The Archeology of Representation: Steve Tomasula’s The Book of Portraiture

The Archeology of Representation: Steve Tomasula’s The Book of Portraiture

Shoba Venkatesh Ghosh

Shoba Ghosh contends that in The Book of Portraiture, Steve Tomasula’s exploration of how artists in specific historic moments narrativize uncertainty in the constitution of the subject illuminates the conceptual framework that produces a number of significant global dynamics. According to Ghosh, Tomasula demonstrates that the contemporary subject’s body has become “no more than an agglomeration of brands” that can be “fashioned in the image of desire,” though at the same time, “desire also seeks to deterritorialize itself.” For Ghosh, Tomasula’s aesthetic treatment of that subject-defining tension ultimately assists in “track[ing] the loop by which Empire and Terrorism, State and Extremism, America and its ‘other’ produce each other simultaneously.”

The title of this paper borrows from Steve Tomasula’s own characterization of his novel in an interview; the central idea of his book, he suggests, is “the archaeology of human representation through layers of history that make up its chapters,”  and in which “pages appear as strata in an archaeological dig” (Tarnawsky 2011). Indeed, Tomasula’s phrase “the archaeology of human representation” resonates sharply, for the specter of Foucault hovers tantalizingly throughout one’s encounter with the book.

Central to Foucault’s grappling with “the history of the present” – comprising an archaeological method and a genealogical critique – is the idea that one “does” history so as to use an understanding of the past to understand that which is “intolerable” in the present (Foucault 31). But, of course, there is equally a rejection of the idea of a historical continuity of which the present is the privileged and inevitable telos. “[W]hat I am attempting to bring to light is the epistemological field, the episteme in which knowledge…manifests a history which is not that of growing perfection, but rather that of its conditions of possibility” (Foucault xxiii). The archaeological method mines those historical nodes when sudden, often inexplicable and always unpredictable rifts and “transformations” occurred in epistemes and in the “order of things.” Then history appears not as linear or causal but as sedimented, each layer separate but seeping into and leaving traces on other strata, or as palimpsest nestling under palimpsest; or perhaps as a series of shifting frames seemingly unconnected, but suddenly constellating to become mutually illuminating.

In The Book of Portraiture Tomasula uses each of its chapters (that can also be read as individual stories) as shifting frames that bring to light historical nodes of transformation – or what he has in several of his interviews and essays called “emergence” Tomasula defines “emergence” as “the ways in which a myriad of independent interactions combine to bring into existence patterns larger than themselves” (Tomasula 436). In another essay he describes emergence as “a cloud of interactions too numerable and complex to account for in a cause and effect plot[ting]” (15). – in the domain of representation. What are the representational “statements” possible in a given historical formation? What is the role of art and the artist in stabilizing the order of things? More crucially, how is that order destabilized and epistemological horizons ruptured by unruly and indisciplined statements? And, finally, in Tomasula’s history of the present the central question concerns “the stakes of making art in the 21stCentury” (Barrett).

If, as Tomasula has consistently argued in his writings and interviews, the novel or the poem or even the painting is made possible by “information design,” what is the novelistic design that embodies our moment? “Like vases in archaeological digs, forms come out of times and places that cause them to be one way or another. So it is with the form of the novel” (Tomasula 436). What The Book of Portraiture does, in part, is to explore the forms of representation that come out of other places and times – and herein lies the rub. The past and its artifacts/documents come to us only as scraps, shreds, mediated or even ghostly visitations and not with the materiality of incontrovertible evidence, for they must be read, be rendered meaningful, through the frames that we erect. And that is one of the novel’s strengths, for it continually calls attention to its own contingency and hermeneutic limits.

And here I will indulge myself by being a tad anecdotal. When I first took the book out of its package and held it in my hands, almost without volition my forefinger reached towards the “The” in the title and which is, unlike the rest of the title, encased in a rectangle of white. Almost involuntarily my nail tried to prise away what seemed like a sticker pasted on. What did I expect to find underneath? The indefinite article “A?” Or the qualifier “One?” An adjective, perhaps? Or even a pronoun – “My”, “Her”, “Our”, “Their?”  Of course the “sticker” did not come off, but what persisted was a visceral sense of the instability of that definitive “The.” Then, on the second inside title page are the words “A Novel” and the reproduction of a fingerprint that together seem to acknowledge both the fictionality and individual perspective of this book of portraiture. And, yet again, both “A Novel” and the picture of the fingerprint are highlighted in white as though they too were stickers, or white ink used to erase something else and in their place inscribe these words and superimpose this picture. What one experienced was an almost aporetic sense of a vibratory play of suggested but elusive depths, material but unstable surfaces.

My first encounter with the book, thus, was somatic, embodied and profoundly affective. Alison Gibbon, in her essay on experimental multimodal literature, talks about the manner in which this mode “[tests] the limits of the book as a physical and tactile object” and makes the very act of reading a “performance” (Gibbons 420). One could also reference another evocative idea that Tomasula expresses – that of the “theatre space of the page” wherein words are not so much inscribed as “staged” in a productive interplay with images, pregnant/pulsating/inert emptinesses, unruly or absent margins, and inventive type and page design (Tomasula 5).   

This is a novel not so much about the certainty of meaning and knowing as the always endangered desire for certainty, of the urge to leave an indelible trace on the vagrant trajectories of history. It is the desire, precisely, “to shout I! I was! I did!” (The Book of Portraiture 2) whether it be through forms carved on walls of caves, through alphabetical symbols, figures painted on canvas, thoughts inscribed in journals, or making art out of DNA. Finally, as the 17th century painter Velazquez discovers in Chapter 2, all portraits are self-portraits. Yet, the self is not just the individual. Borrowing an idea from Deleuze“The proper names of authors are not names of persons, but of peoples and tribes, of fauna and flora, of military operations and typhoons…” (Deleuze 51)., one could say that Diego Velazquez is not a proper name but a “tribe,”  only one point of intersection of many movements, impulses and desires. This is why Velazquez can draw his genealogy from cave painters, fertility goddesses, Dionysus and Michelangelo alike (59). This is why he can claim that every portrait that is a self-portrait is a portrait of the author, the viewer, the nosotros, the “we”…

Chapter I is entitled “In a Beginning,”  the choice of the indefinite article a significant indicator of the multiple ways in which history can be charted. The first two pages, that are one continuous and abruptly truncated paragraph, capture with remarkable expressive economy, and in embryonic form, an entire history of representation. Then we have a third-person omniscient narrative that takes us to the beginning of that history when “something powerful” was straining to birth itself. In the sands of the Sinai Peninsula a nomad storyteller invents – discovers? comes upon? – the Proto-Sinaitic phonemic alphabet. He picks up a charred palm frond and draws in the sands the visual icons for “aleph” (ox) and “het” (fence). He writes over and over and faster every time, and we see before our eyes a visual representation of the transformation from hieroglyph to alphabet, icon to symbol. Walter Benjamin, in his thesis of the Adamic name, speaks of how naming was the primal history of signifying – a pure language of naming, as it were, characterized by a perfect accord of word and the thing it designates – wherein the thing is subsumed under the essential name (Benjamin). With the movement to abstraction and to systems of signification able to embody thought comes a degradation but also, as Tomasula’s nomad storyteller discovers, a new power – “It was as if the sky opened to reveal a heaven where he could represent not just things but whatever came into his mind” (8). And with this new-found power he names (renames?) himself, reinvents his own history, and discovers the author’s authority to transform a life, to tell the truth, to fashion lies – it is “the power to create, corrupt and destroy with […] words” (10). But this power is larger than himself, always outside his control. He sees his aleph, bayit and gamal stray away and come back to him via a Greek slave as alpha, beta, gamma… The “I” of the artist – as of the reader, the listener, the viewer – always embedded in the nosotros.

Chapter 2 seemingly purports to faithfully reproduce the sketchbook/journals of Diego Velazquez. The sepia print, the apparently time-darkened tone of the pages, historical markers such as of spelling, setting and language, and of verifiable personages would suggest that this is the authentic “found” journal of the 17th century painter. In her taxonomy of multimodal literature, Alison Gibbons speaks of the “Ontological Hoax” as a category in which multimodality is innovatively used to confer authenticity on a text that is actually a masquerade masking its own fictional status (Gibbons 432). But Tomasula’s “hoax” persistently, and with great wit and a wicked sense of fun, calls attention to its own fictionality and “inauthenticity.” For one, the text is already filigreed with marks of at least two levels of mediation apparently left by restorers or editors. Then there are the quite delicious anachronisms that pepper the chapter – there is a reference to Magritte’s painting “This is not a Pipe” (30) and to Duchamp’s Fountain with its representation of a porcelain urinal (75); there is a poem that is a triumph of satirical code-mixing and which places terms like “kitsch” and “raspberry sounds” cheek by jowl with “Marble sentiment” and “Knights and Noblemen” (58-61); there is even a glancing nod at Harold Bloom’s thesis of the author’s “anxiety of influence” (71); and always there is a doffing of the hat to Foucault whose influential reading of Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” resonates through the entire last bit of the chapter. It is Foucault, once again, who is invoked in the complex explorations into questions of power, violence, and disciplinary regimes through which discursive formations, the “order of things,” are sought to be maintained. The chapter traces Velazquez’s parallel and conflicting struggles – on the one hand, to move closer to the centre of power through social and professional advancement, and on the other to be true to his artistic pursuit and finally paint that portrait that will be a representation of representation itself. Called up before the Inquisition for his heretic experimentations on canvas, he must answer to charges of blaspheming theology, endangering social hierarchy, and debunking aesthetic shibboleths through his “fractured touches of pigment,” “illusions of light and color,” “unresolved spaces,” lack of respect for linear perspective, and the disorderly proximity in his canvasses of Prince and dwarf, Cardinals and fools, the lofty and the vulgar. The charge is of creating a carnivalesque, undiscriminating Arab bazaar of discourse.

What Velazquez recognizes in the Inquisition is the fear that a change in representational protocols and conventions is no less than a re-visioning of the social order itself, and thereby a profound threat to authority. But, as Foucault reminds us, “Where there is power there is resistance” (Foucault 95) and what Velaquez’s paintings, especially “Las Meninas,” show is a moment of rupture, an escaping through some unmanned/unguarded aperture in a discursive formation. Representation in this complex painting is neither the artist’s “window upon” or “mirror to” the world, nor a surface upon which the world casts itself, but a Gordian Knot that in a fundamentally unresolvable way ties together world and mind, subject and artist, viewer and painter, the gaze and the returning gaze, looking and looking at looking… Tomasula captures this moment of transformation and epistemic shift in a sentence that through an eschewing of expected punctuation, a circuitous and sinewy syntactical shape, and dizzying play of pronouns re-enacts on the page the Gordian Knot of Velazquez’s masterpiece: “A fusion of you King and Queen viewer-subject and me viewer-subject looking at you looking at me—they, we—everyone making each other in a world already made—for it is only the I that can give expression to this world that precedes us while the only expression possible is the I itself” (84).

A word about the sketches by Maria Tomasula. The choice to reproduce Velazquez’s paintings as sketches is significant. For without the dress of paint, the paintings are whittled down to reveal the pattern that renders a blank canvas meaningful. And, as Tomasula remarks more than once, the artwork continually indexes its own artifice and leads the viewer to see the “breach between the marks he sees and the things he believes them to represent” (53).

Chapter 3 moves us to the beginning of the 20th century, to a world where Freud and psychoanalysis have been instated as the new theology. We are presented with what are ostensibly the typewritten case-notes of a psychoanalyst invested with the task of curing his patient, Miss P., of a “sexual nervousness” that has become endemic to the times. The subject sought to be captured in representation is not forms, things, or even ideas, but human subjectivity. Even as history, in the form of the depredations of Empire and the horrors of the Great War, impinges from without and threatens the rational foundations of human civilization, the “objective” science of psychoanalysis struggles to map, know and manage the warring impulses within the human psyche. And, of course, it is the unruliness of sexual impulses and their repressions that become the holy grail of the investigator. This is a sex-saturated universe, where the body is the resistant surface that must be pierced to plumb the seething impulses underneath. It is a world freighted with sexual symbols and signs; in a veritable orgy of semiotic excess, every sign is phallic, vaginal, vulvar, or orgasmic. Indeed, the landscape of the body is so overloaded with metaphors and metonyms that it finally becomes unreadable. The psychoanalyst earnestly, even obsessively, reading the symptoms of his patient Miss P. finds that her corset has a sexual rhetoric, her fidgety forefinger is a masturbatory displacement, and her dreams a morass of steaming and stemmed desires.

What this expert’s “objective” investigation remains blind to is his own desires mapped onto the object of his scrutiny. What it remains resolutely blind to is the masculine anxiety that animates his frenzied thrashings. The intransigence of his patient’s desires and the unspeakability of his own are evocatively represented through blank white spaces, jumping letters and unruly typefaceFor instance, the initial “P” that signals the patient – the “unruly” Miss P. – refuses to sit docilely on the line., and lines that keep puncturing and over-spilling page margins.  

In a milieu where the questing imagination seeks to investigate the deepest subjectivity by the most scrupulous objectivity, the apotheosis of representation becomes the photograph, whereby art, freed from the stranglehold of the individual artist, can be created with the click of a button. The psychoanalyst’s diagnosis aspires to the asserted objectivity of photography. Indeed, diagnosis itself is representation; only, it keeps running up against its own limits. Not just its limits, but its active appropriation by the subject it seeks to discipline through a process of sexual normalization. Not only does Miss P. feed her therapist with gratuitous and fabricated details, she goes on, like a consummate bricoleur, to hijack his “therapy” to the service of her own sexual gratification. Normalizing technologies such as the Chattanooga Vibrator and the Carpenter Percussor are turned into sex toys. The representor is manipulated by the subject of representation, and the case-notes become a portrait not of the patient but of the expert.

If this chapter has been preoccupied with depths, the following one is all about surfaces and patterns, an America of the late(R) postmodern“The registered trademark of [late postmodernism’s] spelling is a nod to the consumerist hegemony of the times, and the role of digital electronics in these networks, including the literary today, given that MS Word auto-corrects (r) to (R)” (Tomasula 440)., a world of “interconnectedness, virtual reality, decentralization, heterogeneity, genre and (genetic) blurring, surveillance and meta-awareness…” (Tomasula 442). In this world of social networks, corporations, and technologies that seem to be a realization as actual structure of the Foucauldian metaphor of the panopticon, the self becomes no more than a link in lines of communications, a node in a network of social interactions. Indeed, as Katherine Hayles puts it, this is a posthuman universe in which “pattern…rather than self-possessive individualism becomes the ‘ground of being’” (Tomasula 445). How then does the novelist narrativize this world?

Tomasula does it inventively by presenting us with nine “characters” (known only by their initials and professional functions) whose complexly interlinked activities over a day are presented in short sections structured like files, windows simultaneously open on the internet, and where information on one leads us to another and another, so that one moves back and forth in a manic ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) style of reading. Information can be infinitely combined and recombined; the power to create portraits of the other has been irrevocably decentralized. The portraitist becomes the portrayed and the surveyor the surveyed; even as the systems-world of multinational capitalism has utterly colonised the life-world, and bodies and desires have been almost completely territorialized by corporations. The body is no more than an agglomeration of brands, and can be shaped, morphed, fashioned in the image of desire. One of the main “characters” in this section is a model. She represents both a professional function and the fundamental structuring principle of this world where information can be endlessly modelled and remodelled, as indeed this character is – she is “infinitely re-arangeable, highly…’tweakable,’” a “Frankenstein without stitches” (168), whose body seems not to belong to her but to anyone who wishes to shape it to his desire. Selves, then, are no more than Teflon subjectivities, taken on and changed in a vast departmental store of possibilities.

And yet, desire also seeks to deterritorialize itself, to escape full capture by the systems-world. As the Model realizes at the end of the chapter, “It was time she got her body back” (283). In fact, rather than be the creation of others, like Scheherazade she herself can “make a thousand stories from the same details…” (284). Perhaps, even in this “posthuman” landscape, there is something fundamentally human that “is straining to be born?”  And interestingly, in this chapter as in the previous one, it is women who maneuvre in the interstices of power and struggle so that their selves can keep company with their bodies. This takes on a particular valence when one keeps in mind that historically it is the female body that has always been especially susceptible to the violence of representation.

And, finally, one must address what is in my opinion one of the greatest strengths of the novel – and that is its keen sense of the implacable movement of global capital, the inequities in the arena of first world and other world politics, and the profound imbrications of every part of the globe in every sphere of human life. America shapes the desires of an employee in a Mumbai call centre as she struggles to “neutralize” her local accent and speak American; a young girl in Iraq, Fatima, walks into the path of an American convoy, her body the only weapon against American imperialism; a woman in the undeveloped world dies of cancer because of lack of medicine; a female ex-GI and Iraq vet, Q_, detonates a grenade in a store in an American city.

In a post 9/11 landscape where Islamic terrorism is seen as the other of America, Tomasula obliquely raises some crucial questions. Any engagement with terror/terrorism today must investigate the conceptual frameworks within which the categories are produced, and the ideological imperatives under which the subject position of terrorist is brought into being. If terror is the new taboo, what produces it? In a stimulating study, Terrorism: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Joseba Zulaika suggests that terrorism is the other of counter-terrorism, thus dislocating the sequential or serial schema within which counter-terrorism is seen as a response, a post-facto phenomenon. Referring to the “self-generating logic of counter-terrorism,” Zulaika points to the necessity of thinking through the dynamics of mutual denial and mutual constitution of the dyad Terrorism/Counterterrorism, “a Lacanian ‘nonrelationship’ that is constituted by its very impossibility” (Zulaika 208). The critical challenge is to track the loop by which Empire and Terrorism, State and Extremism, America and its other produce each other simultaneously.

Tomasula does this in many ways, not least of all in tracing the trajectories of forces and movements unleashed by a corporate war machine that needs the entire surface of the globe as its field of play. These trajectories, intended to be as exact as the vector of a drone, veer off nevertheless to enter into spaces and contexts where the meanings, ownership and targets of grenades, guns and bombs (as much as of shoes, purses and watches) blur and shift.

[A] grenade [came] off its assembly line in Little Rock, [went] into a crate, then a truck, then the airplane… flew it to Our Desert Friends where it was handed out along with tons of other toe-poppers, rifles, shoulder-launched missiles, RPGs, land mines, and machine guns to rebels fighting Our Desert Enemies. There the grenade was carried in rucksacks. By donkey. It rode in the toolbox of a Toyota pickup truck for three years till its owner traded it for a WWII vintage Lugar so that he could protect his ceramics store. In this manner the grenade traveled from hand to hand, and back and forth across borders till it landed in an open-air market, on a carpet laden with gaudy clocks for sale with more guns, Female Pop Vocalist CDs, ammunition, Soviet watches, imitation Nike shoes, Bulgarian purses, plastic sandals from China… (185).

And that is, by no means, the end of it. The grenade continues on its unpredictable routes to finally be thrown on the hood of the American army Humvee that carries the ex-GI, Q_, and that has been brought to a halt by little Fatima running in front of it…. “the trajectory of all the lines that made that moment possible converging in a blinding flash…” (185). That “moment” in an alien landscape finds an uncanny re-enactment in the heart of an American city when a scarred Q_ blows herself up in a pharmacy thronging with people brought together by a curious intersection of apparently disconnected lives/lines. This re-enactment is surely only one in an unending series produced by “the Catch 22 of a labyrinthine, self-fulfilling repetition” (Zulaika 7). In a stunning constellation of the figures of Fatima and Q_, Tomasula takes the deliriously demonized “suicide bomber” of the public imagination and renders it as an unlikely and crucially gendered mirror-image. It is as if the subject position of the suicide bomber is uniquely hospitable to occupation by the female body, Middle-Eastern or American – by the historically abjected body, self-denying, self-mutilating, hysterical, anorexic, forcibly veiled/compulsively displayed, spectacularized/invisibilized, marked not only by the theatrical violence of war but also the countless banal violations of the everyday. The two ravaged female bodies in Tomasula’s text are sites where victimhood and refusal find twinned articulation, as if from their very abjectness emerges a howl of protestAnd they speak not only for the female body but for all subjected bodies, for finally the female body in Tomasula’s text speaks for the human in an appropriative manoeuvre that prises apart the customary conflation of Man and Human.. America and its other fold into each other, and the apparently discrete operations of power – in the market, on far-flung geographies, in the name of a corporatized war ethic, under the alibi of political rationality and security concerns, in the impassioned “hailing” of religious/ethnic communities in the face of real or perceived historical wrongs, on the bodies of individuals – reveal themselves as strands in a vast, dense web.      

In such a scenario, who has the power to represent? Who determines the image? Little Fatima’s death is not simply the loss of a beloved daughter mourned by a father. It will perforce be over-coded and represented either as an act of terrorism or of martyrdom by powers larger than the individual. As the father Saroush realizes, “Even if he somehow managed to break away and hide Fatima’s body in the darkest cave, that too would be written” (321). And how will Q_’s death enter discourse and the public imagination? Perhaps, as a media report – “Female ex-GI, injured Iraq vet, blows herself up in pharmacy. Was undergoing therapy for PTSD.” Finally, whatever the epistemological grids within which representation takes place, it is fundamentally implicated in questions of power. What art can do – perhaps all that art can do and has always done – is struggle to trace the contours of the “intolerables” of the present and, when it dares, to imagine lines of flight. 

Works Cited

Barrett, Mike. 2007. “Seeing the Novel in the 21st Century”. Electronic Book Review. 

 Benjamin, Walter. 1996. “On Language as such and the Language of Man”. Selected Writings, vol. 2 (1927-34). Eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

 Deleuze, Gilles and Claire Parnett, Dialogues. New York & Chichester : Columbia University Press, 2007. 

 Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Vintage.

———————–1990. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

———————–2012. The Order of Things. London and New York: Routledge. Indian edition.

 Gibbons, Alison. 2012. “Multimodal Literature and Experimentation”. In Joe Bray et al eds. The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature. New York: Routledge.

 Tarnawsky, Yuriy. 2011. “Not Just Text: An Interview with Steve Tomasula”, RAINTAXI Review of Books, Online edition, Spring.

 Tomasula, Steve. 2006. The Book of Portraiture. Tallahassee, FL: FC2.

———————–2010. “Emergence and Posthuman Narrative”. Flusser Studies  09.

———————–2011. “Electricians, Wig makers, and Staging the New Novel”. American Book Review, Vol 32 No 6, Sept-Oct. 

———————–2012. “Information Design, Emergent Culture and Experimental Form in the Novel”. Flusser Studies 09.

 Zulaika, Joseba. 2009. Terrorism: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.