The following article is the third installment in an ongoing series of artworks which investigate the relationship between author and reader, artist and viewer. These works also question the very notion of the author; if truth is determined by the subjective, infinitely variable experience of the reader, then can objective truth even exist? Such concerns, at the heart of post-structuralist theory and conceptual art, pose writing as text, visual arts as site. Within these spaces meaning is dialectical, fluctuating in a system of social, historical and political factors. The artist merely provides an opening into this environment and his interpretation of the work is as relative as any spectator’s. In this spirit, I have constructed this essay through the words of others, as a (loosely) coherent site of the dialectic. While many of these sources are deeply entrenched in literary theory, a number are taken completely out of context. Even in contradiction, the ideas of others can be adapted and re-contextualised. An extensive endnotes section opens up the dialectic further, directing the reader to continue beyond the text. For the sake of cohesiveness, capitalization and punctuation have been altered to fit the text.
We only ever speak one language… (yes, but) we never speak only one language1.
I, too, hide in language, within this book2. I use words in a sense that makes them meaningless, and of course the only way you can make something meaningless is to present it in all of its possible meanings3.
‘An author is the only person who has written his or her own words’ – the assumed definition of identity is questionable. For instance, I do not write out of nothing, or from nothing, for I must write with the help of other texts, be these texts written ones, oral ones, those of memory, those of dream, etc.4.
One might even describe the concept of the unique individual and the theoretical basis of individualism as ideological5. All art, from the crassest mass-media production to the most esoteric art-world practice, has a political existence, or, more accurately, an ideological existence. It either challenges or supports (tacitly, perhaps) the dominant myths a culture calls truth6. The individual is an effect of power, and at the same time7 we are more than individuals, we are the whole chain as well8. Both he who is writing these lines and the reader who reads them are themselves subjects, and therefore ideological subjects9.
I am also an artist – if that means anything at all in this post-Derridean context10. I am led by my ideas, but where do these ideas come from11?
A sharing of the void, a pooling of lack which is today the rule in individual and social relations12. The sudden multiplication of ‘points of view’13. A veritable revolution in our conception of the relations between power, desire, identity, political practice14. An universe of borders, seesaws, fragile and mingled identities, wanderings of the subject and its objects15… the tempting traps of structuralism and formalism and the obsession with modernity16. A vast amalgam of disparate signs, styles and structures culled indiscriminately from world cultures, past and present17. A quality of anarchic freedom and explosive creativity in the exotic hybrids produced18.
Art’s declaration of independence is thus the beginning of the end of art19.
What does it mean to have property20? I think that the meanings change21… we can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original22. A dialectical text, rather than presenting an opinion as if it were truth, challenges the reader to discover truths on their own23. A text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash 24. Meanings shift and change their reference like shifting perceptions of perspective from an optical illusion25;not a picture of living reality, but merely an arrangement of dead signs26. There are just as many objective principles of taste as there are aesthetic judgements27…the maximization of opportunities for individual variation28. In seeing an object, I can construe (translate) that object within many seemingly complete ‘languages’ of perception. Another person seeing the same object may construe a similar number of languages, none of which need necessarily coincide with mine29.
Suppose the library has two copies of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Peter takes out one, and John the other. Did Peter and John take out the same book, or different books30?
Preoccupied as I was with my notes and the ever-widening and contracting circles of my thoughts, I became enveloped by a sense of utter emptiness31. I had to go to the records32. On a piece of paper in the wastebasket is the following text, scribbled in pencil33 :
There will appear orthodox publications, something like our encyclopaedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so accurately calculated and plotted that there will no longer be any individual texts or adventures left in the world34.
I find myself digging deeper35… words slip away from me; the ‘I’ sounds false36. It occurred to me that my thoughts were becoming incoherent, which wasn’t unusual. Sustained for a phrase or two, they splintered37 (anonymous yet differentiated crowds swept up in an endless, seemingly haphazard pattern of movement38 ).
An empty shell. Those were the first words that sprang to mind39.
This work existed already before it was made40… exists in the instant it comes into being and is simultaneously received41.
The demise of the author as transcendent self or bearer of meaning has borne along a rejection of the text as discrete or self-contained object; attention has been focused, instead, on a model that poses meaning as constructed in the discourses that articulate it, in an interactive context of reader and text42. The existence of all these meanings indicates that that the communication involved here is not solely or essentially one between individuals – between author and spectator43. In order to reflect the thing as it is, the spectator must return to it more than he receives from it44. Each self harbors unsuspected, and undetectable, dimensions that identity may prove to be far more baroque than we had imagined45… we see our own image multiplied in its facetted reflections46.
Art ‘lives’ through influencing other art, not by existing as the physical residue of an artist’s ideas. The reason that different artists from the past are ‘brought alive’ again is because some aspect of their work becomes ‘usable’ by living artists. That there is no ‘truth’ as to what art is seems quite unrealized47. The philosopher can no longer pretend to provide privileged access to truth48. Language is a reality that is not about truth49.
Within postmodernity, when one opens up spaces within spaces one often finds more images, more sounds50. We receive the ‘world’ as fragmented, shattered, hence differentiated51. The text is informed by discursive operations at the level of its conception, production and reception52. An artist might advance specifically to get lost, and to intoxicate himself in dizzying syntaxes, seeking odd intersections of meaning, strange corridors of history, unexpected echoes, unknown humors or voids of knowledge53. Neither randomness, heterogeneity of content, nor indeterminacy are sources of confusion for this mode54. It depends for its effect on the context of ideas it changes and joins55, depends on the beholder, is incomplete without him 56. New meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationships are continually being created57… no pre-established harmony or order, no certainty58. Everything exists within the world; nothing can exist independently59.
This shift in practice entails a shift in position; the artist becomes a manipulator of signs more than a producer of art objects, and the viewer an active reader of messages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular60. As with allegorical fragments, the viewer must fill in, add to, build upon suggestive elements in the text supplying extraneous historical, personal and social references, rather than, as in modernism, transporting himself to the special world and time of the artist’s original production61. The concept of an ‘ideal’ receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art62.
Individuated texts have become filaments of infinitely tangled webs63. Each piece segues into the next like chapters in an evocative but fragmentary novel, weaving non-narrative stories that buzz with human presence but in which no human appears64. Everywhere there are surprises and sensations, yet nowhere is there any outcome65. A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgement, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for66.
Chris Clarke is a Newfoundland artist and writer based in England.