Caduff, Corina and Tan Wälchli (eds.). (2019). Artistic Research and Literature. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag. [OA] <https://www.fink.de/view/title/53327>

 

I like to think of artistic research as the union of knowledge and subjectivity, perhaps as rebellion against the large body of so-called ‘objective’ knowledge that is produced by most other scientists and researchers. It came as no surprise to me, then, that a collection of meta-reflective essays on artistic research and literature appeared as a polyphony of individual voices, a diversity worth celebrating. However, it is a diversity that also poses a challenge. Radical differences in style and method make it difficult to perceive the connections between various essays and opinions. Sometimes one can get the impression that they do not relate to each other at all.

Artistic Research and Literature is a collection with 16 essays about the status of literary writing in the discourse around artistic research, edited by the Swiss academics Corina Caduff and Tan Wälchli. In their introduction to the volume, the editors claim that literature has never been explicitly regarded as a possible form of artistic research. They wonder how ‘literary research’ can benefit from and contribute to recent discussions about artistic research. The impetus seems justified. Literary artistic research, recognized as such, is a sub-discipline in its infancy – both on an institutional and theoretical level. Therefore, the editors write, the book aims for “the delineation – albeit provisionally – of the meandering boundaries of a future field of practice-based ‘literary research’” (p. 3).

The provisional character of Artistic Research and Literature might explain the difficulties I had to see ‘the bigger picture’ when reading the book cover to cover. Personally, I felt a lack of overarching questions and shared vocabularies throughout the book. The expertise and individuality of each of the contributors make for an interesting read, but one yearning for interconnections and dialogue. Perhaps research becomes knowledge only when several ideas explicitly build onto each other. This book review can be seen as a first attempt to provide some structure to the newly founded discourse around literary artistic research. I try to do so by creating an overview of the positions taken in by the different contributors to Artistic Research and Literature with regard to one of its sub-questions: what kinds of knowledge are produced and passed on in a work of literary artistic research?

Of course, literary artistic research can do many things, serve many aims, come in many styles and deliver many different kinds of ‘knowledge’ in the broadest possible sense of the word. The contributions to Artistic Research and Literature constitute a wide spectrum of these possibilities, from academic research on a more linguistic level to experimental inquiries into female authorship. My rendering of this spectrum starts with the tension between writing literature and commenting on this practice as an author.

Literary self-reflection. Artistic research sometimes serves to reflect on the practice of art making. Likewise, literary research can be a writer’s means to engage in self-reflection. In the opening essay of Artistic Research and Literature, Jan Baertens asks whether such literary self-reflection needs to happen by means of a supplementary text to the original work of literature. While he answers negatively, Baertens maintains that making art and reflecting on this process demand two different approaches to writing. Whereas a piece of creative writing does not necessarily aim to be understood on a cognitive level, an author’s self-commentary requires a didactic approach provided by a more detached writing style. However, Baertens also acknowledges that a complete separation of art and art criticism – of practice and theory, if you will – undermines a blending of writing and theory as it might naturally happen in a literary writing process. He proposes the literary form of the mixte as a middle way. Conceived by Jean Ricardou, the mixte combines fiction and theoretical writing on fiction as two or more sequential parts of one text. An author plays the roles of artist and critic one after the other, thus offering a special kind of literary self-reflection that could be called literary artistic research.

Uncovering language. A rather different form of literary self-reflection is proposed by Tine Melzer, in her lucid contribution. She argues that the literary text can be used to uncover poetic mechanisms within language: layers of meaning, the weight and the various aspects and images harboured in verbal expressions. Invoking the famous saying-showing distinction by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Melzer regards literature as the field of art in which “autonomous writing and discursive writing can be developed into a unique interplay between those two modes – saying and showing” (p. 156). The distinction is not far from Baertens’ relative separation of literary writing and literary research. Artistic research in literature is a format suitable to use (show) and spell out (say) the mechanisms of language simultaneously, not by blending the two modes until they are indistinguishable, but by putting them in close proximity to one another.

Experimenting with language. Both Tan Wälchli and Vincent Broqua agree with Melzer that literary artistic research can be used to investigate poetic mechanisms of language. However, as opposed to Melzer’s and Baertens’ separation of ‘saying’ and ‘showing’, Wälchli and Broqua prefer “hybridisations” of literary practice and research (p. 122). This suggestion is put into practice by several contributors to Artistic Research and Literature: Maya Rasker engages in “academic fiction” with a letter to Foucault (p. 34), while Daniela Cascella delivers a fragmented and almost diary-like essay on the process of writing. Frederik Nyberg ends each of his paragraphs with a poetic fragment and Redell Olsen presents a series of creatively arranged text columns she calls “scripto-visual costumes”, each of them containing radically different typographies and writing styles (p. 63). Reading Olsen’s essay is primarily a visual experience, a ‘seeing’ that actively attempts to escape existing categorizations of writing in terms like ‘academic’, ‘literary’ or ‘art writing’. Olson puts it beautifully: “If language is approached as a painter might approach the possibilities of paint, then such categories would soon dissolve” (p. 66).

Transforming genres. Anneleen Masschelein, in her turn, analyses a novel by Chris Kraus, I Love Dick, as an example of a literary writing and research hybrid. I Love Dick is an auto-fictional story in which autobiography, fiction and theory are interwoven to review and recreate the author’s own position as a female writer in a male-dominated literary tradition. Self-reflection through literary artistic research thus becomes a means to critique traditional approaches to literature that are suppressive. As Masschelein demonstrates, I Love Dick shows that artistic research in the field of creative writing can “transform the form of the novel into something that cannot really be named but that profoundly changes what is possible in the field” (p. 170).

Critiquing the language of knowledge. Both Masschelein and Baertens refer in their contributions to the work of Roland Barthes.1 Kathrin Busch dedicates her entire contribution to Barthes’ insights and impulses around artistic research in literature. If Barthes can be called an artistic researcher, Busch suggests, it is because he fuses thought and theory with the affective and the aesthetic to the point where they are indistinguishable – totally unlike the relative separation of theory and art practice in the mixte. Importantly, Barthes’ attempt to implement theory into the domain of art aims to transform the way we speak and think about theoretical knowledge. Busch writes: “instead of recording, understanding, or securing knowledge, the fundamental task of artistic research is to dissolve the discourse, to fray knowledge, to subvert truths” (p. 191). What is researched through literary artistic research, then, is neither the genre of creative writing nor the poetic mechanisms of language, but the language of theory and knowledge production. The aim is a political one: to subvert the hegemonic Western discourse of rationality, objectivity and certainty and give space to alternative and long-suppressed voices of knowledge.

Escaping censure. Salomé Voegelin fully concurs with this aim. She foresees that literary writing might be able to escape the pervasiveness of a (post-)Kantian conception of language. Language, Voegelin urges, is not (just) an analytical device that “enables taxonomies of abstract knowledge and creates structures about what things are and how the world is” (p. 101). Such categorizations are covertly exclusionary and therefore old-fashioned. Instead, literary artistic research can serve to make the workings of language opaque and thus reveal its exclusionary mechanisms. In doing so, literary artistic research might be able to collect a vocabulary for what is still inarticulate, as such opening up a new form of knowledge “into the unthinkable and the unimaginable” (p. 103). Voegelin is backed up in this statement by Redell Olson (as briefly mentioned before), who wishes to defy the categorizations of a Western (or Kantian) knowledge discourse by means of an experimental writing style. Like Voegelin, she hopes this enables traditionally unheard groups to raise their voice. Similarly, Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes takes the late emergence of literary writing within the domain of artistic research as a chance for ‘minor literature’, understood via Deleuze and Guattari as a form of writing that is “moving a language of power away from its hegemonic, professionalised and bureaucratic space” (p. 54). The “boring” normative elements of the standard debate on artistic research can be avoided when literature enters, Lerm Hayes suggests (p. 57). Ignoring the differences between them for the moment, it seems like Masschelein, Busch, Voegelin, Olson and Lerm Hayes all agree upon a conception of literary artistic research as a platform for rebellion against the powers of old epistemologies and as a chance to articulate outlooks censored up to now.

Expanding understanding. Alexander Damianisch takes a less political stance. In his clever essay, Damianisch advances the idea that the outstanding quality of literature as research is its capacity to probe the boundaries of human understanding. A methodical approach to literature, Damianisch suggests, could lead to more awareness of the ways in which language shapes reality. This, in turn, is helpful when encountering new realities. Once literature and artistic research join forces, a platform is created in which we can share and deepen our encounters with unfamiliar ways of seeing the world. This position is close to the one taken in by Ferdinand Schmatz. He calls for “a poetic-artistic research that seeks or constructs the ‘other’ truths or realities – and understands these processes as the generation of knowledge. A knowledge that claims nothing new under the sun, but that opens up different perspectives to the world” (p. 129). To embed new viewpoints in our understanding of reality, simply by capturing present perceptions in new shapes, is what poetic and literary artistic research can do for us.

 

Discussion

The spectrum of viewpoints that constitutes Artistic Research and Literature is wide. On the question of the knowledge delivered by literary artistic research alone a large variety of answers is possible. And I have not even started talking about the many institutional and methodological questions discussed throughout the book: these too are approached from a large variety of angles. As said before, this variety is something to celebrate. Or as Lerm Hayes puts it: “it is, in my view, clearly an enrichment that the authors of this volume present a great diversity of vantage points and approaches to our common theme” (p. 49).

Yet even on this issue the different contributors do not seem to have reached consensus. There is Baertens laying down a criterium for literary (self-)knowledge as “transparent to all and open to intersubjective debate and remediation” (p. 16). In a similar context, Busch writes that “there is a need, therefore, for a connecting factor” (p. 188). These are demands I can attest to with regard to Artistic Research and Literature. The great diversity of vantage points and approaches about which Lerm Hayes is speaking is an enrichment only when it is clear how each of them relates to the common theme. However, given the many vocabularies and writing styles employed in the different contributions, it is not immediately perceptible whether each of them is dealing with the same questions – and if so, how the proposed answers are similar or different. This is not to say that one single overarching vocabulary and style would solve the tension between individuality and coherence in a collection of essays like Artistic Research and Literature. As argued in many of the contributions, a unique power of literary artistic research is to develop a great variety of forms of writing, often diverting from the paths of writing commonly trodden. What would be helpful though, I believe, is a form of mediation or translation – a ‘connecting factor’. I imagine a heavily commented edition, perhaps by means of introductions or appendixes to each of the articles written by the editors in a uniform style.2 Only when the various ideas articulated in the contributions are linked together, a structure is created to form the foundation of a new field of knowledge.

Having arrived at this point, I suspect it would not be constructive for me to criticise any of the claims made within certain individual contributions. Rather, I took this book review (perhaps it is more like a reading-aid) as a chance to structure one of the themes explored in Artistic Research and Literature, that of the possible forms of knowledge delivered by literary artistic research. If I succeeded, my efforts demonstrate that there are in fact clear connections between the different contributions to the book – they only needed to be exhibited. Any exhibition or mediation like that implies interpretation. Hence, this book review is by no means a neutral one. I reordered the essays, took sentences out of their original context and rephrased subtle ideas into bold statements. It may well be that my choices in this editing process do injustice to some of the authors’ intentions, and it is likely that they oversimplify the many intricate ideas and connections within and between texts. Without a doubt, I left a lot of overlaps and dissimilarities unexplored – some authors are not even mentioned. I hope these deficiencies are warranted by virtue of them being unavoidable with regard to my present purposes in the current format. My real fear is rather that my call for coherence comes across as old-fashioned, overly rationalistic and terrifyingly masculinist. Yet I simply cannot help but think and feel that it is not very productive to leave everyone speaking for themselves into nowhere, especially not when trying to delineate a future field of research. The valuable multiplicity of voices remains unexploited when their interconnections are not explored. Still, Artistic Research and Literature harbours a fascinating spectrum of ideas that eventually could spark the establishment of a new and promising subdiscipline.

 

Biography

Tobias Servaas is a philosopher of art and language based in Amsterdam. He writes about, teaches and investigates how artists can communicate and collaborate across mediums. His philosophical passions go to the work of the later Wittgenstein, particularly the concepts of aspect-seeing and übersichtliche Darstellung, and its relevance for artistic practice and research. He studied with Garry L. Hagberg at Bard College, NY (2016-17) and with Joseph Früchtl and Martin Stokhof at the University of Amsterdam (2017-19). His master thesis on pointing as a device to talk about art was accompanied with an exhibition, event and publication called Looking at the End of your Index Finger (2019), conceived in close collaboration with ten international artists. His writing is published in several journals, including Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft. He is a frequent guest lecturer at Bern University of the Arts.
 

  • 1. More specifically to The Pleasure of the Text and Barthes’ last course on the preparation of the novel. See Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (1972), translated by Richard Miller. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975 and Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France (1978-1979 and 1979-1980) (2003), translated by Kate Briggs. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011.
  • 2. A good example of this can be found in Clive Cazeaux (ed.) The Continental Aesthetics Reader (2000). 2nd Edition. Abingdon, New York: Routledge, 2011.