On Uncertainty: an editorial

The 2019 first edition of The Yellow Paper noted an intergenerational intention to ‘clear the air’. The metaphorical air1 Norman Denny refers to in his introduction to the collected edition of The Yellow Book, published in 1950, relates to the outrage fuelled by the original quarterly volume (1894-1897). In 1969, the year Denny writes of ‘dusting down’, of the need to question and overturn the status quo, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is scoring 676 aphorisms, published as On Certainty (Über Gewissheit), which starkly reminds us that uncertainty is an intimate, everyday matter. The air of 2021, with its bindle of sickness, continues to highlight the ineffable ‘groundlessness’2 to different and various ways of being-in-the-world and the related contextual and contingent qualities we take for granted. Of certainty. There is a personal dimension to the experience of not knowing exactly what our world is and where we, and our world, are heading.

Two years removed from 2019, only time’s profound effects on lived experience can be defined with any certainty. Footnotes, the office clerk opportunistically bagging corporate freebies in Alice Wadkin’s ‘The Conference’ (p 47), is at once a familiar character of incredulous bearings and a parodic cypher through which to examine the hierarchy of what ‘lived experience is and is not communicated’. We might ask how our era of lived experience is comparable to other periods of calamity and angst. And how, as Daniela Cascella asks in ‘My Chimera’ (p 13), ‘the sick anxiety of flawnessness’ might be too much for a ‘feeble heart’. The seas of uncertainty are eminently intolerable for most coronary functions and in order to find our bearings we might take Melissa McCarthy’s reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (p 29) to heart, at the moment where the ‘point sinks in’. ‘So this is what survives the inspiraling disaster,’ she writes, ‘one scholar and one wooden box, with writing on it. And this is the lesson I’d take from reading Melville. That at the heart of the action, in the very middle of thingstime, text, geography, the oceana close-contact consideration of skin, page, and writing is what will help us survive.’ ‘At the heart of it, it prompts writing’, Melissa says of the pre-text of the whale, a pre-text that Sara O’Brien in ‘I Heart’ (p 99) renders as a ‘heaving, humming presence of the absence it provokes,’. She adds, ‘Desire, too, is predicated on that which is absent.’

And much has been absent since March 2020. As well as much craved, there is much deserving gratitude. In September 2020, James N. Hutchinson and Margaret Salmon stepped in to lead the MLitt Art Writing in my absence. Their contribution was an anchor during a swell of uncertainty and on behalf of myself and the student cohort I extend thanks for their enormous commitment, care and pedagogical guidance. For this edition of The Yellow Paper, James includes three drawings of objects and images that appeared in the 1959 exhibition, The Developing Process at the ICA, London. Coinciding with the Coldstream Report, this exhibition was demonstrative of the mid-twentieth century post-war transformative liberal education of art. The studio programmes led by Harry Thubron and Tom Hudson in Leeds and Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore in Newcastle were hinged on process rather than outcome, on the accidental and unexpected as fundamentally productive—an other era’s encouragement to thrash about in the uncertain. In ‘Container’ (pp**), Margaret Salmon writes of the impossibility of building a volcano—one made with baking soda in the magma chamber but at times most certainly, most definitely as unassailable as a mass of boiling lava. Margaret captures the absence of domestic order in a series of thirteen diaristic photographs depicting what she terms ‘anti-structures’, and wonders, ‘in order to assess reality / must you first escape it?’

There has been a glut of uncertain reality. This edition of The Yellow Paper not only celebrates the graduating cohort of 2021 but, due to the journal’s absence in 2020, extends congratulations to those students impacted by the first wave of unforeseen change. I am in awe of how our graduates have sustained themselves, one another, the team, their writing and creative practice during such disquiet and thrilled to include their work in The Yellow Paper’s second edition. Huge gratitude and very best of wishes go to Timothea Armour, Misa Brzezicki, Lewis Gibb, Rachel Harris-Huffman, Jessica Higgins, Maria Howard, Enxhi Mandija, Jen Martin, Siuán Ní Dhochartaigh, Sara O’Brien, Molly May O’Leary, Megan Rudden, Rodrigo Vaiapraia, Alice Wadkin, Morgan Williams and Yi Jie Zheng. Edition 2 also assembles some of those who have been vital to surviving ‘inspiraling disaster’ and, in addition to Margaret and James, includes writing by Daniela Cascella, Melissa McCarthy and Isabella Streffen. Further thanks are also paid to the generosity of Francis Mckee, Elizabeth Reeder, Susannah Thompson, Sarah Tripp and the many others acknowledged at the close of the book.

Reality is multiple and mutable. It is a matter of redescription and reinterpretation and gathered in this collection is a certain maintenance of the uncertain.

Dr Laura Haynes

  1. Norman Denny (ed.), ‘Selector’s Note’, The Yellow Book: A Selection (First Edition). (London: Bodley Head, 1950)
  2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), p 166