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Imaging Desire.

A vast field, but one that can be defined nonetheless: this field is made up of the totality of all effective statements (whether spoken or written), in their dispersion as events and in the occurrence that is proper to them. Before approaching, with any degree of certainty, a science, or novels, or political speeches, or the oeuvre of an author, or even a single book, the material with which one is dealing, is, in its raw, neutral state, a population of events in the space of discourse in general. One is led therefore to the project of a pure description of discursive events as the horizon for the search for the unities that form within it.

- Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge

Mary Kelly's writings have rarely been considered to have a raw and neutral state: they are models of sophistication, clear, deeply intelligent, searching essays that over the past twenty-some years have acquired their own historical status and many, many admirers. To have these known classics of feminist art theory collected now in this book makes its publication alone something of an event, for they first appeared in such a variety of places that only the most tireless of her readers could have collected them all, and one of the most important, "Miming the Master," is new. But in addition to being a record of the past, these essays remain timely in ways that the non-feminist might not suspect. "Miming the Master" takes the old Lacanian fascination with mimicry to the contemporary one with passing (for another), turning the problem around to consider not the inside but the outside; that is to say, Kelly takes on the problem of the masculinity inherent (but asymmetrically so) in the practice of display. And this will take her into other territory, the aesthetic practices that lead her to see the avant-garde's business as that of constructing "the category of creative subjectivity as essentially transgressive and metaphorically feminine." Is then the masquerade of transgressive femininity a form of virile display, no matter who puts it on? Like the other essays here, "Miming the Master" leads us again to the consideration of the role of knowledge; as an event it gestures toward possibilities; it parries and returns; it does not construct a voice that turns toward itself, hearing itself alone; it sees knowledge as something dynamic, something important to have in common. This view of knowledge, by the way, is so much more than theoretical.

Many of these essays were written in the context of the post-'68 cultural debates in England, where Kelly, an American, lived and worked from 1968 until 1987 before moving to New York, and now to Los Angeles (she is currently head of the art department at UCLA). Her London writing shows her constant engagement in the collective discussions there, through film projects, reading groups, magazines, and exhibitions, all of which surrounded and supported her PostPartum Document. The accumulation of thoughts in these essays is in many ways typical of what was then up for general discussion by the New Left: ideology and its apparatuses, power-knowledge, semiotics, avant-garde practice, and, for some, sexual difference. The editors of the New Left Review and Screen (of which Kelly became an editor in 1979) were using their pages not only to translate but also to debate any number of European writers (most significantly for future developments, this list included Foucault, Althusser, Barthes, and Lacan). The New Left cast its net wide; synthesis, not hyperspecialization, was the order of the day; debates were public and long; conferences were crowded and instrumental. Theory was understood as itself part of a discursive practice, but not at all (as now) an academic one. Most of the people engaged in this debate were reading and talking out of school. This new theory coming into English in the '70s was conceived to be in league with actions, demonstrations, objects - that is, practice of all possible kinds. Language was supposed to help people move in the desired direction, drive a wedge into the existing authoritative discourses of both state and capital, force state and capital to shatter and crack. Such was the horizon of this collective search for revolution.

Like other British feminists of her generation, Kelly has written and continues to write a critique of the public sphere that takes much of its momentum from a close reading of psychoanalysis, especially Lacan. And yet her view of the world is hardly drawn through the lens of his work alone. Her attention to the questions of sexual difference has led her to consider the different points through which its structuring structures are revealed. Female fetishism was put front and center early, but the arguments move to consider various paradigms of narcissism, masquerade, and other forms or narratives hoping to map the spaces between people. The book assumes that the reader accepts the logic of psychoanalysis, indeed uses it as a truth, but the book is not really working to redefine those concepts analytically or make a difference to psychoanalysis per se. Rather, it is using its chosen concepts for a different demonstration, a politics. I say this by way of a description of its efforts, not as a critique. But this is not the end of the description. Kelly's concepts turn the book outside itself in another way. For the demonstration involves her art.

Kelly's art has always employed language of another kind than the one used for the essays. In its own effort to give pause and thought, it has by and large masked the formal concepts and logics with which the essays deal. The large projects for which she is best known, Post-Partum Document, Interim, and Gloria Patri, show certain typical events in women's consciousness against an obdurate ground, planes of information, memorabilia, polish, stain. Image and language and logic are sunk into that ground. One section of the Post-Partum Document, for example, shows the attempt to speak through the unstated parts of the mother's answer to her child's questions, this the one coming through the dark of night and interrupting his parents' primal scene. The document describes and frames the answer, which leads to an index of the unstated, an index not at all indexical, of an unseen body too:


Demonstrations like these seemed to make the essays necessary, as if there could be a comfort in an explanation. It was in part the language in the art that began the circle that led to the arguments of the essays; meanwhile the essays keep the arc of the circle moving back to the work. (The book illustrates some of this work; one wishes the illustrations were better and that there could be more.) Kelly's explanations, like her art, set problems, articulating them differently perhaps, but what is sharp will still be thorny, like the red palm unresolved. All of this language is bent upon breaking down, whether analytically of rhetorically, the false powers around it and us. The old desire for a revolution has not been extinguished. This is, however, a circle that lives in the present. It keeps expanding its spheres of reference and dialogue. Any reader of Imaging Desire should remember that its language is part of a greater practice, an art, that is speaking to all of us, perhaps most directly when it speaks, as it does in Interim, like this:

The white dress is part of a plot to escape. From what I'm not quite sure, but all through the cold, dark and indifferent winter I have been planning it. Learned academic by day, and by night, secret reader of holiday brochures and eater of maple sugar candy, planning how the three of us would meet in Miami, happy family reunited - father, mother, child, against a backdrop of blue sky and pounding surf of course. I have told no one.

Molly Nesbit is a contributing editor of Artforum.
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Author:Nesbit, Molly
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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