Collaborative platform on arts, literature, and thought
By Shijung Kim, editor
About a month ago, I went to see an exhibition called Photographes: América Latina 1960-2013 at the Parisian contemporary art center, Fondation Cartier. It showcased mostly photographs, but also some paintings and multimedia works from various Latin American countries since the sixties. Aside from their relative cultural, geographical, and temporal unity, the featured artworks shared subversive political agendas against the many dictatorships that plagued Latin America. Yet the artwork I was most captivated by did not bear any overt political tones, nor was it a photograph: it was a minimalist video Artifício (1977) by the Brazilian artist Regina Silveira.
The video is simple and short. An anonymous hand – presumably of a woman, perhaps Silveira herself – presents the artwork by writing down the title and the artist’s name on a chalkboard. The screen fades away and returns anew, rather abruptly, again with the eponymous word ARTIFÍCIO, neat and black against a near-white background. Then the hand, staying off-screen this time, horizontally peels off strips from a transparent layer upon which ARTIFÍCIO had been imprinted. It is thereby revealed that, contrary to the first sequence of the video, the word was not actually inscribed on the backdrop, but attached deceivingly on it, by means of a detachable transparent film.
Though much more small-scaled and textual than Silveira’s other well-known works, Artifício blends right in with the artist’s continued fascination with illusions (to see some of her optical illusion installations, click here). In Portuguese, “artifício” denotes “artifice” or “trick.” The word is repeated three times overall: first on the exhibit label, officially introducing the video as an artwork titled Artifício; second during the opening of the video, by the hand that writes on the chalkboard; and for the third time by the transparent layer, on which the word resides assertively in all capitals. The emphasis on this single word leads the audience to wonder: are we subject to, or at least witnessing, some trickery here?
My guess is yes, and several tricks at that. There is the transparent film, which initially fools the audience into believing that ARTIFÍCIO is permanently printed on the wall. Given that the video dates from 1977, in the middle of post-structuralist heydays, the trick could also be the word or signifier itself, whose link to the signified or referent is deceivingly precarious (just as ARTIFÍCIO is only provisionally attached to the backdrop). That is to say, the word “artifício” would exemplify the artifice of all words – how words are never fully capable of signifying or referring to something with universal precision, but we proceed to use them as if they were capable, for the sake of achieving some degree of communication. Lastly, fittingly to the overarching theme of the exhibition, Silveira’s video could be understood politically: “artifício” represents the beguiling verbal artifice of the Brazilian military regime, in power from 1964 to 1985, and its totalitarian propaganda must be unveiled like the deceitful transparent bands lifted away in the video.
For all these possible interpretations, Artifício strongly impacted me due to another rather personal reason. The work spoke to a long-neglected and surely outmoded reverie of mine, and perhaps also of many other admirers of letters: a language that corresponds directly to the essence of things.
I should here mention that at the exhibition, unlike on Youtube, Silveira’s video had its volume completely off, suppressing white noise and the casual chatter in the surroundings. Its muted aspect added a solemn air to the act of rhythmically, ritualistically undoing a material signifier. Moreover, my ignorance of Portuguese diminished the craftily ludic dimension hinted by the word “artifício.”
What I did see, or imagine through the disappearing ARTIFÍCIO was a material signifier gradually being effaced and yielding to the immaterial idea for which it stands, that is, its pure and perfectly silhouetted signified. Needless to say, such a signified does not exist. Every word always already contains the presence of all other words in the form of absence (Derrida, “De la grammatologie” 41-103). But this Derridian slice of wisdom notwithstanding, especially starting from 1:10, when only a couple of strips of the layer remain, the residual black bits of ARTIFÍCIO seemed to form, in my eyes, a phenomenological horizon upon which might appear its ideal counterpart.
This kind of musing – over a language capable of conjuring up pure and exact ideas – is beautifully expressed by the 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. For the poet, that almost deified conception of language was more than a mere fantasy; it was the very objective of his art. In the essay “Crise de Vers [Crisis of Verse],” he writes:
Je dis : une fleur ! et, hors de l’oubli où ma voix relègue aucun contour, en tant que quelque chose d’autre que les calices sus, musicalement se lève, idée même et suave, l’absente de tous bouquets (Mallarmé, 360-1).
[I say: a flower! And, out of the oblivion where my voice casts every contour, insofar as it is something other than the known bloom, there arises, musically, the very idea in its mellowness; in other words, what is absent from every bouquet (Johnson, 210).]
This famous Mallarméan flower is absent from every bouquet and thus immaterial. It is the very idea or essence of flower evoked through the word “flower,” a flower only language can proffer.
Despite its pureness and immateriality, the Mallarméan flower, dissimilarly to the Platonic Idea, is not an abstract entity that can exist independently from the empirical world. To arrive at the ideal flower, the poet goes through a series of negations: the evoked flower is not the known bloom, not the material flower in every bouquet. The Mallarméan flower emerges via the negation or absence of all material flowers; the poet’s flower depends on the material ones, since it requires and assumes their absence. Absence at its basis, Mallarmé’s flower can never be grasped, reached, or possessed. It can nonetheless be called upon. Through evocation we point to this absent flower, and by that very gesture, we don it with presence. And when we do, the flower appears there at a distance, in the direction of our elicitation.
What if this flower, so unattainable, responded? What if Mallarmé said, “flower!” and the flower answered, “Here I am”? This miraculous response, in fact, happens day and night in our quotidian lives. The Mallarméan flower that responds is the other – every one of the people around us.
The other, analogously to Mallarmé’s flower, can only be defined negatively: the other is someone not us. Strictly speaking, the analogy between the poet’s flower and the other does not continue any further. The other, a human being that is not us, has material presence, the lack of which is constitutive of Mallarmé’s immaterial flower “absent from every bouquet.”
Nevertheless, forcing this analogy to work, or in other words, molding our conception of the other after the Mallarméan flower might help improve our relations with the people around us. The material presence of the other – one of the traits that most conspicuously differentiates the other from the poet’s flower – tends to reduce the other as an object of our perception. It is we who perceive the other as a material presence in his or her body. Too often, the other’s body becomes a screen upon which we project our own ideas and desires. Highlighting the material presence of the other necessarily renders him or her as other in relation to us. However, if we hoped to achieve the impossible task of respecting the other as other and somehow paradoxically not in regard to us (impossible and paradoxical because the very idea of other is defined in relation to the subject), we should conceive the other according to the ways in which he or she experiences the world.
The world as experienced by the other is forever inaccessible to us, and being so, it does not necessarily exist for us unless we choose to recognize it. In a fashion similar to Edmund Husserl’s notion of analogical appresentation, we simply choose to surmise without certainties that a world proper to the other’s perception exists for the other just as it does for us. (This may sound too obvious, but the truth is that most of the time we forget about it!) The most wonderful part is that we can bring forth bits and pieces of the other’s world – this immaterial, almost purely imagined world without proof – by addressing and interacting with the other.
Calling upon the other as Mallarmé evokes his flower may be the most respectful start to our interaction with the other. The Mallarméan call upon the other is neither commanding nor demanding, but evocative. The call explicitly recognizes the existence of the other’s world and lets that world emerge through his or her response. This does not mean that the other’s world is entirely divulged to us, which would be impossible, since by definition the other’s world is exclusive to the other. Instead, the other’s world is revealed to us sliver by sliver, with the almost-palpable medium of voice that evaporates as soon as the speech ceases. The voice almost, but not quite, incorporates the other’s world into his or her bodily, material presence. In short, the Mallarméan addressing is asking the other to respond, take over the speaker’s podium, and by doing so, almost bring his or her hidden world into our (us and the other’s) shared presence.
The Mallarméan evocation might enable us to get a little closer, if ever asymptotically so, to the unknowable other. There is something ideal and irreproachable about simply addressing the other in an evocative way. Language partakes in no violence of predicates that try to frame and objectify the other (e.g. “you are this or that kind of person”), nor does it disappoint us with its inability to offer faultless communication. As Jacques Derrida remarks, such an evocative language could only generate limited interactions. But they would be utopian ones. And even in their limitedness, we could picture the other responding with a million different gestures, faces, words, and tones of words.
Mallarmé, Stéphane. Poésie et autres textes. ed. Jean-Luc Steinmetz. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2005.
Derrida, Jacques. L’écriture et la difference. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1967.
Derrida, Jacques. De la grammatologie. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1967.
Johnson, Barbara. Divagations. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007.
Bass, Alan. Writing and Difference. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978.
 I qualify this idealized conception of language as “outmoded” because it dates back all the way from Plato’s dialogue Cratylus and has been contested heavily and many times since.
 I do not employ the term the other to designate all that is alien to us. I use it in the sense of the French word autrui as opposed to autre: the former means “another person” or “other people” as a singular totality, whereas the latter indicates “other” in general. Furthermore, as Jacques Derrida notes in “Violence et Métaphysique [Violence and Metaphysics],” the etymology of autrui is a combination of the Latin words alter and huic, literally meaning alter-huic, other-this, “this other” (“Ecriture et différence” 155). Autrui is this other person next to us, this other person with whom we may interact.
 As a matter of fact, in the aforementioned essay, Mallarmé talks about poetry in a manner similar to our discussion on the other. He writes, “L’œuvre pure implique la disparition élocutoire du poëte, qui cède l’initiative aux mots… [The pure work implies the disappearance of the poet speaking, who yields the initiative to words…]” (Mallarmé, 358; Johnson, 208). Writing in the late nineteenth century, Mallarmé is opposing himself to his predecessors, the Romantics, for whom words served to express their own anguish and sentiments. Mallarmé hopes to yield to the words, which are other than the poet himself.
 The violence of the verb “to be,” the basis of all predicates and more, has a long and rich commentary, including Emmanuel Levinas’ Totalité et Infini.
 Jacques Derrida, in the essay cited in an earlier footnote, writes: “le langage non-violent serait à la limite un langage de pure invocation … ne proférant que des noms propres pour appeler l’autre au loin [nonviolent language, in the last analysis, would be a language of pure invocation … proffering only proper nouns to call to the other from afar]” (218; Bass, 147). Here, differently from our perspective, Derrida subtly (more explicitly when read in the larger context) criticizes the limited nature of such a language.