Category Archives: Critical Inquiry

In Memory of Robert Morris, 1931-2018

W. J. T. Mitchell

 

Robert Morris, one of the founders of the “Great Generation” of American minimalist artists in the 1960s and a frequent contributor to this journal, passed away on 28 November 2018. The New York Times (30 November) devoted a full page to his obituary, complete with photos of some of his iconic pieces in felt, plywood, and other humble industrial materials. Over the last twenty-five years, Critical Inquiry published many of his essays on art—its history, its many worlds, its follies and frustrations.  In honor of his long relationship with CI, we will be temporarily opening public access to all those essays soon.

Morris was also a longtime personal friend, mentor, and inspiration to the editor of this journal. We enjoyed a running conversation about art, politics, and culture, along with specific discussions of the essays he sent to us. He introduced me to contemporary art in the late 1980s, which probably jaundiced my normally hopeful eye. I wrote an essay (“Wall Labels for Robert Morris”) for the catalogue of his 1993 Guggenheim retrospective based on a dream diary entry that he sent to me.  He was also an occasional visitor to Chicago for exhibitions of his work at the Art Institute. And on 13 November 2013, when he was in somewhat precarious health, he agreed to come to Chicago to give a lecture/performance. He packed the 474-seat Logan Center Auditorium, dazzling the audience with four screens, two large ones with automated images, and two smaller ones that he controlled from two lecterns. Images from throughout the history of art cascaded forth as he proceeded, in steadfastly deadpan Morris fashion, to give two parallel lectures, the combination entitled “A Few Thoughts about Bombs, Tennis, Free Will, Agency Reduction, Museums, Dust Storms, and Labyrinths.” As I recall, one lecture was emphatically more negative than the other. Neither was what you would call positive or affirmative. From the lectern on stage right, Bob declared his refusal

to talk about art that I made half a century ago; minimalism does not need to hear from me. I do not want to talk about art that I made yesterday; contemporary art is making enough noise without me. I do not want to be filmed in my studio, pretending to be working. I do not want to participate in staged conversations about art, either mine or others, past or present, which are labored and disguised performances. I do not want to be interviewed by curators, critics, art directors, theorists, aestheticians, aesthetes, professors, collectors, gallerists, culture mavens, journalists, or art historians, about my influences, favorite artists, despised artists, past artists, current artists, or future artists. A long time ago I got in the habit, never since broken, of writing down things instead of talking. It is possible that I was led into art making because art making and being in the presence of another person were not requirements.

Moving over to stage left after a reflection on free will and determinism  (“Now comes the hard part”), Bob switched from sardonic monologue to a Samuel-Beckett-style dialogue between two mysterious interlocutors:

One:  “Ever hear the expression, ‘I have reached bed rock and my spade is turned’”?

Other:  “Maybe. Why?”

One: “What do you think it means?”

Other:  “Metaphors don’t have meanings.”

One: “Really?”

Other: “They just lead us to see one thing as another.”

One: “Hmmm.  So where is the spade and rock leading you? Not the rock or the spade but the turning. The turning after it hit the fucking rock.”

Other: “OK, the turning. Where is it leading you? Something about going on without reasons.  You never have reasons anyway.”

One:  “There is more.”

Other:  “Oh, no.”

One: “The way it goes is to begin with a qualification.”

Other:  “Let’s hear it.”

One: “It goes, ‘I’m inclined to say,’ and then you get to the rock and spade.”

Other:  “Well, that changes everything.”

At the end, Bob agreed to answer exactly ten questions from the audience, no more, no less. The answers were all quotations from famous philosophers written on slips of paper drawn out of Bob’s hat. In answer to the question, “what are you really trying to say in this performance?” Bob luckily pulled out a line of John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing”:  “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.”

I won’t try to make sense of all this for you. Bob’s critical intentions always seemed directed at puncturing the clichés of “artspeak” and the mystique of artist “personalities.” He loved labyrinths of thought, continually weaving metaphysics and everyday language. His sensibility was unrelentingly pessimistic, ironic, and quietly jocular, poised somewhere between Buster Keaton, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and George Carlin. In private, he was a gentle, considerate friend, with a deep reservoir of rage at cruelty, injustice, and pompous hypocrisy.

The first time I met him was at his invitation, sometime in the late 1980s. He had read my recently published book Iconology and wrote me a short note telling me that he liked it and would be  happy to meet me if I ever came to New York. He mentioned in a PS that he had a show at the Art Institute of Chicago, which I duly attended. It was the debut of one of his numerous departures from his minimalist origins into a maximalist exploration of apocalyptic firestorm paintings laminated onto heated lead plates, framed in hydrocal structures riddled with impressions of body parts—fists, penises, skulls.

Robert Morris, Untitled, 1984.

I suspect that I pissed Bob off when I said that “they look like ornaments suitable for Darth Vader’s boudoir,”[1]but he seems to have forgiven me. I felt that the firestorm compositions were staging a paragone or debate between sculpture and painting, “insisting on the frame as an equal partner in the work”:

The hydrocal frames with their imprinted body parts and post-holocaust detritus stand as the framing ‘present’ of the works, trophies or relics encrusted around the past event, the catastrophe that left the fossils as the imprints in which it is enframed.  Frame is to image as body is to the destructive element, as present is to past.[2]

On my next trip to New York, I arranged to meet Bob for coffee at 4 PM at a café in Soho.  We didn’t stop talking until midnight. For the next twenty years, every trip to New York included a meal with him. When he moved his studio to upstate New York, he let me use his top-floor loft on Greene Street as a crash pad, and I spent many lovely evenings there sitting out on the fire escape watching the crowds on Canal Street and the sunset over the cast iron buildings of Soho.

Most of our correspondence over the years dealt with his writing, but twice I was able to commission works of art from him. One was an illustrative cartoon for a lecture at MoMA entitled “How the dinosaurs broke into the Museum of Modern Art,” which dealt with issues such as neglected and deaccessioned holdings in the museum, as well as (naturally) Robert Smithson. MoMA’s director politely suggested that the museum would be happy if I were to give them Bob’s drawing as a gift, and I just as politely declined to do so.

Cartoon by Robert Morris and the author.

The other, more serious commission was my request in 2008 that Bob make a drawing that would show the famous multistable image of the Duck-Rabbit with a body. He provided a straightforward sculptor’s answer to the challenge by resorting to the time honored technique of contrapposto, turning the creature’s body so that the rabbit is facing forward while the duck is twisting his body 180 degrees.

Robert Morris.

But he added to the image an internal framing structure based on the Greimasian “Square of Opposition” used by linguists to visualize the structures of negative statements, and later used by Jacques Lacan to produce his famous “L-Schema” depicting the relation of the subject with the Other. He mused about fabricating the Duck-Rabbit (with body) in glass, but I don’t know that he ever did.   

After he sent me the embodied Duck-Rabbit drawing, Bob launched into a set of reflections on this “quadratic diagram” in a letter that will forever tantalize me with its plunge into a world of abstractions rendered concrete, visible, and structural, driven by his inveterate “Kunstwolling,” his drive to make ideas into things and vice versa:

12 December 2008

Dear Tom,
I hope your talk went well.  Your visit here gave me a real lift. Our visits are too infrequent.
I was thinking about how to expand the quadratic ideogram to something like a quadratic equation; something which moves from a static map to a mapping of 3-D force fields. Desire gets expanded from just directional arrows-Eros to the animating axial force. So let Desire be the force moving from below where it transits first the Quadratic Ideogram of space-object and image-language. Here predilection, imagination, tropism cross the first filter/screen of the material.  The next level-screen-filter is that of the Other where the dream of private language perishes, where Desire encounters existing models, where the Oedipal resistance of that which is “always already” in place intimidates. The third passage is Desire’s move through the triangular filter of Peircean signs of concrete material means where one seizes the stuff of forming (am I just Kunstwolling along here below a big mental model which I want to grasp?). The fourth and final filter to be crossed is that of Rhetoric/Logic. Here I do not have a clear memory of how you articulated this opposition. I can see it partly as taking the form of a Klein group (x-not-x; x-not-y;x-not-x or y, etc). This fourth level is also that of format and revision and where revenge is taken on the Other by means of signing and presenting the work-thought-object-art .
All this is extremely tentative. I don’t know the geometry of the four levels–squares? triangles? circles?
I thought you might be able to (a) play/expand/refine this quadratic equation,or (b) rip it to shreds.
Love,
Bob

As Morris’s apprentice, editor, and friend, I found these exchanges endlessly delicious and inconclusive, a wonderful meal that left me with renewed appetite for more. The idea that there will be no more conversations of this sort left me desolate and blue all day, until I received the following note of condolence from my old friend and former student, John Ricco, quoting from Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo’s book Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship:

No end, I swear by all that is holy, only the silence in between the movements. You know those silences in which the educated audience members at concerts don’t applaud? Because they know it is a ‘movement’ that’s just ended and not the end of a song? I think or hope that’s what death is. The silence between movements; those who don’t know any better applaud, but those who know music more intimately sit in silence and wait for the next movement to begin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Actually, I was quoting my wife, Janice Misurell Mitchell, who didn’t like them nearly as much as I did.

[2]W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago, 1994).

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Filed under Arts, Critical Inquiry, Media, Uncategorized, WJT Report

Hurricanes!

Bill Ayers

A natural and expected reaction to the disasters in Texas and Florida is the normal, everyday human response: as fellow creatures, we will help you. Of course.

But when we watch Governors Abbott and Scott rolling up the sleeves of their work shirts, donning their “NAVY” baseball caps, and offering the optics of responsible leadership, it’s only fair to point out that these guys and their donors and allies are leading climate change deniers, that they’ve intentionally underfunded infrastructure development and safety programs, that they are austerity hawks who consistently serve the interests of the banksters and their hedge-fund homies, that they are vicious America-firsters and proponents of the harshest treatment of immigrants, and that they always seem to want FEMA, the EPA, and Washington “off our backs…” except for right now. They urge us to keep politics away from a “natural disaster,” and with the complicity of the bought media and the chattering class it is done—endless images of flood and storm, less and less illuminating as the catastrophe rolls forward, and not a peep about the climate chaos brought on by human-caused change and run-away predatory capitalism. And within the ballooning hypocrisy this: immigrant scrutiny and harsh treatment will be suspended for the storm, so please go to shelters; after the storm, back to normal: scapegoating, targeting, exploiting, oppressing. The gathering catastrophic storms here in Chicago and around the country—terrible schools, scarce jobs and crisis-level unemployment, shoddy health care, inadequate housing, and occupying militarized police forces—are of no interest to the political and financial classes, or the 1%. It’s up to us to organize and rise!

Original posted at https://billayers.org/2017/09/10/hurricanes/

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On Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project

Marjorie Perloff

Shortly after my essay (“Avant-Garde in a Different Key:  Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind”) went to press, Kraus, whose work has long been neglected in the Anglophone world, suddenly found himself at the center of lively controversy in the press. The occasion was the publication in October 2013 of Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).  Ironically, it has taken the attention of a celebrated novelist like Franzen to bring a great figure like Karl Kraus to the attention of our own literary/intellectual community.  Or so we may conclude from the dozens of serous reviews devoted to The Kraus Project in the autumn of 1913.  Most of these reviews—for example, Michael Hoffmann’s in The New York Review of Books– treated Kraus as a fascinating—but finally flawed—polemicist, whose virulent critique of the Hapsburg monarchy and especially of the media was perhaps too extreme—and certainly too local—to retain its satiric punch today.  One notable exception is Eric Banks’s long and richly documented piece in Bookforum (Sept/Oct/Nov 2013).

Whether praised or denigrated, Franzen’s eccentric study can hardly be taken as any sort of beginner’s guide to Kraus’s oeuvre:  it is much less about Kraus than about Franzen himself—his own progress as a writer, his studies in Berlin, his own withering contempt for the world of the internet and social media   When Franzen compares Kraus’s dichotomy between the Germanic emphasis on literary content versus the French concern for form to that of the “sober” and “functional” PC versus the “cool” and “elegant” Apple, one feels that the author is being little more than frivolous.   And it is never clear why The Kraus Project chooses, as its texts to be translated and annotated, the two youthful essays “Heine and the Consequences” (1910) and “Nestroy and Posterity” (1912).  The critique of the great German lyric poet for his excessive Francophilia is, to my mind, one of Kraus’s least successful literary essays; and the Nestroy essay can’t mean much to contemporary readers, who are not likely to have heard of the obscure nineteenth-century Austrian dramatist.  But then, Franzen uses these essays only as the jumping off point for his own wild and whacky commentary, interspersed with glosses by the scholar Paul Reitter and the German-Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann.

There are fascinating aperçus scattered throughout this collage-commentary: Franzen is, for example, very perceptive about Last Days, which he calls “the strangest great play ever written,” and remarks, “At first glance, it can be mistaken for postmodern, since the bulk of its 793 pages consists of quotation; it’s unabashedly a play about language.  Kraus maintained that, with the exception of the Grumbler-Optimist scenes and the verse fantasias, every line spoken by it several hundred characters was something he had personally heard or read during the First World War” (p. 257).  Yet, Franzen argues, “what makes the play modern, rather than postmodern, is the figure of the Grumbler, who in most respects is indistinguishable from Kraus himself.  His friend the Optimist keeps coming to him with fresh phrases of propaganda and journalism, trying to persuade him that war is a glorious thing and is going well, and the Grumbler aphoristically demolishes every one of them. . . His coordinating subjectivity is too central to be postmodern” (257).  This description of the roles of Grumbler and Optimist strikes me as quite accurate but it is also the case that the Grumbler’s didactic summations become tedious–he is indeed Kraus’s mouthpiece—and undercut the play’s dramatic power.  And since didacticism is hardly a characteristic of Modernism, my own conclusion would be that The Last Days is best understood as a postmodern work manqué.

The Kraus Project, in any case, is not likely to bring the Austrian writer a new readership:  its technique—translation, commentary, commentary on the commentary by others—is too confusing, its conclusions about politics conclusions about politics too idiosyncratic. But I applaud the book’s publication because it has certainly succeeded in enlarging the discourse about Kraus’s writing, if for no other reason than that the reviews, responses, and letters to the editor have brought new facts to light.  The most important of these is that there is a new translation of Last Days of Mankind.  In November 2013, the British writer Michael Russell, whose career has been in television drama, responded to the ongoing discussion of The Kraus Project by posting the following on his website dedicated to Kraus:

1914 saw the start of the First World War and of Karl Kraus’s bitter, relentless and incomparable dissection of its progress. 11 November 2014 will see the publication of my full translation of ‘The Last Days of Mankind – Part One’ as an e-book on Amazon; that is to say the prologue, act I, act II & act III, with commentary (part two, acts IV & V, & the epilogue, will be published in 2016). Almost 100 years on this will be the first ever English version of Karl Kraus’s complete text of the play. The translation will be revised from the work-in-progress version used to provide the condensed material currently on this website; the commentary notes will be revised and extended…

I am happy to report that Russell’s translation is excellent—certainly the best I’ve seen to date. I only wish it had been available when I began my own work on Kraus!  But now that it is here—and very accessible on line—I urge readers to take a look, especially at the scenes discussed in my own essay.  It seems, then, that in time for the centenary of World War I, Kraus’s great war drama is finally going to get its due in the English-speaking world.

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January 13, 2014 · 9:38 am

From Mr. Chips to Scarface, or Racial Capitalism in Breaking Bad

Curtis Marez

As the acclaimed series comes to a close, critics have routinely repeated the claim of Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan, that the show traces Walter White’s transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface, but the larger implications of the character’s arc are rarely investigated. “Mr. Chips” is the nickname of an initially stern but ultimately kindly English public school teacher in the 1939 film whereas “Scarface” is the alias of Tony Montana, the ruthless Cuban immigrant drug lord in Brian De Palma’s 1983 film of the same name.  As played by Al Pacino, Montana is perhaps the most iconic Latino character in Hollywood history, inspiring a host of imitations and homages in film and music. Indeed, the figure of Scarface anchors multiple forms of mimetic desire whereby his fans feel compelled to repeat his best, heavily accented lines (“Who do I trust? Me, that’s who”; “Say hello to my little friend”). In analogous ways over the course of 5 seasons Walter White has come to copy the Latino drug dealers he triumphs over.  In fact, the character’s transformation is represented as a kind of “becoming Latino” in ways that presuppose a broader borderland political economy, built on sedimented layers of colonialism, that depends upon the incorporation of low wage migrant labor. Continue reading

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September 25, 2013 · 7:16 pm

Further Thoughts on Occupy: Open Letter to W. J. T. Mitchell

 

I’ve just been catching up on my journal reading and very much appreciated the recent bundle of articles on the Occupy movement in Critical Inquiry. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/668047 But I also have one critique. Initially I hesitated to write, but I realized I was reading something that was very familiar to me, not only in your writing but in many others, that bears commenting on. Your preface offers an overview of the Occupy movement from an almost invisibly American perspective. Of course you are American, and so you may argue that this perspective makes sense. But I think there is a problem when it leads to misrepresentation. I especially think there is a problem in our current world of geopolitical inquiry, globalization, and transnationalism.

            As I’m sure you know, the Occupy movement took its name from the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters. Occupy movements were present in every major city in Canada. In my city, Ottawa, which also happens to be the nation’s capital, the movement produced controversy as well as assent, a space for debate and gathering as well as a space of occasional violence. But when you reference the Occupy movement geographically you interestingly “confine” it primarily to the US. Consider your references. Occupy moves “from highly particular events in New York’s Zucotti Park” (this is true enough), to its relation to “American politics,” to “uprisings that spread like a virus across the Middle East to Europe, the United States, and beyond.” This virus apparently bypasses Canada, the US’s closest neighbour. Later you note that “protests spread from Zucotti Park to scores of cities all over the US.” Later still you refer to “nonviolent protestors across the US.” Of course it is fine to discuss the Occupy movement in its American context, but it is just the assumption that this context is the context for the movement that troubles me.

            I want to be clear: I am by no means calling for national inclusion; my point is not that Canada was left out of your narrative. I am not suggesting that you add “and Canada” to your lists. Rather I am making a plea for rethinking and reframing the way that nation is discussed, in general, and the way that the US is referenced, in particular. Too often, it seems to me, American intellectuals read large political and social movements only through the lens of American geopolitical identity. The imagination of a broader context does not even enter the discussion (or, if it does, it is captured by the vague and uncritical “and beyond.”)  

            You are in a prominent position to make an intervention here. When a leading intellectual participates in and reinforces this sort of partial, geographically bounded, description of a major social movement, it limits the way that we think about the issues. I am making a subtle request but I do believe it is hugely consequential for the ways in which we understand our roles in the academy and our vision for the future of intellectual inquiry. For, as you suggest, a shift in language can trigger shifts in our conversations that expand the limits of what is both thinkable and possible. 

             

Barbara Leckie
Associate Professor & Graduate Chair
Department of English &
Institute for the Comparative Study of Literature, Art, and Culture

Carleton University

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Filed under Arab Spring, Critical Inquiry, Occupy

The Subject of Love

Leo Bersani, the Critical Inquiry Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago for 2012, will be conducting a graduate seminar called The Subject of Love.  The course will run for four weeks from 16 April to 11 May. Here is his course description. For more information, please email Jay Williams, Senior Managing Editor, at jww4@uchicago.edu

 

 The Subject of Love
     Concepts and representations of love in certain philosophical, literary, and psychoanalytic texts, as well as in film, from Plato to Godard.  If love is constituted by the language used to “describe” it, we might also argue that the construction of love as a psychic reality is inseparable from the elaboration of particular forms of subjectivity.  To represent and to theorize different modes and objects of human love is, at least implicitly, to propose varying structures of selfhood.  A history of amorous discourse reenacts and reformulates the Foucauldian project of tracing “the hermeneutics of subjectivity” in Western culture.  We will be testing this hypothesis first in a few texts by ancient writers (Plato, Sophocles) and then, primarily, in modern works by Freud, D. H. Lawrence, Proust,  Duras, Claire Denis, and Godard.

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Filed under Critical Inquiry, Criticsm, Theory

THE ARTS OF OCCUPATION

The Arts of Occupation:  A Call for Crowd Sourcing

Critical Inquiry announces a call to assemble a virtual archive of the Arts of Occupation.  We invite our readers to send images in all media, as well as links, anecdotes, brief essays, reports, games, scripts for performance, and videos that will document the aesthetic as well as the tactical and political side of practices of occupation.  We are interested in the “creative” aspect of the global occupation movement, the ways in which it produces new forms of spectacle, space, face, and inscription.  We are asking for our readers’ aesthetic judgments, not just their political views.  What images and statements have impressed them as especially elegant, powerful, salient, eloquent, penetrating, and—well, yes—beautiful?   What specific images (both metaphors and visual images) have had the most impact, and why?    Is there a new image of the crowd  itself, as a bodily presence in a real place, and as a virtual entity, a mass  social movement?  Is there a new image of the individual, at once non-subject and non-sovereign?  How have the media, both old and new, from Twitter to the People’s Mic, produced and reproduced the emergent forms of democracy?   How is the “sensible,” meaning both sensuous and thinkable, re-distributed by the actions and images of the Occupy Movement?

We do not wish to limit the archive to 2011, though this year just past will clearly stand as the historical beginning of a new sense of the words and images associated with “occupation.”  After a half century of thinking of this word as invariably coupled with military occupation, and with landscapes of  conquest and colonization, a new meaning has suddenly imposed itself.   At the same time the image-concept of the camp and encampment has shifted from a site of detention and dehumanization to one of insurgency and non-violent resistance.  “Occupation” has turned from the sphere of power to that of weakness, disenfranchisement, poverty, as well as resistance, insurgency, and creative direct action.   What are the aesthetic aims and effects of lying down under a red carpet at the entrance to a Chamber of Commerce gala? Camping in a public park until the police remove you?  Erecting a tent city in the midst of Tel Aviv?  Shutting down harbors in Oakland, Long Beach, Portland, and Seattle?  Opening free clinics, libraries, clothing exchanges, media centers, educational projects?  Scribbling slogans, questions, declarations, accusations,  demands, and jokes?  Assembling as an embodied movement on symbolic sites—capitols, city halls, banks, museums, schools, and foreclosed homes.

And, finally, we invite critical and theoretical reflection on the Arts of Occupation.  There needs to be some recognition of the “black arts” of occupation (violence, exploitation, domination) that have mostly characterized the preceding era.  We want to know which arts, and which specific performances, have had the greatest effect in mobilizing this counter-movement?  What have been the failures and successes, and what can we learn from them?

Submit your entry simply by responding to this post.

And to follow Critical Inquiry contributors Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler on the Occupy movement, click on the following links:

Žižek  in the Guardian

Žižek  in the Observer

Žižek on YouTube

Žižek  on Verso Books

Butler on Salon

Butler on Occupywriters.com

Butler on Worlds of Change

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Filed under Arab Spring, Arts, Critical Inquiry, Criticsm, Media, Occupy