Tuesday 19 February 2013

essay | "iterability makes possible idealization"

by Riya de los Reyes

Think of the word ‘Concept’. Refer to the word ‘Conceptual’. Think of the word ‘Performance’. Refer to the word ‘Performativity’. We live in a reality that requires certain definitions in order for us to identify with things on a symbolic level. However, such definitions have this effect of closing up situations in which we can think about things. Identify the problems involving language and exhibitions.


This paper will identify the “problems involving language and exhibitions” by first addressing how we define reality on a symbolic level, and then demonstrate how this has ”an effect of closing up situations in which we can think about things”. This essay will do this by examining [concept/conceptual] and [performance/performativity], which I see as two different exhibition strategies. For the purposes of this essay, it is imperative to understand how we derive meaning from ideas and objects through language. According to the Structuralist school of thought, “things cannot be understood in isolation” and that they have to be seen “in the context of the larger structures that they are a part of”. There is no inherent meaning within an object or an idea; meaning arises from the way that the human mind attributes sense and significance on them. Meaning is created and assigned through attribution, not contained within the object or idea.[1]

I.                    Structuralism to Post-structuralism: The ‘linguistic turn’

Ferdinand de Saussure, considered the father of modern linguistics, claimed that words themselves are ‘unmotivated signs’, which means that there is no inherent connection between a word and what it signifies, and that a word is attributed to mean something based on established linguistic conventions.[2] For instance, the word violet is not reflective of the colour violet – it is a way to name the colour. Now think of that popular mind game where you are asked to say the COLOUR, not the word that you read: RED GREEN BLUE YELLOW. It is easy to mix them up and say the word instead of the colour of the word because established conventions are thrown out of the window. This shows that as a system of signs, language is arbitrary and random. It is governed by conventions that assigned definitions on an object or an idea. Viewed this way, language does not provide a reflection of the world as it experienced (we experience the colour, not the word), but functions as a means to identify an object or idea.[3]

However, Saussure contends that “meanings are relational”, which means that a word can be defined in relation to other words surrounding it – that is, that the only thing that gives the word its “meaning” is its position and difference from other words surrounding and/or contrasting it.[4] When we say “violets are blue”, the verb are indicates that violets (plural noun) is described as blue, which does not make logical sense if they are both taken to mean colours. In this case, determining the meaning of the noun violets will have to take its cues from the fact that it will not make logical sense for the noun to mean the colour. Jacques Derrida expounds upon Saussure’s claim that meanings are relational: “The signified concept is never present in itself, in an adequate presence that would refer only to itself. Every concept is necessarily and eventually described in a chain or a system, within which is refers to another and to other concepts, by the systematic play of differences. Such a play, then—différanceis no longer simply a concept, but the possibility of conceptuality (emphasis mine)”.[5]

II.                  Defining the terms “concept” and “performance”

A definition of the term “concept” is first necessary to understand this shift from “simply [being] a concept” towards “the possibility of conceptuality”. A concept may be defined as a “mental representation”.[6] Language is a means to compose the mental representation of our world, not simply to label or record it (although it functions that way too). An example of this is how the calendar year has been categorised based on four seasons. This is even though in reality there is no real division or rupture indicating the switch, for instance, from winter to spring. In other words, the seasons are our way of seeing, “rather than an objective fact of nature”.[7] On the other hand, our “conceptual ability” enables us to interpret and attribute meaning to our world: for instance, we have associated flowers with spring, which is an objective fact of nature and has come to symbolize the season through our linking and attribution of meaning between them.

One of the problems with this way of defining “concept” is that language is viewed as “the tool of thought (i.e. that thinking happens in language)”.[8] Derrida has problematized that although language—through writing—enables us to be cognizant of the fact that meaning is relational, it also has the tendency to “over-determine the signs and prevents any coherent single chain of meanings from developing” (that is, has an effect of closing up the way we think about things). He believes that “iterability makes possible idealization—and thus a certain identity in repetition that is independent of the multiplicity of factual events—while at the same time limiting the idealization it makes possible”.[9] The seasons are conventionally “written over” the months in the calendars because of the repetitive pattern in nature that made it possible to identify each season in relation to their corresponding months. According to Derrida, this way of repetition “leaves us no choice other than to mean (to say) something that is (already, always, also)”, such that “discourse continually produces meanings which never fertilize reproduction but invite further dispersal in ultimately narcissistic acts”.[10]

Writing, therefore, not only enables the composition and creation of concepts, it can also render a concept a convention through repetition since re-writing or “iterability makes possible idealization”. This is how a concept can be repeatedly performed as something that becomes a recognizable pattern until it eventually becomes an established paradigm. Once it has become an ideal, Derrida claims that the concept would not allow for different ways of interpretation and instead “invite further dispersal in ultimately narcissistic acts”—that is, that it continuously performs itself to define itself as “reality”. We could then be locked in the paradigm of looking to the calendar as the authority (a conventional/customary way of seeing) in determining seasons. But what if spring does not arrive in March as the calendar system has determined? The snow has yet to thaw and flowers are nowhere to be seen (objective fact of nature). We would be more inclined towards believing the “objective fact of nature” and may become sceptical of the calendar system.

III.                Linguistic Representation  Conceptual Representation

This disconnect not only proves that language is not necessarily reflective of reality, but also shows the problems of viewing it as “the tool of thought (i.e. that thinking happens in language)” as the linguistic expression of thought “is often necessarily general, non-specific, even imprecise”.[11] Linguistic representation should therefore be seen as distinct from the corresponding conceptual representation. The philosopher John Searle’s Principle of Expressability, which states that ‘whatever can be meant can be said’, cannot hold true. As shown from the calendar example, “the more explicit I try to be (in idealizing and establishing ways of seeing), the more unintended implicatures I generate”, and these implicatures are often due to contingencies and alternative possibilities.[12] For Derrida, the alternatives and the possibilities surrounding a concept are paramount, as they are inextricably linked to it to ensure that “the purportedly ‘ideal’ structure must necessarily be such that [its] corruption will be ‘always possible’”. The ‘normalizing’ effect of speech acts (previously described in this essay as the establishment of conventions through repetition) fails to account for “the complexities of experience” and the way that forms of power “covertly establishes hierarchies of relevance” in interpretations.[13]

In other words, the performativity of ‘ideals’ could in fact simplify reality by failing to take into account that these established ideals are not necessarily immutable since—for Derrida—these ideals are always surrounded by possibilities. Ludwig Wittgenstein provides “hope for a possible cure” to this problem raised by Derrida. He suggested that “it is the grammatical competence which education in a culture produces that enables us to establish ideas for appropriateness and then to rely on practical considerations for defining degrees of probable relevance in hypotheses about meanings”. Rather than “rooting essences in nature”, Wittgenstein posits that “Essence is expressed by grammar” and that “Grammar tells us what kind of an object anything is.” We are able to eliminate objects as “irrelevant” not by forgoing the need for “forms of secure knowledge” but rather by altering “the grounds for determining what we know and can trust as secure and meaningful”.[14] I believe that what he is referring to is the need for context and knowledge classifications.

Recall the previous example: violets are blue. As mentioned, the verb are indicates that the noun (violets) to be blue, but it does not make logical sense if they are both taken to mean colours. How do we determine the meaning of violets? It is the human mind—our “conceptual ability” (i.e. through a system of categorization and contextualization)—that enables us to figure out that it would be better to interpret violets as a type of flower rather than a type of colour. Therefore, concepts can perhaps be better understood as “themselves connected to our larger knowledge of structures” and as “a kind of mental glue [that] tie our past experiences to our present interactions with the world”.[15] Moreover, we can see that human agency/human rationalization is possible when negotiating with concepts, particularly concepts that (through their iterability) have been deemed as established paradigms or way of seeing.

Concluding Remarks:

Derrida’s method of deconstruction states that ‘the centre cannot hold’ (decentralisation) and that the surrounding texts/contexts are more important in the search for meaning than focusing on the ‘centre’ or the concept itself. As such, this is how a concept becomes conceptual rather than simply being a concept. From this conclusion, I believe that a “conceptual exhibition” is one that relies not on its concept in itself, but rather the relation of the texts that surrounds and informs the viewer of the concept. The focus is not so much the concept itself, but rather the way it negotiates with the texts it has employed and engages with. The conceptual exhibition defines itself from the interpretation of the viewer—i.e. the exhibition’s meaning is not expressed directly or perceived immediately, but rather interpreted through the linking and attribution of meaning to the texts that constitutes it, through the texts that the exhibition attempts to compose.

I would like to bring this back to my assessment piece on Camping and Tramping... which I have attached in this essay (click here to read my assessment piece) and I think is related to whatever I endeavoured to reflect upon in this essay. For instance, the opposition between arbitrariness and conceptual in relation to language can be paralleled to the bricoleur and the engineer. The arbitrary vs conceptual dichotomy is analogous to the methods of inquiry espoused by Mohammad Din Mohammad and Dr Polunin, and the “gap” between them is ensured by the lack of grammatical congruence in the way they communicate to each other, if not the insistence to maintain their respective identities through the process of “othering” or performativity through the play of différance, according to Derrida.

One of the reasons why I liked this exhibition a lot was its ability to “speak against” the Westernized concept of the museum by deconstructing and exposing the way museums (as expressions of Western power) have conceptualized Malaya. Through mimicry (i.e. conscious iteration/performativity), the exhibition is able to speak about and against Westernized modes of exhibition-making using the same tools (grammar and language) used by “established conventions” of exhibition-making. This way, the curators themselves followed the same vein of Wittgenstein’s “hope for a cure” to Derrida’s gripe against idealization—that is, the curators acquired the grammatical competence to “talk back” and re-negotiate the way Malaya has been represented. The re-writing (performance) of established conventions is done such that the focus is no longer on the ‘ideal’, but rather on the context composed by the curators.

I guess one of the main problems (for me, personally) when it comes to language and exhibition is the question of authorship and the necessary ‘open-endedness’ of exhibitions. Roland Barthes’ proclamation of the ‘Death of the Author’ posits that the authorial intent is no longer relevant as soon as interpretation is given up to the viewer. The arbitrariness of language and the deconstruction method makes ‘representation’ multi-faceted, fractured and intricate, more so since the viewer is invited to be participant to the “meaning-making” process of the exhibition (intertextuality). But what if the viewer does not have the necessary context to even grasp the surface of the meaning/concept that the exhibition was trying to convey? From Derrida’s point of view, the re-presentations and even (mis)representations are invited if only so as to refute even the notion of an ‘ideal representation’, to make it open to “corruptions” and to prevent the privileging of one interpretation over others. (I personally believe some interpretations are better than others.)

As such, grammatical competence on the part of the viewer is also necessary if he/she could purposefully partake in the “meaning-making” process of an exhibition. I believe this is also the main reason why art (especially conceptual/abstract or those that reference other established works) is sometimes deemed inaccessible to those who lack grammatical competence (context) to understand it. I remember Jim Supangkat saying that a viable way for Asian contemporary art to remain relevant is if it can be understood by Western audience—that is, not by aping Western art-making techniques but rather using it in such a way that warrants Asian contemporary art to be understood by the Western audience because the artwork could speak in the language/grammar that is familiar and immediately recognizable to the Western audience for a dialogue to ensue.

[1] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory (2002: Manchester University Press, Manchester), p. 41
[2] Ibid., p. 41-43
[3] This already hints on potential problems that could arise with regards to language and exhibitions: because language is arbitrary and distanced from reality, certain linguistic conventions have to be adhered to if an exhibition’s concept is to be communicated beyond the exhibition itself. As already expressed in the module, this has an effect of closing up the way we think about things.
[4] Barry, p. 42
[5] Charles Altieri, Act and Quality: A Theory of Literary Meaning and Humanistic Understanding, (1981: The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst), p. 32
[6] Gregory L. Murphy, The Big Book of Concepts, (2004: The MIT Press, Cambridge and London), p. 1-2
[7] Barry, p. 43
[8] Jan Nuyts and Eric Pederson (editors), Language and Conceptualization, (1997: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge), p. 4
[9] Altieri, p. 36
[10] Ibid., p. 34-37
[11] Stephen C. Levinson, “From outer to inner space: linguistic categories and non-linguistic thinking”, in Nuyts and Pederson (ed.), Language and Conceptualization, p. 17
[12] Ibid., p. 18
[13] Altieri, p. 30-31
[14] Ibid., p. 47
[15] Murphy, p. 1-2

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