Difficult Love

By Peter CovielloFebruary 1, 2015

Difficult Love

The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series "No Crisis": a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series. 


BACK IN 2008, that annus horribilis of crisis and collapse, an art student at Yale conceived a project. Aliza Shvarts, for her senior thesis, undertook a “yearlong performance of repeated self-induced miscarriages.” As Jennifer Doyle describes it in Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art, Shvarts “artificially inseminated herself over the course of nine months and took herbal abortifacients at the same point in her menstrual cycle in order to facilitate menstruation or miscarriage.” The work itself, which was to include narrative and a documentary presentation, was disallowed presentation at Yale, in part because Shvarts refused to “confess in writing that the exhibition is a work of fiction,” which is how Yale’s publicists tried to spin the story once it became Drudge Report fodder. But the voices of chastisement were not only Drudge’s. Here is the venerable Robert Storr, dean of the school of art at Yale: “If I had known about this, I would not have permitted it to go forward. This is not an acceptable project in a community where the consequences go beyond the individual who initiates the project and may even endanger the individual.”

Some difficulty is good for us. And some, it seems, is not. Hold It Against Me, Doyle’s incendiary and extravagantly rewarding book, isn’t much interested either in celebrating the difficult as such — a move with a storied and, by now, unenlivening modernist history — nor in equipping us with a more responsive taxonomic vocabulary for encountering work that resists us. “My aim,” Doyle says early on, with something of the spark that characterizes the writing throughout, “is not to produce a reader who can point and declare, ‘The difficulty of this performance belongs to category 4.’”

Instead, with larger ambitions in mind, Doyle’s book organizes a series of far-reaching analytic case studies, and along the way stages a vibrant encounter between what I’d call, for short, fury and love. Hold It Against Me is a coruscating assault on the state of contemporary art critical practice, and especially on what Doyle reads, with demolishing exhaustiveness, as its genuinely outraging incapacity in relation to racially engaged, feminist, and queer art and artists. As Doyle reads it, this is a failure rooted in impoverished conceptual frameworks and broken institutional practices and lived out in encounters with individual artists and objects. You will not, I promise, emerge from this book with your sense of the conditions that mediate engagements with contemporary art, from the local to the mass-marketed, unshaken or unrevised.

And yet what energizes Doyle’s critique, and makes the book the intensely vitalizing study I think it is, isn’t so much its replenishing anger as the way that outrage is wedded throughout to a special kind of avidity, a special kind of ardor. If you are a person who spends a good deal of time around things like art, or books, or songs, you are likely to recognize in yourself some resonant echo of the feeling: I just mean the desire to bring an unflattened attentiveness, a suppler articulacy, to the scene of works you find provoking, captivating, involving in ways that fracture the terms of address that surround them. Hold It Against Me is a revelatory book of art criticism and politically astute theory. But I think it may also be a book about a certain mode of love — critical love — as counterhegemonic practice.


Among the most immediate inhibitions to rich articulacy Doyle finds in the vicinity of the work that interests her is the elaborate discursive machinery whose industry name is controversy. The case of Aliza Shvarts is exemplary in this respect but hardly singular. “Attention to a work’s controversy,” Doyle writes, “actually suppresses attention to a work’s difficulty,” and the pieces that she considers, when they aren’t starved wholly for critical conversation from an institutional art world escalatingly wedded to salability as a paramount value, are instead warped and depleted by the idioms of controversy, made over into substantially less interesting versions of themselves. (The online organ Jezebel would helpfully describe Shvarts as an “avant-garde asshole.”) Controversy locks us into a vision of the scene of art-critique and, as Doyle takes pains to show, it is by and large an awfully stupid one. Or rather, “controversy” is the language that an institutionalized nonresponsiveness habitually, almost reflexively, speaks. It gives us sides, establishes laws of “decency” and “taste,” and aligns us with their maintenance or their overcoming. Whatever the works may have to offer outside of those frames — however they may batten themselves against exactly these conditioning parameters of reception — gets neatly invisibilized, though it does so under the sign of “engagement” or, still more dishearteningly, “debate.” Doyle rightly wants no part of this game. Critics can do better than excoriate or defend, bury or praise.

At the heart of Hold It Against Me is the conviction that the works that most arrest Doyle’s attention — by artists like Ron Athey, James Luna, Carrie Mae Weems, Nao Bustamante, David Wojnarowicz — have different sorts of stories to tell us and that, for reasons that have everything to do with the state of art-critical practice, we haven’t yet figured out how to get them told. The works in question are, in the sense that Doyle specifies, difficult: by turns unnerving and alienating and disruptive, especially so in their solicitations and refusals, their troubling agitations, of emotion. Yet the challenge with which the book begins is not to some imagined viewer’s brittle bourgeois sensibility. It is, instead, to critical appraisal itself, to writing. Early in the preface Doyle writes, “This book describes the process of learning how to write about … work that feels emotionally sincere or real and that produces a dense field of affect around it even as it seems to dismantle the mechanisms through which emotion is produced.” She goes on, in reference to works that she confesses had for years frustrated her efforts to write about them:

All … are rich with affect, but none can be described as expressive in any traditional sense (none, in other words, can be explained as a representation of how the artists feels). All … feel political, but why they do is complicated. They are unnerving, depressing, or upsetting; none offers the positive message one associates with political art, and they each (differently) reject the basic geometries of identity and politics that normally ground discussions of art, identity, and politics.

If the work that most engages Doyle also frustrates her, this is in part because it keeps returning her to the scene of a certain vacancy, a meta-dispossession: it brings her again and again to the place where some apposite vocabulary from the archive of art critical thought might have appeared but, then, did not. It’s art that, as Doyle encounters it, keeps yearning toward a critical apparatus that does not yet exist.

And so, leaguing herself with dissident critics like Lucy R. Lippard, Amelia Jones, Darby English, and José Muñoz, Doyle sets out to elaborate one. The book unfolds as a reckoning with the force of an unruly range of contemporary works but also, simultaneously, as an effort to build up around them a conceptual framework that might be adequate to their power and perplexity and vibrant, vibrantly political intricacy. It’s here, too, that the most frontally polemical aspects of Hold It Against Me emerge. Because, as it turns out, to see what’s at stake in Shvarts’s unnerving suspension of affect around her staged abortions, or in Ron Athey’s performances of bodily woundedness and extremity, or in Carrie Mae Weems’s interruptive rescriptings of an archive of early photographs of African Americans, you have to disentangle them from a lot of accreted styles of knowing and seeing and talking. What this means, in Hold It Against Me, is that you have to be willing to take a torch to a good deal of what passes for critical engagement.

Prohibitions like Yale’s, and the desultory effects of the language of controversy, are not, for Doyle, the only inhibitions to vigorous appraisal. “Critics have limits,” she writes, and it’s a generous note to strike at the outset, allowing as it does for differences of taste and tolerance and temperament. But the book goes on to anatomize what we might think of as the ideological implantation of those limits, and their nearly seamless naturalization under the sign of “emotion.” In Shvarts’s prohibited piece, for instance, much of what’s revelatory to Doyle is the artist’s “removal of sex from her project,” the way that, by “evacuat[ing] all traces of romance, love, and desire from the work,” Shvarts tracks how rigidly abortion discourse “is shaped by both a guideline regarding how one is supposed to feel about the topic and a disavowal of the incoherence within our notions of the body and the subject” for which those feelings act as a kind of cover (my emphasis added). To think with and through the project at all is to “bear witness to the political difficulty of identifying abortion as necessary to the practice of sexual freedom,” and to the specifically affective protocols that undergird that difficulty. It is to grapple with the ways feeling sutures not just a multitude of political investments but the field of “the political” as such, what gets to be counted as politics.

When Doyle comes to what it is that delimits the amplest responses to difficult work, the frame grows wider still. Taking cues from the work she admires and the styles of response (and non-response) that have gathered around them, and working with meticulous patience, she lays bare a great trove of tactics for ignoring, dismissing, derogating, misapprehending, or otherwise rendering marginal and mute the works of artists not understood to be “difficult” in the valorized ways (typically through austerity and abstraction) or “political” in the proper idioms. The problem isn’t only the “flat-footed literalism” that routinely attends feminist and queer and racially marked art. (“From a patriarchal and defensive perspective,” she writes, quoting Linda Barney, “the ‘female and the queer’ body is ‘not seen to be performing at all.’”) The situation is more dire. “Outside of the writing of those scholars who are actively engaged with work by artists of color,” she writes,

art critical awareness of how artists mobilize and respond to racial discourse in their work is dismal. Few in the field of contemporary art history (generically defined) seem to read even canonical work on race, representation, and politics, and many of the voices most prominent in contemporary art history reinforce the curatorial isolation imposed on artists of color, ignoring whole movements in their attempts to identify and theorize the currents of the past few decades.

In this way a “deep suspicion of identity politics” among the most exalted of contemporary critics yields to “a rather strange situation in art criticism in which the mere presence of especially race as an interpretive factor is enough to wipe out a work’s difficulty and the complexity of its relationship to its context.” Good luck, then, finding a ready-made analytic vocabulary with which to contend with the fine-grained emotional intensities that cluster around works fascinated less with “the liberal humanist’s romance with his own racism” than with the entanglements of identification and dispossession — of blockage and impasse and fractured revelation, registered as turns of feeling — found at sites of historical trauma or excision.

So as Doyle walks us through Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried — an installation of reproductions of early photographs of African-Americans scored over by Weems’s text — we do not merely see the institutional critique (of exclusion and fetishization, say) it is typically understood to perform, as it recodes the implicitly ethnographic gazes of 19th-century photography. We find something more unsettling, something attuned more closely to the affective labors of race that travel beneath the surfaces of institutional efforts toward inclusion and restoration, often in ways that vanish as they approach the threshold of the articulable. Doyle shows us a work whose “emotional economy is organized around … blockage; we are left with the feeling that something has happened, some kind of disaster, but we sense it only partially as a presence lurking behind the frozen expressions that greet the camera.” Weems doesn’t merely describe the pain of exclusion and fetishization, the Jamesonian “hurt” of any number of historical disasters. Instead she:

explores the poetics of depression, anger, and alienation that unfold around the moment America turns to specific communities when it needs permission to feel, in which the spectacle of one’s reaction is always already working on behalf of someone, something else.

This is powerful, wonderfully responsive critical writing, but it’s also more than that. It is analysis that takes its place as part of the book’s larger effort to map out, encounter by encounter, “what it might mean to practice art history according to the counterhegemonic models described by writers like Du Bois and Benjamin.”

That’s no mean ambition. And for my money, it is nowhere more movingly achieved than in the book’s account of Ron Athey, and especially of his piece Incorruptible Flesh: Dissociative Sparkle. “In this work,” Doyle writes,

Athey lies on his back on a metal table made from scaffolding […] His body rests against the fat metal rods of his platform for six hours. Built into the table is a pivoting rod, onto which Athey has attached a baseball bat, upon which he has impaled himself. He is naked and covered in bronzing lotion and Vaseline. Hooks pierce multiple points in his face and are attached to leather strings to pull his skin back, turning his face into a painful (but also comic) mask. His scrotum is filled with fluid — turning his genitals into a watery, pink, feminine mass.

Doyle works through the performance with a layered attentiveness that, in the context of the scene itself, it’s hard to think of as anything other than a mode of exquisite refracted care. Indeed, she writes that the “real show in this performance is not Athey’s body but the spectacularization of our communal relationship to it,” and this writing is in some measure an extension of it. The audience is welcome to put on gloves and touch Athey, so that the piece becomes a staging of care and its durational fluctuations of mood: how it might emerge as shame, tenderness, desire, boredom, humor, exhaustion. The piece may be gruesome and trying, and in its evocation of a queerly sexualized scene of immobilized endurance particularly resonant. But it is not, Doyle avers, “about AIDS in any traditional sense of that word about.” It does not tell us an AIDS story about suffering, or care, or violation, or grief so much as it “absorbs us into the story’s structure.” I’ll let her hard-won description stand:

Athey not only exaggerates the social vulnerability of his body; he overtly eroticizes it. It’s not mystical. It’s a carnal refusal to turn one’s eye to the heavens, an insistence on both the magic and the banality of flesh. It’s what the body becomes under the disco ball’s ‘dissociative sparkle,’ the weird and funny appeal of pearls pulled from his ass, or the reveal of wounded flesh: the ordinariness of touch and the frank brutality of the nurse. (My emphasis added)

You could love Hold It Against Me for passages like this alone, in which a mind as theoretically acute as Doyle’s tunes itself to the fugitive inner dynamics of scenes so layered and fraught. And you could love it too for the elegance of its execution, its book-wide commitment to a critical language that is as companionable as it is exacting. And you could love as well Doyle’s book-wide effort to become the critic these works seem to her to yearn toward: not to measure them according to some set of prior articulable political commitments but to learn from them, and from the modes of attention they induce, some suppler purchase on the dilemmas of the political as such. But there are other reasons, too.

I know a lot less about contemporary art practice than others might — it is certainly, for me, less a part of how to think through the world than it is for Doyle — but the work of Hold It Against Me feels near to me, intimately so, just the same. Like Doyle, and like many of you, I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how to write about the things that agitate me into vehemence. Much of the pleasure of Hold It Against Me comes from getting to accompany a critic who is this kind of unembarrassedly engrossed by her objects, this kind of devoted to the under-described reach and consequence of them. For Doyle, this means doing a pitched kind of battle with the canonical underpinnings of her discipline — in this case, an art historical practice she finds to be wrought round with sexist and racist and homophobic presumption and proscription — because the authorized languages of that discipline make those works harder to see, to know or to address or to encounter in the breadth of their effects. Many of us, I think, know what this is like — know, I mean, the urge to shake the things we cherish loose of the frames in which they are found and in that way begin to make them legible to others, not necessarily as better than they might have been led to imagine, but as stranger, denser, brighter, and ampler and more richly fucking alive.

Hold It Against Me is a commanding book of art history and critical theory, and I commend it to you on those grounds. But it’s also an exemplary book about the intimacy of critique — of passionately anti-racist and queer and feminist critique — and what we might as well call love. Doyle loves these objects, which doesn’t mean she approves of them or “likes” them or thinks they’re just awesome or needs you to know they’re better than, say, something by Richard Serra or Matthew Barney. But it does mean that the necessity of changing the terms and the tenor of the conversation about them courses through the sentences of her book like electrical current. Much of the critical tradition teaches us to mistrust outrage, especially when coming from women, or queers, or people of color. Fury, we are told, makes a stone of the heart, and for that matter does not much make for edifying clarity. Hold It Against Me is without question an outraged book. (Reading it will make it hard for you to return to, say, the dilations of powerhouse art-critical patriarchs like Dave Hickey or Peter Schjeldahl with anything but a swamping sense of their outrageous inadequacy.) But Doyle’s book gives the lie to all such presumption, reminding us not only that hard political feelings can indeed make for penetrating clarity, but also that the misrecognized force that nourishes anger, that animates outrage, is, often, love.

And that, I think, makes Hold It Against Me, beyond its other field-specific virtues, a wonderful brief for the utility, the brightening edification, of love: for object-love, again, as counterhegemonic practice. It’s true that for this formulation to work you have to understand “love” to comprehend not just gauzy delight but frustration and anger, as well as boredom, shame, curiosity and desire, sorrow and exhilaration, irritation and despair. But of course, as anyone who’s ever fallen for a difficult object knows — and critics are surely not alone in this beautiful affliction — it does.


Peter Coviello is the author of Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America.

LARB Contributor

Peter Coviello is professor of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he specializes in American literature and queer studies. He is the author, most recently, of Long Players: A Love Story in Eighteen Songs, one of Artforum’s 10 Best Books of 2018. His next book, Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism, appears in 2019 from the University of Chicago Press.


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