Cross-contamination

Moyra Davey, Index Cards

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 264pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781913097264

reviewed by Daniel Fraser

Hegel speaks of language in terms of contagion. Language transmits subjectivity like an infection. This virus passes between speaker and listener, meaning resonates. With terms like transmission and reception, we see the taxonomic ground shared by language and disease. That this descriptive metaphor feels more pertinent today might be ascribed to a kind of accident, a reflection of present socio-historical and biopolitical conditions. These two ideas, contamination and accident, flow throughout the whole of Moyra Davey's Index Cards, a collection of the Canadian photographer, writer, and artist's essayistic writings blending theoretical, diaristic, and photographic forms. In doing so, these thematic strands, or moods even, draw together autobiography and theory in a kind of conjoined experience: an experience of art which the book both discusses and generates.

Index Cards takes its title from Roland Barthes' practice of note-making, an activity Barthes elevated to the level of obsession, cultivating his own habits and even friendships around its facilitation. Similarly, Davey's process is one of accretion, with each essay constructed from short blocks of text grouped under headings which shift between indications of particular dates and times, names of friends and family, and theoretical subjects. Davey's references are wide and varied, covering: photographers (Larry Clark, Zoe Strauss, Nan Goldin, and many others); artists such as Hito Steyerl and Thomas Hirschhorn; thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, Susan Sontag, Donald Winnicott, and Walter Benjamin; and a number of novelists and filmmakers, in particular, Jean Genet and Chantal Akerman.

The questions which the essays explore have direct bearing on Davey's photographic and filmic work. She returns time and again to Benjamin's idea that to 'do without people is for photography the most impossible of renunciations'. In and with her own experience and theory, Davey works through the question of the subjective and objective character of her work and questions of the body, drawing on multiple works of art, differing feminist critiques of representation, ideas of production and exhibition of artworks with consummate skill and lightness of touch that make each successive rapprochement Davey makes to her own process both insightful and emotive. She often writes 'what is to the side' of her subject, whether it be the question of representation in photography, her time in therapy, the use of her family as subjects in her films or the love for her son, deep reflections emerging like shadows below water, the 'big picture' remaining just outside each individual frame. Throughout, accident and contamination remain vital components of form and content, and the pull of absence or presence of human representation in the photograph is mirrored by the combination of quotation and personal exploration: the void of the accident in the snapshot and the staging of the studio interacting with a writing 'from nothing' and 'working from notes'.

Accident is the ascribed topic in one of the early essays in the book, where Davey begins by noting that some element of chance, of the aleatory, is of fundamental importance to the photographic image. This appeal to contingency is something common to the remarks on photography made by Benjamin, Sontag, Barthes, and Janet Malcolm. She proceeds to carefully pick through their remarks, always reflected back on and through her own experience and work. Davey's perceptive delineation of these framings of the accidental leads her to conclude that where Malcolm and Sontag share a belief that 'accident is the vitality of the snapshot' whereas for Barthes the accident is a subjective quality of apprehension. It is this latter understanding that chimes most closely with her own view that the accident is to be 'located outside of the frame somehow' and the reason why she shuns the 'formal encounter via the institutions of galleries and museums,' and gravitates 'to books and journals.' Beyond merely being a principle of the production of the image, the accident is a kind of reception which, in the context of Index Cards, infects everything from Davey's idea of reading and being chosen by the books one encounters rather than the other way around to the prevalence of coincidence and strange alignments. (For instance, the round number of years linking Davey and her siblings to the children of Wollstonecraft that forms part of the reason Davey draws a parallel between them.)

Contamination, as one might already be able to tell, is closely-imbricated with the accidental, forming an essential part of Davey's commitment to a kind of promiscuity, a belief that 'heterogeneity is an enabler and enhancer of the story waiting to be told.' This is reflected at every level of the text, from the stolen and borrowed artworks in her apartment and her use of quotation and repetition, to her fascination for the strange 'affinities' between writers and artists as much as the specifics of their approach. This effect of contamination extends to the essays themselves which share a good deal of material (both theoretical and autobiographical) with one another, overlapping, cross-referencing and sharing their references openly. Contamination is also a theme in Davey's discussions of mental illness, medication, and drug use: it is both a concept of reception and part of lived material reality, and the two cannot (and should not) be bifurcated into a simple binary. Moreover, Davey is expert at admiring elements of others’ work that are part of the make-up of her own. In fact, it would not take much to review Index Cards solely from remarks gathered from Davey's assessment of other writers: Malcolm's texts are 'profoundly and understatedly psychoanalytic', as are Davey's, and her concern for materials is just as emphatic as the ones she finds in Genet's hidden collage or Walser's fetish for stationery.

Davey's style is infectious. Part of the great pleasure of Index Cards is its generative capacity for one's own note-making practices; reading the essays almost demands having a notebook and pen to hand, along with a will to resist the urge to want to add personal quotes and thoughts gathered from our own reading that seem to align with Davey's preoccupations, widening the conversation further. In my own case I found it impossible to resist adding notes from my own notebooks about Catherine Malabou's notion of accident and ontological rupture, or the place of insurance in Kafka, or this quote from one of Geoffrey Hill's poetry lectures at Oxford, which immediately resonated whilst reading Davey:

‘I think and work almost entirely by serendipity, serendipity works by the rule that the book which is destined to change your life, stands next on the shelf to the one you had come to take out from the library.’

In this way, Index Cards absolutely fulfils the hope, which Davey identifies in Virginia Woolf, that 'the biography we have been reading . . . may actually stimulate our creative powers, our own urge to record something of our lives.'

The figure of Benjamin is perhaps the most apt for drawing Davey's concern with infection and accident together. One of the most prominent thinkers of intertextuality and quotation (as well as the accidental); Benjamin surfaces regularly throughout Index Cards. The infectious transfer of language effected by quotation, an interruptive re-situating in more Benjaminian terms, pushes what came before into new, uncertain surroundings. The practice of quotation shows that what is most original often comes from what is borrowed. In Davey's case, the power of Index Cards is that both diary and theory have been removed from their familiar surroundings, and placed in such proximity that neither is the superior force (indeed this very language of conflict appears distinctly out of place). In doing so, Davey neutralises the concern expressed by Barthes about the diary form that whatever he wrote was 'merely reproducing the voice of all the diaries that have come before.' Instead, here the diary and the essay have interrupted one another, finding not contestation and tension but affinity and attunement.

This also explains Davey's adoption of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's assertion that 'the more honestly you put yourself in the story, the more that story will concern others as well'. The universal the particular are not opposite ends of a spectrum but closely aligned. Davey's subject is both her work and her self, and the erosion between this binary only serves to reinforce the strength of each. Though often fraught with failure and loss, that happiness fashioned with materials within our reach (paraphrasing Davey's quotation of William Godwin, itself a remark about Wollstonecraft) is often the most enduring.

The essays in Index Cards work not through collage or montage precisely — as the elements of each block of text are not deliberately disjunctive but instead oddly complementary — but rather like close friends in a chance meeting, or a relation between speaker and listener: ideas are transmitted and received, meaning resonates. The effect of this, like that of the positive function of nostalgia Davey derives (partially) from Svetlana Boym and Foucault, is one of the creation of a historical and conceptual continuity from a world which, at the surface, denies such things are possible. This nostalgia is not restorative but reflective: its utopianism lies not in 'rebuilding the mythical place called home' but in 'perpetually deferring the homecoming itself'. In these difficult and uncertain times, to borrow a phrase from half of the emails sent in 2020, no mode of reading could be more urgent.
Daniel Fraser is a writer from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. His poetry and prose have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The London Magazine, and Aeon among others. His debut poetry pamphlet will be published by ignitionpress in Autumn 2020.