New York

Alain Robbe-Grillet and Robert Rauschenberg

Alain Robbe-Grillet, the French author and filmmaker, and Robert Rauschenberg have collaborated on an “image-text.” The collaboration was difficult, in part because of the procedure (Rauschenberg blocked out where the text would be, Robbe-Grillet wrote it in longhand on plates, and Rauschenberg set the image down on stones) and in part because of one-upsmanship (the images, all taken from French magazines, referred to the text but had a visual logic that often intruded upon it and Robbe-Grillet would complain. Page by page this went on, mostly by mail, for six years. The tension of image and text and of the two artists is evident, and the result is extraordinary.

The text is short and elliptical, fragmentary on the page and in the mind. For Robbe-Grillet, “An explanation, whatever it may be, can only be in excess, confronted with the presence of things,” yet, insofar as there is a narrative, it is this: a man strays into what is either an old ruin or a newly wrecked city. Perhaps he is a somnambulist; there are lapses but a search—a dream, an investigation, or an archaeology— is pulse enough to drive the narrative. Things come into focus but resist the status of clues. There is much confusion as to before and after, here and there (with the result that, as Robbe-Grillet says, “an elsewhere is no more possible than a formerly”). The narrative repeats, displaces, negates itself. A virgin sacrifice becomes a murder mystery and ends as a bizarre tableau constructed out of debris by a boy on a beach. At one point the man finds a text, casts it away, reads it, casts it away and then relates it, and it continues the text itself. At the end the boy locks himself in a room, finds a piece of paper with a riddle related to the murder, puts the room key in it, and throws it away. The sense is that the text, like the riddle, is an empty enigma but one that imprisons if merely cast aside. Much of this—the broken story mirrored in the broken city, an allegory that falls to an archaeology as things hold stubbornly as things, important signs (e.g. “construction,” “information,” “inseminatio”) that don’t signal—recalls Typology of a Phantom City, a novel Robbe-Grillet wrote over the same period.

Even the title of the text, Traces suspectes en surface, is a riddle of sorts. Apparently a cliché for a detective “case,” it is here ironical in that the murder itself is suspect: does it ever occur? Like the story, the title means, explicitly, too little and so is open to interpretation that is too much: are the clues, the narrative, suspect (untrustworthy)? Are they suspect as such or is what they signal suspect? Are they suspect because they obscure meaning? Or because there is no meaning “beneath”? Is the surface the only ground for suspicion or reflection of any sort? Are all traces (presences) suspect? The text does hover between too little and too much: the lack of evidence at once provokes and retards the need to detect or interpret. Is the narrative, like the “case” and the city, made to cohere or fall apart, or is there any difference? The question is tenser here than in an earlier work like The Erasers: there too the formula of the murder mystery does not quite work; there are pieces without a puzzle and objects that resist fetishization as agents.

In an interview a few years ago Robbe-Grillet said, “For my part, I don’t fiddle with the code of language. I accept it as a second nature which I don’t put into question. The code that I do attack is the second one, the code of narrative . . . I cut away fragments [of social discourse], cause them to retrograde, and use them for a new discourse.” This is similar to Rauschenberg’s strategy; he seems to accept images mostly as they are in the media but to disrupt the visual syntax. In fact, most of what applies to Robbe-Grillet’s traces applies to Rauschenberg’s images. Like the traces, they are too allusive and not allusive enough, so transparent as to be opaque; like the traces, they are not casual but the effect is never one of randomness. Since they are not so related, the images are not abstracted as “motifs,” just as the traces are not glossed as narrative agents. The images and traces are just there, outside man; but, if examined for meaning, they disappear as no relation grounds them. Elsewhere Robbe-Grillet writes of “that investigation which destroys. . . . its own object,” and this seems to be what happens as one reads the image-text. Such an “erasure” or play of presence and absence is important to both artists, as other works attest. For Robbe-Grillet the erasure is a matter of repetition or what he calls the “anecdote” as “reproduction-mechanism.” For Rauschenberg too it is a matter of reproduction: the images reproduce reproductions of events and, in the process, both image and event are obscured.

The relation of text and image is hard to assess. The text does not “caption” the images any more than the images “illustrate” the text. Neither interprets the other, or defines or even frames the other as a medium. Each contests, more than counterpoints, the other, but such resistance is important to the work as a whole.

Hal Foster