Tuesday, December 21, 2004

on the real...

From Jay Thomas (Bad with Titles):
Consider a representational painting, say, of a dog chasing a ball. The dog may not be a real dog, and the ball may not be a real ball, but what about the chasing? I want to say this: the chasing is real and, moreover, the sense of the painting, its capacity to cohere into something other than a jumble of unrelated patches of color, hinges upon the reality of the chasing which it embodies.
Question: How is "the chasing" real?

The conversation about the chasing is certainly real and ongoing. The conversation about the chasing is concurrent with the reality of the painting itself. We can go there to see it. But the chasing itself? Isn't "the chasing" a name, not a real? --"The Chasing" is a name for an event revealed but always already passed into interpretation, at best, recollection, at least. The attempt to capture--to freeze in perpetuity a perspective--is real only in the sense that we can attempt to capture it. Once captured, it is a document: that one perspective ably reproduced according to means and desired amount.

"The reality of the chasing" (which the painting embodies, to use Jay's words) also assumes that a useful manner exists to put a dog and a ball into relationship with the other in space, regardless of time. But that reality is not just the material ingredient for its self-composition. That reality, unnamed and instantaneous, includes the viewer who must be in an appropriate position both physically and psychologically to see the dog chasing the ball. The relationship, if presented with skill, will be "a dog chasing a ball" but never "the dog chasing the ball." Language wouldn't work right if it were that one dog always chasing that specific ball. The quality of the real is not based in a static reality but in all the possible chasings that it approximates for all people at any given time.

The reality of your home, for example, is not the house itself. It is the house and in addition all the things you ever have and will come to want it to be and in subtraction all the things you have not wanted it to and will not want it to become yet it is or will be anyway. This might be called the housing of your house.

The chasing, then, is phenomenal and brings out of the painting as a communicable idea that a dog can chase a ball and this one may be chasing that ball. It also stirs associations we recollect in connection with chasing. The chase has a look. But the chasing is not real it is at best a potential view. Always fleeting.

Might the reality of the chasing be the reality of the repressed? What I see is in many ways always a return. I may not see the chasing. I may see the looking--my looking at the painting, my painting the painting, or my looking at the dog's looking at the ball. Moreover, I may see the people looking at the painting further down the hall.

The chasing may, in the end, be representative of my ability to see anything at all. As such a view, it represents a challenge to the real. It says, "You, real, are only able to reside in language, in my ability to say it is so. The rest is struggling to say what I mean."


Jay said...

It seems to me - and please let me know if I'm wrong - that you offer two options for locating reality relative to the painting:

1) The "virtual entity" (my phrase) consisting of "all the possible chasings that it approximates for all people at any given time". In this case, "the chasing" may in fact be real, but it's not THIS specific chasing that appears to be represented by the painting. Rather this specific painting is a view into one possible instantiation of this virtual entity.

2) My "repressed gaze" - what affects me as real, what can be said to be real - isn't the chasing at all, but rather my own gaze, reflected back to me, dressed up in an illusory representation.

I'm not clear on whether you see these two possibilities as ultimately the same - i.e., this "view" onto the "virtual" is actually my own gaze.

If I've read you more or less correctly, I can't say that I find anything objectionable on the surface of what you say. In fact, your discussion helps clarify certain psychoanalytic concepts which I've always found a bit hazy, so thank you for that.

Yet I find myself resisting something about your account, and I'm struggling to bring to words what (I feel) is at stake.

I suppose my assertion that "the chasing is real" is another expression of my desire to find a kernel of reality in the work of art. The basic theory I'm working with - and I admit that this "theory" is probably more of a belief than it is anything else - is that the reality within the work is precisely what affects us when we are affected (emotionally or spiritually) by a work of art.

In terms of this desire/theory/belief it seems to me that the difference between your account and mine is that in yours the relation of the work of art to the real is indirect; the work of art veils the gaze (which itself may not be real but "challenges the real"), or the work of art references/points to/evokes a realm of possibilities which could conceivably be considered "real". In either case, the work of art itself doesn't literally directly present or embody the real.

As to why I find reality in the action and not, say, in the allegedly represented objects - good question, and perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I tend to think that works of art function not via representation (e.g., standing in for other things) but via embodiment. Whereas I can imagine layers of paint embodying an action, I can't imagine layers of paint literally embodying, say, a physical object.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Jay, over at your own blog you sum up your position like this: "works of art (literally) embody real actions or situations" and, taken together, with what you say here I think I'm puzzled somewhat like Gary, though I think I'm puzzled in a much more simpleminded way.

If you don't want the painting to represent the dog and the ball because layers of paint can't embody them, but can embody actions, then I'd like to know how the layers of paint avoid representing the chasing (i.e., the situated action), i.e., how do they embody the chasing without having to represent it?

The best I can do is to say that if you're out walking your dog with a ball in your pocket and you get to a sign that has a dog chasing a ball on it with a line through it, this sign represents the chasing your dog might do with that ball as something not, quite specifically, to be done. The layers of paint embody the chasing exactly as well as it embodies your dog (as the police officer issuing the ticket will tell you), and however much we may abstract the situation (to cover not just your dog but everyone's dog except the excempted diplomat's dog), the dog, chasing and ball are equally abstract, equally embodying, equally reprentative.

It's the special status of the chasing that I don't think works, though I agree that what is represented (or embodied) is the situation: situations, however, include (situated) things. The painting (or sign) embodies the chasing by being somehow "like" the action: and the same layers of paint are also somehow "like" the dog acting.

I chalk it up to the fever, Jay.