This post made me want to take a closer look at Rita Felski’s book Uses of Literature (2008). Felski’s intention is to bridge the gap between literary theory and common-sense beliefs about why we read literature.

Uses of Literature deals with four key elements of the reading experience: recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock. These four recall, as she acknowledges, the four “venerable aesthetic categories” of anagnorisis, beauty, mimesis, and the sublime. As I read this text, it is also of great value to the way we experience visual arts.

Since reading Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy I have become more and more interested in the uses of art. I do not – as de Botton – see art as therapy, but I do believe art has an important function in everyday life, both on an individual an a societal level. But, as Felski notes, it is really not comme il faut to speak of the use of literature – or art.


Jeff Wall, Men Waiting, 2007 © Jeff Wall

In her second chapter – Enchantment – Felski discusse the presumed problems of getting too involved in art, which one easily gets accused of if one wants to discuss the use of art.

For literary critics, she says, keeping one’s distance has been crucial. How can we exercise judgement, how can we critique a text’s ideological entanglements, if we are absorbed by its subliminal and mysteriously enchanting aspects? We would descend to the level of the child transfixed by the television cartoon or by the advertisement for the latest toy, our critical faculties disabled, ourselves deluded. Critics have historically tended to treat enchantment as something to which only “weaker” beings –women, children, gay people – fall victim, not the alert, stout-hearted male critic.

Felski sees things differently, she says:

Modern enchantments are those in which we are immersed but not submerged, bewitched but not beguiled, suspensions of disbelief that do not lose sight of the fictiveness of those fictions that enthrall us. Such enchantments are magical without requiring the intervention of the supernatural, reminders of the persistence of the mysterious, wondrous, and perplexing in a rationalized and at least partly secularized world.

Enchantment matters because one reason that people turn to works of art is to be taken out of themselves, to be pulled into an altered state of consciousness. While much modern thought relegates such hyper-saturations of mood and feeling to the realm of the child-like or the primitive, the accelerating interest in affective states promises a less prejudicial and predetermined perspective. The experience of enchantment is richer and more multi-faceted than literary theory has allowed; it does not have to be tied to a haze of romantic nostalgia or an incipient fascism. Indeed, enchantment may turn out to be an exceptionally fruitful idiom for rethinking the tenets of literary theory. Once we face up to the limits of demystification as a critical method and a theoretical ideal, once we relinquish the modern dogma that our lives should become thoroughly disenchanted, we can truly begin to engage the affective and absorptive, the sensuous and somatic qualities of aesthetic experience.

The sensuous and somatic qualities of aesthetic experience; this is exactly what I’m trying to find an appropriate language for –

In situ

It is impossible to give a precise recollection of Richard Mosse’s work The Enclave, it is a 6 channel video installation with a brilliant sound track by Ben Frost. Here are just some quick snapshots to give you an impression:


Such a strange universe; due to his choice of film & filter the chlorophyll green gets very pinkish red, and the blue gets radiant – almost turquoise.


Richard Mosse, The Enclave, 2013. Six-screen film installation, color infrared film transferred to HD video

I have written my review of the exhibition. Now it’s time to go even deeper. I’m writing an essay on pain and beauty. It will be centered on this work, but I will also discuss Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which has been an important source of inspiration for Richard Mosse.

I will try to go into dialogue with Susan Sontag’s superb second book on photography; Regarding the Pain Of Others (2003). And hopefully something worth reading will come out in the end.

“So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent- if not inappropriate- response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may- in ways we might prefer not to imagine- be linked to their suffering, as the wealth as some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”

― Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

apropos putting things into words –

Aquabob, clinkerbell, daggler, cancervell, ickle, tankle, shuckle, crottle, doofers, honeyfur, zawn
IMG_0972The English language used to be a rich language, full of vivid, precise words to describe the landscape and natural phenomena. But where are these words nowadays? According to Robert Macfarlane we have not kept up with developing this side of our language, on the contrary we have an impoverished language for landscape. He is worried that  A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining.

Here are some examples of (almost, or soon to be) lost words:

  • a caochan: a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight
  • feadan: a small stream running from a moorland loch
  • rionnach maoim: the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day
  • spangin: walking vigorously
  • roarie bummlers: fast-moving storm clouds

Words die when we stop using them. But we do also create new ones. Finding the right words, the best words, is a difficult job. Some of us spend most of our days searching for them.

Why should this loss (the loss of words) matter? You can’t even use crizzle as a Scrabble word: there aren’t two “z”s in the bag (unless, of course, you use a blank). It matters because language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted.

– Robert Macfarlane

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,” observed JA Baker in The Peregrine (1967), a book that brilliantly shows how such seeing might occur in language. To me there is a parallel here – writing about art and writing about nature are similar activities. As a writer I comprehend, perceive, discern, recognize and understand the world and myself through and with words.

It is of the greatest importance that we keep our language living.

Art Criticism: “A Term I’ve Always Kind of Disliked”

“…[M]y 50 years of art writing have often been motivated by a desire to escape the art world. I’m … pleased that the award is for art writing and not art criticism, a term I’ve always kind of disliked, since most of what I know about art I learned from artists, and artists from pretty diverse backgrounds, and ‘critic’ sounds awfully antagonistic. Art writing is an odd profession. I suspect many of us thought we were on our way somewhere else–journalism, poetry, or fiction in my case.”

Lucy Lippard