‘Fire’ is part of an ongoing dialogue with artist Martine Stig about technology and memory in a more-than-human world. Fragments and citations from the story figure in Stig’s video essay ‘The Reflection of the Man’ (2021). The performative lecture ‘Musing Memory/ Diffractive Writing. Or how to get rid of those embarrassing graphic markers’ at CARPA7 was based on ‘Fire’ and my collaboration with Stig.
For the performative lecture “Musing Memory/ Diffractive Writing. Or how to get rid of those embarrassing graphic markers” at CARPA7
This talk is grounded in my collaboration as a writer with visual artist and photographer Martine Stig. Starting from our shared interests in the relations between memory and imagination in a digitized world, we send each other snippets of our work reacting on each other’s material. This open process, in which writing works with and along the images in a non-hierarchical way, will result in (a) work(s) to be presented in September / October 2021. Delving into my experiences of the process, this paper aims to present the notion of diffractive writing I developed over the course of the months with Stig. It builds on Karen Barad’s understanding of diffraction / diffractive reading, and her understanding of the notion of the performative as intra-action. I will investigate what it means to be a ‘sentence-thinker’ (Trinh T. Minh-ha) and to actively engage with dis/orienting, haunting times and forms and/as matter. How can encounters between different entities and phenomena, and traditionally separate categories such as photography and writing, between matter and meaning, but also between makers ‘cut together/apart’ like Stig and I be translated? How to present writing that stresses its transversality, its movement (Manning) and processual becoming? I am wondering what forms text does and can take. And to what effects? Delving into materialist feminist readings of the relationships between text and ‘the world’, the discursive and the material, I aim to offer insights into what I perceive as the ‘telling flesh’ (Kirby) of contemporary writerly-artistic projects. Situating my work on the crossroads of theoretical study and practice, I will present experimental writing as a form of resistance, a means to subvert and transform a still reigning patriarchal discourse ‘from within’ (Cixous, Kaiser).
The image haunted her. But even more than the image, it was the smells that stayed with her – pungent, sticky, acrid – and the whining of the two Labradors that had pressed themselves against the banister, shivering. The woman had tried to calm them down, stroking their fur soothingly. But the longer it lasted, the more shakily she herself stood on her feet. Her right hand reached for the edge of the balcony. But missed. It was the middle of the night, not even four o’clock, and the neighbours had gathered in the square – the smoke began stinging my eyes now too. Speechless, we watched our neighbour as she collapsed, poisoned by the heat of the blazing fire, the narrow balcony her refuge, with only her dogs to hold on to.
… an unnameable or almost unnameable thing: something, between something and someone, anyone or anything, some thing, ‘this thing’, but this thing and not any other, this thing that looks at us, that concerns us.(Derrida 1994, 5)
The fire that night was confined to the flat next to hers. Over the course of the week, the house was cleaned out; her neighbour had found temporary shelter elsewhere. In the end, she didn’t want to come back – she had lost all her possessions. They had met only once, fleetingly, as she was cycling out of the bike shed. Nonetheless, her image – her blonde hair a rat’s nest, the faded nightgown smeared with soot, her collapsing – kept forcing itself on her. Coming back. (What seems to be out front, the future, comes back in advance: from the past, from the back. (Derrida 1994, 10)) Was it the image that repeated itself or the unknown woman? The border between the physical person and her visual image was ambiguous and porous. What did she remember? She blinked, pressed her tongue against her palate; she broke into a sweat. Was she hallucinating? Could she trust her eyes? What determines the visual boundaries of a body? How do you enter into a dialogue with something, someone, whose contours fade the moment you reach for her? She didn’t want to fill the gaps in the story, but to imagine what could not be verified. An everyday occurrence, not recorded in the annals. Not even a report in the paper, not even a like. And yet: the story had to be told.
there is more than one of them, there must be more than one of them.(Derrida 1994, 14)
She had gone back to bed. Close your eyes: sleep. The stench hadn’t dissipated – carbon black leaves its traces: on her skin, in her lungs, her nose, like the pollution in the city – but she had to work the next day, a meeting at ten, and the fire department had arrived (the engine’s swelling two-tone shrill, trembling; her ear drum pounding with the onset of a headache); what more could she still do here? Once on site, the commander had located the fire, checked whether its centre was accessible, whether they were fully equipped. One jet of water turned out to be enough to reduce the heat, take it away, extinguish the fire. The furniture, mainly plastic, had caused the smoke in her house. Smoke is also flammable. The kitchen window had shattered under the heat. She and her dogs were saved.
There was the image, more than the product of my perception, and me. It’s better to be inside than outside. Her image merged with that other one, of him, who always looked away. I remember he always looked away, never looked me straight in the eye. Absent, immortal, we circle around each other. He speaks without words. Like her. Like her. I seek them for him, for her, them, repeating what was never said.
In the very moment of exorcism, the specter is named and invoked, the ghost is called to inhabit the space of its desired absence.(Gibson-Graham 1996, 240)
The next day, she sat at the meeting in a daze. Before leaving the house, she had packed the washing machine full of t-shirts trousers pants shirts a towel that had been washed the night before. She had snatched the damp clothes from the drying rack; the windows had been shut that night, but she needed her things to be clean – all traces of the accident had to be erased. Her head throbbed, the nagging pain in her temples, her eyes heavy (Could smoke make you ill? The darker the smoke, the closer you are to the source. Pulsating smoke squeezes through a keyhole). Biting her lower lip, she suppressed a yawn. Her colleagues’ voices, the high frequency of the sound, just like the pace at which their shouting drowned out the drama they hadn’t themselves witnessed. The blackness of her second cup of coffee diluted what couldn’t be washed away. Slowly, it seeped into the lump of sugar that melted between her fingertips. Her fingers tasted sweet.
The more one attempts to render it invisible, the more spectacular it becomes.
She ran down the list of responsibilities with her pen, ticking off the tasks she had to do in the coming weeks in an attempt to stay on schedule. She missed a beat, trying to inhale and exhale. Exhale again. Go deeper. She was supposed to send out the circular. Writing (n): a doctrine used to deliver one from the ills of silencing. (Putuma 2017, 79) What did they know?
Who counts as human? What lives count as lives? … What makes for a grievable life?(Butler 2004, 20)
She was hired to get things organised, as they called it. There had been tensions within the institution, turmoil over recent reforms; new organisational structures had been introduced as a result of policy changes. The rapid succession of technological developments could not be separated from that which, in an attempt to keep everyone calm, was not allowed to be called a reorganisation: the screen and life had intertwined, the distance between human and machine, machine and human, was minimal: algorithms determined thought determined the mind. Distrust had taken root among the staff. First there were the forced layoffs. When it became apparent that the computational models that had come to be relied on more and more, the computerised media and general digital technologisation, also affected the remaining employees, a new kind of sensibility had to be found, a way to relate to the beast called machine, the technology that shaped their lives, as they shaped those of the animals. Because it was clear that the two could not be separated from each other – at least to her. (Press your chest against the metal – grey against grey, the voice hollow in the sterile room – grip the bars on either side of the device with both hands. Rubber handles dug parallel grooves in the palms of her hands and fingers, a network of lines. Good. Breathe in, hold your breath. On the other side of the screen, the assistant conferred with her colleague, pressed invisible buttons. And exhale. You can put your clothes back on.) Not seeing the photos as an exact copy of what happens in front of the lens. Algorithms contain mistakes. Gradually, the spots would disappear. Just like us.
What matters is … an effect of proximities: we are touched by what comes near, just as what comes near is affected by directions we have already taken.(Ahmed 2010, 234)
Say something, his lips said. She didn’t answer. I’m not calling for him, he and his name clinging to her, pressing on her, the raspy inhale air that exited her left nostril with a squeak. In and out. My skin, my bones, muscles, stomach and heart, cells past and future. Remember. Remember. I wanted to speak but didn’t know how and remained silent.
Slowly she had let them get used to the idea. She had organised workshops (what behaviour cannot be measured? what cannot be quantified?), an awayday, invited speakers (in exactly one hour, he had clearly explained the dilemma: he was good at it), drawn diagrams that could be erased on the board: she scratched comments in the traces of what had been drawings just before, data in the margins; they added their observations and wishes. So that new ways and forms of looking and measuring arise. It was a game, a Gedankenexperiment, laboratory of the mind. Change the rules and you shift the result.
… he proposes that we understand concepts to be specific material arrangements of experimental apparatuses …. Every concept is haunted by its mutually constituted excluded other …. Complementarity.(Barad 2010, 253)
No, no, no words.
#1 Point the camera at a random object. The programme identified butterflies or bats at the top left, then what looked like a factory, smoke, quacking ducks at the bottom, a pick-up truck or a rabbit (?), if you look closely. Error message. Fore- and background played musical chairs with each other. Forms overlapped and couldn’t possibly exist at the same time and in the same place; matter appeared in different guises. They hadn’t entered this world into it. There were chuckles, nervous, perplexed. Possibilities were suggested. What if? Could a thing be present and absent at the same time? Red is green, left as right, being/becoming: there is not a determinate fact of the matter …. One is too few, two is too many.  Could ‘something’ happen, and also not?
I want to speak but don’t know how and remain silent. Because I live on inherited sorrow, I sleep under roofs I left long ago, and it is the loss that makes my heart beat. I think of you. So I always say ‘we’, so that everyone, dead and alive, knows that I remain part of the group. Are you still a part of us? I answer yes. That is the most important thing. This is how I know and we know that we are ‘part of us’.
Meantime je dois faire du feu, beaucoup de feu, tout le feu.(Cixous 1969, 164)
#2 Change places (what do you see? What colour, shape, smell, or texture stands out from your specific position?); take off your shoes, your feet rest beside each other on the floor (count the threads in the carpet with your toes; the sole of your foot traces the pattern in the carpet. What does your foot see? Where does your foot see?); your forearms are supported by the Formica tabletop in front of you (how do the table, the chair, the ground under your feet shape your posture, how do they determine your gestures and direct the actions you perform?). It is from here that the world unfolds. Close your eyes and open them again: draw the back of what you see. Your attention, concentration, and orientation are determined by what you push to the ragged edges of your vision.
a dimly apprehended depth or fringe of indeterminate reality(Ahmed 2010, 239)
The doctor had sat down and took his time for this conversation. Swivelled on his chair, the wheels scored the marmoleum, the frown above his nose welded his eyebrows together. Over fifty. And stared pensively at the figures and images sent to him the day before, his shaven chin in his right hand, then back at her. No, they hadn’t been able to find the cause. His voice sounded determined. Wrapped the tails of his white coat around his denim-clad legs. On the wall hung a reproduction of a Miró, an early lithograph; the frame cast a shadow on the faded white stucco wall. And she was not to blame: she lived a healthy life, exercised three times a week, ate plenty of fruit and vegetables. Stress isn’t good for anyone, they agreed, but that couldn’t be the cause of her shortness of breath, her rattling cough, her weight loss. The stains were there, her tissue was damaged, the scan the indisputable proof; with his little finger, he pointed out to her the irregular, spreading opaque shapes that, rapidly reproducing diatoms, had covered large parts of her lungs, mud, an impenetrable mat. His eyes bore into hers; she didn’t move. The treatment had to be started: he counted out the pills in her hand, his glasses dangling on his chest. Slowly titrating up the dose was out of the question, as was stopping, for the time being – her breathing presence contaminated her environment. Stay inside; his beeper went off. What and whom did she pose a danger to but humans? He shrugged his shoulders, puzzled. The Labradors had been replaced by two yapping chihuahuas. Images distort. The prospects were good.
He said it was over between us. He says that it’s over between us. I am everything to him. Everything I am to him. Everything. Point, c’est tout. Has he noticed I’m restless? Worried about how we should proceed? I’m burning on the inside. How do you live with a dead person? Gone, erased, as if she had never existed. Did not exist. I’m going in. Inside. I say: you are not with me. You are not one of us. Nothing, absolutely nothing. I’m frightened. Negotiate and am frightened.
… the (contingent and temporary) becoming-determinate (and becoming-indeterminate) of matter and meaning, without fixity, without closure.(Barad 2010, 254)
She scrolled through to where she had left off the day before. The process was endless. She erased everything, opened a new window. She had started the message over six times now. How could she explain that she saw it as her responsibility to seek a rapprochement time and again between herself and the other, between here and there, then and now. That she was entwined with the other, that her legacy consisted of her relationships with others. And no, she didn’t know what to do with that legacy. Desperately, she searched for the beach pebble in the right pocket of her trousers, rolled it between her fingers, tucked it into the left pocket. She had been walking around with it for months, years. How do you lay something to rest, where do you lay it down? Once she had the illusion that it was possible to draw a line between the world in which she moved and the science fiction her past had become. By now, she knew that her responsibility was a life beyond death, toward a living-on [sur-vie] … a trace of which life and death would themselves be but traces and traces of traces … There is then some spirit. Spirits. And one must reckon with them. (Derrida 1994, xx) With a sigh, she opened the page again. Again. Her long nails tapped the letters, space, slash, words formed lines, from left to right. And back.
I’m not a thing, he says, first yellow and the next day black. What have I done wrong? The room is full of empty people, who move, join in the conversation. We talked in the past tense. I tried the present tense. He tried the present tense. How are you, he asks. I can’t live without his interference. Distracted. Every movement leads to words, ends in sentences as a surplus of what was, a surfeit, language an excess, body life, link between life and death.
She didn’t want to define, not simply describe the thing as a stone, somewhere between a pebble and a rock, because aren’t you then assuming the concept of a stone that you then need to answer to, which can be traced back to a million-year-old liquid mass – iron, basalt, granite – a solidified fragment cared for by water and wind and which changes continuously; a sediment that has no clear contours, eventually disintegrates, becomes sand, dust, less solid and indestructible than it appears, eventually blows away or dissolves into the sea or ocean without becoming mud; a shard of stone within which all stages coexist, which knows no generations, no sex, colour, no race – everyone talks to each other – which relates to earth as day to night, grey, eroded, smooth and shiny the beach pebble dries as soon as it is thrown on the sand, has no function but the memory of springing forth from monstrous powers, gradually disappears, futile, fit in her hand. Again and again.
… the continual reopening and unsettling of what might yet be, of what was, and what comes to be …(Barad 2010, 264)
In order to break through existing structures, she had planned each meeting on a different day, a different time. She rearranged the room for each session: she put up curtains, someone brought pillows, apricots and Granny Smiths, a yucca, lined paper (A4). The setting depended on what was discussed when, and by whom. Because she always gave someone else the floor; we listened, worked together, discussed – cacophony. There were no results (‘end product’ is a myth), but relationships arose, an encounter of practices, life stories, voices, touching visions, because the face speaks, it speaks, and therein lies the beginning of a conversation. You answer, you greet the other, and in fact, answer for the other. It was difficult to keep quiet in front of each other, you answer for the other, the other rules over you – social asymmetry: ‘we’ are not equal. (After Levinas 1985, 85–92)
How close are they? What is the measure of closeness?(Barad 2012, 206)
You’re running a risk. It was the error message that had interested her, the not-speaking, passé and unseen: that which had not been recorded, because isn’t that where the possibilities seep in? She kicked off her shoes and curled her toes (she would paint her nails tonight), pressed the ball of her foot to the wall against which her table had been pushed. Straightened her back. The relationships among them had changed over time. Old habits could not possibly give way to new ones, no alternative language that would finish off forgotten stories, and outdated jargon, no new time in place of what had been, because that’s how you maintain the system. While that had to change. She pursed her lips, sucked in her cheeks, exhaled. Whenever she was tense, she bit the inside of her cheek. She suggested going-back (re-turning) so that you might come face to face with that which had been overlooked, cast aside, what had been unpredictable, undefined. Indefinable, perhaps. A return not to open old wounds, but to make the cracks visible still, to give timespacematter to what had remained in the shadows (time is unstable and leaks away, no background, no décor, but entangled with). Because ‘I’ is more than the one moment at which you see me: the thickness of the here and now. (Barad 2018, 73) She couldn’t get rid of her story.
Un temps pour jeter les pierres, un temps pour les assembler …. Un temps, un temps, un temps, un temps.(Cixous 1969, 199)
Good. Yes. I’ll call you, one of these days. You have to live, he says. Say it again. Say it. Yes: be. He is back. I write. Laboriously. I’m not wrong. Repeat it. I was afraid, I am afraid, I am happy, and hate him at the same time. He said come. How do you know, said his voice. I know who you are not. I know that you are not and I love you – have you forgotten? It doesn’t matter that I came back. Don’t say that.
a ghostly non/existence(Barad 2018, 78)
Not that she had answers. No answers. (The unravelling of time, of universal time, of the idea that moments succeed one another, everywhere, all-ways, in the same way, and replace each other.) An image is a condensation, a trace of different moments, ways, forms of engagement. What the image shows, what it omits, what is highlighted, which aspects matter, how the individual elements are brought together and framed. Distance had been used to polish away the blemishes in the story, to cover up the stains: ‘forgotten’. She couldn’t do that anymore. She didn’t want to anymore. As time went on, she had begun to wonder what was going on inside the confines of the shadow. Where does the shadow end, the reflection, the eternal leeward side of that which finds itself in full light? Virtuality is the indeterminacy of being/nonbeing. (Barad 2018, 78) She slowed down, narrowed her eyes to slits, and groped her way along. Rather than look at it, she listened to it. Reached for the device, zoomed in. Her rasping breath, agony. She had exposed herself, you’re taking a risk. Again. The room was filled with rustling, hissing, tinkling, indistinct sounds. In the distance, scales played on a piano. She smeared her bread with butter, peanut butter. ‘I’ cannot be isolated.
Erasure is a material practice that leaves its traces in the very worlding of the world.(Barad 2018, 73)
She had things to do, places to be, people to meet. The question was how she was going to do this. Time had to be spent differently within the organisation. Semicolon. She looked outside: rain gave the summer heat a deep green scent that drifted in through the open window. I twisted my hair into a ponytail and swept a strand behind my ear. What kept her from the murmuring, hesitant, the faltering, trees moaning, a hum, a buzz, the soft tone a chorus of voices, divided silent singing sound, if you listened carefully. She stumbled, stuttered, choked, sighed again, groaned aloud, and made a mistake (again), coughed, resumed, focussed on breathing in breathing out, the tight waistband of her trousers, tried again. Go deeper. Excruciating longing, she was exhausted. How could she assume that? It was inevitable, unbearable – she had to. Waited, listened. What if? Quiet. … A great scar on the surface of the globe … scar or depression … (Carson 2018, 10) Without doing violence to the dis-connection – the lack of cohesion, the rift, a rupture. A white track drew a stripe across the granite (wishing stone), in the temperature of her hand.
And I opened the closet in which the dresses were hanging, forgotten, collected over time – one two three. I opened the door and shut it again. In. What do you need? My skin is burning, muscles stiff. Come, he says. What are you asking? What are you capable of? Your mouth on my eyes. Blind? I rotated my shoulders and kept turning the pages. Coughed. What are the conditions? What do you want to, have to do? A quoi un mort tient-il? (Despret 2015, 19–20) How do we share this space? What is our shared space? She put her phone on mute. It was three-forty in the afternoon. Send. Within, disappearing ceases.
Translation: Felix van der Vorst and Hannah Vernier
Special thanks to Koen van Dijk, Fire Safety Environmental Specialist (Specialist Brandveiligheid Milieu), Brabant-Zuidoost Safety Region (VRBZO).
Ahmed, Sara. 2010. “Orientations Matter.” In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, 234–257. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Barad, Karen. 2010. “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come.” Derrida Today 3, no. 2 (2010): 240–268.
Barad, Karen. 2012. “On Touching – The Inhuman that Therefore I Am.” differences 23, Issue 3 (2012): 206–223.
Barad, Karen. 2018. “Troubling time/s and ecologies of nothingness: Re-turning, re-membering, and facing the incalculable.” New Formations: A journal of culture/theory/politics 92 (2018): 56–86.
Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York and London: Routledge.
Carson, Rachel. 2018 . The Sea Around Us. London: Unicorn.
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Despret, Vinciane. 2015. Au bonheur des morts. Récits de ceux qui restent. Paris: Editions La Découverte.
Gibson-Graham, J.K. 1996. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1985. Ethics and Infinity. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
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Ilse van Rijn
Ilse van Rijn is a writer and art historian. She researches the relations between image and language, practice and theory, nature and culture. She received a PhD from the University of Amsterdam (The Artist’s Text as Work of Art, 2017). Her current research concentrates on materialist feminist affinities with(in) contemporary image/language practices, writing and/in memory work, and writing through orality.