Art After Art After Philosophy, or, Hostages to Misfortune
“A Sign: a bad sign, astrological error, foreboding signal, errantresult, offensive outburst, unwelcome message, a system that failsto function, one that leaks meaning, one eroded by frequent use,one distended by doubt. A sign too convoluted in its form to affectmeaning. A sign that’s unreadable, invisible, or mute. A sign that isun-exchangeable, of no value or invaluable.”Fay Nicolson, ‘Bad Signs’, 2012As Fay Nicolson knows, ‘bad’ signs often have far greater value and a longerhalf-life than effective ones. An anecdote: I was once taught by a world-famousart historian: a man ﬂuent in all of the major European languages (naturally),as well as Latin and Greek – a man who could and did spend four decadeswriting a single book, which drew upon texts in eight languages written overtwenty-ﬁve centuries. He was often referred to as a man of ‘profound learning’or ‘exemplary scholarship’ – clichés he himself would have of course avoided.Alas, as a lecturer, he could never complete a single sentence without a verbalcalamity: his speech was interrupted, almost continuously, by stutters, pauses,and failures to complete any individual unit of speech without dislocation ordisruption. For all his majestic learning, one unruly part of his brainsteadfastly resisted ready communication, preventing listeners from sharing inhis decades of reading. His near-continuous stammering meant that a simpleturn of phrase often took two or three minutes to complete. Painfully, this wasonly true when he spoke in his ‘mother tongue’, English, rather than inFrench, Italian, German, or Spanish, or any other tongue. Dr Johnsonallegedly suffered from a similar complaint – as though exceptional ﬂuency inone sphere of communication – writing – had to be compensated for byconspicuous failures in another.The art historian’s unconscious, it seemed, was compensating for his exquisitemastery of language by attempting to unlearn how to speak – by preventing him from making the simplest speech utterance in his ‘own’ language. Recentresearch suggests precisely that we construct our identities by inhabiting sets of “semantic polarities” – values constructed by reference to their opposites.
Our language evaluates us, rather than vice versa, and in doing so createssocial roles for us. As one commentator puts it: “roles polarise; one form of behaviour [necessarily] invites its opposite, or competition [against it]”.
Wecan only measure ourselves by reference to what is ‘not I’, as Beckett realised.Normally these measurements are made in reference to our peers, families orcompetitors. Occasionally the ‘competition’ occurs inside our imaginations, asin the art historian’s Oliver-Sacks-like case. ‘A Small Hiccup’ similarly suggeststhat language takes us hostage to its needs, offering disturbing conclusionsabout who we think we are, and how we function in the world.The absurd contrast between the art historian’s scholarly powers and hisalmost complete inability to talk freely in his own language was, inevitably,tragi-comic. His lectures would have been farcical had they not been sopainful and humiliating to witness. They resembled William Burroughs’famous ‘cut-up’ technique for composition, albeit being applied in real time byhis unconscious. The result that his ﬂow of discourse was perpetuallydisrupted against his own will, with words broken, omitted, misaligned ormutilated. His listeners, placed in the situation of being amateurpsychoanalysts, formed a set of speculative conclusions as to how his conditionilluminated our immersion in language.Firstly, the conventional image of possessing a ‘mother tongue’ seemed like abitter, bare-faced lie. Here was proof that one’s ‘tongue’, could act like amonstrous Old Testament ﬁgure – being spiteful rather than maternal,obscene in its destructiveness rather than nurturing. Second, the essentialellipses created to avoid linguistic tripping hazards created new meanings andunexpected revelations. What sat on the edge of ‘nonsense’ offered moremeaning than conventional sense, just as the Futurists had known. If thiswas
Ugazio quoted by Parks, ibid.
Parks, T, ‘How is your personality formed?’, review of Valeria Ugazio, ‘Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family’,
‘Saturday Review, 22.06.2013, p9