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What Matters (or Not): Samuel Solomon on LA’s Q.E.D. Part 2

By Harriet Staff

Something nutritious at HTMLGIANT: Samuel Solomon has written up the second round of the Les Figues Q.E.D. series of talks, which focused on queer art and literature and took place over the spring months in Los Angeles’ historic MAK-Schindler House, “L.A.’s original nod to green architecture.” Moderated by Vanessa Place, the May 9 “WHAT MATTERS” conversation featured poet Brian Teare, writer-critic Michael du Plessis, and visual artist Lincoln Tobier. Solomon tells us that “Each discussant was asked to respond to two related questions with reference to their own practice as artists and critics: How does materiality matter to you? How is what matters made material?” More:

Brian Teare, a poet, titled his presentation with a phrase from American minimalist painter Agnes Martin’s writings: “It’s always better to be a little bit hungry.” A few years ago, Teare explained, he had been suffering from undiagnosed advanced celiac disease; Martin’s grid paintings provided a “calming and healing” antidote to what he described as the “messy material” of his affliction. Teare explained his drive to understand the paintings as an escape from matter, to make it a sphere of transcendence from the “disaster of embodiment.” He traced the origin of this dematerializing move to some of Martin’s own statements and then complicated them with the actual plasticity of the paintings, their traces of embodied techniques and experiences of duration (e.g., the grid as space for active composition and the actual construction of the line). Teare explained that postmodern poetries have likewise taken the page as a site of plasticity and used words as marks in composition, and ended by reading one of his poems inspired by Martin and composed as two columns, each comprising three short stanzas resembling blocks. The poem closed with “the impossible patterns of life,” encapsulating the quasi-paradox with which he had begun, seeking vitality in the grid.

Solomon explains that “Lincoln Tobier then described his own long-standing project to reconceive the machinations of Roger Ailes, prominent right-wing media consultant and mastermind of the FoxNews phenomenon, as a total work of art”; and that Du Plessis argued, “we should affix the grace of an ‘angel of art’ who might supplement Benjamin’s telegraphic remarks on the ‘angel of history.’ While the latter faces backwards, being blown forward by the storm of progress toward the future, Du Plessis’ angel of art would instead be ‘nowhere-directed,’ honoring withdrawal and separation as the very stuff of the aesthetic.” Solomon broke down the rhetoric of the speakers’ considerations of materiality–please read it in full at the site. An excerpt:


I would have liked to see the concept of “time” made subject to such an approach by the discussants. Indeed, during the open conversation following the presentations, I asked Du Plessis and Teare whether or not the painstaking, time-consuming aesthetic practices of Agnes Martin (and of other artists who theatrically or silently withdraw from social relations, as DuPlessis suggested they ought to) might not in fact be attempts to negate or refuse late-capitalist organizations of time. That is, to refuse time as managed both in the “traditional” workplace (where labor-time is directly valorized through a wage and the surplus value stolen by the capitalist) and in the context of housework and other informal or affective labor (where traditionally “women’s” work is unwaged).[1] My effort to push for some historical account of dominant regimes of labor-time went more or less unanswered; my bare-bones gesture toward material analysis through some such historicizing of its ideal forms was met with a skepticism toward the “totalizing” claims of history.

There is a reflection on Vanessa Place’s stance on materiality as well:

2) Meanwhile, on the other hand, “materiality” was invoked to name something inaccessible to knowledge (scientific or otherwise), some index of an extra-discursive excess of matter. The gesture towards materiality, in this rhetorical framing, indicates an unmasterable or inappropriable remainder to discourse that cannot be further elaborated or accessed. Vanessa Place expressed a version of this logic in her claims that the question “what matters” can be answered best with “nothing,” or that “materiality immediately suggests its opposite.” The interest, for her, is then 1) in how people fill this void left by an over-inclusive materiality and 2) in the anxiety about such an absence. Place asserts that in her practice, “the use-value of works is drained out,” and its “only point” is now the moment when you encounter it. It seems to me that such a description resembles point-for-point Marx’s understanding of the relation of the capitalist to the commodity which he only momentarily possesses in order to sell it – the use-value of the commodity lies, for the capitalist, simply in its exchange-value and in the prospect of using the commodity (such as human labor) as a means of adding value to the capital invested in it. The capitalist has no interest in mastering any subsequent “uses” of the commodity (whether health care or nuclear missiles) – these are, idiomatically and literally, immaterial to him, so long as a profit can be made.

In Place’s hands, this rhetorical framing of evaporating materiality is accompanied by an ethical gesture against all forms of mastery; in her own work, she explained, she aims to be a mere function rather than an authority on the work. Of course, as Place well knows, the “author function” is precisely to embody, as an ideal form, the social provenance of a work. That is to say, the function of “the author” is precisely to obscure the social relations of production of the work even as it provides an ideal representation of it in the form of a person. It can’t come as a surprise to Place, then, that she is assumed to be an authority on her work as soon as she signs her name to it and stands in front of a crowd of ticket-buyers to read it aloud.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, July 6th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.