Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield

The Body in  Reading:  An Interview

Jonathan, you declare yourself an artist-philosopher and shape your research field in the disjunction between what is visible and what is textual. Can you describe in which way your practice extends art to philosophy and in which sense it turns philosophy into art? 

The question of how my practice as an artist-philosopher relates or pitches art to philosophy and vice versa, or at least my self-conception as an artist-philosopher, needs to be approached from a slightly different angle if I may. From the outset it presumes that there is no hierarchy between art and philosophy, that neither art nor philosophy have a jurisdiction or authority one over the other, or that one or the other is the better way of unfolding basic questions of what it is to live and how to live well.  Both have their inning, and one will win out one day, the other the next. It is not that there are no distinctions between art and philosophy – there can be in terms of techniques and modes of dissemination, framings and protocols – it is that both are ways of relating knowledge to inventing or creation, and again vice versa. We could say that the artist knows by inventing, and the philosopher invents while knowing – and that the artist-philosopher can stage the relation between the two directions, and occupy the space of their oscillation, and in so doing spatialise or diagram or draw or speak what such a space may look like or sound like. 

It has been argued that art asks what there is today for the artist after philosophy; if the artist-philosopher is interested in this question it must be approached from both sides at once, or from one side and the other without prejudice. What this means is that whatever philosophy is produced is not reducible to a philosophy which would cover over its materiality, is not a philosophy which would advocate ‘pure thinking’ – there is no such thing, just as there is no such thing as ‘pure image’, no image without word. One might say that artist-philosophers make images of the distinction between art and philosophy, and they conflagrate the distinction and flagrantly offer such images as burnt offerings, ironically. But if they do it is a double gesture. One, there is the triumph of the image (I use image in its expanded senses, including so-called immersive installations, even if these are sound installations, and Gesamtkunstwerk), where the image exceeds the concept precisely because of its impurity, its heterogeneity; two, images are proposed as pushing or exploring or transgressing or ignoring the limits of philosophy. Images are more relational than concepts, they are already gatherings, not awaiting a network or connection or linking to another. This makes it difficult for philosophy, or more specifically metaphysics, to order or classify such images according to a system. Artworks incorporate their own linkages; at the same time both self-enclosed, yet open to manifold others. Art is the last thing that philosophical aesthetics can master, and artist-philosophers revel in this realisation. 

In the series of text-posters, in which you frame artworks with your own thoughts and references to different philosophers and authors of literature, you respond to an image with a text. You mentioned once your interest in the materiality of language „and how art can visualise the excess of language beyond its communicative function and in the materiality of art, which is word, that there is no image without word“. Are these text-posters a way to visualise or to make legible these words? 

The discourse and the practice of the artist-philosopher are impure, generic distinctions fail to hold, forms are discontinuous, broken and burnt, promiscuous and desiring. Why? Because the form is an intimation of the life of the artist. Take the classical and all-too philosophical conceptual distinction or opposition form/content. Art is situated beyond this opposition because it does not know it. The opposition, just like all conceptual oppositions, is a philosophical imposition, and art knows nothing of such oppositions. This is just one sense in which art invents without knowing, and it’s the moment art presents the philosophical task of ‘knowing’ what art invents. It’s what I call the headlessness of art, its refusal or blissful ignorance of conceptual oppositions, its before and after, an upside down world which is the joyful experience of equality, of being without hierarchies, throwing out of a hole in the head, the non-capitalised head, the inheritances of philosophy. But this ‘without’ is not a lack, such discourse is no less philosophical for being without philosophy’s impositions, on the contrary this is what makes it philosophical, prior to the given or fixed order of the concept. 

My text-posters take various forms, but in all cases the text is written as much to be looked at as to be read. Currently I am finishing a series entitled Philosophers Enowning That There Be No Own, with editions on Face, Voice, Words, Head, Labour, which began with a performative reading at S.M.A.K. in Gent. The poster pictured in the catalogue is from this series, responding to Chris Kraus. These place my own philosophical texts as counterpoint to quotation. And another series coming to an end is The Use and Abuse of Philosophy by Art (also the title of a book I’m working on), framing already existing images with text by me, but where my text is just another framing of the image, for the image in question is itself an intervention by an artist into the work of another artist or author. Often I collaborate with other artists – Ciprian Mureșan, Dan Mihaltianu, Ian Kiaer, Nico Dockx – to produce posters as spaces of thought, a spacing effected by assembling a text by me with an image by the artist. Or I produce a text-poster to be placed as an intervention in a show, and sometimes that exhibition could be curated by me, as for instance next year the exhibition Democracy to Come, co-curated with Emily Butler of the Whitechapel Gallery. Finally, there is another series, not strictly speaking posters but works on hotel paper, on which is written or mounted or arranged text, each page addressing a specific concept. The series was begun in response to Martin Kippenberger’s book Hotel Hotel Hotel, drawings made on hotel paper, and sometimes my text acts as counterpoint to one or other of these Kippenbergers. I began them at the same time as my academic career in 2001, making a text-image in the hotel in which I was staying before or after giving a paper or taking part in a conference or examining a PhD, now after a performative reading, and I envisage continuing doing so for the rest of my working life. 

The answer to your question, whether the text-posters are ways of making legible the words that are anyway there in the image, or as with the text-images the image that is in the text or concept, the answer is yes. Words are present in the work of art in its surface, for all works of art are nothing but surfaces. I don’t mean surface as if there is something underneath it or below it, or as if there is depth beyond the surface. No, all of these are constitutive of the surface of a work. The surface gathers all these comparative measurings into a space where they can be sensed. The surface is where everything that is ‘in’ a work, and everything that can be said about the work, or in other words everything that is immanent to the work, is made available for sensing. Whatever the work ‘says’ is there in the immanence of its surface. There is no signification which transcends the work, it is all there in the work as surface. Art is immanent surface. And artist-philosophers seek to make explicit, or give another articulation to, or make into words, what is said there in the immanent surface that art is, to give words to what is said, to transcribe the said as saying along the edge of that immanent surface, to bring the couple into intimate relation, to do justice to the intimacy of their relation, to draw out the one in the two, right there touching and opening out the surface of the work. 

In your project „Spinoza Lector“ you read out loud Spinoza’s Ethics over a period of 24 hours. This energy-sapping performance seems to be directly connected to what Spinoza calls affection on a body. Could you explain a bit for all those who are not familiar with Spinoza’s philosophy about how this performance puts into question what Spinoza calls „No-one knows what a body can do“. 

To state the obvious: no-one is forcing me to do this, to read a text of philosophy, a difficult one at that, for 24 hours. It is an exercise in freedom if we understand by this that we do not know what it is to read the limits of the possibilities of the freedom to read. Not just the freedom to read, but to read a text which is itself about freedom, written at a time when the stakes were high in presenting a philosophy which argued that god was not a transcendent being but co-extensive with nature, and which agitated for religious tolerance as a common good, and moreover that such tolerance could only be achieved in the political space of the democratic state. The resonances today are obvious. But the exercise of that freedom to read involves exploring what the body can do, whether one is reading or one is listening – and the event allows for both by the way, for anyone can take over the reading if he or she wishes.

“No-one knows what a body can do”. This is something Spinoza asserts in The Ethics: “nobody as yet has determined the limits of the body‘s capabilities”. Scholium to Proposition 2, Part III, Curley translation. What Spinoza is saying is that no-one, ever, will be able to say in advance what the body is capable of as a limit to the body. No-one will be able to say, on the basis of his or her experience, what the body can do and cannot do, only what it does do, and only then “under a plausible cover of words”. This is because the body is relational, and bodies are affected by many different things and in many different ways. Indeed, such is how the body relates with other bodies that what it is capable of doing is limitless. This is not so difficult to understand if we accept that technology is one of the primary relations a body has to what it is capable of. Principally because technology is both how we broach the distance to another body, and how we breach our relation to the other. Technology is both the endless minimising of the gap between one body and another, and the constant setting up of a separation between one body and another. Indeed, such is the activity of technology that we cannot even say that this seeming opposition is an opposition at all. And given that there has never been a non-technologised body, and that no-one can say in advance where or how or what technology will be ‘tomorrow’, we need not be affeared of affirming the Spinozist dictum.

You say that the 24-hour reading is “energy-sapping”. It is, but it is not simply that, or not importantly that, or not only that, or not even that! The body is not passive with respect either to the act of reading or to what it reads. It may be that what it reads or that it reads increases the body’s activity, or not, or certain of its activities. For instance, I find it difficult to listen to myself when I read out loud performatively; my attention is on rhythm tone pace structure, not meaning; there can be disjunctions in hearing between reading silently, reading out loud, and being read to. I find that the body in the reading can achieve a composition with the reading such that it can experience the event of reading as joy – even in the middle of the night. Equally, others may find themselves exhausted by the reading and their body decomposited.. enervated. Collapse! End! Who knows why the difference. But the point is that whatever we do know is known not in advance but in the doing. And it seems to me that the affective spaces of art practice as doing are where this philosophical proposition can be tested. 

I’m interested in the Stimmung of Spinoza’s text, where it can be tuned, when those present in the reading of it can attune themselves to the text, their thoughts or their moods to the text, and perhaps to each other in the collective exploration of what the text means, or how one part follows from another through how it sounds or connects, rather in the way one might listen to a concert of music as a composition and as a rhythmed experience of duration, share in the duration of the experience of one’s body under the condition of attentiveness and listening and perhaps even understanding. Stimmung as the condition under which one might find ‘own words’ to articulate the affections that may be at play in any of this. Admitting of one’s non-understanding, exposed to one’s misunderstandings, being gradually dispossessed of any understanding – eased or embarrassed by just that which may or may not have happened last time. At such moments one might touch pre-intentional or pre-dispositional moods or affective states. Such would be the depths of the text, its strata [pierre-scolie] (Deleuze) or ground moods [Grundstimmungen] (Heidegger). 

By the way, another collaboration was with the artist-filmmaker Trine Marie Riel. She made a film entitled Futures Reader. It had a subtitle: ‘Deleuze and the Image of Thought’, and a sub-subtitle: ‘No-one Knows What the Body Can Do’. It involved Riel reading out loud a script, and that script was a paper I had published in the journal Philosophy Today that had the title ‘Deleuze and the written image’. The premiere of the film took place as her presentation to a philosophy conference, the 4th International Deleuze Studies Conference, at the Copenhagen Business School. For Riel, she was providing my text with a host-body, lending it a corporeal and temporal tissue, dramatising its corporeality, not as if the text were an inert structure to manipulate, but as a question of intimate exchange and mutual use, opening both it and her own practice up for less introverted modes of production, unfolding writing to reading over embodied recital to sensible affect and back. In my view the emphasis here is on ‘knowing’, questioning the ways in which philosophy, or any discipline, might lay claim to the concept – the concept of knowing, the concept of body – the concept of body - in “no-one knows what a body can do”.

Why do you use for the upcoming reading the transcribed version of the previous 24 hour reading?

Precisely because what we are reading and speaking are words which are not our own, yet which are anticipating us, preparing us, leading or misleading us, the joy or freedom in being ventroliquised, the gesture of the artist-philosopher, to speak through personae – “to speak with the words of others... that’s what I’d like” says Jean-Pierre Léaud, and/or his lover Isabelle Weingarten with whom he is in bed, in Jean Eustache’s La maman et la putain – for that is how we find the words our own words with which to speak at all. This partly accounts, I think, for the pleasure of being read to, especially when young, a space which allows us to occupy and possess the words of another without guilt or shame, experimentally or transgressively, wandering the words of another trying them on playing with them tasting them letting them in – all in silence all sensations silently sensed. Is such pleasure possible with a philosophical text, can such a text be the harbinger of pleasure? Well, for Judith Butler Spinoza’s Ethics was an experience if not of pleasure then at least a clearing of the ground which would permit pleasure. Butler’s reading of The Ethics was just such a premature one, before the institution of philosophy, prior to subjectivity. In Undoing Gender she speaks of how in the basement of the family house, a young teenager whose “emotions were surely rioting”, she found refuge in the text, refuge from despair because reading it she began to understand what it is to persist despite the despair, in reading Spinoza’s text she began to gain a sense of what affects were and how understanding them might help her live them in ways which were hers rather than dispossessing of her. In turn, for me, these words by Butler, when I improvised a response to them performing as a father in Davis Freeman’s Fathers & Sons (for Random Scream at the Monty Theatre in Antwerp a couple of years ago), assisted me in accommodating certain affects experienced as a son.

But your question points specifically to the fact that with each subsequent reading of Spinoza’s Ethics we read not just The Ethics but the discussion generated during the previous reading of it (on this occasion in Eppan the reading will be of the reading at the KaaiTheater Studios in Brussels). It’s to do with uselessness, being without goal or aim, what Kenneth Goldsmith calls ‘uncreative writing’ – in the spirit of Andy Warhol’s a, A Novel, the transcription of everything uttered by him and Ondine in Warhol’s hearing over a period of 24 hours, or rather the hearing of his tape-recorder... as transcribed by various nearby or hired hands setting down each in their own way everything in the hearing of Andy Warhol’s tape-recorder over 24 hours... or rather two years... – not to ignore or suppress the comments misreadings misprisions repetitions omissions and.. happenings, the words produced by whatever happens, consequent of the previous reading of The Ethics, evacuating editorial choice from the production of a text, or at least ostensibly so.  Writing in the name of reading, writing what was read and what was produced by the reading. 

Life as material, but where the life is yet to be made. A making the artist-philosopher does not necessarily achieve in the all-too-human form of ‘work’, because of the necessity of creating always oneself. And this entails acceptance of weaknesses, mistakes, errors and errings, inferior conjunctions, where the self is not so much something to be overcome as that which is redeemed in the making. The paradox of relinquishing mastery of the will, its transformation to necessity. The artist-philosopher is the one more prepared to admit in his or her philosophy the practice of philosophy, where that practice is made up of all the above. 

The artist-philosopher always says more than one thing, rather like the libertine: irresponsible, unfaithful, promiscuous, impure, susceptible to hook-ups and propositions. Felicitously vulnerable you might say. His or her masters are those of multiple conceptual personae: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Pessoa. Uncontrollable sovereignties, yet singularity of style, that’s the trick. Whether it be in the hands of a philosopher or an artist, it is the use and abuse of philosophy by art, where abuse is not an aberration but something necessary, an irresponsibility of one towards the other, not consciously or deliberately irresponsible, but the irresponsibility of not deciding in advance where the distinction between the two lies, contrary to the responsibility towards the discipline, the responsibility of propriety, of policing the borders, artist-philosophers are without any such precepts or goals. Rather, their irresponsibility brings with it not negation but addition. 

And you read out loud philosophical texts in the dance performance „Before the Name“ at Manifesta this summer? 

No, not exactly. I read texts out loud, but what I read were my re-writings of them. The point of departure for Before the Name – the is artist Francesca Banchelli – is an essay by philosopher Alain Badiou, ‘Dance as a metaphor for thought’. Badiou argues that dance is not an art, “because it is the sign of the possibility of art as inscribed in the body”. Dance is not an art but that which shows that the body is capable of art. Disagreeing with Badiou, and with the separation and hierarchisation of the arts his argument presupposes, I decided to argue with him in a space which was dance (the Michael Clark Dance Company), music, visual art, and gallery space. But my counterpropositions were made in the midst of something else about Badiou’s thought in which I remain suspended: his writings on love, for which he should be praised, for Badiou is one of the few philosophers who writes on love, and who sees love as a condition of doing philosophy. The only way I could do justice to this tension was to address my disagreement with Badiou to a lover, whom I met when she was a dancer. 

But with Badiou there is always my opposition and resistance to his account of the political and my distrust of his writings born of what I believe to be his conceiving philosophy as a means to an end, a determinate political end. This tenses my part in Before the Name. I decided to re-write, or rather write through, a story by Celan which Badiou appeals to in what I consider to be a scandalous piece of writing co-authored with Cécile Winter. Badiou/Winter argue that the word ‘Jew’ can only be uttered today in the service of who they call “the new masters”, meaning the United States and Israel, whom they allude to when brandishing the term “the new Aryans”. Whoever wishes to resist, say they, must reject the signifier ‘Jew’ “in order to take the side of the unsayable names”, and they appeal to a story by Paul Celan as justification, Gespräch im Gebirg. The hypocrisy, or performative contradiction, of Badiou’s/Winter’s position should be obvious, but my way of refuting their stance, and rejecting the borderline racism it expresses, is to reinstate one of the so-called ‘unsayable names’ of the Celan story by giving its protagonist, who is unnamed, a name: Spinoza. 

Spinoza the refugee, Spinoza the ex-communicated, Spinoza unable to publish under his own name. He of the unpronounceable multitude. In my version of Celan’s story, Spinoza walks in the mountains conversing with himself. And encounters there his own body, and dialogues with it about what is not his own about it. In his essay ‘Dance as a metaphor for thought’ Badiou counters Spinoza’s “we don’t know what a body can do” with the claim that dance shows us that the body is capable of art, yet is not art. I contend that dance is one way of showing us that we do not know what the body can do. And it is precisely in this respect that it is art. The forms of dance show us what would otherwise remain unseen unsensed unknown. And I did so through dance, dancing in counterpoint to Badiou’s philosophical argument, and at the same time in the grip of Badiou’s writings on love, which I addressed to a lover in the space of dance.  

I have already said that the concern with ‘what the body can do’ and its limit of ‘no-one knows what the body can do’ is one of the motivations behind the 24-hour reading Spinoza Lector. Spinoza Lector, my part in Before the Name, and the role in Fathers & Sons, they are all chapters of a ‘book to come’, The Swerve of Freedom after Spinoza. The parts are set out in CONTENTS, included here. CONTENTS came before any of the parts which it gathers together as its contents. CONTENTS is a poster commission from Stroom Den Haag gallery in the Netherlands. CONTENTS has a conventional book structure, with an Introduction, section headings, a series of 17 numbered parts on specific questions related to the title of the book, a set of Notes and an Index. However, on closer inspection it will be seen that the numbered chapters are not strictly linear, and the page numbers are not in numerical order. The reason for this is that CONTENTS is a poem. The non-linear ordering of the chapters and the disorder of the page numbers allows a certain ‘flexibility’ in how the book is assembled. Moreover, one of the parts of CONTENTS is Spinoza Lector; or in other words, one of the parts of a book to come is an endlessly repeating book. CONTENTS, then, is a constraint of form, yet open in form, given in advance of the writing and composition of specific parts. But at the same time, and fully in accord with its being a book ‘to come’, and in keeping with the form of CONTENTS as a poem, and as the work of an artist-philosopher, The Swerve of Freedom is opened out onto its essential incompletion. To my knowledge a book has never before been written in this way. 

And the bottle of whisky, which you ask us to bring for the „Spinoza Lector“ reading, is it a way to make this performance bearable after so many times of reading it out loud?

Yes, a bottle of Kavalan whisky would make the reading most bearable, thank you. Your question reminds me of one, or rather two, put to Christopher Hitchens from the audience one time after he had been ‘debating’ publicly the mischiefs of religion. ‘What is the most important thing you take with you on your travels?’ And ‘What is your favourite brand of whiskey?’ After the well-primed pause Hitchens answered the querier with a question of his own: “Sorry, but what is the difference between these questions..?” If I am to answer your question in the spirit in which it was asked, then I should begin by saying that I am assuming that, given we are “sulla Strada del Vino”/“an der Weinstraße” [delete as politically correct], there will be wine served at the reading, and that this will serve to lubricate it to something closer to a symposium than a reading, the conferral of conviviality on the proceedings. If nothing else this will affect the out-loudness of the event. But there is a serious point to be made here which is related to the matter in question, namely to the question of affect. Alcohol of course has always been intimately linked to the ‘influencing’ of doing, doing the truth, whether that truth be artistic, criminal, sexual, war-waging... But the question, for me, is always one of elasticity over against plasticity. Is the relation one has to alcohol such that one takes more from it than it takes from you? In other words, can you return from the limits it reveals, or are you abandoned to those limits? If in both cases the former then alcohol is healthy. It is like walking, or rather wandering, sometimes stumbling, in any case you do not know where you are headed. Drinking can set up a rhythm, one foot in front of another, not too quickly of course, but inexorably assisting you to where you might be headed, wherever that might be. And even if you end up in the wilderness, you are left with a sense of how you got there, you find yourself on the way – the pleasure of exchanging your identity, or even the intoxication of dispossession, like Jack Nicholson in Antonioni’s The Passenger, that’s the elasticity of alcohol, its productive de-formation – if, that is, you have not allowed the drink to master you, not like the accursed Albert Finney in Huston’s Under the Volcano, an example of the plasticity of alcohol’s destructive influence, irreversible deformity... What was that? Both characters end up dead in these films? True, true.

Eppan and London, May 2017