Triumph : Jacques Khalip

Adam Katseff / Flame VI

Adam Katseff / Flame VI

Triumph : Jacques Khalip

In a passage early on in E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View, the narrator pauses to observe the novel’s young protagonist, Lucy Honeychurch, deep inside a performance of a Beethoven piano sonata. Apparently fascinated by her low-grade grasp at passion, the narrator administers a deflating blow to Lucy’s triumph of life:

She was no dazzling exécutante; her runs were not at all like strings of pearls, and she struck no more right notes than was suitable for one of her age and situation. Nor was she the passionate young lady, who performs so tragically on a summer’s evening with the window open. Passion was there, but it could not be easily labelled; it slipped between love and hatred and jealousy, and all the furniture of the pictorial style. And she was tragical only in the sense that she was great, for she loved to play on the side of Victory. Victory of what and over what—that is more than the words of daily life can tell us. But that some sonatas of Beethoven are written tragic no one can gainsay; yet they can triumph or despair as the player decides, and Lucy had decided that they should triumph.1

What is the nature of Lucy’s decision here? And, to echo the narrator’s sharp question, this triumph is of what and over what? The sonata’s triumph, we are meant to see, becomes Lucy’s own even as it signals both of their ends: as she decides to sidestep despair and somatically absorb the crowning mood of a minor victory into her performance, her actions evoke a triumph-compulsion, so to speak, a compulsion that forces her (as well as her listeners and Forster’s readers) to think that she, too, like the sonata, must overcome something in art and her life. She must be, after all, something more; triumphing sustains Lucy in the belief that whatever she is, she should be on its side. In this way, the sonata interpellates her within the regulatory ideal it solicits: while Lucy might choose the triumphal mode for the Beethoven, the narrator knows that she is more conspicuously being measured by her attachment to the promise of a victory that eludes her. Her triumphant decision has already been made for her.

When Forster remarks that we cannot quite know what Lucy’s victory is, the same can also be said for the concept of triumph itself. At once noun, verb, and adjective, the word is almost ubiquitous in cultural and political discourses of all stripes as a governing topos of mastery, succession, and vanquishing. And among its various definitions it often ranges from being an event to a thing to an affect. For example: according to the OED, triumph signals within Roman history “the entrance of a victorious commander with his army and spoils in solemn procession into Rome, permission for which was granted by the senate in honour of an important achievement in war.” As a verb, it means “to be victorious; to prevail; to gain the mastery”; etymologically, triumph derives from the Greek word θρίαμβος, the “hymn to Bacchus.” Additionally, it is the “action or fact of triumphing; victory, conquest, or the glory of this; also, a signal success or achievement”; “pomp… splendour; glory; magnificence”; “a public festivity or joyful celebration; a spectacle or pageant; esp. a tournament”; “the exultation of victory or success; elation; joy; rapturous delight.”

While the term does not always collapse into its close ideological cousin, triumphalism, it isn’t hard to think of triumph as an uncomfortable and cringe-worthy concept. Overblown and puffed up, it can exude smugness. Indeed, Lucy’s decision to arise and triumph via the sonata is ironized as a misled feeling about her own mediocrity. But such triumphs of the self are not triumph’s only structure, as it also belies more complex presumptions. When Thomas Hobbes defines glory in his Elements of Law, Natural and Politic as an “internal gloriation or triumph of the mind…that passion which proceedeth from the imagination or conception of our own power, above the power of him that contendeth with us, ” he reads it as the affect of a subjective triumph borne by the imagination’s projection of the self’s power over another.2  Glory is imaginary, and passionately so; it unfurls outward, but protectively. If glory triumphantly expresses a stirring of sovereign potency, then it aggressively secures that misrecognition by opposing anything that is external to it. Per Hobbes’s point, if gloriation interiorizes and individuates political action, it achieves this from an externalized deployment of power—self-actualization at the expense of decreasing the other as an already less powerful entity.

What sticks in Hobbes is the sense that there is something elusive and allusive about the effects of triumphing: if it too quickly spells vainglory, boasting, or “internal gloriation,” it also gestures to conceptual possibilities that are not all immediately reducible to such experiences. While I do not plan to trace a straight lexical history of the word in this essay, I do hope to unmoor it and coax out its multiple histories, claims, and meanings in order to reflect on triumph as compellingly entangled with matters of sovereignty, spectacle, and decision. On the one hand, triumph outlines an elementary logic of sequencing where one thing neutrally follows another: think of the triumph of love, the triumph of life, the triumph of death, the triumph of democracy, the triumph of reason, etc. On the other hand, its logic is partial and on the side of overpowering fruition, succession, and culmination. In the aforementioned examples, the ascension of the triumphant object X beyond the preposition outlines a certain fantasy of the political: not only has a struggle been overcome, but its opponents have also been outdone. In addition, as a fantasy of sovereignty that casts itself as future-oriented and progressive, triumph’s pretensions operate on the side of endurance—the spectacle of unopposed succession.

And yet, something else also happens with it: in an essay obliquely commenting on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s long unfinished poem, The Triumph of Life, Jacques Derrida throws into relief the degree to which Shelley’s title, while alluding to questions of translation and survival, fails to pin down what is carried over by the text. How is the minimal triumph of something already inscribed by a defeat over something else, a defeat that contaminates it through and through? “[W]hat happens in French when triomphe de la vie [triumph of life] is transformed into triompher de la vie [to triumph over life]?”3 Shelley’s real drowning in 1822 lingers over the borders of the text and becomes the occasion for thinking through what or who survives “in its writing-on-living.” Does life triumph? Or, is it death that triumphs over life? For Shelley, the triumph of life is the triumph of death; life in his hands means living–on, mortality, the sheer contingency of existence—not knowing who or what will care to sift through the remains of the past. Derrida calls this vague reference to the triomphe-de as a “double excess” or “an excessive double affirmation”; it posits the triumph of X just as it imagines X’s erasure over something to which it is closely tethered and which it cannot quite expunge from itself.4

We cannot legitimately decide here what will or won’t triumph, Derrida implies; furthermore, true to the structure of triumph that interests me in this essay, such indecisiveness is intrinsic to the concept’s aesthetic and political contours. After Derrida, we know that a decision tries but cannot disarticulate itself from the indecisions that multiply around it. It requires a form of faith that must depart from the calculative, and will never align with so-called pristine judgment. To decide is also, perhaps, to make an attestation or a claim that is troped as a fact about something that has punctually occurred and prevailed. To decide that something is a triumph is also an arbitrary command: “This and not that is a triumph.” It could and would always be otherwise. And that’s the sort of capriciousness that haunts Lucy’s decision over the Beethoven: she goes for triumph but it might have been something closer to a fall.

While the desire for absoluteness is exactly what the triumph seems to herald in its most normative settings, its status as a decision always exposes it to more complex figural instabilities that allow for a triumph to fall, or a flourishing to appear like either senescence or no change at all.5 Within such a form, triumph seemingly evokes the accomplishment of something more than what came before, but also a lessening of that which has been overcome. At the same time, more and less are not mutually exclusive: each evoke increases and decreases in things that rise and fall, progress and subside as they are affirmed in triumph’s troubled moves. If we read a triumph as a speech-act that aims to realize the victory which it names, it can never be coterminous with the intentions that seemingly dispense and govern it. The moment of decision is an impossibly anxious one, opening up a fraught space of competing acts of promise and address, subjection and subjectivation, attestation and description. And as acts they are also, as we shall see, performed, spectacularized, and misaligned.


In her meticulous excavation of the multiple origins, rituals, and socio-historical contexts that produced the triumph as a political and cultural phenomenon in Roman history, Mary Beard has reflected on its conceptual and material remains. While the triumph is “good to think with,” but also “good to think about,” Beard reminds us that we do not clearly know what the triumph was.6 As a mobilization of power for those who deployed it in order to violently secure sovereignty through war, the triumph is an organized and organizing concept: it emerges out of wartime, as well as defines what constitutes the eventfulness of war itself. Its uses, Beard demonstrates, were never factual: a triumph often upset the very staged narratives that sought to stage, frame, and define it. In several passages, Beard stitches a variety of ancient sources to offer a reconstruction of the fantasies that choreographed the “picture” of the ceremony: spoils carried on wagons, stretchers, and on shoulders; paintings and models of conquered battles and territories; sacrificial animals, trumpeters, dancers; chained slaves and victims of war drawn along as human cargo; the figure of a slave who famously rode behind the general, whispering into his ear: “Look behind you. Remember you are a man.”7 Retrospective and forward-looking, relational in its utterance, this phrase and its scene embody an image of sovereign victory recalling itself in its creaturely form, but necessarily detached from itself as it recalls the general’s human body in the words of another. To glory in triumph is to hear power haunted by what it tries to omit. Like Hegel’s image of the lord and bondsman which evokes the latter’s mortality as a prosthetic extension of the former’s body—a body, moreover, that cannot quite expunge the lord’s own finite vulnerability—the image of the slave whispering to the general as “man” turns the triumph into a confrontation with its own traumatic originations in a war upon the human. But just as well, it puts “man” under erasure as a symptom of the triumph’s own devastating violence, its endless spoils of war calling attention to the various mimetic objects that accompanied the victors back from battle, as if forcing upon the crowds of viewers the thought that representation is the tenuous domination that power feeds upon—the spectacle that endlessly repeats the dominating “picture” of each bloody triumph.8

In his fractured form, the triumphant general also echoes Agamben’s image of the sovereign who does not coincide with his desire to institute the state of exception: “between Macht and Vermögen, between power and its exercise, a gap opens which no decision is capable of filling.”9 This gap marks a central element of the triumph: as an articulated concept that operates in its anxious inarticulacy, it is a special kind of decision that lies proximate to the exception. We recall that in State of Exception, Agamben reads Benjamin and Carl Schmitt on the sovereign decision and points to the former’s pressure on the impossibility of decision-making in the baroque sovereign for whom power and its exercise are cut. That impossibility also bears upon Agamben’s remarks on the triumph in The Kingdom and the Glory, where he notes that the entry of the military and the commander within the pomerium or the boundary of the city of Rome was an act not ordinarily permitted by law. If the triumph is the “seed from which imperial power will develop,” it is a veritable extension and manifestation of power: it dramatically phenomenalizes the irruption of a new figure of trespass that disturbs the limits of Roman power in order to establish a suspension through decision, one that maximizes the right to command—the imperium—in the hands of the magistrate. It renders indiscernible the differences between city and non-city, familiar and unfamiliar, self and other, enemy and citizen, lawfulness and lawlessness, as well as triumph and despair. “[T]riumph implies,” writes Agamben, “an indetermination of the difference domi-militiae, which from the standpoint of public law distinguishes the territory of the city from that of Italy and the provinces. We know that the magistrate who had asked for the triumph to be accorded to him had to wait for the decision of the senate outside the pomerium, in the Campo Martius; otherwise he would forever forfeit the right to the triumph.”10 At the time of the Republic, triumphs were granted by the Senate to a petitioning commander. Not all appeals, however, were filled: after Augustus, the triumph became the right of the emperor and the symbol of his permanency.11

As an extension of sovereign power, then, triumph’s other compulsion is to violently divide and restore: it traumatically reenacts the antagonisms of warfare through victory in order to gather and stabilize, delimit and destroy, as if to suggest that war is never a discrete event but rather something ceaselessly ongoing and embodied in social and political life, mournfully returned to and rehearsed through the performances of the triumph-as-procession that must endlessly turn to the site of decision as a way to ward off, secure, but ultimately vivify the negativity it cannot hold back and recuperate.

If the triumph “re-presented and re-enacted the victory,” Beard writes, it also “brought the margins of the Empire to its center, and in so doing celebrated the new geopolitics that victory had brought” (32). War cannot but require movement as a condition of its own working through of the devastations that it obtains. The Fasti Triumphales, or “the register of triumphant generals, that once stood inscribed on marble, in the Roman Forum” established during the time of Augustus monumentalizes just this kind of feverish “tally” of over two hundred triumphs, recording general, victory, and date in order to contain what is impossible to remember.12 The Fasti evoke the historical necessity of keeping score of “the sequence of triumphs as an unbroken series, from the mythical foundation under Romulus to whatever celebration is deemed to count as the last” (69), even as they testify to history as a form of remembering and dismembering. By mythically positing Romulus as the first triumphant general of 753 BCE to Lucius Cornelius Balbus in 19 BCE (61), notation and record enter in as the violent inscription of an origin that must be repeatedly re-read. And as inscription, such mythic positing returns with each subsequent triumph, erasing the uniqueness of the prior event as a function of each one’s future memorability.

In this way, we are reminded that the triumph emerges out of a void that pulverizes it. Such a void is echoed, for example, in the Arc du Carrousel which was built to display the bronze horses removed by French troops from the façade of San Marco in Venice in 1798, as well as the Arc de Triomphe, which was conceived after Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1806, with its first foundation being laid to coincide with the emperor’s birthday. After Napoleon’s defeat and exile, construction of the Arc was suspended and then completed in 1836. As a spectral return, Napoleon’s remains were brought back to Invalides in 1840 by first passing under the Arc, a procession that had numerous “reenactments”: by French, German, and Allied troops during the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and World War II. The placement of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc also consolidated this narrative of a traumatic national nothingness, and ended further marches through the arch.13

The triumph’s emphases on ceremonial processions suggest a futural logic that requires survival in order to endlessly reiterate and insist upon the closures of battle that it ultimately cannot quite expunge. And in so doing, the triumph repeats the very failure of such closures, parading and reenacting the elements of the battlefield as the remains of a wartime that cannot end, that is always excessive, and cannot bear to look at itself. Triumphs bring war back, and they bring spectators back to war. By introducing war into the heart of what is imagined to be “after” war, they allow war to survive or live on after war. That the triumph displays a kind of ultimate aesthetics of war is also reflected in a particular theatrical history that it participates in: the scaenae frons, which was in part indebted to the victory marches of triumphal generals that used “the theater as a vehicle for personal aggrandizement.”14 As a parade that mixed lived and unlived experience with the showcasing of war trophies, the theaters of triumphs displayed movement alongside stillness, life athwart death. In this way, the triumph becomes the staged performance of what Rebecca Schneider glosses as “againness,” or history-as­-repetition, something that always takes place “once more”—history as the triumphal re-enactment or recitation of something that existed earlier and, as a consequence, is subject to being overcome.15

The triumphalism of the triumph, then, its hyperbolic status, speaks to a certain underlying insecurity that permeates its models: againness is what is both performed and feared by a structure that cannot help but posit itself against a spectral past. It is this anxiety that Derrida so acutely criticizes, moreover, in neoliberal and neoconservative thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, for whom the West’s triumph over communism, Marx, and Marxism amounts to a rhetoric “both jubilant and worried, manic and bereaved, often obscene in its euphoria,” one that compulsively brings back to memory the “event” of Marx even as it fruitlessly tries to disavow it. Thus the triumph of a certain gaudy faux-democratic politics mournfully returns to sight that which it believes it has already extirpated and subdued. These discourses, Derrida emphasizes, depend “on a general temporality or an historical temporality made up of the successive linking of presents identical to themselves and contemporary with themselves.”16 Such presents imagine temporality as discrete, final, and not spectral. Neoliberalism’s faith in “general temporality” triumphantly reinstalls this species of “successive” presents each time as a measure of an inability to fully commit to an end, lugging the dead body or the dead thought of Marxism with and within it as its unlived potential.


In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer gravely opine that “Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.”17 If a disenchanted world represents the triumph of reason’s disasters, such a world is not unthinkable, but precisely intelligible in its ruin: disaster’s triumph promotes catastrophic thinking. Disaster exults in an affective surplus that characterizes instrumental reason’s overcoming of the world. It triumphs within the very arguments for mastery that plague its progressive ideals because it has emerged out of the very terms that Enlightenment has set out for itself. A disastrous triumphalism is latent within Enlightenment culture; it announces the apparent completion or certain “end” of that culture, an end that coincides with the privative demands of what triumph asserts. That the structure is triumphal is not merely an associative point: we might recall Walter Benjamin’s statement in his Theses on the Philosophy of History that “[w]hoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the processions. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment.”18

Perfectly describing the skeletal form of the Roman triumph, Benjamin shows how our difference from the ancient form is spectral in Derrida’s sense of that word: as a figure of understanding whose knowledge is infinitely differential, deferred, and moves between presence and absence, the triumph is the arrivant that is at the limit of instantiation, confounding reality and virtuality.19 Triumph is the ghostly, vehicular structure through which history, for Benjamin, is ushered out in a rectilinear movement that affords little else to see, one thing stepping over another. As if darkly mirroring the Angelus Novus who affords us a kind of negative triumph, the detritus of history here is gathered together into a whirling spectacle afforded by the victors.

In Adorno’s commentary on this passage in section #98, “Bequest,” from Minima Moralia, he notes that the “coercive” nature of dialectical thought depends upon a dynamic of supersession that is immanent to the movement of that logic itself: “the existing cannot be overstepped except by means of a universal derived from the existing order itself. The universal triumphs over the existing through the latter’s own concept, and therefore, in its triumph, the power of mere existence constantly threatens to reassert itself by the same violence that broke it.”20 “Mere existence” cannot but return to thought the very resources that sustain the universal since the latter is dependent upon that order if it must subscribe to the progressive trend of dialectical thinking. If our work could expose the “succession of victory and defeat,” Adorno writes,

it should also address itself to those things which were not embraced by this dynamic, which fell by the wayside—what might be called the waste products and blind spots [blinden Stellen] that have escaped the dialectic. It is in the nature of the defeated to appear, in their impotence, irrelevant, eccentric, derisory. What transcends the ruling society is not only the potentiality it develops but also all that which did not fit properly into the laws of historical movement. Theory must needs deal with cross-gained, opaque, unassimilated material, which as such admittedly has from the start an anachronistic quality, but is not wholly obsolete since it has outwitted the historical dynamic.21

Appearing as powerless is different from skepticism about appearance. Opacity marks another kind of critical leverage for Adorno: it figures for the inassimilable, or the remainders of the dialectic that are its internal contradiction and points of rival contention. Waste products and blind spots are interesting: whatever is left behind is precisely what cannot be seen, or those aspects within the dynamic of the triumph that are negated and, as negations, are not even seen by it within the motor of the dialectic. But as negations, they are also constitutive of the triumph’s march; they mark temporalities that must be cast off, and yet, as anachronistic remnants that do not “fit,” cannot be properly expunged from the dialectic’s force.

How do we overlook our complicity with things that can only be perceived from a point of view that places us within the dynamic spelled out by the triumph? Can one see something as waste or blind spot, but not from the perspective of the victor? By way of conclusion, I turn to two art installations that attempt to look at and through the triumph differently by considering the waste and blindness that characterize it. In these examples, the triumph becomes an event without stark decisions, narratives, and limits; instead, we are offered extended spaces of reflection without realization, decision without finality. Triumphs unravel: as political and aesthetic events, they evoke the formal possibility of remarking on what one cannot but belatedly see as the blind spots of one’s own failed progressions. In Gavin Kenyon’s sculpture for New York’s High Line, Realism Marching Triumphantly Into the City, the “essence” of the triumph is rearranged to become the precipitate of the negative.22

Using fur-lined bags filled with plaster and tied with ropes, Kenyon signals and disintegrates the forms of triumphal equestrian statues by meditating on their materiality: his installation is engorged, tubular, and amorphously organic. As a work of casting, it is less a tribute to monumentalization than it is an evocation of a brutal receptivity to the idea of form as a cast off: “impotent, irrelevant.” Kenyon’s sculpture is notably curved inward, involuted as it were, and stalled in shape and progress. A colored middle section squeezes and cuts it in two, and by way of being colored, it echoes the sculpture’s kitschy plinth that sets it away from the High Line’s grassy, constructed paths against a backdrop of condominiums. Like the High Line, Kenyon’s work is simultaneously within the city and yet artificially so, placed and displaced as it abjures any victorious meanings. Realism Marching quivers at a small distance from viewers, as if turning away from the spectator in its space from the walkway even as it appears to lurch forward.  It alludes to historical movement as at once ongoing and delayed. And yet, what is the front or the back of this sculpture? What is forward or backward? Kenyon presents the sculpture but without any directed perspective or platform; it has the force of an anachronism, marching into the city only to find itself apart from the main triumph, unseen and unheard, at once the remains of history and history as utter remains.


Gavin Kenyon / Realism Marching Triumphantly Into the City

Kenyon’s hunchbacked Realism here becomes the “waste product” that is decidedly left by the wayside and remains out of joint with its spatio-temporal installation. As if begrudgingly “brought” into Manhattan to be seen and placed in an environment where differences at once collide and are rendered indiscernible via the forces of capital, Kenyon’s sculpture announces itself as a slumped power that can never get off the ground. Is the march pending, not yet begun, or already over? These questions suspend the piece in an interval between means and ends that bodes forth the thingliness of the triumph in its aspirational form.23 Like Adorno’s waste products and blind spots, Realism offers a “double affirmation”: it heaves as if at once bearing and expressing the gestural burden that the triumph must take on in its march while also displaying that march as the absence of the decision. Dialectic produces such precipitates at every turn as it imagines finalization, Adorno argues, but each step of overcoming seeks “to bring the intentionless within the realm of concepts.”24 Theory, he suggests, might focus on the “unassimilated material” of culture that anachronistically does not swirl back into the engine of development because it allows us to consider dialectical thought from the sides and corners of the triumphal procession where impotency is not merely outside of thought, but structurally unavoidable. In other words: might we reflect upon powerlessness as the excessive, constitutive feature within triumph—the negativity that courses within power as its other?

Such a recuperative move is, one might argue, itself dialectical; a change of perspective displaces the coercive aspects of dialectical thought onto other objects, without necessarily changing the dynamic. But might there also be a worklessness at the core of the dialectic that gnaws from inside it, that deploys thought not in terms of succession but as an extinction of a life of progress, development, and self-maintenance? It might mean thinking about waste as having its own political ontology, a significance all its own apart from a dependence on the dialectic. Each triumphal move, Adorno suggests, blocks out and abjects those elements that oppose and brake the form of that movement. It stages a reckoning with its political unconsciousness that cannot quite accommodate the terms that triumph mandates. If a triumph is just this kind of trope for “againness,” for the performance of riven or broken perpetuity, then it is as much about regression as progression, inactivity and movement, development and impasse, seeing and not seeing. What is at stake is not merely a revolution, a wresting away of the triumph from its own point of view, but an attempt to look at it differently, to consider the blind spots that impoverish it.


Jack Pierson / A Triumph!

This image appears in the contemporary American artist Jack Pierson’s 2012 Los Angeles show, The End of the World, deviously billed in his third-person press release as “his 19th comeback attempt…since his move into big budget studio roles,” and thus queerly merging the clichéd catastrophes of Hollywood stardom and disaster movies alongside a fictional narrative of celebrity fame, exile, and successful overcomings.26 The End of the World consisted of various sculptural word installations throughout the gallery space, but the title of the show itself was also an enormous, striking sculpture that instantiated a material, physical decision—finalization that cannot help but gnaw at its own decree. Stretched out diagonally in enormous block plywood and silver paint through one large room in the gallery, the sculpture virtually bisected and crowded the room in its enormity. Like Samson squeezed and crushed against the temple, “The End of the World” took root as a structure both destroying and coming apart within the space that served to contain it. Coinciding with the foretold “end” promised by the Mayan calendar in 2012, the world catastrophe did not happen. Or if it did, the catastrophes that Pierson’s show alludes to are less apocalyptic end-time sculptures than anxious manifestations of linguistic clichés that become throwaway things. In his notes to the show, Pierson recalls of himself that “In the early days of the 90’s he rode into our collective conscience on an ecstatic wave that delivered him as grunge grandpa survivor. His early downtrodden exercises in blitheness seemed to speak so lyrically about lost youth AIDS and Beauty that we became blind as his overpowering self obsession morphed into a topiary of empty cultural signifiers.”27 Long associated with the so-called Boston School that included Nan Goldin, Mark Morrisroe, the Starn Twins, and David Armstrong, amongst others, Pierson’s varied productions are often powerful meditations on queer life and HIV/AIDS. If the show does go on in The End of the World, it does so in a way that considers the narratives of Hollywood blockbusters as the lenses through which our obsessions with a destructive triumphal culture persist, as well as the occasions for reflecting on the remains abjected by those same narratives.

Pierson’s verbal sculptures are disinterested reflections on how a queer collector’s approximation of a triumphant culture undoes the relationship between the verbal and visual, not changing anything, but rearranging the triumph’s decision of an “end” by suspending words on walls or on the floor as objects. In “A Triumph!” Pierson assembles found letters of various sizes and styles from a salvage yard onto the wall—“waste products” left by the side of things or beyond the wall (pomerium).25 Like a ransom note, “A Triumph!” seems to come from nowhere, a floating signifier whose demand is uncertain. There is no space between the article “A” and “Triumph,” and one might almost want to read this as a necessary compression; at the same time, the compression is grammatically privative, vacating itself. Each letter, in its legible particularity, bodes forth with a presence all its own, gleaned from several ravaged cinema marquees. But if the meaning of the word seems to recall Hollywood advertising, the materiality of each letter calls to mind the singular modes of production that turn each one into an object that upsets the semantic linearity of the assembled word itself.

As an assemblage, Pierson turns “A Triumph!” into a quotable phrase by building the exclamation point and quotation marks that bookend the structure. Here punctuation offers the only sources of light: like small boxes lined with bulbs, the quotation marks and the exclamation point evoke marquees from a bygone era. The sculpture is detached yet not wholly without context, a barely lit ready-made whose clichéd promotional exclamation simultaneously withholds that about which it exclaims. Enlightenment occurs as a bare éclairage around the words, rather than from them. On the one hand, citation describes the retrospective gesture that triumph constantly seeks to command—the cliché becomes a way of summoning back a power that is seemingly lost. On the other hand, Pierson’s triumph can be perceived, verbally and visually: as the actual waste products that escape the dialectic, the scavenged letters attest to a sculpture that conglomerates “triumph” as the thing that doesn’t anticipate or serve as a prelude to the main attraction, but rather is the excised and excluded object of contemplation.

The enunciation is a decision, but one that promises no resolution; it is non-teleological. As an assemblage, it is a mangled series of many parts that appear as one thing but are not one, all rescued bits of debris with apparently no before and after. Spoken by no one and no thing, Pierson’s triumph is the still, wall-mounted look that imagines that it must be the last thing said about the movie that doesn’t exist, the look not assigned to the viewer to complete or assent to the triumph itself. It is the look of ruined, intentionless objects. Physically hung as if in the undifferentiated interval between a triumph and a fall, the sculpture appears precarious in its utter fragility, not nostalgic, retrospective, nor anticipatory of anything. It refers neither backward nor forward. Again, one might ask: a triumph of what or over what? That decision, at this point, is no one’s to be made, and that is perhaps Pierson’s last point on the triumph as concept: in its interrupted form and enunciation, we have a triumph that is still here, both paused and receding. It seemingly points to nothing, yet lets that nothingness be for the spectator to look, look away, and look again at what is and isn’t seen. Its stillness returns us to the turbulent divisions that initially made it into a fantasy of progress that here cannot move any further from the ruins it leaves behind for us to consider.


Jacques Khalip is associate professor in the Department of English at Brown University.


Published on November 22, 2016

1. E. M. Forster, A Room With A View (New York: Penguin, 2000), 28. My thanks to David L. Clark, Matt Guterl, Jason Jacobs, Bill Keach, and Tres Pyle for their help with this essay.

2. Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 50.

3. Jacques Derrida, “Living On/Borderlines,” trans. James Hulbert, in Deconstruction and Criticism (New York: Continuum, 1985), 66.<

4. Jacques Derrida, “Living On/Borderlines,” 78.

5. On this point, see Paul de Man’s discussion of a fall in the context of Keats in The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 16.

6. Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 52.

7. These examples are taken from Beard, The Roman Triumph, 81-82.

8. On this point, see Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground Of The Image, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press), 137-138.

9. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 56.

10. Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa (with Matteo Mandarini) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 183.

11. See Beard (The Roman Triumph) on these shifts.

12. Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph, 61.

13. Laura Wittman, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and The Reinvention of The Mystical Body (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 156.

14. Laura S. Klar, “The Origins of the Roman Scaenae Frons and the Architecture of Triumphal Games in the Second Century B.C.” Representations of War in Ancient Rome, eds. Sheila Dillon and Katherine E. Welch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 176.

15. Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011), 32.

16. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of The Debt, the Work of Mourning, & The New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), 70.

17. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 1.

18. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana Press, 1992), 248.

19. See Derrida, Specters of Marx.

20. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: NLB, 1974), 150.

21. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life, 151.


23. I draw upon Agamben’s formulation in “Notes on Gesture,” Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 49-60.

24. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life, 152.



27. See