Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss. Formless: A User's Guide. New York: Zone, 1997.304 pp., many color and b/w ills. $35.
Since the mid-970s, Rosalind E. Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, professors of art history at Columbia University and Harvard University respectively, have provided crucial, ongoing critiques of the ideological effects of Greenbergian narratives of high modernism. Following an aged, though still widely applicable, definition of the ideological, the art historian T. J. Clark observes that this concept may be conceived broadly as a fixed pattern of imagery and belief that seems obligatory because it presents "constructed and disputable meanings as if they were hardly meanings at all, but, rather, forms inherent in the world-out-there which the observer is privileged to intuit directly." He continues: "ideology is a set of limits to discourse; a set of resistances, repetitions, kinds of circularity. It is that which closes speech against consciousness of itself as production, as process, as practice, as subsistence and contingency."'
Krauss and Bois organized the exhibition "L'informe: mode d'emploi," presented at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in the spring of 1996. This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue can and should be read as a radical critique of a range of ideological formations associated with the history of high modernism and the categories of traditional art criticism and scholarship, as well as the basic impulse toward categorization in general. The authors, Bois and Krauss, want to claim as the key impetus for this critical project the writings of Georges Bataille, a critic, poet, and philosopher of the Surrealist movement. In addition, they also wish to argue against those readers of Bataille who have de-emphasized the performative aspect of his thought.2 The translated edition of the catalogue, Formless: A User's Guide, provides an English-speaking audience with an important and accessible resource for those wishing to come to terms with the relevance of Bataille for the ongoing (and increasingly widespread) revisionist examinations of the filthy underside(s) of our Western modernist heritage.
Nevertheless, I would argue that this well-illustrated and designed book will not function for many of its readers as the impetus to radical ideological critique for which it was originally intended. That is, the authors are determined to destabilize some of high modernism's mythological structures by exposing their constructed and disputable nature-such as those related to the separation and hierarchization of artistic media-but the programmatic and repetitious aspects of many of the book's brief (and easily digestible) entries may encourage its reception within a naturalized context of its own associated with a remarkably fixed pattern of imagery and belief.
Much of the actual content and format of Fornless: A User's Guide does effectively demonstrate and enact-relentlessly, with regard to a vast and extremely diverse assortment of historical moments, artworks, and theoretical voices-the "operation" of informe in many provocative ways.3 "Operation" is the most crucial of a series of terms adopted from Bataille by Krauss and Bois, who persist throughout their text in using such unusual designations to further underscore their efforts to disrupt fixed and seemingly obligatory patterns identified with modernist categorical frameworks. In his introduction to the book, Bois discusses the (non)category of operation as being a "desublimatory act of aggression" (13) that requires an exposure to "base" substances which, like spit (to take an example that has acquired exemplary status for Bataille readers) resist classification because of their (anti)qualities, such as inconsistency, indefinite contours, and imprecise coloration. The desublimatory act is directed against the bourgeois subject's expectations of the experience of coherent, bounded, and unified forms that can be organized, for instance, as distinct artistic media or in terms of some kind of taxonomic stylistic schema.
As if anticipating the potential for an ideological or mythologizing reception of the "operations" that he and his co-author go on to "perform" throughout the book, Bois is surprisingly insistent that it is not the specific descriptive, metaphorical, or semantic aspects of individual "formless" substances-such as fecal matter, most infamously-that the reader should emphasize. Instead, it is the sheer violence of the desublimatory act (as exercised in the linguistic realm by the utterance of a dirty word) to which that reader should attend. The reader is encouraged especially to resist the seductions of ironic or metaphorical thought in general: such epistemological habits inhibit the raw, unmediated experience of the "act." (The list of those whom Krauss and Bois go on to implicate as having been seduced by the nonperformative includes a sizable group of artists and theorists who claim to be responding to the Bataillian notion of the abject, along with Bataille himself).
As an impressive support for their ambitious project-and as invocation of the Parisian journal Documents, which Bataille edited and contributed toFormless: A User's Guide is arranged alphabetically as a dictionary composed of "definitions" that function as the providers of the jobs of words rather than their meanings.4 The scattered format of the book therefore functions as one among several devices intended to discourage the reader's comforting reversion to the metaphorical possibilities of a coherent linear narrative organization, a mainstay of traditional art historical writing. The messiness of the text is enhanced by its division according to four kinds of operations-base materialism, horizontality, pulse, and entropy-similarly resistant to the semantic specificity and autonomy normally associated with modernist categorization. Each operation participates in tandem with one or more of the others, and the criteria for a particular artwork's inclusion into one operation (rather than another) are not at all obvious. Such organizational disorientation is deliberate on the part of the authors. One is inclined, however reluctantly, to shift between the four rather arbitrary operational divisions and to wander among the myriad alphabetical entries according to no a priori plan.
Despite a repeated insistence that their formulation of the informe is resistant to the influence of the nonperformative in general, some of the content of the User's Guide lends itself quite easily to a mythologizing reception. Even though the nonlinear structure and many of the isolated entries may suggest otherwise, this is a history which is posited in relation to several originary moments-most significantly, of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism-which all subsequent readers or "performers" of the structure of the informe must, in some way, participate. The result of this participation is that the reader develops a range of permitted perceptions concerning the history of modernism in relation to the informe. These perceptions seem fixed or obligatory on the basis of a strategic and deliberate characterization of certain key artists or theoretical voices along with their respective productive contexts-and the historical relationships that can be constructed between these contexts-as being pivotal or exceptional and hence worthy of emphasis by Krauss and Bois.
In one group of dictionary entries, the authors focus on certain events and intellectual debates pertaining to Bataille's own historical moment and social milieu. In this grouping, references to artworks appear to the reader as mere afterthoughts in relation to discussion of Bataille's moment. "Cadaver" (63-67), for example, serves as one of several statements that posit a distinction between Bataille's antiaesthetic practice and Andre Breton's elevation and sublimation of language. "Dialectic" (67-73) is typical of this genre of entries in that there is a concentration on selected texts by Bataille, such as "Le Gros Orteil" (Big Toe) or "Soleil pourri" (Rotten Sun), which are portrayed as paradigmatic moments of Bataille's employment of heterogeneous matter as a marker for a "dualist" mode of thought that does not strive for a final (Hegelian) resolution of contradictory positions, but instead retains the asymmetrical division between "high" and "low" terms that cannot be "tamed" (71) by a single concept. Another entry, "Figure" (79-86), foregrounds Bataille's own definition of informe-a contribution to an edition of Documents that occupied an appropriately denigrated position in its first periodical context of 1929-30. In this entry, Bois mills over the wording and connotation of Bataille's minuscule paragraph in a way that is useful to the reader who seeks an accessible construction of Bataille as an embracer of "unassimable waste" (79).
Echoing his mentioning of this definition in his introduction and elsewhere, Bois drives home the message that Bataille's well-known images of the spider, the earthworm, and spit are designations of stuff that "has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere." Bois places a great deal of importance on the consistent contextualization of this reading of Bataille's project within Bataille's moment of production. More generally, both Krauss and Bois periodically refer again and again to a particular constellation of Bataille's writings as if for the first time. The effects of this repetitionand the accompanying bias towards the historical description of the activities of different Surrealist factions during the late 192os and early 193os-cannot be described as merely a further reference to Bataille's play with the notion of redundancy associated with conventions of dictionary writing. The consequence for the reader of the prioritization of Bataille's own historical horizon inevitably involves the conception of this horizon as a kind of originary moment. The authors substantiate their portrayal of that moment in "Part Object" (152-6i), the only entry in the book authored by both Krauss and Bois. They situate Alberto Giacometti's Suspended Ball (1930-31) as a privileged instance of participation in the informe because of its temporal affinity with the production of Bataille's discourse and because of its status as a kind of generator of a number of trajectories that the user of the book can trace or map.
Krauss's entry "Horizontality" (93-103) situates a similarly generative moment: Jackson Pollock's breakthrough attempts in 1947, with works such as Full Fathom Five, to orient his working method to the libidinal activity of "dumping" paint onto the floor. Through this process, he released himself from a working method less dependent on the forces of gravity and more reliant on a contemplative and disinterested (i.e., civilized) gap between the artist/beholder and the art object. Krauss identifies Pollock's supposed resistance to the "well-built" or "good" form-that is, form oriented to the beholder with an upright posture-in the work of Robert Morris (and others) that makes gravitational forces especially apparent, as in the process of pulling (good) form apart by isolating the activity of piling, loose stacking, or hanging materials. The attempt to grant a kind of exemplary status to a particular enactment of the informe's operational structure can result in a habitual response on the part of the reader in the form of prioritizing certain types of artistic vehicles or personages-needless to say, in the case of Pollock, both the vehicle and the personage already occupy comfortable, revered, and predictable positions within the modernist pantheon. This habitual response, contingent as it is on the presumption of originary historical moments (such as 1929 or 1947), and the simultaneous identification with symbolic codes of the artist/hero, discourages the reader's ability to continuously perform the informe's desublimatory act of aggression, an act that is supposed to be consistently unencumbered by the metaphorical and naturalizing implications of the canonization of artists or the hierarchization of media.
At a number of points in the book, Krauss and Bois characterize the desublimatory act, with its inhibition of the alltoo-human contemplative and civilizing gap between the beholder and his or her object, as somehow tapping into the consciousness of the animal, a consciousness which is associated with a mode of vision that is "merely an extension of the tactile senses" (9o) and which does not divert the libido from its erotic goals. In his discussion of Pol Bury, Bois refers to the artist's depiction of an allover expanse that "exceeds the frontal visual field and addresses itself instead to the persistence of animal capabilities in our visual perception, to what still ties us to the workings of the fly" (198). The description of Bury's work as engaging a repressed animalistic component of the beholder's mind recalls high modernist and primitivist attempts to empathize with, or project into, primal psychic conditions. On another occasion, Bois contrasts the ancient representation of the Greek horse to the Gaullish image of the monstrous hippo that is fat, sweating, and "in danger of melting-as, occasionally, are paintings" (180). This employment of animal imagery should not be understood as merely an ornamental aspect of the text; rather, it contributes a mystifying aspect to the authors' overall treatment of the informe's structure. As an outcome of the absorption of many such mystifying passages, the reader might eventually, and metaphorically, identify the operation of informe with the perceptual abilities of the animal. As is the case with the authors' reinscription of Pollock's or Giacometti's works as originary moments of canonical production, the reader's potentially metaphorical and mythologizing identification with the animal can substantially distort (or resublimate) the purely performative nature of the "desublimatory act of aggression" that is of overwhelming importance to the authors' stated goals.
Another group of dictionary entries, which make up a major portion of the book, are designed to situate the authors' interpretation of Bataille's thought in relation to theoretical formulations not confined to the context of his production. In "Isotropy" ( 103-8) Krauss examines JeanFrancois Lyotard's aversion to hermenutical tendencies in the service of laws of distinct opposition, including, most notably, the "transparently self-explanatory structuralist grid" (Io7). Krauss's interest in demonstrating the compatibility of Bataille's thought with Lyotard's notion of "matrix" hinges on Lyotard's discussions of the mutation of one thing into its opposite. As is the case with Bataille's operations, Lyotard's prioritization of the activity of this mutation, as a process of undoing form, serves Krauss as another influential statement of support for her "antisystemic" interpretation of Bataille. What is slightly more mysterious is her persistent discussion in separate entries-texts that relegate the discussion of actual artworks to the status of the peripheral-of other theorists' articulations of the same basic process of undoing form.5 Jacques Derrida's critique of the Hegelian "neutralization" of oppositionality by a (higher) "third term" (113) is granted its own entry. Roland Barthes's interests in the idea of a collapse of sexual difference ( 154)-with regard to the narrative of Bataille's Story of the Eye of 1926-and the pursuit of the effect of "lowness" related to a photographic "punctum" which triggers the "nonsymbolizable real" (193) are also given considerable space. Such theoretical excursions combine with others to produce a cumulative effect on the reader who receives these successive articulations of a "process" that seems increasingly diffuse because of all of the theoretical and terminological baggage that becomes attached to it as one wades through the various entries.
Part of the motivation for such rearticulations-which seem, at times, more like rehearsals-has to do with the effort to inflate, by association with other thinkers, a reading of Bataille that runs counter to others, such as those of leading Bataille scholars like Georges DidiHuberman (see, for instance, 69 and 81), which place more emphasis on the metaphorical and morphological-rather than the performative-aspects of the informe. The authors particularly revile those who claim the informe as an extension of the category of the "abject," a term that to some extent, for them, represents a kind of kitsch (as a strange mirrorimage of Clement Greenberg's use of the term). As Krauss explains in the entry "Yo-Yo" (214-23) and in her conclusion to the User's Guide, the abject is a distortion (or maybe a kitschy, bourgeois version) of Bataillean informe in the way that it incorrectly thematizes-this becomes a derogatory term for the authors along with the terms concept and symbol as wellits operation as an (ontological) "essence." In the case of the theorist Julia Kristeva, this essence is tied to an undifferentiable maternal lining that is simply too "given over to form" (223); and, in the case of a host of visual artists, the thematics of the abject are bound to a selection of substances overtly referring to excrement and the like (245).
An effect of severely isolating the performative terms of the operation of the informe is that such terms are reiterated and repeated (with regard to artistic and theoretical examples) to the extent that the authors' notion of the informe is, for the reader, gradually transformed from that which is the really "low" or that which is always "squashed" (i.e., as suggested in Bataille's resolutely defeatist dictionary definition) to that which has, to some extent, been resublimated. The resublimation is enhanced by the privileging of several prized moments of release from the epistemological constraints of "good" form. The artists and theorists that Krauss and Bois discuss are in danger of becoming lionized by the reader as heroic or "great" debasers of form. Consequently for the reader this book is, in some sense, an historical account that functions ideologically, by severely fixating certain perceptions while rendering others-such as those related to artistic voices whom are less compatible with the mythologizing imagery of "great" debasers-unthinkable, aberrant, or extreme.
1. T J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 8-9.
2. The term performative originally was coined within the field of linguistic theory and has acquired considerable importance for a variety of critics and theorists of modernist culture, partly because of the influence of Roland Barthes's writings. Within the present context of the User's Guide, the performative indicates the authors' open-ended interpretation of Bataille. The reader of their text is meant to occupy a performative position that depends on being a participant in the material process of the text's production. This performative position contrasts with the passive reliance of the reader on the authors' authority to preclude the reader's active contribution to the making of meaning of the text.
3. Although Krauss and Bois do not provide a statement summarizing their interpretation of informe, Bataille's own definition of the term takes on a kind of exemplary function for their
critical project and occupies a position of promi nence as the only feature of a page preceeding the Users Guide's table of contents. I will explain below that Bataille's definition, associated most generally with an activity of movement from the "high" to the "low" in accordance with the baseness of humanity's instinctual and libidinal life, is resistant to specific metaphorical or descriptive qualities (and therefore to a single, coherent definition). The term informe is meant to take on different connotative possibilities on the basis of the multitude of ways that it is elaborated or performed throughout the book.
4. When Andre Breton's Second Surrealist Manifesto excluded those members of the Surrealist movement reluctant to commit collective action, a group of writers and artists gravitated towards the periodical Documents ( 1929-30), edited by Bataille, whose anti-idealist materialism had produced a hybrid Surrealism that conflicted with Breton's doctrine. Documents provided an unusual mixture of discussion of the popular arts, a variety of disturbing and notorious photographs, and articles on ethnographic subjects.
5. Of course, as a separate and authentic articulation, each of these other theoreticizations involve the application of a different terminology that also must be attended to by the reader Presumably the reward for such attention is the ability to invoke a impressive list of theoretical voices on the basis of very digestible thumbnail sketches of their projects.
Daniel Adler is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School, City University of New York. His dissertation is on the history of formalism in art history and criticism and will focus on the writings of Heinrich Wolfflin, Siegfried Giedion, Clement Greenberg, and Roger Fry.…