Exploring the Critical I. text piece commissioned by the Static Gallery in Liverpool for the Static Pamphlet. Available on-line on www.static.org. Published by the Static Gallery in an anthology on arts criticism ‘Us and Them’, editor Becky Shaw and Gareth Woollam, 2005, ISBN 0-9546498-1-8

Exploring the Critical “I”

Sit yourself down comfortably, staring ahead of you, looking at nothing in particular and repeat ten times in slow succession: Why am I I?

The usual effect of this experiment is a sharp certainty about the limits of your body and mind, and a strong sense that you exist. Most likely some acquaintances of yours and even people you only met in passing will flash before your mind’s eye and you are suddenly very clear about the fact that you are not them. Maybe you start to wonder what it would be like to be them, how they are feeling, what they are thinking, etc.. In any event you realise with startling clarity that you have always been you, and that you can only ever be yourself. This is accompanied by a stark sense of incredulity that one should exist as one does. (Why me?) Subsequently you might be overcome by a strange sensation of being trapped, or you might experience an immense sense of joy. Either way, you perceive an intense focus on yourself and all relationships to people and things around you appear quite fragile and distant, impossible to draw them closer, however much you squint.

I see a barrel rolling down the hill into a ditch, a male figure gets out, I see him from the back running, disappearing behind the corner at the foot of the bridge. Then my glance becomes his. His arms extend out in front of me his voice is between my ears. Having just escaped from prison he is on the run and I am running with him. I am caught in his body. His eyes are my picture frame. Struggling with bushes and the steep terrain we run onto the main road. We stop a car and hitch a lift negotiating the driver of the car as a ‘‘you’’ vis-à-vis our shared ‘‘I’’. This intimacy is dizzying, every time he turns his head I turn as well, I am caught as in a vice, unable to look back, unable to choose my own image. His monologues are our dialogues, are him as me.

The man is Vincent Parry. His character guides the camera around Delmer Dave’s film Dark Passage. The clumsy sharp edges of the camera trap the eyes of the viewer in the body of the character. He/I is/am invisible to him/myself whilst clearly always at the centre of the action. It is claustrophobic in these eyes, there does not seem enough space to breath and I would like to turn around to look at myself, to gauge myself from without myself. However, the director insists, and every ‘look’ at myself is a look from within myself which gets caught in the incredulity of a singular existence.

From this point on there is no us but only a them and even this ‘‘them’’ is quite clearly heterogeneous beyond categorical descriptions. Every ‘‘them’’ is an ‘‘I’’ as I, and communication becomes a matter of desire, the willingness to collude momentarily in a collective sense with no expectations to hold on

to it as meaning.

By the time Vincent Parry has visited a plastic surgeon and become Allan Lanelle I know that there is no other place to view the film from but myself. And although he is turning around to me now, facing me and becoming a ‘‘you’’ to my ‘‘I’’, I know that I am the centre of the film I am viewing. The film is produced in my contingent complicity. My spectatorship is that of a transitive viewer, my engagement narrates the material. I see as Roland Barthes’ écrivant writes: urgently and individually, producing the film in my temporary perception rather than reading it from a distanced position through the channels of filmic orthodoxies and conventions.(1)

For the viewer as spectatant (spectating) the film is an individual and subjective expression, provisional but not ambiguous. It is rendered unambiguous due to the particularity of my subjectivity. Ambiguity arises in the generality of (film) language, not in the particularity of the action of seeing. By contrast, for the spectator the film is a text, monumental, and thus invites and confirms consensual interpretations and objective criticism. I understand this not as a paradox. Rather, if you understand the work from a meta-position, confirmed beyond its current perception in a shared reading, you can accept subjective interpretations and ambiguous readings without them destroying the underlying authority of its institutional language, and thus without interpretative ambiguity destroying the authority of the consensual voice. For the transitive viewer this is different. The authority of my perception lies in my individual and momentary conviction. The work is produced in my viewing of it, and my interpretation becomes the film as a generative action. Thus the sense of the film lies in the conviction of my interpretative production rather than in the relation to presumed conventions of contextualisation and its orthodoxies of valuation. Such an urgent and individual perception seems to be forever in conflict with conventions of viewing and cultural inertia and thus challenges any notion of ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’ sustained beyond the moment of perception. The transitive Barthes disregards ontological values and his individual fervour and engagement leads continuously to a particular subjectivity: an ‘‘I’’ as I experience it in the sharp intensity of being only ever in the moment myself. My ‘‘I’’ is radically me, any affiliation in an ‘‘us’’ or a ‘‘them’’ is only my desire to stop the dizzying intensity of looking from within and survey the frame from a detached position, outside the work. My need to escape the intense involvement makes me negotiate a consensual sense.

What makes Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) trust Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), is his desire to connect, the will to overcome the intensity of the ‘‘I’’ in a momentary ‘‘us’’. He needs this alliance to get himself out of his difficulties as an escaped convict on the run. (He was put away three years earlier for allegedly killing his wife.) Everybody else seems a hostile and suspicious ‘‘them’’ to him.

Theoretical conventions and descriptions are attempts at consolidating the ‘‘I’’ into an ‘‘us’’ beyond such individual desire. Conventions and orthodoxies, contracts of viewing and listening, determine my perception within a consensuality. However, there is no ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’, only ‘‘Is’’ with the occasional will to belong together as ‘‘us’ ’’ and identify some ‘‘thems’’ to hold the tautological truths established in a contractual description against. In this sense the desire to form such momentary affiliations is by no means always benevolent. The notion of an ‘‘us’’ and a ‘‘them’’ manipulates the ‘‘I’’ into a vice, into positions and agreements, and not every ‘‘I’’ that pushes for an ‘‘us’’ or a ‘‘them’’ equals another. Even if the terms ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’ pretend equivalent belonging, the ‘reality’ of this affiliation depends on the who of its experience rather than the category of its description.

Vincent soon finds out that ‘‘us’’ is an illusion, and ‘‘them’’ the frightening concept of betrayal.

If taken to be more than a momentary affiliation ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’ lead to the terror of categorisation, of homogeneous totalities even if hidden behind heterogeneous differentiations. Instead reality is generated in the dynamic intersections of individual and momentary conceptions. The collective sense is produced continually in the dynamic relationships between the individual subjects conceptualising the film in their perception as transitive ‘‘Is’’, rather than in relation to a pre-existent determination.

The consequence for Vincent or Allan, is exile and a shaky ‘‘us’’ of love and desire with Irene. Most ‘‘thems’’, hostile or friendly, have inadvertedly been killed along the way.

The consequence for the viewer is a fragile and provisional sense of conviction in his/her own generative interpretation. I can aim to share my individual narrativisation of the material with you, bearing in mind that any such connection is only ever temporary and dependent on the willingness to engage rather than facilitated by a contract of engagement. Thus it is fraught from the start and all that keeps me from abandoning this affiliation is the hope for a shared sensation and a momentary relief in collectivity that explains my being me beyond the intense feeling I get staring ahead of myself thinking why am I I?


1.  In his text ‘Écrivain et écrivant’ (1960) Barthes debates two different forms of ‘writing’. L’écrivain is the person who writes, for the term écrivain is a noun. He is an author who uses and produces the institutional monopoly over language. He presents a literary tradition, institutions and conventions of writing and reading: literature and the collective sense of good writing. By contrast, l‘écrivant is a different voice of action. The ‘-ant’ denotes the present participle, thus the écrivant is writing; he produces the work continually from his vernacular position and his urgent individuality generates his expression. According to Barthes it is the task of the écrivant to state without hesitation what he thinks; and in this urgency and subjectivity lies his criticality. At the same time, the function of the écrivain and his literary language is to transform such critical production into a commodity, to make it writable in a conventional, shareable sense.

Selected Bibliography

Barthes, Roland, ‘Écrivains et écrivants’, in Essais Critiques, (Éditions Du Seuil: Paris, 1964, [orig. 1960])

Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, (Manchester University Press: UK, 1994, [orig.1979])

Massey, Doreen, ‘Power-geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place’, in Mapping the Futures, local cultures, global change, Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, Tim Putnam, George Robertson and Lisa Tickner eds, (Routledge: London, 1996, [orig. 1993])