Syllabus - "Subjectivity and the Mirror"

Subjectivity and the Mirror: Framing the Self

Ruth Novaczek

Subjectivity and selfhood in the age of the selfie. This 3 day course will look at how we frame ourselves in any chosen medium and will explore notions of self and the mirror.

Assignment: A Self Portrait (moving image, photo, documentary, text, performance, installation or drawing)

How do we frame ourselves, what exactly is a mirror? When we talk about the frame is it interior or an external device. When we talk about ourselves how do we draw parameters, how do we contain ourselves. What is autofiction, how much of our sense of self is based on memory, how much on ego, or an accumulated masquerade, how do we present ourselves, sense ourselves, and what does this mean in artistic practice? In session one we will be bringing a text, image or idea that suggests selfhood, or an aspect of it.

The following text is taken from an interview with the writer Chris Kraus.

(The Anthropology of the Setup: A Conversation with Chris Kraus, interviewed by Anna Poletti in the Oxford Journals)

‘AP. While it is clear that Kraus’s works are fiction and that she has no interest in the pact of truthfulness about the self and life that binds readers to narrators of memoir, there is no denying that the alchemy her writing works on real life is a considerable part of its appeal and its force. For many readers, her novels are hard to put down because they pay a critical, inventive, and detailed attention to the most perplexing and confounding aspects of the real world: intimate relationships, the personal struggle with social norms and social bonds, and the uncanny and seemingly ineffable ways in which history and power structures shape the everyday.

CK.All fiction uses material from life, however selected or filtered. It’s true, my novels have hewn very close to real life. Another big influence was the writing of Christopher Isherwood. …Later, when I began writing seriously, I reread his work and was moved to discover his project of rewriting his earlier works toward a point of greater truth and transparency, after he began practicing Hinduism and became more openly gay. In his 20s, his early novels were veiled autobiographies anyway, and he reworked the material in them much later in a more direct way. This seemed magnificent. And in no way makes him a ‘memoirist.’ Rather, he’s a great fiction writer.

AP: It seems to me that one of the key distinctions from memoir of this space that you’re charting is that the writing self is not the center. As you say in your interview with Sheila Heti for The Believer, it’s not about the emotional catharsis or personal transformation of the writer, yet the writer’s sensibility is very important to this process of transcription.
CK: Yes – I always thought the point would be to create a public “I,” that looks out toward the world.
…There’s a persistent lag in the culture, that continues to view female writing in this tradition as memoir. Emily Gould’s wonderful novel Friendship came out this season, and has been mostly reviewed and discussed in the context of her personal life, as if it were a memoir. Because her characters inhabit roughly the same terrain as Lena Dunham’s Girls, her book becomes a flashpoint for everything people mindlessly elevate, envy, and then despise. . . .

I mean, memoir implies the neoliberal illusion of the autonomous individual – as if one person’s crises and traumas were his or hers alone. But I favor a more anthropological, sociographic outlook. A person is always navigating structures; they are what forms the person.’

This class aims to not only frame the self, but to contextualize the self as a subject who cannot be neutral, and whose particularity can be realist or a total fabrication, alter-ego or ego. Standup comedy is subjective, we laugh at self-deprecation or observation. Poetry is subjective, trains of thought are linked to experience, but experience is massive, uncontainable, and memory is fragmented. Which fragments speak and make sense, cohere somehow, and which are discarded, detritus, leftovers, unhelpful in framing the whole?

In The Guardian, Dan Glaister interviews artist Jordan Baseman:
“I would describe what I do as experimental portraiture,” Baseman says. “They’re all portraits, but they’re really self-portraits – it’s just that I’m not there.”

The frame is also a border, and a border must acknowledge what is outside of itself. Hence Kraus’ sense of the world being an adjunct of the self, we have to be in some kind of present-tense context. Yet the present also comprises memory, Joe Brainard’s poem, I Remember (1970-1975) is a long list, which catalogues his memories growing up in the 40s and 50s in the US. The poem substitutes memoir or autobiography with memories. And in these recollected fragments we get a self-portrait.

“I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.

I remember old ladies’ houses with a lot of things to break in them.

I remember juke boxes you could see pick up the records.

I remember a boy who could swig down a Coke in one big gulp, followed by a long loud belch.”

This workshop asks questions about subjectivity and framing the self. So what do you remember in the mise en scene of a film? Do you notice the background, the colours, the details, or the central narrative action? By this I mean, where do you stand. Subjectivity can be the prism through which you parse the world and give it meaning. So the standup and the artist aren’t that different. We observe, we take a position. The subject can be looking out at the world or in on the self. The frame is our approach to subjectivity and the self a prism for experience.

The assignment is to research and make a short film or piece of work in your chosen medium over three days.

To develop a self-portrait project and examine the way in which we approach and represent the self.


Day One. Monday. Pre-production.

Bring in a fragment, a memory, a text, an idea or an image that represents an aspect of yourself, then present and develop it in group discussion. After lunch, consider ways of making this into a piece of work.

Day Two. Wednesday. Production.

Formulate the idea in whatever medium you’re working with. Set up and plan, and delegate tasks/performance, if necessary in groups. Assemble the materials as a rough cut, draft or sketch, and then discuss and consider the form and language.

Day Three. Post-production.

Edit or assemble the piece of work, it doesn’t have to be finished. After lunch we’ll look at the work and discuss the ways in which each piece expresses the subject and frames selfhood. Then we’ll consider how each piece might be completed or expanded.

Required Readings

Hilton Als: Photos, writing and portraits:

Joe Brainard I Remember, 2001, Granary Books  pdf

Chris Kraus I Love Dick [excerpt] 1997, Semiotext(e), 2015, Serpents Tail  pdf

Film: Jim McBride, David Holzman’s Diary 1967   –   Available on Vimeo

Eileen Myles, Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) 2010. see extract here

Eileen Myles, My Childhood   pdf

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills 1977 –

Suggested Readings

Students should bring with them one example of relevant material that reflects their own approach to self-portraiture.

Materials students should bring to class
Students should bring a camera, this can be a phone, and any materials they would like to work with.

Portraiture, Subjectivity, Self-portraiture