Isobel Wohl


version 1

Susan, an astute businesswoman, sits at a glass-topped desk in a glass-walled office in a large city that, from altitude, gives the impression of a recognisable somewhere. Ken, her coworker, enters. Susan casts a glance in his direction, then, eyes back on the lined paper in front of her, says, There’s no need to pitch to me, I’ve already read what you sent and the project is a total non-starter. Ken opens his mouth.

Really, Ken, says Susan. I mean it.

It is 5 pm. Ken shuts the door. Over the evening Susan allows their brief conversation and the strong shapes of the city to disappear into shadow and more shadow across glass until darkness and then she descends. When the buildings and the sky behind them are indifferent to each other the lightboxes testifying to continued human activity float as in a snapshot of water, buoyed and still. Susan knows one of these is a woman’s office, another a man’s, another another person’s with another unsolvable life, a bankruptcy, an affair, a cough that does not go away or gets worse, and the pavement scurries by underneath as the imagination fills with rust-colored sputum and then the rattle of public transportation until she is home.

Loss has a televised effect. The long notes of the piano make time forward. On YouTube there is Cedric Tiberghien and also Lang Lang not to mention Horowitz and then Argerich reflected 1966 in the open top of a Chopin Scherzo piano, pale partial arm gesturing into the image of music. Susan has learnt the names as they have come up in searches: classical piano concert. It is good that there is YouTube so that you can easily find this sort of thing. And there is night out the window. Next a soft fond face presses into the mind and the pillowand whispers into fitfulness. Dawn happens alongside clumsy disbelief. Susan, an astute businesswoman, dresses.

v. 2

It’s a non-starter, she said to him. I took this to mean it wouldn’t start. Non- meaning that which isn’t whatever follows after it. So not a starter. Non- meaning something like—tough to stretch out a little particle into verbiage, isn’t it, and we all know that non- does it better anyway—meaning something like that which isn’t whatever follows after, or from whose possible identities whatever follows after must be excluded. So, for example, a non-cat excludes cat, can be anything other than a cat because non- excludes what follows (cat andonly cat) from consideration as the referent of this noun-amalgamation. We only know that cat is what it isn’t. Similarly non-interventionist, non-operational, non-tame, non-representational, non-dog,non-goat, non-seeing, non-image, and perhaps even nonsense. Non-starter.

A non-starter: it’ll never get going, won’t go anywhere, won’t work, is of no interest, no point trying. It won’t get off the ground, as it were, because its engine or its engine analog, engine cognate, won’t start. Non-aviatory. Or perhaps: were this it a horse or a greyhound, itwouldn’t make a speedy exit from the gate, the better to speedily round the track, the better to finish first.

v. 3

I am writing. I am writing a text on non, and this text is also about the image. I know where I want it to go, but it won’t start. It won’t get off the ground. Mired, I cannot get to the thing I want to tell you, which is to suggest that non- can be a condition of the image rather than an exclusion of it, that the non- in non-image offers something fundamental about the image’s operation.

I draw out the text, I work with an idea of its structure. I picture it. I picture its way of making what it will say intelligible and of making meaning that pushes at the edge of intelligibility. I write into the differential between this image and what is on the page. Writing happens in the jetlag of intention. I am deeply uncomfortable.

v. 4

A writer, alone, imagines an audience, which is to say a writer constructs an image of an audience. A writer imagines an audience that reads a description of an idea and puts down the book, closes the webpage. Eyeroll, gossip, alternatives.

Have you now imagined multiple versions of a non-starter? My suggestion, reader, is that you consider them as test cases, useful possibilities, helpful fictions. And from these possibilities the question comes: what does the non- do?

See version 3: non- meaning not whatever follows after it, non- starter meaning that which doesn’t start, that which does something other than start. I intuit this rule from habits of writing and speech; later, I familiarise myself with the rich history of names that make use of non’s logical possibilities and are therefore called indefinite or infinite.(i)  So a non-starter isn’t a starter; the non- removes ‘starter’ from any possibility of starting.

By the same logic, a non-image cannot be an image. A non-image may be anything else, but an image is what it can’t be, what is excluded from the field of possibility that the word non-image brings into being. And yet something’s recurrence as not itself, as non-itself, is exactly the image’s condition. Maurice Blanchot writes that the image is ‘the thing as distance, present in its absence, graspable because ungraspable, appearing as it disappeared. It is the return of what does not come back, the strange heart of remoteness as the life and the sole heart of the thing.’(ii)  If we call ‘distance’ that which separates, then the thing as distance is the thing as an index of separation. Like distance, non- marks a differential, in this case from the presumed identity of the following word’s referent. I am therefore tempted to align the two, to read in Blanchot’s text a correlation between the image’s work and the indefinite.

And it is true: when I stand in front of an image, I have the sense that its imaginary quality isequal parts exclusion and presentation. In representation, for example, I may see an apple, a knife, a family as they are when there is no apple, knife, family. They are as excluded from themselves, and yet they are presented. Or, if the work shows no intelligible object, I may see, in the image, a segment of the world in which the world departs from recognition, a non-everyday visuality. Non- is indisputably at play, and attention to the logic of the indefinite brings greater clarity to Blanchot’s description of the image’s nature:

But what is the image? When there is nothing, the image finds in this nothing its necessary condition, but there it disappears. The image needs the neutrality and the fading of the world; it wants everything to return to the indifferent deep where nothing is affirmed; it tends toward the intimacy of what still subsists in the void. This is its truth. But this truth exceeds it. What makes it possible is the limit where it ceases. (iii)

Indeed, the image and the indefinite are both made possible by the limit where they cease. The condition of possibility of the non-starter or non-cat or non-what-have-you is starter, cat, what have you. That which is excluded, i.e. the limit, gives rise to these indefinite—what? Indefinite what, exactly? Neither concepts nor designations is apt. Heller-Roazen writes that ‘in On Interpretation, the word “indefinite” constitutes less the name of a concept than the index of a difficulty, which troubles the theory of terms, sentences, and the regularities of truth and falsity that are to hold between forms of stated opposition.’ (iv) The relationship between the image and the indefinite is born of attention to the stubbornness of this continued difficulty inherited from Aristotle, attention to its persistent abdication of fixity and to its refusal to become a term. It would not be wrong to say that when there is nothing, the indefinite finds in this nothing its necessary condition, and that there it disappears. Non-shares an impulse with negation, without which it cannot do its work; however, it loses its intelligibility when subsumed into no. I contend that this position is similar to that occupied by the image. My task in this text is to explore via image, gesture, and explication a few further commonalities between the image and infinite logic.

version 1, reprise

Susan gets to the office early; it is empty. No one is in the conference room, no one is getting coffee. In a long ream of paper someone is willing to lend someone else money forthe creation of a new something, someidea, somestartup, an eventual acquisition of someconglomerate sometime perhaps.

Someconglomerate Sometime was the employer perhaps of a dying man who, sometime earlier, noted a persistent cough and red sputum. Sputum is the doctor word for the gunk that comes out with the cough and the hacking and heaving. This is what was noted. Then bright lights and waiting times and antiseptic spurred the officiation of diagnosis. Papers were printed. Before long a certificate, songs and flowers, fire. In Susan’s mind dust brings to peace a body that isn’t. Her father father in the lost body that thinking makes irrecuperable. In lost body dust hacking still happens, laps are sat on, hands are held, rough from work for some company. This is long ago and letting go must happen.

Faced with Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere, Georges Didi-Huberman notes red dots that, according to an iconographic reading of the painting, ought to depict Christ’s stigmata, alongside other red dots that, according to the same iconographic reading, ought to depict flowers in the garden. He further notes that these dots are exactly the same, that the flowers and the stigmata are painted in exactly the same way, and that this allows for an indiscernability to arise between wound and blossom, an indiscernability that is crucial to the way in which the painting delivers its meaning. (v)  Didi-Huberman writes that the logic of the imaginary is associative and based on ‘signa translata,’vi ‘signs or operators of conversion.’ (vii) Images cannot be read in terms of stable motif; imaginary thought ‘structures itself by shifting.’ (viii)

Signa translata allow meaning to arise in the slippage between two associated points, in the translation or conversion between them—and yet it would be a misunderstanding to suggest that one point is converted or translated into the other, that one point is expressed in terms of the other, for example, that Fra Angelico suggests that a wound is like a flower or that, symmetrically, a flower is like a wound. Such a suggestion relies on the misconception that all image is essentially metaphor, the expression of one thing in terms of another via a link that, while poetic rather than literal, is solid. What happens here, instead, is the deployment of something properly called figural, (ix) of something that functions as a destabilisation of discourse rather than mere turn of phrase obeying essentially discursive imperatives of logic-construction. For example, a theologian could argue Christ’s wounds are the flowers of his body in that they are beautiful embellishments that result from the natural unfolding of time and of God’s plan for salvation; however, this does not capture the imaginary power of the confluence of flower and wound in thought and in vision: more bluntly, their confluence in red. It does not capture the power of the confluence because it removes its fluidity; this logic wants to make a stable joint. All very well, but the image is not interested.

The association of two signa translata occurs in the indefinite, which is the imaginary’s sphere of activity. Consider that it is the fact that the wound is non-wound (i.e. an image of the wound) that allows it to become associated with the flower understood as non-flower, after which a play of energetics can present itself in and to vision. For Didi-Huberman, gazing at Noli me tangere, the iconic quality of the spots gives way to their status as index, (x) opening new possibilities for what reading in images can be. Non- is the first impulse of this movement’s flexion. Without non-, the extension and torque that allow for the experience of signa translata cannot occur. Without an acknowledgment of the indefinite, language in its communicative function struggles to open towards the visual; the intimation then remains that when a visual object takes up the place allotted to it in language it surrenders its mutability and sinuousness, resigning itself to the task of self-defence in the face of discourse’s voracity. And yet there isa sympathetic position—and position is still not the right term, albeit the closest—that hides defiantly in language’s midst, stubbornly slippery. Non- is the shiver that opens meaning to and in the image.

version 1, reprise reprise (eight months later)

On the internet sad people have interpretation problems. Susan resolves next year to volunteer more; they (the knowing, healthy they) say that people who do charity work are happier.

Ken, having quit, is doing well. He has raised a considerable amount of money on KickStarter for Blotto Life, a mobile networking-based luxury event-organisation app that takes its inspiration from the Gilded Age. The last time they messaged he told Susan yet again he couldn’t see how she hadn’t seen the potential.

No but really, she texted back, who needs this? What do you do with it?

It’s like Gatsby but Uber, he wrote.

Anyway, Susan is now disillusioned, yes, ungilded, as it were, and looking at painful well-filtered Instagram posts in which Ken extols his wife and his love for his wife. They go together to beautiful places, those two and the daughters. Susan could not love Blotto Life. Familial InstaKen is unforthcoming and at any rate not obligated to justify anything.

Another vision: Virtue is quadrilateral, (xi) proffers Salomon Maimon as an example of an indefinite statement. Maimon derives his understanding of the indefinite from his principleof determinability, a core feature of his philosophical work and of his understanding of the construction of synthetic thought, (xii) developed from the action that logic and grammar ordinarily call predication. According to this principle, a statement is composed of two parts, one of which can be ‘thought without the other (thought in itself)’ (xiii) and the other of which cannot; this first is the ‘determinable,’ (xiv) which is determined by the other, the ‘determinant,’ in the resulting statement, a ‘real’ synthesis (xv) or ‘absolute concept.’ (xvi) ‘For example,’ writes Maimon, ‘a triangle or space enclosed by three lines can be thought just as well in itself, without reference to its being right-angled or oblique-angled, as it can be thought disjunctively.’ (xvii)  Therefore, in the sentence ‘the triangle is right-angled or oblique-angled,’ the determinant ‘right-angled or oblique-angled’ determines ‘triangle;’ this determination gives rise to a new idea of the right-angled or oblique angled triangle. (xviii) For Maimon, when a real synthesis occurs, the ‘determination becomes a determinable’ (xix) and therefore both a concept in itself and, potentially, the condition or ground of further concepts.

In Maimon’s indefinite statement, one part doesn’t determine the other in this manner, that is to say, such that ‘determined means not merely posited, but determinately posited.’ (xx) There is no aspect of the concept virtue to which quadrilaterality might sensibly attach; as such, the concepts ‘admit of no real synthesis.’ (xxi)  The statement creates no new idea that can be conceptualised as an independent unit. (xxii)  However, it isn’t a negative: elsewhere, Maimon considers the negative judgement, which results in an exclusionary determination, such as ‘An equilateral triangle cannot be right-angled.’ (xxiii)  In an infinite judgment like ‘Virtue isquadrilateral,’ by contrast, ‘no new object is determined;’ however, ‘it is also true that nothing thought in virtue is eliminated.’ (xxiv)

Something else: the stirring of something. I notice a slippery commonality.

Virtue is quadrilateral is an image. The logic that results from it—the logic of non- —is the logic of an image, logic in which one part doesn’t determine the other, in which a wound doesn’t determine a garden, in which the search for confirmations and denials is a path of primrose certainty and blindness to red spots.

Reader, I’m asking you to accept that Susan and the image don’t determine each other, nor do red spots or rectangles or rhombi. I am asking you to explore connections without thereby creating a unitary construction with stable and immobile joints. I am asking you to consider imaginary reading: generative nondetermination. And then to think with non-.

So there was, on a beach, a man with an unknowing woman, with children, yes, and the children put their small feet in the water and were loved. And they were joyous in front of the iPhone camera, they laughed and made faces. They showed their new teeth. Rainbow sprinkles wound up on their cheeks and smudged red yellow green blue pink into their cheek apples and into the momentary infolds of swift grins. When they went whale watching the ocean opened out around their vessel in little jagged waves; their mother, seasick and sheepish, was a good sport and posed also. In this picture there is a white railing, there iswater and sky and a gull and a dark-haired woman whose expression makes her discomfort in front of the camera into a testament of love, yes, there is something in the eyes, today there has been no surfacing animal. The caption says they are still waiting to see one but enjoying themselves in the meantime. It is nice to be together on the water.

To say that in the statement virtue is quadrilateral the concept quadrilateral doesn’t determine virtue so as to create a new concept (quadrilateral virtue?) is not to say that one can’t say anything about the possibility of virtue’s being quadrilateral. We can still, for example, say that the idea—the image—of virtue’s being quadrilateral (and this possessive is tenuous, for how can the fact of being quadrilateral belong to virtue if this image arises between the two points, rather than as a determination of one by the other?) suggests an evenhandedness, asymmetry that evokes fairness. If virtue is quadrilateral, the virtuous will probably also be just, reasonable, predictable. And yet I write this with anxiety, deeply sensitive to the fact that I am building ideas on an image, that is, on a shifting foundation. If I take a step, I do soon slippery ground.

Put differently: I’m not putting virtue into the terms of quadrilaterality (how could I?) but rather allowing the associations, vectors, and energies that arise between virtue and quadrilaterality to create meaning outside of signification. And yet if the image operates in the indefinite how can one take it as any basis for speech that does make determinations?

With uncertainty. Unabashed uncertainty. The element of my writing that is discursive is distinct from the image’s own operation, or non-operation, which is not inoperativity but rather operation’s exclusion, the failure of operation to obtain. I must feel the discomfort of this distinction and I must not lie to you about it.

Do you ask how non-operation and operation can be the same? For Maimon, ‘virtue is non-quadrilateral,’ like ‘virtue is quadrateral,’ is an indefinite statement; he writes that ‘so-called infinite judgments may be said to be those whose subject contains as little reason for the affirmation as for the negation of the predicate.’ (xxv) There is no more reason for virtue to be quadrilateral than there is for it to be non-quadrilateral; between a and non-a indiscernability takes hold. And this indiscernability shifts my understanding of representation. If we accept that the indefinite and the imaginary share a logic, then we can understand the workings of the image anew.

Our first impulse, supported by ancient philosophy, (xxvi) traditional art history, and popular opinion, is to consider the representational image as a flat replication or icon (xxvii) of what it represents. This borrows from the assumption that a and non-a cannot be the same; in short, that if the object represented is a, then the image, as non-a, must be distinct from its referent in representation. We consider this assumption to be borne out by the fact that a picture is not, of course, literally identical with its referent, and so we organise our thinking about representation around a play of absence and presence: Someone paints a picture of a knife because the knife is not there, and thus he desires to represent it. (xxviii) He must desire other things as well, of course, but the representation part is thought along these lines, as an accounting for the fact of something’s being elsewhere, alongside which other painterly qualities have the opportunity to exhibit themselves. This understanding of representation splits the operation of the image and does little to account for its terrifying power, for its sway over the heart, the gut, and the small hairs on the back of the neck. It cannot explain how a painted knife is both a knife and not a knife, nor does it touch on the clear rhythm of reflected squares, the full part of the glass, the empty part of the glass, the edge of the picture, a cutting diagonal force. What can venture to explain this?

If we consider the operation of the image as indefinite in Maimon’s sense, abdicating determination and the creation of ‘real synthesis,’ the vectors and spacings ordinarily presupposed by representation cease to be useful. A clearer idea emerges: the presentation of the ‘thing as distance’ and the possibility of movement between signa translata are both functions of the destabilisation of the exclusion ordinarily demanded by logic between a and non-a. This destabilisation occurs when we read images in the indefinite, in short, when reading is not aligned with the interpretation of stable units of meaning. The thing as distance is no longer presented because a similar thing exists elsewhere but rather because a strange legibility has been inaugurated, one in which signification succumbs to aloofness, to perpetual distance. Reading and the imaginary then cease to be opposed to each other. A ghostly flesh settles on the experience of looking, and with ghostly lips, teeth, palate, larynxtrembling speech is possible.

Is this the end? thinks Susan. I belong to the edgetongues of snapping lizards. Vengeance is asymmetrical.

Miscalculations occur from time to time in all sorts of endeavours. So a non-starter starts. So a dismissed project, taken elsewhere, proves a great success, whatever that means. So jilted somelover—non-lover now, to be technical, or lover, to be apt, because aptness needs honesty, is honesty—anyway, somenonlover emails in protest re: zero contract emotionality, and the recipient writes back I don’t understand how you didn’t see what this was and then somehow the text of the email makes its way online. The text of the email makes its way online. Ken has sent it to a friend for comment and that friend, having written back, has shared the email onward with an insouciant and incomplete anonymising gesture, he has laughed and shared it for laughing, and so on, messenger to messenger and onward until its phrases are as if devoid of any human source. The shaking fingers that typed it can no longer be imagined. They made such irregular tapping noises, so halting, choking, light. Someone has shared the text to a message board; it was no big deal. Raucous behandled individuals join forces from diverse locations. They rejoice in undercover boldness and in shame they cannot see, in thefact of elsewhere reddening cheeks and sweat.

What a chump! Tbh it’s just sad

hahahahahaha omg I can’t.
I don’t feel bad for her, if she’s embarrassed she shouldn’t have done it, though to be fair he sounds like a total shit as well, whoever he is. But really who would write such a pathetic email anyway, I mean, have some realistic expectations lesson: know what you’re getting yourself into. and know when something is over.

Susan is ginger with the most vile of the comments. She skims the ones in which wounds open up and irretrievable humiliation is visited upon her, the ones by which wounds are opened up and irretrievable humiliation is visited upon her.

I don’t feel bad for her. Pathetic. Who is this woman anyway? Who is Susan Rabanowitz?

I’m sorry, Ken writes later. On the news a new governor is taking office in the state containing this large nameless city. He swears an oath. And then there is the world outside. Not only outside the city but outside the state. There are places for nonself somebody where greenness can happen. But still in the fields large earworms are forcing themselves into vision. Their fat wide teeth persist.

i  Daniel Heller-Roazen, No One’s Ways: An Essay on Infinite Naming (Brooklyn, NY: Zone, 2017) 54; also 59-73ii Maurice Blanchot, tr. Ann Smock, ‘Two Versions of the Imaginary,’ The Space of Literature (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982) 256.
iii  Blanchot, 254.

iv  Heller-Roazen, 32
v  Georges Didi-Huberman, tr. Jane Marie Todd, Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) 19-20.
vi  ibid, 21
vii  ibid
viii  ibid
ix  ibid, 22; also see Jean-François Lyotard, tr. Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon, Discourse, figure (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011) 7.
x  Didi-Huberman, 21.
xi  Salomon Maimon, Kathegorien des Aristoteles, in Gesammelte Werke, vol. 6, p. 150, as cited in Heller-Roazen, 143

xii  Heller-Roazen, 140
xiii  Salomon Maimon, tr. Nick Midgley, Henry Somers-Hall, Alistair Welchman and Merten Reglitz, Essay on Transcendental Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2010) 52; also cited by Heller-Roazen, 140
xiv  ibid
xv  Maimon, Essay, 52
xvi  ibid, 49, also cited in Heller-Roazen, 140
xvii  Maimon, Essay, 49
xviii  Heller-Roazen, 141
xix  Maimon, Essay, 52
xx  Maimon, Essay, 54
xxi  Heller-Roazen, 143
xxii  ibid
xxiii  Maimon, Kathegorien, vol. 6 p. 150, as cited in Heller-Roazen, 142
xxiv  ibid, as cited in Heller-Roazen, 143
xxv  Maimon, Kathegorien, vol 6 p. 224, as cited in Heller-Roazen, 145
xxvi  for a well-known example, consult Plato, Republic, book X, 595c-597e
xxvii  Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘What Is A Sign?’ in The Essential Peirce, ed. the Peirce Edition Project (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998) vol. 2, p. 5
xxviii  Richard Diebenkorn, Knife in a Glass, 1963. Collection of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation; available online at Retrieved 19 January 2018.

ISOBEL WOHL is a visual artist and writer. She is interested in how to make an image of a thing and in the spaces and positions that can be found in this of. In her work, painting and text are places for the collection and loss of objects and of possibilities for recognition.

Her visual work extends from painting into a diverse range of media, including photogram, drawing, collage, print, and textile; she writes short stories, poetry, exhibition texts, and essays. She thinks of the distinctions she makes between these materialities and formats as open questions.

Wohl holds a BFA summa cum laude from New York University and an MA in Painting from the Royal College of Art, where she is currently completing her PhD. Her work has been shown internationally and published by various journals and art platforms, including E.R.O.S. Journal, Litro Online, and Lychee One Gallery.

Current projects include If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to Instagram it, does it still happen?, an online exhibition of texts organised by the curatorial collective It’s Kind Of Hard To Explain in conjunction with the digital platform IsThisIt?, as well as an ongoing collaboration with artist Alida Sayer. This spring, Wohl will participate in a four-person exhibition at Bankley Gallery in Manchester, and a short story of hers will appear in the anthology ON VIOLENCE, forthcoming from the imprint MA BIBLIOTHÈQUE. She was recently awarded a residency at the Cill Rialaig Arts Centre in Ballingskelligs, Ireland for early 2019.

‘NON-STARTER’ was developed from ongoing work towards Wohl’s practice-led PhD in Fine Art. A version of the text presented here will form a section of the completed PhD project.

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