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In the Beginning was the Word

By Sarah Moorhouse

Print of a man's head, with blue skin and dark hair

Art by Rosa Bonnin

The many affinities of Brian Dillon.


'Criticism is, in its highest development, simply a mood’. Discussing his latest book Affinities, Brian Dillon tells me that this line from Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay, 'The Critic as Artist', has always fascinated him. As we talk, Dillon informs me that this is the first interview he has given ahead of the book’s release by Fitzcarraldo Editions this February. He claims he does not yet know what the book is about: ‘at this point, you don’t’. But on this point – that criticism is like getting into a mood or, as he says, a ‘huff’ – Dillon is confident. Affinities is an ode to a critic’s moods: freeing himself from argument or attempts at persuasion, Dillon focuses on expressing his moods about images as clearly as possible.

When we meet, at the Barbican Kitchen in London, the first thing he mentions is the noise; he’s chosen a quiet corner of the café, concerned that the sounds around us might be distracting. ‘We need to explain what "mood" means,’ Dillon says to me. He wonders aloud why others haven’t attended more to Wilde’s metaphor of mood since, for him, it captures what criticism involves. In engaging with an art form, be it words, images or sounds, the critic becomes entangled with the subject of their writing. It can be hard to imagine their self out of this ‘mood’ while it happens.

Dillon explains that, when writing, he often experiences a tension between needing to get out of this mood and never wanting to think of anything else again. When preparing an article about the German musician Nico for the New Yorker last year, he spent six months listening to nothing else. The process was arduous but satisfying; after about three months, he says, he felt like he would never want to listen to any other music. Dillon’s goal in cultivating such an immersive writing practice is to invite his reader to share his mood.

‘Affinity’, for Dillon, is also a mood, and Affinities reveals the variety of images that spark this sensation. The book completes what Dillon sees as an incidental trilogy: it follows Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, with all three volumes exploring ‘tiny things’. First essays, then sentences, and now images, Dillon is interested in forms characterised by brevity or singularity. He explains to me that these are all ‘punctual’; we immerse ourselves in them and move on. Dillon’s own writing mirrors the forms that he explores. Having started his career writing 300-word book reviews for Time Out, Dillon has come to specialise in fractal prose. He is a writer who is always starting over. Affinities, like the first two parts of the trilogy, reads at times like an assemblage of splintered parts. Indeed, Dillon admits that he sometimes envies critics who can devote their entire careers to a single object of study, declaring himself ‘incapable’ of sustained attention.

Affinities is the product of intense rather than extended periods of focus. Undaunted by sudden leaps, Dillon leads us from a chapter on Dada in Weimar Germany to Aby Warburg’s habit of talking to insects, his ‘soul animals’. These brief but absorbing descriptions provide a refreshing alternative to the dogged hunt for mastery frequently found in another field where the essay form is central – academic writing. Indeed, as Dillon explains in his introduction, Affinities began out of his fantasy for an ‘entirely uncritical book’. Confined to his home during lockdown with only the set of images he had to hand, Dillon wanted to write a book about a kind of ‘rapture,’ freed from any argument, any agenda. This, he soon realised, wasn’t possible; knowledge means that our interactions with what we see are not really a matter of chance. So, instead of disavowing criticism, Dillon nestles ‘affinity’ within it, highlighting the fleeting or incidental ideas that usually sit off to the side of a finished argument.

Closer to feeling than theory, Affinities' ‘disavowal of mastery’ is not without potential pitfalls. Dillon explains his difficulty structuring the book, ‘I didn’t want it to tell a story’. He sought a framework that allowed for accidental connections, the substance of our affinities, to emerge. He considered following the example of artist Tacita Dean’s 2005 exhibition An Aside, organised according to ‘unconscious associations’. Dean built upon ‘objective chance’, with links emerging organically from one exhibit to the next. ‘I soon gave up on this idea,’ Dillon says. Organising the book around unconscious association would have been, well, conscious: ‘it felt artificial’.

Instead, Affinities is organised chronologically. The book takes us through a series of images from the past to the present, ranging from the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron and stills of Andy Warhol to images from Dillon’s own family archive. As he immerses himself in each image or set of images, Dillon unravels the ‘affinities’ that have accrued for him. He puzzles over the word as he goes, interspersing his chapters about images with ten ‘Essays on Affinity’. This fragmentary journey amounts not so much to an argument as a series of workings-out, as Dillon delights in the possibilities of different meanings.

Unafraid of affect, he writes about how, in the seventeenth-century, ‘affinity’ related to ‘family’, ‘I love this unforeseen inflection’. ‘Love’ is a word that comes up a lot in our conversation – ‘I love the Warhol image,’ Dillon offers as he explains the importance of fun in his writing. Dillon’s enjoyment of affinity’s many definitions does mean that he avoids pinning the word down to a single explanation.

He is most firm on what ‘affinity’ is not, insisting it is distinct from criticism’s investment in knowledge and research. Affinity does, however, inform those things. Read together, Dillon’s ‘Essays on Affinity’ unveil the haze of personal associations that sparked in us by art, thus informing our taste for it.

In our conversation, Dillon traces various antecedents for this way of thinking about our relationship with art, amongst them Charles Baudelaire’s idea of ‘correspondence’ and Walter Benjamin’s great formal experiment, The Arcades Project. In his book, Dillon also acknowledges a contemporary, Maggie Nelson, whose 2009 book Bluets chronicles her enduring ‘appreciation, an affinity’ with the colour blue. Dillon questions this ‘equating of appreciation and affinity’ as, for him, the latter is ‘both more intimate and more tentative’.

His affinities are often fleeting. He is excited by ‘weird thoughts’, he tells me, that often don’t make it into a finished piece. 'The excitement of art criticism' for Dillon is ‘the moment of thinking I can smuggle the weird thought into the piece and wondering if I will get away with it’. Smiling, Dillon compares his book to ‘what’s on the wall’ in an artist’s studio: its jumble of postcards, scraps, and cuttings hint at the maze of ideas informing their art. Dillon himself rehearses this concept in Essayism, writing ‘I want the detail, and I want the halo of affinities and correspondences that surrounds it’.

Both Dillon and Nelson draw together personal and public experiences indiscriminately, building an intimate collection. The personal images in Affinities include his aunt’s strange and, until Dillon explains them to us, random photographs of garden fences. We begin this chapter, as we do each one, with the photographs themselves. What strikes the reader first is that they are simply bad photos, closer to CCTV stills than considered compositions. The images rebuff us with their apparent mundanity.

But when Dillon immerses us in his aunt’s complicated internal world, the images become a window. He opens the chapter by imagining her perspective, asking, ‘what exactly am I supposed to be looking at?’ He then uncovers his aunt’s tale; serious illness early in life caused her to be overcome by a paranoia that ‘all her borders, intimate or domestic, were ruinously porous, subject any moment to undignified invasion'. Photographing the borders in her garden, we realise, was an attempt to capture this ‘invasion,’ giving the images an almost frenzied significance. By veering into the personal, Dillon shows us that ‘affinity’ is not a matter of objective merit: through our own contexts and experiences, we project significance onto what we see.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1841 essay 'Circles' that ‘our moods do not believe in one another’. In Affinities, however, each image introduces the relationship amongst Dillon’s many moods. By writing them down, he succeeds in his goal of ‘escaping’ said moods, while also allowing himself to stay in them and examine them from different angles. Accidental connections inform his chronology. He concludes his discussion of Francesca Woodman’s photography by describing an image with ‘empty mirror behind her on the floor,’ then titles his next chapter on William Eggleston, ‘A Mirror’d Be Better’, a link that he insists was ‘entirely unintentional’. Expressing each of his affinities, however fleeting, Dillon allows for visual things to ‘conjure something else,’ so that connections flow naturally from chapter to chapter.

The success of Affinities lies in its unpredictable nature. Dillon shows us that the associations we bring to art are individual, determined by time and place and the fluctuating activities of memory. Affinity is not a matter of intentional recollection; memories resurface without us being aware of their origin. He writes, ‘it is in the nature of affinity – as distinct from influence – to give us...moments of forgetting, which we then mistake for our own originality’. His book performs such accidentalness, seeking to capture what Dillon describes as a ‘dumb fascination before the thing’. Thus disarmed by looking, Dillon seems to be reaching towards a criticism without agenda, absorbed instead in describing what it is that creates attachment between a person and objects of their perception.

This results in a book that is at times esoteric. I felt unequally invested in the chapters, drawn more to those discussing images with which I was already familiar. To me, Dillon’s discussion of the mouth in Samuel Beckett’s Not I or – as a fellow sufferer – his chapter on migraine auras, felt particularly illuminating.

Others, such as the chapter on photographer Dora Maar, were more difficult. Affinities works best when the reader can bring to the table associations of their own; without these, since Dillon’s idea of affinity is so dependent on personal connections, it is a challenge to see exactly what he is seeing.

Dillon is aware of these limitations. Comparing his project in Affinities to that of the curioso, an eccentric early modern figure with an ‘overinvestment in detail,’ Dillon is aware that the risk of this kind of writing is that we can lose sight of the ‘big picture’. Yet, this obsessive, slightly myopic way of looking at images speaks to the way that so many of us experience the world. For Dillon, we perceive our surroundings through a ‘fog’ of our associations and affinities that is unique to ourselves. We can’t completely explain our perceptions, because we aren’t always aware of the connections we are making.

In attempting to map out his own perceptions through images that attach kinds of ‘affinity,’ Dillon has accomplished something authentic and at times profound. He shows us that our moods are constantly running up against one another, shifting and shaping the way we see. This invests the world with wonder, as we each amass, in memory, the spoils of our vision.

SARAH MOORHOUSE studied at Oriel College for her BA and Mst in English. Her writing has appeared in The Bookseller and LitHub.


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