Hinge Vol. 23

Page 1


Journal of Contemporary Studies



Journal of Contemporary Studies

Vol. XXIII, 2017

Executive Editors Alexandra Trnka Jacob Baker-Kretzmar

Editors Emma Renaerts Paisley Conrad Nika Lennox

Publisher Jacob Baker-Kretzmar

Hinge is an undergraduate academic journal published annually by the Contemporary Studies Society of the King’s Students’ Union, at the University of King’s College in K’jipuktuk (Halifax), Nova Scotia.

The Contemporary Studies Society acknowledges that all of the scholarship at King’s, including Hinge, takes place in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. This territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship,” which Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) people first signed with the British Crown in 1725. The treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources, but in fact recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations.

Hinge Editors c/o Contemporary Studies Society University of King’s College Halifax, NS B3H 2A1

Copyright, in all cases, remains with the author.

Original cover artwork by Jacob Baker-Kretzmar. Printed in K’jipuktuk (Halifax), Nova Scotia, by etc. Press Ltd.

Contents Foreword


Family, Freedom, and World-Building by Vicky Coo


History, as it Self-Destructs by Paisley Conrad


Idolatry, Imagery, and Iconoclasm by Brianna Dunn


Living in Today in a Time of Disappearing Yesterdays and Uncertain Tomorrows by Emma Clarke


Mortality, Futility, and Universality in Marc Quinn’s Self Series by Chesel Alexander


Theorems and Proofs by Josh Feldman


Judith Butler, Donald Trump, and the “Nasty Woman” by Jen Hall


Translating the Subject by Edouard McIntyre


Women’s Autobiography as Cixous’s Écriture Féminine by Hannah Barrie


Freudian Obelisks by Samuel Cotton


Foreword My engagement with Contemporary Studies—“the ideas that shape the contemporary world”—over the course of my degree is one that resists categorization. I relish this ambiguity: that a degree in (or journal of ) Contemporary Studies defies complete or total definition. It is this flexibility that allows for the plethora of academic engagements included in this 23rd volume of Hinge. This resistance to definite categorization opens and celebrates the possibility of our learning in a dedicated and personal manner. CSP exists on the periphery of definition, and as such the scope of our work defies the boundaries of traditional disciplines. I believe that we bring to our degrees what we wish, and Contemporary Studies speaks back to us in a voice that we have helped create. In considering the relationship between CSP and its students, I see a process of mutual creation. Just as the texts we study inform our understandings of the world, the perspectives and creative energies with which we approach our work only deepen the possibilities available within the program. I approach the undefinable nature of CSP, and the voices it has shaped in Hinge, in a celebration of this potential and creativity. I believe the papers that follow illustrate exactly this. Alexandra Trnka

Family, Freedom, and World-Building The role of symbolic mothers in Tegonni: An African Antigone

Vicky Coo

Antigone, Sophocles’ tragic heroine, opens the first Theban play with the words “My own dear flesh and blood,” setting the stage for the crucial significance of blood relation and ideas of family in the conflict to come.1 Unable to escape the curse of her father’s, she defies her uncle and rejects her sister in the name of a duty she passionately believes she owes to her dead brother. In Femi Osofisan’s Tegonni: An African Antigone, set in colonial Nigeria, family relationships likewise play a central role, but are looser, more metaphorical, and more a matter of choice than of compulsion. Whereas Sophocles’ Antigone, in service to the dead, isolates herself from the living, Tegonni acts with and for the living, affirming kinship with the women of her village through their communal fight for freedom, thus illustrating several of the concepts that Linda Zerilli discusses in her chapter “Feminists Make Promises: The Milan Collective’s Sexual Difference and the Project of World-Building” from Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom. By examining the two plays through the lens of Zerilli’s feminist theory, I will argue that this different way of defining the family and community creates the space in Tegonni for the presence of interlocutors, the right relation to history, and the treatment of freedom as communal rather than private. I will first



discuss the role that family plays in each text, and the relevance of Zerilli’s ideas on struggles for freedom. I will then explore how Osofisan himself, like the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, engages in a project of world-building and creating symbolic mothers that forms an underlying sense of freedom not as an absence of oppression, but as a positive practice. For Sophocles’ Antigone, the sanctity of the blood relation is all-important and unambiguous. She believes it to be the gods’ command for her brother Polyneices to have the proper burial rites, despite his having led a foreign army against Thebes. This begins her clash with Creon: she cannot admit that it was wrong for her to disobey his decree to leave Polyneices unburied, and he cannot allow such flagrant contempt of the laws of the polis, and of his authority as her uncle, to go unpunished. While Creon paints her insubordination as an act of treason, she says to Ismene that Polyneices “is my brother and—deny it as you will— / your brother too. / No one will ever convict me for a traitor,” implying that failing to bury her brother would be a far greater betrayal than breaking the law of the city.2 Like her unyielding intention to honour her brother, her anger with her sister for this perceived betrayal is inflexible. Even when Ismene, dismayed at her sister’s death sentence, declares, “But now you face such dangers… I’m not ashamed / to sail through trouble with you, / make your troubles mine,” Antigone rejects her: “Never share my dying, / don’t lay claim to what you never touched. My death will be enough.”3 Paradoxically, her conviction in the importance of family duty leads her to isolate herself from her only remaining relatives. Like Antigone, Tegonni evidently believes in family duty: after all, she is on her way to pay her respects to her father’s grave when she comes across the soldier and her brother’s body. She frequently refers to her parents, and proudly says, “Tegonni shall never apologise! Not the daughter of Alarape of Ijaye!”; clearly, her heritage is a fundamental part of her identity.4 Moreover, when the Governor confronts her for closing the corpse’s eyes and scattering dust over him, she says simply, “He was my brother… He was my brother, white man.”5 However, for her, blood relation


is not the only determinant of family; it is an extended concept. Yemisi speaks of “Tegonni, our sister,” and Tegonni in turn calls her friends “my sister.”6 Similarly, as Faderera, Yemisi, and Kunbi plead with Chief Isokun to give the bride his blessings, they refer to him as their father, and he calls them his daughters—clearly a sign of their mutual respect and affection, not an indication that they are biologically related.7 Later, frustrated that the elders want the women to surrender their spirit, Tegonni’s friend Faderera asks, “Is that not what they are always doing, the men we call our fathers and our husbands!”8 Her phrasing suggests that true fathers and husbands would join in the struggle against oppression: men who will not do so might no longer deserve the honour of being called family. Osofisan omits the original Antigone’s strange logic for why she would go to such great lengths only for a brother: she could replace a dead husband or child by remarrying or giving birth, but “mother and father both lost in the halls of Death, / no brother could ever spring to light again.”9 Instead, he focuses on the idea of adoption, particularly in relation to Allan Jones. In Jones’s first teasing exchange with Bayo, the Reverend says, “When you accept to be the surrogate father of a bridegroom who comes from a bush country where they have no culture, you have to think of everything for him!”10 When the General arrives and insults Bayo, Allan, defending his friend, tells him, “He is my father for the day.”11 The full significance of this line is not revealed until much later in the play, when the General cries, “You, Allan, whom I brought here, and adopted as my son!”12 Allan makes a definite choice, even before the main action of the play begins, to separate himself from his former father figure and turn to Bayo instead as a mentor, revealing his dissatisfaction with colonial attitudes and his sincere interest in learning about Nigerian culture. That a father can be symbolic and shifting indicates the fluidity of family in Osofisan’s play. Tegonni’s broadening of the idea of family is important as it allows for an idea of freedom that is not individual, but collective. It is significant that whereas Sophocles begins his




play with Antigone lamenting her brothers’ deaths, Osofisan first takes the time to establish a strong sense of community in Oke-Osun, particularly among the young women, who tease Tegonni for abandoning them, as she complains that she, who has “always / Been surrounded by the music of many voices, / And shared gossip and laughter with eager tongues!” will be lonely as a wife.13 The playful, loving spirit of the bridal procession and songs indicates that Tegonni and her friends may already have a shared female world that Linda Zerilli believes to be absent in many Western democracies, where women are isolated from one another. This world is not only one of affection, but is consciously created through political action. That Tegonni entered into a traditionally male profession and became the first woman to join the guild of bronze casters does not demonstrate a wish for equality understood merely as sameness with men; rather, that she also founded the first guild of women casters shows that there can be a freedom understood, as Zerilli puts it, as “the capacity to found new forms of political association.”14 Zerilli believes that within feminism, equality strengthens “‘the female demand for a commonality based on gender’—‘do not forget you are a woman like all the others,’” and creates the problem of “reconciling her wish for personal distinction with her sisters’ demand that she not leave the women’s commonality.”15 For the women of Oke-Osun, however, the language of sisterhood does not create an opposition between individuality and commonality, but rather indicates that they are in the midst of “a creative and collective practice of worldbuilding, fundamentally inaugural in character, which establishes irreducibly contingent, politically significant relationships among women as sexed beings who otherwise have none apart from their place in the masculine economy of exchange.”16 It is crucial that the play begins with such relationships already partly in place, because one of the greatest departures that Osofisan makes from Sophocles’ play is that Tegonni does not act alone. Whereas Antigone’s act of rebellion is completely solitary and individual, Tegonni’s friends distract the soldiers by singing and dancing. Tegonni later attempts to persuade them


not to share in her punishment, but they maintain their solidarity with her. They declare, “Let us all die!” and consider it a victory that the General recognizes their refusal to be divided: the stage directions read, “The women laugh cheerily at their triumph, and congratulate Tegonni.”17 They are acting not only for her sake, but on behalf of their people, which becomes clear when Tegonni states that for her to apologize would mean “the death of our people,” and Bayo responds, “It is a sacrifice the town has no right to demand of you.”18 If freedom in Western democracies is, as Zerilli believes, “defined in highly individualistic terms, housed in constitutionally guaranteed rights, and experienced as something that begins where politics ends,” Tegonni and her “sisters” choose instead to advocate for communal liberation.19 The participation in a collective fight allows Tegonni to reject the role of victim that Sophocles’s heroine assumes. As Antigone goes to her death, denouncing Creon’s oppression, she cries out, “I alone, see what I suffer.”20 The doomed figure of a martyr resisting tyranny utterly on her own is striking, and is no doubt partly responsible for Antigone’s enduring appeal. It illustrates the problem, though, that Linda Zerilli identifies twenty-five centuries later: “What traps feminism in the logic of reparation is not an injury identity shared by all its members, then, but the absence of the figure of female freedom. Consequently, woman as victim provides the only figure around which to mobilize politically.”21 Despite her strength, the Chorus speaks of Antigone, and she speaks of herself, as an object of pity. Had Osofisan portrayed Tegonni as identical to Sophocles’ Antigone, the same character in a new context, he would have risked continuing this portrait of her as an eternal symbolic victim. Not only would this denigrate her independence and activity, it would imply an understanding of history as continuously repeating, unable to break free from the cycles of oppression—an understanding that Osofisan considers, but ultimately rejects. Osofisan’s Antigone, who travels from the past to watch Tegonni’s story unfold and join in the play, seems at first to favour this view. Though she claims to be excited, her remarks “I’ve travelled the same route before” and “It’s just




history about to repeat itself again” indicate her weariness.22 When Tegonni goes to her for advice, Antigone tells her to give up on the idea of freedom: she has learned from history that oppression is inevitable. However, she soon reveals that she was only testing Tegonni, and that what is inevitable is that oppression will be overthrown, saying, “Ozymandias will rise again! But so will Antigone! Wherever the call for freedom is heard!”23 The final image of Antigone in Sophocles’s play is of her despair as she is dragged to her grave; in contrast, Tegonni is last seen raised on her friends’ shoulders as they celebrate their victory. Even after she is shot, she is rewarded by the Water Goddess in a scene of “immediate, visible joy.”24 Thus, Osofisan recasts Antigone from a victim to a figure of freedom around whom to mobilize politically, exactly as Zerilli calls for. Like Osofisan, Zerilli reflects on the relation of an oppressed people to their history, and she warns of the pitfalls of idealizing ancient ideas of matriarchy as the lost object of women’s freedom. She writes, “Such an object incites the desire for freedom only to turn that desire against itself in the impossible wish to will backwards. Nothing compares to the absolute freedom of the past, and nothing but a return to the past can regain that absolute freedom. The future must be either transcended or destroyed.”25 Osofisan is likewise aware of the danger of idealizing the past and the impossibility of returning to it, and is careful not to romanticize Nigeria’s pre-colonial village life. The story of the town turning against Tegonni when she decided to pursue bronze-casting, and her ensuing need to seek refuge from her own people with the foreign District Officer, makes obvious the sexism and violence entrenched in the community before and apart from British rule. After all, it is in their own language that the women sing, “Slaving for husbands—is our fate! / Carrying their burden—is ours too! / If you accept—it’s trouble! / If you refuse—it’s trouble too!”26 Likewise, Isokun reflects on the “internal wounds,” the fault lines that divided their society and made it vulnerable to cracking under colonialism, which he says “erode our cohesion, our sense of oneness, and therefore our ability to resist… I’m talking of


our slaves, those we captured in the wars, and wasted in other combats. Of those we condemned as outcasts, and fed periodically to the gods. I’m talking of the women who did not want to be buried alive with their dead husbands.”27 By acknowledging the pre-existing injustices, Isokun avoids a wistfulness for a fictional perfect past and can concentrate on a better future. Instead, it is the General who seems trapped in the past. He expresses his nostalgia for the simplicity and order of the days he remembers when “certain things were taken for granted… You came with the gun in one hand, and the whip in the other… You knew you were right, because you were white, and you believed in the Cross and the Empire.”28 Osofisan thus reverses the traditional view of African society as “primitive” and Europe as “civilized”: instead, it is Oke-Osun that is beginning to bring about change, and the North that is stuck in its despotic ways. The challenging of history takes on a concrete form as Tegonni engages in dialogue with Antigone. Antigone, as we have seen, has been made a symbol of the victim of oppression; Zerilli writes, “the one who figures ‘the wretchedness of the female gender’ is always ‘the other woman,’ including women who come before, not least of all one’s own mother.”29 To reverse this conception of the mother as victim, the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective calls not for “a return to a moment in the development of subjectivity prior to injury,” but for the creation of a new symbolic practice, a practice ‘which sees outlined in failing or lack, not the wrongs of others [which call for reparation] but the something more which a woman wants to be and can be’ […] The Italians’ wager is that feminist politics can be forged under the figure of freedom rather than injury, the desire for “something more” rather than equality.30 Antigone, reclaimed from victimhood, becomes a “gendered figure of origin around which to organize a feminist practice of freedom, a new social contract.”31 The characteristics that




Zerilli calls for in relationships with symbolic mothers are thus present in Osofisan’s play in Tegonni’s relation to Antigone. Each of Tegonni’s versions of Antigone is distinct from the other and from Sophocle’s original character, and is able to emerge from the shadow of autocosienza that, as Zerilli writes, presupposes perfect reciprocal identification—“I am you, you are me; the words that one of us uses are women’s words, hers and mine”— and thus cannot show differences or conflicts between women, and eliminates the possibility for genuine politics.32 Osofisan’s Antigone may share Tegonni’s belief in freedom, but they are interlocutors, seeing from different standpoints, and affirming human, and female, plurality. Antigone tests Tegonni to see if her faith is able to stand on its own; Tegonni hotly counters Antigone’s apparent giving up. Only once Tegonni has proved that she does not idealize Antigone as an unquestionable source of authority, but can engage with her in a meaningful way, and Antigone has participated in Tegonni’s story as one among the women, can they greet each other as sisters, neither superior or equivalent to each other. They affirm that they can work towards a shared goal of freedom while remaining individual. In their dialogue we can see the passing of authority, gratitude, and entrustment. Authority, writes the Milan Collective, “is received originally from another human being who is in the position to give it, who has the authority to give it.”33 Antigone, with the weight of history behind her, is in the position to pass it on to Tegonni and her friends. She is not an absolute, but as the symbolic mother “comes ‘to indicate the source of social legitimacy for female difference.’”34 Tegonni, in turn, says, “Oh my sister, welcome back! You’ve given me courage now, to do what I must do! Come with me!”35 Her response demonstrates gratitude, which the Collective believes “is what female freedom is practically founded on.”36 Gratitude, for Zerilli, “is an expression not of hierarchy but reciprocity; it is a mutual acknowledgement of the nonsovereign conditions of female freedom, the imbrications of claims to community and claims to individuality.”37 This acknowledgement that freedom is not an individual matter, but


is intricately bound up in community, is what allows Tegonni’s rallying call to be more effective, and resonate more clearly, than the original, proudly isolated Antigone’s assertion of her rights, an instance of the “fantasy of sovereignty.”38 The words that the Collective writes about Hilda Doolittle apply also to Tegonni’s public declaration of her freedom: “all this was possible because of the woman who was beside her and who, at the decisive moment, said to her: ‘Go on.’”39 In her final speeches, Tegonni is in turn saying “Go on” to her people: she too has now become a symbolic mother to them. Thus, Antigone’s appearance in Tegonni’s story and the consequences of her involvement make visible the social relation and political project of female entrustment. Admittedly, not all of Osofisan’s ideas align perfectly with Zerilli’s. Overtly, the struggle in Oke-Osun is for concrete political rights and an overthrowing of colonial rule, not for new relations among women. Indeed, the unity and accord among the women seems to leave little room for conflict between them, which Zerilli believes to be essential for freedom. However, if we consider that Osofisan is writing in the late twentieth century, responding to the issue of military rule in Nigeria, and that there are similarities between women’s struggles for freedom and African nations’ fights for independence, we can see that with the act of writing a play about freedom, and performing it both in Africa and in America, he engages in the task of world-building. The “debilitating state of (symbolic) indifferentiation in which women find themselves in masculinist cultures: all women are the same” parallels the ignorance and prejudice alive and well in many Western nations about Africa being a uniform mass, either a dark place or a suffering one.40 Osofisan counters such assumptions by evoking the richness and individuality of Oke-Osun’s culture, traditions, and citizens, while simultaneously calling for unity and collaboration. The poet Isokun identifies the enemy within, and lays out “the task of mending these internal wounds.”41 Like the Milan Collective, he neither wants the oppressed to achieve a normative standard and become equal to their oppressors, nor bases his claim to freedom on an inherent difference that would


Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Sophocles, Antigone, 1. Ibid., 55-57. Ibid., 608-610, 613-618. Femi Osofisan, Tegonni: An African Antigone, 77. Ibid., 48. Ibid., 16, 24. Ibid., 11-12. Ibid., 66. Sophocles, 995-1004. Osofisan, 38. Ibid., 44. Ibid., 92. Ibid., 27. Linda Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom, 98.

15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29

Ibid., 95-96. Ibid., 94. Osofisan, 65. Ibid., 78. Zerilli, 93-94. Sophocles, 1032-1035. Zerilli, 102. Osofisan, 16, 18. Ibid., 97. Ibid., 98. Zerilli, 101. Osofisan, 50. Ibid., 79. Ibid., 99. Zerilli, 100.



“entrap us in the familiar deadlock of ‘woman is wonderful’”—or, in this case, ‘Africa is wonderful’—and thus be of use and benefit to others.42 While former colonial powers clearly have amends to make, Osofisan wants Nigeria to move beyond reparation—not to define itself not as wounded, and thus constantly in relation to the oppressor and “in attachments to unfreedom,” as Zerilli writes of women—but to forge its own identity.43 Antigone’s ancient fight for freedom and devotion to her family may serve as inspirations for Tegonni, but they do not limit her. Whereas Antigone simultaneously insists on the importance of kin and cuts herself off from others, the more flexible and inclusive ideas of family at play in Tegonni allow for new relations and freedoms. This is what allows Osofisan’s drama, unlike Sophocles’s work, to end on a triumphant, hopeful note despite its tragic events; it denies the inevitability of oppression. Freedom, Tegonni demonstrates, need not be conceived of as a complete realization of rights, but can be a radical, inaugural practice that is constantly handed down and passed on; as Antigones throughout the ages urge, “Go on.”

30 31 32 33 34 35



Ibid., 102. Ibid., 113. Ibid., 103. Ibid., 115. Ibid., 114. Osofisan, 97. Zerilli, 116.

37 38 39 40 41 42 43

Ibid. Ibid., 94. Ibid., 114. Ibid., 95. Osofisan, 79. Zerilli, 99. Ibid.

19 Bibliography Osofisan, Femi. Tegonni: An African Antigone. Lagos: Concept Publications, 2007. Sophocles. Antigone. New York: Penguin Classics, 1984. Zerilli, Linda. Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

History, as it Self-Destructs The form of Benjamin’s Theses

Paisley Conrad

I sat upon the shore Fishing, with the arid plain behind me Shall I at least set my lands in order? “The Waste Land,” T. S. Eliot

Benjamin wrote the Theses on the Philosophy of History as a series of evocative vignettes, both critiquing historicism and creating a new conception of history, historical materialism. Benjamin champions the fragmentary nature of historical materialism by presenting information indirectly. In its brevity and non-linearity, the form of Benjamin’s writing actively subverts chronology and historicism. Ronald Beiner’s interpretation of the Theses centres around Benjamin’s “hope of a leap into transcendence,” tenuously described as the redemptive potential of historical materialism.1 In describing “the fragmentary and tentative character of the Theses,” Beiner explores the impenetrability of the text.2 However, in the juxtaposition and perplexity of the text, Benjamin cognizes the potential of redemption through historical materialism. Hence, Benjamin cobbles together “terse, disjointed vignettes,” disengaging from a linear, objective writing style.3 In this way, both the form and content of the Theses reject the totalizing sweep of


historicism. Susan Sontag, in her book Under the Sign of Saturn, is also insistent on Benjamin’s work as transcendent: “mental and historical processes are rendered as conceptual tableaux […] intellectual perspectives are vertiginous.”4 Benjamin’s style favours metaphors and allegories, and for Sontag, this creates a dizzying effect on the reader. In his frequent re-orientations of perspective and style, Benjamin shifts his focus, subverting expectations. The written form of Benjamin’s Theses supports the content, working in tandem to critique and disengaged from historicism in favour of historical materialism. For Benjamin, historicism incorrectly insists on its own objectivity. In Thesis VI, he dismisses German historian Leopold von Ranke, contending that a “conception of historicism” that seeks “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’”5 Here, Benjamin repudiates a linear, totalizing narrative of history by establishing the impossibility of discussing the past ‘the way it really was’ through historicism. Historical narratives, for Benjamin, have the potential to conform to the tradition of the victors, eradicating the stories of the oppressed. However, the historicist posits herself as an objective fact-collector, despite personal biases and objectives. Benjamin critiques the “‘eternal image’ of the past,” as the potential for new interaction with the past is neutralized, allowing the historic legitimation of oppression.6 Drawing from this, Beiner writes that the Theses move “in the direction of a more general critique of the idea of progress.”7 Indeed, Benjamin clearly questions the possibility of progress in Thesis VII, observing that “the current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical.”8 Historical narratives, for Benjamin, encourage complacency in the masses by creating untouchable chronologies and establishing the illusion of historical progression, thus dissuading individuals from actively engaging with the concept of history. Beiner writes that Benjamin is fervent in his endeavour to “shatter any complacency on the part of the historian.”9 In effect, the Theses rebuff historicism in favour of historical materialism, which is not driven by progress,




but another process, called redemption. Benjamin combats the complacency of historicism by writing explosive vignettes explicating historical materialism. In lieu of historicism, Benjamin contends that the redemptive power of historical materialism act as the only route to “the fullness of its past.”10 For Benjamin, this “fullness” includes what has been excluded from the dominating historical narrative: namely the fragments left behind by the oppressed. Thesis VIII articulates this clearly: “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”11 His contention is that the ubiquity of historical oppression is incongruent with the illusion of historical progress. Benjamin suggests that the historical materialist uses different methods to access historical truth as traditional methods are insufficient. Strikingly, Benjamin writes that “the past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”12 By equating the “fullness of [the] past” with a fleeting impression, Benjamin raises the stakes for the historical materialist: she must be aware of the ephemeral quality of these forgotten memories. Later, Benjamin returns to this metaphor, writing that “[historical materialism] means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”13 Here, the danger is that the memory will be lost, through misrecognition or disregard. The language used in this metaphor is tenuous: the “moment of danger” is fragile and urgent. Beiner unpacks this sentiment, writing, “what hope there is comes not from the future but from a vanquished past that resists domination by the victorious enemy. Therefore it is the duty of the historian to continue ‘fanning the spark of hope in the past.’”14 Accordingly, Benjamin writes that the historical materialist “regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.”15 In this act, the historical materialist refuses to accept oppression as a historical aberration. Here lies a sense of urgency: for Benjamin, to redeem the past and challenge the narrative of the victor, the historian must act hastily. Benjamin’s stylistic choices in the Theses are purposeful: as he rejects the linear tenets of historicism, he also rejects a


linearity in his writing about history. In scattering epigraphs and integrating quotes with no discernible pattern, Benjamin searches through the “single catastrophe” of history to critique Ranke’s conception of history.16 Sontag contends that in Benjamin’s writing, he transforms “the flow of events into tableaux [… condensing] it into its spatial forms.”17 Benjamin’s use of space and metaphor imbues the piece with potency; by breaking up his ideas into short sections with a variety of epigraphs, Benjamin presents the readers with a series of succinct impressions. There is clear interplay between the form of the Theses and its content. The immediacy of Benjamin’s use of allusion and allegory is disarming: by employing a disjointed writing technique, he prevents the reader from anticipating the progression of the work. Here, the “image which flashes” itself is present in Benjamin’s text, complicating straightforward interpretation.18 Just as he encourages engagement with forgotten fragments of history, Benjamin employs fragments in his own writing. Spatially, each thesis varies in length. In like manner, the unity within each thesis varies: some explore a single allegory or idea, whereas others seamlessly transition mid-paragraph. Sontag contends that Benjamin’s style is full of “space, of moments and discontinuities.”19 Despite the discontinuities, however, the Theses are thematically consistent. Benjamin loosely unites the Theses with a thorough explication of “history,” and the twists in the work heighten the sense of urgency. Benjamin’s overall effect functions much like a montage, juxtaposing particular metaphors and allusions so that the reader is unable to anticipate his trajectory. Like the “image which flashes,” his work is a series fleeting impressions, which undermine the historicist’s narrative.20 Central to the Theses is the catastrophic allegory of the angel of history, a powerful and fleeting theological metaphor. Benjamin describes an evocative painting by Paul Klee in fixed detail. Benjamin’s angel “is turned towards the past,” desperate to engage in the redemption of humanity.21 However, the angel is trapped in his gaze, looking “as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.”22 By hindering the angel’s




motion, Benjamin’s allegory resembles the nuances of his critique: eternal dimensions are present in both the angel and historicism. Redemption is inaccessible through totalizing historical narratives. This is not unlike the angel, who is disconnected from time and space; viewing history as “one single catastrophe.”23 Lacking a distinct and human perspective on history, the angel cannot engage in human redemption. Both the historicist and the angel are, in turn, powerless to “make whole what has been smashed.”24 Implicit in this allegory is the urgent necessity to engage with the past to redeem it. Despite their parallels, however, the historicist and the angel of history diverge significantly: the historicist sees the “chain of events,” whereas the angel sees only rubble. Benjamin breaks even further from a Hegelian understanding of history by describing progress as a “storm.”25 Beiner contends that “this conception is certainly far removed from the idea of history as a rationally intelligible process.”26 Indeed, in imagining history as a mass of rubble, Benjamin obliterates the idea of progression in totality. In this extended metaphor, in the piles of wreckage, all fragments are equal, those of the victors are not privileged over those of the oppressed. The nuances of this thesis show Benjamin at his most figurative: he presents the reader with an image of an image, drawing on theological language. Beiner writes that “this corresponds the redemptive function of historical reflection [with] the saving power of remembrance.”27 In observation of the angel’s observation of the storm, Benjamin privileges the reader as the active participant in the “[making] whole” of history.28 For Beiner, Benjamin’s redemption is bound intimately with the image of catastrophe. Through the angel of history, and his engagement with theological language, he figures both historical catastrophe and complete redemption. Implicitly, Benjamin contends that without catastrophe, redemption and happiness are impossible. Benjamin employs contrast to both deepen the chasm between the two poles while also strengthening their reciprocal relationship. In addition to the redemptive use of language, Benjamin’s engagement with allegory parallels the historical materialist’s engagement with history. Here, the effect created is analogous to


Benjamin’s own engagement with fragmentary writing. Benjamin’s allegories are striking in that they are both devastated and hopeful. The angel of history illustrates the connection between the two: redemption is bound up with catastrophe. Sontag intuits that Benjamin engaged with allegory as a “discontinuous utterance, the sense of historical catastrophe.”29 That is to say, the discontinuity of Benjamin’s work preoccupies itself with figurative language and juxtaposing images to build up the impression of catastrophe. The place of the allegory in Thesis IX in the structure of the piece as a whole contrasts the adjacent vignettes. Thesis IX is bookended by two direct, concise passages: Thesis VIII discusses Fascism’s success in suppressing dissident opinions, whereas Thesis X characterizes the “stubborn faith in progress” of anti-Fascist politicians as blindly complicit.30 Both of these passages act as clear mini-critiques of historicism. Grounding himself in examples from reality, Benjamin writes in terse, active sentences. As it flashes up, Thesis IX is a “discontinuous utterance,” a self-contained allegory.31 Opening with a short excerpt of poetry, the angel of history, not Fascism, is the focus of the thesis. Here, it is as if the angel himself flashes up in a moment of danger. By situating this particular allegory between two grounded segments, Benjamin emphasizes the precariousness of his project, of redemption. Referring to this passage, Beiner writes that “the emphasis is not on ‘the present’s own concerns,’ but on the need to save the past from the threat of irretrievable disappearance.”32 Indeed, the sharply contrasting presentation of words informs the discontinuity of the text. The jarring impact of the style on the critique is effective: like the historical materialist engaging with history, the text necessitates urgency in its reading and interpretation. Stylistically jarring, Benjamin consciously engages in brief, loose figurative language. A particularly striking metaphor is that of “the constellation.”33 The direct interpretation of this metaphor is ambiguous: it refers to both historical materialism and Benjamin’s own writing style. The introduction of this image is in the second-last thesis, directly following Benjamin’s




repeated rejection of the “causal connection between various moments in history.”34 By evoking the celestial, Benjamin once again frames human activities with divine language. Sontag writes that Benjamin’s metaphors indicate “a general problem about orientation […] erecting a standard of difficulty and complexity.”35 Here, Benjamin’s orientation is dizzying. That is to say, the constellation is a projection of human experience onto the cosmos: the individual links the disconnected stars above to create meaning. Visibility of the stars is highly dependent on weather conditions and placement of the Earth in relation to the cosmos. The variance in this visibility calls back to the “memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”36 Both viewing a constellation and seizing the image of the past are ephemeral experiences. Moreover, ephemerality is present in both the critique itself and in Benjamin’s presentation of it. Benjamin contrasts the image of the constellation with the image of “the beads of a rosary,” thus Benjamin figures the constellation as a non-linear, cobbled-together image.37 Beads of the rosary are methodical and unchanging, whereas the constellation is subject to active interpretation by the viewer. Clearly, these two metaphors illustrate the baseline of Benjamin’s understanding of the limitations of historicism and the interpretative power of historical materialism. Immediately after, Benjamin writes that the historical materialist “establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.”38 The historical materialist’s impression of the present is reminiscent of stargazing: her view is distinct to her particular placement in the continuum of time. In evoking the theological language of redemption, Benjamin reminds the reader of the precariousness of the possibility of recovering “the fullness of the past.”39 The image of a “weak Messianic power” is bound up with the image of the visibility of the constellation.40 Implicit in this is the assertion that redemption depends on the personal obligation of the historical materialist. Vibrant metaphors develop Benjamin’s critique of historicism; their placement subverts readers’ expectations and


functions as a second level of critique. Beiner quotes Susan Buckman Morss’s interpretation of the Theses: “[his formal structure] instructs the reading of his own work.”41 Benjamin challenges historical narratives by writing in a non-linear form, deliberately disengaging from chronology. He critiques the generalization and homogenization of historicism by writing an ultra-specific, heterogeneous exposition. To encounter a “memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” is to encounter the unknown.42 In this way, historical materialists cannot anticipate what they will find in the wreckage of the past. Benjamin is disruptive in his critique of historicism, in this conscious interruption, the writing itself invokes the metaphors it is describing. Finally, Benjamin’s ultimate thesis returns to theology: “we know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however.”43 In using theological language as the last textual allusion, the redemptive power of history is the final image of the Theses. Significantly, remembrance of suffering and oppression acts as the driving force behind the task of the historical materialist. Benjamin consciously reminds the reader of the import of this task: in doing so, he creates an open space for the reader to engage. Redemption, for Benjamin, is an active process; leaving off here, he appeals to a sense of urgency and obligation. Sontag writes that “his major essays seem to end just in time, before they self-destruct. His sentences do not seem to be generated in the usual way; they do not entail. Each sentence is written as if it were the first, or the last.”44 The Theses undermine historical and literary norms in both their form and content: what Benjamin writes is bolstered by how he chooses to write it. Here, the fragmentary nature of history offers the hope of redemption, if it is sought with urgency and willingness. Encouraging of interpretation and materialist engagement, Benjamin’s Theses focuses on the particular situatedness of man.45 Through his frequent reorientations and rejection of expectation, Benjamin repudiates chronological narratives—both in his words and in the spatial habitation of these words.


Notes 1

2 3

4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45

Ibid., 257. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., 258. Beiner, 424. Ibid., 425. Benjamin, 257. Sontag, 120. Benjamin, 258. Sontag 120. Beiner, 428. Benjamin, 263. Ibid. Sontag, 113. Benjamin, 255. Ibid., 263. Ibid. Ibid., 254. Ibid. Beiner, 430. Benjamin, 255. Ibid., 264. Sontag, 129. Clift.

Bibliography Beiner, Ronald. “Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy of History.” Political Theory 12, no. 3 (1984): 423-434. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Clift, Sarah. “Historical Messianism and the State of Exception.” Lecture in Modern Social and Political Thought, Halifax, January 25, 2016. Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land and other poems. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1972.



Ronald Beiner, “Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy of History,” 423. Ibid., 430. Sarah Clift, “Historical Messianism and the State of Exception.” Susan Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn, 126. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 255. Ibid., 262. Beiner, 430. Benjamin, 257. Beiner, 428. Benjamin, 254. Ibid., 257. Ibid., 255. Ibid. Beiner, 426. Benjamin, 257. Ibid. Sontag, 116. Benjamin, 255. Sontag, 115. Benjamin, 255.


Sontag, Susan. Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980.


Idolatry, Imagery, and Iconoclasm In defence of the countermonument

Brianna Dunn

In his essay “Do Disappearing Monuments Simply Disappear? The Countermonument in Revision,” Thomas Stubblefield denounces the countermonument as an ineffective memorial. He argues that the countermonument, a term coined by James Young in his essay “Memory, Countermemory, and the End of the Monument,” imposes banality upon itself, its viewers, and the event it is attempting to memorialize. However, a study of Jean-Luc Nancy’s classification of idols, images, and iconoclasm lends itself to a strong defence for Young’s support of the countermonument. Stubblefield makes his argument against one countermonument in particular, the Monument Against Fascism, which he deems to be inadequate as a memorial. The piece was erected in 1986 by artists Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz in a busy public square in Harburg, Germany. At the site, viewers were invited to engrave their names onto a twelve-metre-high column as a commitment to vigilance in the face of fascism. After a section of the column was full of signatures, a crane would lower it into the ground. This continued until the column was completely buried in 1993, leaving only the top surface visible. Stubblefield claims the inadequacy of the memorial based on the


mundane discussion surrounding the piece and the concern of iconoclastic authority in relation to the work. Approaching the countermonument with the perspective of Jean-Luc Nancy’s distinction between idols and images, Stubblefield’s argument appears to be advocating for idolatry where memorials are concerned. Nancy’s description of idols, imagery, and iconoclasm in his essay “Forbidden Representation,” supports the movement of Young’s countermonuments. Using the analogy of idols and images, Young’s advocacy for countermonuments proves strong, by presenting traditional monuments as being selfenclosed totalities that invite no discourse from the viewer and do not place themselves in the position to be condemned on the basis of their meaning. In this sense, Nancy’s interpretation of idolatry and imagery defends Young’s movement against Stubblefield’s protests.

Monument Against Fascism Discussing Monument Against Fascism, Stubblefield says that “the discourse that the work produced served to absorb the site into the everyday in such a way that mitigated its initial provocation.”1 He argues that the discourse surrounding the monument began to focus on its logistics, rather than its intention as a memorial. The location, a populated urban setting, apparently made certain citizens feel uncomfortable and victimized by the imposed memory of the Holocaust.2 Additionally, Stubblefield contends that the location promotes a feeling of ‘banalization.’ Stubblefield uses this term throughout his essay,


Stubblefield is arguing that without the separation from everyday life that a traditional monument provides, a memorial’s meaning will be masked by its mundane surroundings. Stubblefield sees the banality of this monument as being further brought about in two ways, which he refers to as the two types of invisibility displayed by the monument. First, he argues that choosing to locate the monument in a busy city square “would safeguard the work from the ossification of those self-aggrandizing, heroic monuments that utilize their physical remove from daily life to reinforce the stain and eternal history they articulate.”4 This is in fact what the artists intended to achieve through immersing the monument in everyday life, instead of locating it in a setting where it would be obviously noticeable. The second type of invisibility that Stubblefield identifies stems from the discourse surrounding the work, he explains that “discussion of the monument began to shift from its design features and aesthetic value to the inconvenience it posed to the functioning of the city […] this transformation was reinforced by the ongoing debate regarding the monument’s cost […] the exchange nonetheless reinforced a connection between the monument and the banal.”5 Stubblefield is here referring to the discussion that took place at the time of the monument’s erection about the cost of its installation and the traffic that was caused by the process. The two types of invisibility that he presents are then distinguished: one represents the intent of the artist, while the other is irrelevant to the work altogether. Stubblefield finds this problematic, and



to describe the way in which the very attempt to interject the monument into the everyday can fuel its disappearance, meant that the active spectatorship ascribed to the experience of the Monument against Fascism would prove only superficial. In the end, the disappearance of the monument would function as a projection of an already remembered past that actively repressed the creative aspects of memory as much as it reinforced existing narratives of history.3


contends that “in shifting the discussion from the artists’ intention to the actual experience of the site, it becomes clear that what was theorized as an attempt to intervene into the everyday would in practice only subject the site to a second order of invisibility.”6 Stubblefield believes that by intending for the monument to be a more immersive experience for the viewer, the artists made it completely immersed in its setting, and it became just another cause of traffic in the city rather than a valuable memorial. In an effort to emphasize the damage done to the monument through its exposure to this second type of invisibility, Stubblefield states that “discourse can just as often function to maintain the underlying categories and rules, reinforcing the status quo. Young’s assumption that this discourse of memory can somehow be transferred to the participant from the ‘ossified’ discourse of the monument, leads him to believe that this discourse of the monument is ipso facto productive, when this is in fact not necessarily the case.”7 Stubblefield contends that the discourse surrounding the monument can never be specific to the monument itself, and therefore disagrees with Young’s belief that every viewer has the ability to understand the intended discourse of the monument. Stubblefield has established his belief that many problems arise in relation to Monument Against Fascism that detract from the meaning of the work. However, we can contest his argument through reference to the work of Jean-Luc Nancy. Nancy defines idols as being self-enclosed totalities, whereas an image presents an absence. A countermonument, like an image, is not meant to be a completed form, and is meant to be involved in discourse. It does not and cannot dictate what the discourse surrounding itself should be. A traditional monument presents itself like an idol, in that “the idol is not condemned as imitation or copy, but rather in terms of its full and heavy presence, a presence of or within an immanence where nothing opens (eye, ear, or mouth) and from which nothing departs or withdraws.”8 A monument of this kind leaves no room for the viewer to reflect or interpret meaning; it asserts a certain perspective of history that the viewer




must accept. Of traditional monuments such as this, Young says that “rather than preserving public memory, the monument displaces it altogether, supplanting a community’s memory-work with its own material form.”9 Where a traditional monument forces the viewer to see a historical event in a certain way, a countermonument provides the freedom for interpretation. This is the point from which discourse arises. In memorials such as Monument Against Fascism, what is being represented is the immense loss and suffering that characterized the Holocaust and its aftermath. The countermonument works to represent an absence by creating an absence and encouraging an interaction with the monument which is indeterminate and promotes discomfort. To remember an absence, Young believes that an artist must in turn create an absence. By slowly burying itself in the ground, Monument Against Fascism is doing exactly this. The unconventional aesthetic of the monument encourages a dialogue between itself and the viewer who encounters it. While an idol exists as a self-enclosed totality, an image does not aim for this completion. Images are marked by the withdrawal of truth, where the withdrawal is present in its absence and is constituted by what is absent.10 Monument Against Fascism is marked by its physical absence once it is buried, an appropriate metaphor for the absence of the victims of fascism. Stubblefield claims that the significance of the monument disintegrates in the banality brought on by its location, making it invisible in a negative and unintentional way. He argues that because the discourse switched focus—from the topic of the monument to the logistics surrounding it—the monument is a failure. However, Nancy would disagree on the basis that an image, unlike an idol, is not in the position to dictate the discourse that it inspires. Whereas a traditional monument’s “essential stiffness and grandiose pretensions to permanence thus doom it to an archaic, premodern status,” the countermonument does not promote the same rigid perspective.11 Being open and incomplete in its meaning, a countermonument does not instruct a viewer to think anything in particular. The countermonument’s absence


“remains as illusory as memory itself, a reflection on dark waters, a phantasmagoric play of light and image.”12 Rather than dictating what memory the viewer should recall, the countermonument encourages them to explore their own minds for a remembrance or feeling that resonates with them. In this way, the monument is not limited to a particular physical setting and can produce a personal experience in every viewer who encounters it. Young writes that “the most important ‘space of memory’ for these artists has not been the space in the ground or above it but the space between the memorial and the viewer, between the viewer and his or her own memory: the place of the memorial in the viewer’s mind, heart, and conscience.”13 The countermonument has no right to determine what discourse is proper or not, for all discourse that stems from it is encouraged. An idol cannot participate in such an open dialogue, for it “does not move, does not see, does not speak, ‘yea, one shall cry unto him, yet can he not answer’—and the idolater, facing the idol, also does not see and does not understand.”14 Rather than simply observing a physical entity, the viewer of Monument Against Fascism interacts with the monument and uses their own presence to add significance to the memorial. Rather than attempting to glorify fascism through a representation of it, Monument Against Fascism chooses instead to represent the absence created by fascism. This embodies the purpose and mission of a countermonument, which is “to challenge the world’s realities, not affirm them.”15 The discourse of a monument should not be static in its answers, but should be continuously evolving as a “never-to-be-resolved debate over which kind of memory to preserve, how to do it, in whose name, and to what end.”16 Stubblefield presents another argument against Young’s advocacy for the movement of countermonuments by questioning the iconoclastic authority of the artists over the work. When swastikas and neo-Nazi remarks were found inscribed upon Monument Against Fascism, Shalev-Gerz and Gerz openly disapproved of these markings. Stubblefield criticizes this reaction, believing that the possibility for comments such as these


to appear on the monument should have been expected when providing the public with such freedom of expression.17 He writes that

With their condemnation of these comments, Stubblefield accuses the artists of promoting a non-dialectical conception of memory.19 In fact, he goes so far as to compare Monument Against Fascism to a form of staged iconoclasm, as its forced destruction of the column re-enforces the power relationships of the very historical narrative it is trying to represent.20 Stubblefield supports this claim by bringing attention the fact that instructions for the destruction of the monument were present at the site, as well as, on occasion, the artists themselves to oversee the process.21 The crux of his argument resides in his belief that the artists were inviting participation into a realm which they had already preconceived, and dismisses their success in doing so by saying that “in such a space, action transforms only an object rather than the historical record it engages.�22 Once again, Stubblefield approaches the monument with a conception of idolatry. In reality, the countermonument does not have the power to forbid any certain perspective, a fact which the artists were aware of in their comments regarding the neoNazi markings. To remove these remarks from the piece would have been problematic, but verbally disapproving of them from a subjective perspective is not. They remained upon the monument and acted as a reminder to other viewers that fascism still exists after the Holocaust. While Stubblefield accuses the artists of being



engaging the attraction and even persistence of Fascism as well as provoking the opposition that such statements elicit would appear to rescue the site from both the top-down ideology of the traditional monument and the forces of oblivion that the form often invites. Yet this possibility was quickly sabotaged by the authority of the artists and the discursive frame that this position served to maintain.18


iconoclastic in their dismissal of such markings, they are in fact doing the opposite by leaving them intact upon the monument. Nancy defines iconoclasm as the condemnation of images based on their meaning; this is to say that an image can only be condemned on the basis of its being understood. While ShalevGerz and Gerz verbally disapprove of the remarks written on the monument, they allow them to remain, therefore maintaining a monumental form while rejecting iconoclasm. Nancy writes that it must nonetheless be recognized that the iconoclastic interpretation involves a condemnation of images to the precise extent that it also presupposes a certain interpretation of the image: it must necessarily be thought of as a closed presence, one completed within its own order, opened onto nothing and by nothing other, and so isolated within a kind of ‘stupidness of the idol.’23 Nancy contends that only an idol, something complete within its own existence, can be subject to iconoclasm. This is because an idol is a closed totality, unlike an image whose existence is incomplete. What is incomplete cannot be condemned on the basis of its meaning, for its meaning is not self-enclosed. This is why Monument Against Fascism remains open to the participation of the viewer; any other form would make it an enclosed totality. Young contends that “the didactic logic of monuments— their demagogical rigidity and certainty of history—continues to recall too closely traits associated with fascism itself. How else would totalitarian regimes commemorate themselves except through totalitarian art like the monument?”24 In order to represent the victims of fascism, the monument would need to be a clear monument against fascism. Totalitarian art and idolatry were central to the Nazi aesthetic, and presenting a monument opposing this style is a protest against the fascist regime. Under this pretense, the iconoclasm committed within the context of Monument Against Fascism is not a literal condemnation of


seal memory off from awareness altogether; instead of embodying memory, they […] may only displace memory. These artists fear rightly that to the extent that we encourage monuments to do our memory-work for us, we become that much more forgetful. They believe, in effect, that the initial impulse to memorialize events like the Holocaust may actually spring from an opposite and equal desire to forget them.25 The countermonument attempts to do the opposite, by encouraging the viewer to do their own remembering and to participate in an open dialogue with a memorial that is not selfenclosed. While Stubblefield believes these countermonuments to be ineffective—immersed in banality and iconoclastic authority—a study of Nancy’s theories of representation would suggest that this is not the case. Nancy’s distinction between idols and images demonstrates the benefits of countermonuments over traditional monuments, supporting Young’s claim. Monument Against Fascism is, therefore, a successful countermonument due to its aesthetic representation of destruction.



the markings left upon it. What is being condemned through this monument is the message of the fascist Nazi regime. The monument contends that the best memorial of a crime committed against society is the destruction of the idolatry attached to it. While Stubblefield feared that the artists were condemning the neo-Nazi markings on the monument in a way which contradicted their intention of presenting a dialectical conception of memory, they were in fact promoting this kind of memory by leaving the markings intact. The artists’ condemnation of iconoclasm is much more broad: they memorialize fascism through its destruction. In his advocacy for the countermonument, Young’s main complaint regarding traditional monuments is that they attempt to

Notes 1



3 4 5 6 7 8 9


Thomas Stubblefield, “Do Disappearing Monuments Simply Disappear? The Countermonument in Revision,” 1. Ibid., 6. Ibid., 2. Ibid., 3. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., 4. Jean-Luc Nancy, “Forbidden Representation,” 4. James Young, “Memory, Countermemory, and the End of the Monument,” 6. Nancy, 4.

11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25

Young, 6. Ibid., 11. Ibid., 30. Nancy, 4. Young, 7. Ibid., 31. Stubblefield, 5. Ibid. Ibid., 7. Ibid., 8. Ibid. Ibid., 10. Nancy, 4. Young, 8. Ibid.

Bibliography Nancy, Jean-Luc. “Forbidden Representation.” Translated by Sarah Clift. In The Ground of the Image, translated by Jeff Fort, 27-50. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005 Shalev-Gerz, Esther. Monument Against Fascism. Sculpture, concrete. 1986-1983. Harburg, Germany. Stubblefield, Thomas. “Do Disappearing Monuments Simply Disappear? The Countermonument in Revision.” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 8, no. 2 (2011): 1-11. Young, James. “Memory, Countermemory, and the End of the Monument.” In At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture, 90-119. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.


Living in Today in a Time of Disappearing Yesterdays and Uncertain Tomorrows Relating to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia patients through imagination Emma Clarke

“My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today didn’t matter.”1 So says Alice, a sufferer of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Lisa Genova’s novel, Still Alice. Alzheimer’s Disease is a type of dementia defined as a “progressive degenerative disease of the brain accompanied by cognitive and functional deficits, as well as behavioural and affective disturbances.”2 The incidence rate of Alzheimer’s and dementia in the US is 20% in the population over age 80.3 The greater prevalence of such psychic diseases has led to a surge in artistic and literary representations of them, which has revitalized public discourse on illnesses of the mind. At its core rests the question: what happens to the subjectivity of the affected individual as their memory erodes? As the mental state of the patient declines, they begin to experience mood swings, personality changes and forgetfulness—even failing to recognize close friends and family.4 The loss of memories and identity can be extremely disorienting for both the patient and their loved


ones. Attempts to recall the affected individual to past memories or to current situations often prove unsuccessful, frustrating and further alienating both parties involved. This essay will argue that meaningful relationships between the dementia patient and those around them—fractured by failing memory—can be renewed through imagination. If we understand the subject as essentially social, and collective memories as the bridge by which the subject relates to others, a fading memory destroys the means by which we come into ourselves. Instead, through acts of imagination, it is possible to enter the world of the patient and reestablish a connection with them on their own terms. Ultimately, this reestablishes the patient’s humanity and identity. Through this revelation, we create new possibilities for relating with victims of dementia, a vitally important bond for patients and their caretakers in the face of disappearing yesterdays and uncertain tomorrows. This essay takes the subject to be essentially social. The self is established through interactions with others—“an intersubjective public project.”5 The subjective self is “grounded in, but emerges through productive remembering and productive interacting in, everyday life.”6 Just as interactions are essentially social, so are memories. Maurice Halbwachs, a renowned memory theorist, bases his conception of collective memory on the essentially social nature of the subject. Collective memory is constructed through the relations between individuals, it “endures and draws strength from its base in a coherent body of people.”7 It is, however, individuals who remember as a function of being part of a group, whether that group is based on kinship, religion, or class affiliation. An asocial approach to remembering is impossible. An inability to remember leaves one “unable to enter into relationship with the groups making up society.”8 If an individual forgets the collective memory, they become isolated from the group to which this memory belonged. Similarly, if an individual is separated from a group, the shared memory of that group becomes inaccessible to the individual. Halbwachs succinctly states: “To forget a period of one’s life is to lose contact with those who then surrounded us.”9




Memory thus forms the basis of relationships between essentially social subjects. The identity of the subject emerges from these relationships. Craig Barclay, a psychologist from the University of Rochester, supports this conception, stating that selves are “shared and formed in interpersonal relationships.”10 The interactions that shape individual subjects exist in the present and in the past. These past interactions are recalled by the subject, and thus shape their identity by way of memory. Understanding memory as a crucial human connector allows us to perceive even more clearly the terrifying implications for relationships and identity experienced by those affected by diseases causing memory loss. People who suffer from Alzheimer’s can experience mild symptoms such as forgetting names, misplacing valuable objects and having trouble planning or organizing.11 Those with severe Alzheimer’s disease can experience degeneration in physical abilities, have increasing difficulty communicating, and can lose awareness of the present and of recent experiences.12 A decline in the mental capabilities of a patient can cause the loss of the memories that shape the individual’s relationships and thus, as established above, their identity. Severing communal bonds and consequently losing subjectivity can also involve a loss of humanity in the patient. Humanity is recognized in an other by “attributing thinking to the other, seeing individuality in the other, viewing the other as reciprocating and defining a social place for the other.”13 A decline in the capacity for recollecting, thinking and interacting in ways recognizable to other humans results in a perceived loss of personhood for the patient and for those surrounding them. Fear and anxiety often accompany the loss of memory, identity, and humanity. Traditional advice about coping with memory loss suggests focusing on past memories to ease anxiety about forgetting the past.14 In general, the traditional approaches to dealing with memory loss remind the patient of their identity and surroundings, with the goal of keeping them grounded in the present reality. Using photos and songs to remind people of their past—reminiscence therapy—is one of the recommended


treatments.15 By focusing on the past, the hope is that the affected individual will retain their memories, and thus their sense of self. By clutching at fading memories, this treatment attempts to prevent alienation by reinforcing shared remembrances. In fact, this traditional treatment strategy can have unintended negative consequences. By holding on to a history already lost to the disease, those around the affected individual must constantly contradict and invalidate the experience of the patient. Even with reminders, the patient often cannot remember what is being asked of them, and this disconnect further alienates them. Additionally, because the subject is defined by their interactions with others, being constantly corrected undermines their selfconfidence. Following the traditional treatment can thus result in the decline of the self-esteem of a patient, “[depriving] the already neurologically impaired individual of his or her personhood, resulting in further neurological damage.”16 The invalidation of the patient’s thoughts and experiences only reinforces their sense of lost identity. In summary, attempting to use memory to relate to the individual suffering memory loss—effectively denying their experience—causes stress, shame and further alienation of the identity of the essentially social subject. Casting aside traditional treatments, we require innovative ways in which to relate to individuals suffering from memory loss. Instead of denying the experiences of the patient, we ought to validate them. The absence or confusion of past memories, which informs how a subject engages in the present, results in an alteration of the patient’s identity. What is most crucial, however, is that we realize that despite the change in identity, a social subject can exist without memory. Barclay articulates how this reestablishment of the subject occurs: “protoselves may be created through improvisational acts that continuously form and reform a remembered self over time.”17 Although this autobiographical subject can relate to others, it can only do so based on its own reality. As an essentially social subject, however, a protoself is not fully formed until it is “legitimized through social consensus.”18 The protoself is actualized through social engagement with,




and recognition by, other social subjects. The crucial question then becomes about how we interact with the autobiographical protoself on its own terms. Understanding that the subject undergoing memory loss lacks the collective memory that makes up our shared reality, we can only engage the affected individual in their own world and in the present. The imagination required to do this presents a new possibility for collectively engaging with those undergoing memory loss. Enlisting imagination allows shared interactions between the patient and those around them, even if the patient cannot recall faces, names or past shared experiences. Although the relationship between patient and other established via imagination is not identical to the previous relationship that existed, it is most important that this relationship is possible at all. Thus, imagination provides a new basis upon which a meaningful relation with a patient experiencing memory loss can be built. On the basis of this newly possible connection with others, affected individuals can again engage in social interactions that form the basis of their essentially social subjectivity, although they never have full access to the shared world of others. The possibility of a relation focused solely on the present and built on imagination opens up a new world, different from the world that is likely intolerable to both the patient and the patient’s loved ones. In this respect, engaging in the patient’s reality and participating in meaningful and reciprocated interactions can be soothing to both the individual with Alzheimer’s and the people around them. Validating the affected person’s experiences can help them let go of fear stemming from memory loss—it relieves stress. Furthermore, being able to interact with others and engage in the collective world restores both the patient’s self-esteem and their identity as a social subject. Although symptoms of dementia are not necessarily relieved, an improvement in quality of life has been documented. Johnson recounts the success of a therapy that combines validation therapy, “in which the therapist joins the patient in his or her reality,” and dramatic transformations, where emotional pain can be dealt with through acting and improvisation.19


Entering the dementia patient’s world is simple for the therapist. I would like to acknowledge that it is much more difficult for one previously connected to the patient to do so, as accepting the patient’s reality may involve denying parts of their own. A segment from This American Life, which explores the potential benefit of enlisting imagination in caring for memory loss patients, reveals the difficulties of entering the patient’s world. Karen, the daughter of an Alzheimer’s patient, accepts whatever her mother says, but occasionally “the rules [she] has set up require that she deny who she is. That she is Karen, daughter of Virginia, mother of Grace.”20 Fully entering into the dementia patient’s world may negate collective remembering. Karen must “silently let go of the memory that came before,” because her mother can no longer share in those memories.21 The potential for creating new ways of interacting with the patient, and new memories, is possible if one can let go of one’s own world to fully engage in the patient’s world. This is imperfect, as it involves accepting the affected individual’s reality, but it offers the potential for meaningful relationships and better quality of life for both the patient and their caretakers. Imagination can connect memory loss patients in interpersonal relations, in professional therapy relationships, and even in a more structured group setting: improvisation workshops. The first rule of improvisation is to accept everything the other says: “You don’t ever say no, you don’t question their premise, you just say ‘Yes, and…’”22 Improvisation promotes imagination and cultivates a new manner of relating to others and oneself. Improvisation workshops for sufferers of memory loss have proliferated rapidly in the past decade, and, following these, a number of studies have been conducted. There are numerous benefits for the patients participating in these programs. The workshops offer regular brain stimulation, engagement with other people experiencing memory loss, and a creative outlet. “For someone with memory loss, it’s a really good fit because they still have imaginations and come up with wonderful ideas,” says social worker Mary O’Hara.23 O’Hara is involved with The Memory Ensemble, a project run at Northwestern University.24




The Ensemble is an improvisational theatre experience for persons with memory loss run by the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre Company. The program allows dementia and Alzheimer’s patients to live their lives rather than worry about the past or the future—“It’s all about the present.”25 The dramatic activities also act as a medium through which emotional pain can be dealt with through pretending and playing. The experience of memory loss, instead of being related to anxiety or frustration, can become “material for the collective performance.”26 The benefits of improvisation workshops manifest as improvements in the patient’s quality of life. Although symptoms of memory loss and dementia are rarely relieved, it has been concluded that participation in improvisation ensembles has resulted in, “improvements in sociability, communication and self-esteem.”27 Improvisation can also provide the caretakers of individuals with dementia with skills and opportunities to build connections with their patients. Karen Stobble, the director of a program called In The Moment, asserts that “the rules of improvisation parallel the ‘rules’ of caregiving for a person with Alzheimer’s.”28 The program uses theatre games and creativity exercises to provide caregivers with methods to become better at what they do. In the project’s abstract, Stobble outlines the essential characteristics of a caregiver that are taught through improvisation: “listening, validation, accepting others’ realities, problem solving and creativity.”29 Improvisation therefore encourages dementia patients and their caregivers to live in the present and to relate to others via imagination. Imagination and improvisation, by allowing us to connect with individuals undergoing memory loss, also facilitate the reestablishment of their identities in the present. Oftentimes, a dementia patient with a failing memory, degenerating mental and physical capabilities, and a changeable personality is difficult to relate to. A person’s humanity can be lost when they lose the memories that constitute their identity. Imagination reveals the individuality and the thinking (and often the wit!) that still exists


in the dementia patient. It allows the affected individual and the caretaker to enter into a meaningful relationship wherein two distinct social subjects interact with each other. The patient retains their identity by interacting with others who recognize their humanity. Thus it is the caretaker who, by entering the world of the patient, can reveal the humanity of the patient to both the patient and themselves. Although not a perfect solution, accepting and engaging in the dementia patient’s experience and world through imagination can bring an affected individual and an other into a meaningful relationship when memory can no longer do so. Reestablishing a relationship with a loved one, even if that relationship is radically different, can bring peace to both the dementia patient and those closest to them. Although Alzheimer’s is an increasingly prevalent health problem, a cure has yet to be found. In the meantime, the best we can do is improve the quality of life and increase the happiness of the dementia patients and their family and friends. Preserving the meaningful relationships that form the basis of the humanity of Alzheimer’s patients is essential to the wellbeing of the person undergoing memory loss and to those around them. Notes 1 2

3 4 5 6


Lisa Genova, Still Alice, 293. Elizabeth Herskovits, “Struggling over Subjectivity: Debates about the ‘Self ’ and Alzheimer’s Disease,” 147. Ibid. Alzheimer’s Association, “Stages of Alzheimer’s.” Herskovits, 156. Craig R. Barclay, “Composing Protoselves through Improvisation,” 55. Maurice Halbwachs, “Individual Memory and the Collective Memory,” 48.

8 9 10 11 12 13

14 15 16 17

Ibid., 29. Ibid., 30. Barclay, 55. Alzheimer’s Association. Ibid. Robert Bogdan and Steven J. Taylor, “Relationships with Severely Disabled People: The Social Constructions of Humanness,” 135. Gwyn Grout, “Coping with Memory Loss.” Ibid. Herskovits, 156. Barclay, 56.


18 19


21 22 23

24 25 26 27

28 29

Ibid. Ibid. Lobman, 359. John Stevens, “Stand up for Dementia: Performance, Improvisation and Stand up Comedy as Therapy for People with Dementia; a Qualitative Study,” 7. Karen Stobble, “Project Abstract.” Ibid.

Bibliography Alzheimer’s Association. “Stages of Alzheimer’s.” Alzheimer’s Association, 2015. alz.org. Barclay, Craig R. “Composing Protoselves through Improvisation.” In The Remembering Self: Construction and Accuracy in the SelfNarrative, 55-72. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Bogdan, Robert, and Steven J. Taylor. “Relationships with Severely Disabled People: The Social Construction of Hummanness.” Social Problems 36, no. 2 (1989): 135-148. Genova, Lisa. Still Alice. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Chicago Public Media. “Episode 532: Magic Words.” This American Life. Chicago Public Media, 2014. Grout, Gwyn. “Coping with Memory Loss.” Alzheimer’s Society, June 2012. alzheimers.org.uk. Halbwachs, Maurice. “Individual Memory and the Collective Memory.” Collective Memory. CTMP 3125 Course Reader, 22-49. Herskovits, Elizabeth. “Struggling over Subjectivity: Debates about the “Self ” and Alzheimer’s Disease.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 9, no. 2 (1995): 146-164. Lobman, Carrie. “Performance, Theatre and Improvisation: Bringing Play and Development into New Arenas.” In The Handbook of the Study of Play, 349-362. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Moisse, Katie. “Alzheimer’s Disease: Improv Lets Patients Live in the Moment.” ABC News, August 16, 2011. abcnews.go.com.



Ibid., 72. Carrie Lobman, “Performance, Theatre and Improvisation: Bringing Play and Development into New Arenas,” 359. Chicago Public Media, “Episode 532: Magic Words,” 45:15. Ibid., 46:20. Ibid., 32:00. Katie Moisse, “Alzheimer’s Disease: Improv Lets Patients Live in the Moment.”

Stevens, John. “Stand up for Dementia: Performance, Improvisation and Stand up Comedy as Therapy for People with Dementia; a Qualitative Study.” Dementia 11, no. 1 (2011): 1-13.


Stobble, Karen. “Project Abstract.” In The Moment, 2003. inthemoment.com.


Mortality, Futility, Universality Marc Quinn’s Self series

Chesel Alexander

While an artist’s legacy can be sustained through anything that reminds a viewer of the artist, the self-portrait is arguably an artist’s most direct attempt at self-preservation. The image of the self is preserved in the portrait, and, with it, the memory of that person. Within personhood legacy is sustained, and the work thus functions in an ouroboros motion preserving image, person, and legacy. In this sense, Marc Quinn’s Self series follows in the footsteps of self-portraiture. The subject in Quinn’s Self is very much the same as self-portraits through history, but the medium of Quinn’s portrait propels preservation (and its essential futility) as the primary element of the work. Quinn periodically draws blood from his body, enough to fill a cast of his head, and freezes the full cast to create his self-portraits. This ongoing project began in 1991, and Quinn continues to produce a frozen portrait approximately every five years.1 The process and product are altered by the medium of blood and consequently force a selfrecognition and acknowledgement of mortality for both viewer and artist. The acute mortality present in this piece exposes the universal nature of the material, binding the subject and object with the viewer and humanity, both metaphorically and physically. Laura Cumming, author of A Face to the World: On

Self 1991



Self-Portraits, asserts, “one does not stand before images of [selfportraits] trying to guess why they were immortalized in paint.”2 Quinn’s work, however, demands that the viewer ask, with him: what is immortalized in the medium of blood? And further, is Quinn preserved as a result of this piece? This paper determines that the use of blood is essential to answer these questions, and the answers themselves are necessarily different from portraits made from paint. Eyes play a fundamental role in self-portraits. Painters view themselves through reflection—the eyes are relied on for the product. The physical eyes of the artist are needed not only for the process of creating the painting but for the product as well. Self-portraits typically depict the eyes of the painter open and looking for an audience. Cumming explains the power of the eyes in a painting: “the look is intent, actively seeking you out of the crowd; the nearest analogy may be with life itself: paintings behaving like people.”3 They draw viewers to the subject through eye contact, mirroring the way that people communicate in real life. The painting depends on the eyes of the artist depicted to draw the attention of the viewer, and is therefore demanding, perhaps relying on, the viewer for its own preservation, or more accurately, recognition: “eye-to-eye contact with others—a glance, a stare—is the purest form of reciprocity […] recognizing each other immediately even though we had never met.”4 To illustrate, Jacopo Comin Tintoretto’s Self-Portrait communicates with, directs, and recognizes the viewer through its eyes.5 I will not argue that eye contact is the purest form of reciprocity or recognition, a point Cumming fails to expand upon, but it certainly does initiate recognition. The two beings, the artwork and the viewer, acknowledge each other by sharing that exchange, much like strangers on the street who may accidentally share a glance before looking away. Quite dissimilar to this accidental look, however, Tintoretto unapologetically seeks both the viewer and their recognition. Eye-to-eye contact demands that the Other participate in an exchange, recognizing a gaze and thus a self.



Self Portrait (Tintoretto) Quinn’s Self entirely dismantles this element of the selfportrait. It does so first through Quinn’s artistic process. The casting of his head—rather than the initial steps of drawing blood—are pertinent to this dismantling: “the cast of Quinn’s head, immersed in frozen silicone, is created from ten pints of his own blood.”6 The process of creating the cast forces Quinn to close his eyes for the work to be created, and intentionally or unintentionally, Quinn’s process alters the necessity to view his reflection while making the self-portrait. The medium of blood forces Quinn’s self-internalization, so his focus is not on the



appearance of the piece but on holding his breath. The process does not demand that Quinn look out for answers but instead forces him to close his eyes, either finding no recognition or only possible recognition with his self. This element in the process is plainly exhibited in the product as well. Unlike painted self-portraits, Quinn’s Self does not seek viewers out, nor does it rely on the reciprocal gaze of the viewer. The viewer’s experience of Self is thus not one of recognition between them and the portrait. The viewer first recognizes autonomy in Quinn, his blood, and the representation of himself. Quinn’s indifference to the viewer, his autonomy and selfreflection, displayed through closed eyes, discloses his focus to be solely on the self. There is no conversation or recognition with the viewer, as there is no need for it. The piece is Quinn and it is about Quinn. Eyes are not necessarily always directed at the viewer in painted self-portraits. Titian’s 1560 Self-Portrait suggests his indifference towards the viewer while still painting open eyes.7 Cumming claims Titian’s eyes redirect and tell the viewer where to look with Titian. His eyes guide the viewer, undoubtedly sharing recognition with them. Cumming asks, “where [does one look] when submitting oneself to scrutiny?”8 Titian looks away, with an Other, when submitting himself to scrutiny. In silent communication, he redirects the viewer’s gaze elsewhere. Quinn answers Cumming’s question by closing his eyes and looking no further than the skin wrapping his eyeballs. Once again, indifference to scrutiny is exhibited through closed eyes. At first glance, the legacy of Quinn’s self-portraiture is composed of autonomy and self-recognition. While I insist that this is true, the material of Quinn’s artwork also inverts this sole focus on the self, through recognition, with a second stage in the preservation of his self. The piece first emphasizes focus on individuality, before admitting the universality inherent in the medium and the subject. Self not only develops the idea that self-portraiture is fundamentally concerned with preservation, but also subtly exposes its common reliance on the Other.



Self-Portrait (Titian) The medium of blood in Self particularly ensures Quinn’s focus on his own preservation, but the medium also admits that his preservation, his life and legacy, relies on humanity. Quinn does not share a glance or even a moment of recognition with the viewer, but he relates explicitly to the viewer through the medium. He expresses connection to the viewer in something more essential than a glance: blood. This substance makes Quinn possible, makes his artwork possible, and makes any conservation



of Self possible at all. His legacy relies on humanity and the fluid shared by everyone for his preservation: “in his work, the physical and spiritual boundaries between the individual and the world are liquid […] indeterminate and transitory. To be in the world is to be the world.”9 Although Quinn’s focus is on the self, he undeniably acknowledges the necessity of Others and world for the self to have existence and importance. He is able to create this project because of the medium, and his legacy and life will flow into the lives of others after his ends, as a substance and influence, revealing that his preservation truly does rely on Others despite attempts at self-recognition. The world created Quinn, but it does not prop him up or make an effort to sustain him because it is very much a blood-like fluid. Matter mutates, as Peaker explains, and after his blood is frozen and the plug is pulled on this project it will melt, and the fluid will flow freely, eventually diffusing back through the world, erasing any possibility of preservation. A painted self-portrait will deteriorate similarly; it too will dissolve to powder and fuse with world. However, the painted portrait is not composed of a lifesustaining fluid, nor does it depend on electricity. Quinn shrewdly relies on refrigeration for this piece to illuminate the fundamental element of self-preservation at work in self-portraiture; the piece is an active work of conservation. The Self series’ reliance on energy for preservation parallels Quinn’s reliance on the world for blood. The necessity of energy recognizes and reflects the futility of preservation in the project just like immortality for Quinn himself. This project does not fail in an attempt to preserve. Instead, it highlights humanity’s desire for preservation while simultaneously exposing the impossibility of fulfilling that exact desire. “From primordial fluids we arise and to them we return,” despite the propping up of self and legacy through art or human recognition.10

Notes 1 2 3 4



Marc Quinn, Self 1991. Laura Cumming, A Face to the World, 66. Ibid., 26. Ibid. Jacopo Tintoretto, Self Portrait.

6 7 8 9 10

Quinn. Tiziano Vecello, Self-Portrait. Cumming, 33. Carol Peaker, “Marc Quinn: South London Gallery,” 48. Ibid.

Bibliography Cumming, Laura. A Face to the World. London: Harper Press, 2009. Peaker, Carol. “Marc Quinn: South London Gallery.” C Magazine 58 (1998): 48. Quinn, Marc. Self 1991. 1991. Sculpture, blood. Tintoretto, Jacopo. Self Portrait. 1546-48. Philadephia, PA: Philadeslphia Museum of Art. Vecello, Tiziano. Self-Portrait. 1562-64. Berlin: Staatliche Museen.


Theorems and Proofs Decoding metaphor in Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”

Josh Feldman

In his essay “Some Reflections on Kafka,” Walter Benjamin insists that Franz Kafka “sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility.”1 This quotation raises more questions than it answers. Why must truth be sacrificed? Once forgone, how is transmission possible? And what is being transmitted? We will look to Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” to find answers to these questions. The story follows the decline of a hunger artist from the height of his fame to his lonely death in a world that has lost interest in his craft. The divorce from tradition within this story destabilizes the significance of professional fasting and, likewise, the twentieth century’s break from the past prevents a decoding of the symbols in the story. Without a stable system, we cannot distill a concrete truth from Kafka’s parable. The desire to translate the allegory of “A Hunger Artist” must be abandoned. Yet, even though we cannot determine the story’s meaning, Benjamin suggests that the story transmits truth nonetheless. Kafka achieves this effect by taking advantage of the fact that a metaphor is not simply equivalent to its interpretation. We will adopt and modify Jan Zwicky’s thoughts in “Mathematical Analogies and Metaphorical Insights” to build a correspondence between mathematics and literature. Just as a formula is not equivalent to its justification,


an analogy is not equivalent to its explanation. By asking what remains after stripping a theorem of its proof, we can understand what Kafka’s story transmits. Reading “A Hunger Artist” is like seeing a theorem without knowing math; Kafka conveys the remnants of truth after the collapse of the tradition by presenting only its metaphorical consistency. As we will see, we cannot read “A Hunger Artist” symbolically. Instead, since Kafka places the story in the real world, a literal reading can inform what we take out of the text. In the story’s opening, Kafka invokes the first person plural voice for the only time. The narrator addresses us directly and tells us that “we live in a different world now.”2 The events of the story do not occur in a fictional setting, but our own world. With this phrase, Kafka transforms his piece from a parable requiring interpretation into something resembling a news report that may be read literally. Because we share a world with the hunger artist, the events in the story can inform our understanding of similar experiences in real life—including our experience of reading Kafka’s text. Since our experience of reading “A Hunger Artist” occurs in the same world as the events within the text, the story comes to bear upon itself. This self-reference allows us to analyze the text without translating its allegory. Kafka’s story takes place in a setting divorced from its past. We are immediately told that the hunger artist’s world is changing. The narrator explains that “during these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished.”3 The art of fasting, which was once upheld as an unquestioned community value, is no longer meaningful. The narrator suggests that this cultural shift is not an isolated event; we are told that “there may have been profound causes for it, but who was going to bother about that.”4 The declining interest in professional fasting may be part of a larger trend, but these cultural transformations are not worth discussing. The narrator treats this shift with nonchalance, further indicating that the relationship between the present and the past is insignificant. Even the interest in the panther, who replaces the hunger artist as the main attraction, seems like just


A generation that had gone to school on a horsedrawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.7 The Industrial Revolution, the death of God, and the Great War severed Europe from its past. Western society had unrecognizably changed, the tradition left behind. To understand the implications of this loss of tradition within the story, we must first recognize that in the hunger artist’s world actions lack inherent meaning and instead become meaningful when performed. When the hunger artist has spectators, his profession is honourable. He wants to starve himself for more than forty days because of “the fame he would get for fasting longer,” not for any personal satisfaction he receives directly from his art.8 The hunger artist sees value in his craft because others do. Without an audience, considered in isolation, the inherent emptiness of fasting comes to light. Once the artist fasts without spectators, he comes to terms with the meaninglessness of his craft. He confesses to the overseer, “I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you



another fad. Just as “everybody wanted to see [the hunger artist] at least once a day,” we are told ironically that the spectators “did not ever want to move away” from the beast.5 When a father tries to explain professional fasting to his children they do not understand, because “neither inside or outside school had they been sufficiently prepared for this lesson.”6 Since traditional values no longer hold any importance, the young are not taught to adopt and renew the old. Change is a given in the hunger artist’s world. This state of affairs matches the climate in which Kafka was writing, reinforcing that we share a world with the hunger artist. Kafka wrote “A Hunger Artist” in 1922. Benjamin describes the climate of Europe at that time in “The Storyteller,” the essay immediately preceding his thoughts on Kafka in Illuminations:


or anyone else.”9 To the isolated hunger artist, starving becomes a lifestyle, not a noble profession. Without an audience to generate meaning, there is nothing inherently consequential about the hunger artist’s work. If significance can only be found in front of an audience, the loss of tradition is simultaneously the loss of a stable system of meaning. The break from the past is not a replacement of old values with new ones, but rather a loss of stability altogether. No one understands what causes an audience to move from one attraction to another. Changes in public opinion “happen almost overnight […] as if by secret agreement.”10 Without tradition to anchor stable values, audience members move without reason. Spectators—or lack thereof—define the significance of any event; precise meaning is lost to the incomprehensible logic of mass society. When tradition has been left behind, we cannot attach stable meanings to events because the system that generates this significance is in flux. Even the old spectators cannot remember why they found professional fasting honourable once they see the hunger artist without an audience. When remembering the art of starvation, “they often failed to understand themselves at all.”11 The spectators cannot reconcile their past and present values, and the concept of professional fasting collapses altogether. To the audience, it is not that professional fasting is or is not significant— this question cannot even be asked. At the story’s conclusion we see the total breakdown of stable meaning into absurdity: “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer.12 While the artist sees no value in professional fasting taken by itself, the spectators cannot even determine for themselves whether they do or do not see value in it. Without the stabilizing force of tradition, meaning is unsettlingly incoherent. The loss of a system of significance precludes a symbolic


[“A Hunger Artist”] is so rational, so mathematically constructed in relation to some reality situation that an interpretation of it seems easy. Yet a closer reading of this beautiful story reveals many baffling problems of detail. A review of the literature that has grown up around it shows anything but agreement on these detailed matters […] what does the hero ‘stand for’?14 “A Hunger Artist” demonstrates that Steinhauer’s question is now unanswerable. The simple fact that we cannot decode the allegory does not mean that the story is without truth. To understand this point we must first develop a correspondence between mathematics and metaphor, using Zwicky’s “Mathematical Analogies and Metaphorical Insights.” Zwicky argues that a linguistic metaphor and a mathematical theorem share a similar structure. For the purposes of my argument, the representative metaphor will be “the eyes are the window of the soul” and the theorem will be eπi = 1.15 A significant similarity between mathematics and metaphor is that they both rearrange familiar concepts to reveal an underlying truth. Poet Anne Michaels writes that “metaphor unifies separate components into a complex whole.”16 Eyes, windows, and souls do not share any obvious connection,



interpretation of this story. Benjamin insists that “Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset.”13 These gestures lack a definite symbolic meaning precisely because the tradition, which once stabilized these concepts, has been abandoned. Conducting an analogical reading of “A Hunger Artist” requires a concrete dictionary of symbols. Since the loss of tradition means that an object’s significance now shifts constantly, such a lexicon no longer exists. We cannot translate the symbols into concepts with any certainty. The collapse of our symbolic system in the twentieth century manifests itself in the analytical confusion surrounding the text. The critic Steinhauer laments:


but when arranged in the above metaphor, the concepts hang together to reveals a new truth. Likewise, prolific nineteenth century mathematician Henri Poincaré explains that a theorem reveals an “unsuspected kinship between other facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another.”17 Poincaré was not alone in this understanding of mathematics—Kepler, Bernoulli, and Leibniz expressed similar sentiments.18 In the formula above, the exponential function, the ratio of a circle, the square root of negative one, and the multiplicative constant need not have anything to do with one another. Like a metaphor, the theorem arranges them in a way that brings them into harmony with one another, allowing us to see all four concepts in a new light. While there is a fundamental similarity between math and metaphor, the correspondence seems to fail when discussing the validity of these two types of insights. A mathematical truth is in some sense necessary, that is, it could not be otherwise; a metaphor appears to be nothing more than a rhetorical device. We talk about proving theorems, but metaphors seem to evade such definitive action. This apparent difference rests upon the assumption that proof generates a theorem’s truth. Logician and mathematician G.H. Hardy boldly explains that this is not the case: I have myself always thought of a mathematician as in the first instance an observer, a man who gazes at a distant range of mountains and notes down his observations […] when he sees a peak he believes that it is there simply because he sees it. If he wishes some one else to see it, he points to it, either directly or through the chain of summits which led him to recognize it himself. When his pupil also sees it, the research, the argument, the proof is finished. The analogy is a rough one, but I am sure that it is not altogether misleading. If we were to push it to its extreme we should be led to a rather paradoxical conclusion; that there


is, strictly, no such thing as mathematical proof; that we can, in the last analysis, do nothing but point; that proofs are what Littlewood and I call gas, rhetorical flourishes designed to affect psychology; pictures on the board in the lecture, devices to stimulate the imagination of pupils.19 The necessity of arithmetic truths stems from the peaks and valleys of the mathematical landscape itself—proofs only shine a light on these contours, they are not the geography itself. Proofs do not create the relationships between mathematical objects that theorems express—the relationships predate the proofs that seek to explain them.20 The fundamental structure of these two types of truth are the same. Since a proof is an orientation towards the truth, and not the truth itself, Zwicky indicates that “as proof is to mathematical analogy, so the poem is to metaphorical insight.”21 The theorem eπi = 1 appears mysterious until its proof guides the student towards its location in the mathematical landscape. In the same way, the poem contextualizes its metaphorical insight, reorienting the reader to see the world as the poet does. It follows that there is something resembling a necessary truth in poetry. While eπi = 1 first appears mysterious, once a proof places the truth of the statement in view, one cannot imagine the mathematical universe otherwise. This corresponds to the phenomenon of a piece of poetry altering one’s perception of the world.22 Once a poem demonstrates and contextualizes its core analogy, to the extent that the poetic “proof ” is convincing, the world cannot be seen the same—the components of the metaphor are tied to one another. The difference between mathematical analogy and metaphorical insight is not the necessity of their truths, but the challenge of orientation in the physical and mathematical worlds. Due to the strict formalities of mathematical language and its concrete definitions, it is relatively easy to trace a path towards arithmetic truths. We cannot speak about emotions and society with the same rigour, and consequently, orienting a reader to understand a metaphor is more challenging. While mathematics




and poetry are certainly not the same—the nature of the mathematical universe is far more concrete than the complexities of the real world—there is a degree of necessity to both. While Zwicky is correct that metaphorical truths can be necessary, she wrongly associates the poem with a proof. Instead, an allegorical interpretation of a work of literature—mapping the literary symbols onto the world—corresponds to its proof. If it were true that “the poem […] positions its reader or auditor in such a way that she or he sees what the poet saw,” then a poem would completely determine the meaning of its symbols, and interpretation would amount to judging the accuracy of the presented perspective.23 It is clearly the case that the allegorical meaning of a literary work is not entirely predetermined, which is why a poem does not orient its reader as a proof does. Instead, the interpretation itself corresponds to a proof, and the entire work represents the theorem. Literature, left unexamined, is beautiful and mysterious, which is much more similar to the experience of seeing a theorem than to the feeling of clarity associated with its proof. Like a proof, a specific reading of literature maps the metaphor onto the world, placing the reader at a specific vantage point to understand the work in a certain light. After a satisfying interpretation, the symbols within a work of literature fall into place in the world, revealing a new perspective. The author supplies the theorem and the reader supplies its proof. In light of the correspondence between literary and mathematical truths, it follows that literature and its interpretation cannot be equated with one another. The fact that we have multiple proofs for the same theorem indicates that a theorem and a proof are different. In Hardy’s metaphor of a mountain range, each proof points at the same mountain from a different vantage point. Each justification for a theorem collapses the three-dimensional mountain into the proof ’s two-dimensional image—information is lost. We can understand eπi = 1 as a statement about circles, complex numbers, power series, quantum physics, complex topology, or compound interest, to name only a few examples. The precise branch of mathematics is not important: any single


The word “unfolding” has a double meaning. A bud unfolds into a blossom, but the boat which one teaches children to make by folding paper unfolds into a flat sheet of paper. This second kind of “unfolding” is really appropriate to the parable; it is the readers pleasure to smooth it out so that he has the meaning on the palm of his



interpretation would barely capture the deep resonance of the original statement in wide-ranging mathematical areas. A proof cannot claim to be equivalent to a theorem because the theorem is more than the sum of its explanations. Likewise, a single interpretation of literature cannot claim to capture the work because it has collapsed the multi-dimensional aspect into a twodimensional philosophical schema. Even if one were to collect all possible interpretations of a work, this collection would still fall short of the original. By listing all proofs, the rich and deep relationships between these explanations are lost. A metaphor is “something other than a computed arithmetical average or simple mean.”24 A work of literature and one of philosophic interpretation cannot enter a one-to-one correspondence because metaphoric and philosophic insight have a fundamentally different structure.25 The impossibility of a symbolic translation in Kafka does not mean that “A Hunger Artist” is meaningless. Kafka can transmit truth without communicating concrete answers because a metaphor is not equivalent to an explanation; a theorem is not equivalent to a proof. When children hear their father describe professional fasting, they listen “rather uncomprehending,” but also with “the brightness of their intent eyes.”26 While the young cannot understand old truths, they realize that a truth is being told. They see their father speak within a complex matrix of other signs. For example, his children see him in relation to his authority, to the cage, and to the past. They perceive a metaphorical truth, but lack the tools to decode it. Our experience reading Kafka’s story is similar to the children listening to their father, finding ourselves without a language to interpret the symbolism. In regards to the type of truth in Kafka’s work, Benjamin writes:


hands. Kafka’s parables, however, unfold in the first sense, the way a bud turns into a blossom.27 As we read “A Hunger Artist,” the metaphors blossom—they communicate that there is truth within them without showing us what this truth is. The experience of reading the story resembles walking into a classroom and seeing an equation written on the blackboard, but not having any knowledge of math. It would be incorrect to say the theorem is meaningless, since we still receive an impression of truth even if we cannot understand it. A concrete allegorical reading of the text “does not exist. All we can say is that here and there we have an allusion to it.”28 Kafka leaves the reader staring at truths in their metaphoric consistency, without any means of orientation. While we do not yet have a language to describe modernity’s landscapes, Kafka reminds us that we are surrounded by mountains nonetheless. Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 144. Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist,” 286. Ibid. Ibid., 273. Ibid., 268, 277. Ibid., 275. Benajmin, 84. Kafka, 271. Ibid., 277 Ibid., 273. Ibid. Ibid., 277. Benjamin, 120. Harry Stenhauer, “Hungering Artist or Artist in Hungering: Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist,’” 30.


16 17 18 19

e represents the base of the exponential function that grows with respect to its current value, π represents the ratio between the diameter and circumference of a circle, and i represents the square root of -1. This is one of the most beautiful and deep theorems in mathematics. Michaels, in Zwicky, 10. Poincaré, in Zwicky, 10. Zwicky, 10. Hardy, in Zwicky, 11.



21 22 23 24 25

26 27 28

Zwicky, 11. Ibid., 12. Ibid. Ibid., 10. This is proven formally in any introductory linear algebra textbook: a mapping from V to W where dimension(V) > dimension(W) cannot be one-to-one. The map must collapse the former into the latter. Kafka, 275. Benjamin, 122. Ibid.

Bibliography Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. Kafka, Franz. “The Hunger Artist.” In Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, translated by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir, 80-90. New York: Schocken Books, 1971. Steinhauer, Harry. “Hungering Artist or Artist in Hungering: Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist.’” Criticism 4, no. 1 (1962): 28-43. Zwicky, Jan. “Mathematical Analogy and Metaphorical Insight.” For the Learning of Mathematics 30, no. 1 (2010): 9-14.



This does not mean that mathematical truths are discovered rather than invented. It is true that once a mathematical concept is defined, all its properties follow from this definition and, in a sense, exist without being proven. It is not necessarily the case, however, that these definitions predate their articulation. For more on this view, see Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

Judith Butler, Donald Trump, and the “Nasty Woman” Examining resignification in the age of Trump

Jen Hall

Since Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States, hateful, bigoted speech has made a resurgence in the country. The Southern Poverty Law Centre catalogued 867 incidents in the ten days following the election from all around the country, affecting individuals across marginalized groups within the US.1 Hate speech has been encouraged by Trump, who, while having made remarks that do not quite qualify as hate speech, has nevertheless stretched the boundaries of what is acceptable in public discourse. In such a situation, a response to hateful and hurtful speech becomes essential. Judith Butler takes up the question of hate speech in her book, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. In this essay, I will examine her arguments surrounding hate speech, in particular her concept of resignification, to see if they provide us with resources to respond to the problems that Trump’s election has revived. I will give an account of Butler’s arguments about resignification in Excitable Speech, while considering the criticisms put forth by Lisa H. Schwartzman and George Shulman. I will then examine the phenomenon of the “Nasty Woman” through Butler’s lens, to show both the promise and some of the limitations that the practice of resignification might hold.



The core of Butler’s argument in Excitable Speech centres around her concept of resignification. For Butler, hate speech is injurious, but not necessarily so, due to the inherent “excitability” of language. When an utterance is made, the speaker can never exert full control over the meaning of the utterance—there is always space for the recipient to understand the utterance in a way other than intended. As Butler explains, the excitability of language opens up the possibility of resisting hate speech, by allowing for a word’s resignification: “The word that wounds becomes an instrument of resistance in the redeployment that destroys the prior territory of its operation.”2 Broadly speaking, resignification of a hurtful term requires that one redeploys the term in a new context, and that one repeats the term in order to create new meaning and significance. In this way, Butler argues, hate speech can and should be resisted. The question of how offensive or hateful speech wounds in the first place is essential to understanding how it may be subverted. Accordingly, Butler opens Excitable Speech by reflecting on the ways in which human beings are linguistically vulnerable. Following Heidegger, she argues that we are linguistically constituted. Language makes the body exist by bringing the body into social discourse, thereby making it vulnerable to injury.3 The fact that we can address each other, and that we constitute each other in addressing each other, renders us vulnerable.4 Thus, the interpellative, subject-constituting power of speech is essential to its ability to cause harm. Butler draws on the work of J. L. Austin and Louis Althusser to create a framework for understanding exactly how offensive language injures while allowing for its resignification. Butler examines performative utterances closely, analyzing Austin’s work on perlocutionary and illocutionary utterances. For Austin, these two types of utterances are performative: they act, or produce effects. That hateful utterances are performative is a given; the important question is exactly how they achieve their effect. Butler characterizes Austin’s illocutionary act as “one in which in saying something, one is at the same time doing something; the […]


saying is a kind of doing.”5 On the other hand, perlocutionary acts, “are those utterances that initiate a set of consequences […] the saying and the consequences are temporally distinct.”6 For Austin, hateful speech, and verbal injury more generally, falls into the perlocutionary sphere, meaning that “injury does not inhere in the conventions that a given speech act invokes, but in the specific consequences that a speech act produces.”7 For Butler as well, hate speech would probably fall into Austin’s perlocutionary category, with some caveats. However, Butler will ultimately move away from Austin’s categories to emphasize instead the excitable nature of hate speech. Butler draws on Althusser to give an account of the interpellative function that hateful utterances must perform in order to succeed. Interpellation has the twofold function of constituting a subject and calling it into dialogue with another. Due to our linguistic constitution, interpellation is a fundamental part of human life. So, for Butler, “the utterances of hate speech are part of the continuous and uninterrupted process to which we are subjected, an ongoing subjection […] that is the very operation of interpellation, that continually repeated action of discourse by which subjects are formed.”8 By using the language of interpellation, Butler calls to mind Althusser’s famous example of the policeman hailing his subject from down the street. The subject does not need to respond affirmatively to the call of the policeman to be interpellated: “The subject need not always turn around in order to be constituted as a subject, and the discourse that inaugurates the subject need not take the form of a voice at all.”9 It is also perfectly possible that the subject will respond to an address in a way that the addressor does not expect. By revising Althusser’s concept of interpellation, Butler opens up a way for hateful utterances to miss their mark. She writes, “interpellation is an address that regularly misses its mark, it requires the recognition of an authority at the same time that it confers identity through successfully compelling that recognition […] it seeks to introduce a reality rather than report on an existing one; it accomplishes this introduction through a citation of existing




convention.”10 Hateful utterances seek to compel their addressee to recognize the authority they cite; for Butler, however, this mechanism can fail. To complete this discussion, I will quickly clarify the role of historical context and citationality in hateful remarks. As I suggested before, the injury from hateful remarks stems from the hateful associations with a particular slur that are revived and brought to bear on the victim with the use of a particular slur. Racists and misogynists, as Dr. Laura Penny sarcastically pointed out to me earlier this term, are rarely original with their terminology. Indeed, the power of hateful utterances draws on the historical accretion of meaning around a particular slur. As Butler says, “racist speech works through the invocation of convention; it circulates, and though it requires the subject for its speaking, it neither begins nor ends with the subject who speaks or with the specific name that is used.”11 This historicity of hateful slurs gives them their power; but at the same time, it provides an opportunity to resignify these terms. If a word is repeated and reused in a different context, it can be made to mean something different. Butler argues that hate speech is a speech act like any other, where we are free to misinterpret it as we inevitably do with other utterances. Hate speech causes injury by interpellating the subject it addresses into a context that causes them pain. However, like other performative speech acts that attempt to create an effect on their addressee, they can fail to successfully interpellate their addressee, therefore failing to create the effect and communicate the meaning they were intending to. Thus, the receiver of hateful epithets has the ability to resignify the terms that are thrown at them. Having dealt with the question of how hate speech can harm, the question remains: how can one mitigate or prevent the harm it causes? Butler is not in favour of greater state regulation or oversight. Through several case studies, Butler draws out the ways in which the state has created more problems in the name of preventing harm. In the case of R. A. V. vs. St. Paul, which dealt with a cross-burning on a black family’s lawn in Minnesota,


Butler carefully reads the written judgements to show that the courts effectively used precedents on hate speech “to promote conservative political goals and thwart progressive efforts.”12 After extensive debate, the Supreme Court chose to proscribe the cross-burning due to the potential it had to provoke riots that would threaten the state’s authority, rather than to protect the family, thereby stripping away the racial aspect of the case. Elsewhere, Butler argues that state proscriptions on obscenity and hateful speech have actually created new opportunities for discrimination that have disproportionately affected members of minority communities.13 The act of prosecuting hate crimes also requires that they be re-enacted in the courtroom, an act that tends to fossilize the meaning of the terms used, and reinjure the victims involved.14 Finally, Butler’s commitments to her concept of language lead her to speak out against regulation of hate speech as well. She writes, “it is therefore impossible to regulate fully the potentially injurious effect of language without destroying something fundamental about language and, more specifically, about the subject’s constitution in language.”15 Because hate speech is not a qualitatively different form of speech, regulating it would amount to an attack on speech more generally. Butler’s opposition to state regulation also grows out of her conviction that arguments for regulation rely on an illocutionary model of hate speech. In American courts, there is a strong tendency to view hate speech in illocutionary terms, that is to say, as a form of conduct that must be proscribed, instead of an act of speech that produced a hateful result. Legal curtailment of hate speech is “supported by the use of the illocutionary model of hate speech.”16 However, Butler is keen to avoid this understanding of speech, because it suggests that speech “constitutes an injury in itself, thus becoming an unequivocal form of conduct.”17 It also suggests that speech as conduct can never fail to do what it intends to do; and it is crucial to Butler that all speech, sometimes even hate speech, can fail to reach its addressee in the manner that was intended, the better to allow for the possibility of resignification. I will pause here to introduce some criticisms of Butler’s




treatment of Austin, as it is certainly one of the more difficult parts of the text. Lisa H. Schwartzman takes issue with Butler’s account of illocution in her critique of this book. Schwartzman argues that Butler’s account commits the fault of “mischaracterizing Austin’s account of illocution,”18 and by extension, the accounts of other theorists Butler takes up during her argument. Schwartzman attacks Butler’s reading of other authors, which suggests they are basing their concept of hate speech on Austin’s illocution. Schwartzman, a supporter of prosecution, argues that Butler’s perception of the illocutionary view of the legal system is a misunderstanding, and that her view is not enough to rule out the possibility of state regulation of hate speech. Nevertheless, I believe that Butler provides ample reasons to discount the possibility of state intervention on hate speech that do not rely on her rejection of the illocutionary model of hate speech alone. While Butler is in no way absolving individuals of responsibility for what they say in her arguments against prosecution, it is clear that she much prefers the process of resignification as a response to hate speech. However, she has been criticized for this stance, again by Schwartzman, who argues that prosecution is essential for the effective stamping out of hate speech. “In order to change hierarchical structures,” she writes, “social and legal pressures must be brought to bear on those who perpetuate them.”19 While Butler is suspicious of the efficacy of prosecution, due to the historicity of hateful slurs and her own suspicions of the state, she is not categorically against holding individuals responsible for hateful speech: “The speaker assumes responsibility precisely through the citational character of speech […] responsibility is thus linked with speech as repetition, not as origination.”20 In other words, the speaker of hateful words is responsible for their speech, just not in the way we might expect. While prosecution may be fraught with problems, Butler is willing to hold that “there are probably occasions when [speakers] should [be prosecuted].”21 I will now explore the process of resignification in greater depth, in order to apply it to the contemporary world. Butler


does not go into detail about the process of resignification in the book, as her main concern is making the case for its possibility. However, she does give us some guide posts to follow. The process of resignification is indubitably an arduous and difficult one, requiring repetition that eventually finds its way into saying and meaning something new. “The language that counters the injuries of speech,” she writes, “must repeat those injuries without precisely re-enacting them.”22 While the excitability of speech is an opportunity, it is also a danger, as the instability of language could work against the one who tries to reuse it. It also appears that the resignifying of utterances will take a lot of time. Butler is at pains to emphasize the temporal side of racism and other structures of oppression. The structure of racism “must be reiterated again and again […] it has a kind of ritual dimension and […] its very temporal dimension is the condition of its subversion.”23 The history that inheres in hurtful slurs may then perhaps take as much time to undo as it did to accumulate. Butler likens the process of resignifying a word to that of working through trauma, a process that is difficult and time-consuming at best.24 In a closer examination of the concept of resignification, a tension between the role of individual and collective efforts also seems to open up. Butler suggests that the process of resignification must take place at a personal level. Because hateful speech interpellates an individual subject, calling that particular subject a name, that injury gives rise to agency.25 Butler’s own refusal to cite examples of hate speech, to avoid re-enacting trauma in the process of investigating such speech, also seems to indicate that the work of resignification must be carried out at the level of the individual, and on the individual’s own terms.26 However, Butler seems to hint that there is also a public aspect to resignification. She briefly examines queer politics, which has had success in taking up formerly offensive words and redeploying them. She also seems to suggest that art can perform this function as well: “The aggressive reappropriation of injurious speech in the rap of, say, Ice T becomes a site for a traumatic re-enactment on injury, but one in which the terms […] are themselves set forth as




discursive items […] open to reuse.”27 However, Butler does not elaborate on either possibility, leaving her ultimate conclusion open to question. A common criticism of this book is that it ultimately fails to fully flesh out a useful way forward for those who wish to engage in the process of resignification. Although this work was certainly not intended as a manual, Butler admittedly leaves many questions about the process of resignification unanswered. For George Shulman, Butler’s text carries a message about language more than anything else: “Butler advises, don’t posit a doer behind the deed or turn to the state to protect you; respond instead by seeing both how language deprives any subject of sovereignty and how its failure to ‘capture’ the world is a condition of democratic possibility.”28 Likewise, Lisa D. Schwartzman finds more questions than answers in Butler’s sketch of resignification. She also argues that Butler has underestimated the role of social movements in creating linguistic change. “In her view that hate speech can be easily resignified,” she writes, “Butler seems to underestimate the role that such movements play in this process.”29 I do not believe that Butler is suggesting that resignification is an easy process. As well, given the discussion of Ice T and queer politics quoted above, I would argue that Butler does, on some level, recognize the implicit importance of social movements. However, Schwartzman is perhaps correct to pull this idea into greater prominence. While Butler’s concept of resignification provides resources for a response at an individual level, without recourse to some kind of community, it is unlikely that a newly resignified term will come to greater use, as language is shaped and changed communally. Despite these problems with Butler’s account, I do see uses of resignification in our current political situation that seem to fit with an expanded version of her model. Donald Trump’s hateful remarks have received widespread media coverage, and have offered many others license to spew hatred. However, due to the massive amount of coverage his remarks have received, his statements are ripe for reinterpretation and resignification. One of the major takeaways from the third presidential debate, which


took place on October 19th, 2016, was Donald Trump’s “nasty woman” insult, which occurred during a rather routine question about Social Security: Clinton: Well, Chris, I am [on] record as saying we need to put more money into Social Security Trust fund. That’s part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My Social Security payroll contribution will go up as will Donald’s assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it, but what we want to do is— Trump: Such a nasty woman.30 By the next morning, VOX News had published the article “‘Nasty Woman’ becomes the feminist rallying cry Hillary Clinton was waiting for.”31 This article was followed in quick succession by many others like it, many by women who felt themselves interpellated by Trump’s remark. The phrase was also taken up in a more concrete way: the Huffington Post reported that Nasty Woman T-Shirts became available for purchase within an hour of Trump’s remark.32 In the weeks to come, “Nasty Woman” gave rise to at least two hashtags (#nastywoman and #IAmANastyWomanBecause), a raft of memes, and myriad other pieces of merchandise. Indeed, “Nasty Woman” became almost a badge of pride for women who identified with Ms. Clinton. The Huffington Post quoted 33-year-old Rachel Berkey, who said that it “felt like time to take the insult and turn it into a brag.”33 Whereas Trump had hoped to pin another insult on Ms. Clinton, to add to his created persona of “Crooked Hillary,” Trump’s remark was taken up and used against him, mostly by white feminists who campaigned against him. To me, the example of the “Nasty Woman” shows the promise and possibility of Butler’s concept of resignification, but also exposes some of its limitations. First of all, the transformation of “Nasty Woman” was accomplished in no small part due to the media coverage it received and its circulation on the internet. While individual women took up the insult and turned it back around, this process was highly publicized and widely circulated in




public discourse. Second, I think it is important to note the racial and class dimensions of this case. “Nasty Woman” was publicly espoused by predominantly white women active in media and public discourse, such as the feminist comedian Samantha Bee, who dedicated an episode of her popular TV show to the term.34 As evidenced by the rapid commodification of the phrase, “Nasty Woman” fit quite well into the neoliberal, corporatized feminist discourse that is predominant in North America today. While the resignification of “Nasty Woman” proceeded with breathtaking rapidity, racial slurs have not been taken up in the same way, with the same enthusiasm and visibility behind them, suggesting that the support of a social movement, and substantial public visibility, are important factors in the resignification of words. In conclusion, Judith Butler’s book Excitable Speech provides a glimpse of some possibilities for responding to hateful speech. She provides an account of how hateful speech causes injury, and argues for an “excitable” concept of speech that means that we can never have full control over what we say. While frustrating, this gap between intention and how one’s speech is received opens up a space for the contestation of meaning, providing an opportunity to reappropriate hateful speech and put it to new uses. Butler is optimistic about the power of resignification to counter hate speech, instead of relying on the state to circumscribe it. While Butler does a good job of exposing the potential of resignification, and opening up dialogue about it, Excitable Speech can hardly be taken as a road-map to successful reappropriation of hate speech, and was not intended to be read as such. Rather, it should be taken as an invitation to revise our thinking around language, and create greater awareness of the ways in which social change can be created. In the case of Donald Trump, who is leading America down a regressive and hateful path, resistance is now more important than ever, in whatever spaces and methods we can find.

Notes 1



3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

19 20

Cassie Miller and Alexandra Werner-Wislow, “Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election.” Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, 163. Ibid., 5. Ibid., 6. Ibid., 17. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., 27. Ibid., 31. Ibid., 33. Ibid. 34. Ibid., 62. Ibid., 75. Ibid., 54. Ibid., 27. Ibid., 23. Ibid. Lisa D. Schwartzman, “Hate Speech, Illocution, and Social Context: A Critique of Judith Butler,” 427. Ibid., 433. Butler, 29.

21 22 23

24 25 26 27 28

29 30



33 34

Ibid., 50. Ibid., 41. Vikki Bell, “On Speech, Race, and Melancholia: An Interview with Judith Butler,” 168. Butler, 102. Ibid., 41. Ibid., 38. Ibid., 100. George Shulman, “On Vulnerability as Judith Butler’s Language of Politics: From Excitable Speech to Precarious Life,” 231. Schwartzman, 436. Politico, “Full Transcript: Third 2016 Presidential Debate.” Liz Plank, “‘Nasty Woman’ becomes the feminist rallying cry Hillary Clinton was waiting for.” Emma Gray, “How ‘Nasty Woman’ became a viral call for solidarity.” Ibid. Matt Wilstein, “Samantha Bee Gets ‘Nasty’ for Hillary: Trump ‘Confused Abortions With Bear Attacks.’”

Bibliography Bell, Vikki. “On Speech, Race, and Melancholia: An Interview with Judith Butler.” Theory, Culture & Society 16, no. 2 (1999): 163-174. Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997. Gray, Emma. “How ‘Nasty Woman’ became a viral call for solidarity.” Huffington Post, October 20, 2016.


Miller, Cassie, and Alexandra Werner-Wislow. “Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election.” Southern Poverty Law Center, November 29, 2016. splcenter.org. Plank, Liz. “‘Nasty Woman’ becomes the feminist rallying cry Hillary Clinton was waiting for,” VOX News, October 20, 2016. Politico. “Full Transcript: Third 2016 Presidential Debate.” Politico, October 20, 2016. Schwartzman, Lisa H. “Hate Speech, Illocution, and Social Context: A Critique of Judith Butler.” Journal of Social Philosophy 33, no. 3 (2002): 421-441. Shulman, George. “On Vulnerability as Judith Butler’s Language of Politics: From Excitable Speech to Precarious Life.” SAFE 39, no. 1 (2011): 227-235. Wilstein, Matt. “Samantha Bee Gets ‘Nasty’ for Hillary: Trump ‘Confused Abortions With Bear Attacks.’” The Daily Beast, October 25, 2016.



Translating the Subject In Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator

Edouard McIntyre

In his essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin examines the role of translation in maintaining the life of a work of art, as well as the relationship between a written work of art and language. Benjamin makes the claim that through the act of translation an original text “rises into a higher and purer linguistic air.”1 By this, Benjamin means that the complementary essences of the original and translated languages bring out a greater truth or meaning in the work of art. In this essay, I will question Benjamin’s view of languages as distinct units which can complement each other to bring out what Benjamin terms “pure language.”2 I will argue, instead, that the task of translation is to translate the writing subject (the author) into a new context—be it historical or social. First, I will discuss the criteria which make languages different from one another, and how disparate these languages would have to be for one to reveal hidden meanings in the other, as Benjamin suggests. For this discussion, I will consider Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct for its analysis of the structural similarities between languages. Then, I will discuss the relationship between author and discourse in Michel Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” This will clarify the notion of the writing subject and lead to the suggestion that the task of



the translator is to re-contextualize an author in a new culturallinguistic environment. Benjamin’s essay begins with a consideration of the commonplace understanding of translation, which he believes misunderstands the purpose of translation. Benjamin believes that bad translation has been interested in simply equating the language of the original with that of the translation. The equation of language allows readers of another tongue to understand the information of the text. For Benjamin, however, the raw information of a text is something inessential to the written work as a work of art. Benjamin states that “any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information—hence, something inessential [to the text]. This is the hallmark of bad translations.”3 This commonplace understanding is fundamentally wrong for Benjamin, and leads him to describe two problems associated with translation, which are at the heart of the purpose of translation and the role of the translator. The first problem is that there is never an intended audience for a written work of art. The function of the original text is not to communicate with an ideal receiver, because the notion of an ideal receiver is fallacious. There can be no expected response on the part of the audience. This holds true for all art; as Benjamin says, “no poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.”4 Because the original is not directed to a receiver, it follows that translation also has no intended audience. A translation cannot exist solely to engender a response or an understanding. Therefore, communicability is not the function of translation—“if the original does not exist for the reader’s sake, how could the translation be understood on the basis of this premise?”5 The second problem with the commonplace understanding of translation is that not all texts are translatable. Some texts lend themselves to translation whereas others do not. For Benjamin, the possibility of translation is intrinsic to the nature of some works of art. He asks: “will an adequate translator ever be found among


the totality of [a work of art’s] readers? Or, more pertinently: Does its nature lend itself to translation and, therefore, in view of the significance of the mode, call for it?”6 The fact that not all texts call for or lend themselves to translation signifies that translation is constructive in nature. It also demonstrates that an understanding of translation as equation is insufficient. Translation adds something to the original which is not observable in its initial iteration. These two problems lead Benjamin to the conclusion that the function of translation is not found in the relationship between author and reader, but rather in the relationship between languages. Benjamin states, “translation thus ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages. It cannot possibly reveal or establish this hidden relationship itself; but it can represent it by realizing it in embryonic or intensive form.”7 The reciprocal relationship which is realized in translation is what Benjamin calls “pure language.”8 “Pure language” is the concept that all languages intend towards a common meaning, which, on their own, they are unable to express. Benjamin introduces the concept of “pure language” when he states that “all suprahistorical kinship of languages rests in the intention underlying each language as a whole—an intention, however, which no single language can attain by itself but which is realized only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other: pure language.”9 Benjamin’s theory of translation and his conception of “pure language” rest on the interplay between modes of intention. Benjamin states, “meaning is never found in relative independence, as in individual words or sentences; rather, it is in a constant state of flux—until it is able to emerge as pure language from the harmony of all the various modes of intention.”10 The realisation of meaning in language can only come to be—or be observed—in the convergence of divergent modes of intention. This conception of modes of intention makes the implicit claim that languages are not fulfilled or complete on their own. Benjamin makes this claim explicitly when he states that translation is the provisional means to the “hitherto inaccessible




realm of reconciliation and fulfillment of languages.”11 Modes of intention, it would seem—for Benjamin offers no operational definition—are a combination of contextual connotations and linguistic structures. Modes are separate from intentions themselves, in that they do not point to concrete objects. Instead, modes of intention are the way by which an intention is expressed. In this way, modes of intention act as signifiers and objects of intention act as the signified. Benjamin states, “the words Brot and pain ‘intend’ the same object, but the modes of this intention are not the same. It is owing to these modes that the word Brot means something different to a German than the word pain to a Frenchman, that these words are not interchangeable.”12 These two words for bread carry different connotations and exist within different linguistic environments. Because of this, even if both words have the same object of intention, they are not interchangeable. Translating one language into another brings out the space in which the two modes of intention interact and complement each other. For Benjamin, this space is where “pure language” emerges.13 The assumption underlying Benjamin’s concept of “pure language” is that languages are ontologically distinct entities. For Benjamin, languages evolve and change through time, but they are not fundamentally determined by contingent changes in words or context. There is flux which occurs within a language, but the language itself is a defined and distinct entity which, according to Benjamin, is mutually exclusive to other languages.14 This assumption has to be met if one language is to contribute anything to the truth of another. Benjamin states, “while all individual elements of foreign languages—words, sentences, structure are mutually exclusive, these languages supplement one another in their intentions.”15 Since modes of intentions belong to the languages themselves, they are distinct insofar as the languages are distinct. It is the difference between languages which allows Benjamin to make the claim that the act of translation brings out “pure language.” Benjamin’s way of understanding language conflicts with


linguistic theory that emerged in the late twentieth century. In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker examines the structure and development of language in humans. Pinker’s central thesis is that humans have biological structures present in the brain which lead to a common instinct for developing language. The development of this thesis leads to certain auxiliary claims which directly oppose Benjamin’s conception of the relationship between languages. Especially, Pinker claims that languages are all functionally the same, and that any structural differences conform to certain standard formats. Pinker states, “if there is a single plan just beneath the surfaces of the world’s languages, then any basic property of one language should be found in all the others.”16 Accordingly, and in a more lighthearted sense, Pinker claims that a visiting extraterrestrial scientist “would surely conclude that aside from their mutually unintelligible vocabularies, Earthlings speak a single language.”17 Pinker’s claim that languages are derived from a single plan challenges the notions that languages are significantly distinct entities and that the differences in modes of intention could complement each other to bring out “pure language.” Pinker elaborates on the single plan of language when he states, Differences among languages are similar. There seems to be a common plan of syntactic, morphological, and phonological rules and principles, with a small set of varying parameters, like a checklist of options. Once set, a parameter can have far reaching changes on the superficial appearance of the language.18 Here, Pinker describes how a language’s words, syntax, and phonemes all conform to the same intrinsic, biologicallydetermined checklist. These are only the “superficial” properties of language, but it is not clear exactly how Benjamin would account for any other, more ontologically significant differences in language. Pinker also considers the historical relationship between


“Da firs japani came ran away from japan come,” which translates to, “The first Japanese who arrived ran away from Japan to here.” “Some filipino wok o’he-ah dey wen’ couple ye-ahs in filipin islan,” which translates to, “Some Filipinos who worked over here went back to the Philippines for a couple of years.”21 Pinker is quick to point out that these creoles are not just simplified versions of their ancestral language, but that they have the same level of syntactic complexity as all languages.22 The need for translation indicates that derivative languages have modes



languages. Based on historical generation and structural comparisons, languages such as Italian and Spanish are more closely related to one another than to a language such as Japanese. Italian and Spanish are Romance languages and have similarities in vocabulary, phonetics, and grammar, as well as in geographical and historical origins.19 Japanese, on the other hand, is described by Pinker as a “linguistic orphan” because of its historically isolated development and accordingly disparate linguistic properties.20 It is clear in Benjamin’s essay that the language of translation must be distinct in some concrete aspects from the language of the original for “pure language” to emerge. However, Benjamin offers no criteria for delimiting how different languages are from one another. It is also unclear whether an increase in linguistic divergence leads to modes of intention which are more or less complementary, or which reveal different hidden meanings in “pure language.” Not only does Benjamin offer no account of how to determine the degree of disparity between languages, he also fails to account for how languages evolve to be distinct from one another. There exist languages, such as creoles, which are considered derivatives of other languages, but which nevertheless would require translation to be read. Pinker gives the example of Hawaiian Creole, a language derived from English, which demonstrates the need for translation. Pinker quotes lines such as


of intention which are proper to them and distinct from their ancestral language. For Benjamin’s concept of “pure language” to work, the evolutionary history of languages would have to account not only for how languages become distinct from one another, but also how modes of intention evolve. Many dialects of English which do not require an act of translation to be understandable attach different connotations to the same word, and use words and syntax in different ways. Pinker gives the example of two dialects, Black English Vernacular (BEV) and Standard American English (SAE). Pinker writes, BEV speakers invert subjects and auxiliaries in negative main clauses like “Don’t nobody know”; SAE speakers invert them only in questions like “Doesn’t anybody know?” and a few other sentence types. BEV allows its speakers the option of deleting copulas (If you bad); this is not random laziness but a systematic rule that is virtually identical to the contraction rule in SAE that reduces He is to He’s, You are to You’re, and I am to I’m.23 It is unclear if differences between dialects are significant enough to constitute different modes of intention, and if different modes of intention can exist within the same language. To support his theory of “pure language,” Benjamin would not only have to account for how languages evolve historically, but also for the presence of divergent dialects within a language at a given time. It is difficult to uphold the claim that the flux which exists between languages can provide any meaning, since the languages themselves are not ontologically stable. They are constantly changing. Pinker’s account of language suggests that languages are, first, only superficially different from one another, second, historically derived from one another, and third, not distinct in any absolute sense. If this is the case, it is difficult to imagine how a mode of intention could vary so much as to lead to a truer, purer language. It seems instead that linguistic truth, or any measure of




meaning which could be derived from languages, is found in its entirety, in every language. There is no lacking of meaning in one language that requires fulfillment by another. Rejecting Benjamin’s account of meaning as emerging from “pure language” does not repudiate the problems he has identified with the commonplace understanding of translation. Translation is still a characteristic which is only proper to certain texts, and its function cannot be to communicate with an intended audience. But if there is no meaningful distinction between languages, what can be the purpose of translation? I suggest that the task of the translator is the expression of the central reciprocal relationship between writing subjects—the author and the translator. By this I mean that, in the act of translation, the translator attempts to speak from the perspective of the author—to speak as if they were the author—reconstituting the discourse of the author in a faithful but constructive way. In his essay “What is an Author?” Michel Foucault discusses the role that an author plays inside the written work of art. Foucault ignores the sociological considerations surrounding authorship to focus on the writer as they are constituted in the text: as a beginner of discourse. He states, “I wish to restrict myself to the singular relationship that holds between an author and a text, the manner in which a text apparently points to this figure who is outside and precedes it.”24 In this way, Foucault is interested in the function the author performs in the written text, rather than the author as a historical subject. Foucault goes so far as to suggest that the author disappears in the act of writing. Foucault writes, “reversal transforms writing into an interplay of signs, regulated less by the content it signifies than by the very nature of the signifier [… writing] is primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears.”25 For Foucault, the act of writing subsumes the author into the text. This is even truer of the translator, who is not only subsumed by the text, but also by their secondary nature as an interpreter. The function of the author in a text is dependent on the


cultural and legal environments which inform the modes of discourse. These environments are variable. In this way, authorship is not limited to a singular person but depends on a plurality of egos. Foucault summarizes the function of the author in the text: Author-function is tied to the legal and institutional systems that circumscribe, determine, and articulate the realm of discourses; it does not operate in a uniform manner in all discourses, at all times, and in any given culture; it is not defined by the spontaneous attribution of a text to its creator, but through a series of precise and complex procedures; it does not refer, purely and simply, to an actual individual insofar as it simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions that individuals of any class may come to occupy.26 Authorship, then, is an open concept which requires a level of intersubjective interaction, in order to maintain and articulate the discourse of the work of art, as the work matures historically. The act of translation allows the work of art to move, not only into new cultural and legal environments, but also into a new linguistic one. In this way, translation adds a new dimension to the discourse of the text. Foucault gives the discourse created by a text precedence and importance over the author, and understands authorship as a function of discourse. Foucault writes, “the subject (and its substitutes) must be stripped of its creative role and analysed as a complex and variable function of discourse.”27 Stripping the author of their creative role is a radical move by Foucault, but it interestingly opens the possibility of a translator appropriating the author-function and characterizing the discourse of the text into a new context. The author-function is variable, in part, because Foucault attributes little importance to the proper name of the author. Foucault states that “unlike a proper name which moves from the


[They] not only made possible a certain number of analogies that could be adopted by future texts, but as importantly, they also made possible a certain number of differences. They cleared a space for the introduction of elements other than their own, which nevertheless, remain within the field of discourse they initiated.29 Freud founded psychoanalysis and Marx founded Marxist communism. Both began discussions which have continuing social and philosophical consequences. These discussions have been extended beyond the contexts in which Freud and Marx wrote, to vastly different social and historical environments. Translators of the two philosophers are largely responsible for extending the discussions into new cultural and linguistic contexts. Without both Freud and Marx being translated form their original German, there could not have been the proliferation of psychology in the United States, or the development of communism in the U.S.S.R. This conception of the task of the translator as a re-contextualizing of the author into a new environment addresses the two problems identified by Benjamin in the commonplace understanding of translation. Re-contextualizing the author by translation is only relevant to works of art which engender a mode of discussion, such as those of Freud and Marx. As well, presenting translation as intersubjective rather than interlingual does not suppose an intended audience for the work of art. Instead, an understanding of translation as intersubjective is consistent



interior of a discourse to the real person outside who produced it the name of the author remains at the contours of texts—separating one from the other, defining their form, and characterizing their mode of existence.�28 The proper name of the author (much like the transmitting function for Benjamin) is something inessential to the text itself. It is rather the author-function which characterizes and defines the text in a particular context. Foucault uses Freud and Marx as examples of authors who initiated modes of discourse. Foucault says of Marx and Freud:


with Benjamin’s view of intention. If, for Benjamin, “the task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original,” then in light of Foucault’s analysis, the task of the translator is to re-convey the intended effect of the author—the discourse—in the cultural-linguistic context of the translation.30 In conclusion, the role of translation is the re-contextualizing of a written work of art into different cultural-linguistic environments. The task of the translator, as presented by Benjamin, is in conflict with Steven Pinker’s analysis of the essential structures of language. Because languages are not ontologically distinct units, the concept of “pure language” as emerging from the convergence of divergent modes of intention is unsustainable. Thus, the task of the translator cannot be to express “pure language.” Instead, as suggested, the translator can perform the role of extending discussions and allowing them to proliferate within new contexts by taking up the author-function in another language. Notes 1

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, 75. Ibid., 74. Ibid., 69. Ibid. Ibid., 70. Ibid. Ibid.,72. Ibid., 74. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., 75. Ibid., 74. Ibid., 75. Ibid., 74.

15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

Ibid. Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 239. Ibid., 232. Ibid., 239. Ibid., 252. Ibid., 254. Ibid., 34. Ibid., 35. Ibid., 30. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” 115. Ibid., 116. Ibid., 130-131. Ibid., 138. Ibid., 123.



Ibid., 132.


Benjamin, 76.

Bibliography Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Translated by Harry Zohn. Berlin: Schocken, 1969.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” In Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, edited by Josué V. Harari, 141-160. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979.



Pinker, Stephen. The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Women’s Autobiography as Cixous’s Écriture Féminine “Your body is yours, take it”

Hannah Barrie

In her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous urges women to write. She incites women to break the silence expected of them in patriarchal society. Her words are powerful, commanding, and intimate; she is both authoritative and coaxing; she speaks as if directly into our ears. Cixous’s concept of écriture féminine, or writing the feminine, is exemplified when women write their own lives into literary existence. The genre of women’s autobiography thus fully embodies Cixous’s notion of écriture féminine. I will discuss the autobiographical writings of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, showing the distinct qualities of écriture féminine in their work. It is important to note that each of these women is white; this essay accounts only for the works of three women with white privilege, and is thereby limited in its scope. Cixous is a French feminist writer, philosopher, poet, and professor, born in Algeria in 1937. Her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” uses the figure of Medusa to denounce feminine silence: Medusa was a Gorgon who turned men to stone with her gaze. Cixous calls upon this mythological figure to frame her essay exhorting women to express themselves through their bodies and through their own language. She describes the power of the



Medusa in her essay, writing, “you only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”1 Medusa represents the strength that women hold within themselves and can bring to the external world. Cixous’s essay reads like a manifesto. Her writing is convincing and emphatic, exemplified in statements such as “woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.”2 She labels the feeling of isolation that many women share, and gives voice to their (our) desires, describing women as having worlds of their own, having desires overflowing with desires, but being stifled with shame and selfdisdain. Women share the “infinite richness of their individual constitutions,” and their imaginary is inexhaustible, but they suppress it—we are conditioned to believe that only men can desire, think, and write.3 Cixous calls women into writing. Her tone is exasperated when she asks, “why don’t you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.”4 This is striking: linking writing and body, and one’s agency over both practices, was a revolutionary idea in her time. In telling women, “your body is yours, take it,” she accesses the feeling of women’s inferiority that is so natural in a male-dominated society, and pulls it out, pulls woman onto the page and into the world, urging her to take control.5 She insists, “woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.”6 Her voice coaxes out women’s inner desires, and simultaneously commands them to fight against the men that have led them to hate themselves and other women. Cixous states that women’s perspectives have historically been excluded from writing: “with a few rare exceptions, there has not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity.”7 In fact, women have been perpetually repressed in writing, “over and over, more or less consciously, and in a manner that’s frightening since it’s often hidden or adorned with the mystifying charms of fiction.”8 By arguing “I write woman: woman must write woman,” she affirms that writing will realize woman’s relation to her sexuality,


her strength, her pleasures, her body, and her individuality; “By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display.”9 Male desire and patriarchal society seize women’s agency over their own bodies, objectifying and commodifying them; women writing themselves gives them the opportunity to take themselves back. Writing is also an act that will be marked by woman’s “seizing the occasion to speak, hence her shattering entry into history, which has always been based on her suppression.”10 The act of writing, as well as the writing itself, is subversive. Women taking agency for themselves is subversive. This act is also revolutionary in its solidarity: by writing, “women will confirm women in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence,” as evidenced by Cixous’s essay.11 Women give themselves to other women in their writing. Écriture féminine, however, is difficult to elucidate for Cixous. She argues that it “is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded—which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.”12 To her, feminine writing is self-explanatory in its radical nature. It will always surpass phallocentric discourse; “it does and will take place in areas other than those subordinated to philosophico-theoretical domination.”13 No authority can subjugate an author of écriture féminine. Women need to make language our own, and when this happens, it explodes the discourse of man. Cixous viscerally describes the power of creating a feminine language: If woman has always functioned “within” the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds, it is time for her to dislocate this “within,” to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting that tongue


with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of.14



Women can completely subvert masculine discourse in writing themselves. Cixous’s goal is writing through the body in order to invent a feminine tongue. Women’s autobiographical writing exemplifies écriture féminine. The act of a woman writing is essential for Cixous, and a woman writing about her own lived experience is radical. Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel take autobiography further: they heed Cixous’s call to writing in myriad ways. These authors inscribe themselves in the text, partially fictionalize their autobiography, blend genres and media, include female sexuality in their texts, give voice to other women, and express the boundless, infinite nature of women’s writing. Autobiography is written from the subject position of the self, thereby granting women agency in telling their own stories however they choose, but these authors go beyond: they write from the body and fulfill many of the tenets of écriture féminine. Christopher Wiley writes of the “androcentric constructions of genius and greatness—to which biography, in all its forms, subscribed by its very practice of presenting exemplary lives.”15 Both Woolf and Bechdel subvert these androcentric constructions by feminizing autobiography. Wiley reinforces Cixous’s belief in the urgency of women’s writing: “The importance of such texts lies in their very existence and in the permanence of the documentary record of their subjects.”16 Virginia Woolf was an English writer who lived from 1882 to 1941. She was a significant figure in London’s literary scene and is the author of works such as Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. In her personal life she had intimate relationships with other women, despite her marriage to Leonard Woolf. Woolf had many autobiographical tendencies; she kept a diary throughout her life, wrote many personal letters to various correspondents, frequently inserted herself into her fictional texts, and generally kept a close record of her own life. Alison Bechdel is a contemporary American cartoonist, born in 1960, and author of Fun Home and Dykes to Watch Out


For. Fun Home is a graphic memoir that chronicles her childhood and youth in rural Pennsylvania, focusing on her complex relationship with her father. Jennifer Lemberg describes the memoir: “throughout Fun Home, Bechdel highlights moments of perception that offer illuminating forms of knowledge crucial to her development as a woman, a lesbian, and an artist.”17 Woolf and Bechdel, despite writing in different eras, have much in common: they are both non-heterosexual, white, cisgender, feminist women, who painstakingly make an account of their own lives on paper and are able to share them with the world due to their compelling honesty and literary prowess. Lyn Thomas and Emma Webb discuss feminist autobiographical writing and illuminate the ways in which Woolf and Bechdel exemplify unconventional feminine writing. They reveal how Woolf and Bechdel call conventional definitions of the literary and the feminine into question by including themselves in the text, whether subtly or explicitly, to remind the reader of the author’s subject position. In examining Bechdel’s Fun Home, Robyn Warhol explores “the gendered ways that the material body comes into the text.”18 Bechdel’s own voice and hand are evident not only in the representation of her life by her own pen, but also the physical depiction of her hand in many of the panels. One such example is the representation of her hand holding the subject of the narration, seen in images where she has depicted her own hand holding a photograph.19 A less obvious but highly impressive example, “equally effective in bringing the material body into the text,” is Bechdel’s practice of taking photographs of herself posing for each of the characters in every frame, then drawing the comics from the photographs.20 Thus her body manifests itself in many physical ways in Fun Home. This strategy serves to “confirm the sense that there is ‘a person in the text,’ and foster the reader/writer identification, which [is] a specific feature of the consciousness-raising function of feminist literature.”21 Virginia Woolf inserted herself into her writing in a different manner. Wiley’s article discusses her method of self-presentation in her text in his exploration of the role of autobiography in


Woolf ’s passion for “life-writing,” as she called it, led her especially to admire and encourage autobiography. She described the genre […] as “my favourite form of reading,” and she wrote to Hugh Walpole that “of all literature … I love autobiography most. In fact I sometimes think only autobiography is literature.”23 However, in her deliberate removal of her own presence in her work, Woolf does not perfectly exemplify Cixous’s écriture féminine. “Woolf believed that her overt presence in a text would contradict her fiction,” writes Wiley; instead she wrote fragmentary prose and “spoke through the voices of protean narrators, who were constructed by rather than coincident with their author.”24 This was a strategic choice: Woolf saw “the egotism and subjectivity symbolized by the ‘I’ as inherently male, and therefore oppressive.”25 Instead of fighting this oppression as Cixous suggests, by writing with a boldly feminine “I,” Woolf chose to avoid the subjectivity she saw as masculine altogether. Despite this choice, Woolf ’s presence remains in her text in a subtler fashion. According to Wiley, “through [her] rhetorical dialectical strategies, Woolf remained inscribed at the subtextual level, and as such, she remains one of the most important figures in the field of women’s autobiography.”26 Woolf ’s prose and her construction of her narrators insert her presence into the text—perhaps not as openly as Bechdel’s literal self-depiction, but in a manner that



the strong friendship between Woolf and Ethel Smyth, two non-heterosexual twentieth-century literary figures who shared an interest in writing about their own lives. He compares the strategies of Smyth’s and Woolf ’s autobiography, noting that, while “Smyth egotistically recounted stories relating to herself, Woolf deliberately excised overt authorial presence from her texts.”22 Wiley considers Woolf ’s novels, her diary, and her letters to Smyth to all fall under the category of autobiography, and he details her passion for autobiography with excerpts from her correspondence:


still serves as effective écriture féminine and reflects the less progressive era in which she worked. Woolf wished that she could include more of a bodily presence in her texts. In a speech she gave on Professions for Women, she revealed this desire, saying: “a female writer ‘has to say I will wait … until men have become so civilised that they are not shocked when a woman speaks the truth about her body.’”27 Woolf wanted to speak the truth about her own body, as Cixous urges, but was unable to in her own time. Today, Bechdel helps to realize Woolf ’s wish in her contemporary autobiographical works. Fictionalizing autobiography is another method by which Woolf and Bechdel embody écriture féminine. Drawing attention to the fictional adjustments in one’s autobiography reveals one’s agency as an author and reminds the readers of the author’s subject position. Thomas and Webb argue that drawing “attention to the ways in which [one restructures their] past in order to produce a more convincing narrative” is a strong feminist strategy to reinforce the author’s subjectivity.28 In Woolf ’s identification with her characters and narrators, she “dissolved the boundaries between biography and fiction—which in her case were linked inextricably both to one another and to feminism—and translated her own observations on life into her literature.”29 Likewise, Bechdel’s memories are not accurate in every detail. She even states that she finds it easier and more meaningful to express her story in fictional comparisons, such as alluding to figures from the works of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald in order to describe her parents. In Fun Home she writes, “I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms.”30 Blurring fiction and reality allows Woolf and Bechdel agency in their portrayals of their own lives. Blending genres and media in women’s autobiography further serves Cixous’s goal. Cixous calls for women to write in their own kind of language and thus subvert the prevalent masculine discourse; both Woolf and Bechdel create their own distinct style of language. Thomas and Webb refer to Marie Cardinal’s blurring


Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks—all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now.32 Her alliteration, long sentences, repetition of words, and rambling descriptions are all marked deviations from masculine writing. As Clara Juncker notes in her essay “Writing (with) Cixous,” Woolf ’s “poetic imagery, distancing her writing from exposition and logic, invents with(in) language a space of radical change. The poetic thus functions both aesthetically and politically.”33 Bechdel’s medium of choice is comics, which in itself subverts traditional literary norms. In Fun Home, she immortalizes her past and herself in intricately detailed images and replications of photographs. Lemberg writes, “what remains unspeakable in her family and unrepresented in her diary can be at least partially represented through images.”34 Graphic novels can extend beyond the power of words and create a space for depictions of memories and stories that written autobiographies lack. Bechdel alludes



of genres to express this argument: “by crossing the borderlines between different cultural contexts and literary genres Cardinal rejects fixed definitions of literature and of female identity itself.”31 Traditional masculine writing is linear, rational, and follows a set process. In deviating from this style with non-linearity, images, poetry, and other creative forms of literary expression, women show their own agency as literary creators. Woolf experimented with free indirect discourse and her prose frequently took on the rhythm and descriptive beauty of poetry. A passage from Mrs Dalloway reveals her poetic style:


to many literary texts in Fun Home, such as Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.35 She draws pages of texts, pages of her own journals, and old family photographs in addition to representations of childhood scenes; as Lemberg notes, “Bechdel’s comic style may at first seem almost ‘invisible’ behind her exploration of other mediums, particularly photography and literature.”36 Bechdel also frames each of her chapters with words and images that bear a complex relationship to each other and the ensuing chapter, and thus “reminds us that it is in the space between existing visual images and familiar storylines where we make meaning of our individual lives. Here, that is precisely the space described by comics.”37 The medium of the cartoon is useful in its endless variety and its use of complementary or discordant words and images. Warhol calls Bechdel’s method autography, combining the terms autobiography and graphic memoir, and states that this technique “provides a view of how narrative can construct subjectivity that adds unanticipated dimensions to currently circulating models of narrative poetics.”38 A combination of creative media becomes a new language for accurately expressing women’s voices and stories. Sexuality is a key factor of women writing through their bodies. Though Cixous’s work can be essentialist in its bodily focus, it has the potential to be freeing; she argues that in writing through their bodies, women “invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes, they must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse.”39 Sexuality is an enormous part of women’s physicality, but female sexuality is still an often-ignored subject. Thomas and Webb argue for the subversive inclusion of women’s sexuality in writing, and as Warhol writes, Fun Home “presents explicitly detailed bodies in poses seldom seen in mainstream media, from naked corpses being embalmed to equally naked college students making lesbian love.”40 Female sexuality is unexpected in literature, particularly in autobiography, and Bechdel’s memoir demonstrates its subversive power. Juncker also




notes the importance of sexuality in women’s writing, specifically in French feminism: “In order to locate this linguistically and culturally repressed femininity, Kristeva, Irigaray, and particularly Cixous celebrate female sexuality, the bodily pre-linguistic desire unappropriated by phallic/symbolic systems.”41 Men cannot take women’s sexuality from us; men cannot truly know women’s bodies. Woolf shared the belief that women’s sexuality holds textual power. In her correspondence with Ethel Smyth, she called for Smyth to write a truthful autobiography, which would include details of her lesbian sex life. Woolf believed that “woman may recount herself accurately only when she speaks the truth about her body—here aligned overtly with her sex life.”42 By neglecting to be faithful to her lesbianism, her sexuality, and, by extension, her womanhood, Woolf believed that Smyth had failed to represent herself truthfully.43 Furthermore, autobiographical writing with an author’s clear presence allows female readers to identify with the stories and feelings present in the text. Woolf ’s mundane diary entries and descriptions of her moods can give solace to women who identify with the writer’s feelings, and Bechdel’s routine inclusion of events like menstruation and masturbation may allow other women space to speak about such typically taboo subjects. Moreover, Thomas and Webb argue that the fact of both writers breaking the rules of conventional autobiography and speaking about unspoken issues “in a literary form which is widely comprehensible and accessible, seems to give many women readers the sense that they too can find the words to express their experience, and that they are entitled to do so.”44 In writing their own stories, women fulfill Cixous’s goal of writing for both themselves and for other women. Autobiographies also serve to create the boundless, infinite nature of écriture féminine. According to Wiley, “where biographies are short-lived and of necessity continually rewritten, autobiographies are seemingly immortal, being invested with a false and continuing authority by virtue of their ostensibly internal frame of reference.”45 This reinforces Cixous’s exclamation of “we’ll keep on becoming!” in relation to women’s limitlessness.46


Masculine writing is rigid and linear, but “feminine texts know no boundaries, no beginnings and endings, instead reaching towards the ‘non-encore-là’ of infinite desire and inconclusion.”47 Autobiography, in its immortalizing of the self, fits perfectly into the infinitude of écriture féminine. Thomas and Webb express a possible critique of Cixous’s écriture féminine and women’s autobiography. One could argue that women need to stop writing themselves because this reinforces the idea that they know nothing but themselves; they are being passive and resigning themselves to the world of women to which they have been assigned. One might state that women writing themselves signifies that they cannot know society, literature, or anything beyond their own domestic and bodily realm. Simone de Beauvoir writes: “(the woman writer) brings into literature just that personal note which is expected of her.”48 Is this what écriture féminine accomplishes? The article “Virginia Woolf as Autobiographer,” by Daniel Albright, displays such an attitude in its masculine critique of feminine autobiography. Albright claims that Woolf ’s diaries and other autobiographical writings are largely “frivolous and irrelevant.”49 He criticizes her diary for including everyday events, such as her haircuts and her birthdays. Albright labels her writing “a minor, homely, aesthetic refuge, a version of life which insulates and protects, thus preventing its author from having to live,” exemplifying the masculine silencing against which Cixous battles.50 Her effusive prose and lingering descriptions do not fit into his intellectual mold, and he thus dismisses her autobiographical work as lacking all distinctness and character.51 Albright’s condescension and sexism continue throughout his article, which concludes with the statement that “the whole process of imagination, of fiction writing, underwent some subliminal distortion in Virginia Woolf because she was a woman.”52 He speculates that Woolf likely felt that her proper place was that of a muse rather than a writer.53 However, Albright does not take into account that this was a conscious choice on Woolf ’s part in order to be taken seriously as a woman. Despite her strong feminism and belief in herself as a female writer, “Woolf


Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” 267. Ibid., 257. Ibid., 258 Ibid., 259. Ibid. Ibid., 257. Ibid., 260. Ibid., 261. Ibid., 262. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., 264.

13 14 15

16 17

Ibid., 265. Ibid., 268. Christopher Wiley, “‘When a Woman Speaks the Truth About Her Body’: Ethel Smyth, Virginia Woolf, and the Challenges of Lesbian Auto/biography,” 408. Ibid., 413. Jennifer Lemberg, “Closing the Gap in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home,” 130.



implored Smyth to discuss women’s experience collectively rather than merely stating her own circumstances, as she (quite rightly) felt that it would appear to the reader that ‘the woman’s got a grievance about herself; She’s unable to think of any one else.’”54 Albright examined Woolf ’s work from a superficial and biased perspective, providing an ideal example of the oppressive masculine attitude that écriture féminine seeks to overcome. Women’s writing itself disproves Albright and other male thinkers’ belittlement of the feminine. As Cixous, Woolf, and Bechdel have shown, “a feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive. It is volcanic; as it is written it brings about an upheaval of the old property crust, carrier of masculine investments; there’s no other way.”55 Woolf and Bechdel, in their use of self, fiction, body, media, sexuality, relatability, and infinitude, achieve Cixous’s desired effect of women’s writing: the empowerment of women. Medusa’s strength is expressed in words. Cixous writes, “In one another we will never be lacking,” and in the words and works of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, we find the shared strength women may access in writing their own stories, giving themselves voice, taking back their bodies, and asserting their power.56


19 20



22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33

Robyn Warhol, “The Space Between: A Narrative Approach to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home,” 6-7. Ibid., 7. Ibid. Lyn Thomas and Emma Webb, “Writing from Experience: The Place of the Personal in French Feminist Writing,” 31. Wiley, 390. Ibid., 391. Ibid., 393. Ibid., 396. Ibid., 393. Ibid., 396-397. Thomas and Webb, 31. Wiley, 391. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, 67. Thomas and Webb, 32. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, 69. Clara Juncker, “Writing (with) Cixous,” 428-429.

34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56

Lemberg, 133. Bechdel, 48, 165. Lemberg, 129. Ibid., 130. Warhol, 2. Ibid. Thomas and Webb, 37; Warhol, 2. Juncker, 246. Wiley, 402. Ibid., 404. Thomas and Webb, 43. Wiley, 412. Cixous, 274. Juncker, 426. Thomas and Webb, 44. Daniel Albright, “Virginia Woolf as Autobiographer,” 3. Ibid., 4. Ibid., 5. Ibid., 16. Ibid., 17. Wiley, 399. Cixous, 269. Ibid., 275.

Bibliography Albright, Daniel. “Virginia Woolf as Autobiographer.” The Kenyon Review 6, no. 4 (1984): 1-17. Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” In French Feminism Reader, edited by Kelly Oliver, 257-275. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. Lemberg, Jennifer. “Closing the Gap in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, no. 1/2 (2008): 129-140. Juncker, Clara. “Writing (with) Cixous.” College English 50, no. 4 (1988): 424-436.


Thomas, Lyn, and Emma Webb. “Writing from Experience: The Place of the Personal in French Feminist Writing.” Feminist Review 61 (1999): 27-48. Warhol, Robyn. “The Space Between: A Narrative Approach to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” College Literature 38, no. 3 (2011): 1-20. Wiley, Christopher. “‘When a Woman Speaks the Truth About Her Body’: Ethel Smyth, Virginia Woold, and the Challenges of Lesbian Auto/biography.” Music & Letters 85, no. 3 (2004): 388-414. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. New York: Spark, 2005.



Freudian Obelisks An evolving perspective on Rachel Whiteread’s House

Samuel Cotton

The work is done. Construction has stopped. An audience forms at 193 Grove Road, London England. On October 25, 1993, Rachel Whiteread had completed House: a concrete cast of the interior space of an ordinary Victorian Terrace home.1 A monolith to the building that used to occupy its space, her work stands alone, tall, and powerful in the park around it. To say that House received mixed reviews would be an understatement. It was polarizing. Yes, Whiteread’s piece earned her the Turner Prize for best young British artist, but it also landed her the K Foundation Art Award for worst British artist of the year. Negative and loud opinions were held so fervently that the regional council even voted on whether they should allow it to endure or if it should be taken down all together. Ultimately, the difference was decided by one single vote. It had taken her months to create House, but it only took them two hours to remove it. Although I never got to see House in person, photographs of it have had me enraptured since I first laid eyes on them. I was overwhelmed with its capacity to consume the space around it; House shocked me like few installations ever have. But after the initial impact quieted, I began to wonder why this concrete structure affected me so. What was it about House that enraged



and inspired those who looked upon it? Like other commentators, I concluded that her work was a monument to contemporary nostalgia.2 It was the lingering memory of a home no longer. It was the preservation of lived space, impenetrable to its onlookers. House revealed the fragility of home ownership in urban life. Convinced as I was that I had reached an understanding of Whiteread’s work, however, something did not sit right with my analysis. Although nostalgia as an experience has always held great sway over me, there is something too pristine about reducing Whiteread’s work in that way. The analysis is too detached, tied up perfectly with a pretty bow. The truth is that I have never been able to decide if House is beautiful or not. Powerful, yes. Ominous, yes. But Beautiful, I can’t say for sure. The blank concrete and overwhelming size are daunting. When I look at House, I feel like House looks back. There is something almost a little frightening about what Whiteread has created. Nostalgia is an insufficient sensation to justify House’s intense hold over its viewers. Instead, House is better understood as an obelisk of the Uncanny. Still situated within the realm of memory, Whiteread’s work is better understood as a rumination on the anxiety formed from the recurrence of repressed objects in Sigmund Freud’s post-war psychoanalytic thought. The Uncanny is an elusive sensation (if it can be called a sensation at all). Throughout his 1919 essay, Das Unheimliche, Freud is never quite able to present a concise and clear definition for the term; rather he encircles it with an exploration of its etymology, effects, and causation. This difficulty, however, does not prevent him from conveying his intention, the reason being that the Uncanny is always already rooted in that which is familiar to the reader. The “Uncanny” is the English term for the German word “Unheimliche” which strictly translated returns to the English language as “un-homely.”3 While a contemporary audience is most likely to associate “homely” with notions of housing, family, and comfort, Freud makes a special point of reminding us how “homely” can mean two very different things




depending on its usage. The image of romance with a homely man in a homely bed is a bittersweet fantasy—the bed being cause for more excitement. Although it is a trite example, Freud uses this denotative incongruity to establish a fundamental ambivalence to the “homely” character. As a source of comfort or of repulsion, the unifying quality of homeliness resides in our possession of it: home is familiar, home is mine. Whatever way it is appropriated, home is known. The Heimliche, however, loses its ambivalence when the subject is confronted with the Uncanny. Freud writes, “Heimliche is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence until it finally coincides with its opposite.”4 The Uncanny has a unifying effect over homeliness. In the face of the Uncanny, both my homely partner and my homely bed are the preferred option. Freud begins his essay with this train of thought, and although it yields little prescriptive insight into the exact nature of Uncanniness, it begins to characterize his topic as the sensation that follows from familiarity being unravelled. He hints that the Uncanny infiltrates ideas of coincidence, unity, and belonging as a frightful interruption. Delineating multiple instances of Uncanny sensations, all of Freud’s examples involve the return of repressed animism into consciousness. In Freudian psychoanalysis, animism is the primordial belief “that the world was peopled with the spirits of human beings.”5 In order to make sense of the world’s inexplicable phenomena, early human cultures imagined conscious entities to govern nature. Animism is the belief in an animated reality. Although Freud relegates this perspective to primitive societies, he does not relegate it to the past.6 No, everyone undergoes a period of growth governed by animistic beliefs in their childhood. Characterized by explosive imagination, this youthful phase accounts for fantasies of magic and nightmares of monsters lurking in the shadows. However, as the adult now looks back on this period of wild naiveté, this fantastical worldview is known to dwindle: it disappears when “we have reached a stage at which, in our judgement, we have abandoned such beliefs.”7 The mature mind banishes animism from consciousness. Belief in a world


populated by shadows of foreign consciousness is repressed into the unconscious mind. A key tenet of Freudian psychoanalysis, however, is that the repressed object does not disappear into nothingness. Rather, it lingers in the depths of the unexamined unconscious, ready to resurface should experience stir it. This prodding at the conscious level is called recurrence, and the effect of recurrence is anxiety. Freud claims, “the psycho-analytic tradition is correct in maintaining that every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety.”8 Accordingly, “everything which now strikes us as ‘uncanny’ fulfils the condition of touching those residues of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression.”9 The Uncanny is the fear derived from the anxious encounter with what has formerly been repressed. The contained consciousness is developed through the process of repression. The Uncanny is the resurfacing of that repressed material. It is the undoing of the homely object. The Uncanny is the encounter with unconsciousness—the reminder that hidden drives direct us through life. The Uncanny is our encounter with that which was—but is no longer—familiar. Although never explicit, there is a fascination with vision in Freud’s Das Unheimliche. From his thorough exploration of ocular castration to the Uncanny events of doubling and the automaton that are nothing short of optical misrecognitions, it seems as though the emergence of the Uncanny in conscience experience hinges on a visual perception of reality that mimics a reality no longer seeable (i.e. the repressed memory). Indeed, commentator Heidi Schlipphacke notes that Freud’s essay on the Uncanny stands at the “points at which the aesthetic meets the psychological.”10 Uncanny objects are visually substantiated. Take Freud’s own ruminations on the figure of Olympia in “The SandMan” as an example of the visual and artistic concerns of the Uncanny. Olympia, with whom the story’s protagonist Nathanial becomes enraptured, is what Freud calls the automaton: the doll who mimics life. Fascinated with the beautiful music she creates




and undaunted by her cold skin, Nathanial only encounters Olympia as an Uncanny object when he gazes into her eyes to find that they have been plucked out and replaced by Coppola, the Sand-man. Freud states that the madness Nathanial experiences after this event is the Uncanny at play: the resurgence of repressed castration anxiety from his youth. Whatever the repressed object is, however, there is a privileged position given to visual recognition in Freud’s account of the Uncanny. Touch, sound, and smell do not call the Uncanny into play. Vision is the avenue upon which this class of frightening enters the conscious mind. It is perhaps because of this ocular privileging that visual art offers the prime canvas for explorations of the Uncanny. As the art theorist Natasha Diels comments, “the uncanny provides an endless source of potential […] I find it tremendously compelling as a source for manipulation in art, and its longevity and evolution as an emotional response make it ideal for representation.”11 Diels deserves credit for acknowledging the inherent temporality that accompanies the Uncanny. It is not a violent sensation—not a sharp jab to consciousness. The Uncanny is a sinking feeling. Drawn in by familiar shadows yet repulsed by unconscious anxiety, the subject is torn in two directions. The subject is stuck in place. There is a tension within the self between the yearning to remember lost familiarity and the urge to keep the unconscious at bay. Déja vu, for instance, when one experiences the present as though it were already a memory, is one of the most common instances of the Uncanny sensation. Do we not with déja vu perform a double take in the attempt to wrack our brains for anything that might make coherence out of the incongruous sensation? Do we not turn to anyone around us to share with them what we have just experienced? We want to linger in the discomfort. We want to understand it. Did I just see that? Is that what I thought it was? What did I think that was? The Uncanny calls for inquiry. As such, an Uncanny work of art has the power to stop the observer in their tracks as they stroll down the halls of a gallery. Although I will go on to argue that Whiteread’s entire


mature style evokes Uncanny shades, House is the clearest entry into tracing the Uncanny through her larger body of works. House is, quite literally, the home that has become uninhabitable. It is the home that cannot be lived in. Entirely sealed off yet unmistakably the image of space that ought to be lived in, House negates the heimleiche with radical bluntness. Whiteread herself says that she chose the building at 193 Grove Road because of its universal image. She states that House exhibits “a typical kind of architectural style. [She] chose the particular house for exactly those reasons […] it is the archetypal house.”12 By selecting a building to which the masses could relate their own homes, Whiteread’s work becomes the portrayal of all of our homes. It is every individual’s house. Yet all the while, no one can own it. It is the most foreign brand of familiarity. The viewer can lay claim to House no more than they can integrate the repressed object that resurfaces in the Uncanny experience. Drawing further parallels with Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Whiteread also explains that her work portrays “the building within a building.”13 At first glance, House looks like any building’s mold. This is not the case, however, as House is the concrete cast of interior space. Tracing a hand along House’s façade, the windows are not indentations but protrusions. It is the monolith of inhabited space; it is the inversion of normal visions of a house, but an accurate depiction of the space within which we are supposed to dwell. This work, and her characterization of it as a building within a building, is a parallel to the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious. Stripped of its Ego shell, House is a monument of the inner and inverted world of the unconscious that governs conscious experience. The exterior by which we are comfortable observing this structure has been peeled away to reveal the powerful and frightening space that we know exists behind closed doors, but that has now been forcefully pressed upon the viewer’s field of vision. Although the structural similarities between House and the unconscious are numerous, it has not yet been made clear whether or not this psychoanalytic resonance extends beyond




mere metaphor. To do so would require objectively deciding whether or not House frightens, and that may be an impossible end. The Uncanny is not automatic. One does not look at an Uncanny object and become overwhelmed by repressed memory as one stares at the sun and inevitably becomes blinded. This is for the simple fact that our psyches repress different objects and our experience keeps them buried differently. One of the marvels of Freudian psychoanalysis is the subjective quality it brings. Despite the prescriptive tone of certain Freudian complexes (see Elektra and Oedipus), Dora could not merely read a standardized book on hysteria to solve her maladies. There is a highly individualized process to stirring repressed thoughts. That being said, there are certain leading factors that indicate House’s Uncanny quality. First, regardless of what one wants to call it, House stirred something within those who saw it. Passions were ignited, so much so that it was destroyed. No matter what was experienced, House was not received positively by all. Second, the debate over House’s aesthetic value resulted in an objective ambivalence similar to that of “homeliness” which Freud describes in his essay. When onlookers took a step back from House’s initial gravitas, it became genuinely difficult to determine whether it was beautiful. This alone can be gleaned from analyzing the decision to destroy the structure. While ultimately the naysayers won, the outcome was decided by a single vote. Third, there is an undeniable morbidity to Whiteread’s creation. Although she herself did not intend it as such, even Whiteread admits that her medium evoked the image of a mausoleum.14 House is not Whiteread’s first use of concrete casts nor is it her last, and it is perhaps this use of the same medium in all of her works that lends the most credence to House’s characterization as Uncanny art. Her 1990 work Ghost15 is similar to House but on a smaller scale. Instead of constructing the interior cast of an entire home, Ghost is contained to one sitting room. It remains, however, just as impenetrable. Giving the privilege of walking 360° around a space that we can usually only inhabit, Ghost brings the viewer outside of their familiar experience. The living room has


Untitled (Stairs)


been made other. It has become impenetrable and unknowable. Concrete’s strength and permanence reinforces this distancing effect. Although not quite a complete tabula rasa because of their familiar form, both House and Ghost offer an overpowering impenetrability because of the medium they were created in. While Whiteread’s concrete oeuvre is comprised of other domestic objects and settings, the Uncanny nature of her work is not solely linked to the space we live in. Although House is in the shape of a home, it is not this quality alone that establishes its Uncanniness. Her 2001 piece, Untitled (Stairs)16 achieves a similar effect. Untitled is made entirely of concrete, only now her work has left the domestic sphere and abandoned the objectification of inside space. It is not clear from merely looking at this structure whether Whiteread made it as a cast of the interior of a staircase or a mold of the outside. The shocking element added here, however, is that the concrete structure is a to-scale replica of two flights of stairs turned 90° on a vertical axis. It is immediately evident that Whiteread’s work is a set of stairs, but the continuity between the two halves is initially obscured by its rotation. With Untitled, Whiteread has subverted the viewer’s orientation towards a commonplace object. That being said, what the concrete highlights is not the impenetrability of the installation, but rather the sheer mass and size of her work. To reorient the structure would be next to impossible. Moreover, the V shape helps to overpower the viewer’s space; as the eye travels from the base of the work to the top, Untitled stretches out on the horizontal plane. More so than with Ghost, Untitled emphasizes the imposing effect of Whiteread’s medium and style. There is no space to hide from such a large presence. Of similar scale, both House and Untitled force themselves upon the viewer’s space. The visual incongruity of each work overpowers the observer’s field of vision. This overpowering contributes to Whiteread’s frightening effect. Even in photographs, the Uncanny House is an impressive sight, but one of the most emphatic images of it is one taken from afar. At a distance, House appears at its most alien. Situated at the




edge of an empty park, House bears resemblance to Stonehenge: obscure, mysterious, and entirely unexpected. Its concrete colour resembles natural rock, but its angular lines and erratic placement in the park are entirely foreign. As an Uncanny work of art though, this dis-familiarity reflects back to Freud’s essay, illuminating an aspect of his work that is often undervalued. House is a work that stirs unconscious memory, and although they are objects of repressed familiarity, they reside in a place of radical difference. Both Das Unheimliche and Freud’s larger corpus emphasize the reintegration or recognition of repressed objects into consciousness in Freudian psychotherapy. The therapeutic aspect of his system relies on the capacity for the analyst and the patient to integrate repressed memories into lived experience, at least insofar as they can be observed. This ability, however, to examine what has formerly been repressed, does not lead to consciously familiarizing oneself with the unconscious. The unconscious remains unfamiliar. It is always the otherness inside the psyche, never entirely coincident with the “I” we perceive ourselves to be. The psychoanalytic subject does not peer into their unconscious through therapy. Rather, objects that were once hidden come into view in consciousness. I believe there is a tendency to conflate the unconscious with the idea of a second conscious: a friend with whom we may communicate. Whiteread’s House and her larger body of work are reminders that the familiarity of the Uncanny sensation is a familiarity that is foreign still. The Uncanny is the stirring of repressed objects towards the surface of consciousness, but it is not the re-entry of unconscious material above dark waters. Through their size, mass, and impenetrability, Whiteread’s monuments are reminders that Freud’s theory of the unconscious is not a theory of secondary consciousness. It is a theory of internal otherness. Resolving House as a monument to urban nostalgia only captures a fraction of the work’s ominous influence. Whiteread’s work was a daunting structure. Sparking debate, winning awards, and ultimately calling for its own demise, House was a powerful piece of art, the strength of which resides in its ability to arouse


the Uncanny within its spectators. Just as Freud’s theory informs an understanding of Whiteread’s work, so too does House reflect a sharper understanding back onto Freud. The familiarity inherent to the Uncanny is what distinguishes it as a class of the frightening separate from others, yet that understanding should not overwhelm the alien nature of the unconscious. House is a Freudian obelisk: a reminder of the tensions that hold the psyche together. Notes 1 2

3 4 5 6

Rachel Whiteread, House. I wrote an essay in April, 2016 entitled “The Empty Lot: Reconciling Rachel Whiteread’s House as a monument to contemporary nostalgia” that outlines this opinion. Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny,’” 220. Ibid. Emphasis in original. Ibid., 240. I would be remiss not to mention that Freud’s views on “primitive cultures” rely on outdated and highly racist views of non-Western people.

7 8 9 10


12 13 14 15 16

Freud, 241. Emphasis in original. Ibid. Ibid., 240-241. Heidi Schlipphacke, “The Place and Time of the Uncanny,” 163. Natacha Diels, “Art and the Uncanny: Tapping the Potential,” 75. Whiteread, quoted in James Lingwood, “Introduction,” 12. Ibid., 13. Ibid., 12. Rachel Whiteread, Ghost. Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Stairs).

Bibliography Cotton, Samuel. “The Empty Lot: Reconciling Rachel Whiteread’s House as a Monument to Contemporary Nostalgia.” Unpublished essay, Contemporary Studies Programme, University of King’s College: Halifax, NS, 2016. Diels, Natacha. “Art and the Uncanny: Tapping the Potential.” Leonardo Music Journal 24 (2014): 75-77. Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.’” In The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 17th edition, 219-245. London: Hogarth Press, 1955.


Lingwood, James. “Introduction.” In House, edited by James Lingwood, 6-17. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995. Schlipphacke, Heidi. “The Place and Time of the Uncanny.” Pacific Coast Philology 50, no. 2 (2015): 163-172. Whiteread, Rachel. Ghost. 1991. Sculpture, concrete. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art.

Whiteread, Rachel. Untitled (Stairs). 2001. Sculpture, concrete. London: Tate Museum of Modern Art.



Whiteread, Rachel. House. 1993. Sculpture, concrete. 193 Grove Road, London, England.

Authors Vicky Coo is a third-year student in Contemporary Studies. Paisley Conrad enjoys the weather. Brianna Dunn is a third-year student from Ottawa, Ontario. She is currently studying English and Contemporary Studies at King’s and Dalhousie. Emma Clarke is a fourth-year student at King’s studying Contemporary Studies and Biology. She is interested in the intersection of health, social justice, and philosophy. Chesel Alexander is a Contemporary Studies and Creative Writing student, too old to begin Padawan training. Josh Feldman is in the fourth year of his degree in Mathematics with a minor in Contemporary Studies Jen Hall is a fourth-year student in Contemporary Studies and History. She is enthusiastic about cats and writes under the influence of choral music. Edouard McIntyre is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of King’s College, completing a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Biology and Contemporary Studies. Hannah Barrie is in her final year of a Gender and Women’s Studies and Sociology degree. She enjoys biking around Halifax, cooking fancy breakfasts, and reading about gender, queerness, and body politics. Her paper was written for Dr. Laura Penny’s Recent French Feminist Theory class. Samuel Cotton is a fourth-year student completing a combined honours in Contemporary Studies and History. His interests include the intersections of psychoanalysis and modern art as well as Renaissance painting and golden retrievers.

Alexander Barrie Clarke Conrad Coo Cotton Dunn Feldman Hall McIntyre