PRINT December 2007





I turned to Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume I (edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg; Stanford University Press) in connection with my attempts to look differently at what is made of thinking (and writing) in the art of Hanne Darboven, whose work has often been regarded (to my mind erroneously, or mostly erroneously) as an instance of “Conceptual art.” Psyche—which comprises translations of the first sixteen essays from a volume of Jacques Derrida’s writing that originally appeared in French in 1987—opens with the philosopher’s eponymous essay from 1984, which takes up the poet Francis Ponge’s 1948 “Fable” in relation to the work of literary critic Paul de Man (alongside Derrida’s memories and memorializations of de Man, who died in 1983) and provides a series of lucid elaborations and examples of the operations of deconstruction and its particular modes of “invention.” The invention of deconstruction (and hence the deconstruction of invention) is presented here as oriented toward the future—“as if it were necessary, over and beyond a certain traditional status of invention, to reinvent the future”—and toward the opening up of structures to make room for the other.

Psyche offers a wide-ranging introduction to Derrida’s engagement with the ethicopolitical implications of deconstruction and psychoanalysis. Here, his meditations on mourning, specularity, memory, performativity, and much else are framed in what he describes as the “quasi-epistolary situation” of the collected essays, which are variously “devoted, destined, or even singularly dedicated to someone,” including, in this volume, Nicolas Abraham, Roland Barthes, de Man, Sigmund Freud, Ponge, and Emmanuel Levinas, and, in the forthcoming second volume, Peter Eisenman, Martin Heidegger, and Nelson Mandela. If Darboven’s quasi-literary and sometimes literally epistolary works (for example, the remarkable mid-1970s drawings that take the form of letters to her friend Sol LeWitt) represent attempts to reckon with memory while striving to find forms in which the future might come to be figured, Derrida’s writings in this collection can help us understand what distinguishes her project from those of so many other German artists of her generation. “Beyond internalizing memory,” Derrida writes, “it is then necessary to think, which is another way of remembering.”

Brigid Doherty is associate professor of German and art and archaeology at Princeton University.


Carolyn Brown joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at its inception in 1953 at Black Mountain College, and she remained with the company for twenty years, becoming one of its star dancers. Her book Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (Knopf) offers an almost diaristic account of what it was like to be a modern dancer in that company at a time when dance, along with avant-garde music, was undergoing conceptual changes parallel to those that were transforming contemporary art in New York. Brown and her husband, the composer Earle Brown, became, in a sense, protégés of John Cage, whose philosophy of art—a wild mix of Zen, Artaud, and Duchamp—contained, as she says, “half a dozen or so separate idées fixes, leitmotifs that appeared and reappeared” in both his own and Cunningham’s works. Brown paints an affecting panorama of hope and squalor as her circle of young or youngish artists, composers, and dancers struggled for acceptance in a grudging and skeptical world.

The book is especially valuable for its portraits of Cage, Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg, both as persons and artists, as well as for its vivid account of why Brown persisted, how she flourished as one of Cunningham’s key dancers, and why, finally, she had to leave the company and the art that had meant so much to her. Cunningham emerges as a great creative force, but with personal limitations that affected his relationships with those who were dependent on him artistically, practically, and emotionally. Cage was lovable and generous, but sometimes blinded by his protectiveness toward Cunningham. Rauschenberg was also generous, as well as dedicated to Cunningham’s values, but his huge success as an artist was too difficult for the other two to deal with. Overcoming the gap between art and life was one of the mantras of the art movements that defined Carolyn Brown, but in the end the tension between art and life was too great, and art, in her case, had to yield. It is a rich and moving story.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.


The book I returned to constantly was Galen Strawson et al., Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism? (edited by Anthony Freeman; ImprintAcademic), which consists of two major essays by Strawson, answering that question in the affirmative, accompanied by responses from eighteen other philosophers. I thought that I had built up immunity over the years to Oxford philosophers’ prose, but Strawson had me immediately running a high fever. All the more so because he gives so many of my cherished “materialist” assumptions a hard time. Is it true, for instance, that the view that every real, concrete phenomenon in the universe is material or physical (a view I’d certainly like to go on defending) can be convincingly propounded only if it is combined with the idea that something called “experience” or “the experiential” is part of that universe’s basic, constitutive stuff? Strawson thinks so—though I panic at the very thought of what he would have to say about my paraphrase. In particular, Strawson is a bracing skeptic about the picture (or half picture) that materialists like me usually have of experience or consciousness “emerging” from a special patterning, or acceleration, or degree of complexity, in non-experiential stuff.

One further delight of the book for anyone who has lived for the past two decades with the straw man called “Descartes,” as he is usually brought on in the world of theory and cultural studies, is Strawson’s presentation of the nonstraw alternative. “Having recently read (and reread) some of his writings,” he says, “along with those of his contemporary critics and correspondents, and later commentators, I think that everyone engaged in the current discussion of the mind-body problem in philosophy should hold everything and read Descartes, especially his correspondence and his replies to objections—if, that is, they want to have their perspective on the problem sharpened, reinvigorated, simplified and deepened. (It is deepened by being simplified.)” Great words, and they apply to their author.

T. J. Clark is George C. and Helen N. Pardee professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley.


It’s too bad Jesus didn’t tell jokes.* True, his parables were good, but if he were around today, he probably would be more effective if he were to use the joke format. Why? Because the world (or existence, or whatever) is becoming more absurd. Salvation would be for those who understood his jokes, sheep vs. goats.

Jokes (unfortunately?) explain the world to me. Jokes are usually illogical, but to me the reverse is true—they support my view of existence.

I recommend Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein’s Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar . . . (Abrams), since it lends credence to my point of view. Its subtitle is Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. The book includes such gems as this, which the authors use in relation to the idea of essentialism.

Abe: I got a riddle for you, Sol. What’s green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?
Sol: I give up.
Abe: A herring.
Sol: But a herring isn’t green.
Abe: So you can paint it green.
Sol: But a herring doesn’t hang on the wall.
Abe: Put a nail through it, it hangs on the wall.
Sol: But a herring doesn’t whistle!
Abe: So? It doesn’t whistle.

I’ll wager that Richard Prince owns this book. Give a copy to those who stare at you dumbly and say, “That doesn’t make sense,” after you’ve explained something via a joke. It probably won’t help.

*(a) Maybe he did to his disciples, but they didn’t record them. (Not funny enough?)
(b) Yes, perhaps his entire pitch was a joke.
(c) There are many good jokes about Jesus.
(d) Etc.

John Baldessari is an artist based in Santa Monica, CA.


Only a small number of the books I read this year were recent ones. But one of the best was the novel Red Rover (Viking), by Deirdre McNamer. It is thoughtfully and densely written; it is solid and direct, yet such is the richness of the writing that one is constantly engaged with it on the levels of language, imagery, and wit, even as one is responding to the appeal of the story itself. And the story is an absorbing one—the unraveling of the mystery surrounding the sudden death of one of two brothers, a mystery apparently modeled on one that occurred in McNamer’s own family. I would not usually have gravitated toward Red Rover’s subject matter—boys in horse country, pilots in World War II, the FBI in Argentina, Charles Lindbergh flying over Montana—but, as I should have known, any subject at all becomes engrossing when it is well narrated; and indeed, I found myself hooked, on the very first page, by McNamer’s eloquence, compassion, and gentle humor, and then utterly captivated a couple of pages later by her vivid, thoroughly imagined description of the first of the book’s several accidents. What is more, the form of the novel, which takes us forward and back in time, without transition, over the decades between 1927 and 2003, not only has the uncanny effect of telling us the “answer” as to what will happen to these complex and likable characters; it also shows us our own future, by example, and gives us a very tangible, and curiously liberating, sense of how brief our lives really are.

Lydia Davis is the author, most recently, of Varieties of Disturbance: Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).


Almost every trace of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company, once the nation’s fourth-largest steel concern, has disappeared. Its Pittsburgh works have been razed and made into parking lots; its Hot Metal Bridge, which carried molten steel from blast furnaces on one side of the Monogahela River to rolling mills on the other, has been turned into a bicycle path. Happily, one unlikely legacy lives on: New Directions, the independent publishing house founded with steel money in 1936 by James Laughlin IV—the son, grandson, and great-grandson of J & L executives.

This year, despite knockout new novels by Denis Johnson and Junot Díaz and a first-rate collection of Leonard Michaels’s stories, it’s the legendary publisher’s posthumous scrapbook about his life and work, The Way It Wasn’t: From the Files of James Laughlin (New Directions), that sticks with me most. Edited by Barbara Epler and Daniel Javitch, it’s a mad scramble of brief autobiographical entries about people, places, and things—from a charming record of how Laughlin spent the $50 he won in a 1932 high school essay contest (on D. H. Lawrence first editions and an exhibition catalogue from the recently founded Museum of Modern Art in New York) to his wry comments on Bill Clinton’s philandering ways sixty years later.

Along the way are candid and comic letters between Laughlin and his firm’s stalwarts Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams; a description of how the classic New Directions cover designs by Alvin Lustig came about; striking photographs of Denise Levertov, Delmore Schwartz, and Yukio Mishima; and assorted gossip and gripes about Djuna Barnes, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov, Gertrude Stein, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, and other writers whose work New Directions championed.

The Way It Wasn’t evinces the qualities that distinguished Laughlin and continue to define his firm: a racy strength, a delight in the new and modern, a faith in what matters for the ages. The qualities of steel, come to think of it.

Matt Weiland is deputy editor of the Paris Review.


In a monograph on Felix Gonzalez-Torres published by A.R.T. Press in 1994, there is an interview between Gonzalez-Torres and the artist Tim Rollins. I reread it every year or so to remind myself that artists don’t only talk about the market, their fame, or their latest commercial sponsors. Some of them even talk about why they make art. Following a tradition started by Art Resources Transfer founder Bill Bartman with the book Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary American Artists Interview Twelve Contemporary American Artists (1996), A.R.T. Press editor and artist Alejandro Cesarco has begun publishing a series of must-have books called Between Artists. Each volume is the record of two artists talking to each other, and the pairings have been inspired: Liam Gillick and Lawrence Weiner, Paul Chan and Martha Rosler, Silvia Kolbowski and Walid Raad. Forthcoming volumes feature conversations between Andrea Bowers and Catherine Opie, Maria Eichhorn and John Miller, and James Benning and Julie Ault. In the conversation between Amy Sillman and Gregg Bordowitz (published this year), there is an amazing discussion of ambivalence; at one point, Bordowitz says, “I’m interested in art that provokes an objectless yearning. There’s a feeling of want in the work but I can’t fully identify what’s wanted by the work. . . . I’m very much interested in queer things. Queer things don’t yield easily to comprehension. They refuse to recognize, or be recognized. They work from, or occupy, a place of shame or embarrassment. Those are the kind of artworks that attract me, regardless of their medium.” In that brief passage Bordowitz perfectly sums up what makes me keep going back to a Gonzalez-Torres sculpture or a Willem de Kooning “Woman” painting I have seen dozens of times: a feeling of want that travels between viewer and artwork and is both real and resistant to quantification. That feeling is also what makes me make art.

But if I had to pick a single outstanding book of the year, it would be Witness to Her Art (CCS Bard), edited by Rhea Anastas with Michael Brenson. Focused on the work and writings of Adrian Piper, Mona Hatoum, Cady Noland, Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker, Daniela Rossell, and the magazine Eau de Cologne, it is a rich and compelling document of artists rethinking the paradigms of art production. What makes this book stand out is that its mix of newly commissioned and reprinted essays, the heterogeneity of the authors chosen, and its inclusion of artists writing about their own projects situates it as a volume that could serve as an introduction for students as well as required reading for those interested in the medium- and discipline-crossing practices of these extraordinary artists.

Glenn Ligon is a New York–based artist.


The German polymath Alexander Kluge (writer, filmmaker, philosopher, lawyer) defies literary classification by appropriating the neutral language of classification. His style is characterized by the absence of style, by the flatness of his affect. Like W. G. Sebald, Kluge sifts the rubble of modernity for fragments—factual or fictional, it’s difficult to say—which he arranges into compelling figures of historical processes. Unlike Sebald, however, Kluge doesn’t offer the traditional consolations of literature: No beauty in the writing counters the terrible violence it describes. The principal crimes of the last century were as much crimes of dispassion as of passion, and Kluge’s documentary tone reminds us of the intimacy between the rhetoric of scientific objectivity and mass murder. Sebald called Kluge “that most enlightened of writers.” Enlightenment, that most troubling of words.

What’s a good word for Kluge’s little figurative conjunctions? Denkbilder? Constellations? Kluge selects cinema, which, in what he calls the “business slogan” of the Lumière brothers, seeks “to bring the world into the world.” Cinema Stories (translated by Martin Brady and Helen Hughes; New Directions) tracks the interpenetration of spectacle and reality in the epoch of total war: “The sound of battle, sometimes coming closer, sometimes moving away, merged with the sound track of the films”; “These strains of song, the background sounds from the film sound track, and the artillery fire in the distance blended with the generally diffuse light of evening”; etc. The slaughter bench of history is on the cutting-room floor. Both movies and histories appear continuous only by masking gaps—blind spots (cf. The Devil’s Blind Spot [2004])—and Kluge’s genius is for exposing those little interruptions, those moments that escape totalizing systems, whether National Socialist, Stalinist, or star.

Ben Lerner’s most recent collection of poems is titled Angles of Yaw (Copper Canyon Press, 2006).


When we were children, my two brothers and I would wear hairy wool ponchos whose geometrical llamas were obscured by our long hair. Sometimes we would march through our modern apartment in Grenoble’s Olympic Village (built for the 1968 Winter Games) to the rhythm of the Misa Criolla, or play cards while listening to the Cuarteto Cedrón. Some friends of our parents had fled Chile, and we knew something terrible was happening there: Many people had to leave. We also knew two names connected to this situation: Allende and Pinochet. The situation of exile that these friends and others were experiencing raised a lot of questions. I didn’t think about it much for years, although I felt relief every time there was a sign that dictatorship was slowly disappearing from South America—culminating in the elections of the recent years, which have transformed this part of the world into the largest Left-oriented political laboratory on the planet.

Roberto Bolaño was twenty years old when he left Chile forever. He was imprisoned for a few days after the 1973 coup, and then went to Mexico City—where the first part of The Savage Detectives (translated by Natasha Wimmer; Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is set. I experienced his intense novel as offering a way to understand not only more about my own history and obsessions but also about my relationship to radical art. In the book, two young “visceral realist” poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, are looking for the lost avant-garde poet Cesárea Tinajero in the deserts of Sonora, in northwest Mexico.

Now let’s look at the second part of the poem:

In Bolaño’s last, unfinished, novel, 2666 (to be published in English next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), four specialists in German literature are similarly obsessed with the work of a vanished writer—Benno Von Archimboldi, whom they also end up looking for in Sonora. Somewhere Archimboldi says that all poetry and all sorts of poetry can be contained in one novel. This is part of what is happening in The Savage Detectives. But there is also much more. Be careful: Bolaño/Belano is an addictive writer/character.

“And this one?”

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster is an artist based in Paris.


There have been a lot of big catalogues this year that I am delighted to own: The Age of Discrepancies; Made in Germany; WACK!; Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914–1939. All landmark achievements and important references, but hard to lift and, so, a little hard to truly love.

My favorite book is on the smaller side, small enough to carry around and read between classes and meetings. Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love (Walker Art Center) is unexpected. Other Kara Walker books have been almost uniformly impressive (including Rizzoli’s reissue of the excellent 2003 Tang catalogue, Narratives of a Negress); her silhouettes lend themselves to a spare but majestic coffee-table treatment. I love this book because it spurns the obvious take, shunning black and white to muddy the waters with a brown-on-brown design, replacing flatness with a roughly textured, embossed cover, and emphasizing the intimacy of smaller works on paper, as well as including a visual essay by the artist made from archival collage material and her texts on index cards.

It’s not merely portability or perversity that recommends the book, and the critical essays are a mixed bag (those by Robert Storr and assistant curator Yasmil Raymond stand out). Rather, the modest size itself creates a new relationship to Walker’s work. The scale of her subject and her achievement has held me at a distance over the years; this catalogue (like the show itself) pulled me in, pushed me to see the present and the personal—both the artist’s and my own—in her large-scale historical allegories.

This push-pull of private and public address condenses in the cover, which inexorably draws in the other riders on the train as they scan its unmissable text: “Dear you hypocritical fucking Twerp . . . ”

Katy Siegel is a contributing editor of Artforum.


The past year saw the publication of the eleventh, penultimate volume of selected writings by the film critic Frieda Grafe, Ins Kino! Münchner Filmtips 1970–1986 (To the Movies! Munich Film Tips, 1970–1986; Brinkmann & Bose)—a project initiated by her husband, Enno Patalas, five years ago, shortly before her death. It is rare for so-called secondary texts to be honored with such a definitive edition, but Grafe’s criticism deserves it. She retold films and other artistic projects as movements of thought, associations of ideas and intuitions, and in so doing she created them a second time. Combining the roles of artistic defender and ideal viewer (she never published negative reviews, choosing other means to communicate what she didn’t like), she was able to draw out textures and nuances from works that even the artists who made them could barely have dreamed of. Going beyond auteur theory in this way brought about the emergence of Grafe’s own writerly universe, which not only contained a literary world in its own right—albeit one fashioned from the films and books of others—but, above all, engendered the most beautiful prose I have read in German in years. With the small tribute here, this reviewer hopes to bring her writing to the attention of non-German-speaking readers: It would be a just recompense for an author who herself knew—in translating Artaud, Sternberg, Hitchcock, and others—how to make the most elegant German sentences from those in French and English.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a cultural critic based in Berlin.


History and Freedom is the latest installment in an excellent series of Theodor Adorno’s lectures, published by Polity Press. This volume (the fifth), edited by Rolf Tiedemann and translated by Rodney Livingstone, records the philosopher’s 1964–65 course on the philosophy of history, in which he submitted constitutive problems of the discipline to a typically assiduous and nuanced reassessment. Many of the lectures adapted material from his then–work in progress, Negative Dialectics (1966). Since the only English translation of Adorno’s magnum opus is widely considered inadequate, one might appreciate History and Freedom as another entry point into concepts developed in that work. Beyond this, however, Adorno’s elaboration of additional material, fruitful tangents, diagnoses of the times, and compelling, improvised delivery generate something in excess of simply that.

Instead of jettisoning dubious orthodox principles of the philosophy of history—namely, the notions of universal history and of progress—Adorno delves deep into their ramifications, ultimately retaining elements of both in order to invert and render the concepts thoroughly social. In the case of progress, Adorno’s final word is that progress has yet to take place; history thus far is continuous discontinuity, permanent catastrophe. However, closing down the idea of progress altogether would be a reactionary affirmation of present conditions. Progress can only begin when the idea of progress commonly held today comes to an end. Always haunting such discussions is his notion of the “spell”: capitalism’s ever-present influence on life.

Adorno’s later lectures focus on freedom and the subject, frequently reading Kantian concepts against themselves in order to extend them. At one point he observes that in our society based on a purely formal notion of freedom, the idea imposes demands on us we are unable to meet (through work, for example), resulting in unfreedom. In other words, freedom to act becomes an unbearable pressure on action. This is one of many comments in these lectures that seem to have become truer with time.

Melanie Gilligan is an artist and writer based in London.


The year 2007 will be remembered as biography’s annus mirabilis. Books that hewed to the genre’s customary heft (Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton, Zachary Leader’s Life of Kingsley Amis, Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison: A Biography) returned their subjects to the cultural forefront, while less traditional excursions, such as Janet Malcolm’s splendid Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, dispensed with the completist’s agenda only to serve up complex and compelling portraits. My favorite book of the past season is no less a case of biography against the grain: Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). It may sound perverse to label it as such—Ratliff is attempting to answer how it is that “Coltrane, particularly from 1961 to 1964, sounds like the thing we know as modern jazz, just the way that Stravinsky sounds like the thing we know as modern classical music.” But to unpack precisely how Coltrane got to his “sound,” and how he attempted to get out of the “trap” of style once he had got there, of necessity requires the story of a life, which Ratliff—a music critic for the New York Times—provides, with nary a sentence wasted. The irony of Coltrane’s legacy as “one of the primary musicians in American jazz to establish the tradition of not sounding like anybody else” had enormous ramifications not just for the subsequent history of jazz but also for the various myths of what the medium represented (i.e., “America’s classical music,” African-American rebellion translated into music, what Ratliff describes as the “hippie myth in which jazz is ‘tomorrow’s music’ forever and ever”). Ratliff’s nimble storytelling brims with fresh metaphor and is guided by a formalist’s precision. What’s more, it’s a book-length advertisement for the chops to be gained from steady review work, which was clearly propaedeutic for Ratliff’s confident and lively voice (who but a serenely assured writer would title a chapter covering Coltrane’s nonproductive years “Not Much Happens”?). Coltrane is a model not just for future biographers but for any critic who must find the right language to describe cultural phenomena—which is what critics do, isn’t it?

Eric Banks is editor in chief of Bookforum.