Overlaps in Circumstance: in conversation with Deborah Bowman


[Forthcoming in the Cambridge Humanities Review, Issue 17.]

Dr Deborah Bowman lives and works at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where she is a Director of Studies and College Lecturer in English. Her supervision room is adorned with a large-scale painting, carried over from when she used to make art—performance, assemblage and installation, mainly—in sixth form, and later at art college in Norwich, where she earned a Foundation degree in Fine Art before going on to read English at Cambridge. Her painting may be more conclusive than writing, she says; she rarely feels as though her work is finished. Rather, her essayistic style seems to hinge on the possibility of revision, repetition, and analysing an object again and again by shifts in position and view. Of late, Bowman’s published work has made use of multiple visual cues: stemming from her given lectures, her essays retain diacritics—marks that direct and remind the speaker of how to enunciate written words—as well as extracts from and photocopies of books. This inclusion places emphasis on what Jerome McGann called ‘a scene of writing’: implying that verbal figures are like tutored actors, performing meaning by operating and interacting within the area of the page. As we begin talking, Bowman warns me that she may accidentally turn our conversation into a supervision—a meeting that begins with writing but will offer multiple ways of getting away from that work by suggesting further reading.

There’s an antique library trolley in Bowman’s room, containing books of equal importance to her own work and those students with the good fortune to borrow them. These shelves (on wheels) are a kind of display cabinet for artefacts on lease, or awaiting return. While they may be on display, Bowman isn’t very precious about her books. Instead, their arrangement is reminiscent of how an essay must be assembled by gathering parts from different piles of stuff and various tastes and fascinations accumulated over time. Bowman has edited and written separately on William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, a book that she now recalls selecting (and subsequently stealing) from her secondary school’s library shelves because of its interesting name. Seven Types was partially written while Empson was reading English at Cambridge under the supervision of I.A. Richards, who was originally responsible for the current instruction of Practical Criticism across colleges. In a typical Practical Criticism tutorial, a student will read and respond to chosen excerpts without knowledge of its author or its corresponding parts, making their own comparisons, interpretations and extrapolations in a kind of contextual void. In other words, the student must learn how to improvise with any given material, making do with the limitations of the source.

In a recent essay, published by Edinburgh University Press’ literary journal Counter-Text, Bowman experimented with a ‘sampling’ technique — referencing the way that sound-clips may be reused and remixed to create new songs that, despite their difference, continue to bear the ghost-like trace of their source. Bowman begins Readymade Sadness; or, Te Voici; or the work of whimsy in the age of mechanical reproduction; or, I can’t do without you (Remix) (Remix) by borrowing from Janet Malcolm’s famous New Yorker piece Forty-One False Starts:an essay that also begins from various starting points which do not solely belong to the author. While Malcolm’s beginnings are a type of ‘parody’ of the painter David Salle’s work in collage, Bowman’s essay starts with Josephine Baker’s cabin, for instance, ‘in an ocean liner in the South Atlantic in late 1929’; I.A Richards’ notes about a curious young student called William Empson; and a song by Cole Porter with an itemised Wikipedia list of references, which (she notes) would ‘make a good valentine’. Bowman deviates from Malcolm’s structure by introducing the idea of ‘improvisation’, another musical term, in relation to doing or making things with words, creating sustenance or fulfilling, she jokes, ‘an entrepreneurial capitalist dream and an industrial nightmare’. Words may conjure people, places, things, ideas, worlds, but all of this creates sadness because, Bowman argues, words can not be all of these things at once.


Olivia Fletcher (ohf):
You begin Readymade Sadness with ‘multiple beginnings’. Perhaps this question is unfair, but where did this paper begin?

Deborah Bowman (dlb):
I was reading a book about Josephine Baker by Anne Anlin Cheng called Second Skin and one of the epigraphs to the chapters was a quotation from a song from then, one of these popular songs that I go on to talk about, and then there was another quotation within another chapter and it suddenly struck me that they have this weird manic-ness. And that was what made me think about You’re The Topand putting things together. I was already interested in Duchamp and various sorts of décollage and readymades, so I had the idea of putting things together in a sort of sad and desperate way. A really important thing which probably doesn’t come out in it, but is sort of working through it and it’s something that I’m going to lecture about later this term, is this idea of what children do when they have a really limited number of toys and they play every single game they could possibly imagine with these kind of limited props. That really interested me and I was thinking about the ways in which people do it in the Twenties (well, going through the twenties from earlier) in the form of readymades. And that these songs seem as though they’re just sort of made up of these bits of consumer society. And then there is this scene in Precisions which completely riveted my attention, this idea of the way in which Le Corbusier is describing his cabin as having a sort of bare minimum but he can do everything there. So it’s this kind of dialogue between having almost nothing and being able to do anything with it. And then the two of them came together in finding, one of those fortuitous findings that happens when you’re researching, this song which Baker sings and the way in which the song weirdly gets its way into Corbusier’s book Precisions, which is about architecture.  So it was a whole lot of things, in fact, that came together and they seemed to belong together somehow in my mind. I think this is possibly how I work.

One of my favourite moments in Readymade Sadness is when you say that ‘an essay is a collection of overlapping circumstances’ as though it’s partly about the interaction you just described. You include diacritics, notations to yourself, throughout; I wonder, is this a gesture toward the literary critic as an in-between—a necessary gluing agent holding these parts together?

I don’t know. I don’t think it’s quite that. I think there’s two different things. The overlapping in circumstances is something I think you feel very acutely when you’re teaching in Cambridge, or any university, because what happens is—this room is kind of symbolising it, in a way—I’m teaching a Practical Criticism class to these people from this college and then I’m giving these lectures and then I happen to be supervising somebody for this dissertation and somebody for this other paper and these things will just come up. So, you’re sort of semi-in-control of the material that comes before you every day but it’s quite a wide range of material. You find that terms start circling around ‘this essay’ or ‘this particular idea’ and you think… oh, am I doing this? Am I compelling all my students to read the same things? Well kind of I am. But also, they then give me things. I feel like a kind of node in a network where I get something from someone from another college; they give me their dissertation draft, and I think, oh yes, there’s that. Then it plays on my mind and I’ll give it to someone else as a Practical Criticism piece, so it goes somewhere else. So there’s this strange circulation here of how things happen. And then, in the middle of all that, you’ll think: oh, and this weekend I have to write this paper. And that’s just the stuff that’s there. I also relate it to when I was at art school, Norwich Art School, doing a foundation course there. You had your work space and your work space had all this stuff in it (a bit like the children’s box) and you would have all this stuff that you just sort of partly inherited from other people, because somebody had too much liquid latex or somebody else gave you some leftover things, and you would just have these random objects that have all these stories about how they got there. And then you would make something with them. So these things would sort of wash up and so you think, what have I got? Writing a paper is always this sort of situation of mild panic of: I don’t have the resources, what do I do? I’m interested in that circumstance where you think: I just have to use what I’ve got. That’s what putting a paper together kind of feels like. It’s just what has washed up. And, of course, that’s anxiety-inducing because you think: surely no, I should have some kind of coherent program to impose on the world. But then I think, as a writer, I find it much more interesting to ask, where am I being taken by this? Obviously the ideas I have are going to come out of the things which have come at me. So it’s a kind of using of that.



One iteration of Readymade Sadness, the fifth of ten beginnings, is on Empson, who you’ve written about and studied, and this same moment of ‘getting everything out of nothing’…

Yes, Empson crops up because he’s in my head, because I did my PhD on him, and I’ve got all this stuff there. So, then I read this book and I think, oh, that’s like that… When I was first thinking about the lectures on wallpaper, for example, a long, long time ago—which is still being made into a book (which is nearly finished)—it came out of, precisely, going to the Modern Art Museum in Oxford and seeing this exhibition of Graham Sutherland’s drawings. There were some rolls of paper and I saw little scraps; Sutherland’s drawings of the wreckage and devastation in London’s East End caused by the Blitz. In my head was [T.S.] Eliot’s quote, that saying ‘poetry will save us’ is like saying ‘the wallpaper will save us when the walls have crumbled’, and that was just in my head, so those two things sort of came together. Then I went down to the bookshop and in the bookshop was this book which was partly about decorative design and, so, these three things sort of came together. I was talking with the person I was with and he said, you need to write that down–I was saying I could make lectures out of this; I can imagine the kind of chapters – and I did write it down in a notebook. Now the book is—to make a very broad summary—about the experience, in reading and looking at many things called modernist, of finding little scraps of recognisable material from the background of the past (in Sutherland’s drawings, bits of house). That moment is an experience of being rescued from not-knowing by some trivial piece of stuff, but at the same time it’s only a partial saving, because experiencing it as a recognised scrap of what was the ignored background is itself a disorientation. (And then much later I did actually find an account of bomb damage during the Blitz which said, precisely, that sometimes the wallpaper held the walls together. More overlapping circumstances.) And if that person hadn’t of said ‘write it down’ then none of that other stuff would have happened. It would have just gone. So I like these moments, really.

Would you say that your use of diacritics is doing something else, then? If so, what?

Oh yeah, you were talking about the diacritics. Actually, it wasn’t my idea to put them in [come out of Reading Without Tears orReadymade Sadness]. When I read anything out loud I put diacritics on my notes because even though I don’t read out every word I do have to write out every word I imagine myself reading. One of the ways I write any kind of lecture is to imagine myself saying it. I’m quite a nervous performer and I want my voice (my speaking voice) to be told by my writing voice what to do. There are things that can happen when you’re reading out and you suddenly realise you put an ending on that sentence when actually, you should have kept your voice up. So [the diacritics] are very clear instructions to my voice. As I say in Readymade Sadness, I wouldn’t want to be held to be saying ‘that’ exactly means ‘this’.

I put them on afterwards. I write out the text—I use tabbing sometimes as punctuation while I’m writing—then I go back to it, if I’m going to mark this up for performance (a bit like marking up music), and I think well no, I need an underline there because I just fell over myself when I was trying to read that back… so they are very, very practical.

It never occurred to me not to [use diacritics] and then somebody at the Clive Scott conference at UEA saw it and said ‘what is that?!’ and I said ‘that’s what I do’. They were very fascinated and said ‘Well you could incorporate that, couldn’t you?’ Particularly because it was Clive Scott’s conference, and he’s interested in marking (marks in various kinds of diacritics and in handwriting), I thought that it would be possible. The essay [subsequently published] was for Thinking Verse, which is online, so that [diacritics] also would be possible. It became clear that I could do this and then, the minute you have the idea of: well, you could preserve some of these slightly odd contingent marks (which are to do with the fact that it was read out by me at a particular time) then the rest of the idea comes along. Which is: well what then am I going to do? Am I going to alter it, now, in my writing self? As if I read it out? That would be weird. I don’t need to put diacritics on this bit that I’m adding, so how do I preserve this? So that’s where the idea of keeping these two columns or these two sides came from. There is this paper which I kind of want to preserve—I feel quite protective of it, I don’t want it to get eaten up by this revision. I suppose you could say that is a sort of Empson idea; a bit of Empson that I’m very interested in is his revising practice. He says, when he’s revising Seven Types, that he was going to incorporate the original footnotes and then disagree with himself, sometimes, in new footnotes. So you keep your old self and your new self, as it were, separate. I didn’t think of it consciously, at the time, but maybe it was a possibility that suggested itself because I had that in mind.

I’ve noticed that you use punctuation—perhaps in reference to John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, perhaps not—to do something very specific. Could you explain how punctuation functions in Readymade Sadness?

So sometimes I separate phrases with tabs and sometimes I will have something like a semi-colon towards the beginning of the space, or the middle of the space, or the end of the space. That’s funny. That’s something, again, I found myself doing and then I had a think about it and thought, well, why do I feel very certain that actually what I do is: end phrase; space—semi-colon—space, and then I continue a phrase? I then realised that I was almost sort of thinking about it choreographically: it’s something to do with my body and my voice. It’s about where you leave yourself. When you’re lecturing you are using all of yourself—I wave my hands around a lot—and I realised that what I was thinking of was that the punctuation was in some way related to what I would do with my breath, in that kind of sense. So I have these pauses, for example, where I will stay with the previous sentence           ;           and then, I’ll move on. The punctuation is almost like a moment of hinging, a moment of pausing, it’s telling me to leave your breath until then ;           and then move. I think that things like bold and underlining are to do with the emphasis I put on words and I think that the punctuation seems to have a notion of where I put myself in relation to my words, as it were. And this is not something that I sort of sat down, in an Edgar Allan Poe Philosophy of Composition way, and thought: oh, I need to have a thing for this. Actually, I thought what is this? And, why do I feel so sure about it? I think it is to do with that movement. Partly, of course, it’s about enforcing pauses on myself because I talk so fast. I don’t relate it to what Cage does in Lecture on Nothing except that, of course, having read Cage—and I like it very much—it made me realise that was possible so I don’t find it an odd visual thing to do. A page that has full-stops in the middle of nowhere doesn’t seem odd to me; that’s part of my visual world.

At one point in Readymade Sadness you say that ‘ambiguity is what happens when meanings get a room between here and there‘; thinking more on the particulars of space, specifically this room, could you talk more about the way in which certain places or enclosures relate to your work?

This relates to thing I was saying about children having these objects because I do think of my rooms as having these objects which seem important. They have books which are the things that recur and in the contingencies of research, your eye falls upon that book and not that book, say. Or, you know, you have leant a book to somebody so you can’t depend on it as much as possible. So these things do happen. I’ve had various desks, but I don’t have a desk that I sit at and always do my writing. Quite frequently, I’m sitting on the sofa or the floor to write so I can actually remember where I wrote bits of this. So I began come out of Reading Without Tears, the very first bit about subjunctives and conditionals, when I had another sofa in this room and it was over there and I was sitting on the sofa at, kind of, that end of it, and I remember writing that first page thinking: I don’t know how to write this paper… I’ll just start here, feeling that it wasn’t very good and then going away from it for a couple of days. Then coming back and thinking well, no, I can see how this could work. So I have these quite visual, quite spatial, memories of where I write. So, as it were, about where you’re sitting now is the area where that paper began. Whereas, many of my (things that begin as) lectures are written overnight sitting pretty much in front of the fire because it gets really cold in here. So they belong in places and the longer you stay in a room the more you build up these sort of layers of where it is, where you wrote this and where you wrote that, and in some strange way belong. I don’t know if other writers feel this way but I feel that things I write have atmospheres, and the atmospheres sort of slightly emanate from things I’m going to discuss, so the things I quote. It’s like putting objects in a room: there is a space, which is this piece I’m going to write, and I know that part of its atmosphere will emanate from that scene from Corbusier’s Precisions and part of it will come from elsewhere. Even if another piece you write contains the same quotation, because its something you find incredibly useful and rich and it can say other things, then it will be in combination with different sorts of quotation and it will have a different atmosphere. Anyway, this is a slightly synesthetic thing but I do think that they kind of have colours and shapes and textures. When you’re writing a piece sometimes you have to go away, teach and come back to it; so it’s about coming back to a space and thinking, now I am in this kind of atmosphere. I think I’ve always felt that way about it.

You’ve talked about your painting and experience of art school, could you talk more on the education that you received and your interest in art?

I spent most of my time in secondary school doing art, which I was really into and put on this strange GCSE art exhibition which was an installation that involved people taking photographs of other people who are taking photographs of other people. I did this thing and commandeered year sevens to do this art performance and… yes, I did some other strange things. Then when I moved onto A-Level, I was really lucky. I ended up having almost a little art workspace, a cubicle where I could do painting. In fact, the painting in this room here was done while I was still in secondary school. It wasn’t a terrifically brilliant school, in many ways, but it did have a very, very large art department (just physically large) so I could have a space and do things. That was really what I spent all of my time doing and I used to turn up to other classes covered in paint and stinking of white spirit, not having prepared anything. I was very irritating to them but they tolerated me because I was going to go to Cambridge. I don’t know whether I had a plan. I think I was quite clueless. I wanted to do painting, and I wanted to go on painting. I painted all the time and made installations. People were saying, you should go to Cambridge and you should do Philosophy and so I went to this slightly catastrophic interview in which I thought: Oh, I’m so glad that went badly because then I can not do it. I was very frightened during my interview and frightened of the whole place. I didn’t take to Cambridge. I was applying for a deferred place, so I was going to go to art school and come back and do Philosophy and within that History of Art (so there was art in there, somewhere). At the back of my mind I was thinking well I could always stay at art school. Then I did get into Cambridge and promptly stopped reading any philosophy because I just had this kind of reaction against it.

Do you think this reaction had anything to do with doing an art foundation?

So while I was at Norwich School of Art, there were some things that were great and there were some other things that were not so great. It was great to have some freedom and have a space. It was great to have all that time and to have some privacy to do it. There were some things that were not so great. It was quite anti-intellectual, actually. People kept coming along and saying: well, why do you have to think about things all the time—why not just do what you feel? At that age, I felt quite angry about that. Also, other people didn’t do that much work. I felt really de-motivated by it. That was part of the decision to not go on doing it, formally. Then I rocked up at Cambridge and really, seriously missed painting. Then also had this very strange moment when I realised I had to do English, in fact, and that Philosophy was not what I wanted to do. I missed how words felt when you could play with them; I didn’t want to be just reporting on them or thinking about logic. So, after four days of going to lectures on logic, I changed to English. And then thought, in some kind of sense, this is the right place.

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