in Critic's Guides | 01 SEP 11
Featured in
Issue 141

Survey: Books

We invited frieze contributors to discuss the writers and publications they consider to be the most significant of the last 20 years

in Critic's Guides | 01 SEP 11

Brian Dillon 
Giorgio Agamben 
Infancy and History (1978; translated into English in 1992)

Given the ubiquity of Giorgio Agamben’s thought in the art world over the last decade, and the alacrity with which the Italian philosopher’s ideas regarding the ‘biopolitical’ logic that links the Nazi death camps, Guantánamo Bay and everyday surveillance have been redeployed, it’s worth recalling what a vagrant, odd and original writer he seemed when Infancy and History was first translated. The essays collected here touch on St. Augustine, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, the Utopian ‘playland’ of Pinocchio, the meaning of the nativity crib and (in a text originally added to the French edition) the history of gesture. Agamben is at his best when weirdly hieratic and resistant to easy translation into the terms of curatorial chatter. Like any great philosopher, he gets read selectively and instrumentally, but the work itself is infinitely more involved and oblique.

Brian Dillon is a writer based in Kent.


Hari Kunzru 
Manuel De Landa
War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991)

War in the Age of Intelligent Machines is a strange hybrid of a book, part philosophy and part science fiction. It puts forward a vision of future warfare in which intelligence is embedded in autonomous machines that can make decisions on the battlefield. The book was an early salvo in what was then called cyberculture, but though the ‘cyber’ prefix has come to seem dated, the implication of the rise of networks and the saturation of the material world with information have yet to be fully worked through. In subsequent books, Manuel De Landa, a marginal figure in the world of academic philosophy, has gradually pieced together a radically materialist view, which has great explanatory power. The cultural tendency of which De Landa’s early work was a part has yet to be given its proper due.

Hari Kunzru is a novelist based in New York.

The Invisible Committee / The Coming Insurrection, 2009.

Michael Bracewell
Andrew Renton & Liam Gillick (eds.)
Technique Anglaise (1991)

In Britain and internationally, the world of contemporary art underwent a radical and multi-allusive shift in the years immediately following the ‘Freeze’ exhibition curated by Damien Hirst in July 1988. This shift would affect the holistic identity of contemporary art, and in a manner that provoked a substantial need for individual and collective reorientation. Technique Anglaise: Current Trends in British Art is both a vital document of this pivotal moment and a master-class in cultural enquiry. Curatorial in form, the book presents the work of 27 UK-based artists and the transcript of a discussion about the process and contexts of their selection. The artists include Angus Fairhurst, Sarah Lucas, Langlands & Bell, Rachel Whiteread and Hirst himself; while the discussion brings together Lynne Cooke, Liam Gillick, Maureen Paley, Andrew Renton, Karsten Schubert and William Furlong. What emerges is the template for much that has followed over the last 20 years, while also raising questions that are still waiting for an adequate answer.

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in England.

Stuart Bailey
David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest (1996)

In issue 125 of frieze, ‘Whatever Happened to Theory?’, John Russell makes the case for the writing of Gilles Deleuze as amounting to ‘the most interesting example of “contemporary art” of the last 40 years’, but I’d counter-propose the filmography of James O. Incandenza, the alcoholic, anticonfluential, après-gardist whose body of work includes advertorials, documentaries and features, as well as his unclassifiable, unreleased, but highly sought-after magnum opus, a fifth and apparently fatal attempt to film a custom-lens, multiple-gauge high-concept piece of oedipal entertainment, supposedly unfinished at the time of his suicide, as listed at the end of the 24th footnote of the therefore even more extraordinary outer novel of the same name, Infinite Jest.

Stuart Bailey is a designer based in Los Angeles.

Jörg Heiser 
Judith Butler
Bodies That Matter (1993)

In the summer of 1994, Judith Butler organized a seminar at Frankfurt University. Her book Gender Trouble (1990), questioning the supposed stability of gender identities, had almost instantly become a canonical work of feminist and queer theory. Still, only 30 or so students showed up – but they didn’t regret it. Butler eloquently offset difficult philosophical enquiries with vivid examples from ‘real’ life. Along the way she also made it clear that this gender stuff concerned anyone, not ‘just’ women and gay men. Gender Trouble prompted the criticism that its championing of ‘drag’ and performativity strengthened the illusion of gender identities being as interchangeable as shirts. Butler had indeed allowed that misunderstanding to occur a little too easily, and so she wrote Bodies That Matter, in which the notion of ‘playing on’ gender stereotypes was replaced with ‘working on’, highlighting the difficulties of doing so faced with the way norms literally materialize. It is the thoroughness and philosophical scope of Butler’s work that ensured she remained more than a passing fad. When she gave a talk at Freie Universität Berlin in 2009, more than 2,000 people showed up.

Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze and is based in Berlin.  

Quinn Latimer
Anne Carson
Glass, Irony and God (1995)

‘His name was Law.’ Each time I read that line in the opening stanzas of Anne Carson’s long poem ‘The Glass Essay’, it is like the first time. First startled by the terrible terseness, then admiring of how the beloved’s name functions on two planes, like a Greek god or a character in a Spike Lee movie. Much has changed since I was an undergraduate in the late ’90s and a professor handed me a warm photocopy with the Canadian classicist and poet’s name scrawled across the top, but her poem’s significance hasn’t – neither to me nor to the legions of admirers I’ve met over the years who can recite lines from it off the top of their heads. An essayistic examination of desire through the prism of Wuthering Heights (1847) and the Brontë sisters, matrilineal love, sexual relationships and the Canadian moor, ‘The Glass Essay’ was my introduction to Carson’s caustic, brilliant writing. ‘It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass,’ she notes a few pages in. And it is.

Quinn Latimer is a writer based in Zurich.

Maria Fusco
Chris Kraus
I Love Dick (1997) Putting the extra into mundane, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick is a novel about occlusion. The three main characters – Chris, Dick and Sylvère – keep missing each other, so they supplement discourse for action in order to safeguard intimacy. Experimental filmmaker Chris’s crush on cultural critic Dick is the narrative motor, whilst her husband, college professor Sylvère, enables theory to haunt as the unsaid: ‘Over dinner the two men discuss recent trends in postmodern critical theory and Chris, who is no intellectual, notices Dick making continual eye contact with her.’ I Love Dick’s insistence on reportage as central writing method is smartly activated to create a strong sense of real-time revelation, positing the subjective voice as the critical voice. Kraus does this so elegantly you won’t realize she knows she’s doing it.

Maria Fusco is a Belfast-born writer based in London.

Nest Magazine,

Emily King 
Nest magazine (1997–2004)

The interior design magazine Nest was first published in 1997, in the wake of the launch of the game-changing glossy Wallpaper* a year earlier. A glorious antidote to that publication’s granite and leather minimalism – an aesthetic that had been imitated by most other magazines in the field – Nest was a riot of chintz, flock, carpet and corduroy. Ignoring the conventions of interior design, magazine design and design journalism, the publisher/editor/designer Joseph Holtzman covered subjects including prison cells, teenagers’ domestic fantasies, philosophies of hygiene, artists’ homes and dolls’ houses in a series of unfettered layouts. It appeared as if he were rethinking the role of the author and relationship between text and image not just from installment to installment but from article to article. Running for 26 issues, the last of which appeared in 2004, Nest was a sustained and sophisticated exercise in editorial and graphic naivety. While Wallpaper* rumbles on, its initial impulse having hardened into a professional formula, Nest has left the shelves, but become the stuff of publishing legend.

Emily King is a design historian based in London.

Jennifer Allen
Nicolas Bourriaud
Relational Aesthetics (1998)

I’ll never understand why Relational Aesthetics ended up rubbing people the wrong way. The backlash, which continues today, seems anachronistic and reactionary. Although Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics came out in 1998, the term spread through his earlier pieces in Documents sur l’art and was already part of the European critical vocabulary. In 1995, Åsa Nacking – the editor of Stockholm’s Paletten – dedicated her editorial debut to ‘Relationell estetik’ and invited Bourriaud, Maria Lind and Barbara Steiner to write. In 2002, when the Palais de Tokyo opened under Bourriaud’s co-direction, the movement was institutionalized and lost its critical verve. Claire Bishop’s 2004 critique – ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’ in October – was like shooting a lion in a zoo. In the same year, Facebook launched social networking. In his introduction to Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud warned about communication putting human relations into spaces of control which turn social bonds into commercial products. ‘[W]hat cannot be commercialized is destined to disappear. Soon, interhumain relations will not be able to be held outside these commercial spaces.’ His book and the art now appear as a prescient critique of the neo-liberal and digital take-over of what used to be public space.

Jennifer Allen is editor of frieze d/e and is based in Berlin.

Gabriela Jauregui
Roberto Bolaño
The Savage Detectives (1998; translated into English in 2007)

It is an uncomfortable yet necessary position to bring up the rear-guard of the avant-garde: indeed, it is a position where the bottoms must go up. And this is what Roberto Bolaño did in The Savage Detectives. Through myriad narrators, the novel is in constant dialogue (and conflict) with the avant-garde; the idea of a single narrator or story is perverted, reverted, transverted. There doesn’t even seem to be a single author, as the novel – if one can call it that – is full of quotations: from Bolaño’s many readings of other authors, especially of poetry, but from his own texts as well. Bolaño, as any good rear-guardist should, plagiarizes, cannibalizes, reads, appropriates, deviates and elucidates on other authors (real or imaginary). Through his several characters’ eyes, the central ones of whom are young literary bon vivants and bon-readers, Bolaño reveals Mexico City as the capital of the late 20th century, positions and mocks his own avant-garde desires as an infrarealist; and invites us – no, compels us, threatens us – to read.

Gabriela Jauregui is a writer and editor based in Mexico City.

Jerome Boyd-Maunsell 
W.G. Sebald (1944– 2001)

A decade after W.G. Sebald’s death, his transformation of several ‘non-fictional’ genres at once – biography, autobiography, history, travel writing and the essay, with a final, masterly twist of invention – still fascinates me as much as when I first read him. Sebald’s strangely intimate first-person voice in his four ‘prose fiction’ books, Vertigo (1990; translated into English in 1999), The Emigrants (1992; 1996), The Rings of Saturn (1995; 1998) and Austerlitz (2001), in particular, created an unforgettable persona: the writer as scholar, or scholar-wanderer; self-effacing, side-tracking, melancholic; respectful yet distrustful of writing; oddly permeable and in thrall to the world; yet still the same ‘I’ from book to book. I like to think of these four texts as semi-fantastic essays on impossible subjects, even if, by Austerlitz, Sebald was moving closer to a more fluent, ‘novelistic’ narrative pull. Exactly how Sebald made the shift from his scholarly studies of the 1960s–’80s to this miraculous quartet remains a fruitful mystery to me – as does what he would be writing now.

Jerome Boyd-Maunsell is a writer and critic based in London.

Michael Sayeau
J.M. Coetzee
Disgrace (1999)

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is two deeply incompatible things at once. On the one hand, it’s an exquisitely written (and justly lauded) work of fiction that artfully follows the collapse of the life of its protagonist, David Lurie, into the status named in the title. But on the other hand, it performatively diagnoses what has always been wrong with the novel as a form from the very start. Prose narrative – as we see vividly in Disgrace – moves its attention away from the white and male and well-off only at its own peril; it demands access to the interiorities of those we either don’t or shouldn’t really have access to; and however complexly plotted, it tends to rely upon forced logics of consistency and causality. Disgrace leaves us with an impossible question: despite the fact that we (or at least Coetzee) are able to write novels this good, should we be writing them at all? 

Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in the English department of University College London.

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003, Book cover. 

David Campany
Susan Sontag
Regarding the Pain of Others (2003)

When Susan Sontag’s On Photography appeared in 1977 it summarized the distrust and suspicion that characterized advanced thinking about the medium in the 1970s. The book remains a bestseller and undergraduate entry point – it was bad news in magisterial, generalizing sentences. But Sontag came to doubt her assessment as it pertained to photojournalism: to automatically brush aside as naïve or exploitative images that make political and ethical demands is high-minded conservatism, not critical distance; blaming the media for inducing ‘compassion fatigue’ is a self-serving cop out. Her volte-face promised a timely exposing of a double standard, and might have led to a different approach to writing, one much more attentive to specifics; photojournalism is, inextricably, a practice of specific images and words. But Regarding the Pain of Others reads like a grand illustrated lecture lacking the illustrations and with little discussion of their vital textual accompaniments. Robert Capa’s image Falling Soldier (1936) is described in relation to the advertisement opposite it in a 1937 issue of Life magazine, not to the journalism of which it was a part, or its repeated appearance in other magazines with different writing. Photographs without text make for poor journalism; stripping them from their texts is poor analysis. Sontag was caught between the grubby necessity of particulars and the overview, which was her forte as a writer. Grubby but necessary: we still need the analysis Sontag promised.

David Campany is a writer and curator based in London.

Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez
Igor Zabel
Eseji I (Essays I, 2006)

Igor Zabel, that incredibly generous and humour-loving art historian, long-time curator at Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana, author of witty short stories and core member of the Slovenian literary Postmodernists, translator of Thomas Pynchon‘s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and bridge between generations of artists and historians who live continents apart, died prematurely in 2005. Soon after, one of the most renowned Slovenian publishing houses for social science and humanities, where Zabel worked as a member of the editorial board, began to publish his essays. Eseji I focuses on his obsessions: debates on the legacy of the white cube and curatorial tasks and roles within and outside of it; how the Former East and the Former West (a term he coined) might live together after 1989; complex historicizations of regions out of sync with the Former West and abolition of the notion of belatedness that any involuntary provincialization provokes; or on the ethical and Utopian aspects of politically engaged artistic positions.

Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez is a writer and curator based in Paris.

Sven Lütticken
Hito Steyerl
Die Farbe der Wahrheit. Dokumentarismen im Kunstfeld (The Colour of Truth: Documentarism in the Artistic Field, 2008)

If not enough German publications in the field of art and cultural theory/history are translated into English, this may in part be due to a certain incompatibility between Anglo-Saxon and Germanic academic writing. In translation (and often in the original German a well) the latter can look rather bloated, fuzzy and self-indulgent. Nothing, however, should stand in the way of an English version of Hito Steyerl’s 2008 book Die Farbe der Wahrheit. Dokumentarismen im Kunstfeld (The Colour of Truth: Documentarisms in the Artistic Field). As Steyerl notes in the postscript, the book’s essayistic structure and tone reflect an environment that is markedly different from academia: an international network of residencies and teaching jobs that produce essays that Steyerl herself reads as displaced and condensed expressions of an economy of interruption, of flexibility, and of constant de- and re-skilling. As in her recent English-language essays in e-flux journal and elsewhere, Steyerl’s essays make the most of these conditions, reflecting and reflecting on them with lucidity and illuminating Gedankensprünge (which is one of those German words for which no really adequate translation seems to exist). The unclear live images of the US invasion of Iraq that CNN broadcast in 2003 serve as the book’s point of departure. Many of our concepts for analyzing and theorizing the documentary are as blurry as these poor images, Steyerl notes. However, this fundamental uncertainty of the images and of our concepts should not be seen as lack, but rather as a fundamental characteristic of the documentary – in documentary filmmaking as well as in various documentary forms in contemporary art. The documentary mode is problematic from the get-go, and herein lies its potential. This is then elaborated in a number of short thematic chapters that each, because of the conditions of production, attack the problem from a new angle in the form of a seemingly autonomous essay. The chapter in which the author, following or appropriating Adorno, critiques the documentary 'jargon of authenticity' is particularly brilliant. Rather accepting rhetorical claims that the documentary shows 'the real life', should one not insists that it interrupts and reconfigures life? However, specific tours de force are ultimately part of a whole that may not be the monumental and monolithic study that academics aspire to (or used to aspire to), but an artful montage that is more than the sum of its parts.

Sven Lütticken is an art historian and critic based in Utrecht.

Ghalya Saadawi
The Invisible Committee
The Coming Insurrection (2009)

Insurrection is possible, coming and irreversible in the present. Society, Western civilization, empire is not in crisis; it is the crisis, on life-support, in flammable ruins. ‘Emergency’, ‘crisis’, ‘security’, ‘humanitarianism’ are means of governing, mere bodyguards policing radical words. Also a symptom that many no longer want to submit. The enemy, when it does not confront head-on, exercises itself through managing, militarizing, policing, dispersing, inventing realities, bodies, spaces. The era of nations, the manic bipolarity of governmental politics, is listed in an obituary. Traditional politics must be deserted. The history of riots and revolts – in Algeria, by the Paris Commune, in Greece, in Argentina, by spectrums of anarchy, by the Boxer uprising, in Russia, in the banlieues, in Oaxaca, in Tunis, in Genoa – testify. ‘Revolutionary movements do no spread by contamination but by resonance.’ Find each other. Form terrible bonds. Don’t underestimate the politics in friendship. Learn to box, to plant, to be a pirate. Appropriate systems of mobility, make street kitchens, autonomous and opaque zones. Be anonymous, invisible, form communes. It’s already over. It’s already here. The Invisible Committee – whose members are additionally associated with the publication Tiqqun and sometimes called the Tarnac 9 – prefers to remain anonymous, and does not present itself as the ‘author’ of this book. Its transmitters/editors, yes. In 2008, the nine people associated with this book were arrested and taken from their village-commune by the French authorities. Despite being justified by officials under the general hubris of the war on ‘(pre)terrorism’ (for their ultra-left, ‘anarcho-autonomist tendencies’), they were later released. They continue to plant, to organize, to write.

Ghalya Saadawi is a writer currently based in Beirut.

Carol Yinghua Lu
Publishing in China

In search of a publication that has had a major impact in China over the past 20 years, I not only went through my own references but also conducted an informal survey using a Chinese Twitter service. This generated a heated discussion. Instead of listing significant books, many of us felt the conspicuous absence of any such publication. My recent visit to the first branch of an international bookstore chain in a fancy Beijing shopping mall revealed the most fundamental answer to this void: all I could find in the philosophy and sociology section of this enormous bookstore, which appeared to stock a great diversity of volumes in English and Chinese, were self-help books. We live in an era of information abundance and intellectual deficiency. Individual voices are buried among the collective noise, each occupying a desperate, closed and self-indulgent world ruled by a collective illusion created by the system.

Carol Yinghua Lu is a contributing editor of frieze and is based in Beijing.