Wednesday, February 23, 2011

2 Questions: Film as Essay? Essay as (Corporeal) Activity?

Essays display movement of mind
Plastic Bag displays movement of mind
Therefore, Plastic Bag is to be considered as an essay

Essays display movement of mind
Blade Runner (it might not be an essay, but it does seem to essay) displays movement of mind
Therefore, could I (retroactively) nominate Blade Runner for the Essay Prize 1982?

Is anything that essays an "essay"? Do we care if it’s an "essay", as long as it essays?

In 1993, the performance artist Pierre Pinoncelli urinated on Duchamp’s notorious urinal, Fountain, and then struck it with a hammer. In 2006, he struck the urinal again, this time causing, apparently, €14,352 worth of damage. I tend to think of these (and other Intervention Art) acts as statements, rather than as acts of essaying, simply because there seems to be only forward-moving thinking in these instances, no real back and forth, no real thought-wiggling, at least not perceptibly in the moment in which they happen.


In 1974, the French performance artist Philippe Petit walked across a high-wire strung between the World Trade Center’s twin towers. In fact, he hung out on the wire, performing for 45 minutes, actually crossing the space between the two buildings eight times. As this was not one act, but actually 45 minutes worth of acts, and as some of these acts were in direct response to the presence of police nearby and the presence of the crowd below, I tend to think of his overall act as a collection of statements, statements which, when taken together, display quite a bit of active thinking, wiggling, essaying.

Can we consider Petit’s 1974 bit of high-wire walking, in itself, an essay? Essay as actual corporeal activity? Or does that whole spectacle only become a veritable essay when the essaying is formalized in a way, in say, Man on Wire, the documentary of Petit’s 1974 exploits?

Activity as essay? What do people think? Is this ridiculous?


  1. I'm curious to know what statements went thorugh your mind. I personally haven't been able to consider those last performances you mentioned as "essay" or "essay as activity" because they haven't been able to move me beyond its spectacle. The only statement being, "Wow." For me, my perceptions have to change; I have to be left pondering.

  2. There is something about reflection that Petit's performance doesn't give us. The performances themselves may be a movement of the mind (and body), but, like Patti says, they were more spectacle than reflection on spectacle. To essay is to exist in a way that is reflecting and thinking on the body (the world) and the performances around us. But then I wonder about your question in a different way: can essaying be a performance? I would say that without reflection, it's not essaying.

  3. I think one of the main difficulties in thinking about acts (or films) as potentially essaying is that to some degree it’s necessary for viewers to interpret and articulate the act themselves. The viewer is in a sense responsible for putting the intention of the artist into words, and so the final articulated result is perhaps even more subjective than simply reading a traditional essay; such an essay might be interpreted differently by different readers, but at least they begin from a common starting point, i.e. the specific ideas already expressed (purposefully articulated) on a page. Here, in Petit’s case, we need to interpret and articulate for ourselves before we can really even begin thinking, and if we interpret things differently than others, then obviously our starting point for thinking about the essay (thinking about the essay’s thinking) will be quite different. For instance, not only am I totally bedazzled by the spectacle of Petit’s wire-walking, but I personally am left pondering all kinds of things:

    I ponder the chutzpah it takes to pull off such a stunt (several such stunts); I ponder why so few of us have this chutzpah; I ponder what else in the world that might seem crazy or un-doable could be done, and done in such a graceful and stunning way. I ponder his whimsical defiance. I ponder what it might be like to go through the world seeing structures and monuments and, in place of feeling bound by social laws and constraints, feeling free to make use of them in one’s personal conquest of a vivacious life. I wonder if this is a form of civil disobedience. I wonder if the policeman who was there on the roof and who described Petit as a “wire-dancer” took up dancing. I wonder if those in the crowd below walked away invigorated and supped on richer food and played more enthusiastically with their kids and made love more vigorously that night. I ponder the idea of joy, experiencing joy, creating joy, instilling a sense of joy in others.

  4. That said, here we come back to that first difficulty, to the need for the viewer to interpret and articulate the act. I think we need to ask: are these thoughts (these ponderings) inherent in the act itself, or am I applying them myself? Maybe that is where the line is drawn between act and essay. Maybe an essay should be self-contained. Maybe an essay should be more self-evident? Should an essay be more forthcoming about what it thinks?

    Perhaps an essay is not only a work that leaves us pondering, or which actively thinks and wiggles, but is rather consortium of (perhaps disparate) ideas, and the beauty of a particular essay is found in how well those many ideas are discussed, questioned, and pieced together, and maybe acts such as this (and urinating on Fountain) are driven by a central idea too similar to a thesis statement to really allow room for actual essaying?

    I refer to D’Agata’s Lost Origins of the Essay: “And yet, a thesis statement, like an aphorism, precludes real essaying. It denies a text the possibility for reflection, digression, discovery, or change.”

    I like this idea of reflection as being necessary for a thing to be said to be really essaying, and my question now is, to what degree does this reflection need to be apparent within the essay itself? And can we have this reflection even if there is no central consciousness, no “I” (or visible collaborative “we”) within the essay capable of commenting on it’s topic, and on itself, on it’s own role in discussing (essaying on) the topic it has chosen?

    I ask this because of the Bed Intruder Song, the greater milieu of which I do think contains evidence of real reflection, though the song itself strikes me (as Petit’s wire-walking strike’s some) as simple spectacle. Again, to what degree should an essay be self-contained? To what degree need this reflection be present (not only in the context of, but actually with-) in the essay?

    I’m hoping someone derives a real defense for Bed Intruder, when it comes time to discuss its merits as an essay. I wonder if such a defense might provide us more insight into the possibility of viewing Petit’s wire-walking as essay.