Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

By Poirier, Richard | Artforum International, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit


Poirier, Richard, Artforum International


THE DYNAMICS, the provocations, the sacrifices entailed in any collaborative viewing and interpreting of works of art are easy enough to imagine. But for Leo Bersani, former chair of French and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and Ulysse Dutoit, who has taught film at the same institution for some twenty-five years, the collaborative effort has proved a creative stimulant nurtured to a point where it is by now the veritable ethic of the brilliant, often controversial books they have jointly written, beginning with The Forms of Violence in 1985.

I have been a close friend to both since the time of their first meeting in Paris in 1968, and with Bersani for even longer than that; I know each of them to be formidably articulate, intelligent, and strong willed. For such individuals, collaboration in the interpretation of painting, film, sculpture, and writing could prove to be at the very least an inconvenience, with each party to such an undertaking exerting a digressive, at times diluting influence on the inevitably intense focus of the other. It could become a challenge to what is considered the necessary self-assertiveness governing any determination of what is most importantly "there" in a work of art, while of course subordinating, even erasing, other features of it. William James once complained that this kind of governance is built into the very structure of our ordinary sentences.

But what might be construed as a sacrifice of critical force has, in Bersani and Dutoit's case, become an enormous, and, I think, exemplary enhancement of it. In fact, the often passionately expressed intention of their work is to challenge that will to power, which has its corollary in what is so frequently the critic's envy of achievements grudgingly recognized as greater than his own. Looking together at the same picture or the same film, then writing together about it, as Bersani and Dutoit manage to do, can produce a tension between collaborators that relieves the antagonism inherent in the critic's competitive relation to works of art; it saves their work from that fixed exclusivity of purpose that actually blocks the possibilities of a fuller interpretive receptivity and inquisitiveness. …

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