Fort! Da! notes toward an editorial

Daisy Lafarge introduces a new season of reviews 

Dalí's 'threadless bobbin' (la bobine sans fil) detail of photograph from Minotaure (Paris) 7 June, 1935

Dalí's 'threadless bobbin' (la bobine sans fil) detail of photograph from Minotaure (Paris) 7 June, 1935

This season’s name—Fort! Da!—is taken from Freud’s essay ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, first published in 1920. While staying with family, Freud noticed a peculiar game developed by his eighteen month-old nephew. The boy’s mother, Sophie, would go away for several hours at a time, causing her son great distress. The boy soon developed a game that involved throwing all his toys away saying, ‘o-o-o’ (apparently an attempt at the word fort, meaning ‘gone’), and sooner or later someone would return the toys to him, at which he would smile and exclaim da! or ‘there!’. The game intensified when the boy began to play with a bobbin on a length of string, so that he could pull the bobbin back himself, and not rely on anyone else to make da! happen. While the loss and expulsion of fort was painful, da brought the child great pleasure and excitement. Why did the child subject himself to such a seemingly masochistic game?

Freud analysed the game in terms of coping with absence. Each time Sophie left, the child had no capacity for knowing she would return. But no one can go through life in perpetual throes of abandonment, so Freud posited the Fort-da game as a kind of endurance training for absence: fort is painful, but usually, eventually, followed by da. Sometimes da doesn’t happen, but by that point you’ve become used to being immersed in fort, and so on. The game could also be an attempt at mastery; the child casts the toy (or parent) away, and it is the child that makes them return. I didn’t miss you. I don’t need you anyway.

When asked to point to the place of children in the art world(s), scathing public opinion might point to artists themselves. In mainstream discourse artistic labour is dismissed as ‘child’s play’, and the clichéd—now almost mythic—refrain ‘my child could have done that’ is uttered with feverish relish in galleries the world over. It’s an overwrought, unfair comparison, implying the artist-child’s wide-eyed excitement and naïveté about the world, and a lack of ‘grown-up’ responsibilities. Undoubtedly such artists do exist, somewhere, cushioned against the job and income precarities that keep the energies of other artists, technicians and arts administrators at an almost constant, low-level anxiety.

But such reasoning—trying to prove the pressingly ‘adult’ responsibilities of artists and art-workers—is merely a capitulation to the logic of the accusation. It legitimises the equation of children with carefree delusion, with boundless enthusiasm. Perhaps returning to Fort-da provides us some triangulation. The game presents an image of play counterintuitive to pleasure, even—apparently—masochistic. The young boy, not yet in full possession of language, invents a complex game to shore himself up against present and future uncertainties. As Freud’s adherents (and detractors) have subsequently established, children are not born with firm psychological boundaries; these are malleable and porous, shaped through interaction with their environment.  

If artists are like children, might it be through these examples? Manifesting through seemingly ‘pointless’ behaviour, characterised by a porosity to environmental stimuli and a radical circumvention of established linguistic norms. A child’s identity is fluid and not yet fixed; language is remade through distortion and repetition. Collectively, the reviews published this season prioritise eavesdropping, overlapping, messiness and partiality, and retrieve the etymology of ‘ambiguity’: to wander, or go around. They might even wander as far tuning into the semi-lingual gibberish of fort! da! and the world-making possibilities it contains.

Daisy Lafarge is reviews editor at MAP