Des opérations d'écriture qui ne disent pas leur nom

Des opérations d'écriture qui ne disent pas leur nom
Franck Leibovici

Questions Théoriques, Paris, FR, 2020
208 pp. Paper,15,00 €
ISBN: 9782917131459.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
December 2020

Frank Leibovici is a French artist and theoretician whose work radically questions the use of the conjunctive word “and” in this field. His creative interventions cannot be separated from their theoretical program and vice versa. His often collaborative work perfectly exemplifies the notion and multiple domains of practice-based research or theory-led creation. Besides, as artist who is also writer, critic, teacher, philosopher and activist, he also pushes the boundaries of what is generally considered being “art”. Although participating in the “uncreative writing” movement and strongly focusing on the deconstruction of life and art, for example via his use of the various types of the documentary form, his work goes beyond most recent explorations of the footage, remix or sampling aesthetics, since it combines and activates the anthropological stance of objective description and the highly politicized stance of subjective –yet more collective than purely individual– reaction against deeply rooted approaches to both life and art.

In spite of being a multimedia and cross-media artist, he is far from opposed to also rely on the allegedly old medium of works in print. Thus, he recently published two new books that offer different yet complementary takes on his work. Released by avant-garde publisher JBE Editions, De l’amour (“On Love”, the title is a not so ironical nod to the famous early 19th century treatise on the topic by Stendhal) gathers four real life examples of modern discourses about love in an online, international context: an online chat room, talks on the tinder app, the “phonetical” transcription of a sex scene, and a multiple-participant love correspondence. The other work, Des opérations d'écriture qui ne disent pas leur nom (“Forms of Writing that Go Unnoticed”) has a more theoretical scope, for it tackles the impact of “hidden” writing mechanisms on “what” is actually being produced. Not regardless of its content, as would be for instance the publisher’s choice of a typeface or the decision to offer the work not in print but as ePub only, but as a vital part of the production of meaning during the writing process itself. What makes Leibovici’s argument so compelling is not only the shift in focus (what is generally seen as purely instrumental comes here to the fore, at the expense of what is normally seen as what writing is all about) but also the fact that the techniques and mechanisms he studies are not typical of certain types of experimental writing but actually define any form of writing whatsoever.

A brief overview of these operations immediately makes it clear that what Leibovici has in mind is less an emphasis on new or avant-garde forms of writing than a broadening of the concept of writing in order to reshape it in terms of writing in the expanded space: recopying, copy-pasting, compiling, sampling, subcontracting (for instance via so-called digital micro-labor), indexing, liking, clicking through, retrieving, searching, translating, republishing, displacing, selecting and rearranging, tagging, aggregating, etc. (the list is all the more unexhaustive since technological innovations permanently open new possibilities). In all these cases, clearly described and well-illustrated, Leibovici always singles out the performative character of these operations, which are not simply accompanying or supporting writing, but prove to raise fundamental questions that go often overlooked or that have consequences we still tend to link with the final writing output rather than with the material and nowadays mechanized and robotized actions that actually perform them, but which never go without social, political, aesthetic, and ideological effects.

The relationship between these various elements is then deepened in the last chapters of the book, where Leibovici close-reads some famous examples of these writing operations that go unnoticed. One of his examples is Kenneth Goldsmith’s public reading (which is also a writing operation, one of the many that structure the author’s creative reuse of a kind of readymade works) of Michael Brown’s autopsy report, which made Goldsmith the center of a still ongoing discussion on the ethical dimension of copy-paste writing. Leibovici’s very nuanced reading of the polemic rightly avoids addressing the debate at the level of the reported content (if he would have done so, he would have contradicted his major claim that before reading the content of a written utterance one has to examine the underlying writing operations). Instead, his reading foregrounds aspects of the textual performance that Goldsmith may have taken insufficiently into account, thus making room for a larger vision of “uncreative writing” than the one used by Goldsmith himself. Another set of examples is borrowed from the legal and jurisprudential field. Here Leibovici develops a matrix system in order to map the way documents of this type, which are always processed following endless paths of rephrasing, summarizing, commenting, etc. are actually produced and how these writing transformations tend to influence the final decisions as much as questions of material evidence, for instance. Finally, the reading of these cases –and this is also the reason why I presented here the clearly (sic) literary example of Kenneth Goldsmith together with the apparently nonliterary example of the lawsuit documents– gives Leibovici the opportunity to make a plea for art as a way of connecting separate fields and types of discourses, a way of building bridges in a world of increasingly separated fields of life and experience.