- Belabored: Style as Work
Style, then, is a verb, not as grammar alone might mislead us, a noun.—Berel Lang1
The world is labor.—Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri2
What or where is style? Is it everywhere in a work of art? Surely not, for then it would be merely a tautological designation of something for which we have a word: form. And yet, if it is not spread equally across the work or is not consubstantial with all of the work’s parts and their coordination, we are still left with an impression of the general rightness of Susan Sontag’s remark that when we speak of style, we speak “about the totality of a work of art.”3 To speak about the work’s “totality” is not, however, necessarily to speak about all of its parts, or to speak about them all at once. Style is everywhere in the work, but perhaps not everywhere in the same measure.
For instance, if we regard an unusual piece of framing in a film by Douglas Sirk as striking, formally particular, we would tend (as many critics have done) to suggest that this framing is exemplary of Sirk’s style—a style that distinguishes him from his anonymized Hollywood contemporaries (those directors whose works we do not study on the basis of their particularity). If we note that this framing, this shot is remarkable and is indicative of Sirk’s style, what of the shots that came before and will follow after it? Why do we not also talk about them? Are they merely the neutral ground against which [End Page 47] the stylistically particular shot stands out? But surely its standing out as such depends on this ground. If this is so, then how can that ground be separated from the remarkable image? Is style the energy, agency, or intelligence that has suffused the work as a whole, and that has determined the remarkable image and its relation to the less-remarkable parts with which it is coordinated, and to which it is connected? Style then, would not merely consist in the remarkable image, but in the temporality of its appearance in relation to the temporality of the entire film’s duration. Style might feel more palpably dense in one moment in the film, but that density would depend—vitally—on the lighter, more transparent moments of the rest of the film.
The problem is a tricky one—perhaps more so for modern aesthetics than for aesthetic theory in earlier periods in which style was the name and taxonomizing agent for the apprehension of types of aesthetic production bound together by geography, historical period, or school. Our contemporary understanding of style tends to hinge on our valuation of the individual, the stylist, the author/director/artist who has distinguished him-or herself from others. (If everyone had the same style, style might not exist, we fear.) But what connects this later understanding of style as “individual” to earlier understandings is the fact that whether we tend to think of style as something “belonging” to an individual or to a group of individuals, the fact of its “belonging to” remains the same. Style is something a person or a group has. It is a manner and a means of settling property disputes. (If it were not, authenticating works of art would not be the expensive business that it is.)4
What if, instead of thinking about style as something that an artist or artwork has, we thought of it as something the artist or artwork does? That is, what if we thought of style not as property, but as labor? We know that works of art get to be what they are because some labor has been expended in producing them, but what if we place the emphasis exactly here—on the work of the work, and on the making visible of that work as style? What follows are some attempts at thinking about the implications of such an emphasis. These are written as notes: provisional, partial, and incomplete.5
If style is the signature of a group or an individual, then style is individuation...