Return to your Books


There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can’t do otherwise, in raptures it will writhe before you.

Franz Kafka (Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way) *

Here is a project. Return to your books. Their occasional epigraphs have moved you, but you have made no inventory. Do it now. Careful classifier, here you must choose a starting place at random and be divested of your control. Proceed with the faintest memory. (Which favourite author was it who quoted Kafka?) Your list will be a chain of epigraphs. It will trace a line through books. It will be like a stealthy exploration of the eaves, treading carefully, balancing footfalls on the rafters. You can make your inventory in written form, but if you do so, it will soon bore you. So commit these discoveries to memory. And when the opportunity arises, reiterate epigraphs. This is the project. Take one and copy it at the top of the page. Make this the thing you do. Do it although you may have begun to write already. Do it although you have no idea how this will swing the opening – do it because you’ve no idea. Trust – if you must trust something – the faint memory’s incentive that impelled you towards this portion of the bookshelf although you couldn’t quite remember if the lines would be found in the book that drew your eye first, or the one next to it. Trust the impetus. It is too pressing to admit along with it a memory of what these lines might mean or how they might be seen to be appropriate. But take the impetus itself in place of a ‘what’ or a ‘how’. Take the quote as yours too.

There is another project, of course, which is to find your own quotations, to delve into the bodies of texts, to winkle out the quotes that best suit your own purposes. No one doubts this is interesting and valuable, nor that you are up to the task. But here already is an argument to opt instead for quotes found and cited first by others, because the latter is an operation not just of writing, but one carried out on the library too, the seed of disorganisation sown in the library’s order. To appropriate the four lines that another author has used as the diagram for a book, to make that book again from the same diagram but differently: this is to see your books differ from themselves. The facilitating of such self-differing is important. It is the craft in art.

The problem of how to sustain a creative, working process always belongs with the artist. Even when the name, ‘artist’, is troubled – even when it is understood as no more than a point of departure, the question and the name mark their inevitable intersection, like a cross in a box. The cross is a diagram. To call it such is to indicate the imperative of self-differing again. While problems persist from one generation to another – from one cohort to another – the terms with which we talk about problems must change. Today’s climate in art allows us to put forward a hypothesis, which will need to be qualified, but which can be made first in its provocative form: writing sustains creative process in art. Here ‘writing’ means the activity undertaken before it refers to reading matter or documents of any kind. But the kinds of reading matter valued in current art practice already help us to undo the too easy understanding of writing as a stable and definable activity. Certain branches of contemporary philosophy have come to be valued for the way they shift the boundaries between their own discipline and those of literature, those of art. Next, the innovations of 1960s art practice in Europe, America (South and North), and Japan, have preceded an increasingly focused interrogation of the often-claimed purity of the visual. Artists’ writings have opened new fronts in the on-going battle with the image. Thirdly, traditions of experimental literature expose in their own ways the materiality of writing and written.

By plotting coordinates in this way another diagram is drawn, a diagram of writing unravelled, a diagram for an expanded writing. Art’s expanded writing captures the blank space of the page – captures it as image, as the virtuality of text, as prolific, unholy assemblages of the two. Art’s expanded writing is performance for an actual audience, for a virtual audience. It is the gesture with which the tools of writing are taken up, and it is the style of their casting aside. It is the time of inscription, the time of re-reading, of the vocalising of words, of the sub-vocalising of words. Expanded writing is the time of no writing, which is surely the point Kafka makes for his own working process, and the thought that Georges Perec embraces in taking Kafka’s comment as founding quote.

The list of attributes for an expanded writing could go on. In a sense it must go on, certainly so if the hypothesis is to be supported. Stable understandings of writing as the name of what’s made will continue to be caught by art-world institutions, to be rendered assessable, marketable. The less stable ideas evade capture. And they assemble in unexpected ways. They make a diagram – not for the rebirth of writing, nor for the rebirth of art, but as the conditions beyond all convention that give rise to the new.

* Quoted by Georges Perec at the opening of A Man Asleep, trans. Andrew Leak, London: Harvill, 1999.

(Catalogue Introduction, MA Fine Art Degree Show, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, 2010.)

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