Lee Jenny Gough

animal movement

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Working Note:

Questioning is, in self, violence because it provokes the violence of the answer and, in return, inflicts violence on it...What’s tragic is that the ardor of the questioning is always being shattered by an answer that wants to be absolute.

— Edmond Jabès

The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

Animal Movement is a small book comprised of my hybridized version of a genre of riddle within folk riddle tradition, the “neck riddle,” a riddle having no answer-referent asked, in the original tradition, to save one's neck. It is a story riddle form which, contrary to the true riddle form, depends on the subversion of narrative conventions for its paradoxical success in unanswerability. In conjunction with my neck riddle, I have written-over, retouched and fragmented some anonymous nineteenth century photographs which I found in flea markets, in a kind of curious and defiant questioning of them. The photos themselves were and are a riddle to me. Their subject is private; they are portraits, records of the life of a few small children. Except that the children are held by a covered person who is not the intended subject. Were readers of the photo not supposed to see the draped figure? Were the conventions of nineteenth century photography, absent the digital inventions of modern image manipulation, so naive? In the photos there is a riddle about what a picture can record, if anything, about seeing and being seen, about private subjects and public seeing. And the pictures seems to riddle about death, not only because photographs as such occupy a psychic space between life and death, at once recording the life of the sitter and at the same time haunting the picture in a prefiguration of the subject’s mortality, but also because, in the photos I used for this project, there seems to be a double haunting, a double death — the one prefigured by the child’s image and also the draped figure (apparently there merely to hold the child still for the long open shutter) who like death is forbidden, covered, as bodies of the dead are covered, inconsumable. Tangentially, for this edition of HOW2, the anonymous nineteenth century photographers’ implicit proposition that unseeing is as possible as seeing, as outrageous as it may seem, has been echoed after Septe mber 11th. For in the absence of direct images of death, and in the absence of the dead themselves — as unrecovered and unrecoverable bodies in more than one “ground zero” here and abroad multiply — there has been also a ground zero of media refusal to fully witness, an unremembering of some subjects, a willed partial sight. The zeros are the holes in the story of global war and aggression, its suppressed subjects, its refused losses.

I began to write riddles on top of photographs, at a transition point in my career as a writer, when I was experiencing a personal loss, the suicide of my father in the year 2000, and beginning a serious engagement with the practice of making visual art. There were questions in my mind about the possibilities and exigencies of seeing and representing, about what was representable and whether the unrepresentability of violence and cruelty, or animal movement, could be conveyed, about how to convey social absences within visual and textual practices; hence the title of my work. It is also an allusion to the common creatures of the neck riddle genre who are situate themselves somewhere between humans and animals, as well as to the literal intent of the first photographers to record animal movement. Susan Sontag has noted that photography erases and “undiscloses” some subjects. Just as surely, the neck riddle as a genre is as much about undisclosure, and the what is at stake in the undisclosed — originally the life of the teller, but in the survival of the tradition, the life of the question.

The Old English origin of the word riddle is hriddle, to sift. The neck riddle form, in its omissions and lacunae, in its lack of narrative links, its holes — makes these the crux of the story itself. Its unanswered questions and the retention of the unconnectedness of one thing to another, defeat the teller and the story. One scholar on riddles has observed that the neck riddle’s tradition is that the story riddle is insoluble to anyone who has not witnessed the events alluded to in the riddle, and the events are often violent violations of human taboos. The neck riddle, then, is also about the individuality of the witness act and of seeing and refusing to tell what one has seen because the possible boundaries between the human and the inhuman are impossible in the telling.

My neck riddle quotes other neck riddle within the North American folk tradition, and the questions I embed in it are directed in some ways to myself as a present witness to my own writing and my life, but also, perhaps to myself as an absent reader, the one who has not witnessed a full version of events in a story about which, though I am the teller, I have not been lent a full version of events. What is left in the alternate recording and refusal of a riddle at war with a story from within it, itself threatened by the bloodiness of the answers’ absolutes, is the deep privacy of its most violent questions that in the social act of writing are deferred.

Bio: Lee Gough is a printmaker and poet who lives in New York City. Her work includes Mary and Shelley’s Fair Copy Book ( Poets & Poets, 2000), and, most recently, a limited edition set of lithographic comics available at leejgough@hotmail.com.

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