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No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still.

– Samuel Beckett(1)

No takes you nowhere. It stalls you. It breaks the connection and leaves you staring at the split. Unless we say no together. Then it’s yes. This No is not the No the child says that leaves her crying in the corner. This is a choric No and here’s our position.

“We go right enough, darling, if we go wrong together.”

– George Santayana(2)

Family is always asking you to say Yes. Hegel made family and state the conduits of right, of order, transcendent ethical order. More than dutifully say Yes to these, he said.(3) But Julia Kristeva pointed out that family, as re-enforcer of state order, can be an effective No to jouissance or inherent desire. "Discrete quantities of energy move through the body of the subject who is not yet constituted as such and, in the course of his development, they are arranged according to the various constraints imposed on this body—always already involved in a semiotic process—by family and social structures."(4)  This seems self-evident, but not easy to reject and even less easy to reinvent.

"Never say the yes
you don't mean, but the no
you always meant, say that,
even it it's too late,
even if it kills you."

– Carol Rumens(5)

“This must have been my life / but I never lived it."(6) Which No will let you live “your” life? (Enjoy “your” day, “your” weekend….) Whose life are we ever living but that of the collective? The “I am” is always historical, says Blanchot.(7) Our choices are picked or imposed from a given selection. What we decide on is a sort of allegiance—if to the ‘self’, then to the talents and perceptions that constitute it, and these can only be expressed in action in society. All our individual days merge into one large series. How do we decide? So often, it seems, with an eye on how we remain in a position to choose in the first place.

“                            It’s two thousand and four
and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small
among the numbers. Razor small.”

– Jo Shapcott(8)

Identity. Identification. Who will stand by me? The ground of allegiance is splitting so we stick to the safest island. Yes hurts if it’s to the Other. Is it Yes that comes first or No? Yes starts you on a road. No stops you. No, it seems, is the first conscious decision; it clears the vista, divides value. “Man has no choice if he wants everything.”(9) But No can also mean fear, and the absence of agency. Susan Jeffers, of Feel the Fear and do it Anyway, said to herself in a noisily headlong café, “Suppose all of this were alright?” (Or words to that effect.)(10) No, object the politically aware, of course it’s not all alright. There’s exploitation, manipulation, privilege. People like you just want to make it seem alright so you can survive.

If the establishment of calm is necessary in order to decide, that calm mustn’t always be the criterion of decision. How can we tell the difference?

“He who decides is free, for he has approached the Face.”

– Martin Buber(11)

I know why people cleave. I’ve cloven. I cleave. It’s because to the body No means No, and Yes means Yes, and it’s all terror. If you don’t look both ways and often behind you won’t be prepared. So you hold on to what you’ve got. Better to have a composite face, or none.

I came across a précis of the film Billy Liar on IMDB:

“A lazy, irresponsible young clerk in provincial Northern England lives in his own fantasy world and makes emotionally immature decisions as he alienates friends and family.”(12)

This isn't my Billy Liar. Who let this moralistic language creep into the art world? It sounds as if the film is about some sort of social saboteur who should be reprehensible to the right-minded. Billy isn’t even a man; he’s an occupation, a ‘clerk’. This is the same kind of thinking that, in another application, makes people boycott an artwork because it presents black people in chains (voluntarily, illustrating slavery). This is the kind of thinking that creates the great impassable No-Yes axis. When lazy, choose the safest option.

My Billy Liar: An imaginative young man finds it hard to accept the limitations of his upbringing and dares to dream where he doesn't dream to act.

“The moment a man feels or realizes himself as an artist, he ceases to belong to any milieu or time … this timeless, fundamental artist that exists in everybody.”

– Wyndham Lewis(13)

Yes, be a person without a fixed face, a collection of impressions and movements, a function of actions and reactions. But people will still try to place you. You will place yourself, if only for a time.
Timelessness can also manifest itself as mad clinging to what we have, in ignorance of its ramifications. Timelessness can be careless with the future, in the face of its carelessness with us. In whose hands can we rest?

I close the borders and exclude the stranger,
focus on the rules of movement and the body’s poise.
I seem contained, but slow breathing is to tease tense fingers,
phalanx by phalanx, from the gasping neck of reason,
and compose the semblance of an unconflicted democrat.

– Máighréad Medbh(14)

There’s an island called Nauru in the South Pacific Ocean, where aspirant immigrants to Australia are “processed” in a detention centre run by a private company called Broadspectrum. In protest at delay and various alleged abuses, some of them have sewn their lips together. The stitches are sometimes crude, sometimes painfully precise. Beyond choice, it seems.

“       the one truth
is that fact worms into earth and reappears nothing like itself.
Only now and then among ten thousand things does the earth
megaphonically object and claim its judgement.
Then we gape at gate-crashing chaos, the huge-throated,
killing white no.”

– Máighréad Medbh(15)

(1) ‘Worstward Ho’:
(2) My Host, The World, London: The Cresset Press, 1953.
(3) Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Hegel's Philosophy of Right, translated With Notes By T. M. Knox.
(4) Revolution in Poetic Language (1974), Transl. Margaret Waller, Introduction by Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984, 25.
(5) ‘A Woman of a Certain Age’ in Thinking of Skins: New & Selected Poems, Bloodaxe, 1997.
(Also online at:
(6) Carol Rumens, opus ibid.
(7) Maurice Blanchot: The Space of Literature, University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
(8) 'Of Mutability', in Of Mutability, London: Faber and Faber, 2011.
(9) T-Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello: ‘The Scarlet Tide’, performed by Alison Krauss for the 2003 film, Cold Mountain.
(10) Vermilion: 2007.
(11)  I and Thou (1937), translated by Gregor Smith, Edinburgh:T. & T. Clark, 2002, 72.
(13) ‘Long Live the Vortex’, Vorticist Manifesto, Blast1914.
(14) ‘the second of april’. Unpublished poem.
(15) opus ibid.

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