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For Roland Barthes, the scriptible is the ideal text in which, he writes, "the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach."(1) Which is where I find myself before Nan Goldin's photograph, "Ectopic pregnancy scar, New York City, 1980"--writing, now, here, the eye reaching as far as it will go. I have been writing Goldin's photograph (writing it, not writing about it) since I first saw it, in a club in New York, as part of a performance piece, a sort of filmic home slideshow consisting of image after image bombarding the viewer at the pace, more or less, of the average television "shot" (10-15 seconds). There were over 700 images in the show. This one, and maybe three or four others--a skewed self-portrait in bed, a portrait of the artist's boyfriend with The Flintstones on the tube beside him, a picture of her parents, bedroom with their wedding photograph on the mantel--I could not forget. But this image--it is from a series of six photographs called "Sweet Blood Call," all six portraits of variously battered or scarred women, part o f a much larger series called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, published in book form by Aperture in 1986, two or three years after I first saw it--this image, especially, haunts me still, defining, curiously, the space in which the avant-garde must operate.
The pun is fortuitous, and part of my attraction to the image. The avant-garde is a surgeon. If there is an avant-garde, and I believe there is one, it operates in the gap between art and life, that wound. On the back cover of David Antin's new collection of "talk poems," what it means to be avant-garde, the claim is made that Antin has been, since his college days in New York in the 1950s, "at the cutting edge of the avant-garde"--the avant-garde is always at that edge, scalpel in hand--and then the question is posed: "The avant-garde? Yes, if by this is meant not an image of fashion but the place where art and life intersect . . . where the price of art is life itself."(2)
Which is just where Nan Goldin's work fits. In this image we see just how much is at stake. For in this image we are at the cutting edge of life and death, at the cutting edge, as well, between art and pornography (it is easy to see how a certain eye would see in this image only the pornographic). Life and death, art and pornography. "What pornography is really about, ultimately," Susan Sontag wrote some years ago, "isn't sex but death."(3) Or, perhaps, sex and death.
According to Fredric Jameson, in one of his more notorious assertions, "the visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination."(4) But, if this is the case, the visual is not writerly. It is, instead, lisible, readerly. In Barthes words, the readerly text is "characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and its customer, between its author and its reader. This reader is thereby plunged into a kind of idleness--he is intransitive"(5)--that is, seduced into a state of "rapt, mindless fascination." But for Jameson, if the visual is essentially pornographic, it is also, essentially, writerly: "what is scriptible is indeed the visual."(6) Pornography never just invites us to see it. Its end is not some intransitive state of mindless fascination. Pornography is a call to action. But it is not, therefore, writerly. Its ends are not plural. Its networks and codes extend only as far as the hand can reach. It is a call to arms, to possession and power-and thus, sometimes (maybe even very often), to violence. (I do not want to possess Goldin's picture. I am not writing to "master" it. To write is not necessarily to control. And the violence in Goldin's picture has come to it before me.)
Still, there is a certain …