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  • Contact!
  • Martin Crowley

When starting a propeller plane, the mechanic, after turning the propeller a few times to prepare the engine, instructs the pilot to place the ignition switch in the correct position, turns the propeller again, and lets it go. All being well, the engine will start. The mechanic's instruction is not a statement of fact; rather, it asks the pilot to see, by completing the ignition circuit, whether or not the engine will start. It requests a connection, which might always fail, or which, even if it succeeds, might still be insufficient to produce the desired outcome (if the engine is out of fuel, say). On the other hand, the system might work, and the engine might roar into life. This brisk, regimented instruction, asking a spark to cross a gap, turns out to be a somewhat chancy enquiry, born more of the gap than of the spark. All being well, however, it gets what it asks for. "Contact!"

Towards the end of the section "La Solitude essentielle," which opens L'Espace littéraire, Maurice Blanchot addresses the topic of fascination, initially by way of the mode of vision it commands:

Voir suppose la distance, la décision séparatrice, le pouvoir de n'être pas en contact et d'éviter dans le contact la confusion. Voir signifie que cette séparation est devenue cependant rencontre. Mais qu'arrive-t-il quand ce qu'on voit, quoique à distance, semble vous toucher par un contact saisissant, quand la manière de voir est une sorte de touche, quand voir est un contact à distance?1

The mastery and control classically associated with vision (conceptual and perceptual, but also disciplinarian) is here opened from the inside, in the drama of fascination, by the insidious, ungraspabable, excessive proximity figured in the same schema by touch. The implications of this intervention for aesthetics are, of course, considerable. (Not for nothing is this development situated under the heading of "L'Image.") For what if an image—a "petit pan de mur jaune," say, or, indeed, a "petite phrase" from a sonata—were experienced not from across the insulating distance which might be thought to define the aesthetic, but as suddenly, already, too close, intimate and immediate? In such a case the artwork risks slipping into the murk of the infra-aesthetic, into which we have generally attempted to trample all those 'body genres' defined by their assertion of affective effectivity: horror, pornography, melodrama. . . .2 If modernity, say after Kant, has wanted to characterize the aesthetic by notions of disinterested pleasure or the autonomy of the artwork, [End Page 1] the idea of such works as productive of forms of contact has seemed both dangerous and foolish, a kind of naive and irresponsible category mistake.

Since the second half of the nineteenth century, of course (the names of Lautréamont and Nietzsche might serve as emblematic here), this characterization of the artwork has come repeatedly under assault. Its persisting prevalence is indicated, however, by the fact that such attacks have generally been enough to locate their authors as irredeemably avant-garde. From Wedekind to Jarry, Artaud, Dada or Bataille, and on to Jean-Jacques Lebel, COUM or the fakir-like early work of Stelarc, modernism's excessive underbelly has convulsively sought to put the affect back into the aesthetic situation, to puncture its prophylactic distance. And throughout this period, heterodox theorizations of the artwork as a kind of contact have repeatedly appeared, attached or not to these confrontational productions. Most recently, analyses of the possible forms of contact offered by the work of art, often emerging from intellectual contexts which have placed necessary and welcome emphasis on the dangers of referential or ontological naivety concerning the status of the artwork, are now exceeding these contexts. These analyses seem no longer to represent what might once have been considered, in Pasolini's phrase, a kind of heretical empiricism. Rather, in dialectical tandem with the dramatic degree of mediation imposed by digital media, there has emerged a disparate sense that the artwork, precisely as medium, might produce at least the fantasy, and perhaps the intermittent effect, of a kind of immediacy. Revisiting Peirce's work on...


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