Ribbons of Darkness: Inferences from the Shadowy Arts and Sciences

Ribbons of Darkness: Inferences from the Shadowy Arts and Sciences
Barbara Maria Stafford

University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2019
232 pp., illus. 54 b/w. Paper, $30.00
ISBN: 97802230519.

Reviewed by
Michael Punt
August 2019

Ribbons of Darkness is a collection of essays that is in many ways anchored our time. The author Barbara Maria Stafford is one of the great figures of the late twentieth century who has brought rigorous historical methodologies to bear on a critical engagement with visual culture. As a conventionally trained art historian, her books have tackled the big subjects in the arts and humanities of the body, medicine, science and consciousness in ways that are quite distinct from the generality of loosely moored speculation based on flimsy or highly selective evidence that characterised much that was published on those topics at the time. Her books carefully arranged material with a dogged precision in a way that insisted on the careful attention of the reader. Her formidable range and intellectual style were such that the reader became a collaborator in an enquiry at the very edge of current understanding. When she presented this research at conferences, she did so modestly without the faux flamboyances of the less well informed and made a difference to those who listened. I was fortunate to hear her lecture at the Getty in Los Angeles as part of the Devices of Wonder exhibition that she curated with Frances Terpak and experienced the mesmerising effect of her thoughtful uncompromising scholarship on an audience of distinguished academics and glitterati not usually phased by the spectacular. Stafford and Terpak’s book, Devices of Wonder: From the World in Box to Images on a Screen, is a landmark in the archaeology of the image. It brings together painstaking research and insightful interpretation and is an object lesson on how to find and use visual material that seems as relevant to today’s researchers as it was in 2002. This overview of her work (more modestly presented than it appears here) opens Ribbons of Darkness and frames the collection of repurposed essays as a contingent response to what she generously calls ‘the financial crash’.

As she points out in the preface, that until circumstances of unprincipled accounting in the banking sector forced her to rethink her tactics, she had always thought of herself primarily as a book writer and turned to the essay form in response to invitations from editors and curators. Some of these essays are reworked and repurposed to some extent and juxtaposed to give purpose to their reappearance. It presents a very different scholar to the reader, paradoxically one who uses most essays as an opportunity to highlight the costs to enquiry of the almost unrestricted exposure to information in a format that reinforces the conditions for partial engagement. The essays are presented without the original context so that examples of artworks and artists that are used to illustrate a point seem at first odd, and then later as one reads on as rather arbitrary choices. This is something in stark contrast to the expectations of those familiar with Stafford’s book length works in which there is pinpoint precision. Equally startling at times is the use of language that she has often been at pains to unravel. Undoubtedly the essay form – almost always constrained by word length and editorial purpose – impacts most strongly here and the frequent collapsing of attenuated periods of technological instability as an ‘era’ or an ‘age’ can be something of a shock as is the reference to ‘scientists’ as though this captures some homogenous entity. But at the back of these ironies, which are no doubt the consequence of editorial necessities, there is still the keen voice of the book writer in these essays for those who want to find it. Most particularly in the Preface and Introduction there is the Stafford that makes one a devoted intellectual fellow traveller curious about the destination. At their best the essays tackle the rhetorical tragedy of the inadequacy of the text as it wrestles with commanding images. The image of Laocoön and his Sons is always in the background as the particularity of the vocabulary and the balance of the words at times become a testing wrestling match in an attempt to conjure scenes that challenge the insolent claim of the visual image that it reflects the world. These are moments to savour because, as is pointed out in several essays, such struggles are now almost irretrievably lost to a different kind of attention. By far the most felt, and possibly most important essay in the book is about the Warburg Institute and its recent struggle with the accountants who seem to be in control of knowledge production. As we have come to expect from her writing, she simultaneously assembles her evidence and offers a startlingly simple and valuable instrument of analysis and practice. The coalition of the home and the mind as a site of knowledge creation that is the epitome of Warburg’s project is picked up as a new way to think about art practice and promises practical relief from the malaise of the spreadsheet (‘the rhetoric of efficiency’ as she puts it) as the custodian of data. I am reminded in this of a letter by her thesis supervisor Ernst Gombrich published in the Times Higher Educational Supplement in 1984 (I believe) in protest at the beginning of the marketization of the Arts and Humanities under Reagan and Thatcher. He pointed out that if we subscribe to the logic of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’, then we should not be surprised if, one day, we discover that some of the best tunes have been forgotten.

As always, Barbara Maria Stafford is worth engaging with, and Ribbons of Darkness is a very good book to have around and there is a whiff of late style and the promise of things to come. But it is difficult to disagree with her insight that she is a writer of books and, despite the virtues of the essay form, this shift in Stafford’s oeuvre bring very close to home the interrelationship between representational (and critical) practices and the cultural context in which they are undertaken; something close to both Aby Warburg and  her  mentor, Ernst Gombrich.