Thinking Through Relation

Encounters in Creative Critical Writing

by Florian Mussgnug (Volume editor) Mathelinda Nabugodi (Volume editor) Thea Petrou (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection XVI, 302 Pages
Series: New Comparative Criticism, Volume 11


«Thinking Through Relation brings together an outstanding collection of essays that explore the diverse ways in which works of art and aesthetic experience generate a richness of relation which escapes the straightjackets of rigid disciplinary and institutional boundaries. Clearly demonstrating the creative potential of critical writing, these essays are a fitting tribute to the creativity, originality and subtlety of Timothy Mathews’s scholarly accomplishment and his contribution to our understanding of art and of the aesthetic relation.»
(Dr Ian James, University of Cambridge)

«This book in honour of Timothy Mathews is much more than a Festschrift. It is a collection of thought-provoking, daring insights into the crucial place of literature and the arts in our world and in our being human. It is an exhilarating multifarious demonstration of how creativity can undo, without for a moment losing intellectual rigour, the disciplinary and academic structures that constrain our thinking. Driven by curiosity and by care – love, even – the many contributions to the volume show, in their different ways, how criticism can be at its most effective by being at its most imaginative and its least predictable.»
(Professor Lucia Boldrini, Goldsmiths, University of London)

This book is an offering. It contains eighteen essays in honour of Timothy Mathews, written by leading scholars in the fields of French, Comparative Literature, Visual Culture and Creative Critical Writing. These essays examine the power of serendipitous encounter between artists, thinkers and artistic media as well as the importance of creative interjection in the arts and humanities. They advance fresh interpretations of some important figures in twentieth-century European culture – Apollinaire, Beckett, Benjamin, Calvino, Dalí, Genet, Nooteboom, Roubaud – using modes of reading that are both intellectually brave and open to fragility, intimate as well as critical, at once playful and earnest. They bring texts and artworks into relation in order to amply demonstrate that relation itself is a form of thinking.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • List of Incipits
  • Acknowledgements
  • Prelude (Florian Mussgnug, Mathelinda Nabugodi and Thea Petrou)
  • I.
  • Honour (Jenny Chamarette)
  • Hopscotch by Moonlight: Becoming-Child in Cees Nooteboom’s In the Dutch Mountains (Jane Fenoulhet)
  • ‘Back to Life, Back to Reality’From the Game of Academia to the Risk of Creative-Critical Writing (Tim Beasley-Murray)
  • II.
  • Reasons Not to MoveArguments Against Desire and Knowledge in Late Beckett (Patrick ffrench)
  • The Space-Time of the Surrealist Object (Johanna Malt)
  • On Method; or, Mary Shelley and I (Mathelinda Nabugodi)
  • The Invisible Boundaries of the MomentAt a Distance and Through a Different Body (Emily Orley)
  • III.
  • Shipless Ocean Letters (Martin Crowley)
  • Waves (Florian Mussgnug)
  • Jean Genet and the Sanctuary of the Sea (Clare Finburgh Delijani)
  • IV.
  • Translating the ArchivesAn Autotheoretical Experiment (Delphine Grass)
  • A View from the SouthIdentity and Plurality in Europe (Helena Carvalhão Buescu and Florian Mussgnug)
  • The Contemporary Macaronic in Wales (Sharon Morris)
  • Developing Creative Models of Mind by ‘Translational’ PracticeFrom Critical to Creative Translation (Clive Scott)
  • V.
  • Art and Literature; or, On a More or Less Permeable MembraneAn Interview (Jérôme Game)
  • Journeying Towards a Practice-Led Quantitative Analysis of Art (Stephen M. Hart)
  • Collecting, Classifying and ComposingArt and Memory in Jacques Roubaud’s C (Thea Petrou)
  • Encore (Timothy Mathews)
  • Appendix
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Relations
  • Series index


Figure 5.1.Salvador Dalí, Objet surréaliste [Tray of Objects], as pictured in Cahiers d’Art 1–2 (1936), p. 59. Photographer unknown. © Salvador Dali, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS 2021.

Figure 11.1.Delphine Grass. The oyster hut, where my parents used to sort and process oysters before selling them, 2017. © Delphine Grass.

Figure 11.2.Hans/Jean Arp, Coryphée (1961) © DACS 2020, courtesy of Stiftung Arp e.V.

Figure 11.3.Fragment of a Hermes Kriophoros (ram-bearer) statue, late Roman first century BCE © Carole Raddato.

Figure 13.1.Sharon Morris, MOON/LLOER Photograph of an egg from archive of artworks by Sharon Morris, 1988. © Sharon Morris.

Figure 13.2.Sharon Morris, REBECCA/BECA Photograph of a Tŷ unnos from the family archive of Sharon Morris. © Sharon Morris.

Figure 13.3.Sharon Morris, VIEW/GOLYGFA Digital photograph of standing stones in Glynsaethmaen, y Preseli. © Sharon Morris.

Figure 14.1.Clive Scott, superimposition of two printings of two versions, all in different fonts, of Baudelaire’s ‘À une passante’, with handwritten additions.

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Figure 14.2.Clive Scott, translation of Rilke’s Sonette an Orpheus, I, 5 as a double huitain, with decoration in oil pastels, enamel paints, graphite stick and photo-fragments.

Figure 14.3.Clive Scott, extract from Oliver Davis’s 2004 translation of Merleau-Ponty’s Causeries 1948, typographically re-set.

Figure 14.4.Clive Scott, as Figure 14.3 but decorated with oil pastels, graphite stick and photo-fragments.

Figure 14.5.Clive Scott, as Figure 14.3 but decorated with enamel paints and photo-fragments.

Figure 15.1.Jérôme Game, Ceci n’est pas une légende ipe pe ce, DVD of ten videopoems, Incidence (2007).

Figure 15.2.Jérôme Game, Salle d’embarquement, novel, L’Attente (2017), 20–21.

Figure 15.3.Jérôme Game, Frontières/Borders, series of photopoems (text print on photographic paper, 60 x 60 cm), Galery Anima Ludens, Brussels (curators: François de Coninck, Alessandro De Francesco, Gregory Lang) (2017).

Figure 15.4.Jérôme Game, Flip-Book (book and CD), poems, L’Attente (2007).

Figure 16.1.‘Cutting’s Plot’; derived from Alasdair Hall, ‘Computational Film Analysis’, unpublished undergraduate thesis (2016), UCL Computer Science Department; reproduced with permission.

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Figure 16.2.‘Hall’s Plot’; derived from Alasdair Hall, ‘Computational Film Analysis’, unpublished undergraduate thesis (2016), UCL Computer Science Department; reproduced with permission.

Figure 16.3.‘Runtime (seconds) vs. IMDb score’; derived from Alasdair Hall, ‘Computational Film Analysis’, unpublished undergraduate thesis (2016), UCL Computer Science Department; reproduced with permission.

Figure 16.4.‘Gravity, Birdman and Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?: Decoding and Brainprints’, derived from Dr Jeremy Skipper, ‘What Can Neurocinematics Tell Us About Latin American Film?’ (2016); reproduced with permission.


This book is the fruit of discussions, relations and shared interests that have grown over many years. We are grateful to all contributors, who have responded enthusiastically to our invitation. We also wish to thank the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and the School of European Languages, Culture and Society at University College London for their support. Our thanks go to the anonymous readers, whose responses have improved this book, and to the wonderfully kind and efficient team at Peter Lang: our commissioning editor, Laurel Plapp, and Jaishree Thiyagarajan, who oversaw the production process. Florian Mussgnug would further like to thank Giulia Metyas for practical assistance and Simona Corso, as ever, and for illuminating his understanding of creative critical writing during a walk on the Janiculum. Thea Petrou would like to thank Editions Nous for the kind permission to cite a number of poems from Jacques Roubaud’s C. Mathelinda Nabugodi’s contribution to this volume was supported by an Early Career Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust. Our gratitude and debt to Timothy Mathews resonates from every part of the volume. It goes without saying that, without him, this book would not exist.

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Florian Mussgnug, Mathelinda Nabugodi and Thea Petrou


‘Art asks what the relation is of form to content. Questions about art are questions about life: about the point at which things begin to mean. Where is the line crossed from a transient perception to a moment of wonder or wound?’1 So writes Timothy Mathews in the prologue to Alberto Giacometti: The Art of Relation (2013). We refer to this claim, and to its source, to set the tone for this introduction, which is a prelude to the essays that follow. Alberto Giacometti takes an important place in Mathews’s work. It builds on a long-standing fascination with the verbal and the visual, and develops and expands the ideas and insights that Mathews presents in two earlier monographs – Reading Apollinaire. Theories of Poetic Language; Literature, Art and the Pursuit of Decay in Twentieth-Century France – and in numerous other publications. It is not only a discussion of fragility, space and relationality in Giacometti’s art and writing, or a philosophical reading of several authors who have shared Giacometti’s interests and concerns, from Walter Benjamin to Samuel Beckett and Cees Nooteboom. Mathews’s book also offers an intimate, probing examination of the power of serendipitous encounter, between artists, thinkers and artistic media, and of the importance of creative interjection in the arts and humanities. The clarity and style of Mathews’s writing, we note, stems from his ability to attune the movements of his carefully attentive scrutiny to the materials of Giacometti’s art, in a manner that calls forth relations of line, surface, scale and proportion. Mathews’s critical practice, accordingly, does not prescribe ←1 | 2→standards of analysis or judgement that are external to Giacometti’s art, but responds to its object of inquiry with both intimacy and conceptual flexibility. Similarly, the essays in this volume have been conceived, and are presented here, as a choral response to Mathews’s own writing. We do not wish to offer a comprehensive overview or systematic analysis of his scholarly and creative work, but rather hope to make room for a curious, open-ended exploration of some of the authors and themes that Mathews has studied over the course of his distinguished career, and of the creative strategies and ethical orientations that have been of particular interest to him. For this reason, our project is shaped by an emphasis on openness and diversity. This is reflected in our choice of primary materials, and it also defines the relation between the eighteen chapters that follow. What makes each chapter relevant to the other parts of the edited collection is not the demarcation of a particular field of study or the application of a common research methodology, but rather a shared interest in aesthetic form, and a belief in the vital relevance of verbal, visual and performing art to human and more-than-human well-being. Accordingly, our book does not approach literary and cultural studies or creative critical writing as closed, axiomatised systems. Instead, we have sought to conjure a heterogeneous assemblage of diverse voices: experiences that are connected, as Mathews would say, by a common desire to cross the line from transient perception to wonder or wound. In this manner, Thinking Through Relation provides a snapshot of various recent trends in literary and cultural research, from ecocriticism to translation studies and cognitive film theory. Differences in tone and length, between chapters, exemplify the attention to style and the increasing diversity within these areas, as well as the multitude of formats, scales and rhythms of writing that have emerged during the first and second decades of the twenty-first century. Just as importantly, our collection illustrates a widespread and growing fascination with speculative thinking, situated knowledge and creative practice that can be found across many arts and humanities disciplines. This fascination is shared by all contributors to this volume. We hope that it will provide an inspiration for future research and creative encounter in this tantalisingly vast and variable field.←2 | 3→

The contributors to Thinking Through Relation include many of Timothy Mathews’s colleagues, students and friends: not mutually exclusive categories, thankfully. We come to this project from related but distinct disciplinary backgrounds – Comparative Literature, Theatre and Performance Studies, French, Visual Culture and Film, among others – and with different urgencies, but agree on some key assumptions. First, we affirm the importance of pluralism in the arts and humanities. Instead of championing a single idea of creative critical writing, we emphasise the positive ambivalence of this field and the interdependence of arguments, attitudes and styles that are in play. This is what we mean by thinking through relation: an irreducible complexity of political, social and cultural situations that will not be settled by neat solutions that focus on one interpretative category alone. Consequently, we believe that the social importance of our research cannot be stated in purely economic or institutional terms. It also stems from the artist’s or critic’s ability to query the human from diverse angles, including the position of its least privileged and most vulnerable designations. This ability, we suggest, serves as a bedrock for reasoned and respectful dialogue, in academic criticism and in wider cultural and political exchanges. It may also be evoked to give shape to new communities and projects that invite resourcefulness, generosity and kindness.2 Finally, we look to Timothy Mathews’s work for a model of precision. By this, we do not mean the application of rigid protocols of knowledge, but rather the patient and open-ended scrutiny that goes hand in hand with curiosity and care. Precision, in this sense, is never entirely rule-based. Like the musician’s skill or the ability of the experienced craftsman, it develops from practice, through success and disappointment alike. It achieves neither conclusion nor perfection, but can nevertheless offer illumination and fulfilment.

The title of our volume foregrounds creativity and relation. Both terms carry a positive tenor in the disciplinary and cross-disciplinary frameworks that are represented in this collection. Relational modes of knowledge ←3 | 4→production abound in the Modern Languages, Comparative Literature, Anthropology, Film and Media Studies, Philosophy, Music and the Visual Arts. They hold a privileged place in structures of argumentation that have become deeply familiar to researchers in the arts and humanities, and that are often employed to defend our work against external attack.3 As a result, the two terms have become near ubiquitous in recent scholarly debates. As anthropologist Marilyn Strathern points out, ‘relation’ is an attractor: it holds the power to engage other terms and concepts, draws in values and disseminates feelings ‘exactly as though everyone knew what was meant’.4 The more-than-human world, for example, has come to be seen by many contemporary thinkers and writers as a co-constitutive presence that intersects with human culture and society in a single material and ethical force field: a tangle of relations. Human and non-human ways of being are intimately shaped by the collisions, frictions, confluences and intimacies between species, or, in the words of Stacy Alaimo, of ‘the literal contact zone between human corporeality and more-than-human nature’.5 Similarly, Amy J. Elias and Christian Moraru write, ‘If today’s planetary life consists in an incessantly thickening, historically unprecedented web of relations among people, cultures, and locales, to comprehend the planetary must entail grasping the relationality embedded in it.’6 In a different but similarly relevant context, twenty-first-century scholarship on world literature and world history has emphasised the importance of global connectedness, shifting the focus of debates from nationally or locally embedded traditions towards spaces and practices of encounter and mediation, comparative and diachronic inquiry, cosmopolitan belonging and existential homelessness.7 ←4 | 5→Works of art, according to this tradition of thought, are best understood as immanent, ever-modulating force relations, which emphasise both relatedness and interruptions in relatedness, across space and time.8

We begin our reflection on these ideas by returning to the question that Mathews asks in Alberto Giacometti: how do we cross the line from transient perception to an intimacy that is both marvellous and painful? It would be easy enough to respond to this question if we simply chose to posit the difference between transient perception and attentive contemplation in terms of institutional orientations or disciplinary practice. The work of the literary and cultural critic, then, could be said to consist in the systematic pursuit of specialist expertise and comprehensive knowledge. Specialism, accordingly, might be imagined, from the critic’s perspective, as a gradual honing in on an object of study: a progressive, discursively and epistemologically monolinear approximation that is ultimately rewarded by complete and definitive understanding. As philosopher Raymond Geuss has shown, this conception of specialism is central to many academic knowledge practices, especially in the West. For example, it holds a powerful grip over analytic philosophy, where it functions, in Geuss’s words, as a culturally constructed myth ‘to which we have a strong tendency and perhaps a deep commitment – a commitment so deep that it generates an illusion of necessity’.9 The same can be said for literary and cultural studies, where the pursuit of specialist knowledge has found expression, in recent decades, in the rhetorical and epistemological conventions of critique: a mid-twentieth-century style of analysis that postulates the reader as an expert, whose scrutiny serves to interrogate and decode certain qualities ←5 | 6→of a given work of art that are not readily apparent to the non-specialist.10 Our volume wishes to interrupt this orientation and sketch a different response to Mathews’s question. We are specifically interested in experiences of aesthetic encounter and creative critical practice that serve to unsettle the singular authoritativeness of specialist knowledge, not because we wish to dismiss its importance but because we want to open the debates in our disciplines to more diverse orientations, subjectivities and narratives. At this level, our project endorses a set of challenges that have been formulated, in recent years, by cultural theorists such as Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant and Rita Felski, among others. It also resonates with the new idioms – centred on affect, vulnerability and creative invention – that have been explored by these writers.11 Felski, for example, associates critique with Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion: a spirit of critical questioning that assails the alleged neutrality of cultural and social norms and thereby exposes the ideological bias that others fail – or wilfully refuse – to see.12 Felski acknowledges the political importance of this orientation, but suggests that it must be accompanied by a greater attention to diverse communities of reception. Vigilance and detachment, she contends, prove a poor guide to the thickness and richness of individual and communal aesthetic experience. As Felski points out, ‘works of art do not only subvert but convert, they do not only inform but transform’.13 In this context, it is easy to see how critique may develop into what Felski calls an ‘antinormative normativity’: ‘eternal vigilance, unchecked by alternatives, [that] can easily lapse into the complacent cadences of autopilot argument’.14 Similarly, Geuss warns his readers against disengaged abstraction and philosophical argument that seeks to ←6 | 7→depart from the specificity of situated knowledge: ‘Once we have seen through the sources of the obsession with unity, completeness, consistency, and invariability, we may become capable of seeing other possibly valuable ways of thinking and living.’15

Timothy Mathews’s work strikes a similar note. Institutionalised thinking relies on agreed protocols of assessment. But the aesthetic is unpredictable, as Mathews points out. Where the disciplinary conventions of analytic philosophy and literary critique emphasise consistency and invariability, the experience of art, for Mathews, is disorienting. It calls into question many of the activities that we commonly perform as researchers and teachers of literature and culture. In this manner, it can bring about ‘affective realignment […] a shift of mood, a sharpened sensation, an unexpected surge of affinity’, in Felski’s words.16 Mathews evokes the same experience when he describes the aesthetic as wonder or wound: a unique, volatile moment of encounter, which holds the power to display and displace established conventions. What makes criticism creative, in Mathews’s understanding, is a heightened attention to the unique materialities of the work of art, but also to the serendipities of our encounter with it. Social anthropologist Tim Ingold describes this disposition as a state of vulnerability, not unlike the experience of being in love:


XVI, 302
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (November)
Comparative Literature Creative Critical Writing French Studies Thinking Through Relation Florian Mussgnug Mathelinda Nabugodi Thea Petrou
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XVI, 302 pp., 9 fig. col., 10 fig. b/w, 1 table.

Biographical notes

Florian Mussgnug (Volume editor) Mathelinda Nabugodi (Volume editor) Thea Petrou (Volume editor)

Florian Mussgnug is Professor of Comparative Literature and Italian Studies at University College London. Mathelinda Nabugodi is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the University of Cambridge. Thea Petrou is an independent researcher based in London.


Title: Thinking Through Relation