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  • Crude Matter, Queer Form
  • Kyla Tompkins (bio)

What is crude matter and what does it have to do with the queerness of form? I want to think, in this brief note, about the matter of crudeness, with its multiple resonances for scholars of materialism who seek to integrate the insights of queer theory—particularly those of queer of color theory—with research into questions of aesthetics and politics. Crudeness appeals to me as a window into form because, like the queer, it signifies so much that is Wrong (or "Rong with a capital 'R,'" as my friend Matthew says). Crudeness as rawness, for instance, like "crudités"; crudeness as the unrefined or uncivilized, in Claude Lévi-Strauss' terms; or perhaps crudeness as insolubility or indigestibility. The indigestibility of the crude is both literal and figurative. For example, Ben Jonson described a "crude stomacke" as one that is afflicted by [End Page 264] indigestion, while Milton used the term to describe an inability to digest and synthesize knowledge: "Deep verst in books and shallow in himself, Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys, And trifles."1 Crudeness also signals the barbarism of base aesthetics: rough, rude, and blunt, lacking finish or maturity. According to the online urban dictionary—perhaps the right place to go to get the definition of "crude" without conceding to the racialized coding of "urban"—"crude" refers to "a slightly more vile form of the word 'rude.' A combination of 'crap' and 'rude.'" Rude is when you throw your underwear at the wall, says the OUD; crude is—well, I'll let you look it up.2

You can see here that I like crudeness, particularly in its affiliation with what is vulgar or crass. I'm particularly interested here—and I'm still feeling my way through this argument—in the line that we can draw between crude materiality and aesthetic form: that is, if crude materiality is unfinished and raw, does its aesthetic form amount to a rejection of form, aspiring, like spit, toward no form at all—toward the material formlessness that Georges Bataille calls for in his short piece titled "L'Informe"? Or does it perhaps aspire to a form-to-come, a form in the process of formation? A form is that which, by definition, emerges into social—which is to say, politico-aesthetic—legibility, and thus it is worth asking whether formlessness can be seen at all. Isn't that which is formless by definition illegible? Or by crude materiality do we instead mean organic form, as in the chemical or biological sense of a shape or relation not mediated by human intervention? In his note on "L'Informe" in the seventh issue of his journal Documents, Bataille wrote,

formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world ["un terme servant à déclasser"], generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed [écraser] everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit [un crachat].3

Art historians have wrestled with the question of the form of formlessness and its relation to informal art. Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, for instance, famously took up Bataille's provocation as a manifesto for a kind of anti-modernist art practice.4 The art produced in the wake of those conversations explore natural and organic forms, including some that really interest me, such as viscosity, foam, mud, and fat—although the art that explores those organic textures sometimes seems less interesting that the writing that provoked it. I wonder whether this is because, in its commitment to the object-ness of materiality, even the most plastic of art practices tends [End Page 265] to abandon the critical engagement...


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