Fight Unseen


Fight Unseen: Pursuing Fight Under the Rugger (On Edouard Levé)

Published in Apricota, issue 1, 2018

I do not fight. I have never punched anyone.

– Edouard Levé1

Six men in collared shirts: white, black, and blue, but also fuchsia, the sheeny olive brown of a velour pantsuit, and the pale green of artificial lime flavoring. It must be casual Friday. Only we are not in the office. Against a dark-blue backdrop, the men are agape in wooden anticipation, their faces fixed in benumbed indifference. Their arms are held aloft in empty high drama. They reach toward some desirable unknown beyond the upper frame. One man crouches in wait to catch what will surely fall; one pushes the chest of another in pale tussle. The viewer gets the sense that the men might be waiting for the photograph itself to drop, for the image to happen.


Edouard Levé, Serie Reconstitutions, Rugby, Sans titre, 2003. Courtesy Succession Edouard Levé et galerie Loevenbruck, Paris.

Edouard Levé’s photographic series Rugby, 2003, poses men clad in office-wear in didactic, absurd tableaux vivants of the titular game. The players assume the postures of the ruck and maul, but the images are marked by a curious absence: The rugby ball, that familiar swollen egg, is nowhere to be seen. Without the game’s grippable and and tossable nucleus—the proxy for the players’ desires, freighted with visions of athletic heroism, with the anxiety of possession—the photographs, the players, and the game they dispassionately sign are depicted without their gravitational center. With only the alphabetic gestures of the men to speak its name, rugby nearly falls out of the series’ orbit.

The deflation of the sport by the absence of the ball and by the dramatic passivity of the player-models is striking for rugby’s extremity. Rugby is a tactical game, but it is brutal. What it produces, along with a winner and spectacle, is injury. The medic’s stretcher is as essential a piece of equipment as a scrumcap or pair of cleats. My sophomore year of college, I spent four months in a leg brace and my eyebrow had to be glued back together after a particularly enthusiastic afternoon. But one would be wrong to dismiss a rugby match as an eighty-minute brawl. Indeed, rugby is not a fight at all. As Edouard Levé’s Rugby series helps us understand, the sport as such does not achieve the status of the fight. For this reason, the series figures as both didactic and provocative. By showing us images devoid of fight precisely where we expect to find it documented, Levé limns a definition of what a fight might be. I will use this definition as a place to begin a discussion of the ethical stakes of fighting, which can never be entirely extricated from war, and Levé’s photographic depiction of rugby.


Edouard Levé, Série Reconstitution, Pornographie, Sans titre, 2002. Courtesy Succession Edouard Levé et galerie Loevenbruck, Paris.

The reduction of a cultural form—in this case, the sport of rugby—to a repertoire of postures is a hallmark of Levé’s idiom as a photographer and as a writer. Another of his wellknown photographic series, Pornography, 2002, positions men and women, again in office attire, in stilted sex acts. Their anemic attitudes and empty countenances register utter indifference. Like the rugby images, these photographs fail to arrive: Behind the veil, the pleated pants, no climax can be detected. They are the inverse of burlesque. This alters the viewer’s interaction with the photographs. As the positions of the models fail to deliver on their promise of illicit encounter, the viewer is, in a sense, caught with their pants up—just as soon as they are solicited, they are turned away. The gaze of the voyeur is simultaneously entertained and flatly rebuffed, and this dynamic charges the photographs with the sense that the images themselves are unconsummated.

Levé’s literary efforts do similar work. In his 2004, novel Newspaper, vignettes of reportage are stripped of their proper nouns. We learn that “a simulated airplane crash has gone badly wrong,” or that “a telecommunications company has had a tough year.”2 The facts come spooling out like so much ticker tape. Autoportrait, Levé’s 2005 autobiographical novel undertakes a similar gambit, generating its account of the author through a machine-like transcription of character details. For instance, Levé writes, “I do not iron my shirts. I do not think my house is tilting to its death.”3 The text verges on lyricism quality by virtue of its hypnotic cadences and economy on the line, but ultimately folds into a powerfully banal relentlessness: a relentless voice, relentlessly relaying life-information and preferences.

Some have conceived of this enterprise as a kind of pointillism, meant to reveal something greater about the subject through a constellation of facts. But pointillism, by its variance in color and mark, endows the two-dimensional plane with depth. In Levé’s work, by contrast, any lasting sensation of depth is—like the rugby ball, like the genitalia—evasive and ultimately absent. The descriptions, facts, or postures are insufficiently distinct, and none come forward to suggest a center, or an otherwise organizing principle, and so they exist in inconsistent orientation to one another. At best they occasion acts of speculative cartography, whereby a web of characteristics might momentarily chart a legible character or personality. This web, however, dissolves as blithely as it is established. The facts do not resolve into a coherent identity. Levé thus perverts the “pointillist” subject beyond recognition, which, while disparately composed, was ultimately apprehensible. The cumulative effect of Levé’s technique is a quality of resistant flatness, a seemingly infinite plane of smooth text. One could walk atop it for days without breaking its surface.

Might their flatness be an invitation to crash through the text, the glaze of the image? Or are we waiting for the speaker, or some force of meaning, to violently breach the surface? One doubts the latter: The lethargy and despair these works collect render passage through them too slow, too sterile, too depressed. They don’t have the fight in them.

To what end, then, is this obstinate placidity? Alain Robbe-Grillet described Levé’s photographic efforts as a “mortification of the moment.”4 By absenting the ball, the balls, the breasts, and so forth, Levé is mortifying the forms of rugby, pornography, and autobiography. Without their animating motivation, the images’ actors are humiliated out of any suggestion of life and limited to exercising impersonal, mechanical roles. All desire is suppressed, feeling is medicated; the frisson that might otherwise drive the images falls away, and these actors know shame. The images hollow out their subject matter and, in turn, their broader concern (competition, sex, etc.). The player-model, the protagonist, and their respective charges are reduced to the husks of archetype and role-play. Through this effort, these works make available to us the banal, pre-scripted undergirding of forms that purport to deliver us to the thrall of real experience—the rugby scrum to aggression, pornographic diorama to orgasm, autobiography to the fully lived and explicated self.

Levé thus brings to the fore the grammar of our contact with the world. The message inscribed in thgis grammar is one of alienation: We look and sound quite distant from life, and from each other, in these postures that are simultaneously studied and unconscious. How quickly we assume them! And how quickly this act of assumption takes us beyond each other! Just as the one viewing the Rugby portraits gazes past the affectless faces of the player- models, the one reading Autoportrait perambulates about the text without apprehending its supposed subject.

In the Rugby series, this exercise is performed not only on the sport but also on photography as a medium. In the afterword to his translation of Levé’s novel Suicide (2008), Jan Steyn notes,

These sets of images are not simply about something in the world—rugby, sex—but about (photographic) representations of these things—rugby photography, pornography. Levé ensures that we cannot see such images and naively believe in the objective realism to which photography all too easily lays claim: we no longer take such photos to show the truth about sex and rugby, we automatically see the conventions governing such images.5

What Levé shows us about rugby, he shows us about photography: For the too-familiar convention of the form, we lose what the image is meant to convey. Whether taken as the observations of a newspaper reporter angling for objectivity, or the efforts of an earnest portraitist in pursuit of a family document, or the staged indifference and humorless irony of a conceptual artist, the images participate in their idioms so surely as to embarrass those idioms’ scaffolding. Here we move beyond Steyn’s commentary: The series wears its artifice in dull flagrancy, and this serves to shame the photographic convention beyond its exposure, to place it in doubt, to hamper its functioning, to make it self-conscious. An abashed convention is one that forfeits its claim to naturalness and therefore affords us not simply a critical view onto it, or skepticism about its arbitration of truth, but agency in the face of its mechanisms. A form caught in the act of perpetrating empty prescription and shamed for its thoughtlessness cannot conscript us.

Where does this leave us? From a photographic series titled Rugby, we expect confrontation and aggression; we expect skin and sweat and blood. We come to depictions of rugby looking for contact. We expect to see the players in contact, and we want to be struck, physically struck, by the images in turn. Levé’s series refuses us. Not only do the images lack the passion that would afford a sense of the players hitting or touching one another, the photographs appear eerily out of contact with life. This is a provocative disappointment because, as we have established, rugby is a game that harbors within it some of the elements that might be conventionally taken to constitute a fight. Two opponents, in all their raw physicality, clash over the ball, over possession, sacrificing their bodies for the narrative of the game, the season. Rugby knows injury as well: See the shoulders purple and yellow like rotting flowers; see the cauliflower blooming on the edge of that ear. Nevertheless, while these characteristics might be taken as symptoms of a true confrontation, Levé’s work of mortification helps us understand that they amount to mere surface-level participation in the idiom of the fight. Rugby is a game, and a game is not a fight. A game, by its nature, adheres to certain prescriptions. A game has rules; the decorum it upholds is too stable and predictable for it to amount to any authentic fight. Those shoulders, that ear? They are merely articulating the rules and postures of the game. Levé’s tableaux vivants, which bear no trace of trauma, are legible as “rugby” only insofar as they embody the prescribed shapes of their sport, and though this sport gestures at a fight through its contained violence, the fight does not arrive.

What would a fight be under the parameters of the game of rugby? Neither maul nor ruck nor scrum: It would have to be a brawl, a punch-up above the rules of the game. A fight would represent a break from the prescriptive roles of each of the players, the backs, halfs, and hookers. Rugby, rug, textile, text: The fight has been swept under the text, the constitutive and prescriptive grammar of the game.

This distinction—between the game of rugby and what otherwise might be construed as an eighty-minute fight—may seem reasonable, notwithstanding the injuries and bodily contact I’ve just described. Where then do we experience authentic confrontation? I invite you on a brief digression into a cousin topic: hospitality.

In Of Hospitality, Anne Dufourmantelle collects and explicates two seminar lectures by Jacques Derrida on the eponymous topic. In the edited transcript of the first lecture, delivered January 10, 1996, Derrida states,

Absolute hospitality requires that I open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner (provided with a family name, with the social status of being a foreigner, etc.), but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them either reciprocity (entering a pact) or even their names.6

He describes one of the the rational limits that every instance of hospitality gestures toward. It is a hospitality beyond the familiar, prescribed hospitality to be found on the doorsteps of quaint suburbia. In this paradigm, a host must acknowledge what cannot be recognized and welcome that entity in. Grant this and consider: Does it constitute actual welcoming if you already know and love the one who has shown up at your door? Hospitality is about the one you cannot know but welcome in regardless, in all risk, in all inconvenience, in all impossibility.

An authentic fight requires the same conditions: the fight, the “absolute” fight to be found within, through, around, or beyond rugby’s various scripts as portrayed in Levé’s images, is modally analogous to the Derridean schematic for an “absolute” hospitality. The far limit of fighting occasions an encounter with an entirely unknown entity, the results of which cannot be predicted. When we fight, we convene over a site of profound uncertainty. We consent to this site in an instant and without thinking: It cannot be a methodical undertaking, and it cannot be the function of a structure such as a sport or a game.

This schematic tells us about the temporality of the “absolute” fight. Insofar as the outcome of this site is unpredictable, the temporality of a fight, just as in Derrida’s absolute hospitality, stands in contrast to the live-but-scripted game time of the sport of rugby, which asymptotically approaches but fails to deliver its players to fight. It exists in especially stark contrast to the slow, monumental, near-sculptural time of the Rugby series. The player-models are posed just so, and by their stillness and by their voided, anesthetic affect, they refuse an interrogation of their interiority and suggest a banal eternality. They seem to be void of historical consequence. Just like Levé’s texts, they present a resistant plane that will not be breached, even by time. This effect is furthered by the halted time of photography, that “negation of chronology,” whereby prescription is mortified out of narrative time and dressed down.7 In this way, Levé’s Rugby casts the fight into perfect relief and so gives us fight time.

The irruptive moment of the fight may be infinitesimally small. The break with scripted time into a site of true uncertainty, beyond prescriptive roles, beyond rugger’s law, can deescalate into known figures almost instantaneously. Per Dufourmantelle’s distillation, “A new familiarity succeeds the fear provoked in us by the irruption of the ‘wholly other.’”8 This flickering quality, however, does not mean that rugby’s laws—which, as we have established, brim with the stuff of fight and hold it in an explosive compression—cannot occasion a fight. We speak through our roles, our inherited forms: We are just below the surface of ourselves, under the frost of Levé’s textual plane. When we fight, the parameters of known forms do not deliver us directly to confrontation, but they may act as a kind of scaffolding.

That the frequently gratuitous violence of rugby gestures at fighting is consistent with certain anthropologies of game play. Roger Caillois, in his 1958 text Man, Play, and Games, argues that rule-based games function as civilizing forces that allow for the acceptable expression of aggressive instinct, particularly games of competition, the category he labels “agôn.” Without the rules, a referee to enforce them, and the time outside of real life engendered by this dynamic, agôn devolves into confrontation, confrontation into assault, assault into battle, and battle into war. Caillois writes,

War is far removed from the tournament or duel, i.e. from regulated combat in an enclosure, and now finds its fulfillment in massive destruction and the massacre of entire populations.9

This notion, brought to bear on Levé’s images, highlights the grave stakes of the fight just beyond and gestured at by the script of rugby. It is my contention that the shame registered in the affectless faces of Levé’s rugby images is accounted for not simply by the player-models’ lethargic failure to realize the raw physicality and spectacle of the game, but also by their tacit acknowledgement of their failure to account for the stakes of the violence endorsed by the game. This latent violence is thrown into sharp relief by the indifference of the player-models, and their tidy staging is incommensurate with the grievous harm that exists at the far limit of rugby’s brutality: a site of uncertainty that devolves into violence. In the context of war, Robbe-Grillet’s formulation takes on new meaning: a “mortified moment” is one that is made to contend with death. Mortification asks the moment what it has to say for itself in the face of mortality. Levé’s images know shame for their abdication of moral consequence under these stakes.

By giving us a space of pure prescription—the precise opposite of the site of radical uncertainty—Levé’s Rugby series limns the category of the fight in the negative and confronts us with a visual grammar that alienates us from the grievous and harmful consequence of fighting. Were we to break through the resistant surface of Levé’s project, were these images of rugby to deliver us to authentic confrontation, to contact, would we lock ourselves in armed battle with what we could not recognize, or would we embrace it.


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  1. Edouard Levé, Autoportrait, trans. Lorin Stein (Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2012), 21. [↩︎]

  2. Edouard Levé, Newspaper, trans. Jan Steyn & Caite Dolan-Leach (Victoria, TX: Dalkey Archive, 2015), 34; 64. [↩︎]

  3. Levé, Autoportrait, 101. [↩︎]

  4. Hannah Tennant-Moore, n+1, June 14, 2011, The Spectator. See https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/book-review/the-spectator/[↩︎]

  5. Jan Steyn, “Afterword,” Suicide, by Edouard Levé, 2008, trans. Jan Steyn (Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2011), 124–5. [↩︎]

  6. Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 25. [↩︎]

  7. Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 120. [↩︎]

  8. Derrida and Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality, 26. [↩︎]

  9. Roger Caillois, Man, Play, and Games (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 55. [↩︎]

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