joshua neustein texts
Drawing in the Middle Voice:
Joshua Neustein and the Search for Experience
by Martin Jay

In his remarkable text The Periodic Table, the chemist, novelist and death camp survivor Primo Levi devotes one of his most compelling chapters to Carbon." In it, he muses on the effect of drinking a glass of milk containing an atom of that element, which migrates into his brain while he is writing. Somehow the carbon atom produces, "in a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described," the words on his page, guiding his authorial hand in unintended ways.

In a no less remarkable gloss on this passage, the philosopher of history Hayden White has seized on Levi's atom of carbon to allegorize what he suggests may be the only way those seeking to write about the Holocaust can avoid the twin pitfalls of naive literalism--recording only the "facts" of what happened-- and relativist constructivism--fashioning fanciful reconstructions that do violence to the horrible truth.

This alternative he calls writing "in the middle voice." 

White builds his analysis of this mode, which can be found in writing as old as ancient Greek and as recent as Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, on the linguistics of Emile Benveniste, the criticism of Roland Barthes and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. All have foregrounded the ways in which "middle voice" is prior to the very distinction between subject and object that subtends the more frequent opposition between active and passive voices. That is, it suggests intransitive actions in which the subject is not anterior to the action, coming before it is carried out, but is rather interior to it, somehow a part of what it does. A modern example in French is the sentence "je suis n," in which the subject of the sentence doesn't give birth to himself, which would suggest a prior existence, but is born with the parturition. Close to what is sometimes called "free indirect style" in literary modernism, in which the consciousness of the narrator and that of his or her characters is indistinguishable, it overcomes the fixed position of observer and observed, on which "realist" attempts to represent the past, either historical or fictional, are premised.

White boldly suggests that many of the dilemmas of trying to write about the Holocaust, which defies conventional attempts at historical distance and dispassionate neutrality, would be solved if we could find a way to convey our continuing immanence in the events about which we write. Only if we adopt something like a middle voice, he avers, can we get beyond the failures of traditional historiography. "This is not to suggest" he concludes, "that we will give up the effort to represent the Holocaust realistically, but rather that our notion of what constitutes realistic representation must be revised to take account of experiences that are unique to our century and for which older modes of representation have proven inadequate."

White's call for a modernist mode of historical narration based on the "middle voice" may raise as many questions as it seeks to answer, but it is worth recalling now for the light it can shed on the work of Joshua Neustein. For even if we allow for the inevitable differences between literary and visual modes of expression, even if we concede that it would be unfair to saddle Neustein with the ambition of representing something as unrepresentable as the Holocaust, and even if we resist the temptation to find a single key that will unlock so heterogeneous and still diversifying an oeuvre, much can be learned from considering his project as a whole as an attempt to "speak" in the eye's version of a "middle voice."

Such a claim has to be made, to be sure, with full awareness of Neustein's own reluctance to reduce his work to yet another attempt to represent the unrepresentable or break the now routinely transgressed taboo against "writing poetry after Auschwitz" in Adorno's celebrated formula. However much his personal biography would cast him in the role of exemplary artist struggling with survivor guilt, he has understandably bridled at the expectation that he is fated to fulfill such a destiny. The art he fashions is driven less by such grandiose goals than by responses to more specific challenges of place , materials and artistic traditions. And yet if the loss of absolute subjective mastery suggested by the middle voice is taken seriously, it suggests that his work, indeed that of any artist worth the name, should be understood as signifying in excess of his own intentions. With this in mind, it is perhaps justified to push a little against the door he has sought to keep shut and read his work in light cast by the fires on the other side.

Take, to begin, the felicitous coincidence of carbon's central role in Neustein's life's work, not in the form of single atoms in a glass of milk, but as sheets of paper providing a leitmotif for a series of hundreds of works that began twenty-eight years ago and has not yet reached its end. The "Carbon Papers," he tells us, are "cinders of a war," which he identifies as having taken place--no, still taking place--between "the anarchists and the archivists." The bureaucratic imperative to catalogue and organize the messiness of human life is met with the resistance of his scratches, folds, tears and cuts in the medium of duplication, the carbon paper. The specific battle fought in that medium may now be over, as computerized technologies of reproduction and storage have left it far behind, but the war continues with new means.

The Carbon Papers, however, evoke another, more concrete war as well, which Neustein has himself recently come to acknowledge, with some hesitation, as important for his work: the one he witnessed in Europe as a child, the same one that an atom of carbon compelled Primo Levi to remember in painful detail. Here carbon cinders suggest the residue of fire, ashes and charing that appear as well in several of Neustein's other works, such as "The Soot Piece" and "Still Life" -the burning airplane (and indirectly as in his installation "The Possessed Library (David Koresh),"with its reference to the fiery apocalypse in Waco). It has, of course, been a frequent motif in artistic attempts to deal with the memory of the Holocaust, for example, in Paul Celan's poem Todesfuge, Anselm Kiefer's canvas Sulamith or theater pieces like Jon Robin Baitz's The Substance of Fire. The mammoth anthology of Holocaust literature and art edited by Lawrence L. Langer is fittingly called Art from the Ashes.

But what perhaps sets Neustein's efforts apart is the minimalist restraint he shows in mobilizing the rhetoric of immolation and residue. If the "middle voice" involves a relinquishing of the mastery of an active subject, without however assuming the position of passive object of another's action, Neustein has found a brilliant means of achieving the same end in visual terms. Reminiscent of the "altered readymades" produced by the slight changes wrought by Duchamp on found objects--a mustache on a print of the Mona Lisa, then the same print with the mustache "shaved off"--but without any of their trivializing whimsy, they submerge the artist in the object, whose existence antedates his intervention and yet is transformed by it.

Refusing to foreground Neustein's emotional response to traumatic events, they evince none of the expressivist sentimentality that would force us to look through the work to the creator allegedly prior to it. They are, however, more than merely the transfigured commonplaces, the aesthetic sublimations of the everyday, that have been a standard impulse in Western art ever since the natural supernaturalism of the Romantics. Instead, they allow the materiality of the rent or folded sheets of carbon paper, each situated in a series of individual works that repeats and displaces its predecessor, to produce a diffuse effect of melancholic, unworked- through mourning in the beholder. The result is that he or she is also immanently entangled, however briefly and with whatever self-consciousness, in the historical events whose traces they bear. Along with the effacement of the distinctions between subject and object, active and passive, and anterior and posterior goes a transgression of the boundary between historical past and living present.

Even when carbon or ashes are left aside, as they are in many of Neustein's other works, the effect of the middle voice and the faint, haunting presence of the War can often be discerned. In the remarkable series of "drawings" from l993 to l996 called "Polish Forests," Neustein once again submerges his sovereign creative self in the material he allows to body forth in unexpected forms. By repeatedly scrubbing richly textured white paper with steel brushes, he adds nothing to what is already latent in the given site. Instead, strips of fibers or pulp are coaxed to leave the smooth discipline of the blank page and surge forward in silent eruption toward the beholder. Some excess fiber falls randomly to the bottom of the frame, like snowflakes that have tumbled from the tops of the forest's trees to the ground (or perhaps ashes of fires that burnt long ago).

German painters, it is often said, are more at home in forests than, say, the English or the Dutch, who feel comfortable at sea. So too, if Heidegger's famous Holzwege is any indication, are German philosophers. But these are Polish forests evoked by someone who passed a troubled childhood seeking refuge from the Germans, at the very time when Jewish partisans in those forests, like those memorably portrayed in Primo Levi's 'If Not Now, When?', were conducting guerrilla raids against their tormentors. Without striving to evoke anything as dramatically heroic, the drawings solicit an uneasy sense of presence in the beholder, who is placed both above the forest, as if looking down on snow-covered arboreal clusters, and within it, as if looking at the bark of birch trees. The violence of a process that produces its effect by sharp metal brushes that distress and abrade the innocent white of the paper lends an aura of menace to the seeming tranquillity of woodland scenes.

There is also in "The Polish Forests" a further dynamic of what might be called truncated or mediated entanglement produced by the evident tactile qualities of the work, which call out to be caressed, and the glass that turns away the searching hand. It is as if the beholder is both invited into the immanence of Neustein's middle voice and yet ultimately denied full entry. The transparent glass allows us to see, but not touch, preserving a certain distance between our present and the past evoked by the works, a past that may be more fully present to the artist himself only during the process of "drawing."

This limitation may, in fact, alert us to the limits of the middle voice model itself, for it suggests that the full interiority posited by Hayden White may elude the historian or even the survivor. We may never be able entirely to overcome the distinction between subject and object, activity and passivity, and become one with the history we are trying to remember or represent. Perhaps a more plausible account would invoke the metaphor of a constellation or force field in which relations between and among distinct elements are foregrounded over discrete elements, but the elements resist full dissolution into the field.

Significantly, Neustein's own work may in places suggest a similar insight in visual terms. In his "Magnetic Field Drawings," which are produced by magnetized strips on one side of the paper and metal filings on the other, a fragile and fugitive equilibrium is reached, which slowly undergoes decay. Time erodes the power of the magnetic forces to keep the field in place; the drawings are, in his words, endangered and vulnerable. The space they inhabit is not permanently occupied, but merely rented, the patterns they create subject to entropic effacement. Here, if there is a middle voice, it is one that is unstable, a field with components that do not fully integrate themselves into an equiprimordial unity like that before their differentiation. As examples of what Neustein calls "refugee art," they resist any settled solution to the dilemma of how to master, work through and come to terms with a traumatic past.

As such, they both evidence and thwart what might be called Neustein's quest for experience through that intensification, disruption and transcendence of everyday life our culture calls art. They indicate the quest through their fore-grounding of the process of learning through encounters with obstinate material reality, the otherness of a world--historical as well as natural--that is given to us rather than one we can create out of whole cloth through the fiat of imagination. Experience in this sense involves a certain subordination of the self to that world, a willingness to wait for something to show itself rather than forcing it to appear, an openness to what happens rather than an impatience to make it happen. If the metaphor of the "middle voice" means anything, it indicates this intermingling of self and world in a way that balances the form-imposing activism of the artist with the form-beholding passivity of one who waits for something unintended to be revealed.

Neustein's works however, demonstrate how difficult it is to attain fully authentic or genuine experiences of this kind, especially for anyone who has struggled to incorporate and work through a trauma of the magnitude of the Holocaust. The displaced repetitiveness of his serial work, going back again and again to the same media, circling around themes that are never exhausted, suggest that he is far from realizing what experience in one of its other most frequent acceptation implies: a totalizing wisdom that can retrospectively make intelligible the events that seemed random or inexplicable when they first occurred.

Whatever solutions he seems to find are acknowledged as tentative and fragile: installations that are dismantled when their exhibition time is over, magnetic fields that gradually lose their power, debris from distressed paper that falls slowly to the bottom of the frame.

But to give the argument one final twist, such an acknowledgment aligns his work with yet another meaning clinging to the word "experience:" the experimental curiosity that leads us into the future.

Memory, it should be understood, may not always betoken a nostalgia for the past, but also act as source of dissatisfaction with the present, a dissatisfaction that compels us to hope for a different future. Indeed, no matter how haunted art may be by ghosts from the past, its very existence is an indication of the impulse to go forward to something new, something as yet unexperienced. Carbon, as Neustein himself has noted, is part of a life cycle in which apparent decay serves as the basis for ultimate renewal. Carbonation is, after all, the source of effervescence. The atom that helped Primo Levi write can apparently do its remarkable work, Joshua Neustein shows us, in visual media as well.

Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Polish Forests Magnetic Fields Carbon Copies, September 1998, p. 31-37. Martin Jay, History Department, University of California at Berkeley