- A Nice, Clean Space for a Panic AttackNotes for Cara Benedetto
I feel like people are afraid to talk about language.Cara Benedetto, conversation with the author, July 29, 2011.
Cara Benedetto often speaks of her work in the language of encounter: sometimes a handwritten note, sometimes a list, sometimes a photograph with writing on its surface. These textual encounters set up a confrontation with the spectator by means of the text’s “self-reflexive voice,” a voice that contains a critical turn even as it engages in an apparently straightforward form of dialogue and address.1 The materials Benedetto employs to set up such encounters are primarily (but not exclusively) the materials of language itself, scraps of everyday communication: receipts, fragments of conversation, text messages, letters, informational posters. Benedetto appropriates the syntax and rhetoric of these communicative forms and stitches her textual inventions into all manner of paper, book, photograph, video, and sculptural object. Speaking with wit, sarcasm, or deliberately flat-footed prose, Benedetto’s texts underline the stubborn exclusions, assumptions, and fraught social relationships embedded in the discourse(s) that they critically mimic. But these texts also recast their original material with a degree of opacity, so that the language they ventriloquize becomes as disorienting as it is engaging. [End Page 91]
We are never quite sure where exactly Benedetto’s detourned communications will lead us. Often, we are left amused and embarrassed by the dry intimacy of Benedetto’s address. But just as frequently, a piece will gently pull us, without warning, to the smallest interstices of quotidian violence. Whether she explicitly names or only gestures toward those traces of horror in contemporary life, Benedetto’s work conjures the atmosphere of a crime scene but refuses to reproduce the dehumanizing image of what took place there.
Functioning in a manner not far from Kristeva’s description of the abject, Benedetto’s work thus produces “imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us,” but it never, as it were, digests us completely. It leaves the reader in a space of destabilization, one of “[d]iscomfort, unease, dizziness” to be sure, and one in which the “twisted braids of affects and thoughts” might never be fully unraveled from one another.2 But if Benedetto’s work can be understood in relation to the abject, it is not simply because the relation between viewer and text is “destabilized.” It is rather because such destabilization calls into question the way in which we, as viewers, continually attempt (and fail) to remain wholly ourselves, remain separate and sealed off from our own complicity with the threat from which we try to turn away. The figure of the “body bag,” the title for the series of images and writings that follows, might very well emblematize our own terrible desire for such mutual containment.
There’s a separation between body and voice, and pain seems to be the interstice.Cara Benedetto, conversation with the author, October 2, 2011.
The reverberations of Benedetto’s text travel in opposite directions at once. As the somatic comprehension of our affect moves upward to the registers of articulable experience, the conscious reiteration and recognition of the text’s words sink into the spaces of the body. The text gets under our skin. We participate in its unease. The text then activates another experience: that of our own fragility. For Benedetto, the viewer’s (abject) encounter with the work “is absolutely unsustainable . . . one must be precarious at all times.” [End Page 92] This state of affective and cognitive insecurity, always doubly felt, becomes, for Benedetto, the necessary if unpleasant condition in which critical engagement takes place. Precariousness is “a condition . . . needed to learn anything, to engage people and not assume anything.” To be in a precarious state entails a de facto suspension of our own claims to agency, to power, to mastery over ourselves: it is “a stage in which I can absorb, and extend, and consume . . . it continues of its own accord . . . and it will wreak havoc.”3 Beyond our encounter with the text, we find ourselves in this profound state of vulnerability and danger at...