Surviving Destruction: What Keeps Going in Eugenie Brinkema’s “Life-Destroying Diagrams”

May 23, 2022   •   By Jorge Cotte

Life-Destroying Diagrams

Eugenie Brinkema

EUGENIE BRINKEMA’S Life-Destroying Diagrams is a full-throttle elucidation of radical formalism. A critical method whose close attention to form upends aesthetic theory, the “radical” in radical formalism does not signal allegiance to radical politics; rather, as Brinkema put it in her first book, The Forms of the Affects (Duke University Press, 2014), “heeding its own etymological radix, radical formalism returns to roots, presses on what is essential, foundational, and necessary in formalism itself.” A radically formalist reading is neither politically motivated nor instrumentalized for political aims. It leaves behind exhausted concepts and ideological prescription to “activate and launch the speculative potential of texts.” Forging into uncertain territory, the promise of close reading’s prodigal return to form is that it promises nothing in particular. It is beholden only to the text.

Life-Destroying Diagrams divides into two sections: the first coalesces a formalism of horror (and its attendant relationships with violence, ethics, and bodies) from four chapters, three interludes, and the postscript; the second section, “Love and Measurement,” is listed in the “Contents” as a chapter but reads like a companion piece to the former section, centered on a problem presaged in horror’s formalist fascinations. Brinkema’s volume is processual, each reading folding into the book’s iterative argument, narratively amassing its stakes. The drama crests in the “Postscript,” which arrives two-thirds into the book and functions as both ars formularia and hinge-point between the book’s twin sections on horror and love (a love of formalism leading into a formalism of love). By historicizing radical formalism, Brinkema acknowledges the racialized implications of fetishizing pure form and addresses how such a fascination can in fact be a violent impulse.

Brinkema’s polemical The Forms of the Affects wedges formalism into the affective turn, claiming that “[i]t is not the case that the more formalist the film, the more distanced it is from affect: rather, the more rigorously structured the text, the more affective it is.” The Forms of the Affects constructs dual chapters, one half of each pair tracing a philosophical lineage for a negative affect — grief, disgust, anxiety — while the other reads for how that formal affectivity operates in a given film. The first two cases take films by Michael Haneke and Peter Greenaway, which are often painted by critics as cold and affectless, and reveals them to be “suffused with affects.” The third case inverts the formula with the survival horror Open Water, using the “debased realm of independent horror film” to insist that “genres taken to be (and, it must be said, often derided as) nothing but affect, such as horror, are themselves governed by a rigorous formalism.” Life-Destroying Diagrams continues and expands the latter effort, arguing that the most visceral and extreme horror films are not only governed by formalism but also exploit their own capacities to speculate through form.

One way to describe this book’s project, then, is as redefinition — or course correction — for the study of horror. The first chapter contextualizes horror as the key site of contention for radical formalism, and subsequent chapters and interludes examine a film and its particular form. But this book is not an exhaustive catalog of the forms by which we must understand, say, all horror or violence on film or the negative effects of late capitalism. And despite the bulk of it unfolding in readings of horror films, as Brinkema writes, “this is not really a book about horror.” This divorce from genre keeps open the book’s purview while holding the word horror as provisional. Still — in its “unique capacity to speculate aesthetically on the concept of form,” horror unlocks something for Life-Destroying Diagrams. Horror is a test case for radical formalism, and because the book’s argument cannot be separated from its films, horror is where the weighty questions at hand are shown to be problems of form all the way through.

These films and their forms — design in Final Destination, abecedaria in The ABCs of Death, rhythm and feel in À l’intérieur, circle and toroid in Rubber, grid in Cabin in the Woods, diagram in The Human Centipede, and torture in Martyrs — are not brought together because they are allegorical morality tales, symbolism puzzles, or full of exemplary tropes. And despite the influence of continental philosophy, these films are not put to work as parables. Rather, they put philosophy to work, going a step further than existential phenomenology, transforming the viscera into ethics, and grounding metaphysics.

Rather than a criticism that wields concepts to handle texts, here texts do things to concepts. These films, by Brinkema’s account: attest, feint, positively testify, document a logic, unconceal ethical claims, see past, offer up, arrive to a point, relinquish/abandon/transfer the rights to, expose the impossibility, express a prior and external stance on ethics, propose, put pressure on, put under duress, constitute a finding (or a leaving behind), literalize, disqualify preconceptions, misinterpret, enunciate finitude, demand that we grapple with questions, expose the conceit, constitute an apology.

Life-Destroying Diagrams takes contentious films seriously, illuminating their sincere ventures into “torture and cruelty, violence and finitude, friendship and eros, debt and care” not as case studies or morality homework problems but as a formal thinking and a thinking through form. Just as a film is an aesthetic and cinematic thinking-through, close reading is a thinking in process, and it is only in lingering with the particularities of what becomes tangible in form that a reading can reapproach old questions to find surprising answers. The book’s metaphysical and existential claims, often in audacious aphorisms or collectable interjections, arise organically from readings, such that the distinction between fidelity to the text and any singular perspective blur.

(To name a few favorites: “to be is to be provisional”; “Alphabet is a cruelty”; “Representationally, a mirror is a confrontation.”; “The diagram diagrams.”; “Love always discharges blanks. / That does not mean that it does no damage.”; “Philosophy ruins a good mood, but one might equally say that a good mood can ruin a philosophy.”; “[Sex: what never happens again quite as it did.]”; “And just ask around: everything painful is a specificity.”; “Love is neither feeling nor remembrance; it is infinite difference.”; “Nothing is easier to assign to meaning than love.”)

More than its elaboration of an aesthetic theory or its theoretical reframing of horror and extreme cinema, Life-Destroying Diagrams’s success is measured in its means. Games of syntax and phrasal manipulation; asides, parentheticals, digressions, and other interpolations; design that iterates a scheme of shapes, formats, and figures; a mutable typography, playing with font, color, and spacing in forms as vital as the arguments they delineate.

Phrasal manipulations pair and re-pair concepts as a kind of iterative exploration. Rotating conjunctions and prepositions, Brinkema redefines the meeting point between two objects in search of new angles. Look at how she describes her project: an “awkward, arduous, inefficient zigzag” oscillating between

a formalism of horror and a horror of formalism, a formalism of violence and a violence of formalism, a formalism of ethics and an ethics of formalism, and ultimately a formalism of love and a love of formalism, not allowing any single term to serve or stand on any other.


Attuning us to the minute distinctions of “of,” “for,” “and,” and “or,” this phrasal wrestling between terms privileges formalism as the locus of this text but also places it under suspicion. Formalism is cast not only as what enables violence and ethics, but as subject to the highest stakes of those concepts.

Later in the text, interposed between two subsections of “Love and Measurement,” the tension between love and formalism turns from an oscillating, joining “and,” to a more exclusive “or”: “[L]ove or formalism or / love and formalism or / a love of formalism or / a formalism of love.” Mobilizing “or” as alternative, equivalent, or uncertainty between two terms, love and formalism are terms in a struggling tension naming the same thing and also excluding each other, one side getting the upper hand only for the other to turn the table. The shift from conjunction to preposition moves from spatial pairing to constitutive nesting.

Of denotes various types of belonging — a part of a whole (“one of two”), an entity made or caused by another (“mutability of form”), a category and the thing that belongs to it (“concept of fidelity”) — and it can indicate the material or substance that constitutes an entity (“bunches of flowers”). Of’s ambiguity holds in suspension precisely what kind of relationship we are talking about when we say love/formalism. Is it affection for (and fascination with) formalism? Is formalism a kind of love, or love a kind of formalism? Is love made of formalism, or formalism made of love? Rather than a binary from which we must choose, this or sets up the very process of iterative rotation and reframing, a reminder that we do not know in advance. One place to start then: both love and formalism are nothing more than “fidelity to the most fragile thing imaginable: a configuration of the particular way something is as it could have been and will be and is already becoming otherwise.” Fidelity and fragility materialize the affinity between form and love.

Form echoes love in the “violence and wreckage” of vulnerability to change, that the minutest difference is a break. Brinkema makes this connection explicit, writing, “—hold tight to that sense, endure that impression of their intimacy.” Form/love do not just resonate but are themselves lovers — pressed up against each other, love leaving a mark on form.

Violence is there at the threshold of difference. In chapter two, it reduces language to the barest desires and pleas, “not now, not yet, not now,” but the third chapter, “Grid, Table, Failure, Line,” exposes violence’s apparent durability, positing a violence that is itself fragile and vulnerable, that “within the bureaucratic level and logic” could fail to be sufficiently thorough. Life-Destroying Diagrams reads Cabin in the Woods as enacting a fulcrum between a “violence that is All” and a violence that fails to be all, one that is “not-All.” In the conceit of the film, local horrors threaten five archetypal protagonists as a sacrifice to appease all-powerful ancient beings. Four out of five must die, with “the virgin” death optional, so long as she suffers. The resulting insufficiency (that two out of the five survive) prompts the “violence that will not fail to be All” — the end of humanity, absolute extinction.

For the bulk of the chapter, then, the words “failure,” “fail,” and “failing” exclusively appear in gray, beginning with Brinkema explicitly drawing our attention to color: “> Each site, captioned by geographic name in the lower middle of the frame, is written over in the center of the image with a repeating, flashing, red typographical marker: FAIL.”

The context of alarm or error is a recognizable one for red; its flashing accentuates its contrasting color and commands attention. Red and gray are antithetical in notable respects: gray is dull rather than vibrant, the color of fading, ash and dust, the horizon for what sticks around long enough to grow old. Gray lies somewhere between the white page and surrounding black type, appearing less dense than black but not light enough to disappear. In the text, then, coloration is the measure of violence; a gray failing to measure up to black type is what is also insufficient, neither potent nor virile enough. Gray is the not-All of this visual text.

Grays recur as more than visual inadequacy, though: the gray arrows, the nested, gray-lined squares before chapters and interludes, the inserts — “Lapsus” and “Two Violences” — set over light gray sheets. The monochromatic screenshots from the films under discussion speak to the worlds contained in gradients of gray; the sky is gray, flame is gray, flesh is gray. Chair, room, bird, blood, scream — all gray. Between white page and black text, the quantity of grays is uncountable. Just as the film “admits the existence of All, Some, or None, but it does not regard them equally,” Life-Destroying Diagrams admits the existence of black, gray, and white text without regarding them as analogous or as negatives of each other. Beyond deficiency, gray thrives in its interval of possibilities: “The not-All, evading the totalizing logics of the All, leaves open room for excess, noise, residue, disturbance to completion, which is to say: for something unexpected to happen.” Gray, in other words, is the color of Brinkema’s radical formalism, determined in its indeterminacy.

The language of the not-All specifies its possibilities — it is the realm of experimentation and “as-yet-unthought newnesses”; it disturbs completion; unbounded, it leaves room open for what you didn’t see coming. If this diction sounds familiar, it is because it is key to the promise of radical formalism. Form is enabled by “variation, alteration, newness,” and form and formalism must abandon expectation to make way for the new. Limitless possibilities are the purview of close reading, and one of Brinkema’s most earnest maxims names the theorist’s duty to “retain reading as process” and remain fluent with the mutability and contingency of form. The concepts under pressure in Life-Destroying Diagrams — “Horror; torture; reading; fascination” — share an affinity with the not-All. “[E]ach names the realm of apeiron,” holding fast to the indefinite, and yet are constantly in touch with the violence of the upper bound, the edge, the final destination.

A zigzagging approach to reading is one way Life-Destroying Diagrams attempts to reconcile the “problem of fidelity.” The readings that motivate and motor Life-Destroying Diagrams accelerate and dilate (indeed, they presage and echo; they are harmonic and hypophonic; they crescendo), they commingle and unfurl and end because they must, but they hint at what is always unfinished. (“The destination is not final as fulfillment or culmination — / every destination is final because it is last.”) “Grid, Table, Failure, Line” is the chapter that most explicitly deals with reading in the realm of apeiron, and it is severed in two by a line that marks an above and a below. It is the only chapter in this book with footnotes; in the below, footnotes surge and recede, sprouting tributary branches that keep a reading alive.

“There is a below to what is below,” writes Brinkema, describing the verticality of Cabin in the Woods’s impersonal machinery. The footnotes have footnotes, and the footnotes’ footnotes have footnotes. This secondary track ebbs and flows and eventually dislodges the text above it. Thirteen pages before the chapter trails off, there is a last page without footnotes. But that last page is not the end. On the next page, a stream of footnotes begins that dominates the last dozen pages of the text. The main text is compressed into four lines at the top with most of the space dominated by footnotes. Content that would have taken up less than one page stretches over seven. And — even then — the chapter refuses to end, growing five full pages of footnotes extending thoughts on table and matrix, sprouting footnotes that keep finding footholds.

The last footnote appends to the word “stitches” — a term that brings together stakes as disparate as “a prick, a puncture, a stab; sudden local pain; but also contortions of laughter; a single motion in sewing; or the movement of a needle through the edges of a wound—” Where does that em dash leave (/lead) us? An em dash could interrupt, lead, emphasize; it inserts a parenthetical or an aside. But laying there, naked as a limb, it is an incomplete thought. “The text is unfinished,” writes Brinkema, of another thing entirely (and not entirely another thing). Yet, it is through the great-great-grandchild of another footnote that “Grid, Table, Failure, Line” absorbs and sutures one chapter to the next. (The next chapter is about the stitching together of three beings; it will be about how one is riveted to others in ethical responsibility, about how being is riveted to itself, in a manner radically unpleasant.) Not only then is the close reading unfinished, but, under the banner of the or to horrēre, it sustains life.

So, regard these detours, tangents, disruptions, intrusions, gaps, intervals in the text — parentheticals, asides, footnotes, lists and triads, interludes and inserts, blank space, typographical leaps — regard them as genres of interpolation. These spacings manipulate and disfigure the text, rearranging it, disconnecting a paragraph from its follower or drawing a link to part of the text still to come. From one perspective, the text is a system stretched, folded, and physically reshaped by intruding forces, ones that could be sorted into a distinct category than the primary text but that are not from outside it. Through the forms of the stitch and the lapse, the book offers material to think about what interpolation does. Some of these intruding forces are pricks and stabs, local sites of a puncture in the flesh, but also the movement of a needle in suturing, and the thread left behind, stitching one thought to another. Others, like lapses, are spacings that pose “the minimal presence of some form of difference in the ongoingness and continuity of some system.” This interplay of interpolation tunes us into the drama of close reading — the nonlinearity of its proceeding, the multivocal playfulness and homophony, how it advances incrementally, forging ahead and doubling back, the way a reading is never final but is always in process, a live branching.

Like the Final Destination films, reading here is “obsessed with the progression and succession of things,” not in the sense of establishing hierarchies, nor in following a predetermined route, but in the imperative of form “that it is precisely because it could always become something otherwise.” Describing the imperative to exegesis in that same franchise, Brinkema describes closely reading for form as what “decelerates understanding (and delays any final accounting), reinvests the simplicity of the obvious and self-evident.” Brinkema pairs the “close” of “close reading” with “painstaking,” literally taking pains, like what might wound, bruise, and scar a reading. This language is too sentimental, too restrictive in its thinking of a prior system, too tied to the idea of a static text that can be deformed. What is outside will always turn out to have been inside. “Design does not perish in its alteration” goes this section on the film franchise about death’s inevitability, “the devastation of form positively forms other forms.” Rather than imagining a text without interruption, one that can be wrecked and weakened, we should imagine the text as mutable and dynamic as reading itself.

What joins the extreme horror films of the first section with the film texts in “Love and Measurement” — Amour Fou (omnivalence and indecisiveness), L’inconnu du lac (geometry versus the scenographic), Blue Is the Warmest Colour/La Vie d’Adèle — Chapitres 1 & 2 (color and negative space), The Lobster (difference and similitude), and Amour (distance, threshold, increment) — is their enticement of the critical misstep. These films are subject to symbology and misreading, dismissal and disregard, disparagement and even outrage. Brinkema positions her readings as intervening directly in the context of critical reception; common complaints are not thrown out so much as roped in with a trickster’s generosity. Critical derogations are grounds of fertile promise because they have a knack for isolating the “formalism at play,” leading the formalist toward “what one must take most seriously.”

To be clear, Brinkema’s readings are not advocacy. She is completely uninterested in writing the kind of criticism that would amount to something like, Critics hated it, but this movie is good, actually. Her examinations of critical reception illuminate as a film negative might. Perilous and chancy, reading without guarantee is always going out on a limb and exposed. But its vulnerability is not to evidentiary uses of forms or critiques of formalism as a retreat from the world. The greatest potential risk is never the misreading, the too-close reading, the dead end. Formalism’s potentially fatal pitfall is carried within itself — that the form of formalism, its structural isomorphism with the “violence in a fascination with visible form,” would commit close reading to speculative violence. So, Brinkema’s call is to “transform formalism itself” — not a retreat but a more proximate fidelity, a reinvestment in the dynamism of formalism, “its motor, its movement, its process, its circulation.”

If it’s true that we tend to see what we expect to see, one reason to get close and stay close is to let loose expectations. We should ask of readings, then, not whether they are right or wrong, but how they fertilize and foster thinking, how they enable further efflorescence. There are readings that test new ground, ones that crystallize or evaporate, others that recycle and renew; there are readings, too, that smuggle in overripe concepts, that amputate thinking, that salt the ground for thought, that steamroll. Perhaps, then, we should say only this: that close reading should never be closed reading.

Life-Destroying Diagrams is a model of close reading as process, subject to the same contingency and sensitivity to difference as its objects. The book’s configuration and design approach the formal problems of staying faithful to what is most fragile, of losing inheritance, of provisional thinking without a guaranteed outcome. The fidelity of a close reading is sustained by the promise that there is no such thing as too close. That there is no exhausting a reading whose ground is uncertain, unsteady, and new. A close reading is never finished, only abandoned — so consider this a beginning.

¤


Jorge Cotte is a writer living in Chicago. His work has appeared in The New Inquiry, Complex, and Remezcla.