Abstract Narratives, and No End

By Jan Baetens

Four wattsébastien conard

fo(u)r watt

het balanseer, 2019, limited edition (10 euros)


“Abstract comics” are a vital strand of contemporary avant-garde comics, nowadays well-represented and largely accepted in various countries and traditions. Yet rather than trying to define what abstracts comics are, where they come from, or where they are going to, it is necessary to start reading them. The publication of fo(u)r watt, an attractive joint project of publisher Het Balanseer (by far the most daring of independent literary publishers in Flanders: http://hetbalanseer.be/) and Sébastien Conard (whose creative work hovers between visual art and comics) is a good opportunity to do so.

Based on a string of four quotations from Samuel Beckett’s Watt (written in 1942-1944, published in 1953), fo(u)r watt is a work that demonstrates the formal and imaginative power of a type of visual narrative in print that does not need the alibi of a precomposed scenario to display a wide range of stories, characters, and places -the three inevitably intertwined aspects or dimensions of any narrative whatsoever. The sequential arrangement of the drawings in this book follows the fundamental structure of the diptych as suggested by its first images: the whole string of drawings unfolds between the four quotations by Beckett, which one finds in the beginning (1 sentence), in the middle (2 sentences, each of them on of the pages of the central double spread) and in the end (1 sentence), the covers of the book being deprived of visual images (they just contain “printed matter, which rapidly morphs into a visual sign as well, given the mirror effect between front and back cover: a chronology is thus established by purely formal means, but this chronology is not unilinear, since one is encouraged to read from A to Z and then back again from Z to A).

The images of fo(u)r watt do not “illustrate” Beckett’s text. Neither are they “abstract” in the traditional sense of the word: it is possible to identify as well as to name some of its components (a keyhole or a railroad track, for instance). But the lack of a directly visible narrative or thematic link between these images invites the reader to disclose another and perhaps more important layer of their meaning: the way in which they present a fictional world by taking their inspiration from the material properties of the book itself. The two pane window is not a “symbol” of the book; corollarily, the keyhole and the railroad track are not symbols of the reader’s focusing on the unknown territory and her or his trajectory from one page to another, respectively: they are nothing more or nothing less than the fictional transfer of it. However, this transfer is also something to be read in two ways: from the underlying material to the emerging fictional equivalent, but also from the latter to the former – and “resistance” of some drawings to nicely tie in with this type of reading scheme is also there to prevent us from opting for one type of reading at the expense of the other one.

The essential structure of the book exceeds the debate on the meaning of the drawings themselves. What matters is the dynamics created by the visual montage, which obeys a movement of fort-da. fo(u)r watt emerges as a fan-like or accordion-like structure, which can be opened and closed at will, but whose manipulation reveals –and each movement brings this structure more prominently to the fore– an endless spiral. The very last image, which reframes the initial representation of the diptych, shows the interplay between circle and point, the circle being broken, the point being elsewhere than in the center of the circle: a nice way as well to add a critical counterpoint to the initial quotation, which states that “all is said”.

Four watt 2

On Relatability

By Jan Baetens

RelatabilityBrian Glavey, “Having a coke with You is Even More Fun Than Ideology Critique”, PMLA, Oct. 2019, pp. 996-1011

Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard UP, 2012), which makes a plea to broaden the intellectual and terminological toolkit of our contemporary ways of experiencing culture, has been dramatically important in the fine-tuning of older concepts and frameworks, for instance by making room for something like “the cute” next to the more traditional labels such as the “beautiful” or the “sublime”. One of the notions that might be added to her (short) list, the author of a remarkable article in PMLA argues, is that of the “relatable”, a buzzword, but a very complex one, of today’s art criticism in the broadest sense of the word. Relatability is not only an aesthetic or scholarly category, it is in the first place a term that is now literally everywhere, but whose meaning, role, and impact are still open to much debate.

Something is relatable when it can be retold, but that is just the first and oldest meaning of the word. Today, relatable also defines works that someone (a reader, a listener, a spectator) can “relate to”, and this new sense, however vague it remains, is the one that matters in current discussions on the topic. For in order to start telling about something one has seen, heard, or read, it is necessary that one feels touched by it and recognizes something of oneself in it. The best way to specify the meaning of the term is then to compare it with other terms, similar but not identical, and the first in line is of course the notion of “relational”, as coined by Nicolas Bourriaud in his reflections on “relational art”: that is art capable of producing social interactions between artists and audiences, on the one hand, and members of the audience, on the other hand. Relatability and relationality are close, but not the same, for relatable works present a paradoxical form of relationality: they produce a strong sense of identification with certain works and certain persons (I like this and I know you like this too), but at the same time they also tend to exclude other persons (if I like this, it is also because I know that you and I like things other people don’t).

Glabvey’s article is not only highly relatable (after all, why am I writing this blogpost on it?), it is also a brilliant example of bridging the gap between a crucial case study (the Frank O’Hara poem “Having a Coke with You”, one of the biggest hits in Twitter and Instagram culture) and a sharp cultural analysis of the many aspects and dimensions of relatability, such as the relationship between relatability and normativity (O’Hara’s gay writing can perfectly be appropriated by nongay, even very heteronormative readers), relatability and publicity (is there a difference between the structures of a relatable poem and the structures of an advertisement?), relatability and ideology (Frank O’Hara is turning poetry into product placement and it is well known that his defense of a certain form of modern art served a Cold War propaganda agenda), etc.

More generally speaking, Glavey makes also very interesting claims on poetry, on art, on culture, and most of all on the links between all of these fields. But no further spoilers: please read the article without further delay, even if you don’t immediately relate to my dull and dry presentation of this great essay.