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November 22, 2004

More Questions on the Display of Visual Art: Can Embodiment be Humanist? If not, how about in South Africa?

In his essay, �Somatic Modes of Attention,� Thomas J. Csordas� attempts to, �distinguish� what has come to be called the anthropology of the body and a strand of phenomenology explicitly concerned with embodiment.� (Csordas, 135) Listening a few weeks ago to a South African curator, Colin Richards, as he lectured on some of his curatorial experiences, prompted me to consider how important it is to make this distinction, and yet, at the same time, how difficult it is to identify where to make it. Csordas concludes his essay with a focus on the �essential indeterminacy of existence� as a way to sidestep both textuality and embodiment as concepts meant to be applied to our analyses, instead offering his �indeterminacy� as a �condition of our analyses.� (Csordas, 149-150) Csordas extrapolates from Merleau-Ponty�s concept of �transcendence� that results from an existence that is indeterminate, into what I would characterize as a humanist interpretation that this existential indeterminacy becomes the basis for an �inalienable human freedom.� While it seems clear that the passage from Merleau-Ponty that Csordas quotes indicates that Merleau-Ponty is writing about the concept of existence, as it might be said to exist as a representation without the possibility of a localizable referent, it is not clear that he is making the generalizations about, or reductions to sign systems of, individual (�human�) existences from which Csordas� conclusions follow. Though particular aspects of Richards� lecture make a full comparison difficult, his talk made explicit for me some of the dangers of taking the concept of embodiment as a way to name acts and experiences that manifest variations of freedom and equality inherent to "humanity" when designated as such.

Richards brought up several instances where the display of art had prompted public outcry and various subsequent interventions due to the violence that these works were interpreted as being, rather than simply representing. Indicating an equally �embodied� response, the interventions that Richards cited ranged from juridical discussions that advanced all the way to Parliament regarding whether particular works of art could be displayed, to other works being physically removed, effectively stolen, in protest. While he offered these instances with a reportorial tone, and in an international art context in which he re-presented the works of art as projected slides, and in which it would have made little sense to agree outright with these moments of protest simultaneously leveled against the art institutions in which the art was displayed, Richards brought them up alongside a particularization of contemporary politics in South Africa that suggested that the motivation behind these interventions could not be easily dismissed.

For Richards, the �very present past� and �very complex future� of the contemporary South African political climate makes apparent some of the difficulties of discourses of contemporaneity, such as those that might take an interest in being able to isolate either a temporal moment or a single work of art from the context in which it was created, interests that he remarked could be seen as moving towards a �denial of history.�

Richards spoke in particular of an exhibition he organized in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee that attempted to keep alive particular aspects of the humanism that motivated the Committee�s inception, explicit in their use of an indigenous phrase that he offered in translation as, �I am, because you are,� and contextualized as originating from a particular indigenous spiritual belief system that also carried resonance in Judeo-Christian traditions. In part, I think one of the difficulties of academic discourse on humanism lies in the fact that there is so much everyday language that contains very little meaning when decontextualized. Alongside a number of indications of emotional discomfort exemplified from a near complete abandonment of his notes, Richards� words lost much of their meaning as they became solipsistic when rendered as �people are people� and through references to a �faith� not amenable to linguistic renderings. In retrospect I actually wonder if part of Richards� nervousness as he shuffled his papers, asked about how much time he had remaining, and apologized for a talk that �wasn�t very good,� came from conflicting senses of the immensity of this topic and the general sense that the designation human is something everyone already unconsciously understands, and could therefore be bored by.

Because the face of South Africa�s social problems appear as a struggle to create a sense of national unity following the dismantling of an Apartheid that enforced a particular social stratification, while it seemed that Richards intended to make a distinction between various aspects of humanism, some of which he seemed to value and some of which he critiqued, humanism�s connotations of a social order based on human equality, a connotation which has little to do with embodiment is impossible to avoid. As critique to both Csordas and Richards, I think a clear differentiation of embodiment from humanism, is necessary to avoid the association of the concept of embodiment with anything like �human equality.�

Because contemporary arenas for the display of art are often presented as spaces for creating embodied experiences, as the art calls you as a participant, it is important to understand how it is that various artistic formations may or may not make claims to human equality, while understanding that these figurations are not inherently so simply because of their interpellative form. I look forward to reading Richards� paper when it is published, to see if I can better understand what I take to be his claim that practices of the display of visual art in South Africa offer a site in which to consider the role of embodiment as the point where can be understood as �part of civil societies;� that these embodied practices make a case for humanism, even in a South African context with a very present history, for me, will be a much harder sell.

Posted by at November 22, 2004 6:41 AM