Kihlberg & Henry  Footnotes to a Long Distance Telephone Call

A Mountain Close Up is Only Rock  2016 

Chris Fite-Wassilak  And wherever I looked: the back of my own head

‘I think’ led to the indubitable certainty of the ‘I’ and its existence; ‘I speak’, on the other hand, distances, disperses, effaces that existence and lets only its empty effacement appear. Thought about thought, an entire tradition wider than philosophy, has taught us that thought leads to the deepest interiority. Speech about speech leads us… to the outside in which the speaking subject disappears.

— Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot: Thought From the Outside (1986)

In the 19th century, in the pages of magazines like Life, Punch, and still today in the austere columns of The New Yorker, the rows of words and bodies of articles were punctuated by illustrations. Any interested reader looking to supplement their experience of the text might naturally glance at the images in these gaps, only to find that their subject had nothing at all to do with what they had been reading. Instead, interrupting the page was a non sequitur, some irrelevant, polite gag. It had been in the pages of Punch in the 1840s that the word ‘cartoon’ (from the Italian ‘cartone’, for the card that was used for sketches for frescos) had first taken on its modern usage; publishing several satirical drawings as mock submissions for a mural competition to decorate the new halls of Parliament after the fire of 1834 had destroyed the old building. The format quickly became popular: a drawing, accompanied by a caption of several lines or a whole paragraph explaining the scene in some way. It was a vehicle for humour, one-liners; one standard genre was the ‘he-she’ cartoons, with the two characters in the drawing each attributed a line, such as:

She: How many cigars a day are you smoking now?
He: Oh, just enough to show the doctor his advice was wrong.

It was only later, in the 1920s and particularly in the pages of the New Yorker, that the single-speaker captioned cartoon was honed as a device. Several people might be in the scene, but a single line dangles below; part of the tension is figuring out who is actually uttering the line. It was the dogged literalism of New Yorker founder and editor Harold Ross that led to his publication’s use and development of the single-line: he wanted the cartoons to be quickly readable, and to be clear about who was speaking. He began asking staff writers to come up with ideas and write the single caption – to then take to cartoonists to realise, removing part of the job from the artists’ hands, a shift which ruffled some feathers. Writer E. B. White’s first job on the magazine was to ‘polish captions’ and be ‘chief tinkerer’ when a gag cartoon didn’t work.

While structurally innovative, the New Yorker’s single caption gag culture has evolved to a sort of pat, predictable mannerism: two people, often in a sitting room, looking somewhat listless. The caption will disclose some slight sort of irony about the characters’ lives: ‘I’ve never forgiven him for that thing that I made up in my head.’ Recent memes have capitalised on this constancy: in 2006, photographer and blogger Charles Lavoie suggested ‘Christ, what an asshole!’ as a universal caption that could work on any New Yorker cartoon. The artist Cory Arcangel followed with an automated bot that from 2009 to 2014 would take any cartoon from the magazine and immediately re-caption it with ‘What a misunderstanding!’. Last year, designer Frank Chimero made his own bid for a contemporary universal caption: ‘I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.’ The current cartoon editor surveyed these bids in a recent online video, opening his discussion with a submission by cartoonist Tom Toro of a man and a woman in a kitchen. The man is staring absent-mindedly upwards, while she sits at the table and reads the paper. The caption reads: ‘It works better for everyone if we pretend that the columns of text aren’t there, dear.’ The editor notes its cute gesturing to the conventions of where they tend to place their cartoons, before adding in a quick aside: ‘But we would never publish anything like that, because we don’t think meta is better.’

Despite the dismissal of the editor overlords, a question that the characters themselves might ask (or perhaps not because it’s too obvious): where does the caption itself come from? Sure, it’s written by a witty staff writer, as a representation of some words that one of the characters is saying. But how then is it permitted to appear there, as a set of words in italics, just below the image in which they’re living? The narratologist Gerard Genette used the term ‘focalisation’ to describe how literary narrators can focus on an object of attention: he explained it simply as a ‘restriction’, which makes it sound more straightforward than it is. It’s a term that examines not only what a character is talking about (their own focalisation), but also the fact that we are permitted to know what they are saying in the first place. It’s manifested in the way a semi-omniscient narrator can hear specific conversations, or be privy to specific thoughts or feelings: if we can hear a character’s thoughts, then they themselves are a focalised object. Focalisation is the open link of being narrated: every speech act implies someone outside – watching, listening. The floating caption in cartoons, the voice over narration in film and video, these are the permissions of a shadowy narrator, or several. In the case of the cartoon, for example, it’s a non-fictional external narrator who is eavesdropping on the situation, and given the power to transcribe what they’re hearing to a legible line. It’s a potential that can be directed from almost anywhere; the film academic Edward Branigan has noted how focalisation can take place between the characters within the story, but it could also at any time be someone from outside looking in: a fictional external narrator, a fictionalised version of the author themselves, or indeed, the author. The narratable potency of focalisation seems to shoot back and forth, criss-crossing any fictional or meta-fictional boundaries.

Humans are, by nature, narrative entities. Our memories and thoughts might intrude on any linear experience of what’s going on around us, but by the time we try to relate things to anyone else we ascribe a wider scope to things: sequence, rationale, development. It’s not so much that things were meant to happen, but that we – by the nature of their co-incidence – assemble them retrospectively together in a manner where at least they have the semblance of coherence. Anthropologist Jerome Bruner has stated it baldly: ‘When somebody tells you his life, it is always a cognitive achievement rather than a through-the-clear-crystal recital of something univocally given. In the end, it is a narrative achievement. There is no such thing psychologically as life itself.’ Which is to say: when we speak of narration, and its mysterious, intrusive capabilities, it is our own brain that is the shadowy authority haunting us, building random coincidence into a more or less linear narrative (try as we might to break it), and able to hijack any passing phenomenon into its fold.

The graphic novelist and comic artist Chris Ware has explored this problem repeatedly, most notably in his 1991 short strip I Guess. The six pages visually tell a stock superhero story, a bounding Superman-like figure dashing to rescue a damsel in distress from a mad scientist. Verbally, however, every caption, speech bubble, road sign and incidental exclamation in the comic has been commandeered by another unseen narrator. We are given a slow paced, meandering autobiographical account of childhood memories: staying with his old-fashioned grandparents, being embarrassed by a stepfather dressing up in his polar expedition gear. We don’t even know who’s telling us this and it’s painfully intimate, highlighted all the more by the flashy visual tale. We might try to speak over something, to make it our own by implying our own narrative, but it also mutually reflects back as part of an inevitable two-way process. The imposition of the coinciding narrator, Ware suggests, can be a means of fantasy and escape, but also self-delusion.

Our floating narrator – our brain – is the bridge, the conduit formed by the co-incidence of experience. Any proximity, be it physical, aural or visual, becomes material that is infected by narrative. It becomes a cross-pollutant; the ‘I speak’ that Foucault claimed to disperse still hovers in the air, a fine mist able to alight on an unwary moment’s notice. The speaking subject remains a constant, imminent potential. Anything can become the floating, disembodied narrator: a rock, the sound of a train, the passing wind or any stray thought. In this layered back and forth of what is speaking and what is heard, meta is inevitable.

Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer, critic and curator based in London. A regular contributor to magazines including Art Monthly, Art Review, Art Papers and Frieze.

This essay had been written on the occasion of Kihlberg & Henry and the Disembodied Voice exhibition Footnotes to a Long Distance Telephone Call.