(Flesh and Culture)
by Quinn Latimer
I am seeing signs everywhere. Night visions, day visions. They are images, not letters. If this is a set of images, not a letter—and it is, a series of—I’d like you to watch them on a monitor. “To use an image is to enter fiction,” a theorist and filmmaker once wrote, the memory of monitors—eighties-era and enormous, like heavy heads resting on pale plinths—likely rising all around her, carving out the fluorescent laconicism of her line, her irradiating equation, its dry and flickering projections. A kind of holographic transfer, this. Image to fiction. A thing then, and a thing now.
Her new book just came out, O, and it is clear to me that her concern with the inexistence of the documentary continues. The documentary tradition. I’ve always loved that term. It is like a knife slipping in. Into a life: its images, its minerals, its oils. The knife as reflective and untrue as a mirror. Another novelist and filmmaker began her most famous book—the narrow novel about her childhood, you’ll remember—by noting: “I often think of the image only I can see now, and of which I’ve never spoken. It’s always there, in the same silence, amazing. It’s the only image of myself I like, the only one in which I recognize myself, in which I delight.” The image that follows is of the writer’s ravaged, childhood face, a face marked by sexual and colonial ruin before the experiences that would occasion it. I often go back to this image, to this idea, O. That the physical mark of experience can occur before the actual experience that brings it into being. Is this autopoiesis? Autoethnography? Maybe. It is like that famous case study, of the child who was never meant to be born. Sometimes people call this fate, but this is inaccurate.
O, do you remember the blue-black heat of that morning, some summers ago? It was just before dawn. Our second or third summer together. We were walking up the hill to your car, bitter orange and diesel scenting the stillness of the air. The taste of oil, like images, in our throats. We were walking in the street because it was still dark out and the streetlamps were always out, the marble sidewalks too slippery, narrow, and cracked. I could feel the sticky black asphalt under my feet. I could see almost nothing in front of me except the bag slung across your broad back, which was still new to me. It was already extremely hot, oven of our city’s summer, the blue-black color field of dawn beginning to crack, like some egg on the tarmac. If we were not quite in the “long hot girdle of the earth,” as the novelist and filmmaker once wrote of the more humid climes and tropics of her childhood, we were moving through our own arid southern heat to the car to drive to the port to catch the morning ferry to the island. Our trip must have been for days, not weeks, because the bags in our hands were light. I watched my feet and your back, enjoying the barely perceptible articulation of your form and the almost total darkness of the city, our privacy prefacing some watery edge of light, its slow sentence on the horizon. I was trying to stay inside the privacy of my unseeing, my sweating, my labored breath, its refrain.
In the black street’s hot hush, I was anticipating the boat and the sea and some relief. I wanted to remain here and I wanted to feel the difference. I kept my eyes on you, leading me higher. Then I felt some rhythmic swish and deep rush of air. I felt the atmosphere turn. The air became hotter but no brighter. I heard a kind of deep drone, felt some drop in pressure. Suddenly a body appeared out of the darkness, it was facing me, coming toward me, was next to me, almost touching, and then it past, and then there was another one, and another, and another. They kept emerging from the black and then disappearing back into it. The darkness of their forms seemed made of the same material as the unlit street. There was no eye contact, I couldn’t see their eyes. Their bodies sucked at the hot air, their guns did, their helmets swinging and circling like planets, as they strode in single file silently past us, constellating us. I could feel the stiff breeze of their bodies, measure the narrow distance between us, feel the beat of their boots on the asphalt. The black ribbon of their forms unspooling down the street like an oil slick. Then they were suddenly gone.
The street was quiet again, the air hot and still. It had been a group of riot police ending or starting their shift, nearly touching us as they moved in single file in the opposite direction down the hill. I pictured them assuming their daily positions on the corners of the street where we lived. Were they going or coming, I thought, shifting my bag from one shoulder to another. We were not the only people there, on the street, in the city, in the world, but it felt like that for a silent, sirenic beat—some ghost note—of summer. The dark line of riot police, guns and helmets swinging, planetary, and us, our bags of t-shirts and towels swinging, like stars, their bodies as heavily clothed and armed as ours were nearly naked and weightless. No armory.
No armory, O. Yet I think, sometimes, about us constellating each other that morning. The oily air, the film of it, we breathed together. Images on tongues. Images in our throats. Guns swinging, bags swinging, stars swinging through the narcotic night and into morning.
Last week I was asked, O, what the lens was of some work, and to name the main methods. And I thought, thinking of an artist, of their filmmaking and writing, that their lens might be quite literally the lens. That is, the lens of light—filmic and autoethnographic, of enlightenment and its extant imperialisms—to explore darkness: dreams, myths, poiesis, theaters, ghosts, ghost stories, specters, ancestors, language. The lens of the auteur, of authorship, or ancestry, to explore ideas and images that are polyphonic, slippery, flickering, ungraspable, spectral and spirit. I was thinking of the prism of distance, the psychic transfer of screens. Of poems and autoethnographies and hypnosis. I don’t know, O. It was a long week, and I missed you. Colonial departments, academic departments, academic appointments, neighborhood apartments, certain regions of reference. O, you know that I am writing this letter for a department of love whose patience I have tested these weeks with my departments of delay. I keep thinking of a line in a short story by a poet and novelist that I read in a magazine some weeks ago; our friend sent it to me: “When everything becomes poetry, I know I am unwell.” I paraphrase.
O, what is the lens of our love. Love, in a sense, in general. Also desire. Is it also quite literally the lens: a kind of camera, some wavey or expert glass, some I or eye looking out and also in some need for images, relentlessly surveying the self and social world. O as optics or, rather, as some mouth, open and exalted, gendered and grieving, breathing and singing both? O, I wrote a score recently for exalted breathing, a kind of “Labor Poetics” for another artist. You began each line, but not as you, but as Antiphon. The chants and psalms of Christian ritual, each sung as refrain. You know I love a refrain. The O coursing down the pages, studding it like open mouths, looked like code, which delighted me. My score, a kind of code, not documentary but trying to beckon something—anything—into being. What was I documenting, delineating, voicing? What set of traditions?
O poem! O body! O voice! O labor! O technologies that wed and weave and loop them together! O text and textile, O filmed letter, O circuit-board manufacture! O laborious breath! O myth of breathing! O ancient poetic seafaring epic as gendered expert weaving! O nocturnal unraveling! O vocal technologies of gender and lyric and epic and performance! O poetics of throat-like instruments! O polyphonic poetics of her psychic apparatus! O Antiphones! O ancients and nascents! O Ouroboros and androgynes! O poet as artist and shaman! O poem as song and page and algorithm! O sonnets of lead! O mineral score! O expressive qualities of global communications systems! O grain of voice travelling over glassy sea! O sardonic cry! O silence! O stutter, heavy syllable! O as signifying nothing except its own sound! O memory of a voice! O distortion! O boredom! O sonic disobedience! O non-narrative mediums! O forms of representation and acts of abstraction! O practiced and inherited O! O vocative particle! O as poetic exclamation and O as physical punctuation both! O egg O seed! O circular economies! O gleaned field! O loose syllable! O essaying body making moves across pale pages! O planting of seeds! O breaking of eggs! O page and screen for projecting!
And so on, O. It was a lot. More than I’ve articulated and rewritten here. And the O here, as I mentioned, is not even you. But you are not at a loss of letters from me. Nor images. And yet. The poet, novelist, and editor from my home state, a theorist of new narratives also entangled with issues of the auto, once wrote: “Gender is the extent we go to in order to be loved.” Do you think this is true? He also wrote, of the first autobiographer in English, a 15th-century woman mystic and mother of fourteen children who saw a parade of demons that led to her writings: “She replaced existence with the desire to exist.” I love this. And this, about his own work: “We were thinking about autobiography; by autobiography we meant daydreams, nightdreams, the act of writing, the relationship to the reader, the meeting of flesh and culture, the self as collaboration, the self as disintegration, the gaps, inconsistencies and distortions, the enjambments of power, family, history and language.”
Daydreams, nightdreams, the act of writing, the relationship to the reader, the meeting of flesh and culture. Yes, yes, yes. Why all my small moves, then, O, from the documentary to the psalm to the refrain to the autobiographical to the song? What fictive letter of desire, what image, marks each? And what kinds of images are these, and what are their vulnerabilities? Why does your O sign each: its breath, its mouth, its desire to exist? O is not even your name (!) and yet this is my address.
In my class last week, I had my students read the essay “Documentary Is/Not a Name,” which begins with a set of double negations. I appreciate this. The epigraph: “Nothing is poorer than a truth expressed as it was thought.” It’s an opinion that would seem to undercut my approach here. Well. And then the essay’s opening: “There is no such thing as documentary—whether the term designates a category of material, a genre, an approach, or a set of techniques. This assertion—as old and as fundamental as the antagonism between names and reality—needs incessantly to be restated, despite the very visible existence of a documentary tradition.”
What set of techniques, what genre, do my images for you, O, employ, exert, project? What is the lens, and what are the methods? What shot list of night shots and day shots are we reviewing? What exteriors are we shooting? What interiors? What happens when names are left out (such as yours)? What kind of desire—for existence, that is, for love—do my images lineate, and with what letters? What is my attraction to such dry images, dry sentences? What signs am I offering? What witness? Is this the image only I can see now? Or can you, too? Forget images, not languages. Forget languages, not images. On a lunar eclipse I will send this. O letter O love! O poem O code! O visions O sentences O images O monitors! O flesh and culture! O our most mineral communications.
Notes / Names:
Marguerite Duras, The Lover (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1984).
Robert Glück, Margery Kempe (NYRB, 1994).
Robert Glück, “Long Note on New Narrative,” in Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative (Coach House Books, 2004).
Katalin Ladik: Ooooooooo-pus, ed. Hendrik Folkerts (Skira Editore, forthcoming).
Ben Lerner, “The Ferry,” in The New Yorker (Apr 3, 2023).
Trinh T. Minh-ha, The Twofold Commitment (Primary Information, 2023).
Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Documentary Is/Not a Name,” in October (1990). Cited epigraph to the essay is by Walter Benjamin.
Na Mira, The Book of Na (Wendy’s Subway, 2022).
Quinn Latimer is a California-born poet, critic, editor, and curator. She is the author of Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (2017), Sarah Lucas: Describe This Distance (2013), Film as a Form of Writing: Quinn Latimer Talks to Akram Zaatari (2013), and Rumored Animals (2012). Her writings have appeared in Artforum, The Paris Review, Texte zur Kunst, and The White Review, and in many artist monographs and critical anthologies. Her many coedited works include Amazonia: Anthology as Cosmology (2021), Simone Forti: The Bear in the Mirror (2019), The documenta 14 Reader (2017), and Stories, Myths, Ironies, and Other Songs: Conceived, Directed, Edited, and Produced by M. Auder (2014). She recently curated SIREN (some poetics), at Amant, Brooklyn; its companion book will be published this summer by Dancing Foxes Press. Latimer was editor-in-chief of publications for documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel. She is now Head of the MA at Institut Kunst Gender Natur, in Basel.