Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Critical Proximity

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Critical Proximity

Article excerpt

This essay is concerned with the question of the 'distance' and 'proximity' between a view and its description and, in a broader sense, between criticism and the texts of which it speaks. In contrast to the tradition of 'critical distance', I argue for a relationship between words and images that allows for words to move towards objects in a manner which enlivens them. Meaghan Morris describes this, in Identity Anecdotes, as a practice of 'embracing a critical proximity to our objects of study rather than seeking a distance from them'.1 This essay responds to Morris's description of critical proximity, and addresses the idea of proximity in relation to critical writing about the visual. I argue for a critical writing practice which pays attention to the variable degrees of nearness between criticism and its object, and which seeks to respond to texts on their own terms.

Approaching and writing about texts on their own terms entails foregrounding the specificities and capacities of the medium in question. To question what it means to talk in one medium about the practices of another medium is an essential part of a critical practice that approaches texts on their own terms. How can a writing practice be responsive, and indeed sympathetic, to the specificities of particular texts and sites? Here, I think through that question by considering the space between words and images. This supple space is explored with three examples which demonstrate the activity of looking and the productivity of describing that practice. Rather than speak in general terms about an ideal closeness between a critic and a text, I tease out the degrees of nearness and distance between words and objects of vision. I begin by discussing the role of description in writing about images in relation to Michel Foucault's Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel in order to draw attention to a mode of looking-and a critical mode of describing that looking-which is fussy in its attention to all objects and details within a frame of vision.

I go on to consider the conceptual art practice of Ian Burn and his attention to how we look at art through, and with, words. I suggest that Burn's critical art and writing practice demonstrates the unnecessary split between the material and the conceptual or, to put it another way, between visual experiences and written ideas. The essay concludes by reflecting on Morris's response to Lynn Silverman's photographs of the Australian desert, arguing that Morris's essay is an example of 'critical proximity'.2 By bringing together a marginal work of Foucault on an experimental writer of the early 1900s, an Australian artist's work and writing from the 1960s to the 1990s and a piece of writing by Morris from the 1980s that has received little attention, I am arguing for a mode of critical proximity that is not only spatial, but also temporal. That is, while cultural studies is alert to contemporary aspects of culture, this needn't entail, I argue, a critical distancing of objects and practices of the past.3 By bringing these examples together, I'm suggesting that there remain cues in this work that might compel cultural studies' present. Thus, looking at Foucault's writing on literature, the work of an Australian conceptual artist and Morris's writing on art and photography means that this essay also enacts another relationship of proximity: towards the periphery of cultural studies' preferred range of objects. By bringing these marginal (in cultural studies, at least) examples together, I demonstrate their relevance and critical proximity to cultural studies' present.

-LUMINOUS, PATIENT, SIMPLE THINGS

Sometimes a momentary reflection shines

In the view set into the penholder's tip

Against which my wide-open eye is glued

At a tiny distance, barely held away;

The view is fixed inside a ball of glass

That is small and yet quite visible, tightly clasped

At the top, almost the end of the white penholder

On which red ink has left quite blood-like stains

The view is the very thinnest of photographs

Probably imperceptible to go by

The thickness of the piece of glass which is

Left rough on one side, on the back; but all

This is enlarged when a more curious eye

Comes close enough for a lash briefly to touch. …

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