PRINT February 2010


IT IS A RECURRING EXPERIENCE: I am doing a studio visit, and there on the artist’s shelf is a book by Kaja Silverman. I see The Subject of Semiotics (1983) or Male Subjectivity at the Margins (1992): The artist has an interest in psychoanalysis. Or instead I see The Acoustic Mirror (1988) or Speaking About Godard (1998; written with Harun Farocki): The artist, as all good artists should be, is a feminist, and possibly a cinephile. Indeed, I first met Silverman at a lecture in the late ’90s at the Louvre, where she presented a reading of Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais’s collaboration Hiroshima mon amour (1959). Along with Deleuze, Silverman has become the author one turns to for a deep understanding of the cinematic monuments of the postwar era: the films of Godard, Resnais, Fassbinder. That night at the Louvre, she appeared dressed like a character straight out of a film noir, and her stunning reading of Hiroshima brought not a few tears to the eye—and the audience to its feet.
This, too, is a recurring experience: In recent years, I have repeatedly seen Silverman deliver a no less than two-hour-long lecture on Gerhard Richter, only to be greeted with the kind of wild enthusiasm usually reserved for performances and concerts. But there has been an irony for me in all this. Since the mid-’90s, Silverman’s work has shifted away from its earlier concentration on literature and film and moved into a direct confrontation with the phenomena of vision itself and, increasingly, with visual art. There has been a major essay on Cindy Sherman, published in The Threshold of the Visible World (1996); others on artists such as Jeff Wall (“Total Visibility” [2003]) or Eija-Liisa Ahtila (“How to Stage the Death of God” [2002]). There have been books: an epochal rethinking of the very act of looking, in the philosophical treatise World Spectators (2000), where Silverman casts seeing not as implicitly rapacious and violent but as a gift we bestow on the objects and beings of the world, an act of “world affirmation,” as she puts it there. And in the wake of this text, in 2002, Silverman wrote a monograph on James Coleman, devoting a chapter to each of the projected-image works the artist had produced since the early ’90s. This study stands among the pinnacles of recent art criticism, but since it was published as an exhibition catalogue (for the Lenbachhaus in Munich), I suspect that very few artists and writers have in fact encountered it. Thus the irony and the impossible position of our greatest critics today: Whether the field has acknowledged it or not, a major voice within art criticism has emerged.
This misrecognition of Silverman’s primary concerns should change with the recent publication of her long-awaited book Flesh of My Flesh (Stanford University Press, 2009). This volume elaborates on the shift in Silverman’s attention from cinema to time-based art more generally: photography, video, projected images—the whole panoply of artistic practices that Silverman has come to call photography or cinema “by other means.” And yet the cast in this work is immense: There are essays on Richter, Coleman, and filmmaker Terrence Malick, but also on Leonardo da Vinci, and German Expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. There are appearances by Freud and Romain Rolland, Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé, Friedrich Nietzsche and Marcel Proust, Ovid and Walter Benjamin. The book, in other words, is unclassifiable. And yet its stakes are simple, really. Like so much of Silverman’s recent work, Flesh of My Flesh is about love. During a decade in which the art world found itself obsessed with what it awkwardly called relational aesthetics, Silverman—along with some of her closest interlocutors, including Leo Bersani—instead used aesthetics to explore in the deepest of ways what human “relationality” could be said to be. We are thus witness in Flesh of My Flesh to another major shift in Silverman’s thought: From being one of the foremost theorists of desire, she has moved toward a thinking—a true imagining—of the conditions of both love and joy. As Flesh of My Flesh shows us, these are two affects that our times—of infinite war and indiscriminate destruction; of massive ethnic, national, and religious polarization—must consider anew. The times, in other words, have produced a call. They have been a summons. As I realized when I visited with Silverman this past fall, surrounded by the violent unrest caused by the financial and political crises of the University of California campuses, both hers and my own: First and foremost Flesh of My Flesh is a response.
George Baker

Auguste Rodin, Orpheus and Euridice, 1893, marble, 50 x 30 x 28".

GEORGE BAKER: Where did Flesh of My Flesh begin?

KAJA SILVERMAN: I guess the answer to that question would have to be “in my unconscious.” Although the book was not yet a gleam in my conscious mind’s eye, I started writing it in 1999, with an essay on Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line [1998]. I was drawn to the film because I found it so emotionally overwhelming and because the affects that it precipitated in me felt both ontologically and historically true, even though I could not link them to anything in the present. This was very mysterious, and it became even more so later, because one by one, the events that were specific to each of these affects occurred. Some were political—September 11, 2001; the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Others were personal—the loss of love, breast cancer. Much later, after I had written the chapters on Gerhard Richter, Leonardo, and

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