A May morning and the struggle with an enemy, against which victory is defeat

I have never actually, physically seen the video installation “with a non-existent title, substituted for only by the beginning of a sentence of arbitrary length about an elegant Amazon.” All I know about it is a short video that is part of the installation and a few photographs documenting it. So I do not have enough information. The author, however, has put all of his cards on the table — he has not only described the installation to me in detail but also explained to me the method he used when working on it (an explanation which, in this case, was not a part of the work). So, at the same time, I have too much information. Both the lack of my own viewing experience and the excessive amount of information about the circumstances of the work’s creation prevent me from applying the basic hermeneutical principle of interpreting a work from the work itself. I have no choice but to admit that the work is here merely being (mis-)used as a basis for free speculation. Likewise, the intention of these speculations differs somewhat from a correct hermeneutical approach: I will not attempt to reveal the inner meaning of the work (i.e. the stance that is manifest in it), but rather to construct it.

We find ourselves in a smallish, white painted room with a fairly high ceiling. The only light source in it is the shining lamp of a projector showing about a 20-minute loop of a video on the wall. The light reflecting from the projection surface gives a blue tint to the semidarkness in the room. There is enough light to permit the reading of the text written on the opposite wall. The room is otherwise empty.
The video consists of a rapid sequence of pairs of letters (minuses of a simple sans serif font) to which there corresponds an alternation of tones emanating from speakers. The sequences of varying length are interrupted by shorter and longer pauses when the letters are replaced by a white or black space and the sound is silenced for a moment. It is not difficult to get the impression (it is just an impression, however; it might or might not be true) that the pairs of letters go together to form words, while the left out frames are the spaces between words. Reading the text, however, seems to be quite impossible, even if we deliberately try to modify the manner of perception (for example, by concentrating on one position in the pair of letters and trying to register the characters as they follow each other — they alternate too quickly; even if we manage to catch some section of their sequence, it still does not form any meaningful combination). In order for us to retrieve from the video the meaning of the text, we would probably have to remember all of the pairs of letters and spaces in their exact order, then decipher the principle according to which they are arranged, and finally decode the text on that basis. It is hard to imagine that any real visitor to the exhibition would be able to do this, and the author could hardly require that of anyone. This still makes no less convincing the impression that the sequence of letters and pauses in the projection is not generated randomly, but forms a coherent text and therefore expresses a meaning that we are supposed to comprehend.
The matter is further complicated by the audio or musical element. When listening to the melody, we cannot tap our feet to the rhythm, nor can we predict how it will develop according to any usual harmonic patterns — each new tone is a surprise. At the same time, however, it is obvious that this conglomeration of tones is not chaotic, but instead is strictly bound to the pairs of letters: each corresponds to one tone, and its duration respects the length of the syllable, while with the breaks between sequences of letters there are corresponding rests in the soundtrack. There is, however, something specific perhaps about the nature of the music that prevents us from concluding from our encounter with the audio element of the video that the sound is merely a mechanical “transcription” of the text into a different medium. Whatever the circumstances of the creation of this atonal composition may have been, in the end it is music, an arranged sequence of sounds that causes within us some kind of hard-to-identify internal movement — an aesthetic, if not an emotional experience.
The overall feeling is irritating — we do not know what to do. Preventing us from giving undisturbed contemplation to the graphic forms and the sounds correlating to them is their character as symbols. Seeing the tangled lines causes sounds to come into our heads (“ye”, “oh”, “el” etc.) because from these lines we automatically recognize letters, i.e. graphic forms (signifiers) that we have learned to connect with definite phonetic values (signified). In this case, the arranged tones of varying pitch and duration in turn “indicate” a pair of letters. And the individual sequences of pairs of letters are decomposed words, i.e. signifiers, the signified (meaning) of which is some sort of statement about the world. We do not see just an alternation of spots, spaces and lines, and we do not hear just rhythm and melody, but rather we are in the presence of a sort of multilayered “dance of signifiers” around an implied meaning that we are fatally unable to perceive.
If we encounter a work of art with such use of a sign, in which the signified can only be identified with difficulty or is entirely absent, as is the case with abstract paintings or phonic poetry, the solution to the problem tends to be identifying the signifier with the signified. We then say that the signifier signifies itself, or that the (artistic) statement makes a topic out of its own medium — it unmasks the seeming clarity of language, and makes the object of its interest its material nature. In the case of the video projection being described, however, we sense that in it, what is involved is not merely, and possibly not at all, the graphic and phonetic properties of the pairs of letters rid of their indicating function. We are certain that there is a code involved, that the given audiovisual sequence is using a key that is unknown to us to rewrite real words that have a meaning, or even meaningful groupings of words (sentences), but that meaning continues to escape us. Our perception thus oscillates between two poles — reading, which cannot reach fulfillment, because it remains only at the phonetic level of the text, and an audiovisual experience, which cannot be experienced fully because that experience has its own insufficiency built in. Perception is running back and forth between the two poles, unable to stay at rest at either of them, fleeing to the opposite pole, again to be deflected. The effect of the work splinters into a “mixture of sensual and intellectual imaginings, the differences between which are merging, and their equality is likewise again dissolving;” it is an “absolutely random mess, the dizziness of disorder continually forming itself.”
The words that I have just evoked to help describe the vicious circle into which the video projection in question draws our perception come from a passage of The Phenomenology of Sprit, in which Hegel deals with what he calls “skeptical self-consciousness.” A skeptical attitude leads to a contradiction that is not possible to resolve within its limitations. The skeptic must constantly deny himself: he fundamentally denies that it is possible to assert anything; by this denial, however, he is asserting something; he must therefore also deny denial itself. Skeptical self-consciousness “speaks of the nothingness of seeing, hearing, etc., and it itself sees, hears, etc. [...]If it is shown equality, it points out inequality, and if confronted with the latter (about which it just spoke), it quickly reverts to demonstrating equality. It talks just like an argument among obstinate children: when one says A, the other says B, and one says B, the other says A. By contradicting themselves, each of them gains the pleasure of still contradicting the other.”[1] Might we regard this video as an expression of the “skeptical self-consciousness,” i.e. of an attitude that falls into the vicious circle of negation by denying the possibility of asserting anything at all, and within the framework of that denial, denying itself as well? And is the thing that we should be feeling, faced with the endlessly repeated hinting at and subsequent disappearance of meaning, the aforementioned joy from the continuation of contradiction? In the context of Hegel’s ideas that I am so arbitrarily using as a basis, the “internal contradiction” of one who denies, which is the joy unavoidably obtained through denial, is understood as a limitation that must be overcome on the next level of development of Spirit. The video projection that I have been dealing with so far is only one component of the comprehensive work being described. Is it possible that this contradiction might be transcended in the higher totality of the installation?
As has been said, written on the opposite wall is a text that we can read thanks only to the reflected light from the video projection. According to expectation, this should probably be the very text that we earlier were unable to decode. The author has taken the liberty of playing a joke on us — first he has given us the excessively difficult task of deciphering a distorted statement, then after we have been forced to admit defeat, he graciously reveals its wording to us. Instead, however, of one coherent proposition, we are shown some sort of table with several items. Written in the top and bottom rows of the table are two sentences that nearly do not differ from each other at all: “One fine morning in the month of May, an elegant Amazon on a handsome sorrel mare rode along the flowery avenues of the Bois du Boulogne. / One beautiful May morning, a slim Amazon on a handsome sorrel mare rode along the flowery avenues of the Bois du Boulogne.” This is actually two versions of the same sentence, differing only in parts of their formulation, with the content remaining the same. So here we have the meaning of the statement that had been causing us problems before by escaping us, but we still get no feeling of satisfaction because of the rather peculiar if not exactly scandalous character of the statement. It is no oracle that would reveal to us some hidden truth about ourselves (which might justify its hermetic presentation), nor is it a banality or truism (which one might also expect — in the context of contemporary art, artists often like to tell us that they have nothing to say), but rather an absurdity — a statement about which we simply do not know what we are supposed to think.
The key to overcoming difficulties with this obscure statement is found in the overall context of the table, in the remaining rows of which are placed various words and phrases reflecting the changes that have taken place between the first and second versions of the sentence (elegant / slim; in the month of May / May morning; flowery / full of flowers) or that did not take place but could have (handsome / well fed / shining / black / sorrel mare / beautiful; du Boulogne? / avenues of the woods, full of flowers?). The meaning of the table is not identical to the content of the sentence: rather than describing the scene in the woods of Boulogne, it is describing the very process of writing, in which a sentence undergoes various transformations until it assumes its final (satisfying?) form. The striking thing about these sentence “improvements” are their apparent superfluity — they are not required by the demands for the correct use of language (as would have been the case if the first sentence had been constructed incorrectly or misrepresented external facts), nor do they bring any shift in meaning (the first and the second sentence both express the same image). The changes are not driven by an effort towards internal consistency or factual accuracy, but rather by an effort towards some sort of “perfection” of form. That impression is confirmed if we peruse the book from which the sentence in question and its changes were taken, namely Camus’s The Plague. The amateur writer Grand, who never ceases throughout the story to struggle with the first sentence of his novel, makes this confession the first time he presents the sentence to his friends: “That’s only a rough draft. Once I’ve succeeded in rendering perfectly the picture in my mind’s eye, once my words have the exact tempo of this ride — the horse is trotting, one-two-three, one-two-three, see what I mean? — the rest will come more easily and, what’s even more important, the illusion will be such that from the very first words it will be possible to say: ‘Hats off!’”[2]
What is shown here is an effort to turn a sentence into a sort of jewel, an object that displays for admiration its sublime material and the highly strenuous effort that its creator had to expend in order to give it shape. We are getting a glimpse of the process of the creation of a literary work, the paramount mission of which is to say that it is a work, the result of creative activity. Such art, “drawing attention to its very artificiality,”[3] is possible only against the background of the idea that the very “way of writing” (l’ecriture), i.e. what means of expression the author chooses and how he uses them, is the expression of a certain attitude, declaring a definite relationship to past cultural traditions, to contemporary society and to the future, an expression of the acceptance of some sort of responsibility with respect to history, or even more radically, the continuation of politics by other means.[4] As Roland Barthes says, writing is “the general selection of tone, ethos, if you will,” in which “the writer individualizes himself, because it is here that he is engaged.” It is a “total sign, the choice of a human attitude, the affirmation of a certain Good [...] A language and a style are blind forces; a mode of writing is an act of historical solidarity. A language and a style are objects; a mode of writing is a function: it is the relationship between creation and society, the literary language transformed by its social finality, form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crises of History. [...] Placed at the center of the problematics of literature, which cannot exist prior to it, writing is thus essentially the morality of form, the choice of that social area within which the writer elects to situate the Nature of his language.”[5] (As likely is gradually becoming apparent, the goal of my speculations is nothing other than the identifying of the attitude expressed by the “writing” of the described installation.)
In the text that has just been extensively quoted, Barthes differentiates between various types of writing, corresponding to the various phases of the history of modern society and the various conceptions of the function in which the artist acts with respect to the societal situation he finds himself in. According to Barthes, writing attains its “last metamorphosis” in its “zero degree” where there finally takes place the “proposing the realization of this Orphean dream: a writer without Literature.”[6] This involves a “neutral” manner of writing, which “renounces taking any refuge in elegance of ornamentation” in favor of the direct manifestation of the author’s position. “This transparent form of speech, initiated by Camus’s The Stranger [L’Étranger], achieves a style of absence which is almost an ideal absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert status of form; thus thought remains wholly responsible, without being overlaid by a secondary commitment of form to a History not its own. [...] If the writing is really neutral, and if language, instead of being a cumbersome and recalcitrant act, reaches the state of a pure equation, which is no more tangible than an algebra when it confronts the innermost part of man, then Literature is vanquished, the problematics of mankind is uncovered and presented without elaboration, the writer becomes irretrievably honest.”[7] The fact that a work by Albert Camus is given as an example of that kind of transparent speech seems to be in accord with what that author himself wrote in The Plague: “That, it may be said in passing, is why, so as not to play false to the facts, and, still more, so as not to play false to himself, the narrator has aimed at objectivity. He has made hardly any changes for the sake of artistic effect, except those elementary adjustments needed to present his narrative in a more or less coherent form.”[8] It is thus all the more interesting that in The Plague the problem of writing in connection with Grand’s attempts is explicitly made into a theme, and it seems to be entirely appropriate to interpret the kind of writing that Grand’s attempts embody as an expression of the choice of a definite stance.
What kind of aesthetic attitude can legitimize art that stands outside of the objective reality of the fight at the very center of which the author finds himself and concentrates on the formal perfecting of the description of such an ideal image? The character of the compulsive writer, whom Camus puts forward as a candidate for modest heroism in the struggle against the plague epidemic, is boundlessly devoted to what he regards as his mission, however laughable it may seem, and serves for the others as an example of the obstinate struggle that they so need, because in “a town where [...] obscure functionaries cultivating harmless eccentricities...,” it seemed that “the chances were all against the plague’s making any headway.” In reality, of course, that assertion is of only limited validity, because “the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good,” so the final truth is the opposite — it is plague which indeed makes a headway. Each victory is only a temporary success against the background of an unavoidable final failure. No matter what we do against the absurd, in the end we will always be defeated — the catastrophe can only be lessened, put off or suppressed for a time, but can never be eradicated. That which makes the foundation of the determination not to yield in resistance forced by circumstances thus is not hope of overcoming, but rather the fragile faith that refusing to acquiesce to a given fate is meaningful in and of itself, regardless of whether it leads to the changing of that fate. If this is true, then in the end it does not matter how futile and unnecessary a person’s actions are in defiance of the senselessness and ugliness of the world. The important thing is that at least something be completed, have its own form, be perfect in some way. Action that is strictly guided by striving for perfection of form is an island of order in the middle of chaos, an expression of the stoical maintaining of the identity of a person with an ethical and aesthetic ideal in the midst of the preponderance of “general dread,” despair and desperation.
This stoic form of freedom is not the freedom to change our lot, but merely to bear it — it is not freedom of action, but merely freedom of thought. To return to Hegel, stoic self-consciousness may not “manifest itself in a living manner in action,” because it lacks any positive content for how it would want to reshape the external situation. Stoic consciousness is anchored exclusively to form, to the empty word, for the realization of which with concrete content it takes no responsibility. In the end, its content is random, something forced upon it by external forces, over which it has no control. “In the way, however, that concept as abstraction has here cut itself off from the great diversity of things, concept has no content in itself; rather, it has given content.”[11] This is exactly why the example of Grand, who is striving to give the most perfect form to content that is in absurd contradiction to his meager existence, is an excellent illustration of the stoic approach. Here, an aesthetic falsehood becomes a reflection of the inadequacy of the ethical attitude itself that is connected with stoicism: freedom, the realization of which is limited to perfection of the form of something entirely meaningless in relation to the concrete reality in which we live, is just the sort of freedom that “has only a pure idea as its truth, that is not filled with life, and thus is also merely the concept of freedom, and not living freedom itself.”[12]
My speculations first linked the video projection showing a contradiction between the materiality and the meaningfulness of characters broken down into nonsensical components with a skeptical form of consciousness. Next I described the process of writing and the erudite search for perfect form, documented by the text on the opposite wall, as an expression of the stoic attitude. I could now interpret the relationship between those two components of the installation as an ascending movement in which the form of speech corresponding to skeptical self-consciousness overcomes the form of speech reflecting the consciousness of the stoic. The deconstructivism of skepticism tears the diligently refined jewel (“kosmos” in Greek) of the stoic attitude to pieces. While the text on the wall shows the process of the formation of meaning, the searching for a perfect form that would be unshakable and would mean victory over the absurdity of mortal being (although a victory achieved in abstraction from the concrete manifestations of real life, only in thought), the video projection shows the text segmented by a mechanical (and thus nonhuman) method into pieces so that any attempt to reassemble it would necessarily lead to desperation. Skeptical doubt reveals the fundamental spuriousness of the idea of perfect form, in which the necessity of the right word and action would manifest itself (that it would be “right” only in this and in no other way), and declares the essential contingency of every language and of every action. From the illusion of a harmonious whole merging an ideal world in which slim Amazons race through flowery lanes and sentences with a rhythm that faithfully reflects the trot of a sorrel mare, we are thrust into the chaos of disharmony, lack of rhythm and letters without meaning.
Things do not stop with the victory of skepticism, however. As a comprehensive whole, the installation shows us the mutual relationship of the stoic and the skeptical attitude, allowing one to see their limitations, thus reflecting an attitude that is located between that pair. While the stoic attitude attains freedom only at the level of thought, in which it falls together with the integral and unchangeable, remaining in a reality that is passive to its fate, the skeptical attitude reflects the impossibility of freedom — the trailing off of effectiveness of each word and action in the contingency and changeability of existence — whereas it thus expresses the contradiction that also carries it away itself. A higher form of consciousness is, then, such that is aware of that very contradiction as a contradiction. Opposed to the skeptical attitude, it again postulates something integral and unchangeable, although this time negatively, as a background against which we may be shown the contradictoriness and changeability of that which is contradictory and changeable. In Hegel’s model, onto which I am trying to graft my own interpretation of the work in question, this function is carried out by the so-called “unhappy consciousness,” which “is consciousness of itself as a dual, merely contradictory being.”[13] It is consciousness in which we are aware of the randomness of existence, the arbitrariness of language, the relativity of the truth of our understanding and the correctness of our actions, but at the same time we understand that such awareness presumes the background of something unchanging, integral, perfect. Applicable then to that consciousness is “on the one hand, the simple and unchangeable for the entity; and on the other hand, the complicated and changeable for the insubstantial.” That is, even the consciousness that overcomes the contradiction of skeptical consciousness by being aware of it is itself floundering in contradiction: “being conscious of this contradiction, it takes the side of changeable consciousness and is nonsubstantive for itself; but as consciousness of unchangeability or of simple being, it must immediately head towards liberating itself from the insubstantial, i.e. in order to become liberated from itself. [...] This starts off a struggle against an enemy, against which victory is to the contrary a defeat, in which achieving one thing means that we lose its opposite. Consciousness of life, of one’s own being and activity is merely so much suffering over one’s being and activity, since unhappy consciousness consists only of the knowledge that its opposite is being — and consciousness of one’s own nothingness.”[14] This is just the reason why this consciousness is “unhappy” — it knows that something is, but it only knows this because it is aware of its own nothingness.
I believe that we could speak of the “writing” of this installation as being a variant of the “neutral writing” that stands outside of the two forms of writing that it takes as its theme, meanwhile “writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert status of form.”[15] Even concerning this installation, it is possible to say that in it “Literature is vanquished, the problematics of mankind is uncovered and presented without elaboration.”[16] It is, however, with less certainty that we could claim that it is the fulfillment of the dream of a “writer without literature,” that is, an artist as an engaged individual who transparently shows himself as he is in his work. The manner in which the author’s own stance is present in this work consists in his absence: this stance is not participation, but rather a viewpoint.
If I am now trying to interpret the “writing” of this installation as a manifestation of the “unhappy” consciousness, which side of the struggle “against an enemy, against which victory is to the contrary a defeat” should it be on? I would assume that for its externality regarding the question of language and its human dimension, for the aesthetic distance by which it captures the nothingness of man, the nonsensicalness of his words and the futility of his actions, showing them at once as something laughable, beautiful and exalted, this “writing” takes the side of the “unchanging” — the viewpoint that it brings, and thus the stance that is manifested in it as well, is not human.

– Václav Magid

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[1] G. W. F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1999, p. 162—163.
[2] Albert Camus, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, Vintage Books, New York 1972, p. 99.
[3] Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, Hill And Wang, New York 1968, p. 65.
[4] This is how in the 1960s the writers surrounding the revue Tel Quel (Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet) formulated the nature of “l’écriture.”
[5] Barthes, op cit, pp. 14—15.
[6] Ibid, p. 5.
[7] Ibid, pp. 77—78.
[8] Camus, op cit, p. 169.
[9] Camus, op cit, p. 45.
[10] Ibid, p. 287.
[11] Hegel, op cit, p. 158.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., p. 163.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Barthes, op cit, p. 77.
[16] Ibid, p. 78