Category Archives: philosophy

A Woman’s a Woman for A’ That

Nana recently attended her first Burn’s supper. This involved being introduced to the twin customs of The Toast to the Lassies and The Reply to the Toast to the Lassies.

At the particular supper to which I was party, the Toast to the Lassies was a cheekily scurrilous account of the behaviours of the fairer sex which, in baffling the speaker, were deemed praiseworthy from a sense of bewilderment if nothing else. The Reply, in turn, was a robust account of how, like many other fine examples of the dominant sex, our esteemed speaker could only succeed in life with the support of a good woman.

An amusing showcase of ‘70s gender politics, then.

Over in Glasgow, meanwhile, The Reply to the Toast to the Lassies was being delivered for the first time by a transgender woman – Jo Clifford . I’d recommend a read.

This curious whisky-fuelled cocktail of discourses fair set my head spinning.

When Germaine Greer rattled everyone’s cage recently with her pronouncement that transgender women were not women, I confess I had some sympathy with her position. She was responding to Caitlyn Jenner’s award of Woman of the Year and I suspect Germaine wasn’t the only person whose feminist sentiments rankled at the implied notion that femininity could best be made successful by bringing on board a new CEO who used to be man. A new spin on the ‘old boys’ network’ to be sure, but one guaranteed to bring out the conspiracy theorist in any card-carrying member of the old guard.

And I have to further confess to initially feeling something of the same response to Jo’s Reply – she draws very heavily on her previous experiences as a man to illustrate the uniqueness of her position. Surely it is this unique view that separates her experiences from those of women raised as females within our society? After all, Jo’s conversion/ full realization of herself as a woman came after years of living as boy and man during which time she was surely not entirely immune to the calque of masculine privilege ossifying her form?

As I pondered this, I began to muse on the various situations of the three people amongst my friends and acquaintances whose experiences in this regard really count.

First among these is Jo herself, to whose acquaintance I can lay scant claim beyond the intimacy of her one-woman show The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven — the most moving and thought-provoking theatrical work on this theme I have encountered. (See it if you can).

The second acquaintance may yet be too young to offer her considered account, since she is a child whose inner female was so strong she began her transition at infant school and her journey continues through her still tender years.

The third is a childhood friend whose strong female identity was a certain cat amongst the pigeons of a late ‘60s – early ‘70s childhood in our working class northern English milieu. He now lives as a (camp) adult homosexual man.

I cannot gainsay whether Germaine Greer has any genuine axe to grind with transgender women. It may be that she simply rejects transgender women as women. Rightly or wrongly, I took her argument to be that by including transgender women in the category ‘women’ we deny the uniqueness of their perspective.

But, I come to realise, this is also precisely where such an argument begins to unravel.

For the two folks I know most intimately, it couldn’t be said they had ‘enjoyed’ a prototypical male socialization experience. But then who could claim that?

And whilst I consider myself very much a female I’m not sure I could claim a prototypical female socialization experience, since I’m not entirely sure what one is. Or at least if I imagine one, it is simply that- a construct of the imagination; a fairytale amalgamated from an idiosyncratic selection of all the various gendered and gendering experiences available.

And I couldn’t even give you a percentaged guesstimate of how much of ‘me’ is gendered. Because don’t we all have a core being that remains a genderless thing?

When I wake in the early hours and am gazing at the sleeping windows of the houses in the town where I live, I am not conscious of doing that as a woman, but as a being. The fact that my being is in human form I concede has a considerable degree of influence on my perspective in this instance, but I’m not sure that my gender always exerts the same force.

So whilst the rigidity of the existing gender options of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are beneficially challenged by the fluidity of the trans experience, Germaine’s move to insert a further category of ‘transgender woman’ (and presumably its counterpart ‘transgender man’ — although as a feminist I find it telling that this category is little vaunted, much like Queen Victoria’s infamous lesbian blindspot) still leaves the gender landscape hopelessly codified. The cranny between ‘transgender woman’ and ‘cis woman’ (a term I find both ugly and difficult to accept) simply offers a fertile space for further prejudice to gestate.

Yet surely language has a key role to play. It is the primordial conceptual brine through which we all emerge. Language shapes our imaginations as well as our cultures.

The youngest of my children is of a generation which seeks to obliterate gender altogether. It’s taken me some time to grasp, but this seems to me a genuinely liberating ideal, and worth pursuing.

The most immediate barrier for English speakers is one of pronouns. It seems petty, but in the petri-dish of identity formation pronouns are protozoic.

Discovering self is wonderfully neutral from a gendered language perspective: I; me.

Beyond self, however, our language offers a binary choice of pronouns available to the description of other individual humans, and the only alternative is so cold that we often gender inanimate objects in order to avoid it.

That linguistic move between self and another is our first operation of ‘othering’, and it brings into focus another important aspect of this whole debate. Perhaps one reason for its resonance in contemporary society (after all gender challenges are nothing new) is that it speaks to the conflict between individualism and collectivity.

Here arguments of biology are shown to be something of a red herring, and the question is whether – in an increasingly atomized society – we can ever claim sufficient commonality with others to form an invulnerable group identity. And, given a choice, would we want to?

What premises underpin the claim that ‘we’ are ‘women’ and ‘you’ are ‘men’ ?

Is the rise of individuation a threat to compassion, empathy and sharing? Or does recognition of each as individual remove the barriers that currently divide us as human beings?

As the French philosopher Michel Serres suggests in Hermès, what we have constructed as a coherent real could just as easily be understood to be ‘fluctuating tatters’ wherein ‘the state of things consists of islands sown in archipelagoes on the noisy, poorly understood disorder of the sea…’

Doesn’t our increasing transhumanism broaden our ability to simultaneously encounter, comprehend, experience such that it may become the gift of our time to leave behind the cold safety of categories, to swim freely in the fast-flowing burn of our digital social connectivity?

Perhaps at next year’s haggis someone will be brave and gifted enough to uphold the Lost Burns manuscript tradition with a gender-free rewrite of For a’ That and a’ That ?

And perhaps we might all find the confidence to raise a dram in toast.

 

 


More on witnessing….

“What to do? Where to turn? Is there a self-identity for the writer that combines responsibility with artistic integrity? If there is, what might it be? Ask the age we live in and it might reply – the witness. And, if possible, the eyewitness.

It’s an old role, this. I was there, I saw it, it happened to me: these are seductive recommendations, and make a deep appeal to the imagination…

…… Captivity narratives, castaway narratives, war stories, civil-war stories, slavery narratives, catastrophe stories, memoirs of hard-done-by-outlaws and pirates, incest-survivor stories, Soviet union gulag stories, atrocity stories: how much more compelling we find them if we think they’re based on real events, and especially real events that have happened to the writer!

The power of such narratives is immense, especially when combined with artistic power. And the courage to write them, and sometimes to smuggle then across borders so they can be published is equally stupendous. These stories exist in a realm that is neither fact nor fiction, but perhaps both: let us call it enhanced fact.

….This is why so many people have faked such stories….

….A socially conscious writer can quite easily be charged with exploiting the misery and misfortune of the downtrodden for his own gain……The line between these is sometimes thin, and sometimes it’s only in the eye of the beholder.

Then, too, the eyewitness can be a kind of voyeur.

…What did Yeats mean when he told a future generation of poets to cast a cold eye on life and death? Why does the eye have to be so cold?

…The eye is cold because it is clear, and it is clear because its owner must look: he must look at everything. Then she must record.

…the secret is that it isn’t the writer who decides whether or not his work is relevant. Instead it’s the reader. ”

Extracted from Margaret Atwood’s ‘Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co”,  in On Writers and Writing, Virago, 2003:104-109


A strange urge

I recently popped into Bristol’s Arnolfini to immerse myself in the brilliant Table of Contents: ‘a durational movement installation co-created by Siobhan Davies, Andrea Buckley, Helka Kaski, Rachel Krische, and Matthias Sperling, each using their own history as a choreographer and performer to question how dance is archived.’

This was a wonderful series of pieces performed interactively with the public; each dancer taking it in turns to lead or direct a work. Amongst these glittering gems a very simple piece caught my imagination.

The dancers each invited a member of the audience to work in partnership with them. Each dancer then laid down on the floor. Their partner simply had to instruct their dancer to stand up, movement by movement. The dancers were very reasonable, but very disciplined in following their instructions precisely.

The difficulty of this simple task quickly became clear, with dancers contorted into all sorts of unsustainable shapes.

The piece succinctly demonstrated the limits of spoken language, of logos.

Yet I couldn’t help musing that if the partners had been able to give instruction through any natural sign language, the task would have been achieved quickly and efficiently.

Australian scholar Dorothea Cogill-Koez has argued that the elements of sign languages known as ‘classifier predicates’ are remarkably similar to ‘typical systems of visual representation’, such that sign languages use ‘two equally important channels for conveying explicit propositional information, the linguistic and the visual’. Although I disagree with some of the further detail of her argument, that sign languages do not always have to rely on the linguistic to communicate information was a premise of my own doctoral study.

Because sign languages can visually represent the physical acts involved in standing up, the communication would have been conveyed much more easily, the dancers spared their agonies.

But more than that sign languages are languages that are inscribed through the body; they are body-conscious languages operating through, around and in relation to the body. Sign language helps me to locate emotions and sensations in my body, to read them in others, and it provides a physically-centred orientation in the world. What was so striking about the struggling speakers at the Arnolfini was how very dis-embodied their speech was.

So why did we ever adopt it as a form of communication? What were the evolutionary advantages to the urge to speak?

Although deaf people are often very noisy signing can be a remarkably quiet form of communication (good for hunting), and is much more efficient across distance. It is very useful in noisy environments, too. The only advantage speech offers, as far as I can see, is that it can be used in the dark (although in one’s humble opinion using sign to communicate on the body of another in intimate situations is far preferable).

So did humans find a sudden need to hunt only at night? When did all the lights go out?

Isn’t it time we switched them back on so we could all see each other more clearly?


A tale told and retold

My doctoral research is investigating (British) sign language poetry, and in so doing it’s exploring Derrida’s ideas of Writing, of grammatology.

Derrida urged us to consider the power of technologies of the written – their omnipresence in our society and how they have come to govern our ways of doing and of thinking. He called this power logocentrism, and he urged us to try to think beyond it – to try to find other ways of Writing (as opposed to writing), that might afford us a different perspective. He became quite interested in the relationship of writing to thought, and therefore in psychoanalysis:

It works no doubt with a mass of elements which have been codified in the course of an individual or collective history. But in its operations, lexicon, syntax purely idiomatic residue is irreducible and is made to bear the burden of interpretation in the communication between unconsciousnesses

 So what better place to test whether art practice is capable of lending new insight to theoretical consideration, than in a classroom at the Graduate School of Education in Bristol, where Professor Jane Speedy was conducting a course on  Narrative Interviewing (5th and 6th May 2011).

Jane’s own narrative interviewing practices emerge from her work as a therapeutic counsellor. During our course she urged us to try out her method of note-taking a counselling session. Jane works by identifying the main topics that emerge in a counselling session and noting along a timeline the contexts and regularity with which the speaker returns to these topics .

What would emerge, I wondered, if instead of noting these instances, one tried to draw this process; using a pencil to map them, to turn them into top[ic]ography? This is how my third and final methodological exploration began.

In a simulated session, as the ‘client’ talked to her ‘counsellor’ I allowed my pencil to move freely across the page, the pressure of the graphite on the paper  to reflect the intensities of speech, the movements of my hand to reflect the speed, and the shapes that formed on the paper to reflect the flow of the narrative.

What emerged was a kind of map of what had occurred. Bereft of content, what was brought to the fore was the intensity, the mood of the exchange- in a way it was a picture of how the person had felt in and about the telling (regardless of what had been told). It struck me this was a useful process, revealing by means beyond the word what lay beneath the word.

As I looked at the squiggles on the paper, I kept returning to the notion of the image as a contour map- its swirls and circles giving a clue to the height and depth of the emotions outlined there.

P1030287

The idea of mapping took hold and I wondered what would happen to the work if I translated it into another form of map. I chose Beck’s iconic London Underground map as a source material because of the way his map divorced itself from the actual geography of London, preferring to immerse itself in re-presenting something altogether deeper. This seemed to echo what my own map was doing; escaping from the actual words that had been spoken, to re-present instead a deeper level of communication.

As I began to trace colour onto the work, I found myself focussing back again on the lines- how they crossed and interconnected and they began to appear like threads in some crazy warp and weft, making up the fabric of the narrative.

Pursuing the thread analogy, I switched my medium to embroidery. This allowed me to experiment not just with colour, but with texture – long, smooth running stitches where the original pencil mark had been light and easy; an altogether knottier stitch where the marks were jagged, and so on.

tale_told_detail

Something else emerged from the stitching. As I sewed, I became aware that what was visible to me was ever so slightly different in texture to what was visible on the other side of the paper. Deliciously paralleling the old adage ‘there are two sides to every story’, this was a happenstance that brought me into direct contact with the activity of narrative itself, with the activity of telling and its inherent risks.

I began to stitch onto an acetate transparency, so that the ‘space’ of the act of telling was at once present but invisible (the acetate), and the two perspectives (teller and listener) were each represented, but any third party would no longer be able to discern which was the original.

I left some pieces of thread hanging longer- even beyond the edge of the frame – as a nod to the intertextuality to which we are all subject- to all the tales we have ever ever heard whose words thread their way seamlessly into all the tales we have ever told .

And the activity of stitching itself (not easy on acetate, and increasing in difficult the more stitches, and therefore more holes were added) was a means to other voices – the voices of all the women and men who had ever stitched, to their circumstances, their conversations and to all that they had produced.

The double-sided frame I had snatched up in a closing down sale at Habitat at last found its purpose, and the piece was exhibited in the Tenants’ Exhibition at Art’s Complex in Edinburgh from December 2012 to January 2013.

tale_told

It seems to me that art practice – that an altogether different way of  Writing – unveiled something rather different than (logocentric) written note-taking would ever have done.

What do you think?


My prize-winning failure in #translation

If you follow this blog (thank you) you may recall that the last blog ended with us playing with understanding acts of translation….

Here are some more thoughts on this that should eventually bring us back to art and a/r/tography (or another exciting descriptor for what I do- scholartistry)….

We’re all familiar with the notion that there’s always something lost in translation (yes, thank you Scarlett). Indeed, to believe that a perfect translation is possible we would have to believe that exact correspondences could always be found between two different languages (which operate to encode different cultures, which in turn are different ways of being -in-the-world). In short that two human beings were capable of experiencing exactly the same thing. Direct correspondence is pretty unlikely then (even between two speakers of the same language). The best translation can hope for is not to be perfect, true, direct or accurate but to be successful. But what would make an act of translation successful?

Lately I’ve been pondering the notion that in order to be successful a translation must attempt to re-produce what Barthes called the zero degree (the after-feeling/ resonance) of the source text in the target text, so that the new text can occupy a similar place in the social relations of users of language Y as it did to users of language X. I’m not making a claim here that any translation can achieve this, merely that this is the holy grail of translation, the translator’s Mission Impossible.

It’s important to claim that this can only be an attempt, because despite any translation being similarly intended to the original it must inevitably be differently received.

This gap between intention and reception is a tricky expanse to bridge between any language combination but, I contend, it is particularly difficult when working between a sign(ed) and a written language. (If you want to dangerously stretch the metaphor, what you’re going to end up with is less the Clifton Suspension Bridge and more a rickety and rotten rope bridge).

Words on paper ≠ Signs in space. This may be because a large part of the semiotics of any sign language is not contained within the word (Sign). Since sign languages are visual, gestural and spatial (i.e. operate in 3 dimensions ) they do not need to restrict themselves in this way and can make use of all these semiotic dimensions – and in my book, this accounts for the failure of structuralist linguistic approaches to adequately describe sign languages, but perhaps more on this in a later blog.

Sign language poetry, for example, occupies 3-dimensional space and because of the real-world presence of the poet and viewer, they already and inescapably begin to map their spatial and social relations in the act of telling and receiving. This is not the same set of relations commonly found between printed-word poets and their readers.

This extremity of difference between the materialities (Kress) of the written word poem and the Sign poem [even when the Sign poem is recorded on video]  means that the act of translation can no longer be purely linguistic (and here I’m necessarily adopting a post-structuralist stance- in opposition to Saussurian thought- subsuming linguistics into semiotics). To reduce Sign poetry to a written translation is to attribute a false ‘presence’ (Derrida’s false aura of certainty) to the written, which brings us face-to-face with logocentrism and issues of différance.

To capture the movement of the poem, for example, or its directionality in space, a successful translation must surely co-opt broader semiological practices of interpretation to avoid being overly reductive.

e. e. cummings was a pioneer in this regard; stretching the (re)presentational potential of the written form with his painterly eye (he practiced as a visual artist all his adult life).Taking my cue from him, I thought I’d try pushing the potential of the written word to translate Joanna Mesch’s (sign language) poem ‘Ocean’.

You can view Joanna’s poem here:

To see the InsideArts-Faber prize-winning result of my endeavours, click on this link:Finalised translation

Although this translation may have won the prize (=1st alongside William Reed, who was working between written German and written English), it can only fail to adequately re-present the original for the reasons outlined above. This translation can (I think) only work in conjunction with the original, providing a (partial) key to the source text (i.e. when you read the translation, then watch the original you may begin to access what is going on there). But the translation does not stand alone in the way the original does, and therefore cannot hope to re-produce the zero degree of the original, nor its social relations. We still find ourselves fettered by logocentrism.

As Wittgenstein might argue, we need a different meta-language here. This is where a/r/tography comes back in.

e.e.cummings was on the right lines. His visual sensibilities ensured his poems explored what we might now term the concrete-visual continuum. We just need to be able to take this further (to the furthest reaches of visual poetry?).

If we consider that sign language poetry itself acts as a kind of meta-epistemic to the boundaries of both poetry and visual art, then its translation requires some other, non-logocentric, intermedia-ry (intermedia in the Fluxus sense, combined with the function of intermediary or go-between).

Perhaps the bridging material that is required to successfully translate sign language poetry is visual art after all…..


Can someone please tell me how to write # art?

Thanks to the gorgeous Howard Hardiman (http://www.cutebutsad.co.uk/ and http://www.thelengths.com/), I cycled to the Post Office depot this morning to collect my pristine copy of John Berger’s ‘Bento’s Sketchbook’. (http://www.versobooks.com/books/982-bentos-sketchbook)

To my mind anything by John Berger is at least worth a sampling, but this time I’m particularly looking forward to lapping up crumbs from the master’s table because the premise of his book is Berger musing on Spinoza’s philosophical writings by re-imagining and re-drawing his lost sketchbook; an undertaking akin to a/r/tography, in short.

Just to briefly recap (for those who missed my last blog), a/r/tography (or at least my version of it) stands for art/research/translation and the writing thereof, with the ‘/’s representing the folds and pleats created when these usually separate disciplines are brought together.

My a/r/tographic practice- and current doctoral study- is (to paraphrase Jim Cohn) translating the pictorialism inherent in the visual language of British Sign Language poetry into objects and artworks in the plastic arts, in order that the art and image of BSL poetry can be more widely understood, and differently appreciated.

So I’m working to produce art, but as Rita Irwin argues, in a/r/tography:-

“The processes and products are aesthetic experiences unto themselves because they integrate three (or possibly more) forms of thought.”

In Bento’s Sketchbook, I’m hoping to find Berger not only engaging in ‘illustrative’ drawing practices (i.e. giving visual form to existing ideas), but also using drawing as a process to investigate, extend, reflect on and respond to Spinoza’s original thought (what I call ‘contributive’ practice).

But what I’m really salivating about is the prospect of examining Berger’s writing and picking up tips on just how to describe these multiple yet conjoined forms of thought, the spaces his drawing practices uncover. This is not a case of constructing an exegesis (detailing inspiration, intention, ideation, creation, processes and materials, et cetera) or writing a description or critique of a finished artwork.

Irwin, in a line that conjures the darkest vampire flick, suggests

“There are spaces between and spaces between the in-between”

I can see them….but just how do I capture them in the written word? On second thoughts forget the crumbs; Mr. Berger, I offer you my jugular…….

Irwin, Rita (2004) A/r/tography: A Metonymic Métissage, in Irwin, Rita L. and Alex de Cosson, eds., (2004) a/r/tography: Rendering Self Through Arts-Based Living Inquiry (Vancouver, Canada: Pacific Educational Press) pp.30-31

Cohn, Jim (1999)-discussing Ronsard’s contribution to poetics in- Sign Mind: Studies in American Sign Language Poetics (Boulder, Colorado: Museum of American Poetics Publications), p. 69


sheila sea

like thalassic velvet

Sage Brice

Formerly Jethro Brice / Socially and environmentally engaged art - developing collaborative approaches for a changeable world.

curzonprojecct

Just another WordPress.com site

DoubleU = W

WITHIN ARE PIECES OF ME

Elan Mudrow

The Ridges of Intertextuallity

Storyshucker

A blog full of humorous and poignant observations.

Keep trying

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Globe Drifting

Global issues, travel, photography & fashion. Drifting across the globe; the world is my oyster, my oyster through a lens.

modelmirror

Model behaviors you want to see more of. Seek out people you want to mirror.

Investigate | Create

involve, surprise, enthuse