No, I am no Margarita Carmen Cansino, but there have been times in this professional life, say in the last six years, when nothing has more accurately described the structure of the slightly mortifying, strangely lonely, each time naively unexpected scenario in which I have found myself than a recollection of those sad but aphoristically perfect words of anticipatory yet already realized disappointment: They go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me.
It is the end of a talk—a good one, room chattering, tiers reluctant to clear—or the start of a dinner, a pleasant pre-workshop coffee; or it is the interview, the friend of a friend, the festival; often with a generous spirit of inquiry, a genuine anticipation of meaningful exchange: And so, poses our interlocutor: What is your take? Just came out; Have you seen it? Or, sometimes: All right, give us a reading then. That last one, it was said outright. British accent.
I can’t. I don’t know. I couldn’t possibly. No really. No, really. What kind of scholarly pretension insists on waiting, really waiting, to say anything whatsoever? (I have passed through the face-legible stages of this question; they run: flustered, irritated, belligerent, amused, sublimely indifferent). But if there is one thing that a profound commitment to close reading for form requires, it is getting comfortable with a certain fucked relation to time.
Jean-Claude Lebensztejn described this demand as “the extravagant patience” of Derrida’s subtle, winding, indirect analysis. And lest you prefer that genteel Gallic phrasing, recall that the Latin patientia means suffering, threads back to *peh-: to hurt. But if you want a mode of interpretation that is speculative, dynamic, vital, and creative, perhaps it ought to cost something.
Radical formalism, as articulated in The Forms of the Affects (2014) and Life-Destroying Diagrams (2022)—not a formalism in thrall to radical politics or any prior affordances, but a formalism that grounds (radix: roots) theoretical claims—involves what I call reading without guarantee. Not only does this require eschewing paraphrase or the application of an assemblage of themes, it also means that one begins reading from some (any) particular details of a particular textual object and then proceeds to see what happens. One does not know in advance what the writing of a reading will reveal. You have to put in the work and the work is writing and thus the work itself has form and the work will both construct and read itself—and your work, also, will never be done or final or closed.
So this is not a reading of Titane (Ducournau, 2021). But grammar is infinite freedom for one can write in the conditional tense. Those conditions, as they ever are: enough space, sufficient time. I can consider how to start to put a reading together, writing around some of the lines of inquiry that might ultimately, under certain pressures, build something like the writing of a reading that will not arrive, and in a form we cannot, from within this particular bit of writing, imagine. Speculation about speculation about speculation.
Have you watched it, above? In reality you’ve watched it eighteen, countless, north of sixty, at least ten, times, scribbling furiously, notebooks filled. You’ll measure out your life in ballpoint pens. Describing, noticing, you are above all writing. Of course you’ll have eyed the bodies—the film is populated like a Boschian garden—but you won’t assume you know (yet) what a body is or can do or could be in this particular case. On the terrain of materiality, transformation, violence, monstration, you’ll draw parallels—you’ve written elsewhere how horror regards the body as formal material—but as quickly suspend them, not presuming this text is the same as any other. Nor have you arrived with the assurance of readymade political commitments, sifting the film in a pan until exemplary glinting nuggets make themselves visible for use. Placer mining is a popular extraction technique because it is cheap, simple—we are going for the opposite of that.
You start by merely trying to describe the minor differences modulated through variations in types of light.
You leave lists like this lying around:
Note the different textures of painted flames and fire itself, the cheap glimmer off a gold bikini against the wholly different light-absorbing matte of fishnet stocking thread. Eventually you’ll rephrase this as: the film is aesthetically invested in foregrounding qualities: qualities of light; color and/as quality; qualities of bodies (pregnancy as a qualification of the body?); qualities of material (foamy mouth juices; sponge-leaked suds; plastic glossy car paint; oil; hair; skin; scars—scarring but a modulation of the quality of skin).
Scrawl Levinas: find the quote later: femininity as what appears “not merely as a quality different from all others, but as the very quality of difference.” Quality of difference—what might that have to do with qualities of material or color as quality? A reckoning is required. So now you’ll dwell with qualities—and you won’t be able to explain the new obsession, won’t have much to show for it. Synonyms plead for their due: feature, trait, attribute, characteristic,—aspect alone will wreck you for weeks. You’ll trace thesaurus classes, etymological digressions, get lost in quality’s bond to property, the way it conceptually sticks leech-like to objects (so what is an object to this film?—that, we also do not yet know). A quality is taken to mean a property that applies to things regarded singly, as opposed to relation. But the film is also structured around relations (too many to list; attempt it anyway), so we have arrived at something like a provisional opposition: an interest in qualities as they apply to things singly, on the one hand, and relations on the other. Unity against multiplicity.
How much more concrete can you get? —What if you linger with the qualities of just one material? Foam, skin, oil, or perhaps the titular one—
Titanium: Metallic element. Its qualities are: highmeltingpointness, corrosion resistance; it is light, low density, strong, with a certain lustrous quality. Named after the Titans, the race of chaotic forces that preceded the Olympians. Giants: read: new bodies; read: new forms.
How long can one live with Titans?
This is a question of duration but also forbearance.
Hölderlin did. What of these directives in “Die Titanen”: “Gut ist es, an andern sich / Zu halten. Denn keiner trägt das Leben allein.” (It is good to rely on others [orient oneself towards others] / For no one can bear life alone [For no one carries life alone].)
(cf. The final image: not the father cradling not the child, neither bearing life alone.)
Derrida links Hölderlin’s formulation to grief, citing “Die Titanen” in his memorial for Gadamer, playing on with-ness / wit-ness through this figure of bearing life not alone but through/alongside the other. But Derrida also reads “Denn keiner trägt das Leben allein” as: no one carries within himself (herself; oneself) only life—we also carry not-life within us: our relation to the other a bearing witness to their future death, death, which breaks every relation it forms. We have thus rearrived at the tension between the property of a singular being (that question of quality, now linked also to finitude) and the problem of relation. If Derrida’s ethics of friendship deploys “Die Titanen” for his account of love in the midst of grief, consider: Is unconditional love a generator of new forms?
Is that enough? Can we finally pause? But shouldn’t we worry that unconditional a bit? Derrida dubs it in Rogues a form of the powerless; it includes a potential exposure to harm, remains a site of undecidability.
Is this what qualities of light show? The aspectual force of remaining open to total potential exposures of which violence is one possible but is not the entire set?—
Provisional start, provisional end.