Carnal Thoughts: On Alice Blackhurst’s “Luxury, Sensation and the Moving Image”
By Adèle CassigneulMay 4, 2023
Luxury, Sensation and the Moving Image by Alice Blackhurst
The book offers a timely focus on two of today’s most acclaimed contemporary artists who found new, personal ways of writing or screening women: Annie Ernaux, who won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Chantal Akerman, whose crucial 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, has just been elected the greatest film of all time by the decennial Sight and Sound poll. A triumph for feminist literature and cinema, for the artists’ radical aesthetics.
Its author, Alice Blackhurst, is an Oxbridge academic, an art critic, and a writer whose work straddles the intermedial lines between words, forms, and images. The list of highbrow critical venues that publish her work is impressive, even humbling. A specialist of slow cinema and advocate of an immersive phenomenology, she pursues, in this volume, an unexpected, even daring, definition of the luxurious “beyond capitalist processes of commodity accumulation.” As a talented Francophile, she likes to quote large portions of French post-structuralist authors and philosophers dans le texte. Her favorites are Georges Bataille, Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes, and Jean-Luc Nancy.
The 2021 volume’s four monographic chapters scrutinize a group of self-defining artists who, each in her own practice (cinema, literature, sculpture and drawing, photography and text), open spaces of living sensuously—but also politically, even if the political dimension of their oeuvre rather recedes into the foggy background. All four of them—Akerman, Ernaux, Bourgeois, and Calle—eschew easy categorizations; all talk about pleasure and desire, self-loss and self-discovery, creation and everyday materiality. Blackhurst devotionally rephrases their work: pages accumulate as she holds her gaze steadily, accounting for her own meticulous explorations.
We first follow a lonely housewife in Jeanne Dielman and a young girl at the threshold of adolescence and adulthood in I, You, He, She (1974), tracking their existential routines and sentimental vagaries. Patiently, lengthily, Blackhurst explores Akerman exploring the intersections of domesticity and femininity, two writers together slowly unraveling the daily lives of two different women characters. “Films offer a new relationship to time, sexuality and the necessary expenditures which rhythm our lives,” writes Blackhurst, as she herself works with critical duration to make us feel how the sensual, the haptic, and the luxurious offer an alternative sensory regime of the body.
Ernaux too indulges in these immersive pleasures of physical and experiential rapture. The two books she devoted to a secret passion—Simple Passion (1991) and Getting Lost (2001), the diary from which the former emerged—feast on the affective state of expanded possibility that ardent sex and self-abandonment can bring. Ernaux’s writing relishes in the lustful surrender of their amorous drifts, which, according to Blackhurst, unfurl a “new, luxurious in the sense of extraordinary, conception of space and time.” And in detailing the erotic textures of embodied life in Bourgeois’s work, Blackhurst scrupulously describes the artist’s sculptures (The She-Fox, Mamelles, and Filette, among others) together with her insomnia drawings (1994–95), with their “focus on touch, embodiment, matter and eroticism.” Sculptural plasticity and sleepless nights allow for a flexible time-space where “sensual enjoyment, material presence and creative exuberance” can merge, all of which are alternatives to those luxuries that can be owned or pre-owned.
Things change a little with Sophie Calle; her dérives and flâneuserie, as Lauren Elkin would put it, make their honey of trivial routines and encounters. Calle’s voyages in Suite Vénitienne (1980) and Douleur exquise (2003) offer numerous inquiries into the unknown and otherness, which in turn open spaces of self-discovery and feminist inscription. In Prenez soin de vous (2007), she experiences plurality and the dispersion of her subjectivity through the voices of 107 other women. “Calle’s oeuvre transcends solipsistic relief and conceives luxury as rapture, fascination, and as a surrender to communal experience,” asserts Blackhurst.
As if blown up until the pixels surface, each work is dissected in minute detail, systematically anatomized with heavy theoretical tools. There is hardly a sentence that doesn’t come up with its load of bilingual quotations. Blackhurst weaves her words with those of critics and philosophers, both in French and, between parentheses, in their translated versions, at times leaving little space to luxuriate in the critic’s own voice and point of view. Apparent neutrality and abundant citations are two central tenets of the scholarly ethos: they help treat sensuousness and eroticism with detached rigor and objective scientificity, contributing to the rhetorical construction of the scholar’s detached omniscience. Yet, critical aloofness and unreflexive citational diligence can limit the phenomenological immersion and the luxurious explorations the author advocates. Doing so somehow contradicts the meticulous exegesis that, as it fumbles details, concomitantly seems disconnected, disembodied. On top of that, it also negates the feminist agenda Blackhurst seems to champion, as she never really questions her relation to the corpus she analyzes. In the end, the only luxury on display is the critic’s own prose, an exclusive acquired taste that somehow contradicts the more basic, even austere, gestures of the artists she brings together.
I wish I could ask Blackhurst what she actually wanted to offer us, demanding fans, surely more than a blurry definition of luxury (“Luxury means vastly different things in different contexts,” the conclusion tells us) or of the moving image. Why did she put Akerman, Ernaux, Bourgeois, and Calle together? It must be related to the “stickiness” Rita Felski discusses in Hooked: Art and Attachment (2020). It must be because of the strings “somewhere under her left ribs,” to borrow an image from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, strings “tightly knotted” to similar strings in the body of works she has assembled—an emotional, sensual tie.
“To say we are attached to works of art is to say that we have feelings for them. It is also to say that they matter, that they carry weight,” Felski argues. Thus, there must be more than the four artists’ French connections, more than their shared interest in daring self-representation. Acknowledging her passions and attachments, Blackhurst might have found in the immersive and sensual nature of the artists’ works an open idiosyncratic and irreducible place of reflexivity, a rich place of heuristic examination where to combine the rigor of scientific writing with the desire that motivates it.
Closing the book, I wondered about the relevance and efficiency of critical constellations more generally. Putting Akerman, Ernaux, Bourgeois, and Calle together means engaging in a comparative practice, creating a hermeneutic assemblage. Constellations twist and pluralize canonical narratives as much as critical practices do. Unexpected and fertile, they delineate unsuspected lineages and make it possible to break from prescribed critical scripts. They also, as Eve K. Sedgwick has shown, allow for reparative forms of reading that combine aesthetic pleasure with emancipatory, even transformative, reflections.
There are the links that authors and artists weave between themselves and inscribe in their own work, building a fruitful intertextual or intermedial web, full of voices and images that intermingle, overlap and respond to each other. Blackhurst does not spin her tales of luxury and sensation from such a yarn, nor does she draw from feminist or queer approaches, which, in the words of Élisabeth Lebovici, are “a truly comparative literature.” This reading-with, which calls for a reflexive, creative, and embodied critical voice, is missing.
One of the book’s ambitions is to remap luxury as a “feminist ontology of sharing,” ontology being the part of metaphysical philosophy that deals with the nature of existence, being, becoming. It means “study of being.” Some argue for the existence of a feminist ontology, as women have specific life experiences, or for a feminist ethics, in tune with feminist philosophies of care and hospitality, as well as philosophies of everyday life. Blackhurst contends that Ernaux’s texts open “a space for hosting other subjectivities” and that Calle loses herself “in a tumultuous array of other voices.” But isn’t this the very definition of art, to welcome, embrace, and feel with others? To open spaces of connection and relationality, to offer mediumistic arenas of sharing a sensory world? Blackhurst’s wish is to extricate her corpus of artists from “economics of negativity” and insert them in “creative networks of luxurious potentiality and fecund exchange,” her investigation deliberately avoiding “historical, sociological, or overtly political” matters. But engaging with decontextualized lofty and privileged abstractions contradicts what Akerman, Ernaux, Bourgeois, and Calle explore: the embodied, engaged, and political dimension of their intimate worlds. It seems impossible to consider Blackhurst’s “feminist ontology of sharing” solely as an aesthetics, which engages in the “science of the beautiful” and sketches a critique of the judgment of taste. As philosopher Jacques Rancière, among others, has proved over and over again, the aesthetic always has deep historical, ethical, and political implications—all the more so when the artists in question are themselves committed activists as, at least, Akerman, Calle, and Ernaux are.
I still have questions to ask. Questions with regard to intermediality—that is, the kinetic aspect of non-filmic forms of art—and to feminism, and concerning artistic plasticity and the feminist gaze, as Émilie Notéris calls it. Akerman, Ernaux, Bourgeois, and Calle question accepted perceptions of femininity, and they do so by working between art forms and categories. They invent embodied forms of being and creating that are unassignable. It’s been one of the essential tenets of feminism to go back to primal modes of existence so as to express other modes of feeling. It is a way of seeing and thinking the world (radically different from what prevails in capitalist heteropatriarchy) into open places of reflexivity and agency, places of possibility and fluidity, by bearing what Audre Lorde calls “the intimacy of scrutiny.”
There is a vital and visceral intensity to Calle’s work on loss, breakup, and desertion; to Ernaux’s surrender to craving desires; to Bourgeois’s insomniac “sensual désœuvrement”; and to Akerman’s patient and voluptuous scrutiny. They are intimate, obsessive, and political. Probably as intimate, obsessive, and political as Blackhurst’s own undisclosed infatuation with their work. A reading of their work through feminist phenomenology or through a feminist reading of phenomenology would allow for the unfolding of what Vivian Sobchack calls carnal thoughts: that is, a phenomenological reading “philosophically grounded on the carnal, fleshy, objective foundations of subjective consciousness,” a reading that lays foundations for a “materialist—rather than idealist—understanding of aesthetics and ethics.”
Anchoring their work in elemental life routines, the four artists explore the sensuous materiality of existential vacillation and survival. Caught between the fixity of endless reiteration or seriality, and the movements of art and life, their intimate explorations focus on small and ordinary yet radical—that is, fundamental, principial—gestures that betray existential vulnerability and display artistic experimentation in transformative, indeed political, ways. It is the starkness of their uncompromising oeuvre that stings or pricks me, the lusciousness of their rigor, which relentlessly reasserts the shared paradoxical condition of women: that of being simultaneously free and alienated.
Adèle Cassigneul is a French independent researcher and critic who specializes in modernist literature, visual cultures, and gender studies.
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