Spirit Hunter: The Haunting of American Culture by Myths of Violence (2005)
Spirit Hunter: The Haunting of American Culture by Myths of Violence/Speculations on Jeremy Blake’s Winchester Trilogy, Toronto: Art Gallery of York University, 2005.
One cinema-architecture responds to another as the nineteenth-century mansion of the heiress to the Winchester Repeating Rifle fortune haunts once again through the hallucinated images of American artist Jeremy Blake's Winchester Trilogy. Blake's invention of a new genre of art between video and painting—video production as time-based painting—is the medium through which Sarah Winchester's mad architectural project (constructed to appease spirits killed by her family's manufacture) transmits its ghostly inheritance. Spirit Hunter examines how its mythic haunting by violence reverberates today in America's wars. The book ranges widely through frontier myth, American foreign policy, technology, war, film history, psychoanalytic theory (Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok's cryptonymy), and philosophy (Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas), as it weaves art analysis into the troubled history of a social artifact. As Blake tells his story purely through images issuing as haunting from the architecture of Winchester house, Spirit Hunter pursues its speculation on the secrets Sarah Winchester shielded through her fabled mansion into the image itself to question whether she was hostage to her haunting or to national myth.
P.S. I solved the mystery of Sarah Winchester's building mania.
On the writing of Spirit Hunter, scroll below to a text I wrote in 2005.
A Question of Method: On Writing on Jeremy Blake’s Winchester Trilogy
I feel I have to justify a text that started as an essay on an artist’s work and uncontrollably grew into a philosophical-Gothic novel. Being neither a philosopher nor a novelist, I take my guidance from artworks, so I found the writing that issued, as if ghostwritten, not to be strangely familiar but to be completely other. Perhaps I should not be surprised in an artwork about haunting that my writing would spirit its own ghosts. So maybe I was proceeding as usual. Usually, what familiarly follows from an artwork’s guidance comes from thinking through images—but always in their absence. Writing thinks through images, thinking by means of images to the end of what is implicit in or unstated by their complex configurations, stating what they themselves cannot intentionally mean or state. As writers, we might be surprised where this thinking through, which thinks through and beyond us, takes us.
Neither art in its making nor writing in its analysis apply philosophical theses. Art is no illustration of ideas; art writing is no application of ideas to art. What then accounts for coincidence when philosophy enters art writing? Is it art writing alone that can account for the coincidence between art and philosophy, since it put it between by bringing philosophy into writing? Is this philosophical break-in a wrong to the artwork? Or, is writing a conspiracy of what uncannily belongs together? No one could be as surprised as me by these questions.
I write in a way that proceeds by following where the art makes the writing go, with no prior considerations, or from no place outside the artwork (though not, as I have said, in its presence). Writing is an uncertain response, a response, however, that is only writing, not looking. But within this response, between art and writing, along this path of leading and following, a narrative issues. Sometimes narration is only the description of the path it follows in creating itself. With its own—subterranean—logic, the narrative knows where it is going, but this logic (not destination, mind you) only appears to the writer later, after the writing. Writing arrives first, comprehension later. Through looking back at this transit, I discover “concepts” constellated within the narrative, buried within its language. Although there is no necessary divergence between the two (concepts and language), this is the time to articulate the concepts and stitch them progressively back through the narrative.
Happily following, no one, as I said, is as surprised as me where or to what consequences I am taken. I have faith and trust in my guide. Sometimes these divagations verge close to philosophy when my “concepts” recall its authority. Law demands the adherence of concepts to each other (“concept” to concept), adjudicated by a court philosophy administers. I am happy here, too, to have my “concepts” regulated because philosophers have thought out these commons structures, comprehended them, and described them (in language, stating the unsaid, problematically stating the unsayable). Commonly then, here we are, where we have arrived: art, philosophy, and writing together. Then, being a writer and, thus, a reader, as well as a looker at art, I am struck—already by the artwork but here in my writing—by similarities, fearing that they may be too uncanny. Under the regulating gaze of philosophy’s authority, might not the question of philosophical poaching or plagiarizing arise? Admittedly, this is more a problem for me than the visual artist I am writing about. The dread of too great a similarity, rather than clarification, sends me to texts that were already beckoning: to a repeat reading that is a reading for the first time comprehended.
I have to confess a limited reading of philosophy. I reside in a hinterland that only approaches the outer borders of comprehensibility of a non-professional competency. I do not fear stammering to say so, admitting incompetence. In fact, this badge of failure is redeemed by an artwork. I am redeemed of my ignorance by an otherwise intelligence art/writing has guided me to. For it has only been through what the artwork is, only through what it presents and not represents to me, only through what the artwork makes me become in thinking and writing about it, that I come to comprehend, for instance, Specters of Marx … already having read it.
Although he does not know (and maybe never having read it), Douglas Gordon made me understand Difference and Repetition by making me see through what I saw in his work what Deleuze wrote, mirror for mirror. Deleuze foresaw but did not see Gordon’s work, of course, being dead, what was visible and invisible in Gordon’s video projections. Verging here is common to divergence two share; the images of art admit no dependency on language, let alone philosophy. Double-Cross: The Hollywood Films of Douglas Gordon folds one field into the other through the dissembling mirrors of its writing. Intimacy of association proceeded in the virtual ghostwriting of this folded pair, one dissembling hand writing the other—art and philosophy together. Conspiracy is proof of no priority that art illustrated philosophy. Only long into my text could I begin to hear what already was a muffled resonance. Whatever else an artwork is, I value the lesson I learn from it of philosophy.
This is the case with Jeremy Blake, as well. Never preparing myself beforehand with the proper tools for a hunt, I just set off. Thousands of words in, the artwork gets clearer; thousands of words more, philosophy signals an uncanny repetition of words or concepts. Were these philosophical concepts I unearthed in writing “in” the artwork? Nonetheless, returning to where these signals originally transmit, I finesse my text, refining my crude though pertinent concepts, scrolling through my text with Derrida in my other hand re-read through the eyes of art. What was no secret in his text was invisible to me, familiar and uncanny only to me. Perhaps my resistance returning earlier avowed my fear that everything was there. The ideas, concepts, and language were already all there … and here—unfortunately for me, but fortunate too. Somehow I don’t think Derrida would begrudge my unconscious theft if he left it as a gift, if all along he had been sleepwalking me to it, sleepwalking me through my text. His would be a gift I could not repay (and I can write this not knowing, shamefully, all he has said about the gift, when I would owe even more).
Then another uncanny coincidence: never having read Levinas (another admission), though knowing his signature concepts and using them (yet only the words, not the concepts), how did I happen to fall upon—having nearly finished my text but the contrary last chapter then appearing to pose other interpretations (now sympathetic to absolve Sara Winchester)—how did I fall upon, in no return but only a turning to face a reading for the first time, whether to borrow or beg but at least to learn, “finally,” how did I fall upon or who guided me fortuitously to Levinas’s wonderful quotations, which I poached as no authority to what I was describing in a shock of recognition that the art prepared my welcome there? Disorientation there of all that was disorienting in the art, yet welcoming too, would be proof, or rather counterproof as what Levinas was counterproof to, and therefore an authority beyond his confirming descriptions from philosophy. Perhaps he would only be a weak or passive authority, maybe then only a quiver or tremble of authority opening a sympathetic realm, not terrifying as the law and unruled by its authority, that would resonate, though through other senses, with that of Winchester, etc. A poetry that describes another space-time would be proof of what I was seeing and thinking through this visual art, a justification, yes, for some “truth” in artworks, some verging divergent truth that was there visible to see of a “philosophy” invisibly there. This would be a lesson art could teach us, teaching philosophy, too. And that I wrote or worried this “question of method” before I returned and read to finesse my last chapter would only be proof of what I have written here, now adding this sentence.