August 15, 2008

A Song for Europe

It began with a song – A Song for Europe.

At an empty café, a singer recollects a faded love affair, projecting loss in elegiac melody. Remembering “moments lost in wonder that we’ll never find again,” he realizes how his world has become “a shell full of memories.” He has nothing to share with his now forsaken love except “yesterday,” his obsessive reveries doom him to retrace an endless past, trapped in the decadent European settings that now only mimic romance.

More than homage to a passionate lover, these lyrics become for me an allegory of a waning Western culture. The once proud and wondrous Europe is passé, past its prime and out of step with the brave New World. Ideas and methods once cutting edge are now ridiculed as traditional; the grand narratives of Old World history now devalued as “constructed.” No center, its languages suspect, its relics encased in dusty institutional displays, its art defaced and mocked.

So was begun my memoriam to this "old world," an investigation of its past glories and achievements. Related through philosophy and theory, Europe’s disembodied “voices” comprehend that “presence” and “knowledge” are momentary; “absent” as all moments are transitory, however “enchanted.” The past is malleable through text and ideology as all history and “truth” are utterly unknowable. This is a postmodern lament. Fully aware of its fragility, our Western culture is at the mercy of Globalization that takes from the West what it can use and discards the rest on that long forgotten and decaying continent.

Song for Europe at The Athenaeum, Aug. 16-Sept. 21, 2008.
Gallery hours: Thursday-Sunday, 12-4 pm. Info: 1-703-548-0035.
UPDATE: Podcast here.

August 8, 2008

Signs that Supplement

“The entirety of philosophy is conceived on the basis of its Greek source. As is well known, this amounts neither to an occidentalism, nor to a historicism. It is simply that the founding concepts of philosophy are primarily Greek, and it would not be possible to philosophize, or to speak philosophically, outside this medium. That Plato, for Husserl, was the founder of a reason and a philosophical task whose telos was still sleeping in the shadows; or that for Heidegger, on the contrary, Plato marks the moment at which the thought of Being forgets itself and is determined as philosophy – this difference is decisive only at the culmination of a common root which is Greek.”(1)

In continuing his analysis, Jacques Derrida does clarify that both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger developed two differing “archaeologies” yet both responded to Greco-Platonic philosophy by engaging in a “reduction of metaphysics.”(2) Their aim, as is Derrida’s, was a (re)interpretation (we might also call it a deconstruction) of metaphysics that would urge all later philosophical thought to return to the question(s) of “Being.”

If Plato did not fully “awaken” the purpose of metaphysics, if he became dazzled by rhetoric and Socratic dialogues, then perhaps the essence of Being would require redress from minds like Husserl and Heidegger. Yet Derrida insists that this “knowledge” is not “in the world.” Derrida holds that it is only the “possibility of our language” that might grant access, however tenuous, to thought and Being.(3)

The tenuousness of language and of writing in particular was a major task that Derrida launched through his numerous essays, books and lectures. Arguably his most famous lecture (Johns Hopkins in 1966) introduced his controversial critique of structuralism (and launched poststructuralism). In this lecture (not published until 1970, reprinted in Writing and Difference in ‘78), Derrida levels Saussurean structuralism, dismisses Lévi-Strauss’s “floating signifier” and exposes the “moment” that writing became part of the “universal problematic:”

“This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse - provided we can agree on this word - that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.”(4)

A life-long project undertaken by Derrida in the formidable footprints of Husserl and Heidegger (and Descartes and Kant), poststructuralism (and deconstruction) lead inevitably to broad reassessments in various fields of knowledge, including literary criticism (Barthes), psychoanalysis (Lacan) and the visual arts (Victor Burgin, Joseph Kosuth, Jeff Wall, Dan Graham). Through their analyses and critique, Derrida and these other poststructuralists have cast doubt over the certainty of “knowing” through the fragile structure of language. Moreover, Derrida stressed that writing has always been seen as nothing but a substitute - substitution through metaphor, inscription, narrative - for description, truth and history. Viewed as the weaker cousin to “speech act,” writing lacks the validating “presence” of the subject, conveys chiefly through semiotics, cannot be “trusted” to accurately reflect thought.

As supplement, writing is suspect. To put it bluntly, as Derrida almost never does, writing as supplement is secondary and at the service of something “original.” From Of Grammatology:

“If supplementarity is a necessarily indefinite process, writing is the supplement par excellence since it proposes itself as the supplement of the supplement, sign of a sign, taking the place of a speech already significant.”

It did not take long for visual artists to see that art was analogous to writing, of course. As objects that “communicate,” artworks are enmeshed in semiotics, driven by the system of representation that is “Art.” Thus, it would prove fruitful for scores of experiments, conceptualizations (especially in photography) and discourses about the supplementarity of the artwork as “sign.”

My installation, Song for Europe, seeks to expose the lineage of “Western-European philosophy” through the structure of language. Much more than structural, however, language is at the behest of the “Will” and yet words are fragile. Heidegger had a unique way to mutually agree on this fragility when engaging in philosophical discourse; words like “Being” were crossed out indicating they were “under erasure.” This allowed him to use a word while acknowledging its inaccuracy: “Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since the word is necessary, it remains legible.”(6)

Derrida, of course, extended this to all words. I have extended Derrida's “typographical expression of deconstruction”(7) as my “text bisection” process to incorporate both “inaccuracies” and “illegibility” to literalize the “play” of difference in both words and artworks as signs.

There is both a “reading” and a “looking” in Song for Europe, as I attempt to conflate the two actions into a single experience. Further, I wish to dissolve accepted ideas of narrative, inscription and signification to provide a glimpse of the textual process. This process is participatory through reading, looking, writing, speaking and thinking as I invite The Athenaeum visitors to action through an interpretation of the “language” of art.

Song for Europe opens Aug. 16, 2008 at The Athenaeum. Gallery hours: Thursday-Sunday, 12-4 pm. For information: 1-703-548-0035.

Image: Song for Europe: The sign which supplements (French); detail; © Copyright 2008.


1. Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference, Chicago, 1978, 81.

2. Op. cit.

3. Ibid., 82

4. Ibid., 280.

5. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, Baltimore, 1976, 281.

6. Spivak, Gayatri. “Translator’s Preface” in Of Grammatology (revised edition), Baltimore, 1998, xiv.

7. Taylor, V. and Winquist, C. Encyclopaedia of Postmodernism, London, 2001, 113.

August 1, 2008

De Magistro

Knowledge contains within it the essence of pedagogy. It is the “passing down,” either through the presence of speech or, in an author’s “absence,” the written word, where teaching begins. Teaching philosophies vary, from Plato’s suspicion of teaching (and writing, for that matter) in defense of the Socratic dialectic (1), to the assumptive dismissal by St. Thomas Aquinas of the human ability to teach in support of his theology. However, it was the Aquinas essay, “De Magistro” (“On the Teacher”), which focused my attention on the matter of pedagogical knowledge and its revelation through the interaction of study.(2)

Aquinas grants that “if humans can teach” it is through the use of “signs and symbols.”(3) He further states that without knowledge of “the things themselves” (and here we must avow that these “things” also include such “intelligibles” as “beauty” and “truth”) we cannot “understand” the signs. Willingly comprehending that Aquinas means “signs” to be the words we use to describe these “things,” we must admit his logic is sound as these referents are indeed carriers of information but not the knowledge itself.

This poses seductive queries (in no particular relevance or desire) on the “emptiness” of semiotics, the privileging of empirical knowledge, and “parallels between Thomistic methodology and contemporary structuralism” nearly 700 years earlier than previously suspected.(4) Notwithstanding these distractions, what proves most significant to my consideration of Aquinas and his selection for inclusion in Song for Europe is the role of the teacher.

As evidenced in both approach and site, my blackboards create a methodology for study. There are words to be deciphered, in this particular installation words in Greek, Latin, French and English, and sentences to be constructed from these words. Deduction plays a part but intellectual activity is close at hand as the writing eventually reveals thought. All those so disposed may further research individual text selections and, regardless of one’s expertise with respective languages, this reveals more “knowledge” and possible “meanings.”

For this to be a success, participation is required. It is a participatory experience of both “looking” as regards the objects and lines “drawn” within, and “reading” as words become apparent. My roles in this are both as artist and teacher, as I present “things” for study, objects for contemplation and communication.

“For the teacher presents signs of the knowable things, from which the student's mind takes ideas in order to consider them. Thus the teacher's words or writings end up being like the subject of study, since the student takes ideas from both. The difference is that the teacher's words are a more direct way of generating knowledge than the experience of the subject since they are signs of the ideas themselves.”(5)

Song for Europe opens Aug. 16, 2008 at The Athenaeum. Gallery hours: Thursday-Sunday, 12-4 pm. For information: 1-703-548-0035.

Image: Song for Europe: De Magistro (Latin) (2008), in process; © Copyright 2008.


1. “. . . this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, it is born in the soul and straightway [sic] nourishes itself.” From Plato’s Seventh Letter, translation by J. Howard,

2. The etymology of “pedagogue” is perhaps enlightening here, as the origin is both Greek and Latin; from the Latin paedagōgus, a “slave who supervised children and took them to and from school,” and from the Greek paidagōgos, where “slave” becomes a “boy” who performs the herding and “supervising.” Disregarding for the moment the slavish nature of teaching, we must remain aware of the possible sociological damage done by assigning the task of “teacher” to “slaves” and “boys” that has perhaps subliminally affected the field of education over the years.

3. This quote and all subsequent quotations are taken from The Aquinas Project, translation of “De Magistro” (“On the Teacher: Question 11 of De Veritate, Article 1: “Can humans teach each other?”) by Gregory Froelich.

4. “Aquinas” and “Structuralism” yields 43,000 hits in Yahoo’s search, with at least Umberto Eco’s volume a promising resource for elucidation on this topic.

5. Op. cit.