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Getting to Know You - commissioned text for Artlicks magazine, Issue 10

Getting to

know you

‘This slow flowage makes one conscious of the turbidity of thinking. Slump, debris slides, avalanches all take place within the cracking limits of the brain. The entire body is pulled into the cerebral sediment, where particles and fragments make themselves known as solid consciousness.1

* * *

The concept of ‘complementarity’, as developed by the physicist Niels Bohr, suggested that data observed and recorded within a particular experimental situation cannot pre-exist the conditions of that experiment, rather it is constituted and determined by the specific apparatus utilised in the recording. The theory argued that through every apparatus there would be a double movement; certain values would become determinate whilst simultaneously others became indeterminate. It is this relation that is termed ‘complimentary’, the nature of which, argued Bohr, ‘must therefore be understood... on our taking account of the fact that our knowledgemaking practices are social-material enactments that contribute to, and are a part of, the phenomena we describe.’2

An assistant of Bohr’s for many years, Aage Petersen, described how Bohr developed these ideas in regard to a theory of objectivity, through a questioning of how we are able to think about our ‘thinking activity’.3 When we think, Petersen states, we ‘confront an objective content with a thinking subject’. However, it is of course possible to move from this situation to one in which the subject can also occupy ‘a part of the object about which we communicate’ through an act of thinking about our thinking of the object. These two positions we understand as complimentary in that it is not possible for both to occur simultaneously. To remedy this conflict, Petersen stresses the role within this relation of a moveable ‘partition between actor and spectator’, in order to maintain a coherent subject/object distinction . It is the mastery over the nature and location of this partition that determines the meaning and communicability of the encounter.

* * *

The aim of this text is to use the two images of thought presented here by Smithson and Petersen as a framework for sketching out some ideas around how we encounter art. Specifically, I will begin a series of speculations as to what potential activity could be induced if an injection of Smithson’s turbidity of thought were administered into Petersen’s pristine stage set; to bury the gliding partition deep within the avalanched slump and suspend the whole scenario within the ‘cerebral sediment’. In doing so we would move from an understanding dictated by the distribution of qualities either side of such partition towards a now familiar model pitched upon networked intra-activity. Indeed from the outset this process necessitates a disavowal of the position of ‘coherent distinction’ in favour of the liminal cracking and rupturing Smithson describes. However, great attention must be paid to avert the tendency for a superficial repositioning, to re-seat the qualities of the former position within the vocabulary offered by the latter. This erroneous movement takes on what Ranciere describes as a ‘heroic tint’ which, in its over zealous denouncing of whichever recently redundant hegemony, restores to this new experience a ‘tranquil certainty concerning ties and places: we are now in the end or the after’.4 Emphasis should be placed, therefore, on differentiating the specifics of the distinct place from the rupturing activity.

At the heart of this endeavour exists an ongoing examination as to what practises and conditions can be used to release this activity from the ‘intoxicated and anaesthetized position of capitalistic subjectivity’, to take Felix Guattari’s description, which ‘no matter in what dimension or by what means it is engendered, is manufactured to protect against any event intrusive enough to disturb or disrupt opinion’. It is then a question, Guattari attests, of a disbanding from these subjective aggregates through ‘some quality that runs counter to the ‘normal’ order of things: a discordant repetition, information of particular intensity which summons up other intensities to form new existential configurations’.5 

Here, too, it would seem a degree of attention is required to ensure that the summoning activity is not rendered immobile by a heralding abstraction of its facilitating quality. Of note to this issue is Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on restlessness in his reading of Hegel, in which he describes a history ‘in which it is no longer just a matter of changing form, of replacing one vision and one order by some other vision and some other order, but in which the one and only point of view – of view and order – is that of transformation itself’.6

It is in regard to this rupturing quality that I would like to move on from this broad overview to return to the composite image described above, and a questioning of what the act of looking within this environment might entail. 

In light of the warnings offered, and perhaps in turn breaking with the terms of the imagined scenario, we may no longer envisage this ‘avalanched slump’ as a physical mass that has surrounded the original site, from which it would be possible to speak of excavation or exit. Instead, and in turning our attention to the notion of the gaze, the term can be understood more precisely as denoting a moment of potential activity. 

Joan Copjec, in her reading of Lacan, argues that the gaze, taken in his terms as denoting ‘everything in the field of vision except the actual look of the person looking’, does not refer to a originating location from which it is possible to ‘embrace the entire visual field’ of which subjective vision can only know part. Rather, it is in fact that which ‘makes it impossible for this field to be grasped from any point of view’. With strong echoes of Bohr’s complementarity, Copjec attests that it is ‘only as a result of this blockage of perspectival vision do my thoughts and representations make room for the nonintrusive existence of others’. Classifying it as such, the term is then understood as that which marks not simply the acknowledgement of the limit of subjective vision, but ‘also suggests that a view different from my own, one that might undermine my perspective, is also possible’.7 The gaze, for which we can read the original slump, is then determined not by a finite number of possible positions that make up a space, but as the temporal experience of simultaneously acknowledging and reworking difference between those positions.

It is through this recasting of the viewer as intrinsically within – as Bohr’s ‘contributing to, being part of’ - the viewing field from which we habitually occlude ourselves that I suggest there is scope for these ‘new existential configurations’. Here, s/he is understood to contribute, only in part, to an encounter to which we can apply Barad’s description of an ‘epistemological-ontological-ethical framework that provides an understanding of the role of human and nonhuman, material and discursive, and natural and cultural factors in scientific and other social-material practices’.

Perhaps it is in this woozy, bewildering movement out of an imaginary centre into the object of the gaze that, to borrow Eluned Summers-Bremner’s phrasing, ‘a condition of uncanny lostness... provides the affective consistency, the running dislocative mood or working suspension’.8 Working within this dislocation or suspension there may be opportunity to run against Ranciere’s ‘tranquil certainty’, to capitalise on a momentary blindness where existent ties of ‘well worn binaries’ no longer offer purchase on the emergent activity. 

Finally, then, I will turn briefly to John Mullarkey’s work of on the diagrammatic as offering an incredibly vital reference here. Mullarkey defines the diagram as possessing a status of inbetween, never settling into a content but as permanently both ‘de-script-ive and re-vision-ary’. It is, he states,

‘neither quality nor quantity alone, but the dynamic between the two. The diagram, as an unconventional form of representation, is a dynamic monism or dualysation – dualism and monism in movement, that is both itself and movement beyond itself in a graphical self-belonging. It perpetually perishes as it indefinitely re-draws inside and outside, immanence and transcendence. The interminable lists of ‘ in betweens’ that we have continually attributed to the diagram, vertiginous and nauseous, can be cast aside once we stop conventional writing and start unconventional drawing. Do something new, do something renewable.’9


1 Robert Smithson, The Collected Writings, University of California Press, 1996

2 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, Duke University Press, 2007

3 Aage Petersen, Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, Chicago, September 1963

4 Jacques Ranciere, After What in Who Comes After the Subject? Ed Cadava, Connor & Nancy, Routledge, 1991

5 Felix Guattari, new ecologies, Lawrence and Wishart, Summer 1989

6 Jean-Luc Nancy, Hegel: Restlessness of the Negative, University of Minnesota Press, 2002

7 Joan Copjec, The Body as Viewing Instrument, or the Strut of Vision, in Lacan in America, ed Rabate, Other Press, 2000

8 Eluned Summers-Bremner, Walking, Mourning: W.G. Sebald’s Peripatetic Fictions in Journal of Narrative Theory, Eastern Michigan University, Fall 2004 

9 John Mullarkey, Post-Continental Philosophy, Continuum, 2006

Posted by Christopher McSherry on 3/30/13

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