Sara Pheasant


ISSUE 63 | STRIKE | APR 2016

Susan Sontag was a famous keeper of lists. “I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence. Hence my compulsion to make lists.” Her notebooks were full of them — lists of words, films, books to read and re-read, things to do and things that she did, self-imposed imperatives and prohibitions. Sontag’s lists document not only the evidence of a life lived, but moreover, the means and materials with which she fashioned herself as a writer.

Lists prioritize attention and prompt action—as Sontag states, “I write partly in order to change myself.” Writing (list-making) was her “instrument” of creative transformation. Yet lists are productive not simply because they itemize and organize, but also because they anticipate their cancelation. I list films to watch and books to read so that I will do precisely that, writing down words with the hope of crossing them out. Whether redacted with the satisfaction of accomplished tasks or scribbled out in the frustrations of failure, lists seek their negation. Even the most sophisticated writing retains this self-canceling logic, evident within notes and drafts whose content is increasingly obscured by their accumulating bulk and criss-crossing annotations.


In an oft-cited ethnographic episode, Claude Levi-Strauss inadvertently teaches writing in the form of making lists. The anthropologist’s “Writing Lesson” (Tristes Tropiques) occurs among the Nambikwara people in Brazil, a tribe he claims could neither write nor draw. Thus his surprise when, after distributing paper and pencils, the Nambikwara began mimicking his note-taking by marking wavy lines on their papers. Where other tribespeople lost interest, their chief began responding to Strauss’s questions with this newfound writing technique. Strauss notes how, undaunted by the lines’ failure to signify, he is quick to assign meaning with verbal commentary.

Intuiting the link between these inscriptions and their creative potency, the Nambikwara’s leader pushes this writing lesson to a performance of public authority. With the tribe assembled, he begins pulling papers from a basket to ‘read’ their inscriptions. Interpreting the lines to orchestrate the impromptu exchange of the Europeans’ goods with the tribespeople, the chief asserts that he too can wield the secret of the Europeans’ authority. Strauss leaves irritated and dismayed that the chief so quickly comes to exploit writing’s law-making powers. He concludes that writing’s primary function is not the edifying transmission of culture and knowledge. It is, first and foremost, the belligerent instrument of building civilizations through the domination of the law.

Strauss’s lament over the contaminating effects of his accidental instruction reads easily today as an instance of European nostalgia for the pure presence of origin and innocence. Providing a seminal commentary on the episode in “Nature, Culture, Writing,” Derrida refutes Strauss’s phonological romance to suggest that the violence of writing in fact precedes the tribe’s mimicry of its specifically European form. Following Derrida’s line, Strauss’s writing lesson is far from the society’s downfall, but simply offers a commonplace activity a new mediating tool. The chief’s writings are lists that enumerate the items to be doled out. In his creative redistribution of the Europeans’ goods, he serves the same administrative function that characterizes his executive role. This new European technique is merely incidental to the chief’s use of his sovereign mandate to impose his own rule.

The technology of writing does not corrupt the essential innocence that Levi-Strauss presupposes, but it does offer the Nambikwara’s unconscious a new storage medium. In his administrative office, the chief aligns the emergence of writing with the enumerative operations and graphic form of alphabetic code. The lines script transactions that provide the context for their significance; with their informative function exhausted, they remain as hieroglyph or rune. Yet it is at this point that their signifying potential is perhaps most potent—as Lacan notes, “a cryptogram only takes on its full dimensions when it is in a lost language.” The chief’s writing exemplifies this potential precisely because the language in which he writes is, in a sense, lost before he has written.


Within the negative and violent operations of the list, even illegible lines retain the trace of intimacy between the writer and her writing. Its agency suggests not only the double movement of inscription and strikethrough, but also a double logic in writing itself, as both means and material. The nearly fetishistic drive to rife through the accumulated ephemera of our admired writers suggests the list’s proximity to presence, eliciting a desire for what remains of the hand. But rather than lead us to venerate the writer’s singular vitality, lists collapse all that seems ephemeral and extraneous to the text into written material. It is in this sense that we can say an author is both writer and the written.


Hanne Darboven was an artist “very busy writing.” An eclectic and reclusive, yet influential figure in post-war conceptualism, Darboven devoted much of her life to a laborious and largely solitary practice, as she saw it, foremost as a writer. Her dizzyingly encyclopedic Kulturegeschichte 1880-1983 (1980-1983), the artist’s most visible work, immerses viewers in masses of magazine and newspaper clippings, personal notations and collected postcards, as well as objects from sporting goods to musical ensembles and vacant-eyed mannequins, as well as rows of her own “writings.” Comprised of 1,600 framed wall panels and assorted objects, the installation’s kaleidoscopic density strains this equally meticulous adherence to the principle of the grid. Razing distinctions between cultural and political content, personal and universal, or high or low, the work upturns the twentieth century’s taxonomic impulse to probe how historical narratives take form.

Darboven’s writing practice exhibited a similar principle of obsessively comprehensive totality on an intimately personal scale, using the more ephemeral materials and economical means characteristic of conceptualist work. by hand. Her 1966-68 Konstructionen series deployed a personally devised algorithm to compute the calendar’s numerical date into gridded series of handwritten numbers, forming the principle with which she sought to “write with numbers” and “count with words.” Using repetitive and aleatoric sequences to generate work that exhibits its prodigious effort, Darboven abstracts writing from its expressive content and transforms its signifying capacities into a pure marker of time. Her quintessential motifs include the letter “u” (an abbreviation for ‘und’ or the German equivalent of the ampersand) written in an endless line of cursive script, and the word “heute,” or today. These markings appear incessantly throughout the pages of her production, most frequently crossed out. “Irrevocably, tomorrow will turn into today, or ‘heute,’” as artist and critic Coosje Van Bruggen notes, “which Darboven will write as a word on the page only to cross it out, signifying time spent.”

Refusing to discard, repetition and strikethrough were Darboven’s key techniques. In her efforts to “write without describing,” she renders the time and space of inscription as the material of her work. Distinct from many of her contemporaries, Darboven’s writing is not a minimalist reduction but rather a maximalist distillation of writing’s structure. The bureaucratic modes of production she borrowed uniquely inhabited the transition between the scribe and the typewriter, and her insistence on laboriously handwritten script effects the viewer with a personal and intimate address that toys with the idea of a human-become-writing machine. Darboven’s work is frequently read through the lens of post-war trauma—a reading she might explicitly anticipate by, in one instance, citing Adorno’s question of the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz in a later installation. The monumental labor she expends to exhibit writing in the absence of its signification no doubt lends itself to such historical and biographical interpretation. But far from bringing her work to a halt, Darboven’s particular brilliance might reside in the way it reorients this reading to illustrate, limpidly and even lyrically, the logic of inscription without expression, writing without content. Her obsessive accumulation and serial production culminate in labyrinthine texts that, whether they are read in book form or as panels along a wall, fragment with allegorical abandon. While many installations are accompanied by Darboven’s personal ‘index,’ this accounting only reinforces the radically subjective stance in which her works position their viewers. Enumerating and striking out her continuous accumulation, Darboven exhibits the self-cancelling logic of the list in its most generative force.


Helene Cixous quotes Clarice Lispector in an interview, stating, “I want the thing in itself.” As Cixous describes, to write “it,” for Lispector, “is almost an impossibility.” Impossible, as we know, because of the futility of the desire for this objective stance; but almost, because Lispector’s attempts to approach the thing transform her writing self into an alien entity that corresponds, as closely as possible, to “it.” Like something between a clairvoyant and a stenographer, Lispector approaches this alien self through an “intense relationship of listening” and transcription. As the author’s protagonist narrates in her novel, The Passion According to G.H., to grasp the reality of her self she must “translate telegraph signals” and render the “unknown into a language I don’t speak, and without even understanding what the signals mean.”

Lispector dubbed The Passion the novel that “best corresponds to her demands as a writer” and it is indeed paradigmatic of her exquisite use of the medium—perhaps precisely because her efforts of transcription come so close to rendering the medium itself. Attempting the asymptotic task of writing an “I” devoid of any positive content, her stream-of-consciousness prose all but overwhelm narrative elements in viscerally imagistic emotional tonalities and psychological nuances. Mystical transmutations of the self pivot on the most minute of details. The book recounts the protagonist’s metamorphic encounter with a cockroach: G.H. is a wealthy sculptor who occupies herself with a successful but somewhat indifferent career of giving to objects a form she doubts, without significant concern, that she holds herself. In the grammar of well-to-do and cultured women, G.H. invests her organizational efforts in a practice of ‘arrangement’ that distinguishes little between artistic form, her appearance, and her manicured home. Occupying herself with arranging the room of a recently departed maid, G.H. is startled to discover the insect in a wardrobe, revolted by its grotesque appearance and then transfixed in an abject identification. In a narrative of mounting mystical intensity, the story climaxes (almost) in an alimentary communion echoing the sensual piety of Saint Bernard of Clairveaux’s Song of Songs. As G.H. tastes the milky-white viscera oozing from the creature’s shell after she has squashed it in the wardrobe doorframe, her perfunctory adherence to the mannered conventions of the bourgeois dissolve. This momentary encounter with the interstitial and ineffable suggests the flimsiness of our internal architecture, echoed by the abstract and impersonal initials given as her name. The epigraph that opens The Passion foregrounds the story’s conclusion, between apotheosis and autophagy: “A complete life may be one ending in so full identification with the non-self that there is no self to die.”

Thrust into proximity with her self, G.H. discovers it as an interval, an absence and an opening. She arrives at the fullness of her self-identification by entering this interstice—“whatever exists between the number one and the number two… between two notes of music, between two facts”—encountering its negativity and the essential neediness of the neutral space that is love. This coupling is intoned in her continual address to an anonymous hand that she alternatively reaches for, grasps, and asks to hold hers. The subtle variations in G.H.’s appeals to this hand—her lover’s? the reader’s?—register the major chords of a self’s passage through transfiguration. G.H. calls for the hand to grant her the strength to write, clings to it in fear, reassures it of her safety and its own, releases it when transfixed by the solitude of her formlessness, and finally holds it out of a need to meet the need of this other hand. This existential necessity laid bare, she is divided and returned to herself in the intimacy it demands.

Cixous describes the novel as an intimate encounter between the ‘me’ and the ‘I’. The careening spirals of Lispector’s prose render this interstice in its graphic materiality, with grammatical conventions askew, and we encounter her letters in a twilight state as if arriving at runes on the verge of their past or future illegibility. As G.H. warns us before recounting her tale, “it will be more like scratching than writing, since I’m attempting a reproduction more than an expression.” Like Darboven, Lispector writes the passage of time — but where Darboven charts the infinite repetitions of diachronic endurance, Lispector explodes a moment of the self’s dissolution into an indefinite suspension.


“The writer is the person for whom it is hardest to write.” Many variations on this phrase have been written — I had recorded this particular version with quotes but no citation. It might be a paraphrase of Thomas Mann: “a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Or Lispector: “To write it… is almost an impossibility.” Lispector, who used her writing instrument to convey in spellbinding technicolor portraits of mostly unremarkable bourgeois lives only a hair’s breadth removed from her own, intuits in this notion that the writer, in her difficulty, is equally exceptional as everyone else.


The linguist Emile Benveniste spent the last years of his life suffering from incurable aphasia caused by a stroke. He remains celebrated for his research on Indo-European languages and concept of ‘shifters’—personal pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ that function as indexical markers of the speaking subject. Much like the Nambikwara chief’s writings, the self-enunciation, or self-enumeration, of the speaking ‘I’ is radically discontinuous and contextually dependent.

In an essay titled with blunt adoration, Barthes’ “Why I Love Benveniste” sites this concept of language’s self-enunciating subject as the basis of a science of writing. For Barthes, Benveniste’s “courage” and “profound vision” arrive in his ability to “grasp language at that crucial level where, without ceasing to be language to the full, it gathers up everything we were accustomed to consider as external or anterior to language.” Benveniste allows us to encounter language in its most material form — as the material of a subject’s life. With his affection for Benveniste, it is unsurprising that Barthes devotes later writings to an obsessive and intimate inventory of the habits of our century’s most prominent writers, from Proust’s coffee addition to Rousseau’s attire.

Re-introducing the body within language, Benveniste grounds the writing subject in athletic metaphors that often characterize its self-formation. As Walter Benjamin notes, “the good writer says no more than he thinks.” His talent is to “make use of his style to supply his thought with the spectacle of the kind provided by a well-trained body.” In his hermetically economical turn of phrase, Benjamin echoes the idea of another linguist, C.S. Pierce, whose concept of indexicals prefigures Benveniste’s shifters to consider the subject itself a sign. As Pierce puts it, “that life is a train of thought, proves that man is a sign… thus my language is the sum total of myself, for the man is the thought.” Although his prose was notably less artful, Pierce extends the relational basis of Benveniste’s subject by asserting that not only do signs (thinking subjects) “address somebody,” they also “create in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign.” In that sense the poet Mina Loy might provide a slightly more precise formation of the athletic metaphor: “Imagine a tennis champion who became inspired to write poetry, would not his verse be likely to embody the rhythmic transit of skimming balls?” For why would the poet write if not to incite her fellow reader or writer — even if that reader or writer is the poet herself — to play?


How do the elegant acrobatics of the writing body square with another common trope of writing — that of stupidity? As Flaubert, that indefatigable gadfly of bourgeois idiocy, put it, writing is “l’act pur de bêtise.” And Sontag’s celebration of the razor-edged potency of her writing instrument does not (explicitly) address its relationship to the shadow of stupidity so often cast by the violent mastery of those who consider themselves self-sovereign.

Within the tempo of writing, stupidity commonly arrives in two forms — the rote repetition of received ideas, and the silence that falls in the lacuna of thought. We might map these tropes of stupidity onto two figures of the writer, the bureaucrat and the student. The bureaucrat may be more commonly associated with the unthinking mechanics of writing machines and the student with the ponderous silences of plodding apprehension, but stupidity of both forms arrive in either character. The repetitions of the milquetoast clerk who reproduces language without a thought of her own manifest as its own kind of silence, especially where gendered tropes of secretarial labor are at play; and the student proves an exemplary parrot in her tedious efforts to absorb the entirety of a master’s teachings word for word.

The stupidity of the bureaucrat and the student arises from their stupefaction before writing — in their rote rehearsal of incomprehensible and foreign words, academic or bureaucratic jargon alike, in their stumbling failures to achieve natural fluency in the language imposed upon them, and in the silences that both situations entail. Often, metaphors of the body are accused of interrupting thought, or getting in its way. Stupidity implies both a reprehensible effacement of the other — the gauche and insensitive blunderings of those whose confident expression has elided the capacity for self-reflexive understanding — as well as the injury inflicted on those subjects deemed stupid. This ambivalence is conveyed within the etymology of the word itself. Stupidity connotes a dull-witted obtuseness as well as the effects of being stunned or struck: stupe–is a relative of steep, and connotes to ‘hit’ or ‘’beat’ up a ‘sharp slope,’ to knock about’. The student’s stupidity and the bureaucrat’s stultification converge at their root, at the limit of thought and the failure of its representation.

Distinct from the dumbness or foolishness one might associate with childish innocence or animality, the subject of stupidity cannot be excused from the ethical implications that the responsibility of thought entails. It calls for the shame that is proper only to the human subject. Just as stupidity demonstrates its internal ambivalence by its love of arriving in pairs — Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, Kafka’s assistants, the Marx brothers’ slapstick routine — shame too necessitates a doubling — sadist and masochist, teacher and student, self and other — a repetition and return. Eve Sedgwick discusses the posture of reading as one born in shame — the student is sent back to the book. She references the psychologist Silvan Tomkins’ discussion of the affect in which shame is intimately related to the experience of self-exposure: like the game of the shy child “who covers his face in the presence of the stranger, but who also peeks through his fingers so that he may look without being seen.” The shame of stupidity converts the bureaucrat into the student and turns the student towards self-censure, but it is equally an opportunity for repair: the student exchanges the book for a pen and returns to copying anew. As thought is conveyed through the movements of the writing body, shame is carried in the expressions and blush of the face.


A paradox of mimicry and mastery: “The good writer never writes more than he has thought.” Yet the student has thought nothing. How can one write as a student, in stupefaction? Where the student often plays the cuckold in her studiously absurd fidelity, the writer betrays—first and foremost herself—every time she places a word on the page. Writing, an instrument of indiscriminate pleasure, can’t but flout its teacher.


A mainstay of children’s literature, alphabet primers are an exemplary list-form that exhibit the graphic origins of alphanumeric code. Arranged by the arbitrary order of the ABCs and commonly illustrated with alliterative rhymes (and moral imperatives), these mnemonic technologies enumerate and nominate the characters children learn to recognize and retrace in connection with their given semantic meanings.

The creative potency Sontag attributes to the list recalls the earliest phases of language acquisition, when words possess the omnipotent power of conjuring forth the objects so-named. The infant only beginning to accept the frustrations of mediation and delay believes that her gestures of crying and grasping—the earliest signs of language, as yet unorganized into intelligible speech—summons the object’s presence. As these gestures assume symbolic dimensions, the letter becomes the border of fantasy and reality, a site of imagination and play. Alphabet books or blocks are equivocal devices, capable of imposing their pedagogical and even punitive function while equally open to the capricious reorganizations of a child who constructs houses out of the materials with which she will come to form words.


Within the intervals—that between letters and numbers, notes of music, facts, or grains of sand—exists the “fire that is the breathing of the world, and the continual breathing of the world is what we hear and call silence.” We find echoes of Lispector in the famously recalcitrant and rogue German philosopher J.G. Hamann, who identifies this silent breath in the letter ‘h’. Hamann’s impetuous “Apologia for the letter ‘h’” repudiates another scholar’s proposal to excise these unpronounced characters from standard orthography. Castigating the fellow for falling prey to the fashionably modern trends of expediency and instrumentality in language, Hamann reduces all arguments for the redundancy of the silent letter to philistine nonsense. The notion that the little ‘h’ is extraneous because unpronounced mistakes the written word as the transcription of speech; and the idea that it remains as an orthographic flourish popularized by powerful men trivializes the mimetic operations of scriptural transmission.

To conclude his defense of the silent ‘h’ from the boorish tyranny of the bourgeois, Hamann lets the little letter speak for itself. One might imagine its piping riposte in imperiously ironic, perhaps overly aspirated, tones. “Be not amazed that I speak unto you with a human voice like that dumb beast of burden… Your life is what I am — a breath.” Refusing supplication, the ‘h’ claims its persecution as a distinct badge of honor. Characteristic of Christian kenosis, the letter’s significance resides precisely in its smallness. The ‘h’ reproves its censors in an air of ebullient superiority, as those who would excise the letter have so fully anesthetized their spirits and senses as to be “dead while [they] live.” Worshiping the platitudes of reason and images of false idols, they fail to perceive that the animation of language breathes through its most minor element.


Where Lispector’s The Passion probes the theme of writing from the most minimal form of narrative, Aqua Viva dispenses conventions entirely to transmit a writing of the “this.” “What I write to you is a this. It won’t stop: it continues on.” Cixous, in her introduction to the text, notes that colons operate as an interruption and a ligature: they are “the period of the period, a cancelling of the period.” They effect a silent spacing that suggests the breath, speech, and music—like the space between two notes. The cancelling of the period is its doubling—a colon, one-two. From within the mute finality of the full stop emerges the next breath, containing within it speech’s silently resonant tonalities.

Cixous suggests that the colon creates the shortest sentence in Aqua Viva: “It is simply that: secret.” Secret is the one-word sentence. This secret is no more than what it indicates: itself, the secret. It is. Pointing and nominating, the sentence forms a tight economy of self-reference that emanates the logic of the entire book. One side mirrors the other to collapse the statements on either side into the still-breathing center.

Darboven too wrote (about) her secrets. “My secret is that I have no secret,” she is often quoted as saying. The artist was known for such elliptical proposition, yet her hermeticism was deceptively simple. “My secret is that I have no secret.” It is.


Wittgenstein, whose rarely finished books were often written as lists, aptly describes their structure: “Not how things are in the world but that it exists.”


This writing, my own list, admits to a gendered division of labor. How does one square the citations: a phallocentric science and a female writing. The reoccurring question posed by this writing might be stated simply as: how to write the self. Or, correspondingly, how is the self written.

An experience of misplaced quotations pre-empts G.H.’s mystical reverie, when she enters her former maid’s room to discover it has been drained of her artful arrangements and the supple beauty of good taste the protagonist prided herself on cultivating throughout her home. Left sparse and dry by the maid, with no evidence of inhabitation save a wall drawing suggesting a contemptuous caricature of G.H., she writes in disoriented indignance that the room “was a violation of my quotation marks, the quotation marks that made me a citation of myself. The room was the portrait of an empty stomach.”

Without the enveloping comfort of her quotation, the bare anonymity of her initials are left exposed. G.H. is reduced to the letter: her self-nomination. Provoking the question of writing from this site of potent negativity, Lispector suggests the etymological link between gender, generation, and genealogy. How to write oneself out of nothing, with one extended, reaching hand? By re-drawing her citations? Through the mark of the strikethrough itself?


In her essay The Aesthetics of Silence, Sontag discusses modern art’s nearly neurotic fascination with reduction, vacancy, blankness, and abeyance. Advancing the thesis that twentieth century practices become the privileged carrier of a spiritual program during its historical moment, she warns against equating silence with the ineffable, akin to mistaking ideology for naturalized expression. Indeed the privileged ground, silence should be recognized as such — it creates a hierarchy of something (who knows what?) to which our attention is directed.

Sontag also warns against the twin dangers of laconic self-cancellation and the endlessly ironic resurrections whose anti-programmatic mechanics impose themselves with the same force of those they militate against. “It seems unlikely,” Sontag suggests, “that the possibilities of continually undermining one's assumptions can go on unfolding indefinitely into the future, without being eventually checked by despair or by a laugh that leaves one without any breath at all.”

Against the hollow echoes of the endlessly reproduced readymade, we seek in Lispector the lush tonalities of an infinitely various absence of sound. Or, an accidental detail of unaccountable significance, inscribed in Darboven’s intimate yet anonymous hand. Both are pauses, silences, and strikethroughs that play out without asphyxiation.


In Barthes’ love of Benveniste, the scholar bestowed upon him perhaps his highest compliment: that of the amateur. He credited Benveniste with the extreme generosity of the writer. Distinct from the scientist or scholar, Benveniste’s singularly expansive gift not only marked the tracks of a science of writing but also ushered in its most ardent lovers, amateurs of all kinds. As Barthes describes, “Benveniste’s writing thus presents that subtle mixture of expenditure and reserve which founds the text, or better still, music. Benveniste writes silently (Is not music an art of intelligent silence?) the way great musicians play.” The pleasure of the amateur arrives in the ability to endlessly repeat the suspended inhalation of an enraptured beginning—the moment of seduction caught in a drawn-out breath. If the student is stupefied before writing, it is the amateur that teases out the thread to carry the text before and beyond herself. Playing at an ongoing rehearsal, the amateur resists both the stakes of professional mediocrity and the stultification of silence. She strikes the ligature between the colon to sound out one resonant chord.

Prior to becoming an artist and, ultimately, a writer, Darboven was trained as a classical pianist. Perhaps the rigor of this formal education dissuaded this famously independent figure from music’s professional pursuit. Yet her later practice includes several musical compositions and, perhaps, a sensitivity to rhythm inflects her whole body of works. When asked why Darboven chose a career in art rather than music, the artist’s mother suggested that Darboven “wanted to be creating.” Which proved to be enunciating and enumerating herself, crossing out each day for the next when it was through. As Darboven pronounced that the “final consequence of her work will be music,” I shall leave it as such:

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