masc | mask | masque

Jun 3, 2021 1:03AM

Four Thousand One Hundred & Eight Masks for One Imposter by Paul O’Kane

Cover of publication made in the context of the exhibition masc | mask | masque, presented at Platforms Project NET 2020 in collaboration with Five Years & Darling Pearls & Co

Four Thousand One Hundred & Eight Masks for One Imposter

by Paul O’Kane

“… a book has finally appeared in which all kinds of magic, including hundreds of tricks and some of the most incredible and astounding things you could ever imagine, are depicted and explained in clear detail. It’s called Das Wunderbuch der Zauberkunst [The Wonder Book of Magic] and was written by Ottokar Fischer, who calls himself “ a formerly practicing artist and director of the Kratky-Bataschik Magic Theatre in Vienna. One glance at the table of contents and your eyes are popping at the abundance of magic on offer. And don’t worry that knowing what’s behind the tricks could stop you from coming to magic shows. To the contrary, only when you know to watch very closely, and no longer let yourself get caught up in the magician’s clever patter, always keeping an eye on what’s coming next – only then will you appreciate the magician’s unbelievable skill and recognise that it is his speed, the result of so much practice and determination, that is oftentimes behind the sorcery.”

Walter Benjamin [1]

“…we were thinking … of a word count of 1000 - 1500 words. It could be a bit longer if it needed to be … ” From an email commissioning this essay,

sent by Alessandra Falbo, Rolina Blok and Marc Hulson.

“It is written in the chronicle that Faust left behind a library, which came into the possession of the Count of Staufen, on whose territory Faust died. Apparently people often came to the Count of Staufen to buy books from Faust’s estate for a hefty price. Indeed, we know from a seventeenth-century necromancer that he paid 8,000 guilders for a so-called Höllenzwang. Now, what is a Höllenzwang? It is a collection of the incarnations and magic symbols used to supposedly summon the devil or other spirits, good and evil. I don’t know how to describe them to you. These symbols are neither letters nor numbers; at best they resemble sometimes Arabic, sometimes Hebrew, and sometimes convoluted mathematical figures. They make absolutely no sense except as a way for a master sorcerer to explain to his students why their incantations failed.: they simply didn’t draw the figures precisely. This must have been the case, because they are so convoluted that they can only really be traced. And the words in a Höllenzwang, a gobbledygook of Latin, Hebrew, and German, sound very bombastic and also make no sense.”

Walter Benjamin [2]

It may be relatively easy to begin, but few writers come to the end of a piece of writing (as I hopefully will, before too long, and perhaps abruptly) with much understanding of how to conclude, nor with much knowledge of how they came to write what they have written. What they are more certain of however, is that not long ago they picked up a pen laden with ink, or started thumbing virtual keys of a device, and began to make and move words around within an otherwise blank space until they began to resemble something worthy of the name ‘writing’.

For some time now I have thought that writing resembles a coven [3], a scene where dark, mysterious figures convene ‘in cahoots’, to cast a spell over the eyes, mind and if possible the soul of a reader (you perhaps). Therefore, my modest ambition here is simply to bring some runes together, stir them up and let them lie, compose and recompose them until they might deserve, attract and maintain your attention. If I am successful then I may have cast a spell over you, and together we will make magic by transmitting thought, almost telepathically, from my here and now to the here and now you occupy as you read.

If writing might be considered a form of magic then perhaps its greatest trick, or feat of transformation is the way in which it convinces us of its privileged, even transcendent status, when like many other forms of magic (see Benjamin quotes above) writing is not as unworldly as it might appear but is rather the outcome of a material process. Like other forms of magic, writing might be entertaining and even spectacular, yet it also contends with the undeniable fact of its pervasiveness in our everyday lives which might also compromise its value in our eyes. However, writing can only say something ‘about’ the world by being itself the world, by being of the same world, the same world as that ‘about’ and ‘of’ which it speaks [4], and so, despite some commonly held prejudices and misconceptions, writing may have little or no transcendent power, perspective, or purchase over or beyond that to which it refers. Any magic it might achieve is the result of a process that, as writers and as readers, we must learn and learn to ‘believe in’.

Anyone who has ever meticulously and repeatedly proof-read the manuscript of a book being prepared for publication will know that we like our writing and our writing likes to be legible and correct, as if it were a window so clean that it doesn’t divert attention from what can and should be understood through it. For related reasons, we might today (and despite much social and technological progress) still express admiration for and even grant authority to well-executed handwriting, made and presented according to long-established standards of neatness, clarity and design. Indeed, along with certain forms of speech pronunciation, articulation, social skills, cultural capital (and other forms of capital), dental history and so on, ‘good’ handwriting might still be an indicator of social class. For someone like myself who has admittedly ‘social-climbed’ and whose secondary education was negligible, my lumpen handwriting (along with a quick glance inside my mouth) is a ‘giveaway’ immediately exposing my class and cultural roots.

All those whose starting point is, like my own, relatively marginal and inauspicious, and yet who nevertheless feel sure we have something to say and something to write, may consequently experience an uncomfortable and often vertiginous trajectory in travelling ‘up’ from one class and culture into another (though this mode and direction of travel can still feel strangely like falling [5]). All who take this journey might justifiably doubt that our ideas (however valuable we believe them to be) will be taken seriously if presented through the broken English of our colloquial vernacular; in the form of our monstrous handwriting; or indeed through broken teeth. However, for some, ‘word-processor’ technology, followed by the happy marriage of Apple computer + Microsoft software appeared just in time to rescue us, allowing us to gradually write our way out of wretched cycles of alienated labour and unemployment, and into jobs, relationships and careers of a more fulfilling and professional kind, that we can sustain and bear, grow with, learn from and be proud of.

Unlike the noisy, mechanical, yet simultaneously fussy and sensitive typewriter, on which many mid-19th to late 20th century folk (particularly women) became adept at creating meticulous ‘fair copy’ [6], the Apple computer + Microsoft Word combo is relatively quiet and far more forgiving. Its ‘save’ function, virtual pages, autocorrect, spellcheck, ‘copy-and-paste’ and other tools encourage a gradual, multi-layered approach to writing, shorn of the fear, shame and sense of imminent reproach that might haunt a similar sortie into typewriting. The main reason for this moral moratorium is that the computer’s errors, corrections and deletions no-longer result in actual loss, mess or waste, and so we might (quoting illustrious jazz musician Miles Davis), even celebrate the notion that today, for us, “there are no mistakes” [7].

Teaching myself to write to a publishable standard, scribing away as a hermit in my mid to late 30s, I confess that I used trial, error, intuition, a little Proust and lots of time (several years in fact) processing endless drafts, making numerous print-outs, correcting and augmenting these by hand, processing further drafts, further printouts etc. all the time aiming for something both meticulous and convincing - and perhaps in this way I was already acting like a forger. In the process I also began to notice that new thoughts, seemingly not my own but those of the writing itself, emerged from the words and lines, the page and screen as if it were the process and not the assumed author that ultimately found and led the way towards the writing’s point and purpose, composition and conclusion.

Interestingly it was with my (limited) experience of painting, and not any previous experience of writing or typing, that I found myself comparing this process. I mention this because as a result I have always felt that writing, for me, is the production of an image, perhaps an image of a received idea of good writing - but then of course this is what a computer’s writing software is surely programmed to do, i.e. to allow a would-be writer to create a virtual image of a piece of writing. In fact Microsoft Word is not very much like real and actual (or rather, ‘previous technologies of…’) writing at all, the programme merely provides a form of skeuomorph that we are willing to ‘buy into’ and ‘go along with’ until, that is, we notice that the experience may have at least as much, and possibly more in common with some quite different process – in my case, painting. [8, 9 ]

Today I am proud to have written a PhD and published well over 150 professional texts (articles, reviews, art writing and catalogue essays like this one). I’ve also written and made (with the help of collaborators [10] ) a handful of artist’s self-publishing books. I like to think that this archive of writings may have succeeded in ‘saying’ something of whatever it is or was that I long felt I ‘had to say’ and that motivated me to take the trouble to teach myself to write and then to approach editors and publishers. If so, in addition to the particular content of any particular piece, I hope that what I have written might ‘say’ is that to write, and to empower ourselves through writing, we should not be afraid to first create an image of ourselves as a writer [11] (perhaps even donning the mask of a nom de plume). Furthermore we should be unafraid and unashamed to create our writing as an image of writing - by means of which our ideas and voices might travel, be heard and be taken seriously. I also hope that my accumulated writing might ‘say’ that we should be happy, free, and willing to do all of the above, even if it might feel ‘fake’ or make us feel like an imposter or someone who is wearing a kind of cultural mask. Rather, we should relish and enjoy the whole process, guiltlessly, thinking of it all as a form of play or masque.

It was from feminist discourse that the diagnosis of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ emerged, as many women, although recognised, celebrated and labelled as ‘high achievers’ (including figures of such cultural magnitude as Michelle Obama and Maya Angelou) began to speak of a constant sense of an irrational fear of being ‘found out’ for what they (supposedly) ‘really were’, i.e. found out as and for ‘really’ being some other, less- or non- achieving, as if haunted by a certain self-debilitating persona that they had long worn and borne before completing their journey to objectively verified and acknowledged achievement.

Today’s arts universities, to which I currently devote the majority of my time, energy and creativity, are working to bring more, new, different, other and othered, less empowered, less ‘entitled’ and less privileged voices within the charmed circle of more professional and fulfilling positions and roles, thereby cultivating greater participation, at higher levels of what aims to become an increasingly fair, equal and progressive society. These ‘new’ voices, ideas and perspectives might then be heard more clearly, taken more fully into account, considered equally and also considered ‘differently’ (i.e. for the value of difference itself). It is likely, however - as I know from my own class-crossing and social-climbing experience [12] - that such a welcome and long-overdue cultural development is also likely to multiply incidents and examples of the aforementioned ‘Imposter Syndrome’, unless, that is, some responsible mechanism can be conjured to counter it.

One possible cure for this debilitating condition might be to critique, problematise, and if possible supplant certain influential conceptual and cultural models, including the ‘real’, the ‘authentic’, the ‘genuine’ and the ‘good’, perhaps replacing them with newly affirmed models of the mask, the masque, the image, various kinds of play, and even the fake and the lie. Working as closely as possible with the title of the show (‘masc | mask | masque ’) for which this essay was commissioned I have explicitly and repeatedly referred to the mask and the masque but admit that I do not easily or comfortably identify myself with, or regard myself as particularly ‘masc’, preferring a colleague’s [13] description of my own gendered identity as that of an “ unconventional man ”. Nevertheless, as my students well know, my closest ‘bro-mantic’ buddies include Herr Walter Benjamin (quoted above) and the 19th century anti-philosopher Herr Friedrich Nietzsche, who dared to write an essay titled ‘On Truth & Lie In A Non-Moral Sense’, and in which he wrote:

“… truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. We still do not know where the urge for truth comes from; for as yet we have heard only of the obligation imposed by society that it should exist: to be truthful means using the customary metaphors - in moral terms: the obligation to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie herd-like in a style obligatory for all.” [14]

Nietzsche also gave one of his books the enduringly provocative title: ‘Beyond Good & Evil’, and there wrote the following:

“ The hermit does not believe that any philosopher (…) ever possessed his true and final opinions in books; don’t we write books precisely in order to hide what we keep hidden? Indeed, he will doubt whether a philosopher is even capable of ‘final and true’ opinions, whether at the back of his every cave a deeper cave is lying, is bound to lie – a wider, stranger, richer world over every surface, an abyss behind his every ground, beneath his every ‘grounding’. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy – this is a hermit’s judgement: ‘There is something arbitrary about the fact that he stopped just here, looked back, looked around, that he did not dig deeper just here, but set down his spade – and there is something suspicious about it.’ Every philosophy also reveals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hiding place, every word also a mask.” [15]

(my underlining)

Here we can glimpse how and why Nietzsche is acknowledged by most of the (largely ‘masc’) luminaries of Post-Structuralist thought that shaped my own post-graduate education as a late-to-the-table but very hungry mature student. Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, as well as figures like Georges Bataille and Jean Baudrillard can all be described as Nietzscheans. Meanwhile, their (‘fem’) contemporary Luce Irigaray was moved to make a carefully crafted and convoluted embrace of Nietzsche in her book Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche [16] which seeks to immerse Nietzsche’s undeniably influential, Romantic and sublime thought within an even more oceanic and extensive feminine expanse or formidable formlessness. Irigaray thereby acknowledges Nietzsche’s undeniable influence on the progressive thought of her generation while disallowing him from patriarchally dominating feminist Post-Structuralism’s adventures and possibilities [17].

The select pantheon above took cues from Nietzsche’s adventurous radicalism [18] and today, under the influence of these Nietzscheans we might assert that writing (our current writing, and the writing to which we aspire) might be both deeper and shallower than previously assumed; more duplicitous and less true, more ambiguous and more indeterminate than we may have ever expected or hoped it to be. We might also acknowledge that some of writing’s greatest achievements [19] endure precisely because they revel in and exude (word) play, paradox, and a certain self-reflexive (intra-)intrigue.

Thus we may begin to see that, to write, for us, is not necessarily to establish, instate or maintain the ‘good’ and the ‘true’ but is rather to continue a process of effectively challenging, and if possible destabilising, that which any extant writing - and yes, even the very writing that we are currently writing - purports or presumes to be ‘about’, while correspondingly and consequently bringing into question the identity, meaning, value and process of writing itself - which Nietzsche has suggested (above) might just be a play (or masque) of masks (words).

For me then (sensing here a pending ending), the act of writing has always and necessarily involved the wearing and making of masks, while writing itself (if writing can be said to have or to be a ‘self’) can be seen as a masque if, for example, we picture or imagine the page or screen as a scene or milieu in, on, and within which words (now considered as masks) meet and play, act and interact, mingle flirtatiously and surreptitiously, duplicitously and infectiously, discursively, resonantly, and hopefully productively.

Words are masks and writing a masque, but whether writing is also ‘masc’ is still, for me, not easy to state with any confidence. However, the suggestion makes me begin (as I come closer to an end) to guiltily chastise myself for, here, now, historically and autobiographically, brandishing writing, and ‘my’ writing as a phallic tool or trophy, by means of which I may have empowered myself and thus laid territorial claim to certain cultural gains, while cavalierly ‘masc-spreading’ and ‘masc-splaining’ as I go (and went) and, despite my attempted self-deconstructions here, embodying, exampling, perpetuating and providing ample evidence of that notorious ‘phallogocentrism’ conceived and coined as a critique by Jacques Derrida, and furthered by Hélène Cixous and others in search of an écriture feminine.

This idea of a feminine, female or woman’s writing, a writing of womens’ own, as it were [20], is, like Julia Kristeva’s reference to ‘Women’s Time’, profound, provocative and progressive as well as being suggestive of many other forms of potential, latent, marginalised, oppressed and repressed writings, many writings of other voices, with other things to say, that might justifiably want and need to be said in a writing ‘of their own’. The very notion of écriture feminine should inspire all who feel the need to do so, to find and/or create a writing of their and of our own, albeit and if necessary using masks, masque, mimicry, lie and fakery in the first instance, but always on the way to turning away from, turning over, turning back-to-front and inside-out (rather than merely aspiring to) an established, ‘majoritarian’ model of good, correct or ‘right’ writing [21].

And so, perhaps these two italicised words, ‘ écriture feminine ’, should be, or should have been, my last. Two final ‘masks’ with which to end, making way for all those aforementioned “… more, new, different, other and othered, less empowered, less ‘entitled’ and less privileged … ” other others, other than myself, who also feel they have ‘something to say’; and even though that self that I call ‘my’; and any ‘masc’ that might be attributed to it, are both (we must assume, given all of the above) no more and no less than further plays of further masks, participating in the particular masque that is here, now, and hereby drawn to its end.

[1] Walter Benjamin, Radio Benjamin, London: Verso, 2017, 34.

[2] Walter Benjamin, Radio Benjamin, London: Verso, 2017, 121.

[3] A sub-chapter (of a chapter dedicated to Writing) of my 2009, University of London PhD (titled A Hesitation of Things) is titled The Coven.

[4] Of course, writing also speaks about ‘about’ and of ‘of’. E.g. see the chapter titled ‘Of Of’ in my book Technologies of Romance – Part II published by eeodo, 2018. I have also given lectures under the title ‘About About’.

[5] Hence ‘Falling Up’ is the working title of my working-class memoir, a work in process.

[6] See Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1999.

[7] Apocryphal.

[8] The image of writing that I was making here was also, of course, an image of a kind of ‘good’ writing, previously seen and read in books and journals, perhaps the very journals in which my writing came to be published. In this way it was also a form of simulation or an act of mimicry.

[9] When recently required to translate my teaching to online teaching using ‘virtual classroom’ software Collaborate Ultra, I similarly re-interpreted it as feeling more like ‘radio with pictures’ than any actual classroom I have ever worked in. Radio With Pictures (or R.W.P) has subsequently become a proposed platform for future writing and online publishing, and I have become interested in how we might ‘misuse’ and creatively reinterpret other such skeuomorphic virtual tools, platforms and facilities.

[10] I made my artist's books as and with 'eeodo', a non profit artists' publisher, run by myself and my partner the artist Bada Song. With each book we have collaborated with various designers, typographers and illustrators.

[11] Many writers, (not least the exiled Machiavelli) might insist on wearing certain clothes in which to write; might write at a very particular time and place each day; use particular pens, desks and surroung themselves with certain objects (e.g. see Freud's desk) as and when they write etc. I referred to this in the Writing chapter of my 2009 University of London PhD titled A Hesitation of Things, citing, among other references, a contemporary Guardian newspaper series that illustrated ‘Writer’s Rooms’.

[12] A very significant aspect of my own identity and experience is formed through the discourse of class difference and class migration, as can be seen by the many occasions on which I have written about it and continue to write about it.

[13] The late Dr. Kate Love, to whom this essay is dedicated (see dedication elsewhere in this publication).

[14] Friedrich W. Nietzsche, On Truth & Lie in a Non-Moral Sense, (in The Portable Nietzsche) translated by Walter Kaufman, New York: Meridian Books, 1956, 42 – 46.

[15] Friedrich W. Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998, 173 (aphorism 289).

[16] Luce Irigaray, Marine lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

[17] Noting that Nietzsche's occasional highly misogynist-seeming statements may be disputed by those who might see his contributions to progressive thought in general as too valuable for his entire reputation to be discredited by apparent ‘lapses’ that apologists might prefer to read as purposefully provocative, perhaps heavily ironic gambles and risks taken when commenting, from within a male-dominated canon, to the emerging (late 19th century) phenomenon of modern women’s new, changing and different voices and values.

[18] Here, following our citation, ‘radical’ is purposefully intended in a stricter, etymological sense related to roots, or perhaps uprooting.

[19] Thinking here (in a way that is surely way too ‘masc’) of William Shakespeare; of the most aphoristic statements of Maurice Blanchot, or of the curt and cutting utterances of Samuel Beckett, but also of all those mentioned above and below, ‘masc’, ‘fem’ or ‘trans’ this binary; indeed of all who write or who have ever written ‘seriously’ enough for their writing to become unavoidably ‘playful’.

[20] Invoking Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room Of One’s Own’, the title of her appeal for women writers to find the necessary private space and necessary income with which to cultivate their work and persona as writers.

[21] Noting that I published an essay on this theme as part of the 2009 Central Saint Martins, UAL, MA Fine Art show catalogue, under the title The Art of Righting [sic]. See also: Gilles Deleuze, & Felix Guattari, Kafka: Towards A Minor Literature, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Hélène Cixous & Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, London: Tauris, 1996.


Wordcount total: 4,108

Wordcount excluding footnotes: 3,368

Paul O’Kane’s text is dedicated to the fond memory of Dr. Kate Love, sadly and sorely missed friend, colleague and enthusiastic proponent and champion of art writing’s transformative potential.

Dr. Paul O’Kane is an artist and writer and Lecturer in Critical Studies at Central Saint Martins College, University of the Arts London. He has recently published a series of articles for Third Text (referee and online) journals discussing and relating popularity, populism, carnival and masks. His long-running CSM seminar Technologies of Romance (and recent book of the same name, published in two parts by eeodo, London, 2017/2018) encourages the historical re-interpretation and re-contextualisation of ‘new’ technologies in accordance with an unbroken history of technologies and their influence on the development of art.

Paul O'Kane's text was originally published as part of the exhibition masc | mask | masque alongside the following works by Denise Alves-Rodrigues, Itziar Bilbao Urrutia, Rolina E. Blok, Koenraad Claes, Leigh Clarke, Holly Crawford, Chris Dorley-Brown, Alessandra Falbo, Warren Garland, Marcia Beatriz Granero, Marc Hulson, Stewart Home, Esther Planas, Artemis Potamianou, Remco Roes, Alex Schady and Lee Wells.

Screenshots from Alex Schady, Untitled Performance with Rolina E. Blok and Marc Hulson, Thursday 28 May 2020 and from a Skype meeting between Rolina E. Blok, Alessandra Falbo & Marc Hulson, Sunday 10 May 2020 at 19:01

Pages 36-37 of the publication made in the context of the exhibition masc | mask | masque, presented at Platforms Project NET 2020 in collaboration with Five Years & Darling Pearls & Co