A piece I wrote for Art World Magazine has appeared in their March edition, dwelling on my experiences as a foreigner in the Chinese art world. The English version of this piece is also appearing over at Tuanjie Space, an online community which aims to “develop critical discourse and practices with artists, curators and writers.”
As Agamben indicates in the 1989 preface to the English translation of Infancy and History, the key question that unites his disparate explorations is that of what it means for language to exist, what it means that “I speak.” In taking up this question throughout his work, and most explicitly in texts such as Infancy and History, Language and Death, and most recently, The Open, Agamben reinvigorates consideration of philosophical anthropology through a critical questioning of the metaphysical presuppositions that inform it, and in particular, the claim that the defining essence of man is that of having language. In taking up this question, Agamben proposes the necessity of an “experimentum linguae” in which what is experienced is language itself, and the limits of language become apparent not in the relation of language to a referent outside of it, but in the experience of language as pure self-reference. … Infancy and History … attempts to grasp and articulate the implications of such an experience of language as such. Consisting of a series on interconnected essays on concepts such as history, temporality, play, and gesture, Infancy and History provides an importance entrance to Agamben’s later work on politics and ethics, particularly in the eponymous essay of the edition on the concept of infancy understood as an experiment of language as such. In this, Agamben argues that the contemporary age is marked by the destruction or loss of experience, in which the banality of everyday life cannot be experienced per se but only undergone, a condition which is in part brought about by the rise of modern science and the split between the subject of experience and of knowledge that it entails. Against this destruction of experience, which is also extended in modern philosophies of the subject such as Kant and Husserl, Agamben argues that the recuperation of experience entails a radical rethinking of experience as a question of language rather than of consciousness, since it is only in language that the subject has its site and origin. Infancy, then, conceptualizes an experience of being without language, not in a temporal or developmental sense of preceding the acquisition of language in childhood, but rather, as a condition of experience that precedes and continues to reside in any appropriation of language. (Mills; emphasis mine)
- Mills, Catherine (2005) Agamben, Giorgio [The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. [Online]. Available from: http://www.iep.utm.edu/agamben/ [Accessed 27 March 2010].
Module systems do not occur in China alone; comparable phenomena exist in other cultures. However, the Chinese started working with module systems early in their history and developed them to a remarkably advanced level. They used modules in their language, literature, philosophy, and social organizations, as well as in their arts. Indeed, the devising of module systems seems to conform to a distinctly Chinese pattern of thought.1
While I was in the UK I took the opportunity to pick up some new books, one of which is
Ten Thousand Things, by Lothar Ledderose. I hope to gain some insight into the art from this part of the world from this book, but the statement above troubles me. This setting up of “the Chinese” immediately enforces the relation of “otherness” between the author and the subject. Any utterance is liable to create this relationship, between author and subject, between knowledge and practice, between “now” and “then,” but it seems to me that in this case this relation is not a helpful one.
This book covers a spans thousands of years, a span which is itself intimately linked to Western history:
In roughly chronological sequence, the chapters cover a wide time span. The first case study deals with ritual bronze vessels of antiquity, particularly of the twelfth century B.C. Chapters 6 and 8, respectively, concern and encycolopedia of over one hundred million characters printed with movable type, and a series of bamboo paintings, both dating to the eighteenth century A.D.2
So who are these “Chinese” that the author sets up (or co-opts), that have maintained unique characteristics, deserving of a single name, over thousands of years? That’s many dynasties’ worth of people, with many groups coming and going in the history of the country, a country which has itself been geographically fluid.
Much of this relationship perhaps can be put down to the writer’s understanding of what is pragmatic in the face of his position: he reveals with these positioning statements that he writes for a Western audience.
I don’t deny that this categorisation can be useful and helpful, but what can we do when it becomes problematic? Is it a matter of explicitly positioning all our statements within their context (a potentially infinite task)? There can no absolute form to follow for this, no answer.
I’m perhaps making a small, pedantic point here, about a feature of the text that I have unnecessarily latched onto right at the start of reading this book. I know I will learn much about the objects it describes, I am just wary of how it will present the “whos” and the “whats” involved.
- Ledderose, Lothar (2000). Introduction. In: Ten Thousand Things: module and mass production in Chinese art (The A.W. Mellon lectures in the fine arts, 1998). Princeton: Princeton University Press. p.2.
- ibid., p.1.
I’ve now finished reading the selection of Roland Barthes’ essays published under the title Image, Music, Text. From these I can see how Barthes’ writings straddled both Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, in that they very strongly reveal systems at play in texts, while adding a definite historical context and contingency to those readings.
There were a couple of things which interested me that I’d like to write about. First I wanted to take a quick look at the last text in the book: Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers (Barthes, 1971, pp. 190–215), in which he lays out the distinct roles that these take in relation to the social production and activity of the Text.