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Epistemology of the closet

In Rosy Martin’s photographic project Unwind the Lies that Bind, a fairly straightforward two-image phototherapy work of the 1980s produced in response to Martin’s coming out, the viewer is presented with a definitive and emotive visual addressing female sexuality, specifically “beyond externally-imposed and debilitating stereotypes of passivity, objectification and/or deviance” (Meskimmon, Women Making Art, p. 98). “[T]he first image in the series shows Martin’s body and face bound by bandages on which words such as ‘pervert’, ‘predator’, ‘evil’, ‘disease’ and ‘dyke’ are written and the second image sees the artist breaking free of her text-laden bondage, like a chrysalis emerging from a cocoon” (Ibid., p. 100). This accessible and evocative political narrative gives a startling account of subjectivity, one that is neither acquiescent to socially determined stereotypes of sexuality nor one that merely appraises a marginal status. Rather, Unwind the Lies that Binds steers a course beyond these two positions of identity towards one that is open to change and development.

According to standard queer theory, of what I understand of it, a common strategic maneuver in response to denigrating terms such as ‘queer’ is not to openly resist them but to appropriate them as one’s own, valorizing such designations as constitutive of one’s identity. However, as the author here shows, such inversion or valorization of terms often has the deleterious effect of keeping the normal order of things fully in tact, specifically the boundary demarcating ‘normal’ sexual orientation from more ‘indecent’ forms.

‘Coming out’ offers both potential empowerment and further ghettoisation; its immense individual and political significance for many gay men and lesbians is a function of its dangerous transgression of the boundary between inside and outside. Coming out demonstrates what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has famously called the ‘epistemology of the closet’, which, in an important sense, describes an exclusionary theoretical border between those ‘in’ and those ‘out’. Performing the self as ‘out’ can thus reinforce the privileged status of the heterosexual/homosexual binary as a ‘natural’ or authentic locus of identity even as it interpellates a resistant and alternative subject (Ibid., p. 100)

Simply to re-describe “the names which defined lesbian sexuality negatively” as a positive set, therefore, is not political enough. Gone, then, is any political security of a ghettoized margin, one that seeks to carve out an autonomous identity against the world. What is required, rather, is to engage directly with the relations that make up the socius in an incessant bustle of experimentation. Granted, there are very real difficulties in re-composing the political; this is certainly not a politics of optimism. But the becoming of subjectivity, as signalled above, “is able to live with, even be nourished by its incompleteness, its difficulties, and its ‘impossibilities’” (Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics, p. 148). It can be said, in other words, that the performative process of subjectivity is not gridlocked by cramped conditions but is actually animated and cultivated by such space. It is in this sense that Unwind the Lies that Bind, as a collaborative, therapeutic practice, “provides the space for subjects to experiment with staging themselves within and through competing visual tropes” (Women Making Art, p. 102). As with other forms of narrative, phototherapy allows us to experiment in our imaginations with the probable effects of acting on one subjective assemblage over another, offering us a relatively safe way to explore our ‘options’ without one having to experiment with our own lives. Or again in the case of Unwind the Lies that Bind, one’s subjectivity, though interpellated by the socius, is always open to negotiation and maneuver, signalling ‘a speaking subject’ rather than a ‘mute object’.

 

Becoming-subject

In an older post, Dave Allen gives an account of ‘creatureliness‘ that I am willing to do business with. Responding to an interview with Simon Critchley, Dave agrees that our culture is unable to adequately face the fact of death but diverges with Critchley as per the solution to the ‘problem’ of our finitude. According to Critchley, though summarizing too quickly, we respond appropriately to our mortal condition by accepting and coming to terms with our own mortality and ‘learning how to die’. Although Dave considers this ‘active acceptance of finitude’ or ‘meditation on our mortality’ preferable to unreflective aversion to death, he envisions a kind of immortality viz. a ‘commitment to a universal cause’. Invoking such heavy hitters as Žižek and Badiou, Dave describes a figuration of the human being equivalent to a subject of truth–that is, an identification with an ‘eventual rupture’ and its subsequent consequences. Or to raise a parallel account of becoming-subject as per Deleuze, as Dave considers elsewhere, an agent may identify with any one line of flight constitutive of the windy chaos inhabiting all seemingly stable systems and follow it to its ruptural implications. The point is that the irruption of the uncommon qua human practice is always-already integral to the parameters of any given situation, albeit in too weak a degree for it to be detected. Both of these accounts requires us to insist that ‘we have a capacity to participate in something greater than ourselves, to engage in collective subjectivity and to find meaning not solely in the contours of our individual lives but in the unfolding of a process which transcends any individual and which outlives us’, or as Dave also refers to it, ‘a very real kind of immortality’.

This mode of becoming-subject is similarly expressed in Elizabeth King’s Pupil, a fascinating ‘one-half life-size’ sculptural configuration of a machinic stylized upper torso and an ‘astoundingly life-like’ head (Marsha Meskimmon, Women Making Art, p. 124). Drawing from a diverse set of materials, this multi-media installation piece represents an elaborate figuration analogous to the human subject. Accordingly, the sculptural gesture of King’s Pupil primarily suggests the co-existence or double bind of individuality and collectivity, thus refusing the binary either/or opposition between subject- and object-positions. The becoming-subject of this figure does not possess a fixed identity or meaning but is an embodied exchange of mutable parts. Given her complex figuration, Pupil is simultaneously animate or spirited (read: eyes and head) and inanimate or machinic (read: neck, arms, hands, and upper torso), thereby enabling a kind of ‘productive reconfiguration’ of her multiple affinities. This dynamic assemblage ‘epitomizes the logic of configuration’ insofar as corporeal agents exist as a ‘modulation between and within the individual and the collective’ (ibid.). Crediting Balibar with this particular account of interconnected subjectivity, the mobile and invested subject is described as ‘transindividual’–that is, he exists as a nomadic identity always in process. Otherwise stated, the tale of subjectivity is ‘utterly personal and social at once’ (p. 126). In fact, it is impossible to think of individual selfhood in isolation or in opposition to the collective. Subjective identity is always-already implicated and wrapped up in the collective. Such determination, however, is not a one-way street. As with King’s Pupil, the diverse and mutable character of the corporeal agent emphasizes ‘the experimental nature of the self, constantly negotiating its own parameters within the world’ (pp. 127-28). The self is, after all, an assemblage-like instrument capable of combining, producing or shuffling a diverse set of objects, images and concepts in the the service of negotiating concrete processes in actual situations.

The concept of processual identity described above is again encountered in Ann Hamilton’s lineament or balls of wound text, also known as ‘bookballs’. As Hamilton displays, reading is a productive act. Although an obsession with the critique of written texts is growing out of favor, especially among those who have enthusiastically joined the speculative materialism movement, Hamilton’s ‘altered book works’ reinstates the performative space open to the interactive, generative process of texts. Her work is straightforward yet compelling. ‘In lineament, the reading gesture ‘unwound’ books and recomposed them as ‘bookballs’, or, as Hamilton began to think of them during the course of the installation, ‘bodies’. Books were carefully pre-sliced so that the lines on each page formed a continuous strand of physical text, a ‘narrative thread’ made material. In performance, Hamilton and attendants extracted each of these filaments from the books, unwinding their narratives, and re-winding them as a ball of printed thread’ (pg. 155). As Meskimmon goes on to say, here invoking the instrumental power of literary criticism as concerns Derrida and feminists, ‘women negotiate the ostensible universality of texts through their situated knowing, recovering the eccentric, marginal meanings inscribed in even the most canonical works. When lineament deconstructed the conventions of disembodied, gender-neutral reading, it re-made the very matter of the text’ (ibid.). The labor of knowledge as per reading, touching, un-making, and re-making texts joins the kind of becoming-subject agency previously considered in which individuality is a resultant process intertwined with a cumulative collection of diverse partial- or quasi-objects, an identity that can break with the parameters of a given situation and open onto a new mode of being, or as Dave named it, ‘a very real kind of immortality’.

Mythic trickster narrative: Articulating the ‘truth’

Tricksters are known for telling great lies that contain a good deal of truth, but to understand their craft we must get past easy opposites that would differentiate falsity from veracity in the simple sense of contradicting truth. For what the trickster accomplishes in a “lie” is the subtle disruption of boundary markers erected to mark off the line between what passes as reason and fantasy. Rather than simply transgressing truth boundaries trickster artists call into question “assumptions about how the world is divided up” and skillfully remake “truth” on their own flexible terms (Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, p. 72).

Take the confidence man for instance, the covert American “reborn trickster” hero who gains the trust of others only to con them. Even though he violates the legal order he also “embodies things that are actually true about America but cannot be openly declared (as, for example, the degree to which capitalism lets us steal from our neighbors, or the degree to which institutions like the stock market require the same kind of confidence that criminal con men need)” (Ibid., p. 11).

Tricksters thus are a cut-above the common thief and liar; while they might appear to be foolish or clownish they certainly are not bereft of intelligence. This is because trickster is of two minds, at home in a neutral state of things, in contrast to criminals who merely violate previously decided rules (Ibid., p. 70). As a result of challenging culturally biased assumptions surrounding modern binaries and patriarchal mechanisms of sacrifice, for example, tricksters extricate themselves and others from some cultural traps, shed a crack of light on the ambivalent limbo of reality and create a few alternatives.

The popularization of social criticism, part III

Perhaps the most easily identifiable if not most significant example of the phenomena in which specifically acute anti-consumerist or anti-institutional gestures are rendered in such a way as to serve capitalism and institutions themselves is modern or avant-garde art. Indeed, the two terms are almost interchangeable: ‘avant-garde’ is a term that implies being ahead of the game, original and advanced, borrowing its implications from the military usage which denotes a group of soldiers on the front line of battle. In the same way, to be modern is to be original in some respect. Thus, both terms share similar qualities, aspirations and associations by definition.

In particular, modern or avant-garde art is characterized by exploring “new and overlooked aspects of human experience” (Modern Art: A Very Short Introduction, p. 6). As such, the usual suspects of modern art are regularly provoked to transgress the conventions and apathy of institutional or establishment art and their corresponding values. Thus, what is discovered in the work of modern artists is typically shocking or strange. In a word, it forces one to think beyond habitual thought. One strategy it takes in this regard is satire, mocking both the history of art and its audience. In short, the driving force at the core of modern art is “a spirit of competitive innovation – a rage for the new.” (p. 20).

A key aspect for generations of modern artists has been the recognition that a picture is “not a window onto that world but a constructed image of it” (p. 14). For post-impressionists in particular, the function of art is not merely a mimetic representation of reality. The adherence or correspondence to visual reality is, after all, the least interesting aspect of art. For avant-gardism, on the other hand, the symbolic or expressive function of art is much more important. This facet of art was all the more intensified given the emergence of photography and printing which could mechanically reproduce images of reality. Artists no longer needed the skill or dexterity to represent reality since photography could quickly do so instead. Thus, art “no longer entailed a representational purpose” but combined objects or materials in order to produce works for more psychological purposes (p. 51). As such, an entire revalorization of what counted as art was underway. In fact, what now appears to be relevant is an almost obligatory aspiration in contemporary art to be kitsch. In other words, the dross of the art world is turned into gold. Art no longer plays by the same rules as before but dismantles the citadel of conventional art right along with its artists, curators, critics and art historians.

In addition to the novel and oppositional gestures it flaunts, modern art is socially rebellious, radically critiquing the obnoxious nationalism, sexism and market values of its present situation. In this way, avant-garde art is foremost a medium of culturally independent work that quietly subverts dominant images of modern society. Doubtless, this also includes strategies of contesting the hegemony of institutional art practices and powerful gallery-based museums. Modern artists have commonly responded to this problem by exhibiting their work in cafes and cabarets while private art academies have emerged in opposition to state schools. However, it goes without saying, modern art has mushroomed to the extent that entire museums now house works devoted entirely to modern art and state schools specialize in avant-gardism.

Even at its inception, modern art has been “caught between the market and marginality” (p. 39). Generations of modern artists have desired to be on the margins as outsiders, but have simultaneously required some semblance of monetary support. Perhaps more importantly, the second motor of modern art, in addition to the rage for the new, has been expressive creativity and individualism, an idiosyncrasy of avant-gardism that has fueled Western ideology and consumerism at the same time as it has resisted it. Indeed, the emergence of modern art has been central to the growth of Western capitalism itself. In perhaps my favorite line of the text, modern art is referred to in this manner:

For, despite the avant-garde’s cultural and social marginalization, those very motors that were driving its activities – the rage for the new and internationalism – were also driving modern, consumerist capitalism. At this consumerism was progressively extended through the mid-20th century, so the avant-garde became what one art historian has called the ‘research and development arm’ of the culture industry at consumerism’s centre (p. 27)

And as anticipated above, more and more public art museums are specifically ‘modern’, which entails a new avenue of consumption for books, reproductions, merchandise and even food. Thus, with the flourishing of the avant-garde movement came the growth of consumerism and commercialized entertainment in tow. Furthermore, the market of modern art would have have emerged had it not been for collectors with enough money who were willing to speculate on the then novel and unpredictable form of avant-gardism. So while artists resisted the reduction of their art to the status of a commodity, such a collapse was and still is in some respects inevitable. What is more, modern art has formed its own system of professionalization which is governed by strict, if tacit, protocols and criteria for recognizing certain artists as acceptably modern and rejecting others. In other words, modern art has become a dominant institution itself, even if it owes its roots to anti-institutionalism.

To be ‘modern’ today is to already have qualities that Western societies currently value – vitality, openness to the new, and responsiveness or relevance to the present moment, for instance. In fact, as discussed elsewhere, it seems as though social criticism and resistance to the status quo has itself become a popular way of participating as a consumer in market capitalism. Although modern art was not received well publicly at its inception, it has certainly become quite popular at this point in time. People have grown comfortable and familiar with it. What is novel today is old hat tomorrow (hence, capitalism must perpetually expand and open up new markets).

It is telling then that the currently popular style of street art is caught in the same predicament as modern art was previously, that is, the complicity or betrayal of resistance and marginality to commercial art. Employing its usual wit, the Economist recounts this latest trend:

In the past few years, as street art has exploded from variations on fat-lettered graffiti to sophisticated murals and stencils, works by its top practitioners have sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars: a far cry from such art’s usually subversive origins. But whereas many street artists now create work expressively for galleries, starting out—and often, continuing—in the trenches of “outside” art is what gives them credibility and, ironic as it is, market legitimacy

Is there an alternative ending to all this? Is there a way to escape the commodified status of art? David Cottington, author of Modern Art, suggests there is: “Art as art still has power to move, enchant, and enlighten us as viewers” (p. 140). As such, art possesses the possibility of jarring us from our habitual and everyday forms of thought and encounter something new. This is what makes art so rewarding and enriching after all. This of course includes challenging the shortcomings of capitalism:

If we as viewers of modern art are to keep the faith of what motivated much of it in the first place, we are committed to an avant-gardist opposition to institutionalized modern art – that is, almost all of that art – which entails acquiescing in the abandonment of art as art, in favour of putting artistic creativity to the work of critiquing capitalist culture in other, more propitious, fields. But if we allow ourselves to enjoy the creations of modern artists in aesthetic terms, on the museums’ terms, whatever visual gratification we derive from the encounter with their artworks, we gain it through a misapprehension of what they meant by them… (p. 141)

Whether or not this is a satisfying conclusion I will let the reader decide. The point that the author seems to be making is that we should remain faithful to the original oppositional gesture, even if that means overturning the very fabric that we once supported as a means of resistance before it was compromised by the very system it contradicted.

Revolution in Style!

If we are bound and conditioned by language—”the metaphors we live by”—what sort of agency or freedom do we possess in transforming the symbolic system we inhabit and, consequently, ourselves. I have picked this topic up elsewhere in broader, more abstract terms and wish to provide a few specific examples here to clarify this trajectory of thought.

As mentioned previously in the aforementioned post, it was suggested that we break out of the constraints imposed by language through using conservative metaphors in innovative new ways. That is, it may be useful “to stretch the limits of a word further than they should perhaps be stretched.” This is the practice of Stanley Fish in polemics. According to him, he imports the word “faith” into the world of liberals “where they don’t think it properly belongs”, thus creating a short-circuit in the cognitive mapping of those who profess to be atheists (“God is Dead” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself, p. 114). The strategy is akin to catachresis: “misuse or strained use of words, as in a mixed metaphor, occurring either in error or for rhetorical effect.” The “effect” is obvious. People must come to terms with a deviant strain of thought internal to their own system of cognition; rather than an external or foreign adumbration that could merely be ignored and rejected straight out. Again, this is an important rhetorical strategy for critical theorists—together with a discourse which has inherited critical theory, postcolonialism—who use conservative concepts in original and subversive ways.

As another example, Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a spectacular purveyor of making language “fly off its handle.” According to Julia Kristeva:

…his “work” is a struggle, if not full of hatred at least fascinated and loving, with the mother tongue [French]. With and against, further, through, beneath, or beyond? Céline seeks to loosen the language from itself, to divide it and shift it from itself “but ever so slightly! ever so slightly! because in all that, if you are heavy-handed, you know, it’s putting your foot in it, it’s a howler” (Powers of Horror, p. 188)

Elsewhere Kristeva notes that he probed the hidden inside of language. The point for Céline was “to bring the depths to the surface.” By plunging into the abyss of the language he was able to resurrect new meanings latent to French itself. The surface effect is dizzying for anyone who has read Céline.

As a third and final example I employ the surrelist artist René Magritte. According to his Wikipedia article, a scholarly source to be sure, we read what sort of philosophical gestures Magritte was making in his artwork.

Magritte’s work frequently displays a juxtaposition of ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. The representational use of objects as other than what they seem is typified in his painting, The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images), which shows a pipe  that looks as though it is a model for a tobacco store advertisement. Magritte painted below the pipe “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”), which seems a contradiction, but is actually true: the painting is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. It does not “satisfy emotionally”—when Magritte once was asked about this image, he replied that of course it was not a pipe, just try to fill it with tobacco.