Situations of Writing

Convenor: Sunil Manghani

Situations of Writing is a proposal for a collaborative research project, which will likely lead to the publication of an edited book. The format of the final outcome may indeed end up looking like something else (or as a set of outcomes), but crucially at the heart of this project is a question about how we make knowledge visible and tangible. Situated from within the arts and humanities, it involves re-thinking how we might approach scholarly ‘writing’ as a consideration of both form and content. There is a rich precedent for approaching writing as design, illustration and even sculpture. Yet, such ‘writings’ are typically only taken as sources for scholarly consideration, not as scholarship itself.

This project seeks not only to re-examine, but also to practically engage with the very ‘architecture’ of the book, and by extension architectures of knowledge and dissemination. As well as exploring differing situations or modalities of ‘writing’, the project is equally concerned with writing as being ‘situated’; placing the book within a social, political and ethical nexus. Some of the ideas behind this project stem from my own interest in ‘writing with images’, as I have explored in Image Critique (2008) and Image Studies (2013), as well as through dialogue over a period of a decade with the art historian and theorist James Elkins. In a recent statement, Elkins has declared his exit from formal art scholarship, in favour of experimental writing. It is a move that has further prompted me to get this project, Situations of Writing, properly underway. In addition, a brief commentary by Judith Butler on the ‘precarious’ status of the arts and humanities adds a further sense of urgency (more of which below).

The project itself is situated within the research community at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, and in particular will be developed through an ongoing seminar series as part of the School’s doctoral research programme. However, all interested parties are welcome to get involved with the project, the primary aim of which is bring together a rich and diverse set of ‘writings’ for publication. All comments and expressions of interest welcome!


Writing with Images

On one of the opening, unnumbered pages of Barthes’ Empire of Signs (1970), we read a single paragraph, which acts as a quasi-methodological statement:

The text does not “gloss” the images, which do not “illustrate” the text. For me, each has been no more than the onset of a kind of visual uncertainty, analogous perhaps to that loss of meaning Zen calls a satori. Text and image, interlacing, seek to ensure the circulation and exchange of these signifiers: body, face, writing; and in them to read the retreat of signs.

Empire of Signs is a curious book, reflecting Barthes’ own curiosity about Japan. The close of the book, in a chapter called ‘The Cabinet of Signs’, there is mention of the figure of the curiosity cabinet, but also crucially an architectural reference to the Shikidai gallery. A photograph of the gallery appears in the centre of the book. It is an image of a corridor, with shoji panels on one side, closing off the outside, yet still letting in the light. The floor of the gallery echoes the ceiling. As such the photograph allows us to see space as much as place. And placed deliberately in the centre fold of the book, as a double spread, it is accompanied by a simple instruction: ‘Turn the image upside down: nothing more, nothing else, nothing’. This photograph is a site of Barthes’ writing as much as the many words committed to paper. Taken as a whole, the book is emblematic of much that I hope to explore with this project, Situations of Writing. Indeed, the very title of the project – which I have held onto for sometime – is lifted from the opening pages of Empire of Signs:

The author has never, in any sense, photographed Japan. Rather, he has done the opposite: Japan has starred him with any number of “flashes:; or, better still, Japan has afforded him a situation of writing. (Barthes, Empire of Signs, p.4)

The Challenge to ‘Write’

In Image Critique (2008) I argued that despite the interdisciplinary make-up of visual culture studies and its challenge to the orthodoxy of textual analysis, the field nonetheless ‘prompted little actual innovation in terms of its form(s) of writing, production and dissemination’. Quite some years on now I’d still largely stand by this remark. As the time I was echoing James Elkins’ (2003) criticism of visual culture, whereby he urged the field become ‘more ambitious about its purview, more demanding in its analyses, and above all more difficult’. The underlying suggestion was that we need to write more ‘ambitiously’. As an example of the problem, Elkins makes reference to the work of John Berger, who emerges as one of the most widely cited inspirations to the field. What makes this fact particularly strange, Eklins argues, is that ‘no art historian or specialist in visual culture writes anything like Berger.’ Indeed, no one seems willing to experiment in the same way with the form and style of writing and production. Art historians and other specialists of visual culture seldom work closely with an image-maker (such as in Berger’s case, the photographer Jean Mohr) and would never, for example, interrupt their prose with poetry, permit themselves long parenthetic remarks or personal reminiscences. Yet, ‘why not’, Elkins asks, ‘when those signs of the engaged writer are part and parcel of the philosophy of the engaged viewer that Berger himself helped bring into art history?’

In co-convening the Stone Summer Theory Institute in 2011, under the title of ‘Farewell to Visual Studies’, James Elkins and I led a discussion about alternative modes of writing and about thinking with/through images, yet it proved difficult for this topic to gain traction and notably it didn’t find its place in the (forthcoming) book of the event. During the week of the Institute, as a quiet aside one evening, Elkins mentioned to me that he was turning his attention to writing fiction, which I read to mean he was going to take the issue of writing head on. In a recent public statement, Elkins has now announced he is leaving art history, that is ‘moving out of art history, art theory, visual studies, and art criticism, and into experimental writing’. Given his prominence in the field it is a bold decision, but a considered one:

I’m prompted to do this for several reasons. The most important is that art history and related fields in the humanities have long acknowledged the fundamental position occupied by writing, which entails among other things that writing is not a neutral medium, and that there is no secure distinction between nonfiction and other kinds of writing—but few scholars have taken writing seriously in their own practice. Art historians, theorists, and critics continue to write along well-defined disciplinary paths. We cite poststructuralist philosophers on the idea of writing, but our own writing continues to be restricted by disciplinary expectations. The few authors who permit their writing to become more experimental (such as Barthes, Derrida, John Berger, or Hélène Cixous) tend to have their texts viewed as sources for art history, rather than examples of art history. (Elkins, Statement)

Elkins has developed two related websites (and courses). The first, What is Interesting Writing in Art History, seeks to make close reading of innovative research, where arguably ‘writing counts more than content’. The second, Writing with Images, is concerned with writing that contains images. Elkins is mainly interested in the use of photographs with his own writing, but the project as a whole looks to the image in a more expansive sense. Situations of Writing, I want to suggest, aligns closely with this second project, which as Elkins outlines:

…includes a look at books that use formatting, design, and typography in addition to images (such as artist’s books); and there are close readings of texts that experiment with images, including Sebald, Anne Carson, Susan Howe, André Breton, Raymond Roussel, and a dozen others. The project includes an attempt at theory, in which I try to say all the different ways that images can work in relation to texts, from merely illustrating what’s written (as in much art history) to working in unpredictable dialogue with the writing (as in Sebald). The purposes of this second project are to sketch a history of such practices, to theorize ways fiction and photographs have interacted, to expose some of the narrowness of art historical practices by contrast, and to provide material for writers at work on such texts. The project ends with a practical chapter, aimed at writers, which lists ways images can be used together with experimental writing. (Elkins, Statement)

As an unfolding series of seminars, workshops and collaborative writing practices, Situations of Writing can usefully enter into dialogue with Elkins’ work, with intended exploration to involve both close examination of existing works and the making of new materials.

Structures of Address

We must sign petitions, write texts, organize conferences, stand on commit- tees, take part in electoral consultations, publish books. In so doing, we assume the responsibilities normally attached to the status of being an intellectual. ‘Normally’, insofar as these practices are authorized and even encouraged by legislation or, at least, by the formal and informal rules that regulate that status. Society permits us to contribute, in that order that is our own, to the develop- ment of the global system. (Lyotard, Postmodern Fables, 1997, pp.68-69).

Today the ‘fight for emancipation’ is legitimated by the law itself. Just as for 1984‘s Winston Smith, nothing is illegal, so the regularity of openness we experience today carries with it the potential for ‘critical’ collapse. Indeed, if there is too much openness, the opportunity to make a stand or claim is diminished – i.e. any one claim will simply exist alongside all other claims. This is the paradox of democracy: too much of it is meaningless. In applying such logic, a book that is entirely open in its design risks the undoing of its medium, to lose its ‘binding’. The ‘situations’ of Situations of Writing must pertain as much to political and ethical injunctions. The range of collaborations that can be undertaken can lead out to a series of different forms of address. And equally stem from different points of address, different geopolitical sites or situations. George Orwell’s telescreen can be taken as a figure of our being bound up in the world, with no possibilities for standing apart, no position from which to offer critique. Winston Smith, however, reminds us that there is always a position from which to write:

In small clumsy letters he wrote: April 4th, 1984.

It is certainly not a date he can be sure of, but it is enough to mark a point on from which he can realize the enormity of his situation – ‘for whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn?’ (Orwell, 1984). In Precarious Life (2004), Judith Butler considers a more contemporary circumstance, that of the arts and humanities; a circumstance seemingly filled with as much uncertainly as those ‘small clumsy letters’ above. Butler recounts the recounting of a story during a university committee meeting, as follows:

I listened to a university press director tell a story. It was unclear whether he identified with the point of view from which the story was told, or whether he was relaying the bad news reluctantly. But the story he told was about another meeting, where he was listening, and there a president of a university made the point that no one is reading humanities books anymore, that the humanities have nothing more to offer or, rather, nothing to offer for our times. (Butler, Precarious Life, p.128)

Butler is interested in the ambiguity as to whose view in particular is being expressed. It definitely seems to be someone’s view, and a view to be taken seriously, yet it takes on a spectral quality.

There was an ensuing set of discussions at the same meeting in which it was not always possible to tell which view was owned by whom, or whether anyone really was willing to own a view. It was a discussion that turned on the question, Have the humanities undermined themselves, with all their relativism and questioning and “critique”, or have the humanities been undermined by all those who oppose all that relativism and questioning and “critique”? Someone has undermined the humanities, or some group of people has, but it was unclear who, and it was unclear who thought this was true. […] Of course it would be paradoxical if I were now to argue that what we really need is to tether discourse to authors, and in that way we will re-establish both authors and authority. I did my own bit of work … in trying to cut that tether. But what I do think is missing, and what I would like to see and hear return is a consideration of the structure of address itself. Because although I do not know in whose voice this person was speaking, whether the voice was his own or not, I did feel that I was being addressed… (Butler, Precarious Life, p.129)

Situations of writing is intended to be about this sense of address. Whether it is the consideration of the placement of the page (attempting to thwart the gloss of the text or illustration of the image) or the inherent situatedness of writing (of one’s ‘own’ writing), this project is to be situated practically, collaboratively and intellectually in addressing structures of address.

Sunil Manghani