Thursday, 16 December 2010

Reading group discussion post

Stuart Hall Library reading group discussion post

Thursday 9th December 2010

Vidal, Carlos. 'Globalization or endless fragmentation? Through the shadow of contradictions,' in Gerardo Mosquera and Jean Fisher (eds.) Over here: International perspectives on art and culture

Thanks to everyone who managed to attend last week's reading group discussion. For those unable to attend, an audio recording of the discussion is now available here

We appreciate that many of you were unable to attend and that some of you also had difficulties in obtaining a copy of the text. A copy of the text is always made available in the library, if you have any problems accessing the text during library opening hours then please do contact us and we can make alternative arrangements for you to access a copy.

Key questions for discussion

  • What did you think of the text?

  • Carlos Vidal addresses some of the fundamental concerns of visual representation. What do you think of the way he develops his argument?

  • P.32 Vidal gives examples of artists who are redefining “ethnocentric representation”[which I think is a questionable phrase. Is most Western art not ethnocentric too?]: Lygia Clark, Helena Almeida, Mona Hatoum, Jimmie Durham, Francis Alys, Gabriel Orozco, Cildo Meirles, Santiago Sierra, Jac Leirner, David Hammons, Shirin Neshat and Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao. Are there commonalities between their works?

  • P.32 Vidal says that postcolonialism has been instrumental in redefining categories in aesthetics and politics such as ‘culture’, ‘vanguard’, ‘ideology’…’identity’, and ‘nation’. Do you think this is true?

  • P.32 The question of difference is approached when referring to the artists, but is then sidestepped, p.34, citing Badiou, who seems to be advocating a form of ‘universalism’ and rejecting the commodification of difference. How does this affect the development of a ‘cosmopolitan policy’?

  • P.35 What do you think of the idea of ‘representation as communication’? (Vidal argues that, ‘[…] without doubt it is […] one of the inevitable faces of the reality of the world.’)

  • P.40 Walter Benjamin quote: ‘Truth is an intentionless state of being, made up of ideas. The proper approach to it is not therefore one of intention and knowledge, but rather a total immersion and absorption in it. Truth is the death of intention.’

Leave your comments

We would like to use this blog as an online space to continue some of the ideas and discussions from the reading group. Please do use the comments section below to leave your feedback or interact with some of the ideas discussed in the audio recording.Leave your comments
We would like to use this blog as an online space to continue some of the ideas and discussions from the reading group. Please do use the comments section below to leave your feedback or interact with some of the ideas discussed in the audio recording.

Next Meeting

Our next reading group will take place Thursday 13th January 2011. We will be reading Boyce Davies, Carole. ‘From “post-coloniality” to uprising textualities: Black women writing the critique of Empire’ in Black women, writing and identity: migrations of the subject. Routledge, 1994.

To reserve your place please contact us

We are also keen to hear your suggestions for texts for next year's reading group. If you would like to suggest books, articles, papers for discussion please leave your feedback in the comments below or email us.



  1. Hi everyone.
    Think I will have to send this in – perhaps – four parts as I couldn’t post last night, so I gave up! [Pt.1].
    OK, having two weeks away from our last meeting I listened earlier on the audio link and though I would contribute the following on the uniqueness of language and culture in terms of translation and the project of homogenising culture – particularly in relation to translating French into Portuguese and then English. This point was raised towards the end of the discussion on Vidal’s essay. It sort of went like ……… might some of Vidal's meaning be prone to misinterpretation or – worst still get lost?

    It got me thinking – for instance - might not the intension of someone – in the making of text/art be aware that such an endeavor has to be a representation and consequently always apart from the truth of the thing itself that it is presenting?

    And is this not a manifestation of fragmentation?
    If so, perhaps the shadow he’s alluding to should not be seen in such negative terms. After all shadowy figures are usually treated as untrustworthy and unstable. So why choose to present its potential in negative terms?

    For example, through the shadow of contradictions the idea of ‘origin’ as the ultimate prerequisite to truth held sway. Yet its conceit became transparent as worthy of representation as truth [or true] in language because of its reliance on alterity [or the transitive relationship between terms].
    This is why, as a human being – I will never be able to fully understand all the noise[s] my cat makes. However, the language we use as humans is reliant on alterity. And it is the requirement on a presence of this relationship to pre exist in order for it to provide what we have come to define as knowledge and more so meaning. A truth - if you will - of semiotics in what the American logician Charles Sanders Peirce called ‘the tri-relative’ whereby language operates through its three-way discourse of signification.
    E.G. Sorry there should be a triangle here to join these three up but it didn't copy through.

    ∙ Sign/The mental concept

    ∙ Signifier/The carrier

    ∙ Signified/Meaning

    This down-to-earth three way process of communication from a mental concept (sign) to the signifier (word), on-to the signified (meaning) is totally reliant on alterity or a pre established order of signification to fit the signifiers sign into meaning. Were a pre language not available what might be signified would be a more primitive internal monologue still not managing to communicate to an other [third party]. And this was the case in our earlier evolution.

    The genus of Peirce’s ‘tri-relative’ lays in the fact that it proves that no two parts could achieve meaning without the presence of the third party. Consequently the idea of an origin requires a similar tri-relative in order to give it meaning. The essence of presence therefore contradicts its uniqueness as it required a third party for its meaning to exist.
    For its signification to enter into language a third party exchange would have to take place and in doing so, the sign of origin would have to exchange itself in relation to other signs or as Jean-Paul Sartre once noted we can only know what a thing “is” through a relationship of alterity.

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  3. Sorry about that second posting. It's the same as the first. My system said the first was too large and so I cut it a little and resent [without checking]. In any case, I will follow on with what I put together last night.

  4. 2: This truth [re. alterity, pt.1] applies as much too primitive language as it does with the words humans use today and while I can’t speak for the language of my cat on these terms I will provide another template later that might do this?. Perhaps Charles Sanders Peirce might have had an opinion on what form of technology applied to other levels of animal language but I suspect that the human one is more advanced?

    We also touched on evolution – or I certainly did – in our discussion. As an artist – interested in human cultural evolution I find the two are always entangled. Here we spoke or eluded too the Eurocentric notion of the centre which was the foundational thinking underpinning Modernism [as a precursor of Globalisation] and I suspect now [on reflection] that this may have been why Vidal wrote the essay?

    There is no doubt that the move away from the firm certainty of modernist thinking brought about anxiety to those institutions which had been born and evolved within it. There is nothing necessarily wrong or incorrect in acknowledging and celebrating its achievements but one has to do this in acknowledging it failings which were also considerable and great.

    I guess, in Vidal’s title the very use of the word ‘Globalization’ had a little condescending whiff about it as back in the 90s it was been challenged by both left and right. Endless fragmentation was the drift that frightened many at the time as traditionalists witnessed their dilution. There was a feeling that it was time to circle the wagons in order to make a stand. The certainty in the power of the centre had to be reclaimed and the avalanche of black, queer and feminist theory required reigning in!

    Shouts of re-entering the dark [ages] may well have prompted Vidal’s use of ‘the shadow of contradictions’ in the title while - in actual fact - such stress-tests have always been the bedrock of human language. Contradictions in actual fact are a feature of human evolution and if we weren’t to contradict one another we wouldn’t even have got as far as we are today. But this is also to consider language – human language – as something other than a straight forward communication tool. Something additional or indeed separate as Melvyn Bragg suggests in ‘The Adventure of English’ which has ‘a life of its own’ or certainly in his case [when considering English] as a medium of communication.

  5. 3: The poet William Butler Yates is buried in the west of Ireland and this is what he had written for himself on his headstone:

    “Cast a cold eye
    On life, on death,
    Horseman, pass by!”

    For Yates - the brave were the living. Living in language where death was not the end as the heroic deed of life was to embrace the language of one’s ancestors. It is only for those with [and in] life that meaning exists and death is of little or no more consequence - than birth itself. It is - as if - to live Yates believed that one is in language and only in contributing could life be truly lived. A sentiment marvelously expanded upon by the American writer and literal critic Dorothy Parker in her four line poem ‘The Flaw in Paganism’:

    Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
    Love, the reeling midnight through.
    For tomorrow we shall die!
    [But alas, we never do.]

    We never die - within culture - because it is there [or perhaps here] for each one to inherit and contribute too. For better or worse our ancestors understanding and subsequent beliefs did not die with them and Parker [like Yates] knew that an individual’s death was of no consequence when placed in parallel with the language that preceded and lived beyond them!

    I know this doesn’t really deal directly with the translation[s] issues raised in Vidal’s text or ‘the democratic capitalisation of everything through cyberspace’ as outlined in the discussion but it does touch on many of his references and I feel in some way transcends the notion or his notion of fragmentation. After all, if one considers what I’ve outlined above with Parker and Yeats why shouldn’t ‘endless fragmentation’ ought not to represent life? Is this not that old chestnut on the strategy of reading your glass been half-full or half-empty? Might his ‘shadow of contradictions’ rather be the positive form of contradictions as a device or strategy for searching out other meaning? My feeling is that as an artist, Carlos knew all of this and wrote the essay to exemplify what the state of play was in the late 90s.

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  7. 4: I also mentioned the Russian semiotician Jurit Lotman as he’s not widely know but brought [what I think is not only an interesting but] valid analysis or reading how language was and can be employed objectively both with and against cultural groups or in referring back to Bragg – with having a life of its own. Lotman held the view that there was a dynamic of superiority exercised by cultures evolving scientific processes of ‘extra-coding’ in language [in what he defined as their respective inter-cultural rigor]. Within such a dynamic Lotman would argue that the status of those who developed ‘extra-coding’ for the purpose of underwriting their authority [over the other] provided a sufficiently enhanced political achievement to execute this. Its employment organically justified their superior status of authority.

    Such ‘extra-coding’ was - among other things - to provide the ‘content’ necessary to disarm and undermine the language of the other for those who were not privy to the logic of its grammar would become the subjects of language and by default the masters of this logic. In other words it [the logic cultivated within its grammar] provided the ultimatum to its subjects – play our game or be further displaced from ever attain the status hidden within the embedded truth of its word!

    Lotman’s works from 1969 - 1971 demonstrate how cultures which evolved scientific process of extra-coding named and mapped the ‘other’ throughout the previous three centuries [See: Lotman, Jurit “The Structure of the Artistic Text”, University of Michigan, 1977]. He distinguished one group from the other in identifying and describing those with ‘extra-coding’ as ‘grammar oriented’ cultures, while those they subordinated by default he describes as ‘text-oriented’ cultures. His view was that ‘text-orientated’ cultures were to be observed as ‘expression-orientated’ while ‘grammar-orientated’ cultures were to be observed as ‘content-orientated’. I describe the former as the game players and the latter the rule makers. While his doctrine had a rather right-wing - if not Fascist character it does nonetheless provide an interesting postcolonial reading on those imperial cultures who employed their organised code.

    Lotman’s observations suggest that the or a language can in itself be directed as a structural tool for maintaining one cultural authority over another. Simultaneously, the cultures which he observed and described as ‘text-based’ employ a stock of expressions which compel forms of behaviour to be ‘imitated’. While his theories appear to work as square pegs fitting square holes they received very little welcome in the west where he proposed that the discrete rules of grammar governing cultures lead to a form of conformity-subject within a deterministic logic. That’s just a long way for describing a passive consumer! More politically it could also be read as analogous with the right and the pure Edward Said wrote about ….. as their western self-evident superiority….. in what he described as ‘the science of Imperialism’.

  8. 5: [last one]

    Lotman’s doctrine charts the rules by which a ‘content-orientated’ or ‘grammar-orientated’ culture executes its right to superiority by evolving a system of differentiating the content of its language [through what Barthes would have described as ‘the paternal language’ rather than ‘the mother tongue’]. Through this rigorous employment of signification if - for example, the proposed new signifier became deemed inadequate in meeting the agenda or requirements of the coloniser its employment would subsequently be postponed until a more specific signifier could be found to fit or serve their interests - thereby securing the privileged judgments and preference of the signifiers/colonisers game in naming.
    Fine tuning was just a further privilege as the signified subject could not be dislodged from the game, that is – of course - unless one was able to gain ‘mastery’ to this ‘hailers’ coded process which would take more than a single generation but nevertheless Gandhi managed to do it in India.

    Ultimately Lotman’s convictions were that - for any ‘text-orientated’ subject to journey into the language of the ‘content- orientated’ culture, his or her experience would be rendered much like the breaking of an egg - in that - it can never be unbroken. Retrospectively one can never possibly return to the pre state of the un-cracked shell which renders the descendants of colonised subjects with that hybrid Diaspora. In effect, the ‘content- orientated’ culture stood to gain either way as its subject transition or transformation would serve to feed on itself. In informing and extending itself on notions of its identity within the paternal language he or she would by default serve to extend its influence further. In the end, it was for Lotman the cliff face whereby the biological status of the cultural self found itself unable to avoid the languages methodology confronting it.
    And so it goes.

  9. Having reread the above blogg or bloggs I appreciate it's dense.
    It hasn't transferred all the word edits I had with its punctuation etc. so feel welcome to question anything you may find difficult.
    Wouldn't you know.

  10. Dear INIVA,

    Thank you for the comments about n.paradoxa as a popular and valued journal.
    Please could you update your link to n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal online and the guide.
    The new website is at
    The website listed ( is closing this month. All material has migrated to the new website.