– Autumn/Winter 2004

The Agency of Letters

Jonathan Flatley

Sam Durant, No lie Can Live Forever (installation view), vinyl text on electric sign, 208cm x 147cm x 28cm, 2003. Images courtesy of Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Sam Durant, No lie Can Live Forever (installation view), vinyl text on electric sign, 208cm x 147cm x 28cm, 2003. Images courtesy of Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Why don't they just go ahead and dress up [the letter] in grey prison clothes? You've seen the letters of their words - strung out in straight lines with shaved heads, resentful, each one just like all the others - grey, colourless - not letters at all, just stamped out marks. And yet if you ask a write-wright, a real writer, he'll tell you that a word written in one particular handwriting or set in a particular typeface is totally distinct from the same word in different lettering.
- Khlebnikov and Kruchonykh, 'The Letter As Such'1

Script has become, like language, an archive of nonsensuous similarities, of nonsensuous correspondences.
- Walter Benjamin, 'The Mimetic Faculty'2

In their 1913 manifesto 'The Letter as Such', the Russian futurist poets Alexander Kruchonykh and Velemir Khlebnikov deride those who have failed to understand that letters are not just linguistic signs but also expressive forms. For them, to habitually use the same old fonts, to impose them uniformly on entire texts, and to overlook the possibilities of creative handwriting entirely without regard to the specific context in which letters are being written, by whom and to whom, is to unwittingly and unnecessarily allow language to become a prison-house. 'You've seen the letters of their words,' they write, 'strung out in straight lines with shaved heads, resentful, each one just like the others,' hardly letters at all, just 'stamped out marks.' We must, Kruchonykh and Khlebnikov exhort, stop treating language as if it were simply a transparent medium for the communication of meaning. Writing - handwriting in particular - is a more directly mimetic

  1. English translation from Velemir Khlebnikov, 'The Letter as Such' in Charlotte Douglas (ed.), The King of Time. Selected Writings of the Russian Futurian, Paul Schmidt (trans.), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985, pp.121-22

  2. Walter Benjamin, 'The Mimetic Faculty', in Howard Eiland, Michael W. Jennings and Gary Smith (eds.), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1934, Rodney Livingstone and others (trans.), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp.720-22

  3. 12 Signs transposed and illuminated (with various indexes) is the title given to the series in the recent catalogue published by the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Gent, Belguim. An earlier incarnation, titled 7 Signs; Removed, cropped, enlarged and illuminated (plus index), was exhibited at the Wadsworth Atheneum 18 May-1 September 2002. See Nicholas Baume (ed.), Sam Durant / Matrix 147, Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum, 2002

  4. See Mary LeClére, 'The Time of the Now', in 12 Signs transposed and illuminated (with various indexes), Gent: Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, 2004, p.54, for a careful extended reading of the chiasmus created 'between two pairs of terms: text/image and unique/reproducible'.

  5. In the way that 12 Signs foregrounds the tension between form and sign, Durant's series takes its place in an artistic tradition that would include, each in quite different ways, Paul Klee, Henri Magritte, Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha. Unlike these artists, however, Durant locates this tension in an explicitly political context. See Michel Foucault's This is Not a Pipe, James Harkness (trans.), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983, for more on the separation between plastic representation and linguistic reference in Klee and Magritte.

  6. The phrase 'graphic regions of eccentric figurativeness' comes from Walter Benjamin's 'One Way Street', Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926, Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (eds.), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996, p.456

  7. See W. Benjamin, 'Doctrine of the Similar', Selected Writings, Volume 2, op. cit., p.697

  8. Noticing intense, seemingly unmotivated appearances of both positive and negative affects during analysis, Freud came to realise that his patients were 'transferring' feelings from past objects onto the person of the analyst, substituting the analyst for the past object on the basis of some real or imagined similarity. At first this seemed to be a problem because this hallucinatory repetition of past emotions distracted the analysand from remembering and recounting and acted therefore as a kind of barrier or stalling tactic ('resistance'). He soon realised, however (and here I am schematising and simplifying what was for Freud a long characteristically complex engagement with a basic problem), that the transference was the key to the cure because it was perhaps the only way these affects made it into the scene of analysis. The term 'transference' itself appears to have been first used in The Interpretation of Dreams (1901), where it referred not to the transference of an unconscious feeling from the past onto the person of the therapist, but described the general process whereby the unconscious manages to communicate with consciousness. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, James Strachey (ed. and trans.), New York: Avon, 1965, p.601

  9. Freud first confronted the phenomenon of transference in the infamous case of Dora. See S. Freud, Dora - An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, New York: Collier Books, 1963, especially p.138. See also 'The Dynamics of the Transference' (1912) and 'Further Recommendations in the Technique of Psychoanalysis: Recollection, Repetition and Working-Through' (1914) in Philip Rieff (ed.), Therapy and Technique, New York: Collier Books, 1963

  10. Georg Simmel's observation is to the point: 'Before buses, railroad and streetcars became fully established during the nineteenth century, people were never put in a position of having to stare at one another for minutes or even hours on end without exchanging a word.' See Georg Simmel, 'The

  11. Metropolis and Mental Life' (1903), in Donald N. Levine (ed.), Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Form, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, pp.324-39

  12. For more on modernity and the mimetic faculty in Benjamin see: Susan Buck-Morss, 'Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Artwork essay Reconsidered', October, no.62, Fall 1992, pp.3-41; and Miriam Hansen, 'Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One Way Street', in Gerhard Richter (ed.), Benjamin's Ghosts, Stanford University Press, 2002, pp.41-73

  13. W. Benjamin, 'Doctrine of the Similar', op. cit., p.694

  14. Ibid., p.695

  15. Ibid., pp.696-97

  16. See Nicholas Baume, 'SAM DURANT: Following the signs', in Sam Durant/Matrix 147 for an insightful reading of this particular installation.

  17. The affective torsion produced when the form and referential meaning of a text are in tension with each other is well known in the African-American aesthetic tradition, going back through the blues to slave songs, in which, as Fredrick Douglass noted, slaves 'would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone'. See Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself (1845), New York: Penguin, 1982, p.57

  18. Prosopopoiea is the trope that ascribes face, name, or voice to the absent inanimate or dead; it means literally to give or create (poiea) a face or a person (prosopon), to personify. See Paul de Man's 'Autobiography of De-facement', Rhetoric of Romanticism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984 for an important consideration of prosopoiea. Also see my 'Warhol Gives Good Face: Publicity and the Politics of Prosopopoiea', in Doyle, Flatley, Munoz (eds.), Pop Out: Queer Warhol, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996

  19. The phenomenon is analogous to the re-enactment of past emotions one sees in transference. There, in the classic scenario, the patient lies on a couch while the analyst sits behind him or her, requiring the patient to imagine the face of the analyst. As the analysand spoke s/he would have to guess at the analyst's emotional responses: Is the analyst pleased, surprised, saddened, embarrassed? With no actual face distracting us, our imagination has more room with which to create the face that would allow those non-abreacted affects that have been buried or otherwise lost inside us to reappear. For this reason, Freud advocated displaying in therapy a 'calm quiet attentiveness', and appearing 'impenetrable to the patient, and, like a mirror, reflect nothing but what is shown to him'. The two quotes are from 'Recommendations for Physicians on the Psycho-analytic Method of Treatment' (1912), in Philip Rieff (ed.), Therapy and Technique, New York: Collier Books, 1963, pp.117-26. These quotes pp.118 and 124 respectively.

  20. King quoted in David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, New York: Vintage Books, 1986, pp.399-400

  21. W. Benjamin, 'N: On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress', The Arcades Project, Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (trans.), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, p.462

  22. Ibid., p.473