Additive Subtractions, Or the Impossibility of Erasure

Brian Dillon, “The Revelation of Erasure,” Objects in this Mirror: Essays 2014

… Erasure is never merely a matter of making things disappear: there is always some detritus strewn about in the aftermath, some bruising to the surface from which word or image has been removed, some reminder of the violence done to make the world look new again. Whether rubbed away, crossed out or reinscribed, the disappeared entity has a habit of returning, ghostlike: if only in the marks that usurp its place and attest to its passing. But writing, for example, is already, long before lead hits pulp, a question of erasure, an art of leaving out. Every painting, said Picasso, is a sum of destructions: the artist builds and demolishes in the same instant. Which is perhaps what Jasper Johns had in mind when he said of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) that it embodied an “additive subtraction”: after a month’s sporadic destruction, and forty spent erasers, what is left is a surface startlingly alive, active, palimpsestic (pp. 309-310).

… A painting — at least a figurative painting — which is, as it were, too deep, risks becoming a glutinous mess, erasing itself by its very urge to completion. In Honoré de Balzac’s story “The Unknown Masterpiece,” the great painter Frenhofer labors for years at a picture of a young woman, until she disappears, leaving only a tiny, perfect foot looming out of the surrounding chaos: “Colors daubed one on top of the other and contained by a mass of strange lines forming a wall of paint.” By unintentionally erasing his painting, Frenhofer has in effect produced the first modernist monochrome, but he has done it by larding his canvas with too much significance, not too little: excess is a form of erasure too (p. 312).

… If the erased face always conjures the image of some primal violence, the expunged word inevitably attests to a repression of some kind, whether psychological or political. In the coy ellipses with which, in the novels of the eighteenth century, readers were invited to imagine undescribed erotic adventures, on the blacked-out pages of classified documents, or in the cancelled lines of a prisoner’s censored letter, the lost word denotes the intercession of authority (p. 311).

… Two works by Joseph Kosuth, entitled Zero & Not and One (1985, 1986) point out both the psychoanalytic attitude to language and the tendency of Freud’s words to assert their authority despite our efforts to wipe them out. A Freudian text is printed on the gallery wall, then struck through with black tape, so that it is erased but still insists, remains more or less readable: its lesson — the lesson of psychoanalysis — a lesson, after all, about the impossibility of erasure — simply won’t go away (p. 312).

The fondest, least plausible dream of modernist art and literature was of a world without memory: a cultural tabula rasa from which all trace of the styles of the past had been erased. The arts of evacuation imagined by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Yves Klein, and John Cage aspired to a deliberate vacuity: a vacant stage, an empty gallery, a silent orchestra. But in each case the project is impossible: some sound, image or word will intervene to recall the world left behind. …

“What we require is silence, but what silence requires is that I go on talking,” declared Cage in his “Lecture on Nothing”: the silence dreamed of by the art of the last century is always expectant, about to be spoken into. In 1996, the artist, writer, and curator Jeremy Millar interviewed the novelist J. G. Ballard, set to duplicating the tape before getting it transcribed, and accidentally erased hours of the great man’s thoughts. The ruined cassette, one long pregnant pause, could only become an artwork: Erased Ballard Interview (1996–2001). You listen, heart in mouth, just as Millar must have done, hoping that Ballard’s cultivated tones will, any second now, interrupt the hiss. And at the same time, you hear everything in this piece: the whole history of the avant-garde affair with emptiness, the dematerialization of the work of art, its evanescence into pure idea or gesture, up to and including Rauschenberg’s erasure of de Kooning’s drawing: all of it, suggests Millar’s blank tape, merely an absurd error (pp. 315-316).

Maybe the total erasure of a work of art, or the making of a work that had an utter absence at its heart, was never possible to begin with, or maybe it’s simply a fantasy to which contemporary art is no longer willing to give itself over, except playfully (p. 316). …


This appeared in Guardian Books on 17 June 2011:

Hauntology: A Not-So-New Critical Manifestation
The new vogue in literary theory is shot through with earlier ideas

[Haunting presence … Jacques Derrida, who coined the term hauntology, in a still from the documentary Derrida]

Hauntology is probably the first major trend in critical theory to have flourished online. In October 2006, Mark Fisher — aka k-punk — described it as “the closest thing we have to a movement, a zeitgeist”. A mere three years later, Adam Harper prefaced a piece on the subject with the following caveat: “I’m all too aware that it’s no longer 2006, the year to blog about hauntology”. Two months ago, James Bridle predicted that the concept was “about six months away from becoming the title of a column in a Sunday supplement magazine”. Only four months to go, then. My hunch is that hauntology is already haunting itself. The revival starts here.

Like its close relative psychogeography, hauntology originated in France but struck a chord on this side of the Channel. In Spectres of Marx (1993), where it first appeared, Jacques Derrida argued that Marxism would haunt Western society from beyond the grave. In the original French, “hauntology” sounds almost identical to “ontology”, a concept it haunts by replacing — in the words of Colin Davis — “the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive”.

Today, hauntology inspires many fields of investigation, from the visual arts to philosophy through electronic music, politics, fiction and literary criticism. At its most basic level, it ties in with the popularity of faux-vintage photography, abandoned spaces and TV series like Life on Mars. Mark Fisher — whose forthcoming Ghosts of My Life (Zer0 Books) focuses primarily on hauntology as the manifestation of a specific “cultural moment” — acknowledges that “There’s a hauntological dimension to many different aspects of culture; in fact, in Moses and Monotheism, Freud practically argues that society as such is founded on a hauntological basis: the voice of the dead father”. When you come to think of it, all forms of representation are ghostly. Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escapes representation. See, for instance, Borges‘s longing to capture in verse the “other tiger, that which is not in verse”. Or Maurice Blanchot, who outlines what could be described as a hauntological take on literature as “the eternal torment of our language, when its longing turns back toward what it always misses“. Julian Wolfreys argues in Victorian Hauntings (2002) that “to tell a story is always to invoke ghosts, to open a space through which something other returns” so that “all stories are, more or less, ghost stories” and all fiction is, more or less, hauntological. The best novels, according to Gabriel Josipovici, share a “sense of density of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words“. For the reader or critic, the mystery of literature is the opacity — the irreducible remainder — at the heart of writing that can never be completely interpreted away. The whole western literary tradition itself is founded on the notion of posterity, which Paul Eluard described as the “harsh desire to endure” through one’s works. And then, of course, there’s the death of the author… All this, as you can see, could go on for quite a while, so perhaps we should wonder if the concept does not just mean all things to all (wo)men. Steen Christiansen, who is writing a book on the subject, explains that “hauntology bleeds into the fields of postmodernism, metafiction and retro-futurism and that there is no clear distinction — that would go against the tension which hauntology aims at”.

As a reflection of the zeitgeist, hauntology is, above all, the product of a time which is seriously “out of joint” (Hamlet is one of Derrida’s crucial points of reference in Spectres of Marx). There is a prevailing sense among hauntologists that culture has lost its momentum and that we are all stuck at the “end of history“. Meanwhile, new technologies are dislocating more traditional notions of time and place. Smartphones, for instance, encourage us never to fully commit to the here and now, fostering a ghostly presence-absence. Internet time (which is increasingly replacing clock time) results in a kind of “non-time” that goes hand in hand with Marc Augé’s non-places. Perhaps even more crucially, the web has brought about a “crisis of overavailability” that, in effect, signifies the “loss of loss itself”: nothing dies any more, everything “comes back on YouTube or as a box set retrospective” like the looping, repetitive time of trauma (Fisher). This is why “retromania” has reached fever pitch in recent years, as Simon Reynolds demonstrates in his new book — a methodical dissection of “pop culture’s addiction to its own past”.

Hauntology is not just a symptom of the times, though: it is itself haunted by a nostalgia for all our lost futures. “So what would it mean, then, to look for the future’s remnants?” asks Owen Hatherley at the beginning of Militant Modernism, “Can we, should we, try and excavate utopia?” It might just be worth a shot.


“It would be in contradiction to the conservative nature of the drives if the goal of life were a state of things which had never yet been attained. On the contrary, it must be an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or another departed and to which it is striving to return by the mazings along which its development leads. …For a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying, till decisive external influences altered in such a way as to make ever more complicated mazings before reaching its aim of death. These mazings to death, faithfully kept to by the conservative drives, would thus present us today with the picture of the phenomena of life.”
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle

C By Tom McCarthy

This appeared in the September 2010 issue of Dazed & Confused (vol. 2, issue 89, p. 196):

C by Tom McCarthy

Incest, spies and coke-fuelled adventures

Let’s not beat about the bush: Tom McCarthy’s third novel, C, is a masterpiece: a sprawling associative web that keeps generating new meanings as though of its own volition. “That’s the beautiful thing about what literature does to language,” says McCarthy. “You stick these slippery terms in and they start cross-fertilising in ways you never anticipated — incestuous ways.” C takes us from a fairytale English silk farm to spy-ridden Egypt by way of a central European spa town, aerial warfare and a coke-fuelled London filled with bright young Amazons. It is a comedy of errors, a gothic mystery, a boy’s own story; a traditional 19th-century novel seemingly rewritten by Burroughs or Ballard. You’ll find geometry, technology and trauma. Loops, repetitions and mutations. Incest, insects and radio bugs. And phantom words emanating from subterranean worlds half-glimpsed “at the dial’s far end”. Tune in…

DAZED & CONFUSED: C could be seen as a futurist novel. Serge, the protagonist, even seems to be partly modelled on Marinetti himself…
TOM MCCARTHY: I love Marinetti, and, yes, he’s part of Serge’s make-up, particularly in the war section. But Serge is equally a mixture of Freud’s Wolf Man, the beautifully fucked-up melancholic eternally grieving for his dead sister; and Alexander Bell, inventor of the phone (who also lost two siblings); and Howard Carter, the Egyptologist who disinterred the ur-family tomb; and a bunch of other people. I’m interested in the places where technology and mourning intersect.

There’s also a strong retro-futurist — even steampunk — element to C. Did you feel the need to revisit the early 20th century in order to reinvent the future of the novel?
Yes. Walter Benjamin says that the angel of history faces backwards. I think it’s the same for literature: you’ve got to look back in order to move forwards. It’s not just the foundations of contemporary technology that are being laid in the early 20th century (the code radio bugs used exactly anticipated text speak, just as lots of their output anticipated Twitter), but also literature’s period of high modernism that’s coming to a head. Not for nothing does the novel end in 1922: it’s the year that Ulysses and The Waste Land came out. The task for the contemporary writer (sadly, one which many writers of today are shirking) is to work through that period’s legacy — dynamically and radically, but attentively too.

All the major themes in C — from wireless technology to the discovery of Tutankhamun — come from your early experiments with the International Necronautical Society (INS), don’t they?
I had the idea for C while I was working on the INS project at the ICA. There, we had a radio station modelled on the illicit one in Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée (where the person transmitting is already dead), sending out all these coded poetic messages. I was looking at writing around encryption, and the concept of the ‘crypt’ that you get in psychoanalysis and philosophy.

Incest lies at the heart of C: this, for you, is the source code of western literature, right?
Yes. You go back from Nabokov through Faulkner through Racine right back to Sophocles, and incest is the central theme that keeps recurring. For Freud, the incest prohibition is what makes us civilised, socialised, even human, so that’s the taboo all tragic heroes, who are fundamentally doomed rebels, are most drawn towards transgressing.

Why do you think that all new means of telecommunication are linked to death, mourning and melancholia?
I don’t know if I can explain it. It’s just a pattern that keeps recurring. For every comm-tech invention, there seems to be a dead sibling somewhere. Bell even made a pact with his brother that, if one of them died like their other brother had, the surviving one would invent a device capable of receiving messages from the dead. Then the second brother dies, and Bell invents the telephone. He remained a rationalist, a sceptic — basically because his brothers never called. But the desire, the fantasy, is there in the technology: a ghost in the machine. It’s the same with radio. Seances in the 20s weren’t about spirit and ectoplasm any more: they were about “tuning in” to voices resonating on high frequencies, like radio waves. With the internet, it seems to be more about a presence than an absence: everything’s there, every click and keystroke ever made eternally retrievable, a giant archive. That’s a kind of haunting too, though.

Text and Photography