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Affinities by Brian Dillon
(Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2023)
Reviewed by Alison Armstrong

Brian Dillon’s book Affinities is structured around ten brief essays on the meanings – etymological,
historical, personal, chemical, to the more evasive expanses of the concept – of the word ‘affinity’.
The essays build up a series of impressions of how affinity is described and conceptualised,
reflecting the way words gather meanings around themselves: from pre-Socratic theories ‘in which
opposites combust and combine’, through the alchemy of the Middle Ages in which elements react
in a hierarchy of affinity, as the concept transforms and asserts itself through successive centuries,
to writers like Annie Dillard and William H. Gass as he describes the colour blue as bright with
certain affinities, ‘as if,’ Dillon writes, ‘affinity were a luminescence or coruscation, a fizzing halo
of possibilities’. The very ambiguity of the word affinity draws layers of complexity to itself,
resisting any kind of finality of meaning.

Around this structure of essays, Dillon delivers a diverse parade of miscellanea and
moments of aesthetic interest. From Robert Hooke’s 1665 book, Micrographia: a full stop, as seen
under a microscope, shows itself as ‘disfigured, ragged, deformed’. We pass through John
Herschel’s drawings of stellar nebulae from the 1830s to Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait of her
niece. Images, seemingly disparate, plucked from archives to form new and beguiling associations.
Unsurprisingly, in a book about looking, prominence is given to the image. The migraine, touched
on in Dillon’s other works, is given visual amplification – a brief history of medicine’s attempt to
translate migraine ‘auras’ into pictorial representations.

Reading Affinities is like being invited into an eclectic and capriciously curated museum,
moving through delightful juxtapositions, together, seemingly, for no reason other than the author’s
desire to write about them, and the result is almost hypnotic and hallucinatory. Correspondences and
constellations arise between various aesthetic phenomena: there are enchanting descriptions of the

performances and elaborately flowing costume design of the exotic dancer, Marie Louise Fuller;
Aby Warburg’s unfinished Mnemosyne Atlas, which is an art of affinity in itself, is here in brief but
rich biographical detail. Jean Painlevé’s intriguing documentaries of seahorses, sea snails, bats, et
cetera, take on other-worldly auras, reaching beyond themselves in their scope, almost lifting off the
page in Dillon’s descriptions. He writes of Painlevé: ‘a sedulous describer of minute and alien
naturalia’. Which is a perfect description of the man’s life’s work. One of the joys of Dillon’s book
is the exquisite flow of his sentences, the perfectly chosen word.

Affinity exiles us from consensus. He quotes Wayne Koestenbaum describing affinity as an
ambiguous response: ‘an awkwardness, a stirring, a hesitation […] I call this uncertainty the birth of
an affinity because the sensation brought no intellectual programme’. Back on the book’s first page,
Dillon describes it similarly:

When I wrote affinity in a piece of critical prose, perhaps I was trying to point elsewhere, to
a realm of the unthought, unthinkable, something unkillable by attitudes or arguments.

It is a stepping out, feeling the way through the pursuit of certain affinities – there is much detailing
in the book of various practitioners of avant-garde thinking and art practice, attempts to work
through to a new place, a new way of thinking. The writing is rich in brief biographical detail and
anecdote, which is part of the pleasure of the book. We learn that Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore,
whilst resident on the island of Jersey, made counter-propaganda against the Nazis, which they
wrote on scraps of paper and discarded cigarette packets and left in public places, which lends an
elevation to their story. Dillon is in some ways a disciple of Walter Benjamin, rescuing disparate
moments from the ruins, fragments from different points in time placed in juxtapositions so that
new meanings can shine from them. He is enthralled by the neglected designer and architect Eileen
Gray (1878-1976). She is almost an anomaly in her idiosyncrasy so that he cannot believe she really
existed. His keen eye places the overlooked alongside the perennially celebrated, choreographing
and distilling the moment of interest in each of the exhibits.

Photographic images in particular are metaphors of becoming and unbecoming, the spaces
in-between. Japanese photographer Kikuji Kawada’s 1965 book Chizu explores the ruins of
Hiroshima, showing eerily abstract patterns and absences. He referred to it as ‘an object headed
towards the future’. The images resist ‘sense or figuration’, as Dillon notes, they offer ‘digressions
into a kind of abstract unconscious or atomic sublime’. He juxtaposes various diverse
photographers, Diane Arbus, Francesca Woodman, William Eggleston, Tacita Dean among others,
offers glimpses, often through documentaries – themselves a gesture of affinity – of their back
stories and considers their various obsessions, the overriding affinity that pulls them again and
again to revisit their subjects and themes. The mood of the artist.

Towards the end of the book, there are more personal reflections, centred around a set of
photographs taken by Dillon’s aunt; photographs documenting the beheaded roses, the trampled
flowerbeds, the invaded boundary of her garden. There are details of her story, her retreat into
paranoia over the threat of her neighbours. He considers these familial tics of hyper-vigilance:

Her obsessive and solitary looking, her fretful listening, her poring over pictures and
locking the world away so she could address it only in letters of complaint: It all feels quite
familiar. You can pursue vigilance and attention into a kind of fugue state, almost

Here the obsession has moved over to a pathological state, not only preventing ‘self-knowledge’,
but standing in place of ‘a close look at our lives and a proper expression of what we find there’.
Affinity, then, is something that has some discipline in it, some remove from its object, the attention
is drawn but it is porous and other things can be drawn to it, drawn through it. There is something
of the spirit of the flâneur to it, the ragpicker of Baudelaire as Benjamin sees him.

‘Mood’ itself is sometimes used almost as a synonym for affinity, a prism for looking. He
cites Susan Sontag in her diaries ‘claiming to write essays not to persuade but to produce an effect’.
Oscar Wilde would write ‘each mode of criticism is, in its highest development, simply a mood’.
An engagement giving way to a new work of art, the critic’s own. As George Eliot states in her

1868 essay ‘Notes on Form in Art’: ‘It arrives at the conception of wholes composed of parts. More
and more multiplied and highly differenced, yet more and more absolutely bound together by
various conditions of common likeness or mutual dependence.’

Dillon’s book is an imaginative space of correlations in which the individual, diverse
elements transcend the boundaries of themselves, connections are illuminated in a way that is open,
not-yet defined, so that alliances persevere and resist simplistic determination. It is criticism that
allows its objects to oscillate with meanings into the future, liberated from the need for argument. It
is, in itself, a kind of art.

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