Struggles with the Image (1988)

Struggles with the Image: Essays in Art Criticism, Toronto: YYZ Books, 1988.

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Struggles with the Image was published in 1988 and collected a selection of my writing from 1980 to 1984, that is, the period when I was most active as an independent writer. As I explained in the Introduction:

Design: Bruce Mau & Micah Lexier

Design: Bruce Mau & Micah Lexier



To write is to incur debts. But to make this introduction a reading of my writing and not a history of writing-having-read (Bataille, Derrida, etc.) is to project a trajectory where these names in the texts punctuate a conceptual strategy and critical structure. My overarching intent here is not to provide a content or continuity to these essays, let alone a justification, so much as to display certain moves, which is to say criticism is always an issue of displacement. The choice of articles reflects those in which moves took place. These articles are primarily critical, theoretical as we used to say, rather than expository or descriptive. Yet the structure of the book indicates a change of tactics: the articles in Parts I and II literally displace each other’s positions; while those reprinted in Part III attempt to develop a pertinent project from article to article.

What is “outside” the texts gathered here is a beginning—an orientation that marks a stance and sets the writing, initially, against the work of art (in the form of a critique), and sends it off on its own, as a drift from art in an excess of writing: an exit. This set-up reacted against the positional logic, in viewing or interpretation, the one mirroring the other, of the spectator in front of the image/work and of writing as secondary commentary to the full presence of the work of art.  Formed initially on Derrida’s critique of presence and Adorno’s principle of nonidentity, this critique of identity (and structure) led to a contract between writing and viewer against the work (as its exclusions), each of which was to become performative (against its exclusions). The position of the viewer coming to speech became the model for criticism. Hence the concentration on “effect,” on the “body” and “speech,” and on the demand for a “content” that issued from this fissure of structure. Hence an enactment in Peripheral Drift and the articles “The Death of Structure,” “Terminal Gallery,” “Reading and Representation in Political Art” of the language of“eccentricity and difference,” and of a concept of criticism verging on iconoclasm and opening to a recognition of the violence of criticism. These articles and effects, then, pre-figure the essays from 1980 that begin this collection.

If “Exits” condenses this history, even to the spacings of its writings, “Violence and Representation” leads to a return: exit and return through a renewed convention of representation. With a shift of terms from “content” to “representation,” a passage is made from a critique of representation to its valuation. Violence unexpectedly played a role. Both René Girard and Georges Bataille forced a recognition of the mutual grounding of violence and representation in each other as a means of realizing representation’s necessary social nature and “activist” (in Bataille’s words “contagious”) qualities. Representation can lead to action, “action” understood as an inducement of the excluded viewer to the social register. On the analogy of the individual magnified to the level of the “crowd,” this potential of representation fulfills itself in a public “iconoclasm”—a type of critique—directed against the images and spectacles presented to it by capitalism. Since every spectacle implies a specific political formation, representation has a political dimension. And since struggles with the image is also a struggle over the image, this project saw its continuation in the articles “Notes on the Sumptuary Destruction of Leaders” and “Image of the Leader, Function of the Widow,” which, however, are not republished here.
If the occasional essays “Exits,” “Violence and Representation” and “Breach of Promise” are “examples” of a fictional facing or speculative arrest before the work of art, they were, all the same, turnings in my writing that underlie all my other criticism. The contemporaneous theoretical articles of the section “From Drift to Dialogue” chart their same passage.

That subtitle, “From Drift to Dialogue,” indicates a narrative from Barthes to Bakhtin channeled through Bataille’s excess, Lyotard’s “death instinct,” Deleuze’s machinic set-ups, and Austin’s speech acts. The critique of identity passing through the issue of content arrives at a more formalized study of representation (“Language and Representation”). That formalism, however, is bifurcated on every level. Value resides in the validation of a local practice; it also calls for the type of critique acted out in “Editorials.” That is, on the one hand, concern for the role of the viewer on the part of criticism ends in attention to the nuances of representation; on the other hand, critical license pursues a path that culminates contradictorily in the demand for “work at its word.” Representation carried over to the local resulted, as well, in research on reference and reception, terms under which a preliminary history of contemporary Canadian art was attempted. Against all the evidence of the critique of the referential fallacy and the“structural revolution of value,” reference was seen to be a means of relay of work and audience to some sort of real social dimension.  

This book opens with essays from 1980, a year that marked the intersection of a double “crisis.”  One was the problematic play between art and criticism: the exit from art.The other was a recognition of the unequal exchange of an art community on the edge of the discourse of power, the periphery of its reception, in other words, the crisis of a culture of reception. This second “crisis” did not immediately announce itself; instead it worked itself through other demands.  Theoretical “intensities” operate on different registers and move along trajectories at different speeds. No more is this true than in the conflict in one body of writing between the theoretical and “non-theoretical,” the latter which was to become the basis for a local history. “Crisis” operated as a code word to indicate a lack: the lack of a history of contemporary Canadian art.  As a recurring structure, this lack was to be articulated in the very real terms of crises of socio-economic cycles (Mandelian and Innisian) in which Canada was very particularly set. A local history was to be constructed, but it could be constructed only under certain constraints which were the conditions of our history. I labelled these conditions the “semiotics of reception.”  “Colony, Commodity and Copyright” set the direction, which was followed through in “Editorials” and “Axes of Difference,” even though those articles addressed other issues as well. While being a culture of reception, Canada was so positioned historically that the negative features of reception allowed a positive comprehension of the economic conditions of late capitalism and the semiotic conditions of postmodernism. We could treat both a logic and a history; but since this history is a lack, semiotics partakes of a symptomology. This lack is registered through its symptoms: its images. Hence a shift of attention from the language structuring of the institution of art (for example, in “Editorials” and elsewhere) to the image under the conditions of ideology and communication (“Subjects in Pictures”).

Curating called a halt, both to these projects and temporarily to my practice as a critic. With that shift of practice, the object itself is changed. If curating, however, could be seen to be a type of writing, a writing with objects, then one has the concrete means to demonstrate that history which is lacking. But it is not simply a matter of the presentation of objects. What became an interrogation in my writing, complementary to this history, can be seen in curating to be this: the practice of the (re)constitution of the event.