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On Underlining

Susan Morris’s response to “ ” #3: Becky Beasley / Claire Scanlon

Writing into the strange boneless time of illness following a positive corona test, Susan Morris retraces her previous reading of “ ” #3: Becky Beasley / Claire Scanlon by way of her own underlinings. ‘Underlinings’ is not technically a word in the dictionary, and so it appears as a jagged red spelling error on the interface of a word processor. If we nevertheless accept its use, it seems not so much to describe a gesture – that of ‘underlining’ – but rather the image of small, animate, self-conscious creatures, scurrying across the undercurrents of texts. Recalling the words of other writers afflicted by illness, Morris describes the subject’s anchoring through language, the phenomenon of catching a glimpse of one’s (former) self in the messy marks one has made, and the strange realisation that one might have identified with a text while totally misreading it.

 

I wonder if Claire had invited me to contribute something to this book launch because she liked the thing I posted on Instagram about it, back in July 2020. Looking at the material I put together for that post, I see that the file names I had given to my photos correspond with the sentences in her and Beasley’s book that I had underlined. Here they are in the order that I posted them (which is not the same order in which they appear in the book):

1: Muddy Core

2: Pockets of Time

3: Contingencies [of Time and Place]

4: The Incommensurability of the Book

5: Marginalia

6: Burrow

7: The Blindness of Moles

8: Softening and Blurring

Unfortunately, in the time between receiving Claire’s invite and the moment I came to actually write something, I discovered that I had contracted the coronavirus. Now I am living in a body that may or may not have been damaged (hey, I survived!) but which certainly suffers from occasional — sheer — exhaustion. Time is short on these exhausted days, when I must meet various professional or family-related commitments, and attend to the demands of my own practice. 

I wonder, however, if there is ever enough time — I mean for work, which is all we want to do? Is there ever too much of it? Is it better to find yourself working with little time, with fragments or ‘pockets’ of it — is that better for focus? Better for ideas, even — provided you can find a way to use these pockets, when they present themselves? I got stuck in a hole this summer because suddenly there was too much time, when before I had been longing for more of it. I wanted spare time, I thought, but fell into the abyss when I got it. Now, deep into the UK’s third lockdown, time is again expanding or contracting for all of us. We may feel less constrained by the clock or calendar; the working week may have changed its hours completely. Add convalescence to this already-strange time, and the days can feel wild and loose. 1. But I long for structure — and almost feel a sense of shame when I write that. Can I not try to harness what illness gives you so much of: time? 

Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time would be impossible… Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different…’ 2.

The doctors were powerless in the face of this malady: not so the writer, who very systematically put it to use…’ 3.

A complicity with illness emanates from Duras’ texts, complicity that is somber and at the same time light because absentminded…’ 4.

My illness will have had one benefit, in that I am allowed to spend my time as I want.’ 5.

Time then, to write — but what? It’s weird looking at my snapshots of these pages, without the rest of the book to ground them. Suddenly I start noticing things. For example: why did I underline one thing and not the other? On the image titled ‘Muddy Core’, why didn’t I underline the words ‘pacing and diary’, on the same page? I am a diarist, and nothing comes to me without pacing. I should probably get up from my desk right now, in fact, and pace. How else will I reach that muddy core out of which a practice might evolve? The paragraph above the one about the muddy core contains part of a list, which is a way of organising things, but the muddy core hints at something else, something that resists being organised; something molten, or clay-like — stubborn, perhaps — but it too is part of a list, because it is considered ‘in relation to time, fragments and limitations.’ This is Beasley, responding to Scanlon’s questions about the ‘components of practice’. Scanlon thinks that these components together form an ‘equation’ — an interesting apparatus because it can contain both variables and unknowns. Now I think of Duchamp, who reckons that ‘in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act’, there is a gap, ‘a link is missing’:

This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal ‘art coefficient’ contained in the work. In other words, the personal ‘art coefficient’ is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.’ 6.

Maybe when Beasley says pacing, she doesn’t mean walking, but spreading things out, pacing herself — in her work and in her life. A kind of measuring or structuring that uses the body, so that work and the time for it correspond with mood or energy. You work by first gauging the limits and possibilities of the body in its current state, ‘and that includes one’s state of mind.’ But what if you are in a distracted state of mind? What do you catch hold of? What do you miss? Now, looking at what I underlined in Beasley and Scanlon’s book, and what I didn’t, I think — how did I get so led astray? 

Ideas often come about (happen) (or don’t) arbitrarily: by chance. Scanlon reminds us of these ‘contingencies’. Underlining and marginalia may also operate under the same set of contingencies: those of time and place. When I first read Scanlon and Beasley’s book I underlined the things that attracted me then and there. The underlinings are evidence of a time when I, as a subject, condensed around the text — then evaporated from it. The marks record the moment when a particular thing meant something to me, and together they map out a territory, the very thing that underpins a practice and the thinking around it.

For example: I was attracted to the many evocative descriptions of and about vision in this book, and with things dissolving into darkness. This is a night vision, maybe, where things ‘soften and blur.’ Beasley aligns her intuitive approach to making — to moving forward with her work — with that of the ‘blindness’ of moles, but she also might dream of sharing their invisibility. You burrow into a text, into work, you disappear with it — an unconscious act. You only know you’ve done it when you snap back to life, after the being-absent, which is the same as simply being; being as a kind of dissolving — where difference crumbles. The body too. That which delineates you as a subject in space, separate from the world, collapses, or ‘caves in’.

When you underline a piece of text you become temporarily fused with it. These are the bits of meaning that you stitch yourself to, the pieces of language that are meaningful for you. So perhaps the idea of disappearing into the text could be extended — you could think of it in terms of substitution. You substitute yourself for the text, for the ideas expressed there, which function as metaphor — the very structure of identification, since the latter consists of substituting oneself for another: I am that. Underlining thus becomes something tightly bound to identity. Following this line of thought, perhaps underlinings could be thought of as a graphic example, or trace, of Lacan’s points de capiton — ‘quilting points’. 7. Language (signification) slides all over the place but there are points where meaning stabilises, where the subject is anchored. (A subject is always ‘a subject of language’.) Beasley makes this quite explicit. The sudden moments of recognition that occur while reading are ‘like finding a friend. That identification… [T]here it is, that’s my experience’.

If there are not enough quilting points, as is the case in psychosis, ‘the slippery movement of signification is endless, and stable meanings dissolve altogether’. 8. There are other ways in which words can become unstitched from language, however. Use of rhyme, pun or nonsense can produce things that linger on as not-yet things. In Duchamp’s artworks that play with words, for example, form erodes the certainty of content and, as Rosalind Krauss has commented, sheer musicality is substituted for the process of signification. 9. Beasley and Scanlon discuss ways of working in this space — a twilight space, where things fall apart. Its temporal location is dusk — or it is in the madness of the day, ‘when the colour drains out of things’. 

Underlining as a joining with or clinging to a text; as the instant in which identification (constantly mutating) is graphically represented or — perhaps more accurately — where it is recorded. Underlinings present evidence of the self as parataxis, as accretion, one thing after another, this and that, like a string of lights switching on in sequence, like magic. The pleasure in underlining! I would even consider underlining as a kind of expanded drawing, but must admit I frequently return to books I’ve defaced in this manner and think, with irritation, who the hell did this? Or I am embarrassed. A different me did that. As Stephen might say of his diary entries at the end of Joyce’s Portrait… ‘I was someone else then’. [10] Like the diarist, I’ve moved on. Now the underlining is just an empty string, the lights are off.

Astonishment or shame over old underlinings often occurs when you realise that you were thinking one thing and the writer was thinking something else altogether. Meaning slides about and can anyway be only determined retroactively, at the end of a sentence, so what the writer may have intended to say and what the reader thinks is being said — as they are reading it — may be entirely different things. You find that you have been chasing something that isn’t actually there. And yet where the underlinings break off (and no one puts one continual line under an entire text, do they?), they also break up the text, into fragments. The line breaks off where I break off. Underlinings introduce gaps or blanks. Something opens in these spaces. Beasley mentions writer and translator Lydia Davis’s suggestion that in order to adequately summarise Blanchot you would have to print his entire text, at a one-to-one scale. I would offer a set of underlinings instead.

Davis, master of the short form, makes an argument for the fragment, the unfinished, in her recently published Essays, 2019, which I and many of my colleagues were reading at the start of the pandemic. ‘If we catch only a little of our subject, or only badly, clumsily, incoherently, perhaps we have not destroyed it. We have written about it, written it, and allowed it to live on at the same time, allowed it to live on in our ellipses, in our silences.’ 11. The same applies to reading, which Scanlon admits she does ‘slowly and in quite a fragmented way’ — as I do. We are ‘inefficient’ readers. Here something might be said about Bartleby, beloved scrivener, in whom inefficiency — or downright refusal can be understood as a kind of literal blanking: a refusal that also opens up a space or clearing, where something is made present that is not yet named. 

All this relates to what Beasley describes as the ‘incommensurability of the book’, and to what attracts me to the practice of making them and, obviously, reading them, which takes time out of my visual practice. But how much time? It’s impossible to know. The book expands and contracts. It’s a physical object, but also a set of possibilities that gets into your head, or undoes it. Beasley speaks of the book in terms of imagination, journey, intimacy, and ‘imagelessness’. Something registers, though it is unrepresentable. So of course it is nonsense to suggest that marks underneath a body of text are the subject’s quilting points, around which an identity might be anchored — or even that they are ‘like’ them. Identification happens in the gaps, the things that are not there. The graphic trace indexes the thing but it is not the thing itself. 

Something triggers a reaction (even if it’s just one of refusal). This brings me to the issue of ‘response-ability’, to use John Cage’s neologism, evoked here by Scanlon. Scanlon stresses the need for a slow response in the face of certain world events, one that allows the awful feeling of impotence to register, ‘so that impotence becomes productive’ and critical reflection — or at the very least ‘a conversation’ — becomes possible. Beasley, aligning herself with Blanchot (against Sartre), suggests silence as resistance — to naming, or ‘killing things with words’. But words are everything here, in a book that started as a series of (unanswered?) letters and that stands now as a two-way written conversation, a back and forth. Words are not fixed (they don’t kill things) but are exchanged, shared, temporarily occupied, like the reader’s underlinings that follow, that accumulate into something — a diagram, perhaps.

I go upstairs to my study and pull out a book. To my alarm it is full of underlinings. Who put them there? Most of the underlinings cluster around sentences to do with identification and metaphor, which is what I am thinking about now. How had I forgotten that I had thought about these very same things once (or possibly twice…) before? Slightly disgusted at my handwriting, and the untidiness of the underlinings… Could I not have sharpened my pencil first?

 

1. I borrow this phrase from another recent conversation between two women who write, Kathryn Scanlan and Kate Zambreno who, in April 2020 during the early days of the pandemic, discuss life in quarantine in Los Angeles and New York. ‘When a day is not structured by appointments, meetings, driving to work, taking lunch, driving home, shopping (i.e. capitalism), its soft, loose (wild?) shapelessness becomes apparent.’ Published online by Granta: https://granta.com/in-conversation-kathryn-scanlan-and-kate-zambreno/

2. Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill (Ashfield, Mass.: Paris Press, 2002), p. 12–13.

3. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Image of Proust’, in Illuminations (London: Fontana, 1977), p. 215.

4. Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992),p. 228.

5. Letter from Gustave Flaubert to Emmanuel Vasse de Saint-Ouen, January 1845. See Stephen Heath, Madame Bovary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 17.

6. Marcel Duchamp, ‘The Creative Act’, in Marcel Duchamp (New York: Paragraphic Books, 1959), p. 78.

7. Jacques Lacan, The Psychoses (Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 3), trans. by Russell Grigg (Abingdon: Routledge, 2000), p. 259.

8. Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996), p. 190. 

9. See Rosalind Krauss’s commentary on Duchamp in her essay ‘Notes on the Index’, in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), p. 200.

10. Michael Levensen, ‘Stephen’s diary in Joyce’s Portrait: The shape of life’, in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A Casebook, ed. by Mark A. Wollaeger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 191.

11. Lydia Davis, Essays (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2019), p. 225.

Susan Morris is an artist who also writes. Her work engages with periodicity and the involuntary mark, either through a diaristic form of writing or by diagrammatic works generated from data recorded on devices worn on the body. In 2019 she curated the exhibition A Day’s Work at SKK Soest, Germany. She is a member of the Düsseldorf-based artist’s group Darktaxa and is currently co-editing a book on boredom for UCL Press.