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Reviewed by:
  • Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais
  • Craig Saper
Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit. Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994. 229 pp. $37.50 cloth, $18.95 paper.

How does one write a review about a book which asserts the will to fail as the essence of aesthetic endeavor? How does one write a review about a critical method built, in part, from an aesthetic approach found in a novelist and playwright, Beckett? Would succeeding at this endeavor to express the meaning of the book fail to adequately address the radical alternative to literary and film scholarship demonstrated by Bersani and Dutoit? What if this alternative mode of scholarship challenged critics to adopt a "participatory mobility?" How would a review of this method demonstrate and explain "a joyful self-dismissal giving birth to a new kind of power," the power of the mobile participation of readers? What is this new kind of power of participation which seeps from the failure to express? Why have admirers "universally ignored" those crucial failures? Has Bersani once again opened new ground in literary studies by noticing a startling absence in the critical work on a particular author? Are the arts of impoverishment linked to the arts of redemption or as a corrective to the earlier work on Joyce? How does Beckettian criticism mesh with Bersani's psychoanalytic studies, as exemplified in his "Is The Rectum A Grave?" in the October special issue "Aids Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism," where he writes, for example, patriarchy is "not primarily the denial of power to women, but above all the denial of powerlessness in both men and women?" [End Page 441] How could powerlessness become a foundation for literary theory and criticism? If the book builds a method of scholarship from Beckett's efforts to become inexpressive, devoid of meaning, and "to fall permanently into silence," then how can his aesthetic works offer a critical method? Is this review strangely silent when asked for an answer, a judgment, a solution to the question? Is this review, like Bersani and Dutoit's essay, more sensitive to the art of impoverishment than most critics and admirers of Beckett's work? Has this reviewer been too seduced by the logic of their argument, and attempted to respond adequately to the task rather than appropriately for the given form with "suicidal narcissism" as a critical, if also Dionysian, method?

How do the authors investigate the manner in which Beckett, Rothko, and Resnais represent framing as an ironic comment on the supposed boundaries separating the space of art and the space outside art (including criticism)? How, for example, does Rothko highlight the indeterminacy of representation, while still insisting on a supposed subject matter? How do his paintings, described by Bersani and Dutoit as blinding or for the blind, appear to represent nothing while still directing the spectators attention? How do they say nothing and vibrate boundaries and still move spectators in very directed ways?

How does Arts of Impoverishment direct the reader? Should a review question the books inclusions and arbitrary boundaries? Why not include chapters on Duchamp, Barthes's Camera Lucida, and many others whose work seems more obviously related to an art of impoverishment? Why does this reviewer feel that the chapter on Resnais does not live up to the possibilities outlined in the introductory chapter and the exploration on Beckett? Are Resnais' films more impoverished than Straub's, Ackerman's, or, in a different way, Snow's films? Does the inclusion of Resnais function in the same way as the radical breaks with Bersani's and Dutoit's interpretations of other artists and writers? Does including Resnais, a director famous for his role in the European "art" cinema of rich expressive images, mock previous criticism while opening new ground?

Beyond the opening of new ground in the critical discourse surrounding these artists in much the same way that they have opened new ground in Joyce studies, does the book suggest a way of living and working in terms of these new insights? If, as they explain, the ego functions as a boundary allowing for representation and self-expression, then what happens to spectators who give...


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pp. 441-443
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