I Confess: Moyra Davey
by Greta Hamilton
“Some things are only imaginable in the third person,” Moyra Davey writes, paraphrasing Roland Barthes in her new book, I Confess (2020). She acknowledges that, for both of them, writing in third person is typically “unimaginable.” But throughout her book, Davey refers to herself interchangeably as “I” and “she,” distancing herself from the autobiographical text through third-person narration. I Confess was published alongside Davey’s retrospective exhibition, The Faithful (2020), at the National Gallery of Canada. The book is a monograph of Davey’s new film of the same title; it includes stills from the film, a selection of Davey’s drawings and photographs, as well as the film’s script and two contributor essays.
I Confess is a meditation on Davey’s upbringing in Catholic school in Quebec, on the revolutionary work of James Baldwin and his criticism of the American Dream, on settler-independence formations in Quebec during the ’60s and ’70s, and on the death of her father. In reference to Davey’s formative memories of the October Crisis in 1970, the core thread of I Confess considers Pierre Vallières’s book Nègres blancs d’Amérique (1968), or in the English translation, White N[-word]s of America, which Davey refers to as White Negroes in her text. Vallières, a member of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), was arrested during the October Crisis and wrote Nègres blancs while in jail. Davey recounts her father’s role as an adviser to then prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who aided in coordinating Vallières’s arrest along with other members of the FLQ. In his book, Vallières argues that the francophone Québécois population is a low-class disfavoured people, falsely equating their socio-economic struggle to that of Black people in the United States. In order to create the scaffolding of this autobiographical text that draws on personal anecdote and historical events, Davey weaves between her childhood memories, her father’s connection to the events of the October Crisis, and her memories of visiting Vallières’s commune one summer as a teenager and photographing him.
As a counterpoint to Vallières’s false equation of francophone Québécois struggle with the civil rights–era struggle of Black folks in the United States, Davey introduces writer and thinker James Baldwin as an additional thread throughout the text. Davey draws on Baldwin’s debate with conservative American public intellectual William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in 1965 on the topic “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin argues that the people who built the United States, enslaved Africans and their descendants, have not profited and do not profit from American economic or socio-political structures. Davey notes that Baldwin’s naming of Black Americans as a disfavoured class is taken up by Vallières toward the francophone Québécois fight for independence. While Davey uses Baldwin in opposition to Vallières’s appropriation of Black struggle, she does not criticize Vallières for this false equation.
I see Davey grappling with her typical way of working—her citational style, her photographs of everyday life—and questioning whether it resonates with the urgency of the contemporary political moment. Her work often uses distance as a narrative strategy. In her films, she records herself reading the script aloud, then plays the audio back through an iPod, speaking as she listens to her recorded voice. The result is a flat affect in her tone as her embodiment becomes once removed. In her writing, Davey constructs bibliographies through collections of citations, allowing serendipitous connections to form between texts and thinkers as a mode of non-personal narration. I Confess follows suit: Davey distances herself from the scenes depicted in the book by photographing herself in scenarios she has written about in third person. I find this lack of embodiment troubling. This narrative distance, enacted through Davey’s method of citation, obscures her positionality as a white artist more than it attempts to rectify the potential oversights a white positionality holds. Her typical modes of working fail to properly address this issue, concluding in a book where Davey seems to lack a critical position.
In a later section of I Confess, Davey considers a remark a student of hers made regarding her photographic practice: “It is not enough to just point to a problem.” Davey mulls over this comment: both her photography and her writing tend to point to a scenario, a place, a phenomenon, but don’t go so far as to critique the subject at hand. Davey uses citation to distance herself from the subject matter, allowing the cited thinkers to narrate the text on her behalf, effectively sidestepping the work of criticism or a deeper attempt to trouble or problematize the cited thinkers.
In a seeming attempt to reconcile the problem of citing Vallières, the book includes excerpts from correspondence between Davey and Québécois political philosopher Dalie Giroux, inviting her into the text to critique Vallières, among other things. Of their correspondence, Davey notes, “[Vallières] came under harsh critique from Dalie for his appropriation of the [B]lack struggle and his treatment of women. I had read Nègres blancs through the lens of literary and biographical themes, whereas Dalie employed the tools of political theory and philosophy to construct another, at times damning, interpretation of the book.” Davey’s inclusion of her correspondence with Giroux, and her later contributor essay, act as a second leg of _I Confess_—a relational intervention in the text that makes the citational aspect of the book more critical.
Despite this attempt at rectification, there remains for me the troubling effect to Davey’s stylistic distancing. Her choice to obscure herself from the narrative is a strategy of risk mitigation; the lack of embodied writing throughout I Confess stifles the possibility for criticism toward her positionality as a white artist. If Davey’s work can be characterized as a practice of citation, I wonder what citation is for? While citation has historically been a perpetrator of exclusion in the curation of a canon, I think of citation as a construction of lineages of writers, artists, and thinkers who have been overlooked by that canon. It is a site of generosity between thinkers and their ideas—an acknowledgement of intellectual indebtedness. I want citation to be enough, but the problematics of this book seem to be proof that citation only begins to lay the groundwork for criticism. I have long fawned over Davey’s photographs. I adore her eroticization of banal domestic scenes and applaud her citational generosity—but I think art has non-negotiable obligations. Images especially need to do more than point a camera or a finger; they are a symbolic language that carry with them a potential for political change.