Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lacking the Lack: Beyond duality and binary difference

'Without the rigidity of concepts, the world becomes transparent
and illuminated, as though lit from within. With this understanding,
the interconnectedness of all that lives becomes very clear. We
see that nothing is stagnant and nothing is fully separate, that who
we are, what we are, is intimately woven into the nature of life itself.
Out of this sense of connection, love and compassion arise.'

From: 'Loving-Kindness - The Revolutionary Art of Happiness'
Sharon Salzberg p88

I'm not the first nor the last to compare the ancient Eatern philosophy of non-dualism with European twentieth century critical theories on the limitations of binary thinking. However, I'm not sure a comprehensive study has compared tenets rigourously. I don't think this would even be beneficial. The less linguistic and theoretical baggage surround these concepts, the more in tune we can become with their essence. After all, meditation is not thinking but being aware. Our mechanisms of language restrict both our thinking and our awareness.

Lacan thought that meaning is created out of desire in relation to the real, the imaginary and the symbolic. The symbolic is the language system into which we enter. He described desire as the 'lack' of being. Desire can never be replenished throughout our lifespans(otherwise it is not desire by nature) and the 'symbolic order' (or words) does not help us in our quest to substantiate our desires because they are always deferred via language constructs (signifiers/signifieds). There is a lack of meaning with which a sentence can provide us. By the time we reach the end of our constructed word sequence, our brain has processed, reflected, assessed, edited, compiled a narrative and then lingusitically conceptualised our original intuituve thought, so any true meaning is deferred. Post Structuralist, Derrida, studied Lacan and formulated the notion of 'Differance', referring to how language and, thus, meaning is constructed around difference in the form of binary oppositions, such as good/evil, us/them. We understand a concept because of the way it differs from another concept, but as we have seen, the meaning of these concepts is always deferred. This deferrence, or 'differance' concerns human beings' fruitless quest for meaning. We always strive for things which on the deepest or most essential level we never attain, and even if we did, how would we know, when we are confined by language? The Buddha would say that truth is in awareness of the moment and the more embedded we become in this pure, unfettered mindfulness, the closer we are to enlightenment. In this state we are without desire. In Lacanian terms we would say that we would finally lack 'the lack' and be at one with the way things really are.

If we consider the limitations of Structuralist, Saussure's, notion of signifier/signified - that the concept to which we refer is the signified and the word/sound/image manifestation of that concept is the signifier - we can compare critiques of binarism more specifically to non dualist thought. Lacan and Derrida referred to the signifier/signified but from a more critical perspective. Saussure, addressed, analysed and then endorsed structures of language, whereas Derrida and others alike (e.g. Foucault) deconstructed them for their narrow polarising of thought. Between our conceptualisation of a phenomena and the way it becomes embedded in our society as a signifier, its pure essence can be lost. In order to truly access the phenomena, we need to let go of the rigidity of its signifying. A common phrase used in relation to zen Buddhist teaching is: 'the finger that points to the moon is not the moon.' Perhaps the finger can be compared to the signifier/signified construct which tries to account for the essence of pure phenomena but which fails. A Post Structuralist might also say that the moon is artificially conceptualised as a symbol of night and an opposite to sun. If we are completely mindful of the moon as we experience it, it is neither of these things. It cannot truly nor literally be slotted into dual or binary interpretations. It isn't a symbol or a sign. It isn't ours and it doesn't lack anything. It just is.

So what is the difference between the notions of binary difference and duality, other than the fact that they are terms which have been applied in different knowledge spheres? I'd be interested to know if there are problems with this comparison, other than the dizzying fact that all comparisons are subject to constructions of binary difference. Perhaps the difference is in the practice which surrounds the disciplines which incorporate these terms. For Buddhists or Daoists, mindfulness can be developed through meditation. For Post Structuralists, the mind is a tool which is capable of deconstructing its own limitations - but that deconstruction is itself limited. Critical theorists critique. But critique lacks. Awareness transcends.

Derrida, Jacques. (1974) Of Grammatology. trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lacan, Jacques (2001) Ecrits trans. Alan Sheridan, London:Routledge
Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1983) Course in General Linguistics. eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. trans. Roy Harris. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.

Friday, May 20, 2011

From a Galaxy not far away

Review of 'Who Cares?' exhibition at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. Until 19th June 2011

Image of Who Cares? with Dalton-Johnston sculpture in foreground and Burscough diptych in background. Photo property of Kevin Dalton Johnston, flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/72566825@N00/5585419593/sizes/l/in/photostream/

If this exhibition helps its audience to care about the reality of mental illness then perhaps it doesn’t really matter if people like the art works, as striking as they are. And it’s debatable whether a single small exhibitory room offers enough scope for art appreciation as there are fewer images from which to choose - but there is also likely to be more time set aside to observe and connect with each piece. The compact and arguably discreet area upstairs in the Whitworth art gallery aims to provide a contemplative space for the consideration of the necessity of art, health and community; these three important phenomena we don’t always readily address due to common constraints of time, space and social normativity.

Whilst 'Who Cares?' draws from the Whitworth’s permanent collection of pronounced, expressive portraiture - including paintings by Francis Bacon and Camille Pissarro - there are also some newly developed pieces which have been commissioned or chosen for the exhibition. These include intensive art works by painter Lucy Burscough, artist in residence at Galaxy House - a part of Royal Manchester Children's Hospital which treats children and young people with mental health problems - and sculptor Kevin Dalton-Johnson - who has worked with children at the Leo Kelly Centre at Manchester Schools Hospital& Home Tuition Service. Both artists examine notions of fractured identities and disorientation, with Burscough focusing more on teenage emotive and decorative self expression and Dalton-Jones questioning racial and diasporic hybridity. It is not immediately apparent that these figurative studies are capturing subjects with mental health difficulties but then it is not always possible to tell the multiform ways in which someone is suffering in real life.'If you only see the illness, you miss the person' is the hook line accompanying the title of the exhibition.

So, who cares? Well, you should. Whilst it’s possible to plod along through everyday life without engaging with fine art, it’s not possible to ignore mental illness. It's been estimated that 2 in 3 people suffer from depression at some point in their lives, so if it’s not you, then it’s going to be at least one of your family or friends. Visiting this exhibition may not enlighten you towards understanding the intricacies of mental health issues but its very presence focuses our awareness on the fact that it is an issue, it's all around us and it's our issue.

Galaxy House project with Whitworth Art gallery: http://www.cmft.nhs.uk/media-centre/latest-news/galaxy-house-benefits-from-arts-and-health-mentoring-scheme.aspx
Events and Activities around 'Who Cares?' at the Whitworth: http://www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/whatson/events/whocaresevents/
Information about depression: http://www.patient.co.uk/health/Depression.htm
Information about mental health issues: http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/an-introduction-to-mental-health/what-are-mental-health-problems/?view=Standard

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ghost(face)s of Times Past? : Review of Scre4m

Scre4m. 2011. Director: Wes Craven. Writer: Kevin Williamson.

Ten years on from Scream 3 and Scream 4’s references to post-modernism are as novel as protagonist Sydney Prescott’s dress sense, only I’m not sure there is any intended irony with the latter. Scream continues to be drolly self-aware of the horror genre, anchoring itself in readily available postmodern discourse concerning the end of cultural innovation, the saturation of the mass media and the deliberate blurring of the real, the unreal and the hyperreal. The film tries to update the types of cultural media with which young people engage in a 21st century postmodern era - such as twitter, blogging, apps and youtube - and it does this fairly aptly, if not a little clumsily. But the problem with postmodernism is that you can’t really move on from it. So a sequel which is trying to evolve from its purposefully postmodern predecessor is a lost cause; a ghost from the past which is no longer able to scare anyone.

Having said that, watching it was an entertaining experience. It still managed to make me jump/laugh, whilst the narrative and story arcs succeeded in being unpredictable enough and the dialogue was smart. When the person behind the increasingly violent ghostface reveals themselves, they provide a monologue on their motive, referencing celebrity adulation and home-grown journalism, suggesting that it is no longer possible to be famous for anything unless it relates to engineered real-hyper-violent titillation existing in cyberspace. ‘Sick is the new sane’ and ‘I don’t need friends, I need fans’ are lines articulated sassily and robotically by the killer whilst they [no killer spoilers] replay to their final victim a recording of one of their previous murders, ready for posting on the internet. Despite this voyeurism being a new aspect of the ghostface killings, a reference is made just scenes before to Powell’s 1959 ‘Peeping Tom,’ reinforcing Scream’s reflexivity regarding its (or Williamson's) capacity for postmodernist, premeditated rehashing.

In some ways the world has moved on in the past decade. When Scream first hit the box office, email was a recent phenomenon which had not really caught on outside of business. By Scream 3, teens were communicating via email, sometimes by wap on their mobile phones, but facebook and youtube were yet to be conceptualised. The inclusion of objects of new social media in the latest Scream script, remain just that; objects; devices which enrich and update plot development, accessories to the crime. They do not really work to progress or alter the Scream Franchise’s original thematic USP of being self-referential, Slasher satire. Ghostface is still ghostface; an indexical metaphor for the empty yet manipulative motivations of mass cultural production. It doesn’t matter who is behind the mask; it could be any of the characters, the fact is its presence is determined, unavoidable and readily reproducible.

I wonder if I enjoyed it because it was aimed at my generation – of people who followed the first three instalments – whilst studying at university the kinds of sociological issues and cultural tropes which the films sought to innovatively consider. The main characters played by Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox (Arquette) were Hollywood spectacles for our generation having appeared in landmark TV classics such as Party of Five and Friends. Yet where the guy who played bohemian Charlie in Party of Five (Matthew Fox) reinvented himself as a hunky hero in Lost several years later, Neve and Courtney largely play the same parts in Scream a decade on. Yet, they’re no longer the focal point hotties. And perhaps, this is a feminist issue. The film will no doubt help launch a few new silky skinned stars, whether they’re actually watched by their generational equivalent audiences, here, or not. It’d be interesting to study how this sequel, and in fact all of the Screams, are digested by today’s teens. Is Scream 4’s sole intention to provoke laughs, only more cryptically than the Scream trilogy's spoof successors did (e.g. Scary movie)? And if so, is Ghostface’s premise correct, that people are now only satisfied to watch slasher-snuff viewable in real-time on their i-phones? The saturated news coverage concerning the question of Bin Laden’s photographed corpse perhaps backs their point. Either way, the media is still the message, and our awareness of this, doesn’t seem to alter its plight.

Monday, May 2, 2011

I heart my blog

So I've noticed it's been almost a year since I started properly engaging with this blog. Since then, it's had several names changes, identity crises and make-overs. I guess it's only right; as humans we continuously change things about our appearance and we focus on different elements of our wants and needs as well as our self perceptions of ourselves as some kind of entity in time and space. I'm quite happy with bricolage and be. It's become at once eclectic and indeterminate but something which remains true to its identity is its willingness to be at once eclectic and indeterminate. And it's always up for a bit of reflectivity and reflexivity. One constant, a condition I set myself with this blog, is that I have never mentioned anyone by name withouh asking their permission first and I've never gushed about issues of amourousness or tattletale.

The page views have been increasing as I've put a wider range of blog posts up about a mixture of popular and less popular 'culture' from local and global spheres. I've got a new fan who is someone close to me, as of last week! It was the first time he looked at it, so it's never too late to gather interest and encouragement.

I have recently realised that I love my blog. It's become a dependable friend, a bit like Penny pigeon who roosts in the tree outside my bedroom window. She's often perched on her nest when I look through the glass in the morning and we capture each other's gaze and blink a bit then carry on with our lives. If I have a disappointing day, then writing a blog post guides me away from the negative because it helps to direct my thoughts towards the natural anti-thesis of the situation. I don't want to let it or anyone who reads it down by using it entirely as a diary consisting of stream of consciousness clobber. My friend is a wrestler but she doesn't fight her opponents. She uses her knowledge and strength to navigate her side of the game.

My new hobby is photography and it provides an extra 'focus' when I think about how I might narrate my pictures if I choose to blog them. At the moment, in a zone of post university term-time teaching, I sit most comfortably with this slightly less involved kind of art form, if it can be called an art form when I'm not learning any photographic techniques as such (I need an SLR!). But I'm intending to return to interviewing 'culturemakers', drawing the everyday and redrafting that novel (the one this blog was originally about), once I've found a bit of stability on the employment front. Or perhaps I'll just start a new story.

Quick snapshot of today at Manchester's Exchange Square.

Penny Pigeon