Sunday, January 4, 2009

Negative (Literary) Space

Today as I sat in the bathroom, I gazed at a photo which was perefectly juxtaposed with the toilet -- for toilet-viewing purposes of course. The photo showed a sea cave foaming away in some tropical paradise. And at the end of the cavern where the sun shone in was the flat white shape of a giraffe's head.

The camera flattens light into two dimensions, and this particular photographer had failed to notice the potential giraffe head at the end of the tunnel before he snapped his shutter. He didn't watch his negative space.

I always loved to look at negative spaces in fine works of art. When I made my own art, it was an especial pride that I took in attention to negative spaces. My teachers took note of it. I trudged along through painting and photography classes with decent marks, despite my inattention to grey zones and my inability to properly mix oils. I had composition on my side.

But most of all I saw things in the great works that some other students did not see. I theorized like crazy the over triangles and vertical lines in some Romantic work, or the bare edge of a canvas that threw a Kandinsky into balance. Art history class was my respite from the mediocrity I felt blanketing over me, smothering my creativity in those uncomfortable studio classes. If I could not create, I would discuss the creations! I would own them.

When I succumbed to the pull of writing in 2006, I had arrived at a place where I felt I could not criticize or theorize about art forms in which I myself could not even begin to participate. Since then I have had the good fortune to come full circle from my early creative and critical aspirations, and land in the right field. A new place where a passion for writing is coupled with a sometimes rival passion for interpreting the writing of others -- they call it literary study.

I just realized today, looking at that bathroom art, with its foamy seas coaxing out the bladder contents of its onlookers, that this new place where I am is a good one. I have a positive space: my fiction, poetry, and essay writing. And I have a negative space: my studies and papers, which will eventually (when I am properly mortar-boarded, sashed and defended) be called works of "criticism" or perhaps "theory."

So I accept the temporary serenity I achieved today, even if it is only a surface calm with great pulling currents and shadowy cryptids swirling underneath.

P.S. An abstruse theoretical topic for further contemplation: Can we define a real "negative space" in literature? Like the kind we find in paintings?


  1. First post of the new year, how exciting : )

    So many pictures are of the sea. The giraffe though. That's a new one.

    I used to want to be a photographer. I enjoy finding things in pictures too. I don't understand people who think art is boring. Yeah, if you just glance at it and not bother to soak it in.

    By the way, I was thinking about how you took delight in working with negative spaces. I was never able to do this with the visual arts. Of course, I was never really able to work in visual mediums. When it comes to writing though, I'm usually fairly capable of sneaking in little allusions and symbols.

    Oh, don't get me started on grey zones. Just the term makes me shudder. During my brief foray into photography, I had so many setbacks. First, I was working with this paper that had absolutely no contrast (it only developed in grey, never black or white). Then I just couldn't grasp the gray zone. Needless to say, that was the end of my dabbling ;)

    I can't tell you how rewarding it is to read someone who has as much passion for the arts as you clearly do. Theorizing over triangles and vertical lines, let's do coffee some time :)

    If you can't create, discuss! I love it!

    I often wish I had lived in the time of Andy Warhol. It must have been wonderful to have been at one of his parties with all those creative people. I've been dying to get a bunch of art books. Just some kind of relief from the mediocrity of regular life.

    Literary study, is there any sweeter word in the English language?

    I think you may be the only person who could be inspired to write about the negative spaces of pictures from a picture that you saw in the bathroom.

    You sound at peace. That last picture was a perfect end. It's really quite beautiful.

    In regards to your P.S.: I do believe there can be a negative space in literature. Of course, it would be slightly different from visual mediums.

    Excellent post, as always

  2. Hey,
    In regard to your PS.
    I was thinking about addressing a similar question.

    I was writing a short blog on the subject and stumbled across your blog.

    You may have already come to a conclusion but if not have a read of my blog post and see if it makes any sense of it.

    Please don't think this is shameless plugging because it's a question that's a difficult one to answer so I thought you may be interested in what I've come up with.

    Very interesting writing may I add.

  3. Hi Tim,

    Haha, I don't regard invites to other thinking people's blogs as "plugs." I was more concerned about jerks popping in and telling me to buy their pooper-scoopers or whatever.

    This is an old post, but I have thought about literary negative space lately too. I think I found it in a non-Kristevan brand of intertexuality. It's the space between the texts, or it's the space where what should or could be there in the text just isn't (i.e. a woman's voice or presence, like when Lacan (I think it was him) calls Ophelia a "0"). I guess I need to do some more work on this. Here's a little bit of what I've written on Kristeva, and I'm publishing something more scholarly on intertextuality in a humanities journal at the end of spring (it'll be online).

    I'll try to find your blog and check it out. Of course the "intertext" angle is not the only way one could go with figuring out what the negative spaces are.


  4. That's really interesting.
    I hadn't thought about intertextuality in terms of negative space.

    It also makes me think about the context of a piece of writing. Whether it's a context defined by the author or an intellectual field in which it exists or the context in which it was written in relation to negative space and interpretation.

    Your writing is definitely thought provoking.

    I'm following you on here so I'll keep an eye out for a link to your journal writing.



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