Monday, May 31, 2010


Jacques Derrida's Memoirs of the Blind started life as the catalogue for an exhibition curated at the Louvre, and it was certainly provocative for the philosopher to take blindness as his theme at this institution so devoted to the powers of sight. Indeed, Derrida includes within the text the moment in which he first came up with the idea for the show. It is of course a scene of writing, but also of blindness and (potential) accident as, driving home from his first meeting at the museum:
the theme of the exhibition hits me. All of a sudden, in an instant. I scribble at the wheel a provisional title for my own use, to organize my notes: L'ouvre où ne pas voir. (32-33)
This title translates as "The Open Where Not to See" but also plays on the homophony between "L'ouvre" and "Louvre": the Louvre as a place where one does not see. The most renowned temple to the visual arts as a place of blindness.

So Derrida wants to draw a (self-)portrait of Western representation in which blindness is a central concern or even enabling possibility. All drawing, indeed, he claims to be the representation of the blind by the blind. Among other things, this means that the draftsman is inevitably either looking at the object of representation (and so cannot see what he is drawing on the page) or is looking at the representation as he makes it come into being (and so cannot see what he is drawing in life). Drawing is therefore necessarily mediated by memory: no portrait is ever a picture of the thing itself, but rather of something that has always already been worked on by the mind and experience.

But this mediation is inevitably problematic, imperfect, and so in some sense ruined or ruining. As Derrida the driver scribbles blindly while he keeps his eyes on the road, or looks down at his pad and so is distracted from his driving, in either case he risks ruin or accident: a meaningless scrawl on the one hand, that fails to record the idea that had suddenly struck him; or the possibility of suddenly striking a pedestrian or another vehicle while trying to make sense of the exhibition to come.

Yet the ruin is not simply accident or potential disaster; it is fundamental to the project of (self-)representation: "In the beginning there is ruin. Ruin is what happens to the image from the moment of the first gaze" (68).

Hence a necessary hesitation. At best, perhaps, at such times the multitasking driver, blind either to the road or to the representation of his or her own thoughts, may start to veer from side to side, or miss his or her turning. And blindness is after all associated with wandering or getting lost, just as wandering can in turn induce blindness both literal (snow blindness, for instance) and figurative.

And so it is also that Derrida's own text rather wanders through the historical tradition as he makes his way through the Louvre's immense archive. In what is imagined to be some kind of dialogue (with whom, it is never specified; perhaps some other, rather more skeptical self), Derrida roams between readings of specific works to general theories of drawing to speculations on the imagination of blindness from Homer or the Cyclops to St. Paul on the road to Damascus and on to the nineteenth-century realist self-portrait (but strangely, not very much further).

This is not an argument as such, more a tour d'horizon in which the horizon is very much closer than we may like, and is indeed more often an interior horizon than an exterior one: as Derrida notes, we are repeatedly reminded that physical, external sight must be extinguished for spiritual, internal vision to flourish. Along the way in this intimate journey there is plenty of insight, if much that is also naturally blurred and hard to make out.

Finally, then, Derrida ends not so much with a bang but a whimper, with the suggestion that eyes are less for seeing than for weeping, that "tears and not sight are the essence of the eye" (126), and that it is when our vision is clouded with tears, most ruined or ruinous, that we are closest to "the very truth of the eyes" (127).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Contemporary advertising is more about branding than anything else: it aims, as the etymology of the term "branding" suggests, to imprint the body rather than to convince the mind.

Take the current advert for John Lewis, which has quickly become an Internet sensation for the ways in which it so successfully tugs at the heartstrings, leaving its mark directly on the body.

The ad is particularly targeted at women. Heidi Scrimgeour's account, in "Why We Love the John Lewis Ad" on Mumsnet, records (as she herself soon admits) what is a typical viewer response:
[I] watched, riveted, until a sob took me by such surprise that it turned into an embarrassed laugh, and I sat stunned and snotty on the sofa, crying in an empty house over an ad for a store I can't even shop in without boarding a plane and flying back to England. [. . . I soon] realised I was the cliche; one of hundreds of thousands of middle England's mummies who had watched the ad repeatedly and cried into their John Lewis scatter cushions.
More cynically (however much we're told that "cynicism must be set aside", which is itself surely the apogee of cynicism), in the inevitable "Making Of" video, a John Lewis marketing manager states that the "campaign is really about delivering emotion for the brand."

This is what advertising does today: it delivers emotion for brands. There's probably no better instance of posthegemony.

And of course, the soft-focus affect that envelops the life portrayed in the 90-second slot, in which we see a woman's life from infancy to old age, has little if anything to do with the brand's famous tagline, Never Knowingly Undersold".

That, too, is now merely a matter of affect; or rather, it has been so infused with affect that it has become what Ernesto Laclau would call a purely empty signifier.

The same goes, of course, for the rather misogynist lyrics to the accompanying Billy Joel song, which are at best merely an ironic counterpoint safely (and again, cynically, "we know, but...") ignored by the viewer.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


The Wednesday quotation, part XIV: Michael Wood in the LRB on Don DeLillo's Point Omega, whose plot apparently revolves around a woman's disappearance somewhere in the Southern California desert:
We can't know whether Jessie is dead or not, whether her life has ended in some sort of Psycho-related horror: perhaps the man in the gallery killed her, inspired by the disjunction of cause and effect to murder the person he might instead have had dinner with. But we can't just leave her floating between possibilities, and her disappearance, and her father's sense of loss, are the same either way. DeLillo is not inviting us to think of inscrutable mysteries, he is asking us to weight the interpretative options, like a detective or an art historian. And weighing the options, of course, whichever side we come down on, we have already realised both of them to some degree. [. . .] We have only to hear the word "unthinkable" to start thinking--that's what the word is for--and all kinds of novelists and philosophers will remind us that Wittgenstein's excellent advice ("Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent") more often than not just can't be taken. ("The Paranoid Elite" London Review of Books [22 April, 2010], 40)
This resonates, I think, with my comments on What Was Lost, in which Catherine O'Flynn short-circuits the readerly process of being forced to think the unthinkable, to imagine all the various interpretative options that result from a mysterious disappearance, when she gives in to the generic conventions of crime fiction by presenting us the case neatly solved, the cause and effect packaged together at the end of her book.

I've also been thinking of Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I read many years ago but which struck me at the time because it defies the convention that suggests that the mystery (again of a missing girl, or here girls, in the desert) should be resolved by the end of the book. You reach the last page no wiser than when you began the first; although perhaps, precisely because you are left "hanging," in fact you are that little bit wiser than you would otherwise be.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost muddles generic distinctions. It's either crime fiction busy trying to pretend to be something else, or perhaps more interestingly something else trying to deny that, in the end, it contains all the elements and formulae of the detective novel, albeit rearranged and (somewhat) displaced.

I say that the formulae of crime fiction are only somewhat displaced because, in the end, the mystery that (perhaps reluctantly) drives the plot is eventually resolved. The clues all line up, the victim's fate is discovered, the suspect falsely accused is vindicated, the true perpetrator arrested, the case is closed, and the book ends with the detective's interior monologue:
I've got a signed confession. I've got your notebook. I've got your loyal partner sealed in an evidence bag. I'm driving home straight into the setting sun. [. . .] The light is all around me. (242)
This is a pity. It does, however, justify the otherwise curious omission of a question mark from the book's title: in the end we think we know what was lost, what was missed the first time round, as the novel almost slavishly obeys the generic convention that no loose ends can be left behind.

The pity is that we become distracted by the clever touches of plotting as evocative incidents earlier in the narrative are overdetermined by their subsequent role in tying down the book's denouement. To give just one example: a character remembers exploring the building site on which a late twentieth-century mall is being expanded to displace the mid-century factory that once stood there; he discovers a fissure within this process of erasure and remodeling, an underground cavern in which something of the place's past is preserved, if now in almost meaningless disorder, "an old scrolling blackboard with nothing written on it, bits of machinery, an old umbrella" (106). But it turns out that this underground recess becomes the key to the detective story plot, and as such suddenly almost emptied out of its broader resonances; it's merely a convenient place in which a body can go undiscovered.

In short, my strong recommendation is that no reader go further than page 228. This is where we find the only twist in the tale, the book's one surprise as the name of the mostly absent detective is finally revealed.

I recognize that I am here spoiling the plot: but really, even as far as crime fiction plots go, it's thin and quite predictable. If read as detective fiction, What Was Lost is unsatisfying.

Fortunately, the novel offers other satisfactions, most of which revolve around the book's real mystery, the one element that survives the crime fiction gesture to clear up what had been obscure and to clarify what was hitherto muddy. This is the fantasmatic glimpse of a young girl on the shopping mall's CCTV camera, spotted first in the early hours of the morning by a sleep-deprived and somewhat irritable security guard named Kurt.

For What Was Lost is less about loss than it is about visibility. It's about a young girl who wants to be invisible, to blend in; she can only find this feeling of comfortable anonymity at the mall, where "nobody knew her. She wasn't the quiet girl from class. She wasn't the girl with no mom and dad" (45-6). But perhaps ironically, she wants to disturb the anonymity of others, to survey them unseen as "a detective, an invisible operative gliding through the malls, seeing things that nobody else noticed" (46).

In the end, young Kate Meaney is led astray when she doesn't realize that those surveyed can exert their own power over their surveyers. She doesn't understand that "when someone's watching you, you're in charge. If you move, they move" (236). And ultimately she herself becomes the one surveyed, the ghost in the machine who exerts her own strange power upon the people who catch sight of her; and also upon the reader who glimpses her through and despite the formulaic detective fiction apparatus that surrounds her in this novel.

And it is true that in this surveillance society (and the UK, in which O'Flynn's novel is set, is the most surveyed society in the world), sometimes we see revealed on the CCTV something that can never be resolved by reasoned analysis or even the workings of justice. There are some sights captured on the monitors that continue to haunt us now, long after the relevant cases are closed.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I can't help but find this (and even this or this for a bargain price) a little bit exciting.

Sunday, May 02, 2010


Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's third film, La mujer sin cabeza, concerns a mysterious accident on a dusty road in the provinces.

Of course, the accident is only mysterious because the woman who causes it, the middle-class protagonist Verónica, allows it to be so. The quest that structures the bulk of the movie, and that turns around the question "Who or what did she hit?" really begs the more fundamental question of "Why did she run?"

We have seen, in the opening scenes, a trio of local kids playing with their dog in the road near a dried-up drainage ditch or canal. We then shift to a social event, full of inconsequential gossip that we strain to understand and contextualize, from which the bleached-blonde Verónica then heads home. As she is on the road, her cellphone rings and it is while she is distracted, trying to find the phone and take the call, that with a jolt and a lurch she runs over something or someone.

Shaken, she sits in the car while the radio discordantly plays an upbeat melody from the 1970s. A handprint on the car window reminds us both of the world she has just left (where we saw a young child leave the imprint on the glass) and also of the possibility that what she hit might well have been one of the kids we saw playing earlier.

But, recomposing herself slightly, Verónica drives on and only some yards further down the track stops to get out and wonder what kind of mess she has left behind her on the road. The camera captures only a blurred image out of focus; it looks perhaps like the dog, but there's no going back to investigate.

For the rest of the film, then, we are caught up in the protagonist's hazy sense of guilt and uncertainty about what might have happened. We have no direct access to Verónica's consciousness--there are almost no point-of-view shots--but somehow her confusion is contagious as we are never quite sure about the social relationships around her.

There's a husband, a brother, a lover, friends, and an endless stream of hired helps who do everything from cooking to massage. But if in some ways Verónica's class and social status (she's a dentist) seems always to have kept her insulated from the poverty of the broader society that surrounds her, now that insulation has turned to isolation and anomie.

Shortly after the accident, a rainstorm had set in and flooded the roadside canal at the scene. This is no cleansing shower, however; if anything, it merely muddies Verónica's tracks and makes it all the more difficult for her to figure out subsequently what she could so easily have ascertained before the rain set in.

After some pause, she confesses her sense of guilt to her husband. He and his friends reassure her that of course she must have hit some animal rather than the child who does indeed prove to be missing until his body is dredged up from the swollen canal. But for all their reassurances, it turns out that Verónica's intimates have carefully done the rounds to ensure that any trace of the collision and its consequences soon disappear: they quietly repair the car's front fender and wipe the record of Vero's subsequent hospital visit.

So Verónica is left with a sense of guilt, of doubt, but also ultimately of complicity. She dyes her hair as though she had something to hide, even if perhaps her true secret is that her doubts are in fact unfounded.

She has acquired the habit of deception even if there's nobody to deceive or nothing to deceive them about.

Shame, in short, need have no final cause. In what is an allegory of attitudes towards the past and the legacy of Argentina's dirty war, Martel seems to be suggesting that those who act as though they are guilty should indeed be treated as such. There is smoke without fire, and those who run even though they didn't hit anything do so because they know that, carelessly insulated and distracted in their SUV, they might have killed a child, and that's how they would react if they had.

YouTube Link: the film's trailer.

Saturday, May 01, 2010


Well, yes, she is a bigot.

As Milena Popova points out (but sadly precious few others), what Gillian Dufffy said was indeed unacceptable.

Indeed, Duffy herself knows it. Here's the interesting thing: she presents her xenophobic comments as though she were bravely speaking out in the face of some tyranny of political correctness:
You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're saying that you're... all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?
Presumably the ellipsis here indicates that "you can't say anything" about immigration because (surprise surprise!) you'll only be accused of racism.

Sadly, however, "Bigotgate" proves the opposite.

Gordon Brown can only point out anti-immigrant bigotry in what he assumes to be the privacy of the back seat of his campaign car. And when it turns out that this candid moment was overheard by Sky News's microphone, he cravenly apologizes (first on air, then in person) rather than simply making the point more eloquently and forcefully in public than in private.

Meanwhile, once again in the leader's debate Brown competes with Cameron to present himself as more forcefully against immigration even than Clegg's tepid proposal for a regional points-based policy and the occasional amnesty.

It is as though the BNP and the Daily Mail had fully succeeded in setting the agenda on immigration. For some reason it is now impossible, except (supposedly) discreetly and in private, to point out the everyday bigotry that blights British public discourse.

This is a craven capitulation by a political class that should and (as Brown's indiscretion shows) actually does know better.

And it foments a strangely unabashed xenophobia that hesitates only briefly to announce itself, like a nervous tic, before continuing on regardless: "I know this is racist, but I'll say it none the less and I dare you to correct me..."