BEING TOGETHER, APART

By Nicole Trigg

[Struggle. How much I admire the idea and how difficult to tolerate the experience of. Do we grow accustomed to struggle? How is struggle inexhaustible? It is not struggle if it becomes routine, it is only struggle by stretching, turning, spinning, bruising, showing skin, wear, and traces of blood.

It is not the struggle (I) want if it is not for its own sake and exists just to end. Is it not the struggle I want if it exists just to rage? To rage because we need the strength. To disturb, to tremble down the line, to push through air thick with minuscule motion because molecules jolted awake are getting up, walking backwards, asking how do i live.

This occupied air will move like snakes between the bodies and hills, now concealing, now revealing our true intentions. How to be bounded while we bond? How to participate, how to belong, and why not dissolve.

i want to work and dig my hands deep into this texture.

i begin to knead, to recognize its weave and be imprinted.

i want to roll my shoulders and bend my knees.

i will give all of myself to this.

i want to give without blanching, withering, tossing the husk.

i (also) want to give myself to myself.

i want to communicate. i want to work without being productive.

i want to rage, we want to rage ‘n take down, but we would not bother

if we did not imagine there was something to save.]

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Upon seeing her you know how it was for her.” — Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictée

Carla Lonzi and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha were both born in the early days of March, in 1931 and 1951 respectively, and they died the year I was born, 1982. Both the Italian art writer and feminist, and the Korean-American artist and writer, produced semi-autobiographical yet radically depersonalized works, wherein kaleidoscopic depictions explode the individuated ‘self’ (voice, or Author), as prescribed by bourgeois, patriarchal, and proprietary codes.

Carla Lonzi’s Autoritratto (“Self-Portrait”) (1969) is a cut-up of her interviews with 14 contemporary artists of the day—Carla Accardi, Getulio Alviani, Enrico Castellani, Pietro Consagra, Luciano Fabro, Lucio Fontana, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Nigro, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Mimmo Rotella, Salvatore Scarpitta, Giulio Turcato, and Cy Twombly—spliced with B&W photographs indexed at the back of the book. Dictée by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1982) mixes original and found text with visual source material to reflect obliquely on the lives of several women—Cha, Cha’s mother, the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, and Demeter and Persephone. Employing techniques of collage and illustration, each assembles her text from an array of verbal and visual fragments, yielding a surface of interlocking, disjunctive parts—the kaleidoscopic form. I read this pluralized mode as deliberately oppositional, relative to Foucault’s call in “The Subject and Power,” “to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of [compulsory individualization], which has been imposed on us for several centuries.” Both books materialize struggles that “attack everything which separates the individual, breaks his links with others, splits up community life, forces the individual back on himself, and ties him to his own identity in a constraining way”—that thereby quells resistance and feeds power. [1] Lonzi and Cha betray authorship and identity as we (still) know them, by rendering subjectivity anew, as shifting, multiple, fusional, and contradictory.

Within this broad comparison exists a very particular site of overlap. Among the sundry images included in Autoritratto and Dictée—Lonzi mainly chooses snapshots from her own life and others volunteered by her interviewees, while Cha inserts portraits of her mother and the martyrs she invokes, along with images of landscapes, maps, anatomical drawings, and calligraphy, to name some—both writers incorporate photographs of the French Carmelite nun, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, born Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin (1873-1897). Lonzi and Cha utilize two different images from the same series of photographs taken by Thérèse’s older sister, Céline Martin, also a Carmelite in Lisieux, in 1895. The photos show Thérèse performing the role of Joan of Arc, in the production of a play she wrote herself: Joan of Arc Accomplishing Her Mission.

Thérèse’s connection with Joan of Arc, her “great desire to imitate” (72) Joan’s famed acts, and especially her martyrdom, presents Lonzi and Cha with the exemplar of the empathic encounter that structures both Autoritratto and Dictée, as I will show. Notably, Thérèse penned—and starred in—two theatrical pieces that dramatized the life of Joan, which her biographer Ida Görres has referred to as “scarcely veiled self-portraits.” [2]

Another Carmelite recounts: “I showed [Thérèse] a picture which represented Joan of Arc being comforted in prison by her Voices,and she remarked: ‘I also am comforted by an interior voice…’” Thérèse’s instant alliance with Joan points to their common condition: an existence against the social order. What’s more, this fusion or doubling fortifies Thérèse’s commitment to continue as such, refusing any compromise. (Hence Joan “accomplishes her mission,” even as she is condemned.)

The enduring renown of Thérèse of Liseaux has largely to do with the posthumous publication of her autobiography, Story of a Soul (1898), which garnered a vast readership. After her death at the age of 24, Thérèse’s sisters Pauline and Céline performed the considerable labor of producing the text, by transcribing, editing, and collating disparate, handwritten manuscripts. Céline, moreover, had created a number of portraits of her sister—paintings as well as photographs—that were widely circulated. We know that both Lonzi and Cha were well-acquainted with Story of a Soul, so much so that Lonzi discusses it at length in a later publication with Rivolta Femminile [Female Revolt], and Cha weaves excerpts from it into the body of Dictée. If, as anthropologist Ida Magli contends, monasticism “leads to the liberation of women [by way of] the initiation to knowledge,” freeing them for the first time “to think of themselves and concentrate on their own inner experience,” then Thérèse’s published reflections are momentous evidence of active female subjectivity and self-awareness when few such models existed. [3]

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The resonance that accumulates through the coming to knowledge of a shared condition between women is the mechanism of the kaleidoscope, set in motion by the image of Thérèse as Joan. The stakes of said condition are the reason for its conspicuous appearance, as Walter Benjamin pinpoints in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:

To articulate the past historically … means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger… The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. [4]

In this configuration, patriarchy clashes with the lived reality of singular women across time—flashing up as image—in defiance of roles that would enlist them in their own diminishment. Joan of Arc—here underpinned by Thérèse—as woman and subject (and therefore heretic), stands for the struggle against subjugation at all costs, as well as those costs incurred. For Lonzi and Cha, then, the image of Thérèse chained to the wall of the Carmel courtyard to pose as Joan in prison, is representative of the restrictive roles forced upon women, the alternative of exile, and the determination to live and think freely regardless of the consequences. Moreover, it relays the vital importance of empathic contact between women, here activated by the image itself that, carrying the force of Thérèse’s person and gaze as she conjures Joan, resonates with the viewer in turn. Thus, the awareness of self opens onto the awareness of collectivity, liberating woman not only from the poverty of her social category, but releasing the individual from her isolation.

Spurred by the recurrence of this imagery in Lonzi and Cha’s discrete works, I will examine the photographs in situ; the empathic encounter as a form of feminist dissensus (via Jacques Rancière); the “third thing,” or aesthetic interval between subjects that enables that encounter, with emphasis on the particular quality of the image (via Jean Luc Nancy); and the characteristics of kaleidoscopic form that manifest in these works, where said encounter provides an organizing principle.

I begin with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s succinct articulation of the process whereby we recognize ourselves, outside ourselves, appearing in the same chapter as the photograph
of Thérèse in Dictée:

Upon seeing her you know how it was for her. You know how it might have been. You recline, you lapse, you fall, you see before you what you have seen before. Repeated, without your even knowing it. It is you standing there. [5]

Cha’s description of the ‘recline-lapse-fall’ into the other conveys the sensation of time and space collapsing in the instant of relation, of finding oneself someplace else than one is. The photograph of Thérèse performing Joan of Arc appears midway through the book, facing a blank page. The spread follows the title page of the fifth of nine sections named for thedictee Greek muses: “Erato / Love Poetry.” Thérèse stands in front of a brick wall, entirely within the frame, beside and slightly behind a vine-covered arbor occupying the right half of the picture. She appears supported by two straight poles under each arm; she looks at the camera with somber intensity, though much of the detail of her facial expression is lost. The image sits precariously in a maw of white space and incites the reader’s scrutiny—we seek her eyes so as to look out from inside them. The attempt to understand, here, in the absence of text, consists in this empathic process. So our perspective swoops into alignment with that of Thérèse, whose severe appearance, underscored by the lines of the crutches and stiff clothing, suggests both the strictures of her oppression and her rigid stand against it.

Carla Lonzi describes the high stakes of coming to awareness of the other/ others in “Itinerario di riflessioni” [Map of Reflections] published in È già politica [It’s Already Political] (Rivolta Femminile, 1977):

“It is this [female] “I” as cultural gap that constitutes the prerequisite for a rediscovery of our body, that is, of a culture of our own. … But every woman confronts & measures this emptiness alone: it is hardly bearable, [in it] is the risk of the loss of sense… a risk with which I am assured that I can live, now that I know I share it: feminism gave me this; I wanted this from feminism.” [6]

For Lonzi, then, the negative space of feminine identity—a perilous void each woman faces—is inverted through its common affirmation, such that “her conduct is not derived solely from rebellion or negative participation, but from something else that was not possible to identify before feminism.” [7]

It is important to note the historical moment. Immediately following the publication of Autoritratto, Lonzi went on to form the feminist collective Rivolta Femminile with Carla Accardi and Elvira Banotti, in the summer of 1970. The group produced Italy’s first feminist manifesto, and Lonzi is credited with introducing the Italian parallel to consciousness-raising in the U.S., or autocoscienza. The practice consisted of “independent, small groups of women, meeting to discuss issues of all kinds on the basis of personal experience,” with emphasis on “the self-determined and self-directed quality of the process.” [8] Another defining characteristic of Rivolta Femminile’s legacy is their claim to sexual difference rather than equality, denouncing the latter as “what is offered as legal rights to colonized people. And what is imposed on them as culture.” [9] By asserting the distinction of the feminine “I”—against, however, “the female image with which man has interpreted woman [that] has been his own invention” [10]—and cultivating its variability through the exercise of autocoscienza (for each “I” is utterly singular), Lonzi and R.F. take a revolutionary step. I would like to ground my argument at this historical juncture of transhistorical, transnational consequence.

Notwithstanding self-determinacy, Lonzi states that “the autocoscienza of one woman is incomplete if it stops at and is not confirmed in the autocoscienza of another woman.” [11] The personal falls short, remaining one-sided, insular, apolitical—until the self extends outward, discovering the multiplicity with which it rhymes, actualizing self and other in the space of their interrelation. Yet we read in Lonzi’s stark description of questo vuoto [this emptiness], that even though the void is shared, the individual (woman) is no less enveloped by it; her only recourse is to concentrate on the knowledge that others reckon with it too, albeit separately. The collaborative practice of autocoscienza carved out a time and space of respite for women, from their atomization as laborers in the private sphere. Analogously, the photograph of St. Thérèse of Lisieux becomes indispensable, inserting a link between woman A and woman B, enabling each to ‘see’ the other by one remove (like long-distance lovers look at the moon, as per the cliché).

thereseautoritratto

The image of Thérèse appears early in Autoritratto. Limited to a detail of the quadriptych by Giulio Paolini—commissioned by Lonzi to avoid copyright infringement—it shows a close-up of Thérèse’s face propped by her hand as she looks directly into the camera. Of all the photographic prints in the book, it is one of the largest, occupying more than half the page, and it is easily the largest image of any person’s face. One does not turn the page, that is, without being captured by Thérèse’s gaze, to which the dangling sentence simply does not compare. [13] In this sense, by extracting the narrative inscribed in the surrounding set or stage—the wall, chains, costume, etc.—Paolini’s extreme close-up presents a far more complex expression than the full frame. Instead of hypothesizing the before and after of the frozen image (how she came to be imprisoned, what punishment she will endure, etc.), thus constructing a storyline, we are confronted with the ineffable emanation of Thérèse’s steady look. Paolini strips Thérèse’s portrait to its barest, eliminating details of dress, posture, etc. that could hinder resonance’s unfolding. As such, the image performs contemporary artist collective Claire Fontaine’s characterization of Lonzi’s tireless struggle:

… to retrace an amorphous and protean form of life, one stripped of its professional and social veils, reduced to its pure potentiality for revolt and freedom. The human material that appears through this process of subtraction is frightening and dangerous, something that capitalism, the social order, and patriarchal politics try to hide and erase. [14]

Fontaine refers here to the uncompromising refusal of all codes and categories that make up and maintain the status quo, that thus dehumanize great swaths of the population not written in as subjects. Beneath such “veils,” raw human existence that is essentially changeable holds unknown power. This undertaking comes into sharpest focus in Lonzi’s years with Rivolta Femminile, but the cropped (‘spontaneous and unjustified’) portrait featured in the pages of Autoritratto prefigures that focus. The ‘human material’ presented in Thérèse’s face is both entirely singular and indefinitely relatable—one among infinite, unique (yet mutable) iterations of equal measure.In accord with the metaphor of nudity to buck conformity’s veil, Cha writes:

Narrative shifts, discovers variation. … the illusion of variation hidden in … yet another shrouding, disguised, superimposed upon. Upon the nakedness. Nakedness as ordinary as common with all nakedness of all others before and all others to come. [15]

Upon removing all ‘disguises’—all constructed, rigidified roles readymade for our compliance, all across the spectrum of power—our ordinariness and commonality are revealed, allowing the edges of such imposed, assumed roles to blur and bleed into indeterminacy.

The 2010 edition of Autoritratto also features the original, unaltered image, at the back of the book opposite Maddalena Disch and Laura Iamurri’s “Nota sull’immagine di copertina,” [16] as does the very first printed page of È già politica. The photograph shows Thérèse, centered against a worn brick wall where it meets rough ground, seated as if on a very low stump or stone hidden behind her voluminous dress, resting her head on her elbow, and chained by the wrists to the wall. The high contrast of the print obscures the direction of her gaze, and, despite the circumstances, Thérèse appears absorbed in contemplation. As we have seen, the paradox of firm resolve in the face of imprisonment holds considerable weight for Lonzi, who recognizes therein the shared feminine condition.

In “Itinerario,” Lonzi writes that it was her “spontaneous and unjustified” (improvviso e ingiustificato) wish to feature Thérèse on Autoritratto’s cover as well, despite “having no case for this choice, on a book about art and artists” (non avevo argomenti per perorare questa scelta su un libro d’arte e di artisti). Her proposal was dismissed as a “typically feminine blunder” (goffaggine tipicamente femminile), by Lonzi’s editor. [17] Instead, the cover of the first edition of Autoritratto (De Donato, 1969) displays a signature slashed canvas by Lucio Fontana, thus linking Lonzi with the decidedly male Italian neo-avant-garde rather than a lineage of heretical, non-conforming women.

In naming her attraction to the imagery of St. Thérèse “unjustified,” Lonzi acknowledges the lack of logical connection between herself, Thérèse as Joan, and art and artists—affirming empathic relation instead. Here we find what Jacques Rancière points to as “an original disjunction, an original effect, which is the suspension of any direct relationship between cause and effect. The aesthetic effect is initially an effect of dis-identification.” [18]

Autoritratto-WEB

Accordingly, the work of Autoritratto proceeds from a place of rupture with respect to genre. Lonzi eschews ‘best practices’ of art criticism by introducing an image that bears no obvious correspondence to the art or artists in the book. The gesture is willfully disobedient and reflects Lonzi’s growing disillusionment with the art world as market, as a site of the commodification of human creativity. Moreover, Lonzi clashes with conventions of autobiography by suggesting that a portrait of someone else could represent herself. She discusses her predilection for the writings of the “two Teresas,” Teresa Martin and Teresa of Avila:

I have always liked the autobiographies of saints. … they express interior phenomena and states that for me are natural, and that I could not find [depicted] elsewhere. It was a comfort that other women had experienced such states and spoken of them with simplicity: that which I would have had to reject as the consequence of morbid and unreal emotions, instead gained substance through their words. … I identified with [the Teresas] for that part of myself that was ignored or that found itself faced with various expectations, from the most traditional to the most liberated, to which I was called to measure up. [19]

Lonzi includes numerous photos of herself in Autoritratto—almost always in relation, however, to another person/s or entity (her work, artists in the studio, artworks being exhibited, her son)—but insists above all on the image that comprehends a full spectrum: Thérèse as Thérèse, Thérèse as Joan, Carla as Thérèse as Joan, Carla as Thérèse, Carla as Joan, Carla as Carla, and so on throughout the history of women and other ‘others’ from the margins.

The indefinite extension of empathic points of contact exemplifies Rancière’s concept of dissensus, which means:

… that every situation can be cracked open from the inside, reconfigured in a different regime of perception and signification. To reconfigure the landscape of what can be seen and what can be thought is to alter the field of the possible and the distribution of capacities and incapacities. … This is what a process of political subjectivation consists in: in the action of uncounted capacities that crack open the unity of the given and the obviousness of the visible, in order to sketch a new topography of the possible. [20]

Taking on the point of view of the other as our own, we violate what’s given—our discrete boundaries—and break free of a unilateral perspective. Although Rancière’s examination of the distribution (and redistribution) of the sensible does not explicitly acknowledge gender, his theory supports the extrapolation. In this case, Lonzi’s “risk of the loss of sense”—that shared condition of women from which emerges an “I” completely without identification—cannot do other than generate new possibilities for what can be seen, thought, and known. Here there is no “sensible”: on the one hand it precludes her, and on the other, she has already refused it.

Cha describes the stultifying effects of signification where dissensus is not in play:

… the word. The image. To appeal to the masses to congeal the information to make bland, mundane … The response is precoded to perform predictably however passively possible. Neutralized to achieve the no-response, to make absorb, to submit to the uni-directional correspondence.” [21]

Here instead, constituent fragments or voices of Dictée and Autoritratto clash and scrape; brought into close range, they do not, however, settle into homogeneity. In his discussion of the “ignorant schoolmaster,” an emancipatory alternative to hierarchies of intelligence in pedagogy where the gap between ‘master’ and ‘novice’ strains to be closed, Rancière points out that “Distance is not an evil to be abolished, but the normal condition of any communication.” [22] If the equal intelligence of all is affirmed, and concordantly, the equivalent singularity of each individual, then a framework that truly contains multitudes will also, necessarily, be full of cracks.

In Dictée, on the one hand, Cha is concerned with History’s absorption of the singularity of the martyr, its de-emphasis on lived existence in favor of legacy:

She makes complete her duration. As others have made complete theirs: rendered incessant, obsessive myth, rendered immortal their acts without the leisure to examine whether the parts false the parts real according to History’s revision.

Truth embraces with it all other abstentions other than itself. Outside Time. Outside Space. … oblivious to the deliberate brilliance of its own time, mortal, deliberate marking. [23]

This capital-T “Truth” is the ideological companion to History: it obscures rather than reveals reality, insofar as it is imposed upon subjects by systems of power rather than discovered or created by those subjects. Here Cha sets “Truth” opposite the discrete time and space of lived experience. Further, her use of the word “marking” (in agreement with Nancy) suggests the physicality of the body—depositing its traces materially, sensually, visually—and so returns us to the necessity of the image that counters “obsessive myth” with singular content, the visual mark. Indeed, the visual content of Dictee operates by way of resistance. The photographic image has the power to “arrest the flow of thoughts,” and thereby “blast a specific era [life, or lifework] out of the homogenous course of history,” into the here and now, according to Benjamin.

Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad… In this structure [a historical materialist] recognizes… a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. [24]

So the image of Therese performing Joan serves to galvanize the viewer/ reader into “a unique experience with the past,” outside teleological time, such that the realities of these past lives lurch forward into the present of their witnessing.

To clarify, here, we have two systems of representation—verbal and visual—and we have the real. So as to better approximate the latter, perhaps, as Cha and Lonzi demonstrate, some combination of the former two that riffs on the fundamental tension between them is in order. We might broadly associate the verbal with the political, with the application and elaboration of knowledge through logical extension, with the macroscopic, and the “magical” ability “to be everywhere [at once], to not be … where the body is” (Maria Luisa Boccia, citing Luisa Muraro in “La costola di Eva: Il manifesto” (Eve’s Rib: The Manifesto), 2001, my translation); while the visual, the photographic image in this case, stands irreducibly for the individual subject and her lived experience. To bring the two into contact, then, allows for new mediations between the  personal and political, the singular and collective.

At the same time that Cha stresses the irreproducibility of the individual life (gestured at, though hardly captured by the photographic image), she points to the exchangeability of her martyr-protagonists: “The identity of such a path is exchangeable with any other heroine in history, their names, dates, actions which require not definition.” [25] Names and biographical facts are dispensable, as they encapsulate nothing of the life, the person, “her”: “Mere names only names without the image not hers / hers alone not the whole of her and even the image / would not be the entire.” [26] The inherently collective nature of such exchangeability is a source of strength for the suffering individual: “[Yu Guan Soon] calls the name Jeanne d’Arc three times. / She calls the name Ahn Joong Kun five times.” [27] She invokes these others who stand with her ‘in spirit,’ in solidarity against the grain of oppressive powers, as if to dissolve all barriers of time and space between them. The mental projection of borderlessness endows her [Cha, Yu Guan Soon, et al] with a sense of infinity by exploding singular identification, as in: I am I, but I carry over into all these others and vice versa, ad infinitum.

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The image has the unique capacity to initiate the chain of transference while maintaining its discreteness. Cha tells of the experience of “She,” in the audience of a movie theater, alone:

She follows no progression in particular of the narrative but submits only to the timelessness created in her body. (Ancient. Refusing banishment. Refusing to die, the already faded image. Its decay and dismemberment rendering more provocative the absence.) [28]

Here the image is imbued with physicality and force—bearing a broken, or partial body—almost threatening in its absolute ‘refusal to die’ that is at the same time a provocation. So “It is you,” but self and other are not made uniform—rather, Cha likens the image of the lost to a jagged shard, as above, or a burning flame, which is carried within the resonating second (third, fourth, nth) subject-medium, but never softened, or extinguished in them: “It is burned into your ever-present memory. Memory less. Because it is not in the past. It cannot be. Not in the least of all pasts. It burns. Fire light enflame.” [29]

Such a characterization of the image is echoed and elucidated in Nancy’s discussion of the distinct:

… through the mark that it is, [the distinction of the image] establishes simultaneously a withdrawal and a passage that, however, does not pass. The essence of such a crossing lies in its not establishing a continuity: it does not suppress the distinction. It maintains it while also making contact: shock, confrontation, tete-a-tete, or embrace. It is less a transport than a rapport, a relation. [30]

Considered as such, the portraits of the lost—Cha’s mother, Yu Guan Soon, Thérèse/Joan—included in Dictée are fundamental to their subjects ‘staying alive,’ so to speak. The presence of the image establishes a dynamic, relational space wherein “a passage” from one to the other is opened, and remains open, across which the terms of the relation shuttle, back and forth in constant flux. The space of distinction holds; the break does not resolve, leaving the viewer’s attention to shift about in that realm of excess, continually unsettled. So long as the image (in its distinction) is regarded, it cannot be completely absorbed; it invites contact and connection—or perhaps revulsion, distress—but retains its separateness in perpetuity.

Nancy goes on to set the distinct force of the image opposite the functional form of the manifest object, obtainable for use, stating that “what distinguishes [the image of the thing] essentially from the thing is also the force—the energy, pressure, or intensity.” The image of the thing is essentially not the thing it represents in that it “stands apart from the world of things considered as a world of availability. … What is withdrawn from this world has no use, or has a completely different use.” [31] Removed from the use value of the thing it represents, the image gains force, or rather, force is brought to the surface in the absence of usable, material form that automatically assumes precedence. Put another way, force rises from the residue of the thing housed by the image, knocking against its frame—which summons, in turn, the force of the feeling in the viewer that draws her into collectivity. As Cha puts it, “The memory is the entire. The longing in the face of the lost. Maintains the missing.” [32] The terse syntax, deliberately broken with unnecessary punctuation, effects discreteness formally. Moreover, these final three words precisely match Nancy’s meaning when he writes of the image “given in an opening that indissociably forms its presence and its separation”: what is maintained is no less missing. [33]

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The kaleidoscope provided Thérèse of Lisieux with a metaphor that, for her, expressed a “great truth”:

“This toy,” she said, “excited my admiration, and I wondered what could provide so charming a phenomenon, when one day, after a lengthy examination, I found that it consisted simply of tiny bits of paper and cloth scattered inside. A further examination revealed that there were three mirrors inside the tube, and the problem was solved. It became for me the illustration of a great truth. So long as our actions, even the most trivial, remain within Love’s kaleidoscope, so long the Blessed Trinity, figured by the three mirrors, imparts to them a wonderful brightness and beauty. The eye-piece is Jesus Christ, and He, looking from outside through Himself into the kaleidoscope, finds perfect all our works. But, should we leave that ineffable abode of Love, He would see but the rags and chaff of unclean and worthless deeds.” [34]

My focus is not the moral and religious content of Thérèse’s words, here recalled and transcribed by her sister Céline, but the organizing concepts that inhere. Three mirrors function to multiply the fragments inside the tube, replicating each individually (each fragment in relation to itself) and replicating the set (each fragment in relation to the other fragments), constantly reconfigured as the tube twists. If the fragments are selves, as is the “eye-piece looking from outside through Himself,” then this apparatus of multiplication, mirroring, and perpetual motion, inclusive of innumerable heterogeneous perspectives, leads away from the “rags and chaff” of alienation. Thérèse’s ‘Love,’ is Lonzi and Cha’s empathy and fusional relationality: the displacement of the singular by the shared.

In her essay “White Spring,” Trinh T. Minh-ha describes chapter five of Dictée, “Erato / Love Poetry,” which opens with the photo of St. Thérèse and is written in part as a film script:

The reader is thus told what to see from a camera’s point of view as it frames the movements of an indefinite “she.” With Theresa dangerously looking at (St.) Thérèse, the call for both distance and identification is inevitable. She is here at once the one who looks and the one looked at—inside the screen and watching it; spectator and actor; audience and performer; writer and written …[35]

Just as Thérèse’s perspective is compounded by her role, in character as Joan and posing for a photo—she is simultaneously subject (as herself, Joan, and the superimposition of herself and Joan), and object (again as herself, Joan, and the superimposition) from the camera’s perspective—Cha expands the lines of sight and seers in Dictée, to prismatic effect. Splitting open the traditionally lone voice of the narrator, she draws into the text the space delineated by multiple gazes, inferring an opening that is not void, but rather, occupied energetically by the mutual recognition of many—who see themselves outside themselves and the other in them.

Lonzi, correspondingly, sets out with the specific intent to see and portray herself through others, in Autoritratto. She writes in the foreword:

… the artist is inherently critical, implicitly critical, precisely by means of her/his creative constitution … at the level of reflection and not only operation, since she has no incentive to make this capacity socially efficient. So the custom among artists, to talk together, to listen, brings to mind this fact: there is no critic who can interest the artist based on the merit of his work. He will interest her very much, of course, as a situation, analogous to that of any other person, [which] makes an artistic experience. [36]

She offers herself, then, as a kind of raw material—as the “situation” that her human life comprises—to the open minds of the artist-participants with whom she enters into dialogue. As the other to their discursive reflection, she meanwhile speaks, looks, and reflects for herself. She expressly does not enter the arrangement to occupy “the role, and therefore the power, of the critic as an agent of repressive control against art and artists, and above all as agent of the ideology of art and artists.” [37] Rarely does she even present the ground from which to begin, in the space of the interview, which is evident from the outset of the text:

Lucio Fontana: What do you want me to tell you if you don’t say what I should talk about… what should I say, more or less… You have to interrogate me, more or less… provoke me.

Carla Lonzi: We can begin wherever because I wish only…

Pino Pascali: I would prefer a kind of theme. Ah!… Ah!… [38]

The only ostensible guideline that Lonzi presents to her interviewees, outside of general parameters to speak about their lives and creative practices, is to consider the role of the critic. As we’ve seen, she openly distances herself from said role in the space of this book, yet art criticism was nonetheless her affiliation at the time, especially to these artists who would not have known her otherwise. So when she asks, who is the critic nowadays, another question is implicit: Who am I? In effect she requests that they look at her, listen to her, as she does them, and ponder the roles they supposedly fill but undoubtedly exceed. By this (end-)point in Lonzi’s “phoney profession” [mestiere fasullo], [39] as she calls it, the art world begins to appear as a massive charade in which creative consciousness is for sale and thereby killed, subsumed by the capitalist market. Almost as if searching for a reason not to quit, she attempts to undo the authority of either identification (artist, critic), in the space between people as people, not statuses. As she announces in the foreword, “the valid critical act is part of artistic creation,” and “the artist is inherently critical,” and yet “the critical mode … operates according to the false divide: creation – critique.” [40] In Autoritratto, Lonzi explores the ways in which each alleged ‘side’ stretches into the other’s—given the spaciousness of sustained, freeform conversation.

Extending a notion of art and “artistic consciousness” (coscienza dell’arte) [41] as the playful encounter with the world and its materials that operates through questions rather than assumptions, Lonzi regards the interpersonal in the same light, albeit wishfully. Her emphasis is less the material making of art objects, than a kind of creative attention: an infectious, emancipatory framework for engaging one another and the world that always starts at zero, eschewing readymade categories. She urges “a creative condition in the person, because she lives life in a creative way, not by responding obediently to the models society advances … she lives in a way, so to speak, non-dissociated and at peace with herself.” [42] With the abandonment of fixed identification comes a new sense of integration: the individual sees herself as if through the kaleidoscope, discovering her ‘sequin’ multiplied and dispersed into changing constellations with the other sequins.

When, in conversation with Carla Accardi, Lonzi describes her path to art criticism via her girlhood religious phase, seeking “that thing without end and without distinctions that I sensed [humanity] was,” Accardi replies, “I never had that, when I was a girl, what you had, seeing humanity and having those thoughts… An artist thinks other, simpler things. To me … I never had this meditation on people, you know?” [43] This fissure of discord—just one of many between Lonzi and her interviewees—on top of the collage element that installs further tension in the text, is offset by an acute sense of intimacy, of reciprocal witnessing and the real time elaboration of relationships.

Lonzi begins with 13 sets of one-on-one conversations (and one record of silence—Twombly did not grant an interview) and reconfigures them as one, massive, rolling discussion. She organizes the composition according to formal, phonic, and content-based resonances, unspooling it laterally: “I wanted to make a book [that was] a little bit rambling … Because what I really like among artists … is this sense of extension, this passing from one argument to the other.” [44] The ambiguity of the title, “Self-Portrait,” when fifteen speakers are involved, fourteen of whom are known artists and the term alludes to visual art (and the fifteenth is the author), suggests a rotating emphasis whereby each of the fifteen is featured in turn, supported by the co-presence of the remaining group. “This book is composed of fragments liberally rearranged in order to reproduce a kind of banquet (una specie di convivio), real to me inasmuch as I lived it, even if it didn’t emerge in a unity of time and place.” [45] Lonzi’s comparison of Autoritratto with a banquet or feast is significant in that the word implies abundance, variety, a gathering of many, communal nourishment and celebration, as well as an aesthetically and sensually stimulating presentation. This aspiration for the book parallels St. Thérèse’s concept of “Love’s kaleidoscope” and circles us back to where we began, with the image of Thérèse performing Joan of Arc.

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The doubled aesthetic dimension of Céline’s portraits of Thérèse’s performance, when triangulated by the presence of a viewer, makes ample room for the latter’s active participation. Rancière identifies this potential as the power common to all “emancipated spectators”: “to translate what [each] perceives in her own way, to link it to the unique intellectual adventure that makes her similar to all the rest in as much as this adventure is not like any other.” [46] Mediation is the essential third term here, that allows one individual’s intellectual and creative process to encounter another’s (and another’s and another’s), where the object is not to forge a seamless collective body, but to draw numerous subjectivities into dynamic relation. In the context of Dictée and Autoritratto, the images present further difference simply by being pictures and not words. They are for the most part unannounced: in Cha there is no caption; in Lonzi we flip to the back of the book for an explanation (a credit to the artwork by Paolini, without direct mention of St. Thérèse). The images stun and startle and disrupt the flow of text; the reader scrambles in the gap. Moreover, particularly in Cha, the text interrupts itself: in “Erato / Love Poetry” for instance, the story-as-film-script is interleaved with passages from Story of a Soul, page for page. In “Understanding Brecht,” Benjamin calls for the crossed genre and/or crossed media artwork as a political practice:

What we must demand from the photographer is the ability to put such a caption beneath his picture as will rescue it from the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary use value. And we shall lend greater emphasis to this demand if we, as writers, start taking photographs ourselves. Here again, therefore, technical progress is, for the author as producer, the basis of his political progress. In other words, intellectual production cannot become politically useful until the separate spheres of competence to which, according to the bourgeois view, the process of intellectual production owes its order, have been surmounted; more precisely, the barriers of competence must be broken down by each of the productive forces they were created to separate, acting in concert. [47]

The disjunctions that occur across “spheres of competence” in Lonzi and Cha insist upon the reader’s participation, as well as her recognition of the stakes of that participation, which motivate it. Dropped into the space between text and text or text and image, the reader herself provides the link, actively “translating” the lacunae. As Benjamin words it, “intervals occur which tend to destroy illusion,” and “their purpose is to enable the spectator to adopt a critical attitude”—in the break, that is, we break through to political awareness.

The aesthetic space (text, image, blank) is in excess of, yet contiguous with the real (practical, usable) world. According to Nancy, “Such is the image: it must be detached, placed outside and before one’s eyes … and it must be different from the thing.” [48] The disjunction between self and other is filled energetically, then, by the force of the aesthetic object (presentation, production, articulation) that exists solely to communicate: to sketch new correlations and contradictions, to destabilize and reconfigure, to invite to participate. Rancière refers to that autonomous force as “the third thing that is owned by no one, whose meaning is owned by no one, but which subsists between [subjects], excluding any uniform transmission.” [49]

Cha, whose mistrust of Language (as writer of History and teller of Truth) is plain, finds respite for the word in such a participatory space between:

You write. You write you speak voices hidden masked you plant words to the moon you send word through the wind. Through the passing of seasons. By sky and by water the words are given birth given discretion. From one mouth to another, from one reading to the next the words are realized in their full meaning. The wind. The dawn or dusk the clay earth and traveling birds  south bound birds are mouth pieces wear the ghost veil for the seed of message. Correspondence. To scatter the words. [50]

Here the utterance contains multiple voices; it is free and unattached, broken off from its origin, released to the world, out to be transmuted by whomever and whatever it meets. In this characterization, language is renewed in a contact zone [51] of diverse subjects, perspectives, and bodies, and is therefore dispelled as fixed doctrine or authority.

+

To conclude, Lonzi and Cha’s common aim with Autoritratto and Dictée is to introduce an (aesthetic) aperture where, in lieu of assuming a solitary authorial voice, each speaks through the kaleidoscope as it were, shuffling and exchanging manifold voices with her own, to indeterminate aesthetic effect. They are mediums not masters, who do not, cannot, and would not wish to control the effects of their work on an audience. On the contrary, by anticipating the reader’s active engagement, Lonzi and Cha gesture toward the emancipation of all involved.  As Rancière writes in The Emancipated Spectator:

…what is involved is linking what one knows with what one does not know; being at once a performer deploying her skills and a spectator observing what these skills might produce in a new context among other spectators. Like researchers, artists construct the stages where the manifestation and effect of their skills are exhibited, rendered uncertain in the terms of the new idiom that conveys a new intellectual adventure. The effect of the idiom cannot be anticipated. It requires spectators who develop their own translation in order to appropriate the ‘story’ and make it their own story. An emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators. [52]

The contradictory amalgam of consonance and difference stirred by the image of St. Thérèse as Joan of Arc, stands metonymically for this indeterminacy. Where the fixtures of the social order are broken open and perspectives deviate, ‘self’ or subjecthood forms itself as both singularly different, on the one hand, and interchangeable/ relational on the other, making way for new forms of collectivity and resistance. These, in turn, stretch the spectrum of the possible.

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[afterwordmore voice/s]

Once, I had the revelation that I was Sylvia Plath. She had died but I was here, and I was her. I wrote an essay to get into college about her fig tree from The Bell Jar, about how, like her, I sat in its crotch, sensing something rotten as I looked at my options (the little withered fruits), and wouldn’t choose. But I didn’t realize I was her—not only “like” her—until I read Ariel. I must be her, because her voice is piercing in and out of me, and now I think it’s coming from my mouth, my body, my life an ashy explosion of bits without eyes or any understanding. The Ariel poems’ power rises from the true picture traced in them. The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.

When Plath is reduced to her suicide and personal life, with priority on her qualities as lover, as mother, it’s misogyny’s obvious first move. But the poems fall down around our chilled skin like clothes dropping. Their power has little to do with Plath’s abandonment of her children or the details of her death—except insofar as what she wrote against, and sought to sublimate (and liberate from) with writing, is the same as what killed her. Why’s it so appealing, Plath’s verse like a flag soaked in blood? Because it is both freeing and free in its absolute truth, and finally gives form to a real and widespread horror no one talks about. It has little to do with skill, either, or rather, Plath’s technique slips beside the point in the face of lucidity that could belong to no one in particular.

Lonzi, who also wrote poetry, talks about Plath; they were born a year and a half apart. “The call [Plath] answered was mixed in with my voice too, and probably with all of ours.” In Italian, Lonzi designates this ours (“ciascuna di noi”) as female. She directly compares herself with Plath, acknowledging her affinity, yet lays out a key difference:

[S.P.] was searching for an outlet in poetry, I searched for an outlet in reality, through poetry. I did it to get to feminism, it was that that I wanted, she did it to prove herself in poetry, which was what she wanted. I wasn’t asking to be anything besides what I was (not a writer, a poet, or anything else), and I vowed to accept myself as such. The absence of identity that gnawed at me was also the only hook I could hold onto. I felt Plath roaming free, free on the slope of suicide. I can find a sister in her now, I didn’t know if I could before: she would have dragged me down too low and raised me too high up. … I believe Plath could have found an answer to her problems of identity by penetrating all the way inside the no man’s land of death (of near-death, of the return from death) that had become her world.

Lonzi’s suggestion for Plath is enigmatical and bold, but points to the total acceptance of death as identity-lessness that kills the ego in turn, together with its quest for recognition and status. So, ego has no more reason to exist—which had been obsessed with death as a thing to either cheat or succumb to. As if Plath’s misstep was wanting to “make it” as a poet, and expecting fulfillment in that identification. Still more deadly were those roles that were her material, her life behind writing (because what woman could be just a writer), as housewife and mother—again, she could not achieve acceptance as a writer without first gaining approval as a woman, which meant, especially then: good mother, faithful wife, object worthy of desire. Back to the figs, Plath saw what hung within reach, and preferred to die. If her poems emerged from a private hell that claimed her existence, pushing poison through her, we must consider why so many women recognized that hell as their own.

I am a garden of black and red agonies. The negativity in Plath, resonates with that in Lonzi, and holds subversive power. In this grit, both writer and reader gain traction, and a grip on the stakes, gumming up ‘smooth fittings’ that idly reproduce the status quo. She—Lonzi, Plath—eternally refuses to fit (her real, singular existence/ livid pulp of her awareness) inside such impositions. It was the flaw in the centre that had rotted [early women’s novels]. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others. Woolf would have found this writing flawless.

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Why couldn’t she just write to write, with the words that come ‘natural’? What if words came ‘natural’? What if, when she wrote the truth, everything she made was broken and covered in blood? Isn’t that her, a birther busting at the seams? Or else a slow leak of lost opportunity, disgusting trickle. It’s not for her to say O golden child the world will kill and eat, and anyway a stirring from somewhere inside (come in from outside) distracts her negative ideation. When did she begin thinking she was waste? How did she begin to ask to be affirmed by the world, and how rich were the rewards? The blood berries are themselves, they are very still.

Notes:

Thanks to Michelle Koerner, Dylan Davis, Madeline Lane-McKinley, Ayelet Even-Nur, Michele Chun, Art Middleton, and Cassandra Troyan, in addition to the Blind Field editorial collective, for their help and support in seeing this piece through to what it is.

 

[1] Critical Inquiry Vol. 8, No. 4 (Summer 1982), 785.

[2] Ida Friederike Görres, The Hidden Face, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 401.

[3] Ida Magli, Women and Self-Sacrifice in the Christian Church: A Cultural History from the First to the Nineteenth Century, trans. Janet Sethre (London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2003), 76.

[4] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 255.

[5]  Dictée, 106.

[6] Carla Lonzi, “Itinerario di riflessioni,” in È già politica (Milan: Rivolta Femminile, 1977), 22. My translation and emphasis.

[7] Ibid., 24.

[8] Paola Bono and Sandra Kemp, “Coming from the South,” in Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 9.

[9] Lonzi, “Let’s Spit on Hegel,” trans. Veronica Newman, reprinted in Bono and Kemp, Italian Feminist Thought, 41.

[10] Rivolta Femminile, “Manifesto,” trans. Veronica Newman, reprinted in Bono and Kemp, Italian Feminist Thought, 37.

[11] Carla Lonzi, Taci, anzi parla: Diario di una femminista, (Milan: et al., 2010), 53.

[12] Teresa nella parte di Giovanna d’Arco in prigione (tavola ottica) (1969); see endnote image.

[13] Here I mean to emphasize the fundamental rupture (and consequent plurality through difference) that occurs where image interrupts text, in this case midway through one of Lonzi’s sentences.

[14] Claire Fontaine, “We Are All Clitoridian Women: Notes on Carla Lonzi’s Legacy,” in e-flux journal #47, e-flux, Aug. 2013. <http://www.e-flux.com/journal/we-are-all-clitoridian-women-notes-on-carla-lonzi’s-legacy/&gt;

[15] Dictée, 145.

[16] Disch and Iamurri discuss Paolini’s adaptation of the image, reproduced in full on the cover of the 2010 edition of Autoritratto. On canvas three of four arranged in a row, Paolini presents Thérèse’s visage (the same detail Lonzi utilizes in the interior of the book) as if through a keyhole or other small opening, such that the effect of her conspicuous closeness is intensified by the blind frame. Canvases one, two, and four show a grainy gray blank, a white blank with tiny black point, and a grainy, lighter gray blank respectively, the various results of extreme enlargements (to pointillated shadow) and reductions (to dark speck) of the original photograph of Thérèse.

[17] Lonzi, “Itinerario di riflessioni,” 16-17.

[18] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2011), 73.

[19] Lonzi, “Itinerario di riflessioni,” 13-14.

[20] Rancière, 49.

[21] Cha, 33.

[22] Rancière, 10.

[23] Dictée, 28.

[24] Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 262-3.

[25] Dictée, 30.

[26] Ibid., 88.

[27] Ibid., 28.

[28] Ibid., 149-150

[29] Ibid., 45.

[30] Nancy, 3

[31] Ibid., 2.

[32] Dictée, 38.

[33] Nancy, 3.

[34] Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, With Additional Writings and Sayings of St. Thérèse, trans. Thomas N. Taylor. Project Gutenberg, 2005. EPUB file.

[35] Trinh T. Minh-ha, “White Spring,” in The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 48.

[36] Carla Lonzi, Autoritratto (Milan: et al., 2010), 4. My translation.

[37] Ibid., 4-5.

[38]  Ibid., 7.

[39] Ibid., 33.

[40] Ibid., 4. My emphasis.

[41]  Ibid., 5.

[42] Ibid., 35.

[43] Ibid., 31-33.

[44] Ibid., 16.

[45] Ibid., 6.

[46] Rancière, 16-17.

[47] “Understanding Brecht”

[48] Nancy, 2.

[49] Rancière, 15.

[50] Dictée, 48.

[51] In “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Mary Louise Pratt coins the term to refer to “spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.” Describing the literature of the contact zone, she states, “such a text is heterogeneous on the reception end as well as the production end: it will read very differently to different people in different positions.” Both Dictee and Autoritratto open such spaces of discord and exchange. In Profession Vol. 91 (1991), 31-40.

[52] Rancière, 22.

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