Overthrowing syntax:making an arguement for being misunderstood

June 17, 2010  |  By
Filed under: Field Notes

“It is still better to speak only in riddles, allusions, hints, parables. Even if asked to clarify a few points. Even if people plead that they just don’t understand. After all, they never have understood. So why not double the misprision to the limits of exasperation?

Luce Irigaray,  Speculum of the Other Woman (1974, P. 587)http://www.iep.utm.edu/irigaray/#SH4d

I am thinking about this blog and being misunderstood. I am thinking in particular about what the French feminist theorist Luce Irigaray says about being misunderstood as illustrated in the above quote. I want to make an argument for being misunderstood. I want to be misunderstood so clearly that there can be no question of my refusal to remain a stable investigable subject. Most of all I want to embrace the restorative nature of being misunderstood especially in relation to the very public space you find these words. Add to this my Dyslexia and you have a perfect storm that predisposes me to what Irigaray calls, “an overthrowing of syntax”. (P. 586 )

Pinning down the meaning of words has always been somewhat of a challenge for me. My dyslexia takes its most disruptive expression in the form of Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, which in simple terms means that black text on the white page dances in front of me. It won’t sit still. What I find particularly interesting about this syndrome is that it is not recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Ophthalmology or the American Optometric Association. However it has been studied in the former Applied Psychology Unit, Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK and the Scottish Parliament has also funded a research and treatment centre at Glasgow Caledonia University, Glasgow, UK. It does not escape my ironic bent that a syndrome dealing with visual perception, specifically as it relates to written language, should be so contested and perceived as legitimate and worthy of scientific scrutiny on one side of the Atlantic while on the other, the scientists just can’t see it.

Real or imagined the dancing words I see lead to a slippage of meaning that is incredibly fertile and has allowed me to naturally converge on the margins of understanding.  Mostly though my Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome  has directed my practice towards the oral, a strategy that allows me to be in constant negotiation with whoever I am talking to, fixing and shifting language to create a space of shared meaning. What I find most powerful about this mode of exchange is that it exposes our assumptions about the certainty of the written word. As it is written on the page the meaning of language appears fixed, yet actually remains subject to our personal perceptions.

In contrast, a conversational mode of exchange allows these perceptions to be continually negotiated and collaboratively  produced. In my work as, writer, curator, performance artist and facilitator, I have frequently used the conversation as a basis for a socially engaged practice. I regard it’s potential for multiple points of entry, as well as the possibility for failure and slippage, as providing a fertile site for misunderstanding and a strategy of resistance to the more institutional-critique based work of the past, which relied heavily on written words and their supposed fixed meanings. In contrast, the conversation offers a liminal – and thus collaborative – structure.

This idea of words and their meaning as liminal and collaborative is what I find most compelling about Irigaray’s text. Her call for a rhyzomatic form of language construction; an oppositional stance to clarity and a resistance to a teleological order, all feel utterly contemporary in relation to the nature of the Internet, and the artwork that has been made in response or in ‘conversation’ with this new epoch of interconnectivity. The web epitomizes what Irigaray would call a feminine form of language, there is not, nor can there ever be, a teleological understanding of the World Wide Web, there is no conclusion.

So this begs the question how can I use this blog, this site, and the webs connectivity and very material resistance to a uni-vocal trajectory, to have a conversation with you? I want to talk with you reader. I want to have a conversation. I want us to come to an understanding together over what the words I am using mean to you. But, I also delight in the knowing this can never really happen. You will misunderstand me and that’s ok, there is a power and potential in the space where understanding begins to break down: the margins of knowledge. This site offers an opportunity to conjure a world where we can become connected and converse from a place of common misunderstanding. I’m looking forward to meeting you there.

9 Comments

  1. MDR Says:

    I’m all for notions of productive misunderstandings, of language that’s unfixed and where meaning is created through dialogical processes and shifts in use. But I do take issue with the assertion that there’s no teleological function to the web. It’s interfaces and integration into daily life via, for example, G3/4 connectivity has issued us into a more productive role within a capitalist economy that’s marching towards an impossible and idealized notion of human progress that comes straight from the Enlightenment. And despite the plurality and proliferation of voices, the web is increasingly consolidated, controlled and managed… data is being aggressively mined by companies and organizations tracking our browsing activity, blogs, facebook and email accounts, not only as a form of market research and engaging target audiences, but as a way of gathering data for security purposes. This is to say nothing of the exclusivity of the language of the web (which is still mostly English–in black text on a white background) the uneven distribution of the infrastructure/technology itself, and the voices that are denied access to this ostensibly democratic and “rhizomatic” structure. But within the limited scope of the SFMOMA blog readership, it definitely makes sense to have a conversation of sorts. A couple productive ones have emerged from it already (i.e. the passing of New Langton thread, the STANCE artists selection process etc.). I hope yours will be a generative one as well, but I wonder how you’re planning to focus it. I am looking forward to future postings.

  2. DMCN Says:

    I think this is a very interesting starting point, looking forward to seeing where you are going with this.

  3. Brandon Brown Says:

    hi Lynne,

    yes, this is a provocative debut. I’m especially interested in this association of the rhizomatic, ateleological, and imprecise semantics with the ideology of interconnectivity. I share MDR’s sense that capital’s assumption of the Internet for establishing that brutal march is, for the entrepreneur at least, ideally teleogical. Yet there’s still unconsidered paradigms of conversation that proliferate online, the effects of which on our daily lives remain unknown. I’m fascinated by the “feeling of anonymity” for example that often condition the activity in comment boxes.

    It’s appropriate that we start by having a conversation about the hoped-for conversation! Cheers!

    bb

  4. Ranu Says:

    I’m fascinated by skype. I seem to be having lots of conversations through and about it. I feel like to join this conversation I should be crafting a text made of a million tiny but sharp points of light, but it is not to be tonight. I would like to bring you along into my every day- the way that skypers can visit eachothers worlds virtually or have meetings from hotel rooms. Your post makes me think about wether misunderstandings can be clearer, (or at least sexier), when there are bodies, voices, facial expressions and environments. The means for us to project desires and be met with resistances. The conversation thus far makes me think about cell phones in rural India, and about my friend whose partner lives in a ghetto in Port-au-Prince. Though there is not much left materially on the ground in his neighborhood, they do have wireless and therefore they can have conversations on Skype, about the absurdity of all, and sort of be in the same room.

    And then there’s the panic button (from Worth Christian News source)
    http://www.worthynews.com/8341-america-watch-obama-to-control-internet-under-proposed-senate-bill

  5. Dave Says:

    What does this blog post have to do with SF MoMA? Don’t you guys have an exhibit of one of the greatest private collections of art opening in a few days? Shouldn’t you be using this blog to get people excited about this show? Is this not a museum blog??? I came on here hoping for a behind the scenes look at the Fisher exhibit. Maybe some installation photos, some tidbits, etc. No wonder everyone thinks SF MoMA is staffed by elitist twats.

  6. MDR Says:

    Brandon, I’d be curious to know more about the unconsidered paradigms of conversation that you speak of. Do you have any examples that you could link to? (Also MDR stands for Matthew David Rana) Ranu, really interesting post. It boggles the mind to think that people in Haiti have access to wi-fi and skype when in the wake of the earthquake there may not even be adequate sanitation, for example. But it also makes sense when considered through the lens of “disaster capitalism.” And thanks for linking to the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset legislation. It’s amazing how, despite all the critical work done on governmentality and biopolitics, narratives of security are continually invoked to manage populations. Even though it’s somewhat of a foregone conclusion, I would encourage readers of this blog to follow out that link.

  7. Ranu Says:

    Just an FYI for Dave- this blog is not written by SFMOMA staff, and from what i understand- the mandate here is not to highlight shows at the Museum- but operates more as a platform for writers to begin public conversations of their own design…..But, I don’t know that much about how its organized, perhaps someone else can address that.

    and thanks MDR for response and Lynne for such an interesting beginning.

  8. Suzanne Says:

    hi everyone, thanks Lynne yes for an excellently provocative first post & already so interesting conversation (what a week to take a ‘vacation’!)–I’m going to land with both Matthew & Brandon regarding the teleological + rhizomatic structurings of the web, depending on who’s making use of it — the SFMOMA blog is a really weird case in point, I always think to myself, and per Dave’s complaint/tirade about not finding what he expected to find here: First, I’m the producer of the SFMOMA blog (my title, including the word ‘producer’ does more than just hint at the teleological absorption by capital my job is all about—but of course the word producer is preceded by ‘community’ and the range or reach or mandate of my wage-earning labor is to–largely via the web–find ways to see those rhizomatic slippery conversations take place. ACK do I do this on the behalf of…..? What would be the difference if all we did on the SFMOMA blog *was* do behind-the-scenes talking-ups of what’s on view in the building? Is that the very best use of a medium so excellently built for conversation, two, three, eight-way conversation? We have a website for univocal, unidirectional information-dispensation…. And yet, Julian Myers asked the question awhile back, about this blog, and its editorial model of inviting writers & artists in to write whatever they wish to write–within fairly loose bounds—and the way this very model possibly performs a kind of added value to SFMOMA proper, and what that might be, what’s ‘questionable’ or worth questioning about that

    Thanks Ranu yes for pointing out what the mandate is/is not: to reiterate specifically, I ask a group of writers in for a period of time (four months), 16 posts minimum, no maximum, they can write whatever they wish, loosely connected to issues of visual culture in the Bay Area & occasionally beyond. Visual culture being defined more or less as what can be mapped on to SFMOMA programming areas (painting & sculpture, architecture & design, media art, photography, film, live art & performance, but also all the places those things intersect: literature ‘at large’, conversation, lecture, etc) (and when i say, whatever they wish, I mean it: I don’t see the columnists posts before they go live. No one at SFMOMA does.)

    incompletely, incoherently yours, looking much forward to more
    ss

  9. Brandon Brown Says:

    Hi Matthew! I don’t know if this clarifies what I was getting after, but essentially by way of agreeing with your intuition that a vast amount of online content abets the ideologically-inflected forward march of contemporary capital and disaster, I wanted to asterisk that by suggesting that there are some effects of contemporary practice that haven’t yet been “considered” as effects yet. Or at least not to my ever-incomplete reading. I’m interested in the somatic/psychic effects of investing so much of our time, in contemporary life, to the browsing attentions of our avatars, to say something far too reductive. Does that make sense?

    I wonder about examples I can link to, but then it occurs to me that perhaps I would link to the current thread of comments. I think within this brief comment thread all kinds of postures, gestures, and attitudes are manifest that may or may not prove to be disjunctive with respect to the human beings sitting and producing them.

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