by: Joanna Walsh , January 15, 2020
by: Joanna Walsh , January 15, 2020
‘A dead writer,’ says the artist Linda Stupart, ‘exists in words.’ 
The thing about anyone is almost everyone is already dead, almost everyone you’ve read about anyway. There are so many women dying right now, more than ever before. In the past women didn’t die because so few of them had lives that were ‘structurally readable’. But look, this year—already!—Barbara Hammer, Carolee Schneeman, Agnes Varda. I’m reading about some of their work for the first time. ‘Writing that is not structurally readable-iterable-beyond the death of the addressee would not be writing,’ writes Derrida. ‘All writing must, therefore, be capable of functioning in the radical absence of every empirically determined receiver… the “death” or the possibility of the “death” of the receiver inscribed in the structure of the mark.’ We have to learn how to die onscreen as well as how to live.
The first screen death I noticed was Chantal Akerman, in 2015. And thinking again of her 1975 film Jeanne Dielman reminds me of Martha Rosler’s 1975 video art piece, Semiotics of the Kitchen, in which the artist presents an A-Z of domestic implements, using them, like Akerman’s heroine, with what might be considered an unusual degree of aggression. Which reminds me of Lacan’s interest in the case of the Papin sisters who, employed as maids, killed the abusive woman who employed them, along with her daughter, with domestic utensils, after being unfairly berated for not finishing the ironing during a power cut. Which reminds me of Elma Mitchell’s poem, Thoughts After Ruskin, about how housewives kill spiders. I haven’t looked at the collection it comes from for years, because when I was given the book, I didn’t really want to be given a book about housewives. I’d thought the poem was by Julia Darling, who wrote most of the poems in the collection, along with the group she founded, the Poetry Virgins. A friend I don’t know any more, then a young male postgraduate student, bought me the collection in the 90s when we were both in our 20s. He liked the suggestive title of the book, which was Sauce. He liked Darling’s name, and the name Poetry Virgins. He cooked for one (himself). I already cooked for a family. I don’t think he’d read the book. I think he thought it was mostly about sex, which some of it was, but a lot of it was also about other things: ‘This is not domesticated poetry,’ wrote UA Fanthorpe in her introduction to the collection, ‘because it is about hoovers.’
(Jacques Lacan, writing on the Papin sisters, said their action took place in the gap of what was not said.)
I was always wondering about how Julia Darling felt about her own name, which so evokes some kind of hetero standard—the domestic twinned with the sexual, suggesting the two states’ différance—via a hint of camp that creates a space for critique. Darling’s name is also the title of that 1960s movie about a disillusioned model and screen star (played by Julie Christie), whose use of heterosexuality as a social climbing strategy produces a gender melancholy that creates space for the suggestion of other sexual strategies. I’m wondering if The Poetry Virgins titled their collection as a strategy to make it more appetising to (part-wooing, part mocking) its implied consumer, albeit one that welcomed the suggestion of a bit of Sauce on the side. I’m wondering about whether—as a woman who had lived, first with a man, then a woman—suggestion had become Darling’s strategy. I’m wondering about strategies of suggestion and suggestiveness, and also suggestibility. To suggest is an alternative to ‘saying’, and also to the gap of what is not said. It might be less easy to—as Lacan termed it—‘pass to the act’ of killing someone with a range of domestic implements over a suggestion, or over what was not suggested. I’ve certainly used sexual suggestiveness as a strategy in my own work, both because it is a space in which I have been allowed to operate—as is the domestic—and in order to stake a claim in it, and also as a strategy to attract the attention of people who might think the domesticity I write about is mostly about hoovers.
There is a dead site for The Poetry Virgins’ book. So sad. It asks the reader to send a cheque for £2 (including £1 postage) to receive a copy of the book: mid-90s prices! At the bottom of the page, a message from a dead system: ‘[an error occurred while processing this directive]’. I’d like to send a material, physical cheque into the ether of the internet, just to see what happens. I’d like to try to push it through the screen. Darling died of cancer in 2005, an experience she described in her diary (a silent onscreen voice, still ‘live’) as simultaneously bodied and disembodied.
Born into a house of death—more precisely, of Jane Austen’s death, the deathplace, you could call it, of England’s best-known woman writer—Darling seems to have found herself in the kind of life—materially, educationally, socially—that gave her some choice in her strategies, and she chose a life unlike that of Julie Christie’s Darling, the sort of life where, I’d guess, she—not her maid—killed spiders in her bathroom, but also the sort of life where, I also guess, she chose to have little to do with glitter. Glitter is style without substance: it is a also material strategy open to those who have little material. Charles Dickens wrote that Caroline Cratchit, the wife of Scrooge’s exploited secretary in A Christmas Carol, unable to afford new clothes, was ‘brave in ribbons’. Some people don’t need glitter and often it is they who can make a move on the domestic, to critique, enjoy, or accord it value, though the attention they pay it may be stymied by context: Angela Carter laughed with incredulity when she found that Virginia Woolf, servanted up to the eyeballs, was a very keen kneader of bread.
Darling was a British movie that looked to Europe, made in gritty black and white, in imitation of the French films of the nouvelle vague. Concerned with glamour, it didn’t want to glitter. Its heroine, like those of Godard’s, films, is an everyday superstar. That Darling (Christie) was working class makes her a very desirable commodity, she can be bought yet retains, through her labour of différance, a suffering that makes her success as a commodity acceptable, just as (Julia) Darling’s différance came from her move from heterosexuality. Darling (Christie’s) glamour comes from the fact that she cannot enjoy the glitter she promotes. Darling’s (I mean Julie Christie’s, or rather her character’s) face is constantly cracking up in laughter or tears. Her movements are sudden, they break the skin of the calm-faced screen beauty which is her character’s work. There’s a tension (if you pay a tension) between Christie’s work and the roles she Darling (the character) plays for work. It’s a tension between motion and stillness. What I find moving about models is their frozen gestures. And also their anonymity, which is to do with not speaking.
‘Why is it that cancer makes one look so weird?’ (Julia) Darling continues, never quite getting her ‘I’ in: ‘it’s philosophical thing…we have crossed the line of beauty and only people that love us can still see it’. The cosiness of Darling’s ‘long agony of survival’ sometimes frightens me: her repetition (in the French sense of rehearsal toward the staging of a gesture) of domestic objects and processes on loop—’I want everyone to take up knitting and eat porridge and ride a bike’—and her staged excitement over travelling on the same train as ‘her maj’ (“Fancy!”)—are expressions of camp that just… aren’t my cup of tea. I’m trying to pay a tension to how these frivolities can be fundamental, but also to how far camp citation can legitimise the constraining boundaries that modulate it. I do not find the cosy comfortable, and I’m not sure I’d have liked Darling (Julia). But then again, perhaps I would.
You can replay Darling’s diary on loop (she describes herself as ‘loopy’ with cancer, as though repetition were a kind of loss) via the oddly anti-linear narrative of her blog. She ends where you begin, at her deathplace. To reverse her decline, you scroll to the base of the page and hit, ‘NEXT’.
Next—as onscreen I can hyperlink, or just close a tab—I’m listening to Barbara Hammer on Youtube giving a ‘performative lecture’ on the art of dying. The film director famous for her open DykeTactics talks about ‘coming out as being ill,’ and says that, ‘the art of dying is the same as the art of living.’ because ‘the pain of living in these times of inhumanity requiring resistance, marching, demonstration, can be relieved by making art.’ Art may be a useful strategy, she says, ‘but it does not treat the basis of the pain’.
Hammer crosses into her audience. A woman who looks the same age reaches out when Hammer’s back is turned, and touches her lightly, or tries to, or reaches out and doesn’t touch her and withdraws her hand quickly as from an electric shock. The bodies in the clips of DYKETACTICS Hammer shows, are young and white and able. And I look at them with a look that is like the question I’ve often heard that goes, What do dykes do in bed?. But it’s not that question. It’s a question with a similar degree of incredulity: What do women look like? Women onscreen, their bodies, I mean when they are not looking at themselves like a man. And I, being white and able though not so young as the women in the film when they were filmed, but not so old as Hammer in her last lecture either, am able, perhaps, to see something of myself in them. This is where looking at women’s bodies is a strategy, not in the usual way of judging and sorting. ‘I want you to become aware of your physical body,’ says Hammer, ‘through watching this film.’
‘This work was made,’ says Hammer, ‘from the sense of touch.’ And the autoamputated sensation that invites me to complete the script seems clear to me. Though sensual, DYKETACTICS, Hammer says, was ‘labelled pornographic’. But it’s not, she says, ‘sensational, like a rock show,’ though it might be that too.
Autoamputation continues in Hammer’s work: the lips in Sych/Touch are unsynched. In Sanctus, which sees right through the body with x-rays, the sound is omitted, as it is in the clips she screens from A Horse is not a Metaphor. In Vital Signs (2009) the non-diegetic hospital sound is alarming—literally… What did she call it— ‘anxiety’?
‘Sometimes there’s pain in creating,’ she says, ‘and it’s not something to avoid.’
‘One of the things I have done,’ says Hammer, ‘is to break the pattern of work. Not to repeat myself as my films have gone on, or my paintings or installations.’ If successful art is repetition, and if the art of a successful self is repetition, Hammer’s repetition lies in breaking. She breaks her condition too. ‘People talk about cancer through trusims, and what they’ve heard others say.’ I guess cancer terminology is (to use a metaphor that is not a horse) itself mutational, not like repetition-as-rehearsal-for-gesture, but like repetition as labour, as some form of work.
‘Cancer is work,
writes Anne Boyer, in Woman Sitting At The Machine
But work is work too.’
Under capitalism, wrote David Harvey’ in Spaces of Hope, sickness is defined as the inability to work. But you can work at sickness if your work is writing. In her online diary Julia Darling wrote, ‘I have such a work ethic that I find it impossible not to feel bad about doing my job properly’. No longer able to write, she was ‘thinking of knitting a novel,’ but her flesh congealed until her limbs resembled ‘something left after a chicken dinner’. Like Anne Boyer, in her own account of cancer treatment, Darling is a worker, working at her illness. As it consumes her, her job to also be a consumer (of drugs, of resources, of care). Luckily for her, and unluckily for Boyer, Darling’s treatment was the business of the state.
The elder Papin sister, Christine, believed to have instigated the murder, starved herself to death in prison. The younger, Léa, allegedly returned to work as a hotel maid after serving an 8-year sentence. The film director, Claude Ventura, claimed to have met, in 2001, shortly before her death, a woman he believed to be Léa Papin, but she could no longer speak.
‘I want to say hello to all the people watching online,’ Hammer says, and, yes, though Hammer is now dead and can’t say anything any more, and though she never knew my email address, she is also addressing me. ‘I love you with all my heart,’ she says, to her ‘spouse’. (Should anyone ever say such a thing in public, especially onscreen where it can be replayed and replayed, the second time as farce?). ‘…And I love all of you!’ she concludes, diluting the moment to a talk show boast, before inviting each and every guest for prosecco. OK this is a narcissistic gesture, but narcissism at its best, narcissism as a strategy Hammer engaged with in order to make art.
As for me, I have embarked on an ethics of mentioning, a repetitive action to repair the durational labour of art, with an art of laborious duration. Here is my project:
- Public space (The Spire, Dublin; Place Republique, Paris; nowhere in London as there are no more public spaces).
- Business cards with names only, one name per card: Barbara Hammer, A M Hilton, Chantal Akerman, Julia Darling, Lea Papin, Jennifer Ringley, Marguerite Pantaine, Julie Christie, Marie Calloway, Catharine Sanderson, Joyce Burditt etc.
- Caroline, my working partner, or an other.
- The internet.
- Recite the names only through the loudhailer, each partner reciting one name for a durational period, before passing it to the other.
- While this happens the other partner distributes business cards matching the name, to passers-by.
- Spend between 5 and 15 minutes mentioning each name, varying tone, speed and volume of mentioning, before passing on to the next name.
 Stupart, Linda (2016), Virus, London: Arcadia Missa.
 Derrida, Jacques (1982), ‘Signature Event Context’, Margins of Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p8.
 autocorrects to ‘Pain’.
 ‘Virgins, The Poetry’ (1994), Sauce, Newcastle, Diamond Twig.
 I once saw a video clip of the British comedian Kenneth Williams citing the OED definition of camp as ‘fundamentally frivolous”: when I checked the OED there was no such definition, though the dictionary did cite Williams himself as an example of camp.
 Carter, Angela (1992), Expletives Deleted, London: Chatto & Windus, p98.
 Vaneigem, Raoul (1983), The Revolution of Everyday Life, London: Rebel Press.
 Boyer, Anne (2015), ‘Woman Sitting at the Machine’, Poetry is Dead, issue 12, Vancouver, Poetry is Dead.
Boyer, Anne (2015), ‘Woman Sitting at the Machine’, Poetry is Dead, issue 12, Vancouver: Poetry is Dead.
Carter, Angela (1992), Expletives Deleted, London: Chatto & Windus.
Derrida, Jacques (1982), ‘Signature Event Context’, Margins of Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Stupart, Linda (2016), Virus, London: Arcadia Missa.
Vaneigem, Raoul (1983), The Revolution of Everyday Life, London: Rebel Press.
Virgins, The Poetry (1994), Sauce, Newcastle: Diamond Twig.
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