BY Jan Verwoert in Opinion | 05 MAY 08
Featured in
Issue 115

Errant Children

Can a piece of writing ever precisely convey what the writer wants it to?

BY Jan Verwoert in Opinion | 05 MAY 08

The other night, I left a bar quite late and, getting into a cab, said to the driver: ‘I don’t know what happened, but suddenly it was three in the morning.’ He turned around to me and replied: ‘You know what? I don’t know what happened either, but suddenly I was 50!’

I told him I was 35, and he replied that he had already fathered two children by the time he was my age. Since I had to admit I hadn’t, he advised: ‘But you should, because otherwise, when you are dead, no part of you will live on.’ For want of a better reply, I mentioned that I write and that maybe there was a chance that some of my writing would survive me. He agreed: ‘That’s not too bad, because you can never be sure that children will say what you want them to; with writing it’s different, it always does.’ Staggering out of the cab, I couldn’t help thinking: ‘Well, does it, really?’

In fact, I am absolutely certain that a text never quite says what you intend it to say. Recently, I met an artist who told me that a lecture I had once given had inspired his work. He then cited what I had said. It was a line I had quoted from Walter Benjamin, and which I had intended to be interpreted completely differently. But, who cares? Like unruly children, words do what they want. It’s probably better to curb your ambitions, anxiously control the meaning of your work and relax. Essentially, I assume, that is what Roland Barthes meant to hint at in his (rampantly ill-quoted) pamphlet on ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967).

The only trouble is that authors, like artists, live on and, as they do, so does the eerie feeling that addressing posterity is part of their job description. In the same way that we converse with long-dead authors and artists through their work, what writers produce, even if practically unread and unseen for the time being, enters the memory banks of collections, libraries and the web. Ultimately, it’s posterity that prevents us from conclusively controlling the meaning of our work. So: what do we want from posterity?

Love and understanding, maybe? But what good are they in retrospect? They’re something you want now, not later. Moreover, expecting love and understanding in return for work is probably the chief source of misery for creative people. So honour your friends, lovers and family, for only they can give you the recognition you need, and don’t look for it in art. Approach your work with a different attitude. Like Kelis says, in ‘Bossy’ (2006): ‘You don’t have to love me/ You don’t even have to like me/ But you will respect me/ Cos I’m bossy.’

Pragmatically speaking, this seems like a sound proposition. Metaphysically, however, it is debatable. For no matter how bossy you are as an author or artist, you rarely have the forces at your command to ensure others will respect you. But, of course, respect is what you seek. Why else would you write or make art? So you arrive at the threshold of the public, full mouthed and empty handed, desiring, rightfully so, some response to what you contribute, suspecting, again rightfully so, that you have no right to expect it and that, if there is a reaction, you might never know it, because in the end it may only be something someone thought or said somewhere. ‘Someone somewhere’ – isn’t it that we communicate through art or writing in the full awareness that this form of communication is inevitably displaced because we usually don’t face our addressee directly?

To face the addressee directly and leave the constraints of study and studio behind to collaborate with others is the traditionally advised remedy for melancholy (together with fresh air and physical exercise). Having gained some experience of collaborative projects in recent years, I think it certainly seems to make a difference if you develop your work as a group. But the problem of its reception does not go away. For there is always a wider public outside your group or community. And when you seek to address this wider public, the same issues recur. For a group, more than for individuals, it is tempting to not face the outside addressee, to shield the collective’s internal discourse with self-made ideologies. Yet, even when a collective tries to keep things transparent, the viewing public is free to not feel addressed by – or indeed feel excluded from – their discourse, possibly condemning it as just another art world circle jerk. Of course, this could leave you embittered. But in the end it seems much more challenging to embrace the relative anonymity and unpredictability of reception as the condition of any practice that seeks to address the public. So as we stumble out into the open with our various desires, instead of building up high expectations, we may end up happier if we listen for those strange, unexpected responses, which might even come in a cab at three in the morning.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.