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    art history

    Book: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection, by Tom Jeffreys

    September 27, 2021

    Somewhere between nature writing, cultural history and travel writing sits Tom Jeffreys’ companionable guide to Russia, The White Birch.

    His point of departure is a single species of tree. There are white birches in palatial gardens, botanical gardens, and protected forest; in nineteenth century landscape paintings, realist novels, dissident poetry and contemporary artworks. It emerges as a very Russian tree, but the Ukraine and the Nordic lands also lay claim to it. This ramble across time and space in a distant land frequently finds itself in political territory.

    The birch is a symbol of national identity, in a nation where so many millions died to protect the land from Nazi invasion. The narrative in which Communism defeated Fascism may offer hope. But Jeffreys disturbs this by recalling Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, Russia’s landgrabbing behaviour in the subsequent months, and labour camps in Siberia so vast and distant they didn’t even require barbed wire fences. A virulent anti-semitic strain to Russian cultural life in the previous century is also shocking.

    So the patriotic birch is never neutral, at least its ownership remains in question. In 2011 Russians came together to defy government plans for a motorway to slice through Khimki birch forest outside Moscow. Protestors met with the police and at times the secret police. Leading voice for the resistance, journalist Mikhail Beketov, was particularly unfortunate; his dog was killed, his car was torched, and he was left with brain damage after a physical attack. These injuries finally killed him in 2013.

    The author of this book is aware of the dangers of controversial opinions here; his travel adventures are tinged with paranoia. Near Krasnoyarsk, he gets anxious about the publication of his most recent art story, which describes a gallery visit against the backdrop of the Moscow mayoral elections. Bad dreams haunt his train ride. On Russky Island he totally loses his bearings, and wanders into equally spooky territory, and a feeling he does not belong. “I am not a brave person,” he claims, although he is brave enough to travel Russia and publish books.

    But Jeffreys is a self-deprecating wit. In the Russian Forest Museum, Moscow he points out a hedgehog in a painting, and tries to impress a sombre curator by suddenly recalling the word “Yeshik!”, which is Russian for this creature. He says of an oft painted estate north of Moscow: “Abramtsevo feels sometimes like a place built for children – or even by children.” And he notes the “comic villainy” of another dog owner, who watches his pet chase a cat, while calmly peeling an apple with a knife.

    He may not be fully fluent in Russian, but the author’s greatest strengths are observational. These pages abound with close descriptions of the Russian countryside, which chime with descriptions of nineteenth century landscape paintings. He cites a wonderful description of Ivan Shishkin, a realist painter so detailed he was called ‘the accountant of leaves’. And when Jeffreys encounters the Russian public’s favourite painting, The Rooks Have Returned, by Alexei Savrasov, he notes, a bit snippily, the poor behaviour of foreign tour parties in the Tretyakov Museum. One guide not only touches the art, she rubs the painted canvas to illustrate her spiel.

    But in 1986 the Russian countryside changed, invisibly, forever, and Jeffreys’ descriptions of the flora and fauna come up against their limit when he visits Chernobyl. The explosion of a nuclear reactor, which shook the world, has been said to have led directly to Glasnost, then Perestroika, to the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the current mood of Russian nationalism. Visiting the site at the time, a newspaper editor reported a sensation of tingling on his face and a metallic taste in the mouth. Ants and bees were reported as retreating to their nests.

    On his excursion to Chernobyl and visits to gardens like those at Gatchina Palace, Jeffreys is among tourists and this gives him pause. His book culminates with a very fun-sounding trip on the Trans-Siberian express. In places, Jeffreys seems aware he could stray into a tourist role. He is most at home talking about art and literature, yet this book takes several detours around history, international relations, architecture and folklore.

    The White Birch may be an ostensible study of a single species of tree. But as shown, it’s a lot more ambitious. Jeffreys positions himself as an obsessive slavophile and a blundering botanist, rather than a world authority on Russia. Who could be such a thing!? As a result one is very happy to enjoy this self-reflexive journey, some most erudite travel writing about a most fascinating land.

    The White Birch: A Russian Reflection is published by Corsair, pp. 337, ©2021. Available from the Portobello Bookshop among others.

    artist talks

    Eimear Walshe, The Land Question: Where the fuck am I supposed to have sex? (2021)

    July 23, 2021

    History, says Eimear Walshe, with a look that could kill, is interesting. And the history of Ireland, related in her film, is a sorry one in which the poorest have always suffered the worst.

    So once, as landlords expanded their estates, you had the eviction of tenant farmers in Ireland’s west, you now have 10,000 people across the land in emergency accommodation.

    These people have problems, one of which is finding a safe place to have sex. What do you mean you don’t think homeless people have a right to an active sex life!?

    Walshe states she owns a car and a van. But she’s of the generation who face having to rent for the rest of their lives. And this film is the most fierce millennial protest I have seen.

    But it is also very funny. As the film’s title might imply, the history lesson is never boring, thanks to props, interstitial titles, music and edits which allow the artist to interact with herself.

    Walshe’s persona is by turns didactic, sardonic, witty incredulous and, obviously, profane. She speculates about the legal risks of sex outdoors and then cradles and comforts a map of Ireland.

    It’s a 40 minute talk, which introduces a cast of characters who include rapist earls, fenian priests, Irish reformers and their more radical wives, and nuns who flout planning restrictions.

    This being rural Ireland, we also encounter cattle in a field, sheep perched on walls and a famous racehorse who enters the picture having assumed the most unlikely of roles.

    I come away from this film with the sad realisation that, unless you are a global corporation looking for a tax break, Ireland remains a difficult place to grow and thrive.

    A film like this frames the problem, digs up the roots of it, and ultimately proposes a wild solution that brings the house down, wherever you manage to live during late capitalism.

    The Land Question: Where the fuck am I supposed to have sex? Is at EVA International, in and around Limerick, until August 22.

    contemporary installation

    Karla Black, Waiver for Shade (2021)

    July 10, 2021

    Taking a break from her hallmark candy-coloured sculptures, Karla Black has responded to a former warehouse at Fruitmarket with an installation comprising a ton or so of black soil.

    The light is low, here, in the gallery’s new space. But the minimal illumination is amplified by the introduction of gold and copper leaf, a multitude of seeming confectionery wrappers.

    Most of the work is on the floor or walls. The crumpled leaf is scattered; the soil creates an effect of paving. But the conventions around installation art proscribe actually walking here.

    At the back of this stage, a mound of this dark earth looms. Foil wraps decorate it, row upon row like contour lines. They seem to armour this indistinct form. They certainly aestheticize it.

    And the whole scene is first viewed through a barely visible veil of thread. All one sees are raining points of illumination where the ambient light catches the filaments’ gilding.

    It’s enchanted, but also filthy. Soil is a base material. Art is alchemical. Those who seriously collect it might also be interested in this pill that lets you shit glitter.

    Or they may be intrigued by the prospect that mining companies could soon be able to extract minimal amounts of gold, vanadium and copper from human waste.

    They would almost certainly enjoy a gold toilet, and of these there have been more than one. Lost in a gold-toilet rabbithole on Wikipedia I came across this quote from Vladimir Lenin:

    “When we are victorious on a world scale I think we shall use gold for the purpose of building public lavatories in the streets of some of the largest cities of the world.” 

    The revolutionary point here is that gold is too often the cause of war, and Lenin hoped such toilets might educate people about the 10 million lives lost in WWI.

    There are plenty of ways that great art might hold what glitters in tension with the earthly, but few examples quite as theatrical and artful as this one by Karla Black.

    This piece can be seen at Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, until 24 October 2021. See gallery website for more details.

    forgery

    Book: The Recognitions, by William Gaddis

    May 26, 2021
    (c) 1955; pp. 933; publisher: The New York Review of Books

    “My dear fellow, the priest is the guardian of mysteries. The artist is driven to expose them.”

    At 70 shy of 1,000 pages, this difficult 1953 novel is the most exhaustive tale of fakery, art, and religion one could hope for. Through the activities of forger Wyatt Gwyon, and his shadowy agent Recktall Brown, we discover how straightforward it could be to: adopt an old Dutch Master; create a composite scene from earlier works found in books; then to paint this new work; chemically age it; and identify a likely attic in which it may be turned up and then sold for big money.

    Forged banknotes and passports also find their way onto these pages. The scenes in which these are created and exhibited smoulder with Faustian hellfire. And a cast of more of less bohemian characters drift in and out of rooms, foreign lands and extended parties as they discuss matters both existential and low brow, in lively pages of dialogue which can run on for pages at a time. Hanging over all the events the threat of damnation; Wyatt is the son of a church minister and atmosphere of 1950s Spain, the piety and the poverty, together with the godless bars downtown Manhattan are just two of the precisely evoked milieu.

    Because the most remarkable thing about this epic novel is the precision with which Gaddis writes. His prose is like razor wire: angular, cutting, at times dangerous – given the satirical approach to Christianity and the art world. The American author has an unsentimental view of his characters, moving them in and out of scenes like sacrificial chess pieces; I find no one to root for, but plenty to laugh about given Gaddis’s comic regard for human life.

    Yet all of the above is an aside. The elephantine tome in the room is the complexity of this book, described by Jonathan Franzen, saga merchant for the present age, as the most difficult he has every voluntarily read. I admit I was lost for passages at a time and points of narrative were lost on me. But the reading experience was consistently rewarding; the book is full of set pieces, witty observations, and evocative allusion, enjoyment of which allayed my anxieties about plot.

    Regulars to this blog may wonder at the inclusion of this book review in the context of the PhD I’m working on. Well, since imitation is central to my thesis, I thought I might find an epigraph or two. There was the comment at the top of this post, from dealer-character Basil Valentine on p.257, which I’m sharing by way of a taster. If you like bon mots, you will find much to like here.

    photography

    Book: See/Saw – Looking at Photographs; by Geoff Dyer

    April 16, 2021

    The eye, and the mind, of author Geoff Dyer are easily sparked and perpetually active. That appears as true if he finds himself encountering a billboard shot by Dayanita Singh, at Delhi airport in 2006, or at home poring over Fred Sigman’s book Motel Vegas, or even Googling photos by Luigi Ghirri. All three ‘exhibits’ are greeted with an infectious love of the medium of photography, just as previous books have succeeded through a love of, say, DH Lawrence, or mid-20th-century American Jazz.

    Indeed, Dyer is as comfortable with the complexity of a street photograph by Helen Levitt, as he is with the exhaustive vision of Andreas Gursky, or even the war reportage of Gary Knight. Photography is no monolith, and perhaps that is why contemporary art photographs lend themselves so well to the monkey brain of a polymath such as the author of this book.

    Dyer’s wide learning is apparent throughout See/Saw. He demonstrates a solid grasp of the history of the artform and appears to hold Walker Evans as the touchstone for many of his observations and ideas. And he variously quotes former MoMA curator John Szarkowski, or draws on the grave comedy of novelist Don Delillo in order to spice up his own accounts of the images which are shared here in more than 50 colour plates.

    If anything, the texts collected here are a little too allusive. During a 10-page discussion of Alex Webb’s fractured respresentations of streetlife in Haiti, Dyer conjures with the names of Lévi-Strauss, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Rebecca Norris Webb, Lee Friedlander, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Max Kozloff, Samuel Johnson, John Donne, de Chirico, Pico Iyer, DH Lawrence, Brett Weston, Aimé Césaire, Ezra Pound, WH Auden, William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Jim Morrison, Ryszard Kapuściński, Martin Parr, David Alan Harvey, Harry Gruyaert, Dorothea Lange, André Kertész, Jane Jacobs and finally, naturally, Walker Evans.

    It is enviable to have such a roster of artists and writers to hand, and it is also true that Dyer has a word pool as richly stocked as his library. Although he is always readable, he is often florid, and is frequently idiomatic. He asks whether, in a confused shot of a Favela, we can see the limb of photographer, Bullit Marquez: ‘Or am I just pulling your leg?’ Or whether, in an image with two dogs, by Philip-Lorca Dicorcia, we are being ‘sold a pup’? At times this reader wondered whether the allusions and the wordplay ever get in the way of the photos. But it remains the case that each of these essays deepens our relationship with the works in question.

    See/Saw is an essay collection given over to 40 photographers, 10 photographs, and three writers. It was not originally conceived as a book. And the author says, in his introduction, that his writing about photography is only a sideline. Having said that, Dyer adds, everything is a sideline as he is completely without a main line. It’s a modest admission, and it accounts for the fact that in terms of these myriad citations and clever puns, Dyer uses every weapon to hand. The result is a series of quite companionable discourses on photos which comprise a selective history. You will learn a lot, but you might lose sight of the originals.

    See/Saw: Looking at Photographs is published by Canongate and available now from wherever you get your books.

    Uncategorized

    Book: Mimesis: culture – art – society by Gunter Gebauer and Christoph Wulf

    March 29, 2021

    Whereas the word has its ancient Greek roots in ‘mime’ and is related to ‘mimicry’, mimesis is not mere imitation. As this book shows, there is enough meaning in the term to have kept philosophers chewing it over for the last two millennia.

    But the discussion remains vital because the stakes are high. Facts, Gebauer and Wulf recall (via Nelson Goodman and later Mary Douglas,) have no autonomous existence and depend on people for their presentation. And it is the presentation of facts which brings into being the worlds we inhabit. The presentation of this artefactual reality, in which people work, vote, and go to war, cannot be neutral and so, whether they know it or not, all those who make descriptions or representations are working with agendas.

    The authors discuss a range of philosophers –  from the ancient world to the postmodern academy – and mimesis emerges as a confusing word to conjure with. It is perhaps fitting that in one of its recent resting points, within the writings of Jacques Derrida, the term is compared with the hymen, with différence, the supplement, the pharmakon, and all the many slippery quasi concepts which offer a way in to understanding deconstruction.

    More helpful for my research is the discussion of Walter Benjamin. The authors find that his notion of aura is diminished as mimesis gives way to language. The aura of an artwork stems from a magical mimetic relation of image and world, but it is language which slowly petrifies our relation to that real world. In the wake of this theory comes the (I think) connected idea that regression is a universal human goal, as people attempt to reconnect with pre-linguistic images and forms.

    Theodor Adorno also speaks of mimesis in magical terms, but rather than displaying an anti-auratic excess of language, his magicians use reason to control their production of a work of mimetic art. To speak in a schema, mimicry plus reason equals mimesis. And it is this in turn offers the art work’s audience an aesthetic experience, a vital experience whereby a certain passivity allows the viewer makes themselves similar to the artwork. Or, I might add, aesthetic experience allows the viewer to make the artwork similar to themselves.

    By contrast to the artists discussed by these twentieth century Marxists, Gebauer and Wulf draw attention to the seventeenth century Dutch artists who went about capturing reality with minimal interference from reason. Dutch painting of the baroque era is said to be a near transparent medium, bringing an arsenal of optical instruments to bear on imitations of landscapes and still life, perhaps slavishly so. But the characterisation of these descriptive painters from the Lowlands, which holds particular interest for me, is the work of American art historian Svetlana Alpers, and I shall discuss her relevant book on these pages in due course.

    Mimesis: culture – art – society appears in a translation by Don Reneau, and is published by the University of California Press (1992).

    Uncategorized

    Book: The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems, by Stephen Halliwell

    March 15, 2021

    In my work in progress on Lascaux, Altamira and Chauvet it has not been easy to find a word with which to talk about the various representations of these painted caves. But, I was recently reminded of the word mimesis since it is one of the earliest art historical terms, and, as I learned from this erudite book, mimesis is best thought of as a familial framework of ideas, through which we might sometimes speak of imitation and copying, sometimes of representation or description, and sometimes of expression and interpretation.

    Plato’s ideas around mimesis, frequently thought of as a monolithic dismissal of poetry, are themselves shown to be complex here, and he allows for a way of rendering the real world, through poetry or painting, that is, in itself, not degenerate at all, but, rather, ethical and good. Later Aristotle took up this term mimesis and gave it a twofold definition: encompassing external reality and internal logic – the Greek tragedy, for instance, should offer a true sense of the world and an audience response governed by the artwork’s structure

    In the first two parts of The Aesthetics of Mimesis, Halliwell explodes this dusty academic term and offers a dazzling array of the varied thinking of the ancient world. From its beginnings, poetry, and by extension painting, was understood to deal in hypothetical yet emotive realities. As long we have recorded notions about art, art could be said to simulate the world, as much as to reflect it. Whereas Plato famously thought of poetry as a potential negative influence, he also looked for correctness, mental benefits and pleasurable qualities in the sphere of art. Plato did not equate mimesis to verisimilitude; instead he looked for the ‘what’, ‘how, and ‘what for’ of form and beauty: these questions remain relevant to any 21st attempt to write art criticism. He wasn’t convinced by visual illusion, so mimesis has in fact never been about simply mirroring external realities; confounding what I had assumed to be the case. Aristotle later saw the work, whether written or painted, as both a performance and an intention. (Mimesis is, of course, applicable to acting, human learning, and music.) He was to argue that likeness need not be literal minded and so I hope to show by these examples, of which there are many in the book, just how complex and lively the debates of Ancient Greece remain today.

    Having said that, mimesis is not what it used to be. Leonardo da Vinci criticises fidelity to appearances. The Romantics gave up all attempts to depict the world out there and made expressive pictures and poems about the inner life, and for the Moderns there was no going back to the aim of mirroring nature. But that had never been the primary aim of mimesis, after all. We now live in what has been called a post-mimetic era. And yet the impact of both romanticism and modernism is show in these pages to have been more gradual and inconsistent than you might imagine. In the third and final part of his book, Professor Halliwell shows that, although Plato and Aristotle had the most to say about mimesis, the idea did not spring up with their arrival, and nor did it vanish with the passing of neo-Platonism.

    Perhaps most interesting is the encounter between mimesis and a thinker frequently engaged with on this blog. Derrida is oft said to unsettle the foundations of Western civilisation by destabilising, among other of his tenets, Plato’s conception of truth in poetry/painting. But this idea can be destabilised in turn because 1) Western thought is perhaps equally indebted to Aristotle and owes a further debt to an array of philosophers from the ancient world; and 2) Plato himself takes up a number of evolving positions in his writings about mimesis beyond the most familiar passages in The Republic. Perhaps I have got this wrong, and I invite comments which qualify this short review. I have tried to represent The Aesthetics of Mimesis, but I don’t promise to show things as they (really) are.

    This title is from Princeton University Press (2002) and read via Kindle.

    photography

    Book: Photography After Capitalism, by Ben Burbridge

    February 18, 2021

    Publisher: Goldsmiths Press // Pages: 240 // Date: Dec 2020

    In 2011, a contemporary artist and a US council of war both made use of a series of photographs taken from satellite imagery. The artist was Mishka Henner; his Libyan Oil Fields appropriated the aerial views of petroleum extraction in that country which are freely available on Google Earth. The facilities appear high res, and, as has been noted, there are less interesting locations in the Libyan desert yet to warrant so much photographic detail. Henner was only the first to make use of these shots. The same year there was a US strike on some of these targets with some 110 Tomahawk missiles.

    The same year, another contemporary artist, Andrew Norman Wilson, got interested in the activities of Google, by filming employees in and around the corporate headquarters in California. One important role was to make digital photographs of books for Google Scholar, but those workers were only given ‘white badge’ status, and hence lost out on some of the privileges (free food, etc) given freely to their colleagues. Though his 11 minute film, Workers Leaving the Googleplex, has a wry connection with early cinema (See Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895), its more straightforward purpose is to draw attention what happens when photography becomes menial work.

    In Enjoy Poverty: Episode III, a 2008 film by Renzo Martens, we meet a group of Congolese wedding photographers who, instigated by the artist, attempt to boost their income by selling images of conflict to Médecins Sans Frontières. Their considerable efforts are rejected in what makes for a very uncomfortable scene in which the artist acts as broker with the client. And it appears that only Western photojournalists can be permitted to make reportage.

    What these three projects have in common, besides inclusion in the book Photography After Capitalism, is a concern with the more sinister aspects of contemporary imaging. From oil to systemic poverty via the digital academy, photography is everywhere. Artists who churn out examples of so-called poverty porn in order to condemn capitalism are not doing enough. It appears here that artists need to address photography’s role at the heart of capitalism, and Burbridge demonstrates page after page that fortunately many already do.

    But even that might not be enough. Critical art also enables left-leaning fans of critical art to feel that merely by consuming politically engaged art they are doing something. This issue is grappled with by many artists today. Yet even the high earning players in the art market have a critical edge, without which they would lose status and stock. It’s a problem. Burbridge does not call for the storming of the Googleplex, but he does agitate for more incisive photography projects and new social models which photography can facilitate.

    Renzo Martens, for example, has been instrumental in the establishment of a white cube gallery at a former plantation in Lusanga, DRC. Will it change much? The implication of its inclusion within these pages is that, locally, it makes a difference. And indeed once you’ve seen those pictures, and once you’ve read this galvanising book, you need never look at a photography exhibition at your own local white cube in the same way again.

    Photography After Capitalism documents the loss of innocence given rise to by ubiquitous images, the digital era, and mining for the components of smart phones. But the book also points to the experiences of photography, those projects of resistance, which might one day grant us innocence afresh.

    Purchase Photography After Capitalism from The Photographers’ Gallery Bookshop here.

    Uncategorized

    Who are we to judge?

    October 2, 2020
    “File:John Torode and Gregg Wallace Masterchef Live 2010.jpg” by Richard Gillin from St Albans, UK is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

    I always wanted to be a reviewer, but I don’t really like to sit in judgement. Just consider Gregg Wallace, about whom more later.

    Why do people read reviews? The answer, via Pierre Bourdieu, may be this: so they can gain cultural capital, a form of currency by which the dominant classes manage to confirm and consolidate their class position.

    I had always assumed that galleries were benign places, that free admission levelled the social playing field. But come to think of it, the working classes don’t visit in huge, huge numbers; I haven’t carried out a survey, but I have read up a bit and they don’t, or at least they didn’t.

    Bourdieu did carry out a survey, in the 1960s, in France, for his book The Love of Art (1969). Elsewhere, in Distinction (1984), the sociologist names the revealing quality of ‘habitus’: visible in dress, body language, accent and behaviour. Upbringing and schooling are evident in disposition and deportment.

    Though many artists are working class, the wider audience appears to be middle class. Can we say that?

    After visiting my first dozen shows I began to think of myself as a natural art lover. Embarrassing really, because the fact of the matter remains that my parents and teachers first encouraged me to visit exhibitions.

    According to Bourdieu schools are no more innocent than museums and galleries. These institutions are all in service of the system and operate at various levels to consolidate many different class positions.

    Which brings me to Gregg Wallace.

    Wallace is a British television presenter who critiques cookery on a reality television show called Masterchef. Unlike me, he left school at 15 and went to work in a greengrocer’s warehouse. Soon working on a stall, he went into the grocery business , and success led to a presenting gig on Radio 4 show all about vegetables. His Masterchef role as a gastronome has made him a regular fixture on BBC screens since 2005.

    Now I confess to chuckling at Gregg Wallace in my time – at the comic idea he lacked the refinement for his role as gourmet. All taste expresses class, and it appears from Distinction that the taste for various foods is even more fundamental than the taste for paintings. So the flak which Wallace draws from some quarters is an attempt to maintain the status quo: how dare a common grocer from Peckham pronounce on important matters of taste.

    Gregg, if you’re reading, keep up the good work. It can be seen now that one man’s meat is another man’s painting, sculpture, performance piece or film.

    philosophy

    A history of madness

    September 28, 2020
    “UFO” by astraverkhau is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    I remember reading Derrida take issue with Foucault. It was about madness, funnily, and the founder of deconstruction asked how it was possible to bear witness to insanity, The essay was ‘Cogito and the history of madness’, and while much flew over my head, I was struck by the humility with which Derrida showed to take on Foucault and critique his former teacher.

    It was a long time ago. I was 28, 29 years old. Derrida was at first utterly incomprehensible to me. Then eventually I got to grips with some of his thinking. It was on an MA course in critical theory at the University of Sussex and it gave me a lot of confidence, to engage with deconstruction.

    My former teacher was Professor Nicholas Royle. It was the first year he led his module on Derrida and much of the course formed the basis for his book on Derrida in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series. My cohort are all there, in the acknowledgements together. It was a very generous act by our former teacher. But if Derrida describes himself as a disciple of Foucault, that is surely what we were in a way and for a while: disciples.

    I should probably keep this quiet and any Derrida expert reading this could probably deconstruct this post in no time; but I’m no longer so convinced about what I learned about my strand of Derrida.

    My dissertation was on madness and much of it revolved around a phrase which appears in an interview from the collection Points; Derrida says “A madness must watch over thinking”. That is to say, we should not allow our decisions to unfold by reason alone because to do so would render our lives too mechanistic. That way danger lies and, yes, we should avoid an excess of reason.

    But to inform a decision with madness? I must now be honest; it seems a bad idea. Madness, to my mind, is choosing cigarette brands according to religion. Or believing you can tune into radio stations on your teeth. That sort of thing. It should not watch over thinking. Emotion should inevitably watch over thinking, but emotion is not madness and I no longer subscribe to the idea that madness and emotion are on a sliding scale.

    Madness is not an absence of reason or an excess of emotion. I think the mad have plenty of reasons for most of what they think or do. And I don’t believe they are any more passionate than those of us above ground. And yes, I do think one can bear witness. You can witness madness by observing the barefoot guy picking through the trash outside the shopping centre. You can observe it by reading Judge Schreber, or even Swedenborg.

    Swedenborg was in contact with aliens, apparently, while remaining one of Earth’s first rank philosophers. Derrida asks, with what I recall seemed like alarm at the time, in his essay Passions: an Oblique Offering, “How is a Swedenborg possible?”.  How indeed? This is a profound question, and it indicates that Derrida’s understanding of madness has its limits. As does mine or yours. But you would not want aliens to watch over thinking.