Against Autobiography: Deirdre Logue's Why Always Instead of Just Sometimes
Not Persephone, Per Se
Persephone — stolen by Hades to be Queen of the Underworld for the winter months, her abduction witnessed only by the sun, pomegranate seeds in her pockets. The name means something like "she who destroys light." Deirdre Logue's half hour Why Always Instead of Just Sometimes — made of a dozen individually titled components — does not exactly destroy light. But it revels in anxiety, sensualizes it, renders it seductive, beautiful. It excavates points of light from darkness, is sustained within an infrared nuclear glow. Earlier work was slapstick: physical misfortunes came from external forces. In these new works the body is buffeted by itself, an inside job. Anxiety is a purely internal force that makes only a slight, wistfully comic, mark on the world.
The first component is titled "Perse," which evokes a silenced Persephone, a Persephone without the -phone. (There is always something silly about riffing on the possible associations of names, as in Derrida's writings on Genet and Ponge. Silly, yet compulsively engaging. One finds meaning where no meaning should be, where no meaning has been consciously, explicitly authored. The kind of meaning-making that slips so easily into the paranoia of conspiracy theories. Certain signs may be arbitrary, but meaning —if it is meaningful — must surely be motivated.) In "Perse" a light-destroyer performs a self-silencing monologue.
"Perse" functions as a limit-setting introduction to the components that follow. It is an explanation and apologia. In extreme close-up — her face fills the frame — Logue whispers in the conspiratorial tone of secret-telling "What I really want to say is private," the starting point of all confession and much autobiography. Her face has a violet tint reminiscent of reflected monitor light, the voice is distorted and the image stutters with some kind of motion blur. Still, the voice seems to belong to the body. We don't see much of the body, not even the entire head: its all face, the age is indeterminate, the gender is nominally female, like a hockey mom or dyke. (Students in my grad seminar "Queer Pictures" — including a female-to-male transsexual — identified Logue as possibly transsexual or, as they preferred, "gender queer," a term I had not heard before.) She continues:
While Logue enunciates individual words with a clear deliberateness, the rhythm of the sentences is slow, with uneven pauses. The words "per se" act as refrain and punctuation, the repetition draining the words of their referentiality, their linguistic meaning. Already alienated from meaning by the misspelled (mis-spaced) title, Logue deploys "per se" as a parody of the way in which the term is colloquially used — as a slightly formal way of hedging one's bets by calling into question the accuracy of particular categories, definitions or events. When one hears, "It wasn't exactly iambic pentameter, per se," the speaker usually means, "It wasn't exactly iambic pentameter, exactly," and nothing more.
"Per se" (in Logue's video) is a metonym for the impossibility of any linguistically-based representation of an authentic fact or experience of the world to be self evident, a thing in itself. There is no "per se" in Logue's monologue: no utterance is self-evident. "Per se" obliterates the very possibility it calls for, parodically setting the limits of speech before turning, in the video's subsequent components, to modes of discourse that are not primarily linguistic.
The trap, the double bind, of first-person discourse in the now-dominant mode of confessional autobiography: "I can tell you anything that is not a secret" co-exists with "The only things worth hearing are secrets." Together, they form the engine of the false candour on which we thrive. The more fundamental question — particularly for an artist — is why say anything at all. But, taking for granted the necessity of a discursive self-presentation, one must proceed with the task of self-representation.
Identity politics collapsed under the weight of its own hypocrisy: it refused to acknowledge or negotiate the always-profound difference between group identity and individual subjectivity. (Or, perhaps more generously, it prioritized group identity over the complexities of an always already alienated individual subjectivity.) The question under the recently eclipsed regime of identity politics was always a spooky one for me: How do I manifest the attributes of the various groups of which I am, or claim to be, a constituent. Still, it was a question.
In "Perse," Logue succinctly traces the limit of post-identity politics' self-presentational discourse.
In Godard's masterwork JLG par JLG he states that the film (JLG par JLG) is not autobiography but self-portrait. The distinction is, I think, important. Autobiography is a retrospective narrative told in the first person in which the author, narrator and implied author coincide. Moreover, autobiography has the goal of arriving, through its backward journey, at a true or authentic self knowledge, the subject's profound, inner core. Typically, the autobiography is prose.
The self-portrait is typically an image: painting, photograph. In writing, the self-portrait is often referred to as a sketch, and tends to be more descriptive than narrative.
The act of autobiography is not active, not performative, but reflective. Autobiography requires an act of removal. The subject must step out of the narrative stream of life events and recount, remember, reflect from a position that is inactive, neutral, removed. In autobiography, introspection is retrospection. The self-portrait is not retrospective but, relatively speaking, immediate, in the present.
(There remains the dream of an autobiography that consists entirely of an account of its own writing, a completely reflexive text in which the subject's life consists entirely of writing/recording the activity of writing/recording the life of writing/recording. Perhaps a bit like those early epistolary novels in which the characters write letters recounting events even as those events are unfolding. Of course, such a life would be no life at all. Evidence, perhaps, that the possibility of life converging with art is remote. Art must be used as a wedge against life. Or: there is no life, only art.)
One can have but one authentic autobiography, but an endless number of self-portraits.
Can autobiography even exist in the moving image? I'm beginning to doubt it. Film or video cannot be retrospective in the way writing can. In autobiography the subject necessarily fragments into separate agents: author, narrator, implied author. What becomes of the subject in self-portraiture? They do not become merely a reference point for gauging verisimilitude, surely. Not simply the origin for a series of possible likenesses. In the self-portrait, the subject does not fragment into separate agents, but regresses into masquerade, into play. Not the rotation of empty (hollow, death) masks that Derrida characterized the project of autobiography to be, but a series of poses that are struck, recorded, abandoned.
My ass smells like shit.
Autobiography wants everything. It wants you dead. It is teleological. It begins at the end, and then works — inevitably, inexorably — to that end.
It is difficult to think of introspection without retrospection, introspection without temporal depth. Self portraiture is a flash of introspection, shallow, immediate, without depth. Surface introspection. A queer thing.
Autobiography can never be capricious.
No longer "Know thyself." Instead "Keep your self to yourself." Or, possibly, "Keep yourself to your self."
Why Always Instead of Just Sometimes is not autobiography but self-portraiture, a series of self-portraits.
"Exemplary" is a strange word as it means both the best of its kind (A+) or the most characteristic (C). Still, things seem so often to be exemplary in both respects simultaneously. Why Always Instead of Just Sometimes is exemplary. It is, to follow a thesaurus' synonyms, excellent, outstanding and commendable as well as illustrative, characteristic and typical.
As my graduate students noted, many of the segments are clearly situated in a tradition of video performance in which the artist performs a simple action with their body and a few props. The actions generally have a psycho-sexual and sculptural aspect and are recorded by a single, stationary camera in a single take. Certain tropes reappear: compulsive repetition; a masturbatory, intense concentration; use of domestic objects and spaces for contrary ends; gaze fixed on something off-camera, presumably a monitor; actions which vacillate between comfort and trauma.
The best segments of Why Always Instead of Just Sometimes exceed their cliches in various ways. One is Logue's interest in the texture of the image. Many segments combine, through layers and superimpositions, hand-processed film (both 16mm and small gauge) and digital video. Often there is a dominant, representational image with the textural flatness of digital video that is superimposed with a blotchy, grainy film image that, rather than representing objects figuratively or visually, pushes the entire visual field into a haptic territory.
Even in the most familiar of the segments, something is going on in addition to a cliched video performance.
Logue's persistent use of doublings, reversals, superimpositions, as well as having the segments formally paired or trebled creates a structure in which individual components — sometimes slight on their own — resonate.