The Art of Interruption: Realism, Photography and the Everyday.
Manchester and New York , Manchester University Press, 1998.
ISBN 0 719035600 (hb)
ISBN 0 7190 35619 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Manchester University Press)
Uploaded 1 March 2000
Kafka’s stories begin with the banal of everyday. These events and experiences are excessively ordinary and the writing is blank. Kafka’s eloquence is the absence of it, an astonishing neutrality which provides no view. It is not simply the events that are banal, but the writing of them is banal.
Kafka’s “style” is not to have one.
It is a writing which strives for nothing. These stories, literally, go nowhere. The banality accumulates and blankness is sustained. What we read is absurd, senseless, insignificant and for these reasons unpossessable, and for that reason, terrifying. Unable to identify even the most common things, can cause a loss of self-identity. It is not knowing where you are, a displacement without a system to guide you, or boundaries to confine you. The writing does not approach meaning nor does it accept it.
Nor, strictly speaking, is there anything so strong in Kafka as a refusal of meaning. Quite simply it is absent, but the strangeness is an effect of assuming that meaning is present and proceeding to write (Kafka) and to act (his characters) as if it is, when it is not. It is the reverse of a versimilitude where the reader (or spectator) is complicit in believing something is true which is make believe. In Kafka, the concreteness of the ordinary is everywhere (you cannot help but believe it), but it nevertheless seems unbelievable because it is stripped of everything but its ordinariness.
When I read The Art of Interruption, I thought of Kafka though he is not mentioned in the book, nor is the book in any sense Kafkaesque. I suppose it had to do with the book’s interest in the everyday and in social reality (realism) that made me think of Kafka, and also because the author of the book believes in the social efficacy of art, hence is partial to those arts and expressions in the arts that address an audience directly and are most easily related to, arts like photography, like the cinema, the arts which best represent (reproduce) the everyday and the familiar. It also has to do with a mournful quality of all photographs because they have a strong referent. The photograph only attests to the referent having once been, but is now no longer. It is the presence of absence. The photographic referent is other than it is simply because the subject, so strongly declared, is effaced by time. The photograph is always of a moment that has passed.
It is precisely the realism of photography that makes it strange.
I am not a dutiful book reader, hence not a dutiful book reviewer. I assume most books are interesting and usually they are because they help me to think, to remember, to muse, to lose myself, to pass the time. Some books do this better than others. But I think it is really my job to help the books out. The Art of Interruption deals with a problem that I had forgotten about though once I knew about it. It made me ashamed of my forgetfulness and I even felt a bit shabby as if, over the years, I had indulged in something not very important, not praiseworthy, possibly tainted and probably useless.
It is a book about the social commitment of art and at the same time about the artistic commitment of art to itself. A socially committed art, which can be “read”, tends to be realistic and strives to state a meaning and render a significance. An art committed to itself is less easily “read”, tends not to be realistic, confounds meaning and disturbs significance. This art has tended to be associated with the modern and the avant-garde. Realism, on the other hand, has been confined to an antique, no longer relevant and Positivist tradition.
Of course things are not this simple. Realism is never straightforward and involves a struggle with other realisms and with meaning. Inevitably, realisms must come face to face with language and means. On the other hand, a purely self-referential art inevitably has to confront realities and the everyday. It reminds one of Godard’s truism that all good fictions are documentaries and all good documentaries are fictions and that his brothers are the brothers Lumière, the pioneers of the everyday in the cinema and the pioneers of fiction in the cinema, and, at the same time.
The cinema, like photography, is a dual, uncomfortable, disquieting birth, confounding the reality it establishes and thus establishing reality and its representation as paradoxical and deceptive.
Mr Roberts (no, no, not Mister Roberts) chooses to write about photography (and incidentally about the cinema) because it is realistic and tied to the everyday and, at the same time, one of the modern inventions (and arts) which was historically taken up by the avant-gardes because photography seemed, according to Roberts, to challenge the bourgeois and traditional arts and to be quintessentially modern and potentially avant-garde, not despite its realism and its social representations, but precisely because of these. It was a way to make new connections and especially important connections with what is now called “the popular”, but was then part of a social reality, which was “working class”, hence related to social struggle and even, in places, revolutionary and socialist struggle, above all struggle against prevailing forms of capitalism and at a point in time, from the early part of this century until the late 1940s, when the culture of capitalism produced a commodification of all things including culture and the arts and this commodification was contested (as now it is not, or not in a popular way). The photograph had the potential to contest this commodification by bringing the audience to a social reality which not only escaped commodification but opposed it.
These days are now gone.
There is no question but that Soviet artists, until they, according to Roberts, succumbed to the totalising tendencies of Stalinism (this includes our cinema heroes, Eisenstein, Vertov), used factography to contest not only bourgeois social forms, but bourgeois cultural and artistic ones. Here realism and the avant-garde were indissolubly linked and realism could not be thought of as a stultifying, hopeless Positivism, but rather as dynamic and radical and working on behalf of socialism. Montage, a manner of interrupting the real without leaving it behind, was characteristic of all Soviet artists, according to Mr Roberts, especially in the areas of cinema and photography. This was also the case, he says, for Surrealism.
Photography, as it connects with the modern avant-gardes, was precisely this art of interruption which challenged conceptions of reality with reality and which initiated a struggle for reality that was intimately linked to social struggle, not as abstraction, not as a mere “work upon language”, but as a work upon the real and upon society through language, that is through a socialised language which was photography. Breton of course was connected to the Communist Party and saw Surrealism as revolutionary in that regard and saw the revolutionary potential of photography.
It is the post-modern avant-garde, according to Mr Roberts, that has severed this link (or circumstances, social and political, have caused this link to sever), placing social realism and the everyday on the side of Positivism and placing work on form as on the side of the angels, with the post-modern reserving its most telling criticisms for the Positivism of realism and its falsity and deceptions.
Roberts mourns this change and this loss. His best chapters, and best almost to sublimity, are on Soviet art in the 1920s and on Surrealism. Some passages in these chapters are heavenly and beautiful to read, like a funeral oration by a great orater. One gasps that anyone could write so passionately over lost causes, insisting at one and the same time on their lostness and their relevance and making them relevant in his present passion. It is that which made me feel ashamed and shabby. I could not be so eloquent. And I could not be so committed. He has essentially three heros: Sergei Tretyakov, Walter Benjamin and John Berger (his chapter on Berger is exquisite).
These are his heros and he is among them for trying to sustain what seems now the impossible marriage of political-social commitment and artistic experiment. In the end even Berger, who stirs him, disappoints him for what appears to be a turning away, a becoming too exclusively private and modernist, a turning away from the “real”.
I have three observations about this wonderful and often moving book.
The first is, do not, under any circumstances, make the mistake as I did of beginning with the Introduction. The Introduction should be skipped or simply torn out of the book and burned. It is turgid, dense with nouns, hectoring, near incomprehensible, a theoretical babble in which Roberts is talking to himself and it is best not to listen.
The second is my trouble with a theoretical writing about things which ought to be, but which the writing, because it is theory, is not. It celebrates an art of interruption, of montage, of non-totalisation, but it is not what it celebrates, because the theory takes a stand that is above the interruptions it demands. The theory is not only a location of reconciliation (of which mourning is part), but of a knowing, so that it seldom if ever enters into the uncertain area of photographs, but only of the theory of photographs, a discourse “upon”, which is why one of my heros is Barthes, who never writes “about”… His Chambre claire runs alongside, beside the photograph, in an activity which is caressing and appreciative and is “like” what he speaks of, as if the subject and the object are permeable.
The third is that the book, despite its heros, is very English, too much so perhaps. Its Englishness is that it can still call up a tradition of commitment and artistic experiment (less possible in the United States, a place he ignores, or ignores and denounces), but that he can only favourably point in this regard to Berger (and the photographer Jo Spence), because the English tradition had neither an avant-garde nor a theoretical socialism and its working class movement was essentially ouvrieriste and pragmatic (Labour). He would be less distressed, less mournful, I think (but also less eloquent), if he had turned his attention to a present situation in Germany, in France, in Italy, in Spain and even in far off places like Israel, Africa, Iran and China and Japan, where (certainly in Europe), there is more continuity with the past he mourns and which in Britain hardly ever existed.
Of course our pasts now are global, and yet they are not either.
But everyone, I think, should read this splendid book.