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Jan Verwoert 9: Last Lecture: 21.6.2009

The distance between your mind and your thoughts equals that between your mouth and your words.

One intuition motivating this series of talks has been the feeling that there is something deeply problematic about an approach that narrows the possibilities of engaging with art down to the procedures of decoding and encoding its inscription onto the symbolic order. That is: the idea that the primary task of art, as a strategical operation, was to provide conceptual legitimations (to satisfy or lay down the law, among other things) by constructing references that situate the work within an established economy of meaning. No matter how critical this approach may intially have intended to be, it has effectively proven to be coextensive with—and an involuntary ideological support of—an attitude towards art production that is indeed merely strategical and solely about plotting ways of inscribing a practice into the symbolic order, be it through the suicidal heroic mode of bringing the game of art to its logical conclusion by explicating its rules (old-school modernist conceptual) or through the somewhat more versatile mode of implicating a work within its given economies of referentiality as rarified secrets.

Beyond voicing this distaste for the merely strategical, the critique in the previous couple of talks concentrated increasingly on the fact that any symbolic order (the art world in particular) is always also a sacrificial economy. So the inscription into the symbolic therefore seems to imply, demand and retroactively justify a sacrifice (e.g. your life for your career). But this is intolerable. So perhaps the strongest reason for the critique of a false belief in the symbolic order is the impulse to reject the imposed need for an intolerable sacrifice.

The dream of exiting the symbolic order altogether, however, seems an impossible fantasy, as, in the arts, we arrive as arrivistes in the field of the other—facing expectations, desiring the recognition of our desires and materially depending on it. Still, suspended on the threshold of the symbolic, on the rim of this regimented field, in a material zone where non-sense makes too much sense, the question remains whether we cannot discover something moving—motions, things, creatures, ideas that will not be sacrificed but will stay alive and wiggling, moving in their erratic motion: motives that move things, souls and thoughts, like locomotives—always un poco loco—throughout the history of art and philosophy.

To delineate and develop some such locomotives in order to open up a counter-discourse to the sacrifical logic of the symbolic order—on its threshold—was the desire that first led us to look at motives related to the production of the effect/affect of art.

Discussing the motivations for production, the attempt was to try and replace the vocabulary of the strategical paradigm—the lingo of declared intentions and the cocksure construction of references—with more shaky terms like inspiration, vocation and dedication: terms that, precisely because of their existential dimension, exist on the threshold of the unverifiable, and therefore always remain riddled by Iron Maiden's tormenting question "How can I be sure that what I saw last night was real and not just fantasy?" (Orpheus tried to check and he blew it.) In pursuit of the notion of dedication, the question of care as the ulimate existential motivation (Why do we do what we do? 'Cos we care.) was raised, exposing its ambivalent position on the threshold of the symbolic: always drawn into a symbolic economy of tit for tat, care still remains unconditional and therefore excessive, empowered by the need of the other, and, precisely because of this, always deprived of a safe symbolic mandate, since the nature of the other remains fundamentally indeterminable. For who would know what anyone really needed? On this limit of acknowledging the missing mandate, the locomotif of a creature appeared in the history of painting: the lion that walked into St. Jerome's study one day, thorn in paw. Jerome, being a translator, no certified cat-doctor, unprepared and without symbolic mandate, plucked the thorn anyway, intiating a social mode of conviviality with the wild cat without a contract, economy or grand narrative to symbolically validate it. The only reason for this being possible was perhaps that his study (as Antonello da Messina and Vincenzo Catena depict it) was a semi-public space, open to the occurence of such events.

Animals then continued to linger on the threshold of the symbolic, as creatures that wiggle, that embody the motion of emotion and the effect of affect on the soul, as witnesses to this effect in ways that are not entirely reducible to symbolic signification. This final talk will try to substantiate this intuition further by looking at the locomotif of Orpheus and the animals which continued through the centuries to manifest intuitions about the affective effect of art and the kind of creaturely social bond it may initiate. As the muse Kaliope's child, the figure of Orpheus may also bring us back to the question of inspiration as (demonic) amusement in the society of the muses (the museum as pan-demonium).

In defiance of the sacrifice of affect to the symbolic, another motif which emerged was that of a particular face: the appeal of a face that generates emotions as material events, a face that cannot be consecrated to the symbolic laws of social value: the shitface, the profane face, neither good nor bad but in touch with—and sharing—the divine through touching the soul, profanely. As a practice, profanation, the sharing of the material share in the ritual of veneration (the holy body, the host, that which becomes edible) may then finally emerge as the model for a mode of art and thinking that could allow us to move along the threshold to the symbolic, sharing materially instead of sacrificing symbolically what is divine and secret. To further exemplify this intuition of sharing through profanation, two more locomotifs will be invoked: the Sicilian custom of eating Santa Lucia's eyes and the incredible pleasure of looking at Alina Szapocznikow's mouths.

Jan Verwoert

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