Critics should get to the point and tell us their dreams. A review of Rebekah Rutkoff’s The Irresponsible Magician: Essays and Fictions
TO write a review, the would-be critic must put on her critic’s hat. She must don her critic’s clothes, button up her critic’s jacket, and write a critic’s lede:
Essay, or fiction? One can’t help but ask the question again and again reading Rebekah Rutkoff’s The Irresponsible Magician (Semiotext(e), 2015, 104 pages). The book’s subtitle—“Essays and Fictions”—suggests the author works in both genres, but at times it is difficult to decide which chapter, or even which sentence, belongs to which idiom.
Or something like that. What’s most important is that you know, right off the bat, what you are reading: a book review. You know it by the cool authority the critic adopts, by her confidence that her experience predicts yours, by that magic pronoun, “one,” that sutures her to you. Or, in this case, you to me. This voice and these generic tropes are my critic’s uniform. Along with showing you who I am and what you are reading, a critic’s uniform gives me the authority to criticize and to praise. They are the judge’s gavel, and if you hate the verdict—even if you hate the law—you can’t ignore its effects.
But is it possible to write criticism—or even to write critically—while at the same time refusing the critic’s authority? Can a work be coherent, meaningful, and precise without its author dressing it as a piece of art criticism—or as an interview, a short story, a book of photos, a psychoanalytic case study, an autobiography?
In 1980, Michel Foucault gave an anonymous interview for Le Monde because he was, in his words, “nostalgic for a time when, being quite unknown, what I said had some chance of being heard.” Calling himself the “Masked Philosopher,” he suggested that the unknown author has an “unrippled” “surface of contact” with the reader, and that the book without an author might “land in unexpected places and form shapes that I had never thought of.” He temporarily shed the authority of his name, because “a name makes reading too easy.”
Genres, too, make reading easy. Genres are information-bearing: like a kind of literary meta-data, a text’s genre tells you what discourses regulate it and what counts as knowledge within; it says who the author is and where her authority lies. The psychoanalyst does not reach for hard-numbered sociological data, and the quantitative researcher cares nothing for his subject’s dreams. Genre is therefore, as the good Masked Philosopher taught us, an apparatus of power. Ask any high school student, journalist, grant writer, or PhD candidate, and she will tell you that the things she writes must offer up certain kinds of observations, arguments, and evidence. The modes in which we write determine what we’re able say. Even the art critic lacks permission to dream.
The problem with this is not so much that discourses confine us, or even that they produce us. That they do both is old news. No, the problem is that this whole process of comporting certain facts to certain discourses just takes so much time. Say—to borrow an episode from The Irresponsible Magician—that you have a dream in which the actor Ed Harris plays a madcap minimalist sculptor slash magician slash respected art professor who obtained tenure by building an endless glass window into ancient Rome. Say this reminds you of the time you overheard the real Ed Harris mansplaining Helen Frankenthaler to the supermodel Stephanie Seymour at the MoMA opening of a Jackson Pollock show. Say, too, that you had this dream after watching an episode of Charlie Rose that featured Kirk Varnedoe, the curator of the very Jackson Pollock show where you saw Harris. And say that, watching Charlie Rose, you’d felt unsure why Kirk couldn’t—to use Rutkoff’s words--“simply like Jackson Pollock’s paintings without frothing so heavily,” while “Charlie nearly collapsed reviewing Kirk’s famous lecturing skills and the two of them smiled in the sweet spiral of knowing art.”
Finally, say that in your mind all of these images crystalize into a holographic portrait of male authority as it holds the sublime in check. If you want to share this knowledge with others, what do you do? You could enter a PhD program and write a dissertation on gender performance in the late 20th century art world, or write a novel that weaves your own dreams and memories into those of your protagonist. Or you could just get to the point and tell us your dreams, trusting the images you conjure to transmit their enigmatic message.
In The Irresponsible Magician, Rebekah Rutkoff gets to the point. Her prose can be perplexing, but only because we are so used to our books coming with elaborate instructions that tell us how to read them. Rutkoff’s style may seem strange because it is telegraphic: it admits nothing inessential. She doesn’t waste her breath assuring us she trades exclusively in fact or fiction, or explaining how she shuffles the two. Nor does she firm up her credentials and reveal what knowledge, insider or otherwise, gives her the authority to speak about Ed Harris and Jackson Pollock and Rosalind Krauss and Haskell Wexler and Oprah.
Some of us waste whole paragraphs and/or lives squeezing into the clothes of art critics and sociologists and psychoanalysts, fumbling with all those expensive, complicated buttons. Even Foucault’s Masked Philosopher declared his profession. Rutkoff doesn’t. Rather than wear a mask, she writes in the nude.
IN a sense, The Irresponsible Magician is a book about authority. It flashes brightest when it throws into conflict different ways of knowing: when, as in one episode, a former analysand reads her analyst’s book and scoffs, “This is bullshit.” Rutkoff stands in solidarity with the analysand and the magician rather than the analysts and anthropologists who study them. Her heroes are not the male painter whose frozen gestures will survive an age, but the performance artist who hopes her ephemeral movements will hold and “dilate” the “brushwork in process.” The book doesn’t lack sympathy for the famous names who parade through it: Rutkoff dissects the powerful’s power with an almost tender fascination. But that is just the point. Authority produces blind spots and excesses. As such, it’s a form of eccentricity. We all hold some tattered scrap of authority, and there is no version of it that is not somehow distorted or compromised.
A möbius strip of insiders and outsiders populate the first half of the book, a catalog of a young woman’s wanderings through the worlds of high and mass art. After her first gallery show, a curator loses her negatives; she still gives him an elaborate thank-you gift. She works as a producer on Headliners and Legends with Matt Lauer, where her work consists of “gentle manipulations” like convincing the relatives of celebrities, politicians, and convicts to turn over their family photos. There is always some curator or artist or writer entering or exiting the scene; all the famous men seem to have their “hands on the smalls of quite a few women’s backs.”
These anecdotes appear in an undressed, matter-of-fact way. But in their unfolding they build an account of the culture industry as a kind of dreamscape, one that elaborates all our fears and fantasies about power. The culture industry puts its underclass and its power-players in such close proximity that, in brief but charged moments, the hierarchies that organize them seem to flip. The famous designer needs affirmation from a TV production assistant. The curator needs his prose tidied and neatened. The actor attempts awkward small talk while waiting for his drink at the bar—and the unpaid intern ignores him.
When Rutkoff gains entry to the Jackson Pollock opening at MoMA, it is “as the guest of a friend who interned in the Publications Department and had proofread the show catalog four times.” They sit next to Rosalind Krauss, who pays them little attention; they overhear Harris, who is studying for his role in the Pollock biopic, holding forth on Abstract Expressionism. Like the other “celebrities” who populate The Irresponsible Magician, Krauss and Harris appear no more or less ridiculous than any other actual human being. And yet something crucial distinguishes the famous from the unknown: the fact that the celebrity is both person and image. His image sustains his personal power and authority, but also undermines it. He cannot always control where he appears, what with so many unannounced cameos in books and dreams and unauthorized TV biopics. His image goes wild but leaves him trapped. Like the professional critic, or the anthropologist, or psychoanalyst, the celebrity’s authority is limiting; it leaves him a slightly automated servant to his own identity.
Surrounded by important people at MoMA, Rutkoff recalls feeling a certain power in being nobody. “I wore a long carmine silk top over black pants and it was the last night I experienced the rewards of not knowing who I was in such a clean, bubble-like way. I drank so much that I insisted on taking the subway home, and woke up when the D line terminated at Brighton Beach.”
There are rewards in not knowing—or in temporarily forgetting—who you are. A firm personal and professional identity often comes with the sorts of rules and imperatives that end adventures before they start. Take the case of Claude Levi-Strauss, who appears in the second half of The Irresponsible Magician. The anthropologist deplored the use of color photography in ethnography, stating that he refused “be the dupe” of color photography’s “magic,” which promises a false access to reality. Rutkoff explains his position with characteristic frankness: “He wants to keep magic for himself,” she writes, “on the interior of an ethnographic escapade, guarded by the boundaries of his professional expertise and sensitivity.” Yet neither color nor magic will stay where the great anthropologist tells them to. When Levi-Strauss encounters a riotously colorful sunset and attempts to describe its progress in painstaking detail, confesses that his expertise has limits. There are connections he cannot draw and categories he cannot circumscribe. His description, Rutkoff argues, momentarily “topples” his sense of professional identity. “He no longer needs anthropology.” To transcribe a sunset, he has to leave his ethnographer’s uniform behind.
TWO figures that appear most powerfully in The Irresponsible Magician are the multi-media artist Carolee Schneeman and the media mogul Oprah. Each is the subject of an imaginary—that is, fictional—“interview” with an unnamed interlocutor. Both speak frankly about their careers and about their lives with and without men. The fictional Schneeman cuts a delightful figure, one who generously invites us into her idiom:
You’re worried that you’re a masochist. Just ignore it until it goes away. That’s what happens in the onward march of female heterosexuality—one day you’ll wake up and the tension will be unsustainable. It will cease playing itself out in the theater of public histrionics and will go lie quietly in some kind of internal jewelry box, with velvet-lined drawers. Ideally at the end there’s grace and the phallus is as much yours as it is his. It’s a process that’s much too slow and unsightly for women to tell each other about—that’s why we’re always re-inventing the wheel.
Receiving sex advice from Carolee was a fantasy I never knew I’d had. But on reading The Irresponsible Magician, this knowledge arrived as though in a dream, the sort one wakes from blushing. Yes, now that you mention it, I suppose I have always wanted that. If Rutkoff’s prose takes on any sort of authority, it is the authority of the dream. Its evidence is punctual, brief, incontrovertible: even when we cannot understand it, it yields thoughts we can’t un-think and images we can’t un-see.
Like Schneeman, Oprah has a professional interest in making the interior exterior. In Rutkoff’s book, she appears as Schneeman’s mirror image, and perhaps even her evil twin: whereas Schneeman politicizes female vulnerability, Oprah capitalizes on it. If she discusses matters of the heart, it is to suggest one might manage them with aesthetic and professional acumen. If the mysteries of heterosexuality interest her, it is because they impact her public image. Her love for her viewers is fierce, true, and touching: she wants each episode she produces “to be worth a year of therapy.” Rutkoff conjures an Oprah who long ago anticipated all the ways you might critique her. When it comes to the establishment she supports, she’s an agnostic—but she stands by every compromise she’s made.
A couple of days before we did the ribbon-cutting at Harpo Productions in Chicago, I sat with Alan Greenspan in his apartment in Georgetown… I signed a contract, more or less saying that when in doubt I’d err on the side of the interests of free market capitalism. Phil Donahue had given me Alan’s contact—he said it was like going for a few sessions of couples counseling before getting married. So it was a compromise I made with my eyes open. And then we toasted with some 1787 Chateau Margaux.
…He said to think of capitalism as a golden rod—keep bending it as far as you can, but when the metallic surface starts to crack and flake off (it’s spray-painted gold), you’ve got to back off so others can keep using it. He said, ‘Oprah, you’re our Wounded Healer: maintain a low-grade infection without going into sepsis.’ I had to promise to foreswear therapy as long as The Oprah Show was on the air to keep the wound moist and protect the brand.
Keeping the wound moist, the body vulnerable, and the blood visible protects the brand. Oprah’s genius is to turn her wound into a uniform: to take the weak, soft part of the self that an authority is supposed to protect, and to turn it into the sign of her authority. No wonder Rutkoff, who performs a similar trick in her prose, cannot help but admire her. Yet when she attempts to compares Oprah to the patient on the psychoanalytic couch—with the analysand who lies vulnerable on the couch—Oprah objects. “No.” Her work takes place in “the phallic swap-mart of TV. In the chair.” The most chilling thing about Oprah is that she knows exactly who she is. She is always in control.
If The Irresponsible Magician offers a critique, it is of just this fantasy of uncompromised self-possession. The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has argued that a fascination with “associations, word plays, and unconscious events” animated Freud’s time; by contrast, “there is widespread contempt for unconscious life in modern culture.” That is, we live in a world that is increasingly hostile towards aspects of human life that cannot be quantified, towards impulses we can’t control by willpower or explain through science. Rutkoff’s book works in a mode that staves off this nascent world: a world of curators without artists, critics without books, analysts without patients, consciousness without dreams.
To describe all this in my critic’s way may reduce its potency. It feels a bit like explaining a joke—or like describing a chemical reaction, instead of breaking out the beakers and creating one. I have judged, and judged positively. But The Irresponsible Magician reminds me of a different kind of criticism, one Foucault’s Masked Philosopher anticipated eagerly:
I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep . Perhaps it would invent them sometimes—all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I'd like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.
MY dreams do not have the paradoxical snap of Rutkoff’s. They are boring. I dream, sometimes, that I am reading—just reading—and as I approach the lower pages of a long PDF, my computer’s battery flashes an urgent red. My more exciting dreams lead me on quests to find some precious object or escape some nefarious force. It’s the normal sort of dream-stuff, but for one crucial thing: my dreams always unfold in cavernous and deserted buildings. In my dreams I navigate endless corridors, traverse indoor gardens, and paddle through underground canals. The landscapes I dream up resemble nothing more than malls. Run-down, or even abandoned malls
As a child, I thought Oz was a mall: having never, at five, seen or heard of such a thing as a walled city, I’d thought the giant green door Dorothy and her friends argued their way through in The Wizard of Oz led indoors, to streets and plazas all sheltered under one roof, and lined with businesses not unlike our world’s Gaps and Cinnabons. When I re-watched the film as an adult, I gasped upon seeing the good pedestrians of Oz look up to read the Wicked Witch’s sky-writing: SURRENDER, DOROTHY. Such an obvious visual cue, designed to construct a virtual space in the mind of the average viewer, and it failed to register with me. I was a child whose only brushes with public life, and whose main encounters with sweeping vistas, took place in the malls of suburban Detroit. To suture the gaps in Oz’s cinematic space, I used what I knew.
Our minds map the world in the intervals between shot and countershot, between sleeping and waking. Commerce snakes its way into each dream-mind’s working—snakes in, loops round fragments of sensation and assembles them as sense. It urges us—as do family, society, language, and law—towards an inner consensus. Most of us never reach that consensus. It’s a form of being purpose-built for a certain kind of white bourgeois, usually male; and most of those guys only fake their certitude, anyway. The unconscious is made of stronger stuff than all that. It remembers everything: both the forces that form our sense of the world, and the blunt facts we cannot fit to our world’s familiar shape.
The most striking thing about The Irresponsible Magician is the fact that dreams function within it as real, legitimate evidence—not just about the author’s inner life, but about the world writ large. This is the lesson we ought to draw from it. We’re used to treating dreams as belonging to the individual; analysts treat them as signposts on the hero’s journey out of neurosis and into an uncertain truce with the-world-as-it-is. But dream-data is not just individual. It’s also social and historical. Each dream reveals a foundational lie—that, for example, the world is a mall—while at the same time revealing there is a truth in the lie—that the structure of the mall commands the world and that the world is falling apart. Our job is to hold tight to these contradictions, to refuse to resolve them but instead to harness their dialectical heat. The result will not be dream-interpretation, but dream-criticism. Wander the halls and map the fault-lines that cleave them. Notice the roof. Notice the moment your ally and your enemy switch faces. In every inconsistency, there is a message. And beneath the pond scum that floats in every broken fountain’s basin, there shimmer uncountable, useless dimes.