Constructing the secondary standpoint - paratexts and parerga of the Conway

 

In 1987, the French narratologist Gérard Genette published a book which would later be translated into English as Paratexts: thresholds of interpretation. Genette’s goal was a systematic study of all those peripheral textual elements that surround and enframe a published book (titles, author name, preface etc), all of which subtly affect the way a reader approaches the core text itself. There are obvious similarities between this undertaking and another influential text on the centrality of peripherality, namely Jacques Derrida’s discussion of the parergon in his book Truth in Painting. There, Derrida engaged with Kant’s suggestion that picture frames, drapery on statues and colonnades around buildings were ‘only an adjunct, and not an intrinsic constituent in the complete representation of the object, [which] in augmenting the delight of taste does so only by means of its form’. Such adjuncts, said Kant, are merely ornamentation or parerga (i.e. that which surrounds or adjoins the ergon, the work of art itself). The apparent contradiction in Kant’s suggestion that an adjunct could augment the delight of taste in a work of art which is supposedly ‘complete’ in and of itself, was a perfect invitation for mischief-making. In this, Derrida did not disappoint. The problem was not simply Kant’s choice of examples for delineating the point of separation between artwork and ‘extrinsic additions’ but more the assumption that such an a priori distinction could ever exist. Derrida’s assault was also motivated by the failure of philosophers, not least Kant, to address the broader issues of borders and frames within their grand theories of art: ‘what [he asked] if the lack were not only the lack of a theory of the frame but the place of the lack in a theory of the frame?’

 

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 ‘What the devil has all this to do with either the Conway Library or standpoints?’ a more sceptical and less polite audience might have demanded by now. The answer, in short, is brown paper. Or more specifically, the acid-free, archival quality sheets of manila brown mounting paper onto which most of the photographs in the Conway Library are stuck. In the apparently lacking ‘theory of the frame’, the Conway mounts are, I will argue, the ‘place’ that fulfils the ‘lack’ intrinsic to the photographs themselves.

 

In the semiotics of stationery, manila generally denotes disposability. Manila brown is the colour of parcel-paper, of grocery bags and of correspondence from the Inland Revenue. Brown paper may contain items of value but in itself it is valueless. Valueless not just financially but also devoid of value-judgement and hence a marker of objectivity. Thus, in an archive of art-objects, brown mounting paper is the ultimate anti-aesthetic, abnegating its own presence in order to foreground the images stuck onto it. And it is this brown paper, in all its modesty and self-effacement, that constructs and unifies the secondary ‘standpoint’ that is shared by every item in the Conway library; the standpoint of the visitor vis-à-vis the photographs. Denied direct experience of the indirect object, the observer who relies on photographs must rely on modality markers present in the physical context of the direct object (the photograph) in assessing the authority of the image. No mere ‘ornamentation’ then, the parergon framing the Conway photograph is absolutely fundamental to constructing the archive.

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In the earliest days of the collection, the photographs and cuttings that made up the Conway archive were glued to sheets of thick brown paper, onto which Lord Conway would scribble his notes. Lord Conway’s early mounts are friable, sludge-coloured, and slightly wider than the modern ones. Other than that, little has changed. The mounts used in the 1950s were somewhat narrower and factors like smoothness and stiffness also periodically changed as different suppliers, or more archivally suitable papers, were chosen. As a result, even within the apparent uniformity of brown-ness, there are variations, subtle clues which, to the cognoscenti, help to index the antiquity of the mounts themselves.

 

In supporting the photographs, the mounts become the interface - the point of physical interaction between viewer and image - a clear expanse of ‘worthless’ brown to absorb the greases and acids with which every finger-tip is apparently laden. But the brown paper mounts bear far more than just stuck-on images and fingerprints, for it is here that we find our tituli; the ‘paratexts’ of the Conway, which supply the verbal parerga for the photographic image. A surprising range of textual inclusions have found their way onto the brown paper mounts over the years. As Genette acknowledged in his concluding chapter, even to skim over the diversity of paratexts that surround a book is a long and fatiguing journey. That diversity is just as great in the Conway - and given the brief time I have here, it would be folly to attempt such a trip.

 

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If however one was foolhardy enough to undertake this study, one might reasonably begin with the captions. Over the life of the Conway these have evolved from the descriptions, musings, aides-memoire and even related correspondence of the founder to the pithy and succinct captions added by more focussed architectural historians like Peter Kidson and Lindy Grant. As well as these titles, mounts also carry photographers’ copyright notices, negative filing numbers and data to aid relocation in the correct place after use. Our intrepid archaeologist of the Conway’s paratexts would also need to consider the various media by which words have been added to the mount - since the physical character of text is a powerful modality marker in determining the authority of a message.

 

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The earliest captions flowed directly onto the mounts from the fountain pens of Lord Conway and his daughter - and as such are canonical for understanding the infancy of the archive.

 

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Later annotations have been made in pen or pencil, by scholars and librarians, in a range of different hands; sometimes in block caps and sometimes in cursive scripts of varying legibility. Here surely is meat enough to keep a palaeographer or a graphologist amused for many years as they unravel the various historiographic personalities involved.

 

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Then, for the dactylographer, we have the various typed and pasted captions, subsequently joined by laser-printed labels.

 

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Markers of corporate identity and orders particularly demand the authority of type. Somehow this typed warning against unauthorised reproduction with its slightly erratic but emphatic capitals seems more effective than a merely handwritten copyright notice.

 

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Finally, we come to the rubber stamps. It may be a generational thing, but for me, nothing (except perhaps the military stencil) bears text with quite as much authority as the rubber stamp. Their association with power-figures from border guards to librarians gives rubber stamps an aura of absoluteness that is unmatched. The obviously finite range of tituli available with stamps also helps to stifle debate - if the rubber stamp says “FRANCE” in bold caps or “MEDIEVAL” then to quibble over borderline cases would be folly.

 

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My own favourites amongst the paratextual rubber stamps of the Conway are a rare sub-species of copyright notice that include entirely gratuitous curlicues in their design - an extra parergonal flourish which seems somehow at odds with the asserted functionalism of the stamp itself.

The potential opportunities for “Word and image”-type studies into such captions is endless. But until some visiting scholar chooses to explore the ‘Archaeologies of the (rubber) Stamp-point’, these intellectual stones must yet remain unturned.

 

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As well as providing a site for such textual additions, the mounting sheets are also used to group photographs into artificial assemblages, or composites. In this example, the upper two pictures were cut out of a guide book to the Yonne region, while the lower one appears to be a locally produced postcard. Mounting images together in this way liberates them from their original contexts but immediately re-imprisons them in new networks of association and assumption. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Lord Conway’s own richly-annotated montages which, like the layout of the Warburg Library, stand as a permanent record of a founder’s interests and thought processes.

 

In general the only photographs not mounted on brown paper are the precious 19th century prints. These are the photographs whose commodity value approaches or exceeds their value as visual records. Naturally, most of these precious and fragile artefacts are not subjected to the indignity of mounting and boxing but instead reside in archival storage under lock and key. Here, in an ironic twist on the Kantian parerga, it is precisely the absence of a frame or supplement that is valorising. Thus the mounting or non-mounting serves as a paratextual index of whether the viewer should initially approach the individual photographic print as data or as artefact.

 

Any discussion which foregrounds the parergon is naturally self-destructive. In objectification, the parergon becomes the ergon. Yet this tendency for Kant’s extrinsic to become another person’s intrinsic is neither surprising nor problematic. Indeed, a couple of miles upstream from here is another photographic collection entirely dedicated to other people’s parerga - namely the frame conservation archive at Tate Britain

 

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Incidentally, you will notice that their mounting paper is pale yellow - a colour I consider infinitely less suitable for the task than manila brown.

 

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Taken on its own, an unmounted photographic print can serve a wide range of possible uses, both practical and aesthetic. The brown mounting paper to which it becomes attached on its accession to the archive is not simply a decorative addition and site for paratextual annotation.

 

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It also functions as an ontological constructor, the agent which destroys the pluripotency of the print by differentiating it into the specific mode of being that is the Conway Library photograph. Even photographs which may have had some pre-existence as tourist postcard, work of art, holiday snap or guide-book illustration, can be absorbed into the Conway world by the simple expedient of being glued to a suitable sheet of brown manila paper.

 

Further reading:

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (trans. James Creed Meredith, Oxford, 1928)

Jacques Derrida The Truth in Painting (trans. Geoff Bennington, Chicago, 1987)

Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation (trans. Jane E. Lewin, Cambridge, 1997)

 

© Stuart Whatling 2006