-fied Dickens is it: this synthesis is inoffensively Christian, magical, and also capitalist; it honors the self-abdicating poor, features race- and genitalia-free animals; kids can watch it. I’m not saying anyone should want this, by the way. I’m just saying, what is the point of an essay about abandoning the notion of an American social novel because of the ills of television plus civil rights that doesn’t address the neutering of Dickens by Disney? The closest Franzen comes to mentioning these cultural matters is a moment in which his imaginary lesbian is seen to be spiritually united with the default American through her shared propensity to buy Pocahontas-themed products at discount stores.

Weirdly, as we all know, Franzen won. He courted his suburbanites, the people he explicitly named as the first generation produced by white flight, and he got their attention. In 2001, 2010, and 2015 they bought his novels—even the creepily titled Purity, which features a nominally Dickensian heroine, a girl named Pip. In an essay on the impenetrable verbal plenitude of novelist William Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult,” published in The New Yorker in 2002, a sort of poetics and apologia for The Corrections, Franzen explains how he cracked the relevance code: “ . . . a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.” Put otherwise, don’t say anything your reader will not instantly comprehend. Keep it all familiar. (Don’t be like Gaddis!) Fascinating frankness aside, I don’t think Franzen’s brand of social novel—which leans hard on the coincidence line from Dickens while discarding serious sociological content—is holding up against the news and nonfiction, not with our desire for tenacious narratives of development and explanation, as opposed to semi-soft narratives of chance encounters and quirky detail. Indeed, Franzen has always been most interesting, ironically enough, when, far from pandering, he goes light-speed postmodern. His self-reflexive commentary on the author known as Jonathan Franzen is some of his best work.

If I seem to be falling into a Franzen hole, or what amounts to a secondary Dickens hole, let me recalibrate. What I’m trying to say is that when it comes to the Anglophone social novel, the Dickens hole is way, way bigger, and even monumental American social novelists studiously avoided by Franzen, like John Steinbeck and Ralph Ellison, owe something to the Dickensian mode. So with Dickens prominently in the rearview, my question now is, given the contemporary hunger for narrative and fact—an obvious invitation for new social novels to proliferate—what will authors do?

Math and Sensibility

If you were reading the stories published in The New Yorker throughout 2018, the summer in particular, you have one answer. This answer is that topics pulled from headlines—extreme weather produced by climate change, the opioid crisis, #MeToo, the plight of migrants—make for worthy short social fiction. Although some friends rolled their eyes at these literalist tales, I had to admit I sort of liked them. Maybe I liked them for the same reason that I find Harriet Martineau’s parables interesting: they take a subject, work it through a narrative format, arrive at what seems like a necessary ending. In the ending is often contained a lesson—or, a reframing of the original social quandary. In Sana Krasikov’s narratologically flawless “Ways and Means,” set in an NPR-like milieu, the mechanisms and optics of workplace romance are explored. A female employee in her forties, a sound engineer, “dates” an older married show host; when the host ends the relationship abruptly, citing his wife’s cancer diagnosis, the sound engineer thinks little of it. Things become more complex, however, when the host is accused of harassment by an employee in her twenties and the sound engineer is asked to intervene. As the sound engineer learns more about the host’s activities, she realizes that she was not dumped because of the wife’s illness, but because the host preferred a more youthful work-paramour. How the tables turn! What emerges, through the revision of two apparently separate plotlines into a single causally linked series, is the host’s lack of regard for others. At the same time, Krasikov’s comparison of the two women, in their distinct reactions to similar events, reveals intergenerational difference. We can read the forty-year-old as thoughtful if naïve, the woman in her twenties as opportunistic; or, we can see the former as willfully blind to misogyny, the latter as brave and forthright—or perhaps some other permutation altogether.

I liked Krasikov’s story as a description of contemporary mores, but I liked it even more as a formal feat. It felt like a piece of math to me, and these days I’m finding I like math more and more. It’s that feeling that the numbers don’t lie, as the cliché goes. This is likely a species of the contemporary hunger for narrative I mentioned earlier: Krasikov’s story did something—something narrative—to explain how two women who might well be allies could as easily find themselves at personal and professional odds. “Ways and Means,” while not exactly an illustration of political economy, comes, as its title suggests, pretty damn close.

The New Yorker’s turn to topicality and didactic parables caused me to think more about the connection between not just the news and fiction, but social fact and (social) fiction. At the end of the day, even if the plot of Madame Bovary was once ripped from headlines, this, the ripping of material from headlines, is not a reliable means of selecting one’s fictional subjects (see my earlier contentions re: Tom Wolfe). The writer needs a descriptive thickness not necessarily or absolutely associated with sensationalism, if not a personal connection to events. Rachel Kushner and Gary Shteyngart’s recent social works, The Mars Room and Lake Success, respectively, go the thickness route. Carefully researched and lushly written, these two tales of a white woman serving multiple life sentences, inadvertently having abandoned her son, and a (white) finance bro avoiding prison while collecting watches and traveling the United States by bus, having intentionally abandoned his son, are largely concerned with the emotional experience of their subjects. While there is much to admire in each of these books, particularly stylistically speaking, there is a certain lightness with respect to information, in spite of what seems to be a non-negligible amount of research into how to describe the milieus in question. The books are extremely vivid, yet one does not come away from one’s reading better informed regarding either the American prison system or the American finance industry. One may learn more about human psychology, about fate and inheritance; the settings of these novels remain just that. These are not didactic works. They are portraits that discuss unique persons, not broader systems.

I can’t say I was altogether disappointed. After all, I had come to these novels in order to read novels. Shteyngart’s was particularly novel-y (in using this fake adjective, I recall an expressive redundancy once employed by a friend, “It’s a novel-y ass novel”). Lake Success features a despicable novelist as one antagonist of the finance bro, who himself, we learn, once harbored literary ambitions. I don’t want to say that Lake Success has zero sociological ambition; it’s just that most of this ambition seems to have been expended in the enumeration of appurtenances common to luxury condos in Manhattan, along with the particulars of very expensive watches, of which it seems the author is himself a collector. I know pathetically little about how trading works but learned nothing from this book about it. Given my renewed interest in the use of plots to explain other complex social systems, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat sad. “Explain the money part to me!” I wanted to yell as Shteyngart sent his reader into yet another one-percenter’s domestic space, which, I knew, was to be described in obsessive detail, à la Émile Zola, via a close third. But all I gleaned was which expensive things were allegedly worth buying, not where the money came from.

Kushner’s book is the more complex and astute of the two. I think this is because Kushner is particularly good on questions of inheritance and trauma, how it is that we often do not and cannot fully know our own narratives. Her protagonists, much like Galen Strawson, are transients as opposed to endurers. We are apt to come upon them in the midst of piecing together a narrative that stubbornly refuses to cohere. And within this non-coherence of the self, other events, usually tragic, intervene. It’s a moving and convincing sort of paradigm, yet Kushner’s writing on sex work in The Mars Room is far more believable than her writing on prison politics, and I sometimes found myself confused about what I was meant to glean from scenes in which the incarcerated protagonist exhibits admirable behavior, refusing to scapegoat others or to participate in white supremacy. Why depict a white woman whose relationship to identity politics is one of such pure forbearance? I asked myself as I read. Romy, the protagonist and a first-person narrator, seemed not unrealistic, exactly, but an exception, a philosopher with no formal education—which was, I had to assume, part of the point.

In thinking about what Kushner does well in her book, which is to articulate the movements of human psychology in situations of extremity, I began thinking about another book, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted of 2016, which is not a novel but which, to great acclaim, accomplished what an idealized version of the contemporary social novel might do. Based on recordings and notes Desmond, a sociologist, made while living in poor mostly black neighborhoods and a mostly white trailer park in Milwaukee, Evicted, which has already received its due praise and does not need me to lionize it, explains the political economy of real estate in impoverished communities in the contemporary United States—from housing court, to eviction day, to shelter, to new apartment or trailer, and back again. The book also explains why it is profitable to provide substandard housing, unpacking the business of being a slumlord. There are deeply engrossing characters (their names changed) along with a tiny cat named Little who, like at least one infant, does not survive; the reader is moved, even as this remains a didactic text. I found, in reading it, that I could not tell if Desmond’s primary concern was to explain housing issues in Milwaukee or to think about the ways in which people talk and move around their homes, interacting with their neighbors. The book feels literary: people crack jokes, fall in love; coincidences occur. It is not that Desmond uses a convenient narrative form to illustrate his point, but that he finds narrative forms in social and economic relations (indeed, this seems to be a major part of the sort of analysis that interests him). As he writes of one of his subjects, “After being kicked out of her apartment with Vanetta, Crystal was admitted to a homeless shelter. Then through a weary, looping rhythm—make a friend, use a friend, lose a friend—Crystal found, for short bursts, dry and warm places to sleep.” The cycle of eviction is narrative, but unlike the sort of psychologically constituted narrative self Strawson, for one, has in mind, the self eviction shapes is constituted through geography and economic exchange, as well as interaction with others. As Tom Wolfe might contend, perhaps misguidedly, you don’t have to make this stuff up. Yet the way Evicted thinks about what analytic philosophers like to call the maintenance of personal identity is not novelistic. It is not drama; it is fact. In an important sense, we already know what happens.

To return to Shteyngart for a moment, I think about a certain scene early on in Lake Success, in which the protagonist Barry engages in a bit of interpretive thick description of a woman he sees in Port Authority,

“What do you want me to do?” the woman said. One of her mesh bunny ears drooped over her face. Her bottom teeth seemed to be where her top teeth should be and she had no bottom teeth. She was white. Just an hour into his journey, Barry was starting to get something about the Trump phenomenon. Like an idiot, he had thrown 1.7 million, almost two bucks, after Marco Rubio. What choice did he have? He had sat through a five-hour dinner with Ted Cruz in a private room at the Gramercy Tavern after which Joey Goldblatt had turned to him and whispered, “He’s a psychopath.” So they all bet their millions on Rubio. They should have met this woman first. There was nothing Rubio could do for her.

As I read this, I found myself wondering if metonymic details like this woman’s “mesh bunny ears” are effective. While they are clearly a symbol of extractive systems now inescapable in the United States, they remain symbolic. Harkening back to the Playboy bunny and indicating this woman’s simultaneous sexual availability and economic vulnerability, maybe even her status as a sort of permanent servant, the ears are probably made of unstable plastics and imported from China. I know Shteyngart wants to entertain his reader in this moment—and Barry’s flawed observations are meant to be fodder for the reader’s own criticism—yet this character, who prompts one of the more interesting moments of self-reflection in the novel, never reappears. She’s not much more than ears and teeth. The same could be said of a homeless man Barry gets high with and gives a blowjob to later on. These characters appear as bodies with interesting qualities, colorful extras; yet, their narratives are fundamentally separate from the central narrative of Lake Success. And maybe this is the point, that the finance bro really does have nothing to do with poor people and poverty. But if this is the case, why stage these sorts of interactions in a work of literature?

Life Sentences

In his recent novel, Moving Kings, Joshua Cohen describes movers. They’re part of the business of eviction, and though they wouldn’t show up in the Milwaukee-based Evicted, being New Yorkers and all, there’s something of Evicted’s understanding of the narrative nature of the cycle of eviction that occurs in Cohen’s prose, too.

Some houses they’d strike it rich, some would be busts—that was the gamble. That’s why there’d always be a guarantee of base fee from the landlord whose tenant they were tossing or the bank or whoever held the lien.

Around Thanksgiving, they’d tossed two houses with nobody home. In another residence they’d gutted, everyone was giddy and civil because mentally feeble. [ . . . ] Another woman had dandled her infant out a window. . . .

Moving Kings, I should emphasize, is a highly episodic work. We’re never entirely sure whose novel or story it is—and, because of this, it doesn’t leave us with the impression that we’ve witnessed a single event. Rather, the incoherence of the narrative of Moving Kings serves to emphasize the at once repetitive and disruptive nature of the temporal experience of kicking people out of their homes (as well as that of being kicked out), along with the sorts of personal disjunction associated with immigration to the United States. Rather than seek development and interrelationship, Cohen shows how the impulse to construct narrative survives, perhaps pointlessly, in an environment in which it is frustrated at every turn. I don’t know if Moving Kings is, given this tendency, totally successful as a novel, nor is it exactly a sociological work disguised as literature, but it is an impressive literary document about the experience of time and social life in this era. The hunger for narrative is dramatized in the thoughts and actions of the characters of Moving Kings via a contemporary emotional mode the critic Lauren Berlant has called “cruel optimism”; Cohen’s characters are themselves inventive, creative—we watch them tell themselves stories in order to survive.

The effective disorganization of Moving Kings thus furnishes one clue as to where fiction might go if it wishes to maintain its literary chops while also traveling further into the unfolding particulars of the current situation in the United States. And I think Kushner is embarking on such an exploration, too, though she perhaps remains excessively focused on first-person narrative—and one might well find Jackie Wang’s use of an autobiographical, critical first person in Carceral Capitalism, for example, more effective than this sort of speculative persona. Of course, The Mars Room is likely to have a broader audience than Wang’s theory, even though Carceral Capitalism is likely to be read for a longer time and perhaps more deeply, if at first by fewer people.

This leaves me with the thought that the problem and possibilities of the contemporary social novel are not exclusively tied to genre—i.e., they are not the classical problems of the novel, per se. They aren’t exactly the problems and possibilities offered by the familiar challenge of maintaining a balance between action and description (famously described by György Lukács in his rants on the political efficacy of realist prose). There’s something challenging in this unfamiliar territory but also something hopeful, not just because we seem still to like novels, but because it’s clear that literature can contribute, in a significant way, to contemporary events. And where literature can help is in its combinatory and experimental capacities. Novelists can do things and try things that academics and critics cannot. So I am advocating for that now. Let’s have more social novels that explore the disruption and near-impossibility of our cherished narrative forms. Let’s have more social novels that look for narrative—and even fail to find it. In their spectacular and detailed failure, such novels may more closely resemble us.


Date: March 1, 2019

Publisher: The Baffler

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.
This essay appears in the print edition of The Baffler, March–April 2019, issue 44, "Truth Decay."


Cover image.


© Lauren Nassef.

Lynne Tillman and the Illusion of Realism


Realism disturbs me.

For indeed fiction, if realistic, is a manufactured veil through which we train our gaze in order to obtain a pattern that organizes dots and squiggles into something legible, “an image of a pork chop which looks exactly like a pork chop,” as Terry Eagleton writes in the London Review of Books. Realism is paradoxical: a lie that reads true. We take two pet rocks, name one “Reality,” the other “My (Mimetic) Attempts to Write About It,” and smash them enthusiastically together. What survives is combed into a neat pile, carefully labeled, set out as a sort of snack.

(see fig. 1)

Mimesis is imitation, and when Aristotle talks about it in his Poetics, he means for it to do one thing: Imitation isn’t a faculty poets deploy to represent the world solely for the sake of skillfully representing the world. Imitation is deployed with the specific aim of inspiring recognition—of evoking, in a somewhat distant audience, a feeling of pity. (Aristotle: “Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’ ”) We are brought to tears when someone on stage pokes out his eyes; safe in our chairs, we’ve confused him with ourselves. We’re deceived, yet in awe. Perhaps we resolve not to kill or have sex with our parents (or, failing this, not to get married—regarding which topic, more later).

Ideas about imitating reality have spiraled up through Western civilization with different, though perhaps related, political ends. The realists of nineteenth-century France weren’t exactly Aristotelian in their outlook, but they definitely had ambitions re: mimesis. They wanted to understand the structure of society and, along with the Russians, took great pains to offer precise depictions of things and persons. Balzac may be the paradigmatic example, but I find myself unable to stop thinking about a certain bottle of oil to which a feather has become affixed in a scene in Madame Bovary: “In the corner behind the door, shining hobnailed shoes stood in a row under the slab of the washstand, near a bottle of oil with a feather stuck in its mouth.” (This old translation by Ferdinand Brunetière and Robert Arnot is interesting for the way in which it names old-fashioned things, e.g., hobnails. More recent translations tend to replace outmoded words with more familiar, if less specific, ones.) It’s less the elaboration of a world or a social system that fascinates me here than the skill in representing an item that seems purposeless, if classed. I do occasionally cling to this kind of seemingly pointless vivid materiality in prose. It produces not recognition, foremost—though that, too—but surprise. It makes me think for a moment, pace Aristotle, that it might be possible to have a world without psychology, maybe even, pace Hugo, without fate. (In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Greek term ananke, meaning “fate,” is, bizarrely, carved on the side of the cathedral. There seems to be no reason for this, other than that Hugo wanted to imply that fate is an indelible feature of human history. As you see, I find him to be an extremely annoying writer.)

But, of course, we don’t have that world, though Herman Melville’s head is famously turned by the enumerative ecstasy of whale facts. We have a pretty different world, despite materialist trends in certain nineteenth-century novels—and despite their resistance to wanton psychologizing. Although the behemoth twentieth-century psychological realist John Updike may have worshiped at the altar of Flaubert’s scrupulous style, he seems to have taken le réalisme’s lesson only in part, ever subordinating acts of description to the fluid angsts of his American subjects.


Lynne Tillman is a novelist who seems to me to have thought a lot about the above—and in a uniquely deliberate way. In certain of her stories, there is a character named Madame Realism who goes around living a fairly normal New York City life and who is always contemplating art and illusion everywhere she goes because, well, art and illusion are everywhere in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and in Manhattan, in particular. Madame Realism does not shrink from the scene. In the story “Madame Realism’s Imitation of Life,” spotted by fans in a women’s restroom, Madame Realism overhears one say, “I think that is Madame Realism, but do you think a fictional statement can ever be true?” Paradox abounds—for, in reading the story, one has flattered oneself that one is engaged in an intimate experience with a veiled version of Lynne Tillman, with Tillman’s very thoughts. Yet this is because of the presence of a character, a confection in the close third. Thus, there is Tillman IFF (“if and only if ”), the wry disguise of Madame Realism, at least for the purposes of this story, which in fact reads less like a story than a work of art criticism, which would seem to be part of the point. Normally, I suppose, we’d have the entailment the other way around: character IFF author. But Madame Realism doesn’t work that way. She is not here to imitate reality; she’s here to explain to us how the related fictional affordances of narrative and point of view function. That’s how real she is. (The reader is also advised that Madame Realism is playfully distinct from “Sir Realism,” a.k.a. surrealism, that twentieth-century movement in the visual arts and poetry famous for its modernist mystification of femininity.)

(see fig. 2)


No matter how many paradoxes, neat rock arrangements, and feathers stuck to bottles of oil I pile into this essay, none of these phantasmal objects comes close to the unreal, gonzo vividness of Tillman’s 2006 novel, her fifth, American Genius, A Comedy. At its most insanely, maddeningly banal and delightfully paratactic moments—the novel takes place, after all, in a vaguely defined asylum, artist residency, or spa, where the style of one’s breakfast eggs and memories of deceased childhood pets become major concerns—it remains, maddeningly and delightfully, a story about the impossibility of escaping illusion, even when one is doing almost nothing.

American Genius, A Comedy is also about the extremity of Americans. It’s about the violent movement westward, which seems, in the mind of the novel’s narrator, to culminate in the Manson slayings, along with the present-day inability to pardon the Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten, who participated in the killings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in her last year as a teenager and who was sentenced to death in 1971. Hannah Arendt once said that she was glad that Eichmann had been hanged, because the Israelis had “pushed the thing to its only logical conclusion.” Arendt felt that so-called justice can’t have it both ways; if someone cannot be forgiven, then, well, they cannot be forgiven, and it is another form of violence to leave the charge unmet. Though this line of reasoning seems a bit neat to me, the narrator’s obsession with Van Houten, who repeatedly returns to her thoughts throughout the novel, is related. Van Houten was at one time the youngest woman condemned to die in California; a special death row had to be constructed for her, as no women’s section existed. However, the invalidation of pre-1972 death sentences in 1972’s People v. Anderson (now overruled) meant that her sentence was commuted to life in prison. Though the verdict in a second retrial stressed her eligibility for parole, and though other members of the Manson Family were successful in parole requests, Van Houten’s applications for parole in California have been, as of June 2018, repeatedly denied. Protected, in theory, by her whiteness and physical beauty, like the charismatic Manson himself, Van Houten lives out her days in prison, unforgivable if ambiguously responsible for her crime, given her age and mental state at the time of its commission, as well as her gender, this last point being a qualification that must remain unspoken, as it at once exonerates her and leaves her open to endless fantasies of blame that are beyond the scope of the law, at least on paper, to name or know.

The narrator of American Genius, A Comedy, in limbo in her institutional retreat, latches on to this other, discursive limbo, a blank in which America refuses to know itself—as it seems relevant, if ambiguously, to her own identity. While it is probably, again, too neat to say that she, like Van Houten, is doing time, it’s part of the interest of the book that it doesn’t shy away from these sorts of bad analogies. It’s American, in this respect. And this narrator is a former historian, which may contribute to her reluctance to participate in storylines unfolding in present-day reality, so-called. While she seems to allow that the present, as a distinct moment, exists, she seems none too sure that it is more than a mushy amalgam of past temporalities—the history of chair design, for example—and timeless inevitabilities—the much-touted sensitivity of her own skin—lacking any true newness or uniqueness worth, as it were, writing home about.

But our retreating narrator, though withdrawn, is not alone, and this makes all the difference to the form and tenor of her refusal of plot in the present. As in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, others (“residents”) are interned, for a brief eternity, alongside Tillman’s genius/protagonist. The hope that utopia is to be found in retreat is held out. As readers, we occasionally let ourselves think of it. Indeed, it’s here that the question of the relationship between the novel and so-called realism comes most strongly into play. “Realism,” Terry Eagleton writes in the aforementioned LRB essay, “is calculated contingency.” In other words, realism can be a style of belief in the existence of others—since you need somebody, or somebodies, to whom things are represented, and asylums, artist residencies, and spas are famous for their captive audiences.

In the first chapter of The Blithedale Romance, a fictionalized account of the Brook Farm commune (1841–47), Hawthorne worries about something he calls “the privileges of privacy.” (The narrator is speaking here: “ ‘Zenobia, by the bye, as I suppose you know, is merely her public name; a sort of mask in which she comes before the world, retaining all the privileges of privacy,—a contrivance, in short, like the white drapery of the Veiled Lady, only a little more transparent.’ ”) Hawthorne is a lover of gothic euphemism, not a realist writer, and his cloaked concepts often assume an intimacy between reader and narrator that feels forced, at least to me. So I’m not entirely sure what he means by this phrase, but his tale of intentional community is full of references to privacy, both literal and metaphorical: veils, secrets, false names, confused identity, performative utterances. There’s dissimulation and distancing—and also a fair amount of discussion of the role of women in American society, women who seem to be the origin of all social illusion, at least as far as Hawthorne is concerned. If American Genius, A Comedy (not a romance) is in some sense a rewriting of Hawthorne’s 1852 narrative, by 2006 the commune has become an institution and the narrator a woman (a “nineteenth-century woman in trousers,” as one character has it)—yet the privilege of privacy remains, along with an affection for unusual monikers (we meet the Count, Contesa, and Spike, et al., not their real names). Our narrator and her acquaintances take advantage of their middle-class privilege, in its collective form, to stage a hilariously god-awful dramatization of Kafka’s letters, as well as, in a seriocomic citation of the nineteenth century and its prized illusions, a séance or “ghost theater.” The narrator observes the workings of her own mind during the latter performance, as her tendency to compose speculative lists and bounce from topic to topic—from familial concerns to American history and back again—is overtaken by something more enigmatic and difficult to reconcile: a chilling realization of the possibility of the absence of thought as thought; the nullification of sentience as sentience.

I can’t halt these alien sensations. I place my hands over my eyes and press hard, scrunching my eyes closed again, so that their veins radiate bloody patterns, garishly colored shapes, pale ashes, the papers I burned this afternoon maybe, everything recognizable is ablaze, like my family’s Eames chairs. I can’t hold on to an image, so I tell myself, in a stately manner, Mark this now, fire burns complacent things, and in a flash it occurs to me why I take things apart, and I want to remember the reason but can’t. Another gust of arctic air makes me shiver, there’s nothing to think about, I open my eyes, it’s all gone, I shut them again.

Though what returns in the séance’s transformative and macabre course “with its bizarre seductions” is simple—the fact of death—the effects of this unbelievable fact on those assembled are richly varied, alarming, and enlightening. The narrator has a vision of her deceased father in his distinctive dark brown swimming trunks; others rant about sex addiction and betrayal, the shape of fate, the qualities of evil (“Let me say this about the devil: He exists,” maintains one transfixed party). All in all, it’s quite an event, as well as quite a convincing portrayal of what routinely goes unsaid, even or especially in privileged private. I think, too, that this has to be one of the great scenes of recent American fiction, on par with the unveiling of the P.G.O.A.T. in Infinite Jest, for example, speaking of metaphorically charged drapery. In it, we catch a glimpse of the structure of the contemporary social world, as well as the limitations of realist description. Because you can’t mimetically describe something that is simultaneously there and not there, which is to say, you can’t describe something unspeakable.


As I was beginning to write this essay, wanting to be thorough and a reasonably good historian, I traveled to the Fales Library & Special Collections at New York University, where Tillman’s papers are kept, and went through all the manuscript drafts of American Genius, A Comedy. Because of this adventure of my own into seclusion, I happen to know that the novel had multiple working titles, including American Skin, and that the narrator originally spoke on the first page about writing a novel. (The first sentence of the draft reads: “The food here is bad, but every day there is something I can eat and even like, and there’s a bathtub, which I don’t have at home, so I can have a bath every day if I can get from my studio, where I’m supposed to be writing a novel, to my room, before dinner, which is at 6:30pm.”) That novel, that fictional novel, has since been removed. It’s been replaced, I suppose, by our narrator’s oddball histories and catechisms, and by visits to an aesthetician who palpitates her face, producing emotion. The clarity of that early title and that fake novel has been smudged out, artfully distorted. However, far from ruining the book for me, knowledge of these initial scaffolds deepens its mystery. It’s not that the novel is just better without these tropes; it’s that the novel is about the fact that such tropes are illusory. A certain truism about the reality of novels (i.e., that in their obvious artificiality or autobiography, they presuppose a world in which fact and fiction are stable, easily distinguished categories) is missing here, can’t be reclaimed. This is not a semiautobiographical novel about a novelist, written by a novelist—what we now call autofiction—nor is it purely a work of invention. It’s something else.

(see fig. 3)

Tillman types, in her draft notes, that “the worst thing is that it’s not over yet—everything’s not safe yet—forest fire—desire to be safe—post 9/11.” She also quotes Freud: “One cannot overcome an enemy who is absent or not within range.” I think I’m starting to understand, more and more, what Tillman is getting at, how she is attempting to capture the complex narratological formats of her time, the interrelated and rather too-real chimeras of news, politics, and history. As you may have heard, Aristotle’s chapter on comedy has been lost; it’s mentioned in the Poetics, but no longer extant. I gesture to this fact from ancient literary history because I’d like to be able to say something definitive about the style of recognition American Genius, A Comedy sets up, being a comedy and all—what sort of mimesis Tillman is after, whether it makes sense to say she is an illusionist, an antirealist writer who has moonlighted as a fictional art writer whose last name is (funnily enough!) Realism; who, being fictional, doesn’t like to be recognized wandering at large in reality by her fans; who may be an anachronism, too, a nineteenth-century character in pants prone to fainting spells; who likes wild cats and also dogs, and also chairs, and so on; who may have put her hero, a modern woman, if of a vaguely Victorian stripe, in the awkward position of having to exist inside a postmodern novel. It may be, too, that Tillman is at once ahead of her time and living concertedly in it. She once wrote something similar of Andy Warhol, and I think that, as also for Warhol, one of her ways of being in and with her own time is to describe an imaginary future that infuses all the presents and the pasts enumerated in her fiction. (In this remark, from The Velvet Years, 1965–67: Warhol’s Factory, I’m inspired by Tillman’s description of Warhol’s relationship to time, both historical and not: “One of the mandates of the avant-garde, which Warhol broke from, was to be ahead of one’s time and to know in what way one was. Shifting into the postmodern, one is pressed to learn how to think, live, work, breathe the present—even if it’s inescapable, like inhaling an unrecuperable past. It’s harder to live in and think the present than be ahead of it; there’s no exit. It’s no aesthetic failing to be in time, with it. The imaginary future is always there and not there, to envision or make up, to wonder and worry about, to live into and even for.”) However, in spite of these chrononautical insights, fun though they may be, the only definition related to genre and imitation I seem to be able to muster—a deficiency entirely my own—is rather generic: At the end of a comedy, people are supposed to get married.

This (marriage) is no laughing matter, nor does Tillman’s comedy deal much in that sort of contract and/or denouement, except to note that American women are unfortunate, in that they often marry for love. Rather, American Genius, A Comedy, a sort of hypertext of recollection and ingenious displacement, a sort of postmodern nineteenth-century novel, ends on a Tuesday, with a facial.

(see fig. 4)


Date: February 2, 2019

Publisher: Soft Skull Press, The Paris Review online

Format: Book, web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the essay.
This essay appears in a slightly different form and with the title, "Realism and Illusion," as the introduction to the 2019 edition of American Genius: A Comedy, published by Soft Skull Press.


Cover image.


Figure 1.


Figure 2.


Figure 3.


Figure 4.


Lynne Tillman. Photo: Craig Mod.

Madeline Gins's Visionary Cybernetics

An exhibition of the work of the late Madeline Gins reveals an artist, architect and poet who pushed language into intensely imaginative and speculative realms

In the spring of 1969, the poet and artist Madeline Gins, then in her late 20s, joined a collaborative effort to make artworks and writing on the streets of Manhattan. With John Giorno, Lucy Lippard, Adrian Piper and Hannah Weiner, among others, she contributed to the final issue of Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s legendary magazine 0 to 9, which took the form of a supplement titled Street Works. Gins’s submission was a ‘group novel’ for which she asked the reader to ‘Please finish these sentences and return this paper,’ with the ultimate goal of creating ‘a group novel, an historical novel, an exploration of the nature of consciousness’. Also included in Street Works were photographs by Gins and her husband and collaborator, the painter Shusaku Arakawa, of a stylized house floor plan, laid out on a plastic sheet that could be unfolded on the sidewalk. This floor plan also appears in the endpapers of Gins’s first book, WORD RAIN: Or, a Discursive Introduction to the Philosophical Investigation of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says (1969), suggesting a connection between the exploration undertaken in Street Works and WORD RAIN’s ecstatic experimental prose.

If you don’t already know who Gins is, the above may sound somewhat academic. It’s another account of fascinating, if minor, permutations in the history of conceptualism in the US, adding some small complexity to the narrative surrounding the anti-lyric poetry of Acconci, along with that of the likes of Dan Graham and Douglas Huebler. Gins was barely better known in US poetry circles than she was in the realms of contemporary art, and her brilliant reimaginings of the American novel and poem have largely been ignored. WORD RAIN – one of the most important works of experimental prose of the later 20th century – is at once refreshingly and depressingly spared academic commentary. Gins’s books are out of print and she has few champions. Though this spring’s ‘Eternal Gradient’ – an exhibition at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery – revisits collaborative sketches by Arakawa and Gins from the 1980s and, though Arakawa is now represented by Gagosian Gallery, Gins herself is not widely noted or remembered.

The reasons for this amnesia are manifold. It’s pointless to linger on the obvious: Gins was female, straight and seems to have taken the exigencies of marriage fairly seriously. Secondly, many histories of poetry’s relationship with conceptualism have tended to focus on the static materiality of language, to the detriment of descriptions of interactivity. Though there are exceptions, conceptualism’s role as critical capstone to trajectories of US art, including modernism and minimalism, has entailed the reduction of language to ‘a kind of object’, as critic Liz Kotz has written. Accounts of language-based conceptualism emphasizing what the artist Roy Ascott, in his 1966 essay ‘Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision’, termed ‘the field of behaviour’, are rarer.

Unlike the ‘group novels’ of Huebler and Andy Warhol, Gins’s project was not a site for the confession of secrets and gossip. It was concerned with getting the reader to act. Like Acconci’s poetry, which played with the instructive nature of writing and punctuation marks to explore their possibilities, or Graham’s Poem (1966), a schema and list of ‘materials’ for the creation of a poem, Gins’s early writing was self-reflexive but also did something more. In WORD RAIN, she directly engaged the cybernetic qualities of conceptualism by deploying sentences and prose fragments as means for holistic control of discourse, the human body and social relations, confusing the agency of the writer with that of the reader. This occurred in a manner that reflected Gins’s literary and transdisciplinary concerns, resulting in what might be termed a ‘visionary cybernetics’: her interest in systems and communication often went beyond descriptions of what is merely possible into intensely imaginative and speculative realms. Gins treated the slow dawning of the computer age as an incitement to produce art.

Throughout WORD RAIN, there are references to both the act of reading and the act of writing. But the speaker of the sentences is not quite the writer, nor is she quite the reader. ‘She’ is someone who exists in relation to words and who is aware of the possibility of reading as well as the possibility of writing. ‘She’ is aware of the possibility of sensing writing – whether looking at it, touching it, dwelling in it or even, at times, smelling or tasting it:

Read this with me, read that with me, read me with me, read objects (tables, toes, toads, tails, tin, trains, type, tears, throat) read write read right. This is still life. Only I write and read. If you’ve misplaced me on your own, bring me up again from off this page […] I give you this book for a present. It comes with a room, light, a country, sky and weather. I will arrange for you to be made aware of these in detail. You may look at everything. You will see only what I see. Look at this sentence.

Whereas much late-20th-century US experimental writing is myopically concerned with the linguistic turn (a recognition of the arbitrary and systematic nature of the shapes of letters, as well as the sounds and forms of words), Gins’s narration in WORD RAIN places unusual emphasis on the experience of being, simultaneously, a producer and receiver of writing. Experience – tactile, olfactory, temporal, visual, etc. – is folded into Gins’s sentences; the sentences, in turn, produce such experience, which must be (re)described in a sort of feedback loop. WORD RAIN might thus be a memoir of the present, of the very instant of writing, a sort of homeostatic temporality occasionally difficult to differentiate from a biochemical mix that includes the body of the reader/writer as well as the interface of the page.

WORD RAIN has no direct American literary antecedents. Though it superficially recalls various forms of stream-of-consciousness writing or Gertrude Stein’s bristling syntax, its strategies are specific to its phenomenological obsession with the reception of writing that occurs even, and especially, in the very midst of writing. This interest in what Gins describes as the flickering, oozing ‘Chaplinesque persistence of consciousness’, as recorded in and affected by the work of art, is not easily reconciled with modernism’s obsession with literary form and the dramatic upending of academic categories. Nor does Gins’s work dovetail neatly with postwar late-modernist and postmodern literary experimentation. One can’t quite group her with John Cage or Jackson Mac Low, who were so deeply concerned with chance operations and collage; Yoko Ono’s fluxus tasks are, meanwhile, more meticulous in their articulation. Though there are some resemblances between WORD RAIN’s complex sentences and those of poets such as Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer and Leslie Scalapino, perhaps the most convincing analogue is Gins’s friend, the poet Hannah Weiner. A cybernetically inclined writer and performer, Weiner has, of late, had her work translated from the page to the gallery, notably in a 2015 retrospective at Kunsthalle Zürich. In a piece titled ‘Transspace Communication’ (1969, written to accompany performances of her ‘Code Poems’), Weiner cogently observes: ‘The amount of information available has more than doubled since World War II. In the next ten years, it will double again. How do we deal with it?’ She continues: ‘At the moment, I am interested in exploring methods of communication through space; considering space as space fields or space solids; through great distances of space; through small distance, such as the space between the nucleus and the electrons of an atom; through distances not ordinarily related to the form of communication used.’

Weiner treats the poem as a tactical event, an act of communication that occurs ‘through great distances of space’. The ‘Code Poems’ themselves, which were published in 1982, contain lists of flag signals, typically used to transmit messages at sea. Her appropriation of maritime technology reimagines the flag hoist as a noisy, lyric gesture; previously precise code becomes the seed of a form of address that cannot be assigned a single interpretation. One excellent short poem, ‘CHW Pirates’, runs:

CDJ I was plundered by a pirate
CJF Describe the pirate
CJN She is armed
CJP How is she armed?
CJS She has long guns
CJW I have no long guns
BLD I am a complete wreck

Here, the colloquialism ‘to be an emotional wreck’ receives a rough etymological (and romantic) reading. This string of signals is to be imagined as performable – indeed, even potentially performed – as the poem is read. While Gins’s sentences in WORD RAIN are more concerned with the time of writing in domestic space, they make similar claims regarding the significance of spaces and technologies of communication and the ever-increasing amounts of information available. WORD RAIN’s sentences are complexes of signals that transmit and confuse sensation, allowing the reader to become an energetic receiver, an accumulator, a transformer – even and, most visionary of all, the avatar of the writer.

Given her somatic and cybernetic obsessions – trans-disciplinary concerns if ever there were such – it is additionally difficult to categorize Gins in a professional sense, whether as poet, writer or artist. Though she went on to include lineated poetry in her 1984 collection, What the President Will Say and Do!!, she returned to prose for 1994’s Helen Keller or Arakawa: a book that, like WORD RAIN, stretches the category of ‘novel’ in highly original directions. In each of these works, Gins blends keen observations about the activity of consciousness, language and syntax – as well as her own body and environment – with wry humour regarding the oddness of the very existence of meaning. As we see from the title of her second novel, Gins’s collaborative relationship with Arakawa became increasingly central to her work; poetry was a space in which she devoted herself to depicting the interrelationship of consciousness with physical and biochemical processes. Indeed, if readers of this piece know of Gins, it is likely that they know her through her collaboration with Arakawa. Together, they founded the Reversible Destiny Foundation and produced the well-known installation piece and publication series ‘The Mechanism of Meaning’ (1963–73/1978/1988/1997). Though Gins was a prescient thinker – who foresaw ways in which changes in popular media and technologies would collapse traditional disciplinary and social boundaries, transforming everyday life – her role at the centre of an architectural firm devoted to creating environments that were conceived to prevent inhabitants and visitors from dying has sometimes overshadowed her other achievements. Belief in the possibility of immortality seems hubristic, if not delusional, to many – even in the age of research and development companies such as Calico, who are actively seeking solutions to ‘combat ageing and associated diseases’.

Yet, Gins’s achievement as an experimental writer was enormous. Distinct from her artistic and architectural collaborations with Arakawa, her writings provide a vital terminological and metaphysical influence, particularly as they comment relentlessly upon acts of perception. It is not possible to state with certainty whether some or all of the words that appear in Arakawa’s paintings were contributed by Gins, but it makes sense to open the door to such an interpretation. WORD RAIN introduces notions about the interrelation between language and sensation that are taken up again in Helen Keller or Arakawa with new emphasis on the possibility of mapping experience by means other than hearing and sight. This transition – from exploring the interrelated acts of writing and reading in WORD RAIN to asserting how the world can be differently perceived and, therefore, inhabited, in Helen Keller or Arakawa – is key to Gins’s participation in the Reversible Destiny project, as well as to her earlier collaboration with Arakawa on ‘The Mechanism of Meaning’. Gins reimagined the English sentence to enact a way of perceiving the world that would challenge the perceiver, helping them to evade the enervating sensory and spatial habits of contemporary life. She saw the sentence as at once spatial, temporal and shot through with servers (i.e. words).

Madeline Gins (1941–2014) was born in New York, USA. ‘Arakawa and Madeline Gins: Eternal Gradient’ is on view at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, New York, until 16 June. Gins’s final work, Biotopological Scale-Juggling Escalator (2013), is on permanent view at Dover Street Market, New York.


Date: April 4, 2018

Publisher: frieze

Format: Print, web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the article.

This article appears in the print edition of frieze, May 2018, issue 195, with the title "Visionary Cybernetics."


Cover image.


Madeline Gins.


Madeline Gins, Title page of WORD RAIN, 1969, Grossman Publishers, New York.


Madeline Gins, What the President Will Say and Do!!, 1984, Station Hill Press, New York.

Narrative After Nature


To the extent that the world is made up of narrative discourse these days, it seems to have two fundamental ingredients or axes: plausibility and syntax. I write, “To the extent..,” because I am unsure how great the influence of narrative on current existence really is—or, for that matter, where narrative is. But to the extent that narrative is still with us, it seems to manifest itself via plausibility, a quality, and syntax, a quantity. In other words, narrative has to have some persuasive valence and it has to put things in an order; these are the minimums. We are also apparently living in a time that flatters and elevates the minimum, a curious aesthetic point in itself.

Take, for example, the news, a narrative form. It has lately taken one of the more dramatic turns in our newest era of turns, implosions, inflations, and drops. And we could talk, in particular, about a turn, in style and tone, of one of the most read organs of narrative discourse in the English language, the New York Times. Uncertain mental paging backward suggests one signpost of the shift to a buoyant new reportorial voice and enthusiasm for visual media, i.e., video, occurred in mid-2016. In May of last year the Times’s Executive Editor Dean Baquet delivered a memo outlining a coming transformation of the time-honored publication of record, long the haven of “All the News…,” etc. No more would the Gray Lady focus myopically on incremental, event-based coverage; up-to-the-minute announcements, Baquet noted, are available all over the Web. Rather, the Times would focus on “authoritative journalism and information readers can use to navigate their lives.” Stories would “relax in tone.” Editors and reporters would develop pleasing new “story forms” attuned to the continually changing ways in which readers consume information and, I guess, live. Baquet’s memo of May 2016 is of a piece with March 2014’s Innovation Report, a document that begins with the Sheenian—and now, I suppose, Trumpian—assertion that, “The New York Times is winning at journalism.” This report admitted the newspaper’s urgent need to seduce new readers, along with an ambition to become more “nimble” and fluent in the ways of the digital age. More recently, in January of this year, the 2020 Report appeared. Things look a bit more sanguine (particularly following the so-called “Trump-bump” of increased subscriptions during the harrowing miasma of post-election days and the interregnum). Baquet’s May 2016 memo on the ubiquity of free up-to-the-minute information is expanded, in the 2020 Report, into a thesis about why certain sorts of journalism are less read, “The most poorly read stories, it turns out, are often the most ‘dutiful’—incremental pieces, typically with minimal added context, without visuals and largely undifferentiated from the competition. They frequently do not clear the bar of journalism worth paying for, because similar versions are available free elsewhere.” The Times must now dedicate itself to “All the News That’s Worth Paying For,” if it is to survive.

To return to my original contention, the Times now deals in plausibility, not fact. And it arranges this plausibility, employing a fun, multimedia syntax. These two gestures suffice, at a minimum, to give it a new narrative style. All this is particularly keenly clear to me because, from time to time, I read microfilm versions of the Times of yore in the basement of NYU’s Bobst Library. I awkwardly manipulate the little film reels and the required viewer for research purposes (this isn’t a case of nostalgia!). Though I do not doubt a single one of the eminently reasonable rationales for change supplied in either one of the Times reports or the memo above, I’ve lately been struck, as I scroll through old articles, zooming in and out, by the loss of the former fibrous, drab, newsy tone. On my way home from the library, I’ll take a look at the current paper, or, rather, update. My daily New York Times “Evening Briefing” appears in my inbox, concluding with a cheery image of some squad of adorable animals or a salute to a counterintuitive and amusing statistic. A sea lion has been rescued in a fuzzy sling! Losing your house keys is, paradoxically, healthful! In spite of myself, I often tremble as I come to the end of the briefing email. I know I’m being courted, entertained, if not pulled back from some imagined psychological brink. In someone’s eyes, I may be a bad reader. I may be distracted. I may not know what’s going on. And at this moment, as I am reading and recognizing a general plausibility overtaking fact, I often miss that former carelessness and professionalism, the hardboiled voice of the mean, old, strict, and somehow trusting paper, the one that talked about “unabashedly savvy real estate” and people who were “stalking a job” (this was the early 2000s, when the table was being set for another implosion), and so on.

If we are readers of realist novels, struggling with the gooey concept of the merely plausible, we might take a long view. We might indulge in some soft epochal categories. We might say that if the West’s 19th century was The Century of the Clerk, and the 20th century The Century of the Teenager, it has already begun to appear, if always prematurely, that the 21st century is The Century of the Troll. Each of the aforementioned figures has its own peculiar relationship to the act of narration. And another obvious tendency allies them: Each labors to reproduce culture. Bartleby, Bob Cratchit, and Bouvard and Pécuchet either did something repetitive or nothing at all; cinema and novels from The Magic Mountain to Lolita, from Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar to Infinite Jest, addressed themselves to individuals on the verge, exploited, ridden with angst, destined to embody whatever culture was, just before they became irrelevant adults; online expressions are relentlessly dissected, distorted, redistributed, but are there any good novels about this yet? Or is it that everything now is about this, including elections? We know well the clerk’s superannuated affect, either nonexistent or mystifyingly attuned to minutia. The teenager longs, weeps, rages, and ironizes, as the curtain of the most American of centuries falls on a pharmacologically managed excess of anxiety and deficit of attention. And now we seem to wonder if we should bother awakening into the next hundred years (who, anyway, is in charge of narrating it?).

The troll, broadly defined, is not a critic or satirist, so much as a weird method actor. The troll has traditionally participated by defining participation itself in an ambiguous if not absolutely negative light. The troll establishes the terms of others’ commitment to truth (which is to say, to any idealized and apparently unmediated entity) and reflects these back as image and/or text, and incessantly. But the troll’s either antisocial or paradoxically altruistic (or, both) interventions have already been extensively analyzed by individuals more qualified than I, and I would merely like to draw from this somewhat hastily defined category a general sense of why the plausible is so important—and how we can possibly give this category a more active, if not positive, valence.

Looking into a series of fragments I’ve jotted down in a notebook, I come across the following vague question, “Given the variety of temporalities that exist, solutions?” I’ve also written a phrase, “Lack of a preexisting commons.” And another strange question, “Does what we cannot forget take the form of an event?” In my own thinking around narrative, I’m familiar with discontinuity. It’s taken me years to learn to write a legible paragraph, and I still approach prose with trepidation, as it’s a highly artificial undertaking for me. (The way I think feels nothing like what I am doing here.) All the same, I am interested in the aspects of narrative that occur at the intersection of technique and reflection, and in prose, though of course not all narration occurs in prose.

Plausibility probably seems, at face value, like an extremely, even depressingly, insignificant quality of narrative. Indeed, it is. But plausibility, as a mere or minor way of addressing what is the case, of reducing the copula from hard-and-fast equivalency to a dotted line, offers us something by way of method that should not be ignored. Much as the troll proceeds from categories in which truth and the sublime are not merely under erasure but the tortured disillusionment leading to said erasure itself constitutes a risible piety, those who manipulate the plausible begin from an analogous point of liberty—a liberty that may also double as disaffection, alienation, boredom, despair. Yet those who play upon plausibility rather than actuality rescue contemplation from foolhardy ideals as well as from paranoid excoriation and embarrassingly principled condemnation. Or, rather, in the weird light of the subjunctive, such writers might, under the right conditions, permit contemplation to occur. (Plausibility need not, for example, be a species of pandering….)

I am not really much on optimism these days, but I did want to say something about why I think it’s particularly worth paying attention to weirder forms of narrative prose right now. I interviewed the writer Dodie Bellamy over the summer, and she said something to me that stuck. She said that there are reasons not to throw out narrative, and I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve thought about this in relation to Renee Gladman’s great new book of short prose, Calamities, in which refrain, repetition, and digression are treated as significant narrative forms—or, they become narrative forms, at least in the sense in which I find myself coming to understand narrative. Narrative does not have to be about moving things forward. It can be about going farther into what one has wanted a word or a sentence to be able to do, describing that wish. One could narrate writing itself, though of course the act of writing has a tendency to become a bit different from what is being talked about. Gladman opens each of her short “essays” (her term) with the incipit, “I began the day….” From here, a variety of things can occur; we might learn about a language game some academics are desultorily running their hands over, or we might hear about the effects of recent reading on the present, about the proximity of old loves. Plausibility is a gentle mist that squires us around. Someone is talking in these essays. Or, rather, someone is writing. I struggle here to express to you the elegance of the thought that is presented in Calamities. I think of the staircase, that fantastic human invention. I guess I would like to ask you to think of a staircase that has some sunlight on it. There is no anxiety in this writing about conviction. A step is offered; you go down. Syntax rises to the occasion, as style.

Perhaps it doesn’t make sense that I see the lightness of such plausibility and gracefully proffered syntax as becoming realer than the labored references of realist prose, but maybe you will understand what I mean. There is something that I want narrative to do now, which is, simply, to believe that I am here and will read, that my presence as a reader is a plausible one. The writer and artist Madeline Gins, for one, often worked with a fantastic sense of obviousness in this vein, so clear and energetic. In her first book of prose, of 1969, WORD RAIN or A Discursive Introduction to the Philosophical Investigation of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), Gins writes, “I give you this book for a present. It comes with a room, light, a country, sky and weather. I will arrange for you to be made aware of these in detail. You may look at everything. You will see only what I see. Look at this sentence.” This will never happen, but I might like it very much if tomorrow’s “Evening Briefing” concluded with this such a series of sentence-based announcements. And if the New York Times began exploring this sort of story form.


Date: April 6, 2017

Publisher: The Poetry Foundation

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


On site.


Pages from WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Philosophical Investigation of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says) by Madeline Gins.

Archival Fiction Upends Our View of History


Realist historical fictions, with the rustling demands of their costumes and their period-appropriate speech, often depend on painstakingly described physical veracity, sensory believability, to steep a reader in the past. While not necessarily factual, such works say: This really occurred, and now you, too, may experience it. As the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt enthused in a review of “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel’s novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell—perhaps the paradigmatic contemporary example of such fiction—great historical novels “provide a powerful hallucination of presence, the vivid sensation of lived life.”

But a handful of recent works of fiction have taken up history on radically different terms. Rather than presenting a single, definitive story—an ostensibly objective chronicle of events—these books offer a past of competing perspectives, of multiple voices. They are not so much historical as archival: instead of giving us the imagined experience of an event, they offer the ambiguous traces that such events leave behind. These fictions do not focus on fact but on fact’s record, the media by which we have any historical knowledge at all. In so doing, such books call the reader’s attention to both the problems and the pleasures of history’s linguistic remains.

The book that made this distinction clear to me is a new novel by Danielle Dutton, called “Margaret the First.” Dutton’s Margaret is Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who lived from 1623 to 1673 and was one of the first British women to publish in print under her own name. Cavendish wrote numerous plays, poetry collections, memoirs, philosophical and scientific treatises, and one of the earliest works of utopian science fiction, a novel titled “The Blazing World.” Her marriage to the liberal and well-connected William Cavendish was significant not just for the title it afforded her but because of William’s acquaintance with such contemporary luminaries as René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and Marin Mersenne. Though Margaret’s interactions with these men were mostly indirect, their influence is felt throughout her oeuvre, including her unusual “Philosophical Letters,” of 1664, an imagined correspondence in which she debates many of their views and the mechanistic scientific tendencies of the time.

Cavendish’s life had enough drama to serve a more conventional historical novel; at least one or two of her illegitimate children, lost to history, could surely have been imagined in these pages. Or Dutton might have chronicled a love affair with, say, the cross-dressing Queen Christina of Sweden, whom Cavendish imitated in one of her own most audacious social stunts, baring her rouged breasts at the theatre. But Dutton’s Duchess mostly stays at home. And she exists, in this book, as a study in textual vestiges, as much palimpsest as person. She is first revealed to the reader via the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys. Dutton draws on quotations from Pepys’s diary to narrate an amusing interlude from his life: he was in a crowd when Cavendish’s carriage drove by, the mob shouting after it “Mad Madge! Mad Madge!” (The origins of that nickname are disputed, but Cavendish was well known for sartorial, as well as literary, eccentricity.) Dutton’s Pepys feels himself slightly above fandom, but he is struck by her nonetheless: “The whole story of this lady is a romance, and everything she does,” he writes.

That Cavendish’s contemporaries considered her a sort of fiction, even in the flesh, makes her a particularly appropriate subject for Dutton’s approach. The novel is told half in the first person, half in the third, and in some sense very little occurs. Dutton does not supplement the fascinating material details of Cavendish’s milieu with period intrigue; there are no poisonings, no clavichord-backed avowals of love. There are, instead, vivid, episodic bursts of narration, recounting a birthday party, the teasing of her by siblings, and Margaret’s time at court in Oxford, after the revolution interrupted her aristocratic family’s bucolic life. Dutton gives us brief, imaginative glimpses of the youthful Margaret, but as she becomes more famous and, therefore, more recorded, by herself and by others, what we get becomes less speculative, and more tied to those records. In this way, Dutton foregrounds the textual limitations of history, even if it means inventing less of Margaret’s later years.

Dutton’s previous novel, “Sprawl,” is an ekphrastic meditation on the aesthetics of American suburbs, and “Margaret the First,” like that book, is largely descriptive. So, for example, a section about Cavendish’s struggle to conceive a child consists largely of a list of the cures that were prescribed to her and her husband:

This time they tried, for him, crystals taken from wood ash and dissolved in wine each morning; for me, a tincture of herbs put into my womb at night with a long syringe. I submitted silently, William out in the hall. Come autumn I was to be injected in my rectum with a decoction of flowers one morning, followed by a day-long purge, using rhubarb and pepper, then a day of bleeding, then two days where I took nothing but a julep of ivory, hartshorn, and apple, followed by another purge—and on the seventh day I rested. After this came a week of the steel medicine (steel shavings steeped in wine with fern roots, nephritic wood, apples, and more ivory), described by a maid as "a drench that would poison a horse."

Throughout the novel, Dutton treats the reader to a variety of carefully researched objects: “a fine sugar cake with sprigs of candied rosemary like diamond,” “a transparent beehive from which the men extorted honey without disturbing the bees.” Cavendish believed that everything in the universe was fundamentally material, and that matter—including, for instance, books and letters—was capable of thought. It makes a kind of sense, then, that Dutton would reanimate her through textual and material sources—including Virginia Woolf’s essay about her, “The Duchess of Newcastle,” lines from which appear in “Margaret the First.” Dutton acknowledges this in an Author’s Note, and includes a list of more than twenty other books she drew on in her research. Reviewing the book in the Times, the writer Katharine Grant suggested that this reliance on other sources might make readers see the novel as “more a sewing together than an entirely original work,” as though that would be a bad thing. But this is a virtue, and the key to Dutton’s portrayal.

Dutton’s handling of history calls to mind other recent books set in the past, books that have, on the surface, little in common with “Margaret the First.” Marlon James’s Man Booker Prize-winning “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” from 2014, revolves around an attempt on Bob Marley’s life in the late seventies. But the book is full of contentious, unresolvable voices, and never gives us an objective spot to stand on. The role of narrator cycles among members of the police, both Jamaican and American C.I.A., and among agents of various syndicates; there are also relatively innocent bystanders. The story is constantly shifting, and no one seems entirely up to date on what has actually happened. One of James’s characters, Papa-Lo, a Jamaican gang leader of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, gives voice to this continual state of uncertainty. “Sometimes,” he says, “I don’t learn till too late, and to know something too late? Well is better you never know as my mother used to say. Worse, you all present tense and have to deal with sudden past tense all around you. It’s like realizing somebody rob you a year late.” The novel revels in the immediacy of oral history even as it points out, “Rashomon”-like, the difficulty of establishing a single, unified story via first-hand accounts. Perhaps, James seems to suggest, there is no such thing—no pure, stable, and eternally recognizable occurrence, against which all other occurrences can be measured.

John Keene’s short story and novella collection “Counternarratives,” published last year, does something similar, albeit in a very different style. Keene presents many of his stories in the official voice of history; they include maps and newspaper clippings and employ archaic prose styles, and they gradually reveal the ways in which histories lie. “On Brazil, or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras” opens with a news account of the discovery of a dead body in a favela. Then the story shifts to a historian-narrator, who chronicles a dynasty of slave-holding Brazilian oligarchs. Gradually it becomes clear that neither this historian nor the news report can be trusted. Elsewhere, Keene’s protagonists speak in the first person, at once revealing themselves and receding into attractive turns of phrase. Keene’s polyvocal narratives masquerade as “primary-source documents” and present convincing first-person testimony, while at the same time establishing undercurrents that undermine the victors’ tales—and any hope that we will ever fully settle on the truth.

These techniques are not entirely new, of course. Umberto Eco’s best-selling “The Name of the Rose,” published more than three decades ago, is a semi-archival fiction, which imagines that the pages of Aristotle’s writings on comedy were poisoned by a zealous medieval monk, then destroyed in a fire. But Eco’s murder mystery is a flagrantly fictionalized work of literary commentary; his novel wants us to meditate on the canonical prohibition of laughter via an obviously fanciful imbroglio. Though it’s not a work of fiction, a more interesting point of comparison might be Michel Foucault’s strange 1975 text, “I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother...: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century.” Foucault collects the dossier of the legal proceedings, including first-person testimony, along with Rivière’s own beatific autobiography. “Pierre Rivière” is, then, quite literally an archive, but it also functions like a novel, a quality not lost on Foucault.

Though she draws extensively on textual sources, Danielle Dutton does allow herself the freedom of a novelist. (Her author’s note begins, “This is a work of fiction.”) “I am much too,” Dutton’s Cavendish says at one point, unabashedly comparing herself to accomplished men of her day. Cavendish is much, but I have been unable to locate this boastful phrase in any of her published output. Of course, this does not mean that the Duchess could not have scribbled it somewhere or, perhaps, thought it. But clearly, in “Margaret the First,” there is plenty of room for play. Dutton’s work, like James’s and like Keene’s, serves to emphasize the ambiguities of archival proof, restoring historical narratives to what they have perhaps always already been: provoking and serious fantasies, convincing reconstructions, true fictions.


Date: May 6, 2016

Publisher: The New Yorker

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


On site.


Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, seen here in an undated seventeenth-century illustration.

  • Author's Note: The final lines of this essay promote a theory of historical ambiguity that could be understood as relativistic (i.e., all accounts are equally suspect). This is of course not the case, and the essay should have been edited to reflect this important fact. To repeat: Some histories are more accurate, more urgent, and, yes, more true than others.

The Many Ways & Reasons to Mix Poetry + Prose

Contributing to a Long-Standing and Very Various Tradition

All I often knew was that I did not only want to write poems. This was a theme through my adolescence (I was an early writer, in some ways) and then later. A bizarre depression settled over the already strange young person that I was, for I had inherited a world that stringently divided prose from verse, that swore to the usefulness of prose and the mere tolerability—bemoaning a noxious lack of good, clear purpose—of poetry, as pop songs played in the background. And on this point I have mostly remained despondent. I have never wanted only to write poems or, for that matter, to write only prose.

But as luck and the lucky fact that it is nearly impossible for a human being to have an entirely unique desire would have it, I was not alone in my wish for literary combination. Though this form, practice, or, as it may be, genre is seldom taught in school (I have been to many), there exists a long-standing and various tradition of bringing together poems and prose into synthetic items of literature. In the classical West sometimes this is called prosimetrum. Elsewhere, I have liked terms like “miscellany,” “saga,” “postmodern novel.” There are, it turns out, not just many ways, but many reasons to write a work bringing together groups of sentences with groups of words that are measured out according to principles and patterns that are not merely grammatical. If your eyes can withstand another 1,500 words, you may gather what are, in my opinion, a few of the better reasons for engaging in this sort of mixture.

REASON ONE: you recognize that much distinction is arbitrary. I do not know if prose is the opposite of verse. This is like asking what the opposite of a cat is. Some may know that verse and prose have long had the strange if plausible function of designating, in writing, the difference between song and “plain” speech. It’s on these grounds, anyway, that much of the much-touted, as well as the much-debated, specialness of poetry, particularly lyric poetry, is, as far as I have been able to ascertain, based.

Let us jump to the 17th century in France. A character in Molière’s Bourgeois gentilhomme remarks (I paraphrase), “Very cool. I had no idea I’d been speaking prose my whole life.” Such limp delight at learning that one is already playing by timeworn rules suggests a rhyme between canonicity and complacency, of course, but could also hint at the radical irrelevance of the very category of prose—or, for that matter, speech. It is surely easier to maintain interest in these matters when writing has not lain down and died in the pit suggested by the verse-prose distinction. The German Romantics’—to jump again—idea of prose was pleasantly nonstandard. If aphoristic, it was endlessly so, like a staircase in a dream. Their poems were likewise dreamy; sometimes fragmentary, disordered. Their novels included folk songs and other lyric professions, suggesting that there was something particularly worthy about the combination of lineated language with the paragraph, the breaking of prose. The poet Novalis wrote about the sentence as a temporary “containment” of linguistic dynamism, maintaining that “A time will come when it no longer exists.” And Friedrich Schlegel, in his “Letter on the Novel,” composed at the dawning of the new (19th) century, insisted on a lapidary lineage of mixed genre dating back to the late middle ages: “I can hardly imagine a novel otherwise than as a mixture of narrative, song, and other forms. Cervantes never composed otherwise, and even Boccaccio, in other respects so prosaic, decorated his collection with inset songs.”

It seems, too, that within the apparently mongrel and/or pastiche environment of novels including songs, which is to say, songs surrounded by narrative prose, poets might act not only as convenient speakers or singers but also as more or less curious characters, bringing me to my second rationale, aka, REASON TWO: it is conceivable to you that the poet is as likely to be a character or other figment, as a genuine, living person. For Anglophone readers, the inevitable point of comparison is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, of 1962. And, as this novel points up, when the poet, here one John Shade, becomes a character, we find a literalized depiction of those aspects of personality and personal history that in America the professional critic was tasked with discovering and/or vivisecting on behalf of the lay reader. Whether or not Nabokov was aggressively satirizing New Critical leanings in American letters, Pale Fire, like Novalis’s The Novices of Sais, places a poet in a landscape, which is at once the prose of the book and a more-or-less everyday world. In this sense the novelist might be acting as a sort of historian, folklorist, or cultural critic; the song or poem does not appear free of charge but rather demands context, which is often a close cousin of interpretation. It hardly need be said that in the novel the poem can be deployed in an endless number of ways, ranging from artifact to spell.

Yet, the paradigmatic examples of books of poems combined with plot have to be a pair of works written by contemporaries in 11th-century Japan, The Pillowbook by Sei Shōnagon and The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. In these two books, the first a diary, the second a novel, numerous characters within court society compose poetry. This is at once a pastime and a kind of networked system of communication and signification, permitting simultaneous epistolary address and reference back to the system, to its histories and commonplaces. Through the poems interspersed in The Pillowbook and The Tale of Genji we learn not merely the emotions and motivations of characters, but also how they deal with the problem of writing and how they deploy it, whether as lure, dissimulation, entreaty, or gift outright. For writing is not only unnatural, it is also and of course a means of obtaining and manipulating power. And the ambiguity of the poem permits kinds of meaning prose’s obviousness precludes. A description of a flower may be just that, yet it may also be sign or secret message; it will be read differently by different characters, just as by the reader herself, who reads over, as it were, characters’ putative shoulders.

The prismatic nature of the poem, its turning inability to remain “just text,” or “just address,” or “mere symbol,” or “absolute literal designation,” and on and on, is also exploited in exceedingly interesting ways in the American modernist context. The lack of (Romantic) mysticism or (medieval) intrigue is made up for in prosimetrical works that take the poem as an item capable of varying and destabilizing contemporary prose to ends at once aesthetic and political. Works by Jean Toomer and William Carlos Williams bring me to my third and final historical reason to combine, REASON THREE: you are bored with a certain (sad) status quo. Toomer’s Cane, of 1923, presents a combination of modernist poems, clear and vivid in their depictions of American landscapes and persons, with short prose vignettes employing vernacular language along with song-like refrains. This unique book’s intent seems to be to bring into dialogue the values of high modernism and the everyday speech and African American folk culture of the South; it seems to have ambitions at once ethnographic and loftily, exactingly stylistic. William Carlos Williams meanwhile locates an American identity through improvisation and excess, re-describing both prose style and the capacities of verse through various modes of excerption, appropriation, and apostrophe, after a fashion that belies his reputation as a rigorous reducer of words into machine-like things. Though Williams wrote many books of mixed genre, Spring and All, published in the same year as Cane and home to the famous minimal poem including a “wheel / barrow,” is the scene of a particularly powerful explosion of speed-fueled prose typewriting; it’s a book of leaps and lashings, a seeming attempt to prove that poetry can invade the syntax of the American sentence, ecstatically. If it does not exactly promote the joy of romantic love, then it demonstrates the power of an encounter of another kind, between precise syllabic poems and a tumbling, rushing onslaught of prose. Like Cane, Spring and All is a comparative text; it invents new terms and tastes by way of contrast and association.

Above I have supplied three reasons, and though I like them fairly well, they do not, in the end, as is probably to be expected, exhaust all my thinking and feeling about varying, combinatory writing styles. I may care most about a mixture of styles because it allows the paranoiac in me to comment on the conservative literary (not to mention educational) systems that I fear linger in our world, in spite of—and sometimes even paradoxically by way of—the iconoclasm of modernist heroes et al. Verse is not just, to my mind, a form with various technical appurtenances, since it has a long history and specific social functions (inputs, outputs); like prose, it seems to me at times a sort of system, with myriad institutional nodes. Though I am not so heroic myself as to believe that my contemporaries are in need of saving, I do often find that some perverse aspect of me would very much like to make things a little bit messier, throw a wrench in the engine, and otherwise, pick your frustratingly well-worn metaphor, cause to function less smoothly said system of literary production. Most of all, stubborn being that I am, I find myself drawn to various styles of silence, said silence being a possible ingredient in, or sign of, the still, at least to me, unaccountable distance between poetry and prose.

Anyway, could we remove a poem from its job as a poem? A sentence, from its job as a sentence? What would we need to contribute to writing to cause such odd dismissals to transpire in a believable manner? What is the very smallest unit that can indicate plot, as such? What occurs (to us) when we are not sure what we are reading? To the extent that these aberrant questions have answers, they indicate the direction toward which some, though certainly not all, of my writing tends, which is to say, not toward the invention of new reasons for writing between and around and among established literary modes, but toward the invention of instances of contrast, that can in turn stand in stark contrast to the abundant supply of similarities I am sure to have found, in my perverse search for fresh difference.


Date: August 3, 2016

Publisher: Literary Hub

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


On site.


Blue and yellow make green.


The Pink Trance Notebooks
By Wayne Koestenbaum

I THINK OF the aphorism as a sympathetic form. The aphorism is succinct, correct. It slinks shut, sometimes with a little snap or tone. Its brevity is a performance and thus requires skill, also a source of its sympathy. Something (even a great deal of something) has been left out, but the aphorism is not merely or only a fragment or piece, something bit haphazardly off from something else. The aphorism is careful, rather than abrupt, and frequently warm. It is, as they say, lively. “I am dynamite,” says Nietzsche. “I’m like the animals in the forest. They don’t touch what they cannot eat,” says Karl Lagerfeld. “In love, he who heals first, heals best,” says La Rochefoucauld. “My vagina hurts when I watch gymnastics,” says Chrissy Teigen.

Wayne Koestenbaum, poet, novelist, and critic, in his recent The Pink Trance Notebooks, says, “— don’t / keep saying ‘Stabat Mater’ / as if it meant anything —.” Also: “I wrote / down every word the / drunk jocks muttered.” “I am the love / child of Las Vegas / and Belarus.” “I made a film / (Warhol-style) of the child / psychologist and me / orally grappling.” And: “am I / squirrel-like?”

Aphorisms please us. Aphorisms are literary. They end quickly. However, their boundaries are somewhat trickier to establish than one might imagine at first glance, and it’s in this that their peculiar literariness inheres. Literature’s transgression of boundaries (legal, generic, national, stylistic, etc.) allegedly establishes its value and/or goodness. This is the reason we like writing that is literary rather than not, that is not, therefore, purely professional, scientific, didactic, legal, personal, academic, commercial, factual, or whatever else. As artist and critic John Kelsey noted a few years ago, one can hardly be blamed for thinking that literature, in all its liberation and excess, has already been obviated by something called the internet!

As it mobilizes and gains speed, art becomes a lot more like what literature once was (which is a strange thought now, when literature is itself being superseded by digital culture): in its time, literature was a massive info leak that eroded disciplinary hierarchies, overflowing national borders and property lines alike.

“In its time.” I think about the collaborative project of the Athenaeum, a literary magazine put together in 1798 by the Schlegel brothers, August Wilhelm and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich, two key Romantics. Romanticism’s revolutionary republican, a subject by natural right, required a new mode of literary authority, with the result that the Romantic author styled himself “a massive info leak” — much as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy maintain in their work on “The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism,” The Literary Absolute. With the adoption of the aphoristic series, experimental writing becomes exciting to both writer and reader on account of this writing’s incompleteness, its interest in futurity, its individuality, and its allegiance with process rather than fixity. Or, as the poet Novalis informs the reader of an odd, aphoristic series published as “Blütenstaub” (Pollen) in the first issue of the Athenaeum, “The best of what the French won in their revolution is a piece of Germanity.” A magic genealogy imagined here, in which France’s revolutionary war at home wins it a piece of foreign spirit (if not soil), is made plausible through literary induction. Novalis maintains, “It is a matter of course, for we stand on exactly the road the Romans arose from.” Because Germans are aesthetically linked to Roman mores, republicanism is also German, as is — the reader triumphantly discovers — la République. Romantic literature permits a specialized and nearly nonsensical synthesis, i.e., “France is German,” that is also an overflow of other disciplines, of other criteria for truth — or, as Paul de Man fastidiously puts it, “the continuity of aesthetic with rational judgment […] is the main tenet and the major crux of […] ‘Romantic’ literatures.”

Whether or not it now makes sense to view the discursive syntheses of the World Wide Web in a similar light (i.e., as somehow like art, which is somehow like literature, which is basically Romantic), not least of all because of the existence of algorithmically generated hierarchies, the question of a link between literature’s abilities or ambitions and republicanism remains — as does the question of what literature may, more generally, do or say and for whom. Without taking Kelsey too much to task, it hardly needs to be said that definitions of literary value that depend upon Romanticism are probably incomplete.

Enter Wayne Koestenbaum. Or not, “Enter Wayne Koestenbaum,” because I’m not sure Koestenbaum shares my weird dread that literature may one, not exist, or two, be the inherited fever dreams of a bunch of second-rate philosophers, but enter Wayne Koestenbaum anyway, because Koestenbaum has some very interesting ideas about how to combine aesthetic and rational thought and has placed many of these thoughts in a book called The Pink Trance Notebooks, a series of poems that take the form of lineated aphorisms. These aphorisms are witty, have music if not rhyme, and are occasionally quite visually precise. They combine the sometimes painfully personal with erudition and wit. Re: my aforementioned dread(s), Koestenbaum seems to suggest that I could consider asking myself, “Why do straight men / want to hang out with me? / Why does the Iliad exist?” Good questions.

Like the fascinating rubbish tips that have collected on the ground in a brief metaphor in a certain dodgy English translation of Lacan’s essay on “The Mirror Stage,” in The Pink Trance Notebooks well-turned phrases of diverse origin have been let fall. Choice aphorisms seem to have dropped into a series of notebooks in the course of the writer’s approach to an image of himself. We do not know what the writer’s image looks like except in some screened, flickering, or otherwise transitory view. (Possibly there is no monolith, anyway.) Advice as to whom we’re dealing with, what sorts of men, women, art, and gestures he likes, is always partial; always displayed as non sequiturs, small flags, signals, lines. I would hesitate to call this code, since the rhetorical dynamic is not one of replacement of one thing by another but rather replacement of any feasible or conceivable whole by a sidelong glance, a flash, a sinew. Yet the synecdoche bears a “natural” affiliation with some environment. A whole social life, a whole life, flows on behind these glances. And there is a sense that the eye that beholds what is here also squeezes, flexes a bit, recombines, palpitates something that is, as in that cliché, fugitive. But like most clichés, it’s not just that.

A number of authorities have remarked that time may have two valences rather than three. In other words, that the division may not be between past, present, and future, but rather between the fixity or relative knowability (of course, debatable) of the past and the virtuality of just about everything else. The present is constantly unfolding and therefore impossible to freeze, still, or otherwise capture. The future, meanwhile, is an irrelevant puff of ether, a nightmare or fantasy toward which we are all, if the calendar is to be believed, inexorably drifting. Yet Koestenbaum’s poems seem to have felt, rather than everybody’s everyday speculative dread, a temporal split, and on a daily basis. They dispense with the dumb dream of the future and peruse the present’s extraordinarily limited depths. Smallish (though neatly organized into larger units via notebook), they seem to have been written in — or on, or with — a quite particular portion of the present’s inexhaustible not-quite-yet-ness, the side that kisses the past, and this is why, I believe, we see the word “trance” in this collection’s title, or, rather, why these are trance notebooks rather than notebook notebooks. One does not get to inhabit the queer aspect of the present, its virtual, glowing, ebbing outline, while making a rational spreadsheet at high noon, socialized in a budgetary meeting, sunlight roaring in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, wide awake, and perhaps, because one is so conscious, enjoying some cold-pressed beet juice. (Of course, bright sun can produce its own delirium.) No, because no matter how awake one may be in this scenario, no matter how pink one’s juice, this is not where the present lives. The present is a nothing; it is also all there is (“preemptive / Kaddish for the not dead,” Koestenbaum begins one vignette). The present’s wildness, its unsuitability for codification as knowledge or fact, also suggests the need for trance, as well as the need for synthesis.

I like the notion that trance — being another German import, musically speaking — could displace the sublime. People have spanked the sublime pretty thoroughly of late and, from what I can tell, dispensed with it; but the German Romantics, those so deeply invested in the literary aphorism and that form’s bizarre borders, of course cherished sublimity, with its simultaneous pain and pleasure, its symmetries of annihilation and incontrovertible presence. And I think the Romantics’ desire for an aestheticized language of republicanism, one of magic synthesis, remains a significant object lesson. We have, at any rate, arrived at a moment in American poetry (apologies for the nationalism) at which certain long-cherished questions of address and form are no longer enough to help us out. So-called “conceptual poetry,” whatever this term means, which was apparently designed to give equal traction to all persons with browsers and word-processing software, a highly reasonable aesthetics if ever there was one, has devolved into an attempt on the part of the usual suspects to leverage the commons, if not history itself, during the course of yet another academic conference. Meanwhile, for all the reasons that the lyric has traditionally been disappointing, the reasons Adorno suspects that the lyric’s “own principle of individuation never guarantees the creation of compelling authenticity,” the lyric is still, like your sexy pizza slice costume, failing to impress universally and unequivocally this fall.

The trance state is one in which we are led; we slough off the limits of agency in favor of becoming not one, but n+1 (with apologies to the magazine, whom I don’t mean to invoke). Entranced, we are in the sway of some unknown — or, depending on the kind of trance, some known — other. Rimbaud, famously: “Je est un autre.” But Rimbaud was only drunk. The trance state is not a pronominal exchange; it’s an encounter, an ecstatic combination rather than a coma, renunciation, or switch. Speaking of the lyric, Koestenbaum asks, “Is Whitman pro-onanism / or anti-onanism?” He answers himself, “Obviously / both, Whitman is / pro-bowel.” One could call this a question of profundity, or one could read it as the announcement of a poetic mode that has always, for excellent reasons, been just a few steps ahead, as well as just out of reach, of the ideological quandaries Romanticism so agonizingly and so ecstatically thought to make us care about.


Date: December 2, 2015

Publisher: The Los Angeles Review of Books

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction

Link to the essay.


On site.


Wayne's world.


Definitions of literary value that depend upon Romanticism are probably incomplete.

  • The essay by John Kelsey cited in the text is "Next-Level Spleen," originally published in the November 2012 issue of Artforum.

Three Books by Lisa Robertson


Is it odd to begin liking a poet on the basis of a pair of lines? This happened to me with the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson. And though I eventually found that I did my liking on a semierroneous basis, the affinity was secure. I loved these two lines, from a slim untitled poem out of Robertson’s 2001 collection, The Weather.

It was Jessica Grim the American poet
who first advised me to read Violette Leduc

Are you aware that Jessica Grim and Violette Leduc are both real people? I was not, at least until I came across Leduc’s 1964 memoir, La Bâtarde (The Lady Bastard), on the cover of which a pair of female profiles look ready to kiss. I just liked the sound of those names, “Jessica Grim,” “Violette Leduc”; one character arrives with a strange haircut and opinions, the author she recommends could wear boots that cover the thighs. It’s a Nabokovian limb you potentially like your poet to venture out on: a commonplace the site of an unexpected evocation.

We’ll leave aside for a moment the fact that Jessica Grim is an American poet who, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, has published several books and also works as a librarian, and that Violette Leduc (1907‑­1972), besides authoring an autobiography, composed some nine novels and was a friend of Simone de Beauvoir’s: Lisa Robertson’s oeuvre is dense, sonically resonant verse and combinations of verse and lyric prose, and often the result of collaboration or travel—with other artists and across countries, centuries, and literatures, both high and low. The list of her publications gives a clue to her pursuits, which are simultaneously pastoral and modernist: The Apothecary (1991), The Badge (1994), The Descent (1996), Debbie: An Epic (1997), XEclogue (1999), The Weather (2001), Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), Rousseau’s Boat (2004), The Men: A Lyric Book (2006). What follows here treats three of these collections—The Weather, XEclogue, and Rousseau’s Boat—which show to great effect Robertson’s prized dilemma: how to stage obsolescence successfully, such that its strangeness, anachronism, and even its sometime illegibility, can be read intact. For whatever is obsolete is free for the taking. Which is to say, many abandoned styles have something (beauty) yet to offer; we need their insolvent otherness.

As I have explained, I am an innocent. I believed that Jessica Grim and Violette Leduc were aliases, just as I believed in the legitimacy of an “Office for Soft Architecture,” who had sent, folded into my copy of The Weather, a sky-blue flyer printed with a quantity of text presumably referring to that book. The flyer began promisingly: “We think of the design and construction of these weather descriptions as important decorative work.” But the text veered quickly into a territory I knew to be emphatically foreign to any authority worth its salt, with a nod in my direction, “What shall our new ornaments be? How should we adorn mortality now?” And, the author(s) insisted, now plaintive, “This is a serious political question.” The envoi finally convinced me of its impracticality as blurb:

Dear Reader—a lady speaking to humans from the motion of her own mind is always multiple. Enough of the least. We want to be believed.

Who were the authors of the flyer, this “Office for Soft Architecture”? None other than Robertson herself, writing to the reader from the pages of the book (Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture) which would follow The Weather.

But, to begin at the beginning of The Weather, even if Robertson is an author devoted to taking herself out of order, the book is divided into seven ‘days’ of the week, each section containing one long prose section and a shorter, more traditionally lineated poem. “Sunday” ‘s prose presents phrases commencing, “Here…,” with resultant residual anaphora as guide to their overall meaning: “Here is a church. Here is deep loam upon chalk. Here is a hill. Here is a house.” “Sunday” has, as its grander half, the strange untitled poem to which I first made reference:

It was Jessica Grim the American poet
who first advised me to read Violette Leduc.
Lurid conditions are facts. This is no different
from daily protests and cashbars.
I now unknowingly speed towards
which of all acts, words, conditions—
I am troubled that I do not know.
When I feel depressed in broad daylight
depressed by the disappearance of names, the pollen
smearing the windowsill, I picture
the bending pages of
La Bâtarde
and I think of wind. The outspread world is
comparable to a large theatre
or to rending paper, and the noise it makes when it flaps
is riotous. Clothes swish through the air, rubbing
my ears. Promptly I am quenched. I’m talking
about a cheap paperback which fans and
slips to the floor with a shush. Skirt stretched
taut between new knees, head turned back, I
hold down a branch,

Here the poem ends, at a comma. It is a factual, even banal, report on the fortunes of one literary person’s room—and the entrance into it of news, of memories, and of the weather—and, then again, this is pure fiction, each thing an instance of contrived metonymy. Robertson’s is a realism of epistemological concerns: even “[l]urid conditions are facts.” “I,” reader, no longer hold metaphor and perception apart; “I” compare, “I” fail to perceive discretely, “I … speed” impetuously into a fantasy in which reading has become, by virtue of this extraordinary capacity for association, a physical event. Most surprisingly, “This is no different….” “Clothes swish through the air”: the phrases borne toward the reader are a carousel of styles, and the shuffling of these costumes, the “shush[ing]” and “fan[ning]” of their physical manifestation as pulpy pages of a novel, “quench[es].” Yes, the “outspread world is / comparable to a large theatre,” but its materiality has become analogous only “to rending paper, and the noise it makes,” just as mortality is a detail, “pollen / smearing the windowsill.” Here everything returns to the book, carried as if by an irresistible wind. Who knows where this weather originates; Chaucer invented a House of Fame to explain it.

“I think of wind,” writes Robertson, portraying herself in a janissary pose at the climax of her long stanza—legs open and “head turned back”—she makes way for whatever’s arriving. Which is to say, a lot of reading went into the composition of The Weather. Robertson writes in her appendix that the book resulted from “an intense yet eccentric research in the rhetorical structure of English meteorological description.” Sources include BBC forecasts, and a number of rare, weather-related tracts: “Mr. Well’s Essay on Dew, Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds, Thomas Forster’s Researches About Atmospheric Phenomena,” among many others. By way of these tracts, weather returns to the séance prop closet in The Weather, less phenomenon than diction—which diction is needed (a grant or two probably had to be written to give Robertson time enough to hunt it down) to describe a gorgeous and fleeting consciousness, one unharnessed by memory and receptive only to marks made by the immediate. This is the obvious consciousness of the long prose poems, but it is also the finely balanced syntax of their lineated partners and of a final poem, “Porchverse.” The stanzas of “Porchverse” are spare and beautifully broken and talk about transformation—how things “go”—as in this fine report on the necessity of stillness in a speaker who wishes to bear witness to flight:

Then refused so lucidly as when
I saw a dog
run a doe
to sea.

Robertson’s 1999 collection, XEclogue, was already hot on this theme. And, indeed, hotter, as Virgil’s shepherd Corydon observes in the second Eclogue,

torva leaena lupum sequitur, lupus ipse capellam,
florentem cytisum sequitur lasciva capella,

Lion eats wolf eats goat eats flowering clover: we consume and are in turn consumed. Where The Weather sidesteps this chase and takes a position of third party observer, XEclogue takes enthusiastic part, in ten chapters each titled Eclogue. Robertson introduces her work here with the following excuse, “I needed a genre for the times that I go phantom.” By “go phantom,” Robertson means an inability to find herself reflected in the world around her, social or otherwise. This inability is often called Liberty, according to Robertson, and its symptoms include “illusions of historical innocence” and weird attempts to recognize oneself in “proud trees” and “the proud sky” (Robertson is less interested in flags and eagles). But Robertson has discovered that she has “an ancestress,” a woman of the landed class who is both dead and moving rapidly through the psychic woods, and who can offer advice about how to escape the numbing tropes of Nation and Nature:

Ontology is the luxury of the landed. Let’s pretend you “had” a land. Then you “lost” it. Now fondly describe it. That is pastoral. Consider your homeland, like all utopias, obsolete. Your pining rhetoric points to obsolescence. The garden gate shuts firmly. Yet Liberty must remain throned in her posh gazebo. What can the poor Lady do? Beauty, Pride, Envy, the Bounteous Land, the Romance of Citizenship: these mawkish paradigms flesh out the nation, fard its empty gaze. What if, for your new suit, you chose to parade obsolescence?

Political correctness has turned out not to be an entirely excellent exit-strategy for the twentieth century.
XEclogue is a discussion of this departure, among others. The book forms a basis for the work Robertson executes in her later collections, but it is also millennium-appropriate: full of richer language, speculation about the body politic, and contrived scenarios designed to help the reader entertain a more glamorous notion of self than “the Romance of Citizenship” normally affords.

XEclogue concerns a tripartite dramatis personae: a worried individual named Nancy, the brave and multifarious Lady M, and a gaggle of sex objects known as the Roaring Boys. What results is a series of letters, dialogues, complaints, and stage directions, which lead to the eventual reformation of Nancy, who initially proclaims: “I need to assume my dream of justice really does exist.” Just as Virgil simultaneously mourned alongside farmers who had lost their farmsteads to soldiers and poked fun at them in the Eclogues, Robertson shows she thinks psychology is a predicament and an opportunity. In this description of one of the Roaring Boys, it is difficult to tell when she is talking about the way he thinks and when she is referring to his looks:

Roaring Boy #1 is skinny and pure as the bitter white heel of a petal. Spent lupins could describe his sense of mind as a great dusky silky mass. Yet a feeling of being followed had taken his will away. In an age of repudiation he would exclude sullen indolence and reveal his lace. […] When he closes his eyes he asks: Shall I be sold up? Am I to become a beggar? Shall I take to flight? He is skinny and pure as a calling.

In passages like these, Robertson revitalizes prose and raises the question, if so much is possible in language, must it refer to a world at all? Robertson’s reply is that language must at least refer back to itself and, then, pointedly. She shares the literary conversation which nourished XEclogue at the book’s conclusion: eighteenth century “poet, traveler, and political critic,” Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Frank O’Hara, Virgil, anonymous fourth century ad Latin songs of the Pervigilium Veneris, Rousseau’s Social Contract, the Slits, the Raincoats, Patti Smith, Young Marble Giants, the Au Pairs, L7, Marguerite de Navarre, and many, many (it appears) others.

In spite of this careful acknowledgment of authorship, 2004’s Rousseau’s Boat finds Robertson toying with the remarkable notion that much of what makes the experience of writing powerful is her own lack of authority:

Here/ freedom has no referent. It is like/ an emotion. This is for/ them then. This is a passive narrative. I feel/ it could be useful. I’m forty-one. It/ gets more detailed. I feel an amazement.

The book is a short one. Its back cover bears a quote attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in which that thinker describes the way in which the perception of moving water can replace thought: “I felt in myself so pleasurably and effortlessly the sensation of existing….” It’s also a pleasure to hear the poet mention her age, “I’m forty-one.” And then, the astonishing way she bears this statement out: “It / gets more detailed. I feel an amazement.” Robertson displays a talent for the sweeter side of generalization, for unknowingness. The two large poems in the book, “Face” and “Utopia,” are full of hauntingly general language, which is no oxymoron. The poems repeat lines, and much of their power stems from the subtle accrual of sense produced by freely appearing refrains. Thus the reader becomes a subject born along in Rousseau’s boat (these languid poems), batted by lines which softly suggest the fact of mortality.

The effect of the downflowing patter of shade on the wall
was liquid, so the wall became a slow fountain in afternoon.
Our fears opened inwards.
Must it be the future?
Yes, the future, which is a sewing motion.

And Robertson keeps coming up with dates (“It was the spring of my thirty-fifth year,” she writes, or “It was 1993”) which are proof of the simple effect of sadness that precision can give. For the facts are outside the poem, and the poem itself travels away from standard referentiality, teaching thought to refer to itself:

This is one part of the history of a girl’s mind.

The unimaginably moist wind changed the scale of the morning,
Say the mind is not a point of origin, but a skin carrying
sensation into the midst of objects.
Now it branches and forks and coalesces.
In the centre, the fire pit and log seat, a frieze of salal and
foxglove, little cadmium berries.
At the periphery of the overgrown clearing, the skeleton of a
reading chair decaying beneath plastic.

Lisa Robertson knows where she is headed, but this is not the only reason that she is a trustworthy writer. Her work results from a reading practice in which words continue to disturb the poet, who is always just beginning to accept that there is more justice in literature than outside it.


Date: January 3, 2007

Publisher: n+1

Format: Web

Genre: Nonfiction
Link to the review.


On site.


La batarde.

  • Author's note: The conclusion drawn (by me) at the end of this essay is not one I would arrive at now. I think it's incorrect.

Ersatz Panda



A woman frequents a certain store. In the store there is a small black cat with white markings. The cat is very round, the kind of cat that will expand concentrically when she (delicately) gains weight. Everything about the cat is small and round, from her round feet to her round eyes and small, round snout. Even her tail is perennially looped. The cat’s roundness is perhaps partially the reason for her name, Panda, which the woman learns from the owner of the store. Panda’s coloring is the inverse of panda coloring, white circles on black fur.

Panda discreetly guards the store and expands roundly over the course of a winter. The owner of the store tells the woman, when she asks, that Panda is not pregnant, merely gaining weight. The woman occasionally makes videos of Panda standing on boxes of dishwashing detergent, preening herself against the corners of a rack displaying sacks of circus peanuts. These videos are sent, via MMS, to friends.

A summer passes, another fall, and then, during the course of the second winter of acquaintance with Panda, something happens. The woman enters the store to discover, on the floor of the store near the cash register, a large black cat with a white face and a surprising, bright pink nose, like a nub of chewing gum. This cat’s black fur hangs in grayish clumps, as if he has on a coat of dust over his regular black coat. He lets out a braying meow.

Another customer advises the owner of the store that it would be better to put ‘your lion’ elsewhere.

The new cat resembles Panda in that they are both cats. He also resembles Panda in that he is a black cat with white markings. But he is not Panda.

The woman asks the owner of the store where Panda is.

The owner of the store tells the woman that someone ‘took’ her. He says that this cat was left in Panda’s place. He knows nothing about the reasons for this event.

For many weeks, the woman, now avoiding the store, ponders the disappearance and replacement of Panda. The woman tells the story, up to this point, to a few friends, some of whom are already familiar with Panda, due to the MMSs. One friend begins referring to the replacement cat, the large cat with a pink nose and clumps of ungroomed fur, as Ersatz Panda. Other friends do not comment on the story or refer to the incident. The one friend continues, from time to time, to refer to Ersatz Panda. The woman thinks that this may have something to do with the fact that he, like the woman, was born and raised in the city.

At a second store the woman has begun frequenting, due to the need not to frequent the first store and in so doing be confronted by Panda’s replacement, there is a large orange cat. It drapes itself across a counter and stares dreamily into the ceiling.

The woman asks the person at the second store about the orange cat. The orange cat is a girl. She is called KC, short for ‘Kitty Cat’, which is not her real name.

The woman begins telling the story of Panda, ending on the encounter with Ersatz Panda.

The person at the second store says that this is very strange. She says that KC does not in fact belong to the second store but has for a long time been visiting it. Then last summer, the person at the second store says, a man began coming into the store, pointing at KC and saying, ‘That’s my cat!’

The person at the second store found this very strange. She was sure that KC was not the man’s cat. Subsequently, KC disappeared.

The person at the second store believed that the man who claimed that KC was his cat had taken her, but then, after several months, KC reappeared. And she has continued to appear at the second store. ‘There she is,’ the person at the second store says, pointing.

The woman observes that KC seems to know she is being discussed. ‘She won’t look at us,’ she says.

But now, as winter coasts into a long, slow spring, the woman becomes willing to return to the first store. Ersatz Panda’s fur clumps have disappeared and he appears smaller, if better nourished. He adopts a beatific hen pose.

Here the story ends.


Narration is the act of organizing discrete events into a series. Narration could simply be the act of juxtaposition, repeated, doubled and tripled. Narrative could be merely decorative, I sometimes think.

In the above story, Ersatz Panda is the name given to a cat of mysterious origins. Of course, we understand that the cat has no true name – at least, no proper, given name. In fact, the referent of the name, ‘Ersatz Panda’, is not even really the cat of mysterious origins. Rather, the referent of ‘Ersatz Panda’ is a tangle of social, economic and geographic relations. Some of these relations are mediated by MMS.

This story is interesting mostly because we know so little about what has happened. The story is also interesting because people in the story have so little to say about what occurs.

I think ‘ersatz’ is a beautiful word. And I think, at some level, I relate this story simply – and only – because it includes this word. ‘Ersatz’ first entered the English language, from the German, in the midst of the Victorian era, in the 1870s, a time of a craze for industrial substitutes, from so-called French jet (i.e., black glass) to photography. However, the word was apparently not much used by English speakers until scarcities of the First World War led to the advent of ‘ersatz coffee’, made from acorns, and ‘ersatz flour’, made from potatoes. These examples euphemize grimmer transpositions of mostly inedible materials (soil, paste). The ‘er’, of ‘ersatz’, is in fact an unaccented version of the more familiar prefix, ‘ur–’, meaning, ‘original, earliest, primitive’. The German verb, ersetzen, ‘to replace’, combines this prefix with a Proto-Indo-European root, sed–, which means ‘to sit/set’. There is a cruel element in this etymology, a sign of competition; a secondary thing is placed ‘originally’, in an ‘ur’ sense, belatedly obviating the first thing’s claim to be itself. (Why, we may ask, must the first thing ‘claim’ to be itself? It seems so unfair.) To return briefly to the story, which, in spite of its already having ended here, may be continuing elsewhere, the woman finds herself returning to the first store, warming to the somewhat retiring Ersatz Panda, a black tuxedo cat with a broad face and very pink nose.


I had to stop going to Ersatz Panda’s store for a little while because it all happened so quickly and I didn’t know what it meant. It was even difficult to write about. I mean, consider the situation: A beloved cat is replaced by a terrifying phony. An analogy with the severed horse’s head in your bed (Puzo) didn’t seem that far off. But I should be precise: I wasn’t thinking about retribution or criminal warnings. I was thinking about fate. Ersatz P. scared me, not because he seemed strange to me, but because I already knew him.

Someone once said that fate is ‘the reflection of the world in a raindrop’. This rings true to me but I have to unpack it. What I think this means is that everything that will happen is already determined. But everything is not determined from some future point of origin/view. This is why fate is weird. It is a pattern. It’s everything about your life flattened into an image and foretold in reverse, from this very moment on. Es rever nid loterofd na ega mina ot nide nettal fefil ru oyt u obag nih tyre vesti. That’s why you can’t understand it now.

Ersatz P. would always arrive at the corner store. Panda herself was just a delay, an adverb attached to the arrival of her replacement, since her replacement was her truer self. She was an image I sent to people without knowing the extent to which she already was an image. Ersatz P., on the other hand, is the kind of cat I would never photograph. When he showed up, at first I worried there was something wrong with the store. Later, I worried there was something wrong with me.

I am trying to stop worrying.

The truth is, a year and a half ago, I started making videos of this bodega cat. I made these videos from a swamp of loneliness and fear. I wanted to die but I absolutely wasn’t going to. I had already made up my mind. I refused to die, because dying would mean I had capitulated.

I tried to imagine a human being who was not cowed by failure. Since this was impossible for me at the time, I instead imagined a person who couldn’t really exist and endeavored to think of activities for this ‘person’. I imagined a person whose consciousness was a happy bobbing speck of fluff, a haze of light shimmering above the hood of a recent midsize vehicle. I did want this person to be, if not stupid, then mildly lacking in imagination. It was necessary that the person have no imagination. It’s counterintuitive, given that we’re prone to thinking about feeling as the result of what ‘really’ happens, and what ‘really’ happens is supposedly the opposite of what we imagine, but I’m convinced it’s people with no imagination who have the least idea of what’s going on and therefore live in bliss.

I have these smartphone videos I took of a cat.

The strangest thing was, it worked. Not that I lived in bliss, per se, but that I began to live among some other people.


Voiceover: Panda! Paaaaan Daaaaaa!

A very small black cat with white circles around her eyes walks along the top of a green box of dish detergent. The cat lowers her head and furiously grooms her cheek.

Voiceover: Panda! What are you doing?

The cat looks up. Her eyes are an impetuous dark yellow. They are the color of the petals of black-eyed Susans. The yellow of pre-Bloomberg taxicabs.


After Panda disappeared and the videos stopped, there came the period during which, as I mentioned, I stopped going to the first store at all. During this time, there were several miracles.

The first of these miracles was the painting of my downstairs neighbor’s door. From what I have been able to ascertain, my downstairs neighbor is retired. He does not seem to be entirely single, but he lives alone. He moved into the building last summer while I was away and occupies the smallest unit, whose footprint is partially eaten up by the building’s mailbox area. The first thing I noticed about him was a laminated sign he put on his mailbox. The sign had a bright red border. ‘Just Chillin’’ the sign said. Later, an identical but slightly larger sign appeared on the door of his apartment. This sign included additional information, that it was possible to obtain CD mixes and some sort of spiritual advising (I forget the exact wording) at this location. Sometimes, when I left the building in the morning, the door to the apartment was ajar and my neighbor could be seen working at his computer, his back to the door. The apartment was filled with boxes, stacked floor to ceiling.

Over the next six months, more signs were added to the door. I didn’t look very closely at them, partly, I think, because the door of the apartment was often open when I went by. The new signs included numbers indicating passages in the New Testament. Sometimes a brief portion of the passage in question was also included. There came to be many of these signs.

Then one day I came downstairs to find the building’s super and a younger relative of his painting the front door. They were also painting the door of my neighbor’s apartment, from which all the signs had been removed. They painted the door of my neighbor’s apartment brick red. The front door was painted white. For some reason, my neighbor never put his signs up again after this. It was an unusual (miraculous!) gesture on the part of the management company who collects our rent: In the three years I have been living in this building, I have never seen any attempt to improve it. All the windows are cracked and the floor tiles are coming up in the hallway. The place sways when a truck goes by.

Another sequence of events that seemed to result in something one could call a miracle was an interaction I had with the FedEx guy. When the FedEx guy comes to deliver things, he always calls me. This seems like a fairly recent change in procedure, but perhaps FedEx people have been calling cellphones instead of ringing doorbells for years, I don’t know. The FedEx guy always seems to call when I’m a few blocks away from the house. Sometimes I’m coming, sometimes going. If it’s coming, we chat while I sprint toward him. On the day in question I happened to be going so we agreed he’d leave the package downstairs. The problem was that when I returned home, the package wasn’t there. I did all the things you might expect, running around and checking behind corners and whatnot. I went outside and looked down the stairs leading to the basement. I left a sign in Sharpie for my neighbors on the back of the front door, advising anyone who’d picked up a package ‘by accident’ to please return it. I added that it contained nothing but ‘school supplies’ and other value-free crap. Thirty minutes elapsed. I remembered I had the FedEx guy’s number on my phone. ‘Hey,’ I said, calling him. ‘It’s me.’

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Hi. Did you get your package?’

‘See, that’s the thing.’

‘Hmm,’ he said. ‘Thought I hid it. I put it on those stairs, you know? The downstairs ones? And there were people walking by, so I pretended I was looking for a buzzer, you know? And I found this old part of a broom and I put it on there? Did you see?’

I was running outside to the basement staircase. There was indeed the head of a yellow plastic broom sitting on something.

‘Got it!’ I yelled.

‘Oh good,’ said the FedEx guy.

This was the second miracle.

The third miracle I won’t explain at length, but something I figured out via YouTube is that you can cut your own hair and it does look pretty good. I’m not sure if you know how much a haircut costs in NYC.

The final miracle is more complex. It was a Sunday and I was walking in my neighborhood with my friend, the person who named Ersatz Panda. He and I had just had a big breakfast and were moving slowly. We went past a row of garbage cans and on one can was a black and white cat. It was a mostly white cat, with a black ear. It was sunning itself, panting lightly.

My friend reached out to engage this cat. Anticipating his touch, it inclined its large, flat head.

I reminded my friend about cat parasites.

We walked on.

Behind us the cat flopped off its can. It followed us to the end of the block.

My friend said, ‘Thank you for reminding me not to pet Garbage Cat.’

I’m not sure why he said ‘reminding’, but the thing about this statement was it indicated I am part of the process by means of which he constructs his narrative. I exist for him.


The other thing you need to know about me is that I have been the victim of some pretty extreme forms of deceit. Not scams or frauds but romantic infidelity. This is why I feel reasonably comfortable with the notion that narrative could be merely decorative. It’s how I try to feel OK with what has occurred. A narrative might just be something you casually attach to your real, lived life – a tail made out of a necktie or an unattractive paper hat. It might be an enormous joke to you, but it’s not an enormous joke to me. And now I know this. My greatest desire has always been to take people literally. It’s not the same as wanting to trust them, but it’s related.

The miracles I mention above take their form(s) as miracles, as such, from the fact that some negative expectation of mine was not fulfilled. So: insignificant improvements were made to the apartment building; I found my package; I saved $100 last month; someone knows me. Other people might have less tenuous relationships with the notion that events like these could come to pass. Admittedly, they’re no big deal. But to me they are extraordinary. They indicate that my life will not be an unremitting disaster.

Also my friend: how do I explain. I don’t know if I even sent those videos of Panda to anyone else. He is my closest friend. But I’m a creature of this century and it’s no longer entirely clear what human friendship is.


A woman frequents a certain store. It is a repetitive action and therefore non-narrative. However, inside the repetition, something has changed.

I used to think that what disrupts repetitive living is fate. Now I think that what disrupts living is other people.

Maybe Panda was sitting outside her store, contemplating the seductive greenness of an overturned Heineken bottle. Maybe this contemplation was interrupted by the seductive approach of some eligible cat. Maybe Panda, vacating her post for love, sent out word via local cat networks and a viable replacement (a needy case) was found.

But this doesn’t account for that ‘someone’. It also depends on forms of agency that make no sense, regarding cats. There’s a whole body of literature, not just children’s literature, by the way, about this. Cats make concerted choices; they go adventuring; they know how to read; they return; they give themselves complex names pertaining to their ancestors; they enjoy dancing; they sniff flowers; they cross-country ski; they live forever. The weirdest thing is that while we know many of the above activities aren’t possible, it doesn’t seem entirely true – i.e., faithful to reality – to say that they are, conversely, impossible.

By the same token, every explanation I can give of why ‘someone’ would replace an adorable cat with a weird, obviously abused cat with similar markings is pretty bizarre. In most of these scenarios, this happens because ‘someone’ for some reason wants either to abuse the adorable cat in turn or to threaten the adorable cat’s owners. Maybe it is a combination of the two. But we don’t really have access to these motives. They’re lost to us and to livable time, and now the world we do have access to contains only Ersatz Panda, along with KC and Garbage Cat, all of whom are merely tangential, alas.

Someday I’ll pet Ersatz Panda. Or, given the parasites known to dwell in cat feces, parasites allegedly capable of migrating into the human brain, maybe not. Someday I’ll take a smartphone photo of Ersatz Panda. And I will send it to my friend. And he’ll reply.


Date: February 19, 2018

Publisher: Granta

Format: Web

Genre: Fiction

Link to the story.

One of Granta's 2018 Top Reads.


On site.


Romy Schneider's chin with kittens in Boccaccio ’70, 1962, dir. Luchino Visconti.

A Throw of the Dice


When we were first married, he went out and bought a ball gag. It wasn’t something I asked him to do. He wasn’t a tall man but I suppose he was reasonably strong. He had a construction job, at the time. It was the sort of work he claimed to prefer.

We were living in San Francisco and through some act of god managed to find an apartment we could afford in an occasionally fancy neighborhood. It was just two rooms with a kitchen, the bathroom memorable for its coordinating sink, tub, toilet, and floor-to-ceiling tile, all a click shy of Pepto-Bismol. Outside, in the mornings and at dusk, an oddly shaped vehicle I learned to call the Google Bus rolled darkly by.

He was up at five, cycling into the East Bay. Around seven, the garage door screwed into the ceiling that was also the floor beneath our bed (a mattress) went into action. It was a braying sound, accompanied by copious vibration. During this process, I envisioned what I believed to be the exact fashion in which the building would collapse during an earthquake. I saw myself mangled in rubble. I lay, intact within the intact building, in bed, possessed by vertigo.

I did not work in tech, either. I worked fulltime for an employment agency. I had originally gone in to temp but had been hired as the front-desk girl. An Australian man with outrageous good looks, benefiting from the immigration policies of President George W. Bush, had hired me, citing my unusual abilities as a typist. Although I insisted that I preferred something with fewer hours, the agency maintained that it was low on contracts and could I please take them up on this offer, seeing as I was unlikely to receive another.

Yes, I said.

Great, they replied. Wonderful. “I am so pleased!” announced the Australian, glinting hugely. He really was astonishing, ranching in his family, eyes and teeth like polished rocks. He began telling a long, long story about his very young wife.

I thought all the time about how much I loved him. It would come to me as I was walking down the street. I loved him, the man I was married to and, as well as being afraid of earthquakes, feared that one of us might die in a plane crash or be pulled down by a rogue wave. I thought of meningitis, serial killers, war. Fog rolled up the hill. It was night again.

I cut up cilantro. We sat at our table by the window and had a beer.

He went on several shopping excursions. He returned with bags stuffed with violet tissue. He quietly reentered the house.

It was a Sunday.

He restrained me.

He was, as I was saying, not a large man. He was a relatively small man, and he was full of a searing rage, an odorless, colorless flame, unknowable to the naked eye. We’d take the bart to a party and pass card tables set up by proselytizing Scientologists, and he would explain that they believed all humans were animated by the souls of aliens long ago subject to genocide.

I wanted to take the stress test, but he wouldn’t let me. “L. Ron Hubbard was like, I’m going to invent a truly stupid religion. Look at these people,” he said. He seemed not to want to get too close to them, but I noticed a week later two novels by Philip K. Dick in his open backpack, The Man in the High Castle and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Dick having allegedly inspired Hubbard to devise his intergalactic creed. There was something vaguely gothic about Dick, I thought, something sharp and in bad taste. He was paranoid yet flavorful, industrial strength.

We had a friend who’d grown up Mormon but renounced the faith at seventeen and ran away from home. He’d lived in a basement in Oakland for a few years before going to college, then grad school. He had about twenty tattoos and a gold front tooth and loved antique furniture and cocaine. He and the man I was married to went through a period of binges, and somehow I associated it with Scientology. I’d listen to them discuss the unusual activities of the Angel Moroni and the irony of Abendsen’s The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, before we parted ways for the night, they to a fortress maintained by an eccentric dealer on Potrero Hill, I to my translations and, more importantly, Craigslist.

There were two main things I was doing during the time I was not working at the temp agency, or sleeping, or eating, or experiencing married sex, and these were: 1., translating French Symbolist poetry, and, 2., trawling Craigslist for employment. Specifically, I was interested in Mallarmé, whom I considered glamorous as well as difficult. Anyway, it was something I could talk about in mixed company. It was something that got people to leave me alone. “She’s translating Mallarmé,” the man I was married to said. After this, I was left to my own devices and at liberty to navigate over to some listings.

When the American poet Frank O’Hara was pretty young, he made a translation of Mallarmé’s poem, “Un coup de dés.” It was something I liked to look at. I could contemplate the nature of fame. This was, by the way, before Meditations in an Emergency appeared in a scene in Mad Men and became, if briefly, a bestseller. O’Hara was one of the few poets the man I was married to had read, and he seemed to have romantic feelings for him. There was, leaning in an alcove in the entrance to our apartment, a bent postcard featuring a black-and-white photo of O’Hara: one of the only decorative additions to the place not made by me.

The man I was married to returned catatonic from his excursions with the ex-Mormon. He tapped his fingers in his sleep and ground his teeth.

I got out of bed. It was 2:35 am.

Beside my computer sat O’Hara’s Early Writing. I admit there’s a way I look a little like him; we have the same sad eyes. His translation begins, “a throw of the dice Even when thrown in eternal circumstances in the midst of a wreck be It that the abysm whitened displays furious….”

Abysm, I thought.

But I was only pretending to think about literature. I was on Craigslist and responding to an ad.

I wrote:

To Whom It May Concern,

I am a recent graduate of XXXXXXX University (20XX) and the University of XXXX (20XX) who would love to craft some gripping, sentimental, and definitely erotic diary entries for you.

Please find a resume and several recent movie reviews ( attached.


The next day I went to work and in the evening there came a reply:


Thank you for your interest in our little project. We are developing a small artistic website where we shoot some erotic pictures and erotic videos of a few girls. Each girl has 5 or 6 photo shoots with some video and an interview. We need to create a diary for a few of them. This diary would consist of 2 parts:

ONE: Actual blog (e.g. day 1…. Day 2…. Etc…). Some days should have some connection to the photo shoots, but generally it’s a very creative job. The only other condition is that there should be quite a bit of erotic content.

TWO: Also all the photos (and some of them could be repetitive) need some description. However, you can be creative here as well. Your description doesn’t necessarily need to describe the picture… (e.g. if a girl drinks coffee you might right something about her memories of the past, if she kisses you can talk about texture of her lips etc…. etc…).

The total work is about 10 pages (up or down 1 or 2). Total pay for one diary is around $100.

Website is

login: confessor

pwd: first

(it’s operating only partially at this point but you’ll get the general concept, take a look at the timeline on top of the page that allows you to go over to different entries. Also it’s better to use explorer than firefox) Most of the girls need a diary. Please write back if you are interested.


I held my breath. I had that feeling I had so often in high school, as of a tracking shot.

Dear Lev, I began typing.

“I want,” I thought that night, “to be free. But freedom is an intellectual demand and, as such, has nothing to do with pleasure.” Far, far below, there was some sort of silvery substance. I could see it glittering there. Truthful, perhaps. Perhaps eternal.

I was not a man.

When I was with the man I was married to, I sometimes wanted him to stop.

“Don’t come,” he would tell me.

Pleasure was a tiny wall in the void, yet the void inhabited it.

In the midst of an unspeakable orgasm, I felt panic, then what I believed was the nearness of god.

I sometimes wondered what Mallarmé knew about this. In 1874, Mallarmé had pseudonymously written all the articles for eight issues of a women’s fashion magazine called La dernière mode (The Latest Fashion). He became a variety of fictional authors of occasional prose, some male, some not. He was, among others, a Marguerite de Ponty, a Miss Satin, someone named “Ix,” and Le Chef de bouche chez Brébant. These endeavors seemed completely ecstatic.

I was still writing to Lev. It was very late. I could only manage a single sentence: Please let me know how I can get started.

The man I was married to was sometimes in a sort of trance, and I did not understand, at the time, that such trances are given to people by their families.

I remember sitting with him in traffic, as a spell of rage overcame me. There was furniture tied to the roof. I was driving and could not speak.

The rage was dense and specific and had a syntax. The rage said, “Your life has no ceiling and no walls and no floor.”

What I interpreted this to mean was that my life might not be my life. I might have wandered into someone else’s story and was now failing to cease residing there. Every day, when I woke up, I failed. It was hard to understand how one could live a life that was not one’s own without having any intention to do so, but here I was, letting such things come to pass.

In traffic, in the car, in one of his trances, furniture tied to the roof, the man I was married to observed my rage. He observed my inability to speak.

“What are you thinking?” he wanted to know.

I could not speak.

“You can’t speak,” he said, smiling. “You can’t even talk right now.”

Traffic loosened and I navigated to a parking spot.

You aren’t supposed to talk about these things, the various ways he impaled me, the stars I saw.

There was a soft part to this, and there was something else.

I received a reply from Lev:

Please take a girl named Alyssa and do 1/2 page of a diary and 3-4 captions under the pictures. Send it to me and we’ll get started.

Thank you

I did not talk about this with anyone. I felt a brief joy. In the morning, I went to work.

At work, the Australian was massive and upsettingly well formed. He was a terrible person and seemed to like walking past my desk. It was a common route for just about everyone and he needed no excuse.

“How’s the weather?”

This was funny because I had no access to windows.

Later on, retrieving files from the bottom of some complex cabinet, bent over, I was approached by a more seasoned member of the staff, someone high up in billing. “That’s quite a system you’ve got there,” he told me, a reference, one could suppose, to the administrative code of colors and endless number chains with which the folders that were my domain were labeled.

I could not speak. But then I told him, “Yes. Yes, it is.” And rose to face him.

Mallarmé loved foam. He loved something about the sea, the way it hisses in retreat, the way it is a glossy sheet of numbers, constantly multiplying and taking roots and falling into the pit of itself.

People seem to think that the shipwreck is the thing, but that’s just wishful thinking. The shipwreck is something like a statue; it’s not anything, but it can trick us. If Mallarmé had lived during the golden age of installation art (which, by the way, is ongoing), he might have built some sort of room. The shipwreck is a prop, an echo, a decoration from a long-ago-concluded party. We don’t know it’s not an origin. We don’t know it’s not what happened. We keep it as a sign or proof. We set it as a seal upon our foreheads and go on living.

The man I was married to and I went for walks along the Pacific.

No one could say our relationship was devoid of fantasy.

He liked to tell me about the activities of the ex-Mormon. He was learning a lot during their narcotic nights. They’d get as high as humanly possible, then go to a park to break things and talk.

The ex-Mormon was apparently footing the bill. The man I was married to explained that the ex-Mormon was extremely canny. He wasn’t an average person and had long ago figured this out about himself. The ex-Mormon was okay with this. He did not force himself to conform.

The man I was married to examined a pair of flat stones. He made them click and skipped one.

“He’s ‘gay for pay,’” the man I was married to said. He described a scene in a recent pornographic video the ex-Mormon had been featured in, in which the ex-Mormon was slung up in a swing. Everyone was dressed as a clown. The ex-Mormon made $5000.

“The great thing is, you can’t see his face. With the makeup. It’s this crazy niche.”

The man I was married to continued t